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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

1 - Christina: A Search for Identity, Love and Acceptance

(This is the first part in a series of blog posts based on interviews I did with 7 adults ages 26-32 about their experience growing up in an American evangelical Christian church setting. All names have been changed to protect their identities.)

Christina was 30 years old. She walked into my office full of smiles. This young woman is one that I had known for over two decades. I first met her when she was a little girl and I was in high school. But, since we hadn't really talked since she was in high school, I wasn’t sure what twists or turns the interview might take.

She seemed happy and confident, more confident, more comfortable than I remembered her ever being.
Christina wanted to know about the interview process, my paper, and the research that I had done already.

She seemed so happy. It took me back a bit.

I knew enough of her story to know that she had had a rough time of it in the years since I had had her in youth group.

Why was she so happy?

I explained to her that honesty was of utmost importance, much more than telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. And then I asked her to just tell me her faith story. Whatever she wanted to tell.

She began the interview by saying, “I was born into this, a world, a Christian setting, a Christian family, a religious background.” It was not something she had chosen for herself. She was raised in a family who always attended church. She also attended a Christian school in her younger years.

When she went to her parents for help, “it was always, 'Oh, did you pray about it?' But, it didn’t really work for me, I guess. When I grew up and got older … I was still going through routines trying to make people happy, just doing the things that I felt like I was supposed to do to try to make everybody feel like I was a good person, just doing things so that people didn’t have anything bad to say about me.”

She was confident that people said bad things about her at church anyway. So, she learned to fake faith, fake the routines, do church, and follow the rules when she was there.

During her high school years, she became less and less comfortable being honest about who she really was. She describes this time as living these “two worlds”.

On one hand, she would act like the “good Christian” people wanted her to be. And on the other hand, she found herself doing things that would have made her parents very unhappy. “When I was twelve years old, I got drunk.”

So, she chose to hide that part of her life from her parents and everyone at church. But, she didn’t feel like this rebellious child was her true self either. She was going between these “two worlds” without being honest with anyone. Hiding one part of her from her parents and another part from her friends.

She never could just be herself.

After graduating from a Christian college, she only attended church occasionally. Sometimes she would come to church just to see a smile on her parents’ faces.

After something bad would happen in her life, “my mom was like, ‘You should come to church’ and ‘You should hang out with these people’ and ‘You should do this’ and [her voice trailed off]. It was right away! Any time something bad happened in my life, it almost seemed like everybody was like, ‘Well, now is the time for you to go to church’ and ‘Now is the time for you to (do this and do this).’ It always had to do with religion and so, me being more a rebellious type of person, my whole life, was like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ I’ve done that; I’ve tried that. I think the more it was—not forced—somewhat forced, but more of a persuasion, the more I wanted to say, ‘No.’”

The religious people in Christina's life, including her parents, kept thinking that if she just gave Christianity and church another chance, it would provide her the stability and security that it provided for them.

At the end of an unhealthy relationship, she came to realize, “I will never again care what people think or say about me. Because that’s all it ever was. I had to [please him]. I always felt like I had to impress everybody in his life for everybody in his life to like me.”

This was a pivotal time in her search for her identity, her search for herself. She decided not to change herself, contort herself to try to please a man or to please those in the church anymore. She would figure out who she was and just be herself.

The confident young woman I saw walk into my office that morning was the result of that journey.

Christina's mom told her not to waste time crying over losing a man who didn't love and accept her for who she was.

She said, "[Mom told] me that I was better than all of that. It helped our relationship because she learned that trying to force God on me wasn’t going to work. But her having a relationship with me was going to work. That made me learn some lessons in life that I hadn’t already learned. It made me realize who I was and what I wanted.”

Christina had begun to enjoy her relationship with her mom, and her mom really seemed to be trying to understand her and listen to her. Her mom had stopped trying to manipulate her and persuade her to be religious. This shift made all the difference.

Life was no longer about what everyone else expected her to do and to be. Her life had become about who she wanted to be.
This gave Christina the room she needed to be herself and she began attending church when she wanted to and not just to make her parents happy. This changed the way she thought about herself.

“That’s when it started to be me doing things because I wanted to do them not because I felt like I had to do them. It’s a difference, you know. Sad thing about it is it took a lot of pain to get to that point, but when you get to that point, you feel like you are a whole different person.”

She felt like she was finally able to have a relationship with God that fit into her worldview and allowed her to be herself and not try to conform to the image that others wanted her to fit.

Her relationship with her Mom started to flourish.

“It was me being able to talk to her about [Christianity] and for her to better understand who I was. And know where I was, and where my head was, where my heart was. It got to be where I would go to church on my own. Where I would do something because I wanted to do it. I would go to a small group thing. I was doing those things because I wanted to. Because I was able to have those conversations with her. Because I was able to talk to her about stuff.”

Her mother's acceptance of her as she was, for who she was, made all the difference to her. She was finally able to explore her parents' faith, Christianity, from a place of love and acceptance. She felt free to be herself, with all of her doubts and fears and questions and all of her faith and beliefs and hopes.

Tragically, her mother died unexpectedly and everything changed again.

Christina felt so much pain.

She had developed a close friendship with her mother after years of strained relationships, "and then to have that taken away after where I was and where I was headed and the direction I was going. And then, for the simple fact that everybody in the Christian bubble says God does everything for a reason. For Him to do that! Do I blame Him? No, because I can’t. I can’t sit there and say 'Hey, God, guess what? This is all your fault.' When I don’t necess— [interrupting herself]. I’m not saying I don’t believe in God. I do. But, I am not to a point where I can say, 'Oh this is all God’s fault.' I did say that. If he really wanted me to believe in him. Well, then, what is wrong with him because he just kind of really destroyed all of that."

She struggled to describe what she was feeling toward God. She didn't know if she could feel anything toward God.

She thought that she either had to believe that God was close and personally involved in her life and was cruel or that he is distant and uninvolved. She chose the latter.

“Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I believe that God created the world? Yes.” 

But, her belief about what happens after death has changed. “I believe that when you die you die, I guess that’s supposed to mean I am not a Christian, you know. Some people will say that.” 

Previously she said that part of her wanted to believe in heaven and hell that her childhood life is still in her. She asked herself this question, “Do I have the belief that I had growing up? Yes.” 

This may be a case where she has some deep confusion about what she believes. The nostalgic feelings from her childhood, connected to the memory of her mother, may compel her to try to reclaim some part of her childhood faith.

The pain of her mother’s death and the accompanying confusion probably reminded her of all of the reasons she struggled to have faith in the past. There is something real and true there, but people keep spouting these ridiculous cliche's that are devoid of compassion and seem hollow.

So, she went to bars to drink and numb the pain.

In one bar, she built friendships. She reconnected with some people from her past and her current boyfriend. They accepted her, even with her pain. They let her talk about her mom, talk about something inconsequential or not talk at all. They walked through a very painful time with her.

They showed her love and acceptance. The same thing her mother had been able to give her.

She avoided church because she kept hearing things like, “She’s in a better place.” “She’s where she wanted to be.”

But Christina knew differently, “No, she wanted to be here with her family, watching her grandchildren grow up. Sorry! Don’t agree with you! I am glad that you guys have this peace of mind. … It brought a lot of anger back in me.”

The anger and pain have subsided over time, but it was still easy to sense it in her voice as she spoke.

Through all of this pain, Christina believes that she is happier, more confident, and more self-aware than ever. She was reluctant to say it because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings when she said, “I guess it’s hard for me to say, especially to you, cause I grew up knowing you. It is a bad thing to say because it’s not the right thing to say in a Christian world, but I’ve never been happier in my life than I am now. Is that because I stopped going to church? I don’t know.”

For Christina, church was a dangerous place to be herself. She couldn’t be honest about her feelings, her heart, her beliefs, or anything real with those in church. She felt judged whenever she opened her mouth, and often, before she even opened her mouth.

“I know that now that I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I have to go to church just to make people happy. Where I don’t care if somebody says [to her parents], ‘Wow your daughter is not a very good person because she doesn’t go to church anymore.’ I don’t care. I am who I am.”

Christina was on a search for acceptance and love, a search for her identity and did not find support in church.

So, I asked her, “What can we do different in church? What could the church do to help the next generation better than we helped you?”

Her response cuts to the core of our responsibility as a church, as the Church:

“I think it is important for kid’s not to feel like by making a mistake, the world is gonna end. I think it’s really important, really, really important to have open communication where, I can sit here and tell you, ‘Dave, listen, when I was twelve years old, I got drunk.’ I would want kids who grow up in a Christian bubble but who are also surrounded by the rest of the world to feel like it’s ok for them to be friends with these people and when they’re faced with these situations and they are like, ‘Wow, that looks like a lot of fun, but I don’t know.’ They need to have somebody that they can actually talk to that is going to [care more about the kid than about what the church expects from them]. That isn’t going to respond with [cliche's like], ‘Well pray about it’, ‘Well, ask God what you think you should do.’ I think a lot of choices in my life could have been made if I just sat down and rationalized it out. But, I didn’t have the thought power to rationalize them out at the time.”

She said that she realizes now that she probably could have talked to her parents, but she wanted someone else, another adult who would listen and love and accept her and give her good advice, someone to help her think through her choices and reason it all out.

That’s the mission of the church, isn’t it: to make disciples. To walk along side our children in deep and mutually loving relationships and guide them to become disciples of Christ.

Christina had to go to a bar to feel loved and accepted after her mom died.

Christian cliché’s, Christian "answers", Christian superficiality was killing her from the inside out. She needed real people to really love her.

Church: a place where real people can experience real love and acceptance from other real people because of Christ’s work in their lives.

Real people: people who have experienced grief and comfort, sinfulness and grace, humility and acceptance, love and hope.

This blog post is the first of seven blog posts based on interviews I did for my dissertation. I hope that Christina's story encourages you in some way to draw near to God and receive the love and acceptance and grace that He has to offer. And, then to extend that to those around you.

Everyone wants to be loved and accepted for who they are. 

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