From age seven on, I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist setting. Reflecting on this from my adult perspective, much of the messaging that I absorbed centered around matters of sexuality and reproduction:
- No sex before marriage.
- Women who have babies out of wedlock deserve consequences and condemnation.
- Abortion equals damnation.
The rules seemed certain and emphatic. As an adoptee with a desperate need to belong, I tried them on for size—and to survive, as fitting in is the secret ingredient required to make adoption successful.
I sensed the judgment cast upon my young, unmarried first mother and internalized the patriarchal prejudice toward her. I worried whether something toxic in my genes could make me like her. I wouldn’t have existed if her pregnancy had been terminated, so felt it was my duty to condemn abortion. Adoption was praised as its holy alternative, after all.
But fanatical perspectives felt precarious and wreaked havoc on my soul. My life began with one of the greatest losses imaginable: mother-loss—at my most vulnerable moment as a helpless newborn. I missed my first mother, wondered about her unceasingly, and spent vast amounts of energy imagining what alternate life mine would have been had she kept me.
Drenched in fundamentalist dogma, there wasn’t room to express that. I had to keep my mixed feelings hidden—even, to some degree, from myself. It would be decades before I’d have either the consciousness or vocabulary to name it, but the black-and-white presentation of Christianity compelled me to deconstruct in adolescence. I reasoned I was forever unwanted, that God didn’t want me any more than my first mother had. I inferred that God took sides—and as the offspring of someone whose side it seemed God stood against, I fell into Outcast category, myself.
Driven by adolescent hormones, a heavy dose of rebellion, and a need to belong to my peer group—mired with an unconscious quest to emulate my fantasized, promiscuous birth mother—I found myself breaking all the rules of purity culture. The shame and secrecy—related to being an adoptee, as well as judging myself harshly through a fundamentalist lens—made me feel like an outsider in both my religious family and in the church. Christianity, as it had been conveyed to me, didn’t fit. Or I didn’t fit into Christianity.
And so, I left—not physically, but emotionally. No big statements were made. No vast wilderness was sought with grandiose, theological intention. But in hindsight, it’s easy to see all the ways I was spiritually lost and to recognize the years I spent in The Wild—at its climax, getting mixed up in a cult.
I might still be wandering the wilderness if it weren’t for my mother’s impending death. For the second time in my life, I was losing a mother—the mother who’d raised me for 41 years and was dying too soon due to a rare autoimmune disease and two failing lungs, only a few years after a double transplant and a few hours after my confession of a secret that had created a wedge between us.
Even though she’d lost all ability to speak, my mom began communicating to me—through her heart to mine. She wouldn’t leave before I was ready, she promised, so I held on, determined to “talk” to her nonstop and keep her psychically tethered to me. Before my mind could grasp it, God took her place, offering the spiritual mothering I’d always yearned to receive—the very blessing, honoring, caring, loving, knowing, and un-shaming that adoption and fundamentalism had for so long told me I didn’t deserve.
This marked the official start of my reconstruction.
It took me a year to believe God had come for me. I wanted to write it off. Was it a cosmic accident? The wrong spiritual channel? Had I been sleep deprived? Crazy? Was God crazy? Why me?
I studied the “Woman at the Well,” who, by religion’s standards, was judged an Outsider for her gender, nationality, and transgressions. But not by Jesus, who spoke to her with politeness and treated her with dignity. Why her?
I reflected on the “Bleeding Woman,” deemed by religious tradition as menstrually “unclean” … but not by Jesus, who called her “Daughter.” Why her?
I examined the story of the “Sinful Woman,” known seducer of men—her humanity seen by Jesus, who understood, accepted, and loved her. Why her?
They were women. Regular women. That kind of women—their names not deemed worthy, by the male authors of the Bible, of being recorded—only referenced with derogatory descriptions tied to sexuality and reproduction. And yet they were respected by Jesus. They were considered daughters of God.
Slowly, I began to reconstruct—finding out deconstruction and reconstruction are natural steps in faith formation. Resting in the knowledge that I, too, am beloved and belong, I began to shed teachings that didn’t align with what my soul knew about God. I scrutinized the ways God had been misrepresented or oversimplified. I read the Bible in new ways, discovered authors, listened to speakers, attended Evolving Faith conferences, engaged in conversations with friends, and found community with others. I learned I wasn’t the only one who’d felt pushed to the margins, unworthy of God’s abundant love … only to realize that was a lie. The truth is we’re all worthy to God.
Since then, I’ve stopped letting the keeping of rules define my value—or that of others. I’ve realized that—as with most matters pertaining to sexuality, reproduction, and adoption— nothing is quite as certain and emphatic as I was led to believe. Nuance abounds. Of course, ethical living according to God’s laws matter—but so does forgiveness and grace, because soaking in shame, and shaming others, separates us all from God.
I’m still reconstructing. In fact, I have a feeling my faith will always be a construction zone. But leaning into the uncertainty and persevering in the discovery process is what makes journeying with God so interesting and profound.
Yes! Faith should always be in the construction zone. After all, we’re not called to seek affirmation of our pre-held or inherited beliefs, ever! We’re called to seek truth, and if we’re seeking truth, we’ve nothing to fear – and we’ll find shards of it in many places, all stemming from one source: Creator. Thanks for sharing your story
Thank you, Richard! I’m having a “Gah!” moment now, though, for not including listening to your sermons as part of my discovery process. Your teachings have been an integral part of supporting me in the construction zone. I appreciate your comment and time reading my post.
Yes! Thank you, Sara!
May it be so.
Thank you for reading, Nathan!
This is beautiful Sara. As a Lutheran Pastor (ELCA), I applaud your searching and affirm your value as a woman claiming herself and her own understanding of the Holy One. The Christian church, (usually the Fundamentalists, but not always) has created and caused much damage for women and people on the margins. I and others are working to show the world a different kind of Christianity, based on following Jesus in his way of peace, inclusion and justice. Thank you for being brave and bold and leading the way!
Thank you, Rowan — for your kindness and for the important work you are doing.
There were so many Truths written. That speak to all who have felt pushed to the margins. “God offered the spiritual mothering I always yearned to receive.” That we are all Beloved. We all belong. Thank you for encouraging me along in my reconstruction.
What a beautifully transparent journey you share here, Sara. Thank you for your honesty, and for sharing that tender moment that began your reconstruction. It so touched my heart.
Sara, thanks for sharing so beautifully and vulnerably. It’s hope-giving to hear how God entered your life in a tangible way…I want to hear more of your story!
Thank you, Jennifer. I appreciate your kind words.