Judgment day

When I was in the fourth grade, my younger brother, sister, and I responded to an altar call at the Bible Baptist church in Rantoul, Illinois.

Now, it wasn’t like we weren’t Christians before. Mom had been raised a Methodist in Germany, and opting out of the state church to join a different one meant something. It meant you were conscious about your faith. Mom’s ancestors were Huguenots, who were driven out of France for being protestant, so consciousness around faith went back for generations.

cross in handWhy wasn’t that good enough? Because the salvation part was missing. So Mom took it up a notch, accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and encouraged us to do the same. Dad politely declined. (Actually, he threatened to start smoking again if Mom was baptized, but she did it anyway, and he never followed through on his threat.)

Salvation brought division into our family. The pressure on Dad to convert was unrelenting. We were right, he was wrong. We were saved, he was a sinner. Everything was black and white.

Eventually, I became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and a resident advisor in a dorm at a Christian college. The black-and-whiteness of my world made me feel safe, and Christianity brought order to my universe. But one day, I said to myself, “This is too easy. I can fit the God I believe in into a shoebox.”

I went out to my Grandpa’s pasture and prayed, “God, show me how big you are.” And then all hell broke loose. Mike and Jill, two of my youth group kids, died in the same car accident, and my faith shattered.

I continued to live by Christian principles, not knowing anything else, but eventually, after spending a year in Germany, I fell in love with a German man and we decided to move in together. Now, in Germany, this was no big deal—not even for Mom’s brother, a Methodist minister. But we decided to set up housekeeping in the U.S., and it definitely was a Big Deal for my family. For the first time, I felt the sting of Christian judgment.

Any kind of fundamentalism is based on a we’re-right-they’re-wrong sort of belief system, and judgment is its lifeblood. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, swearing was wrong. Consuming alcohol was wrong. Smoking was wrong. Secular music was wrong. Premarital sex was wrong (but so was masturbation). At the Christian college I went to, even dancing was wrong because it was a “vertical expression of a horizontal idea.” Thinking outside the fundamentalistic box was wrong. I could go on and on.

When it came time for Reiner and me to move to our new place, no one in my family helped—as they’d always done when I moved before—because helping would imply support for our decision to live in sin. Perhaps, by shunning me, my family hoped to encourage me to return to the fold, but it had the opposite effect. My family’s judgment hurt so deeply that I could no longer bring myself to judge others, and my Christian faith came to an official end.

Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental,” and I’ve tried to live by that since. I fail daily. But I often succeed, and my world is much richer now that I love people who are different from me. Now that I respect and defend their right to be different. Now that I’ve given up any attempt to evangelize them into my way of thinking.

I would love it if my mother respected my beliefs. The little girl in me yearns to be loved for who I am, not condemned for who I am not. But, I’m not going to spend a single second judging or trying to unravel her belief system in an attempt to make her love me as I long to be loved. Her faith nourishes and sustains her, helps her make sense of the world around her, and gives her a group of like-minded people to belong to. It makes her happy.

In the end, I respect the differences in others because it makes me happy. I like who I am when I’m not judging others. Love just feels better.

How I lost my faith

When I was in the fourth grade, my sister, brother, and I responded to a hell-fire and brimstone altar call at the Bible Baptist Church in Rantoul, Illinois. My mother had been raised a Christian by devout Methodist parents, and her brother was a Methodist minister. But she also became “born again” and raised the bar. She got baptised in the church’s baptismal tank, which amounted to a declaration of war between her and my father. From then on, it was us against him.

Mom and Dad were now “unequally yoked,” and the pressure was on for him to see the light and accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. But Dad, who had been raised by an Army chaplain with a mean streak, would have none of it.

After Dad retired from the Air Force, we headed west, where he and Mom owned an unfinished house in Roy, Washington. There, we attended the Roy Missionary Church, where I eventually became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, and camp counselor.

It was while preparing one of my “sermons” for the youth group that I realized God was too small. I went out onto my grandfather’s land and prayed, “God, this is too easy. I could fit you into a shoebox and that can’t be right. Show me how big you are.”

At that time, I had my first serious boyfriend. His mother had died of cancer when his little sister was nine, and I had a special place in my heart for her. Jill was one of the brightest lights and most deeply spiritual people I’d ever met. She joined our youth group and caught the eye of Mike, who asked me to help him write poems with which to woo her. Soon, Mike and Jill fell in love.

I lived with my parents during my first two years of college and then packed my car and headed to Seattle Pacific University for the last two years. On my way out of town, I stopped by the cemetary where Jill’s mother was buried, knelt by her grave, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Please take care of her for me.”

In the winter of my senior year at college, Mike and Jill were killed in a car accident. It took place right in front of Jill’s house and her father was the first one on the scene.

Jill’s father asked me to speak at the funeral, which I did. Seeing Jill’s broken body in a casket was difficult, but having both caskets in front of me while addressing the hundreds of people who attended the funeral was even harder. It was, without question, the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done.

When Mike and Jill’s lives ended, my war with God began. I had asked–I had specifically asked–God to take care of Jill, and he killed her. If he didn’t outright kill her, then he failed to prevent her death, which was just as bad.

The prayer I’d said on my grandfather’s land had been answered–this God certainly didn’t fit in a shoebox. I felt completely betrayed and wanted nothing to do with him. My faith crumbled. The black-and-white world in which I had found comfort vanished. I was adrift on seas of gray under an angry sky and lost sight of everything that had once lent order to my universe.

Hopeless

Oddly, it never occurred to me not to believe in God–I guess I needed him to exist so I’d have someone to blame. I eventually rebuilt a spiritual world view that made sense to me, but it took almost 20 years to do it. It is nothing like my mother’s.

My mother believes that Mike and Jill, who had been together for a number of years, may have been finding it difficult to keep from getting physical with each other. She believes that God “took” them before they managed to fornicate. “You mean death is better than premarital sex?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, nodding sadly.

* The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Hopeless” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.