Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Why my children will never go to church
She says she doesn't know why that is. She says she doesn't know why I don't always seem to believe she loves me. And, I could explain it all to her, but I'm not sure she'd understand.
I was raised in a very conservative Southern Baptist Church, by parents who were and who remain wholly devoted to their faith. It is their very breath, my mother has said, and she is not exaggerating. Our lives revolved around the church when I was a child. We went at least three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. Our weekends were generally filled with church-related activities: youth rallies, revivals, prayer meetings. My friends were made at church. The first time a boy actively hit on me was at church. The first concert I attended was a church concert. The first play I performed in was a church play. The church and it's teaching were the core of my life.
So, when the teachers tell you that Jesus loves you, you believe it. And when they tell you that Jesus will also send you to Hell, you believe that too. That these things were incompatible never seemed to occur to anyone else, but they certainly occured to me.
My mother would never understand that the very thing that gives her such great peace is the source of my greatest pains. She'd never understand that being told, repeatedly, that I was not worthy of God's love made me feel I wasn't worthy of anyone's love. After all, if God couldn't love me, how could any human being? If I deserved to die and then to burn eternally in Hellfire, regardless of my sincere desire to be good, to do good, then how was anything I could ever possibly do good enough? How could I ever be good enough? How could I ever try hard enough? I threw myself into Bible study, into prayer. I begged God to love me, to accept me, to tell me I was Good Enough.
But that never happened. No matter how much I tried to assure myself that I had done all the right things, I had prayed all the right prayers, I had opened myself completely to God. That fear never went away. That terror that still wakes me in the middle of the night -- that Jesus has come again and I've been left alone, abandoned, forgotten. Because I wasn't Enough. I could never be Enough. God loves me, but I'm going to Hell. My sins, such as they were, were too great. I was too broken. I was too unlovable, too unsalvagable.
What could an 8-year-old child do that was so horrible she could never be forgiven? I didn't know, but I was sure I had done it. I was 8 when my first phobia manifested. I became terribly afraid of water. Why water? I don't know. But I was stricken with a certainty that something, some demon was going to come up the pipes while I took a shower or a bath. I used to grab my cat and my radio, go into the bathroom and lock the door, run a bath, turn the music up really loud and then lay on the floor, sobbing into my cat's fur, too petrified to actually get into the water. But I knew I couldn't tell my parents. I was certain they'd tell me I was being stupid. I was certain they'd tell me no such thing could happen. But, if demons were real -- and the Bible said they were -- then why couldn't it happen? Why couldn't a demon decide to possess me? It had happened in the Bible, to people who were seemingly innocent. And I, well I was worse than that. I was certain of it. I'd been told. I'd been taught. No one is good enough for God. No one deserves to go to Heaven. We all deserve to burn forever. I deserved to burn forever. So why not a demon?
So I didn't tell my parents and I continued to go to church. Three, four, sometimes seven times a week or more. Year after year, drummed into my head: You're bad. You're broken. You're a sinner. Sin is evil, therefore, you are evil. All the tacked on platitudes that God will save me anyway, if I just do what he wants meant nothing. I was doing what God wanted! So where was my peace? Where my rest? My parents had it. My brother had it. Everyone else around me had it. But it was not for me. Was I one of those the Bible spoke about, the ones whose hearts God would harden? The ones God had given all the chances allowed too, so that even if I begged on my knees, even if I ripped out my hair and gashed out my eyes, he would refuse me? It says that, you know. That God has a limit to the number of chances he'll give a person to be saved. And, I was told, you never know how many you're going to get. You? Maybe you get only one chance. That guy over there? Maybe God gives him 100. No one knows and when your chances are up, they're up. It's Hellfire for you, even if you realize you're wrong. Even if you beg, even if you plead, even if you sacrifice yourself on the altar, God won't care. He won't hear you. Because you're evil, you're rotten, you deserve to burn.
All the other stories? The ones about Jesus loving people, the ones about the shephard leaving his flock to search out one single lost lamb and bring it home to safety? Those stories didn't make sense, not in the face of a God who would randomly cut people off. How could God care so much about one single lamb, when he didn't really give a damn about that other lamb over there? And how could you know which lamb you were? It was impossible!
And they said, God is a Father. An eternal, immortal parent. Parents are supposed to love you, to protect you, care for you. They are not supposed to decide some of their children deserve to burn forever, while others get to loll about Heaven. And if your God Parent can't be counted on to love you, to protect you, to keep you from eternal damnation, how can you count on your human parents? Aren't they much more failable? Aren't they much more fickle? If a single lie told by my 8-year-old self was enough to make God cast me into fire -- a fire where I would not actually die, but live, feeling the fire and the pain and the agony, over and over and over for eternity -- then what would it make my human parents do to me? No. No. I had to try harder, I had to be better, I had to find something, some way to be better, to be worthy. But it was impossible, because the Bible said so.
And this haunts me. No matter how much therapy I do, no matter how much processing or talking it out or reasoning through I do, it haunts me. No matter that I've rejected it all, it's still there. And so, no. I don't always believe my mother loves me. On one level, I know that she does, of course. On one level, I don't doubt it. So long as I do what I'm supposed to do. So long as she doesn't find out about the ways my life differs from what she thinks it is. I doubt anyone really, genuinely loves me -- not once they know who I really am. Not once they find out where I diverge from the path. I am constantly, eternally on edge -- even when I'm not consciously aware of it -- that I may wake up and everyone will Know Me and that they'll leave. The trumpet will sound and *poof* they're all gone, scooped up by that vicious God, leaving me abandoned and alone.
So there it is, why I have such a hard time being happy. Every bad thing in my life, some part of me believes I deserve it for being such a rotten, horrible person. And I blame my parents for it, even though I know they didn't realize what they were doing, for sending me to church, over and over and over, despite my pleas not to go. My parents, whose only answer to the obvious suicidal depression I endured as a teenager was to send me to church MORE often. And I don't think I can tell my mother this, because I know it would break her heart.