vadarama

the digital home of Lauren Tyree

From Eternity to Here: My Christian Extimony

I’m 29 and have been in recovery from evangelical fundamentalism for a few years now. I’m still trying to assemble an identity and a life apart from God.

I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in a ministry family. My father served at churches and non-profits in different regions of the US with wife and two children in tow. We followed God’s lead, no matter how indecipherable the directions. Dad was the official recipient of the Holy Spirit’s messages, and Mom was dutiful but strong-headed. Uncertainty, pressure and tension followed us wherever we went. My little brother and I cycled between imaginative play and overt hostility, riding atmospheric waves of marital discord. Common features among our childhood homes were egg-shell floors and thin walls.

God was the real head of our household. Authoritarian and perfectionist, he was never pleased. Heavenly Father’s nature kept my Earth Dad feeling just shy of the mark in every endeavor. Dad wore the frustration and self-loathing on his sleeve, often reminding us: we humans are weak and worthless on our own; “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 54:6)

Jesus was our counterbalancing comfort. I applied the warm salve as needed- an antidote to intrusive images of hell and demon-possessed Disney cartoons. Jesus alone could save me from an eternity of torture, for the price of one heart, one soul and my eternal consciousness. Never having bonded with my own heart or intuition, I considered it a small sacrifice. What’s the rest of my life on Earth compared to forever in paradise?

Throughout my teens, I sought to better understand and defend the doctrine by studying apologetics. As a naturally rational, literal person, I always fought cognitive dissonance when it came to biblical claims and miracle healings. But my rare moments of peace and reassurance all came from the Holy Spirit. God, in his three persons, anchored my intellectual, psychological and emotional experience. And I couldn’t imagine life without the Truth, now believing there was an air-tight argument for every Christian claim.

To reject God was dangerous self-delusion. But the fact that most people in the world were so deluded felt tragic. Does the bulk of each generation end up in hell? What did our God do to earn His monopoly on universal Truth? Why was this wasteful setup okay with Him? Of course, these were silly, petty questions coming from me. Who was I to question the Way Things Are? I knew better. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

I sometimes debated with nonbelievers during my years at Vassar College, even as I enjoyed a new freedom to explore the taboo (philosophy, evolutionary theory, cheap vodka in plastic cups). Though I loosened up just enough to fit in, I remained decidedly chaste and avoided drunken flings in favor of the same innocent crushes I’d had since kindergarten. I was the sexually non-threatening good girl- not too uptight to party, but willing to stand strong in her faith when challenged.

My college friends’ carefree living and casual dismissal of fundamentalist beliefs had planted additional seeds of pesky doubt, so I opted for an evangelical graduate school (Regent U. in Virginia Beach) in an effort to get closer to my spiritual kin and re-cement my relationship with Christ. Immediately irked by some of my new schoolmates’ lack of intellectual curiosity, I gravitated toward the misfits who wrestled with doctrine and started debates in class. I was most at-ease with my small group of male friends; we’d stay up until morning talking, watching thought-provoking R-rated movies, and fishing for live lobsters from the tank at our favorite dive bar.

By the end of my Master’s program, one thing was clear: No one really had it all figured out. I started to entertain the thought that we were all just human, in the same boat, trying to navigate our way through life without clear intel. The people I’d expected to reassure me didn’t live as if they had the Ultimate Answer to Everything. I flirted with new terms- Christian anarchism, sola scriptura , liberation theology. Maybe my faith could be made more grounded, personal and practical. I applied for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. They shipped me out to Los Angeles to work full-time at a non-profit, in exchange for room and board at a South Central home shared with four peers.

There was no better place than California to encourage the free-spirit contrarian in me. The vaguely Catholic JVC program and its functionally agnostic members had me more disillusioned than ever. That idealized, workable brand of Christianity now seemed elusive and pointless. During my first year in LA, I started to understand the concept of pluralism, and I met my first serious boyfriend- a former Christian with boundless curiosity and creativity. Self-directed and oddly at peace with the troubling conditions of mortal existence, he patiently prompted me to ask myself the tough questions whenever I began to evangelize.

Soon, I was allowing myself to consider the possibility of thinking more critically about my worldview. Before I knew it, I was at a point of no return; one foot was firmly out of the fold. I removed the other after a short-lived re-dedication to church and small-group bible study. The moment of epiphany occurred during a routine devotional in my room one afternoon. What if the Holy Spirit is in my head? The intrusive thought interrupted my silent prayer. Why must I continue to stoke this fire each day? If this is the unavoidable Truth, why do I spend so much time convincing myself? Before I could squelch the urge, I pried my laptop open to search the internet: “bible contradictions.” I wanted to see if the inerrant Word of God could be legitimately de-legitimized, and I wasn’t going to restrict myself to the apologists this time. I was a nonbeliever almost overnight.

Some aspects of religion were easy to let go of. The fantastical, impossible claims and ignorant laws became laughable even as they began to make perfect sense in light of their context of human authorship and archaic social structures. But in the years since my de-conversion, I’ve struggled to build self-worth and a strong agenda of my own without the help of an all-powerful personal Savior. No longer does an infinite God pause to make me feel like the center of the universe for a minute or two. No more warm, fuzzy Holy Ghost visitations or words of discernment. No more miracles or speaking in tongues.

Now, thrilling epiphanies and occasional moments of meditative peace and transcendence promise spiritual wellness apart from religion. I still struggle to trust myself and my own experience without having to fit everything into a box. It feels unfair to accept this peace without also accepting the unfortunate conditions of judgment after death. It feels weird to claim my life as my own. I realize the need to self-parent, to give myself permission to make mistakes without repenting.

I’m just entering a new phase of faith-based living, where I put trust in what I know to be real- natural cause and effect, the transformative power of hope and love, the efficacy of strong desire and hard work when it comes to pursuing goals. Residual shame and fear often keep me from being truly vulnerable with myself and others, but I now seek community with those who understand the unique predicament of a former child of God. I hope my story will encourage someone else to share theirs.


On Solitude and Freethought

Back in high school, I chastised a close friend for embracing a new habit that brought much-needed tranquility to her life. “I’ve been learning how to meditate. It’s amazing so far.” she announced one night. The word sliced my gut with a dull razor. “Meditating! On what?!” I was as horrified as if she’d just admitted to torturing my family for sport. She jumped to defend her treasured practice. “On the silence! You just sit really still and start by repeating this word- ‘ soo-rah , soo-rah ’…” I winced and felt my body heat up. “Sura- like in the Koran ?! You don’t even know what it means; it’s demonic!” I lectured until she began to cry, and I felt too little remorse. As far as I was concerned, my clueless friend was standing at the altar across from Satan himself, and I wasn’t willing to forever hold my peace.

When you grow up entrenched in fundamentalist religion, you learn not to trust your own thoughts. Every fleeting sensation, every instinct of mind and body, is to be immediately scrutinized by your higher spiritual faculties. Your precious ruminations, critical opinions and profound epiphanies are worthless and even detestable in the face of an omniscient God. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, the true believer’s stance is made clear: “ We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. ” No wonder I felt so justified in my intellectual arrogance. I’d agreed to replace my mortal knowledge with my Heavenly Father’s perfect wisdom. And since I knew my brain and heart were blackened filth apart from His grace, it was an irresistible offer.

But there was still that mercilessly unrelenting battle to keep my mind in service to the Spirit of the Lord. It wasn’t a one-time deal; you really did have to manually take each thought captive to Christ. And I, like most other high-strung kids, had plenty of unruly thoughts to wrangle. The last thing I wanted was to be left alone with the lot of them, defenseless and scared. I hated to imagine what might spring up if I gave them the chance to run free. After all, what did the godless think about? Murder. Deception. Pleasure. Self. These things were evil in equal measure. Meditating on anything other than scripture could only lead to untold spiritual and psychological torment.

Intense guilt accompanied my every errant thought, and I could only relieve the discomfort brought on by sin with the help of nightly prayer sessions. Prayer was my chance to grovel, to apologize for all the “worldly” junk that’d slipped through the cracks throughout the day, for my careless lapses in judgment and vigilance. Since not a single one of my mental images or lines of internal monologue had escaped my watchful Master, the confession bit was just a humiliating formality. Despite any preference I might have, He was the Holy Ghost in the machine, the Ruler and Judge Eternal. To purposely seek out a private corner of my own imagination would be futile, and back then I wasn’t so insolent as to try.

As a relatively new apostate, I still find the concept of freethought thrilling and taboo. It’s also a challenging exercise for the weak, a sweet nectar for those of us who were never allowed a taste. The very first step was accepting that I just might survive if left stranded with a psyche stripped bare of dogma. I couldn’t have predicted the personal reward in store. Where fear and anxiety once ruled with an unshakable furor, I have placed a still hope and abiding trust. As it turns out, this is no wedding dance with the Devil; it’s a gently evolving harmony of reason and intuition, a peace I never dared to conceive of. I can see why a jealous God would refuse to compete.


My Body, My Enemy

I have four lumps in my neck. One has been planted firmly in place for several years. It’s roughly the same size as its partner of four months across my Adam’s apple, above my left shoulder. These stubborn, elongated knots are proud parents to the two small pebbles which nest between them in the hopes of one day growing larger, lumpier, mightier. In my current uninsured, penniless state, I must accept them as temporary parts of my body.

After all, the body itself has often felt like a tumor. As a compulsively neurotic, perpetually uncomfortable child of religious dogma and first-world conditioning, I have lived all of life thus far inside my own head. The concrete reality of my physical body has always been a nuisance, a hurdle in the way of the romantic, blissful state I imagined for an idealized version of myself. That distant future self was thin, strong but undeniably feminine, allergy-free and fully hydrated, generally happy and deeply in love, wealthy and laudably charitable. One day, there’d be no more rashes or sniffles or itchy throat, no more digestive distress or irritability or hypersensitivity. I thought this state of impossible perfection could be achieved only through sincere devotion to God. I sometimes blamed Him when He didn’t acknowledge my faith by renewing my health and vitality. But I knew it would happen eventually. If not in this life, I was prepared to wait until my first day in heaven to undergo the transformation.

During my last year of high school and first three of college, Crohn’s Disease took what little strength I had. I was frail, faint, in near constant pain. My heart rate was fast, but my cognitive functioning was slow. I often prayed to God to be put out of my misery. I bargained sometimes, reckoning that maybe a miraculous healing could serve as a testimony to His power. But I didn’t want to keep barely hanging on. One night, I called the prayer hotline of the Trinity Broadcasting Network in desperation. I received an empty recitation and speedy dismissal in return for my honest plea. In moments like these, continuing to survive felt like an unnecessary chore. “ Please, God. Take me home or free me from this mess .

After much time and several rounds of drugs, including steroids and (briefly) antidepressants, after a hospital stay and countless high-calorie meals, I was able to get through the worst of it and slip into remission. I’m glad to have avoided surgery and the severe complications that many others deal with as a result of the illness. Following my recovery, I didn’t think too much about the Crohn’s. The entire experience still feels like a very vivid bad dream. I was so alienated and so helpless in the face of what I saw as a demonic attack.

When I finally abandoned my superstitious worldview and began to address my solipsism and anxiety, I became more grounded in my physical reality, accepting myself as an organic being in need of real care and upkeep. I’m not much different than a plant that needs watering or a bird that needs its seeds. Though I am also a complicated person, a thinker and a dreamer, I’m also a heap of matter which will someday melt back into the earth- its home and ultimate source. I may never be an ideal or a perfect paragon of health, but perhaps I can be the best version of myself. This is a brand new feeling, a whole new realm of responsibility. It’s up to me to figure out what to do.

Today, my chronic allergies and depression are largely under control, thanks to a 95% gluten-free diet. This change was the first practical step toward self-renewal. I still struggle each day to remain present in my body, keenly aware of the issues that need addressing. I have to remind myself to stay committed to improving my physical health in order to keep growing and learning for as long as I possibly can. I know that no magic, no sorcery or luck, will make me whole or save me from the inevitability of death. This thought overwhelms and humbles me. So much hard work lies ahead. At least this time I don’t want to give up, and that’s a start.



Letters from Camp

we’re sad that you’ve gone

and we all say hello

with each passing dawn

we miss you more so

———

our Leader sends love

from His heart to yours

with peace like a dove

He keeps us indoors

———

(so what’s the air like

outside these walls?

how gray is the sky?

how thick is the fog?)

———

we hope that you’re well

wherever you are

we really can’t tell

you’ve traveled too far

——–

it’s cozy in here

we’re safe from the storm

there’s no need to fear

His grace is so warm

——–

(see how quickly that limb

snaps under your feet!

see, you’re helping us trim

the chaff from the wheat!)

——–

one day you’ll get cold

and come back inside

the end was foretold

so why even try?


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