What are you afraid of?
What are you afraid of?
That alcohol is heavier than lead
And Hunter S Thompson is dead
She said, “You’ll never have enough
‘Til the day that you wake up
And everything is gone
Oh, everything is gone”
--Lucky Boys Confusion, “Leave on the Light”
Evangelical Christianity teaches you to hate, fear, and mistrust people. There’s the big, obvious stuff that we all know. The atheists and gays have an agenda and are not to be trusted. The Muslims are all suicide bombers. Liberals hate Jesus and America. The poor are lazy, shiftless bums. Evangelicals aren’t required to believe all of these things, but the various stereotypes are woven into the very fabric of life in a church. They’re also not particularly interesting.
The place where that fear and distrust becomes interesting is within the walls of the church itself. Life inside a church is like being in the cliquiest social club in the world. People are constantly gossiping and jockeying for position and trying to be the person through whom all the power flows. Evangelical Christianity is a place filled with idealists who only want to help make the world a better place. It’s also filled with cynical, self-important assholes. A lot of the latter are simply the hollowed-out shell of the former, tired of constantly having to learn and re-learn the simple lesson that the asshole almost always wins, even in the place that’s supposed to be Jesus’s home on Earth. Jesus, as he is with so many other things, is powerless against the whispers of little old ladies at after-service socials.
Casual observers won’t necessarily know this. I was far from a casual observer of life in church, however. I was, as I’ve said, a Man of God, specifically of the type who was planning to become a pastor. So I hung out with pastors. I was a lay leader in multiple groups after graduating high school, so I hung out with other leader types. I read books about doing effective ministry and building effective churches.
The thing that always came up was dealing with the difficult people in the church. The difficult ones weren’t the disinterested or the disengaged. The difficult ones were the people who sought to be the center of everything. The difficult ones were the people who sought to have the power to be king makers and king breakers in their little worlds. They had to be handled carefully and with kid gloves, as a pastor getting to close to one of them was holding a viper to his breast.
There were other, everyday problems to worry about, too. Churches are hotbeds of gossip. Simple self-preservation meant that it was a good idea to never, ever admit to any real difficulty in life. There were the big, unavoidable things, like losing a job or something. The community tended to rally around the people in that situation. Woe to the man who was caught in adultery, to pick an easy example. Depending on the church, though, the man caught with a bottle of whiskey might wish he’d been diddling the secretary. There were other traps, too, though.
See, churches tell the people who attend that the church is a safe place. People in the prayer meetings are encouraged to share their struggles. Anyone who has been in a church for a long time knows that this is the exact last place to be honest, however. There are acceptable struggles that everyone talks around and then gets a round of nods (the big code word here: “lust.” If you haven’t been in a church you don’t know what I’m talking about. If you’ve spent any time in a prayer group, though, you’re nodding along and you filled that word in long before I wrote it, although that’s context-sensitive). As such, most prayer groups end up revolving around inane requests for help with upcoming tests or sick grandmothers or that one person that everybody has who they’ve been praying would receive Jesus but who just isn’t being receptive. Some uninitiated sap always walks in eventually and admits to having actual problems. Everybody then talks about that person, usually when they’re not around.
Those acceptable and not-acceptable things are entirely group- and context-sensitive, though. Moving from one group to another means it’s possible to screw up and admit to a taboo you didn’t know exists. Things like smoking and drinking, for one, are fairly fungible. Being divorced is potentially fraught with peril. Wayward children are also potentially difficult, as they can be an indication of the failure of their parents.
The trick to surviving and thriving in an Evangelical environment, then, is to never admit having trouble with anything except the acceptable things to have trouble with. Mostly that means you have to admit from time to time that you have lust issues and you don’t read your Bible enough. Otherwise you’re going to get called to the carpet. So, as is my wont, it’s story time:
Story the First: One of the girls I grew up with in my church was the daughter of one of the elders. I knew him, mostly by sight. One Sunday morning he was called up before the church, where he admitted before the entire congregation that he’d been having an affair and he’d be stepping down from his position as church leader guy. I think I was in high school at the time. I recall being horrified by the whole thing. My problem was with the fact that it must have been awful for my friend to see her father humiliated in front of the entire church like that.
While I consider adultery pretty awful, I consider forcing a man to stand up in front of a church full of friends, acquaintances, and strangers off the street and admit to it pretty fucking awful, too. It’s the sign of a place that doesn’t give a shit about what the individual is going through, but only cares about making an example of someone who stepped out of line. Who the fuck cares about the fallout for his wife or his children as they’re forced to very publicly come to terms with their father’s mistake?
Story the Second: When I was coordinating outreach for the IV chapter at Western one of the other leaders didn’t like me very much. One of the other leaders got it into her head that Jesus wanted her to go off and do something else, which created a position that was filled by someone who was both unqualified and unstable and quickly lost her goddamn mind. Some series of events that I don’t really remember anymore lead to me and one of the other leaders going to that first leader and asking her to talk to the person who was going bugnuts insane.
A couple weeks later at the weekly leaders’ meeting the head honcho, the leader who didn’t like me, and the other main leader blindsided the two of us with a whole thing about lovingly correcting our behavior for what we’d done. I still remember sitting on the floor and shaking in rage. I quit shortly thereafter.
Story the Third: When I was in junior high the head pastor of my church was ousted after an anonymous letter-writing campaign. Someone in my mother’s Sunday School group had tried to get her involved. She told them to shove it. Later she told me the story and finished it off with, “If you’re going to say something, make sure it’s something you put your name to.” I’ve always considered that the most valuable piece of instruction I received from either parent.
The lesson to be learned here? Don’t trust people in churches. It’s bad mojo.
Unfortunately I internalized that lesson quite well. I already had self-esteem and self-doubt issues. When I added those to my dawning realization that the people around me could be extremely petty and cruel assholes, even (especially?) the ones who were supposed to be the representatives of Jesus on Earth, I learned to internalize most of my own struggles. It’s good to be wary that other people might have ulterior motives. It’s much less useful to believe that everyone is a backstabbing asshole just waiting for a chance to take you down.
When I left the church I pretty much trusted no one. Many of my so-called friends and theoretical support network disappeared overnight. I had to be wary of all but a few because the people who popped in and out from time to time made their intentions obvious: they only cared to pull me back in. I wasn’t about to be honest with them about anything, since they’d see anything I said through the prism of whether or not it could be used to reel me back in.
I’ve often tried to intellectualize the reasons I desperately tried to hang on to Amy during that stretch. I’ve often tried to intellectualize the reasons I kept picking at the scab even after we stopped talking, which came after months of us making each other miserable and coming to completely and totally resent each other. I tend to believe that it’s because I saw her as a symbol of something I was losing but not quite ready to give up. I tend to say that she was a tangible thing to talk about when I needed some way to describe losing my religion.
I’m sufficiently removed from that to be able to say that’s probably a bullshit post hoc explanation. I think I clung to her because I was desperately lonely and didn’t know where to look to fix that problem. I think I was completely and totally emotionally and spiritually broken and hoping that she could somehow fix all of that. She couldn’t and probably didn’t particularly want to, for which I cannot blame her.
Also, boobies. It’s important to factor in the whole boobies thing.
Sometimes the answer isn’t this big thing that needs to be picked apart a bit at a time. Sometimes it’s as simple as a guy who thought no one would ever actually care about him trying to hang on to one person who once had because he didn’t have anywhere else to go, lacked the coping mechanism to deal with it, and lacked the force of will to walk away and find something better. Sometimes it’s just about trying to find a constant in a world that’s completely shifting.
When Amy was gone I curled up into the fetal position and hid from the world. At that point I began transitioning from someone who drank from time to time to someone who pretty much always had alcohol around. I crawled up inside my head, locked the door behind me, and endlessly picked over my memories while accompanied by alcohol.
Because that’s what writers do, right? They drink and they write about their depression and despair.
I’m not an alcoholic. I am, however, someone with a problem. The problem is that I don’t much like myself and I don’t much trust, well, anybody. Rather than spend these last four-plus years attempting to solve that problem I’ve been hiding from it and making excuses.
That’s an awful thing to realize. The good news is that I realized it before I did anything irreversible. The sad thing is that I know exactly what I have to do. I’ve known exactly what I had to do for these last four-plus years. The only thing that’s been stopping me is that I’ve been too afraid to try, too afraid to court failure. I think this is one of those points where I have to actually try.
This is just one of those things. Everybody has a non-Christian friend or relative or co-worker who just totally needs them some Jesus and who has totally needed them some Jesus since, like, 1987. That person has been receiving weekly prayers since 1987 but wouldn’t know it, because the person who keeps bringing them up in prayer group doesn’t actually talk to friend/relative/co-worker about it. Part of it is the passivity I brought up a couple posts ago. Most of it is because almost no one actually wants to do what they’re supposed to do and actually trying to win people for Jesus.
I know that I sure as shit didn’t. I was planning on being a pastor. I was Outreach Coordinator for my InterVarsity chapter at Western. That seems germane.
Yes, even in 2012.
Or deacons. Or aldermen. Whatever the hell the governing board of the church was called.
Two or three times, no less, since I’m pretty sure they made him do it in every service.
In the past I mostly attributed this to her being a backstabber who thought she needed to preserve her power against me. I’ve since realized that she had a rather unique perspective on the whole thing where I was losing my mind and was afraid that I was in the process of fucking some shit up. We didn’t like each other much and I haven’t wasted any time wondering what she’s up to since I left, but I’m willing to accept that maybe I brought more of it upon myself than I thought in the past.
It was a stupid idea at face value and I accurately predicted that it would be a complete and abject failure. The lesson here is that it’s pretty obvious when someone else is just making shit up and claiming it’s direct instruction from god.
I have only two regrets about that. The first is that I tried to pull the old “part as friends” routine. The second is that I didn’t stand up, stick both middle fingers in the air, and walk out of the room.