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"Is It Better to Control the World or Move to Spain? The Freedom of Choice and Trauma."

chair and a stack of books

For some time now I’ve been following artist and former Pastor, David Hayward (Naked Pastor), I was recently introduced to Brian Lee (Broken to Beloved) and author Jenai Auman (I preordered her book Othered: Finding Belonging with the God Who Pursues the Hurt, Harmed and Marginalized) and several other authors who are sharing their stories which often include trauma, both within and outside of the Christian church.

My library of books is frequently being added to these days. My current go-to's are: 

Trauma in the Pews: The Impact on Faith and Spiritual Practices by Janyne McConnaughey;

Attached to God by Krispin Mayfield;

Religious Refugees: (De)Constructing Toward Spiritual and Emotional Healing by Mark Gregory Karris;

What Happened To You. Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing by Oprah Winfrey (yes THE Oprah) and Dr. Bruce D. Perry;

Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools by Victoria Tweed, just for fun, and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand because I like a challenge.

I’m also partway through a course on Trauma Dissociation (PTSD, C-PTSD, DDNOS and DID) by author and trainer Carolyn Spring.

I take frequent breaks from the material, which is one reason why I read so many books at one time. 

There are a few common threads here - even in my fiction novels. Trauma is the obvious thread, Christian Spirituality is another. Something else less obvious is power and control vs the simple life. Allow me to explain my thoughts.

The earth and space

Many of the authors I follow and people I meet (including myself) have gone through or are in the midst of what is referred to as Faith deconstruction. Simply explained, many people experiencing deconstruction start to see the world, the bible, the church, and their experiences of Faith in a different way as they get to know God and the person of Jesus. This happens in healthy and unhealthy church environments. At the foundation is something beautiful, a newfound belief that God is way bigger than we have been taught. Yes, beautiful, but sometimes it doesn’t look or feel “beautiful”.

There seem to be three camps of people who go through this process of deconstruction. The first camp remains a part of the church, maybe finds a different expression of church that fits better with their values and beliefs; Second, they leave the church but continue to explore Spirituality in less traditional ways; Those in the third camp choose to leave the church and their spirituality in the past, moving on without either. 

I look at it like a spectrum between Atlas Shrugged and Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, one is talking about controlling the world through Capitalism, and the other is about a happily married couple retiring in the mountains of Spain in a small rural village overlooking the ocean. These are the extremes.

I think there might be at least one more camp. This camp could fit within the other three named already, but the difference rests with what happened to the person. It could be something that happened presently within the church or something in the past that triggers somatic memory (the lingering sensations of discomfort and unease that remain in the body long after a stressful or overwhelming experience). 

Home on the side of a beautiful green mountain in Spain

I wish it was that simple for me, control the world or move to Spain. It would be an easy choice. I would choose Spain and live happily ever after, raising chickens, growing a garden, eating empanadas, and drinking wine with friends and neighbours in the village square as the ocean breeze blows through my hair… ok I’ll stop.

Author, Krispin Mayfield, is someone who says he’s in the third camp, church and Christianity are behind him. He wrote his book Attached to God while still a Christian. With regret, he shared on social media, “I don’t regret naming the ways that toxic theology creates psychological distress and promotes insecure attachment with God. I also don’t regret creating ways for people to heal their relationship with God so that it’s less toxic, in a way fitting their Christian faith. I do regret writing a book that encouraged people to stay in the cult… I told readers that it was important to find a way to stay… even if it’s been a significant source of pain.”

I know the word cult could feel harsh to some of you. I don’t know what happened to Krispin. I do know there seem to be a lot of Americans wrestling with faith right now, and I can understand why. What I love about what Krispin is saying here is that we have a CHOICE. No one talks like that in the church, granted he’s no longer in the church. If people within the church have to believe in the same thing to belong, then we are talking about cults. If there isn't freedom to consider different perspectives, different practices, and dare I say, freedom to not believe Jesus was the son of God, then it might be more of a cult than a community. 

arrows pointing in many different directions

I’ve had a complicated relationship with church, probably since I first attended an evangelical church and became a Christian back in 2004. Wow, that’s 20 years ago! I grew up in an Anglican church and was baptized as an infant (again as an adult). We didn’t talk about conversion in the Anglican Church, it was assumed. Conversion seems to be the whole point in many evangelical churches. Perhaps that’s part of what complicates my relationship, not to mention I was educated in the Catholic School system, learning the rules for things I couldn’t fully participate in because I wasn’t Catholic. I still haven’t sorted out all of my embedded theology, coupled with my history of trauma, it’s not surprising that I would struggle to find my niche. 

Control the world or move to Spain…

Over a decade ago I had given up on church. That’s when I went back to school for Fine Arts. But then I met Nathan. We had frequent conversations about art, faith, and tattoos. I felt as though God had put him right in front of me, stopping me from abandoning the church. I moved into leadership at this small fringe community pretty quickly, having recommitted myself to the cause. Eventually, I felt a different call to create a ministry for those who have experienced trauma and finished my Master's degree. I could have stayed but some things were changing and I freaked out (I wasn’t the only one). Then Covid happened. Then my family and I moved 90 minutes away to live in the bush and pursue Butterfly Way.

I’ve told versions of this part of my journey a few times, usually, I leave out the part about my struggle with the church for fear of criticism. The well-meaning Christian who wants to offer cherry-picked bible verses as encouragement, the critical concern of another, worried I may be back-sliding, or at worst, someone on the sidelines somewhere out there who I don’t even know questioning whether I should even hold the title, saying my credentials should be revoked. Being honest nearly prevented me from getting my credentials in the first place. I’ve watched colleagues navigate these hurtful realities too and wonder why? Why do we put up with it?

Yet, when I stepped into my therapist’s office for the first time last year, he asked me what brought me there. I said to him, “I’m a Pastor who doesn’t want to go to church.” My goal was to get to a place where church could be ok again. Fix the problem, go back to church, and everything will be fine again. Little did I know what I was embarking on.

a plain white light switch

I learned a new term recently. Conditioned submission. The experience of trauma, especially prolonged abuse or adversity in childhood, conditions the survivor to respond to things in certain ways. Since a lot of the Christian language revolves around “submitting to Christ”, “submitting to biblical authority”, etc., also known as “obedience”, for survivors this can become highly problematic. In some cases and certain situations, different experiences in church can re-traumatize people, even when it isn’t abuse at all. Why? There’s a thing in our brain called the amygdala and its job is to store traumatic memories and alert you to possible threats - things that have a similarity, smell, or even a glimmer of the original threat. It isn’t always accurate or helpful but it’s there for a very good reason. To help you survive. None of this is a choice. It is unconscious. It’s not like a switch you choose to turn on or off. Add religious trauma to the mix and now we have survivors with heaps of knots to untangle, while now feeling guilty and scared they might go to hell because they aren’t going to church.

This is why I love what Krispin is saying. In cultures that say, there is no choice or at best the choice is limited to A or B, control the world or move to Spain. Krispin is saying, I choose neither. Same here. I don't believe it's that simple. Even though Krispin doesn't call himself a Christian anymore, I'd say he's probably closer to God now even if he doesn't realize it (or want it). I released myself from the obligation of attending church last September. It was clear that while I was being actively triggered, I wasn’t going to get very far in therapy. Going to church right now requires shutting off a part of me that I need, to be present, whole, and healthy. 

quote from a book

That puts me in a complex second camp, I may not be attending a church but I continue to explore Spirituality in less traditional ways. Spain is attractive but there’s something lonely about it for me too. Maybe because it would mean not just leaving behind church (as we know it) but a part of me that I also can’t ignore and that’s Jesus. I don’t want to do that.

I choose Jesus. I am not choosing all the extra stuff that gets attached to Him.

Something else I have been considering through all of this is that we act as though we are solely responsible for connecting with God, and if we aren’t, we’re doing something wrong. Could this be a trauma response to relationships? Something to do with our attachment style? God wants to be in a relationship with us, and since healthy relationships require mutual effort, God has some responsibility here too, no?

I don't need to attend a church to connect with God and nurture our relationship. The closest I ever feel to God is out in the middle of the bush of Algonquin Park. This is a trauma-responsive Spiritual practice and every time I'm out there, I heal a little bit more.

I wonder if this is what Paul is talking about when he says, “I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels, nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow… not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.”

Not even the camp you are in. Not even in controlling the world or retiring in Spain. Going to church, not going to church. NOTHING. 

God is way bigger than we have been taught.

Until next time.

à Dieu


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