How to recover from losing your religion
The night two former evangelicals sang their way home
I met Matt on the beach in Baja at a summer solstice ceremony in 2018. It was one of those serendipitous social occasions where you gravitate to the one other person who doesn’t know anyone else and discover the two of you have a lot in common. Our fireside small talk quickly dropped into meaningful conversation as we resonated with each others’ depth and realized we grew up in similar contexts, which we’d departed in some similar ways and with a similar mix of emotions.
Matt and I were both raised in evangelical Christian homes and evangelical Christian churches, immersed in evangelical Christian beliefs, values, rules, schools, culture, books, and music. Because that’s how it is in evangelical Christianity. It’s a sub-culture of its own.
Culture and sub-culture are fascinating things. The word culture has its roots in Latin cultura ‘growing, cultivation’; coming from colere ‘tend, cultivate’. Culture grows us into who we are. The thing about growing up in this particular sub-culture is:
It puts you inherently at odds with the larger “secular” world. (secular meaning nonreligious, worldly, temporal, earthly, profane, unsanctified)
If at some point you find yourself outside the sphere of evangelical Christianity you will likely become to some degree (or entirely) an outsider to the world that was once your reality.
If you exit that reality you will to some degree (or completely) lose your community, your identity, your compass for navigating life, and your culture, including your music.
Matt and I both went through this shift in our twenties. It’s not a breezy process and for people who haven’t traveled this road the journey may not make sense. Talking about it with people who haven’t lived inside that particular sub-culture or made that kind of passage can feel lonely. So when you find people who have, there’s a lot to talk about. If you feel up for it.
Mateo and I were ready. (Matt is now Mateo. Sometimes your name has to evolve with you.) In my few remaining weeks in Todos Santos we got together a handful of times for heart-to-heart conversation. Each of those evenings was lovely, but one of them was life-changing. For both of us. It was the night we sang our way home.
Mateo is an incredible musician, singer, and songwriter. His pre-Baja life was in Nashville and when you hear him sing and play guitar you understand. His talent is palpable and his soul radiates through his music with a potency, depth, and earnestness that moves you.
On this night, one of my last nights in Baja, Mateo and I were hanging out at his place when I mentioned how the thing I still missed was music. He got it. Because he lived it. I didn’t have to explain to Mateo that I spent two and half decades singing praise and worship songs—at bedtime as a young child, in church every Sunday, in chapel at school, in youth group, in the car, in the shower, hanging out with my college friends, around the bonfire… That these were the songs that surfaced as I went about my day and the ones that ran through my head while I ran. They were the songs that kept me anchored and centered and they nourished my connection with Spirit and with community. And all those years later the loss of that music still felt like an open wound.
The devotional music of my upbringing was like a heartbeat. Singing praise and worship songs was a continual prayer, a love song to god, community bonding, and my meditation practice. But when I grew beyond the paradigm I couldn’t sing the songs anymore. The lyrics made my insides squirm.
Mateo understood 110%. He used to be a worship leader. He went to seminary. He anticipated that leading worship would be his path in this life. But he couldn’t sing the songs either. That loss of the music cut deep for him too and in all the years he’d tried, he hadn’t found a replacement.
So we talked about the music that was once ours. We talked about our favorite Christian bands. We talked about our first concerts. We talked about our very favorite Christian artist, Rich Mullins. Rich was the real deal. Raw, honest, humble, musically talented, radically generous, deeply devoted to Love and being that love with everyone. Rich was everything a follower of Jesus is called to be. Christ-like. A Christian in the fullest, most beautiful sense of the word. We talked about how deeply we’d felt the loss when he died.
I told Mateo I needed him to write songs for people like us—people who miss singing to god but don’t have music that works; music that carries that devotional love but with words that feel true instead of making you cringe. Kirtan music, sadly, doesn’t do this for me. I love sacred Indian chanting. It’s beautiful. It’s devotional. It’s sacred. It’s powerful. It feels good. I like listening to it. I like singing it. But it’s not mine. It’s not my culture. I don’t belong to it.
So Mateo got out his guitar and started playing something beautiful. I believe it was one of his own songs. I wish I could remember it. But what I’ll never forget is what happened next. He started playing a Rich Mullins song and began to sing. I joined in. We both knew it by heart and sang it from the heart. Afterwards we looked at each other, amazed. There was something about the sacred safety of our friendship, the understanding, the grief, and how we’d both walked the difficult miles out of everything we knew and into the world beyond that made all the difference. Together, we could sing the words. It was as though the lyrics expanded into a wider, deeper meaning and the song felt whole again.
We looked at each other in awe and amazement, not understanding but fully aware of the holiness of what was happening. It was beyond words. We kept singing. Sometimes we cried. Other times we laughed. We sang through the entire album. Every single song. And then we sat there basking in the wonder of it.
Because of everything we’d lived and how we’d shared our journey with each other, some portal had opened there in Mateo’s casita and we were able to enter back into the heart of the music and sing wholeheartedly even though the words were layered with meaning that no longer fit. For that hour together, through those 16 songs, the burden of what the words said and meant lifted and we were suspended in the sweetness of devotional love. Our love, god’s love, Rich’s love, all of Love, immense and encompassing.
It was profound. It was pure in a way I didn’t know was possible. It felt like we came full circle. Like we’d sung our way home. Home to a place where we could stand in the truth of who we are and still be connected to the culture, the container, the music, and the meaning that once held and shaped us. It gave me back to myself in a way I had no idea I needed.
That particular grace has not repeated. I’ve tried singing praise and worship songs a few times since but it’s been more burden than gift. Clunky and constricting. It doesn’t feel good. Maybe I just need Mateo to sing with. But the fact is I don’t need that grace to repeat. That holy moment was complete. It was a healing. For both of us.
I’ve noticed through the years that whenever we move through a paradigm shift, of any kind, there are gains and losses. Often we gain a new degree of freedom and lose some amount of connection.
When my experience of God expanded past the borders of Christianity I gained a much larger world, a more empowered sense of agency, a vital sense of connection with all of Life, and a more humble sense of self. What I lost was my bearings, my identity, my community, my culture, my music, a whole lot of judgment I didn’t know I’d been holding, and a lot of people that I loved.
I did have two dear friends though, Esther and Tricia, with whom I still felt accepted, even as I shared my experiences and how I was seeing the world. Tricia is the one who encouraged me to seek out authors that would be good companions. She said when the people in your world don’t understand you, you can find ones who do by turning to books. She was right. Thankfully, I eventually found the company of living, breathing humans that got where I was too. It was that period of grieving Christian community and culture and transitioning to life beyond it that taught me how important it is to “find the others.” As humans we have a fundamental need to be seen, heard, and belong. And we don’t heal alone.
I’ve been thinking about stories like Mateo and I’s lately as I’ve worked with my friend Kara to help her get the word out about the brave gift she’s about to share with the world. Our friendship goes back to our late-nineties college days at George Fox University—a small, Christian liberal arts college in Oregon. Kara was and is a vibrant trailblazer who has the audacity to venture beyond life’s “this-is-just-the-way-things-are” parameters and what she’s doing right now is remarkable. She and her team have organized the world’s first online summit on recognizing and healing from religious trauma.
Kara knows how disorienting and lonely it can be to navigate toxic theology and the hurt that can happen in organized religion. She believes no one should have to walk the path of healing alone. I’m excited that she’s offering such a rich event that includes compassionate education, practical resources, and community connection around this important topic. The first-ever Beyond the Wound online summit happens January 15th-February 5th, 2023 and you can check it out below.
I’m grateful for my journey. I’m grateful for the gifts of growing up in the Christian faith and the gifts of going beyond it. I’m glad I grew up in an environment that oriented me to what my friend Melanie calls the Sacred Presence. I’m glad my experience of that presence took me beyond the parameters of Christian faith and into a world where the Sacred Presence is everywhere. I’m glad I found the courage to follow god outside the box I was taught “he” lived in. I’m grateful for beautiful souls like Rich Mullins who model what devotion looks like, and most especially for friends like Mateo, Kara, Esther, Tricia, and Melanie who are Sacred Presence in my life.
As my beloved partner often says, quoting Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
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