Monday, May 30, 2022

A Punch to the Gut

April 2022. I was in my hometown. As we drove past the Episcopal church where I grew up, my sister commented on how large that congregation had become. My response was a kneejerk, "Of course. People tend to flee to the Episcopal church when they have been beat up by evangelical one." To which my sister replied, "That's what Mama did."

It was a punch to the gut. My heart broke open.

Let's back up a bit.

My mother grew up in the First Baptist Church of our mid-sized southern city. She was beat up by the cliquishness, the snobbery, the judgment she met there. She fled to the Episcopal church in college, finding a way to connect with God without the self-righteous trappings of her childhood church. Throughout the years she was the target of many of the neighbors (complete with "I Found It" bumper stickers), all wanting to evangelize her and see her get saved. Again, the evangelicals came to beat her up.

I grew up in the Episcopal church. When I "got saved" or "accepted Jesus" or "became a Christian" or whatever phrase you prefer to use, I was 17. It was all new to me. I plunged headlong into evangelicalism: Campus Crusade for Christ, Southern Baptist Church, then the PCA. For decades. Until I realized that I, too, had been beat up by the evangelical church.
Starting in my late teens and ending when I was 45 and my mother died, I held myself to be superior to her in her theology, in her doctrine, in her understanding of scripture and how that played out. Wen I realized what I had done, it just broke me.
For the past 7 years I have been dismantling, untangling, deconstructing what it means to believe in Jesus and what the church is called to be. I have been on the receiving end of both covert and overt spiritual abuse. I have read the books and listened to the podcasts and even been interviewed on podcasts for my perspective and experience. I have been outspoken against spiritual abuse in all its forms.
And yet that day in April, I realized that I had been an abuser.

Do you know what it does to you to realize that in your desperate need for space and identity, you have abused someone else? When you realize that you caved to the pressure to evangelize your family? You bought the lie that your church's way of expressing faith in God was the only possible manifestation of belief? When you reflected in disgust that "right" theology was better than living without judgment?

It's a crazy balance to strike. My mother was so insecure that anybody who did anything differently was a threat. Disagreeing was taboo. Differentiating, become my own person, was a challenge. Being who I was created to be and not just an extension of her or her "prized possession" (if she was happy with me) was a long and arduous journey full of minefields and pitfalls.

Was she, in many ways, emotionally and verbally abusive? Yes.
Did she look to me to meet her emotional needs? Yes.
Did I need to break away and develop my own personhood and my own idendity? Yes.
Was it hard when she felt threatened by my leaving her church? Yes.
Did I have emotional baggage with her choice for expressing her faith? Of course!
But did I need to establish my beliefs and church choices as superior to hers? Absolutely not!

A few years ago we housed a few college students for a few days while they were in Asheville as part of a church trip. One evening they all started talking about their challenges of evangelizing their families. It was clear that they no longer saw their family members as people but projects. Inferior in many ways. And it was their job to convert them. I felt sick.

When relationships, the most precious thing we have, the thing we were created for, become weaponized, spiritually monetized in a way, we are no longer loving like Jesus.
How many overzealous college students or arrogant theologians have damaged, sometimes irreparably, relationships that should never be part of an agenda? Is it possible to be Jesus to people without having to convert them or fix them or stuff them into a box?
I don't know if any of y'all have ever come to the realization that you have at times been the things you hate most. It was a horrifying, sobering realization for me.

Please know that if your point of interacting with your family is to convince them that you are right, that your flavor of faith expression is better than theirs, that, in order to have your approval, they have to jump through all the right hoops, then you are pushing them farther away from God, not bringing them closer.

What can you do?

You can avoid categorizing people based on whether or not they agree with your set of presuppositions.

You can seek to love people without an agenda.

My mother's gone now. She died 13 years ago this month. I can't go back and say I'm sorry.

What I can do is fall on my face before God and ask for forgiveness.

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