I liked Melynne right away when I met her on the shuttle from the airport to the Collegeville Institute this summer. She was quiet and bright-eyed, like a sandpiper, deceptively small and unassuming. Over our week together, I began to see how much depth of experience and wisdom lay beneath that quiet exterior. Melynne does not have a blog yet, but if you like this (and you will) you should also read her recent post at the Collegeville blog.
A Thousand Miles Away
When I was a little girl my family didn’t go to church, but almost every summer we traveled back home to my grandmother’s farm in north Louisiana, where I went with her to the old country church down the road. It was a small white clapboard building sitting next to the graveyard, keeping company with the departed members. It was a humble structure, unassuming, and with no steeple a visitor passing by might have missed its ecclesial identity save the sign declaring it so: Boeuf Prairie Methodist Church. Inside, the worn wooden pews, faded hymnals, and ancient scent bore witness to the hundred-plus years of its existence.
I thought of that church as God’s house, but I knew God didn’t hang out only there; she followed my grandmother everywhere she went. Mamaw is my first memory of God; someone who kept me safe, wrapping her warm, loving arms around me and enfolding me into her bosom just because she delighted in my presence. I used to think I was her favorite until I realized she loved the other eleven cousins the same way she loved me. I considered myself fortunate that her love was big enough for all of us.
Mamaw’s God was an up-close-not-afraid-to get-her-hands-dirty kind of God; she fed me biscuits and fried chicken, saved me from the black snake slithering too close for comfort, and forgave me when I hid my black-eyed peas—the ones she had grown, picked, shelled, and boiled—in my iced tea because I didn’t like the mealy way they tasted. She even cared about the dogs, gathering scraps from our plates and setting them outside in a pie tin for the strays that came around. I knew in the marrow of my bones that Mamaw’s God loved me. In the deepest part of my spirit, I knew I was lovable.
Not long after I turned fourteen, I went with some kids from my neighborhood to a church youth group and heard about a God who had to kill his son because of me. A God who could not be in my presence and was not delighted in me. They told me I was bad and that only Jesus dying on the cross could make me good. Only Jesus could bring me back to God.
This did not sound like my grandmother’s God, the God who showed up everywhere, even on Mamaw’s back porch; the God who wrapped her arms around me and drew me close. This new God sounded harsh, sounded like a judge. If only I did the right thing and accepted Jesus into my heart, then I would not get punished and end up in hell.
There was a palpable difference to me between the unconditional love of my grandmother’s God and the conditional love of the youth group’s God. It didn’t make sense to me that if I said a few abstract words, a simple prayer, then God would accept me. I didn’t have to say anything to be accepted and loved by Mamaw’s God.
However, Mamaw’s God was a thousand miles away and I wanted to be a part of the youth group. I wanted to belong. I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to feel loved. I wanted to know I was lovable. And so, I kept my questions to myself and said the right words, the words I had been told to say. I accepted Jesus into my heart. I was told I was now acceptable to God. I could enter his presence; I could go to heaven after I die.
I had hoped against all hope that once I said the right words, I would feel the same way I had felt back on my grandmother’s farm. But I didn’t. My suspicions were confirmed. Saying the right words might be enough to get into heaven, but it wasn’t going to be enough to get back to Mamaw’s God.
Now that I knew God set conditions, I recognized I would not only have to say the right words, I would have to do the right things if I was ever going to get God to love me the way she loved me back at Mamaw’s house. I was going to have to figure out what pleased God and make sure I did those things. Things like reading my bible, saying my prayers, attending church, and being good.
This was nothing new to me; it was the way the rest of my life had already been laid out. My parents were satisfied with me when I behaved well, not so placated when I rebelled. My teachers were pleased when I made good grades, disappointed in me if I let them slip. My friends included me in their activities when I went along with their plans, but shunned me if I questioned too much. And, I had a hunch that perhaps my youth group leaders may not be as interested in me if I were not interested in their God. My young self was perceptive enough to understand that love and acceptance by others is naturally conditional. Why would I have ever thought that God was any different?
And so, I grew into adulthood working hard to earn and keep the approval of others, including God. As a result, I completely lost my sense of self. I also lost my memory of my grandmother’s God.
By the time I reached my early thirties, the burden had become so heavy that I finally crumbled beneath its weight. I literally fell apart. Living a false self for so many years, decades really, had taken its toll on me physically, mentally, and spiritually. For the first time in my entire life I went to see a counselor, and together we ever so slowly dismantled myself and put me back together again. It was a daunting process, peeling off and sifting through layer after layer, all the detritus, and the dung, to get down to the core of who I am. But in the end it was exhilarating as I discovered my inquisitive, sensitive, lovable self. And that is when I began to remember my grandmother’s God.
I remembered how I felt at Mamaw’s house, the unconditional love and acceptance of Mamaw’s God. The way she delighted in me and drew me close to her; how she nurtured me and saved me and forgave me. And finally, finally, once again, I could hear God calling me Beloved.
A year or so later I entered seminary, where I was given permission to think for myself. I was actually encouraged—even required—to formulate and articulate my own theological thoughts. How freeing! How utterly splendid! Even so, some of my classmates thought I took this liberty too far when I began to question the popular understanding of the atonement (Christ paid the penalty for my sins so I can be reconciled to God and go to heaven after I die). They alleged that I was teetering precariously close to the edge of the sacrilegious, to the verge of heresy.
However, as I explored further I discovered others—pacifists, feminists, womanists—were questioning this atonement theory too. I learned there is not only one approach to understanding the atonement. There are various other ways my Christian brothers and sisters down through the centuries have believed in the saving significance of Christ’s death; ways that proclaim faith in the God
who is One as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Spirit;
who loves and forgives freely;
who draws close to us, who becomes human to be with us;
who pursues peace in non-violent ways;
who stands up to injustice and is crucified for doing so;
who not only confronts evil, but also redeems and transforms
humanity ensnared within it;
who liberates all of creation;
who conquers the grave;
all through the power of love:
the unconditional compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness of the Triune God.
The night of my ordination service, as I knelt on my knees with the bishop’s hand on my head and his words in my ears, I became strangely aware of some kind of presence hovering nearby. I was reminded of the scripture verse about the ancestors in the faith, the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. And then, with startled clarity I knew the spirit of my grandmother was with me in that place.
I imagine that long ago in a very different time and place, she had knelt on her knees, alone and silent, to be ordained by God; pledging her life to love others the way God loved her.
I scooted over just a smidgen to make room for her spirit to abide with me as I made my vows to continue her legacy.
Melynne Rust, a United Methodist minister, served as a university chaplain and police chaplain before pursuing writing as a ministerial vocation. She and her husband have three grown children, two of whom live nearby in their coastal Florida hometown. When Melynne is not at her writing desk, you can find her reading, walking her dogs, or searching for seaglass at low tide.