Did I used to sound like that?

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It was a silly Facebook conversation. It was not an earth-shattering ultra serious, life-or-death discussion. A friend posted a picture and made a funny comment. The photo did in fact touch on religion, but not in a “hater” sort of way. A few of us chimed in something funny, snarky, silly. It was a *Facebook* conversation for crying out loud.

And then along came one of my friend’s Facebook friends (a guy who was also in the group of friends I hung out with in college) and inserts an ultra serious, judgmental, downer comment into the discussion. You could almost hear everyone’s mental brakes screech, <crickets chirp>.

Aside from feeling like a little kid who just got his hand slapped for trying to sneak a cookie, all I could think of was, “Did I used to sound like that?” “When I was a faithful, sold-out Evangelical Christian, did *I* used to sound like that?” So un-loving, so judgmental, so condemning of others’ innocent fun?

Yeesh.

The other thing I wondered, hard on the heels of that first thought, was “Was *he* always like this?” In college, while we weren’t close friends, I remember how much I admired his passionate faith, his offbeat and quirky sense of humor. We were in the Christian clown troupe together, and he had been a lot of fun to clown around with – quite literally. But if I had been an “unwashed heathen” would I have seen this side of him? Or did he only show that side to insiders – his “brothers and sisters in Christ”?

The whole incident put my in mind of a conversation I’d had with another friend from college some years back. I’d only been living in our present city for a couple years, we’d only recently begun to suspect our oldest son of having autism – I think he was maybe 3 when this happened. I’d gotten her phone number from a mutual friend and called to see if she wanted to catch up some time. Now, unlike the other guy, this woman had been a very close friend of mine. I’d been a bridesmaid in her wedding. I don’t know what, exactly, I was expecting from the conversation but it wasn’t what I got.

We were sharing about what had gone on in our lives since last we’d met up. She and her husband had two daughters now. We were holding off on a second child till we figured out more what was going on with our son. I hinted in my conversation about my faith-doubts that had crept in in the middle of this whole experience.

Rather than offer sympathy, a prayer, *something* – she began to back away from the conversation. As though I were a pariah for having troubles, for having doubts about my faith in the middle of my crisis. She was acting like my doubts were a communicable disease.   We finished up the conversation, and I knew there was really no point in ever calling back.  She was living in her happy little Christian bubble, and I was disturbing her fragile peace.

Was her faith really so fragile?  Is his?  Maybe this is the *real* reason that Christians always need to be “ready to defend the faith”.  They are not standing up for God.  They are simply warding off their own doubts, and shoring up their own faith fortress.

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A Talisman to Hang On To

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This crazy mixed up spiritual journey has left me feeling like a boat without an anchor, a kite spinning in the wind without a tail.  Left without my former faith practices, without a church, not even sure what faith I’m practicing anymore, I came to a decision today.  It may not even be a good decision.  I don’t know.  But since I’ve been depressed and left aimlessly fluttering in the wind, I knew I needed to just pick a direction and start walking.

Instead of trying to figure out what I believe, or what to call myself, I’m going to hang on to what works.  The very first new tool that called to me by inserting itself into my dreams 5 years ago – the Tarot.  I don’t know why it works.  I don’t necessarily think it’s some mystical woo-woo thing.  I mean, it could be.  But regardless, having a physical touchstone/talisman really helps.  Sitting and holding, shuffling the cards is calming, preparation for some meditative quiet.  I can choose a deck that resonates with my mood.  After I’ve laid out the cards, meditating on the artwork helps me focus my monkey mind long enough to think straight. 

Now, I don’t know how this works for other people who use Tarot, but I have never had any luck “telling the future” with them.  If fact, I don’t even try. The future is best left to itself. Mostly I keep a Tarot journal to record the spreads, make a few notes, and look back on it later to see what actually turned up. 

I do find that many times the images I’m looking at reflect what’s churning in my soul or life at that particular moment.  It is uncanny that I will see running themes and over a period of days or weeks may draw some of the same cards.  Since I tend to be my usual easily-bored Gemini self while choosing a deck – I find this even more uncanny as I tend not to use the same deck even two days running.

So.  For whatever reason, it works.  It calms me, grounds me, gives me focus.  That makes it a useful tool, all mystical stuff aside.

The main problem

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I can’t write straight. Because I can’t think straight. Because I keep bouncing from book to book, from webpage to webpage, in a desperate attempt to find something I can salvage from my faith. I never, ever realized, except in the most academic sense, how central my faith was to my Self.

I never realized how easily I used to just lean on it in times of need. Read a quick Bible passage, send up a short prayer, ask a Christian friend to pray for me, listen to a worship song. How it was woven so tightly into the tapestry of my life. I didn’t know that when I looked for answers to all my long-held questions, that I was yanking on the the warp threads holding said tapestry together. Now all I’ve got is a pile of tangled thread all over the floor.

If faith helps point you in the right direction on life’s map then I’ve got a problem. I haven’t just lost true North – I’ve lost the whole damn compass. I keep reflexively trying to do the things I’ve always done, but they don’t work anymore. I try to read the Bible – but as I read I remember the similarity it has with all the other ancient faiths and myths. And suddenly I feel like I’m trying to gain comfort from Shakespeare or Homer. Which suddenly strikes me as pointless and ridiculous.

I try to pray in times of need, or before bed. But now that I know that I may have only been hearing my own thoughts inside my head, it seems quite silly.

I’ve been trying to learn new ways of being spiritual, such as meditation, but I’m not very good at it yet. I get monkey mind – a lot. I’ve done yoga a few times. It helps me relax and be more flexible, but I haven’t found it particularly enlightening.

Running helps. Sometimes, when I’m pounding the pavement to the beat of a favorite song, I feel like I can outrun the demons in my head. But they always come back.

Weaving a faith into a persona seems like a great idea, a way to keep both person and faith strong. Until the faith is questioned, and the person is left with an enormous hole where her young Self was supposed to be forming.

I can see so clearly now what I could not see back then. How my faith picked up the slack and became my coping mechanism. And it was a very good, very effective, socially acceptable coping mechanism. But it came at a very high price. As I found myself drawn farther up and farther in to the evangelical minded form of my faith, as the seeds were gradually planted here and there, the plant of my faith turned into a kudzu that gradually took over every aspect of my personality.

At the time, I thought this was a good thing. It gave me a purpose and an identity. My family approved. My friends thought me a little odd, but admired my fervor. And when “God” brought new Christian friends into my life, well, my fervor was vindicated.

I never noticed though, that this faith of mine was gradually shaping and changing my personality. That it was shaping my goals and my dreams, and inserting itself into my life plans.

And now here I am, with the life created by the choices made “under the influence of God” wondering how I’m supposed to cope without the faith that helped me make them. Some of these choices I would likely have made with or without a faith of any sort. I would likely have attended the same college. Most likely would have met the man who became my husband.  I would have joined some of the same groups that I joined – like the two choirs I sang in. Probably would have majored in the same thing. None of those things were ever really “faith things”. They were the product of choices made by my real Self.

But oh, the dreams I left by the wayside, in the name of “seeking God’s will”.  And inserted in their place, church, church, and more church.   Ad infinitum.  Ad nauseum.  More books about God.  More Bible studies.  Christian rock music out the wazoo in an attempt to “keep my eyes on the prize”.

I worked so hard to keep “going deeper” in my faith I accidentally dug to China and came right out the other end.  Out of faith.  Bewildered and blinking in the daylight wondering what the heck just happened.  What a very odd place to be.  It’s like waking up one morning not understanding the language of your homeland.  I hear people use the same words and phrases they’ve always used, that *I’ve* used for so many years, and they don’t make sense in my mouth anymore.

I want a faith – some faith – any faith.  What’s a person supposed to do?  Shop around?  Do a cost comparison?  Choose a new faith from the cornucopia as though choosing produce at the grocery store?  There aren’t any guidebooks for this sort of thing.  Many people who’ve done this, who have undergone a similar journey, simply leave faith by the wayside.  I admire their courage, but I don’t want to follow in their footsteps.

It’s a puzzle that won’t leave me alone.

My Church Problem

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It’s Sunday morning. Church time. Or would be church time if I was still going to church. Instead I’m sitting here drinking coffee and writing a blog post. The guilt still nags at me, like a good Jewish mother. Even though it’s been almost 5 years that we attended a church regularly, the guilt still nags at me.

Old habits die hard, I guess. Not that I wanted this one to die. Just the opposite, actually. For the first year or two after leaving the Very Evangelical Church I fervently, feverishly searched for a new church for our family. I researched the possibilities online, narrowed them down, and visited the ones I thought might work. I’m in the South. There’s *lots* to choose from. I tried to be realistic. I wasn’t expecting to find one right away. I wasn’t expecting to find a perfect fit. However, I *was* expecting to find one – eventually.

Well….there was one factor in my church hunt that I forgot to take into consideration. Me. My newly open, questioning self doesn’t resonate well (if at all) with the old church model. Like trying to stuff a square peg in a round hole, I kept finding the old adage to be uncomfortably true – “Wherever you go, there you are.” I kept *noticing* things. Things like dying congregations who were desperately rallying the troops just to keep the church building open and functioning. Things like new church plant congregations which were basically personality-cults centered around a charismatic preacher. Many of these were also Nepotism Central – with father as the preacher and various family members filling the other positions of leadership. I had been in one of these monstrosities twice now, and vowed never to darken the doorstep of another again.

I began to see, in some ways for the first time, exactly how much many churches (at least in my immediate area) are truly like families – dysfunctional families. In one or two cases, the dysfunction was obvious enough to be almost a miasma hanging over the congregation. Ick. How could I in good conscience subject my family, my children, to that?

I’ve attended churches so big that a person was practically just a number, and churches so small that everyone had to wear half a dozen leadership hats just to keep the doors open. I realized I was just….DONE. Finished with the whole outdated, outmoded thing.

I knew I was burned out when I left. That was *why* I left. But now I was discovering that I was burned out on more than just service to the church. I was burned out on the whole idea of pledging all of one’s (scant) free time, not to mention money, to an institution that seemed to take more than it ever gave.

This new spirituality, this newborn calling within me, doesn’t fit anymore within four walls, no matter how ancient or modern.

The Longing

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It happens every year around this time.  And it’s getting stronger.  At some point in January, when the winter sun shines at a certain angle through the bare brown trees, it comes.  Rising up from within like the sap in their branches, it comes.  The Longing.  The Restlessness.  A thousand books or so into this journey and I can’t latch onto a name.  Those are the closest I can come to the feeling.

It’s like a spiritual itch.  Christians will tell you that it’s that missing piece where God fits – a sort of God-hole.  They may be right, but I’ve been thinking about this a *long* time and I find that their answer is too simple.  At least, their solution is too simple.   Fill the hole with church services, worship, Bible study, various service and social groups and call it “God”.  Tried that for years.  Their were points where I thought it would drive me actually insane.  The last few years before I left the mainstream church I think I truly had a spiritual addiction.  I ran from activity to activity, frantically, maniacally – craving that “high” that comes from a great prayer meeting or worship service.  A few hours later, back in Reality I would crash, and crash hard.  I feared for my sanity until I realized what it was I’d actually been doing.

Cause in the happy shiny Christian world more Church is always a Good Thing.  Right and proper and holy.  Except when it’s killing you.  Killing your spirit as slowly and surely as drugs are killing an addict.  But more insipid.  Because actual addicts have groups they can go to for help and support.  Understanding, fellowship.  It was about 3-4 years in to this bizarre journey before I even wondered if such a thing was possible, a spiritual addiction.

Five years now since I left, I know is’s possible.  I also know that trying to kick a spiritual addiction brings on a very peculiar sort of detox.  While my body remains perfectly fine and healthy, my mind and spirit have been undergoing a painful sort of purge.  At the point last summer where I realized I was on a Hermit’s journey I knew I needed to find a way to accept the process because it wasn’t going to leave me alone or go away.

Well – I’ve cleaned out a bunch of both physical and mental clutter over the last 6 months or so.  I thought perhaps the thing I’ve thought of as the Longing or the Restlessness would maybe go away – simply a side effect of my misguided craving.  Uh uh.  Not only did it NOT go away,  I found to my surprise (and sometimes distress) that it was getting stronger.

I tried to step back and analyze it objectively.  (As objectively as anyone can analyze something within their own head.)  Was it mid-life crisis?  Hormones?  Boredom?  Surely there were elements of all those tossed in there, but it just felt Bigger than that.   I’ve been going about my daily life looking for clues in other people.  Read books from different spiritual paths – Wicca, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. looking to see if anyone else had the answers.  I do know one thing.  Not many people are engaged in looking for it.  They happily go about their business, absorbed in their technology, family activities, work, hobbies, even church.  If they feel the Longing, they certainly don’t show it.   They don’t talk about it.

I’ve puzzled over it a lot.  I think it wears different faces, shows up in different ways.  Sometimes it comes as the Muse, banging away inside my brain till I write.  Sometimes it visits as Lust, giving me cravings like I’m a teenager again.  Sometimes it makes me want to go for a run – feel the pounding of my feet on Mother Earth, dappled sunlight warming my skin.  Other times I’ve been moved to look for my art supplies, long buried and dusty (along with my skills.)  It sends me searching for music that soothes it, or perhaps that sets my feet to dancing.  Sometimes I have to find a few favorite songs and just sing them at the top of my lungs.

The best I can come up with is to call it The Longing of Life for Itself.  Others have found it and called it different things.  Prana. Chi. Breath of Life.  Ruach.  Holy Spirit.

I realized that what I’m longing for is not the outward manifestation of the thing (religion in all it’s many guises).  I am longing for the Thing Itself.  God within seeking union with God without.   In Kabbalah, Ein Sof – the Source of All That IS.

Cheap therapy (a disclaimer)

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So what happens when in your innermost soul you’re a writer who gets too busy to write?  What happens is the words get all jammed up in your head and drive you crazy.  Then they give insomnia.  Then you find yourself at 2 AM wishing your brain had an actual OFF switch.

And then you stupidly let your soul go wandering off on a dark-night-of-the-soul/ascension/chakra clearing/Mother Earth craving/shamanic journey Thing which involves all kinds of life upsetting topsy turvy making stuff.  Oh, things like trying to clear almost 20 years of accumulated Stuff out of both your head and your basement.  And all this while trying to raise 3 children – 2 on the autism spectrum – and keep a house live-able and some sort of schedule.  Which results in all kinds of skeletons falling out of your mental closet and a head full of thoughts that keep trying to escape.  Not to mention the niggling thought that perhaps  an actual therapist would be beneficial.

Except that for many reasons is isn’t practical right now and besides, if anyone’s getting a therapist it really should be the Aspie teen trying to navigate middle school.  Anyway….

All that to say – if you’ve joined me on this journey I have to apologize that while I usually try to share cool, pertinent spiritual things – right now I’ve got a mess in my head that needs an escape valve.  You guys get to be my “cheap therapist”.  I don’t know, maybe if anyone is going though a dark night maybe it’ll help to know that someone understands.   A close friend of mine is going through a sort of body detox a year after being clean from his addiction – the body catching up and manifesting all the delayed effects of the disease.    My journey is no where near comparable to his, but I keep finding myself thinking of this process as a “spiritual detox” or perhaps “detox from mainstream religion”.

I am learning that a dark-night-of-the-sould neither starts nor finishes on my timeline.

The Emptying

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Five years into this Dark Night of the Soul now – I find I still haven’t found the bottom, the end of the tunnel, the light switch. Ordinary and Divine circumstances conspire to keep hollowing me out from the inside. Wresting any illusion of control from me, but not yet replacing it with any sense of consolation or Communion. I am so alone, and so different from those around me. I mean, I’ve always been “different”, but now it pulses from my very cells, my blood and breath. I don’t know if I wear a strange expression these days, but I certainly garner some strange looks from others – my very aura must vibrate with it.

I am beginning to feel like that Nietzsche quote “….and when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”