I’m lying in my bed. It’s night time. I’m awakened by the sounds of rain, pounding harder by the second on the roof and against my window, and then suddenly, that sound is punctuated by booming thunder and bright lightning. The thunder is so monstrous that it shakes my room. It’s accompanied by an equally terrifying, strong male voice, scolding me for being a bad girl, shaming me for things I never recalled being guilty of.
This was my recurring nightmare as a child. I would wake up screaming and crying. I’m sure I awakened my mother numerous times with this nonsense, although it certainly seemed real to me. These dreams were among my earliest memories. I was maybe 3 or 4 when these first began. I don’t recall exactly when this drama expired as a part of my serial reruns of nightmares, but I’m glad it did. But even now that I’m pushing 50, I still have nightmares that often feature loud booms of thunder; an enduring remnant of what once terrorized my childhood.
I once saw a counselor with whom I discussed these nightmares. She thought it was evidence that I was born with depression. Born with it. It’s one of the most damning summations of my life ever. Why, I wonder, would a 4 year old be burdened with that much shame? (Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe she’s a product of bad theology. )
I’ve been reading the new book by John Pavlovitz, If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk. It has helped me connect lots of dots from my former church life. Reading part of his book, it suddenly hit me why I seemed born with shame; why my soul, from early childhood, was so troubled. It has roots in the church.
I really don’t recall what my early church leaders taught us exactly, but it’s clear by some evangelical teachings that many leaders believe that people are born inherently bad. It makes me think of the time I took my then 4 year old to a church festival in my neighborhood; they were making prayer bracelets as one of the activities. The instructor told her what all of the beads meant, one of which supposedly represented that she, my innocent 4 year old, was a bad person. (Yikes. There were lots of tears on her part, lots of damage control on mine.) Their interpretation is that we are born sinners who needed the salvation of Jesus to be made good again. Perhaps this was, in fact, the source of my childhood terror. All was not well with my soul, it seems, and the church was likely contributing to the cause. What a revelation.
The nightmare is not that humans are inherently bad. We are not wretches to be saved. The actual nightmare is that a religion dares to teach us that we are born terrible people, worthy only of disdain and punishment and eternal damnation except through salvation by the church.
I still subscribe to the notion that humans are born inherently good. In my quest for spiritual wellness, this is what I choose to believe. But right vs. wrong is not black and white. It’s many shades of gray. Now that I let go of the idea of hell and that there is an evil force waiting to snatch me from my bed, I can live my life more freely, even more morally and justly, guided simply by the concept that we should treat people the way we wish to be treated. I’m by no means perfect, but I’m a decent person. I can live with that.
Now I wonder what else I was taught as a child by the church that was supposed to be good for me, but was actually harmful? Have you had any revelations about your religious upbringing? I’d love to hear about it.
I must also note that today marks the one year anniversary of the insurrection on our nation’s Capitol. Religion actually plays a huge role in the reason why our democracy is in danger. Let us not forget how fragile our democracy is and continues to be in America.
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.