Sunday, January 12, 2014

My First Communion

About a month ago (or more?) I said I would be telling my story - my "testimony" one might say. But  it is fragmented, thus far I have only been able to delve into the theology. It's easier for me to outline what a Calvinist (or a Southern Baptist, or a dispensationalist, or pick your poison) believes. It's less painful to write a textbook than to expose the hurting places. And trying to expose those places in chronological order? No. All I can do is hold my nose, close my eyes, count to three and jump.

We had a interim pastor, and I liked him. He was granfatherly, grey-haired with a full beard and gentle voice, just enough meat on his bones to seem softened. At the same time, his measured, careful sermons had authority, as if from someone who doesn't need to shout to be heard. I wasn't used to this technique. I was used to our old pastor's unique mix of old-time religion pulpit pounding with expository preaching techniques discovered from Calvin and Edwards.  We heard sermons in which every other word was anunciated to the nth degree and every jot and tittle of a verse squeezed and wrung out for every drop of meaning.  However, the style was not to everyone's liking. Some were hurt by being called "gutless wonders" because their kids had TVs in their bedrooms; others simply didn't have the stamina for 45 minutes of emotional torment; others weren't sufficiently in love with Scripture to listen to a 3-month-long extended exposition on a few verses. Some were willing to compromise their doctrine, to take their families to churches with Armenian teachings but shorter sermon times. The congregation had been culled, winnowed, and only the toughest, the most committed to Reformed doctrine and Presbyterian governance were remaining. We were close-knit though, like a resistance group that's been through a war and come out on the other side. But like that resistance group, we were fragile too. All the hurt from friends and members leaving, from harmful sermons, from despair and depression about the situation at church - all of it made us feel like our skin was peeled away, leaving organs exposed to further damage.

The year between pastors we were lead by this kindly older gentleman, a retired pastor who had agreed to fill the pulpit on Sunday mornings. My wont was to ignore sermons as much as possible, to flee in my mind to a secret retreat. Years later I learned the term disassociation, but at 11 years old I lived it. However, this man's sermons reached my hiding place because they were gentle, softly spoken, moderately paced, well-timed. Little by little, I left the tiny closet in my mind and started peering in to the main room.

During the summer of that year we had the first communion we'd had in well over a year. Presbyterians typically take communion "quarterly" meaning once every three months, though these days they're taking more frequently - monthly or even weekly. (The theology of communion is radically different from Catholic, which is why it's less frequent). However, because of all the church problems we'd been in a dry spell. Presbyterian children are baptized as infants and confirmed sometime around 10-13 usually, and they don't take communion until after confirmation. At that point they have officially joined the church and are able to attend congregational meetings with the adults. Well, I had attended these, and felt very grown-up doing so, but I hadn't had a chance to take communion yet.

He preached on Paul's letter to the Corinthians in which Paul warns them against taking communion in an "unworthy manner, eating and drinking judgement on themselves." The pastor gently but gravely impressed the need for repentance, for self-examination, and for true faith in Christ crucified in order to take communion. The words beat into my heart and shattered my hope.  It sounds strange to say that. After all, one should repent as a Christian. One should examine one's heart and confess one's sins, and one should believe in Christ's death and new life. But I was hearing this message through the lens of spiritual abuse, and it was devastating.

My soul was so bruised and wounded that the lightest touch cut like a knife. I had been systematically taught that my heart was black with sin, dead, totally depraved unless God had chosen me as His elect. When I asked how we would ever know that we were chosen, I was told that "if you believe in Jesus that's a sign of your election." But belief is a slippery thing. What does it mean to believe? Does it mean intellectual knowledge and assent? Because I was all over that shit. I was the obnoxious kid in Sunday school who could recite Abraham's lineage, who could find Nahum in the Bible if asked, who knew how to make a salvation bracelet and what the colors stood for. After all, I'd been going every week to multiple services at the little church, plus attending a Southern Baptist school since kindergarten, and those Southern Baptists believe in knowing Bible stories and sword drills, let me tell you. Yet I knew that "head knowledge" wasn't enough. Hadn't I sat through chapel services at school in which they told us we needed to have "heart knowledge" too? You needed to believe with all your heart that Jesus saved you from Hell, and woe to those with lingering doubts.

Of course, the Baptist kids had it easy in my opinion, because they could always just "walk down the aisle" again, "rededicate" their lives to Christ, maybe even get baptized again if they decided they hadn't meant it enough the first time. But I was stuck. After all, what did it matter if I went down the aisle, prayed the Sinners' Prayer, stirred up my emotions in fervent sorrow for my sins? If God had chosen my eternal destination to be hell, then to hell I would go. Who can fight the Almighty God?

So I listened to the pastor exhort us to caution. To make matters worse I sat alone on the pew. My mom was sitting at the piano; my dad was an Elder, and in that denomination they are the ones to distribute the bread and grape juice (we didn't use wine even though we weren't against it). The Elders sat together in a front pew on the other side, ready to serve. Presbyterians receive communion in their seats rather than going forward. The elders pass a metal tray with the wafers, and then they return with a tray filled with shot glasses of juice (dead serious). In our church they passed out the bread throughout the congregation, then everyone waited to take it together. Same with the juice. (Presbyterian pews have little holders where you put the shot glass when you're done, next to the hymn books). As he talked, I quietly had a panic attack, wondering how to avoid receiving without drawing attention to myself. My own father would probably be handing me the elements, and he knew it was my first communion. We didn't make a big deal about it with white dresses or anything, but it was still special. And how could I refuse?

The dreaded moment came. As I feared, my father was the one to offer the bread. I took it and pretended to eat it, but instead I wrapped it in Kleenex and put it in my purse. The juice was harder. I couldn't wrap it up, and I didn't want to set it full in the pew. So I took it, feeling as if I was drinking poison. I could hear the preacher's voice: drinks judgment on himself.... For that reason some of you are ill, and some have fallen asleep." I was afraid God would kill me for this and send me to hell.

At this point I had become a pro at looking like everything was fine while inside I suffered. I blinked back tears and even managed to sing the last hymn. Then I slipped out before anyone could talk to me and ran out of the church.

Our church had lovely woods and gardens around it. The building is nothing to look at, but the woods, especially back then, were fairly wild. In the spring it was an explosion of daffodils, tulip trees, dogwoods, and azaleas. In summer I fled to the untamed green in the back, to hide and cry as hard as I could. I tried to throw up but all I could do was gag. I begged God to forgive me but all I felt was silence. God was unchanging, unrelenting, and no tears or cries for help would change His holy will. But He was God, and must be worshiped and loved in spite of all. Already I felt myself chafing against this injustice, but the Stockholm Syndrome was too great to leave yet. It was all I knew, all the hope I had, and to go outside the light was to confirm that no, I was not elect, my fears were correct. Better to stay, to pray, to prove that I was loved, even while knowing for a fact that I would never deserve to be loved.


  1. I'm new here, so I don't know the end of the story, but this leaves me indescribably sad, and speechless. That a Christian church could teach of such an unloving God, that a child could be left so broken, when she ought to have been taught of God's infinite love, and her beauty in His eyes...

    I look forward to reading about the rest of your journey.

    1. Thanks for your comment! The end of the story isn't nearly so sad; I no longer think I'm worthless intellectually, but I'm still fighting those impulses emotionally. The difficult thing about telling my story is that I never "burned bridges" - the people who told me I was totally depraved weren't trying to scare me for life. The irony of the Calvinists I grew up with is that they were better than the god they tried to create....