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Evolving Faith 2018: Grief, Anger, Justice, and Hope

Last weekend, I attended the Evolving Faith conference in Montreat, North Carolina. From the conference’s website description:

Your faith is changing, and everything else seems to be changing with it—your relationships, your views on justice and social issues, your experience with the Church, your very identity. 

Evolving Faith is a gathering of kindred spirits, an opportunity to learn, wrestle, worship, laugh and commiserate as we navigate this journey through the Wilderness together.

Yes, yes, and yes.

I’ve been home from the conference for a week now, and I have wanted to write about my experience there, but have been hesitant for a few reasons:

  1. I don’t think I’ll be able to do justice the joy, the grief, the anger, and the holiness that transpired in that room. I left that conference in some ways empowered with clarity, and in other ways even more confused about my faith.
  2. I’m aware of the inevitable negative reaction of those in my community who have been resistant to and disapproving of my faith shift of the past two years, and how closely it is tied to my politics and separation from the Church that was my identity for decades.

That being said, I won’t try to include all the emotions and lessons from the conference in one post. I’m still processing a lot of it, and I imagine much of what I took in will come out in more of my writing in the coming months. So today, I’ll simply write about the themes from Evolving Faith that are having the biggest impact on me today, in this moment. I’m including relevant and impactful quotes from some of the speakers at the conference.

GRIEF AND ANGER

Our grief, doubts, cynicism and anger are not a liability to Jesus- we have landed here not because of our lack of faithfulness, but because of itSarah Bessey

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned this year is how closely tied grief is to anger, and in a lot of instances, they are two manifestations of the same underlying emotion. I default to anger. My rage for the religious tradition that raised me is almost unbearable some days, but underneath my clenched jaw, anxiety, biting words, and disbelief is raw grief.

Grief right now is raw and real for those who grew up Evangelical. We are feeling sad, betrayed, and angry. We are still waiting for church leaders to say ‘Of course we don’t think it’s ok to separate migrant children or grab women…’ but they are not saying that. And I would rather be angry than apathetic.Rachel Held Evans

Evolving Faith gave me the space to own my grief and anger, and not have to apologize for it or justify it in terms of a rigid interpretation of the Bible. My anger is not wrong. My grief is not wrong.

Our anger is NOT WRONG. It is not destructive, it is instructive. It is uncomfortable but not violent.- Austin Channing Brown

My anger and grief are not wrong, but I also can’t be stuck in this place with no action. And I can’t make everything about my anger, because even to sit and just be angry is a privileged position. So many POC and LGBTQ people don’t have that option.

We (POC) don’t have time for you to wallow in your anger and sit in your room and journal. You want to be sad and angry?  Be sad and angry, but get off your ass and move- Sandra Maria Van Opstal

I will not follow a God who puts economic stability over the safety and inclusion of the marginalized. I will not follow a God whose main spokespeople are white, straight and male. And I won’t follow a God who tells me my anger and grief are wrong and don’t matter. Thankfully, I don’t think that’s who God is.

Grief and pain drive us to reimagine God. The Bible is story after story of people reimagining God.Pete Enns

JUSTICE

The main cause of my anger and grief with the church is its quest for power and nationalism over justice for marginalized people. I will never understand why so many people who love my son actively support political candidates who continue to try relentlessly to take away or cut healthcare benefits from people with pre-existing conditions and disabilities. I will also never understand those who use dehumanizing language to describe people, made in the image of God, who are fleeing violence and need asylum. And I will never understand using the Bible to demonize and condemn, rather than love, our LGBTQ neighbors.

Spiritual formation has become about our individual gain, to get us into heaven, when it is supposed to be about helping others- to be come like Jesus ‘for the sake of others’Nish Weiseth

I have had a problem with the “personal relationship” aspect of the evangelical faith for some time now- as if my personal ticket to Heaven is what matters the most. No. the Bible is not black and white and I won’t make its words my God. I am absolutely willing to risk being wrong with details of my specific theology for the sake of justice and acceptance of the marginalized.

Western theology has been about intellect and intention, not about embodiment and action; but true worship cannot exist without justice. – Sandra Marie Van Opstal

This was convicting for me- as an introvert who loves words but not so much being out in the world with people I don’t know, I need to be intentional about putting my body (and my money) in places that promote justice.

Politics is the single largest systemic tool that we have at our disposal with which we can love our neighbor. Simply put, politics for the Christian should be institutional neighborliness– Nish Weiseth

No political party is perfect, and is made up of imperfect people. But we can’t ignore the real impact that political leadership makes, especially in today’s climate. I will vote for candidates whose policies will benefit the marginalized, not my personal bank account. And I will start paying close attention to women of color, because they are the ones leading the way.

HOPE

Evolving Faith was huge, almost overwhelmingly huge. There were 1,500 attendees and at times the sheer number of those in attendance was a logistical nightmare. But, for the first time in a long time, I felt accepted, understood and at home in “church”.

Stay open to the possibility of resurrection in places you thought were dead…evolving not into someone who has better and more right answers, but evolving into someone who is more loving. -Sarah Bessey

On the first day of the conference, Jeff Chu gave us index cards to write down our hopes and fears. He collected the cards with our fears and took them back to Princeton’s The Farminary and buried them in the compost pile. His Theology of the Compost will stay with me for a long time. The fears I wrote down were “I’ll be angry forever” and “I’ll never find true community”. It’s immensely comforting to know these fears are buried and God is redeeming them as good things.

Dear Friends, here are your fears- your fears of loss, of abandonment, of being wrong, of bad parenting, of humiliation, of rejection, or failure, of not being enough, of being too much, of disappointing God, of so many other ungodly things…they are in this compost pile. I buried your fears…they are dying now, to be redeemed as good soil and new life…And you and I will keep on with the hard work of spiritual and emotional composting in our own lives, remembering that this is the story of God, who turns fear to courage, sorry to joy, death to life- Jeff Chu (on a follow up Facebook post after the conference ended)

The only thing I risk by being vulnerable and engaging in hard conversations is my ego. I won’t die. Jesus can handle my doubt, my anger, and my grief.

Your courage will be tested, but you are stronger than you think. Our faith isn’t evolving because we are contrarians, but because Jesus is changing us. Words or conflict or hard conversations won’t kill you- you can hold your conviction and not die. There is immense comfort in just doing the right thing.Jen Hatmaker

I’m so grateful for the privilege of attending Evolving Faith and learning from such incredible leaders. I still don’t have this faith thing figured out- I don’t know exactly what I believe about God, Jesus and the Bible. I’m still angry, and I’m still grieving. I don’t know if I’m going to return to church, or if my faith practice will look like something else entirely. But I do hope to continue this process of listening, learning and evolving in the coming months. And I now am comforted to know I’m not alone.

19 Comments

  1. Cathy Slusser on November 5, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Thank you for putting into words my feelings. I have been struggling to explain the weekend to friends. Your post describes it perfectly.

  2. Myndee on November 6, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Brilliant read. I am so glad you were able to attend. I may or may not have a little FOMO. 😉
    Already planning for next year!

  3. Lynn on November 28, 2018 at 3:45 pm

    Thank you! I found your blog through an article on HuffPost. My political/faith story is somewhat similar…. I have also felt alone in this. So glad to hear this is not true. I do think anger helps me to see lines or boundaries of injustice more clearly… I pray that it doesn’t harden my heart to my neighbors… I also know the Holy Spirit is present in change (of course not ALL change). .. I pray to be open to hearing and willing to act when the spirit leads.

  4. Rudo Mlambo on November 28, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    Since November 6, 2016 I have struggled to feel comfortable in church. We are a black family, we live in Katy, TX and have attended predominantly “white evangelical” church for many years. Now I constantly find myself questioning the messages in church. A couple of weeks ago it was something along the lines of “David did some pretty bad things, but he wasn’t disqualified from fulfilling Gods promises” … and like you said in your HuffPost article, I felt gaslighted. I find myself looking around and wondering if I’m sitting in a sea of fervent Trump supporters, and I have no idea what the solution to my discomfort is.

    • David P. Graf on November 29, 2018 at 12:09 am

      What apologists for Trump leave out when using the example of David is how David was confronted by Nathan the prophet. When prominent evangelicals either remain silent or give Trump “mulligans” for his bad behavior and policies, we’ve failed not only God but Trump as well. God called David to repentance through Nathan just as evangelicals should be calling Trump to repent and turn to God. Otherwise, can you imagine what will happen when Trump stands before God and he experiences the special clarity God gives when all the lies we tell ourselves are stripped away and we know ourselves for who we really are with no possibility of evasion? We will experience the same but will be covered by God’s mercy. We should not be praising Trump but should be praying for repentance on his part.

    • Rhonda Wilson on December 3, 2018 at 1:17 am

      I agree. I live in Houston and feel same thing.

  5. Paty Padrnos on November 28, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    Hi

    Just read your article on Huff Post about “gaslighting”. So enjoyed it and wish you well.

  6. Anonymous on November 28, 2018 at 9:02 pm

    Questioning Authority is rare these days. Your brave to ask questions that could shake up so many part’s of your life. I wish more people could challenge there belief’s in search of the right answer . Most follow blindly because tradition often gives them no choice in asking questions that challenges everything one has believed to be true there entire life. I’m not religious myself. I got a choice to form my own opinion on religion ,and wether I wanted to choose a flock being raised. The things you point out , are some of the reasons i couldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to fake it, for a feeling to belong. Religion has a long history using the word god to scare people into line, and control the narrative on many issues. I don’t fear not knowing what happens after death, because Im comfortable with how I live , and treat other’s. I’m sure I would be welcomed. Stay objective , and listen to all sides ,and formulate your own opinions and thoughts. It’s rare, refreshing,and helps others find the voice inside them instead of the only one they have ever known . Helps them see it’s ok. Good luck to you.

  7. ChapelHillBetsy on November 28, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    If you’re still waiting for church leaders to say ‘Of course we don’t think it’s ok to separate migrant children or grab women…’ , I implore you to seek out a United Church of Christ congregation (http://www.ucc.org/). Several are in the Katy, Texas area. Read their mission statements, what they believe, etc. , their social justice ministries, environmental ministries, LGBTQ ministries, etc. It may change your mind about church.

  8. Scott Dennis on November 28, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    I loved your Huffpost article titled “My Evangelical Church Is Gaslighting Me, But I Refuse To Fall For It Anymore”. I have been ostracized, shamed, shunned and berated for just asking simple questions of people that simply refuse to hear the truth any more. Their abandonment of the expectation of morality from a president is stunning and really illuminates Matthew 24:24 and the way even people I’ve looked up to have been deceived. I’m glad there’s still a community of faith that sees through the deception.

  9. Sabrina Goullige on November 28, 2018 at 10:31 pm

    Hello, I enjoyed your article on Huff Post about “gaslighting” . I am a French citizen living in the U.K..
    I was hurt a few years ago by the Brexit referendum but mostly by the position of some Christian wanting to close doors towards immigrants. I felt rejected and isolated .Fortunately there are people on both side of Brexit in side and outside the church.

    The election of Trump felt like a betrayal repeat to me with rise of nationalism, isolationism of the church. How can American evangelicals reconcile Christ ´s teaching and the politics of Trump and his Christian advisors ? Why can’t American evangelicals be a defending voice for poverty and justice ?
    The American evangelical position doesn’t do us favour as we are all seen as having the same radical views by world. It seems to me that by not being too political but trying to live by example , we may achieve more impact
    Thank you for explaining and showing that there are other voices elevating grace and mercy instead of condemnation, Be encouraged, there are a lot more Christians like you outside the US.

  10. David P. Graf on November 29, 2018 at 12:13 am

    As someone who tries to explain and defend Christianity to outsiders, the increasing identification of evangelical Christians with Trump and the GOP and so-called conservatism makes it much harder for people to take what I say seriously. It’s gotten to the point that some think that to reject Trump is to reject Jesus as well. I’ve dealt with a lot of heartache and questions as a Christian and so I’ve had to discard a lot of the easy answers that we are fed by preachers in our safe, evangelical churches.

  11. Karen Nolan on November 29, 2018 at 1:16 pm

    I just read your HuffPost article and wanted to reach out to you, came to your website and then read this blog post. I, too, spent more years than I should have being gaslighted by ministers in a church that started out Mainstream and was being steered into Evangelicaliism. About six years ago, I finally had to walk away. I was angry and deeply hurt when I showed up at the Episcopal Church, but thanks to kind and loving clergy and parishioners, I have healed. One might even say I was saved. The church’s focus on social justice and service to people everywhere has been empowering. When you are ready to seek out a new congregation, I encourage you to check it out. Even more, I would invite you to consider a program called Education for Ministry. It’s a seminar that guides students in studies of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, church history and theology, all the while helping them identify their own ministry or ministries in the world. I enrolled in it initially because I felt like I needed to know more in order to stand up to the clergy who were gaslighting me. (Not that I realized I was being gaslighted when it was happening; I just found it confusing.) But by the time I was done with EfM, I didn’t feel the need to argue with anyone. I knew what I believed. The seminar is typically offered through the Episcopal Church (I believe there is one at St. Martin’s in Katy) but you don’t have to be a member of the church to take it. I wasn’t when I enrolled. I wish you the best on your new journey. And thanks for bringing the Evolving Faith program to my attention. I am going to look into it.

  12. sara on November 29, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    Hi, here via huffpost. I read your piece on your evangelical church gaslighting you. I’m an atheist, but I was a christian when I was younger. we moved a lot, so we went to a variety of churches, the ones I remember were predominately baptist. I explored christianity for years but eventually became an atheist when I was in my early 20’s.

    While I met many lovely people in the church, what ultimately turned me against it was the hypocrisy I saw – in some of those lovely people I knew, but mostly what I was seeing on a political level. I learned about Jesus in bible school, that he was a loving man who healed the sick and helped the poor. Jesus was love.
    but what I saw in the political actions of the Jesus’s own church – I saw hate. of refugees, of poor people, of people of color, of homosexual people, of women. I was told Jesus was love, but his church was full of hate. so I left.

    I considered going back when my children were little. even if I didn’t believe myself, it could still be a positive social experience for my children. in fact, my catholic father in law noticed the catholic church a block away when he came to visit, so we all attended a service. the priest spent most of the sermon preaching about catholicism being the one true church and all the others were on the wrong path and going to hell or whatever. I sat there thinking, really? all of the billions of people that aren’t in the catholic church are going to hell, thats your message? especially considering at the time there was yet another pedophile priest scandal going on. I never stepped foot in that church again.

    So that was it, I wasn’t dragging my kids to church every sunday. if they want to go with friends to church, I let them. I answer any of their questions and encourage them to explore for themselves. Personally, I figure maybe Jesus was a real person who inspired a movement, but that movement has evolved into something that doesn’t represent that person in the bible anymore. I don’t believe there’s a god out there that created everything and is watching over me. I don’t believe I can make horrible decisions, but thats ok because if I ask for forgiveness I’ll still go to heaven. I believe that we get one chance on this beautiful earth and we better get it right. and I believe that all people, no matter where they were born or whatever their circumstances are, are not doomed to an eternity of hell just because they don’t go to the right church.

    Anyway, idk what happened here, I haven’t actually talked about this stuff in awhile and thinking about your article helped me get a little bit of stuff out, so thank you for that. What I came here to say, is that I admire you for what you are doing – you are publicly questioning your church when your life is so deeply embedded in it. and while I don’t believe – I respect your right to believe. if you truly love your church and your faith, I think you and many others like you need to take charge of your church. It has strayed so far from Christs teachings – thats why me and so many like me have left. your churches have been hijacked. what was that story about jesus cleaning the money people out of the temple? thats what you guys need to do again. so many kids are growing up these days, seeing religion combined with hate. take it back and make it something good again, please.

    • Greg on December 4, 2018 at 2:54 am

      I’m sorry you’ve had such bad experiences in churches…..I ask, keep looking, good ones are out there…the church where I get the honor of being the lead pastor is all about relationships over religion…imperfect people finding perfect hope……….Jesus does love you…..He did die for you……..peacewithgod.net is a good site…..

  13. Angie Jones on November 30, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    I just read and shared your Huff Post article on gaslighting. That’s how I found you. I could have written that article, it was like you wrote the very words of my soul. Thank you for your ministry of writing. I learned about the Evolving Faith conference and considered attending. Now I’m so sorry that I didn’t. Hopefully they will do it again next year.

  14. Elizabeth Moon on December 1, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    Your HuffPost article was excellent–both the writing and the message. Then I read your post about the Evolving Faith conference. Excellent, too. It’s clear you’re speaking the truth of your soul.

  15. Anonymous on December 2, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Sitting here in little old England I found your ‘gaslight’ article compelling / honest writing. Wondered whether the Episcopal Church in USA might be more supportive of your shifting position.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episcopal_Church_(United_States)#Belief_and_practice

  16. Greg on December 4, 2018 at 2:57 am

    Im reading this blog post but this quote from one of the speakers is SO spiritually dangerous: “Grief and pain drive us to reimagine God. The Bible is story after story of people reimagining God. – Pete Enns”” I’ve studies the Bible my entire life & the Bible is NOT story after story of people reimagining God…it’s story after story of people discovering God & experiencing God. We cannot reimagine God, the falsity of that is that we begin to make a ‘God in our own image’. God has already revealed Himself in Scripture & through Jesus Christ. There is no reimagining…that could counter quickly into idolatry. I would love to hear your thoughts at the email I provided.

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