One of my new roommates surprised me yesterday by saying I was very ambitious and wondering where it came from.
Every new person in your life sees you from a different angle, I think, and has the capacity to surprise you with what they see.
“Well,” I said after thinking a second, “I think I’m just fueled by a lot of…rage?”
On my better days, the fuel can be kindness. Mostly it’s rage, though. Which is different than the righteous, slower kind of anger, to me at least. Rage is anger on fire. Rage against systems and my own shortcomings and apathy in any form while it also festers within me. Rage that fuels spurts of intense activity and causes me to crash, often publicly, and retreat in shame until I am angry enough to risk failure again.
Much like a wounded, dangerous animal, I am hurting and confused enough (about Christianity, about policy, about the environment, about anything else I’ve decided to carry that does not belong to me) to be dangerous, so I have tried to corral and contain my anger to keep it from biting anyone.
And that rage causes an internal conflict that I wouldn’t wish on anybody, because it makes you feel ugly. But I know other people have it going on within them too, because I’ve had so many whispered late-night kitchen and stoop talks and mostly confessional Facebook message conversations with other wonderers in the past year, asking:
I know that we are in a messed-up human family, and that the church is part of it, but how much is regular and how much is genuine dysfunction that could be addressed and healed?
Friends who ask: I know that I am bi and belong to God as I am, wholly, but will I ever find people who will embrace me in that without denomination-level conditions to their love?
How do I cultivate a private, dependent faith on a God whose name is invoked by people in this family to wound, exclude, isolate, and leave on the church’s stoop to die?
Another thing about rage: it burns up your pool of energy very quickly, like the cardboard I drenched with lighter fluid in my little backyard fire pit here on the night of Halloween to start a bonfire. It is bright, smoky, odorous, and very warm and cathartic. But then there’s a pile of ashes and you have nothing left to kept you warm in the cold darkness.
So I have the rage. But I’ve also read enough books and received enough rebuke and looked into myself enough to know some other things that factor into it.
I cannot ask other Christians to be what I cannot be myself. (Kind, welcoming, sacrificial, trusting.) It is unfair. I can hope they will be, though.
At some point, I will need to relinquish my contempt and cynicism and replace it with a softness and gentleness in order to be able to move forward from where I am now. I fully aware that is the bus I need to get on eventually.
There may not exist a church community that fully wants my button-pushing (when it’s the good kind, not the mean kind) because most church communities in America I have known are held together on the surface by not pushing the buttons. It’s how the peace is kept.
I have been perceived – real, imagined – as a threat to power in churches (held by older, white, wealthier men) and as I grow gentler but more solid in how my faith informs which buttons I push, I may be excluded from communities that cannot bear the weight of my particular perceived urgencies. And oughtn’t. See: Anne Hutchinson. I will never be as brave as she was, but her story gives me strength.
Also, no one at a church has ever gone to a service with the express thought of excluding, rebuking or isolating me. Most people at church are just doing their best. Trying to be kind, showing up for the bread and wine, dealing with their problems, wrangling their children, saying hello. Teachings like “sell all you have and give it to the poor” are ignored in exchange for “Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.” The personal restorative Jesus is more attractive than the justice-restorative one. One requires more external effort. I forget I need to believe in both Christs.
I am too contrary to go to church. I have the (inevitably incorrect) creeping suspicion that it will make the Christian-y-er people in my love who love me too happy. Church: 1; Joanna’s anger: 0, ha-ha, you lose again, you disobedient rebel. But: welcome back. Please be good again and play with our kids and don’t bother anyone else about gay people and you can keep belonging and being liked. The buzzer sounds and Americanized Christianity wins again. Now would you like to sponsor a Compassion child so you can assuage your conscience like we have? I know my bitter suspicions are mostly untrue, see: point above. I am significant, but not monitored so much that my “return” would be perceived as a victory for people who have gleefully informed me they’re been praying for me, like that’s something subversive to do. What is it about prayer without consent that can make a person so smug?
I am also tired, in advance, of embedding into a community again, being hurt, rejected; bringing shame to myself for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in anger, inevitably too loudly; of bristling against the slowness of the spiritual growth of a community. I shudder at the call to patience and faith when twisted, misused or ignored Christian teachings are causing pain and death to people down the street from the church building I’d be in.
On the “return.” I have always, always identified as the older brother in the prodigal son story. The goody-goody who gets mad when someone else gets the same love as me even though I behaved better. Perhaps the funniest variation on that has been in recent shifts, when I am upset that God loves homophobe pastors as much as she loves me in my perceived LGBTQ trenches with my sleeves rolled up. And now, for the first time, I adopt the shame of the younger brother. The runaway. The One Who Will Eventually Come Back. I think I’d always been taught that story incorrectly. Mainly because I don’t adhere to the belief that the spiritual life happens in a linear time-space continuum. But also because there would be no story or transformation – what God names redemption – without the younger brother leaving, seeking. This story, and many spiritual growth stories, are told as a piece of music: A B A. The Correct Place, the Minor Key Diversion, and The Correct Place as Home and The End. I think that does the concept of spiritual growth a gross disservice.
My evolving beliefs about hell, my dabbling in considering Universalism – which really isn’t that insane so everybody calm down – and my thoughts about missions and evangelism would label me a heretic in almost every circle I’ve traveled in in my life thus far. This is not savory. To hold unattractive views means being ready to defend at all times, even to people who love me best who only seek to understand and not change my views. Ironic, remembering studying More Than a Carpenter and The Case for Christ – tools Christian youth groups gave in order to defend – as if I were heading into a secular battle every day. A twisting of “Always be ready to give an answer” as “Always be ready to crush a prepared answer into someone’s wound before fully listening to them.” This is exhausting, enough to make me long for a simpler time in my thinking where people were sorted into Goodies and Baddies buckets and I could sleep at night knowing which one I belonged to.
Whenever I am most lost in my rage, I am fully aware it is because I have dropped my eyes from being fixed on the primal, dangerous, blood-sacrifice, destruction God who also creates and heals and saves. I lose sight of the important thing, the reality of who I hypothetically worship. I am usually afraid that when I find him again he will not be who I want. He will be the God who wants me to behave better; the God who does actually want to smite The Gays; the God who punishes, the God who is secretly nothing like the God I have tangibly encountered and been changed by. I am afraid he will be the God who has been wielded against me. I know she isn’t. But the fear is there.
There’s no tidy resolution to this. Just some dispatches from the journey.
Lots of change in my life right now. Almost two months into this new job, a month into this new neighborhood. Learning a new job is hard; managing my new income, budgeting around it is a shift; learning to live with 5 other people is jarring; phone calls are so overwhelming. There is a backlog of unreturned messages, some kind and some attacking me, from the past few months. Some simmering tension in certain relationships I don’t feel equipped enough with gentleness to address. And so, in my first prayer in a while, I ask once for gentleness, in faith, knowing it will be given to me, dreading the means of employing it.
I send loving thoughts to friends who read this and are here is this tangle with me. Perhaps not in the amount of rage, but in the tensions and internal arguments, the dread of church, the wound-licking, wondering where to go. You’re not alone. There are more of us than you think. And we are all bothered and unsettled by the call to radical love we have been given, and how that may apply more to conservative lawmakers and our relatives who agree with them than we want it to. Don’t let the smuggies and the meanies get to you. They worship a strange God I have never met. That doesn’t make them villians or wrong; it just means their pronouncements can resound a little less deeply in my delicate little rage cardboard fire right now. And the gentleness will come.