Last Sunday evening, I took my three girls to Sweet CeCe’s, an idyllic little frozen yogurt shop in downtown Franklin, TN. Every kid I know loves Sweet CeCe’s. The front window is decorated with large glass jars filled with seasonal candy. The entire place is awash in a whole lot of pink and feels like stepping into the candy store of my childhood dreams. Every time I am there, I half expect Willy Wonka to step out from behind the counter to offer me a stick of gum that will never lose its flavor, or some other magical confection.
My girls and I sat around a small table as they dove into bowls of candy topped yogurt, chatting. After awhile, my attention was drawn to a nearby television broadcasting a University of Tennessee basketball game.
“Mmmm…basketball,” I said. “I haven’t been to a game in so long. I forgot how much I like it.”
“I’m actually pretty good,” said my oldest.
“Well, you are tall like me, so be prepared for coaches to start seeking you out at some point. When I was your age, I was so tall that everywhere I went people asked me the same question- Do you play basketball? I wanted to say, ‘No. I don’t play anything because my parents believe wearing shorts is a sin.'”
My children know this part of my childhood, but they always react with fresh incredulity.
“Wow…Mom…wow…that’s sad.” (As in lame, not grievous.)
“Yep,” I say. “And I had to dress out everyday for P.E. in the 8th grade. Everyone else was wearing shorts and t-shirts, but I was something special. My parents bought me a pastel yellow sweat suit. I was the biggest nerd who ever lived- uncoordinated, all arms and legs. I was quite a sight loping down the court during P.E. in my yellow sweat suit. The kids gave me a nickname- The Flying Banana.”
At this, we all dissolve in the giggles.
“And,” I said, “I was in an inner city school! It is pretty astonishing that I got along as well as I did. The irony is that the kids at that tough school were so much more accepting of me than the small Christian school I attended the year before.”
The conversation moved on to other topics, but I was left pondering the tremendous force that so shaped my life- legalism. I thought about how much it hurt me as a child. My parents were good people who were just trying so hard to be right. I spent years as a young adult struggling my way to the light of freedom, hurting a lot of people along the way because I was profoundly bitter. As far as I can see, legalism is consistent in that one respect- it always bears the fruit of bitterness.
I have tried to wrap words around this force, legalism, that so defined me but all descriptions seem to fall short. It is an impersonation of spirituality, the rules and regulations that leave out the heart, or maybe even kill it. It is focusing on a point, to the destruction of the whole. It is a plastic model of all that is beautiful, mysterious, and miraculous. It is man playing God while pretending to serve him.
It is a thousand images of despair that flood my memories. It is standing in front of a class of students, the painfully shy new kid while the teacher who had never before spoken to me excoriated me because the long skirt I was wearing had a slit that was 3″ long. It is listening to a firebrand sermon with a group of kids like me, and then standing alone under the condemning eyes of the adults, as every other kid went to the altar at the end to “make a decision”. I stayed put because I knew I had not heard from God, and it felt like a betrayal of both of us for me to fake it. It is that same group of kids who went down front to find holiness telling me how ugly I was. It was them throwing things at me as I sat alone at the front of the bus.
It is finding myself doubting there was a God at all, and then coming to a place where I realized that if there was, He hated me. It is sinking down into deep depression a couple of years afterwards. It is despising my self and wanting to die. It is an ocean of tears shed alone in the dark.
And then, after a few more years, it is discovering I could no longer shed tears at all.
Biblical scholars tell us that the ancient Greeks, from whom we have received so much of our Biblical translation and interpretation, had only one word for “law’, nomos, for which the connotation is punitive and negative. The Hebrew word for God’s law, the beloved Torah, was always considered by the ancient Hebrews to be God’s gracious gift to man to teach us how to “hit the mark” in life. The God presented to me was far from this image of a loving Creator.
Somehow, God broke through my misconceptions of Him. He began to dismantle the lies first; then He began to show me the truth. It is not about condemnation, it is about grace. It is not about the rules, it is about loving God and being loved right back. It is about acceptance, and freedom, thankfulness, and joy. It is the mystery of a life lived with a greater holiness than legalism alone could ever produce, because this life is lived in gratitude, love, and the Spirit of God. It is about still being human, still failing, but getting back up again because I can rest in God’s forgiveness. It is about remembering the devastation and laughing out loud because now I can see that God redeemed it all.
It is about looking back at that girl, that awkward, lonely girl who was all arms and legs in a yellow sweatsuit and seeing how precious she was, just like she was. It is about making peace with The Flying Banana.