The things people tell a minister after church. . . .
Yesterday a woman I did not know spoke to me after church—she was there for a baptism. I heard about the church of her childhood, where “salvation” was attained by refraining from smoking and drinking and dancing and cursing. It was a rigid theology recalling H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” It’s relatively easy, looking back over a life, to recognize the bankruptcy of that kind of spirituality, but when you’re young and impressionable it can be haunting indeed.
Every religious group has its own version of this. It may not be dancing and drinking and cursing, but another set of restrictions is in force. The basic message is simple: God wants you to be good, and to meet that expectation these are the things that you should do, and these are the things you should not do. Many of us have tried mightily to master those do’s and don’ts, only to fail utterly. As a friend once confided in me, “Even on my best days I couldn’t be good enough.”
The need to attain some kind of perfection is universally human, and since perfection is impossible for fallible creatures it leads to frustration, guilt and shame. Sadly, many religious groups seize upon this moment and use it to control people’s lives and behavior. This was the experience of the woman who spoke with me after church yesterday. I told her that she was not alone. It was my experience too.
Then I said, “You know, don’t you, that God loves you not because of anything you do or don’t do, but just because you are you.”
She smiled. “Yes, I know, but that other message is still pretty strong.”
So I said it again. “God loves you not because of anything you do or don’t do, but just because you are you.”
We both laughed.