Thursday, July 31, 2014

Marriage Equality: Morally Opposed but Legislatively In Favor?

Photo credit: Katie Mohr
With the subject of the ban on same-sex marriage before the state Supreme Court this week, I feel it's a timely opportunity to talk about something important to me. I came here talk about marriage equality, and to make an appeal to those who are morally opposed to it.

Let me start with two disclaimers.  First: I never had a major problem with gay people or gay marriage, even as a Christian. Second: When I was a Christian, I believed the homosexual lifestyle was wrong, and the following few paragraphs will be couched in language and sentiments that reflect my beliefs at that time, even though they don't espouse my current views.

With those two disclaimers made, let me proceed with evangelical mentality I had.  While I believed "living the lifestyle" was wrong (and I believed that with God's help, it could be overcome) I still felt that if someone wanted to live it, it didn't affect me at all. It wasn't my problem or my concern. I believed people were born with a "tendency" towards being gay, but that God could "deliver" them out of it, much like people born with tendencies toward alcoholism or violence could be delivered. When asked about it, I was truthful that I believed it was a sin, but that it was between them and God, and really had very little to do with me. And there were many times I was asked about it; I was involved in amateur dramatics for a few years in Scotland and had several LGBT friends. And while I was truthful in my answers, I was always uncomfortable with those answers.

Furthermore, I never went so far to say that gay people were going to hell, just that their actions displeased the Lord. But we all displease the Lord with our actions, I'd say; we are all sinners, and I didn't see the "sin" of homosexuality to be any different than my own sins of gossip, occasionally drinking too much, and pride. A gay person could be a Christian, albeit a "deceived" one, but still eligible for salvation, as far as I could tell.

So even in my evangelical days, if someone asked what I thought about same-sex marriage, my answer was always, "Just let them get married. What's the big deal? It doesn't affect me."

This stance began to change though. Over the years, as the subject gained greater media and societal attention, I observed the pain that the debate, and the issue of homosexuality itself, was causing my gay friends. I had friends who had to choose between their careers in the military or happiness with the love of their lives. I saw friends cut off from their families and/or communities. People I knew, friends, even extended family members were being heralded as immoral, licentious, shameless degenerates on the sole grounds of who they loved. While from a Biblical standpoint, I still couldn't say it wasn't sinful, I was very certain they were entitled to the same rights as anyone else, and absolutely did not deserve to be hated, attacked, treated as lepers or burned at the stake like the Salem witches (who also didn't deserve such a fate). I heard careless, flippant comments by straight people complaining that they didn't get any special rights or attention for being straight, that they didn't feel the need to declare to the world their sexual orientation, so why did "those people" feel the need to?

Because you don't have to declare anything. You can hold hands with your husband and your two-point-five biological children in public and not receive a second glance. You have the luxury of silently declaring your sexual orientation every day in everything you do with zero retribution. You don't need special rights or attention, because you already have them.

Why do people feel the need to "declare" their sexual orientation? Could it be because they have spent years, if not decades, pretending to be something they are not, being bullied by their peers and castigated (quite possibly physically) by their parents and other adults, and just want to finally break free from all that bondage? Or perhaps, maybe some of them are actually "declaring" nothing. Maybe they are just walking hand and hand like you are, but you see that as flaunting something, declaring their sexual orientation, when really, they are just quietly living their everyday lives.

Either way, I realized my "live and let live" stance wasn't going to cut it. If I wanted to see equal rights for all law-abiding people, I needed to take an actual stance. A pro-same-sex marriage stance.

This, of course, conflicted with my religious beliefs to an extent. I started defining my position as "morally opposed but legislatively in favor".  I did not see any complication with opposing something morally (as in, not approving of it personally for me and mine) but still agreeing with it legislatively.  Just because I didn't believe it was acceptable according to my personal beliefs (which, yes, I did believe were found in the Bible, the only true Word of God), didn't mean other people with different beliefs ought to suffer because of my religious understanding.  And suffering, they were.

As a side note, as my faith slowly disintegrated, this stance disintegrated with it, into simply "in favor".  The supposed immorality of homosexuality had been very tightly intertwined with religion and nothing else. Like I said earlier, I didn't really have a major problem the personal, private lives of people who happened to be gay; I just believed the Bible warned against it. However, the "morally opposed but legislatively in favor" is the position I wish more evangelicals took.

It's impossible - actually, no it's not impossible, it's just difficult - for an Evangelical Christian, or a member of any religion that objects to homosexuality to look at it from a strictly human rights perspective. It's difficult, because Christians (in particular) believe they own the rights to marriage, or at least their religion does. They believe that God created marriage, and therefore God has the sole say on how it is administered.

(Yet another sidenote: If this were true, why are Christians allowing members of other religions to marry each other? And why are they allowing divorce?)

God created marriage between a man and a woman, they maintain. Therefore marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman is against God's law.

Okay, fine, I'll grant you that belief. I'll even grant you the belief that homosexuals going against this plan are going to hell. You are welcome to believe that. "It's a free country", we Americans love to say.

And that's the point.

It's a free country for you to think gays are going to hell. And it's a free country for gays to be gay. And therefore, it should be a free country for gays to get married.

Our country is not, despite what is touted through the media, a "Christian country". It was founded on freedom of religion, the freedom to believe or not believe whatever one wants. Our forefathers may have been primarily made up of deists and various brands of Christian, from Anglican to Unitarian, (though not all, Jefferson, for instance, had decidedly very un-Christian beliefs), but they were clear that this is not a "Christian", one-religion-fits-all, nation. America is not a theocracy. The Christian definition of marriage should not be the only definition in a country where freedom from such restraints used to be our crowning glory.

Christians and other religious people, or people simply anti-gay (I am purposely steering clear of the word "homophobic" because while it is a correct description for many anti-gay people, it isn't quite fair on all of them), have further reasons they use against same-sex marriage. They believe that it is detrimental to society and detrimental to children. I can only assume, since this was never a position I totally understood, that that is position comes from the stereotypical concept that kids need both a motherly mother and a fatherly father to get the balance right. While I rarely see that stereotype play out perfectly in even heterosexual marriages, I assume the assumption is that in same-sex marriages, kids miss out on one or the other.

The profound misconception here is that women always act like "women" and men always act like "men". Therefore, in a heterosexual couple, there are equal and opposite traits that culminate in a completely wholesome companionship.

This speaks to absolutely nothing of the truth or reality.

In heterosexual couples, you have women who can be described as having one or many of these stereotypically male traits: domineering, authoritarian, outspoken, unemotional, tough, competitive, sexually aggressive. Men can be described in stereotypically feminine ways: nurturing, gentle, soft-spoken, irrational, emotional, submissive, accepting. Some couples are so similar that there is hardly any opposing characteristics; both man and wife can be calm, gentle, soft-spoken, passive and nurturing with no authoritarianism, outspokenness, aggressiveness, or, say, confidence. Conversely, some couples are both domineering, assertive, loud, imposing, authoritarian, strict and judgmental, with no signs of gentleness, irrationality, softness or perhaps compassion. All of these are, of course, generalizations, but they hopefully get the point across.

Again, I'm speculating, but I assume the Father-Mother scenario assumes a give-and-take of masculine and feminine traits that round out a family. This is simply not the case in many, if not most, relationships.

And in homosexual couples, the scale isn't tipped the other way. Two women do not equal two emotional roller-coasters and door mats. Two men do not equal two dictators and workhorses. Same sex or different sex - at the end of the day, it's just two individuals coming together to form a partnership. Some are great matches, some are bad ones.

There is also that study that was in the media a while back, claiming that children with homosexual parents fared worse than children with heterosexual relationships. This would be compelling indeed, if the study had been a good one. As it turns out, it was a terrible study that pretty much just showed what we already knew - children from broken families fared worse than children with families intact. Turns out, it had pretty much nothing to do with whether the parents were gay or not, but still together or not.

So, in a few short words, yes, it's complicated. Sort of. It's extremely difficult to untangle oneself from the net of cognitive dissonance. It's easier to hold to the black and white than to sift through the many shades of grey (no reference to that awful book intended). But really, it's not a complicated matter. People should have the right to marry who they love, as long as both parties involved are consenting adults. It only gets complicated when people make it complicated, trying to create slippery slopes and outlandish resulting outflows. (That's not to say deciphering all the possible outcomes is wrong. Legislation definitely needs to be written in such a way that it does not inadvertently allow for things that would be problematic.)

It may clash with your religious beliefs. You have the right to dislike it. But two total strangers getting married only affects you insomuch that you may possibly one day have to explain why Johnny has two mommies to your child. It does not creep into your marriage and defile it. It really has very little, if anything, to do with you at all.

But it means everything to the people who want to marry and can't, who want to express their undying love for each other by committing to a lifelong union, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Who want to know their best friend and soul mate will be cared for financially when they die through life insurance plans and inheritance. Who want to be parents, who want to be parents that raise their kids in a secure home, with family health care policies and legal custody for both parents, and no discrimination.

For you, it's about a religious principle and someone else's possible afterlife. For them, it's about basic human rights and their own quite literal, very tangible day-to-day experiences.

If affects you little. It affects them in every way. Isn't there a way for evangelicals, and other religious groups, to be morally opposed, but legislatively in favor?

Monday, July 28, 2014

As I Lay Dying (of a cold)

I have come down with The Plague. I blame it on the rats (aka, the children).

Jaguar was all out of sorts yesterday, and we realized his nose was really runny and he was rubbing his ears and eyes all day. We figured he was coming down with something. And then, like that, I started sneezing. My head started throbbing. My throat got scratchy. My ears got sore. I went to bed early and woke up repeatedly to blow my nose all night. I woke up feeling like my head was going to explode like an overfull balloon filled with firecrackers (because you get those). Scott made me a cup of tea before heading off to work. Lolly made me bacon, which I couldn't possibly eat. I had to drag myself out of bed and be a parent regardless, so I got as far as putting bowls of cereal out for the kids and settling in on the couch with my laptop, phone, book, box of tissues and cup of tea.

Unfortunately, I can't stay here all day. Jaguar has his two-year-old well check visit at the doctor (this WCV thing is so weird and new to me) this morning, and I have to work tonight. Hopefully in between doctor and work, I can get some snoozy time on the couch in while I plonk my kids down in front of hours of Netflix.

The good thing is, if my appetite remains nil, I might lose a couple extra pounds. (The bad thing is I'll gain them back when I'm better.)

People who work outside the home get to call in when they are sick and nurse their pitiful selves in bed all day. Stay at home mums get to just keep working in spite of it all. Where's my sick day?!

In other news, my blog has reached 100,000 pageviews! This is actually a pretty small number considering I've been blogging here for ten years, but I'm still proud. Also, according to my stats, the only thing my readership enjoy reading about more than my religious failure is frobscottle and weddings. Interesting. Must write more about frobscottle and weddings.

And finally, since my skull has been stuffed with tissue paper like a new shoe, leaving me unable to put together coherent thought, I leave you with a song. A serious song. A song that sums up in a lot of ways (but not every way) my experiences with Christianity of late. A song that used to make me so sad I cried every time I listened to it, but now makes me feel triumphant and teary in a good way. Especially the last line - "And there's nothing inherently wrong with us!"

Quiet Company, "The Black Sheep and the Shepherd"

The river's wide, that I could not swim across it, so I convinced myself I'd walked up on the waves. The river's wide, that I could not swim across it, so I told everyone I'd walked up on the waves.

But I lied, and I knew I'd lied, but I did everything I did to soothe the family pride and I just don't think I can keep it up now. Because I've never heard Jesus speak to me (not in any way that I'd consider speaking) but I bowed my head just the same. Though, I did find some tears when they played that song, but for the four right chords I will play along, I have always been that way. It doesn't matter what the lyrics say.

Into stronger arms we run, with a thorn in our side and the devil's inside. So who are we running from? Into stranger arms we run. Such a thorn in our side, when the devil's implied. Oh what have we done?

So I tried and I tried to achieve belief. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I've been feeling fine (In fact, often better than fine.) Though, now both my shoulders have started hurting from walking around under such a burden, to reconcile everything that we learn with everything that we were taught. But with all we know now, how can you say "Oh you've just got to take it all on faith" and "Don't think too much. Just hush and pray, exactly as we've always done."

Hey god! Now I've got a baby girl. What am I supposed to tell her about you? Because her life shouldn't have to be like mine. She shouldn't have to waste her time on waiting on you, because you never do come through.

Sometimes I can't believe the things those preachers have the nerve to say to me, but maybe the things that I'd have to say to them are really just as bad. Because the only times I ever thought of suicide, I was waiting on the lord to direct my life, saying "give me one word and I'll put down the knife and I'll never pick it up again." But luckily I held out long enough to see that everybody really makes their own destiny. It's a beautiful thing. It's just you and me, exactly where we belong, and there's nothing inherently wrong with us.

-We Are All Where We Belong

Saturday, July 26, 2014

We Read To Know We're Not Alone

Wow. I must admit, I am amazed by the response to my last post!

I was bracing myself for the worst. I expected emails containing threats of hell (or condolences for choosing hell), calls of fake concern from people who otherwise never speak to me, and any other manner of general negativity. But I've been so heartened by the overall support and encouragement I've received instead. Even in the two or three emails promising prayer, which I genuinely appreciate because I know they come from a place that is good and loving, even in those, I have been shown nothing but love, respect and acceptance, not an ounce of reproval or condemnation. From the other many, many responses I've gotten, from people with a similar story or with similar feelings, I've been touched and encouraged by everyone's support.

I've always said I write for one main reason - to remind people we are not alone. Many people need to keep their feelings and experiences private, which is probably the norm. I don't know why I feel the need to be so open with mine, except for that desire to expel that loneliness in others. As I said to a friend the other day, I guess I don't mind being that scapegoat. There is also a little narcissism involved - every honest writer, I should think, would have to admit enjoying his or her words being appreciated and acknowledged by others - but time and again I find myself sharing (oversharing?) for the benefit of not only myself and my need to process, but for the benefit of others.

Sharing my story was not easy, as I'm sure you can imagine. My heart was pounding, my stomach was churning, my hands were shaking. "Coming out" atheist is not an easy thing to do, especially when you live in the Bible Belt. But now that I've done it, I can honestly say I am so relieved. No more hiding. No more pretending. No more beating around the bush. This is me. Take it or leave it, this is me. (I hope you take it though.)

Now that it's out there, I feel I can be so much more honest here on my blog, not to mention in real life. I'm not saying my blog will turn solely to the subject of religion, or the lack thereof, but it feels nice to know that now I can talk freely about what's going on in my mind without outing myself.

So thanks again, everyone, for your kind words and thoughtful responses. And since I'm on the subject of "reading to know we are not alone", I'll leave you with this little snippet from a chapter in my book. I have two chapters in which I give credit to books and authors who have spoken to me, reminding me that I'm not alone either.

We Read to Know We’re Not Alone
-William Nicholson

I also discovered the Christian author Philip Yancey during this time. Scott and I visited friends in Edinburgh one Saturday. We were only new friends, but I felt Judith was someone I could trust, and I shared with her a little of what I was going through. At the end of the day, in her quiet wisdom without saying much, she handed me a book and simply said, "It made me think of you." It was Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church by Philip Yancey. In this book, Yancey details his own crisis of faith and discusses how the writings or teachings of thirteen different people, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Leo Tolstoy, brought him from the brink of unbelief. It spoke volumes to me. His discontentment with church and the Christian communities he’d been involved in mirrored to some extent mine. He wrote honestly about his struggles with faith, with which I intimately related. This book also introduced me to several new authors and books I would never have known of otherwise, including Silence by Shusaku Endo.

Silence might have been the single most life-changing book I have ever read. Literally. Without giving away any important plot details, Silence is a fictional novel about a Portuguese priest in the sixteenth century who smuggles himself into Japan in order to find out the truth about his mentor, rumored to have apostatized. His journey around Japan brings him into contact with multiple persecuted Christians in hiding, and the question of God’s silence in the midst of such persecution is the explicit theme throughout the book to the very end.

The theme of the silence of God pierced me like broken glass. I knew too much about God’s silence. I’d been withering under the shade of his silence for over a year now, wondering how long it would take for him to break it. That is, if he ever did. What made the book so utterly life changing was the realization that God may never choose to break the silence, and sometimes, he waits until it’s too late. I was coming to the same realization that the apostate priest had come to - that sometimes, God and faith just don’t work.

* No, that was not CS Lewis who said that. It was the Shadowlands screenwriter.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Five Stages of Grief

It's time to tell the story. I'm finally ready.

The following is a re-worked copy of the original essay that inspired my book. I realized after writing this that there is so much more of my story to be told, enough to fill a novel. My book is currently two-thirds of the way done... the third part - which discusses how I deal with life after faith - is still being lived. [EDIT: You can now order the book.]

About three years ago [at the time of writing] I discovered I had a terminal illness. I was at work, and all day something was bothering me. There was a group of fundamentalists in America who were proclaiming that today was the day that Jesus Christ would return, and I thought it was laughable but also sad. How sad that they have all placed their hope so sincerely in something that obviously wasn’t going to happen. As I thought about these people, something else started nagging at me. As a Christian myself, am I any less laughable? After all, I too believe Jesus Christ will return, I just don’t have a date set in my calendar for it.

It was that day that I discovered I was terminal. My faith was dying.

As a born-again Christian, a practicing, devout, sincere, whole-hearted Christian for basically my whole life, this was dire news. I battled with this disease for three years, trying to come to terms with this faith that was so close to death.

I went home from work that day figuratively wringing my hands. I must ignore this doubt. We all have doubts. I myself have had lots of doubts. This is no different. God will see me through. I pushed the thought from my mind. Ignore the doubts, and they will go away.

Yet my mind kept churning through this thought in spite of my resistance. Jesus did say that “this” generation (his disciples’ generation) would not pass without the Second Coming. I’ve heard sermons on this my whole life. I’ve explained this away to many people myself. “This” generation is a metaphor. “A day in our eyes is like a 1000 years in God’s.” He was referring to something else. I always accepted all those answers. But plain is plain. Jesus was wrong. Or he was very unnecessarily cryptic. Either way, that generation and many others, did pass away, and we’ve yet to be taken into Glory.

From here, everything began to unravel. Like a cancer spreading, the foolishness of my sincerely held, and intellectually held, I might add, belief began to deteriorate and poison my whole life. I tried and tried to deny what was happening, but denial has never been much of a comfort to me. As a Christian and as a person, I have always been honest with myself. I knew, as much as I hated knowing, that my faith really was on its death bed, and something had to be done about it.

So I lived on. I churched on. I prayed on. Oh, did I pray. I prayed with fervour I rarely prayed with before. I begged God for another chance. I begged for a renewal of my faith. I requested help and prayer from others. I read online articles from other people in my situation and conversed on forums. I told God I would continue living the Christian life, I would continue to honor and worship him despite my doubts, if he would just reward me one day with a genuine faith again. Through it all, God was silent. It felt as if God had snapped his fingers and disappeared. He'd spoken to me so many times before, but now, when I needed him most, he was gone. By this time, my head was completely skeptical, but my heart was still with Jesus. I read a book about cell memory of the heart and came to believe that maybe faith really did live in the physical heart, and all I needed to do was let my heart rule over my head. It sounded so utterly foolish, but it’s all I had left. I would live this out to my dying day, if only to be rewarded with my place in heaven and a crown of jewels for carrying this cross.

The faith was still a spark in my heart. I took that as a sign that God was still there, not letting go of me entirely. This was just a test of my faith. I had always put so much stock in the truth of Sola Scriptura. Maybe God was taking me further, to a deeper place I’d never known. I would pass this test.

Yet with each question my dying faith brought up, I already had the answers. I’d been studying God’s Word and sharing my faith with people my whole life. There were no new answers to be found. I realized that for every question on the test, I automatically knew the answer. They’d been answered long ago, but insufficiently. Sufficient for an existing faith perhaps, but entirely useless to a fledgling non-believer. If this test was for my benefit, what could I possibly stand to gain from already having all the answers?

I felt beaten. As all this was taking place in my heart, my church was crumbling around me. I’d always believed in my church, with all its flaws – flaws I never once pretended weren’t there – but I accepted them all the same. Why? Because I believed the people to have genuine, Christ-like hearts. Sadly at this point, even that was falling apart around me. My husband and I left. He was done with Christianity, but I wasn’t ready to give up. Still in the Bargaining phase as depression began to wipe over me, I went out in search of a new church. All I found was emptiness. Finally, I found a church of wonderful people with whom I felt I could share a little of my painful honesty without judgment, and there I stayed until we left Scotland.

I was feeling crushed under my burden. I told myself again the Christian answers – You’re trying to do this too much on your own. You are trying to get to heaven by works not faith. But there was no hope for the alternative. I was clearly on my own here. No God was answering my pleas. No faith was buoying me above the water. Sinking, crushed, burdened, I was going through life trying to hold onto something that was never going to be mine again. Death was calling; the truth was too clear for me to ignore but too agonizing to accept. I continued on slowly, with my heavy yoke upon my neck and no friend in Jesus to help carry my load.

I found a new church in my new town. Beyond anything I’d ever expected, it was a Lutheran church. Never before would I have considered going “practically Catholic”, but this place touched my soul in new ways. Eagerly, I wondered if this was finally it. God was finally reaching back down to me. All of this was NOT for naught! I began taking communion again, loving this new Lutheran concept of the “real presence of Jesus Christ” being in the elements. I felt something on Sundays when I was there. I might struggle all week long, but on Sundays...

Then one day I heard my six year old daughter telling her friend that Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit were all one called the Trinity, and if you didn’t love God you would go to hell. I cringed. What a horrible thing to believe, a horrible thing to teach my child! I realized then and there that I truly had been deceiving myself these past few months. I wanted to believe that my faith was returning so badly that I allowed myself to be swept up in the precious, sweet sentiment of it all. But when spoken of in the bright of day, so plainly, so academically, I knew I didn’t believe a word of it. I didn’t like the sound of it at all.

I thought at this point I’d reached Acceptance. We found friends who were in the same place as us, previous Christians who left their faith and were, like us, trying to figure out how to live without it. With them, I felt understood and accepted. We all understood each other’s unfolding religious experience at its most complex level. I felt I could actually maybe embark on this new life-after-death after all. I really could accept that this was the new me.

Slowly, however, I realized there was a quiet rage underneath the surface. It only boiled up every now and again, and not too hotly, but it was simmering. I felt it when I went out for drinks with a Christian friend. She was telling us about some things she had done and someone remarked what a good person she was. She cast her eyes down and said, “Not really, but thanks.” She meant it. I knew she meant it and wasn’t just being modest; I knew it because that’s how a true, good Christian feels. All the good they do, all the right decisions they make, all the people they help really mean nothing because at the end of the day, we are all filth. We are scum. We are sinful beings God cannot deign to look upon without the covering of Jesus’ blood. I wanted to shout “But you ARE good!” I thought back on my own life, my own right decisions, the people I helped, my lifestyle in general. All I ever tried to do, even with all the mistakes I made along the way, was be good. And I really was good! It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I’d been put down by my faith my whole life and made to believe I was shit. The times when I dared to recognize that I kind of was okay, I shot myself right back down for having too much pride. Pride proved that I really wasn't any good at all.

The gurgling volcano of anger began erupting now and again in other ways. I would read a Christian article, or hear a Christian viewpoint, and find myself raging at it. I could never go back to believing those things. Even though a small part of me still wished fervently for just a blind faith to wash over me and let me be at peace instead of that constant spiritual masochism, I also knew I never wanted to be on that side of those viewpoints again. Even if I did come back around to having faith, I could never have faith in all of it. I found myself especially annoyed when I read things about why people leave the church or leave the faith, written from the viewpoint of someone still in it. Though I truly sympathized with their ignorance on the matter, (I myself having been one of them for decades), I was frustrated by how simplistic and egotistical their proposals are. If anyone realized the sheer agony I’d been through for the past three years on this awful journey, they wouldn’t be able to take it so lightly or flippantly. They wouldn’t be able to safely put me in a box and lock me away, as a friend put it.

You see, that term “spiritual masochist” speaks deeply to me. It describes who I’ve always been. Unlike what “they” would like to believe, I wasn’t a seed scattered on the path or sown amongst the thorns or cast into the rocky places. Rather, I’ve always over-searched my heart, ripped apart all the layers to find the truth of my soul. I believed in God and the Bible in spite of my conscious, intellectual doubts, and I never lied to myself about those doubts. I took my ability to still believe as a gift from God, for I knew it was all foolishness to the wise. Strip the faith away though, and I was left with oozing open wounds that I still tore and slashed at, amongst my cries and tears, trying to find the truth in the gash. I felt certain that few Western Christians have ever been to the excruciating lengths I had been going through to keep my faith alive. I spent years flagellating myself in the name of God to believe I was nothing, and there I was flagellating myself again to try and find some living cell within my incurable, terminal faith on which I could rebuild a self I didn’t even want anymore. I had been beating and bruising myself over this, and could not stop, and I discovered I was actually very angry about it. I thought I’d by-passed the Anger stage, but there I was, boiling over at any unexpected stimuli. Was I angry that I was raised in a Christian home? Not at all. My parents believe whole-heartedly in Jesus as I once did. Of course they would raise their offspring to place their treasures in heaven and aspire for eternal salvation. Was I angry that God has dropped me when I always believed he never would, never could? Extremely. I had been left to die with no savior to rescue me, just lies and manipulation.

I didn't know how I’d ever be ready to accept entirely that my faith was dead. I was still afraid of death, both spiritual and physical. I feared I was failing the test, and for that, I was going to be eternally punished. I still liked the idea of Jesus. I still liked what he taught and what he stood for. I still wanted to live by those principles and guide my children in those ways. No one ever regretted being a good person. But to believe 85% of the Bible and to believe that God will come to your rescue if you truly ask with all your heart are things I could not do.

I was stepping into a sunnier forest, just one without a set path. I was afraid to forge my own, because I’d been taught my whole life that I am not able to. To find your own way is to turn your back on the Lord. Yet the Lord had turned his back on me already, so I really had no choice. I had children at tender ages to raise. I had my own life to figure out. I was afraid to come into Acceptance, because I knew that it would mean I had truly died. I knew it’s around the bend, but I was still frightened. Frightened I was wrong. Frightened I was right. Worried how I would hurt my family who loves me. Worried I’d do wrong by my kids. I was in no rush to find Acceptance of my situation, but I was done with the search. I thought, “If the God of the Bible is truly the God of Love, he will pull me back in like the one lost sheep, but I’m not holding my breath.” I was finding it hard enough to breathe as it was.

Then one day, while dwelling on God abandoning me, a thought struck me. God never abandoned me at all; God just doesn’t exist! Of course, the possibility that God might not exist had been with me throughout the entire journey, but the sudden realization felt like someone opening the door of a dark room and letting in the daylight. I felt like rubbing my eyes with the wonder of it, the excitement of it, the joy of it.

And like that, my anger dissipated. Well, not really. My anger at God was gone, because it was like being angry at the Easter Bunny. How could I be angry at something that doesn’t exist, never existed? He hadn’t abandoned me, so what was there to be upset about? But I was still angry at other things. Angry at thirty years of a life wasted on a myth. Angry at my ignorance. Angry at myself for all the things I’d done in the name of God that I was now ashamed of. Angry at missing out on all the riches of the world we live in because I was busy thinking about the next world. I was angry in general, but now had no one to be angry with.

The months went by. Gradually I noticed my anger subsiding. At first, I didn’t know how to relate to the world as a verified non-believer. I didn’t know if I was a good person or a bad one. I didn’t know how people would relate to me. If they knew I was – dare I say it – an atheist, would they all turn on me?

I kept this terrifying word to myself, but as time went on, I realized how well it fit who I was now. I was so thankful to have a husband and friends who were stumbling along this journey with me. It was a little embarrassing to realize I was only for the first time truly trying to think for myself. I had to push back the temptation to latch on to other non-believers’ opinions in search of my own beliefs – or non-beliefs. At first, all of my atheistic feelings were tinged with anger and very raw. Again, I wasn’t sure I had really reached acceptance.

But a few days ago I realized six months have gone by since I first came to the conclusion that there is no god. And in that six months, a peace has settled over me. As I drift further and further away from religion, the harder I find it to understand the Christian mind-set and how I ever owned it. I’m now at the point where I have to consciously put myself back in that place in order to relate with people still in it. I also have to remind myself how painful the exit was, because I’m actually quite comfortable with it now.

There is just one step left. I can’t say I’ve fully “accepted” my atheism, because I’m still not brave enough to let the world know. I’ve been through the five stages of grief and now I’m no longer grieving, but I realize that not everyone I know has had the time to do the same. To let my family and friends know that my faith is dead will only bring it all back up again, and now I’ll have to deal with their grief. That’s the one thing I’m not ready to accept: Watching my own funeral.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Love My Body Project - Week 4: Love YOUR Body

I was at the gym yesterday, and they are starting a Wall of Success. People can email their success stories to be posted on a motivation wall. Some of the leading questions were things like "What's your favorite cardio workout?" or "How has working out affected you?" or "How much weight have you lost?"

As I kickboxed like a lumpy rhinoceros (because let's face it, I may be learning to love my body, but I still don't go no rhythm), I thought about success stories. I think they are for the most part good. They are motivating. They are encouraging. Especially for those already on a fitness journey, they can be inspiring. But they can also be demotivating.

There's been times I've read blogs about getting fit or eating right, and it just depressed me. The author would talk about how great it feels to go to the gym each day or to run miles before breakfast, and I'd just think, "I don't have time for that" or "Easier said than done." And I'd be demotivated. Their bloody enthusiasm made me want to take a nap. Or I'd read about the right way to eat or "15 Foods That Are LITERALLY Killing You", and I'd think, "I can't afford to eat like that" or "But without cake, my life has no meaning." And I'd be demotivated. Or I'd read "I've lost ten pounds!" and I'd think either, "You've lost ten pounds that quickly? Screw you." or "You've been going on and on about ALL this hard work you've been doing for THIS LONG and you've ONLY lost ten pounds?" And I'd be demotivated.

So this week, I don't want to talk fitness or healthy eating. I don't want to post success stories that will just push you further away.

Because if I know anything, it's that outside pressure will not motivate us inwardly. I can tell you all about my current successes, but it won't necessarily affect you personally. I can say I want to model positive self-love for my kids, and you may agree, but it's not enough to get you motivated to change. It's not until YOU decide in YOUR mind and heart that it's time to change - regardless of what kind of change we are talking about - that things can really start moving forward. Motivation to be healthier can only come from within.

I know many of you may not feel up to hitting the gym for a good cardio workout every day. You may not want to run a marathon (or the length of yourself). You may love cake. (I sure as hell do.) You may be suffering from depression. You may be exhausted. You may be going through a lot of stress or be in a tough situation right now.

I don't want to push you further away.

As important as your health is, today I just want to encourage you to find something you like about the way you look. I don't want to tell you to get fit, get active, push yourself away from the table or deny yourself that much needed piece of chocolate.

I just want you to feel comfortable in your own skin.

It may not be the right time for you to start a workout routine or make major lifestyle changes. Let's be honest and realistic; you've got to be mentally ready for that. But it is time to start changing the way we think about the way we look. However we look. Whatever we look like. Big noses, wide hips, lumpy legs, whatever.

You may not look perfect. In fact, I know you don't look perfect, because there is NO SUCH THING. The curvy hips one woman wishes for are the curvy hips another woman is trying to lose. Tall or short, big chested or small, tiny butt or round - there's no such thing as perfection.

All I want to suggest today is that you go look in the mirror and refuse to cringe. Don't point out your flaws. Lie through your teeth if you must, but say to yourself, "You are beautiful." Say it. Maybe even try to pick out something about it that you do like. Got sexy ankles? A flawless neck? Beautiful hands? Adorable feet? Striking eyes? Luscious hair? Smooth skin? Perfect fingernails? Even complexion? Winning smile? Straight teeth?

For a moment just forget about all the pressure out there to get motivated. You'll get motivated when that moment hits you and you are finally ready. For now, maybe just start with trying to think positively about your body. It's yours, and it's beautiful.

*PS. I'm not saying ignore your health. This really IS your only body, at least until science figures out how to give us all robot bodies, so taking care of it iS important. But sometimes, mental health has come first. Though physical health certainly improves mental health, and if you are up to it, exercising really will improve your mental health, if you aren't mentally or emotionally ready to take on the sometimes big challenge of improving physically, it can feel even harder and more impossible. All I'm saying is learn to love your body, even just a little bit. And hopefully that little taste of self-love will grow into a desire to give your body a little more healthy love.

*PPS. I'm also talking to myself here. Don't think just because I'm saying all this means I'm 100% in love with how I look myself. If you think I don't still wear Spanx under my clothes or suck in my tummy for photos, you're wrong. If you think that I'm not incredibly self-conscious about publishing the above picture, you are seriously wrong.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Texan Surprise

As promised yesterday, I'll share a little about our special surprise we got last weekend!

I was at work at the community center last Thursday when Scott called. He said he had someone who wanted to say hello. He handed the phone over and a deep Scottish voice said hello. It was my brother-in-law Pete from Texas! He and Rebekkah (his wife) and their three kids had driven to Arkansas to surprise us with a weekend visit. It was Jaguar's birthday the following day, and Pete had some time off of work, so Rebekkah suggested they come down to see us.

Scott was able to get Friday off last minute since his brother was in town, and we had a really good extended weekend with them. On Friday, we laid pretty low to let them recover from their long drive. We had a late breakfast at Waffle House, and then hung out at our house the rest of the day. The guys picked up beer and margaritas, and I picked up some groceries to make guacamole, cheese dip, and fajitas for dinner. Fifi and Lolly were delighted to see their cousins Audrey and Juliette, and Jaguar had fun trying to follow them all around. Baby Samuel slept most of the time. (It was great to see our newest nephew!) We played Skip-Bo and Cards Against Humanity until late in the evening.

On Saturday, we planned to go to the zoo. However, it was Dollar Day, and the traffic to even get to the zoo exit was unbelievable, so we turned around and went to the Little Rock River Market instead. We visited Heifer Village, where the kids got to do some crafts. We had a picnic for lunch. We wandered around the Farmer's Market. We got slushies.

After leaving Little Rock, we went back home and took the kids swimming at the community center. Following the pool, we stuffed ourselves silly at Western Sizzlin. Everyone came back to our house for about an hour, and Rebekkah, who is an amazing photographer, took lots of family pictures, which I can't wait to see. Pete and Rebekkah wanted to get back to their hotel early, since they planned to leave super early the next day to get back to Texas, so we said our goodbyes after pictures. The girls cried. We took more pictures. We promised we'd come visit them in Texas soon. We waved to them as they drove off.

It was a wonderful surprise. And luckily, my house was pretty clean when they showed up.

And now -- the pictures!

Click here for more pictures.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Love My Body Project Weeks 2 & 3

Last week was awesome. I felt awesome. I looked awesome. I was eating awesome. I was in control of my food and my exercise routine. It was an awesome week.

At the end of the week, we got a huge bonus surprise; my brother- and sister-in-law from Texas came to visit us with their three children for Jaguar's birthday weekend! We had a wonderful time. It was such a great visit, especially since we haven't seen them in about three years! (And details of that will be for another post.)

But as always, with out-of-town guests, we spent a lot of time eating out (and drinking booze...). Splurging every now and then is fine, and it's something I think I should be allowed to do if I really want to, but I didn't anticipate how it would make me feel afterwards.

Getting back on track with keto has been a nightmare this third week in. I feel a lot less in control of what I am eating and a lot more hungry. I don't feel as confident. To make matters worse, I'm approaching shark week, which means I'm less energetic (making trips to the gym a huge effort) and bloated (making my belly bulge out like I'm 20 weeks pregnant). My clothes aren't fitting well this week. The scale is still promising progress, but the mirror is decidedly not. I also have not been making myself say I love my body this week like I should. Instead, I've been internally spreading negativity about it.

I woke up this morning feeling groggy, demotivated, fat and hungry. I planned on going to both a weightlifting class and Zumba but couldn't get up and out in time. I missed the weights class and considered just staying home and doing nothing at all. But my kids (thank you, kids!) insisted we go to Zumba anyway, so we went. The first half of the class was killer; I had no energy and just did not feel like doing it. By the second half, though, I could start to feel my body wake up, and I was so glad I'd gone. It gave me the energy and motivation to do everything else I needed to do today, like get groceries and return books to the library. It gave me the determination to keep off the carbs at lunch time and during peckish moments of the day.

I guess loving one's body is a process. It has ups and downs. Hormones play a large part too. The key is probably just keep going, don't give up. And keep giving your body and your mind some love. I put on all black after realizing I was feeling negative again about my body and said defiantly to my reflection, "I LOVE MY BODY, DAMN IT."

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Love My Body Project Week 1

Originally I'd had in mind that I would blog each day about my 'progress', aka, attempt at loving my body, including a full length photo each day, the kind where I don't crop out my thighs or PhotoShop my coloring, but it turns out, that was too much work. Until I get a tripod and can take surreptitious full-body selfies, it just isn't going to work. Besides, it felt kind of narcissistic. Kind of made me feel a little 'On my momma, on my hood, I look fly, I look good!'
But as a follow up to my Love My Body Project, I must say, it's working! So each day, I look at myself in the mirror. Isn't that fairly normal? Out of a shower, or while trying on clothes, I check myself out from every angle. Normally I obsess over this and find everything wrong with how I look and end up deflated. But this past week I've changed my perspective and have been finding the things I like. I've been telling myself I Love My Body. (And I keep singing Charlie Boy - help!) But it's working. And I've been identifying things about my body that I like. Such as...

I have small boobs, which mean I can wear a tube top comfortably.

I have curvy hips, which make my figure look vintage like a 50's model.

My arms are taking shape and actually feel like muscle when I flex.

My profile is shapely and pretty.

I'm sticking to my keto diet too, though I did not deprive myself of birthday cake on Jaguar's birthday. I'm trying not to focus on weight loss numbers, but I'm happy to see a little weight coming off according to the scales. I'm happy with the quick and drastic change I'm already seeing in my tummy. The more I work out and the better I eat, the better I feel about my stomach. It's got a lot of toning to do, but I'm happier with how I look. I can look in the mirror and force myself to say 'I love my body' and I'm starting to kind of mean it. I can wear shorts to the gym and think, 'Who cares what anyone else thinks? It's hot outside, it's hot while working out, and damnit, I am - almost - comfortable with how I look.'

But more than how I look, I'm starting to appreciate my body for what it can do. I'm getting stronger. I can squat longer and deeper than I could before. I can lift heavier weights now than when I started working out five months ago. I don't get nearly as exhausted after a work out as I used to. I don't crave junk food nearly as much as I used to and feel completely in control of what I choose to eat. I feel more energetic, less stressed, more in control and less depressed. My body is good. My body is strong. My body is - dare I say it? - beautiful.

I'll even post a picture of it. And resist the urge to comment on the parts of the picture (and my body) I'm still learning to love.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Love My Body Project

Today is the first day of July. It's summer and super hot outside. Summer and super hot means swimsuit weather! And shorts. And tank tops. It means wearing as little clothing as socially acceptable to keep from dying of heat stroke.

This is great news for people who love their bodies and are comfortable in their own skin. It's not so great for the rest of us.

From a young age, I've been very self-conscious about my shape, weight and body image. I've always wanted to be skinny. When I was a teen, it wasn't too hard to stay thin, though my bone structure was never one that allowed me to be below a size 8. In college, I gained 'the freshman fifteen', but I was still pretty thin, and if I ever wanted to lose a few pounds, I just... did. I practically thought about it, and it was gone.

Then, as we post-teenage ladies know, time goes on, metabolism slows, and for some of us, we start having babies. Our hips widen, our bodies cling to extra fat reserves for possible future pregnancies, and if we've been pregnant, our skin stretches and our breasts fill with milk then sag (whether we breastfeed or not). Those photos of us in bikinis at sixteen laughing by the pool seem like photos from another life. Photos of us in bikinis now are hard to recognize, because we've put our hands out in front of the camera while screaming, 'NO!'. That is, if we were even in a bikini at all. More likely, we've moved on to tankinis or one-pieces with skirts, a coverup and a towel.

In the last year, I've gained weight, and I've been miserable about it. My mental health hasn't been optimal to begin with, and this obsession with my weight has made it even worse. I spend a majority of the day thinking, either directly or indirectly, about my weight, my figure, my shape and how others perceive me. To an unhealthy extent, I obsess about how I look.

Since February, I've been visiting the gym regularly. I go because it gives me something to do and because I like how it makes me feel. I also hoped it would help me lose a few pounds. Instead, I've only gained. Perhaps it's muscle, perhaps not, but the numbers on the scale haunt me anyway. I've tried counting calories and other half-hearted diet changes, but I always fail. I did keto in January for a month, but having house-guests quickly made that incredibly difficult to maintain. I have felt defeated, depressed and anxious about my body.

As the heat builds, and I look longingly at the shorts in my drawer, I reach for the thin cotton trousers instead to hide the body I don't want anyone to see, the body I'm ashamed of, the body I hate.

A couple of days ago I watched this video on Upworthy, where 'Plus Size' model Robyn Lawley says 'I love my body the way it is.'

I thought, 'Wow. I'd love to be able to say that about myself.'

I decided it was time to embrace the body I live in. I could use to lose a few pounds, yes, and I'd be healthier for it. I decided to go back on keto with Scott and to up my time at the gym. But my motivation is a little different this time.

Instead of being motivated to get down to a certain weight or a certain clothes size, my motivation is to love my body. However it looks. If I eat better, cut out carbs, workout more regularly, then I will be getting healthier. I may or may not lose a lot of weight. Eventually, once I break the ingrained carb addiction, I'll start allowing myself a treat now and again - after all, I only get to live once, and I don't want to live my whole life continually obsessing about food and weight! I want to enjoy food as I always have, while also enjoying the way I look and feel in my own skin (and fat stores). I know I'll never be 'skinny'. My natural weight may just be higher than I wish it were. But my goal now is to be healthier, not necessarily much skinnier, and to learn to love my body. While I'd like to fit more comfortably in my clothes (they have definitely gotten tighter over the last year), I'd also like to be able to honestly say 'I love my body'.

I like how this model commented that the more you actually say 'I love my body' the more it works. It gave me the idea to start a Love My Body Project (which I'm sure has already been done officially elsewhere, so it's not like I'm trying to start a 'thing'). I've decided that each day for the whole month of July, I will stand in front of my mirror and compliment myself. I will find something about the way I look (and not just in my face, but from my whole body) and compliment myself on it. And I will look in the mirror and say, 'I love my body' and try to mean it.

Today, I noticed that when I'm sitting with my knees up and my feet on the ottoman, my legs look smooth and sexy. I told myself how nice my legs look when they are in that position.

It's not much. I certainly don't like them when they are flat and mashed out against the chair (but who does?). It's just a start. Today I love my legs when they are in that position.

Today, I stand in front of the mirror and say, 'I love my body.' It's summer, and I'm going to wear shorts and I'm going to love my body.

(And now I need to put away all the laundry on the couch...)