It’s that kind of day. Sometimes you just feel like putting on your boots and tromping around the garden, or rather, the mess of overgrowth that could be the garden, and cutting it all down. Chopping the unwieldy branches and gathering them in piles, hacking them into manageable pieces and stuffing them in the organic bin. Hoisting the maddock and cutting into the roots, digging and axing deep into the soil, severing the roots, sweating and pounding at the hard wood until it releases, is tossed aside and leaves a pile of loose soil. I want to plant a garden here. I want to plant vegetables, fruits, or flowers–plants that give life and beauty and don’t crowd it out. I want my heart to be a garden. Time to put on my boots.
I didn’t expect to lose my faith when I came out and came into love. And, in many ways, I haven’t lost it. In many ways I have found faith, but I have lost the specific brand of Christian faith that I was born into. Why? I had, for decades, been able to hold in tension a belief in the teachings of the church along with my own dissent–for instance about the position of women in the church or the stance on homosexuality as sinful. I believed I could be part of this institution while disagreeing with these aspects. I could work toward change from within. I was comfortable with the idea of mystery as a category that could hold everything I did not understand or could not rationally explain. I knew that whatever I thought or experienced of God was less true than it was true. This spirituality held space for my desire for connection, formed a frame for prayer, had room for uncertainty and growth.
But when I spoke the truth about myself to myself, and when I spoke it out loud to others–I am in love with a woman and I cannot and do not want to let that love go–I left behind the willingness to pretend. I had been pretending to be different selves in different contexts for as long as I was Christian. I wasn’t pretending on purpose, or even aware that I was pretending for much of the time. I was doing and believing and saying what I needed to in order to be good–to be welcomed by God, by the church, by my family.
I knew what would happen when I spoke the truth about myself and lived that self into being. The close ties with certain people of this faith would unwind; I would find myself outside, as I had long felt myself, at my core, to be. They would love me in spite of who I was, meaning they would love me in the hope that I’m not really who I am. They would make it very clear that they still loved me, but that they knew, like God, that this part of me was shameful, and in the end, would need to be burned eternally. They would want to save me from being burned with it. And the more they told me how much their God loved me, in spite of who I am, the more I got the message: this institution is not something I can be a part of. Because the whole premise is based on believing–pretending to understand–who this specific God is and spending your life to convince others to believe the same. It’s this belief–that some have faith and are inside this divine goodness and others are outside–that I want to stay outside of.
This is a particular brand of Christianity, of course, and there are other forms that do not hold this and do not put their own belief as a burden on the outsiders. But this fundamentalist Christianity is the Christiantiy that crowds my garden, because this is where I was planted. This faith believes there is one way to connect with the divine, and if you step outside of it, you are outside of communion with the sacred.
I stopped pretending, and I stepped out of the faith I had known. What’s the difference, I ask myself lately, between faith and pretending? The word pretend dates back to the 14th century, meaning “to profess, put forward as a statement or assertion, maintain” (Etymonline.com). The word initially did not mean “to make believe,” but simply to claim that something is true. The later meaning that we use today, of acting as if something is true that in fact is not (or is not known to be), came from the common practice of professing a false claim. There is a slippage in the word itself–the act of professing something is true is a steep slope toward pretending that it’s true, especially when we profess what we cannot know.
“Pretend” also holds within in it another word (as my brilliant partner pointed out to me)–tend. Tend, meaning to attend to, comes from the Latin tendere, to stretch. The word tend has many meanings: to pay attention, to listen (now obscure), to serve, to manage as a caretaker (merriam-webster.com). Today I tend to my garden beds. Today I want to tend to the sacred. I do not want to pretend to understand. I want to pay attention to what is here. I want to stretch myself toward, to stretch myself to listen, to stretch to serve what I know is true, without professing what I do not know.
I want to dig in this garden bed to uproot all beliefs that require me to pretend. I think there were aspects of that faith that were life-giving. But I can’t tell what they are anymore. They’re all choked out with the overgrown, overhanging branches that clutter my heart, telling me I’m sick, there’s something wrong with me, something very wrong at the very core of me. I have to dig it all out. Maybe, once in the compost, these roots can decompose into something lifegiving. For now, I have to tend to the soil. Drink some water. See what grows.
In some ways, this process is intensely personal. And for that reason, perhaps, I should keep it to myself.
In other ways, though, the drive to keep it personal obscures the social consequences and the political ramifications of the private experience of religion. And just now those consequences are impossible for me to ignore. They need to be dragged out from the privacy that obscures them, to be pulled up at the roots and left to wither in the sun. The personal belief that my sexuality places me outside of the goodness that God plans for me is not just personal. It severs authentic relationships and creates shame that ripples outward into other relationships. It lays a foundation for othering that enables legislation to make queer lives illegal. It creates an environment where hatred spills into violence and the violent can feel righteous, putting God’s judgment into motion.
This process of uprooting, digging up what’s toxic in this garden is personal. But it’s part of a larger story, of how spirituality seeps into the fabric of social and political life. For that reason, it’s a story I want to share, for the other gardeners out there.
This is not a process of apologetics. It’s a process of letting go of assumed understanding. It’s a process of experience, of authenticity, of waking up to presence and not pretending to know their name, stretching into presence, and growing by being stretched.