We ex-Nazarenes have a term we call ourselves: Nazbeens. You can even buy a Nazbeens T-shirt (not that I have). Like many Nazbeens, I still look back on the Nazarene Church with some fondness and a lot of good memories. When I left it, I was a bit disillusioned with it and was looking for liturgy. But as I reflect on my upbringing in the home of Nazarene ministers, what I see is a lot of GUILT.
I have been looking through old journals yet again as I revise my manuscript. I kept prayer journals for years. In those journals I see a girl desperate to please God and the adults in her life and a girl always yearning to be a better Christian. I was a teenager who had devotions every single day, sometimes twice a day. I was probably a better Christian than most teenagers are. Yet it wasn’t enough. There was always a deeper blessing or understanding I grasped at, or a special word of God I was waiting to hear, or the need to ask His forgiveness for not thinking about Him 24-7.
A counselor once asked me if I had ever been angry at my parents when I was a teenager. I said no. She asked if I’d ever rebelled as a teenager. I said no. And then she very gently told me that I wasn’t normal. That it was normal for teenagers to rebel and push the limits and sometimes be raging made at their parents. But not me. I had to be perfect.
In the Nazarene Church, there is a second work of grace after salvation: sanctification, or holiness. I’ve heard many different descriptions of sanctification and will not try to explain it here, but I strove for that second thing I had to achieve, which seemed like perfection. I probably prayed six or seven different times to get sanctified. I thought you weren’t supposed to sin at all after you got sanctified, so when I did, I just thought that the most recent time I’d prayed for sanctification wasn’t real enough or meaningful enough or heartfelt enough. So, out of guilt, I prayed for it again.
One of my Nazarene relatives, who is probably the most selfless person I know, was gung-ho on all the holiness stuff. She made me feel guilty for everything from staying out until midnight (which isn’t really late for a college student) to taking a nap. There was a high emphasis on “what it might look like” to other people. You always had to act in way that made people think you were a good Christian. I say this not because I still carry a grudge – I love this person very much and let me tell you, she has mellowed a lot – but to show you that the Nazarene message of the 1950s and 60s was alive and well when I was growing up. The message of perfection and works righteousness probably fit in great back when my parents were growing up. But that message is not relevant anymore.
When I first got married, I felt guilty about having sex because sex had always only been something that was wrong.
I used to feel guilty about leaving my kids to have a girls’ night out.
I still feel a little guilty about drinking alcohol.
I still feel a little guilty if I skip church on Sunday.
I still often feel like I need to be perfect and I need everyone around me to be perfect.
Even the parts of my manuscript about Orthodoxy are wrought with guilt. And Orthodoxy does not represent guilt to me. Yet there it is, right smack in the middle of all of my writings about how true and mystical and beautiful Orthodoxy is. I have a chapter that is all about me feeling guilty for missing a Holy Week service because Ephraim was 2 and needed a nap in the afternoon. Really? I ask myself. I have heard Fr. Stephen tell the young mothers, “Come to the services you can during Holy Week, and stay as long as you can. If you need to leave early because of the children, leave early, but come when you can, and both you and God will receive a blessing.” Even my priest gets that young kids (and their weary mothers) can’t make it through the umpteen services of Holy Week. Yet me? I’m guilty.
Let me say it: Guilt can no longer be my reason for believing in God and living a Christian life.
I am not saying that guilt has no place in the church; certainly, the Holy Spirit convicts us of times we have hurt ourselves or others and urges us to make all things right. But guilt can no longer be my motivator. Guilt has spent years chewing me up and spitting me out and convincing me that I am unworthy. Guilt has made me always scared that I will be judged and rejected. In some ways, guilt has made me turn my eyes toward others in judgment and demand perfection from them. Because I could never bear to turn my eyes inward and accept myself.
I recently shared with my mother a definition of faith she gave me back in 1999 that I had written in my journal: “A Christian is a person who loves God totally, wholly, and completely. A Christian is a person who choses to live a life of righteousness no matter what, no matter what anyone thinks or does. A Christian is a person of surrender.”
I thought that it seemed like a very old-timey Nazarene type of answer. I thought that my mother might have a different answer now, so I asked her how she might define Christian faith now. Here is some of what she said:
“What is faith? Faith is screaming at God for not intervening when my baby was killed. Faith is questioning whether all those Scriptures and promises that I had read, quoted and taught are true or a bunch of bunk. Faith is wrestling with a God of silence and mystery who seems to leave you to struggle alone with the questions and the pain. Faith is acknowledging that God is God, and I am not, and God really doesn’t owe me anything. Faith is believing that the Resurrection story is real, and my baby boy is in God’s presence, healed and knows nothing but joy . . . A Christian is someone who has decided to follow Jesus and chooses to live her/his life in a supportive community of faith as a disciple – living, learning, sharing, giving, becoming, resting and trusting in the God who loved us enough to sacrifice His only begotten Son for us. A healthy community of faith is welcoming and affirming. It is a place where you can take off your mask and be who you are. Your brothers and sisters in Christ will be your church family, and you can trust them with your life story and your faith story. They will never give up on you. They will enrich your faith, and you will enrich theirs. You will walk toward the Cross together.”
Can you see the stark difference between these two definitions of faith?
The first is the expected answer of a Nazarene missionary.
The second is the answer of a woman who has gone to hell and back and still believes.
The first is saying the right thing.
The second is telling the truth.
The first is guilt-driven.
The second is truth-driven.
And I’d take the second over a hundred firsts any day. Because it’s real. My mom is the strongest woman I know, folks.
I haven’t talked to my dad as much about the Nazarene Church, but I know that he has his own wounds, too. The truth is, none of us attend a Nazarene Church anymore. My mom attends a Methodist church. To be honest, I’m not sure what church my dad goes to or if he even goes to church every Sunday. And I don’t judge him for that. I’d rather him seek God on his own terms than show up at church just to please somebody or put on a show. We’re all on a spiritual journey, and the going gets rough sometimes.
I don’t know if the Nazarene Church just couldn’t embrace us when we most needed it, or if maybe it tried to and we turned our backs on it. I don’t know if it still represents that 1950s holiness perfection or not. I know there are some very sincere and loving Nazarene people who may not represent the works-based, guilt-ridden faith I see in my journals. All I know is that among all the messages it gave me, I have to let go of the one about being guilty.
I have to cling to God’s message that He loves me always. I want love to be my motivator.
I leave you with a quote from Henri Nouwen:
“The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world–free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridiculed, or considered useless…. I am convinced that I will truly be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries.”
I pray this for me and my parents. I pray this for all of us. Love on, people.