I've been fighting with myself the past few weeks. It's a strange, self-absorbed place to be. While the argument is one I've felt, lived and experienced before...it seems more complicated these days. Tonight the argument was driven home in a very real way at my children's first altar call. And the ensuing questions it brought.
A confession: One of the reasons I cannot be part of most sects of Christianity is because I cannot affirm the notion that human beings are fundamentally bad. I don't believe in the "old Adam." I do not agree with the notion that at our core we are all seeking to do bad things, and only when God intervenes at some point, do we stand a chance. This has never made sense to me. Perhaps it's my life that makes it difficult.
From a very young age, I got the sense that I was indeed bad. I recognize my own makeup has a lot more to do with this than even I realize. But still, I internalized every negative comment, criticism or even perceived slight. I took it all in, and I believed that for all the good I might try to do, I would never be enough. That no matter what I was when I grew up, I could never really be anything very good or loveable. It wasn't until I had my own children that I finally understood how this thinking impacted me and my decision-making continually. Suddenly I knew I had to figure out a new way to be. This realization led to the loss of 150 pounds for me. It led to my divorce. It led to some confrontations with my past and people from that past that have been difficult for me. Perhaps the most significant thing it has led to is that it has changed my faith and my relationship with God. All of these transitions in a short period of time...and all emanating from a change in my thinking that didn't seem very significant at the time.
I wish I could say that I've learned to live happily ever after. Or that life is now much easier than it was. But the honest part of me must admit that isn't true. My own self-doubt, that damaged part of who I am, continually rears her head. I've gained back 60 pounds, my divorce ripped my heart apart and has affected my ability to trust men, and my faith has seemed tenuous and shaky at times. Still, I'm certain of very little except that this is where I was meant to be at this moment in my life.
I was watching TV this past week and a woman who had lost over 100 pounds was describing the wonder of finally feeling some sense of worth - she tearfully said, "I finally realized, I am not nothing." This is where the trouble enters for me.
It seems to me that a large part of "church" (as defined in many of the "altar call" sort of churches) involves affirming, again and again, that we are indeed nothing... perhaps even worse than that that we are dirty, evil, no good and terrible. And that if we say the right words, God might intervene and fix us. But not everyone gets the opportunity to be fixed. And those who can't see their way to choose to get fixed will burn for all eternity. I cannot and will not affirm these things. I will not allow my children to be abused by an institution in this way. Because quite honestly, that is best word to describe what happens to a lot of people looking for answers inside of churches.
Every now and again I come into contact with a teenager that has been abused by her family of origin. She wanders into a church. Only to be told of how dirty and filthy she is. And yet there is a strange attraction to the message there...the church is only affirming what this girl already knows from her own life experience. What sort of damage is done to her through this message? I don't know. But I know I've got some of those scars myself. And I won't choose this sort of god for my own children.
As my children sat with me through the altar call, they both looked at me quizzically. And my son, caught up in the moment, raised his hand when asked if he wanted Jesus to make him clean. I wasn't certain how to react. My daughter has had lots of questions about it all. Still, I know I've done one thing right in 7 years of parenting. I've taught my children that they are not nothing. And even better, they are wonderful, beautiful, capable and gifted. And they were born this way. It's not my parenting or DNA or some sort of intervention. They simply are.
I want my children (and myself) to know God. But not because they're fearful of hell or feel dirty or bad. But because God is love. And because they can't help themselves but want to know God because of her vast and endless affection for them and for all of creation. And because they feel a need for God that goes so deep that they are drawn in, even when they resist. I want them to long to know this God of love more and better as they grow older. I want them to experience God and the divine in and around us.
So, what is my conflict these days? I think it's in the realization that while I try to shrug off my own inner critic, I'm not as successful as I'd like to be. And that each time I allow that voice to speak to me, I am not affirming who I want to be and who I believe God is. As I listened to the altar call I realized that part of me still worries that the preacher is right. What if we really are *that* bad? Can we ever be redeemed? I hope at some point the voice of God - of love - of all that is good - in my life will overpower the voices of doubt, self-loathing and pain. I would say that is as close to heaven as I will ever get.