Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On Jesus and Hanging Out with Heathens

The more I've been honest about the state of my faith, the more I seem to be making friends with a certain type of person, atheists and agnostics and all types of religious dissenters. Sometimes this worries me. Regardless of the fact that I haven't been to church for the better part of a year, I like to think I still have a reputation to uphold. I like to think there are people there who still see me as a "good person" or "true Christian" or at least as someone who hasn't completely gone off the deep end. My fear is that my new friends threaten the legitimacy of these notions.

But almost as soon as I think of all this, a pesky familiar image comes to mind, of Jesus surrounded by people who weren't approved by the religious authorities. From the stories I grew up hearing, he seemed to have quite a reputation for this. But he also seemed to genuinely not give a damn what anybody thought. He followed his own convictions and let people talk.


The difference, of course, between the Jesus of the stories and I, is that he was supposedly sinless and I am not. He could not be accused of the faults people found in his friends, but I can.

On the surface, I am afraid I will be guilty by association, that the unbelief of others will implicate me as a dangerous dissenter too. But the truth is that I am really afraid of being unmasked. Because when it comes to heathens, I am one, at least according to the only version of faith I have ever known.

This is not easy for me to come to terms with. I would like to think that I am just that saintly, that like Jesus I am willing to hang out with "the least of these" out of complete compassion and with no thought of my reputation. But I do think of my reputation, regularly, and my friendships have been more out of shared experience than my own altruism.

So when I feel shame at being associated with people the Church would not approve of, it is myself I am ashamed of, it is my own secrets I fear to have uncovered. The friends I am afraid of having, the ones the Church might warn me against, they are the very ones my soul most needs. They clean out my closets and challenge my assumptions. They open my eyes to the truth of my own backsliding/awakening (whichever you prefer). They're no more Jesus than I am, but they heal me just the same.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Coming Out : I art journal in the Bible.

This post is part of a series on spirituality and coming out. You can read the rest here.

***

I thought I was done with these posts. I thought I had released everything I needed to in order to live openly in my spiritual identity. But it turns out there was one more thing: I art journal in the Bible.

I got the idea from my friend Jamie, who bravely and openly does found poetry using the Bible. I loved the sound of that and suddenly had an urge to try blackout poetry in the Bible, something I had just begun to experiment with. But honestly, doing it in the Bible sounded a little crazy and kind of sacrilegious. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn't.  

I was mulling it over a few days later when a Jehovah's Witness came to my door. They come regularly and ask all sorts of questions, but for some reason the woman that knocked this time was especially concerned about whether I used my Bible. At the end, as she walked away from my doorstep, she turned and said one last time, "Use your Bible!" 

After that, it was a done deal. I started the next week and have now done dozens of pages. I collage and watercolor and paint and write and draw and do blackout poetry. I process all sorts of things, spiritual and otherwise, in a safer, more abstract way than I can with writing alone. It has been a completely cathartic experience for me all the way through, something I look forward to, my own little form of doubter's art therapy.


I once treasured the Bible. It was my air, my water, my manna from heaven. Then things got really complicated really quickly. Soon my water was drowning instead of nourishing me. But I kept diving back in again and again and again, begging the water to heal me even as it killed me. Finally, one day I came out of the water and didn't get back in.

But now I am returning to the Bible in a wholly unexpected way, one that is much more healthy for me. I am not forcing it to solve all my problems or answer all my questions or magically make me someone I am not. I'm just letting it exist and be what it is and letting myself do the same in its pages. I'm finding this is healing old wounds.

I don't mean to offend. I don't want to desecrate something that is holy to you and I really don't want to trivialize the importance of scripture in your personal spiritual journey. 

But I also don't want to live in fear and shame. I don't want to go out of my way to keep secret something that has been so positive for me. I don't want to talk a big talk with my friends about living out loud and then deliberately hide any proof of my passions before the guests come over. I don't want to take a picture of what I am learning and then remember I can't share it because the truth of my spiritual journey might be offensive.


There is plenty in my life to keep secret. I have lots of opinions on lots of things that I don't feel the need to make public. But shame is not a good reason for keeping secrets.

This crazy, heretical thing that I'm doing, this art journaling in the Bible, I am not done with it yet. I'm just at the end of Exodus now and my commitment to this peculiar spiritual practice of mine is only growing. I've never been much of a visual artist, so my pages are rarely beautiful or even aesthetically pleasing. But the mess-making and truth-telling and meaning-finding and Self-being happening in those pages? On my best days, it's really something to be proud of.   

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Women on Writing : Beth Morey

I can't believe we're already into the sixth Women on Writing interview. I've learned so much from each of these women and interviewee six, Beth Morey, is no exception. Beth is a talented blogger, author, and artist. Her words are frequently fearless and powerful, even on the darkest of subjects. I hope her responses here today empower you as much as they have me. As always, you can check out the rest of the Women on Writing interviews here


***

Tell me about your blogging journey. How did you get started and why do you keep at it? 

I got in on blogging almost as soon as the medium emerged. A free online instant-publishing-gratification journal?  I was soin, even though I didn't quite know what to do with my Livejournal blog that I started the summer after I graduated from college. I didn't get more serious about blogging until November 2007, when I began (ironically, considering that I was soon to be diagnosed with a devastating eating disorder) food blog.

That food blog, however, soon naturally transformed into an online record of my grapple with said eating disorder.  Though blogging, I not only met many kindred souls who were also fighting against the ED beast, but also found a great measure of healing. There is just something special about writing your heart out, and then posting it for all the world to see.  It felt very validating. 
When my daughter, our first child, died without warning within my womb and was then stillborn in November 2011, it felt very natural to turn to my blog once again for healing. About a week after birthing her body, I wept over my keyboard as I tapped out her stillbirth story -- and kept on writing about the journey of grief, and then of pregnancy and parenting after babyloss. It wasn't until about mid-2013 that I finally began to feel that I had written as much as I needed to of that experience. I won't say that I'm  fully healed, because how can a mother's heart ever fully heal from that sort of loss? But I do know that I have achieved a great deal of healing, and blogging played a very large role in that.

This is why I keep at it -- because it is healing for me. It helps me to process in a way that journaling does not.  And it also has, without my meaning for it to, become something of a ministry to others. There is something so powerful about that "me, too" -- of hearing that you are not alone in whatever you are going through. Words have the power to change the world; words have the power to change one person's world; words change my world. This is why I blog.

Image by Jennifer Upton
What would be your ideal writing environment? How do you make time and space in your life for the practice of writing?

Blogging is very natural for me. I feel a sort of soul-pressure, and words start forming in my head, and I know I have to get them out, so I blog. It's enjoyable and therefore I don't have to "make" myself do it.  I find the time to blog when my son is sleeping.

Writing novels, on the other hand, takes much more resolve. I make appointments with myself and keep them, set word count goals and then meet them. We have recently invested in a half day of daycare for our son -- which he adores, but makes my mama guilt flare! -- so that I can write.

As for my ideal writing location -- I write mostly at coffee shops right now, which I love except that they usually tend to have distractingly loud music. I'd write outdoors if there was an outlet plug handy and an umbrella to sit under so there wouldn't be a glare on my laptop screen. My ideal spot would have tables and chairs to write at, but also a squashy chair so that I can hunker down and get cozy if I needed to. Also, something yummy to drink is good.



Image by Jennifer Upton
Though much of your writing addresses darker themes, you describe your upcoming novel as "the ideal beach read." How do you balance the light and dark of your creative identity?

Ha! I think people familiar with my blog will find my novel, The Light Between Us, surprising. It really is light and fun -- it's a new adult romance, after all. But at the same time, there is a certain depth and texture to the characters, which balances the silly fun of a romance. I try to make it a more "real" romance, complete with some of life's quirks and hurts.

I think that I grew up with an inappropriate expectation of life, perhaps born of the American dream -- I thought that if I was good, life would be good to me. But life is hard and painful and unfair, at times anyway. I tried to find some of that balance in my novel, while also keeping it entertaining.

I guess that authenticity is the answer to your question. When I am joyful, I say so. When I am anguished, I say so. There's room for all of it, and both the hard stuff and the light can coexist in the same moment.

What authors or works most inspire your writing?

Anne Lamott, Neil Gaiman, and Audrey Niffennegger are my big three -- I would love to become as skilled at writing and telling textured stories as they are. I also adore the poetry Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Mary Oliver, and David Whyte.

If you could give one piece of advice to budding writers what would it be?


Your words matter. The stories -- true or made-up -- that live inside you matter. Your creative dreams matter, and are worth pursuing.  Set aside time to pursue them, even if it's hard or petrifying or "impractical." It is more impractical to have your soul, with its unchased dreams, shrivel up within you.

***

Beth writes, paints, and dreams in Montana.  She is the author of the creative healing workbook Life After Eating Disorder, and is the owner of Epiphany Art Studio.  Her words and art have appeared in various publications, such as Somerset Studio, Still Standing Magazine, Wild Goslings, and Disney's Family Fun.  In addition to her quirky little family and their three naughty dogs, Beth is in love with luscious color, moon-gazing, and dancing wild.  Her upcoming novel, The Light Between Us, releases June 14.  She writes soul into flesh at her blog, and is saving the world at Act Small, Think Big.   

Monday, June 9, 2014

Spread the Love (blog tour)

My dear kindred friend Jamie, a lovely writer-poet-artist who makes amazing found poetry art (below), tagged me in this blog tour and so of course I said yes. Here goes.

art by Jamie
1) What are you currently working on? 

Right now, I'm studying a lot for the GRE, which isn't at all creative, but creativity is the end result. It's the very first step to pursuing a Master's degree in creative writing, which is something I've been tossing around for a long time. My undergrad degree is in literature, so it's up my alley, but also a huge challenge because I've never actually seen myself as particularly creative. We'll see where it goes. Like Wendell Berry says, I'm trying to be willing to make a few tracks in the wrong direction.

I'm also always conjuring up stuff for my blog, or writing posts for other places. I try to art journal regularly as an additional creative outlet. And I facilitate discussions and meetings for Doubters Anonymous, which definitely has a creative element to it that I enjoy.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I'm not sure that my work has a genre. Basically everything that I find myself creating these days comes out of this intense experience I've had with doubt and how it has transformed me, whether that's manifest through writing, or art journaling for myself, or running a little support group. I guess I feel like my work right now is raising my son and living my life in a truthful way, following all the rabbit holes I feel compelled to jump down and letting them lead me where they may. So far, they have led me to just be present and honest here in the midst of doubt and spirituality and mystery and see what happens. And I don't hear a lot of people talking about doubt in the way I have experienced it. I don't see a lot of people exploring and embracing it as a spiritual practice and sharing that perspective out loud. So I guess that's what I have to offer.

3) Why do you write/create what you do?

Mostly because I can't not. Writing came knocking on my door and just wouldn't let me breathe until I got the words out, specifically when it came to my doubts, which then freed me to write even more. It's kind of a never ending circle where the more you're processing, the more you have to write, and the more you write, the more there is to process. So art journaling and Doubters Anonymous followed quickly after that, because I found I needed a private place to wrestle through my questions more abstractly, and I also felt compelled to provide a safe place for other doubters to wrestle through things together. Who is it that says, "Write the words you most need to hear?" I guess I am creating the things I most need to have, and trusting that others out there have the same needs.

4) How does your writing/creating process work?

I wish I could say I was more disciplined, because every one says creativity is about showing up and sitting your butt in the chair. I am very fortunate that our current lifestyle does not require me to make an income. So my creativity is largely driven by my own inspiration, which mostly comes on walks or washing dishes or playing with my son, and then drives me crazy until nap time or bedtime when I can finally get the words down. I do generally make a practice of setting some deadlines and schedules for myself. I'm a slow, meticulous writer, though, so I try not to overcommit and to leave lots of room for life to be lived. 

More than anything, I just try to be aware of the life that I'm living and to keep my eyes open for new insights into the things I am processing, whether that be through books or blog posts or conversations or my son curling up in my lap. Life itself usually gives me more than enough inspiration for any of my creative endeavors.


Go see Abby and Sarah and Addye on June 16th for more interviews with creative types!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What I Want You to Know About Doubt by Emily Crawford

Emily is dear real-life-look-you-in-the-eyes friend of mine. There are no words for how grateful I am for her regular presence in my life and her willingness to thrash through the hard questions alongside me. Without her support and courage, this little vagabond doubting group of ours would not exist. Despite not being a blogger, she graciously agreed to share her words here for our What I Want You to Know About Doubt link up. I hope you find them as encouraging as I did.

***


I put off writing about this for some time, but when I actually sat down to put words on the page I found it to be easier than I thought. After all, I’ve been having this conversation in some form or another for the past several months as I slowly begin to tell friends, family, and people I used to go to church with about what’s been going on in my life lately.

It’s also a conversation I’ve been having with myself. As I struggle with doubt, countless questions roll around in my head about God, his existence, his nature, the Bible, culture, other religions, etc. But I’ve also found space to ponder doubt itself. In my musings and with the help of fellow doubters, who either are or who have been where I am, I’ve come to see doubt not as a plague or sign of spiritual weakness, which has made all the difference.

So as I continue to struggle with doubt, here are some things you should know that I’ve discovered along the way…

Sometimes I like it.

As terrifying as doubt can be, there is also a side of it that is thrilling and refreshing. Like breaking off from a well-worn path in the woods, there is both the possibility of getting lost and confused and the possibility of finding something amazing. And likely confusion, lostness, and amazingness might all be experienced at the same time, not just one or the other.

This is a little like what doubt feels like to me. Anxiety, hopelessness, hopefulness, excitement, tears, wonder, fear, freedom all wrapped up together. Best of all I occasionally catch glimpses of God that I have been missing for so long, and he doesn’t look the same. I haven’t figured out yet if it is something of my own imaginings or something real. Either way it is just out of reach, which for now keeps me on the hunt.



It is essential for me.

To be frank, I didn’t choose my faith/belief system. It was chosen for me, it was chosen for my parents, and their parents, and so on. Granted, there was probably a measure of choosing involved in staying committed but we all started on a fairly fixed path. And I’m not even saying that I think it should be different, this passing on of traditions and beliefs. It makes sense and we do that with all sorts of things. But maybe doubt is a way of taking back some of the choosing. And maybe that will make whatever I hold onto more valuable and precious and lasting.

It may always be with me.

Like some of my worried friends and family members, I want doubt to be a phase. I want to wrestle for a bit and then move on. I want to figure it out, to be on the hunt but then eventually find something concrete to hold on to. But I’m becoming less and less convinced that this will be the case.

At this point, now in my 30s, I have struggled significantly with doubt at some time in each decade of my life. Not long ago, I was telling a friend that after my last bout with doubt, which took place in my early 20s, I felt I had been “delivered” and would no longer struggle in that particular way. Yet here I am again…back to doubt. This time around, though, I’m a little more comfortable with it, as if it were a familiar thing now.

I ran across an interview with author, Daniel Taylor, who wrote a book called “Skeptical Believer.” He described coming to terms with what he called his inner atheist and even described it like an old friend. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, but thinking about it in those terms brings me a good amount of peace. It also takes the pressure off. Maybe doubt is not something to conquer but to be at peace with as a part of who I am and how I’m made.

As I continue to explain to people in my life about this season of life and the doubt that accompanies it, I know that I will run into those that don’t understand totally. That’s OK. I don’t expect people to. Even when I do encounter people who have experienced doubt in the past, I find it is a little different for everyone. What I do hope is that people might be open to a response other than “What a shame!” This is the response I dread the most. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, that most people I talk to don’t think this way and instead see doubt in more gracious terms. Doubt is hard enough as it is. What a gift to have understanding people to walk alongside. I hope the more we talk about doubt, or any struggle for that matter, the more understanding we will all have for each other.

What I Want You to Know About Doubt
Click here ^ to see the rest of the posts in the link-up

What I Want You to Know About Doubt (a link up!)

Today is the day! It's the What I Want You to Know About Doubt link up, where we share our assorted thoughts on doubt and what we'd like others to know about it. If you'd like to participate just scroll down for the details. You're also welcome to join us here to be part of an ongoing community of doubters wrestling through questions together.

***
There is a lot I could say about doubt. I've spent nearly six years now with the cloud of doubt hanging over my shoulders, sometimes stormy and sometimes wispy, but most days just grey and heavy. I could shake my fingers at you, the outsider, tell you all the things you did wrong, or don't understand. I could tell you how your helping made things worse. This would probably be justified, and maybe even productive. Other people, I hope, will bring those words into the conversation, as they are desperately needed. But the words that keep coming back to me are things I didn't understand as a doubter, the ways I treated myself poorly for far too long. These lessons were hard won, in battles fought slowly over the years through tears and confusion and panic attacks. They are the best words I have to share on the matter, and they are not so much for the outsider as for the insider, my fellow doubter. So be it. This is what I want you to know:

1. Doubt is not something to be ashamed of.

But oh, how I have felt the shame too, for not having enough faith, not being a good enough Christian, not being loved enough to experience God's presence. I have felt shame for talking honestly about my doubts, as if hiding them would make them not exist. I have felt shame for not being able to make the spiritual rules I was taught work. I have felt shame for being a spiritual leper, a constant, visible reminder of unanswerable questions normally relegated to dark closets. And, like a leper, I have known the risk of infecting others, with questions too dangerous to touch.

But now I see that shame, not doubt, is actually the real danger. It makes you do unhealthy things. It makes you push your fears down inside of yourself until they eat away at you from the inside. I threw myself harder into service and scripture and all the things I thought would finally trick God into fixing my sickness. I attempted to pray the doubt away over and over during moments of midnight desperation, my body shaking in fear of death, in fear of where my doubt would send me.

At some point, I had to make a choice, between shame and mental health, between shame and being true to myself. Once I did this, I began to cross paths with other doubters, and I learned to see how healing it can be to witness doubt in others, to talk openly about it with people who have been there, or are there. You start to feel less crazy and alone and ashamed. So eventually, I began to see doubt as a normal healthy part of the spiritual life and I began to prioritize coping and living with my doubt rather than being ashamed of it. Most of all, I learned that my doubts, when shared openly, could be a catalyst of healing for others, rather than a poison. For me, this has made all the difference.


2. Doubt is not something to fix.

I have tried all the miracle cures. I have tried prayers and devotions and volunteering and community and worship and apologetics and just not thinking about it. And in my six years on this journey here is the closest I have come to a cure: acceptance. 

Oh, it has not cured the questions. It has not cured the skepticism or loneliness or social discomfort. But it has helped immensely with the shame and anger.

I spent so many years looking for a backdoor cure, but refused to take even one dose of acceptance for the pain. I think I was afraid acceptance would be like admitting defeat, would be like acknowledging my doubts probably wouldn't miraculously disappear one morning, replaced by the old faith I'd thought I'd have forever. I so wanted the old faith back.

I could have spared myself so many years of pain, if I had seen doubt as a normal process. I could have embraced my questions rather than pounded my fist at them. I could have made a friend out of the hesitant, probing, cautious mind I was created with, rather than an enemy. But I wouldn't take a single day of those years back. And I wouldn't go back to my old faith now if I could. These pesky questions of mine have made me who I am, have created this life, one of depth and creativity and exploration. Fix the doubt and you destroy the complex beauty of this wild life of mine. 

3. Doubt is sacred.

Yes, doubt is painful. It is agonizing and debilitating and heart breaking. Once you feel the bottomless chasm of it way down deep, it is not easily irradicated. It settles. But if you go ahead and invite it in and grab it a cup of tea and let it make itself at home, it can be transforming.

Some people have other catalysts for spiritual awakening. Some people hit rock bottom and meet themselves through death or sickness or abuse or addiction or greed. For me, it was doubt. Because doubt-- persistent, disturbing, unrelenting doubt-- has this way of stripping you of everything you thought made you a person. It destroys all your fantasies of how you earned your own goodness and rightness and merit. It tears an entire layer of false skin from your flesh, leaving you raw and tender and immobilized and angry, because this is not the way things were supposed to go. You thought you had done everything right.

And when you emerge from this divine wrestling match, after you've waved your white flag and surrendered to defeat, there are no easy answers left. All you can do now is move forward and cope. Some days God is closer than your heart pounding in your chest. Some days there surely can be no such being. Some days God is alive in the grass and babies and light against the sheets. Some days the shame and fear and anger come rushing back to you all at once. This is the art of paradox you are learning now. You are learning to exist in the questions, to hold doubt in one hand and the smallest sliver of faith in the other and to let that be enough. 

And if you make it this far, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perfect faith, but endless  mystery. Some days, you feel it before you and within you and wrapping its arms around you and you are not even afraid. On your best days, it feels almost like God. And this, this paradox and mystery and learning to be, it is your spiritual practice. It is the gift doubt gave you.

***

Now it's your turn to share your thoughts on doubt. If you've already written a post, just follow the directions below. If not, it's okay, the link up will stay open until Thursday, June 12th. If you'd like to participate, but don't have a blog or prefer to remain anonymous, email me at alissambc at gmail dot com and I'll happily host you here.

*This link up is now closed.*

What I Want You to Know About Doubt
<a href="http://www.alissabc.com/2014/06/what-i-want-you-to-know-about-doubt.html" target="_blank"><img src="http://oi62.tinypic.com/hum1pz.jpg" alt="What I Want You to Know About Doubt" width="200" height="200" /></a>

Directions:

1. In your post, include the button above or a short note about the What I Want You to Know About Doubt link up.
2. Add your post below, being sure to use the url of your specific post and not that of your main blog page.
3. Take some time this week to visit other posts and comment on those that speak to you. Feel free to share and invite others to participate as well.

Thanks so much for adding your voice to this conversation. I look forward to reading your words!

*This link up is now closed.*