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Is Your Religion Hold You Back?

It was a hot summer, one of those Texas summers where it feels like the sun is literally reaching out to set you on fire. Dry brittle heat scorching the earth, a foreshadowing of hell if I’d ever seen one.  I was only five years old and I remember standing outside under a tree at a Baptist church. We were at Vacation Bible School and my two older sisters and I recited the sinners prayer that day. An older teen girl told us what to say and we said it, why wouldn’t we? It was the promise of salvation and eternal life – and, it was a “get out of hell free” card. For some reason, in that moment, even at that young age, I knew that this would be the beginning of an incredible journey…

My whole life I have spent hundreds of hours in church, sitting in long-winded Bible studies, small groups, and doing vast amounts of charity work. Christianity, faith, religion… all of it in my experience was centered around being Christ-like, and I can think of nothing better than to be like Christ. However, along the way of being like Christ, the unintended, and sometimes the very direct message that I was received was “material success in this world is a negative and the real glory is storing up treasures in heaven.” While this on the surface may not seem harmful, for me, it was limiting. It made me feel like there was no point in saving up money, getting an education, or having nice things. And I wanted all of those things, but I felt bad for wanting them.

Fast forward to my thirties and I was in a community group at The Village Church in Denton, TX. I was doing all the church things that you do as a good Christian and one of those was definitely the near-mandatory requirement that you be actively involved in a “community group”. I’m not kidding, it was like the hottest thing going, everyone was talking about them. “Are you in community group?” “Whose community group are you in?” There were literally “cool” community groups and others that were just “normal/good” community groups. One of the groups even had a famous rapper in it… that was definitely one of the “cool” groups that everyone wanted to be in. Unfortunately, you didn’t always get to choose. Sometimes you were sorted into a group, kind of like Harry Potter with the Sorting Hat, only not quite as magical or fun. Our groups definitely did not have awesome names like Hufflepuff or Slytherin.

Every Sunday night I met with the same group of people for five years. These people were supposed to be like family. They were, after all, my “church” family. In that community group we would rehash the Sunday sermon, lean on each other for support, and for the most part act like good Christians who struggled with little more than the occasional outburst of anger or missing a quiet time. I look back on that time as a sad obligation where as much as I tried, it seemed like nothing more than going through the motions. A performer playing a part because this group of people could not handle the truth of who I really was. And believe me, I tried to show them and their responses let me know immediately that this was not a safe space to confess my “struggles”.

In this community group of 15-20 people, there was one gal who said that growing up she believed that being a missionary was the tip-top of Christianity. What could be more Christ-like than leaving the comfort of home and going to another country to share Jesus? She told the story of how she tried again and again to make that life fit for her, but it just wasn’t meant to be. That story resonated with me. I wanted to be the best Christian that I could be, but I also wanted a nice house and a nice car… was it possible and okay to have both?

In 2016 I graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with a Masters in Theology. I went to DTS because I thought a full-time career in church ministry was the path to happiness. I spent thousands of dollars for them to teach me a lot of stuff that I had already been learning for many years – and a lot of it was stuff that I don’t think that the average person even cares about on the day-to-day – or really impacts their lives. I don’t know if it was a good investment because I only worked for a church for 18 months before I realized that working for a church was a not a good fit for me. High expectation and low pay seemed to be the culture of that church, and from what I hear, this is pretty common. I’m not sure why this is the case when I see a lot of mega church pastors driving expensive cars and flying around the world in jets. Why doesn’t that money trickle down to the rest of the staff? Why did working for church feel like working for Amazon where the pastor was just another Jeff Bezos who was reaping all the rewards of my hard work?

I am glad that I went to seminary if for no other reason that it, hopefully, lends some credibility to my journey and how I have come to realize that of all the best and worst things that have happened to me in my life, religion has been at the core.

In my late thirties I finally started focusing on my retirement, my business, and myself. All the religious hoops that I had been jumping through all my life were not bringing me the blessings and rewards that I was looking for – and I wasn’t asking for much. I wanted the basics, a family, a nice home, a couple of cars and a dog. Was that really too much to ask? It felt like it at times. When I lamented my lack of “things” to my church peers, I was often met with responses like, “Count your blessings” and “You have so much.” But having a lot of stuff that I didn’t want was like having piles of junk that cluttered up my life and got in the way of the things that I really wanted.

I’d been a Christian since I was five and at 43 years old I still wasn’t happy. I was single. A virgin. And while I had a decent job and a nice apartment, I really had no money or any tangible things that a responsible adult should have at my age. I looked around at many of my friends who were married with families and I couldn’t piece together why God loved them more than me. That’s silly I know. But in my small human brain I couldn’t help but have my own personal pity party. Life for me wasn’t so bad, I had my health, I had a lot of things, but I felt so empty and incomplete. I craved connection and a relationship that would satisfy. I wanted more than this life had to offer and since I couldn’t have it because of my faith… I started to want out.

The problem that I had, that at the time I was unaware of, was the deep loneliness that I had on the inside. Surrounded by friends and family, I didn’t feel seen by any of them. They only saw what I was willing to show them, and I knew on some deep level that many of them would not love the real me.

It took me until I was 43 years old to stop living a lie. To stop allowing religion to keep me from being who God created me to be. I finally came out of the closet, started leading an openly gay life, found my soulmate, got an amazing job, got involved in the community and started actually LIVING.

My religion, my faith – they were holding me down. I don’t believe God would ever do that. I do believe in God, but I don’t know if I believe in the God of the western church. I’m still in the process of reconstructing my faith and exploring what it means to truly be a child of God. I don’t think an all-loving God would be so limiting and small. I believe he has the best intentions and wants us to live our lives to the fullest embracing each other and lifting each other up.

The faith I grew up with, it taught me to focus on sin and sin management. It told that a lot of my desires and longings were wrong, destructive, and sinful. I don’t believe that anymore and my experience, which I believe should inform our beliefs, has definitely proven to me that what I have been taught about homosexuality and sin in general is incorrect.

But this is my belief and my story and it is still unfinished. I hope to continue to tell more of it here.

In closing, don’t let your faith or your religion hold you back from reaching your full God-given potential. Never be ashamed of your gold. And always be true to yourself and kind and loving to others – even the haters. Most of the people who hate are only that way because they don’t truly love themselves. They are dealing with their own demons. Be patient with them. And best of luck as you continue on your own journey to authenticity in this life.

By Evan Stark

Eddie Renz is an avid fan of Egyptology, Wilbur Smith and bacon. Not a fan of humility but often finds himself humbled when he is around people who understand numbers like the Fibonacci sequence and Pi.

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