Spiritual Wilderness & The Fallout of Spiritual Trauma

I very carefully consider the content I push out into the world. I think about things like- is this my story to tell? will this breathe life or bring destruction? is this something that needs to be shared or should I hold this one close to my chest? what is my purpose in sharing this? My hope is always that what I share eventually brings life, but that doesn't always mean I share uplifting or easy to digest content. I like to talk about hard things, about the things we are supposed to be ashamed to talk about. Most of the time, the easiest thing for me to do would be stay silent, but I also like to try and normalize experiences that people may feel alone in. If you are experiencing something, the odds are somebody else has experienced it or is experiencing it. You are not alone. And for that reason, I keep sharing. I don't write for the approval of others or for recognition, I write for the person sitting behind their computer feeling very alone, because I know what it is to be that person.

Saved on my laptop are pages and pages and pages of my thoughts, experiences, and unanswered questions from a lifetime in the evangelical church. Many of those stories will never see the light of day because they aren't my stories to tell or they are too deeply personal. Yet, in the depths of my heart and mind, I keep coming back to sharing this one experience- of living in the spiritual wilderness. I can't stop thinking about it and I get a lump in my throat every time I sit down to write about it, which is a good indication that I need to do it. I've held back from sharing because I can already hear the holier-than-thou church-folk saying this wilderness is my own fault..."God doesn't move away from us, we move away from him" is a phrase I hear on repeat in the back of my mind. I've held back because I have a lot of shame tied up with this part of my journey. I've held back because the end of this story has yet to be lived. I am still in the vast uncertainty, still wandering, still moving slowly through the fog, though I do think I can see some light starting to peek through the dust. Nobody ever warned me that there may come a point in my faith journey where I stood at the edge of everything I had ever believed wondering if any of it was real. I don't remember the Sunday School lesson about what to do when you can't explain why you believe what you do other than somebody told you it was what you should believe. But that's where I've ended up over the past several months. 

While I think there are a lot of reasons that people end up in the space I'm in, and I have certainly made decisions over the years that contributed to my own spiritual unraveling, I also think my experience with spiritual trauma shaped my eventual slam into the brick wall of uncertainty. For those of you unfamiliar with the term "spiritual trauma", it is essentially trauma experienced at the hands of the church, a particularly controlling doctrine, a faith community, or a religious leader. Nothing is quite as destabilizing as the experience of having something that is so central to your identity, such as your faith or faith community, unapologetically inflict immense pain. After my own experience with spiritual trauma many years ago, I found myself asking if this is who the church is, something so vastly contradictory to what I believed it to be, is anything else I've experienced here true? 

While I certainly don't have all the answers, I want you to know that being in the wilderness does not mean you are broken. Having doubts or questions does not make you a heretic. It doesn't mean you have become "lukewarm" or apathetic. It just means you are human. And despite your urge to stuff down those thoughts as far as you can, that is not the way out. Addressing them head on is the way out. When we pretend these thoughts and feelings do not exist, when we avoid dealing with them, they linger just under the surface seeping further and further into our being. I know, because that's exactly what I tried to do- ignore them and pretend that they would just go away. Here are the things that I've found helpful that I would encourage you to do as well. Seek answers. Find a community and take refuge with those who get it. Find a spiritual mentor who has been through something similar, is on the other side, and will not shame you for being human. Have lots of grace for yourself. Keep an open mind. Wait. Make space for God. Keep showing up. 

I continue to pray because I have faith that there is purpose in the wilderness. I continue to meditate believing that God will speak into this "season". I continue to praise because God has proved himself faithful over and over again in my life. Sometimes just showing up, continuing to put one foot in front of the other, is the way out. 

 

Saturday- from The Liturgists (audio available here)

It will bother you off and on, like a rock in your shoe, 
Or it will startle you, like the first crash of thunder in a summer storm, 
Or it will lodge itself beneath your skin like a splinter, 
Or it will show up again—the uninvited guest whose heavy footsteps you’d recognize anywhere, appearing at your front door with a suitcase in hand at the worst. possible. time. 
Or it will pull you farther out to sea like rip tide, 
Or hold your head under as you drown— 

Triggered by an image, a question, something the pastor said, something that doesn’t add up, the unlikelihood of it all, the too-good-to-be-trueness of it, the way the lady in the thick perfume behind you sings “Up from the grave he arose!” with more confidence in the single line of a song than you’ve managed to muster in the past two years. 

And you’ll be sitting there in the dress you pulled out from the back of your closet, swallowing down the bread and wine, not believing a word of it. 

Not. A. Word. 

So you’ll fumble through those back pocket prayers—“help me in my unbelief!”—while everyone around you moves on to verse two, verse three, verse four without you. 

You will feel their eyes on you, and you will recognize the concern behind their cheery greetings: “We haven’t seen you here in a while! So good to have you back.” 

And you will know they are thinking exactly what you used to think about Easter Sunday Christians: 
Nominal. 
Lukewarm. 
Indifferent. 

But you won’t know how to explain that there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home: 

“What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?” 

And you won’t know how to explain why, in that moment when the whisper rose out of your mouth like Jesus from the grave, you felt more alive and awake and resurrected than you have in ages because at least it was out, at least it was said, at least it wasn’t buried in your chest anymore, clawing for freedom. 

And, if you’re lucky, someone in the car will recognize the bravery of the act. If you’re lucky, there will be a moment of holy silence before someone wonders out loud if such a question might put a damper on Easter brunch. 

But if you’re not—if the question gets answered too quickly or if the silence goes on too long—please know you are not alone. 

There are other people signing words to hymns they’re not sure they believe today, other people digging out dresses from the backs of their closets today, other people ruining Easter brunch today, other people just showing up today. 

And sometimes, just showing up -  burial spices in hand -  is all it takes to witness a miracle.