“You’re not as special as you think you are.”
That’s what Dave told me a few weeks ago. Up until that point, I thought I was pretty special.
I thought I was special because I feel dead inside almost every Sunday when I sit in church. I thought I was special because every Sunday morning I am torn by the internal conflict between my desire to experience the Divine though spiritual practices shared with my fellow humans, and my trauma-informed aversion to the cultural and sensory experience of hearing three worship songs and a sermon.
I thought I was special because I assumed that I was the only one in the room that feels this way on a Sunday morning.
I wear religious trauma as an aesthetic.
I mean that literally: I wear a backwards hat and ripped jeans and tattoos and piercings to the house of the Lord just so nobody mistakes me for a good Christian. I don’t feel like a good Christian, and I don’t want to look like one. I feel dead inside almost every Sunday.
This might be a cliche, but it’s an accurate expression of my interior landscape so whatever.
I do what I want.
A year ago I joined a group of folks who were starting a new church. To be authentic and vulnerable and honest — that’s what they said they wanted. Those are tired words to me because they are often used by bullshit churches to market their bullshit to people like me.
You know how it goes:
Everyone is welcome (until you are not).
This is a place to wrestle with the hard questions (as long as you eventually agree to the right answers).
We want you to be honest (until your honesty makes us uncomfortable).
Still, I am not quite ready to give up on the hope that some people somewhere might actually want to be authentic and vulnerable and honest for real, not just for the Brand.
So I joined these folks who were starting a new church and in our very first meeting we sat in a living room and did the go-around-the-circle-and-introduce-yourself thing.
Because religious angst is my aesthetic, I said something predictably provocative. I don’t remember the details, but it included endorsing Buddhism and saying “fuck” — two things that have traditionally been frowned upon in the churches I’ve frequented. Afterward, somebody came up to me and whispered “I am low-key Buddhist myself, but I didn’t know if we were allowed to say that here.”
This is what I do. I say the shit we aren’t allowed to say.
And every time somebody tells me, “I was thinking the same thing but didn’t know if we were allowed to say it”, I smile.
That’s good. That’s the whole point of why I do the shit I do: the writing on the internet, the talking into a microphone, the saying “fuck” at church meetings.
I believe that shame is the root of our pain and that vulnerability is the cure. I believe that shame loses a bit of it’s poison when we can say “I thought I was the only one.” (I believe this because Brené Brown says so.)
If “life calling” is a real thing and not just a ploy to sell books, I think my life calling has something to do with cultivating spaces for vulnerability. So when I say some shit and you say “I feel that too but didn’t know I was allowed to say that”, I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to do.
But sometimes I get tired of religious angst as aesthetic.
I get tired of being the guy who has to always say the thing we aren’t allowed to say. I get tired of feeling like I am the only one who’s dead inside on Sunday mornings.
If we are here because we want to be authentic and honest and vulnerable, why do we still believe that there are things we aren’t allowed to say? Why do we still not bring our whole selves to the getting-to-know-you meetings?
We say we are here because we want to take our masks off.
Why do I always have to go first?
“You gave me permission to speak honestly.”
That’s what Verna told me a few days ago. She was talking about that meeting almost a year ago when I said “fuck” and endorsed Buddhism.
Verna is my mom’s age and is, by all appearances, a respectable person. Respectable people my mom’s age aren’t supposed to like it when I say swear words. They’re supposed to frown a little bit and accept me reluctantly despite my youthful impulses.
They aren’t supposed to feel like my honest expletives create room for honest expletives of their own.
It’s been a year with that group of folks who are starting new church, a year of Sunday mornings feeling dead inside and sorry for myself and mostly alone.
But at this particular church, honesty is not just a branding strategy so when I told the pastor how I felt he told me that it’s ok. He didn’t give me a sermon. Instead, he let me give a sermon.
So on a Sunday morning in early December after the worship music and the announcements, I stood up to preach. But instead of preaching I told the church people that I am dead inside and I hate the Bible I don’t like worship music and I feel terribly alone. (You can listen to that non-sermon here.)
Afterward, a bunch of people told me that they also feel the same way.
I wear religious angst as an aesthetic because I don’t want anyone to mistake me for a good Christian.
But I make the mistake of assuming that the other church people feel like good Christians. I assume they are good Christians because they dress like respectable adults, because they sing along to the music, because they don’t say “fuck” unless I say it first.
I too quickly forget all those years I wore the requisite uniform of religious performance and buried my doubt and my pain and wished to God that someone would tell me I’m not alone.
You don’t have to wear religious angst as an aesthetic to feel dead inside on a Sunday morning.
I say swear words at church because I want to be honest.
I say swear words at church because I want you to feel like you have permission to be honest too.
But I also say swear words at church because I believe the lie of shame that tells me I am alone. I say swear words at church because I am afraid that I am the only one who feels dead inside on Sunday mornings. I saw swear words because being the guy who takes off his mask first can be it’s own kind of mask sometimes. I say swear words at church because performative vulnerability feels safer than real vulnerability.
Dave was right. I am not that special.
I don’t have a monopoly on religious trauma. I’m not the only one here who is low-key a little bit Buddhist. I am not the only one here who needs to say “fuck” sometimes. I’m not even the only one with big tattoos.
I am grateful for church people who let me say swear words when I need to. I am grateful for Verna who tells me that I give her permission be authentic, and I am grateful for Dave who tells me I am not as special as I think I am.
Church is a hard thing for me. I hate the Bible and I don’t like worship music and most Sundays I feel dead inside.
I say swear words because I want you to know that you’re not alone. But you’re teaching me that I’m not alone too. And I’m grateful.
published January 8, 2019
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