Image by Capture Queen ™ via Flickr
This past Sunday at Nexus was "lay Sunday" (another term for the pastor's vacation and we didn't have substitute). It was actually really cool and, after having read "Pagan Christianity?" reminded me of what the early church might have been like before there were professional clergy.
As part of the service, three of us were asked to share our thoughts on following Jesus. I told my story which everyone who has known me for any length of time is probably sick of hearing by now. The story of how I was terrified into following Jesus at an early age and my fear of a god who wanted to torment me for all of eternity.
What I realized through this experience is those scars that I have tried so hard to recover from are still there. Almost a decade ago I went through spiritual counseling that helped tremendously. My counselor helped me see that the debilitating panic attacks I had been having for about 30 years at the time stemmed from a negative self-image and a negative image of G-d. Since that time I have been working on correcting both. But, at times I'm reminded I still have more work to do.
Before I stood up to speak, I had the thought (again) about dying suddenly in church. This is a fear I've had since I was a child and I guess probably is related to the fact that it is what happened to my grandfather- not the one who was a preacher. One day he was visiting his home church in West Virginia, stood up to give his testimony, had a heart attack and I never saw him again. It wasn't too long after that that I began having panic attacks and they started in church.
I tried to set that thought aside and stood to give my talk. But, about half way through, as I told my story again, the panic welled up in me. I realized I still have this fear of a venegeful G-d just waiting to strike me down. In spite of my intellectualizing and my meditation and my yoga and my counseling, that scared little boy is still deep in there and I guess may always be.
All I can do is continue to try to recover. It's disheartening to know that after so many years and so much work, I haven't been able to completely undo just a few years of damage planted deep inside me at such an early and vulnerable age. I don't hold any animosity for those who did this to me. They were doing the best they could. But, I will do everything I can to make sure it doesn't happen to any more children.
Here are the remarks I gave:
What It Means to Follow Jesus
I would guess that following Jesus, for most people, was a choice they made at some time in their lives. I, however, cannot remember a time before I began following Jesus. As soon as I could understand language it was made clear to me this was the only choice I could make.
I am the son of a son of a preacher man. I was in church from the time I was old enough to leave the house. I was told that I was born alienated from G-d. A god who would torture me for all eternity for having been born the way I was born. My only hope was to follow His Son-Jesus. So, that’s exactly what I tried to do. Jesus was my protector, my protector from God.
The way following Jesus was described to me was a rigid list of “don’ts”. Not do’s and don’ts. But, don’ts. Kind of like the 10 Commandments- “Thou shalt not...”. Strangely, most of the things I was told I wasn’t supposed to do, I couldn’t do as a five year old anyway. No drinking, no smoking, no cussing, no dancing, no gambling, no going to the wrong movies. So, in a way, following Jesus in those early years was pretty easy. I felt like I was a good follower. The things I could do to break the law I didn’t do much. I never stole. I hardly ever lied. But, my teachers were there to make sure I never got too comfortable. No matter how I tried to follow Jesus there was always some “sin” I had committed. And, I was told, most of the sins I committed I wouldn’t even realize I had committed. The wrong thought was a sin, even the wrong attitude was a sin. Part of following Jesus was confessing and repenting of these sins daily. And, for good measure, confessing any sin I hadn’t thought of. Any unconfessed sin was a sin that would be held against me. Any sin was enough to send me off to eternal torment because no sin was any better than any other. A little white lie might as well have been murder. One of the few “do’s” on the list was I had to love G-d. I was told I had to love G-d, a god I was absolutely terrified of. That was hard. But, I tried. I would realize later it was impossible So, in that way, following Jesus was terrifying. Following Jesus was exacting and grueling. God demanded perfection.
After several years of this exhausting way of following Jesus, I gave up. I knew I could never live up to the standards they had set for me because the only standard that was acceptable to G-d was perfection and I was far from perfect. So, I dropped out of church and just forgot about it for a while. I guess if you asked me during that time if I was following Jesus, I would have said “Yes”. But, I wasn’t really sure what it meant anymore. Christianity had lost its meaning.
A few years later, following Jesus began to change for me. I realized God (and Jesus) weren’t primarily interested in every little infraction of their code. I realized that G-d was not sitting on His throne waiting for me to screw up so He could zap me. God was actually on my side, too. Not against Jesus and me. I realized that when Jesus said He came to bring life and that more abundantly, He meant exactly that. Life, not this living death of trying to follow an impossible code. Following Jesus became more about what I should do rather than what I should not do. Following Jesus became about serving others. Following Jesus became about becoming involved in justice for the poor and the oppressed. Following Jesus became about self-actualization and living an abundantly full life. Following Jesus turned from an obligation done to avoid punishment into a joy done out of gratitude for a G-d who made me in His image and who loves me unconditionally. Even though this way of following Jesus is more difficult in some ways, it’s far superior in my mind.
How is it more difficult? I could always do more. It’s easier to not drink alcohol or to not cheat on my taxes, than it is to be a “generous” person. How do I define generous? How much giving of myself is enough? But, this way of following Jesus is life-giving rather than life-robbing and I am glad I found it.