Evolving Faith

I am sitting on the bathroom floor, next to the draining tub, wrapped in a heap of towels, refusing to move forward in the bedtime process and left alone to create my own inertia when I am good and ready. I stare at the enormous mirror covering the wall in front of me from floor to ceiling. I recognize the face, but it is not my own. It is my father’s, the one in the black and white photograph in the top right corner of my grandmother’s living room wall. Slowly and carefully I work to smooth my wet hair into place, to perfect the part, to push forward the 1963 swoop. And then I see it even more clearly. Again. My father’s face. I look down and see my naked arms, the muscles, defined, sinewy. There is dirt under my fingernails that even a long soak can’t touch. I feel the wildness inside of me that is enjoyed by my brother, until it’s not, and entertains my parents, until it doesn’t.

And I decide that I am not a girl. In this moment, I am sure of it. I collapse into the towels and sit with my new truth, staring at the ceiling. I am certain in my very young and simplistic mind that at my birth my parents said, “It’s another boy? We’re sorry, sir, we would prefer one of each. See what you can do about that.” And so I was created to be something new, something different, something meant to complete preferred sibling bookends.

I accept my new truth without any more thought or any emotion. It just is. I tell no one. I am happy.

I continue to move through the world like a tornado, dancing, laughing, running, fighting. I take off my shirt when it is hot, I build ramps with my brother for our bikes, I respond when my grandfather calls me “boova,” little brother in Pennsylvania Dutch.

I also declare hot pink is my favorite color, and it is. I declare Andy is my boyfriend, and he is. In between jumps off the bike ramp, I spend hours playing with my dolls. I mother my toys. I mother my friends. I mother myself. I feel some deep, primal call to someday be a mother.

Time passes. I learn more about my body and how it works. I realize that biologically, it works exactly as it was born to, no intervention required. From time to time I think of that tiny child in the towel pile, so sure that there must have been some selfish mistake that has damned her to a life of pretending to be a girl. And I smile. Sometimes I laugh. I need a bra before my friends. I need to carry a purse in school before my friends. I need a boyfriend before my friends. How silly was that child in the towels.

Except I never quite relate to the gentle femininity I see in some of the girls around me. I never quite subscribe to the black and white of it all.  I see the two ends of the spectrum. Male or female. Gay or straight. Black or white. Pepsi or Coke.

I see them. They’re there. I understand them. It’s just not in me to relate to them.

Maybe this is why my favorite high school boyfriend is gay. Maybe this is why I am safe for him. Maybe he can tell that I don’t care for the rules that enable some to declare the people around them as “other” and then define them as good or bad. Maybe, like him, he knows that I do not feel like I fit inside these carefully labeled boxes. So we hide in our otherness together.

I want to always feel this safe to the people around me. This, this loving, mothering, safe soul, is who I really am. It is my truth.

I am sitting on the sanctuary floor, the smell of the old wood and musty carpet filling my nostrils as I line my dolls up inside my mother’s dress shoes, driving them around in between the pews. I hear the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty.” My mother looks down and, seeing the dirt under my fingernails, scrounges in her purse for a pointy metal nail file, gesturing for me to clean them out. I tug at my dress. I look at the bruises on my shins and my mismatched socks. I comply and watch as the dirt from the week that even a long soak couldn’t touch finally gives way to my digging.

There is the woman in the rocking chair, nursing her baby while she talks gently to me, telling me story after story as I sit at her feet. There is the teacher who is inexplicably patient as I spin my half dollar offering over and over again like a top on the table, each time crashing noisily as it loses momentum. There is the pastor who sometimes talks of hellfire and brimstone, but whose eyes are kind and gentle. There is the cluster of widows, each caring for one another in this final, long, lonely phase of life. In them all, I meet Jesus. I meet the Jesus who is patient and kind, who is gentle and loving, who cares for the least of these, who loves the little tomboy with the dirt under her fingernails and the laugh that is a little too loud and the ideas that are a little too naughty – nichts nutzy is what her grandfather says in Pennsylvania Dutch with a sideways grin and a sparkle in his eye. He loves his nichts nutzy boova. I see Jesus in him, too, in the dirt and grease permanently in the cracks of his rough hands, in the smell of tobacco in his pipe, in the candy dish in his kitchen. He is merciful and mighty.

I once had the distinct displeasure of calling a dear friend with some upsetting news about the way her words had hurt someone deeply. Her initial response was, “Well, she just needs to put on her big girl pants.”

Not everyone has big girl pants. Not everyone is able to respond with moderation in the face of every trigger. Not everyone is impervious to the cumulative emotional wear and tear of life.

In fact, I would suggest that not anyone is so immune.

I certainly am not. Something happened to that self-assured little girl in the pile of towels, to that little girl at the foot of her mother on a Sunday morning.

There was a battle between the brave, inclusive, loving soul and the safety-seeking, hurt, terribly fearful soul who found respite in the comfort of familiar systems, in the orderliness of human hierarchy.

And there was a split into two selves, the bold ally and the quiet believer.

I began to doubt the faith stories of my childhood after the death of my friend Krista. The Holy Spirit comforted me in my weeping, wrapping me in a tangible warmth and weight and love when I cried out in the night. And yet I struggled to understand a God who allows children to die.

There would be more death. More doubt.

I took my Bible to college where it mostly remained on the shelf. I spent an Easter morning at a sunrise service on the National Mall. I attended a Christian concert at a local arena. I knew whose door I could knock on when the doubt turned into a panic attack in the middle of the night. I prayed most nights before falling asleep. I never waited for an answer. I never expected an answer.

In four years of college, I attended church one Sunday. My only memory of that service was the commissioning of John Glenn, a member of the congregation, to return to space.

The quiet believer continued on shaky ground, Christmas and Easter services, weddings and funerals, bedtime prayers.

The bold ally found her voice, applying for, receiving, and loving a counseling practicum at a free clinic in Philadelphia for members of the LGBTQ+ population. I was declared to be a friend of the family. I felt at home. I felt loved. I belonged.

I got married, I survived chronic illness, I had children. I bought my children Bible storybooks. We read them together as a family most nights. My son requested “The Bad Brothers Sell Joseph” more nights in a row than is probably healthy. But it was familiar. It felt like home. It felt like love. It felt like belonging.

I had become the mother I had always hoped to be. And eventually I realized that it was time to return to church.

The first time we visited a local church, I listened from the back row, my preemie infant, still sick, silently asleep in my arms. And from the pulpit the pastor reminded everyone that all babies should be in the nursery and we could take a moment and go there now if we hadn’t already.

I felt like he was talking to me. He wasn’t. But we didn’t go back.

We tried one more time in that season, but the church we went to was high church, formal, unfamiliar to me and completely foreign in every way to my totally unchurched husband.

We didn’t go back.

It took three more years for us to try again, this time with our eye on a Lutheran church around the corner. I checked the website for the service start time, I nursed my infant while my husband got our preschooler ready, and off we went, only to arrive and discover that the start time had been moved up by thirty minutes and the website hadn’t been updated.

Unwilling to accept defeat, I remembered that the church with the baby-hating pastor – I really felt like he was speaking to me – began in five minutes. So we raced down the road, arriving in time for the start of the service.

That has been our church for thirteen years, the church that replaced the baby-hating pastor – I’m sure he was lovely – and had the start time that worked out with our son’s nursing and napping schedule.

We became members almost immediately. My husband was baptized for the first time. My children joined the Cherub Choir. I worked out my grief in a weekly flood of tears from the back pew. We volunteered in children’s church. And eventually I made it to the music ministry.

It was while serving on the worship team that I began to feel convicted about my lukewarm belief. I took down my childhood Bible that was still sitting unopened on the shelf. I began listening to each sermon in triplicate as I sang on Saturday nights and twice on Sunday mornings. I read the Word. I found devotionals.

I tried trusting Jesus again. I tried talking to Him. And maybe for the first time, I tried listening.

I even tried believing He could love me.

I felt at home. I felt loved. I felt belonging.

And then it all fell apart.

This story is not the story of the falling apart. This story is about the pieces that went missing in the rebuilding.

In the years since I nearly lost my faith and my faith family, I have been living with overwhelming fear. I have stayed silent in most situations when I felt frightened that my voice would be viewed as unwanted dissent or worse, intentional troublemaking. My silence resulted in peace. I found safety in remaining off the radar.

I even chose to stay silent when others drove the narrative on who I am, what I said, what I did, all with the belief that God would reveal the truth to those who need to see it. That prayer went largely unanswered, but because God assures us He is able to use everything for good, in my waiting and silence I found recovery, hope, healing, and family.

I don’t want that to be missed: In the waiting I found recovery, hope, healing, and family.

But a side effect of my silence was that I learned submission to a system not just a savior, to a human hierarchy not just a holy trinity. 

When the time came to boldly speak my truth, not for my benefit but for the safety and love of my siblings in Christ, I stayed mostly silent, telling myself that my inaction was benign.

Only we know that is not true. Silence always – ALWAYS – benefits the oppressor, never the oppressed.

My silence bought my safety. My safety comes with a cost.

I am unwilling to cling to safety at the expense of other children of God.

When my siblings in Christ are receiving the message that they are outside of God’s creation, I need to shout to them, “You are loved. You are loved. YOU ARE LOVED.”

You are not broken. You are not wrong. You are not “other.”

Who you are is not a sin.

Your calling is real. Your presence is valued. Your voice should be heard. Your leadership is fruitful and it is Good Fruit.

God is love and you were made in the image of God. You are loved and you are love.

I know I will not get this right. I know my words will be too much for some and not enough for others.

But I refuse to not try because of that.

Brene Brown has written the book on belonging. She’s written all the books on belonging.

She says that, “True belonging doesn’t require that we change who we are; it requires that we be who we are.”

I need to trust that my church family can hear me, see me, and yet still love me. I need to trust that God will continue to use me to reach others in His name while I am being wholly me.

But regardless of outcome, I am no longer able to rest in the comfort and safety of my silence when that comfort and safety is not available to all.

As Jen Hatmaker recently said, “If the flourishing few all look the same, someone else is paying the tab.”

I’m no longer willing to flourish at the expense of the marginalized. I’m no longer willing to stay safely silent at the expense of the soul who desperately needs life spoken into them at this very moment.

You are loved. You are loved. YOU ARE LOVED.

Kathy Escobar tells us that an important piece of healing is regaining our agency, reminding ourselves that we have strength, wisdom, knowing, and choice. I don’t have to take all of anything anymore. I have the Holy Spirit. I have discernment. I have prayer – which now includes listening.

I am looking forward to seeing where agency takes me. I am looking forward to remembering what it is like to live life driven by love and not fear.

And to those it ends up helping in some way, I am so sorry it has taken me so long to find my way back to myself.

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