To make herself proud, Mama placed my little ruffled, panty-clad bottom squarely on the polished, black piano bench. The church ladies’ ears were cued up to hear “Jesus Loves Me.” Instead, I rolled out a robust, one-finger version of “Roll Out the Barrell.”
As far back as I can remember, I loved playing the piano, playing by ear at first and adding lessons later. I would play anything I heard sung at home or at church. At an early age, I wasn’t much of a pianist, but with one or two fingers I would hammer out songs on my toy piano. I loved the songs my daddy sang when he came home from work and I would entertain myself by playing and singing his songs back.
In a newspaper picture of three-year-old me sitting at a piano with my mother behind me, the caption read, “A Pianist at Three.” It was about the same time that my mother took me to the ladies’ meeting. No doubt, as moms will do, she had bragged about my musical abilities.
Despite their wondering who had been singing that song around our house, the group surely chuckled while my mother turned ashen. When I
was a teen and she would share that story with others, she would always let me know how badly I embarrassed her. The truth was, it was wartime, and my daddy would sing those songs to me when he came home from work at the flour-sifter factory, where he and Mama had met. Though that day I picked up on “Beer Barrel Polka,” his favorites were “You Are My Sunshine,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anybody Else but Me,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and other tunes from the World War 2 era.
A couple years ago, I completed a program called BreakThrough, discovering some of my true self. Since then, I have wondered if by three years old I’d already discovered the mischief that was part of my personality (got it from my daddy) and used it, as Jesus did with the Pharisees, to poke holes in my mother’s religion.
My daddy loved the Lord with a child-like trusting spirit; I now realize his relationship with Jesus functioned through an understanding of grace. While his only graduation was from eighth grade, in my eyes, he had his doctorate. He was the most authentic person I have ever known. He was the standard bearer of “what you see is what you get” – all the time. He was not a complicated person. Without superfluities, he spoke the truth about things; especially when it came to my behavior, I always knew where he stood. From his stories, I picked up on some of the adventures of his young twenties, which, when they came up, my mom would downplay. Sadly, though I could not please my mom, I was taking most of my cues from her.
In addition to playing that “non-spiritual” song at age three, I purposed other mischief along the way. I’m sure I succeeded a few times but overall, by inflicting shame, my mother, doing her best to serve God, kept both my dad and me defenseless in a religious, shame-based web.
As a little girl, we drove to town for church. I loved Sunday school. We had a Sunday school superintendent who kept things lively and teachers who used colorful flannel-graph figures to tell stories like Creation, David and Goliath, and Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. I excelled in “Bible drills,” which was an exercise to see who could find and read a Bible verse first.
Yet, instead of reinforcing God’s unconditional love, sin-conscious pastors and Sunday school teachers reinforced shame and fear. They presented some ideas that, at our early, impressionable ages, were threatening and gave a faulty impression of God. Seemingly innocent toddler songs could have put fear into our hearts.
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see . . .
For the Father up above is looking down in love
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see
Later in life, some of us passed the same intimidating ideas on to our children. Even though it is about Santa, this song also translated across
religious lines to infer a god who was out to get us.
He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake
He knows when you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake
A part of a chorus we sang, “Jesus Loves Even Me,” left a lingering question with me: Jesus loves everybody else just fine, but I am not enough. Still, He loves even me. These charming little songs from church and Santa do not describe the way God teaches us to love Him. We love Him, not out of fear, but because He loved us first (1 John 4:19). . . .
Well-intentioned systems left their mark on developing minds and emerging theologies. With so much emphasis on keeping of religious rules (doing), how could we have possibly understood that God loves us as His child for who we are (being)?
I believe we thought that by doing good things, we were earning God’s love. Our “religious behavior” was misplaced. God desires good behavior, but it comes more as evidence of our love for Him—not pleasing Him to earn His love.
Using the King James Version of the Bible, I learned these verses in Sunday school and vacation Bible school. Jesus identified these words as the greatest (and only) commandment:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Mark 12:30–31, KJV).
These were the words I memorized and recited. But in real life, something was curiously changed in the translation. The way this Scripture was lived out in our church and in my home, became my belief.
Thou shalt please the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt please thy neighbor as thyself. (Mark 12:30–31, my substitutions)
I was not born with emotional dependency. I’m convinced it was learned behavior. Home-taught, church-taught and self-taught, I became its rapt student. As I look back, I know now I was seeking God’s love and approval . . . .
Excerpts from Mary’s Book
On one particular Saturday, God took me back to my small childhood bedroom. With the sensation of slow rhythm, my fingers were stroking the velvety-smooth spindles and feeling their softness. As I felt my hands wrapped loosely around two of the spindles of my baby brother’scrib, a scene unfolded.
Mama was cleaning the house and she had to come through my room to go into hers. Still tenderly caressing the spindles, I nervously stopped her, carefully wording the question I had wanted to ask for a few days. “Mama, where is Johnny?”
“He’s in heaven,” was her abrupt reply. No explanation. No tenderness. No demonstration of the hurt and grief that was in her own heart, and certainly, no empathy regarding what I was feeling. That was it.
Mama quickly went on to her duties in her own bedroom, leaving me there to sort through the implications of her three words. “He’s in heaven” hung like a melting icicle over my head, dripping its cold, icy waters onto my face. There were no hugs, no “Come here, sweetheart,” no “I understand how you must be feeling, honey,” no “Let me hold you.” Just those three distant words to which I couldn’t even relate. Heaven, where was that? Johnny was my baby also, and I just wanted him back in that crib and in my house where he belonged. I remember being angry with no one. The only person I might have talked with about my feelings had just walked away.
That day, as I was hurting so desperately with no one to comfort me, I was not conscious of the hurt and pain my mother was experiencing in losing her sweet little baby boy, who just a few weeks before had been learning to do all the wonderful things cute little seven-month-old babies do. Johnny was healthy, learning to sit up, laughing, and loving playtime and bath time.
Sometime later, the crib was gone, passed on to the next relative. My bedroom went back to the way it was before. I got used to it. Neither the crib nor baby Johnny were ever mentioned again. My emotional walls were thickening. Enriched by lack of meaningful interaction with my mother, the roots of the sapling of codependency were driven deeper into soil, as the sapling itself grew larger, taking on bark and putting on leaves. . . .
The Malodorous Pumpkin
Glen had been gone three months. It was a Saturday, and I was in prayer and reading God’s Word, trying to sort out the confusion and fears of my life. When it was time to get ready for church, I began to bargain with the Lord, saying, “If the pastor talks about sin again tonight, this is my night.” Our teaching pastors don’t preach against sin as fiercely as they did in the churches I attended while growing up, but if a reference to sin comes up in the passage we are studying, they don’t skip over it.Glen had been gone three months. It was a Saturday, and I was in prayer and reading God’s Word, trying to sort out the confusion and fears of my life. When it was time to get ready for church, I began to bargain with the Lord, saying, “If the pastor talks about sin again tonight, this is my night.” Our teaching pastors don’t preach against sin as fiercely as they did in the churches I attended while growing up, but if a reference to sin comes up in the passage we are studying, they don’t skip over it.
I struggled with the new melodies and words of worship (I was the one who was new, not the songs). At one point during the worship time, God lifted me out of my despair and self-centeredness and allowed me to visualize Glen in heaven, worshiping our God in all purity and truth. That was a beautiful revelation that calmed my anxious spirit and helped me to remember that the only way God accepts our worship is when we worship Him in Spirit and in Truth (Jn. 4:24). . . .
Matt Newman, one of our teaching pastors, taught from part of a series in Colossians. The night’s reading was from chapter 3. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (vv. 1–3).
Matt said, “Tonight, we’re going to be talking about sin. We will see the tragedy of sin and what we do as a result. I have a video to help set the mood for us.”
The video clip was from the first TV episode of the first season of “Hoarders.” If you’ve ever seen that show, you know the plight of any hoarder is serious and the environment is usually repulsive; but the poor people are in no more bondage than I was.
The woman in the episode was fearful of being evicted from her home. In parts of her house, the stuff was waist deep. Somehow, they had connected this poor woman with a professional who was trying to help her face her problem. In addition to the flies buzzing around the heads of the two people in the living room, probably a hundred dead flies were trapped in a fly-catcher strip hanging from the ceiling. The professional commented on the odors and the flies, saying that when you get a strong smell and a lot of flies buzzing around, it usually means there is something rotten close by.
The woman answered, “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s the pumpkin. It was a very nice pumpkin when it was fresh.”
At that point, the pastor turned off the video. He explained how at the end of the segment a crew in Hazmat suits cleared out the house, and they found rotten pumpkins in several places. Those rotten pumpkins, which had been drawing flies, were the woman’s emotional pets. As the professional cleanup crew walked out with the rotten pumpkins, she dug her hand into one of them and grabbed a handful of sticky, slimy seeds, in hopes she could plant them for a “future crop.”
“We are sin hoarders,” Matt explained. “The same way this lady dealt with her pumpkins and just lived with them, we deal with sin by letting it fester. We can smell the rotten odors, but we breathe superficially. We can see the flies, but we just go on and let them live. We continue to pluck the seeds of sin and keep them in our pockets, saving them for a new crop, all the while saying, ‘This is my comfort zone. I can’t let these sins go.’”
At the end of the service . . . .