Renee Altson and I first connected via the blog world. I didn’t know her name at the time, but occasionally I would come upon a comment or a post by someone name Iphy that was full of passion and always very articulate. Later on, we would stumble upon each other at the Church of Fools while Tony Campolo preached, but that is another story.
That relationship was taken to a different level when Bob Carlton contacted me about an upcoming book, and sent me the opening chapter. The beginning of Renee’s story blew me away:
i grew up in an abusive household.
much of my abuse was spiritual — and when i say spiritual, i don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-wiccan, hippie parents. i don’t mean that i grew up thinking all the wrong ideas about religion or what it meant to be saved because i was given too much freedom or too many options. i don’t mean that my father protested the phrase “under god” in the pledge of allegiance or told me there was more than one way to heaven.
i mean that my father raped me while reciting the lord’s prayer.
Renee’s story (stumbling toward faith, published by Zondervan) is about abuse, both my her father, but more disturbing, the Christian environment that she grew up in. She was involved in church and in a Christian school, both of which failed her at her times of greatest need. If there is one lesson to be learned from Renee’s story is that God is still able to work in spite of the church. This is a story about a God who refuses to give up on Renee, and a woman who is unable to give up on God.
Recently we sat down (via e-mail) to discuss her book (the first ever published by Zondervan with no capital letters) and how the church failed her in her journey to find God.
jv: Thanks Renee for taking time to talk. What was it that led you to write this book?
i don’t know that i was “led” to write the book. writing has been a form of expression for me my entire life, and i have always hoped that i would have a book, but i don’t know whether or not i ever felt any specific “leading” regarding it.
i do know that this has been an amazing journey for me, from the moment i submitted the proposal, to even now, as i hold a copy in my hand. there is a sense of validation that comes from publishing my story, and an immense gratitude for those who have been a part of the entire process.
writing is sometimes like breathing for me. it flows in and out, like air.
jv: This is a book where you freely share your pain. Some folks think that admitting pain or brokenness is a sign of unfaithfulness. How do you respond to those who feel that you should “just get over it?”
my first response is usually one of fury and frustration. i don’t think that many people who make such statements have any idea of what it is like to grow up in the kind of environment i did. and in some ways, those kind of statements are even worse from other survivors; from people who did endure similar situations, and yet who come out of their experiences full of pat answers and pretending.
as much as i think that it’s a sign of unfaithfulness for some people, i also think it’s a sign of inadequacy. people feel that not being “well” or “done with” or “over it” reflects badly on god. i think some people try to make themselves better just to save god’s reputation.
i think that other people are forced into being fine, by the people around them, and perhaps through the pretending, they start to ignore their own continued brokenness and pain. they become their pretending, and in that space of living, it’s easy to enforce that on others. “see how well i have made myself? you must do this, too!”
jv: Why do you think the churches of your youth were so hostile to your situation? Was it an unwillingness to help you in your pain or a lack of understanding about the reality of your situation?
i think that the churches in which i grew up in thrived on power. i think there was a sincerity to the extent that the people were doing what they thought needed to be done to protect the institution. it was easy to label me as a troublemaker or someone who “just wanted attention,” and rather than explore the depths of what that truly meant, the people were content to simply live with that label.
as terrifying as it is to admit this, i think many of them did the best they could. i don’t know that there was as much of an awareness of incest and child abuse as there is now, i don’t know that there was much more they could have done, had they even been willing to look closer.
and i think the over-riding “god will fix everything, god will wipe away your sorrow,” pat answers kept them enslaved into really seeing what was going on with me — both with what my father was doing, and what they themselves were doing.
i think the pat answer “get over it” theology and the blindness to other people’s pain go together. if you believe that we should not remain “stuck” or “hurt” in what has been done to us, you begin to believe that what you have done to others doesn’t matter so much.
jv: Why do you think churches are so uncomfortable with vulnerability given Jesus teaching on weakness and strength?
when we are aware of our vulnerability and our weaknesses, we become aware of the undone-ness left in us. part of the seduction of christianity is the “new self,” the revised person, the new creation. what does it mean if we are still the same after our conversion? what does vulnerability do but show some kind of kink in the armor of god?
when i am vulnerable, i allow you to see the parts that jesus is still working on. you become a witness to the unfinished places inside; you see my imperfection.
what we need to remember is that our weakness is our strength. our vulnerabilities are our gifts.
jv: What is your vision of the church that God would want to be a part of?
i ache for community, for no pretending, for a place without power. i hope for relationships, for connectedness, for places to breathe without being judged or rushed towards wholeness.
jv: Talk a bit about the ministry of presence. Why are churches so prone to fix things rather than simply being with those in need
i think we like to fill in the spaces. we are uncomfortable with silence. we are disquieted by other’s tears. we want to help but we don’t know how. we would rather say something than nothing, we want to offer a tangible way of fixing things. sitting with another’s pain or need causes us to become aware of our own pain and need. when we slow down enough, at any point in our lives, those things come rushing in. we hurry, we fix, we offer meals — we do active things to keep our own minds busy, to not have to feel.
there is a holiness in simply being with someone in their pain.
Renee’s book is ultimately about exclusion and embrace. For many years, the Christians that encountered Renee excluded her because she didn’t conform to their theological understandings. She confronted them with hard questions, not necessarily overtly, but in her pain and suffering, that weren’t easily answered. So it became easier to exclude her rather than asking the hard questions of faith that life puts upon us.
Yet, it is also a story of embrace, of a God who is present with her and won’t let her go. There is no reason that Renee should have any desire to ever be a part of the church again. But God won’t let her go. And likewise, if we are to be the Embracing Church, we too must take care to never let go of the trouble makers, the one’s who don’t fit into our theology, the needy who need the reassurance of grace again and again. The way that we are holy is to be with them, to walk beside them, and to never let them go.
Thanks Renee for sharing your truth with us, and confronting us with what it means to truly be the Body of Christ.