Go to church with your parents when you’re six years old. Find your grandparents sitting in their usual spot, the same spot where they’ve been sitting since they joined the church in 1941. Sit next to your grandmother, the one you call Granny. Cross your ankles. Do not swing your legs, even when they numb since they don’t quite touch the floor. It’s a price you’re willing to pay because you know any type of movement will bring a belt to your behind. Better to have numb legs than a blistered bottom. Stand when instructed, sit on command. Open your hymnal and sing verses 1, 2, and 4. Not verse 3. Wonder why verse 3 is skipped but do not ask. Remember that you must remain silent.
See the preacher come to the pulpit. Keep your eyes on his face. Do not turn away and absolutely do not fidget. Notice the preacher’s shiny blue suit, his starched white shirt, his burgundy striped tie. Observe his almost perfectly slicked back hair. A few strands stick straight up. Stare at the hair sprout, willing it to move. Allow yourself the gift of a distraction, but do not smile. You must remain still. Even your face.
Try not to shudder as the preacher raises his voice. Do not jump as he pounds the pulpit to emphasize his point. Listen to his words. Let them soak in. You are a sinner. Dirty. Unworthy. You deserve to die! An eternity in a fiery pit! Fight the urge to crawl into your mother’s lap, to bury your head in her shoulder. Soak up your tears. Remain still. Keep your eyes on the preacher. Allow his words to ooze in deep. Deeper still. Swallow them. Digest them. Internalize your unworthiness. Realize how pathetic you are. No matter how good you might be, you will never be good enough.
Perk up when the preacher begins to talk about Jesus. You’ve seen a picture of Jesus before— the one of him dressed in a white robe. He’s sitting with the kids and the lambs. You think Jesus looks nice. Begin to cry when the preacher tells you Jesus died because of you and your evil ways. Think of your evil ways. Begin to list them in your head:
- Talked back to mom
- Lied about eating dinner when secretly fed to dog
Feel your rottenness. Allow the tears to pool in your eyes. Do not move to wipe them. Remain still. Blink hard instead. Careful—don’t draw attention. No fidgeting allowed.
Hope comes. You can get to heaven if you pray a specific prayer. Magic words!
Pray the magic words.
Pray them again for good measure.
Breathe a silent sigh of relief when the service is over. Hug your grandparents goodbye. Walk to your family’s car. Wearily get into the back seat and buckle up. Hold your breath: Are you going to get hit tonight? Realize that God is like your father— He’s in charge of your punishment.
Do not relax completely. Ever.
Don’t let your guard down. Ever.
Realize that God is worse than your father— at least your dad can’t know your secret thoughts. God will know every bad decision you ever make. Every. Single. Thing. And it will be used against you in judgment.
Unless the magic words are truly magical.
Bedtime comes around 8:00. Go to bed without a struggle. Tell your mother goodnight as she turns off the light. Pray again. Make sure you’re really forgiven, that you really mean the words. Drift off to sleep and dream of fire and torture. Visualize flames scorching your body.
Allow this dream to haunt you for decades.
* * *
Decades later, hold your baby daughter in your arms. Inhale her sweet baby smell. Remember the words of the pastor, the one dressed in the shiny blue suit and burgundy tie. The one with the Alfalfa hair. You are a sinner. Dirty. Unworthy. You deserve to die! An eternity in a fiery pit! Look at your daughter. Really look. She is perfect. Innocent. Get a sense of the divinity within her. Find the divinity within you. Begin to question everything you’ve been taught about God. Begin to doubt.
Realize that there are certain things that you’d rather not pass on. This idea of God is one of those things.
Protect your daughter from church and from anyone claiming to be an authority over God. Protect her from those in her family who have been sitting in the same pew since 1941. Stop caring if you’re the black sheep— a heathen— one who no longer believes in judgments and fiery pits. Know that you would rather set yourself on fire than force your daughter to sit and listen to such nonsense. Realize you’re still afraid to have this conversation with your family.
Admit freely that you don’t have all the answers.
Amy Atwood is a yoga teacher, truth seeker, and writer. She’s been published in The Nervous Breakdown and Psych Central. Amy lives in Houston, TX with her husband and daughter.