The river is real, and it’s right in my backyard.

At this moment that I’m beginning to write, I feel all kinds of emotional and conflicted. Lost, heartbroken, tricked, lied to, nostalgic, confused.

I just spent some time listening to old Vineyard worship songs that I grew up with. I’ve had such a spectrum of strange and flawed church experiences, some with more flaws than others (*coughcough*my time at Sovereign Grace*coughcough*), but for some reason, I still love old music from the Vineyard churches, where I grew up from ages 0-11. As I listened to these songs that are forever etched in my memory, some that my mother sang to me in a rocking chair during my infancy – I danced, sang along, and cried simultaneously. The crying was bittersweet. Some of the tears were sweet – from rediscovering a joy and holy connection that I’ve always found when freely worshiping the God I can’t help but still faintly believe in. Some of the tears bitter – from feeling tricked, lied to, abandoned, and conflicted.

Going back to the songs of your youth… One of the finest forms of masochism for the deconstructing Christian.

I found myself thinking, as I cried and listened to a song that spoke quite descriptively about a river of God that brings refreshment, joy, and gladness – “What hurts the most is that some part of me still wants this to be real. I want that river to be real.”

I spent all of my very tender, formative teen years and more (ages 11-21) in a very intense religious institution called Sovereign Grace Ministries, where the status quo was so strong that I was afraid if I fell outside of it in any way, I was somehow impacting my status before God, or proving that I was never actually “saved.” There was such an emphasis on making sure all that you read, heard, and said aligned with sound doctrine and theology – which was basically code for “Believe exactly what we say about our interpretations of the Bible, even what we make up to explain away the gray areas, or you’re astray and in sin.” Worship music was so intensely curated to make sure that there was sufficient emphasis on the cross – especially on the all the blood and hellish torture that Jesus went through because we were guilty vile sinners who were very lucky that a holy God would take pity on such worthless worms as us, even though we deserved his wrath that would “rightfully” send us to hell. We were made to never forget it – God is holy and perfect. We are wretched and vile. We’re forever indebted to him because he chose to save us and show us love, even though we’re disgusting sinners and don’t deserve it. It makes me sad to consider that back in the day, many of the tears I cried in church when I was amazed at God’s love, were not as much about simply rejoicing in being loved, but about being so relieved and grateful that God loved me in spite me not deserving it.

I was told that by believing in those things, I could come before God as his child, and hence partake in fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, the fellow children of God. All because we had this mutual world built by reformed, calvinist theology tweaked and approved by the powers that be. Even though I was living in a world where I constantly felt worried sick about what a horrible person I was and making sure I was living righteously in a grateful response to all God had done for me – at least I belonged. As long as I gave myself over to that belief system, I belonged somewhere. The awkward, plain-looking chubby girl who grew up with her head in the clouds, pouring over CD liner notes to memorize song lyrics and understand the process of how her favorite bands made their music, daydreaming about Lord of the Rings, rejected by her cheating and lying father, and always struggling to make friends for various reasons… I barely remember a moment in my life where I wasn’t searching for acceptance and belonging. Most of the time, I liked who I was well enough that I wasn’t interested in compromising myself to fit in somewhere. But somewhere down the line after I came to faith on my own in a sincere way, it was between ages 14-16 that I finally gave in to the idea that I could have a whole new world of love, acceptance, and belonging if I molded myself to be more like the Sovereign Grace-approved Christian. Even when the teachings enforced by my church didn’t sit right with me, I felt compelled to suck it up and go along with them, since they seemed to always be right about how to properly honor God. When I was 18 and was of age to become an official member of the church, I felt uneasy about the prospect of having to be interviewed and sign a contract to finalize that process – but still, I did it, because sticking to the status quo would help me belong. As that pastor interviewed me, I answered each question honestly like the good girl that I was, even when he asked me a very specific, hypothetical question where he wondered if I would be willing to call out one of my sisters on her sin if I found her getting drunk (He even went so far as to NAME the specific sister, and not that it matters, but he had absolutely NO reason or evidence of any sort to even come up with such a hypothetical situation for her). In spite of the fact that it bothered me greatly, I was willing to swallow my concerns and sign the contract that said I would promise to believe everything the pastors believed and immediately put myself into a similar church if I ever left the current one. I signed that blasted contract. That threatening, yet powerless thing – just to have the illusion of belonging somewhere.

Almost 10 years after signing that contract, a LOT has changed. Toxic stories and lies about my worth and the worth of others have been slowly undone. I’m learning how to let go of shame and to live my life outside the confines of fear-based teachings that I once built my life around. I’m rebuilding my life and myself to live freely and authentically. But this process is not all running through wide open fields and laying on a bed of roses. This process has involved countless moments of lightbulbs over my head turning on so fast and bright that they shattered, and scratched my hands as I cleaned up the mess. It’s been a process full of grief – of a heartbroken longing for the sense of belonging in a community and total assuredness in a belief system I once had, while also knowing that I cannot go back to those things, because they also endangered me mentally to the point of having hospital-worthy mental breakdowns over the years that rendered me unable to function healthily. I grieve it all. I grieve the sweet things that I lost with the dangerous things.

I can’t go back to the way things were. I can’t go back to a world where I’m fighting despair and fear that all my non-Christian friends will go to a torturous hell when they die because they don’t ascribe to a specific set of religious beliefs. I can’t go back to a world where LGBTQ people are “abominations” who are living against God’s supposed design for humanity, and I feel like I can’t rejoice with them when they find love. The symptoms of living in that particular world were dangerous and unloving.

But then, there’s a still small voice in me that knows, and asks… are all the sweet things truly lost?

Some Christians would have me believe that it’s a consequence of leaving the faith as I once knew it – that I can’t cherry pick my favorite parts and leave the rest behind. But those same Christians have done their fair share of cherry-picking, too. They often picked out judgement and fear while leaving behind love and care for the oppressed. It’s my turn to pick. It’s my turn to reclaim the sweetness. Time to reclaim the music, worship, beauty, love, and spiritual connection and freedom that I once knew.

“What hurts the most is that some part of me still wants this to be real. I want that river to be real.”

Well, I recently found a wide, fast-flowing creek in the woods of Valley Forge National Park. The creek I grew up with in Virginia was actually just a small, dirty drainage ditch that ran threw the neighborhood – so, not actually a creek at all – and for some reason, just because that dry, narrow little drainage ditch goes underground and through many ordeals in order to eventually flow to the ACTUAL Farm Creek (which is far away from public view and only accessible by boat), everyone decided the drainage ditch was a part of Farm Creek too, so that became my lifelong standard for all the other creeks. Just like how you don’t always know what an abusive, toxic church is until you’ve visited one that’s not – just like how you don’t always know you’ve been deceived until someone tells you the truth – well, in some very rare and special cases, you don’t know what a drainage ditch is until you’ve seen a creek. All this time, the dirty drops of water that slowly dribbled over a bed of concrete were good enough to be a creek – but then you found the real thing. Wide, rushing, crystal clear waters that fall with reckless abandon over smooth rocks, flowing off into unique little patterns of steaming and waving, then joining back together and flowing onward, twisting and turning and wooshing into something so clear and beautiful, I want to lean right down and drink from it freely. The sounds of the water drop, lap, rush, and flow like a symphony of fulfillment and freedom – of thirst quenched, of joy rolling forward – on to the river, then to the bay, and finally, into the vast open sea, where there is life – life diverse, and life abundant.

I think, maybe, yes… it’s real. Love is real, and the river is real, and it’s right in my backyard.

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