Processing Puerto Rico

I’ve been processing.

A week in Puerto Rico on a mission trip brings a lot to the surface. The obvious: living in a tightly scheduled environment with little sleep, unusual (for First World Folks) conditions, daily physical labor, “church” every night, living as a foreigner in a country that is not quite “foreign” – but one in which most things SEEM foreign due to the culture and the language.

The not-so-obvious: my own personal baggage, which made this trip a head-spinning, crazy-making journey.

The back story: I was raised as a church-going person. My family faithfully attended and participated in the activities of the Methodist church, first in our small hometown in western Pennsylvania, and then later in Grand Prairie, Texas. I knew church; I did church. I understood religion.

But I missed the point.

I went away to college, essentially left the church, and navigated my early 20’s with no thought whatsoever to the notion that faith had any impact on my life. I was raised right, and I’m thankful for that, but when someone pressed me on what my faith actually meant, I came up blank.

I sought wise counsel and had a hard conversation. I’m grateful that somebody pushed me hard enough to make me mad and cause me to push back; because in that moment I realized that figuring out my own philosophy of life wasn’t working so well. It wasn’t flashy or sensational, but I surrendered, I gave up control to the degree I understood, and I gave in to God.

I returned to the Dominican Republic and simply read my Bible, tried to talk with like-minded people, and continued to struggle with my own stubborn desires and notions of what I needed and wanted out of life. It was a slow process, but the junk began to peel away, and when I moved back to Texas, one of the first things I wanted to do was find a church. A tribe. A community.

In the small town of Tolar, Texas, I had four choices: Methodist (been there/done that/no, thanks) (and that was THEN; today, I love the Methodist church and feel very much at home there, thank you very much), Church of Christ (no pianos? Right…sorry, but no), Assembly of God (whoa. Just a bit too much at that point in my life. No can do.) and Baptist. As in the Southern kind.

That’s where I landed, offering my piano-playing skills and an eager heart. I was baptized at that church, soaking up the teaching, gleaning all I could about community and right Christian living and embracing life as a new creation.

The people were kind and good. They meant well. They loved God.

But the message I received during the subsequent decade I spent in SBC churches resulted in a peculiar understanding of the world I lived in, and what it meant to be a Christian. It informed how I read and understood scripture. It influenced major life decisions. All that is as it should be…

But there was something lacking.

The message I received encouraged me to “forget what was behind” – literally – and move forward into life as a Good Christian Girl. This involved catch phrases, a list of what to say (and what NOT to say), prescriptions for what was not appropriate for a Good Christian Girl (secular music, for instance) and what was (Christian music, of course). I traded in my James Taylor and Joni Mitchell for Stephen Curtis Chapman and Al Denson. I gave up jazz and John Irving for Thomas Kinkade and cheesy Baptist Book Store fiction. I traded my authentic life for something that fit the mold, and I was willing to rewrite the entire work. Regardless of who I was, I believed it would be best – and right – to be somebody else.

I tried. I hid the messiest part of me, swept away ALL of the old – even the stuff that I thought was okay, like being the salutatorian of my high school, being an accomplished pianist, etc. – and tried to embrace the new, sanitized version of My Life. I ignored the niggling thought that I had some issues that ought to be worked through and simply trusted Jesus to make all things new, as long as I turned away from all that came before.

I felt tugged to study at seminary, which would have been great except that I wasn’t interested in being a director of Christian Education. I wanted to study what the boys were studying, and challenge my intellect and learn Greek and Hebrew. In my church environment, that was sweet and all, but discouraged. Strongly. Regardless of my aptitude, my passion, what I sensed as a calling, it was written off as a naive, newfound infatuation with Jesus.

Much better to marry somebody who was headed to seminary, because with skills like mine (I could PLAY that piano and make every hymn sound like glory!), I’d be a great fit as a wife for a pastor!

I wanted to please this new tribe, I wanted to do things right, I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be loved. I wanted to atone for my sins. And the message I got was that along with the atonement of Jesus, we all needed to toe the line in terms of right living.

I wanted to live right.

I remember hearing, from the pulpit, that most Methodists were not saved; that they were probably going to hell. I tried to witness to my faithful mother and father, to ensure that they had prayed a prayer of salvation and were going to heaven. I offended them. They told me so. I expressed sorrow that they hadn’t been baptized. They were offended.

They loved me anyway.

I heard from the pulpit that Catholics certainly weren’t going to heaven, what with all the Mary-worship. Mormons were sinful and in need of true salvation. Presbyterians and Lutherans were liberals, worthy of eternal damnation.

In the midst of what was overt and spoken was the ever-present list of rules and regulations, the sense of order that would preserve my right living and unblemished life. Don’t drink. Don’t cuss. Don’t let the kids watch Harry Potter. Don’t observe Halloween. Don’t watch certain movies. Don’t vote Democrat. Don’t watch soap operas. Don’t say “darn it”, or any other euphemism for curse words. 

Don’t appear smarter than the men in the room.

Don’t lean into your leadership gifts.

Don’t tell the truth about your past.

I bought it. I lived it. I had five babies, quickly. I received much affirmation for choosing to stay at home and raise my kids, to support my spouse as he worked on his undergrad and then seminary degree. I focused on the kids, I played the piano like crazy, I learned how to submit and obey to the male authorities in the church. It was an odd sort of dance; at times, I felt like we all knew it was a game we were playing…but we played it well.

But I couldn’t keep up. I’m human; I’m messy. I have faults, I have sinful inclinations, I am tempted. And the message I received was that the messiness was a vestige of the past, it was the “old man”, it was to be ignored. I tried. I did every good Christian thing I could do. I sang with gusto, I prayed, I did ladies’ Bible studies, I was at church every time the doors were open.

I tried.

I failed.

Rather than seek help for the things that troubled me, I chose to bury what looked like failure. I prayed it through. I tried to give it up to God.

I tried.

I failed.

A good counselor later helped me find some language that allowed some sense to be made of what I felt was inexcusable behavior. After breaking my marriage vows and finding myself stripped bare of all pretense that I was a Good Christian Girl, I agonized over how I could have done such things. How I could have fallen so far. How I could have been so weak. How a good Christian girl could flame out with such wickedness.

My counselor said that the messy stuff, when it’s just stuffed down further and further, leaks out somehow. Always. At our core, we are human. Through grace, we are God’s; but we are human. My religious indoctrination encouraged me to ignore that and to strive for some unrealistic ideal – something that was far from human, but certainly clean and pretty.

I leaked, I made a mess, I was broken. It was then that I realized what it could mean to receive grace, to be redeemed, to need salvation.  Was I “saved” prior to that? I think I was; but I accepted a cheap, man-made salvation.

I needed the messy kind.

Grace found me and became very real in the community of believers at a non-denominational Bible church. The list of rules and regulations was gone; they drank wine! They occasionally cussed! They were friends with Catholics, respectful of their tradition and faith! They leaned hard into the grace of Jesus, into the context of scripture, into intellectual challenges – things I had not heard much about other than in sound bites.

It is not that I believe there is more value in relaxed social constriction; but these things are indicative, to me, of the freedom from religion I found, which, in turn, led to an amazing and full understanding of God as my creator and Jesus as my savior. I believed, for the first time, that all of me was welcomed into the community and into the grace of God. All of me received grace. It was miraculous.

My next spiritual community welcomed me, branded a sinner, now living as a divorced, single mom. The grace I experience here was defining and life-changing; for the first time, the leadership gifts I had utilized in my teens and in my teaching career were also welcome in the church. (Ironic side note: while in Fort Worth, the pastoral staff of a church there was invited to take a series of personality tests. I was included, as a spouse. My spiritual gifts indicated leadership as my highest calling. When I shared this with the church leaders, I received a gentle smirk and a metaphorical pat on the head. Perhaps I could lead a ladies’ Bible study?)

For the past six years, I have served God through the church here in Powhatan in leadership. I have preached, from the platform, in the main services. I have been ordained. I have seen the fruition of my desire to follow Jesus bloom in the context of a community that welcomes my services. I, who have publicly failed God, sinned against him and his community, gotten divorced and remarried, remaining female throughout – with all of that baggage, I have been invited to the table completely, to serve, to lead, to pastor, to give my life to the cause of Christ.

I am content and fulfilled. I feel as if I have taken the long road to accepting God’s call to serve Him. I believe that He has taken every misstep and caused it to work for His good. I am called.

That’s my story, and it’s all well and good in the context of my community. Our church lets folks know up front that they support women in leadership, which is not “normal” for Baptist churches. We don’t seek to argue or cause tension, it’s just where we are; if someone is uncomfortable with that, we respect their beliefs and encourage them to seek a place that might be a better fit. I am comfortable here.

At World Changers, I was not comfortable. At the work site, we were on equal footing – the females and the males had equivalent roles. Other than obvious areas where a guy’s strength or height gave him an advantage, we worked alongside one another as equal brothers and sisters.

But in conversation, in connecting with others, there was tension. I felt as if I treaded dangerous waters. Discussing what we did “back home” with other adult leaders, I had to carefully gauge how I thought I might be received if I told the truth. My co-leader was a pastor from a South Carolina church; they felt that they were not typically Southern Baptist.

Well, neither are we! Maybe there would be some common ground!

When pressed, I heard that they were more Calvinistic that most SCB churches; in fact, they were quite fond of Mark Driscoll and were adherents of his teaching.

That’s the kiss of death for a woman like me, ordained and in Christian leadership.

I didn’t fit.

And, based on my past experiences as being part of that exclusive tribe in years past, not only did I not fit – I was an outcast. I was wrong.

All week long, I felt shame. There was never – not once – any overt rudeness directed my way. My co-worker and, in fact, every person there, was nice and kind and helpful and polite. But underneath it all, I knew – I just knew – that I didn’t belong. That I had chosen wrongly in their eyes. That somehow, I was illegitimate. I made a lot of assumptions, to be sure; but the subtle message in casual conversation, in the preaching, in the encouragement offered to others – it was there. At one point, I complemented my co-worker with a jubilant, “Way to go, man! You did it! You are GOOD!” Quickly, he responded, “Oh, no. Only GOD is good.”

Not a big deal. I agree; God IS good. We are sinners! But I felt corrected, chided, rebuked, put down, shamed….

….put in my place.

I could not find my place, all week. Too much of a sinner for the Southern Baptists, unable to be authentic with my own community. I was lost. It was gut-wrenching and it was painful.

By Thursday evening, I found my thoughts wandering. Again, all based on assumptions and the power of the subtle cultural influences all around me – nothing overt. But it was so pervasive; during worship, a thought wound its way into my brain. “What if they’re right? What if you are wrong? What if your presence in your church perverts the will of God? What if you are bringing shame to His name? What if you are interfering with what God wants to do at your church? What if you are a stumbling block? What if He is turning His face away from the people who are striving to know him because of YOU?”

I was wrecked.

I am thankful that my pastor was on this trip; he knows enough of my history that he needs no back story. I found him and began to pour out my fear, my stress, my shame, my confusion. He actually said very little – but what he said years ago during communion spoke loudest to me, as God brought it back to my memory.

“You are not who you used to be.”

I am not. I am a new creature. And if I am wrong, if my sinful, divorced, female self is an abomination to God, then there is no place for me – because I don’t fit the old pattern, either. There is no room for me in that culture.

There’s not much they could do but stone me. There seem to be no other options.

I choose Jesus. I lay my wretchedness at his feet. I give up. I know I am broken, weak, weary, torn, sinful. I know I need him. I know I will fail again.

I know he loves his children. I know that his grace redeems. I need Jesus.

I will live here. Unwelcome in those other cultures, undeserving and wrong. I will live in that tension and offer as much grace as has been given me, as much as possible. I want to honor God with my life. I want to be open to correction. I want to always believe that I might be wrong. I want to always err on the side of grace.

For myself, as well as for others.

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6 thoughts on “Processing Puerto Rico

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your story Beth. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to carry all of that into ministry. As a man, I cannot totally relate to all of your fear, stress, shame and confusion…but, I do relate. I constantly feel a similar sense of shame and fear based on my past. Many times I feel like an outcast among leaders. However, as you have stated, much of it is assumption. I know there are places I don't belong, but I am confident in my calling, as I know you are. For what it's worth, I think you are an amazing leader and God is doing so many amazing things under your leadership. FYI – I like Mark Driscoll…but please don't hold that against me…lol!

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  2. I love this post and can relate to big chunks of it. I was thinking of you earlier, today, and something you wrote to me about how people will always judge us. The older I get, the more I just don't care. The greatest tension I feel these days relates to my willingness to be authentic and wide open. So many people don't like it. They want me to gloss over. They want me to seem happy when I'm not…or maybe to be happy before I'm good and ready. And I've decided I'm just going to keep on speaking my mind until the Lord silences me.

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  3. Oh, Beth!! Thank you so much for this!! My story is similar yet not similar. My fears, however, are spot on! I am a female leader in a man's world, and while I've not been patted on the head…well, it's too much to put in a comment, but, rest assured, I am thrilled that you've pioneered your leadership into the SBC culture. Especially for those, like me, still trying to figure out how He wants to use us and our skills. I think I've almost reconciled myself to the fact that it's less me and more my children He really wants and I'm simply the fertile ground upon which they've set their roots. Your blog has helped me understand (hope, maybe?) that maybe there's more to me for Him than I'm willing to give Him, or will admit is available for Him. Talk about baggage!! Wow. I've got lots and lots of thinking to do…
    Yours in grace,
    Ann Roberts

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  4. Well, all I know is that you're MY pastor, and I am so very blessed for it. I cherish your insights and willingness to listen to my rants. You know things about me that only my wife otherwise knows. I absolutely LOVE sitting under the teaching of Brian, and trust him completely, as well. …and you are my pastor. I am a richer man for having had you, my pastor, in my life.

    You may not realize it, but you moved the line a little in PR. You planted seeds that folks will have to deal with long after your physical presence has passed from their lives. You broke their molds and forced them to confront themselves. I know you don't see it like I do through your words, but you did. You may never in this life witness the great good you did by being YOU in PR, but you did great works. You sowed the seeds, and God will do the rest.

    Peace, my pastor.

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  5. I RELATE, I RELATE, I RELATE!

    asdkfjasdfjkadsf

    this post. it gives me so many feelings. THE FEELINGS. i cannot process the feelings. there are so many.

    mostly i just wish you were in the same city as me. OH WHAT ELSE IS NEW.

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