The Breaking Down of Religious Shackles… and Tulips

It was a good bit over a year ago, in the autumn of 2017, when I found myself sitting in church and writing little quips and puns about, well… church. Or, more specifically, church as it should never be. Those quips and puns quickly turned into one of my most quickly written songs, which I titled “Tulips” (for reasons you’ll learn momentarily), and pretty much always perform on the occasion I play a little gig in the DMV region. But, again, we’ll talk more about that song later.

It goes for many circumstances in life; relationships, workplaces, schools, and, of course, churches. You often don’t realize you were once shortchanged and abused, until you move on to a new place, or new people, where you are no longer being shortchanged or abused. If you didn’t see it before, you’ll start seeing it now, because you are being presented with the great contrast between what simply was, and what actually should be.

It was 2014 when I last set foot in the church where I had spent the previous ten years of my life. I didn’t particularly like withdrawing from it, because in my mind, I had spent so many years trying to fit in there and develop worthwhile friendships, and I didn’t have the energy to do that all over again somewhere else. I was scared of being alone. Soon, thankfully, I found I had no reason to fear that, and I would never be truly alone, or without provision of good people in my life. What I did not expect to find, however, was the realization that I had been royally screwed over, wounded, and duped in that church, and the culture surrounding it.

Fast forward over four years later. Here I am, at the tail end of 2018, and that realization is still unfolding. Just a couple of days ago, I was telling my sister how every time I think to myself that I surely must be done healing – surely, there is no more baggage left to unpack – God calls down from above with his (or her, or their) infomercial voice to announce, “But wait, there’s more!” and I find myself wrecked all over again. Wrecked, yet grateful – because I believe God is using this unpacking of baggage to help me continue in my long healing. To set me free from the odd little lies and rip-offs that have kept me in torment and bondage for so many years. I am frustrated, yet grateful, and comforted, because it’s in the unpacking of religious baggage that I almost start to believe again, to trust again – and it’s as if God is saying, “Okay, we’re gonna have to reach to where it hurts right now, but that’s how it’s gonna start healing, and I’ll carry you through along the way.”

So, what exactly happened? What sorts of wounds, twisted concepts, lies, and half-truths did I receive from this church experience and culture? Well, that story is a long one, and I was only able to touch a very tiny tip of the iceberg when in “Tulips.” In fact, it doesn’t even touch the worst of the wounds. But, if those of you who have heard me play the song before ever wondered what the weird puns and vague scenarios were referring to, allow me to break it down by providing a verse-by-verse commentary of the lyrics…

Sat down in your office for a holy interrogation

Determine the legitimacy of her salvation

“Can I dive in?” she asks

“Immerse me if you will, only so long as I fit the bill.”

That opening verse was a pretty general reference to the way my former church handled baptisms. When I wrote this song, it was while my *current* church was doing a series studying the concept of baptism in Christianity; the different things it means, the way different people do it or see it. It was throughout this series that I was fascinated by the all the ways the concept of baptism could be more beautiful than I realized, while simultaneously realizing just how much my old church got it terribly wrong. If you wanted to get baptized in that church, you had to sign up for a particular baptism date, before which you had to go through an interview process with one of the pastors. During that interview, they would ask you a series of questions regarding your beliefs about and relationship with God. Could you recite a definition of the gospel that aligned with theirs? Did your testimony of faith have enough then-and-now contrast in it? Did your expression of your beliefs and faith “sound” right, using the right theological phrasing according to what they held to in this specific church culture? If all those boxes were checked, you were approved to get baptized in the church. However, I knew some people who were rejected from the opportunity. Regardless of how sincere their hearts were, genuinely wanting to know and understand God, the pastors did not want to baptize someone that they felt didn’t fulfill all the check boxes of *their* definition of “saved.” Therefore, they would tell even the most sincere of people to try again next time. Sometimes, until the next baptism rolled around, they would hold pastoral meetings with the subject, conversing and questioning until it seemed absolutely sure that the subject had a church-approved way of being able to express their faith and the gospel. Once a consensus was reached that the subject sounded, essentially, saved enough, the pastors were willing to baptize them. I was relieved that I made the cut with my interview. Relieved, after having spent hours editing and re-editing my testimony in a word document, seeking other input to make sure I was phrasing everything right. I was terrified, in this whole process, that I would get rejected. It was a burdensome and stressful period, preparing and hoping to get baptized as a way to acknowledge my faith. And it took too long for me to see it: Baptism should never, ever, ever look like this. Baptism should not be a rigid semantics interrogation that causes people to be stressed and scared of being told that their faith is insincere because they didn’t fit the church-constructed picture of “real Christian.” The process in and of itself was inauthentic, contrived, and damaging. As a side note, this same church also had an all-too similar – no, WORSE – method for people who wanted to be official church members… let’s just say, it involved signing a contract. And, God help me, I signed that contract as an 18-year-old who had been through enough loneliness and rejection in childhood, that I willing to do anything I had to do in order to belong somewhere. Even if it meant signing a contract that I didn’t feel good about in the first place. I don’t even remember everything that was on that contract, but I’m pretty sure that by now, at age 26, I’ve broken a good bit of what was on that oppressive and ridiculous piece of paper. I would say I’m proud of that, but I’m not sure I care enough to be proud. It was, afterall, just a ridiculous piece of paper, which even other Christians, who were more evangelical than myself, described as sounding a bit cultish. Again… sometimes you don’t know how much you were duped until you’re un-duped elsewhere.

Our lilies got choked out by your tulips

Your tulips grew out like thorns

Our lilies got choked out by your tulips

Some couldn’t see the field anymore

That simple chorus borrows a couple biblical (and less than biblical) flower metaphors. I believe this was the first verse of the song that was written, and was directly inspired by hearing a reference to Matthew 6, a passage well-known as a comfort to worrying: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin…”

In this mention of lilies, we see flowers used as one of many metaphors for things that will receive provision for their essential, basic needs in due time – things that are cared for and not forgotten, therefore, need not worry. (FYI to those concerned about how this ties in with mental health and clinical anxiety, I promise, in spite of what some Christians have tried to spin before, the “do not be anxious” bits of Matthew 6 are NOT condemning feeling anxious, or referring to anxiety as “sin.” Especially not clinical anxiety. Trust me.) In this part of my faith that has told me I have no need to worry or stress because I am of great value to God and cared for by them, I am then met with the rigid confines of all the expectations placed on me in that church. When innocent faith is met with intense rigitity and impossible sets of how-to’s and rules of beliefs, it becomes harder to remember what sincere, innocent faith ever felt like. The “lilies” of peace are smothered by this church’s…T.U.L.I.P.

Okay, I know, this is going to some weird and deep places. Long story short, the churches of Sovereign Grace Ministries (yes, yes… I’ve finally said the name, and you’ve probably heard it in the news before for worse reasons than I’m discussing here), very tightly adhered to a line of beliefs known as reformed theology, or Calvinism (referring to theologian John Calvin), often explained by Christians using the acronym T.U.L.I.P., where each letter represents a primary belief point within Calvinism. Ironically, considering “Tulips” is the name and hook word of the song, I am really not here to talk about the content of the acronym at all. Rather, what I referred to in the song is the way that the church culture was so insulated and rigid in the expectation of shared beliefs. It was typically a bit of a shock if any church member expressed that they believed something that didn’t align perfectly with the church’s cultural convention. The church bookstores were heavily curated to specifically lean towards authors whose writings or personal beliefs were either exact or very close to those of SGM. And the next verse of the song will address, in probably the most ridiculously punny part of the song, a very toxic practice and belief that was terribly prevalent in those churches…

Better ask permission than forgiveness

Cleanse white courts of every fig, lest we need their leaves

Walking on those eggshells sure becomes a heavy yoke

Easy and light, they said – at least that’s what I hoped

So, some of you have probably heard of Josh Harris, or at least his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Maybe you even heard about his recent documentary I Survived I Kiss Dating Goodbye, in which he was apparently more interested in defending himself than humbly admitting to how his writings were so damaging to people emotionally and mentally. Well, this guy also was a big part of SGM for many years, and his radical writings about choosing the “courtship” method of romance over “dating” were highly influential in the culture of those churches. It sounds kind of unbelievable to describe at this point in my life. At the time I was first going to an SGM church, the cultural expectation for starting romantic relationships was: After a man had built up a friendship with a woman, and he developed romantic feelings for her, he went straight to the woman’s father. He asked the father if he could have permission to “court” the daughter. If the father said yes, then all was good to go. If the father said no? Too bad. Sometimes the fathers discussed the offer with their daughters to check first if the interest was mutual, and sometimes not. So, how on earth does the song lyric above actually tie into all this? Well, once again, I employ silly puns and double-meanings. “Better ask permission” is pretty clear… we just learned the man HAD to ask permission to “court” a woman. Pretty obvious. “Cleanse white courts of every fig, lest we need their leaves” largely refers to the purity culture that was even more dominant in American evangelical Christianity than courtship culture was. The purity culture, which got especially popular in the 90s, involved even more emphasis than usual on the importance of maintaining virginity until marriage, or, as many Christians like to call it, “staying pure.” This spawned countless, massively attended True Love Waits rallies, Christian musicians making sure to give a big speech about the importance of “sexual purity” in the middle of their shows, and the cringe-worthy trend of purity rings, which women and men alike would wear as a promise that they would never have sex until marriage; although, I believe it was fairly common for young women to be ceremoniously presented with them by their fathers. Lyrically, the “white courts” refer to the perceived purity of the courtship method, and in a literal sense, a fig is known for it’s delightful sweetness – and purity/courtship culture spent a lot of energy training us to be afraid of enjoying sweetness. Like the sweetness of enjoying simple experiences such as dating and the flutters of a young heart taking a liking to someone. More to the point is “lest we need their leaves,” which refers to Adam and Eve losing their innocence, and covering up their nakedness with fig leaves in the beginning of the Bible. Basically, this all correlates to refer to a theory of the obsession in Christian culture with “purity” movements, which suggests that perhaps a part of that fixation, in addition to the commonly held belief among many Christians that sex is strictly meant to be had within marriage, that a great deal of it was rooted in fear of unplanned pregnancies among teens and those who weren’t married. Because, for many Christians, not only is premarital sex perceived as one of the most shameful and controversial thing possible, but if it leads to pregnancy? Well, then everybody in your church KNOWS you had premarital sex. A lot of parents couldn’t handle the idea of such things, because then, it might somehow be viewed their fault that their child chose to have sex – probably, in their minds, because they didn’t do enough to push abstinence and “purity.” They fear others will shame them for not leading their children properly. They fear, perhaps subconsciously, that God will be mad at them. But, again… this is just one little theory.

Oh, and as for “Walking on those eggshells sure becomes a heavy yoke”… well, references to yokes in the Bible are referring to those heavy wood beams that cows wear over their backs while pulling loads. It represents a heavy burden. But it makes me think of eggs. Hence, eggshells… yolks/yokes… yeah, I can’t stop myself.

I’m bruised by misogynistic teaching,

the so-called humility of legalistic preaching

Some say it’s hard to believe that I still believe,

But God knows, I just wanna be free

So back to the Harvester, I turn

Their heart’s still the one for which I yearn

Daily the bride’s redeemed, and daily I’m set free

Forever I’ll return ‘til I go home

Perhaps that bridge is fairly self-explanatory. Although, I couldn’t resist squeezing in another reference through the use of the word “humility,” referring to the rather infamous CJ Mahaney, a pastor, and former president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, who wrote a book called Humility. Quite ironic, considering a quick google will show you he was anything but humble in his church and ministry leadership. And for those who don’t speak Christianese: “Harvester” refers to God, “bride” refers to the church as a whole (yet another odd, and honestly creepy biblical metaphor that I won’t bother going into).

So, what does this all mean for me? Personally, emotionally, mentally, religiously, spiritually? Well, to quote Phoebe Buffay, “Yours is a question with many possible answers.” Because, to be quite honest, I have very few sure or firm answers for you as to who I am as a person of faith. I can tell you these things about myself:

I am angry and hurt from Christian culture and my church background. And I have every right to be.

I am still recovering and mentally and emotionally from the teachings and culture of that church and general evangelical Christianity. And when I say mentally, I really mean it. For people who suffer from mental illnesses related to anxiety and OCD, spirituality can often get entangled in them, leading to truly debilitating fear and doubt about one’s morality and standing with God. I and others have been in literally dangerous mental health conditions while suffering from this, and it is not a small thing. Church leaders and Christians need to take into consideration that their words have immense power. You cannot escape being held responsible for the impact of your words and teachings because it’s not your fault that someone is mentally ill, or that people cling to your every word. In a Christian culture where we are constantly taught to cling to whatever is being fed us in the name of Jesus, you have to take responsibility.

Contrary to what is usually expected of American evangelical culture (and expected within it)… when it comes to politics, I am very liberal. Unlike the very patriarchal culture you saw described previously, I am absolutely feminist and egalitarian. Because I believe in a God of justice, I fully believe black lives matter, as do the lives of other marginalized and oppressed communities. I am proud to champion LGBTQ rights in whatever way I can; I believe all people are made in the image of God, including the LGBTQ community. I am all about the provision of safe sex education, and access to birth control for all who need and want it, and I think places like Planned Parenthood are doing great work for making those things accessible.

I often feel unsafe and uncomfortable in church buildings, or even, sometimes, around discussion super steeped in Christian and biblical terms. It’s hard not to feel the PTSD seize my body and soul. I feel instant fear sometimes at the sound of people reading or quoting scripture.

A lot of the details of what I believe about God and Christianity are pretty blurred. Some beliefs I used to hold to as a teenager are things I gradually stopped feeling comfortable with in the last few years. And I’m okay with that.

Yet, somehow, I still believe in a God and a Jesus. It’s contradictory on all sides. How can I still believe in God and Jesus and yet not believe (or not be totally sure of) some things that are, by the majority of Christians, considered mutually exclusive with a belief in God and Jesus? How can I still believe in anything at all after the bizarre stuff I experienced? Both are valid questions. However, my answer to both questions is the same: I don’t really know.

All I know is that my faith will always be a part of me. It’s something I always circle back to, because it’s simply a part of the core of who I am. Regardless of how frustrated I am with other Christians, and with Christian culture, I somehow always find myself believing in and feeling safe with God and Jesus. Has that belief been unwavering? Hell no. Of course I’m fully aware that we have no way of proving the existence of God, and many times through the years, I’ve even questioned to myself how I can still believe. Overall, it’s just something that makes sense to me. It’s just a part of me. And what I do believe for sure is that, for all the mysteries and questions there are to be had about this God and Jesus that I believe in, I have come to believe that regardless of what mold I fit or don’t fit, I am unconditionally loved by this God, and that this God is big enough for all my questions. For all the times I’ve wondered if I have a place in this world (cue the Michael W. Smith song), I believe that with God, I will always have a place. And for all the times I feel like an outsider, like someone who doesn’t fully fit in, I’ve found those places I belong among people, too – Christians, Atheists, and all sorts in between, who love and support me where I am. Some of them actually came from my former church that I told you all about in this post, which shows how few things in this world are beyond the touches of beauty and redemption. In fact, had I never been at that church, I would never have met the boy, who would later become the man, that I am about to marry. And together, we love, support, and help each other along as we sort out similar questions and thoughts on our spiritual journeys.

To any Christians reading this who may find themselves concerned, please know that while I appreciate any good intentions that come from a place of love, I do not need to be fixed or corrected. I am not “backslidden.” Nor am I trying to do this for the sake of bashing SGM. I am doing what I feel I owe to myself, which is to be plain about who I am and how I believe I, and so many others, have been wronged and hurt. I am simply where I am right now, just as you are where you are. I would urge you to consider trusting and believing in a fuller scope of God and of God’s grace for the questioners and doubters, and to remember that all of us Christians, no matter how “right” our beliefs may seem to be according to what we’ve been taught – we are all trying to understand and know God, and we are all doing it through the lenses of our own finite humanity. And that is okay. It does not have to be scary. In fact, if we take the leap of admitting there’s more we don’t know than do know… maybe, just maybe… it can be quite beautiful.

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