Every time I start to write this post, I have to stop because I am angry. So incredibly angry. Angry that Christianity is way too often a weapon, mask, excuse, wall to hide behind and do everything but what Christ called Christians to do, which is love one another. I see and hear people spew such hatred towards people who are not like them then scream “persecution” because Starbucks won’t write “Merry Christmas” on a disposable holiday coffee cup.
I can’t decide if the well of love towards others is dry because too many of us don’t actually love ourselves or if we don’t really know what love is and instead we obsess over ourselves and carry so much fear of the pain and suffering that could befall us that we have nothing left to offer those who are actually losing, hurting, and suffering.
I did not know the real meaning of the grace Christ died for until I was 28 years old, years out of regular attendance of church. Instead, I saw Christ’s death and resurrection used to control others through fear and shame and as a constant reminder that we are nothing without God. Anything outside of the church and faith is/was considered wrong, anyone who does/did not believe is/was “lost.”
I never felt like I fit in with the other people my age at church, especially after middle school and high school. I often felt like the “good deed of the day.” There were a couple of people in youth group who would come up to me, say hello, ask me how I was doing, then walk away to do the same to someone else outside of their clique before I even got a chance to respond.
This happened again in college where I was also never remembered by my name, just as the friend of the girl who invited me to come with her, who was popular with everyone there.
When I first moved to Atlanta eight years ago, I started attending Northpoint Community Church and joined the singles group, hoping to make friends, participate in some volunteer projects in the Atlanta metro area, and maybe meet a nice guy to date. In the first meeting of the group for the season, the guy leading the group introduced himself and joked that he was from “LA,” meaning lower Alabama. Thinking, oh, here’s my chance to make a friend!, I responded excitedly and way too loudly, “I’m from Montgomery!”
I was standing right in front of him, the room was quiet, and no one, including him, even glanced at me. He then joked, “I’m sure no one has an accent as thick as mine!” and I tried again because seriously, mine is about as southern as it gets.
Still nothing. Never acknowledged me. I was a ghost in that group. I tried to go back a couple of times after that, but when my attempts to make friends never got off the ground, I dropped out.
As much as I liked the church, its worship music, and Andy Stanley’s messages, I felt so isolated in such a huge church. Being a bit of an introvert and dealing with a lot of insecurities that exacerbated my awkwardness didn’t motivate me very much to try to feel more included either.
And as much as Andy wrote and spoke about being a church that included everyone – regardless of race, gender, sexuality, faith or lack thereof – and a church where it was okay to not be perfect and okay to talk about it, everything still felt so sterile.
I don’t like secrets. I don’t like hiding. I don’t like feeling like I cannot be myself and like I am surrounded by people who also feel unable to be themselves. I am a voracious reader and I love others’ stories, good and bad. I wanted to be part of something where I could share my story and hear others’ stories without feeling like I had to omit parts of it or chirp statements like, “But God works out everything according to his purpose!”
When John and I moved in together, we could no longer be part of the singles group, but we weren’t legally wed so we couldn’t be part of the married group either, and the message was still sex outside of marriage is wrong even though we were monogamous, wholly committed to each other, moving towards marriage, I was a virgin before I met him, and his first marriage actually ended in a divorce Christ would allow according to the Bible.
I had a coworker and therapist both tell me that the reason John and I struggled in our relationship was because we lived together and had sex before marriage, not because we were two introverted, independent, strong-willed people adjusting to life together. They said God could not bless what he could not condone. They spent more time judging our relationship than offering any real empathy or advice from their own relational experiences.
I have lived most of my life ashamed of myself and the majority of it has been from the judgment and impossible rules of the kind of Christianity I grew up in. Once, I suggested to my dad that I wasn’t sure God created the universe in literally seven days and was told if I believed that, then we didn’t believe in the same God. There was no room for questions or doubts. Just blind faith and obedience. This is one reason I struggle with being creative, the lack of permission to be curious and think outside of the box. It was all or nothing I was taught to live in when I see as an adult how much of life we live in the gray.
The severe politicization of Christianity in recent years, or my increasing awareness of something that has always existed, has turned a mission of love, grace, acceptance, and charity into yet another thing to divide this country and leave the people on the fringes completely isolated, alone, condemned, judged, and feeling worthless and unloved.
I can’t buy into it anymore.
Does this mean I no longer believe in God or Jesus?
It means I no longer believe in the God or Jesus written about by men in a fallible book based around the customs of their time, though I do still keep the recorded teachings of Christ in my heart and try to practice them in my life.
There are many things I no longer believe in, but mostly, I don’t believe in a God who makes each of us so uniquely then forbids us from being exactly who we are, and I refuse to be part of a church or faith that attempts to divide people or sit as judge and jury over them.
I believe we are made of the universe, as we contain the same chemicals and minerals as what creates stars and planets, and I believe humans, animals, plants, and other organisms are all intricately connected. Too bad I often forget this when I yell at someone in traffic, talk badly about people on social media or with friends, or yell at my dogs when they do something I don’t want them to do.
I believe there is an energy beyond us, something that guides us. A source of love, grace, empathy, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. A source that allows us to make mistakes because we are imperfect, amazing human beings and innovation and compassion come from these mistakes. This source was made apparent to me in my relationship with my grandmother June who wanted nothing to do with Christianity.
When we do our best to love and understand ourselves and each other, we have nothing to be ashamed of.
I don’t know if there is anything after this life, and honestly, I don’t really care. I don’t want to think about it. I am so sick of so much focus and possibly fear on the potential of a life after this that there is extraordinary disregard of the lives we and others live now on a planet that existed long before us and will likely exist long after us.
I strive to be as genuinely me as I can be and I try every day to give myself and those I love and meet empathy, grace, and understanding. Some days, I do this well. A lot of days, I don’t.
None of what I’ve written here is concrete, exactly how I will feel always. I want to be the daughter, sister, wife, coworker, friend, neighbor, person whom people feel like they can be wholly themselves around. This is extremely hard when I feel at odds with others because our perspectives and beliefs collide and I let my emotions get the best of me. I want to find a way to connect even when it’s hard to.
I don’t want to be self-entitled and think that I deserve anything because I don’t. I want to be grateful when good things happen and, as I did as a Christian, believe something good will come out of struggles because so far, my struggles have made me wiser, more empathetic, stronger, and have given me one hell of a sense of humor.
The church I want is a church I see among my friends, many who are former Christians or who never were.
They are the people I trust with the worst of me because they speak to me with grace and forgive me because they are gracious and forgiving people, not because the Bible tells them to be. They do their best every day to love and help themselves and others.
They are the people who genuinely greet me and ask me how I am doing and stick around for my response and whom I feel safe in saying when I am not doing fine.
These are the people who make strides to care for our environment and speak up with shaking voices for the minorities, refugees, children, cis-women, LGBTQ+ people, and others who have been ignored or rendered voiceless.
These are the people I love and admire and whom I am so fortunate to call my family and friends. They’re not perfect, I’m not perfect, we all fuck up, but we are not fuck-ups. We fight and we forgive. We yell and then we cry. Sometimes we walk away from each other, but we eventually return.
I don’t want to allow shame, guilt, fear, and insecurities to close me off towards other people, and I don’t want those things to close people off towards me. Life and relationships are uncomfortable, messy, painful, and confusing, but as I’ve seen in my family, sometimes dysfunction can lead to understanding and a love that can be bent but not broken.
No matter how much I wander, how much I doubt and question, I may feel a bit lost at times, but I am never a lost cause. I am instead finding and becoming more and more of the person I was created to be. This is my story and hopefully, it is far from over.