Beyond Fear: Encouraging Each Other Towards Escape

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fear, and how it can hold us in really terrible places. I’ve lived most of my life in some level of fear – not usually severe, but enough to keep me from adventures until I was well into my 30s. I’m sure part of it is innate personality, and part of it is being raised in America, which is largely founded on fear, but a big part of it stems from the Conservative/Evangelical American Christian Church which raised me in a climate of fear and shame.

Now before you go getting all up in arms, be assured that at the time, I loved growing up in church. In my traditional Christian years there were many things that were beneficial and good for me. Somehow, in spite of the overemphasis on personal holiness, I did learn to look out for others. I was captured by the concept of transformation – the idea that healing, change, and forgiveness were always available and can change the world. Also, I was nurtured by the rhythms of the liturgical year and holy celebrations. I felt grounded in a long history of faith and forbearers. I had a good sense of call and a passion that lent energy to my work and to my living. At times I even had euphoric experiences of the presence of the Divine, which I will never forget. And sometimes I felt so happy to be celebrating with a community, so sure that I had a place to belong, that I thought my heart would be split from the joy of it.

But even in the midst of all those things, the emotional memory I carry with me most –at least at this stage of my life—is the pervasive feeling of shame I carried throughout my religious life, and the accompanying fear of doing something shame-full that came with it. Right now, when I think back on my life in the church, this feeling of shame and fear is a filmy substance stretched tight across my heart –an emotional thumbprint of angst and self-disappointment. My chest tightens and my throat constricts with anxiety. It is very visceral, very real, and it does not good to just close my eyes and hope it goes away.

I’ve been thinking about this personal reality for years now–literally for years—trying to assess how it came about; trying to imagine if there was or is any way of being in church without this experience. I don’t know the answer to that yet, but what continues to astonish me is that I lived in it for so long. I’m not a young woman. It’s not like I’m 20 years old and leaving my parent’s church for the first time to find out there are other things out there. I’m nearly 40 years old, and I’ve spent a good twenty of those years studying theology, working in various religious institutions, and writing about spirituality. But it’s only in the past—what—year? 18 months?—that I have really said goodbye to the institution that has caused so much damage. (It’s only recently I’ve been able to walk back in there from time to time without feeling like they were “pulling me back in”.) I’m a pretty strong person. I don’t naturally tend to tow the line. So what kept me in there so long?

Shah Afshar at Shawshanked Redemption has some thoughts on the matter. In his post Whatever Happened To Honor: Part II, Shah writes about Martin Seligman’s theory of “Learned Helplessness”, a phenomenon that occurs when one is in a situation which continually causes them pain. In Shah’s words, what Seligman found was

Subjected to repeated punishment, animals and humans come to believe they have no control over what happens to them, whether they actually do or not. In Seligman’s original experiment, dogs given repeated electrical shocks would prostrate themselves and whine, even when escaping the abuse lay within their power. [Emphasis mine]

Shah goes on to detail what kinds of behaviors cause Learned Helplessness, and why they allow the institution to continue to function in its status quo. The thing that most captured me about the Seligman’s experiment was this:

It was noted that the only way to get the helpless dog out of its cage was to send in another dog that had never been shocked. With the gate left open, upon receiving the first jolt of electricity, the new dog would bolt out of the cage and by doing so, it would teach the helpless dog to get out as well.

Now, as a writer I’m aware that in the literary tradition, using any metaphor relating ‘human’ to ‘dog’ is not an especially good one. But if we can get around our metaphorical habit for a minute and not associate being dog-like to being something negative, then I’d like to say this:

I’d like to start being a new dog—specifically the one that comes to the scared dog in the cage. Now, I’ve been shocked. Plenty of times I’ve been shocked. And sadly, because I was a church leader and a pastor, I’m pretty sure I’ve shocked others. (This is one of my deepest regrets.) But lately, I’ve been feeling a little bit healed up from the shocks, and I think, maybe, I have enough energy to run in and out of the cage.

That’s what I hope my blog (and maybe someday my book) can do. This is what I hope my writing can be: the redemptive action of dashing in and out of the cage, of demonstrating with energy and eagerness that there is a way out. Maybe even a way out that doesn’t require us to give up our spirituality, or our faith—maybe we can even hold on to Jesus, if we want to. Who knows? It’s possible.

When I wrote about this in my latest manuscript proposal (especially request by a publisher, who, sadly was never heard from again), I put it this way:

My main intent is to provide a map for the journey towards a new expression of faith. When we move into previously unexplored territory we sail into places where the sea charts read, “Here there be monsters.” But the monsters we fear do not exist. A bit of illumination along the unknown edges can reveal that there are no vicious creatures lying in wait, but only new, wide open places to explore.

I have been sailing these seas for a while now, and have begun to discern a pattern in these currents. There is a process to this faith re-formation, and it is possible to retain and rebuild one’s faith in the midst of this sea change. People should know the experience they are having is not a random and isolated event. There are stages in this journey that can help them find their way. Furthermore, there are traveling companions, and tools to help readers reconnect with the God in a way that is true to their spiritual core.

Unlike the early adaptors who traveled before them, the current generation of postmodern seekers does not need to feel alone and lost in foreign seas. Those of us who have already sailed these waters can be good with-mates. Help is at hand.

I think that’s true. I think it can happen, you and I holding hands and moving out and forward and into a newly imagined future. I believe we can do it. Don’t you?

Play us out boys…

Phyllis Mathis June 19, 2008 at 6:10 am

I resonate so closely with your experiences here, and your desire to be a new dog. I’m so happy to be out of the cage, even though it’s hard to know what to do next. I hope someone picks up your proposal soon. Thanks.

Sue June 19, 2008 at 6:20 am

Oh, I wanna be a new dog learning new tricks. Thanks for this post. It was just … really refreshing.

Sometimes I feel like the Body is on the verge … :)

Monica June 19, 2008 at 8:12 am

Oh yes!! I don’t really know where I am on this journey. But it sure takes a long time to shed the skin of the institutional church. Especially if I haven’t totally written God off. We started a little house church a few years ago and it’s still floating. But I often wonder if what we’re doing is actually meaningful.

After a discussion about music last Sunday, some of us sat around and chatted and I just happened to blurt out that I really didn’t see a point to the songs we sang at (our) church. They all seem stupid and not meaningful, one of the other girls piped up … really? you too? me too!!!

The only conversations that are safe to have are the conversations (questions and answers too) that were safe to have the in the institutional church. We don’t want to scare anyone off, be rude, disagree, have any conflict … If anyone has a thought that is outside the box, they’re scared their Christianity will be called into question. How do you move to a new expression of faith in the institution? Can you? Even our little church, that doesn’t want to be part of the institution … IS. We don’t know any other way to be. And while most are wanting to find new expressions of faith, others don’t. How do we talk about the new with them? Or do they just not fit into the equation?

Our growth as a group (in numbers) seems to be the only thing that signifies that we’re living faithfully.

It’s almost like I can’t get away from it. I don’t know how to be otherwise. So your post resonates with me and I look forward to someday reading your book. :)

Rachelle Mee-Chapman June 19, 2008 at 8:50 am

Oh Monica! You can do this!

Have the conversations and scare people off. Lean towards the people that want a new expression of faith. It’s okay. The others can go back to the instutitional church if they want to stay inside the old paradigms. Honest. There are a lot of them out there to choose from.

And conflict is okay too. It will suck sometimes, and people you want to stay will leave, and you will do the wrong thing on occasion — but in the end you and the people with you will be better for it.

Your numbers, have NOTHING to do with the spiritual health of your group–or with your call as a pastor/hostess/guide, or with your own spiritual health. That is church growth bullshit and I give you permission to let it go. None of the old growth charts apply. We are on the moon now…this is new ground.

At Monkfish Abbey in the first few years we saw two really marriages break up (and it was for the better); gave a couple of people our best cheer as they slipped sideways into agnosticism and atheism. (have to try stuff on if you’re going to find out what fits.); completely stopped tithing; and didn’t have single baptism/conversion. In fact at least one person just sort of added Zen Buddhism to their New Kind of Faith.

The result? People were talking honestly about God; living lives that matched up with what they actually believed instead of trying to force themselves into beliefs and patterns of living that were not true to thier souls; and visibling relaxing away from shame/guilt/fear-based living.

As a pastor, I’ve never been happier.

Try stuff, and be okay if it “fails.” Failure is your friend. It tells you what not to do again for awhile. And, in the words of my mentor, Mr. Jim Henderson, “build the ‘church’ you’d want to go to.” You can pretend to be all tow-the-line with the ‘proper’ church/community planting theory, but it the end, if you hate pastoring/hosting/facilitating it, it won’t do anyone any good.

All the messages you’ve heard about denying yourself and providing programming and making sure there’s worship set-sermon-prayer time can be turned off. Push the stop button as many times as you need to, then press play and get some new affirmation tapes rolling in your head. Here’s some we used:

“Conversation _is_ prayer.”
“I can grow a theology that can look people in the eye.”
“God is big enough to handle my anger.”
“Err on the side of Love.”

You can totally do this. You are already on that way!

neil June 19, 2008 at 10:46 am

Rachelle, you have such a powerful voice with your readers. That’s awesome. I do feel like in our quest for a liberating religious structure to hang our faith on, we can’t just dismiss “institutional church.” It’s easy to say the words, but you know that it’s exhausting to try to come up with a new thing all the time. Many people will need to explore outside any kind of institutional church, yes, and it may be beneficial, but not always. But we should be careful not to dismiss anything that might seem organized. And folks who find a home in those places should not feel like they are not living up to the truth inside themselves; you can be liberated within a structured church!

I remember Jim as a really nice and smart guy, but I think there are many ways to interpret “build the church you want to go to.” For one, it presumes in a way, that the church we want or the church that would be good for us doesn’t exist without our input. That’s very human oriented and smacks of flavor-of-the-month and relativistic BS. It’s too easy to take it and go further down the splintered Protestant church road, adding even more to the confusion of church options. So I think caution is good.

I think it is courageous to try things differently for awhile to find your place. I also think it is courageous and worthwhile to be honest about God and yourself in a place that has a well worn path. Those places exist! And I’m not talking about the last 10 or 20 or 50 years of some postmodern thinkers blazing a new trail. There are paths out there in Organized Christianity with real foundations that are trustworthy.

Just felt I needed to offer another view to help the balance.

Rachelle Mee-Chapman June 19, 2008 at 11:20 am


I’m glad you’ve found a place in institutional Christianity with foundations that are trustworthy for you, and that feed you soul without injurying it. People can, and do, find matches like that. Other people don’t. And that’s the wonder about postmodernity — there’s a place for both of those truths to exsist side by side.

My audience here of late has been primarily readers who are not able to find a healthful match for their spirit in the institutionalize church — or at least not in the instutionalized churches available to them. (We are so fortunately to live in spiritually diverse cities, aren’t we! So many people don’t–I continue to find this surprising as it’s so different from my own experiences, culturally.) This group of folks –which is hard to define because it is still emerging–is underserved resource-wise. So my work is to support and serve them as much as possible — giving them a place to tell their story, validating their experiences, helping them name what has happened to them, and giving them space to imagine what could come next.

My approach–as a litrugist, theologian, and practioner–has always been what the late Dr. Robert Webber has called “ancient-future faith”: that is, staying connected to our heritage and roots, while paying attention to our present, and casting our vision forward into the future. Leonard Sweet uses the metaphor of sitting in a swing. To move on a swing you must both lean back (into history and tradition) and reach foward (into future and creativity). Without both, you don’t get to soar.

Remember, everything that is now a tradition was once new–even in the oldest forms of faith.

Thanks for the ying-and-yang thoughts.


neil June 19, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Monica, you wrote: “But I often wonder if what we’re doing is actually meaningful.”

From how you write the rest of your comment, it seems that you are pursuing God with all of your questions and explorations of faith expression. How could that not be meaningful? Take courage and press on, your comments are encouraging me (and others, undoubtedly).

Jennifer/The Word Cellar June 19, 2008 at 9:26 pm

I’m so thankful for such honest and frank discussions of faith and confusion, Rachelle. I’m at a place in this journey where I can’t even find words to talk about it. The excerpt from your manuscript proposal is beautiful and poignant. I think publishers are missing the boat by not picking up your book. I’d buy it in a heartbeat, because God knows that I could use some help from those “who have already sailed these waters.”

Jen Payne June 20, 2008 at 1:09 pm

I had a friend the other day say that growing up in the conservative/fundamentalist/evangelical church means having a third strand added to your DNA… so healing and change take a long time and a lot of work. That felt so true.

And I want your book!!!

Jen Lee June 26, 2008 at 8:40 am

Amen and amen. Maybe someday I’ll have the courage to talk about my journey publicly. I’m stuck in some lonely silence for now, my underground community anchoring me. Thanks for giving us some new words and pictures to locate ourselves inside of.

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