Note: This week we are sharing the story of Lisa Gilham-Luginbill. We imagine many of her challenges are familiar to many of us.
I read on your blog that you love to hear our stories. Sharing your story is such an interesting process, isn’t it? It’s hard to begin sometimes, though I think it’s important. I feel that I’m at a place where I need to write it all out and know that it has been received by someone else. I recently read, “For until we can speak our truth and know that we have been heard, we don’t wholly know it ourselves.” That is so true for me, verbal processor that I am.
Growing up, I strongly believed in biblical gender roles. My dad was on the elder board and in charge of creating our church’s policy on women’s and men’s roles in our church. To my memory he ended up writing a fairly conservative, traditional interpretation of those key “gender roles” passages and yet I remember thinking, “He could word that more strongly. After all, there isn’t any confusion about this if you really believe the Bible.” After all, if you just look at Scripture, there really is no other way to interpret what Paul says about women and what they are allowed to do in church. What’s strange looking back is that my family’s beliefs in this area never played out that way in our actions. My mom and I are incredibly strong leaders and we have never received anything but encouragement and support from my dad. I never felt limited by my femaleness. I never felt that it was an issue. And I certainly wasn’t about to obey anybody, male or female, blindly.
So this story turns out to be, from the beginning, about learning what it means for me, as a woman, to be spiritual.
I began to feel that there was a problem with my spiritual life my sophomore year in high school. I couldn’t “feel” God. And this was not good. I knew that there was a way to know God and to know that you were walking in His will, and that way was clearly mapped out in my Brio magazine. I just didn’t love Jesus enough. I said I was going through a “dry spell.” But it didn’t go away.
When I went to college I immediately started looking around for a church. I looked for three years and then gave up, which made me feel guilty. Never mind that I had a daily sermon in breathing, and being present, kind and hard-working from my beautiful choir teacher. Never mind that I had a group of girls who cried, laughed, sang, played, ate, and listened to one another with love for 4 years. I wasn’t going to church and that was a guilty burden I carried at school, not to mention the fact that I still wasn’t “feeling” God the way I thought I was supposed to feel Him.
In the midst of all this I worked at camp. I hoped to feel God again. I hoped to be blindsided with certainty. Instead I found a whole lot of mess. Lovely, angry, sad messiness. In myself and in the people who became my family. I found kids who laid on their backs with me and said “Thanks for the lake” as we looked up into the trees. I tried to hide the fact that I wasn’t telling them to invite Jesus into their hearts. We just poured water on one another’s heads and loved each other while we ate lunch and walked in the woods. I felt very confused about what the hell faith was going to look like in my life. But I was beginning to realize that it was okay to experience God’s love through people (somehow I thought all those years it had to be separate? out of the sky or something). And whoo boy! did I see God in the love I had for my camp family.
I moved to London after graduation and learned that I also loved Jesus a lot. I felt myself drawn to spirituality and the church in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I had a vision of myself in a high, safe tower, able to look back at the road I had traveled. I saw that though it had seemed confusing and hard, it was a path of healing and it had been bringing to me this peaceful pause, this chance to re-group. And I knew that I would have to descend the tower and get back on the path and I would have to trust that it was taking me to something else that would be good.
I moved home and went to the beach one day. As I walked alone, I thought about God being in a box and I asked for the box to be blown open. I had always felt uneasy about referring to God with female pronouns even though I knew God had no gender, but that day I embraced it. I felt my spirit flung out to the far edges of the horizon and I sensed that God was beyond what I could comprehend. I sensed it in a way that I hadn’t before. “What a beautiful experience,” I wrote! “God is out of the box and I love Her!” And then it all went to hell in a hand basket.
That was February 2010. After that I found a small church and forced myself to sit there most Sundays. It was not a good time. I was tired of someone telling me their interpretation of the Bible as though it were the only way to look at it. I was tired of people in the church saying that women were equal, no really! Underneath it I felt that there was a (perhaps unconscious) belief that we were less. And I was really fucking mad. I also began to feel that “going to church” was a very strange thing in my life. I had a wonderful, strong and deep community that lived life with me, challenging and helping and loving me and I didn’t feel like I should take time away from them to invest in more people. I didn’t have enough time to spend with the people who were already important to me! And I hated the idea of being a “Sunday-only” kind of church-goer. Plus, I never felt more like I had to defend my idea of being a woman than the times I was in church. So I stopped going.
I kept telling myself, “There are some things you need to figure out. Some big things you need to think about. But not now. Not right now.” I decided that it was okay to let it sit for a bit. So I did. And it was ok. I put a very important piece of myself on the back burner and let it sit and simmer for two years. I had no idea how I was going to open that pot and honestly, I had no desire to do so. There did not seem to be a good way for me to go. I was at a dead end.
Two years later I read a book called “Dance of the Dissident Daughter” by Sue Monk Kidd. I was visiting my in-laws over a long weekend and found the book in a bookstore. I read the whole thing over two days, and my whole world blew open. I wrote, “I feel like someone sat at a table across from me and read my journal. She laughed and cried and nodded in all the right parts. When she was finished, she closed it, looked at me with love and then leaned across the table and put her thumbs over my eyes. When she took them away the world was filled with light and I saw that there was a way forward.” This book talked about feminine spirituality in a way that I had never heard before. It didn’t seem foreign because it came from the point of view of someone who knew the spiritual culture in which I had been raised. I felt all of a sudden that there was a way for me to live and to explore the Divine that was true to who I was and what I believed about how the world worked. I felt as though I saw the candles of my sisters lighting the way, saying, “I’ve been here. It’s okay. Keep moving.”
It has been almost a year since I read that book and what an angry, beautiful, heartbreaking, joyful year it’s been! I’ve become more aware of women in the world and found myself shaking with rage and disgust at how patriarchy harms everyone it touches. I have read about women yearning to find out what it means to be spiritual as women and I have yearned with them. I have read about Sophia and the Black Goddess and delighted in finding the divine in my own womanly body. I have read stacks of books and hundreds of blogs and it is never enough.
And yet. And yet. It has been so painful and confusing to examine the faith tradition from which I come and to think that I may no longer belong there. I don’t know how anyone absolutely decides to sever association with a certain religion, but I know that is not something I am in any shape to do. I am not willing to renounce Christianity but I cannot find a place for me there in a practical way. I have been so blessed and freed by the awakening I am living, but I am still uncertain about the ways my past and my present spirituality will be reconciled.
One thing that Sue wrote in her book was that every journey travels through darkness. She talks about the womb of the Divine Mother and how in order to be reborn there is the journey through the dark labyrinth to the center of the womb and then back through the darkness to the light. The journey to the center and out again is full of small deaths, full of sloughing off of the old. It is messy and difficult and unique. And holy. I am learning to embrace the the holiness in darkness. And I am so thankful for the examples I have in my life of women who continue to learn and struggle throughout their lives. Thank goodness we’re not expected to have it figured out at some point!
This is my story with all its gloriously loose ends!