9/27/2015 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Chelles ~
...that's me in the spotlight, losing my religion."
My story is not unlike many others here. I was not raised in a particularly Christian home. My mom had her wedding Bible on her nightstand and we recited the same, repetitious "God is great, God is good" blessing before each dinner, but we were not church goers. My life changed when, at the age of 13, my parents decided that I was heading down the wrong path and forced me to attend youth meetings at the local First Southern Baptist Convention Church of Somewhere. About three weeks in I met a boy who informed me he could not date a girl who was not a Christian. The following Sunday I had a miraculous "salvation experience". At this time my parents did not attend church. My mother came first to offer me moral support. Then the rest of the family followed suit. Before long we were involved in every aspect of ministry, besides being pastors of the church. You tend to learn things about people you wished you could unlearn once you're involved in the inner circle.
I distinctly remember an incident at the age of 14. The youth pastor yelled at my boyfriend and I in youth Bible study, in front of all of the other kids, because we were holding hands. After meeting that night he asked us to stay. He pulled us into an unused Sunday school room, shut the door, and very sternly asked me, "does it even bother you that all of the kids in the youth group think you're a slut?" I started to cry and asked, "because we hold hands?" He said, "this is why the Bible says we are to abstain from even the appearance of evil. Holding hands makes people think the two of you are having sex." He gave my boyfriend a sympathetic nod and said, "besides, don't you want to help him guard his purity by not causing a stumbling block in his path?" I left that meeting feeling utterly devastated. I had just been called a slut by our forty-something-year-old youth pastor (whom I would later find out impregnated his wife before they were married and were in college).
At 18 I married the boy from youth group and I realized I had allowed myself to be pressured into entering into an abusive marriage. At the age of 19, about a week after his abuse caused me to have a miscarriage, I attended a tent revival my church was hosting. At the end a guest evangelist asked if there was anyone who needed prayer. Hopeless, desperate, and full of sorrow I made the long trip down the aisle to meet him. He shook my hand and said, "bless your heart, Sister, what is troubling you tonight?" I was barely able to choke out, "my husband beats me and I'm scared he's going to kill me". He said, "all you can do is pray for him and make sure you're doing everything in your power to not provoke his sin. Divorce is not an option, because God hates it. There is nothing bad enough your husband could do that would warrant you throwing in the towel and angering God." I left the revival that night and decided I needed to take my own life, because I was certain my husband was going to do it anyway.
We were married a little less than 2 years before I filed for a divorce. One day, after Sunday morning service, I was cornered by a group of elderly deacon wives who shamed me for getting a divorce. About two weeks later the pastor called my mother and told her that, perhaps, she should talk me into finding another church. The parents of children I taught in Sunday school were concerned that someone who was divorced would not be qualified to teach their children about the Bible. I was devastated. Church had been my safe place, always. Despite the back stabbing, gossiping, being called a slut, the stress, it felt safe. My husband never attempted to lay a finger on me in church. Suffice it to say I spent a lot of time there. Usually four days out of the week, if not more.
During this entire time at the "big church" I never felt what others testified to feeling. Sure, I could pray lovely prayers with all of the appropriate Baptist buzz phrases. I memorized Scripture. I sang louder than anyone else in the choir. But whenever we were supposed to have morning "quiet time", my mind would wander. Whenever the pastor was preaching a sermon, I zoned out and began doodling in the sermon notes section of the church bulletin. I knew the look, the speech, the demeanor, even the correct Bible translation (that's the good 'ol KJV, for those not hip with Baptist culture. Everything else is a perVersion, you know?). The problem was that I felt nothing. Sure, I loved studying the Bible, but for no other reason than to acquire knowledge and outsmart someone in a Bible debate. During the week it mostly gathered dust on my nightstand.
I went back and forth between Christianity and every other religion imaginable. They all had something about them that left me feeling empty or rubbed me the wrong way. I realized that when people saw the beauty of nature and exclaimed, "wow! Aren't you in awe of our creator!" I was thinking, "not really. I'm in awe of nature, but not a supernatural creator". I lied, of course, and nodded in agreement.
In my attempt to put up a good Christian front, even up until as recently as a year ago, I stooped to unimaginable lows. I posted homophobic memes on FB. I said unkind things about other people. I wore ankle length skirts and dresses only. Didn't wear makeup, didn't cut my hair (think Kim Davis, or the Duggars). I took my marriage cues from the Pearls' "Created to be His Helpmeet". I used religion to shame my son when he did certain things ("don't you realize God sees even your thoughts?" "how can you say you don't like praying? That grieves the Holy Spirit!") I didn't read secular books or listen to secular music. Hell, I even eschewed Christian Contemporary music for awhile, because it "sounded like worldly music".
One day, after being seriously betrayed and hurt by yet another church I allowed myself to become heavily involved at, it dawned on me that I played the role of fundamentalist Christian very well, but I was not being true to who I am. I'm not against LGBT people. I'm not against abortion. I'm not against liberal ideology. I'm not against people from other religious sects. I don't think Catholics are "the Whore of Babylon". I don't believe the Bible is infallible or "God breathed".
I tried immersing myself into the world of progressive Christianity. I studied the works of Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, and Brian McLaren. I joined a liberal Christian group on FB. I tried so hard, but at the end of the day, once I stripped all of the Nicean Creed tenets from my core beliefs system I began to question the legitimacy of using the Christian label for myself. I dabbled in Wicca and found myself feeling rather silly being at metaphysical shops trying to feel the subtle vibrations of rocks or incense sticks or trying to figure out if I'm supposed to burn an orange or green candle to help me get out of debt. Plus, Wicca still hinges upon the belief of deities or a central deity which did not sit right with me.
I "came out" to my husband first, who confessed he never was a Christian and only played along so I wouldn't be hurt or disappointed in him. Then I came out to my mom, but as a Pagan, which was disastrous. She flipped out and for weeks we had endless debates about how could I be such a convincing liar for so long. If I'd lie about that, how could she ever trust me again? Wasn't I afraid of going to hell? What was the purpose of my life now? How could I possibly be happy? Was I putting my faith in tarot cards? How would she explain that to the family? Why did I have to be so selfish and analytical? The entire experience left me feeling hopeless and emotionally drained. Even though we've moved past that, we have reached a place where we simply do not talk about it, nor do I confess the full truth of my deconversion to her.
The day I realized I'm an atheist was very difficult for me, on an emotional level. It was a gorgeous late-summer day. My mother and I were standing in the kitchen and a breeze came through the window. She took in a deep breath and sighed, "I love nature, and the maker". I felt something knot up inside my gut. A sort of uneasy feeling of, I cannot feel the same thing she is feeling. Being Pagan was acceptable. At least I believed in something. That's a darn sight easier a pill for people to swallow than the knowledge that you don't believe in anything. For me, however, being able to accept my own personal truth has been the single most liberating, and satisfying, aspect of my spiritual journey. I will likely take this secret to my grave, for my own protection and sanity, but at least I have settled upon something that finally feels authentic to me.
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