Reflecting on an object from my treasure box.
Before I begin, I must inform you that this is not a story about The Liturgists. Yes, it took place at a Liturgist Gathering. Yes, it was, in part, influenced by The Liturgists. But mostly this is a story about a memory and an inner-battle that began long before The Liturgists came into being. And even though I didn’t return home from this particular “gathering” with glowing reviews, I still love them, listen to them regularly, and encourage others to do the same. My experience was in no way caused by the Liturgists. I didn’t really make my existence and my problems known anyway so no one could’ve helped me at that time. I still love Mike McHargue and Michael Gungor. I’ve loved the podcast from the start, although I think it’s greatly improved since Hillary McBride and William Matthews have joined as cohosts. I mean, it’s now, like, a thousand times better. So please, don’t let my story sway you from getting to know them. They are a remarkable, intelligent, creative, inspiring, kind, and thoughtful bunch with much to teach us. I’m not here to ruin their reputation nor could I. I’m just here to tell my own story. The setting just happens to be a Liturgist Gathering in L.A., during the weekend of September 15-17, 2017.
The bracelet from my treasure box is a basic design in solid cobalt blue with the words “The Liturgists” printed in white along the side. I’m guessing the material is synthetic rubber or plastic, something elastic enough to stretch over wrists as wide as mine but equally stiff enough to rest on more petite bone structures.
It’s tight and uncomfortable when I try to put it on now. But when it was first handed to me, I hardly noticed it at all.
The bracelet was my re-entry ticket to the first Los Angeles edition of The Liturgists Gathering, which took place the third weekend of September, 2017. All attendees were given one.
The gathering began on a Friday night, but by the time I arrived, I was so exhausted from the long journey there that I fought to keep my eyes open. It didn’t help that I’d driven more than 400 miles solo from Phoenix, having barely had time to park, check into my hotel, and then walk a mile to the Hollywood United Methodist Church, where I’d be part of the audience for a live podcast about Enemies.
It is important to note that I didn’t have a smart phone back then, so I couldn’t call an Uber or use GPS. All I had was an iPod Touch and a basic phone (which I usually kept on silent – not that I ever expected anyone to call).
Besides my exhaustion, I’d been recovering from an accidental overdose of lithium. Lithium was a mood-stabilizing drug I’d taken for years for my bipolar disorder and, though it seemed to help my moods, it had the unfortunate side-effect of increasing my perspiration to the point where the water lost from my body became too much (as is common during the summer in Phoenix) causing the medicine to become concentrated in my system thus triggering debilitating migraines and nausea. It’d happened a few times before, but for some reason I’d only recently come to understand why.
So why go through all this trouble just to hang out at a Liturgist Gathering? The short answer is loneliness. I wanted to meet others who thought like me. No, I wasn’t looking for other mentally ill friends. I wasn’t looking for romance. I was just trying to find kindred spirits who, like me, had become frustrated with the church as it was.
“Deconstruction” was the buzzword I heard over and over again that weekend. Many of us had been raised in the church only to have some sort of inciting incident set us on a journey of doubt and questioning.
My struggle to find a home in any church began with the mental breakdown that awakened my mental illness. Up until then, no one seemed to notice anything different about me. They may have seen me as a bit overly sensitive at times, but they never saw the red flags.
The breakdown itself came to fruition shortly after term finals while I was studying abroad in France in 2003. It manifested as what I perceived to be a mystical experience, ripe with delusions and hallucinations straight out of the Christianity playbook I’d grown up with. Much of it was beautiful, but it was also dangerous and terrifying, culminating in an involuntary three-week stay at a French psychiatric hospital until my father himself was compelled to fly to France and accompany me back home.
With time and medicine, I was able to think clearly again. But then I was forced to confront the painful truth that much of what I loved about my “mystical” experience wasn’t even real. Then, and only then, did I learn first hand how hostile the church was toward mental illness, especially the kind that comes with psychosis. Even in 2003 there were people who equated my experience with demon possession, falsely believing it could all be prayed away. That’s when the church, a place I once loved and enjoyed being a part of, no longer felt safe.
I discovered the Liturgists podcast many years later. Of course, by then I’d given up trying to find others like me in the church realm. But when I listened to the Liturgists, it was like, even though we’d all arrived there in our own, unique ways, our conclusions about God and church were more or less the same. The following list, then, is not a list of beliefs I found on the Liturgists website or anywhere else. It’s just a collection of beliefs I feel many of us hold in common.
- We are meant to love one another.
- God loves us all equally, no matter who we are, what we’ve been through, who we’re attracted to, or what the world says about us.
- We are all made in God’s image and we’re good.
- There’s no hell.
- God is every gender.
- God is not confined to one religion.
- The earth is good.
- We need to love and take care of the earth and each other.
- Jesus’ example is still the one we’d do best to follow, but no one has to believe he was or is God-incarnate to follow him and/or be inspired by him
- Anyone can believe what they feel led to believe and still be loved and accepted in this community.
That was the God I’d longed for and still long for. The thing is, I struggled (and still struggle) to see that god in any church I’d visited ever. Strangely I still see that god in the Bible, but not in church. For most of my friends, it was enough to just leave it all behind and settle for labels like agnostic or atheist. But not me. I wanted more and I felt like the Liturgist community provided that.
So when I heard they were doing these “gatherings,” I leapt at the possibility of meeting others who thought like me. It didn’t even matter that it was all the way in L.A. For once I’d be surrounded by my true brothers and sisters!
Of course, unbeknownst to anyone there, my dad had to help me purchase my ticket. This would have been beyond humiliating to admit and I certainly didn’t want the other Liturgists to know. How messed up does a woman who is closer to 38 than 36 (and who, at least from the outside, looks normal) have to be to still receive support from her parents to buy a ticket for anything? But the fact remains.
I knew I’d never even have the chance to explain how I got to that point; how, after multiple instances of self-harm and suicide attempts (many leading to inpatient hospitalizations) in my late twenties, my doctors and psychologists all agreed I needed to quit working, at least temporarily. It’s now been more than a decade that I’ve been free of self-harm, but the road to recovery wasn’t easy and I still have a ways to go.
That’s why I hesitate to share this kind of information with strangers, at least not face to face. Sure, it’s easy enough to write, but telling a stranger in person is petrifying! The worst is when the question of what I do for a living comes up. Then I become flustered and forget how to speak. I might try telling them I’m a writer who hasn’t been published yet. But even if that’s true, it still stirs up the questions around how I support myself until, in the end, I wonder if maybe it’s best I remain silent. Then again, wouldn’t that just feed the stigma?
Somehow I managed to avoid being asked what I do at the Liturgists Gathering and only once, while on a break in the courtyard, did I find the courage to strike up conversations with strangers. I’m sure in the process I mentioned to one or two of them that I’d come alone, but no one invited me to sit with them or have coffee with them during the break or after it was over. In that respect, it was like visiting any church for the first time, especially as a single woman. Was I a fool to come in the first place?
I did meet a few others who’d traveled alone, but we had no chemistry – just a mutual respect for one another’s space. Besides, I may have been lonely, but I wasn’t going to let my loneliness turn me into a leech.
So then, self-hatred was the hidden baggage I’d brought into the sanctuary with me all weekend. It would take me at least another three years to finally learn to love myself. In the meantime, I couldn’t shut off this feeling of being “less than.” Remember, this was before Hillary McBride joined the podcast, so I hadn’t yet had the chance to soak in her wisdom about self-love and not being ashamed of who we are.
At least Science Mike and Michael Gungor seemed confident when they were on stage – Michael as an accomplished, musical genius and Mike as a science genius.
This was also, of course, before Mike McHargue came out as being on the Autism spectrum (Aspergers). I knew he’d suffered a brain injury a few years back, but otherwise I thought he’d mastered being an adult (or at least faking it), especially given his honorable status and nickname “Science Mike.” I mean, come on – respectable career, happily married with children, no need to live with parents – all the things the world seems to think we need to be successful, all the benchmarks “normal” adults in the Western world were supposed to meet by his age, he’d done. He’d even written and published a memoir, Finding God in the Waves, which I’d read (highly recommend, btw) and brought with me for him to autograph to a friend who who wanted to read it after me (which he did, most graciously). How was I to know he, too, fought the stigma of mental illness? I guess we were both trying to hide. (I’m so sorry, Mike. Truly I am.)
Anyway, the belief that I wasn’t (and could never be) as good as them hit hardest when they talked about their Patreon supporters and how, because they regularly donated money to the podcast, they could be part of an exclusive afterparty. Not that I would’ve been awake enough for something like that. It’s just that, when I heard about it, I felt the pangs of jealousy creep up within me. Why did something I couldn’t control have to keep me away from a party? I didn’t even have a bank account, let a lone a credit card! I couldn’t give them as little as a dollar a month if I wanted to. Such self-awareness mixed with my chronic sense of low self-worth only added to the alienation I felt there.
Clearly my mind had yet to learn not to make unhealthy comparisons between myself and others. But someday all the lessons learned in my years of therapy would finally click and I’d stop measuring my self-worth against someone else’s life. It just wasn’t going to happen that weekend.
I cannot forget to mention how there was one particularly difficult exercise we were invited to participate in. It was a variation on the traditional greeting of the neighbors seated next to us, except this time they asked us to say (if I remember correctly) three things we liked about ourselves to the neighbor we happened to shake hands with. Though no one was thrilled about it, most were at least willing to give it a try. I, on the other hand, took advantage of my proximity to the exit and disappeared until it was over and everyone was seated once again. No one seemed to notice my absence anyway.
Our last day, a Sunday, there was a kind of communion and all were invited to participate. But, as you can imagine, I chose to remain in my seat, eyes filled with tears as row by row, everyone else in attendance made their way to the front. Michael Gungor sang his song “Am I” – a song I already knew well; a song I felt a strong and deep connection with. Even so I still didn’t feel worthy enough to leave my seat and share in the communion.
By now you must think the whole weekend was a complete waste of time for me. But I don’t think so. True, it wasn’t at all what I expected. I had hoped there’d be more breakout groups like the one about songwriting that I joined (led by Lisa Gungor and William Matthews). But even in the smaller group I felt more like an audience member than a participant.
If I’d been brave, there’s no doubt I could’ve been the change I wanted to see. I’m certain I could’ve demonstrated the kind of acceptance of others I hoped would someday be shown to me. But that weekend, I was too scared – trapped inside my head, unable to break free.
Now it’s three years later.
I still listen to the podcast. I still can’t be a Patreon supporter and gain access to the extra goodies supporters are privy to. But that doesn’t bother me anymore. I know the podcast needs the financial support to keep going so that those like me, without money and without power, can still listen and learn and feel less alone in this world.
Also, I’ve noticed the Liturgists have changed the format of their gatherings in recent years. For example, they’ve included specially priced tickets for those who have restricted incomes, as I had. Although, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have taken advantage of the discount even if it had been offered back in 2017 because my family helps me and I’d rather keep those spots free for those with no one to help them. But I love that this option is now available.
That’s all I’ve got. If you’ve read this far, know this: There’s no need to worry about me. I’m not who I was back then. I love myself now. I know who I am and I know I still have a lot to contribute to this world. I even see my mental illness as a gift, in many ways. But I’ll share more on that later. For now, I’ll return my Liturgists bracelet to its home in my treasure box where it will be safe for years to come
Here’s a list of some of my favorite episodes from The Liturgists (so far):