I grew up in a loving church community. I was nurtured, cared for, challenged. That world shaped me in really beautiful ways. It also taught me scripture in a way that set fire to my natural neurotic tendencies. My church honored people in ministry. Their photos were framed in the main hallway. The only women I saw in those frames were ministers’ wives and missionaries. I knew what it would take to be an honored Christian woman.
In Sunday School, I learned Bible stories from the position of “be more like this biblical hero.” Noah had faith and built an ark. Would you build an ark in the middle of the desert if God asked you to? Peter walked on the water but then took his eyes off Jesus and started sinking. Don’t take your eyes off Jesus! Christianity was often portrayed to me in terms of what I did or didn’t do, which would result in either a positive or negative reaction from God. I don’t think it was necessarily intentional that I rarely was given more than biblical morality stories, it’s just that morality is an easier concept to teach children than God’s unconditional acceptance. I was rarely offered a practical understanding of what it might mean that God loves me already despite my moral failures. I wasn’t really taught that when Peter began sinking in the water, it was Jesus who rescued him, not Peter’s own ability to please Jesus.
It just so happened that I loved Jesus. I always did. He was the dear man in the pictures who sat beside children and told them stories. He was the one I held private conversations with as a four year old on the swing set. But all those morality lessons didn’t swell that sense of love I already knew. Instead, I grew to fear his response to me. I didn’t fear that he’d hate me. I knew Jesus loved me. But what I feared was that he’d accept me as just some regular girl. Plain. Not worthy of the boys club of disciples. I wanted my picture on his wall. I wanted him to want me.
Is that crazy? Probably. But it sank deep into my psyche. I wanted to be enough for God to adore me. I wanted to be holy, not for sake of holiness, but for my own longing for genuine acceptance.
I did it well. Earnestly. Adults loved me. If there was a new girl in the Sunday School class, they turned to me to be their welcome wagon. If there was a silence in the circle when we’d been asked to pray out loud, I volunteered. It wasn’t because I was a show off. I really (as much as I can judge my child/adolescent self) wanted to live out the genuine faith I had in Jesus. I simply only understood my faith in terms of my own attempts at deserving God’s love. I strove.
I can go into stories of my religious neuroses but I won’t. (Let’s save them for a book.) But I can tell you that I’ve been coming out of that suffocation for the past 10 years. It’s not easy to rework an unhealthy relationship into something life-giving. What I’ve been learning is so small that it won’t impress you. It’s this: God loves me.
That’s it. God didn’t love me more when I barely slept because I was so overbooked with helping teenagers that I didn’t get my assigned reading done. (That was me in college.) God didn’t love me more when I had the luxury of spending long Saturday mornings journaling and reading theology at the coffee shop (post college). God didn’t love me more when I worked for a full time ministry seeing beautiful things happen in high school students’ lives. He didn’t love me more than he does now, when I spend my morning reminding August about colors and dancing with him in the dining room.
That truth has been hard to come by. It still is. When I confessed to my spiritual director that my prayer life had been virtually nonexistent during the worst of my first trimester exhaustion and nausea, I cringed emotionally, prepared for her disappointment. She didn’t scold me. She told me I was doing the right thing to get that extra sleep for my body and my growing baby. She told me it was time to allow myself to be loved. To experience God’s pleasure (not his disappointment!) in me when I fix August a sandwich for lunch, when I read him a story from my nauseated position on the couch. God loves me, she reminded me.
I’m realizing that my task for this moment of my life (stay at home motherhood), and more specifically, this stage of pregnancy, is to receive from God what he longs to give me: love, unearned. I did not earn my place onto the wall in the church hallway. I failed in my childhood dream of becoming Lottie Moon and somehow making it into the special section of God’s beloveds. I became the least kind of hero: the mom without a real job. And I’m realizing that the Jesus I’ve always loved has always loved me. And he loves me most in the middle of my weaknesses, in my failed attempts at becoming a spiritual hero.
It’s his job. Loving is what he does.