[Content warning: suicide, PTSD]
I recently read Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue (AKA Science Mike). In a nutshell, it’s about the author’s journey from evangelical Christianity to atheism to mainline Christianity – all while riding a seriously science-y rollercoaster.
Mike’s story resonated with me partly due to my interest in science, but more so because of our shared pain of losing a church and a style of Christianity that we once loved.
Long quotes are risky, but bear with me and hear Science Mike:
“If you’ve ever felt hurt by a church, you’ll have to grieve that loss to be healthy. The deeper the wound, the more time you’ll need. Sometimes sorting out your emotions and reactions will feel like digging through a restaurant’s dumpster without gloves, but all those feelings have to come up – the neurological associations with trauma must be exposed and healed… If you don’t process your own emotions and come to forgiveness in a necessarily slow, natural progression, your brain will spend its energy ruminating over that hurt and robbing you of relief.”
I have been hurt by a church – deeply. And when I’ve tried to understand that hurt, I haven’t gotten very far. I’ve stalled at bitterness, resentment, and disdain. And as I’ve stalled, that hurt has lingered. I want to move past it. I’m longing to love God and to love my Christian community without “ruminating over that hurt.”
Mike’s right. I’ll have to exert some mental energy in order to find relief. I want to process this grief.
Mike goes on to note that he processed his grief of losing a church through talk therapy. He recommended that pounding a punching bag or talking to friends could work too. I know that many of you – especially my LGBTQ siblings – have or have had your own church grief to process.
Abide with me as I process mine.
Just Start Talking
Midway through my time in college, our campus health center hosted a free mental health screening day. A friend convinced me to tag along and get screened. What could it hurt, right?
The clinician diagnosed me with mild PTSD when I told her about the flashback visions I had from the night my cousin died by suicide. It was the first time I told anyone about them.
Later that afternoon, I met Ada for our weekly prayer date. We were just friends then (and obviously should’ve been “guarding our hearts” more closely in that dingy dormitory basement our Christian fellowship had fashioned into a prayer sanctuary). I told her about my flashbacks and the diagnosis, and we prayed for my healing. From that moment on, the flashbacks grew less frequent. Today, they are rare.
Ada’s and my prayer helped; I know it did. So also, I believe, did hearing a health professional put a name to my experience.
Science Mike similarly gave me an explanation for my current experience: I am mourning exile from the circle of Christianity that had no room for me as a queer person. Mike’s book taught me about the physiology of my religious grief.
The Neural God-Network
When a person practices Christianity – or anything, actually – their brain grows connections. While a person prays, sings, or hears the Word, their brain builds what is essentially a God-network: a series of neurons (brain cells) and synapses (brain cell connections) that record religious experiences and beliefs. It can’t be pinpointed; the connections crisscross all over due to the diversity of ways in which a person experiences religion (e.g., the sound of your favorite hymn, the feel of the water of your baptism, the smell of incense or even that basement prayer room, the twinge in your heart when you cry out to God).
Through years of practicing conservative, evangelical Christianity, my brain built up quite a God-network. All those prayer meetings, Hillsong tunes, and early morning Bible readings wheedled their way in and left their mark. That felt good: I felt strong in my faith and grateful for it.
I’m dabbling in amateur self-diagnosis now, but here’s my hypothesis about neurological changes that manifested when I began living authentically as a queer Christian. When I realized that, as an affirming queer Christian, I no longer fit in with my church, fellowship, and friends, my neurons adapted in conjunction with my daily experience. The on-ramps and the off-ramps to my God-network were pruned away. I let go of many spiritual practices – communal ones first, solo ones later – and with that I stopped exercising those neurological connections.
My God-network, I speculate, grew weaker. When I joined affirming Christian communities, I hoped for an immediate recovery. I still haven’t gotten that.
These new, more expansive beliefs of mind can’t just cruise down the neural highway that the old beliefs had laid. They have to carve their own path, and this time the way isn’t clear. It’s overgrown with the weeds of a former faith: a measured and simple and frankly, easy, faith. And so the going is slow.
I’m frustrated by how slow my recovery is. I miss the certainty and purpose with which I lived out my faith back then. I’m angry that “recovery” is a truth I have to sit in. And I question my right to be angry.
When I started feeling unwelcome in my Christian communities because of my queer identity, there wasn’t much evidence to substantiate my feeling rejected. A few folks came at me, biblical swords a-swinging, but most did nothing. I could’ve stayed in my church and stayed with Ada. I could’ve dug in my heels instead of taking off.
But where would I be if I had stayed?
Would I be happily and resiliently myself? Would I be gratefully married to Ada? Would I be heading up a discipleship team and leading small groups? Would I be mentoring other queer Christians from similar conservative backgrounds?
Would I feel closer to God? Would I be praying more? Would I read the Bible and feel comforted and challenged?
No, I wouldn’t.
If I had stayed, I would’ve gone through at least the equivalent amount of neurological-pruning that I went through when I left – probably more. Had I stayed in non-affirming spaces, the regular assaults on my personhood, beliefs, and heart would have left my God-network diminished. If I made it to the marriage I have now, I would put my relationship and my family through the ringer every damn day.
I would taste an even deeper bitterness. I may still be looking for recovery now, but the damage would’ve been worse if I’d stayed on the wrong highway.
When I realized that God loves me for all that I am, and that God loves all LGBTQ for all that we are, I did the right thing by leaving churches and communities that told me otherwise. You’ve heard me say that before, but right now I’m not saying it just for you. I’m saying it for me.
When a doctor named my pain from the loss of my cousin as PTSD, she helped me recognize my feelings as justified. When I name the loss of my community and belief system as church trauma, that helps. It’s no magic wand, but it’s the nod and pat on the back that someone shares when they can empathize, even when they can’t verbalize.
When Ada prayed for my healing, she helped me by acknowledging my hurt and through calling upon the almighty and motherly Healer.
Would you pray for me too?