From my prior blog, Church 101, I wrote, “I had no emotion over our departure. However, I must admit in the wake of leaving the church, I certainly did not leave much behind, in fact quite the opposite. I packed myself numerous boxes of substance and toted them right out those church doors. One box contained my precious salvation and baptism along with a few spiritual disciplines like daily praying, reading my Bible, listening to my Christian music LP’s, and the various convictions of living a moral life. I lugged out a heavier box crammed with legalistic rules that I had witnessed and been taught to believe was the mark of the accomplished Christian soldier. I hauled a box brimming to overflowing with all the reasons I was unlovable and unacceptable to God and everything I ‘should’ be doing to gain His love and favor. I carted off a box of glass shards each representing the countless times I was mocked, laughed at, ridiculed, and exploited by those church kids.
These boxes were sealed tight with an encryption that only I could decipher. They contained my interpretation of what a Christian should and should not be, what they should and should not wear, what they should and should not do, where they should and should not go, and what makes a Christian acceptable and loved by God. In other words, I was inherently a bad person on a mission to attain these perfect standards. Then, and only then, could God possibly accept and love me, as well as these church people — or anybody else for that matter. I might as well have been an Israelite trying to live under the letter of the law, conditions of a narrow, rigid moral code that imprisoned me spiritually. And here is the kick in the teeth; I knew no difference because there certainly was no one at church or home explaining anything! These beliefs seeped into me without my awareness. These beliefs coupled with my home life constantly whispered in my ear, “You are unacceptable, a disappointment, and totally unlovable.” These beliefs drove me! I had mountains to climb to achieve that which I desperately longed for – to be acceptable and lovable by God and as a Christian.
My mother took me to church as an infant onward. Weekly, faithfully we attended Sunday morning Sunday school and then the morning church service directly afterward. Of course, I began in nursery, graduated to toddlers, and then into Sunday school for certain age groups, progressively. When I was five, I shared with my mother that I got saved. She insisted that I was too young to understand what that meant. For two years, she contended I was not saved. At age seven, I had a Sunday school teacher who I thought the sun rose and set on. I lagged behind one Sunday morning after Sunday school helping push the chairs in – it really was not about the chairs, it was about being with her. She asked me if I was saved. I told her no because my mother drilled it into me that I was not. She shared Jesus with me that morning and I got re-saved. She told me I had to go forward during the morning worship service so that it could be announced to the congregation. Huh? You mean walk down that long footpath in front of all those people and tell the pastor I got saved? With fear, trepidation, and my little heart racing, I made my way forward in front of all those people to proclaim my salvation. Two weeks later, I was baptized. As I waded out into the deep baptismal, I heard a gasp hover over the congregation and then this hush of silence. On the way home, my mother told me that those sitting around her turned to her and said it was like seeing an angel walking out. I was wearing a white robe furnished by the church and had white blonde hair. In all truth, these two events were pivotal phenomena in my life. God knew that I would need Him at such a young age to survive all that was happening and all that lie ahead. He became the very foundation upon which I found my hope to keep trying. Without Jesus, I would not be who I am today. At this church, I was further strongly commanded to be reading scripture, memorizing scripture, and praying daily. This is the one box I took from that church that I cherish and hold with deep gratitude.
Now, children’s church felt like overwhelming chaos to me – lots and lots of kids from well to do families who attended the church academy huddled in their groups of friends. Oh, not me! I was fat, which made me a huge target for being ridiculed and laughed at; I owned one dress that I wore week after week as opposed to those who wore the newest trends; I attended public school and not the church academy, which made me an outsider; and I was not in attendance every time the church doors were open, which relegated me to being less than. To make it worse, somewhere between seven and eight years old, my mother began a path of irregular church attendance, which naturally played out in my life. Some weeks we attended both Sunday school and the morning church service; some weeks we attended just Sunday school and would scurry out the door to head home before the morning church service began; and some weeks we did not attend whatsoever. There seemed to be no rhyme, reason, or pattern behind the confusion of what each week brought, but this disrupted pattern of attendance placed me under a huge spotlight. You see, they took attendance. As I entered the Sunday school room or children’s church, someone took my name and checked me off some list. The woman taking attendance for children’s church would inevitably ask me why I had missed the prior week or weeks. Every time, I would tell her, “I don’t know.” One Sunday morning my mother planned to go to Sunday school only. I asked her if we could please stay for church. She asked me why and I told her because the woman keeps questioning me each time I am absent why I am gone. My mother looks at me and says, “You tell her it is none of her business.” I proceed into children’s church a couple weeks later praying the woman would not notice I had been absent. Not on your life! She again asks me why I had been absent the past few Sundays and, not knowing anything different, I say, “My mother told me to tell you that it is none of your business.” Granted, I was never questioned again, but it took me years to realize that that response was inappropriate. To this day, I simply say good morning, hi, or if I know the person well enough I might say, hey, I missed you, but I will never ask anyone why he or she was not in attendance.
Because of my father’s negativity about the church and my mother’s free-flowing feelings at home about her personal scrutinization from the church, I already had the strong sense that we were a diseased family of rats attending church amongst the snakes. The way I was treated by the other kids further supported my notion of being eaten alive. To the depth of my soul, I so wanted to fit in and be a part of the kids at church. It would have meant the world to me. But that simply would never, ever be, as hard as I tried. I had not one friend. There was one girl who was the ringleader and literally reminded me of Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie – prissy and spoiled, and displayed a vicious and manipulative personality. One Sunday they announce that our Sunday school class is having an outing. They are going to somebody’s farm to go horseback riding. I desperately wanted to go. I love animals and had never ridden a horse. However, I had no one to go with. As the time got closer, the desire to ride a horse outweighed the fear of going alone and risking the mockery of the other kids. My mother dressed me in a white speckled shirt two sizes too small and off I went. When I arrived at the church, we were instructed to get on the bus. I was last in line to enter the bus and there sat Nellie. My throat choked as she squealed in her shrill voice, “How much do you weigh?” The entire bus erupted into laughter as I deflated, hung my head in shame, and made my way to an empty seat. When we arrived at the farm, the horses were lined up on the opposite side of a wooden fence. We were told to stand on the opposing side of the wooden fence. As would be my fate, a horse walked up behind me and in between the slats of the fence, proceeds to lick me across the top of my suffocating tight white shirt leaving a huge grass stain swiped across the top. Once again, Nellie erupts into laughter and in her shrill voice announces to the entire group what happened causing a ripple effect of laughter. I wish the ground had opened up and swallowed me whole. The humiliation was crippling.
My mind was continuously trying to think of ways to fit in and gain acceptance from these kids. Around my sixth grade year, in an effort to gain acceptance and fit in, I asked my mother if I could attend the church academy. She was sitting at her sewing machine, as always making herself quite the attire, when I approached her with my novel idea. When I asked, she said, “Now why would you want to do that?” I said because I do not have any friends at church and I want to fit in with the kids. She said, “That is no reason for you to attend that academy. Those kids are no better than you are for attending that academy. Besides, we cannot afford to send you there. Do you know how much that costs?” Case closed! I continued attending public school. And, I continued to be the friendless laughing stock each time I attended church.
On another occasion, when I was in seventh grade, the 50 some year old teacher of the Sunday school class I was attending announces that we will be having a back to school pizza party at her home the following Saturday. Now my motivation to go had nothing to do with pizza or being with the kids. Truthfully, I would have rather played in traffic than be the fat girl scarfing down pizza in front of Nellie. My motive was the Sunday school teacher’s niece. Remember the Sunday school teacher that I thought the sun rose and set on, the one who shared Jesus with me? That was her niece. Her niece was the co-teacher of our class. She was not present in the class every Sunday morning, but I knew she was helping with the back to school pizza party. I wanted to attend the event because I wanted to see her. Did I mean anything to her? Not so much, as the years revealed, for that matter we never had conversation. But if you recall that emptiness that I spoke of in a prior blog, I was chasing after love from birth and other than my grandmother, she was probably the first female I wanted to love me. What a mistake to go to this party! What a BIG mistake! You know how the Grinch’s heart grew 3X larger that day? My body had grown up and out over the summer and literally I had no pants that fit. Now my mother was a fine seamstress and in her brilliancy, rather than make me a new pair of pants, she decides to take a pair of my treasured undersized knit peach pants and sew (no kidding here) a 6-inch lace on the bottom of each leg of the pants. In a panic, I tell her, “No, I cannot wear those. I will look like a freak!” She convinces me that the lace makes them look really nice, they will not be too short, and everyone will think I look so cute. I wanted to puke the entire ride there. My mother drops me off at the end of the driveway. I see the kids playing baseball in the yard. I begin walking toward the area. I hear a piercing “Look” that split the atmosphere like lightning. Nellie begins pointing and laughing hysterically creating a riotous scene. As I got closer, the niece of the Sunday school teacher is standing on the porch watching the entire incident playout. No one stopped it. I had no way of leaving. I fell into a silent world of pure hell! This was the last attempt to participate in any church activity – no more Sunday school parties, no more children’s church, and no more youth activities. Remember those boxes – the one overflowing with all the reasons I was unlovable and unacceptable to God and the other box of glass shards each representing the countless times I was mocked, laughed at, ridiculed, and exploited by those church kids – they both also contained blood from the wounds that dug so deep into my very soul.
That last box of legalism contained so many rules. And, I believed every single one. They were leverage against myself, indicators of my spirituality or lack thereof, markers of defeat, gages to remind me that I was not worthy to be loved, and guides that drove me just about over the edge.
Now, here is what I did love. I loved walking quietly into the huge sanctuary, locating my mother, quietly sitting in the pew, and listening to the prelude music. I loved singing the hymns. I loved hearing the beautiful choir each Sunday. I loved special music. And, I loved hearing the Word of God preached. At the most important level, somehow God got ahold of my heart and despite the fact that my heart was broken, I believe He held onto me beyond any words that I could ever write.
Love you, mean it!