God’s Beloved Daughter-Child | Part 1 of 4
It’s the 1990s. I’m teaching a seminar on spirituality. At the beginning of the class I hand out to each participant, including me, a blank piece of paper and crayons. The assignment is simple: draw and color your childhood image of God. You have 5 minutes.
I drew and still have my image: the all-seeing eye of God at the top of the pyramid on every USA $1 bill! God’s eye perpetually roves the face of the earth, searching to find out whether I’m being an obedient little girl.
It’s an eye of judgment—never blinking, never resting, able to see even in the night because God’s eye has sunbeams coming out from it. It’s also, according to my drawing, very bloodshot!
This image—triggered every time I looked at a $1 bill—stuck with me like glue throughout my childhood. Of course it wasn’t God’s eye at all. It was Daddy’s internalized (in me) eye watching to make sure I kept all the good girl rules and didn’t try any hanky-panky when I thought or even knew he (Daddy) wasn’t looking.
Troubling questions about God and me
So does this mean I grew up hating God? Or that I turned against God at an early age due to Daddy’s harsh punishment and other behaviors toward me?
Not necessarily. The way I see it, my earliest childhood view of God was both comical and tragic. It probably took root because I asked one of my parents to explain the strange, almost other-worldly picture still on the $1 bill!
Theologically speaking, I had an edge of unhealthy fear of God in me as a child. But that fear seemed connected to visiting preachers’ hellfire-and-brimstone sermons (not many of them, thankfully) and what would happen to me when I died.
In one summer Bible camp my heart trembled as one particularly colorful preacher shouted on and on about the dreadful fire in hell. During his long, earnest, pleading invitation I stood up just to make sure I had Jesus in my heart and wouldn’t suffer the flames of hell. If Daddy turned out to be right, I was a candidate for serious punishment. Better to cover all bases.
I also had a sadly deficient view of God and of myself. In fact, if there hadn’t been several women who affirmed and supported me as a human being, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I understand this now; I didn’t see it back then.
One of these women was my piano teacher from age 9 through 16. Another was my Sunday School teacher for several years when I was in grade school. Then there were four grade-school teachers who went out of their way to affirm and encourage me. One was my grade-school Bible teacher. Each of them was old enough to be my grandmother.
I didn’t know it back then, but my image of God and of myself was being moderated, augmented, filled out properly–even unconsciously.
How I first learned about God and theology
My earliest conscious learning about God came from Psalm 23, one of the first passages I ever learned to recite ‘by heart.’ I was about 6 or 7 years old, attending summer vacation Bible school.
In our class each of us made a small flannel-graph board (cardboard, with white flannel glued on). Then we colored in a little background right onto the cloth (clouds, sun, a little path by a stream) and cut out individual figures we’d also colored. They illustrated different parts of the Psalm such as a shepherd, sheep and a lamb, a rod and a staff, wild menacing animals for the valley of death, and dogs named Goodness and Mercy who shall follow me all the days of my life.
As we worked on our handcrafted project, we memorized and recited the entire Psalm. Then we learned how to use our home-made visual aid to make presentations to family members and friends as we recited the Psalm. I loved doing this.
Even more important, I took it in. I believed it. It comforted me as a child—one of God’s little lambs, with a shepherd (that would be God!) to take care of my wounds and make sure I was safe. Besides, there was always applause and appreciation at the end.
At home and in grade school I memorized children’s songs and hymns about God and Jesus. I learned that Jesus came to show us what God is like. I learned all the verses to Jesus Loves Me. That includes the part about Jesus loving me when I’m good AND when I’m bad (though it makes him very sad).
I felt comforted by this then and even now. Jesus is strong. I know I belong to Jesus no matter what I do. This is the same Jesus in the Bible who loves having children around and blessing them. He famously and sternly rebukes the rude adults who try to keep us, the children, from bothering him. What could be more wonderful?
Finally, in addition to all this memory work, we practiced daily family devotions—Bible reading and prayer around the table after breakfast. Sometimes my father asked questions to get us thinking and talking about the meaning of what we were reading.
I was hooked. Not on his theology (still a big mystery to me), but on the way Scripture shows me big themes and big images of God and of us as God’s children.
My love of theology goes back to these table conversations. I enjoyed the challenge of thinking through things about God or what it means to follow Jesus. Besides, this was a rare activity in which Daddy and I seemed to be able to talk with each other. Though I did most of the listening and he did most of the talking–after I got my turn.
An early theological insight: Daddy isn’t God or Jesus!
Daddy most definitely is not the shepherd of Psalm 23 who cares for the sheep. Nor is he the Jesus of the Gospels who loves and blesses little girls and boys like me. As for sermons Daddy preached about God, I don’t remember specific content even though I sat through plenty of them. Frequently I sat on the front row with my sisters. Sitting still. Not whispering to each other, or giggling if something funny happened.
But what about the beatings? Surely this turned me against God. How could it not? Especially since Daddy was doing all this as God’s representative, and the beatings included imposed requirements that I confess my sin to God, repent and beg forgiveness of God and of him. As though God were on his side, not mine.
True, my father saw this as his God-given duty. A step toward accomplishing his mission: to break my will. And yes, he believed God would hold him accountable for his performance. Mission accomplished. Well done, thou good and faithful servant….
But I was a determined and persistent little girl–just as I am today. My body might have to submit, but my little girl mind and heart wouldn’t have it. I was certain that God would NEVER beat me like this. God is my shepherd! God helps me through the valley of the shadow of death and heals my wounds. God isn’t interested in hurting me or making me feel ashamed of myself or my body.
How did I know this? I knew this because of Jesus who came to show us what God looks like. It was that simple. Jesus wants children around him just for fun, for love, for affection and because he wants to bless them. All of them, including me.
And so, during the beatings my mind rehearsed the opening verses of Psalm 23 as a way of switching gears to focus on something else. Until I couldn’t hold my breath or my sobs any longer. I knew God would NEVER treat me like this.
To be continued….
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 July 2014