Sunday, January 13, 2008

Breaking Open: my scenic route to God~PART SEVEN

It may seem as though that last chapter was a bit of a detour, but the holiness standards played a huge role in my decision to leave that church, only not in the way you might imagine. It started with a Bible study that I was teaching to a young girl who had just started coming to the church. We were moving along nicely, and then one day she asked me why women have to dress the way they do. By this time I had been attending the church for eleven years, and I thought I knew the answer to that question. I pulled out all of the verses in the Bible that we used to justify the standards, but she just looked at me blankly. In that moment I heard my own voice trying to convince myself. I split in half like a big ripe watermelon dropped on the sidewalk and there was a part of me that asked the questions with her. Wet black seeds of doubt spread out all over the place.

There are many obstacles to really encountering God. For instance, God is not easily figured can't describe him in five sentences or less. He's filled with seeming contradictions. For most people this is something they will need to wrestle with. We like our god's to be predictable and comfortable. This is an obstacle that is built into the very fabric of what it means to actually enter into a relationship with God (or anyone else for that matter.) I can't do anything about that. I can't remove that for you so you'll have an easier go of it. But there are other obstacles to God that are synthetic in nature...we make them up. Mostly they're about giving us shortcuts to figure out who's in and who's out. We don't like the ambiguity and hard work of having to figure out what's under a person's skin, so we come up with all of these elaborate ways to signal membership and character. It's pretty slick too. We can size one another up very quickly without running the risk of getting to know one another and listening and possibly being affected by one another. These are the kinds of obstacles that we have some say-so over. We can spend our time constructing them or we can get busy tearing them down.

So I began to deconstruct this wall. After spending about a year and a half asking questions and praying like a madwoman, I went out and bought a pair of jeans. It was my declaration. It said, "I'm not playing anymore." It was a visible challenge. This is when the busted-up watermelon got really messy and sticky and impossible to clean up. One by one I violated every one of those standards. I began to wear the faintest little bit of makeup. I bought a simple silver bracelet. I cut my hair just a little bit. You might be thinking that the process of shedding some of this unnecessary weight would be freeing and fun. It wasn't. This was a grueling spiritual discipline that was made all the more miserable because of the deep misunderstandings it created. I was doing this out of integrity and obedience to the voice of God, but most of my friends and mentors believed exactly the opposite. They assumed I was just being selfish and immature. They were afraid of me. They stopped talking to me. I became a walking wound with pain and confusion seeping out of every pore. I seriously wished I was dead.

After about six months of this I noticed something that gave me the courage to leave. A pattern began to emerge that woke me up. I would go to church and suffer through a bunch of judgment and isolation and misery. I would leave almost every service with a migraine (it really hurts to have a watermelon split open inside you) and the feeling that I was most certainly going to have a heart attack. Then I would go home, lay down in my bed with the covers over my head, and I would pray. And every single time I did this, God would pick me up and rock me like a baby and say things like, "I'm really sorry, honey. I love you so much." It was that same warm, loving presence from when I was a little girl. He also came to me in the form of my husband, who listened to all my questions and walked with me through all of this sorrow and uncertainty and put himself at risk to defend me. He even came up with a few questions of his own. After a while the pattern spoke to me in no uncertain terms that the grief I was receiving over there did not originate from God, and I knew it was time to go.

When I let everyone know that I was leaving, the pastor of the church showed up at my door. My youngest son was struggling with asthma at the time and I was in the middle of preparing a nebulizer treatment for him. The medication for the nebulizer comes in these tiny glass vials that you have to snap in half so that you can pour the contents into the machine. My hands were shaking so badly that I couldn't break open the vial. I listened with one ear to all of this man's defenses and threats and with the other ear I listened to God. I finally snapped off the top of the vial and sat my little boy down and placed the mask over his face and started the treatment. I held him while the machine hissed out the cloud of medication that gradually calmed his rattled breathing. This man didn't seem to notice. Finally, I told him in a voice that was shaking almost as much as my hands that I wasn't judging him and I didn't want to fight. I just needed to leave. And that was that.

The next Sunday morning the pastor got up and told everyone that Dave and Terri and Bonnie and Jim (my mom and dad) were leaving and no one should talk to them. I was really the only one who said I was leaving, but apparently that made everyone related to me dangerous so they threw out the babies (my husband and parents) with the bathwater (me). I guess you just have to cut your losses sometimes. My husband's mother, who was the church secretary at the time and who had given her whole life to the church, was sitting in the congregation sobbing helplessly and uncontrollably. It was one of the most fear-driven things I have ever witnessed, but it ended up giving them permission to leave when they really might not have been able to do it on their own for a very long time. So I left, and Dave got kicked out. Now you know. Dog-gone.

As I look back on all those years I mostly feel really grateful. I plundered that place and walked away with loot you just can't even imagine. I found my dearest love there. I developed some of my most important friendships there and they are some of the closest people to me to this day. (Incidentally, that church has changed like crazy over the years and has become a much safer place.) I learned to really throw myself at God with abandon and listen with intensity and persistence. I thank God for all of that. It will always be a part of me. But this is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.


  1. Oh, Terri!! You are writing here in a voice that could almost be my own. Minus the husband and babies, minus the holiness rules ... it all sounds so achingly familiar. I can think of few things that could send a Christian into a tailspin more than being disowned by a church she has called home for many years.

    The way you spoke of God being full of seeming opposites ... HOLD THE PHONE!! I wrote a post about that not too long ago (called "Dissolution of my Dichotomies" ... I think you can still find it on my page without going into the archives), how we can't put Him in a box or wrap our minds around Him or control Him or make Him in our own image.

    I'm saying it again ... it's so clear from the path you've detailed here that God has had His hand on you since day one. I love how even in the midst of legalism and pain and untruths and all the muck people bind themselves to in the name of pleasing God and then impose it on others, how even in the middle of the post profound pain and alienations ... God shows up. That presence you've known since childhood, who is all kindness, goodness, mercy, and love. It solidifies for me that the Lover of our souls pursues & woos those He loves, brings us back to Him though the path may be winding and seemingly without direction. It's so indescribably beautiful.

    Every time I hear something like this, it makes me love Him all the more, just when I thought that more was impossible.

    Bless you, Terri!!

    P.S. As I write this I am sick here on the couch, so if I show up here a lot, that's why. I'm getting rest in between comments, I promise!! :o)

  2. What a story.
    It takes courage and a sense of being held in a greater love and home to take those fragile steps towards walking a different way, walking the way our hearts tell us we need to go, even when this means it leads us away from those we once believed to be the answer.
    God is far more complicated than we allow god to be. Both light and dark, polarity always present, and good luck to anyone who tries to tie such a presence down into neat categories. And yet, as you speak so soulfully here, there is a simplicity as well. We are loved. And that is enough.

  3. "I split in half like a big ripe watermelon dropped on the sidewalk and there was a part of me that asked the questions with her. Wet black seeds of doubt spread out all over the place."

    Beautiful T..beautiful!

    I will wait patiently for the day you write about mango's...CARPET!

  4. I, too, was really moved by this post. All the imagery of the watermelon being split wide open and causing you a migraine was really vivid.

    I find myself at a loss for words today. So much going on inside that I can't focus well. So for now, I will say that I love you, love your heart, and am blessed even more closely into God's heart through your story.

    I just happened to read this quote right before opening up your post:

    "Where the understanding is outraged, where human nature rebels, where our piety keeps a nervous distance: there, precisely there, God loves to be; there he baffles the wisdom of the wise; there he vexes our nature, our religious instincts. There he wants to be and no one can prevent him. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so grand, that he works wonders where man loses heart, that he makes splendid what is slight and lowly. Indeed, this is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly." -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  5. Kirsten: I went back and read your post that you mentioned. You must have written that right before I started peeking in. Funny how we're telling each other's story, isn't it? You sound very different today, but there's no illusion that the same confusion and sorrow won't be rolling around again sometime. Maybe just less resistance and a tiny bit more trust. It's so much easier to see the movements of God in retrospect than it is when we're in the middle of it. This would have been a much angrier story back then.

    Oh, and I'm not surprised, given what you've been saying about your work schedule, that you're sick. This is how it usually goes for me. Some member of my body comes to me representing the whole and says something like this: "We've all had a meeting and decided that we're temporarily taking away your executive privileges. We're staging a coup de etat for your own good. When you have rested for a while, we'll hand back the reigns, and we hope you'll exercise a little better judgment in the future."

    Bella: Yes, complicated and simple. That's so true. So far beyond my comprehending and yet so accessible. It did take a lot of courage to walk away, but it helped to know that I wasn't alone.

    Marcia: Thanks for the encouragement. I'm not so sure I can convey the whole mango story. I think that's one of those things where you had to be there, in the middle of rural Haiti, slurping up that luscious mango and noticing as you lift your face that long threads are woven stubbornly into your teeth like that old orange shag carpeting from the 70's. Oh. I guess that was a pretty good stab at it.

    Christianne: For someone at a loss for words you sure do know where to borrow good ones. Thank you that you link those marvelous words to my story.

  6. Thanks so much for telling your story in this way.

    You are so right about the obstacles. There are enough paradoxes and mysteries in choosing God and his ways; we certainly don't need to add our own.

    One thing that strikes me as beautiful in your story is how the grief over what shouldn't have been the way it was is pure. Meaning, it is grief and sometimes anger. But not bitterness or hatred. And I think that reflects the grace of God in your story. For you to be able to point out what was wrong, to be angry and/or saddened as you look back, but still be thankful for what God did and taught you and how he blessed you in that place, is amazing. Bitterness and hatred makes it so that we can't just grieve, but also have to reject everything about that situation and the people involved.

    So, when I read your story, I celebrate the faithfulness of God that has enabled you to see his hand of redemption at work in even the awful places, to receive his healing, and to choose to trust him enough not to need to hang on to vindictiveness and hatred along with the grief.

  7. Terri,

    Most of the truly dramatic changes I’ve observed in the lives of others and myself have come through a definitive crisis experience(s). It’s as if God has pitched His tent in a camp called Crisis and waits for us to show up so we can hear Him clearly and so that He can minister to us. Keep writing; I’ll keep reading and learning.

  8. eclexia: i won't lie to you, there were times that i was so bitter and so full of hate and fear that i felt lost in it. but enough time has passed to give me the advantage of perspective and i never feel that way anymore. anger and grief? sometimes, but even those emotions are not very prominent. i'm glad you're celebrating God's faithfulness: that's really what all of this means to me now.

    nate: i love what you've said here, and i think it's really true. we change and grow in those moments when the fire is hottest and that's where we find God. thanks for that and for listening and talking back.

  9. "God has pitched his tent in a Camp called crisis" reminds me of that sketch of yours.

  10. God means so much to me. This post is encouraging because I am currently going through my own struggle involving my relationship with God. I grew up an AME with close ties to a Baptist Church but as far as individual belief I was inspired by my family to figure out what I believed and stick with it. For that reason I rejected a lot of what I learned at church due to contradictions that they didn't explain and I couldn't reconcile. Either way I've always believed in God but I went to college and met Pentecostals for the first time and they had the chance to explain their denomination and beliefs to me. I incorporated their beliefs with mine. Something about the structure of their beliefs helped me to be held accountable at a time when I was in danger of spinning wildly away into my own constructed beliefs. It was great for about three years but then something happened... i'm still not sure what but now I'm trying to recover from a gaping chasm in my faith.
    Needless to say (after such a long comment) that I'm thankful for your comment and encouraged by your post.

  11. HI DREA! any chance you remember those billboards that exclaimed I FOUND IT? please stick around ~ from one study in contradictions to another, you will find here what you are searching for with all of your heart.

    Terri, this is so beautiful. How God turns everything around for good.


  12. just gotta say...nice work with the pictures and the watermelon analogy, I had to read it twice but it makes sense in a really cool way. Thank you for opening up this part of you, it is amazing to be a part of your life.

  13. Just found your blog and I have to say that it is truly amazing how many people share a similar story... mine is similar to yours as well; the whole church experience... the extreme guilt I felt after going to the MOVIE THEATER for the first time in my life at age 20, even though I KNEW it was not "wrong"... How pained I felt when I made the decision to serve in Brazil for 2 short months (unheard of let me tell you) and the church said that I was going off as a "self-appointed missionary" as if God would NEVER CALL anyone anywhere besides that church. If people were meant to be "saved" then somehow God would lead them there. Heaven forbid your heart should burn with a call to step outside the box and serve anywhere else! That watermelon analogy is a good one. Oh yes, my best friend and I (also from the church) had many many many discussions surrounding doubts and truths and God used us both in each others' lives to help us make sense of all we were dealing with. I did leave shortly thereafter and lost some friendships because of it... my best friend just now is having the courage to leave even though she has sat through services getting a migraine for many years now. Her family is not reacting well and her dad is constantly telling her that Satan is fooling her and removing her from the fold. I agree that God has been my comfort since LONG before I left the church and He has been my friend's comfort and strength as well... it's just so hard when those you LOVE and leave behind don't get it. They just don't get it.

    Guess I've written a book so I better end this! But I hear you...

  14. di: yeah, i kind of forgot about that sketch even though it's hanging on my bulletin board. and thanks for greeing drea for me and for the rousing endorsement of my site. although i don't think it contains the answers to all of life's little mysteries, it is a nice place to hang out now and then.

    drea: i don't know any of the details of your experience, but i'm glad if this was somehow helpful to you. nate seems like an awfully good friend so i know you at least have a few people in your life who can just be there.

    heather: i love that picture of you with that little baby...that's totally what you were made for.

  15. holly: wow, i was going to say i can't imagine any church coming down on you for wanting to go to brazil, but i guess that's not true. i'm so glad that you were able to push through all that nonsense and that you found a voice here to articulate some of your experience. keep talking.

    oh, and i peeked in on your art website and absolutely loved it. you're really talented!

  16. OH MY GOSH Holly! really talented! where to begin, your paintings, the adoption stories, the heart for africa pendant...I better go peek some more. Thanks for the tip off Terri. all mighty beautiful.

  17. yeah, for sure. she's crazy talented!

  18. I became a Christian at a charismatic church. There was no Holiness Code but there sure was a Holy Spirit Code. Our spirituality was measured by how many times we had miraculous healings (of your car, your cat, it didn't matter), spoke in tongues, were knocked on your back during a prayer service, or gave prophecies. I never demonstrated any of those things! All decision making in the church was based on "I feel led..." with no regard to knowledge or even simple mathematics. There was also a great emphasis on holding the correct political positions, (i.e., right-wing Republican ones) but there was virtually no outreach to the community or those in need. It was all about finding the next spiritual high.

    Like you, I had many blessings and gained many lifelong friends there (including my wife!) but two factors led to our leaving: My wife suffered a permanently disabling injury that made her a magnet for every wannabe Benny Hinn that came along. And the church became an overt tool for the political campaign of one of our members, so much so that the sermons became bald-faced endorsement speeches for him.

    We then took the exact opposite tack by joining a newly formed Willow Creek clone, where NOTHING was done based on "I feel led..." but was programmed to the microsecond based on polls and market research. The pressure to perform and spend more and more time "volunteering" is tremendous and those of us on the working end of the 80/20 rule are continually exhausted.

    I'm at the point of "buying a pair of jeans" myself and I appreciate your sharing the love and assurance you found from God while doing so.

  19. You ladies are too kind, but I do appreciate your words. I could go on and on about my experience in the church (borderline cult?) I grew up in and perhaps one day I will write my own series about where I came from and where I've come to. It is amazing to look back and see how God has been at work in my life (in many lives) for so long a time. When I look back at where I once was, that is when I am able to extend grace to those who are now in the shoes I once walked in... it took many baby steps to let go of the untruths I held so tightly to.

  20. sharp: buy the jeans. isn't it awful that churches get so lost sometimes. it's almost as if there's human beings involved. :)

    holly: thanks. let me know when you write that story.

  21. I can imagine how hard it must have been for to pull away from the church to follow your own truth. You are one brave woman. On a smaller scale, I’ve also experienced judgment (and on some level rejection) for walking my own path. I am loving your story. It’s rekindling surprising memories for me.

  22. Terri
    Just wanted to drop by to say hello. I am at Nate's house on his net. I touched base with Kirsten and Christianne yesterday and meant to send a hello to you, my fair Nathan was dragging me out the door to go somewhere. I have been reading some of your comments it is clear to me that you have a heart after God. Thanks for reading about my explosion, still I am wading through a mess, but you all make me feel less alone in my war. Later.......

  23. chloe: thanks for the kind words and for letting me know that i'm not the only one.

    poet: i'm so glad to have you hear and i'm so jealous that you know what nate looks like. :) and messes are not always a bad thing. you've got to make a few of them if you are going to learn anything worthwhile. peace little sister.

  24. Umm . . . "blessings in disguise" seems to fit for me.
    T. that absolutely was one of the hardest things I ever went through. I remember telling God that I didn't think I could leave on my own, that I would have to be sure it was the right thing to do, give me some kin of sign. Please. (like we ever get those kind of deals!)
    That was on a sat. night. Didn't sleep a wink. Got kicked out Sun. morning.
    Be careful what you ask for : )

  25. Sorry I'm late for the party, but I brought snacks. :)

    I still find it hard to believe that there are churches that do this sort of thing. It's hard for me to wrap my head around. It took a lot of courage to leave.

    I'm so glad that you are able to look past all the hurt to glean some of the "loot" you were able to take from the experiences. That takes a lot of courage too.