When the Certainties Fail Us: Spiritual Direction for Recovering Evangelicals

When I was 10 my family moved from our small New England town to the suburban sprawl of Colorado Springs. We quickly joined a mega church and reformed fundamentalism washed into our lives like hurricane, wiping out our simple family faith practices and replacing them with the debris of 500 years of culture wars, systematic theology, and fear.

Of course, these things were packaged in programming that gave us an instant community, no small thing in a city of suburbs. And there is something so enticing about the pseudo-intellectualism of the reformed tradition. It repackages biblical literalism and other tenants of fundamentalism in the wrappings of intellectual superiority. The uniformity which would eventually beget my banishment was then novel and hopeful. A whole community in perfect alignment, no thought or action unexamined. Every song we sang was carefully vetted for theological accuracy. Sermons were 45 minute seminary lectures with exhaustive explorations of the text. Volumes of doctrine awaited every question. It was intoxicating for a young rule follower who lived for the affirmation of parents and teachers – the closest thing to unconditional love the Dobson parenting paradigm allows. Obedience was synonymous with godliness and my entire understanding of faith was quickly anchored on the certainties they gave me. I thrived.

Until I didn’t.

My path out of that culture was lit by the loss of our first child. The questions that had been brewing for years, badly answered with a patchwork of conflicting doctrine and smoothed over with patriarchy, were now spilling into every part of my life. I was anxious in faith spaces, angry with friends who weren’t deconstructing their own beliefs, and heartbroken and lonely as both my family of origin and my faith community regarded me with suspicion or pity. Suddenly everything about me was suspect. I had a “hidden agenda”. I was “bringing discord” into spaces where everyone claimed it had not existed. Even the most understanding friend would get the “why do you have to make this so difficult” look in their eyes, confused why it mattered so much, why I couldn’t just go with the flow. I envied them. I resented them. And I felt so alone.

I stopped going to church, at first using my twin infants as an excuse but then realizing I was more alive when I was home alone than I was sitting in those pews trying to power through another masquerade. Later that year my husband and I moved to a new state for his graduate program. A fresh start. I was so hopeful.

After tentatively visiting a few faith spaces in town we began attending a Methodist church. They were kind to our kids and there was so much freedom there, so much less anxiety around right answers and a deliberate effort to put women and people of color in the pulpit. But my unease lingered in ways I didn’t understand. I found myself holding my breath through every prayer and song, furtively looking around to see if everyone else was buying into the message, wondering if there was room for dissent. In our years there I wrote liturgies and prayers for the service, planned family programs and revamped the nursery, but faith felt farther and farther off. Once, out for tea with a friend, she reached into her bag and excitedly handed me a book written by one of the reformed old guard. I felt physically nauseous, like finding out a former abuser had found a new victim. How could she not know what this man was? How could she be so causal about it?

It was these anxieties and questions that brought me to my first spiritual direction session. At the time, the concept of direction was totally new to me. Like most reformed evangelicals, my faith was less about contemplation and presence with the Divine and more about obedience and submission. In fact, I was actively discouraged from wonder and curiosity in my own faith and engagement with the text. There were clear answers and we were to submit to them. Anything beyond that was an attempt to “make God in my own image”.

But there I was. Unable to hold any image of God because I could not submit to the abuser logic any longer, utterly lost for where to go next. I needed a companion for this uncharted journey, someone to wade with me through the muck and hold a light in the darkness.

My monthly sessions soon became like confessionals – I would tentatively lob one of my questions into the space between our chairs and brace for the rebuke, the raised eyebrows, the signal that I had finally gone too far. Of course, that never came. My director received my anxiety, my faith story, my hurt, my hopes, and my fears with great love and tender care. He affirmed my pain, helped me to process the spiritual abuse I had experienced, and asked me questions that helped me uncover and give a voice to my own story.

A year or so into our rhythm of monthly meetings I confessed that I felt ashamed that I wasn’t making more progress. He asked me what I thought progress looked like. I told him of my mental image of having arrived on his doorstep with my baggage, ready to be ushered somewhere along the spectrum of theology until I found a new place to call home. I had started out so very conservative, so I thought I was being a realist when I accepted that it might take a few years to shuffle on down the line to the left and find my new people.

I wasn’t expecting to deconstruct the line itself. This line – a tightrope of faith where one must balance doubts and hopes with the doctrine and certainties we’ve been forced to carry – was not suspended over some dark abyss of lost souls after all but rather mere inches off the firm ground. What relief! With the steadying hand of my spiritual director I began to find my footing and root down into the grounding presence of whatever God may be – the Divine Mystery, the Spirit, Love. No longer anxiously trying to conceal my wobble, I can finally move freely, looking for light as I step forward in faith. When I fall, I do so knowing Love will catch me. Fear loses power with each step.

I am embarking on a new journey this fall. I’ve been accepted into a spiritual direction training program where, over the next two years of study, I will examine contemplative spiritual practices and learn the skills of deep listening. In many ways, this work reminds me of midwifery. Just as a midwife supports the labor and birth of new life, a spiritual director supports the work of healing and growth in our spiritual lives, holding space for the pain and the great joy of our emerging stories. Together directee and director bear witness to the presence of God. This holy mothering has been such a beautiful and healing antidote to patriarchal certainties for me, and I look forward to supporting others as a spiritual midwife in the years ahead.

If this resonates with you, I am now accepting a limited number of directees to receive free monthly spiritual direction sessions for the duration of my program. Please contact me at julianne.vantland@gmail.com for more information.

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