I remember my 13-year-old self sitting on the altar of a small Southern Baptist church. The altar was brown, carpeted steps. A woman who had shown me incredible kindness sat with me. She was holding my hand. I was wracked with sadness and sobs. She listened to me as I told her about the divorces, the turmoil in my family, the fear that I was not normal (that meant queer, but I didn’t yet have the words for that). She listened. She leaned in. She cared.
After I shared, she opened her Bible and I remember her taking me through “The Roman Road”. I spent most of the time listening for Roman to show up in the story line. The Roman character never made an appearance.
The Roman Road is a fundamentalist evangelical tool often used in explaining the “Plan of Salvation”. I would come to know that well later, but for that moment, I didn’t understand any of it.
This is pretty much how the many conversations would go:
Nice lady (NL): When Eve took that apple and decided to eat from the tree, sin entered the world. We needed a path back to God and we get that through Jesus.
Perplexed 13 y/o Davin (PD): Well, why did God make that tree then?
NL: God wanted us to choose Him. When we don’t we invite sin into our lives and we need salvation.
PD: I don’t get it. If I poisoned candy and put it in a kid’s room, wouldn’t that mean I poisoned the kid if the kid ate it?
NL: blinking with a minorly irritated look.
Our session ended for that day. Two weeks later the nice lady tried again. Same place, ready to dig in, Bible between us.
NL: Okay so please remember that we chose sin.
PD: Yeah, but God kinda made that happen, right? Why did he put that tree there?
NL: Because God wanted us to choose Him.
PD: What? Why?
NL: Because he loves us and wants us to love him.
PD: Then why didn’t he leave out the tree that would ruin everything?
Our session ended again.
We met more and I had many questions:
Why did God make Lucifer if He knew that he would turn into Satan?
Who was Cain afraid of? Wasn’t it just him, Abel, Eve and Adam in the world? Who was Cain afraid would harm him when he was cast out of the garden?
If God made us and the tree of good and evil, isn’t that kinda passive aggressive?
She sighed a lot in those visits.
I was a teenager who just discovered faith community.
I liked the church a lot.
I liked the people.
I liked the adults who worked in the youth group.
I kept coming back and the nice lady kept trying to help me understand why I needed salvation in the form of repentance.
After many sessions with her, I was willing to admit I was a sinner, admit Jesus died for my sins, profess my belief in Christ, invite Jesus into my heart and promise to walk a path of faith, sharing the Good News. This is called a few things in literal, evangelical Christianity: being born again, getting saved, turning my life over to Jesus. Once I was in, I was in. The questions went away and I was determined to be the next Billy Graham.
Much of my theology in those days was slathered with fear and shame. I passed that on to those who took time to listen to my conversion messages. I was going to make sure Heaven was full and Hell was empty.
I was zealous and I was persistent. I was also very scared, brokenhearted, shame-filled and sad. The church kept me busy so my heart didn’t feel so very alone.
I was always angry back then. If you had to find me in a crowd, you could simply look for the kid with arms crossed over their chest, glowering, glaring, guarded and grrrrrr…
All the while I pushed people away, I was super offended when they did not talk to me. Hurt people often long for what they desperately try to convince others they don’t need.
I was creating an emotional wall; I was a teenage emotional construction worker with endless mortar and bricks: Sob the Builder.
There’s reasons for that wall. There’s reasons for everything we think, feel and do. Behavior is to meet a need, or at least a perception of a need. We spend so much time judging actions we rarely think about what is behind those actions. We rarely are compassionate with ourselves.
Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time or else they wouldn’t do it. My fortress was built for a reason. It kept the bad out, but then it started keeping EVERYTHING out.
If I ever write a memoir I will call it “Well, that didn’t work.” And we still try again.
It’s comfortable to think in black and white because there is certainty there. It’s super hard when you let in the colorful world of all sorts of living and needing. It changes everything.
The option of truly being present with someone and learning who they are without an agenda to change them is the only way we get to have honest relationship. I didn’t get that concept for much of my life. I wanted the world to bend, not for me to bend. That’s how brokenness happens, in the not bending and the demanding it be different.
2016 has been awful for me and many I love. It has been the worst year of my life for sure. It also has been a very rich year. I have felt loved more often than not. I have given love more freely than I have in any other year. And 2016 was still the worst ever for me.
I am not someone who believes life’s trials are there to make you a better person. I don’t believe it is orchestrated in that way. I do believe, though, in every situation that sorrow exists, we can see aspects of living we never would have noticed without the sorrow. I don’t believe sorrow exists as a life lesson. I think it’s just part of life and what we choose to do with it determines a lot.
It’s been almost a year since I was harmed through sexual assault and there have been oh so many layers of pain my family and I have walked through. It has been horrendous and it has been illuminating. It has been heartbreaking and it has been healing. For me, what makes it or breaks it is my willingness to engage life in hard times vs run, run, run!
Engaging in life requires some courage when everything within wants to retreat. When that’s my reality I take the absolute smallest inching forward I can muster to just stay in the world, stay in my life. I have to get open, drop the mortar and brick, and choose to live in the elements, responding to life and love as it comes and as I co-create it. Dear ones, we are creating our inner world as we participate in life. I want my inner world to be a sanctuary and refuge.
The idea of refuge reminds me of my younger brother who tells a story that when he was about 19 years old or so, his AC busted and he had to have more windows and doors open at night to keep cool. He did this regularly in the apartment he lived in so he had adjusted and slept well most of the time.
One morning he gradually woke from sleep with the cat on his belly. He petted her, she purred and nuzzles. Then the slow dawning: “I don’t have a cat.” Yup. A random cat decided to sleep on my brother’s belly.
I love picturing this story playing out. It’s awesome, funny, and it highlights my gentle brother who awakes with welcome.
What I really love most, though, is the cat. The cat went all rogue and decided this house was as good as any and my brother’s warm belly was just the stuff this felonious cat needed to get a good rest.
What’s hurting within you? What’s preventing you from welcoming warmth and companionship into the core of who you are? What is this fortress you are building? What is keeping you from the wander and the wonder that may lead to new relationship? What is the smallest inching forward you can muster today to answer the pain with hopeful forward momentum?
Whatever it is, I promise you this: the pain you feel in that place is made worse with isolation and vigilance. Peace to your precious, scared heart and peace to your amazing, enduring spirit.
We all have the “why” questions. Keep that up! The questions are beautiful and welcomed. The altar is within you as you seek your heart out.
Knowing this and living this is my road to salvation.