As a spiritual director, I recommend to people who are trying to heal childhood religious experiences that they return to the scene of the crime and forgive people for what happened. Little did I know that I had another important step in my own process of forgiving people for my childhood religious experiences. It caught me completely by surprise.
A religious women’s book group chose to read my book, The Critical Journey, and asked me to speak to them about the journey of faith. I arrived at the leader’s home eager to have a dialogue about faith with this group. The hostess greeted me and I met a few of the other women over coffee and cookies before we started. Then we all met in the large family room for our conversation. After introductions, the leader asked me to give my personal testimony, so I told my faith story, including the ups and downs of my faith, a few of the gifts and pains of my early religious experiences, my training as a spiritual director, and my role as a healer in the arena of domestic violence.
When I finished my story, the leader asked me some pointed questions. Was I a born-again Christian and did I know the date and time I took Jesus as my Lord and Savior? I explained that I did not know the date and time because I made a confession of faith many times as a child and I wasn’t clear if one was more valid than another.
I added that I honored the journeys of people who could name the date and time they were saved. She made a comment that went something like this: well, in your book you say that people can be on the faith journey as Christians even if they do not know the date and time they took Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I acknowledged that that was, indeed, the case since many people who profess Christianity grow into it as their understanding increases or, like me, make multiple commitment decisions. She asserted that people could not be Christians if they did not have this one-time, born again experience.
Stunned into compassion
I knew at that moment that I was in deep water. I remember quickly asking God what I was doing there. I could tell that she believed very strongly in what she was saying, and I was not there to defend my book or to argue with her. So I told her again that I respected her view of the conversion process and fielded a few other questions challenging both my work and me personally.
I did not argue but answered their questions honestly and with respect. I realized that this was their sincere belief and honest faith statement. After about twenty minutes of questioning, I stopped and said to them, “It seems to me that the ideas in my book do not resonate with your faith experience as a group, so perhaps I should leave now. I’m sorry that my visit did not turn out as you expected.” I felt tense, but relieved that I might be able to leave before the tension got worse. In truth, I was a bit afraid of them.
For some reason, the leader invited me to stay and summarize the stages of faith described in my book. I knew I was on very shaky ground with this group by that time, but I went ahead with brief descriptions of the stages.
Even though there had been some empathetic responses to my summary from a few of the women, there were no questions when I finished. I was quite eager to leave.
As we dispersed, two women sought me out privately and thanked me. Both of them had experienced life-long rejection from their families because they did not share the same experience of faith — knowing the date and hour they were saved. I hugged each woman and told her that in all my personal experience of God and in the research I had done, I did not believe she was condemned. Each teared up and we hugged again before we parted. I was trembling as I left and I felt confusion and sadness welling up strongly within me. When I got to my car I couldn’t drive.
After a few minutes I just drove slowly a few blocks away and stopped so I could process the evening. I knew something powerful had happened and I needed to sort it out. As I prayed for discernment, I had a strong sense that I had passed through a fire and had not been burned. As I rested in that truth, I regained enough serenity to drive home.
Healing that has taken years may resolve in an instant
Over the next weeks, I prayed and processed the meaning of the evening. I knew it was a turning point in my faith. Then I had the flash of insight I needed; I had just relived one of my most frightening childhood religious experiences — that of being judged harshly if I did not conform to the prevailing rules and beliefs of the church. The difference was that this time, I was able to observe it without being so affected by it, and I could even honor this group’s point of view. It confirmed to me, in a very tangible way, that I had, indeed, healed from the pain of my negative childhood religious experience and that I could forgive those who were responsible for my pain.
This forgiveness and healing did not just happen in that evening or in that moment of recognition. All the years of work I had done to heal and to forgive came together in that evening’s experience. This healing process enabled me to tell the truth about what happened to my spirit as a result of the fear, shame, and guilt that was used to control me and my friends as we grew up. We could not dance, play cards, go to movies or do any of the other things that so many teenagers do. Our God was wrathful. We had a large clock by the altar of our church with the hour hand on twelve and the minute hand on fifty-nine. It was one minute before midnight all the time. Midnight signified the end of the world and it served as a reminder of how sinful — and thus condemned to hell — we were if we did not confess and take Jesus as our Lord and Savior at that day and hour!
It took me years to uncover these memories and then check them with friends to make sure I was not imagining things. Then I was able to name which negative teachings were most hurtful and even name the people who were involved. A minister friend of mine helped me write the names of people I needed to forgive, put these names in a old pill bottle, and toss the bottle into the river. Gone forever. After that, I could begin to have compassion on the people who had hurt me. I finally realized that they were people who were deeply hurt themselves.
Honey from the rock
This process of healing my childhood religious pain is reminiscent of the struggles of the Israelites after leaving Egypt. In the wilderness, God gave them nourishment and hope, even when they were feeling abandoned, even in the hardest of times. Moses often reminded them that God would set them on high places, feed them with the fruit of the land, and nourish them with honey from the rock (Deut. 32:7, 10, 13). I know that my childhood was difficult, like wandering in a wilderness, but I also know that it was not all bad. There were many good times in which I was nurtured and loved. I was not abandoned. I was fed honey from the rock.
This process of healing and forgiveness slowly led me to a deeper appreciation of the good parts of my childhood religious experience. As I talked with childhood friends I realized some of the gifts that I received from my childhood faith. First, we had many really good friends and we all remember laughing a lot. We were steeped in music, both choral and instrumental. We knew more scripture verses and more Bible stories than many seminarians (my claim to fame was that I could say the books of the Bible in thirty seconds!). I still depend on my childhood knowledge of scripture and appreciate its richness as it edifies my reading today.
Girls were permitted to lead, in fact, were strongly encouraged to lead. I obtained much of my early public speaking experience as the mistress of ceremonies at church wedding showers when I was still in high school. At church we had many boys who were our friends, so we didn’t have to date to be popular. Giving to others was drilled into us at a young age. We were active in outreach to the poor, homeless, and sick. In fact, every month we served food and performed music at the local mission. I am sure that is where I first received my passion for reaching out and working, even now, on seemingly unsolvable social issues.
Our families were close and we shared family activities together with dozens of other families. We hiked, camped, and participated in sports. I don’t ever remember being bored. So there was more goodness under the surface of my pain that I had not yet claimed as part of my heritage.
Marking the holy place
The Israelites often marked the holy places in which they experienced God, where they found nourishment and received honey from the rock. After my meeting with the women’s Bible study group, I wanted to do the same. I had read a book by Sue Monk Kidd called The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, in which she forgave her church for her childhood experiences and then went back to her church and put a bouquet of flowers on the steps. I decided to do the same. I got a large bouquet of mixed garden flowers and wrote an anonymous note thanking the church and its people for all they had taught me. I put it inside the church door and left, feeling grateful and healed.
The women’s book group experience helped me realize that the graces of forgiveness had worked in my soul, and in a significant way these women were part of marking this passage as a holy place. I am grateful to them for making the closure so clear to me. Honey from the rock.