I’m 28 minutes into the latest Liturgist podcast and already I have to take pause.
The rapid-fire thought barrage has already reached maximum capacity, and in an attempt to calm the cacophony of my mind, I am writing this down right now. This might not make sense to you. This might be too real and trigger some deep shit in your own mind. However this hits you in your place in space and time, please be gentle. This is my story. Its gonna be messy, possibly incoherent, and full of things that you might disagree with. But thats not the point. I’m not writing this to prove anything to anyone. So calm down, have a cup of tea, and only read further if your heart is open. This is my story of Spiritual Trauma.
If you asked me a year ago if I had suffered spiritual trauma, my answer likely would start out the same.
I would surely say yes, and then move on to one of many stories about our transition from being leaders and foundational members of an Assembly of God church plant to being independent, progressive house church leaders.
Stories of members of our previous church family praying for us to come back to the will of G-d.
Stories of youth pastors who sent me long, angry emails about how my house church was a tool of Satan and I was directly responsible for sending people to hell.
Stories of a community (Light House Church, or LHC for short) that said, in one loud voice “You are no longer one of us. You are not good enough. We can no longer associate with you.”
I still remember the day that I realized my old Pastor unfriended me on Facebook. Thinking back on it today, 9 years later, the pain still lingers. The pastor who prayed over us, in the church that we helped start, blessings and support for our new mission.
And then never spoke to us again. That is, until the day I sent him a message asking why he chose to finally sever the one tie we had left.
But, if you asked me a year ago, I would tell you that as painful as these memories are to recollect (I am shaking thinking of these things as I type), I had largely processed a lot of them, quite openly and vocally. I may have been through some trauma, but I came out the other side. I was through the weeds. Looking back on the scars brought back painful feelings, but scars were all thats left.
Because I moved on.
I went through the cycles of loss and came out the other side. I found a faith, my faith, in the years after that. Most of this time I spent on my own, with occasional conversations with a friend (many of which caused those friendships to end, unfortunately). But, nonetheless I ended up in this place: Post-modern. Progressive. Mystic. Some other buzzword that will scare your evangelical grandma. I find myself regularly talking about the creative energy of all things, and connecting with the divine mystery. I even found a new faith community, after nearly giving up entirely on the idea, that puts up with me. I fucking love those people so much. I love that can write that I love them so fucking much and I know I won’t get slammed with a spiritual confrontation.
I have shared much of the trauma that I explained above. Things that had almost become normal to share with people, after being told so many times. I also found that in sharing these stories, and others of my time in AoG bible college and church, that our experiences and traditions were deeply poisoned by the theology that I had, years ago abandoned. Things that I never realized had affected me as deeply as they did.
It was here in this new community (Sellwood Faith Community, or SFC) that I realized there was a second form of spiritual trauma I had experienced.
One that lay hidden beneath the big, gnarly scars of our fallout with Evangelical Christianity. It came out in weird places. I would be picking music for our Sunday dinner church, and suddenly I would be gripped with panic and anxiety.
Is this song good enough? Spiritual enough? Too spiritual? Is this some shitty, “Jesus is my Boyfriend” worship garbage? Is this too evangelical? Is this too esoteric?
I would weep over the fear that my choices would be judged. I remember one time specifically bringing up a song choice to our pastor, who is vocally Pro-Choice. The song was “We Are Stronger” by Gungor, and in the middle there is a bridge where the vocals go:
Every black life matters
Every woman matters
Every soldier matters
All the unborn matter
Every gay life matters
Here’s to life and all it’s branches
And I messaged her, terrified that she would be offended by that bolded line. She first told me that the song is awesome, that as someone who is pro-choice she absolutely believes the unborn matter, and that this did not feel like a politicized lyric. She assured me that the song is great, and that I should feel free to bring whatever songs I want to the table. Then she said something profound:
“Just because I believe something doesn’t mean it’s right.”
I had never heard a pastor say those words before. I knew right there that this was exactly where I needed to be, but I also started to realize that those wounds that Evangelicalism caused aren’t as healed as I thought.
I would go on to have more panic attacks about picking music. Each time I would bring them up to the community, not to guilt, but desperately seeking some level of acceptance and validation as a person. My community has been absolutely wonderful to me. Still, those wounds linger. It’s gonna be a long time, and I may never get to the point where I don’t feel anxiety picking music. Fearing that I am either being too pushy, or too esoteric, or too god damn weird. I still worry that I talk too much, or that I repeat myself. Even in the most accepting and loving community, those scars still affect me.
The smaller ones, hidden under the big, gnarly wounds.
But the thing I really want to talk about in this goes even deeper.
See, during lent this year at SFC, we did this thing. Its the kind of thing that a younger me would probably mock. Its the kind of thing that normally doesn’t affect me. During Lent, one of the main themes is the idea of finding space for G-d. Typically, this involves some form of fasting or sacrifice. Many know of Lent as the time you don’t eat meat, or the time you give up something. I had been quite busy with my music through the lenten season, so I missed quite a few dinners. But, I ended up at this one. Where we did this thing. This thing that normally wouldn’t affect me.
We ate sang our prayer, ate our dinner, and then started to talk about our time through lent. I was fairly quiet, mostly because I hadn’t done much for Lent. We went through the conversation, maybe we did a Lectio Divina (I don’t actually have a super strong memory of the conversation leading up to that thing that normally wouldn’t affect me). But then we brought out a big bowl and some antacid tablets. We were supposed to write something that we needed to let go of, something that might be getting in the way of our connection with the divine. I immediately brought up how in our previous evangelical existence, this kind of thing would be used to guilt teenagers into feeling shitty about their budding sexuality, or their choice of music, or some other inane, non-helpful, damaging bullshit. I talked about how freeing it was to be in a community that had such different priorities.
And then it came to me. I was a deer on a lonely country road. These words, the truck speeding around the corner at 70 MPH:
I need to stop hating myself.
I’m in tears now, as I change the formatting of those words, to emphasize the weight of their meaning. I was in tears then, trembling, attempting to write “my self worth issues” onto an antacid. We went around the table, placing our struggles into the water. The teenager in our group leaned back, exclaiming “Kobe!” and splashed me. But in that moment, I wasn’t really there. I was alone, in my office, trying to stop the inner voice that, on loop kept saying “you’re not a good musician. You’re not a good husband. You’re not a good father. You are a bad person.” I swear to you, that one simple activity was the hardest spiritual act I have ever done. Because I knew that I couldn’t put something that important out there, and then leave it be. The action was merely representing the fact that I knew it was time for me to deal with my self worth issues. My imposter syndrome. My anxiety. My depression. My self-hatred. My lack of belief in myself.
So, I brought it up at therapy. I brought up the story from church, and I brought up the things that I thought might be a partial cause. I figured that some level of it was caused by bad theology and the evangelical fear of humanism. I felt free because I let it out, the process started, and I would find my way, like I had many times in the past, to the other side.
This has been my last month.
This is why streams end up not happening and videos get delayed. This is why I write “I have been processing a lot recently” in my write-ups.
Because processing these negative self images has been extremely taxing. I have found myself in the hardest depression I have gone through since college. I have come to terms with the fact that I do, in fact suffer from depression and anxiety, labels I had previously been wary to embrace, mostly out of fear of co-opting someone else’s struggle.
Every week we have uncovered some new stuff that has helped. We talked over some things that helped me to take the first steps in saying that I am proud of something I have done. That the way I think about certain things is good, and meaningful, and special. (Although even now, typing that is extremely difficult). Its the first step in a long journey, and its not gonna get easier for a while, but ultimately I am hopeful.
But this last week, I realized something. I realized how much of this goes back to Spiritual Trauma.
Because under those big, gnarly scars of abandonment and excommunication…
Under the tinier scars of bad theology and damaging understandings of leadership and counsel…
There was a deep infection, that goes to the core of my being. This thing that screams out “You are not a good person.” The demon in me, that I can nearly visualize reaching up, out of my chest to squeeze my throat closed as I attempt to utter:
“Your way of seeing the world is special.”
“The way you imbue emotion into your music is a gift.”
Its a shadow, small and wrinkled, curled around my heart, screeching at me to stop every time I try to say something good about myself. (I picture it like something out of a miyazaki film).
I wanna talk, quite candidly, with you all reading this about my struggles. I wanna talk about the roots of this illness that we have been uncovering. This is the rawest moment. Much of this is a struggle to type, because that shadow is screaming inside of me to stop.
“You are just whining.”
“Your trauma isn’t real trauma.”
“None of this changes the fact that you are a bad person.”
“Ultimately, you are going to disappoint and hurt those you love.”
That last one is the kicker. You see, one of the many trails my lack of self worth embarks me down is one of fear. Fear of disappointment. It was fear of disappointment that lead me to become a compulsive liar in college. It was fear of disappointment that brought me to tears as I confessed to the community I loved most that I made up a story about getting expelled, just to avoid the reality that I was a failure who dropped out of college.
But this fear went back to a moment that I brought up in therapy as an aside. Something that I genuinely didn’t think was a big moment for me. Until I started to re-tell it.
We were talking about the evangelical churches insanely destructive beliefs about sexuality. I had just talked about how during my time leading a youth group, I have true pride in the space we created. How one of our students felt safe enough, in an evangelical church of all places, to open up about his homosexuality. We moved on quickly to how my wife and I had to over come a lot of the damaging stigmas that were pushed on us as teenagers around sex. We talked about the nearly weekly guilt spiral around masturbation that 16 year old Ace would struggle through, week after week, constantly feeling like he wasn’t good enough.
And it was there that a memory came up. A memory of a 3 1/2 floppy disk. I had made a joke powerpoint with friends, meant to poke fun at some of our inside jokes we had with our Youth Pastor. Now, if you don’t remember or don’t know the logic of floppy disks, I guess if you delete something off of one, but don’t empty the recycling bin, those dirty images stay on that floppy disk. Teenage me didn’t know this, and so I put my seemingly safe disk into my Youth Pastors computer, dragged the powerpoint onto the desktop, and got to work on setting up the prank.
Except I left that floppy disk in the computer. And those dirty jpegs were still on there.
My pastor called my friends and I, individually into his office. He didn’t know which of us the disk belonged to, and he didn’t want to know. But, he wanted to make sure that each of us knew how wrong we were for doing this. And this is where all of that damaging theology found its way into the bloodstream. He harshly condemned us for looking at such awful, despicable things. He repeatedly talked of how we were student leaders and were to be held to a higher standard than that. We had disappointed him. We had disappointed God. But, then there was a sea change. The conversation turned to his career. How, if someone had stumbled upon that disk, he could have lost his job, his family, his everything. I have no strong memory as to whether he repeated this point or not, but the point was bored deep inside of me.
This shameful thing that I prayed daily to overcome.
This thing that I felt I was incapable of overcoming (because I wasn’t good enough, not spiritual enough, not a real man of god).
Not only did my mentor find my shameful thing and enforce all of those damaging ideas. But, that thing could have ruined his life. I could have been responsible for destroying everything. My disappointment could have hurt others.
It was then that the lightbulb went on for both my therapist and I. So much of my struggle is tied to moments like this. Moments when damaging theology, backwards understanding of sexuality, a perverted understanding of holiness, and a man who studied ancient languages and persuasive speeches tried to be a therapist all let bits of this infection into my being.
My deepest spiritual trauma is not one event. It was spoon fed to me, over the course of many years. And even though I have shed myself of almost all of that damaging theology, the infection, the lack of belief in myself, has stayed behind.
The thing that lingers is shame. Shame pervades so much of my church past. I told one story, one that is absolutely foundational to my struggles. But its not the only one. Far from it. Its merely a brief window into the world that hurt me. The church attitudes and beliefs that damaged me. The myriad of moments when something was said by a leader that left the tiniest of pinpricks on my heart.
Like the time my senior pastor told the congregation that if you are overweight you should never lead from the stage of a church.
Like the time my pastor told my wife (then girlfriend) to leave me at a gas station after I got out of a moving car because I was convinced no one in the car wanted me around.
Like the time my pastors wife instant messaged me to scream at me about posting the word “fuck” on my xanga page.
Like the time our pastor fired the youth pastor because he had different theology. Then counseled his wife to leave him. Then shamed him for his drinking problem. Then lead the funeral service after he killed himself.
I can not possible explain in words the weight writing these moments down has on me.
These are my wounds. This is my spiritual trauma.
I have one final thing I want to say.
The moment in the podcast that gave me pause was not some deeply triggering story or emotionally riveting conversation. It was a therapist, talking about how the struggle to overcome spiritual trauma can be so hard for so many because after leaving their communities, they struggle to feel like they are any good. Many times they end up finding therapists or partners who end up being more damaging then helpful, because they are drawn to the same kinds of leader figures as those from their traumatic backgrounds.
To this I say: I am unbelievably thankful for the people in my life.
For my wife, who has been gently (and not so gently) nudging me to deal with my self worth. Who is deeply empathetic to the struggles I am going through, and has been very supportive through this time of processing and working through it all.
For my church community who taught me that gathering together in the name of Jesus can look very, very different from the abusive world I came from. That I am loved, I am worthy. That I am enough.
For my friends who have heard bits and pieces of this story. I have sent this to many of you, so you know where I am at. Thank you for listening. For not judging me. For being willing to get real with me.
For my therapist, Melissa. I don’t know how Allison found you, but I am so happy that I found a therapist who is helping me in such profound ways. I have heard countless horror stories from friends who struggle, moving from therapist to therapist, unable to find someone who connects and helps them in the way you have helped me.
I realize how I could be in a very different place if not for the love and support of all these people. I am deeply thankful for all of you. You are reflecting the light of the divine, and you have all been essential in my path to wellness.