This picture does not reflect my family. The only similarity is the number of people. We didn’t go to church. We didn’t discuss God nor open a bible in our house. We didn’t even hold hands. It was a big deal to even get a hug. We were rarely even in the same room together. So, no I wasn’t raised in church.
When I think about my first ‘experiences’ with God I can’t find much in my Memory Cabinet except a small black bible from my dedication to a Baptist Church during my toddler years. The excitement of a new Easter dress to wear is my memory along with the fear of walking to the front of the church to receive that tiny bible. This is the extent of my ‘church’ memories. Shortly after this my family was moved to a different state and ‘church’ became a strange word to us that did not frequent our home.
As an adult speaking with other Christians, one of my first questions in getting to know them is whether they were ‘raised in church.’ When getting close to God, the church setting was overwhelming to me at first and I’m more than aware of that trepidation when you can’t recite the books of the bible without looking. Or the overwhelming embarrassment when someone asks you a question about a verse or what a biblical name represents… these are all good things to know, but as a Christian that was NOT ‘raised in a church’, my heart tells me we should focus more on how that person associates with the books of the bible, or what that person is drawn to when learning the Word of God or what their name means in Christ’s definition and what changes are occurring for them in their lives.
There was another very visual memory in my Memory Cabinet that came to the front just a few weeks ago. I was in first grade and my teacher had paraphrased the story of Noah’s Ark to the class. She used the simplicity of the story to show that listening to instructions was very important, and she spoke of the Ark as if we all knew what it was. I pretended that I did, too embarrassed to ask because I had never learned how to play the fool well. It rocked me to the core that my classmates knew something I didn’t.
Now let’s not forget this was in the early 80’s so it was still acceptable to discuss biblical stories in the public classroom. A prideful straight-A student, I was mesmerized by her descriptions of the Ark, how all of the animals ‘listened to God’ and knew where to go to be saved from the flood and the determination and ‘listening skills’ of Noah. Why hadn’t I heard of this Ark before?
I went home excited and asked my Mom about Noah. I can still see her surprised smile beaming at me. “Well Noah’s in the bible,” she instructed me to ask my Dad about it. Because he worked odd shifts Dad was sleeping due to having the night shift rotation. I was not allowed to wake him, nor was I allowed to make a lot of noise, so my next thought was to find that tiny bible and read it. After noting that I wanted to read the story, Mom pushed her dinner prepping aside and quickly washed her hands. Then she stood in the middle of the kitchen as if summoning the bible location. After what seemed like forever she snapped her fingers and rushed to the coat closet by our front door and started rummaging in the boxes on the top shelf. The tiny bible was not found however a too-big-for-my-first-grade-hands King James bible was, dusty cover and all. I remember staring at her in awe and confusion as she shut the door to the closet and walked back to her dinner preparations in the kitchen.
I was in first grade. First grade in the 80’s, barely able to write the alphabet let alone read it. I had expected her to help me read it, how would I even find it? How in the world was I supposed to handle this? Determined like Noah, I decided to try. I opened the giant book and started with page one which consisted of maybe two words I could actually read. Anger welled up inside me while I stared into that giant book; frustration grew on top of my anger when Dad finally woke up and refused to help me find the Ark story. The response I heard from him that day was the beginning of a repetitious and vague answer he offered up many times after that, “figure it out yourself.”
So my first few times almost meeting God was stifled. I only gained frustration and anger and some disappointment. Through my childhood years I remember celebrating Easter by hunting for hidden baskets full of candy and toys, watching Peter Cottontail cartoons on TV, and begging my parents to hide the eggs just one more time.
Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas were the only times we used our good china and actually ate dinner together as a family. Christmas was pretty much the same type of celebration as Easter with gifts followed by a particular sadness when they were all opened and the magic of Santa seemed to dissipate. Soon after, my sister would retreat to her room, Mom would go back to the kitchen to finish cooking or cleaning and Dad would watch whatever sports was on the TV. No one ever spoke of the emptiness that was there, although I’m sure we all felt it.
My parents rarely watched movies with Christian undertones but when they did the movies were dated, sometimes gruesome, unappealing and the language used was hard for a kid to understand. Some were even black and white. There were times when I would come across something in school or in a book I was reading that would lead me to questions about Christianity, but my questions went unanswered or I got “figure it out yourself” so eventually I stopped asking.
I especially remember in fourth grade one of my friends called and asked if I wanted to spend the night with her the night before Easter. I was baffled that she would even ask such a thing. I believe I made her feel foolish because I hollered at her, “BUT TOMORROW’S EASTER!! DOESN’T YOUR FAMILY CELEBRATE?” There was silence on the phone and she quickly hung up with me. My Mom had asked why I raised my voice and after telling my Mom she laughed and said, “isn’t Easter really just another day?” Then insinuated further that I was really getting too old to celebrate the Easter Bunny. I still feel sad about that situation, wish I would have understood her desire to be with a friend who kind of understood the disappointment when her family didn’t. The invitation was eye-opening to me if anything. We are still friends today however we’ve gone down very different roads in life. Easter is still just a reason to have candy and a big dinner.
As I became a middle schooler I found myself dealing with my parents’ divorce, my sister being sent 1,000 miles away from me, moving into town where there was no where to hide, taken from 17 acres of roaming space to a tiny 2 bedroom apartment, hormones and approximately 700 new classmates. My beloved cat was sold with the house and land when the divorce was finalized and I felt as if I had nothing. My bike, my toys and about half of my belongings were sold too; my childhood was gone and I didn’t even get to say goodbye. At this point, the family I had been protected inside was completely dismembered and I didn’t have a relationship with God either. I didn’t even know I could.
A friend of mine invited me to go to her youth group at her church and I had always passed up the opportunity. At this point in my life church sounded boring and covered in rules and judgments. With the divorce of my parents I had a newfound freedom that I didn’t want to suffocate.
Eventually I spent the night with this friend and due to Mom’s ill judgment in timing of my pickup I ended up attending the youth group meeting. The meeting consisted of a handful of boys and girls in the basement / kitchen of a small church. We sat in uncomfortable metal chairs towards the back of the room. It was an interesting collage of kids, there was a jock, a nerd, a track star, a quiet girl and us. I had expected them to treat me like the new kid or question me about my ‘Godly walk’ but they didn’t. There was prayer and then the instructor asked how the last week had gone. The only thing I truly remember is while listening to the other kids talk I learned that the jock wasn’t just a jock, he was the first person I had ever met with dyslexia and the nerd actually tutored him so that his grades stayed up so he could play sports. I would have gone back and probably interacted more the next time, but my friend never invited me again.
As an adult who’s only been involved in ‘church’ about ten years now I probably only recognize 1/3 of the times God tried to open my eyes. Evil happens. Through distractions, anger, misunderstandings, and many missed opportunities. If there is one thing I was taught by God growing up it would be to always keep your eyes open. Whether the person in front of you is up or down, happy or sad, angry, etc. pray for them. Pray for open eyes, pray for Jesus’ interception. Pray they find that understanding and truth that they secretly yearn for. Pray for guidance when interacting with them, let them know you care. If you can’t or you are too angry or hurt by them, let it go, let God heal and pray from a distance. He knows the troubles. He knows the tribulations. We as human beings don’t always know what is best for us but He does.
There are moments in everyday that I am taught something new. Today I am learning that though there was a lot of hidden God in my past, He is with me now and I am a better person in Him.
There are so many children out there that are alone. Alone in a crowded gym, alone in a full classroom, alone with their artificial smile. Be the one to reach out, and reach out often. Don’t stop reaching out.