I’ll be 40 in a few months, and I am relishing the approach of my birthday. I cannot wait.

I’ve always loved birthdays, and we celebrate big in our house. We enjoy a full week of homemade favorite meals, presents, hugs, balloons, lots of singing, giving authentic compliments, and generally being thankful for the existence of the celebrated person.

And this birthday feels extra special. It’s steeped in liberation for me.

Hard work in therapy helps me process past trauma and makes sure I’m not cycling any of it forward to those around me. I can feel my feelings safely in the environment I’ve created.

I choose my surroundings confidently and glory in keeping others safe as well. Most of all, I trust my own judgment because history has taught me that I am trustworthy.

The strength I’m clinging to on my climb to 40 would have shocked my middle school self.

Recently, “Little Miss” memes have dominated social media. “Little Miss Lives on Iced Coffee,” “Little Miss Sending Every Call to Voicemail,” “Little Miss Always Freezing.”

I identified with many, shared them, and giggled. Then an Instagram account I follow created a series of “Little Miss” graphics that caught in my throat.

The account @deconstructiongirl posted “Little Miss” with words that gurgled up a long-swallowed bile from my past, labels I’d heard from church, camp, and loved ones. They cut deep even still.

“Little Miss Stumbling Block”

“Little Miss Piece of Chewed Up Gum”

“Little Miss Jezebel Spirit”

“Little Miss Virginity Pledge Survivor”

“Little Miss Are You Mad at Me?”

Ouch. I’d forgotten my experiences with those terms. Holding the title “Child of God” was tangled up with harmful names and concepts putting me in charge of everything from boys’ sexual urges to the emotional upkeep of those around me.

In case you are privileged enough to not understand those titles, let me break them down.

“Stumbling Block” – I, as a 12-year-old girl, should be ever-mindful of how boys and men might view my body. No spaghetti-strap shirts, usually not even tank tops.

If the shirt didn’t have a high neck, I should always be mindful to place my hand at the base of my neck so wandering eyes couldn’t see down my shirt. My shirt should be long enough to cover my mid-section, even if my arms were straight up in the air.

My shorts/skirt should extend past my fingertips – not an easy feat for a very tall, very long-armed girl. I was required to wear a sopping wet, heavy, cumbersome XL t-shirt over my swimsuit while swimming at camp.

I had a one-hour breakout session where I was taught the safest way to bend over and pick things up off the floor. (The correct way is in a modest squat, not bending over because it exposes your backside.) This all-girls session was held while the boys learned archery and rode horses.

Later, we all joined up together for choir. They recounted adventures, while we squirmed at what we knew they might be thinking about our tempting bodies. We were mindful of our title, as it related to them – Stumbling Block, but still expected to sing soprano and alto to their bass.

“Piece of Chewed Up Gum” – Before I knew what sex was, I knew about virginity. Mary was a virgin and so I should be, whatever that meant. Soon it was explained that having sex before marriage would result in me losing a very important part of myself, something I could never regain.

I would be unclean, unloved, deflowered, dirty, and just like a “piece of chewed up gum.” Too bad for those who would suffer assault because they weren’t taught bodily autonomy. There’s just no going back.

“Jezebel Spirit” – Feminism. Having a voice while not being male. Asking pesky questions. Not agreeing with the majority. Voicing for the marginalized. Saying no.

Dressing like a “Stumbling Block” (see above) even if it’s 107 degrees at Six Flags. Having emotions other than happiness and thankfulness.

Not giving sacrificially. Declining to serve as an unpaid laborer. Jezebel is a shapeshifter, so you really must watch and be wary.

“Virginity Pledge Survivor” – You sign a card promising to be chaste. Other people witness your pledge.

Your sexuality is not your own. Pleasure is reserved for your, eventual and hopeful, husband.

Sometimes a ring is involved. You can only exchange it for a wedding band. Best of luck flipping that switch and making all the right connections between your mind and body when your time arrives.

Pray about it if you have trouble, but you better figure it out or your husband might not stick around, and that is also your fault.

“Are You Mad at Me?” – I was 38 years old before I learned I am not in charge of other people’s emotions. Perhaps I’m dense, but I don’t think I’m alone.

In addition to having permission to feel a range of emotions, other people are also permitted to feel their feelings. I am not in control of their emotions.

My actions are my own, and how others respond and react is their business. As a female, I was taught to be the Proverbs 31 woman – always ready, working, and happy to serve.

She reminded me of the biblical version of the “Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” A “servant’s heart” was the gold standard. If I served and coddled enough, then no one should ever be mad. If someone is upset, then I must have failed. Keep trying and trying, maybe it’ll be enough someday.

But then I had enough. The duct tape and baling wire holding my “Stepford Christian Woman” self together “had a come-apart,” as my grandma used to say. And it’s still coming apart.

To be totally honest, I’m in a really wilderness-ish time in my faith journey.  I am working through the harmful scaffolded religious beliefs, systems, and terms. I’m astonished at the beauty on the other side.

I stumbled into a worship service a few weeks ago at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, one I did not anticipate and knew nothing about until a work event lunch ended, and I followed a crowd upstairs. Isn’t God like that?

I continue to push away, to question, to absolutely rage at the injustice evoked in God’s name, to want nothing to do with many “faithful,” but God draws me close in exactly the ways I need.

If you’re in the wilderness, feel left behind or abused by the “faithful,” or wonder if there is any hope left, I strongly recommend watching this life-changing worship service from Baptist Women in Ministry. Pay no attention to the reluctant “Little Miss” with hot tears rolling down her cheeks in the third-to-back row.

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series at Good Faith Media. If you would like to contribute to the series, please submit your column to submissions@goodfaithmedia.org.

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