Growing up without a father in the home those early years didn't phase me all that much. I mean, I missed my dad and I wanted my parents to be married like other kids' parents were, but my day-to-day life was relatively unhindered. One issue that did plague me, however, was that my parents were divorced. From what I'd picked up (from somewhere in our church-centered circle), divorce was a grievous sin, punishable by eternal damnation. This disturbed my impressionable five-year-old mind deeply. I'd learned that divorce was only permissible if infidelity had occurred, so I found some relief in learning that my father had been unfaithful. At least my mother, who was raising me, wasn't going to burn. Of course, I couldn't shake the guilt I felt over the recognition that I was glad that my mother would be saved, even if at the cost of my father's soul. It wasn't that I wanted him to be eternally damned, it's just that I knew her better. This notion that I chose my mother's salvation over my father's haunted me in my teenage years, following my father's early and torturous death from colon cancer.
I was a "Believer". From my earliest memories, I believed in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I believed the bible was the infallible word of God. I believed I was born into the one true church. And I wanted to be good. I couldn't wait to go to heaven. I was told that death would be over and in an instant I would open my eyes to the coming of Christ. I would get to go to heaven, where there was no pain or suffering; no fathers leaving pregnant mothers; no hardworking single mothers leaving their children in the care of babysitters for weeks at a time; no suffering from cancer. I have a vivid memory of standing in the kitchen one sunny afternoon, holding a knife I'd pulled from the kitchen drawer, contemplating the pros and cons of killing myself so that I could skip the living part and go directly to Heaven. I wasn't depressed or suicidal at all. I was just a believer. But, standing there, I realized that it might make my mother sad if I died, and I wasn't totally clear on the whole suicide thing - is it suicide if you're just trying to fast-track it to the streets of gold? So I decided to put the knife down and go out back and play. This is a true story.
I wavered in my faith at times, and tripped up quite a lot on following God's word, but I maintained my deep belief into my early years of motherhood. I wasn't just a blind believer either. I studied my bible. I learned of grace and attempted to practice love and forgiveness... acceptance of others. I become open to the possibility that mine wasn't the one true church, but that God was bigger than that and would make all things clear in the end.
On April 2, 2003, my pastor-husband returned home late from a church leadership meeting with news. I sat on the couch of our little Oxnard home as his words blew through me with a paralyzing chill. A betrayal had occurred. A confusing act of dishonesty, for which we would now stand trial.
I cannot overstate the profound devastation that I felt that night, and in the harrowing months that followed. I recognize that sensation now as shock. It's a feeling of surreality, a separation of your mind from your self. Denial, disbelief, panic, pain, bargaining... all the stages of grief hitting at once in an overwhelming wave of loss. Too much for the mind to process.
Nothing felt safe anymore.
A very precious few extended words of comfort to us during those days. I'll never forget those that did. One was the realtor that handled the sale of our home.
We sold our home in order to use equity to pay off debt to the church conference, but the conference leaders played dirty with the escrow and strong-armed the escrow officer into turning over funds that exceeded their due; funds that, by prior established contract, were the rightful property of my parents. Funds that exceeded $50,000.00. To be more clear, the conference leaders knowingly and effectively stole $50,000.00 from my parents while in the same breath publicly condemning us. And, while they had promised to drop the allegations against us if we repaid our debt to them, they withdrew that promise at the last minute.
It was our realtor that saved us. When he discovered the actions of the conference during the escrow process he was so disgusted that he contacted his friend at the LA Times who agreed to write up an expose of the conference leaders' underhandedness. Then our realtor informed the conference president that the expose would be published that Sunday and there would be picketers outside the conference offices Monday morning if he did not return the money to my parents and withdraw all allegations. The next day we received the call. The official statement from conference leadership was that they had decided to show us grace. I know otherwise.
We lost everything. I lost everything. I lost my home, most of my friends, my church, my denomination, my happy marriage, my sense of safety, my faith in people. I was suddenly more alone than I had ever imagined a person could be. I prayed. I cried. I worked my ass off to keep my children fed and housed. I sank in my soul-hollowing despair. I retreated from all relationships. I developed anxiety about answering the phone, checking the mail, or logging into the bank accounts.
In the years following our traumatic exit from the church, I sought answers to my questions about religion, God, the Bible, faith. How could a loving church, built on an act of grace, be so cruel and condemning? So quick to discard us?
Initially, I craved the familiar comfort of church. I found a grace-oriented non-denominational church to attend for a while. It was great. The people were so friendly, the praise music was inspiring, the women's fellowship group was very active, and they even had a cafe! The pastor knew of our history (thanks to a letter he had received) and accepted us anyway. I thought maybe I was safe. But, it was there, the spiritual comparisons and judgements being made. The homeschooling moms looking down on the traditional schoolers. The frequent attendees questioning the spirituality of the sporadic visitors. The awkward alter calls. It was subtle but I could still feel it, the sense that these people were just as likely to be in the crowd at the next heretic burning as those that were at ours.
Then there was the day at a women's breakfast event when the ladies passed around a petition to sign for the preservation of the sanctity of marriage (i.e., the opposition of gay marriage). That little twinge of discomfort I had been feeling rushed to the surface. It was wrong. I knew this action was wrong. It wasn't what a loving God would want. But it was what the God of the Bible required; at least as I understood it. The conflict was so blaring and obvious that it could not be ignored. Not by me. Not anymore. That could not be my religion. If it meant my eternal damnation, then so be it. I could not turn my back on real, raw humans, who needed love, just because an ancient book seemed to tell me to.
I followed my questions. I read. I studied. I read, 'If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person,' by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, and 'End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation,' by Sam Harris. I read parenting books like, 'Kids are Worth It,' by Barbara Coloroso. I researched homosexuality. I researched the origins of the Bible, how it came together at the hands of both religious and political powers-that-be, motivated by agendas of manipulating the masses. I considered the findings of modern science and its inability to support biblical accounts. The more I read, the more I let go of the belief. The more I learned, the more I understood how little I knew; that there was no religion, no human, that had the whole truth. No perfect book. I let go of my understanding of God and faith. I concluded that if a truly loving God did exist, he would not punish and condemn; rather, he would love and restore. I decided that, as a human, I was gifted with life, and with that gift I was given the ability to choose how I wanted to live among the rest of humanity. I concluded that, if my actions or beliefs failed to reflect love, they should be questioned. I realized that the only way to grow and learn was to be open to new information and willing to adjust my beliefs accordingly.
And I concluded that the only thing I truly believed in was love. True, blazingly honest, empathetic, selfless, restorative LOVE.