After my last blog post where I touched on some of the ways that my evangelical Christian background damaged me, I received an email from a woman I deeply admire and respect. She is a mother of five who I used to babysit for when I was in high school and whom I have remained in contact with over the years. I actually thought of her as I wrote my last post, knowing that she subscribes to my blog and would read it. Honestly, I was worried that some of the things I said there would be hurtful to her or would cause her to see me differently. What I wrote was true and I have no desire to hide that, but there is a part of me that just hates letting people down. So when I received her email in my inbox, I opened it with some hesitation. I was worried. This woman is tremendously gracious. I was not afraid she would berate me or say anything unkind. I was, however, afraid she might be disappointed. Imagine my surprise when I opened her email and found it overflowing with gratitude for sharing my story. She shared with me that she had recently been struck by the realization that she had become one of those people I talked about – looking for the right formula to raise kids to be Christ-followers. Imposing certain protocols to ensure their safety from the secular world. “I naively believed that I could single-handedly keep them from the world (pardon the drama). No account for individual personalities or even more, God’s faithfulness. I believed that they could skip over the part about being insecure, faking it, etc. if only we did things a certain way. This has been a tremendous burden.” In the end she asked me to share any advice I had for her as a mother. I was blown away by her candor and her graciousness and deeply humbled that she would ask for my thoughts. Me in all my 25 year old wisdom. Ha.
I will be the first person to tell you that I am not in any way qualified to give advice. Probably not about life in general and certainly not about parenting. However, I have spent the eight years since leaving my parent’s home and my charismatic evangelical church trying to forge a way into adulthood. In many ways I am still trying to do this. I can’t speak authoritatively about what it means to be a parent, or even what it means to be an adult, a Christian, a woman. All I can do is speak from my own experience. I wanted to share a little bit of my ongoing conversation with this woman. I have spent much of the past few years grappling with my faith, my evangelical upbringing and the corresponding unhealthy understanding of God, of myself, of the church that I developed. I am only just starting to write about these things, but I believe that writing about them is a crucial part of the process for me. Another crucial element is dialogue. It is continuous conversation with others, throwing around ideas, trying to put words to the wrongs we’ve suffered, to the pain we’ve caused, to the grace we’ve received. It’s something I cannot do alone. So I am sharing it.
The following is an excerpt from a long email I sent back to this mother. This friend.
“Maybe it isn’t possible to avoid the struggles so common to adolescence and young adulthood. Maybe struggling with identity, with insecurity, with our bodies and with the pressure of the expectations of others is unavoidable. Because even if we remove ourselves from the world’s version of these things, they emerge again in different ways- inside of the church, in the youth group, in homeschool groups, in families.
Sometimes, in trying so hard to teach kids the ‘right’ way to act, I think what we have inadvertently communicated is that these actions are what make us holy. That these actions are the mark of true believers. In trying to teach children to act rightly, we’ve become judgmental of others, assuming that certain actions we don’t approve of indicate the state of their hearts.
We try to tell our children not to judge others based on how they look, but we do it all the time. And I think the worst part of this is that we aren’t just judging what sort of personality they have or whether they are nice or not, we are judging their hearts and their relationship with God based on outward elements we have come to believe are signs of rebellion or impurity. Who are we to judge other people’s hearts that way? That’s not the biblical principle of looking at the “fruit” in someone’s life. We aren’t looking at people and asking, “Are they kind? Are they patient? Are they full of grace towards others? Do they speak with wisdom? Are they humble?” We are looking at people and saying, “Are they dressed the way I think a Christian should dress? Are they listening to music I think a Christian should listen to?”
Something that really shaped me in my tween and teen years was the implication that the only thing keeping me from all sorts of inappropriate behavior was my parents’ strictness. That their vigilance was all that stood between me and a life of sin. This was something I inferred, not something they ever said to me, but regardless of what made me feel that way, it simply wasn’t true…. No, I don’t think they should have let me do whatever I wanted, but I had a genuine desire to do right. While my parents always verbally affirmed that they trusted me and that it was the world and others they didn’t trust, their actions communicated that they didn’t. Jonathan has often commented in conversations we’ve had about my childhood and adolescence that my parents seemed to act out of fear a lot when it came to making decisions. From the outside it looked very much like they didn’t trust me to make good decisions. And I think that’s true. And as a result, I also came to believe that I couldn’t make good decisions. But I wanted to be good and I wanted to please my parents and please God. So the only way I knew to accomplish that was to hold fast to what I did know – follow the rules that have been set for you and don’t associate with anyone who doesn’t follow them. I knew how my parents and the church leaders responded to people who didn’t act the way they expected them to. And I didn’t want my parents or leaders to ever look at me the way they looked at those people. So there was always an incredible amount of pressure to act the way they expected me to act. So much of my “right” actions were not based on the conviction that this was the right way to act, but were based on fear that if I didn’t act the way I knew the church leaders and my parents expected me to act, my heart and my intentions would be judged.
And the thing that really bothers me is that these prescribed actions are so arbitrary. They are man-made distinctions. Being modest is biblical, but it’s the evangelical subculture that has decided that wearing spaghetti straps means your heart is impure. (Not to mention how this kind of judgment skews our perspective of our bodies and of our sexuality, but that is another enormous topic for another time). ”
I love my parents dearly and I know that in every parenting decision they made they genuinely were doing the best they could at the time. This isn’t about pointing fingers or calling anyone out or living in the past. What it is about is healing and growing. It’s about dialoguing with a new generation of parents (which many of my friends are newly a part of or on the cusp of joining) about ways we can change. It’s about wrongs we can acknowledge, lies we can reject, judgment we can stop passing. It is about hope we can have, grace we can extend, and life we can give. I don’t know where all of my questions about faith and Christianity and God and the church will ultimately take me, but I think it starts here with an honest conversation.