These moments come out of nowhere: “So, I was thinking of getting him a book of Bible nursery rhymes.”
I stammered just a half second too long. My reply came out high and a little choked. “Oh! Oh. Um. Okay. Yeah, that would be fine.”
My mama knows me too well. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. It’s not something I have to get for him. I know you guys are sensitive about that.”
And there I was, trying to explain something that always seems just outside the reach of clear expression. I said chances are, it would be fine. That as long as it was age appropriate, I wasn’t worried. Yes, I knew that a child’s Bible nursery rhyme book should be age appropriate, but I wasn’t completely confident without looking at it. One year seems a little young for Jesus on the cross. Well, maybe come to think of it, maybe J and I would look for something we felt comfortable with. Etc. Etc. Etc.
The phone call ended a little awkwardly. I cried the rest of my drive home, though I couldn’t have explained why.
Mom texted a little while later, her words gentle. She wanted to be sure I was okay.
I called her back and, for the first time that I know of, was able to explain why I’m sensitive about how and if my kids are introduced to faith.
Right off the bat, she said: “Guarded. Guarded. That’s the word I should’ve used.”
“It’s okay, Ma. I knew what you meant, so I took it the right way. Thanks though.”
Right in that moment, I thought: what a gift to us — this careful rephrasing, this automatic translation. It’s a tenderness we fought for together — years of clumsily pressing through painful misunderstandings to the healing just beyond. This hard-won ground is worth it.
I fumbled through an incomplete version of what follows.
I grew up a very scared, very guilty kid. I don’t mean to say I’m devoid of happy memories or that I was somehow unloved. Though we weren’t a particularly communicative family, we were a silly and loving one. But what I learned at church impacted my more-than-usually-sensitive spirit in a way I’m sure my parents were completely unaware of.
Though they’d grown up around religion, my mom and dad first embraced it for themselves just before I was born. Me? I was literally born on Thursday and in church on Sunday. At the age of 4 or 5 I walked up to the altar of our small Assemblies of God church and said the Sinner’s Prayer to ask Jesus into my heart.
I was the Sunday School poster child. Fairly precocious, I sang solos before I could even reach the microphone for myself. I came every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night without complaint — eagerly, in fact. I memorized the verses, read my Bible, said my prayers, was baptized.
But I was still a sinner. And I knew it. Every mis-step, every sin was catalogued — not by someone else, but by me. I’m sorry became reflexive.
I remember regularly lying awake at night in my bedroom, at all of ten or eleven, tearfully asking Jesus to forgive me for the sins I’d committed that day. As I stared at the ceiling, I ran through every mistake I could remember. Asked forgiveness for the ones I’d forgotten (and for forgetting them in the first place). It was all run-of-the-mill sinfulness, I’m sure — a bad attitude here, an unfinished chore there — but what did it say about my appreciation for Christ’s suffering on the cross that I kept messing up? With all my heart, I promised that I’d try harder to do better the next day.
I didn’t see Jesus as my personal buddy, and I didn’t see him as a wrathful man-god, either. He was kind-hearted and good and he was disappointed in me.
I had all of the guilt of Catholicism with none of the clear-cut absolution.
Being saved isn’t enough, either. At a Missionettes (Assemblies of God Girl Scouts) overnighter, a leader sat with me in the dark after the other girls had gone to bed. That night’s message had been about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, one of the A/G’s core tenets (whereby people speak in a heavenly language they cannot understand). “Just keep singing something simple, like Jesus Loves Me, until other sounds come into your head. God will give you the words.”
We sat a long time. The former happened, I suppose.
Things got worse once I learned about the Rapture. My Sunday School class watched the original Left Behind movie when I was about 12. A small panic arose whenever my family wasn’t exactly where I thought they should be. My personal vigilance increased.
A voracious reader, I blew through This Present Darkness when I was about 13 (for the blissfully uninitiated, it centers particularly on demonic possession in leathery, sulfurous detail).
The dreams started then. I’d wake up, still in my dream, unable to move. An evil presence there in my room had rendered me completely paralyzed. If only I could say the name of Jesus, I’d be free — but my tongue was thick, my jaw locked tight. I’d be trapped in mute terror for what seemed like ages, until God had mercy on me and I’d somehow be able to say the Name. Those dreams continued occasionally until even after I was married.
People often worry about what will happen if young people don’t take the Cross seriously. It doesn’t occur to them what might happen if they do.
My therapist expressed relief a few months ago once we finally stumbled into the Church conversation. I hadn’t mentioned it because in my mind, it didn’t have anything to do with why I was there. She said that up til then, I was a bit of a question mark for her. Articulate. Creative. Good childhood. Loving partner. Lacks confidence. Anxiety-ridden. First one to ascribe bad motives to herself.
For her my experience of church was, in some ways, the missing link.
“Teach your children that they are broken. Deeply broken,” a pastor in Illinois recently tweeted.
“On behalf of therapists everywhere, thanks for the job security,” someone replied.
My mom’s voice grew stern. “I didn’t know all that happened. I wouldn’t have been okay with it, either.” Then she grew teary: “I had no idea. I wish you’d have asked me about it.”
“Mom, I didn’t know there was anything to ask. As a kid, you think everything is as it should be — you don’t question. I figured if there was something wrong, it was wrong with me.”
I don’t know how to tell her that maybe no one was doing anything considered inappropriate by religious standards. If growing a good little Christian was the goal, mission accomplished. But guilt and crucifixion and hell and sin are tall orders for adults. Kids have no filter. I had no filter.
We cried together. And it doesn’t fix everything. Or anything at all, maybe. But there was a warm, deep comfort in knowing my mother’s first instinct wasn’t to question me.
It was to protect me.
It’s what I’m trying to do now. For now, it’s enough for my boys to know they are deeply, deeply loved.