Finding God

The following is a story shared with me by reader, Steve Slocum. His story is similar to many of us: ostracism, family trauma, the reinvention of belief. And a long, hard path to healing. I am grateful for his willingness to share his story here.

Please allow me to allow Steve to introduce himself:

Steve Slocum is the author of “Why Do They Hate Us? Making Peace with the Muslim World” (To be released March, 2019, www.whydotheyhateus.org). He is the founder and executive director of Salaam a nonprofit with the mission of creating friendship and mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Steve is a frequent speaker at churches, conferences, and civic groups.

 

Steve’s story:

I started my freefall into the mystical universe of religion when I was seventeen years old. On campus at the University of Arizona for my freshman year as a mechanical engineering student, I was captivated by the street preachers and began attending daily Bible studies in the grassy area outside of the student union. Like a dry sponge, I soaked up the uncompromising teachings of Jesus about forsaking all to follow him and loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I found in this radical church group both a satisfaction for the spiritual hunger which had been growing inside of me, and the approval that I had missed out on growing up. It was a bad combination. I fell deep.

I checked out from my family of origin and disappeared for two years into a small Bible school in the Midwest. In 1992, with a wife and three kids, I took my whole family to the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan to be missionaries to the Muslim world. The more extreme I became, the more approval I received from the church – and I craved the toxicity like a drug. At home, my marriage was terrible. We hated each other. But as a missionary, I got my first hit of Christian heroin. I was leading an exploding church movement of Muslim background believers. The Christian world took notice. I spoke at conferences, gave interviews, and was featured in a mission’s film. I was a rock star, mainlining on Christian fame.  I loved my life. There was just that nagging thing about my failing marriage.

Even though I was a true believer, I began imperceptibly taking my first steps away from the church. With Kazakhs coming to faith by the hundreds, I became concerned about imparting to them an Americanized faith – a faith tainted from its original purity. I began a fresh reading of the New Testament and performed a thorough sweep of my theology and practices. I wanted to eliminate anything skewed by my American culture.  As my quest continued, I wasn’t fully able to intellectually process my growing awareness of just how much of my understanding was based on the overlay of an American cultural grid on the New Testament passages. I just felt a growing uneasiness and a desire to set the Kazakh believers free to create their own practice.

My passion for allowing the Kazakhs to create their own expression within the context of their own culture led to disagreements with the missionary team leader, who was also the senior pastor of the church there. I ultimately decided that the disagreements were too major, and that I should leave the church and the ministry team. Within a week after telling the senior pastor about my decision, he openly shared specific details about my marital difficulties with the entire church – things that we had privately confided in him – and announced our excommunication. All members and coworkers were forbidden from visiting us. And none did.

At this time, my son was a high school student in the international school there. His teacher, also a member of the ministry team, was instructed by the senior pastor to bear down on my son in order to get him kicked out of the school. This did irreparable damage to his psyche. My son sank into a depression and never recovered. A few years after returning to the United States, he committed suicide.

My faith was coming apart like a rotating planet with the gravity turned off.  I started to realize that the concept of being “born again” was bogus. People who claim to exclusively possess the indwelling Holy Spirit act just the same as the people who don’t.  Myself, included. If we have God living in us, and others don’t, one would expect that we might be a little different, a LOT different.

I tried to hold onto my faith, but the final straw came when I chose to end my marriage. I found it strange that, though none of my Christian leaders and friends had lived a day in my shoes nor would stand before God to answer for me, they all knew that it was categorically sinful for me to end my failed marriage. I realized that they, and I, had been looking at the New Testament as a new Old Testament. Just a bunch of laws and rules. Nothing about the spirit of it.

Back home, I continued to go to church for the sake of my two daughters, but the fabric of the church had changed since we had left more than five years earlier. Now all the sermons seemed to be about the evils of homosexuality and abortion, the need to protect our families from our evil culture, and the need to vote Republican. And this was in 1999.

I left and never looked back.

With a still-forming understanding of God and the meaning of my life, a few things have become a little clearer. I believe now in maximizing my experience in this life, and finding God in her/his creation all around me. Some of the things that help me do that are nurturing the bonds of love in my family connections, deep friendships, and vulnerable communication. Realizing deep and lasting change in my own life and continual growth, absorbing natural beauty, and the arts with all my senses, and surfing.

 

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The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid

The final, as-good-as-I-can-make-it version of my memoir, The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, just swooped through space to my publisher.

After weeks (months?) of editing, reading, proofing, re-reading, re-editing, re-proofing, I am STOKED to be done, at least for now. My dog will be so happy to have my attention again. I am so grateful to those of you who have hung around while I went down the writing rabbit hole. The picture is my proposed cover (yes, that’s me). What do you think?

Pre-orders will be available in early spring. If you want a personal notification when they are available, you are welcome to email me at ronnarussell23@gmail.com and I will put you on the list.

And now, it’s time for a very large glass of wine. Or three.

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces by Dawn Davies grabs your heart from the first page, the first sentence even, and doesn’t let go until the exquisite final paragraph. In turns pee-your-pants hilarious, philosophical, horrifying, wounded, and healed, this close up look into a life resonates deeply. Her descriptions of a lonely childhood, confusing first marriage, the challenges raising children, and her deep love of music ring true.

This book was recommended to me by my editor because of the style in which it is written; stand alone chapters that weave together to create the story of a life, like looking through windows in time. My memoir, currently under construction, is structured similarly. I think maybe my editor wanted to give me something to strive for. Mission accomplished.

Dawn Davies keeps the reader in the palm of her hand, forcing you to think about things you never thought of before, similar to having your eyelids held open with toothpicks. I ached for the narrator even though she never asks for sympathy. I related to her experiences even when the details were foreign and cheered her on throughout. Mothers of Sparta is one of those books that you can’t help but devour even though you know you’re going to be bummed when its over.

Song Of the Day

What song haunts you?

What song sums up your life?

What tunes runs through your head on an endless loop and will not be forgotten?

River of Dreams by Billy Joel is the one for me. Today, anyway.

What’s on your mind today?

Peace Be With You

My new husband goes to a nice little community church. He would never pressure me to go along, but I could tell he wanted to introduce me to his friends there. How bad could it be? Hubby isn’t religious, so the church can’t be too dogmatic. He goes to remember his mother and to see people he cares about. I hadn’t stepped foot in a church service in decades, but I’m not scared of them. I strive to be open-minded, not judge-y or hard-nosed. That’s what I never liked about churches in the first place.

I can handle it. Right? Oy.

To be fair, this church is friendly. I was welcomed warmly. People of all stripes are welcomed here, which is as it should be. I can clearly see the value of gathering together to show gratitude, to participate in peaceful rituals and to sing, combined with a sense of working for the greater good. Members get together to hike and knit and eat. These activities bring a wonderful sense of belonging and contribute to the community at large in valuable ways. Loveliness.

What surprised me was the familiarity of the messages printed on the service sheet. Crucifixion, condemnation of the “wicked,” rapture, virgin birth, creationism, a lesson on finding a capable wife to run your household-wait wtf really?, believers shall prosper but others will not. Us and them, body and blood, sacrifice, sanctification, holy spirit, almighty father, Jesus Christ, lord god holy, holy, holy. What was I expecting? Church is still church.

My skin crawled as the congregation chanted prayers in unison. My head pounded as I tried to reconcile the words on the page with the truly lovely people surrounding me. Do they hear the underlying messages of the words they are speaking? How can they say words out loud without thinking about their meaning? Or do they believe?

I couldn’t do it. I fled.

Out the back and down the steps, I found the bathroom and then followed my nose to a full, unguarded coffee pot. I took (stole) a cup and a handful of creamers. As I gently pushed the church door open and eased it shut behind me, I was met with a face-full of sunshine and fresh morning breeze. First fall leaves skittered down the quiet street as I settled onto a rickety wooden bench tucked in the weeds of an overgrown patio. Steamy sweet coffee warmth filled my nose. Why can’t this be church?

Tension left my body. I will never escape my literal mind. The hellfire trauma of my childhood is best left undisturbed. My very much smarter than me husband goes to church because he has always gone, takes what he needs and leaves the rest. I admire his ability to do so, but I cannot join him there.

After church we got tacos and took the dog for a hike in the woods where we saw some amazing wild mushrooms and a turtle. All is well with my soul.

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Feeling Free

A couple of weeks ago I found myself free to do as I pleased for a few hours on a summer afternoon near a beach. What more could a person want? Souls savor stolen moments.

Signage at the top of the steep wooden staircase read:

Clothing optional

No gawking

No cameras

I already knew the beach was clothing optional, but it was breezy and cool, so I had no intention of stripping. Let other people freeze their naked butts off. The last time I had been to a clothing optional beach, a woman who appeared to be a supermodel stretched out beside me with a friendly smile, her perfect breasts pointing to the sky. I just couldn’t join her.

At the bottom of the steps, a string of brightly colored sarongs caught the wind like wanna-be kites reaching for the brilliant sky. Sand and water swept the horizon before me. I put my phone away, took off my shoes and began to walk, toes digging into the soft sand. Happy as the proverbial clam.

The days prior and the days ahead were busy and emotional. Long awaited visits with my adult children behind me and my long awaited second marriage just ahead, brain and body needed the off switch. Worries, plans, and body aches vanished with the first step.  By the tenth step, I was sweating, because the breeze had also vanished and the sun was flexing its muscles. As I wandered down to firmer sand by the waterline, I noticed several naked bodies.  They were tan everywhere. Some of these folks must be hard core beach nudies. Huh. Not a perfect physique in sight.

I walked as far as the beach allowed and doubled back looking for the right driftwood log to lean against, wondering what it would be like to be naked here. The perfect spot appeared, so I plunked down in the sand, squinting and cursing my lack of sunglasses and empty water bottle. Sweat ran down my back into my underwear as the sun blazed hotter. As I scanned the horizon, a middle aged man sauntered past, penis swinging and free, utterly unselfconscious. Huh.

I furtively slipped out of my clothes and spread out my sweatshirt to sit on, unwilling to get sand absolutely everywhere. I glanced around. No one was anywhere near me, no one to see or care, so I settled back to watch the clouds and waves. I noticed that the breeze wasn’t entirely gone; I could feel it gently caress my body in places that had never felt fresh air before. My skin felt grateful and cool.

As the rhythm of the waves lulled my senses and swept out my brain cobwebs, someone with clothes on walked by and glanced quickly away with an awkward jerk of his head. Wonder what his problem is I thought, having already forgotten I didn’t have any clothes on. Oh yeah, I’m naked, I smiled to myself and felt sorry for him in his heavy cotton tee shirt and cargo shorts.

How did I come to be comfortable in my own naked bag of skin in my fifties after a lifetime of excruciating self-loathing? I was taught shame as a fact, that my female body was an offense, dangerous if uncovered, an abomination if fat, a death sentence if used. I carried those judgements like chains, even in my defiance of them. I don’t care anymore. Those chains may have left a few scars, but somewhere along the way they dropped off.

I wonder at the weight we carry sometimes. We can change inner dialogue from defensiveness to openness; allow others to carry their own opinions, their judgements, their perspectives without hefting the load. We can show ourselves compassion, too.

Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I would add, it is the mark of a free mind, as well.

I can’t wait to see if Facebook deems my knee and shoulder inappropriate.

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This Place Feels Sticky

I remembered something.  There was this weird thing that happened to me a lot in the Pentecostal church, so it must have happened to others, too. Maybe it happened to me more often since I ran wild on bible college campuses as a child. I don’t know.

Men would offer to be my boyfriend.  They would call me their girlfriend in intimate and flirtatious ways and pretend to want to date me. I usually knew they were not serious, but to have the attention of grown men as a ten or twelve year old girl was confusing and head-turning stuff.

Now I know their words were sexual predation. Grooming, if you will.  Had any of those men, most only eighteen or nineteen themselves, some older, had a more nefarious bent and tried to corner me in a dark room, I would have complied.  I would not have thought to resist.

As #MeToo moments go, being noticed in sexually or romantically suggestive ways by men is “not that bad.” I was never raped, have no violence to report, no molestation, no physical contact, except for that once, but I knew no one would believe me. And yet… I remember them all.

My value as a human was defined from day one by my appearance and my sexual value.  “You’re going to be beautiful when you grow up,” they would say, with a glance up and down, while everything sexual was condemned and shamed within the cult of the United Pentecostal Church.  Sex education was non-existent, information forbidden, genitals unnamed, normal developmental desires were an unspeakable sin punishable by the fires of hell. They were not joking.

Add in the Biblical philosophy of the second class nature of women and the demand for their submission, acquiescence, and silence.  The female body was vile and a dangerous threat; our shoulders and kneecaps an abomination to the eye, designed to tempt unwitting men. Scriptures seemed to be full of stories of women whose offense was to be curious or smart or beautiful (Eve, Lot’s wife, Jezebel) and they were always killed or banished for their infractions. Jezebel had the audacity to decorate herself and so was fed to dogs. Her story was a little more complicated than that, but the Sunday School literature blamed it on makeup and jewelry.

But, still, be pretty. Be pretty and wait to get laid by your future husband, a man of god who will pick you to have his children and play his piano. The scrutiny of every detail of females’ appearance played into this culture of sexualization, even of children. Our only value was sexual; our sexuality was also our shame. What a twisted fucking message.

In defense of those males, except for that one who knew better, they were victims of the same culture. I doubt any of them gave a second thought to the things they said to the Bible college campus child-pet and would probably be horrified to have their words marked as predatory or even inappropriate. Who knows what they got out of it.

“A woman’s body always stands on the outskirts of town, verging on uncivilization. A thin paper gown is all that separates it from the wilderness. Half of its whole being is devoted to remembering how to live in the woods. This is why Witch, this is why Whore, this is why Unlucky and this is why Unclean. This is why attempts to govern the female body always have the feeling of a last resort, because the female body is fundamentally ungovernable.”   —from Priestdaddy, a memoir by Patrick Lockwood

Of all of the books I’ve read that I wish I had written, this is the one I wish I had written the most.