When I was probably 6 years old, in the back of my dad’s red truck, I confided in God that I knew. I knew the thing we weren’t supposed to say out loud. That God’s love was for all of us, but I’m special, right? and God smiled. Maybe not agreement, but certainly enjoyment at small thoughts from someone well loved.
I laughed and cried and rolled my eyes through my childhood with a constant, affectionate, friend-like Presence. I didn’t need to bow my head or fold my hands to access the conversation always happening between God and I. What’s the point? The ear is always bent.
Then it wasn’t.
As I got older, I wanted more guidance. I was looking for spiritual mentorship. I found a community that took God seriously so I joined, but in it I became less sure of God’s love and attention. If I had to guess what did it, I’d say maybe it was the sermons about how far from “the mark” we all are, ones which made me shift my weight in my cushioned chair and divert my eyes in case God told the preacher to look my way.
Or the guided contemplation on how my specific, individual wickedness nailed the best human-slash-God to a barbaric torture device.
Or the hymns full of exasperated surprise that God might still accept any of us into Heaven, but only by the skin of our teeth and the blood of a lamb who was now begging God to show us mercy.
Or the admonitions that if we prayed the right prayer we’d be fine and if we weren’t sure we’d prayed it we better try again. And again and again and….
The more I immersed myself in a religion I thought would bring me closer to the God I knew and loved, the less God loved me. Comfort and affection and security turned like sour milk into curdled indifference, even disgust. God barely tolerated me and that became my new secret.
Sneaking into Heaven
When I was a kid nobody told me I had to pray – or read my bible or evangelize strangers or preach sermons to my stuffed animals. I just did those things because I wanted to, because my elephant needed to know that Jesus loved him even if his skin was purple. But when I got older and my eternal destiny was on the line, those things became loan payments on a massive debt.
I sang “Jesus Paid it All” loud enough to remind God to include me.
Fear can carry a person pretty far. Wars are won by fearful men who are willing to kill so as not to be killed. But fear does not sustain us, it leaches our vitality.
The teachings I trusted from people who became the spiritual mentors I was searching for provided little comfort. To get into God’s good graces (which, you are meant to believe, are free and entirely aside from your worthiness) a person must beg for forgiveness for being human and appeal to Jesus for a pass; put another way, you can sneak into Heaven by being “covered” by Christ. God won’t even see you, he’ll just see Jesus.
It became a habit to apologize to God for my existence.
More Tired than Scared
A few years of this shame-based religion was enough to stifle the ease right out of my faith. By the time I became more tired than I was afraid, it was a wrestling mat. Where I once felt safest – in the presence of God – I now felt small and terrified. I grappled awkwardly with the first story I’d been given about God as a friend and the stories I’d picked up about God as a frenemy.
I tried to work this out in prayer. I bowed my head and folded my hands. I didn’t open my eyes even when I really wanted to. I hallowed God’s name and confessed my transgressions and forgave others so what the hell happened here, God? Why do I feel like shit all the time? I know it can be easier between you and I. Why do you need me to grovel so much?
I could only prop up God’s ego for so long.
Prayer was mostly ruined. When I went there I went back to the habits I’d picked up and felt the pulling of fear and shame, the what if hovering between God and I. So I stopped going. It was easier to believe God loved me when I wasn’t trying to talk to God.
But there is another old habit. When I am not trying to, when I am very sad or very happy or very scared or very sure, I pray.
The other day I caught myself praying. I was scared and tired and needed to escape the spiraling my mind is prone to so in the kitchen, without closed eyes or bended knee, I said, “Help.”
I’ve been dealing with some health issues lately and all the tests are coming back with no answers. It’s very frustrating. The other day in the kitchen I felt tired and confused and alone. So I prayed. Almost on accident.
I’m sorry I haven’t come to you with this more…
It is a compulsion to apologize. But in this split-second I had to pick a story. Was I talking to my friend or frenemy? Was I living in the first story or the one I picked up later?
because I know you want better than this for me.
The first story won.
Hey, did you see that? And God smiled.
A Million Choices
These two stories are umbrellas over a million smaller stories. I have learned and re-learned a glut of lies and truths to sift through about the Divine, about humanity’s interaction with it, about my own place here.
I didn’t always know I had a choice. That I could choose which story to believe – to live out of and hope for. I think we all come knowing what is True. We all have the best story in us, holding us together. We know when it is violated and we know when we see it depicted in movies or books or in kindness of strangers.
So I am learning to choose. When I am confronted with opposing stories I am trying to pick the one that does not ask me to be afraid, but the one that reminds me of the love I knew in the back of the truck.
And it doesn’t need to be a secret.