whatever you do, don't let them take your faith.

i believe religion and faith are two different things

almost exactly 7 years ago i lost my job as a pastor on a mega-church staff. it was one of the craziest, weirdest, surreal, dysfunctional experiences of my life and there are some days where i still shake my head and wonder “did that really happen?” but oh, it sure did.  it was ugly & messy and i am so thankful for time & healing & faithful friends & a good-God-who-never-gives-up-on-the-brokenhearted.

that’s what i was 7 years ago–brokenhearted. i had given my life & my family & my heart & blood-and-sweat-and-tears to that place and in a flash i was on the outs. their world carried on like nothing had ever happened and i was left crawling on the floor in a big heap of anger & shame & grief. two months afterward, we started the refuge (yeah, not the smartest idea but one of the biggest blessings of my life; thank you, God, that you can use our war wounds for good). goodness gracious, we were nuts!

but it is what it is; now 7 years later, i can look back and acknowledge that it was all a beautiful part of the story.

one of the most painful losses during that season is that my experience rocked my faith, shaked it to its core. it was like the scales had fallen off my eyes and i began to see all of the craziness of what i had been taught about God & the systems that are built in his name. i began to see the realities of believing-just-because-everyone-else-was-nodding-their-head-thinking-it-was-right-because-a-pastor-said-it-was. i admitted that everything i seemed to believe about God had become hooked into the church systems i had been part of.  i started to wonder what was real from God and what was just fabricated by my experiences. what if i was wrong and rebellious & unwilling to submit to what was right?  what if i was just being prideful by refusing to play by the same rules anymore?

so much felt shaky, uncertain, unreliable. i’d try and read the Bible and have to quickly put it down because everything sounded so ugly & mean. i’d listen to the words to songs and find my hair bristling.  if i heard someone say “God says..or the Bible says…” i could feel my blood pressure rise.

i can’t say some of those things don’t bother me now, still, after all these years, but something tilted a while back where i came to this important conclusion that changed everything– they (as in the people who hurt me, the system, the “church”) have no more power over me and i will not let them take my faith.

of course, none of our former church systems (or even the individuals who hurt us) are actively trying to ruin our faith. the truth is, most of them don’t think twice about what happens to us after we leave. we’re losing sleep & tossing & turning & agonizing & weeping & yelling &  thinking about them all the time and for the most part my guess is they don’t once look back to wonder how we’re doing.

yeah, the problem isn’t that they try to take our faith from us.

the problem is that if we’re not careful, we’ll give it to them along with all the rest.  

we’ll unconsciously let all the wounds “the church” inflicted–the confusion, doubt, disillusionment, ugliness, and all the you-name-it’s–take one of the most important parts of our souls: our faith.

it’s just so hard not to.  everything becomes all tangled up together and it’s hard to separate what’s God and what’s people.

i think one of the greatest gifts of a painful church experience or even a slow & far less dramatic disillusionment can be an opportunity to really re-examine our faith, to unravel what needs to be unraveled, to question things that needed to be questioned, to strip away the unnecessaries to find the core.

in the end, that is the hard and beautiful work of shifting to a more meaningful and free relationship with God.

it’s worth the time & the blood & the sweat & the tears.

and it’s also why i get sad when so many people end up giving “the church” their faith and walk away because they think that’s the only choice. it can feel like the only option, but that’s because it feels like we can’t separate our faith from the systems we were part of.  it is true, they are so intertwined.

but there’s something i keep learning in the last 7 years that i wouldn’t trade for anything:  as we heal, the power the church system had over us begins to dissolve & slip away & weaken, and if we hang on & hold on & refuse to give it away to those who don’t deserve it anyway, the beautiful remains of our faith re-appear.

sure, our faith is battered & war-torn but that is part of what makes it sweet & strong & true & real & free.

i know so many of you are in different stages on this and are hurt & questioning & deconstructing & finding your way. some of you haven’t had a traumatic church experience but more of a slow drain of passion and connectedness. regardless of how you got there, it’s hard to navigate how to move forward.  there’s no formula or shortcut to escape the pain and hard work ahead, but oh, how i hope that in the midst of your journey toward healing & change & freedom that you don’t let them take your faith.

you might not think there’s much left, but in the end, a little goes a long way.

yes, it sure does.

happy anniversary to me. i’ve come a long way & have a long way still to go, but i am so glad i didn’t give them my faith along with everything else.

please, whatever you do, don’t let them take your faith.

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Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

58 Comments

  • Dear Kathy, thank you so much for sharing. It helps all of us who are at different stages. I was kicked out of a Christian Organisation I helped form. So glad I am out but the wounds and anger are deep. I found God again which is a relief, something that was there before but got lost. John 13: 34-35 is very important to me while working with other Christians. 34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” Yes faith is shaken but not destroyed. I have been through a time of what is this all about. The greatest thing is I have met and minister to others who have been through a similar experience, and rediscovered Jesus.

    David

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    • thanks, david, for taking time to share. so many stories with all different twists. i also love 2 corinthians 1 & do think we comfort others with the comfort we have received. it is a gift of our story, to provide some kind of hope, no matter how small, to another. i know when i first read of other people’s painful church stories 7 years ago i felt so relieved to be in good company. it is also such a gift to recover what was lost in all the hubub of “ministry”. thank you.

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  • Interesting. My husband was let go last year from a company he had dedicated his entire career to. No warning, no severance, no compassion. It may be a different entity that he left than you did, but the emotion is still the same: the anger, the hurt, the disappointment, the disbelief. It has been nearly 7 months and try as we might to “let it go” we are struggling with it consistently. It just isn’t a good feeling to think that we can be discarded so easily by people who all professed to care for us.

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    • yeah, so many of the same feelings can be there whether it’s a church or a business (and alas, often they are the same thing). but the pain and grief and disorientation of losing what we thought was secure and being somehow rejected by people we trusted. no matter what that looks like, it is so painful. thanks for taking time to share. peace and hope.

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  • In June it will be eight years for me and my mega-church ejection. Reading your words was like looking at myself from the outside. So. Sadly. Same.

    I did not go off to start a new thing. I wanted to. It is called CovenantClusters. It was a vision from God seven years ago. A vision which may just have been for my heart to keep me from losing my faith during the deconstruction… and the removal of the rubble… and the gathering of materials… until it was time to rebuild my relationship with God on a better foundation than the institional church laid five decades ago.

    Sometimes it feels like untangling a burr from the long, beautiful fur of my cat … combine out one strand at a time … calmly, so he doesn’t bolt in fear and pain.

    Sometimes it feels like pealing off sheets of sunburned skin….

    But mostly it feels like God has turned me into a spiritual starfish… so that the pieces that have to be cut off can be regrown and restored.

    God helped me escape from the mega-church so that I could pastor my little flock at home — laying a better foundation for faith in my three boys … the eldest of which is graduating from high school in June

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    • thanks for sharing, my sweet friend from afar. i didn’t realize our timing was so close to each other. i love that image of spiritual starfish-ery. love it. and that we all have our paths and the people we need to center our hearts and energy on to help us heal and learn. God is so creative. love and hope from colorado.

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  • Amen. I was also let go a year ago and while it didn’t mess with my faith in God it did shake my call to ministry. One year later it is amazing how much I have grown and how much happier I am truly fulfilling my call to ministry rather than a job description! Thank you for sharing!

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  • As I read your post today Kathy, I I hear what you say about “it was one of the craziest, weirdest, surreal, dysfunctional experiences of my life … it was ugly & messy”. And that “none of our former church systems (or even the individuals who hurt us) are actively trying to ruin our faith”.

    I also read of you havgin been proud to be a pastor at the church and what you said with “i
    remember the high of feeling so much better than everyone else. that we
    were so amazing, special, smart, cool, progressive, so … it’s why so many people have big gaping church wounds or are just worn out by church elitism.” And of what you say about your actions not intentionally inflicting harm.

    What I think for all of us by way of moving on is important is that we practise repentance and forgiveness. Repentance such that harm we have caused isn’t repeated wherever possible. And that we be able to “love our enemies” as such. It is more difficult to be angry with someone if they are thirsty and you are giving them water to drink than if you are not being of service to them. And we only hurt ourselves if we choose anger over forgiveness. And yes, it is a choice! Isn’t that the way of the beattitudes?

    This is not to negate in any way the wounds that have been expressed and the need for attendance to such. I don’t know about you but I intend to heal and to get back up and get back in the fight whenever I have been wounded, not pick away at wounds!

    I’ve had some great times recently with people who have just been there for me in powerful ways. And the suffereing I have been through has helped me to empathise with those that suffer too. I’ve also been challenged about there being a place for me in church where the last ting I have wanted to do has been to get involved. The encouraging thing was that I was told that I was the breath oxygen into the asthmatic lungs of the church. Which was great considering when I first started to contribute to these discussions (althougth in a worse place then than I am now) I said I feel I can breathe!

    Adam

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    • i am grateful for the forgiveness and freedom that has come from letting them go. it is a relief and i have to intersect with them all of the time in different ways and am so glad that now it doesn’t feel nearly as hard as it used to. that is healing.

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      • Glad to hear of the healing and freedom you have expereinced Kathy from practising forgiveness. And for the strength and courage you must have taken in establising healthy boundaries so you can countinue to relate with people where previously there has been difficulty. Reminds e of female frind of mine who has done similar. I’m proud of her :).

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  • I’m in the place after that disconnect and hurt you talked about where I’m laying it all behind and want God to do something new in our church. What a journey of self convictions and healing and learning that the Holy Spirit wants to help me be stronger. Thank you for your vulnerability, Kathy.

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    • thanks, joy, for taking time to share. you are in good company here, that’s for sure, a lot of us trying to listen to God in new ways and find a new path.

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  • oh yes … my story of choosing to leave is so very similar … and as you said, that whole pastoral staff season was ‘one of the craziest, weirdest, surreal, dysfunctional experiences of my life.’

    praise God there is freedom and healing. there are healthy people and new horizons. there are new ministries to create and broken people to serve.

    yes … we move ahead and rejoice. there is beauty for ashes, isn’t there.

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    • oh yes there is. that’s why isaiah 61 has always been one of my favorite passages of all time. thanks for taking time to share and amen for healthy people and new horizons.

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  • I wasn’t fired. I wasn’t part of the paid staff. I wasn’t even asked to leave. But it would have felt the same if any of those things had happened to me. When God has given you a direction and humans not only question that, but also your worth, it feels like you are being murdered. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for giving us a place to share our story and to profess our faith in God even when the people of God do not seem to care. Thank you for a voice of healing.

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    • thanks dear linda. it’s interesting how we can all get there in different ways but the same feelings and themes are so prevalent. and painful. i think one thing i’d say, too, in the same vein as “whatever you do, don’t let them take your faith” is “whatever you do, don’t let them determine your worth.” oh, it’s so hard to not let them but oh, they are the wrong source. so much love from colorado.

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  • I wasn’t let go. We chose to no longer be part of a dysfunctional religious system that, even though it gave a passing nod to Jesus, should have been convicted for false advertising for calling itself church – if we understand church as the body of Christ.

    You think you’re over it. Then yesterday happened. We were picking up trash across the street from the “church” that chose to site itself in the inner city because property is cheaper there. They distrust everyone who is not part of their group. Multiple neighbors have told us they hate that church because the church hates them.

    The church folk will not speak to anyone, and will not even make eye contact. Now they have added a team of “guards” armed with walkie-talkies and note pads (for writing down the license plates #’s of every car in the neighborhood) that patrol the streets around the church so their members will be safe. (We feel totally safe there.) That so pushed my buttons. It would be easy to chuck faith along with those systems.

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  • !0 million kudos to you my friend! The first time I backslid away from the church and God. The second time I tired of all the abuse from the many churches I went to and willingly walked away but my faith stayed and I got stronger. I have a small group of friends who have become my “church”. Thank God for people like you who echo what my heart says! I’ve gone thru some deconstruction in my beliefs and realized how deep my faith really is when those tough times hit. I value my small group more than ever and look forward to hanging with them for strength and love.

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  • We went through a situation (just about seven years ago too!) where the church we had carefully planted and invested in experienced a catastrophe, causing it to die. The experience filled us with hurt and anger, and it shook our faith too. But I think I’ve come away being far less tolerant toward disappointment, not being so quick to yell and shake my fist at God, being more comfortable with not knowing all of God’s plan. 🙂

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    • thanks matt for reading. so i guess we were crawling on the floor at around the same time. so hard, when so much energy is invested and then for all kinds of bizarre reasons, it’s gone. it is interesting how it helps with letting go of taking it all so a-b-c like it used to be. all the lines got so fuzzy and even though that is disorienting at first, it is also very freeing.

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  • Wow, Kathy. Seven Years. It’s funny – on Wednesday, it will be the 6th anniversary of when I walked away from a leadership position at ‘that church’.

    Everything about this post is familiar. 🙂
    What caught me off guard was the last 6 – 9 months, I discovered I have a whole new layer of bricks that need to be dismantled and examined. They are more foundational ones – ones I was born into. And it is scary and disconcerting and all that you wrote all over again, except…not as intense.

    This post was a very timely encouragement. Thank you.

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    • thanks my friend. oh, those layers of bricks. i am always struck by how deep so many of the familial ties are and how the threads that run through our lives are never pulled out and “done with” but that there are always more to unravel. my heart is always with you from afar and i am glad some how, some way, this was encouraging. xo

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  • It’s been about ten years for me since the church system that me and my husband served in ministry for close to 20 years threw us under the bus. Kathy, I have experienced everything that you described in your post and it’s been a very long, painful struggle to move past it all. I didn’t lose my faith because my faith begins with my earliest memories of me and Jesus.My grandmother taught me about Him. I have loved Him and felt His love as far back as I can remember. Not to say I haven’t been angry at Him sometimes or felt abandoned or have wondered 1,000 times WHY? I have found that, for me, it always goes back to relationship. No matter what anyone else does or says or what someone else believes theologically…our relationship together is what is true and what always remains. Today I can say that as painful as it has all been, I am thankful because I am learning to live in freedom and in faith instead of fear and obligation. Thanks so much for posting. For so many years I have felt so alone.

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    • thanks for sharing robin. such painful stories of being thrown under the bus after years of faithful dedication. it just hurts. and it’s so confusing, really, how much carnage there is and how many of the wheels just keep on spinning round. it’s amazing, really, what does remain for people and it is what gives me more faith, too, because it reminds me how strong faith really is to endure what it’s had to endure. i am glad you took time to share and that you are here and know you’re not alone.

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  • My husband was a pastor in the church. Enough said 🙂 He now serves as a pastor with a wonderful organization. Sometimes the hurts we bear are so difficult to move past. But, you are so right that God can use our war wounds. I started writing to bring an encouraging and hopeful perspective to renewal. Thanks for your heart.

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    • thanks for taking time to share. totally get what you mean when you say “enough said :)” i am glad you are writing and healing and finding your way. you are so not alone.

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  • Loved this post. Happy Anniversary for sure – do you even know who that person was that Kathy, mega church leader!? I would have liked to seen the before & after 🙂

    Sometimes I can’t even picture how I endured pew sitting for so long…. and then all the shenanigans of church-as-business. I am sooo thankful God put me on a leadership team so I could see all the behind the scenes and really understand what I was supporting. We are coming up on our 3 year anniversary, by the way, from the official breaking free.

    God is so patient & understanding. And I know He has been right there with you through this whole journey and He has been making sure the faith He has gifted you with would stay for eternity. It is His Spirit that keeps your faith in tact! & I know your faith has been strengthened through all the pain and it’s gonna be stronger & more real and genuine and true God-focused faith each year that you move forward. I look back on our phone conversation (5!?!?) years ago and I praise God for that quick short tiny glimmer of hope you were able to share with me that really gave me the courage and nudge I needed to take a small step toward Truth & healing. It really was a great catalyst for me and I’m SOO thankful God brought you into my life via carnival even for just that short time.

    I think the hardest part of the journey for me has been how painfully humbling it is to confront my own self righteous, prideful, envious (?) nature that doesn’t rejoice when somebody shares a “victory” with me in their church-as-business. I am so disillusioned and find my spirit rolling its eyes when I hear “success” stories. That isn’t from the Lord & I want Him to fix it in me. I want to be able to rejoice when others around me rejoice – and not judge whether I think whatever they are sharing is true, good, dishonest, biblical, whatever. So that’s an area I really need help on – BUT I am able to be around friends that are in church-as-business and actually listen to them share about it so that’s a great step! I DO know in my heart that God is reaching my friends there as well and just like everything else in this world – all is broken, all is fragile & I can accept & even learn to embrace it all as I embrace my own brokenness & am freed from it.

    Thank you Lord for the freedom to work toward healing as we walk closer to YOU & follow the unique path you have us on!! <3

    Thanks as always Kathy. Love ya! Miss you.

    Reply
    • oh dear randi, thank you for taking time to share. wow, we’ve known each other out here for a long time, haven’t we? amazing, really, if you think of all the change and healing and transformation that has happened. thanks for sharing your heart and i am glad we are all on the same path to keep learning and trying and praying and stumbling and seeking and growing in different ways. God is definitely wild and creative. xoxox

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  • Can I just add one more comment? And it is in regard to faith.

    We know faith is a gift, so none can boast about it. Perhaps it would be helful to think about faith in the way of it being a gift from God, that way it not being dependant on us. That though there will be things to conspire against faith that ultimately it is about God’s resources and trusting in that rather than trusting in what we can come up with of our own accord.

    I recall a triple jumper in the UK who was a prominant athelete who was public about being a Christian. He would pray before competitions and say that his faith was the thing that gave him the psychological edge needed to perform. When he stopped competing, then he said he lost his faith, the time being one of personal crisis in which there was a hole where athletics once was. I wonder, was athletics, for him, something that had become an idol? And when he faced personal difficulty, did he walk away from God instead of repenting?

    What I like about the words of Jesus is that he says that all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed inoder to make trees walk and mountains move. Remind mae of the song about the ant that Doris Day sang in “High Hopes” and the “oops there goes another rubber tree plant”.

    I agree with you Kathy with the “willd ways of Jesus”. It just seems crazy, even shocking at times to listen to what he says, that in the beauttitutes we are blessed when we are insulted, persecuted and falsely accused of evil becuase of him. Not only that but to be happy and glad! Our natural response is to want justice and to fight for it is it not? But if others won’t listen and change then we only frustrate ourselves do we not? And we don’t leave room for God to do the justice.

    In fact Jesus’ words are freeing and a breath of fresh air in a world that often is motovated by fear and retribution. Isn’t it then our responsibility to be obedient to Jesus and consider ourselves blessed for the hardships we have endured because of him and look forward to our reward in heaven?

    We are even told we were called to be free as brothers and sisters. Isn’t it our privelidge and challenge therefore to embrace that freedom and not use it for self-indulgence but in humility use it to serve one another?

    Isn’t this what you talk of with dreaming of us being “secure in who we are as God’s children, free and strong?” And using that strength to fight not against people but the dark forces on the world and in heavenly realms?

    Or could it be that you would say I’m just a dreamer? Well, I’m not the only one!

    Reply
    • thanks adam, for your thoughts. i think we participate in our faith and that it’s not something that God magically drops out of the sky even though it’s also something that somehow magically happens in ways only God can work. it’s a crazy paradox, really.

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      • I hear what you say. Yes the paradox. The trusting in the Lord and not leading to our own understanding as if we know more than God! And maybe you have hit on soemthing threre Kathy with it being a false expectation at times for the “out of the sky”. I think “participate” is a helpful way to put it. I think I have enteioned before tht I have been described on one occasion as a “powerful man” when what I have done is explain tht all that is, is me being aware of what God is doing as a particulr point in time and what my part to play in it was. It’s mysterious but not rocket science 🙂

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  • Oh. This post. I was fired from a megachurch after three years on staff, for no reason. I begged and argued and demanded a reason and they never gave me one – because they couldn’t, and they had, oddly, violated a number of their own policies in rushing to fire me. I think I was taking the fallout for something my boss had done, but I never learned what that was.

    Three years later, I’m grateful to have found a job I enjoy and believe in, but you are describing my process of grief and my hurt. And my former church. No, not actively trying to cause pain, but so oblivious to what they did. This whole post… I feel like I could have written it but not nearly as well. Thank you.

    Reply
    • thank you for sharing, sarah. oh, so many of the same stories with different scenarios and our own unique circumstances but with such common threads. my heart hurts with you and i am glad that you, too, are finding your way toward hope and healing. it is a messy and bloody process.

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  • Yes, deconstructing. That’s what I’m doing. Separating good from bad so I don’t have to leave my faith behind… thank you for the encouragement.

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    • thanks, ally, for sharing. yeah, discovering what remains is such an important part of the rebuilding after deconstructing process. a gift, really. it also seems it can’t quite come until we allow ourselves to acknowledge the losses and really get in touch with the grief. freedom and healing are such gifts as they emerge from the ashes.

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  • I feel like I just want to give everone here a big hug! And yup – guys included!

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  • Last night my little community and I sat down & read this together–we are a week out from our one year anniversary! The unraveling, re-examining & core-finding process has been messy & painful but it’s definitely been the best thing to ever happen to me/us.

    I’m so thankful for the language you’ve helped create to talk about this stuff. Having the words to articulate feelings and share experiences makes such a difference in moving forward with our faith intact… Happy 7 years, Kathy; thanks for making them count!

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    • now that made me cry 🙂 thank you for taking time to share. i am so grateful to have intersected with you & some of your friends & it is so pretty to see healing and hope and core-finding continuing to emerge. loveliness.

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  • oh before i start responding to each person’s beautiful comments, i just want to say thank you for your honesty, everyone, and for being willing to share a piece of your stories. i honor and treasure them all.

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  • This is so timely and full of kindness! I’m sooo often tempted to toss it all out forever. But yes, it is Jesus…all about him…and he is so beautiful, loving, and life giving. All I really want is Jesus, anyway. Deconstruction is good!!! Kathy you are an encouragement and you are such a beautiful voice of the journey 🙂

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  • Separating from my childhood/adulthood church just plain sucked! We were told we were ‘taking the easy way out’. Have yet to figure out what part was easy at the time. We’ve experienced only freedom since… But definitely traumatic and beautiful, messy and fulfilling at the same time! We have our 6 year leaving anniversary this July. Thanks for letting me know we haven’t unfortunately been alone in our experience. Blessings to you!

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    • happy anniversary to you, too, and thank you for taking time to share. that is such a tool used by so many to keep us stuck in really dysfunctional, unhealthy systems, the “you are taking the easy way out.” it’s the exact opposite!peace and healing to you as you keep getting more and more free. those are such the right words–traumatic and beautiful, messy and fulfilling.

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  • I hope that 7 years from now, I can respond to the hurt, the loneliness, the betrayal and the anger with half the grace and strength you show here. Thanks for your encouragement and for sharing your story. Happy Anniversary indeed!

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    • thanks stacey, oh please just ask my friends here about the blood & the gore & the ugliness and how not-clean-healing-has-been. but i am thankful for their patience and God’s faithfulness and the important reminder that healing from these wounds takes years and years, not days or weeks or months. thanks for taking time to share. peace and hope from colorado.

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