Friday, September 26, 2014

The Girl under the Pew


I was raised under a steeple with the light from my church's stained glass windows spreading their colors across my skin. As the congregation's god-daughter, I spent much of my time at potlucks and revivals. I memorized verses and doctrine. I was told I should be a Republican (because that's what Jesus would want.) I attended-- and even participated in-- an anti-abortion protest before I knew where babies came from. My first memories of creating any kind of art happened underneath those pews. I'd draw in the blank spaces on church bulletins with broken crayons, my favorite doll next to me.

I was commanded to remain pure until marriage, as not to become "damaged goods" for the man I would one day call my husband. I was told that shot glasses were called "medicine glasses" because they held just enough water to wash down two aspirin! Every advent, every camp meeting, every dinner party, every Easter gathering. I was there.

I was raised to be madly in love with-- and also terribly afraid of-- God. I was told I was a dirty, no good sinner over and over and over. I was told to "come as I was" but also that I would never be enough. How lucky I was that God would love me even though I'm a piece of crap!! But in order for him to love me, I had to acknowledge my nothingness.

So many mixed signals. So many scary nights. So much worrying about my eternal damnation and how hot the fires of hell would feel on my skin should I deviate from the righteous path.

Years later, I'm still a recovering Pentecostal-- a recovering Christian.

The pattern of I love you and I'm scared of you and I don't deserve you has replicated itself in my relationships with men. The patriarchal command of "submitting to my husband"-- while many people take this out of context-- was the reason I stayed in my abusive, unhealthy marriage as long as I did. When the fights got so severe, I was pretty sure it was my fault and began reading books about how marriage is meant to make you holy, not happy, because Jesus loves us and wants us to be like him and if that means being married to someone who harms you emotionally, so be it.

Enter God as the playground bully who hazes you and then congratulates you on your unwavering devotion having endured such a test, stage right.

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My Pentecostal roots run so deeply that in times of trouble I still have the knee-jerk reaction of whispering prayers into the void in the same way that an alcoholic unscrews the cap off a whiskey bottle. I am proud of having come from that broken, misled denomination, because it's my story, and it has shaped me. And while the girl under the pew is still a part of me, I have outgrown her.

One year at church camp, there was this skit that the youth put on about abstinence. There was a teenage girl holding a heart cut out of construction paper, and every time a new boy walked past her, she would tear him off a piece and hand it to him, until eventually she had nothing left to give her husband. "Girls, let this remind you," the pastor said, "that God wants you to remain whole for the man he has chosen for you." The boys were not addressed.

In retrospect, I can't even begin to tell you how damaging this message is for a girl to hear. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized how ingrained this "womanly shelf life" was hammered through my skull.

It taught me I was an object.

It taught me that I was finite and easily damaged.

It taught me that I could not have sex with more than one person without being considered broken and unworthy of love.

It taught me that others determined my value, and that I had no say in that at all except to keep my legs closed and pray for God to forgive me for being human and experiencing typical human emotions, like lust and loneliness and heartache.

And why did I experience those emotions? Because I was a meager young woman who needed Jesus. Jesus could fix me, if only I'd submit to Jesus in the same way I'd eventually submit to my husband! The message was crystal clear.

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To this day I struggle with my self-worth and identity outside of my faith. I feel judged and mishandled by the community that was supposed to have my best interests at heart. I feel misled by the people who were placed above me to lead and guide me through this world. I feel like I can finally openly experience this life fully, loving who I love without the fear of eternal damnation.

I feel challenged to raise my daughters and sons-- should I ever have living ones-- to treat themselves and others gently and with the utmost respect. I am still trying to learn this skill, because it's hard. It's hard to affirm others when we are still so rough with ourselves. I would want them to know that who they are is enough for this world, and that their worth is not defined by others, nor by a book, nor by their sexuality. I do not want to create another generation that grows up feeling inadequate, broken, worthless, and controlled.

They are enough.
I am enough.
You are enough.

If I were to die tomorrow, I hope that my legacy would be just that.