Backsliding with Jesus and an Important New Book

Once, when we were support-raising missionaries for a Christian church planting organization, a funder wrote me and warned about our going down a slippery slope.

Falling away, going down a slippery slope, turning one’s back and back-sliding–these were the worst fears of my young, vibrant faith. These were the sure signs of the lost cause. 

What began as natural and involuntary exploration of identity, faith and calling has become an elephant of non-imagined but unquantifiable proportions. At first there might have been some debate with a few. But now there is just absence and a judging silence. Interaction has dwindled, even over the innocuous, and facing it has hurt. Some days when I see another person has come through town and not said hi, or I experience surprising feelings of loss or loneliness via social media, I have wondered—am I now the lost cause? If I just slip out of faith altogether—would it matter to those whom celebrate conversion moments so heartily? 

In my refusal to agree in multiple ways the past 3 or 33 years, I have become refuse in so many others and I guess I thought this family system of faith may be more malleable. I guess I thought the major things would not be automatically questioned when the minor things change, or perhaps I’ve mistaken the minor for the major. And I guess I thought I wouldn’t care as much. 

And then I wonder at these truly new sensitivities, the concern over disapproval that somehow missed my adolescent years. A lucky or unlucky late bloomer I am. I wonder at the depth of unspoken codes and what I have broken and why I have been so bold as to openly change my mind and why does the cost seem to matter to me now. 

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//a slow slippery slope and residual shame//

I don’t know where the lines were. As though in a lit room full of lasers, I’ve crossed them, bumbling and awkward. Was it race and talking about Trayvon and Philandro? Was it  talking about the prison industry? Was it resisting this trump regime? Was it saying I as a woman could lead or that men have power? Was it defending my healthcare. Was it swearing. Was it seminary. Was it marching. Was it hurting too openly. Was it not saying Jesus’ name enough times per essay. Was it moving away, was it my life getting too messy.

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I wonder at my sense of shame even as I try to make home out of the outsider territory. Is this what it feels like to have rules on love, in a way that cuts off instead of invites? Is this what it feels like for the circle to close without you in it? I know almost simultaneously that I know nothing of long term rejection and the turning of backs like some. And I am profoundly grieved, at once feeling separation from the group and the collective damage for which I still have guilt and responsibility. I understand the long term rejection with more empathy and respect because of the sliver I am recognizing and naming here. I wonder if watching Christians has always been this way; I wonder if watching me feels like this to anyone.

//Jesus enough//

As a kid, I remember feeling an urgency, looking through lyrics of a cassette tape insert, deciphering if a band was actually Christian or not. I’d scan for mentions of “Jesus” and “cross” to appease my fear of the world. I am frightened by the part of me and the part of Christianity that ever indicated that I should and could do that. 

That kid grew up so lucky, so rich and surrounded. I am immensely indebted to the communities of loved ones who have accepted me through transracial adoption as part of the family, who have trained me in scripture as part of the faith family, who have applauded my early, terrifying piano performances, given me opportunities and hosted me when I was home on furlough, a late-in-childhood missionary kid. I gained so much in the way I was raised and through the communities, both Stateside and International, that held me.

I also have changed. From the first time I tried to explain my experience of prejudice to my mom in Kindergarten to the moment I set foot as a new resident in a foreign country to the first time I read about police brutality to the opening class I took on ecclesiology. I was given belonging and identity so generously, in order to allow for me to grow and think outside of it; I insist on this in the midst of the wilderness now, in the midst of the pain of separation, of rejection, and judgment. I so cherish those who have remained friends and, with curiosity and love, supported the small benchmarks, the life, the adult that is unfolding. This is true for myself and my husband, who has followed a different but similarly unpopular path.

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//new friends and new stories//

In this wilderness, I’m making new friends too and the convergence of so many things in the zeitgeist seem to be propelling more of us together. And wilderness is where Israel regained Sabbath and enjoyed daily manna from God; wilderness is where the desert fathers built such intimacy with Jesus and empathy for others. It’s not really an outsider place even though it feels like it; it’s like the first Christmas in Los Angeles—it’s really Christmas, even if it takes a while for your bearings to catch up under the sunshine. And now I bask in the option of a Christmas Eve walk on the beach.

I started writing this a long time ago. Maybe it’s because I did yard work and that always makes me feel super capable, or maybe because I’ve been meeting so many good, truthful stories out here, I’m sharing it now. My story is mild, my changes to some acceptable and barely mentionable—but they have been important to me and us, and we have felt the consequences of rejecting various ideologies, cultish doctrines, and rules. I know there are many stories of more extremes—spiritual abuse, cult membership and control, and violent rejection. I know one of them has been written down.

Once You Go In is a story that any of us in the wilderness can appreciate. This new companion is a memoir by my friend whom I’ve never met in person, Carly Gelsinger. I found Carly’s story incredibly relatable while at the same time extraordinary. Her writing pulled me in like a novel, while the knowledge of its truth yanked my heart into the reading. A young girl’s search for belonging and truth led her into a spiritual community, and also, painfully and importantly, out of it. The details and unfolding of Carly’s experiences are bizarre, brutal, and beautiful and in our tender places, as humans all changing, all growing out of things, and all mustering our courage, Once You Go In becomes a flashlight in the tunnel. 

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If you are in the midst of your own story of becoming an outsider and making peace with it, read it. If you are sifting out the good from the bad in how you were raised in your faith, read it. If you want to understand how spiritual abuse happens, read it. If you lead people spiritually, read it. If anything about this post has made sense to you, read it. 

Thank you for spending time with my story, and thank you for reading hers, which is much better written. 

Sojourning for truth and belonging is such a worthy endeavor. Carry on, together.

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7 thoughts on “Backsliding with Jesus and an Important New Book

  1. My story is completely different, but–oddly–the same. I so want to hear your whole story. I am still grappling with the feeling/thought (some “immersion-blender mix” of the two) that “the Church” that I love, that I grew up in, that was surety and home for me in all of my adult life, looks and feels so different now. I asked my daughter when she thought it changed, and she said, “Mom…you know. It didn’t change. You did.” I do not really know how to grapple with it. I so want to read this book. Does it come with a box of tissues?
    You are, by the way, SUCH a good writer! Thank you.

  2. Your journey is good and beautiful. I’m sorry that it is also, at times, tough and lonely. I love these words, “And wilderness is where Israel regained Sabbath and enjoyed daily manna from God; wilderness is where the desert fathers built such intimacy with Jesus and empathy for others. It’s not really an outsider place even though it feels like it…” I look forward to connecting again next time I’m in LA. xo

  3. Danielle, thank you so much for sharing this and for your beautiful, brave and truthful voice. I would love to catch up in person someday soon and talk about growing and changing and Church and faith, and so much more. I definitely want to read this book too. Thanks again.

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