unraveling: it's a lot to lose.

For the past 3 days, I’ve touched on Fusing, Shifting, and Returning as some of the movements of a lot of our faith experiences. Whew! There’s no question, I am definitely a once, maybe twice a week max blogger. But since I’m taking the summer off in a few days I really wanted to get this series up (and a few other thoughts this week, too) before I am off until September 1st. Even though I appreciate the first 3 movements in the material and know that they are a part of story, the next 3 are the ones I’m most passionate about creating a space for and were the catalyst for the book in the first place.

While Shifting is the season where things get rumbly, Unraveling is beyond just simple doubts and is when so much of what we used to believe and do as part of “church” falls apart and and we begin a downward decent that can make us feel crazy (and people around us feel worried).

Our values shift from certainty, conformity and affiliation to a deep desire for autonomy, authenticity, and uncertainty.

From Faith Shift: “Here’s how you can know if you’re Unraveling. You may not identify with all of these, but consider the ones you recognize (or others you might add):

  •  You have more than a few “I don’t knows.” Almost anything related to faith feels up for grabs, and your initial questions and doubts keep leading to many more questions and doubts.
  • You long to feel some kind of connection to God again, but no matter what you do or try, nothing comes.
  • Often you wish you could shove all the mess back into a box and put the lid on it, but you realize it’s too late for that.
  • You feel depressed and lonely. Ironically, however, you also feel freer and lighter.
  • When you try to connect with the Bible again, you sometimes see only its inconsistencies and harsh words.
  • Not only do you feel heretical, people have called you that (sometimes to your face, sometimes behind your back).
  • Sitting in church feels impossible. When you do go, you feel unnerved, edgy, uncomfortable, angry, or sad.
  • You may talk trash about your former faith or church community, but you actually miss a lot of things about it too.
  • Many who know about your changes have cut off relationship with you. It seems they wanted to be with you only when you were part of the same team, believed the same things, and were tasked with the same cause.
  • You stopped caring what people from your former faith system think about you but can’t help wondering what God thinks.
  • You feel a lot of anger about the past, wondering how everything could actually end up in ruins after all those years of being dedicated to your faith. You usually direct this anger toward yourself, others, and/or God.
  • You are open to exploring other faiths or spiritual practices that you would have once considered “ungodly.”
  • Sometimes you don’t have any adequate words to describe what you’re feeling.
  • You swing between spurts of peace, where you have a deep sense of knowing you’ll be okay no matter what, and jags of utter confusion and doubt, where you feel completely lost and sure that you’re not just slipping off the slope but headed toward destruction.
  • Religious and spiritual songs that used to bring comfort now feel like fingernails on a chalkboard.
  • Calling yourself “Christian” feels dishonest. You actually have no idea how to categorize yourself anymore.
  • [For those still in a ministry or leadership position] If you’re honest about what you’re experiencing, you will lose your job or role and credibility in a flash” (pp. 66-67).

Not everyone reading has unraveled, but I can almost guarantee you know someone who has or is.

The entire middle third of Faith Shift is dedicated to Unraveling, including Soul Care exercises, the realities of the losses, and stories from others who know the feeling. If you or someone you know is in the midst of all this, it could be a really helpful tool to gather some hope and feel less crazy, less alone in the midst of all of it.

Really, Unraveling is a big messy grieving process.

It’s so much to lose!

When we lose beliefs, then we lose structures and relationships that were part of those structures.  Once those things go and we find ourselves on the outside of everything that was once familiar, we can often lose our identity, too.

I’ll say it again: It’s so much to lose! 

In many ways, Unraveling is like a game of spiritual Jenga and we wonder, “If I take out this piece, is the whole Christian tower going to fall? Will losing this piece end the game entirely? How far can I go before my whole faith crumbles? ” (p. 68).

The other part about Unraveling I want to mention is how lonely and confusing it is. So many people don’t understand, don’t like the realities, want us to “come back.”

The reality is that for most of us, there’s no turning back. Unraveling is past an easy return, and that’s one of the hardest parts.

However, there can be new life, new hope on the other side of a painful unravel.  It just takes a long long time (more about Rebuilding on Tuesday).

What have you lost in your Unraveling? 

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Tomorrow–Severing: Some Do, Some Don’t

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.

16 Comments

  • i am so unravelled… i don’t even know who I am anymore… this whole process had been so long & exhausting & frustrating and yet (like you said) so liberating. i feel like i was living in some kind of weird spiritual holding pen. but, at least now I have a name for what I have been going through all this time… a Faith Shift … I like it 🙂

    Thank you for putting it all into such great words.

    Reply
  • So…sadly enough, I gave away my Faith Shift book, I know, I know, how stupid was that? I’d started reading it, but someone else seemed to truly need it, so, thinking I was *way past* this process, I gave it to her. And then you wrote this piece on unraveling, and I *still*, after all these years find myself there. Crap. Of the seventeen indicators, the third, tenth, thirteenth and sixteenth are the only ones I *can’t* relate to, even after all this time.

    My sense is that because I’m in a ministry position (that I feel called to, otherwise it would be SO MUCH SIMPLER to just leave), the unraveling is sort of stalled because it’s constantly in my face, and I can’t avoid the ongoing wrestling. I have this weird (?) need/desire to work within the system in an attempt to change the system. Naive, to be sure. But one can hope, right? So, it’s worked with marvelous success, (otherwise I couldn’t stay in my position), except I know, that if they *really knew* what I believed about God, and life issues, they’d burn me at the stake. I think it’s because of this disconnect and constant juggling of what’s okay/what’s not okay (in supporter/church eyes) that my unraveling process is an exceptionally brutally long process.

    There’s no way to extricate myself, and every. single. day., with every. single. FB post. or other writing, i.e., blog for Choices, monthly supporter thanks, etc., I have to weigh how far I will go, and whether *this* will be the one that sends me to an ‘early retirement’ after twenty-one years. My mind is a constant battlefield.

    So, how long is long? (I ask although I know there is no answer.) My ‘rumblings’ began about 2002, and fast-forward to 2006, we flee to Seattle/Seattle School for companionship and insight for this massive faith shift (though we didn’t have that language – we just knew we might lose our minds without finding similar sojourners). Unraveling onset is hard to track, but it feels like a decade! Crazy, right?

    I’ve made a bizillion changes in perspective and feel so incredibly liberated from the former dogma, etc., yet there still remains this fear – that’s it, yes, fear – that rejection is an ever-present, and painful reality. Sometimes I think this is what PTSD must feel like.

    I’m not really expecting answers, just resonated so strongly with this part of the series that I needed to share, because, YES, it *is* a LOT to lose, and I’m feeling it every, single. day.

    And YAY for your summer break vacay! Because, the crazies like me will still be there, grateful for your return in the fall! 🙂

    Reply
    • yes it does feel like such a long time to not be free 🙁

      you mention this feeling like PTSD… I have heard what we have called PTCD … Post Traumatic Church Disorder … :/

      Reply
    • oh, i am so glad i got to see you in real life this spring at the processing party. i really appreciate your thoughts so much and i think you point to such an important thing, we keep cycling through unraveling over and over and over again. i have felt that so much in talking about the material out loud in these different groups. i do think PTSD is a significant part of the equation, it’s freaky, really, some of the stuff that stirs it up. hugs from colorado and hope our paths cross again soon!

      Reply
  • I think I am very much still in the phase (and have been for about a year now). It is getting easier. I feel more of the peace and less of the discomfort I felt last year. I hunger for rebuilding so much I can almost taste it, yet the view is still cloudy and out of reach. Currently, the losses I feel most significantly are *the ability to lead/serve in ministry positions, *The ability to memorize scripture with ease, *The willingness to expose my inner self to a faith community, *feeling like a member of the “in” crowd. As I have said before, I long to find the relationship I had with Jesus before I became churched…..

    Reply
    • thanks, nancy, for your honesty. that longing is so real, and it seems like so many of us can’t get something back but something new can eventually emerge…it’s so hard, the waiting, the not knowing.

      Reply
  • I know my unraveling experience is fairly untypical, but I think has some elements applicable to everyone. Mine was heavily a cognitive shift and I am particularly analytical/intellectual. So part of unraveling was among a bunch of genuinely “liberal” (gracious, accepting, patient) professors and fellow students at a school of theology (Claremont). Actually that was mainly the groundwork, over a 4 year period.
    Anyway, I get a bit worked up when so many conservative/traditional folks complain that “liberals” are hypocritical in not really tolerating “conservatives”. In my own experience at least, that charge is baseless.
    I now realize they knew quite a bit about the process and could continue to respect those who gave no signs of transitioning (at least at that time and in my program, Claremont had more “left of center” students but some also “right of center” theologically). That didn’t mean we who were more conservative (as I was back then) didn’t get challenged at times, but then this was a SCHOOL, so rightly so.

    Anyway, I actually “unravelled” more in the year or two after leaving Claremont than during (on a conscious level at least). As I may comment in “Rebuilding”, a deep knowledge of psychology, theology and Church history I think made unravelling a lot easier. I knew “heretics” were that only by definition of those who were self-proclaimed guardians of “orthodoxy”. And I tended to trust no one’s judgement above my own (the sometimes-positive side of an intellectual “ego”). So, altho I’m “nerdier” than most, I do recommend people, especially when “unravelling”, stretch their reading/listening (to teaching CDs in the car, etc.) to explore the thoughts of those on the fringes of where you think you’re going. Or even those further away than that. The deeper/broader one’s field of view (for reference points), the less unmooring one’s mental and/or emotional wanderings will tend to be.

    Reply
    • thanks, howard, i like your reminder to keep exploring because it opens up our eyes and heart and minds to other possibilities and deepens so much of our experience.

      Reply
  • My unraveling experience is quite atypical too. It started with interfaith relationship but what really triggered was seeing and experiencing one of my parents plugged into the Pentecostal system in my interfaith family.

    I cringe at how I suddenly hear about how everyone outside the Christian circle of said parent is bad or evil and how one should be study the Bible, pray and volunteer until near exhaustion. Kick in some Pentecostal traditions that I witness such as tongues and healing with the assortment of healing oils it becomes weird, it was so bittersweet when non-believing relatives wonder why said parent try to start converting them and loses their selves by being in church until exhaustion. Thankfully my counselor told me the differences between love-based faith and rules-based systems.

    There is definitely pain with closed connections and lost friendships with conservative friends. But eventually I realize I am all for Jesus and simply shred the church system. Thanks for putting all of this in such kind words.

    Reply
    • i really appreciate you sharing here, and glad you had a good companion to help navigate some of these waters and discern the difference (it’s always interesting to me how much we need outside voices on this one to say “um, this is not normal”) when we’re in it, it’s often tricky to see.

      Reply
  • The biggest things for me that I have lost as I have Unraveled are 1) an upwardly mobile life of power and success, 2) relationships, 3) beliefs I once held onto that led me to judgment and arrogance , 4) the desire to stay in traditional church structures, 5) financial security 6) safety, satisfaction and certainty, 7) a pretending theology with almost no embodiment, 8) concepts of worship and prayer that feed narcissism, 9) focusing on the after life to the neglect of this one, 10) consumerism and seeking after money, 11) valuing the word “Christian,” 12) gender stereotypes of men and women, 13) Homogeneous group structures, 14) Pride, 15) Being a “nice guy” to the exclusion of being authentic, 16) support of Western, male dominated, wordy, loud Christianity, 17) masks I hide behind, 18) colonial views and practices, 19) courage in myself, 20) a love for the Bible because of all the ways it is used as a weapon to shame, judge and punish others.

    Reply
  • Every single one of the points above applies to me. Every. Single. One. I am in the process of unraveling. I have been for a few years now. It is excruciatingly painful. And I have often felt I am going crazy. If there is proof that God exists (because some days I am not so sure) it was finding your blog, Kathy. You have taken the words right out of my mouth. I am clicking over to by your book, right now, because I believe I NEED to read it. Thank you.

    Reply

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