I am on what I like to call a religious vacation.
On this vacation, I won’t work out my faith with fear and trembling.
Neither will I obsessively study different Bible translations and commentaries.
I attend church as a visitor might: curious but detached.
I started this vacation with a dire case of “religious exhaustion.”
Belief takes a lot of energy and I am very, very tired.
Mainly, I am tired of pretending I know everything.
Let the expert theologians take over.
Let them hold forth in pulpits and on podcasts.
Let them act like they understand the fullness of the mystery of faith.
I have given up any authority on spiritual matters.
Please direct your questions to someone else. I’m done.
I first noticed cracks in my faith during the 2016 election.
I watched pro-life Christians support a candidate who used hateful language and dismissive rhetoric.
My college church community shrugged off Trump’s demeaning comments about minority groups, claiming his platform was the only “moral” option.
Evangelical legend James Dobson defended Trump’s character after journalists uncovered the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
Friends of mine asserted that Trump and Pence would heal the country on God’s behalf.
I tried telling them how terrified my coworkers were, how scared I was.
I tried to communicate how Trump’s speeches strengthened divides and supported perceptions that hurt communities I cared about.
My feelings were brushed off or criticized.
This had happened to me before, but never when the stakes were so high.
In 2017, shaken by Trump’s win, I reevaluated my entire belief system.
In the past, voicing doubts had prompted course corrections from friends, so I kept my questions to myself.
I tromped around Seattle, wondering: Did complementarianism ACTUALLY make sense? Was drinking alcohol ACTUALLY a sin? Did EVERY Christian lie about their sexual activity?
Rethinking my faith made me realize how much I differed from the eager believer of my college days.
Without meaning to, I’d left my old faith behind.
Poor Past Lauren would shake her head at what I’ve become.
I imagine she’d be especially appalled by my media habits.
Unlike before, an R-rating no longer stops me.
I watch sex scenes without cringe or comment.
I seek out sadistic horror movies, loving the thrill of fear.
I no longer talk over songs to keep friends from hearing my music’s “harsh language.”
Remember that James Dobson story that likened “sinful” media to dog poop brownies?
Dobson reasoned that even a LITTLE bit of dog poop (chosen to represent sex scenes, strong language, and spicy guitar riffs) would surely ruin a batch of brownies.
I used to agree with him.
Pass the plate. I’ll finish the batch off myself.
Before I gave up on moralizing media, I analyzed all movies from a “biblical” perspective (a skill I learned from heavies like Bob Smithouser and the aforementioned Dobson.)
In 2015, I joined a small group that promised fervent discussion of moral content in movies.
Over wine and cream puffs, the other members and I categorized nearly every aspect of various films in terms of right and wrong.
I LOVED that small group. I relished discussing film with fellow believers (a rare treat for a former Southern Baptist.)
I wouldn’t join that group today.
I want to watch movies without the added torture of wondering what God would think of my choices.
I no longer worry about being “desensitized” or “deceived.”
To be frank, I don’t care where each film I watch ranks on the righteousness continuum.
Let me consume my media in peace.
My experiences with church-sponsored small groups have contributed heavily to my exhaustion.
At a more recent small group, the promise of “in-depth Bible study” camouflaged a vicious Bible Fight Club that favored pedants and champion debaters.
I came to the group with questions and learned I had to supply my own answers.
In debates, any position I took demanded a strong defense and thesis-level knowledge of Old Testament history.
I felt like I’d been dropped into boot camp after seeking asylum.
The entire enterprise felt like a refuge for adults who had already figured the whole “Christian” thing out.
I felt so far from God.
Despite the group’s insistence that more biblical familiarity was what I needed, reading my Bible did not help.
I used to love reading the Bible.
I genuinely enjoyed finding new ideas in the text and felt my righteousness grow after every devotional.
As a kid, I took everything biblical at face value. God said it, I believed it, enough said…right?
Then came questions.
I alternated between shoving those questions down (too much cognitive dissonance) or bringing them up in discussion (refer back to course corrections and the aforementioned boot camp.)
Other Christians told me that the Holy Spirit would give me the answers I craved if I devoted myself to more and more study.
Unfortunately, the more I read, the less I understood.
I came back to small group with additional questions and was pointed back to the Bible.
In dark moments, I opened my Bible, a book I’d been promised would comfort me during hard times, and felt nothing.
My eyes glazed.
Verses I’d memorized turned unfamiliar.
None of what I’d believed made sense anymore.
A low point at my last small group:
One meeting saw the half the table arguing on behalf of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his only daughter.
“He made an oath to the Lord,” the pro-sacrificers said, “and keeping that oath was the most important thing!”
Nothing swayed them: not mention of the daughter’s grief, not reminding them how unnecessary her death was, not reframing the “sacrifice” as “murder,” not pointing out Jephthah’s hasty promise to God, not appealing to the poor treatment of women throughout history, not suggesting that maybe God doesn’t like it when we bargain our “possessions.”
I could not believe other Christians were arguing for human sacrifice as a holy course of action.
Then again, we spent every week flaying each other alive for our different interpretations.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
A second story, my breaking point:
A “discussion” on service, lasting a whole twenty seconds, consisted of repeated agreements around the table:
“Service always feels good.”
“It feels great to help others.”
“It makes me feel better.”
I couldn’t make myself interject.
I kept hearing these platitudes fired off one after the other. I would open my mouth and nothing would come out.
I hadn’t felt “good” about service in a very long time.
All I wanted to say was, “I am so tired,” but I doubted anyone would listen.
I left the table that night and never returned.
For context: I’d just come off of a season of “serving” in Sunday school that had drained me completely.
After resigning, I spent a good month warding off pastors and staff who wanted me back.
I tried to tell them I couldn’t do the three-hour shifts anymore (especially after minimal training.)
I told them I couldn’t manage the hordes of children that rushed through the classroom doors every week.
Even though I liked the kids, I couldn’t give them what they needed.
There were already too many of them and I was a walking husk.
“But you have to persevere!” a pastor told me. “Reaching these kids is really important. WE NEED YOU.”
It’s like he knew the magic words that would snap me back into action.
Only, this time, they didn’t work.
I love to feel needed.
I once believed fulfilling others’ needs was my calling.
By my eternal sacrifice, I would make the death and resurrection of Jesus more potent.
I would squish my needs into nothing.
I would become a being of pure light and love.
Ignore the pesky exhaustion.
Ignore the creeping depression.
Ignore the growing rage.
I would be a blessing.
Swallow. Smile. Repeat.
For many years, I’ve put my own health aside in the name of perseverance.
Emotionally exhausted? Persevere.
Interested in resting at home while your friends play flag football? You WILL catch the ol’ pigskin, dammit. Put on your track shorts and suck it up.
It’s gotten so I can’t stand the word “perseverance.”
I grit my teeth during tales of athletic triumphs and hard-won souls.
I clamp my lips around protestations of, “Get out!” or, “Give up!” or, “Call foul!”
When someone encourages a mutual acquaintance to persevere, I leave the room.
I often wonder if quitting is sometimes the right thing to do.
Anything must be better than repeated self-abuse.
Here is why I despise perseverance:
In college, I joined my church’s student leadership team.
The commitment: meetings every Sunday, Bible study every Thursday, weekend events most Fridays and/or Saturdays, and additional volunteer events or prayer meetings during the quarter.
I showed up to every single event for almost three years.
If a teammate flaked out or no one else volunteered, I arrived ready to fix things.
In my second year of leadership, my teammates backed off completely and let me carry the team.
I begged for help and got excuses.
I sat through critiques of events I should not have been pulling off alone.
When I pointed out our team’s imbalance to the pastor in charge, I received perseverance rhetoric in the guise of encouragement.
I heard a lot about “love,” “mercy,” and “forgiveness,” all of which apparently required overlooking pervasive problems.
I heard that if I wanted these problems solved, I should take on more responsibility.
I heard that I was the problem and God needed to change ME.
I came away from these conversations with the belief that nothing I did would ever be enough.
I don’t shapeshift as easily these days. My bones are weary, my muscles underused.
I no longer assume the guilt I feel is God’s voice.
My therapist calls this progress.
I can’t fix everything on my own.
I no longer accept a reality that has me set aside my needs for months or years, that presumes my undying loyalty and constant effort for little or no reward.
I no longer fuel my endeavors with my own suffering.
I no longer look for minuscule changes as evidence of a coming miracle.
Hearts of stone may soften, but not at my expense.
Learning that lesson hasn’t made the guilt go away.
I’m still outgrowing old habits.
I used to question every impulse: was that the Holy Spirit talking or my own selfishness? Was that God’s goodness or my darkness? Was I doing the right thing? Was I making the right choice?
I saw my hypervigilance as righteousness. (It was anxiety.)
I considered my fear a side effect of intense love for others. (It was anxiety.)
I affected the ever-loving sweetness required of female followers of Jesus, thinking myself holy for quashing my actual personality. (It was actually the patriarchy with special guest star anxiety.)
Taking the verse “Always be prepared to give an answer” to heart, I scoured the Bible for catchphrases to combat hard questions.
The first time an acquaintance asked me why I believed in Jesus, I burst into tears because I didn’t know.
I’d had one job – to supply answers for every possible occasion – and I’d failed.
I imagined my failure broadcast before the whole of believers: my friend would go to hell and I’d face the Lamb with shame, my misdeed recorded in His Book forever.
Laura Jean Truman wrote a lovely article that captures my current beliefs on Scripture.
I’ve stepped away from literalism, as my faith is too messy to be contained by neat interpretations.
I can’t easily locate God in either the answers from my childhood or in my current reality.
I sometimes catch glimpses. Mostly I search and squint and hope and read some more.
This tells me God is very different from the one I thought I knew.
That terrifies and excites me.
My world is so much larger these days.
Perhaps this is why I disdain “answer people” in any facet of my life.
I find myself walking away from communities that worship answers, content to sit in circles discussing what they already believe.
Their knowledge of Babylonian battle tactics doesn’t tell me how we should live out our faith.
Though they’ve memorized entire commentaries and books of the Bible, I’m not convinced they know any more about God than I do.
I have to remind myself: limited experiences create a dearth of understanding.
This applies to everyone, myself included.
I know that my grasp of racism will always be tainted by my whiteness, that my experiences of religious persecution will never match the violence faced by non-Christians in my own country.
My empathy can only go so far.
I hang onto this belief when others are unable to grasp my experience, when they wash my woes away with comfortable answers: “But the Bible says…” “At MY church…” “I’VE never felt that way…”
I’m challenged daily. I’m angry more often than not about the way I and others have been and continue to be treated.
Sometimes I enjoy the anger too much.
I fantasize about destroying the current institution.
Christian bloggers suggest fighting back with “love,” but love’s not what’s burning inside me.
Yes, I am still angry.
I hate the bullshit pat answers people have at the ready when I criticize the church: “Well, we’re all sinners in a broken world.”
I hate that Christians who have rejected me live lives of comforting faith in supportive communities.
I’m angry that three years into this administration, Christians still defend Trump and claim the persecution he faces proves his inherent righteousness.
Though most days I hesitate to align myself with Christianity, I’ll say this: I want us to fucking do better.
No more promoting a gospel of fear.
No more treating cultural habits and past mistakes as stone tablets handed down from on high.
No more spouting Bible verses to keep from connecting with different perspectives.
My dad loves the verse Micah 6:8.
I see the verse paraphrased on the side of Quest Church on my way home from therapy: “Live justly, love mercy, walk humbly.”
I love this idea, even if I don’t know what such a life looks like.
For my part, I read up on ethics; I try to advocate for others; I adjust my consumption to do (I hope) less harm.
I still wonder if it will be enough.
The truth is, I don’t know.
To those who don’t know me, I seem agnostic at best.
I swear a lot, cackle about sex jokes in films, and place myself staunchly in the liberal camp.
My wardrobe is darkest black and rainbow bright and a tad too butch for strangers’ comfort.
I hold stronger views about entertainment and creativity than I do about salvation.
Furthermore, I’ve chosen to prioritize concrete things – lasting relationships, useful skills, a career I enjoy – over the ultimate fate of myself and my friends.
I get why people see me and assume I don’t know Jesus; I don’t act like I’m one of God’s Chosen anymore.
Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.
Despite all this, I hold onto beliefs about Jesus to others’ confusion.
I still believe he died and rose again.
I believe he has gone to prepare a place for me (whatever that means.)
I know that, in the face of all I’ve given up, this devotion to these ideas doesn’t make sense.
I don’t have a satisfactory explanation for this.
How do I account for all the religious experiences that felt real to me?
How do I describe the comforting presence I sense but can’t define?
How do I justify speaking daily to a deity I barely comprehend?
If I can’t explain any of these things, should I even try?
Something else I can’t explain:
Whenever I make progress in this essay, my breakthroughs are followed by paralyzing nightmares.
The night after an editing session, I sweat through my clothes and sheets.
I try and fail to wake myself up.
In my dreams, I am stalked and screamed at.
I watch fox-faced children torture each other for fun.
I wade through rivers of blood and wake up exhausted.
I wonder if this is what exorcising a demon feels like.
I imagine the conflicting advice I’d receive if I mentioned my nightmares.
“Sounds like a spiritual attack. You must be on the right track.”
“Sounds like a demon! You need to pray for forgiveness!”
“That happened to me when I went to bed dehydrated and hopped up on chocolate.”
You can see why I hesitate to bring it up.
Here’s how I define faith: I follow God without knowing quite what that means or where that will lead me.
I don’t carry many answers (the modern-day version of a purse, bag, and sandals) with me.
I tell people what I know and trust them to experience the rest for themselves.
I have released myself from the pressure to convert everyone I meet.
In the brief moments before the cycle of guilt starts over again, I feel truly free.
As a child, I knew of Thomas Didymus as the bad disciple.
Christian school had me rolling my eyes at the one who couldn’t believe in the resurrection until he’d seen it for himself.
In church, I’d groan at the man who waited a full WEEK to get with the program.
Lesson learned: don’t be like Thomas.
A guest pastor at my church preached a different message.
He reminded us that Thomas missed out on the miracle in the locked room.
His Rabbi dead, Thomas spent a week alone wondering if the last three years of ministry had been worth it.
Though his heart was wounded, he wasn’t lost.
Once he placed his hands in Jesus’ side, Thomas cried, “My Lord and my God!”
He needed proof. He needed communion with the deity before he accepted the others’ story.
He wanted a spiritual experience and he got one.
Thomas is no different from the rest of us.
My season of doubt has put me at odds with some friends.
They toil in service and reap whatever blessings they can find.
They fill their weeks with teaching and bonding and agreeing with others.
When we see each other, they suggest “reconnecting with God” and “getting back on the right path.
These are people I used to serve with and pray with weekly.
I’m sure they wonder when I’ll get “back to normal.”
For the moment, I have no plans to rejoin them.
I accept what God has given to me.
Using the energy and time I have, I make friends, create things, and sleep in some Sundays.
I aim for honesty on my blog, in my personal life, and onstage.
It’s not a perfect service. It never will be.
I miss the certainty of my old faith, even if I failed to live up to its requirements.
I used to find comfort in statements I now find banal: Jesus is God, the Bible is true, miracles happen.
Amen, amen, etc., etc.
Thankfully, my current church community welcomes my questions and allows me to take communion anyway.
My performance matters little – they like who I am regardless of what I do (or don’t do) for them.
Some have bought me coffee instead of supplying answers – a miraculous gesture.
They listen without judgment and bake homemade cookies in times of great need.
Their acceptance washes over me, filling my tired body with holy energy.
I take and eat of this gift and it is good.