The Deconstruction

Stories of Deconstruction and Reconstruction

“Change of itself just happens; but spiritual transformation must become an actual process of letting go, living in the confusing dark space for a while, and allowing yourself to be spit up on a new and unexpected shore.”
~Richard Rohr (Daily Meditations 6/30/16)

I didn’t want everything to unravel. My journey in faith up until last year had been an exciting path of successive revelations, each building on the last, and all within the broad tent of American evangelicalism. Yeah, things changed, but it was more like just rearranging furniture. My influences shifted around: John Piper, John Eldridge, Rob Bell (pre-shitstorm), and then later Mike Bickle, Bill Johnson, Kris Vallaton, etc., but they all stayed pretty much within the orthodoxy of the evangelical.

The next plot twist seems obvious looking back, but it took me by surprise. I discovered other authors and teachers like Harold Eberle, Brian Zahnd, and Derek Flood. Zahnd, especially, had (and still has) a major influence on me, and it was he who showed me the door outside the tent. Years ago, he packed his bags and bid farewell to evangelicalism. He set out in search of a deeper well, a rich wine that centuries of Jesus followers have drawn from. He’s written extensively about that journey here and elsewhere.

That first peek outside the tent was both exhilarating and overwhelming. It was like seeing color for the first time after a decade of black & white. A whole new host of influences came flooding in: NT Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Richard Rohr, Rene Girard, and so many more. I think I’m still trying to find my footing from that experience. But what no one told me, though, is that the door of the tent is what holds the whole thing up. Once that door is opened, the whole thing comes crashing down like a house of cards, and you can’t go back in.

I found myself in a full-blown existential crisis when I stumbled across The Liturgists podcast. I was helplessly watching the systems of faith that I had built around me crack and crumble, while I wrestled with my own mortality. The term for this that is starting to gain some notoriety is “deconstruction,” though that word doesn’t do justice to the wrenching pain and despair it drags you through. I found myself slipping into atheism territory, as everything I had trusted in dissolved like mist in the morning sun. Also during this time we were struggling to find a church where we fit, both as a family and also for me personally. It’s hard to have questions and doubts in an environment that only welcomes them if you arrive at the prescribed answers.

As painful as it was, there was a liberating sheen to the experience of standing amongst the ashes of my once-tidy faith. I didn’t want to be an atheist, so I started searching for new footings to rebuild on. I found them through one of The Liturgists’ co-hosts, Mike McHargue, and his axioms. These simple, rational thoughts provided safe, firm ground that I could stand on, and even more importantly, always return to. They were enough.

Since then, it’s all been exploration. I’ve discovered new voices like Peter Rollins and Nadia Bolz-Weber, and old voices like Rob Bell have returned. I can’t quite verbalize what my faith has become, but it is much more rich and much more human than it ever was before. So I’ve decided to come out. I’ve stepped outside the tent of mainstream evangelical christianity, and discovered there is a wide and beautiful world out there. I’ve joined the ranks of the unlabelable, the spiritual vagabonds, the desert mystics; and I’ve started this blog as a way to both process my own thoughts and to be an encouragement to others who might find themselves in the same situation. The more I opened up about where I was at, the more I found others on the same journey. If that’s you, know that you’re not alone, you’re OK, and you’re welcome to come along. If you’re not on this path, this won’t be an attempt to convert you, but you’re welcome to listen and join the conversation. We’re all stronger together.

On to new horizons.

First things first. I'm not a writer. But I do have my story. Please bear with me as I try to put this to paper.

The Early years.

Some of my first memories are in the basement of my big pentecostal church sneaking timbits off the table and running wild with the other church friends who grew up immersed with me. We went to church Sunday morning and evening, had "club" at church on Wednesdays, youth group on Fridays. I went to a Christian school, where we had bible studies on books like "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" and all the other equivalent books of the 90's. I learned to play piano in front of a congregation. I was modest and excelled at school. I listened to all the 90's christian bands and could sing you the raps to "Go West Young Man" and ""I Don't Want it" like every other good christian kid. From the outside all was well. I seemed happy and bubbly, and loved my faith more than anything in the whole world! 

There was so much to unpack about this strange time. My dad was physically present, but that was probably worse than if he hadn't have been. He was/is misogynistic to the core, and verbally abusive, while being the "head" of family of three girls. The sense of shame I felt growing up in this culture was crushing. It was not a question. My body WAS female and the source of sin. I have countless examples of the many people and ways it was said to me. Everyday. And I towed the line. I dressed modestly. I wiped the blush off when told I looked like a prostitute in 8th grade. I put my arm down off the back of a chair when I was told my tightened shirt was "distracting the boys. I watched the girls who got pregnant dragged in front of the church/school to apologize while the boys mysteriously never had to say a word. I can't even put into words the feeling of just knowing your existence is wrong. I owned a female body. I was broken by default. 

Meanwhile I had a narcissistic mom. She was depressed and also shamed from the way my dad treated her, but I had no understanding of that growing up. She would use things like withdrawal of affection to shame me into doing what she wanted. One time when I was 17 she refused to talk to me for 4 months. While I lived at home. Over I don't even know what. In the midst of all this, I understood nothing of emotional or verbal abuse. My faith was the constant. Jesus never made me feel the way my life did. But yet there was so many things that just felt so off at church I could never put my finger on, or to be honest, was to scared to try to put my finger on because I'd lose so much socially if I did. 

The Abuse.

So basically, the PERFECT set up for abuse. I wanted to be loved wholly more than anything in the world. Growing up in the small Christian school with all the teachers and youth leaders, well, it was normal for there to be closeness between kids and adults that blurred lines of appropriateness. I had be ass slapped by teachers on a regular basis, IN FRONT OF MY MOM, and no one said a word. 

And then the first email in grade 10. A married teacher. Telling me he couldn't help but watch me, notice me, and how often he "forgot" I was a student. The combo of my body shame that I clearly had caused his stumbling, and the part of me so hungry for affection set up the perfect scenario for me to say nothing. Do nothing. The emails became a daily thing. He needed me. He loved me. He was going to leave his wife for me. Then the touching. The sneaking phone calls. He convinced me to come to his house. I was so trapped in this world of not wanting to lose the fact that someone was paying attention to me, mixed with the deep deep shame that I had caused this. I let this happen. But if I told, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt it would be me who was blamed. My christian upbringing had reinforced this logic well. I saw another girl get abused by a youth pastor, and it was HER family that ended up moving out of province because the social cost to her whole family was so intense. And besides, he was my teacher. I had good grades. I wanted to go to university. He had so much control over my future I couldn't say no. I resigned myself to the fact I could not escape him until I graduated and moved on. But even then, his wife found out about me and after graduating would email me, show up at my work... She told me she had a miscarriage and I had caused it. I seduced her husband. (At 15) And I 100% believed it was all true. I apologized to her everytime she showed up in my life, absorbing her anger and blame that my body had done all this. 

I had an eating disorder. I tried to end my life. I took so much tylenol I don't even know how my liver functions still.  All over facing the shame of a church community who would certainly crucify me. And yet I still held on to God in it all. There was this micro/macro view point that I couldn't figure out. While I knew there were friends who loved me, and even my parents in their broken way, I still believed they loved me as best they could. But the big scale story was so loud and dangerous that no one could save me, stand with me. I was alone. And yet Jesus. Despite the horrible lens I took him in through, I couldn't help but feel safe, and not alone when I prayed. 

The Implosion. 

Fast forward 15 years after high school, and I was married with a hoard of kids, successfully working in my career, and carrying on. The trauma box was tucked nicely way up on the shelf and every once in a while I would venture near it, but was too terrified of what was inside. After the birth of my last baby, I got hit with a depression and anxiety so deep I didn't think I'd ever recover. And maybe I still haven't. But I'm trying. They mental health issues were so all consuming I couldn't function anymore. Attending church put me into panic mode. It wasn't so much as a decision to leave, and more it just happened as I tried to cope with everything going on. And then came down the box. The box of things I had never processed. It was full implosion. I required medication and therapy to even begin to function again. And as my brain quieted ever so slightly, all the questions I didn't know I had came flooding out. I had been so close to being on the fringe, being on the outside. If anyone had ever found out about what had been happening at that time in my life so long ago, I would have been out, of my house, of my social world, of any support and love I had known. The questions started piling up about other groups on the fringes. If God really loves us all so much, why can't gay people be christians? Why can't women be equal in churches? What is white privilege and how am I making it worse? Does that actually look like Jesus to me? And just like that, everything fell apart. I couldn't read that Bible. I couldn't anything anymore. I couldn't go on in a culture of faith that had hurt me so badly.

Back Together, but Better.

A friend suggested I listen to the liturgist podcast. The very first episode I listened to was about LGBTQ and I sobbed. For the first time in my life, I was listening to people openly question. Disagree. And they were OK WITH IT. This launched the rebuilding that has been going on inside ever since. I found that there are many voices out of my evangelical box, and they made a lot of sense. I didn't have to try so hard to silence my head. They didn't make me feel unsafe and unseen. This world of people were bravely paving the way for the likes of me to get up again. To start the healing. I can read the Bible again, and see things I NEVER saw. And I feel like the less I know and understand about "God" the more the healing comes. They mystery is saving me. I never stopped relating to Jesus though any of my story. I can't let go of the radical love. His way of loving the underdog, the fringe people, the abused and unsafe. I'm crying as I type this because while I once said words like "Hope" so flippantly, now I know it. The Hope that people can change, that I can keep breathing, that my kids hopefully will grown up knowing things I didn't, that social justice is inseparable from Jesus. The hope that I'm surrounded by divine in every breath I take, and I don't understand it, and it's beautiful. 

I did end up going back to a church. It in many ways seems like that worst choice for me. It embodies so many big church stereotypes. And yet I continue to go. I want there to be someone there that speaks up for the kid like me. That fights against the shame. I want someone to be there that says "It's not your fault" and "You are infinitely beautiful because you are you" so that maybe those kids won't step right into an abusive situation. I want someone to fight for LGBTQ kids because they are DEFINITELY there in hiding. Being there can be both the hardest thing for me to do, and the most natural. I feel both angst and joy while I'm there. It's a weird feeling I don't have all figured out but I can't leave again. I don't know if it's the right thing to do. I feel less sure of everything these days. But I feel hope. So that's enough for today. 

MADE

Every evangelical cliché you can think of – that was my childhood. I was home-schooled all but one year; I went to Sunday school and Worship every single Sunday (plus youth group on Wednesdays!). I bopped along to DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline in the church van on the way to summer camps in Kentucky. I mean you name it, I was into it: pro-life road-side protests, young earth creation seminars, floor-length denim skirts, Bible Baseball, Adventures in Odyssey. I wore a purity ring ya’ll.

Oh man, I think I just broke out in hives.

My life was humming along (probably to Sonic Flood) just fine until I turned sixteen. In the span of about a year, I lost my virginity to a boy who promptly dumped me for “causing him to stumble,” my mentor/father figure died of a sudden heart attack, my actual father had a psychotic break, and my best friend told me he was gay.

Aaaaaaaaaand the walls came a-tumb-aling DOWN.

 

UNMADE

Actually, it was less like a cataclysmic breakdown of faith and more like walking into a room to find your parents fucking. I just slowly closed the door on that part of the life and backed the hell away. It no longer made any sense to oppose LGBTQ+ rights or blindly submit to the authority of men when they were clearly unqualified to lead (I also had a niggling suspicion that my value as a person was not housed exclusively in my vagina).

For the next six or seven years, I had nothing to do with church or spirituality. If this was a church testimony, this would be the part where I talk about how empty my life was – how I kept trying to “fill the void” with alcohol and sex. But really, my life without God was… just fine, kinda fun even. God and I were on a break – and I honestly didn’t notice the lack. The only time I ever felt any sense of loss or sadness was studying abroad in Europe. Standing in the gorgeous old cathedrals, I missed the sweeping grandeur and glory of an ancient faith. At the time, I still only equated Christianity with bigotry and misogyny so I had no interest in returning to the fold. That art though…

 

REMADE

I moved in with people who were a whole different brand of Christian. They went to a little home church that had developed a close relationship to a Jewish Renewal community. I didn’t get involved in the church part but I did go to several celebrations at the Synagogue. Somewhere in the middle of dancing around with a Torah to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” it occurred to me that maybe religion didn’t have to be all rigid and shitty. The Rabbis there (2/3 of whom were women! Can I get a hell YEA?!) spoke of a Holy Presence that was Love above all else. They described Truth as facets of an enormous diamond. One person may see one side while another sees a completely different one, but they are both true, both part of the same gem.

At the same time, my roommates turned me on to books by Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. I read “Velvet Elvis” and “A New Kind of Christianity” which gave me permission to separate the parts of religion that I found valuable from the giant wad of Evangelical nonsense. Then I read “Love Wins” and it felt like letting out a breath I had been holding in for ten years. The whole idea of Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment is abhorrent to me. It reeks of manipulation and social control and is utterly incompatible with faith in a good and loving God. What a gift to learn I could discard it wholesale while hanging on to Christ!

For a while, I identified only as Jewish. It was so much easier than trying to explain being a Christian who doesn’t believe in hell, or hate anyone or vote republican. ‘Cause what would people think if they heard I was a Jesus Freak??? (Sorry, it just comes out sometimes)

Nowadays, I’m more able to have that conversation in safe and productive ways. I’m more comfortable with who I am and what I believe and can let go of the bitterness I once had toward organized religion. Over the last few years I’ve gradually “Marie Kondo-ed” my faith – keeping what sparks joy and for the parts that don’t work, I say thank you and gently remove them from cluttering up my life. 

I read a book, a memoir, about a girl who grew up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was not a happy book. Her story is not important for the point of this part of my story, except for the fact that as an adult she desperately wanted out of that organization. 

I have often discussed spiritual issues with my adult son and still do. So, after having finish the aforementioned book, I was talking to my son about it and I said, “she really wanted to get out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but she was so scared to leave. What if they were right, she thought, and if I leave, I’m damned to hell?” I don’t know why she thought this, or maybe I made that part up, because my understanding is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in hell. Regardless, that is what I said to my son. And his response to me was something like this, “Isn’t that what Christianity says?”

I was flabbergasted, and had to admit, well, yes, this is what Evangelical Western Christianity says. That was

my

Christianity at the time. If you leave, if you get out, if you don’t believe the right thing the right way, you go to hell. More accurately, if you don’t have Jesus in you heart, you go to hell. If you haven’t said the sinners prayer, you go to hell. If you deny Christ, he will deny you.

This conversation gave me pause. That is, it caused me to question deep held beliefs of my own. Even while reading the book, I could relate with the negative religious aspect of her life experiences and felt the fear undergirding both her religion and mine. There were so many things the same about both and yet I knew that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a “cult”, right? And I wasn’t in a cult, right? Why did it feel that way? That was scary! She felt trapped in her religion because of fear. Me too, a little bit. I realized I believed this way because I’m scared not to. I’m scared if I don’t, I’ll go to hell. 

My relationship with God at it’s most primal and basic level ultimately was based on fear. (And guilt, but that’s another story.) This was not my everyday mode of operation or what my head believed, but it was there, deep underneath everything else. It was so deep and buried for so long that it was barely recognized and rarely acknowledged by me, but none the less, fear was at the root.

My prayer of late, to know the love of God, is being answered, I hope, by unraveling this messy foundation upon which I have built a crumbling fortress of self protection against eternal rejection. I am discovering a more peaceful path that leans toward Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Philosophy. 

Some days do you wake up and wonder, “How did I get here?”

I think if we are really honest with ourselves all of us have had those moments. It's not that you're not happy or content with life. But, you just don't quite remember how it is that you arrived at your current destination. Every once in a while this will happen when I drive. I will pull into my driveway and think, “I don't really remember driving home.” The drive had become so second nature that I get lost in thought and don't remember doing the driving.

When was the last time you remember breathing? For me it was a number of years ago and I was having an asthma attack. I could feel every breath. I focused on every single breath. To continue breathing demanded my full attention.

Typically life just happens. We move from moment to moment just doing what it is that we do, whatever that might be. We rise and brush our teeth, get dressed, drink coffee, go to work, and whatever else. Day in and day out. It just happens.

Yet, every once in a while we wake up and the thought hits, “How did I get here?”

How does someone end up being a pastor? How does he end up being a dad of two kids and married for twenty years? I'm 42 years old. How did I get here?

 - 

A friend of mine recently said that her favorite pastime is “remembering.” That really struck me. I don't really try hard to remember. It's not something that I routinely do. Yet, as I read the Scriptures I see God asking people to build altars and other times people just build them without being asked. Why? To remember. They name those places things like, “God provides” or “God overcame”, and the like. God wants his people to remember.

There are whole psalms dedicated to summarizing the book of Exodus. Did you know that? Check out Psalm 105. It's a song of remembrance. The people needed to remember what God had done. They were to pass on all that God had done to future generations. To tell their children the stories of God's deed and to proclaim his deeds among the nations. They had to remember to do that.

The people of God in the Scriptures used these altars to help them answer the question, “How did we get here?”

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How did I get here? How in the world did I get to be 42 years old, a husband, a dad, a pastor, and a guy with more questions than answers?

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I grew up in the church. There really isn't a time that I can recall when “church” was not a part of my life. Even when I was absent from the church, I was connected to a body of Christians through a college ministry. Being in the church has simply been a part of me. It's the water I swim in and the air I breathe. In the church I found comfort during the hard times. I experienced joy there in the good times. Friendships were forged and mentors embraced.

My parents marriage broke up when I was nine. It was in the church that I witnessed healthy marriages up close and firsthand. In the church I saw parenting done well and done poorly. It was in the church that I wrestled with big questions of life.

It was in the church that I learned that you can doubt and struggle and question everything.

It was in the church that I experienced pain and suffering. Sometimes at the hands of friends and other times as friends suffered. The church has provided context for me walk through and wrestle with everything.

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How did I get here? I got here through the church. My life lived in the context of the church has brought me to the place where I now stand. Where is that? It feels like I'm looking over an edge of a cliff with a beautiful clear pool below. Friends are beckoning, “Jump! Jump! Jump!” Their voices are echoing and ringing in my ears.

Like Terrence Mann in The Field of Dreams as he is about step into field, I am grinning as I look back and forth between the past and what lies ahead. The sheer joy of what is before me is calling me and drawing me. Yet as I look over the precipice, the jump fills me with fear.

What do I see as I am about to jump? There is a necessity to ask the questions that have been nagging me for years. I can't stuff them any longer. Too many things about my faith seem inadequate or built on straw. Jesus said that we are to “count the costs” of following him and that we should build on strong foundations. I don't know what those foundations are any more. Many of those things that I have hung my faith on for years are beginning to crumble.

Too many leaders have shown themselves to be hypocrites, liars, and immoral. Too much of the evangelical movement that I have for many years found my home has left me. I remember a warm summer day sitting with a woman from the church that I grew up in and talking to her about joining my ministry partner team when I was a missionary. She asked me if I was going to go to seminary. I said yes, I was already taking classes at an evangelical seminary. She was shocked. Mouth agape, she exclaimed, “How can someone who grew up in a reformed church go to an evangelical seminary!?”

On that day, I didn't understand. I have come to understand. Within the evangelical movement, even back then there was a political move going on to embrace the power of this world. They were losing their sense of identity in Christ and were embracing something very different. In my youthful exuberance, I couldn't see it, or maybe I didn't want to see it. But, now I do. I can't be that any longer.

Presbyterian, yes.

Reformed, yes.

Covenantal, yes.

But, I cannot be “evangelical.” So, now I have to jump. I have to take a leap into the past to learn afresh what it is that it means to embrace those things that I can say “yes” to. I have to leap into the future to figure out what that means for today in my context and in my fresh expression of being a Christian.

Even as I'm about to jump I know it will be OK because the church will be there.

 - 

So where am I? As I write today I am at a place where many things that I once held true, truer than true, are no longer true. Over the last ten years or so, I have seen behind the curtain, and it breaks my heart. As I said, the “evangelical” movement that I knew and loved is gone. It left me and I don't think it will have me back. I can't sit idly by and watch in the quiet any longer. Over the last year, I have been asking lots of questions. I have been wrestling with my identity as a follower of Jesus. I have wondered about the very fabric of who I am. In one of Rob Bell's early books he talked about how theology, dogma, and doctrine are less like a wall and more like a trampoline. You can take the springs out and examine them and figure out which ones you really need to be able to bounce. The wall on the other hand falls apart when you pull the bricks out. It no longer works as it ought.

Some people could say that the last number of months have been a time of deconstruction for me. I think in many ways that is true. However, I am more confident in using the term, “dark night of the soul.” Whatever name you want to call it, there have been many questions, few answers, and a deepening of my utter dependence on the church, the Scripture, and a pursuit of Jesus like never before.

Many of the people that I have listened to over the last year have lost faith for a time. I am confident that faith was never be out of reach for me. What has been lost is much of what I once held as absolute, confirmed, and necessary. There has been a refining, a cutting away, and an ever increasing commitment to love.

To love, and to do so well, is to not run away from the hard things. It is, ultimately, to enter in. To wrestle with the questions like Jacob did the angel. I can't let them go. I have to keep turning them over and over and over until they give up their secrets. To love is not a denial a truth but the constant seeking and application of truth. To love is to pursue forgiveness. It is to admit wrong. It is a passionate pursuit of “the other.” It is not as some believe, in our time, to simply “let everyone do as they please.” It is to challenge people with truth.

However, I'm finding that there is simply “less” truth than I had at one time thought.

 -  It's been a lifetime to come to where I am. It's a beautiful mess. All of it and all of me.

I am more convinced than ever that Jesus is exactly who the Scriptures say he was.

The Messiah King.

I am convinced that God, the triune God, works in and through covenant. I am convinced that the Scriptures are beautiful and honest and real and are in some way the very words of God. The confessions give me hope. They open doors to my imagination and give me boundaries. They give me questions.

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Through it all, there's the church. Men and women who live in the neighborhood. Men and women who are real. They wrestle with real questions and they really try to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. The church, this touchstone of where I can sit and laugh with friends. Where I can pray real prayers. It's the people who share the table with me. We live this life, this gloriously messy life together. I can struggle and wrestle with faith and doubt knowing that the church is there.

I mentioned Terrence Mann earlier, near the end of the film he says, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.” While baseball certainly is that.

I would change it to say this,

“The one constant through all the years has been the church. America has rolled by like and army of steam rollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But the church has marked the time. This people, this community: it's a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

You may be thinking, “Why does he keep saying, 'the church' and not Jesus?” It's simple really. If we are serious about what Jesus said then the church is carrying on what Jesus began all those years ago. The Scriptures tell us that he sent his Spirit to all those who claim to follow him. In a very real sense we are a continuance of the incarnation. The church is supposed to be the “body of Christ,” if that's the case, then the church is the flesh and blood of Jesus in the here and now.

If I can't rely on the church and turn to it, then what do I have? Nothing more than an idea.

No, the church is practicing the embodied loyalty to Jesus and I can know it will be there for me. As I seek to find rest in Christ, I ultimately find it in his church.

Regardless of where my dark night of the soul ends up I am confident that the church will be there.