I was saved eleven times. As a kid growing up in an Evangelical denomination, I was invited to ask Jesus into my heart at every camp, revival, special youth retreat. I did ask Jesus into my heart but remained terrified. In order to insure my salvation, I had to pray the prayer, examine my spirit, return to a life of repentance, because, apparently I was a horrible sinner and incapable of discovering redemption without the constant and consistent revisitation to upgrade my heavenly insurance policy. My obedient trips to the altar were real, complete with quaking legs, pooling sweat, eyes closed and hands raised, in order to earn me Eternal life in Heaven, or more accurately, eternal life out of Hell.
I had the terrifying narrative of Hell drilled into me from the A Thief in the Night movies to warnings of Satanic conversations in backwards-playing records. My faith, no matter how hard I worked, could not guarantee that I would stay out of Hell, much less get into Heaven. The game was one I would never win, nor was it possible to do enough to appease this angry god, this god of the Old Testament who demanded blood for my wretched sins, my horrible failures.
It wasn’t until college, at a leadership retreat. While everyone was weeping over their transgressions and selfishness, I had nothing. No emotion. I could not conjure even one tear. I was bereft. What was wrong with me? I was the best of them, the most guilty, the most sorry, the most devastated over my human sin. After a conversation with a wiser and older mentor, I saw the new place I had come. My place in God’s order of things had nothing to do with what I couldn’t feel, but what I knew. I knew I was accepted. I knew I was good.
After all the years of confusion and misbelief, trying to be holy enough to placate this god, I have found rest, I have found Love. The God of mercy, cherishes all humanity and loves us through the transforming communion between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are invited into this generous union, celebrating the beauty of complete relationship. The need for self-flagellation, for sacrificing ourselves on the altar of perfection to satisfy a wrath-filled, vengeful god is false. No! We are cherished and adored with full and abundant mercy. Relief and compassion flood over us like a lifted weight, as a dream come true. The relief is palpable because the relief is real, because we know.
The words of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese come to mind:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
I created a terrible god in my image because I believed I was terrible and undeserving of love. In my quest for perfection, in my harboring of resentment and shame I could not know. I could not know how very loved I was. I am.
Until we love ourselves, until we step away from the shame, we cannot know the freedom Ms. Oliver discusses. We cannot. The leap into surrender, responding to the beckoning of a remarkable, desiring God will forever be one good deed removed.
I am not loved because I’ve been saved or because I have a great smile or well-behaved kids or because I’ve stayed married or I go to church or because I’ve been baptized. All of this is irrelevant. I am loved by God because I am. Full stop. Nothing added, nothing removed. When I add conditions, I create a lie.
You are loved by God because you are,
No conditions, no demands, no crawling on your knees for a hundred miles repenting.
Our God is love and generous mercy. Our God died to understand our suffering, to undergo the travails of the human condition, to shine light and bring relief. Our God came to this world in a treacherous age, as an infant, the most vulnerable of creatures. In a world that hated him, that was already out for his blood, our God, in bodily form, healed and loved and ate and communed with the destitute.
Because aren’t we all the destitute? Aren’t we all beat up, battered?
The Baby signifies our entitlement to the heart of God. The Baby proves this to our hope-weary souls.
You can go to church every day for the rest of your life. God isn’t going to love you any more than God loves you right now. You cannot make God love you any less, either – not an ounce less. Do the most terrible thing – steal and pillage, cheat and lie – and God wouldn’t love you less. You cannot change the Divine mind about you. The flow is constant, total and 100% toward your life. God is for you.
-Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance.