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The Ex-vangelical Awakening

by Kit Olsen 4 months ago in religion
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I grew up in a spirit filled, Holy Ghost driven, born-again Christian church for most of my formative years. My therapist encouraged me to write some things down to confront them. Here's the confrontation.

The Ex-vangelical Awakening
Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

I don’t know the first thing about being a prophet.

I mean. I suppose that’s a little boldfaced of me to say. I’ve been a member of the church long enough that I know what the job of a prophet is supposed to be. I grew up in a congregation that meant I learned my catechism and my scripture. I won my prizes for memorizing the most verses and spitting them back out like a wind-up doll, or a particularly intelligent parrot.

I grew up knowing the stories of Samuel, who heard the voice of god calling to him in the night as a child, as Eleazer grew old and decrepit, and his sons were unfit to judge or rule. I learned of Gideon, who prayed for a sign in the form of sheepskins getting appropriately damp in the morning dew. I heard and retold endlessly the stories of Elijah and Elisha, yes, they’re two separate figures, and yes, they have different stories. Elijah got fed by ravens while being hunted by Queen Jezebel, and Elisha brought a widow’s son back to life. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and their visions of strange futures and angels that spun like wheels within wheels. John the Baptist, John the Apostle, Saul who became Paul, who all prophesied the coming of Jesus first to earth, and then prophesied how he’d return someday.

Now that I’ve been away from the church for the better part of 7 years, I’m inclined to say most of it is horseshit.

But at the same time, I feel an overwhelming pressure still surrounding that title. “Prophet.”

We learned as well in Sunday school and in our conference meetings about something called the “Gifts of the Spirit.” Words of knowledge, allowing someone to just… Know about something else, within another person. Words of wisdom, the sorts of things that needed to be said for a person right at the time that they needed to hear it. Some people would speak in tongues, and others would claim to be able to translate it. But always lurking there was that title. “Prophet.” The Gift of Prophecy.

Some claimed it was something that allowed a glimpse into the future. That alone, I’m disinclined to believe. If you throw enough monkeys at enough keyboards, eventually they’ll write Hamlet, right? Just because I go around predicting the collapse of the American empire doesn’t mean that I was right when it inevitably collapses in on itself. It means I had a lucky guess. It means that I observed and made a prediction. It doesn’t mean I was gifted.

But visions? Dreams? Hearing the voice of a god in your head, or a messenger of some kind, and writing down what they said? That seemed logical enough. After all, I was only seven when the voices started.

I remembered the feeling of conviction as I stood up at the front of the Sunday School processional. They’d asked if we wanted to be saved, and quick as you please, with the threat of hellfire burning a hole in the bottom of my overalls, and the knowledge that some man a couple thousand years prior had died to carry all of my sins to hell in my place, I got up in that line. But it never felt entirely of my own volition. I remember this sense of guilt, of longing, and that still small voice whispering in my ear, the voice that some would likely term “Conscience” or “God”, telling me to go up front. I remember seeing my mother tearing up with joy because wherever I went others would follow suit. And as I prayed that day that Jesus would become my lord and savior, I swore I felt him enter into the depths of my soul. He built a home in my heart, somewhere to stay.

And then the dreams happened. The nights quickly stretched on, where nightly prayers, prayed over by our mother, stretched into longer prayers, conversational ones between me and the God I now claimed to serve. How precious is the faith of a child, for it’s never been tested, and they’ll believe whatever you tell them without question or doubt. And I would fall asleep, halfway through these prayers, waking in the morning, convinced I’d had a dream sent from god. If he worked through Samuel, David, Esther, Ruth, Daniel, all in their youth, why not me? Was Jesus not twelve years old the first time that he fled from his parents in the temple, and sat around teaching the Sadducees and Pharisees about the will of his Father? If god would be so willing to work through a child, why couldn’t he work through me? I would be his most willing and devoted servant, if it meant that he would smile on me as he did on these others.

Then the Spiritual Warfare began. As I attempted to sleep, as I attempted to pray, I would lay awake at night convinced that there were demons lurking around every single corner. They would put their faces before my vision, searing their hideous visages into my sight. As clearly as the voice of my father in heaven, I would hear other voices, constantly telling me that I was in the wrong. Constantly berating, belittling, tempting me to go astray. Telling me there was nothing that this god could do. Still I held firm. Was Jesus not tempted in the Wilderness? Surely this was my own temptation, and surely this fear that clung to me and made me tremble, holding my blankets and teddy bear tight into the depths of the night was simply a test to prove that I was faithful to my god. But it did little to comfort me as I lay there, sleeplessly, praying that god would raise a hedge of protection around me, and around our home.

Now that I am older, I am genuinely curious as to what exactly I thought a giant divine shrubbery would do, but I lay there nonetheless, erecting this hedge, or a wall. Something sturdy, to keep the demons out, to keep myself safe.

I told my mother about these faces, and these voices. The fear that I felt. The fact I lay there convinced that I was going to be dragged down to hell. I was a very imaginative and sensitive child, the sight of one scary monster on TV was enough to make me want to cry. She was the one who began that prayer, and she was the one who reminded me constantly that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That verse alone began to act more strongly as a paper thin shield against these delusions at night. I quoted it in the darkness, in my mind, as I lay there awake and hoping and praying that god could still hear me when I felt alone.

Nothing was safe, only the sacred. I couldn’t read certain books, or watch certain shows, I couldn’t have any sort of music that served the devil playing anywhere around me. It would corrupt me, and god would not be pleased. And if god was not pleased, how would he work through me? How could I serve him if he thought I was unfaithful to him? I went to church every Sunday and every Wednesday without fail, and as I grew older, the conferences began.

The conferences, akin to a Comic Con for religious zealots, were a quarterly sort of affair. What started as an annual gathering in October, where a special speaker or two would appear and have a message from the Lord to share with us, many of them channeling the first holy rollers, or the Jesus people of the 60s, quickly turned into far more. February, July, August, October, without fail. It would run from Wednesday or Thursday night through to Sunday, three services a day on Friday and Saturday. And we went.

And oh how the Holy Spirit flowed. Like water, this feeling of pure energy and power descending from the ceiling, raining like a storm and a flood around us. We would raise our hands up into the clouds of glory and watch as they returned to us covered in the golden dust of heaven, or dripping oil that was then spread and anointed amongst the congregation. Those who spoke in tongues rattled and babbled rapidly in languages none of us knew or could translate. The preachers one by one would work their way through the crowd, calling on the sick and the infirm to come forth and be healed by the grace of Jesus. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.”

“Are” healed. “Were” healed. Depended entirely on your translation, but it was clear that this was to be the case. We were to lay our hands on the sick and see them recover. And that pure childlike faith was an asset beyond assets to the congregations. I was called up more times than I could count as I danced in worship with the other hyperactive children of the congregation. I sang and jumped and shouted and laughed and praised the Lord with every fiber of my being, and we were led to pray for these people. These sick, these elderly, these blind leading the blind and sitting in these half cushioned seats, hoping and praying for a miracle. We happy few children who were meant to be the chosen generation of God were led through them, laying our hands on their heads and their shoulders, and decreeing that the will of God was that they should be Well Again.

And there were times that I blacked out. There were times that I felt I was no longer in control of my body, of my limbs, that the words coming out of my mouth were no longer my own but someone else’s entirely. I spoke new life into old bones, saw the insides of intestines as clear as day before me, as I spoke out, declaring and decreeing that those interiors were being healed, watching as ulcers closed and mended themselves before my mind’s eye. There were times that I burst out crying and sobbing on behalf of a loved one I had never met, speaking the name of Jesus over them in intercession because they did not believe, they did not know Him as I knew Him, and how could God touch their lives if they would not accept him as savior?

I was twelve.

Puberty hit, and with it, depression. That sense of loneliness and abandonment consumed me. Though I could be a vessel of the divine as clearly as anyone, any of the special speakers who came to us, when I was within the four walls of the church, outside of the congregation, I was nobody. And with that emptiness and that hole inside of me that I wanted filled so desperately, I committed my life to Christ again. It must not have worked the first time. How could I have known what I was promising when I was seven? And wasn’t Mary, the holy mother of Jesus herself, a young woman, honorable and faithful to God at a young age? Able to bear children and suddenly carrying the messiah of all mankind?

In my mind I was destined for martyrdom, for greatness, for God to use and test me in every possible way, and still I would remain faithful to him. Even as, at night, I would feel that fear and that doubt cling and creep, those voices reminding me that I was not good enough for God to use. Even as I lay there convinced that demons were trying to take me over, to possess me, to use me for some horrific, nefarious plot, or to simply count the seizure of my own soul as a win, and drag me down to hell to be used as some devilish plaything. So I prayed, prayed for God to save me. And as his voice grew quieter, like Gideon I prayed for a sign.

I wore makeup for the first time, and an outfit that fit my budding figure a little more tightly than my mother deemed modest, as I played the violin on stage with the worship band during one of those fall conferences. We were ecstatic with joy – this preacher had raised men from the dead! Er, GOD, had raised men from the dead through him, through his faith, through the power of his belief. And as the songs ended and the offerings were taken, the word of faith and the prosperity gospel filling the ears and hearts of all who heard them, the preacher stalked to the stage with a keen eye. He looked out over the crowd, matching the gaze of every single person there. And he stared down at me, his gaze unwavering, as he began with that voice like rolling thunder to pronounce that there was a Jezebel spirit loose in the house of God. This spirit of pride. This spirit of witchcraft.

I felt my entire soul quake. This couldn’t be. I was meant to be Elijah, not the one who hunted him. I was meant to ascend to heaven, to be taken up without fear of death, not to plummet down to where the dogs would eat my body. As he gave the altar call, after sharing the tales of banishing this Jezebel spirit from other congregations, I nearly dashed to the front, hoping and praying that at last my soul would be clean from these transgressions, from these sins that I couldn’t seem to shake, that at last I would be Safe and Free and that God would use me once again like the prophet I was meant to be.

And the preacher laid his hand upon my head, and from his mouth spewed forth a torrent of words and syllables in a language I couldn’t name. Others quickly came up to accompany him, other pastors, preachers, altar catchers, those who saw me openly weeping and praying for forgiveness. His voice hissed like hellfire itself as he called for that Jezebel spirit to be Loosed from me, for that spirit of pride to be banished back to hell where it belonged. I fell to the ground. I did not feel the hand of god, as they thought. I felt only a shove against my forehead, and a sweeping wave of hysteria that carried me through, as I lay on the floor, makeup now smudged with tearstains, my body covered in an altar cloth to preserve my modesty.

I still was not a prophet.

I studied the church, if you’ll pardon the term, religiously. I read through the histories of the saints and miracleworkers, read the entirety of the Bible cover to cover multiple times through. I continued to attend every service I could possibly attend, praying endlessly that God would send revival, and his healing, and his power. New preachers came and went. Some who had been invited in early years were later on disinvited for reasons of their own sins and transgressions. I played my violin on the worship team, constantly asking and praying throughout this entire time that God would move through me.

But still that pride lingered, and still, that empty feeling did not fade. The only time it was not empty was when I had the approval of the senior membership of the church, that I was praised for my god-given talents. The only time I did not feel that anxiety that constantly pressured and raged and told me that I was not good enough, was when I banished those spirits of fear away with the power of the word of god. The voices of anxiety never stopped being these strange demonic sounding things that reminded me that I was never safe, even as I prayed for reassurance and help. And I waited for that banishment myself, because if these holy men and women were unable to maintain the respect of the congregation and of God, then how could I possibly hope to remain?

I was eighteen, the third time that I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. The first two times didn’t count, after all. I had been a child when I was seven, immature when I was twelve, and when I became a man, I put away childish things. I was an adult now, and I knew what I was doing. I knew what kind of decision I was making. I could finally consent to this transaction of faith and loyalty, and have it Mean something.

What did that make my other salvations? If I was not fully able to consent to them?

But even as I prayed once again, for the forgiveness of my sins, as I confessed with my mouth the Lord Jesus and believed in my heart that God had raised him from the dead, that I shall be saved, I was dealing with an entirely new batch of strange emotions and fears I had never dealt with before. I found accusations being flung my way in regards to the friendships I held with friends of both the opposite and same sex. Any sort of relationship I was meant to hold, well. It wasn’t meant to be any variety of physical. With anyone. Having female friends who I was content to hug and hold and kiss meant that I was a corrupting influence. And the fact, as I learned I liked it, and I craved it, meant that I was no longer a prophet. I was no longer a conduit of worship. I was a beacon of sin, and I was living a lie every time I stepped on that stage.

I backed away from the worship team as I went to college. I was already playing the violin endless hours per week in lessons, in orchestra, in performance groups, and I removed myself from that platform stage as I stated that the instrument had become a source of pride for me. That I could not worship on the stage any longer, that instead the violin had become a source of performance for the attention of man and not for god. I no longer lived and breathed for an audience of One, instead I felt the eyes and attention of the congregation, and lived only for their praise to mend that emptiness I felt.

I came out to my mother when I was twenty. I told her about the attraction I was “battling”. We all had our crosses to bear, and this one was mine. But the doubts of nearly thirteen years of services and anxiety demons crowding around my brain telling me I was inferior and damned to hell had begun to pile up. The questions I’d had about my faith were now innumerable, even as my education now covered portions of psychology and science that I’d never learned within my conservatively homeschooled education. And as I learned about these wonders of science, I wondered just how accurate any of these miracles I had witnessed had been.

The signs and wonders, the miracleworkers, how much of it was fluke? How much of it was perception and mass hysteria? How much of it was being carried along by a crowd of people, all of them as empty and desperate as I was, and longing for some semblance of Sense in their life? How many of those healings were placebo effects, the faith of the masses? How many times had I seen the same people, like myself, gather at the altar to confess their sins before god, and how much of those words of wisdom and knowledge were just hearsay by the congregation? How many of those people had given their last dollars like I had to support the speakers, the establishment, in the promise of a three, a seven, a tenfold harvest in return? And how many of these signs, these wonders, these miracles, were nothing more than a con, meant to cause faith in the hearts of men?

So when I was brought before the pastor, my mother having arranged the meeting, I told him everything. I told him of my doubts, even as I trusted him. He was kind, he was understanding, and he told me I had to have faith. I told him of my relatively newfound attraction to members of a similar gender. He told me it was not in God’s will. I asked these questions of placebos and mass hysteria, and he said I raised some very interesting points, that perhaps further study would reveal. He suggested I begin learning Hebrew and Greek, if I was so intent on learning the words of God such as he communicated them to his apostles and his prophets.

The next Sunday was the final day I spent in that congregation. Elections were looming, the members of my church were showing themselves by the day to be more and more hypocritical. These people I had trusted for so long were no longer safe to be around. And as the pastor of the church began his sermon for the day, I felt his eyes lingering on me once again. He spoke of faith. Of doubt. Of a need for trust. He reminded us that we were never too far gone in the eyes of God, and that confession of our sins and the receiving of forgiveness were always available, no matter how big or small those sins were. Whether they were as simple as doubting the faithfulness of the divine, or as blasphemous as an unfaithful heart lured away by the world’s temptations, the allure of forbidden fruit. And he gave an altar call.

In the back of my mind I heard that still small voice. But no longer was it begging me to come forward, to confess my sins. It was lost. And indignant. How dare he. I came to him with questions and with fears, and there were no answers to be had, no comfort to be given. Instead, these fears and doubts and questions had been converted into a sermon, meant to convert and meant to force confession. The still small voice of “Conscience”, of the Divine, of God, did not convict me. It did not send me up to the altar, on my knees, begging for forgiveness. It was angry. It was tired.

I did not go up to the front. And I did not go back to the church.

I gave excuses initially. Classes were hectic, and I had a job, so there were plenty of reasons as to why I was no longer in attendance. I got a boyfriend, and then a girlfriend. The election ramped up, and with it came more visceral and vocal and prophesied support of a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women, who called foreigners rapists, who could not condemn the KKK. And I watched from the sidelines, unfriending and blocking as I went. I have not returned to a house of worship.

Those prophets declared he would reign for two terms. Many of those prophets still cling to those words.

The church… or perhaps the cult’s influence, however, remains strong within my life. I cannot go a day without thinking of some biblical passage that is somehow relevant to my situations. My anxiety and depression remain chronic, and while I now view them through the lens of chemical deficiencies as opposed to demon possession, on days of extreme anxiety and dissociation, their garbled and demonic voices remain clear, as the voices of negative self-esteem and self-image. Similarly the lure of depression and a final end is always tinged with the sickly sweet voice that my childlike brain decided was the voice of Satan himself, trying to talk and tempt me away from the narrow road of righteousness. There are no still small voices any longer, but a gut instinct and a feeling of conscience that I am willing to follow and do. Nudges of intuition that remind me to respond to the world around me with kindness and understanding. Some days are harder than others.

Now the only ones I remain in contact with from those days of the past are my parents and my siblings. My siblings are in much the same boat as I am, their own pasts within the church tinged with trauma of a different kind, but nevertheless as real and raging as my own. My father never went to the weekly services with us, coming only on Christmas and Easter, or to see us perform in various church plays, and thus for the most part has escaped the same fate. My mother still remains within the congregation, now significantly smaller, the last few remaining faithful in a rightfully dying flock. I talk to her primarily on Christmas and Easter myself.

I am bisexual. I am transgender, whether nonbinary or transmasculine or whatever you want to call it, I no longer feel comfortable within the body that I was raised to accept as my own. Perhaps large parts of that stem from my own uncomfortability with biblical “womanhood” and the purpose of women within the congregation, meant to be the Marys ready to conceive and birth the Christchild, the Proverbs 31 Woman clothed in the glory of God and modesty, and not the Deborahs who led and ruled and judged, or the Jaels who murdered tyrants brutally with a tent spike. My understanding of my own body and gender and sexuality mean that I no longer have a place within the churches of traditional Christianity. Even those branches and sects that claim to be more tolerant and accepting of such things, I cannot bring myself to trust.

So where does my current faith fall into all of this? Currently, the best way I could describe my faith is that of an agnostic pagan. I don’t necessarily know, one way or another, if there is something out there. If there is, I think it is entirely more likely that this entity is instead pluralistic, or existing within a pantheon of some sort. That cultures throughout time and space interacted with these entities and framed them in the lenses and lights that made the most sense to them, hence why such archetypes and tropes of mythology remain even to this day. I do pray, though to what or who depends on the day. For the most part, I find the archetypes themselves comforting. Father/King, Mother/Queen, Hearthkeeper, Strategist, Lover, Trickster. I address my prayers to them, to the aspects of the universe that seem so universal, and ask them for guidance in particularly difficult situations.

I am no prophet. I now practice tarot and intuitive writing in much the same way that a psychologist administers a Rorschach test to a troubled client. I try instead to piece together my own thoughts on a situation based off of these external stimuli. If these messages are coming from some source beyond, then they are welcomed and received by me. I sometimes write them down, but most people would call what I write poetry or philosophy, not prophecy.

Religious trauma, as I have heard and seen from even more stories like my own, or worse still due to the rampant misogyny and child abuse within the institutions of the church, is real. I do not claim to be a victim of abuse. But I do know that it has taken me the past seven years of my life attempting to untangle myself from the lifestyle, the philosophies, the teachings, and the victimhood that this upbringing taught me. It has taken a long time to unravel the prejudices that I was raised with, and a longer time to learn to forgive myself for small infractions.

Perhaps someday my negative self-talk will be my own voice echoing inside my skull instead of some foreign entity intent on damning me to an afterlife of eternal torture and suffering. Perhaps someday the depression and anxiety will remain just that – simple and widespread afflictions that are caused by chemical imbalances, instead of reminding me that “God has not given us a Spirit of Fear but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Perhaps one day I will know for certain if there is an entity or entities out there, perhaps they will prove themselves and their existence to me. Perhaps one day one of them will make me their prophet, and I will write down every glimpse of what they tell me faithfully. Perhaps one day, I will find out that the entire way I was raised was right. Perhaps I will face God and judgment, and he will have to banish me to hell so that I can face my eternal suffering for daring to question his validity.

Or perhaps. Just maybe. There will be peace. Or another life. Perhaps I will close my eyes in one world and open them up again to find an entirely new one, a life that I will then go on to live and learn through. Perhaps there will be nothing at all. Just a void and an emptiness, and I will cease to be, and all I’ve done and been will remain only in the memories of those I leave behind. Or perhaps, in the most solipsistic way possible, the entirety of the world will cease to exist, as I, the Author, die. Or perhaps I will never die, as the Author of the world must remain to ensure its continued functioning, and will write myself another role to play on the grand stage we call life.

I don’t know the first thing about being a prophet. But I know what it’s like to be pressured into being one at a vulnerable stage of life. I know what it's like to be empty and craving that emptiness to be alleviated and filled with something, and I know that stuffing it with God and the approval of those who follow him is a way that many seek to do so. But all that to say… I don’t know what comes next. And for right now, I am alright with that. And if it turns out I was wrong, and everything I ever learned in my youth is the truth? Then I will have many questions for God once I arrive in the afterlife, none of which have yet found comfortable or final answers here down below. And I will ask him those questions before he sends me on my way, to where Anxiety and Depression and Queerness can all have their goes at me once again, as I’m punished for daring to question the authority of the creator of all things.

Perhaps I’ll fall like Lucifer. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

religion

About the author

Kit Olsen

Queer poet, short fiction author, and long-time storyteller of all varieties. Feel free to stick around and see if anything catches your fancy!

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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  • Georgenes Medeiros4 months ago

    Excellent, I loved the subject. I identified a lot. Keep writing....

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