Well, I jumped off the cliff with the blog. I pretty much confessed that I was having a mid-life crisis, and now….here we are. One of you said that you were sort of in the same boat and were calling it your “Refinery”. I really loved that. I wanted to steal it. Bad. As true as “refinery” is for this process, it just didn’t feel like a good fit for me.

You know what this feels like? Leveling up.

Remember when you were a young nerd playing Mario Bros. every day after school with your nerd friends? No? Just me? Okay, I can live with that. The concept of leveling up is two-fold. Firstly, at the end of the level you are currently on, you must face and defeat a “boss”. A boss is basically the worst, most difficult enemy that you have encountered in the game thus far. It will take you many lives, lots of blood, sweat and thirteen year old tears and the illicit muttering of words Mom said not to say, but eventually, you will defeat the boss and “level up”. But remember, that’s just the first part.

The second part of leveling up is the actual leveling up. You are on a new level. There are new tricks, traps, obstacles and enemies. Everything is both familiar and frighteningly not. Since when can mushrooms fly? On level 18, of course!

So that’s where I am. I’m leveling up.

The boss is some combination of actual Enemy warfare and the struggle within myself.

The next level, well, that’s literally everything else. When you find yourself in a position where you can and are willing to change everything about yourself and your entire living situation – except for “The Man” and the dogs and the hateful cat – the next level can be pretty crazy.

So welcome to next level stuff! Isn’t that awesome? (And terrifying. And wildly uncomfortable. But yes, still awesome.)

It’s taken me a few weeks, but I think I’m totally ditching the term “identity crisis”. I know who I am. The concept of identity is one that I’m super passionate about, and it’s the kind of self-work that I think will be an ongoing, lifetime project as long as self-improvement is my jam. (And it’s always my jam.) I think we are onions even to ourselves – peeling back layer after layer in personal growth, development and healing. If you aren’t expecting it, it’s a bit alarming.

Therefore my crisis and my counseling isn’t quite the same as it was the first time around. The first time around I didn’t really know who I was. I was mad at God. Ashamed of my father. All those pre-set markers that we use to orient ourselves on life’s map, I had thrown out and replaced with nothing but my own emotions. And guys, my emotions aren’t the kind of thing you want to build a map around. (And quit being so judgmental, your emotions aren’t any better.)

Before we continue on my Quest of Leveling Up, let’s just pause and talk identity. Let’s talk about those map markers we can love or hate depending on our circumstances. Let’s just go ahead and get super awkward and talk about God. These are my opinions; you are 100% entitled to your own. This isn’t me trying to convince you that I’m right; I’m just defining my own map for this journey.

I have a super complicated relationship with everything that comes to mind when you say the word: CHURCH. It’s completely love/hate. I grew up going to churches that started out as fairly typical/slightly legalistic Baptist affairs and then continually got a little more….crazy. The last time I went to church with my parents, I think it’s totally fair to describe it as a full-on cult. Let’s just say when the pastor threatens the congregation with physical harm if they even say they don’t see eye to eye with his every opinion, that’s a good indication you’ve entered Crazy Town.

I know why those churches attracted my father. There is nothing better than an organization telling you that your father has authority straight from God to really help you hold your family under fear, domination and abuse – if that’s your thing. For my dad, that was totally his thing. I know literal scads of women who grew up hearing the familiar refrain of submit, submit, submit. Perhaps under a gentle dictatorship, I never would have questioned it, but that wasn’t the case.

This series of churches had a whole list of rules for female congregants. They included: no pants (skirts and dresses only), skirts needed to touch the floor when you stood on your knees (the longer the hemline the deeper your level of holiness), don’t cut your hair, don’t wear make-up, your neckline couldn’t be more than a finger-width below your collar bone. These rules were pretty standard practice for my entire childhood.

As I got older and the churches got weirder, that list was expounded to include: marriage and baby making were the only acceptable life goals of a woman (preferably as many children as possible); jobs outside the house were discouraged; don’t wear bright colored clothing; don’t laugh with too much exuberance (anything more than a chuckle that lasted more than 30 seconds was cause for suspicion); and most importantly, ladies, please don’t even consider higher education.

Honestly, by that time, I was already on my way out. I may have had to attend, but I was already planning my exit strategy. I don’t think that I’m particularly rebellious by nature (despite what my mother will tell you), but I am a natural born contrarian. I’m not necessarily obstinate; I just need to know that your reasons are well thought out. Let’s face it: I spent 19 years living with crazy people. I had a right to be selective about how much I took on faith alone.

I had quit church when I was sixteen in a fairly dramatic maneuver that involved me saying a very mature “Thanks but no thanks” to one of the last pastors to grace the stage of that particular building. But the church hadn’t quite quit on me. That didn’t happen until I was nineteen.

Here’s what happened: the assistant pastor at that particular church was a big fan of “street preaching” which in theory is exactly what it sounds like. Pastor stands on street corner loudly proclaiming the good news of Jesus as his followers worked the crowd with gospel tracts. Except this particular man took it a step further….so much further that he forced an unwitting bystander into a storefront on Main Street when he tried to leave before the message was through. After forcing him into the storefront, screaming in his face about going to hell and preventing the man from leaving, the pastor was arrested. That arrest only heightened his zeal for his street preaching calling.

For some crazy (there’s that word again) reason, the church thought I’d be interested in going and helping him on one of these ventures. Since my escape plan included getting the heck out of dodge with as few encumbrances as possible – no babies, substance addictions or arrest histories – I politely declined the invitation. At that point the church felt that the only way to win me back to the flock was to shun me. My response was an emphatic “Thank you, Jesus”. (Which was also against the rules because that is a way too flippant way to use the name of God.)

At this point, the question from my listener always is: how on earth did you find your way back to God after all that?

The true and simple answer is this: my love of the after-party.

At my advanced age, I can remember a time without cell phones – like, you know, my 20’s. When my parents divorced – that’s the short version, the long version which will involve the police, gun smuggling, fleeing the country, polygamy, federal authorities and all that jazz  and will come under the mapping section I file under: “DAD”…..as I was saying, when my parents divorced, I was still sort of stuck in my depressing small town without much hope of escape. I had a few friends in the same boat and wouldn’t you know it? They went to church.

Without cell phones, I had no way of knowing where the party would be on Sunday or Wednesday unless I was actually at church when the plans were made. My love of the after party was the actual first step in my reconciliation with God.

I ended up going to church with my friends, but I was totally conflicted about it. It was a 100% normal evangelical church with no bizarre extra-curricular rules about dresses, make-up or an individual’s right to higher education. It was just….church. But I had been raised to believe that this church was “carnal”. Carnal is basically a church word that means “they ain’t as holy as us”, “they probably don’t even know God” and “they are leading people straight to hell with all their no rules all grace nonsense”. I felt like I was hanging out on Satan’s front stoop, and I was really uncomfortable even being there. Thank God for the after party.

Another thing you should know about me is this: I am a super good audience member. Regardless of the topic of the speaker, if you have the floor, I am paying attention. I don’t text, doodle, daydream, pass notes or fantasize about the person sitting in front of me. Unless it’s Christian Bale. Then, all bets are off on the fantasizing thing. If I can’t abide your opinion or position, I’ll just leave. I don’t roll my eyes, sigh or try to convince those around me that you are a daft idiot. I do that in the hall. So there I sat in Satan’s church, and my manners insisted I listen. Wretched upbringing.

And I listened. And I listened. And I listened. And I found out that the guy was reading the exact same Bible all those crackpots had been hurling at my head for all those years and coming up with very logical interpretations. It turns out, for example, that the Bible isn’t just about wives and children submitting themselves to the husband/father role. There’s actually a follow up clause that says in turn the husband is to be willing to sacrifice himself for them in return. The Bible is actually about us all submitting ourselves to one another regardless of gender or position; it’s called humility. Imagine that. For a little while, the pastor kind of had me on the hook, but then one day, he did it. He proved that he was just like the rest of those whackanoodles.

One Sunday, he preached about forgiveness, and I was already pissed off by the opening prayer. No one needed to talk to me about forgiveness. “Walk a mile in my shoes, buddy boy.” The pastor had entered the no-go zone, but unfortunately, my manners dictated that I still listen. So I did.

And he said something that so enraged me that I turned off my listening ears for the next decade of my church attendance. I was still in the audience. I was still polite. But I was done listening. I spent my early adult life in church for all the wrong reasons – both social and of the contractual obligation kind. (Basically, my understanding was that if I went to church and performed some basic services for the Most High, His end of the deal was to protect me from life’s greater disasters ranging from heart attacks to flat tires.)

I’m sure you want to know what the pastor said, right?

He said: “God loves the person you refuse to forgive as much as He loves you – so much that He died on the cross for them.”

The very idea that God thought my dad was on the same level as me….that he was as worthy as I was…..was simply infuriating. I can remember sitting in the congregation and being absolutely furious. Spitting mad. And I was done. Just like that. My friends may have been believers, but I was a contractual member of that party only. Done. Kaput.

That was the first step. The second step was that brain tumor I talked about in Episode 1 of “Middle Age Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be.” When all those doctors kept referring me to the same therapist, I knew that You Know Who was behind it. That’s how He works. (That’s actually NOT how He works.) He gives you a brain tumor, makes you look like a big idiot in front of a bunch of doctors and then forces you into doing something you don’t want to do. So I pulled out our contract, and I re-entered negotiations.

I basically told God that I’d go to therapy. I’d give it 100%, but if He didn’t show up and fix me, then He better leave me the hell alone. If He didn’t make things better than He really was the giant asshole I thought He was. I know. Language. But honestly, if you haven’t called God an asshole at some point, you probably really talking to Him. You’re just pontificating. This was rubber meets the road for me. Fix me or kill me. I’m done playing around.

My first round of therapy was intense because I had a lot of intense things to sort out, and whenever I got stuck, my therapist would fall back on my love of story to get the ball rolling again. If I didn’t have the words to describe how I felt, she encouraged me to find a story that could say it for me. When I told her about my come to Jesus meeting with Jesus, she asked for a story to describe my feelings. Since she was a Jewish chaplain, I knew she would know the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

For those unfamiliar, it goes something like this:

For whatever reason, Jacob was out sleeping in the wilderness one night on his own. An angel appears to him sometime during the night and begins to wrestle with him. Why? I don’t know, but Jacob begins to win the wrestling match. I know. The angel then touches Jacob’s hip and wrenches it out of the socket. Even still, Jacob will not let him go unless the angel blesses him.  The angel does in fact bless him and renames him. Jacob walks away that day as Israel. 

The Biblical text says two interesting things that really resonate with me. First it says that the angel says to Jacob that he will be called Israel because “you have fought with God and with man and have won”. It also says that Jacob names the place in the wilderness where this all took place and the name he gave it means “face of God”. He says the reason for naming it that is that “I have seen God face to face yet my life has been spared”.

I was wrestling with a lot of things back then and God was definitely a main contender in my personal wrestling ring. I was mad but no quitter. I’d hang on and persist. God was going to have to tap out first, and when He did, I wanted my blessing.

Good grief, contrarian indeed.

Thus began my walk away from religion and towards relationship. Things happened in my life that confirmed to me that God was real, and that His earthly marketing team sucks donkey balls. Religion really does a bunch of things wrong. Once a church, any church, starts using manipulation and intimidation to try to make you conform to whatever it is they think you should be doing, they are already off track. Jesus, at no point, will try to take the freedom of choice away from you. He’s the first libertarian. Live free, my friend.

That’s not to say that He won’t say some super uncomfortable truths to you or influence you to change, but you get to react however you want – and He’ll still love you anyway. Not a lot of churches will tell you that.

I had to re-draw that marker on my identity map. God is actually real, and He isn’t at all who I thought He was. I think most people know a counterfeit Jesus. (Thank you, John Eldredge.)

And the church is……complicated – just like any other group of people. Churches get a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. Bad men can lead good churches into ruin. By the same token, I’ve seen churches spiritually and emotionally kill their pastor even though he was a good man largely because they were petty, needy and lacking in grace. People in groups can be frightening – even when their intentions are good.

I choose to be part of a church, and I struggle with it all the time. All. The. Time. I often have to lay down my preferences and my opinions. I often have to choose grace. Church sometimes makes me better in spite of itself.

Who said walking with a pebble in one’s shoe was going to be comfortable?

Sarah

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