I've been meaning to write this post for awhile. VBS happens in the summer, y'all! So here's what happened: I sent my kids to VBS. I was a little nervous about the theology that would be planted in their hearts but I was reassured by several people that VBS theology is usually pretty tame in the churches of Christ (yes, I sent them there). Usually the "fire and brimstone" stuff isn't emphasized. It's not really our way. We like our salvation process to be well thought out and not particularly emotional. Unless we're at camp. Then all bets are off.
However, here's the snag. The "VBS in a box" kit was purchased from some mainstream evangelical source, not the churches of Christ. The flashy, cool stuff never comes from us. And this was really flashy and cool and my children had a great time. They still talk about it. And it's like this every year, which is why I send them back (plus, let's be honest: free childcare in the summer is like panning for gold...you will search and search for a tiny sliver of it so your kids survive the summer with frazzled mom).
And so, in the middle of the freebies that came home every day and the stories of the games and food, I had a 9 year old with a heavy heart by the end of the week. It was incredibly fortuitous that she and I both woke up at least an hour early on the same day for "no reason" after that week was over. And because mom got a break, she used that time to hold her child and have a heart-to-heart. Macy's not a sharer so this was rare and I'm so grateful it played out this way. Because otherwise,
I WOULD HAVE NEVER KNOWN THIS TOTAL BULLSHIT WAS TAUGHT TO MY CHILD AT A FORMATIVE AGE.
So she asked me, "Does it break God's heart every time I make a mistake (this is a question from one perfectionist to another, if you can imagine the tenderness being exposed here)?"
"No darling, God expects everyone to make mistakes. It's part of being human and he made us human on purpose."
"But at VBS, we all had to write down our "sins" and then we had to write them on a cross and the teacher showed everybody. And I didn't know anyone else was going to see it and my handwriting is really big."
"That must have made you feel really exposed that she didn't ask your consent and didn't make it clear to you that others were going to see what you wrote."
"Yes that was really embarrassing (enter disparaging remarks about teacher). Then when she held up all our "sins", she took a heart and broke it in half and that was supposed to represent God's heart every time we make a mistake."
[Enter "dear God, help me not scream or cry right now" into my frantic brain.]
"Here's the thing, babe. Some people really believe that. Some people believe that God requires us to be perfect and that because we can't be perfect, that's what makes us need God. And that's why Jesus died."
"But Mom, does he even like me at all?"
"Yes darling. He thinks you're amazing. And he would never make you feel terrible for not being able to be perfect. In fact, I've found him to be much more kind to me in my perfectionist brain than I am to myself. And that's why I reject this theology. Beliefs are a choice. Do you think that if you conclude after hearing a belief that God does not even like you, does that sound like good news?
"No, this is not good news."
"Then it's not Jesus. Your teacher believes this and we can extend grace to her, though I know you're angry. And it's sad that this is the framework she's living in. But you get to decide what you hold and what you let go of. This sounds like something that isn't serving you, as it didn't serve me. You get to choose if you agree with your teacher."
"I don't think she likes me. She didn't like it when I asked questions."
"Yes, often in this kind of framework, there isn't room for questions."
"If I can't ever be perfect. Why even try?" [Because in this framework, the other option is eternal damnation.] Tears trickle down her face.
"Ah, you've hit my other rubric for if something is from God."
"So one is, is this good news? Two is, does this give me hope? So the question is, seeing God's heart break because you can't always behave a certain way and you're the reason he died and you'll never be able to get it right...did that theology give you hope?"
"There you go. At the end of the day, you may decide to agree with your teacher. That's your choice to make because beliefs are a choice. You may agree with me that this is totally untrue. Just so you can hear another viewpoint, I believe that God made us human on purpose, that he delights in us and that there is no condemnation for those who love him (or for anyone, frankly). I believe that Jesus paid the debt of sin for all humanity once and for all. I believe we are safe and good and loved. Yes, of course, we should take responsibility when we hurt other people, even on accident. But that comes from a place of love for self and others, not from fear of punishment or shame. I believe that the message of Jesus is good news for everyone, not just for people who behave a certain way or who look a certain way. It's for everyone. And I believe that he is the author of hope. He's got this all figured out. And we're okay. We don't need to fix the world or save anyone. We just need to try to be decent people and love him and others. But ultimately, you get to decide what you believe. And as you grow up, you'll hear a lot of what other people believe. But you get to filter it through your experiences and ideas to see what you want to hold and what you want to release. You may grow up to believe very differently from me. And that's okay. That's what Grandpa calls "working out your faith." That's one of my favorite things about faith - it's yours to hold and shape."
"So I can just let this go if it makes me feel bad about myself and God?"
"Okay." Hugs. Back up to bed.
Deep breaths. What if we hadn't both woken up early? This kiddo doesn't talk to me about her experiences and feelings, but this time she did. And it really mattered. And I'm so grateful. I don't know if this will be enough to pluck out that seed planted in her heart and I'm feeling guilt for exposing her to this. And she wants to go back next summer because everything else was great. Ugh. At least I've got a whole year to figure out how to find a fun VBS that doesn't poison my child's self-worth and view of how God sees her.
You guys, if after a lesson a child at a formative age comes away with 2 questions: Does God even like me? And why even try to be good? THIS IS A RED FLAG. I don't care how flashy the stage is, how fun the crafts are, CHECK YOUR THEOLOGY. THIS IS NOT OKAY. Sometimes, we get a chance to parent ourselves while parenting our children. This raw, innocent early experience with religious shame and loss of hope put me back in touch with my own innocence. I responded with fervent intent to be perfect. Macy already knows that's a bust. Thank God for books for children about perfectionism. But then her reaction was a total loss of hope. It makes sense to me.
The more I've sifted through my theology, the more I've come to focus on the fruit of belief. It's not just about what is true and holding onto it. It's about how we are affected when we embrace a certain truth. Does this belief make me more compassionate towards others? Does this belief make me judge others? Does this give me hope? Does this help me understand others and have empathy? Does this belief make me feel affirmed in myself or like shit about things I cannot change (holla LGBTQI!)? This matters. This matters even more to me than the core beliefs themselves and ideas of absolute truth. And that's why I think there should be diversity of belief in community. Some people can hold certain beliefs and be engaged and loving in the world and others curl up in the closet and die. We gotta figure out what beliefs serve us and our mission in the world to be kind, to give grace, to make peace. And that is the polar opposite of how I was raised - that there is one truth, one interpretation of it and you're in or you're out. It's that framework that makes it okay to form children in this way because the alternative is hell. Any kind of shaming, stripping of humanity or judgement is better than eternal damnation, right? This is how we justify excommunication. This is how we can revoke rights for "others" because it's "loving" to tell them "the truth" so they can "come to God." If we make their lives fair, they'll have no reason to come crawling to God for mercy, right? This shit is toxic and it starts YOUNG.
This is the shit I've taken 6 years to unpack in myself and I'll be damned if I stand by and watch someone else do it to my kid. How dare we do this to children. Shame on us. This shit stops now.