Monday, August 17, 2009

Softly and Tenderly

I started to cry yesterday during church.

This is not the post I wanted to write today. This is not a post that I was sure I was ever going to be able to write. I had funny stories of the weekend trip to see Blue October halfway composed in my head. I was going to tell you the history of my love of the band, or maybe even start the story of how I met Mike. I had a funny picture of an awesome chair from our hotel room that I was going to post for you. I was witty, funny, and anecdotal all at once.

And then I started to cry yesterday during church.

I am not even sure Mike knew I was crying. I was fighting to keep the tears back, but they welled up and threatened to pour over during the last song we sang.

I have quite the history with church and religion. It is part of the heritage my parents passed down to me, it is part of the fiber of who I am, it is very much a part of what makes me, ME.

I was raised in a strict conservative Christian household. We weren't allowed to wear pants until I was 14 years old, we didn't go trick-or-treating on Halloween, we didn't believe in the Easter bunny, or the tooth fairy, or Santa (even at a small age). We weren't allowed to watch Scooby Doo because the story lines dealt with ghosts and witches, taboo topics in our household. We went to church every time the doors were open, we said grace before each and every meal, we memorized Bible verses at a young age, I can still recite the books of the Bible in order, and I was the Bible drill champion of the church for several months.

But it was more than that, it was so much more. Christianity was woven into every fiber of our life. Our belief in God, our worship, our faith, it was more than this. I don't honestly know the right words to explain it to those that were not raised with such an all-encompassing faith, but it was more than a part of our lives. It WAS our lives. Every thing that we did, every thing that we touched, every word, every action, every song you sang or tv show you watched was expected to be held up to the measuring stick and it was expected to meet the criteria.

I don't know if everyone is affected the same way, but for me, this completely shaped the way I viewed my world, and the way I viewed myself. There were positives and negatives, of course. It gave me a sense of belonging to a community, a sense of safety in knowing, or thinking that I knew, everything was laid out for me. There is a sense of comfort in having a set of directions laid out for me that I can follow. There was a sense of knowing how I measured up. But therein lay part of the problem. I felt that I was being measured, constantly.

I remember in my early 20's, I was working in the youth group in a church in Arkansas. During our youth Bible study one week, the lesson was on "loving your neighbor as yourself", and the emphasis was on the fact that in order to love others, you have to love yourself. You have to accept yourself as the creation of God, and see how valuable you are. Anyhow, the preacher was going around the group, picking out random people and asking them if they liked themselves, and why or why not. I KNEW he was going to call on me, and I dreaded it. I didn't want to answer that question. Just as I predicted, he called on me, and asked me "Jennifer, do you like yourself?", and I started to cry. The great big gulping sobbing cry that becomes more embarrasing the longer it goes on. The cry where your whole face becomes red, and you can't breathe, and people are trying to comfort you, but it only makes it worse. I couldn't answer his question, I couldn't look at him, I couldn't speak. I just wanted to go away and fade. You see, at that moment I had a revelation. I realized something that I had never realized before.

I didn't like myself.

Why? Because I wasn't good enough. Because I could never be good enough.

Looking back, I think that was the turning point in my religious life. From that point forward, I couldn't find the comfort that I had known as a child. I couldn't find the peace and the knowledge that I belonged. Instead, I felt the condemnation. I felt that I couldn't meet the standards, I couldn't measure up, I failed. Slowly over time, I began to like myself less and less.

I left Arkansas and moved to Dallas on my own. I quit going to church, because it felt empty. Worse than that, it didn't feel empty, it felt full of reminders of how I was failing, how I was going to fail. I just couldnt take it anymore, the feeling that people were standing there in disapproval, with their checklists of the ways I was supposed to be, the things I was supposed to do, the words I was supposed to say. Their rules were smothering me. I had to walk away.

In the years between then and now, I have learned a lot about myself. Mike has helped me figure out a lot about myself. I learned that I need to have a faith of my own. It ISN'T always going to be the same as those that wear the title of Christian. I don't agree with all the teachings of ANY church. I can't go back to that church that I was raised in. I had to strike out and find out where I belonged. Most importantly, I needed to learn to like myself. And in order to do that, I had to learn to live on my own two feet. I had to make decisions for myself, instead of turning to the church for answers to every little facet of my life and personality. I became my own person, I became my own self. I learned who I was. In the process, I threw away some of the teachings of my childhood. I learned that it was okay to reject some of the teachings, and that it didn't mean I rejected it all. I learned to think through my faith and understand it, and not accept it blindly.

Mike and I have found a church that we love. We attend most Sundays, and I work at that same church. I am slowly but surely finding my way back to a faith that I can base my life on.

But the relationship is different. It will never be that all encompassing overwhelming ruler of judgement that I used to measure myself by. It can't be. I refuse to let it be. It is instead, now a tenative friendship that is forming. I can't commit to the life I used to live by. I don't want to be in that life. I am very happy in the life that I have found with Mike, and in the faith that we are growing together as a couple.

So why did I start to cry yesterday? We were singing "Softly and Tenderly" and it came to the chorus.... "come home, come home, you who are weary, come home"... and my heart broke... because I feel like I am coming home. I am finding my way back to a HEALTHY relationship with God, and just as importantly, a HEALTHY relationship with church. And because, in this one area of my life, I have been so weary for so long... I have been tired in my soul since I was a child. I kept trying and trying to be good enough, and I wasn't. And now? Now I am in a place where I am beginning to learn again that I can just let go.

I can let go, I can enjoy faith, I can relax and be happy. I am strong enough to remain ME without allowing doctrine to overrun the amazing person that I am already.

It is safe now for me to "come home".


  1. Amazing person indeed! It certainly feels like home to me too. For the first time in my life, I am at peace with my religious beliefs. In a lot of ways, it was you that showed me that this was possible.
    This means that the search is over for both of us. We both just needed someone to help us along the way!

  2. This entry made me tear up. I can understand where you are coming from to a great degree, even if you had it much stricter than I did. I myself felt that pull to go back and find a church home a few years ago after leaving my years of Mormonism behind. I wanted a place that I could be myself while spiritually developing the way that I wanted. I took the teachings of the faith of my childhood and laid parts of it as a foundation for the beliefs I stand on today.

    Growing up, there were the Molly Mormons- the ones who could recite the Book of Mormon passages backwards and forwards and only drank non-caffeinated drinks. Then there were the others that maybe had made it through the videotape version of the BOM on a random Family Night and drank Dr. Pepper when no one was paying attention. As a family, we fell into that second category and I just remember feeling like the dumbest girl in Sunday school. I actually attempted to return to the religion of my youth when I went back to find a church, and my heart just told me that it was not for me. I would be ostracized because I had a non-Mormon husband and I didn't even have the decency to get married in the temple.

    And now, I'm glad I didn't.
    There is no way I would have the same relationship with God as I do now and I would not be nearly as happy with myself and my life as I am now.

  3. Exactly! I took the good part of what I started with, and I am building something better on it. I just first had to learn that it was ok to discard some of the bad parts.

  4. ok hope you get this..
    i grew up in that same household and coming from a loose catholic background, i assumed that the way i was raised with your parents was the christian norm and maybe for them at the time it was, but when i was on my own like you i lost my path for a while, a long while. but the funny thing about running from God, no matter how many foot steps you run away, when you turn back to him, its only one step back. I have come realized that the legalistic life style i thought was the christian way, was nothing more than a christian jew trying to live by the law. We as a society have lost our way when we place all the rules on serving God. Faith, Hope and Love. That's it, period. When I came to that point, my christianity was open to a whole lot of joy. Yes Jennifer you are at a friendship with Jesus but if you hold to that, you will find yourself on a path that leads to greatness for his namesake. The lost dont need a set of rules, they are living by them already and the rules have failed them. When they see the friendship you have, it will show them what they need in their own lives. As your Uncle I am proud of you, as your surrogate brother I admire you, as your fellow christian, I share your Joy and am so thankful for you.

  5. Thank you Tim, that meant a lot to me.

    And I am proud to have you as a surrogate brother :)

  6. From one Jennifer to another, I know what you mean about learning to love yourself. I struggle with this also. It is so hard to put these feelings into words for me, but you have done a beautiful job. BRAVO for the changes in your life that are affecting you in a positive way.

  7. Thank you so much for your comment Jen. This is a struggle that I think each and every one of us must face.

    I think perhaps, the journey to find yourself might just be the essence of this thing we call life.