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I am a Spiritual Refugee

"Give us today our daily bread." - Matthew 6:11

My Twitter bio has evolved and changed a lot over the years. I try to be extremely intentional with the words and labels I use to describe myself.

One of the latest additions to my Twitter bio is the label "Spiritual Refugee". I didn't come up with this term myself, but it means a lot to me. It's a term used by a Japanese abstract artist named Junko Chodos.

Chodos was born in Japan during World War 2, and she grew up with a very mixed religious background including Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity. Today, she's married to a Jewish lawyer. 

Here's how Junko Chodos describes being a "spiritual refugee": 

"In a society that does not allow for the existence of individuality, the effort to become an individual invites persecution. Although this sort of persecution is not as visible as political persecution it is nevertheless fatal to one’s spiritual being, so the persecuted person becomes an exile. One usually goes into this sort of exile only after a sustained battle against the cultural system in which one’s whole life is wrapped up. The battle is painful. Wounded and bleeding, one becomes an exile. These people I call “spiritual refugees”; I consider myself one of them."

Chodos' story as a spiritual refugee is much more dramatic than mine, but the underlying themes are similar.

A picture of Junko Chodos from one of her books.

A picture of Junko Chodos from one of her books.

The culture and "society" that I had to move out was Christian Evangelicalism. It was a cultural system that didn't allow for true individuality. Evangelicalism valued unity and uniformity over pluralism and diversity. Divergent thinking and new ideas were a threat to the system.

In fact, the core purpose of Evangelicalism is to get as many people as possible to assimilate.

For many years, I underwent what Chodos calls "the sustained battle against the cultural system in which one's whole life is wrapped up". I still am going through this battle in some ways. My whole life was wrapped up in Evangelicalism. Identity. Support. Purpose. Everything. 

Uprooting myself from Evangelicalism has been extremely painful. Chodos says that "wounded and bleeding, one becomes an exile", and I can attest to this reality first hand.

I had to leave my dream job and let go of the career path I trained for. I had to make choices and decisions that people disapproved of. I had to endure accusations, betrayal, and the gossip machine of the institutional church. 

My effort to become myself invited persecution.

Today, I am wandering around trying to make sense of it all. I am a spiritual refugee, finding solace in places that I once would have deemed unfit.

I am Abraham, leaving the land my life was rooted in because I sensed the divine call to be myself and venture into the place where there is no map.

I am Isaac, searching for a place to call my own, waiting for the time where I can dig my well and label it Rehoboth (a word often translated as "open spaces"). 

I am Saul, seeing the world in technicolor after the blinding scales of religiosity have fallen off my eyes.

I am neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female. 

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In an essay she wrote on being a spiritual refugee, Chodos explains her process of individuation:

 "Perhaps these stories do not amount to real political fascism. But they do exhibit all the characteristics of totalitarian control which lie right below the surface of everyday life. The essence here is hatred towards what is different, towards the spontaneous and free, for all such people are considered to have “betrayed” their tribe. The hatred of the victim who stands up and seeks the truth is severe. Those victims receive more cruel treatment than the actual offenders. For standing up for the truth is possible only to the individuated, and the truth interests only the individuated, and those who are individuated are more dangerous to the totalitarian group than any criminal. For the deception of the “peaceful” society will be uncovered by those who seek the truth."

My journey thus far has been centered on this pursuit of truth. I was never comfortable with the carefully concocted answers and platitudes of Evangelicalism, and I felt compelled to ask dangerous questions that would lead to what my tribe deemed "false-teachings". 

I felt drawn to the outsider and the "other". I had this very real sense that "salvation" and life weren't found by assimilating to the power group, but rather they were found on the margins. 

As Winston regularly said in George Orwell's 1984, "if there is hope it lies with the proles."

What did he mean by this?

"The Party could not be overthrown from within. Its enemies, if it had any enemies, had no way of coming together or even of identifying one another. Even if the legendary Brotherhood existed, as just possibly it might, it was inconceivable that its members could ever assemble in larger numbers than twos and threes. Rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflection of the voice; at the most, an occasional whispered word. But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They need only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it."

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The worst and best part of being a spiritual refugee is the lack of certainty and knowing.

I don't know really know where I'm headed. I'm wandering, but I'm not lost. I have this vague sense that there might be some sort of "promised land" out there, but I worry that I might end up like Moses—seeing it but never reaching it.

Chodos talks about this reality of wandering in her own way: 

"The artist does not know where the image will lead. If the work is powerful, it is because it is the trace on paper of the artist’s honest encounter with the image and of her faithful, persevering struggle towards it. The life of the exile imitates art.
 
The loss of language showed me the most mysterious way of how consciousness develops. Without the darkness of being half blind, without losing one’s connection to the world, without losing your proud identity, the altered state of consciousness in which I have been working would never have developed to this depth. I would never have known the mystery that darkness is light."

I love that line about darkness being light. It reminds me of all the paradoxical and logic-confounding statements that Jesus made. 

"The first shall be last."

"You must be born again."

"You must lose your life to find it."

These days I find myself looking back at all of the "deaths" I have experienced. The death of a career path. The death of a community. The death of relationships. The death of my understanding of God.

I look back on all of the ways I've "lost my life", looking for ways that I might find it again.

It's not fun, and it can be quite lonely. In fact, I regularly look back at Egypt and, like the Israelites, long for the food that was freely provided:

We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.

Read that last line again: There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.

I'm beginning to understand the significance of that statement, and I pray (in my own way) for strength.


"When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." (Leviticus 19:34)

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner." (Leviticus 19:9-10)