When I was a little girl, I spent most Sundays in a hard wooden pew near the front of the Bethel Pentecostal Church. The sermons always ran long and I was always short on patience. I still remember the taste of the Certs my grandmother would feed me to keep me from squirming and talking. After I got a little older, I was content to flip through the hymn book and the Bible. Even a child can be awed by beautiful language.
Religion was not a comfort to me in those times. What the Bible told me and what the congregation told me were two entirely different things. My parents did not attend church. They smoked. They drank. They had me out of wedlock. My father had the absolute temerity to be a rock and roll musician, which seems like a laughably quaint term now but at that time, to those people, it was deadly serious. Imagine being so young that you still believe in Santa and someone tells you that your parents, the people who cannot yet do wrong in your eyes, will burn forever in a lake of fire. It didn’t matter how good they were. They would be lost to me for all eternity once the Judgment came, and it was coming soon.
I prayed to God, but my prayers were fearful. They were mostly just begging.
Hell followed me as a spectre into my teen years, when out of a misguided sense of wanting to be part of something I dove headfirst into being born again. I attended youth group once a week and services three times on Sundays. This was the time of the ever-present WWJD bracelets and t-shirts and I asked myself that question a lot. I wondered what Jesus would tell me, a teenager beginning to question why there were a million ways into the pit in this cosmic game of Snakes and Ladders but I could only be saved by a grace I never felt. I wondered how he would explain why God was everywhere but he felt so much further away than the people looking at me to make sure my skirt fell below the knee and my modest blouse didn’t show any hint of the body I hadn’t asked for. I wanted to ask why he thought the people who shouted at the top of their lungs about how they’d been washed in the blood of the lamb spent the rest of their time stage whispering about people who weren’t there.
At thirteen, with what felt like all the seven deadly sins upon me at once, the flames of hellfire were licking at my heels every time I went through those doors. So I closed them and didn’t look back for many years. But when I moved away, and I brought that well-worn Bible with me. It has followed me to different towns and provinces. It’s often been dusty, but it’s always on my bookshelf. In times of hopelessness and despair, I open it and it comforts me.
There is no dust on it these days.
I stood at the front of a church two years ago and held my baby daughter tight as I promised to show her what the promise of God’s love meant. It’s a promise I should never have made, because I can’t presume to know what it means. But I have tried to show her the things that have always made me feel close to the idea of God. Never in my life has that meant church. Not once have I ever sat in my safe, sheltered bubble of people just like me and felt like I was living out whatever purpose I have been given. Just like I don’t believe, never have believed that the circumstances of my birth meant I deserved hell, I can’t allow myself to become complacent with the idea that my privilege means I deserve paradise. As the old parable says, “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.”
We have been asked to welcome the stranger, to comfort the grieving, to feed and clothe the hungry. We have been asked to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. And we have been asked to fear not, even in the valley of the shadow of death. I cannot ask to be granted grace. I can only go out and try to find it.