My earliest years were wrapped up in a little village church, where everyone started as friends and became a family. It was a body of humble people - dairy farmers, groundskeepers, receptionists, carpenters, housewives. They perfected the carry-in lunch and someone always had extra when we forgot our own table service. The garish carpet is still sketched on the floorboards of my memory and I knew those halls like the flip-side of my eternity.
I sat in the pew - middle section - sometimes sucking on the one in front of me. I can still taste the tang of the varnish. All I really knew was that Jesus loved me. He loved me because they kept on telling me He did, and I trusted them, because they popped corn in the cooker well past dark on summer evenings and laughed with my parents until the whole room shook. They were my kin, and I believed them.
One day, when some might say I was much too young to understand, I walked up front at the end of the service and I asked Jesus to live in me. I bawled my eyes out, not because I was overcome by a certain force or unseen magnitude, but because I was embarrassed in front of all those people. I didn't want them looking at me. I had a sneaking suspicion they would all want to hug me when service was over, and all I could think about was lunch and a long stretch of afternoon with my family.
Of course they hugged me.
Before long I had my gray Awana shirt and I made it my mission to memorize the most verses so I could win the trophy. I honed my sword-drill skills. I stuffed my pockets to the gills for the pocket scavenger hunt. I won a lot of the churchy contests and none of the sporty ones and life kept moving, kept on turning. The dark lurch of "doing" was creeping in, but not all had been lost, life was still right as far as I knew, and Jesus sure did love me.
Nothing ever stays as good as we think it should and before long, lots of adults got in the way, disturbing the tenuous balance of my universe, pitching me straight out of my safety net. My family left that church.
In my mind, that's where the trouble started.
It's been a long road between ages 8 and 37. My faith charts well outside the plot of a steady incline. It's marked with pitches and dips, and maybe that's unavoidable. Maybe almost everyone would say the same.
All I know is somewhere along the way, people stopped reminding me that Jesus loved me. I grew in years and it became more about what I should do than what had been done for me. I had the power to make Jesus sad, to incite God's wrath, to hurl a mountain into the ocean, or to prove my infant faith to everyone and doubt for one second - doubt anything, for any length of time. I could insist that I deserved great wealth, I could say one million times that he should be healed - that he was healed already. I could say it fast enough that my words might bleed into a truer version of righteousness, I could scream it out so everyone could see what I had. I could ignore that itch in my soul, the one that told me captivity filled those folding chairs and kept them filled, the one that said I should trust almost no one in the room, save my faithful parents and a handful of others.
I was taught via a silent, churchy osmosis that sin was to be extinguished by the sheer force of my faith and that if perhaps (as many suspected) my faith was as puny as it looked, I should at the very least take pains to bury it, hide it, do something with it, because it didn't belong at church. The only place sin had under that strange, puffy ceiling was at the front-end of a testimony that ended in victory. They only spoke of sin in the past tense, and sometimes they called it demon possession, just to make the stakes even graver. Meanwhile, sin trolled around us, passed the plate, shook our hands, drove us home.
I wonder if things could have been different if we had been allowed to see the quieter work of a God who transforms a life over time, by repeated exposure to the boldness of His love amid personal failure, by the simplicity and power of His word. Maybe if the truth had been allowed a folding chair of its own, a little girl wouldn't have walked into adolescence and adulthood with a cynic's view of Christianity and a penchant for disproving her own brokenness.
I can't bend time, but I have a hunch that it would have served me well to learn by repetition not that God wanted me to be financially prosperous, but that He wanted me low, humble, needing much, clinging always and only to Him for survival.
I don't believe the church that skewed my worth and honed my discernment deserves any measure of my bitterness or judgment, though it's sometimes difficult to feel otherwise. I know the church where I met Jesus as a child suffered many of the same stains as the "new" church. I simply had naivete on my side in the beginning. I think they were all humans, wounded and hurting, afflicted by the exact disease that feeds my ugliness. But rather than confronting the poison with honesty and integrity, they showed every little pair of eyes that it wasn't a top priority and they hinged our standing in the church community on our ability wear our mask with optimal, unshakable skill.
Suffice it to say, I'm done with all that. I'm so freaking done. I was done for years, incrementally, in doses just big enough to make it down. And then, I was done altogether. I was done in the moment of my personal decimation and done again, every day since. I was done when I knew I was forgiven in spite of my undeservedness. I was done when I sat for the first time in a new Sunday school class, ten years ago, and watched as the guy across the table laid bare his faults to the shock and surprise of no one. I wanted more of that.
The company we keep has changed in recent years but the souls are the same and I know for sure that they don't need me to wop them over the head (literally or otherwise) and scream that they need Jesus. They need to be reminded of his wild love for them. They don't need to hear that God saved me years ago and now I'm almost perfect, never missing a step, hurling every mountain I see into the ocean, waiting and waiting for an inevitable sum of cash to drop from the sky to my feet. They need to see the slow, transforming power of Christ in me, the work he does every minute of every day, while I do things like whine and rebel and repent. They need to watch me not get every little thing I want. They need to watch me suffer, and they need to know that any grace I manage to exhibit is nothing that I manufacture on my own.
The church that formed me is the church that snatched me up in adulthood and has now captured me again. The names, the towns, the shade of the carpeting, all different. But the message is unanimous and clear: Jesus loves me. He saved me because He knew I needed saving. He knows I'm destined for failure outside of Him, but spotless in His sight. I am a mess and so are the rest of His loves, but there's no end to his mercy. He screams and cheers and street-fights for me and He won't ever stop. He needs me to go to His people and He needs me to not care at all what it might cost. Because to live in Him is gain. It's all there is. It's purity and truth. It is holiness.