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Radical Faith

Interview with Liz Armstrong

If you are a fan of Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies, Rosie, and Operating Instructions (three favorites of her many novels), then you will love the spirit and story of my next interview with my former priest, Liz Armstrong.

Now, when most people hear the word priest, they conjure up stodgy old men in white robes, a papal hat, swinging a censer filled with incense up and down the aisles of a church. Liz doesn’t quite fit that description. An Episcopal priest for 12 years, she divorced 2 years ago, ending a 27- year marriage, left her first congregation, started work as the sole priest at a new church, and has the “realness” of your buddy over a beer at the local bar. Like Anne Lamott, who says great spiritual truths in one breath, but a fan of punctuating her sentences with the f-word, Liz’s candor and speech patterns breathe life and a relaxed attitude about being honest with oneself.

I know…radical. It is Liz’s no-nonsense approach to life, her lack of rigid piety, and her ability to say just the right thing at the right time that drew me to pursue a friendship with her when she no longer held the role of my priest. Her struggles are common to man/woman, and while her faith is central to her being, it is the type of faith that I can get my head around when life is upside down.

Liz, thank you for joining me on and being open with the radical changes in your life, causing you to risk much for the sake of happiness, well-being, and integrity.

In a nutshell, can you fill in for our readers the major turnovers in your life in the past few years?

It was in early 2010 that my now ex-husband’s alcoholism/addictions came into sharp focus for me. I began to let my denial, rationalizations, and minimizing slip into the background, leaving me with a distinctly new vision of what my life was really like. After a separation, my husband’s two rounds of rehab, and many Al-Anon meetings, I realized that I had run out of gas when it came to making my marriage work. It was hard. Really hard. I was the assistant priest in a congregation where I had served for ten years and it was a public event. There were weeks and months when I barely had enough Good News to keep myself going much less preach it. But with the loving support of my boss, my close friends, and my family I made the giant step of initiating a divorce in 2011. I moved out of the home I had lived in for 25+ years, where I had done a lot of the raising up of two, now grown sons, and I moved into an apartment. It was so blissfully quiet and peaceful to live away from the chaos of what alcoholism did to our family system that I thought I was in heaven. (I wasn’t!). And then, two women priest friends of mine told me flat out that there was a position that I needed to put my name in for. “You are perfect for them and they are perfect for you,” they both said. After a bit I could hear that God was speaking to me through these two, trusted friends. So I did put my name in and after interviews and meetings, I was selected to be the new Vicar of a small church nearby. This church was meeting in a school auditorium and had office space next to the pre-school classroom. I went from a 350 people per Sunday congregation with staff to a 65 people per Sunday nomadic congregation that was getting over a 10-year spell of clergy leadership that did not culminate in building a church building. I moved again to be close to my new church, and I jumped into the new work before me. In my first six months I was on a new Music Director, had gotten a capital campaign underway, and the ball was picking up speed to truly build a church…I ignored all the advice about not making any changes in the first year in a new church. BTW, building starts in the next few weeks!

What were the main fears that held you back from breaking away from these changes prior to your decision?

Denial was the main thing that kept me from making changes. Once the denial was chipped away and I could see that there was a REAL problem of gigantic proportions, making changes began to be my best choice. Let me be clear, the alcoholic system was something I have a part in and it was cutting through the denial about my part that really gave me energy to change. I attended my Al-Anon home group each week. I got a sponsor. I worked the steps. I had a spiritual awakening (how embarrassed I am to admit that I was shocked to have a spiritual awakening!). I was never afraid of supporting myself or taking care of finances or any of those kinds of things. If I have fears, they are of being alone as I grow older, of missing out on a shared life. But I began to learn in a deep down, real way that I am never alone, that feeling afraid will pass just like other feelings, that I am as happy as I choose to be. I began to want a different life and I began to learn how I could choose and create that different life.

As a woman, what changes do you see in yourself that came with wisdom, experience, and taking risks?

Wisdom, for me, comes with living life honestly. Accepting who I am, who others are. Accepting things as they truly are. Well, let’s not forget that part about being open to learning. I can’t accept what I’m not willing to learn and see about myself and others and situations. The biggest change in my interior life has come out of taking the risk of loving myself just as I am and just as I am not. People in general are mostly not raised up in our culture to do that, and I think in a specifically limiting way women are not raised up to do that. I think women more than men are raised to be in denial, to rationalize. We’re raised to make things work, damn it! My life experience and wisdom now tells me that none of that is my responsibility or my job.

How did you factor in your faith, frustrations or anger with God (if any existed), and potential judgment by parishioners, the church, or family?

I took a vow…’til death do you part…and I came to understand that to break that vow was about being in a new moment in time with God, not about falling short or sinning. I may find out something different when I die, but for now I am content that I talked through all of that with God and got a green light. It didn’t feel self-serving or disloyal to a sacrament. It felt like shit happens in life and in the middle of shit storms God partners with us to make decisions we never imagined. I never felt deserted by God or angry at God. It was too clear what my part was in all of it. I realized at the age of 56 that I had grown up in an alcoholic home (duh, that explained a lot), that every romantic relationship (including two marriages) had been with alcoholic/addicts, and that if there were 10 men in a room I would invariably find the one attractive that was an alcoholic. To choose divorce meant coming to terms with the truth about the tools I have and don’t have for life and relationships and about my broken picker (relationship picker, that is). My faith is not separable from my me-ness. God and I have been at this a long time and I’m pretty sure God is rarely surprised by me (I do like to hold open the slight possibility of surprising God!). As for being judged…I totally get that someone will judge me for who I am or what I do no matter what. So be it. If family or friends were judging me my best hope is that we could always keep talking about it. I’ve got my plate full keeping self -judgment at bay…others will have to wait in line.

In the midst of the low times, what brought you through?

Al-Anon, prayer, friends, family. But really it’s only ever God that brings me through. I’m a Jesus person, so I just keep looking and making sure that Jesus is right here. And darned if he isn’t.

Looking back, how have you changed spiritually, emotionally, mentally from facing such monumental decisions, and putting your fears aside?

I left a long marriage. I left a home. I left a comfortable job. I took on a solo daily life. I took on a job that asks something of every part of my being…to be pastoral, liturgical, a visionary, a communicator, a preacher of Good News, an administrator, a money raiser, a non-anxious presence, a builder. How have I changed on the inside? I am so much less judgmental all the way around, of myself and others. I have dropped the sarcasm. I’m not angry and irritated every other second of the day about my expectations not being met. I’m learning how to feel my feelings (shocking!) and not to panic when I do feel my feelings. I feel lonely sometimes and sad sometimes and angry sometimes. But now I know that they are feelings, that feelings change, and that I have choices about how to act on my feelings. I’m bigger on the inside that I was before I made all of these major life changes. I’m more peaceful. I’m changing still. I like that. I like myself way more. I like that, too. Life is hard sometimes and good always. That’s a change. And I like that.

Note to Liz and the reader: Liz, reading your answers ministers in a way to me that is deep, timely, and profound. I am SO glad that I went with my gut, reaching out to hear you. Thank you for your spirit of acceptance. I am blessed to be part of your life!

  1. Jill Wilder Says:
    July 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Bless you both, Liz and Susan, for sharing this deeply moving interview, so filled with life lessons. Thank you so much. My own words are inadequate at the moment to express what’s in my heart. Love to you both.

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