“Most of our operative images of God come primarily from our early experiences of authority in family and culture, but we use teachings from the Tradition and Scriptures to validate them!” The Importance of Experience Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation
My earliest memories of religion involved sitting in an elementary age Sunday School class. My most vivid memories of that time include a teacher placing felt Biblical characters around on a green board and telling us a story from the Bible. Another memory, is of a minister bringing a strange papery looking wafer around and placing it on our tongues. I would wonder later about this strange practice while I played on the brightly colored playground equipment behind the church.
My parents didn’t regularly attend church. A neighborhood Sunday school teacher sometimes picked me up and took me to church. I remember a few times sitting in big church with my family, but not enough for it to make a significant impression on me.
Most of my understanding of God came from the television preachers I watched when I got up before my parents on Sunday mornings. Because there were only four networks that our TV could receive at the time, my options were limited. Since I got up early, I sometimes watched three or four preachers back to back. What I learned from the TV preachers early on was that God wasn’t very consistent.
In one show, I remember being told that God cared about the holidays we celebrated. He wasn’t happy with us if we celebrated Easter or Christmas, because these holidays had pagan histories. He wanted us to celebrate the Old Testament holidays only.
In another show, I learned if we wanted to be healed by God we needed to have enough faith to walk to the front of the church and allow the sweaty preacher to place a hand on our forehead and shout,”Be healed!”
In another show, a man who had memorized large sections of the Bible quoted these passages quickly while flashing the modern day news on the screen. God wanted us to know that the world was going to end soon, and we better be ready.
One show was a church service where the pastor read and taught the Bible. He emphasized the importance of knowing the truth, so that we would not be deceived by the lies in the world. I learned a lot about the Bible from his teaching. I am still thankful for this foundation.
Sometimes, I joined my mother in watching a pastor who cried and begged us for money so that his ministry could continue. He promised blessings when viewers complied, thus the reason my mom mailed checks to them even when there wasn’t much money to spare.
Growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who struggled to hold our family together, I longed to believe that there was a God who would save me from the pain and fear of life.
One Sunday I listened to a sermon by a TV preacher (I don’t recall which one) who talked about how to get the key to Heaven. He said if we confessed all of our sins and asked Jesus into our hearts we would receive the key to the gates of Heaven.
I turned off the TV and went to my bedroom kneeling at the foot of my bed. I began whispering all of my sins and begging God to forgive me. I still remember how ashamed I felt.
Sadly, many children who grow up in abusive homes often blame themselves for the bad things that have happened to them. A memory comes to mind of my father stopping at a liquor store on the way home. He asked me to stay in the car. While I waited for him, I can still remember wondering what I did wrong to cause him to want to drink. It was easy to believe that God was not pleased with me either.
When I sat in front of the TV as a little girl, I longed to hear a message of hope about God, but most of the time I felt more confused than hopeful. But I didn’t stop looking.
One day as a desperate adult I walked into the office of a pastor and believed I had finally met the man who revealed the true character of God, only to discover that he wasn’t any different from the father who raised me. I wondered if it wasn’t all my fault. I found myself once again face down on the floor begging God to please forgive me.
Father’s Day is a difficult holiday for me. I have learned on this day that the best I can do is get through it and be honest about what I am feeling.
The heavy feeling that comes behind my eyes is what lets me know that I am not in a good place. Even as I write this, I am still experiencing it. The question I find myself asking is where is this pain coming from? The first word that comes to my mind is fear. Fear that I am doing it wrong. Fear that God is displeased. Fear that something bad will happen, because I can’t do anything right.
This was the message I received from my father in the way that he treated me. This was the message I received from the TV preachers who kept telling me if I just did this or that I would please God and He would bless me. This is the message I received from a toxic pastor for almost a decade.
My final conclusion as I write all of this is, if God is good and God promises to ultimately wipe away every tear from our eyes, He is not at all like the authority figures in our lives who used and abused us.
This is where our real hope lies.
The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3:17
He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. Revelation 21:4
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. Psalm 68:5
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8
For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? Romans 8:24
If you are struggling as a result of religious trauma, The Religious Trauma Institute is a great resource.