Category Archives: Life

Journal-ish entries about my journey through this world

Exit: Get used to change

*Part of a series that started here*

I don’t know that my journey makes a lot of sense apart from a bit of context, so let me chronicle the “leavings” and upheavals that have marked my journey through Christianity.  Skim down to the conclusion at the bottom if you lose interest in the details. 

When I was still in single digits, my parents went through a messy exit from the first church I’d known, the one with the soft green pew fabric but hard linoleum floor. (Always fascinates me what elements “stick” in a memory. I’ve always got color.)  Western PA had a large number of non-Baptist Independent Fundamental churches.  I’m going to write a side note about that in a minute.

My first church had a cool name (The Church of the Open Door) and a pretty, simple building with a traditional steeple and a basement for Sunday School classes and one of those attendance/offering boards at the front.  It was the church my mom landed in when, tired and angry after divorcing her cheating husband in the late 1950s and striking out as a single mom long before that was ok to do, she found Jesus and got some IFnonB religion. (IFB = Independent Fundamental Baptist, the most common “flavor” of Fundy church out there, except that my church wasn’t Baptist, as I’ll get to in a minute).

I’ve written about this all before, so I will just summarize here. Because IFB teaching+American social mores aligned in the mutual condemnation of divorce, my parents were in trouble as soon as they tied the knot. My dad spent the remainder of his life angry and hurt that his brand new faith was immediately squashed by his pastor calling him an adulterer for marrying a divorced woman. The church folk banged on our door every Tuesday night as part of “weekly visitation” to try to get him to come to church. We used to turn off the lights and hide until they went away.  Social condemnation does weird things to people.

My parents finally said “Nope” and left that church when they realized that the condemnation would extend to me too. Conveniently in IFB churches, as long as you can put juuuuust enough distance between your old church and your new one, you can sort of start over at the new one. So we ended up at Mt Carmel Community Church, the church which also housed the Christian school I attended.

My dad rarely went. He felt judged and unwelcome. My mom went because I think she found a lot of good in it, and we got to do a few things together.  I have good memories of that church, overall.  I got married there. My dad walked me down the aisle, though I know he felt awkward about being thrust back into that world. My mom was dead (cancer) so I don’t know how she would have felt. But the Mt Carmel people were very kind to my parents when she was ill and dying, and I will always be thankful for that.

*****

About IFB and IFnonB: The history of Fundamentalism in America is complex and one’s mileage definitely varies based on the particular stream they landed in.  By the time I left Fundamentalism (around 2002), the Baptist stream had won pretty much everywhere except in a few pockets. Ohio had a strong non-denominational tradition among their “Bible” churches, for example, which managed to hold out against the Baptist juggxrnaut   Much more I could say, but that’ll have to be a post for a different day. 

Why does it matter?  Well, before the Internet, your experience of Christianity was very much mediated through your church and pastor. If your circle of Jesus said divorce was the ultra evil, that rock music was African sex beat trash, and that no self-respecting woman would be caught dead in pants — that circumscribed your experience. The Baptist flavor of Fundamentalism is 95% the same as non-Baptist Fundamentalism, but in my experience, there were a few critical differences. 

First, Independent Fundamental Baptist churches tended to follow a rigidly authoritarian and usually abusive structure of church leadership. An IFB pastor was an unassailable bulwark of unchallenged power….until he wasn’t. It was really feudal. The deacons could throw wrenches in a pastor’s “rule” over the church; a scandal could push him out; acrimony could lead to a congregation telling their pastor to move on.  I saw all of those things, either in my own church or in nearby churches.  But the non-Baptist IF churches included Bible Methodists, Bible Presbyterians and Free Presbyterians, “Bible” churches (independent and Fundamental churches who are NOT Baptist), and others.  They tended to be joined to loose affiliations that provided some counterbalance to a pastor’s monarchy, and some (like the Presbyterians) persisted in following elder-rule despite that being anathema to the Baptists.  Other differences: Baptist churches required baptism by immersion, usually by that church’s pastor, for church membership, and tended to beat a Baptist history (usually unfounded bullshit) drum so hard it gives me a headache just to think of it. Oh, and suffocating, rampant God-and-countryism. The whole pile of beliefs is laughable, folks. If you need a list, this one will do:  I heard every single thing on that list at some point.  

Second, I wasn’t raised with the typical IFB, completely narrow-minded intellectual straightjacket thanks to being in a non-Baptist church. I had exposure to different mini-views within our wider circle of churches.  We had preachers from across the Fundy landscape visit our church monthly, more than was typical for most IFB churches.  I didn’t know that IFB churches were so nasty about being closed-minded until I went to college and saw how some of my classmates reacted when I espoused a slightly different view. 

All that to say: I wasn’t raised Baptist, and I refused to call myself one when I attended a truly IFB church in Greenville. My husband told me that was totally illogical to be a member of a Baptist church and refuse the label, but I didn’t budge. The IFB people were a level of crazy I couldn’t be part of.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I wasn’t willing to go that far. I attended Bob Jones University, which is officially non-denominational but practically 99% Baptist. But still — not in the name or the creed–not until I was leaving around 2002.

*****

My shift to a new church and world came with college. It took me a few years to find my place, but I genuinely loved college life and everything it brought to me intellectually and socially.

Bob Jones University is a complex topic for me. I’ll make that a separate post entirely. I’m gonna need time to unpack all that.

Sticking with a theme of churches and CHANGE…  I finally landed at Mt Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, headed by Dr. Mark Minnick.  For the IFB world, MCBC did me a lot of good:

  • MCBC made the earth-shattering decision to use the NASB Bible translation in public worship and for preaching. I can’t even begin to explain to non-Fundy people the rancor and hatred around the King James Version debates. It was worse than the American political discourse, if that tells you anything. MCBC could shift away from the KJV only because it was such a large and notable church in the BJU camp, and because Minnick had so much personal credibility.  It took him years to inch the church to this point. I learned a lot from that.
  • Minnick is a careful expositor. I can see now how there’s a downside to parsing single Greek verbs for 40 minutes and calling it a sermon. But it punched a button in my seminary-trained brain for precision, and I’m genuinely thankful for what I learned.
  • I’ve never seen a more careful and joyful building campaign / fundraising campaign.
  • MCBC proudly follows a more presbyterian structure for church leadership. It was still 100% male, but at least it’s run by a group not a single man.
  • The founding pastor’s wife was invited to the pulpit to speak to the wife of a ministerial candidate at his ordination. I can’t emphasize enough how shocking it was in the IFB to see any woman allowed to speak from the pulpit, and that offered me a tiny ray of hope as a woman that I might be allowed to use my brain and think my own thoughts.

Mt Calvary was a massive, formative influence in my intellectual life. But the dream shattered for me around 2000 — it’s a long story and involves the personal lives of some of my friends at the time, so I won’t share it on my blog. But I watched MCBC leadership make decisions that may have been well-intentioned, and fit within the logical paradigm of Fundamentalism, but they were wrong, and they hurt people I cared about.  The glass shattered, and I started to question everything. How can godly men be so blind to the harmful effects of their teaching or decisions? 

*****

Our move to Presbyterianism shocked me, honestly.  I was sitting at Sunday lunch with my husband, who was finishing up the coursework portion of his PhD in Old Testament Theology at the BJU seminary.  To put it mildly, experiencing IFB theology as a future minister is a whole other world of batshit crazy.  And Coart has zero tolerance for bullshit. He just does not bend to anyone’s strong feelings about things; he has to be convinced through good argumentation, verifiable facts, and evidence of good motives.

So I was a bit stunned when he said to me, “Lori, I think I might be a Presbyterian.”

At that time, we’d been married a couple years. The only things more shocking to come from his mouth would have been “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t want to be married to you anymore” or “I’m gay.”  Nothing less.

I remember being scared, wondering if we were about to lose everything and make a horrible mistake. See, I mentioned above that American Fundamentalism is overwhelmingly Baptist. And they aren’t kidding. If you aren’t in the Baptist club, you lose access to the halls of power nearly everywhere. There are a few exceptions (in parachurch organizations like mission boards, rescue missions, camps, and colleges), but Presbyterianism is barely a sliver among the IFB.  For Coart to tell me, in essence, I can’t play by the Baptist rules meant his ministry career would be either relegated to the absolute margins of an already marginalized group, or non-existent.

We spent much of that year on a “walkabout” to visit a wide variety of churches, both Evangelical and beyond.  It was healthy and invigorating. I recommend that everyone do this at least once every decade — go visit every other flavor of church in your town. It’s good to see what the Body of Christ looks like, whether you agree with those people or not. 

I think, looking back, that Coart had already seen the cracks in the IFB theology and the mental backflips required by his seminary professors to keep the house of cards standing. The Bible just doesn’t back up the Dispensational, Fundamentalist viewpoints.  He was being slowly convinced through his Bible study that the correct approach was Reformed theology.  And the IFB folks *hate* Reformed theology.

That moment over Sunday dinner was the beginning of the end of our days in Fundamentalism. Within a year, we were wondering when it would be time to leave. By the fall of 2001, we got our answer.

*****

We came to the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) because a friend asked us to come teach in his school.  Really. That’s how I ended up in the classroom for 10 years — probably the most influential decision I ever made. And how we ended up at our church, where I was an integral part of the music team for more than a decade. Of all the things I left at NCC, the music ministry is the thing I miss the absolute most. It’s left a gaping hole. I haven’t touched a piano in 2 years.

Deciding to leave Fundamentalism and deciding to join the PCA were two equally grueling decisions.  Leaving the Fundy world meant all of our networking contacts would be irrelevant. You can’t play for the other team in any way and expect to be part of the Fundy world.  I still have the letter Minnick wrote Coart, personally, to express how disappointed he was in Coart to abandon his faith. Within a year, Bob Jones was on the verge of expelling him from his PhD program (he was in the dissertation stage) because we were no longer Fundamentalists. So he walked away from 90 credit hours of coursework.  (BJU was unaccredited, so…. not really a loss once we got into the “real world” and realized unaccredited degrees were worth absolutely nothing outside of the bubble of Fundamentalism. Still hurt a bit though.)

But the didn’t mean the PCA was right for us.  We came to the PCA because it was Reformed, because it followed the presbyterian structure for church government (we’d seen enough horror stories of the IFB authoritarianism), and because it is quite conservative in faith and practice.  I still had to go through a lot of soul-searching to be ok with paedobaptism, Reformed soteriology, and drums in worship music.

In other words, we were willing to join the PCA because it wasn’t all that big a step to the left from Fundamentalism…..but it was big enough to break all of our connections to Fundamentalism, for sure.

Now, to be fair: The PCA “gets” Grace much more than the IFB churches do.  It’s where I read Michael Horton’s wonderful book Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, which helped rescue me from the guilt-driven Christianity I’d learned growing up and had reinforced at Bob Jones.

But the PCA is still very much bound up into propositional truth > heart and belief; it’s tribal as hell with plenty of nasty infighting; it worships its theological definitions and Reformed theology in ways that I find deeply troubling.  A lot of what is wrong about Fundamentalism and about Evangelicalism in general is embodied in my PCA experience.  But if I’d joined a Southern Baptist church or a Sovereign Grace congregation or NewSpring or any other mainline Evangelical church, I’d be writing a lot of the same words.  All I’m trying to do is explain what I’ve walked through, so maybe others can hear their own journey echoed here, and we can mourn together what we’ve lost. 

We joined our PCA church in 2002 and slipped out the door for good in 2016. Seismic changes during those 14 years.. That’s why I’m writing this series. And why I have no clue where to find a church home in 2018.

Catalysts for change

I think it’s fair to the readers who don’t know me to understand a few moments in my spiritual journey that serve as key waypoints. If you know me, then none of these will be a surprise.

1986, summer camp:  After hearing a week of preaching by a missionary to Spain, I felt called to full-time missions. Went home and told my parents, and broke their hearts. They’d always wanted me to be a doctor.  I was a Christian Missions major instead, and went to BJU instead of staying in PA to attend Pitt or Penn State or one of the many little liberal arts colleges up there.

1998, marriage:  I’m not exaggerating when I say that Coart, my husband, is a remarkable man of both heart and intellect. My journey is bound up with his. He somehow knows how to bash up against my hard head yet let me come to my own conclusions. Somehow he’s been doing it since we first met.

1999: I mentioned above a deep disillusionment with our church leadership at MCBC. That broke a spell over me about not wanting to even consider any other viewpoints, and in many ways it was the beginning of the end of our time within Fundamentalism.

2002, teaching:  I can’t possibly give teaching enough of its due as a critical formation tool for my conscience, spiritual understanding, maturity, and career arc. Best decision I ever made, hardest job I’ve ever had. Nothing else has been as rewarding.  Combined with my MEd degree from Covenant College (earned 2003-2006), teaching has been the #1 thing God used to shape my understanding of how He works in this world.  Since I’m not a parent, this is as close as I can get to parenting-as-sanctification.

2005, the year from hell:  Uh, I don’t want to put this stuff out in public. Let’s just say there was a lot going on in our own lives and in the lives of our students. We learned some critical lessons about how to care for others, and the inadequacy of things like “Christian counseling” for mental illness.   (I’ll summarize the worst day of 2005: Within a 24-hour period, I talked someone out of suicide, had to tell that person’s loved one how they had almost committed suicide so I could make sure they got help, and got a call from my pastor asking me to take over a big chunk of music duties at the church because of a “scandal” involving our minister of worship, triggering many questions from my students who’d had him as a teacher. It was a pretty horrible day.)

2005 was the year I learned that Grace always costs the giver.

2007: I watched a lesbian live a more truly righteous life than nearly any other person in her group of friends/colleagues, and it upended pretty much everything I thought I knew about Love, Grace, and the church’s attitude toward LGBTQ+ folks.

2011: Heard about Paolo Freire’s writing on education for the first time. World-changing. Why hadn’t I been told to read this before?  Critical pedagogy and all that.

2016: When the bulk of Christians I knew happily voted for Trump to get SCOTUS votes against Roe v Wade, I knew my sojourn in Evangelicalism was over.

What’s the point of all this?

Just this:  People who leave a religion or cult or close-knit community of  any kind are walking away from multiple things at once: from your network, from your friends and social circle, from a sense of personal history and identity, from your safety net, sometimes from your job and/or education, from a hard-earned reputation or respect.  It can be staggering to be thrust into decisions about your faith, your career, your identity, and your friendships all at the exact same time. (And I’m not even a parent — it’s got to be 100x harder when kids are involved.) 

It’s important to acknowledge the good that you found in those places, even if there were bad things too, because that’s honest.  It’s good to recognize the people who genuinely cared for you, even if others were abusive dicks. It’s important to mourn what you have lost.

 

I feel like this was a dull post.  If you read this far, well, you’re a saint ….or committed…..or bored. lol

I’ll keep writing. Thanks for reading.

Exit: The Courage to ask questions

Yesterday, I staked the claim that I’ll be writing a series about why I left Evangelicalism.  Now I’m staring at the screen wondering if I have the courage to put these words out where anyone can read them.

Questions, Questions

I’ve been asking questions since I could talk. My husband deserves sainthood for not telling me “ask Google, why don’t you?” 300x a day.  In the working world, my skillset would be defined as The Clarifier: the person who asks a lot of questions like, “Have you tried it this other way?” “Why do you think this process is breaking down?” “Wait, what if that isn’t the reason and it’s actually this other thing?”  People tell me I’m a good listener, but I think what they actually mean is that I’m a good questioner, and people like talking about themselves and their own ideas.

I grew up in Fundamentalism…. if you don’t know me or what that means, then read this post and also this series.  And be thankful.

Anyway, Fundamentalism is, well, it’s a whole bunch of adjectives: Oppressive.  Well-intentioned. Fearful. Patriarchal. Legalistic. Self-righteous. Afraid. Religious. Tradition-bound. Limited. Simplistic. Naive. Rule-focused. Damaging. Tribal. Ignorant.  Spiritually abusive. Terrified of questions.

Yeah. It’s hard to be a Clarifier in a religiously fundamentalist world.

I need to clarify right here at the outset two contradictory truths: First, I had a pretty gentle journey through Funds-Land. Bob Jones University isn’t the worst of that crowd by a long shot, and I have many good memories of my family, my home churches, my Christian school, and my college years.

At the same time, BJU and the entire sphere of Fundamentalism that raised me was absolutely (and, I believe, unwittingly and unintentionally) twisted and spiritually abusive. I was lucky to escape without a lot of obvious wounds….but new scars keep showing up in my emotions, spiritual practices, sexuality, relationships, intellectual assumptions, personal identity, womanhood, and understanding of God and His ways.  I vastly under-estimated the genuine damage in my soul, heart, mind, and body from being raised in such a toxic culture. And as I began to explain in this post, my decade in the PCA started the healing process but then stunted it. The PCA suffers from many of the same flaws as Fundamentalism, primarily because its theological underpinnings give allegiance to a very similar core of legalism.

There’s a reason we tend to call ourselves “recovering Fundamentalists.”  The “Exvangelical” moniker is accomplishing a similar purpose.

What’s “certainty” going to cost me?

Ask any student of mine from my teaching days what my mantras were.  Hopefully they’ll list this one first: “A good kid isn’t a kid who stays out of trouble and follows all the rules. A good kid is one who DOES good.” (That, to me, is the core of understanding what biblical righteousness is all about, and it bingos the central error of legalism.)

But secondly, Never be afraid to ask The Truth a hard question. If it’s really The Truth, it can stand up to your questions.

I know my first crises of faith, when I was in single digits, came from worrying about whether I was “really saved.” That’s one pile of bullshit that a covenantal view of children and salvation does away with, and if we had kids, I would have happily gone through with infant baptism. But that’s a long post for another day.

My second, and much more valuable crisis of faith, came when I was around 13. It was fall and I was in 8th grade, probably my least-favorite grade until my sophomore year of college (likely for similar reasons).  A lot of things were shifting in my life and I had some questions.  I remember staring at my Bible, daring to say aloud (inside my head), “How do I even know this is true?”

Believe me, I was shook.

Within the entire swath of Evangelical theology (despite the sputtering that would ensue from the Fundy crowd, I’m going to lump them into the Evangelical camp for purposes of this series, because they’re merely the fanatic fringe of a single theological perspective), the Bible stands as THE FOUNDATION of thought and practice.

The reasoning is simple:  God gave us the Bible to explain to us who He is and what He does. Therefore, you establish that the Bible is verbally inspired in every part, and binding for faith and practice, and then move on from there to understand God, sin, Jesus, salvation, whatever.

How do we know the Bible is true?  Well, there are lots of books on this within Evangelical culture, but the answers always boil down to this:

a)  we feel that it’s true (i.e.: the Holy Spirit makes us feel that it’s true in our hearts, or something like that), or
b)  we give intellectual value to a pile of certain facts about its authorship and textual transmission, combined with awe at the miraculous nature of its textual preservation, or
c)  God said it was true (and ignore the obvious circular reasoning thing going on there).

Hello, Modernism, my old friend

I’m not here to debate biblical inspiration.  From what little I’ve read of Karl Barth (thanks to an outstanding course at an Evangelical seminary a few years ago), I think he’s got a better starting point in seeing Jesus as The Word, and the prophets and the Bible as equal Witnesses to the Word.  Barth opens his huge Church Dogmatics with theology proper (who God is), not with a section on inspiration. That subtle shift taught me a lot about why I was becoming deeply unsatisfied with Evangelicalism as a belief system.

A lot of this whole mess is driven by the fact that Evangelicalism (and especially American Fundamentalism) was birthed at the height of Rationalist, Modernist thinking. Everybody — religious or no — was drunk on the idea of reason, logic, and/or science having all the answers.  Cross that with the invention of digital tools like computer processors, and it was easy to believe that a large enough computer could predict the weather weeks into the future. (Spoiler: it couldn’t.)

In American Christianity, this punch-drunk fascination with intellectual-above-all gave us acerbic creation/evolution debates, stifling legalism based on biblical literalism, and insufferable evidence-based apologetics (combined with door-to-door evangelism and street preaching).  Suddenly, American Evangelicalism had a whole lot to lose if people started asking questions

I know it sounds counter-intuitive that the same Christians who are central to the target demographic of Fox News (all feels, not facts) were hoodwinked by intellectual Modernism, but hear me out.  Yes, Evangelicals are happy to ignore facts for the sake of faith (evolution being a good example of this). But the very foundation of Evangelical theology is a Modernist understanding of texts, of inspiration, of parsing language to extract precise meanings.

This hermeneutic is stunted, incapable of wrestling with genre nuances and verbal ambiguity or acknowledge story-truth as a category beyond literal fact. It’s like literary criticism done by a 4th grader. (“But Mommy, why did they make her wear an A on her chest? Doesn’t that mean our neighbor should have an A on her chest too? She’s not married either!”)  And it works itself out in Evangelicalism via spiritual practices that feel like someone left a toddler in charge of the house rules — rigidity of interpretation coupled with emotional immaturity when confronted with opposition.  My word, if that isn’t an analogy for conservative Christian political discourse in the past 20 years…..

If you go all-in on a Modernist view of how the world works, then you fall prey to a closed-mindedness that runs facts through a fine sieve to make sure nothing gets through that will upset the system (again, biological or cosmic evolution are great examples here) and you lock yourself into a paradigm of biblical interpretation that cannot admit when it’s wrong.  See also: women in church leadership, husband/wife roles, finding a place for LGBTQ+ folks to be practicing, communing believers.

I’m not saying Postmodernists get a pass here; a relativistic approach to “truth” also breaks down, leaving us living parallel realities with no agreed common truths (again, see 2016-2018 as a great example). But it’s not an accident that Evangelicalism starts its entire system with a Modernist view of biblical inspiration.  Then, the Reformed folks add idolization of propositional truth over anything that isn’t happening in one’s intellect, and the straightjacket is buckled on pretty tight.

Side note: that Barth class was one of the most amazing intellectual experiences in my educational life – thank you Dr. Richard Burnett for introducing me to a much kinder understanding of a vital theologian who’s been unfairly smeared in America, partly because we didn’t understand him but mostly because his stuff wasn’t even translated into English until decades after it was published. Burnett is one of the premier American scholars on Barth (Amazon), and he’s a committed, faithful believer. He’s currently working to provide rich theological resources for laymen at Theology Matters

A great related reading, if you’re interested, on Barth, Evangelicalism, and inspiration:  Vanhoozer, Barth on Scripture (PDF)

TL;DR on inspiration: If you stop believing in the strictest definition of verbal, plenary inspiration, your whole religious world may not implode around you.

*****

I realize I left you hanging there in my personal story: so what did I do, when at 13 it occurred to me that there are no observable, external proofs for the Bible’s inspiration?

First, I panicked a bit. It was a terrifying thought. What if my entire faith collapses?

This horror was an ever present warning in my young life: sermon illustrations, Christian literature, explicit teaching all told me that the path to Hell was paved with asking questions.

I calmed down and decided I should probably read the Bible and see for myself.  (I’m proud of myself, in retrospect.)  So I did. I started somewhere like Genesis or Matthew and “did my devotions faithfully” for a few weeks. (I’ll need a whole other post to delve into THAT.)

And….that was it.  A few weeks later, the fear and anxiety were gone.  I’m not saying that like we’re in a church service and you should now shout “Jeee-zus!” and raise your hands in worship.  At the time, I considered it a gracious answer to prayer and the result of the work of the Spirit.  Now, after a whole lot more education and life experience, I don’t know whether it was the work of the Spirit or a simple change in adolescent brain chemistry from “anxious” to “safe.”  Probably some of both.

Do I think the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Sure, yeah.  Do I mean “inspired” like you mean inspired? I dunno. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s the wrong question.  If you push me for a more specific answer: I think Barth offers a better understanding of inspiration than the Evangelicals do (read the PDF I posted above for a thorough look).

If you need the Bible to be a book of magic words in order to believe in God, your faith may not survive. 

Ask and you shall receive

Stop being afraid to ask questions about your faith. About whether God is good, about the problems of evil in the world, about the genocide of the Canaanites in the Old Testament, about people dying in countries where they’ve never heard the name of Jesus and being sent to hell.

Do I have answers?  Hell, no.  But you’re either going to ask those questions burning in your heart or you’ll bury them where they fester and poke you and make you afraid or angry.

Either God exists or He doesn’t.  I believe that He does, but I can’t prove Him to you. I firmly believe that isn’t my job anyway. He can speak for Himself, He can act for Himself, He can explain Himself.

Jesus said (I’m paraphrasing Luke and Matthew here) that God isn’t like some dickhead father who gives his kids a rock when they ask him for bread. He hears and answers. So ask.

Are you angry at God? Tell Him. It’s not like He doesn’t know already. And it’s not like we don’t have multiple examples in Scripture — especially the Psalms, but also the Prophets — of people telling God what they think. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes there’s silence.  I’m not a divine being. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.

But I encourage you to face up to your questions and fears, and to ask them honestly. Say them out loud.  Search for answers. Search within community (a great read on this in Relevant Magazine recently).

If you’re in a congregation where such questions are suppressed, then get out — if you can. (Be safe!)  If you can’t leave, look online for people with similar questions and find community there.  But don’t stop asking questions.  It’s the sign of a healthy heart and mind.

Faith rests on the courage to ask questions, not on the fear that doubts will unravel your faith.

You might find these posts helpful:

Waking up to questions you didn’t know you had

Quotable: Faith Isn’t About Finding Answers | RELEVANT Magazine

A Taxonomy of Doubt

Questions, Faith, and Doubt: Why all the fuss about Rachel Held Evans?

Unintentional #Exvangelical

Exit: An Intro

A pair of inciting incidents this weekend have convinced me that there might be value in writing about why I no longer consider myself an Evangelical. My journey is hardly unique, but Christian culture is insular and people outside the orbit of “normal faith experience” often find themselves isolated and marginalized.  Perhaps my words can help you clarify yours.

A couple clarifications to start:

First, I am deeply committed to the belief in God and to historic Christianity as stated in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. If you’re here with popcorn hoping for a deconversion story, you’re going to be disappointed.

Second, and I realize this is hard to reconcile but hear me out, my critiques of Evangelicalism are not meant to blame or shame anyone who’s still happily in that tribe. You do you.  I fully trust the Spirit to do His job of leading Christians into full sanctification.

*****

I’ve written occasionally about the #Exvangelical movement, and if you find yourself wanting more, you may run into some helpful people on Twitter under that hashtag. It’s a broad swath of people, some who are still religious and many who are not, who walked away from Evangelicalism, often in the past few years.  I ran across them earlier this year, so I wouldn’t call that group formative in my thinking. But if you’re looking for more people who are trying to pick up the pieces of spiritual life in the wake of 2018, it’s a place to start.

*****

One of the inciting incidents was this convo on Twitter, which I read last night:

*****

I don’t know where all this series will go, but I think it’s going to cover how my thinking has shifted in the past decade and why. About why it’s so hard to pull the trigger on searching for a new church. About why I find myself in my 40s angry at the ringing injustices of the world in a way that wouldn’t even  have made sense to me in my 20s.

I will try to bang it out this month in short order, but we’ll see.

Hugo Winners 2018! A few thoughts

I need to finish my Hugo reviews – sorry, folks. Life got busy.  A few comments while I’m thinking about it today…..

Best Novel:
Winner: NK Jemisin’s The Stone Sky.  I heartily agree!

Jemisin’s trilogy is a resounding success. It’s the only second-person writing that’s ever worked for me, because she has a necessary and clear reason to use that approach, and she deployed it well. If you haven’t read The Fifth Season (my review) and The Obelisk Gate (my review) along with this year’s Hugo winner, you now have THREE Hugo Awards to spur you forward. No other author has scored a hat trick like this in Hugo history.  Plus, TNT is turning the series into a TV event – so read the books first!!

Amazon link to the trilogy or Apple iBook or Audiobook

Best Novella:
Winner:  All Systems Red by Martha Wells.  Yes!

I voted for Binti as #1, but this novella was a strong second and I’m thrilled that it won the award this year.  You’ll fall in love with Murderbot just like I did. The story serves up great military science fiction and characterization, and gives us a good window for grappling with the continuing question of how we define personhood and the tendency of humans to oppress those whom we dehumanize or strip of self-determination.  You can buy Wells’s novella on Amazon or Apple and it’s worth the dollars (plus you can support an author!)

Best Novelette:
Winner: “Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer

This is a delightful long story, one of my favorites this year though I voted for “Wind Will Rove” as the winner (Sarah Pinsker). I need to write a separate review of “Wind” here for y’all. It’s one of the most meaningful stories I’ve read in a long time.  But readers make meaning as we read, bringing our own reality into the equation as we judge the merits of a story.

“Wind Will Rove” tops my list because it’s a story about music and a story about teaching and a story about space exploration, and I love all of those things.  But that doesn’t diminish Palmer’s excellent tale and I’m not sorry “Secret Life of Bots” took the crown.  Her bot story made me smile and reminded me of the best from people like Scalzi. (Published in September 2017 issue of Clarkesworld magazine.)

Best Short Story:
Winner: “Welcome to your authentic Indian experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse (also the John W Campbell winner this year)

This is probably my largest divergence from the Hugo lineup this year. I put Roanhorse’s short story #4 on my ballot, behind “Fandom for Robots,” “The Martian Obelisk,” and “Sun, Moon, and Dust.”  It’s hard with short stories to settle on meaningful criteria for judging the works. Am I going by “feels”? Or story construction? Artistry of language? Punch and surprise? Big Central Question?

No complaints that Roanhorse won. The only short story I didn’t particularly like was “Clearly lettered in a mostly steady hand.” The other 5 were solid.

Best Related Work:  won by Ursula LeGuin.  I’m still not willing to acknowledge the loss of LeGuin, and apparently many of us are in that same spot. I did vote for Zoe Quinn’s book because I think the whole Gamergate dustup needs to be documented, dissected, and studied if we’re ever to get a handle on the toxic masculinity that dominates so much online discourse. But every word from LeGuin is a treasure, especially now that she’s gone.

Best Graphic Story:  I love Monstress, and it won!  But how on earth did My Favorite Thing is Monsters not WIN THE BALLOT this year?  It’s a remarkable work.  Read about it here:

If this sounds like a wild story, so is the tale of how Ferris came to write it. She was a 40-year-old single mom who supported herself doing illustrations when she was bitten by a mosquito, she contracted West Nile virus, became paralyzed from the waist down, and lost the use of her drawing hand. Fighting chronic pain, she taught herself to draw again, then reinvented herself as a graphic novelist, spending six long years creating what’s clearly an emotional autobiography.

And man, does her commitment show. Breaking away from the panel format customary in comics, Ferris’s densely-imagined, crosshatched images explode with a visual freedom I’ve not seen in a graphic novel. And she uses that freedom to give us, well — everything.

I cannot praise Ferris’s GN enough. You should immediately put this on your reading list.  Amazon link.

And I also highly recommend the Monstress series, which took home the award again this year. It’s beautifully drawn and a great story. I voted for the lead artist as Best Professional Artist, and I’m glad she won!
  

Best Long Form and Short Form Drama: I voted for Get Out above Wonder Woman, but WW was a lovely film and gave us the female superhero we always knew we wanted. No issues with how that turned out.

And that’s it for my commentary — I didn’t vote for the other categories (editor, magazine, fan writer, YA, Campbell, etc) because I don’t spend enough time in those worlds to cast a fair vote.

This was a great year for the Hugo Awards, IMO. The nominees were diverse, the selections were interesting and skilled. I’m so glad the “Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies” years seem to have passed.

DO YOU WANT TO VOTE IN THE HUGO AWARDS?

It’s open to all fans who hold a voting membership for the upcoming year’s WorldCon convention.  No attendance required; all voting is done online. Voting members receive a packet of PDFs of the various nominations (including selections from the novels and book-length works) in early June and voting closes in late July. Visit the site for more information. 

My husband and I have been voting for the past several years, and it’s enriched my summer reading. Even if you don’t spring to buy a membership and vote, the nominee lists for the Locus, Hugo, and Nebula Awards are always public. No excuse for not having great reading material at hand! 😉

One more spread from My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

Advice from my 40-something self to my 20-something self

*taps* Hello? Hellooooo? Is this thing on? (You never know with time travel equipment.)

Ok. I’ve got a chance to send some advice back to my younger self, and I think it’s worth the risks. If I poof out of existence because I tangled the timelines…well, I guess this post will disappear too.

But not before I pass along some good stuff, the hard-earned coin of these past couple decades.

Don’t buy things. Buy experiences.

Young Self, I’ve been sending a lot of your stuff to Goodwill and eBay this year, stuff I bought when I was your age and then didn’t really use much. It’s easy when you’re just starting out in life to buy things that other people use because they seem to be getting so much good use out of them.

Here’s the thing: we Americans are hoarders. We’re consumers. We consume things then leave their discarded husks around to clutter up shelves and closets and the garage. It’s dumb, and it spawns a lot of needless dusting and angst. Let. It. Go.

All you need in your kitchen is …

  • An excellent set of knives. When the Cutco Guy shows up at your door sometime in 2002, make sure you let him in. Yes, the price is outrageous, but good tools cost money. No, you can’t afford it – buy a set anyway. We’ve been using these knives for 15+ years now and I thank Hephaestus for them every single day. We got them re-honed and factory sharpened a couple years ago. I plan to use them till I die, and then my friends can argue over who gets to inherit them.
  • A 12″ cast iron skillet and a 6″ cast iron skillet. You hardly need any other skillets. I don’t know why I waited so long to discover the magic of cast iron, but I’m going to blame it on the stupidity of youth. We make a breakfast scramble in the little one at least once a week and use the big one for nearly everything.
  • An enameled cast iron Dutch oven. This is the other half of my short list of “indispensable cookware.” You can make soup, stew, cacciatore, gravy, roasted meat, braised beef, slow cooked pulled pork….. it’s a magical device. It’s heavy, yeah, but it’s worth it. Make this beer braised pork roast and these carnitas and this Belgian beef stew all year long.  I have the one by Food Network because who has money for LeCruset?
  • Round out the cookware with a heavy sauce pan (I have a great anodized aluminum one from Calphalon), a cheap big pot for pasta (big and thin so it boils fast; mine is left over from a T-Fal set), and a small LeCruset metal enameled pot for making rice or cheesy grits. Any small, heavy pot will get a lot of use.
  • A small supply of high quality tools, preferably ones that do multiple jobs (Alton Brown’s rule). My list includes silicon scrapers and stiff spatulas that resist high heat or work for scraping a batter bowl; wooden spoons for cooking because they can handle high heat and a lot of abuse; a sturdy nylon whisk and a pan whisk (so handy – go buy one), good quality ice cream scoop (this one has held up for at least 15 years) and pie server (Pampered Chef wins here); a citrus reamer (I use this metal coated one); a thin and very sharp knife (I got a few of them free at Pampered Chef parties but you can buy them inexpensively on Amazon); and these little spatulas from Pampered Chef which are absolutely perfect for cookies. We also use stainless steel measuring cups (for dry ingredients) and spoons all the time, and a classic set of Pyrex 1 cup, 2 cup, and 4 cup for liquids. Just like Mom’s! 😉

I’ve got a few other random kitchen tools tucked away, but I’ve gotten rid of a whole bunch of them and I feel so much better.

You don’t need to hoard recipes, except a few proven winners. I have a few handwritten cards of my dad’s recipes (still) and the ones given to me by ladies at my bridal shower (though I’ve cooked only a few…..hmmmm….probably should dig into those).  You’ll soon learn that cooking is an art and a set of heuristics rather than an exact science, and I pull out recipes only rarely.  I pared down my cookbook collection as well, though I did keep a few standards or really pretty ones.

This is our #1 favorite coffee-making machine. We got ours from Amazon; click the image to check it out.  Morning coffee is an amazing, sensory ritual – and takes less than 5 min.

Throw out that damn automatic drip coffee maker. Blech. Ours broke one morning 4 or 5 years ago so we turned to Google in desperation to figure out how the “uncivilized” world makes coffee. Discovered that we were the heathens, imprisoning our coffee for years in that sad machine. We’ve settled now on a simple Bodum vessel and a Black & Decker electric kettle (which also helps out for heating water for pasta). Coffee takes 109x better and our morning coffee ritual (which takes barely 5 minutes) is genuinely satisfying.

I don’t know why I waited 10+ years to buy myself an electric can opener (this is ours and we love it). Sometimes you hate doing a particular chore and it’s worth stepping up to a better tool. I should have bought one in Year One of our marriage. Durp.    I put my KitchenAid stand mixer in this same category. It’s 20 years old and trucking right along.  I’ve used it to make bread dough, cheesecakes, and mashed potatoes, but Coart uses it all the time to mix up chocolate chip cookie batter — and that’s a holy rite which shall never be interrupted.

Ok, enough kitchen…. on to other topics…..

Don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t, even to keep other people happy. Hold your head high when you walk into the liquor store or when you wear that pink shirt and short shorts or when you duck into Hot Topic to see what the kids are into these days or when you crank up the volume on your playlist. I still remember a lady at church talking about hiding beer in her grocery cart and feeling like she had to justify herself to people in the store: “I’m buying it for taco soup!” Look: No one cares why you’re buying beer. And if they do, is it any of their damn business? NOPE. Don’t hang out with judgey people and don’t let them dictate your actions. (But don’t be a jerk either – it’s obviously kind and caring to avoid engaging in actions you know will offend a friend.  I’m talking about the non-friends who exist in your personal orbit.) 

Thing is, there’s a lot of pressure on you to stay within particular boundaries, especially when you’re a teacher.  Don’t go out looking for trouble, but don’t ever pretend to be something you aren’t. Eventually people will figure it out. (And teenagers will detect bullshit immediately.)

If something is wrong or harmful or unkind, don’t do it.  If it’s not any of those categories, then don’t pretend like you don’t do it if you do.  Simple as that.

This is on my list for the front door area as soon as planting season hits. (Links to Amazon)

Plant stuff in the yard the first year you buy the house! Don’t wait around (like we did, thinking “we’ll get to it….”) because then you’ll end up owning the same house for 15 years but still have zero landscaping except now you’re angry about how much nicer your yard would’ve looked by now if you’d scraped together some money for landscaping from the very start.  Skip 4 Starbucks runs and buy a plant or a load of topsoil instead. 

Stop working for low pay. This one might be controversial, younger self, and I’m not trying to tell you what to do. Other than this: take time to sketch out a career plan. Don’t just let your career happen to you. And don’t allow your skills to be undervalued in your earnings, unless you’re getting something else equally valuable (like experience or learned skills or fulfillment).

Get better sooner at making a monthly budget and sticking to it. You aren’t good at this. And growing up poor warped your understanding of money and finances. I know you know that you’ll get more out of retirement savings if you start sooner. Start with something like Acorns with loose change, at first.   I know it’s hard to forego current delights for the sake of future investment. Not working for low pay will help you fix that problem, but adjusting your lifestyle down to enjoy experiences rather than material goods helps too. Go find a friend and hang out. You don’t need to spend $60 to visit Biltmore to do that effectively.

Don’t pay for cable. Don’t steal it either….just….hang in there. They’re going to invent this service called Netflix and also YouTube and then this other thing called Hulu and then you’ll have all the TV you’ll ever need. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have friends who pay for cable but share their online account password with you so you can watch this hot show on HBO called Game of Thrones.

 

I think my connection is fading, so last thing:   Take care of the kids who need you –they’re going to grow up into amazing adults one day, and they’ll appreciate what you invested in them. Don’t stop fighting for the kids no one else thinks will make it. The underdogs can make it – they just need a hand up.

Peace out.

Waking up to questions you didn’t realize you had

This article in Relevant Magazine (Jul-Aug 2018) wrecked me today.

The Evolving Faith of Lisa Gungor – RELEVANT Magazine

This was rock bottom, the point in Lisa’s life in which she felt the most desperation. And she says the core question—the thing it all boiled down to was love. “What do I believe about love?” she says. “Love is the whole story that I’ve bought into about Jesus Christ, so what do I believe in?”

The answer to this question arrived through a lot of labor. Lucy, the couple’s second child, was born with Down syndrome. “And it was kind of this painful, epic, beautiful, wonderful climax for me,” Lisa says. “This little girl is born into a world that our society says is broken, and needs to be fixed and at the same time, I’m feeling that within my self. I’m broken, and I need to be fixed because I don’t believe like I used to.”

The peace Lisa found in Lucy was not a resolution to her doubts but the understanding that she could live with those doubts and they didn’t change who she was.

I was already weeping, reading the article. But that passage just stopped me dead.

*****

I can’t really tell you what I expected from my 40s, but it’s been a constant merry-go-round of surprises.

Just for starters — I never really expected that I’d be childless and thus was caught flat-footed in my late 30s without any career arc or plan (I’ve written a bit about that here).  My husband and I have watched multiple friends move far away in the past several years, coinciding with shifts into work for both of us that doesn’t inherently create community.  I feel like the world exploded in 2016 with Trump’s election, ripping the mask from a cesspool of racism and xenophobia and hatred that has been simmering unseen in American culture, probably since its founding. But seeing that ugliness on my Facebook feed from people I know? Painful.

And then there’s church. Hoo boy. Where do I start?

I didn’t mean to leave Fundamentalism in my late 20s, but it happened when what I was seeing in Fundamentalism didn’t match what the Bible says. I’d been taught in seminary at BJU to query the text and give priority to the text. When we realized the “doctrine of separation” was invented and unbiblical, we walked away from everything we knew.

That led us to the PCA, which was a good home to us for several years. Reformed theology gave me many gifts which I treasure to this day, not the least being an understanding of the Dutch Reformed stream thanks to our M.Ed. coursework at Covenant.   But the PCA has a big problem with legalism, one that they acknowledge (sort of) but cannot solve because of the presumptions they bring to their understanding of faith.

Also, the PCA along with nearly every Evangelical group harbors a lot of patriarchy-in-the-name-of-Jesus which I can no longer tolerate in silence. If I’d had a daughter (or a son), I don’t know how I could raise her in an organizational structure that entirely deprecates the role of women in leadership.  If anything, I’m more convinced now in the wake of #meetoo that women are endangered when they are powerless.  Traditional Church structures are built to disenfranchise women and locate power entirely in the hands of male leadership, using God’s name to justify this system. I’m so done with that.

All that aside though, I didn’t mean to leave my church in 2016. It just ….happened. I was just as surprised as anyone else.  I took some time off to change jobs and rest a bit, including absence on Sunday mornings for a variety of reasons. When I asked to get back onto the schedule for church musicians, my queries were met with….crickets.  My husband had stopped going anyway (for several of reasons), so it seemed like a clear indication that our time there was done.

I consider my faith to be important and central to my life, but I have struggled in the past 2 years to see “church” as a central practice.  At the same time, I deeply miss the sacraments and having fellowship with fellow believers. It’s just hard to know how to start “dating” a church again when I know how exhausting that process will be.

I haven’t been to church in nearly two years.  When I was reading Lisa Gungor’s description of the questions she could not ask in Church, I nodded along.  The Problem of Evil is lurking at the basis of her doubt, and any theologian who tries to hand-wave away the depths of evil, death, and pain in human experience loses respect from me immediately.  The older I am, the more horrified I am by poverty, murder, school shooting, abuse, rape, discrimination, racism….. not to mention disease, cancer, death. The Bible doesn’t give any glib answers to this.  Why therefore do so many churches refuse to allow its people to wrestle?

I have a friend who’s struggled to accept their sexual orientation.  They have also – understandably – struggle with their faith, and with the idea that God answers prayer. This friend begged God to take away their same-sex attraction, but He has never provided relief.   Is God a hateful Father to create someone who loves people of their own gender, and then condemn them as sinful?  The most faith-rocking experiences in my world stem from knowing several people who are gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender who are also (sometimes) people of faith.  My marriage to Evangelicalism fell apart when I realized I was being asked to act hatefully toward people whom I love, and whom I believe God loves.

*****

To have faith, you must confront doubt. You have to lay it all out on the table and be honest about it. You have to own up to the questions.  Look, if you’ve never wondered HOW you “know” that God is real, are you even a thinking human? Do you honestly just swallow anything anyone tells you?

I’m not saying “throw out your faith.”  I’m saying, Recognize that ‘faith’ is subjective.

If God is in relationship with me — and I genuinely believe that He is — then I have to give Him the room to do whatever He decides He’s going to do.  I also have to be honest about my own questions and acknowledge the ambiguity in that relationship and in the way the Bible uses many different genres to express complex and nuanced ideas that I don’t always understand.  Every church I’ve been in cannot handle a Bible text that isn’t iron-clad inspired, sparklingly clear in its statements, and applied with gale-force wind to the lives of people sitting through a 45-minute lecture on a weekly basis.

If you think Christianity is some easy cut-and-dried process, then…. good for you?      I think you’re nuts.

“My perspective is I’m trying to live in the way of love and the way of Jesus the best I know how. I know I don’t have it all right, but I love the way of Jesus. I don’t have a definition for that.”

I don’t know what to call it either, Lisa, but I’m right here with you.  Whoever said that people get more conservative as they get older apparently didn’t live the life of a GenX woman who’s just now waking up to a whole lot of questions.

That sweet spot of “nailed it”

Someone somewhere defined a way to identify a good career fit; unfortunately I can’t remember where I read this.

Ask yourself, When do I feel strong and powerful?

You’re probably looking at a good career fit if your talents and gifts shine when you’re doing a particular task. Your inner self will know, too, and you’ll feel the strength and confidence – at least you’ll get glimpses of it.

For me, that sparkle hits whenever I’m talking with someone who has a problem they’re trying to solve, especially at work or within some kind of organizational structure or work process.

The other day at work, I enjoyed a double-shot of this joy: I had two conversations with separate colleagues about problem areas, trying to identify the cause of the issue and sketch out potential solutions.

At one point I asked, “But what problem is this initiative trying to solve?” Because that wasn’t clear — neither when the initiative was launched, nor throughout its implementation. So often we leap to implement a solution, often the first workable one that came to light, before we’ve taken time to understand why the problem is happening in the first place.

In this particular instance, someone imposed a workflow on five separate teams of employees in an attempt to gather data on the effectiveness of a particular organizational practice. The workflow itself isn’t terrible, but it’s not efficient for the employees implementing it. I’m sure a few workers were consulted, but none of them asked the right question — what problem are you trying to solve? Because the workflow bears all the marks of a fuzzy and vague goal rather than a laser-focus on testing a precise solution to a clearly defined problem.

I ended up working about 90 minutes past my usual cutoff time one day last week, but it felt so good. I was going something I’m particularly gifted to do: ask questions that get to the heart of the matter, and help others see that focus area more clearly, so they can go off and build better solutions.

I don’t know how to make the leap into my perfect job. One  where this is what I would do all day:
– Go around and visit various people in the organization.
– Ask them how their job is going and what’s working/not working
– Listen hard to what they say, work to understand the problems.
– Clarify the problem and pitch ideas for a solution. Connect people and ideas. Cross-pollinate.
– Move on to the next person. Remember everything I’ve heard so far. Cross-pollinate even better.

This is my gift. How do I turn it into a lifestyle? lol