A “voluptuous God” was the exact opposite of what I grew up with.

I became a born-again Christian at the age of 13 in the ultimate act of teenage rebellion for the household in which I was raised. It was a household in which my mother, a single parent and schizophrenic, had been prostituting to support us. She’d taught me in great detail about all the swear words and their meanings by the time I was eight. She’d taught me her techniques and strategies for shoplifting when I was nine. I had full access to and permission to use any alcohol in the house by the time I was 11. In retrospect, it was the height of irony that I would individuate and differentiate by becoming a Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting, gonna wait ‘til I’m married Christian at 13. My mother was deeply offended by my sanctimonious evangelizing of her. In retrospect, it’s pretty hilarious.

Shortly after that, I entered foster care, and I lived with one family and then another who were Evangelical Christians, as well. I can’t blame them for my skewed views of God – they hardly knew let alone understood the depths of the abuse I’d experienced as a child and the baggage I brought to my relationship with God. They really didn’t know how to access me and my deepest thoughts, and I wasn’t about to help them. But the Bible-based teaching I received at home served as a sort of icing on the proverbial cake of my spiritual life: I used my Christianity from that point forward to repress any inkling of personal desire and connection with my dreams and individuality.

I was going to be like Jesus – and abandon any personality I had in the process. Asking myself what I wanted in my life, in my future, in my relationships, in my home – this was, I thought, an irrelevant question. After all, I believed, what really mattered was what God wanted for me and from me. My desires were to be nailed to the cross, and I was only a vessel for God’s will. When I pondered my career options, the second most odious thing I could imagine being was a missionary. (The first most odious thing was to be a minister’s wife, and I have to admit, that one nauseated me too much to consider. And being a minister wasn’t an option, either, as a good Christian woman, though I thought I’d really like that one.) So I chose “missionary” as my goal. I’d have to live in miserable circumstances, be alone (and most likely single and virginal my entire life), and generally have to slog through evil to bring even the slightest ray of hope to a dark world. It sounded like exactly what God would ask of me. (I was sure he wanted this for everyone, but I was equally sure that most of us were unwilling to answer The Call.)

What I am grateful for now is the health of the human spirit, despite my own and my family of origin’s best attempts to repress and destroy it.

I developed an eating disorder. I was completely mystified by this, initially. I wondered why I would possibly have so little self-control with food, so little sense of satisfaction and happiness and gratitude. What was this mysterious depression about, too? Didn’t Jesus wipe all of that away when I was saved, I wondered? Wasn’t I healed when I became a Christian – and now my task was to live for Him?

Fast forward 20 years or so, past the college years in which I began to face that there were “demons” in my past that continued to haunt my present; when I began to confront the overwhelming mystery that is “God” and “God’s will” for me; and when I began just barely to touch the tip of the iceberg that was my own tamped down spirit and repressed desire for happiness and satisfaction in my own life.

I’ll be 40 this year, and I am now a single parent (and obviously didn’t attain that “alone, virginal” standard I’d idealized in high school). And I still don’t have those mysteries “figured out” or in any way perfected in my life. But I do have some insights and have made some progress toward living in the mysteries rather than trying to avoid them.

My God is, indeed, voluptuous. This, in spite of my desires to fashion my God after my parental example and my subsequent neurotic need for total control and even obliteration of everything that was human about me. I have come to experience God in every kind and loving gesture that has been extended toward me over the years – mentors, teachers, ministers, friends, therapists, self-help groups. At some point I had to let go of the need to convert everyone who wasn’t a professing Christian because it became obvious that many of them were far kinder, gentler and wiser than I, the born again Christian, ever was. Whether Jewish or Muslim or agnostic, many of these people were ministering to me, and I saw God in every one of them.

Up until the point where I had my son, I had attained a remarkable level of functioning for someone from my background. I had also achieved a level of internal misery that was a vast improvement on what I’d experienced in my earlier life – but it was still misery. All my explorations of 12-step groups, Buddhist meditation, therapy and self-help groups had gotten me to a better place…but still not one in which I wanted to stay. I simply didn’t know how to get beyond that place.

The unexpected pregnancy was a blow, though I knew from the beginning I wanted to keep my child. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it…how was I going to support us both, be a present and loving parent, and still have anything left for me? Becoming a parent plunged me into what I liken now to a pressure cooker. The lid clamped down. The pressure built up. I thought I was going to explode from the intensity of what I faced as a single parent. It was like re-living the trauma of my childhood in some ways: I was faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles under continuous responsibility that was profoundly heavy.

Enter a voluptuous God.

My son turned two this spring. As time has gone on, I’ve awakened to my need to re-parent myself as I parent my son. They say on airplanes that if you are responsible for someone else’s air mask in an emergency to make sure to attend to your own, first. If you don’t, you’ll be no help to anyone else, and you’ll both perish.

That’s essentially what happened to me. I began to be forced to attend to my own desires and need for nurturing, for tenderness, for rest, for play, as I attended to the needs of my son. If I didn’t, I became so fatigued, so burnt-out, so miserable that I was no good to him. How can I give my son a fun, rich experience if I’m so miserable I can’t smile, can’t play with him, can’t even think ahead to plan fun and interesting things to do? It became obvious to me that I had to attend to my own oxygen mask – my own deeply repressed needs for nurturing, care and self – or I would never be able to attend to my son’s.

I began to ask questions that were different from the one’s I’d wrestled with in high school. Rather than asking what God wants from me, despite my longings, I began to explore that my longings might be the very things I was created to explore and play with and fulfill. They were gifts to me rather than signs of sin to be obliterated in God’s name. They were part of what make me this unique expression of the many faces of God in the world: no one else has precisely the gifts and longings and interests that I have. If I don’t explore them and make space for them in this human life I have been given, they will die with me, wasted. I have been given these resources as an investment – and it is up to me to cultivate them to the fullest. Rather than trying to quiet the longings of my heart so that I might hear the voice of God, I explored those longings as the voice of God herself – a voice calling me out to play, to explore, to connect.

I guess, in an ironic sort of way, I am the missionary I thought I might become – but with a twist. I’m not interested in converting people to dogma anymore. I am interested, though, in living and spreading spaciousness, grace and loving connection. I am interested in the places we all get stuck in suffering and self-hatred – and in sharing my own story with others so that we all might find a little light along the sometimes dark path of life.