This is the post I set out to write two weeks ago. This is a short chronicling of my life with anxiety as it pertains to the church. For a more in-depth examination and telling of my story, I’m currently trying to get a book published that I finished at the end of 2016. There are bits and pieces in there from the blog, but it is the long form of this story. So when and if it gets published, I’ll make sure to let everyone know. For now here is the short form:
Footsteps in the Hall
I was always a very worried person. I never knew there was anything other than that. I worried all the time. I worried that my family was safe, that people would be happy, that I would get good grades, that I would be “normal”, that people wouldn’t make fun of me today, or that I wouldn’t get it together. There is nobody to blame for that at all. It’s just how I was. I know my mother would try to blame herself for that, but she can’t. It isn’t her fault. Biology just works in odd ways. I would say that my life of worry helped me to be a much more empathetic person.
There were a lot of things in my life that I think would cause “normal” people to be worried as well. I’m a firm believer in the paranormal. I know that may throw a lot of you off considering that I tend to be rather skeptical too. The funny thing is Jesus believed in the paranormal as well, but that’s just saying. I bring this up because as a child I would hear things and see things that would probably land me in some serious psychotherapy if I still did. There were only a few times when it bothered me. I remember that there were a few times when I was a child that I heard footsteps in the hallway outside my room when I was home alone. That freaked me out. It leads to me needing to have something playing in the background for me to get to sleep for a good majority of my life from then on. I’m sure things like that would cause anyone to have a break, but honestly, I dealt with it. My mom was amazing and giving us kids serious coping skills and emotional strength without even realizing it. When I told her about these things there were only a few times she looked at me like I was strange, although maybe she still thinks I am. I remember that when I told people at church they would immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion; demons, evil spirits, and someone having done something to deserve this spiritual oppression. It wasn’t. Maybe it was my overactive imagination, me actually being able to hear spirits on the other side, an imbalance of my neurotransmission chemicals, or any other number of things. One thing I can say for sure, though, it wasn’t demons. I didn’t encounter those until I was older, but that is a different story for a different blog post. (let me know if you want to hear that story)
The point is that I’ve run into mistreatment from the church from a very early age. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I know they did what they thought was best, it’s not their fault. Sometimes people need better training before they try to handle a situation.
No Longer Under God’s Protection
Trying to condense this all into a readable blog post is rather difficult. It’s like trying to describe the outside to someone who has been trapped in a cave their whole life. A little Plato reference for you there. I can sum up my childhood and adolescent years with a statement that was told to me about my mom leaving my father and moving to a different state, “You will no longer be under God’s protection if you move.” Needless to say, I’ve worried about the validity of that statement for longer than I’d like to admit. Who says that to a 15-year-old? I’m not pointing fingers, I’m not going to tell you who said that to me. But I want you to examine the impact of that statement on an impressionable mind.
We spend tons of money trying to tell teenagers to worry. We do it in the church as well. Worry about your spiritual life as well as all the worries of modern society. We are churning out anxious adults at an alarming rate. As was done with me, we are very much guilty of pushing children to be worried about “sin” and “falling short of the Glory of God”. These are very adult concepts. There is a ton of abstract in those concepts. Children are remarkably smart but the way their brain is structured up until they are of puberty age is set up to really only handle concrete information. We manufacture this worry as a demand for the supply of Grace that God has. The problem being that we know we are in need of love and acceptance from the time we are born. We know we need love and grace, it is embedded in our DNA. So learning this inspired me. It inspired my message from that point on. My message was going to be simple. There is nothing you can do to earn the Divine’s favor; there also is nothing you can do to lose it either. This was something that I had a hard time believing for myself as if I was the only one who was exempt from this rule, I have a weird relationship with pride…
There was another statement that was made in that conversation I mentioned earlier that stuck with me for most of my life. I was told to beware of the people who claimed to be Christian in the new church we were to be attending because they believed that you could lose your salvation and therefore were not true Christians.
Losing My Salvation
After 13 some odd years of working for the church and approximately 30 years of deep church living, I was finally released into the wild. There are a lot of bumps and bruises I would love to cover here, but that would take way too much space in an already long blog post. I discovered something looking back on my time as a deep church Christian. I found that the simple message of the Divine’s incredible love was a very unpopular one. I don’t want this to be finger pointing or indicating of any of the churches I’ve attended over the past 30 years. Some of them were better than others at being the gospel, others not so much. But the one thing that was constant was the priority of those places, numbers.
As much as they would like to deny that fact, it rang true across the boards. It’s not just Christian churches either, it’s everyone. They are so incredibly worried about butts in the seats and money in the coffers that they will do whatever it takes to stay afloat. As much as they preach about relying on the Divine to provide, they tend to do a pretty poor job of actually relying on the Divine rather than their own ingenuity. It doesn’t make business sense to do any of the things most of the Divine messengers throughout history taught us to do. So I can’t blame them. I don’t know how a true not-for-profit church would keep its doors open.
Maybe I’m cynical. I did get to experience first hand the dark underbelly of church politics. I experienced the financial stress all too often of those places because often the first thing to go when a church is in financial trouble are the children and youth staff and programming. This added more to my already fragile psyche. It’s a wonder I lasted as long as I did in ministry. It wasn’t just money either it was the little things that we did to carefully position and play political games that stressed me out. Like I said, it’s not pointing fingers, not all of the churches I attended or worked at are guilty of this. Some, possibly, may be. But they are doing the best that they can.
After I was set free, during this whole transition time, it made me really question what it was my faith meant. I have been trying to strip away all the worry, all the manufactured guilt, all the things that came packaged with my belief and homesickness ( a reference to a Fredrick Buechner quote I love and use often I talk about it a lot in the podcast which is why we devoted the first episode to explaining it.) . I lost that idea of salvation I had before. I didn’t want it anymore. I didn’t want to be “saved”. I wanted a Divine being to love me in spite of me. I wanted to break free from the self-created prison and be me.
Two weeks ago in my post on pride (linked above), I posted about the beautiful artwork that Federico Babina created. I used his artwork as my featured image this time. I’ve talked a bit in a letter to my son about what it feels like to live with anxiety. Though I don’t think I really did it justice. I know it made some feel uncomfortable about me and urged me to seek help. I did. I am getting help. But it doesn’t go away just because you get help. It’s still a part of you. It is something you struggle with every day. Maybe it is deep seated. Maybe you know how silly it is to be worried about nothing, but the worry is still there. It is a monster that traps you within yourself.
I love this piece in particular because it is very true to me how it feels like. I feel alone. I feel stranded within myself because I have been taught to bottle it up. A pastor I worked with once told me that nobody likes a depressed spiritual leader. He meant well, and I understood what he meant, but it didn’t help. I was taught that those of us in ministry are only allowed to be robots, holy robots at that. Portraying no emotion, no feeling, no struggle, nothing. I saw that when we did, bad things happened. They happened to me. More than 8 times. Some of those times were my own making, others not so much.
So here I was at the beginning of this transition, bottled up. Trapped inside of myself. Too alone and afraid to do anything. The only people I really let in were those I trusted, and I had been betrayed too often to trust many people. So I closed myself off even more. Some of you may have noticed that in the last 6 months I hid. I hid away from the world because I was too afraid to face it. I was bottling up more and more. I was adding more and more chains to my house. My barbed wire roof would rival any super-max prison. I did what I was taught to do my entire life, lock up. I kept building my defenses as if I were preparing for the worst zombie onslaught possible, emotionally speaking. I would wonder why I was so alone. I knew why. I would lie to myself constantly telling myself that I’m the only one to blame for it all. I couldn’t see the mosaic for the broken tile that was my life in this moment. The biggest irony of this all is my deepest and most deep-seated fear of all is being alone for too long.
Luckily, I’m starting to break free. I have begun to see the light outside of me. I’ve had help from amazing people digging from the outside: my wife, my family, my therapist, and even some of you readers. I wanted to share how this felt. I want to share how I got here with the world at large in hopes that I can get messages out to those who are building defenses and walls to shelter them from the pain might see some light. Might begin to break free. It won’t ever go away, but the amazing and beautiful truth is that you are not alone. We are not alone. We fight, we struggle, we win together. We can break free from our own personal prisons and let the light in.
Maybe the bigger part of this all is allowing ourselves to be human. Allowing our spiritual leaders to be human. I’m human, you are human, we are all human and that’s okay. We were made to be humans, not robots. Humans were made to live in community. To share our inner selves. To let other people in and see the amazing people we are deep inside. We were created by a Divine that believes us to be awesome. There is nothing we can do to earn that awesomeness, besides being ourselves. There is nothing we can do to lose that awesomeness either, besides building walls and not letting others see it.