As the plate passes through the elderly hands of a male deacon to the first congregant in my pew, my 10-year-old self waits anxiously for the silver coated plate to reach my hands. When the person sitting to my right grasps the plate and reaches in, my eyes are already intently assessing the contents of the communion elements. I pause, then select a broken cracker before passing the plate on down the line.
I nervously move the cracker around in my hand with my fingers, both trying to thank Jesus for dying, and attempting to conjure memories of any unconfessed sins I can repent of before taking the bread. Something was said about taking the elements unworthily, of being guilty of the death of Jesus, and that some people have gotten sick or even died because of taking communion improperly. I distressed over taking the Lord’s supper unworthily. I surely didn’t want to get sick… or worse.
The preacher’s voice startles me out of my internal evaluation. “This is My body, broken for you; do this in…” I take this as a last opportunity to beg for forgiveness, praying, “God, PLEASE forgive me for any sins I have forgotten. I don’t want to be one of the unworthy ones. I’m REALLY sorry!” The preacher’s voice interjects, “You may now take the bread.” I quickly drop the broken cracker into my mouth. (I always choose the broken ones… less to chew, less time to accidentally sin while in the act of taking communion, less chance that I become unworthy and in danger of punishment.) I swallow quickly and pick the residue of the cracker out of my teeth with my tongue so that nothing is left to be guilty of.
As the tiny juice cups are passing my way, I fret about accidentally dropping the plate, making a scene and embarrassing myself. I hold my cup, waiting, and try once more to clear my mind of all possible sinful thoughts. I am still worrying that I have forgotten something when I hear the words, “you may now take the cup.”
I down the juice and breathe a sigh of relief. I made it through another communion alive and healthy. I am going to be ok… at least until next month.
This wasn’t an isolated incident in my faith experience as a child (or in others’ childhoods as I’m told). There were many times I found myself in fear of God and spiritual leaders.
There was the traveling evangelist who attempted to literally scare the hell out of you, and the consequent sleepless nights where I prayed the sinner’s prayer yet again, just in case I hadn’t done it right the last few times.
Another time, a girl in Sunday School was made to wear a piece of paper down her shirt in order to cover the bit of cleavage showing from her blouse. I certainly didn’t want to be caught dressed “inappropriately” and be shamed like that.
I witnessed a children’s church teacher, who was a pastor, humiliate his son in front of our Sunday School class as an “illustration,” because his son had worn a polo shirt and slacks instead of a suit and tie to church. A few weeks later, the same teacher had us line up and shake his hand if we wanted to make a “life commitment” to doing our devotions “the biblical way” (reading the Bible in the morning instead of in the afternoon or at night). I didn’t feel like I had a choice, lest I be publicly humiliated as well.
Of course, R-rated movies were frowned upon for children like myself. How was it then, that I sometimes had to look desperately for an excuse to miss a service or class, because they were detailing the torment in the tribulation period, or sharing graphic details of torture treatments used on the persecuted church.
This is what shaped my view of God. A God who might wipe out a 10 year old for not confessing a sin during communion. A God who approved of coercing lifelong commitments from children. A God who would use fear to scare you into heaven. A God who was obsessed with how you dressed. A God who was unconcerned with what explicit details a child could hear and bear in their tiny heart.
They always tell you that when you are afraid, you can talk to God... but who do you talk to when you’re afraid of God?
I still struggle with viewing God as a fearful, strict, disciplinarian and judge, rather than a tender mother, passionate lover, or protective shepherd.
I now realize that the view of God I developed in my childhood was resemblant of a child abuser. A God you had to walk on eggshells around; a God you tried to please and make happy by obeying all of the rules; a God who threatened and intimidated you if you didn’t.
It is no wonder that, as I take time to evaluate my prayer life, I find that I have a hard time getting close to God and being vulnerable with him. I am afraid He might hurt me, or humiliate me, or push me away. I am afraid that He works on a manipulative “reward and withhold” system. I sometimes feel like God has to love me out of obligation, but doesn’t really like me that much, and only cares about what He can get from me.
It takes a heart a long time to heal from that. It takes a long time to trust again.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to lead our small group Bible study through Communion. It was such a healing experience for me; reading the Scriptures, leading the hymn, making space for prayer and thanksgiving. Perhaps the most healing thing was being able to say to them all of the things that I wish I could have gone back and said to my ten year old self. “There is no need for guilt or fear. In Jesus’ eyes you are clean. Whole. Healed.” And for the first time, I took a large piece of bread and savored a nice long sip of juice.