Jesus Saves

stained-glassThe first thing I ever stole was from the Baptist church. It was Christmas. We were given sugar cookies shaped like stars, steaming hot chocolate and bible lessons. Brightly colored packages circled the tree in the entryway, one stacked on the next. Those were not for us.

After the final prayer the other kids exploded with freedom, pushing against tall wooden doors that opened into snow and afternoon light. But I stalled in the lobby, mesmerized by the tree. Surely, one of those presents was meant for me. I was drawn back to them full of longing and larceny. The lobby was still and quiet. Perhaps, I thought, I could take a tiny one, one that would not be missed. I bent down and helped myself to a small rectangular box. It was wrapped in green paper covered with snowmen wearing black top hats, buttons of coal, carrot noses and big smiles. Yes, I decided. This was the one. I buried it in the well of my pocket, deep beneath my mittens. Then I sprang from the door like Satan himself was chasing me. I ran through snowdrifts up to my knees, went bounding up the stairs of my home, down the hall and locked myself in the bathroom. I was breathing heavy, afraid the God police had been alerted. I listened for footsteps but no one followed. The house was empty, so I tore open my surprise and……. my heart sank. Inside was a tie clasp that said, JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters. A tie clasp – for a man! I couldn’t take it back. What on earth could I do with it? In a moment of generosity, I rewrapped it.

My dad was tending bar in the restaurant below when I climbed on a bar stool and told him to close his eyes. I have a gift for you, I said.

Where did you get it?

From the Baptist Church. They were giving out presents for dads.

I placed the torn green snowmen in his hands.

Looks like you opened it.

I wanted to make sure it was right.

He lifted the tie clasp with JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters out of the box and bellowed, Jesus Christ! What the hell am I supposed to do with this? For crying out loud, Karen. JESUS SAVES? What were you thinking?

There was a moment of tense silence before he clipped it against his shirt and tie.  What the hell,  he said and went back to mixing drinks.


She had to do it. It’s part of her faith and belief. She would be remiss in her mission to love me if she did not step forward. And so we had ‘the talk’ last night.  The talk about accepting Christ. Oh my, that was such a sad moment for me, because what she was really saying was, I can’t accept you the way you are. There is something wrong with you. You need to be like me, think like me and believe as I believe. There is only one true God, who resides in the safe deposit box in the Baptist church. There is no other.

There is no acceptance here for diversity. The idea of there being many paths up the mountain is completely foreign.

I can move into my sisters world and enjoy the bonds of family we work so hard to maintain, but there is this slap that follows, full of self-righteous accusing. Even the “it doesn’t matter because I will always love you anyway,” part she puts at the end, feels condescending and full of attitude that makes me wrong.

As a child I learned to hide. I danced the dance and talked the talk to survive, but I have always been as different as a purple plum in an orange crate. It hurts my heart to have family I can not relate to, and to belong to a land I can not claim. I have moved often, searching for my place, but my place has always been my home place in upstate New York. I love the vineyards, finger lakes and untouched architecture; I love the look and feel of the land that held and embraced my growing up years. I love my family. But the love I have received here has been dark and laced with poison, of a sort that blinded my eyes and sent me into perpetual hiding.

The deeper truth is that I am working to accept myself. I am a gifted woman who lives in the shadows of her own life, because I fear the abuse that comes from revealing.

There is a lot I like about my sister’s faith. She is sincerely striving toward kindness, service, gentle speaking and love. What could be wrong with that? The downside is that you are either on the boat or you are off the boat, and if you are off the boat, I guess it’s God’s will that you drown. The demand to conform pushes me farther and farther away. My older sister has no religion at all, but is worse. This family wants to make people small. They want to put them under their shoe, to keep them down and compliant. They want to eat my individuality, chewing it until it becomes bland and unrecognizable.

 I don’t return often, but each time I do, it is with the hope of real connection and deliverance from exile. What I receive instead is a new clarity about my own path and the need to accept people as they are without expectation.

written September 25, 2008


There is one traffic light in Dundee, New York, population 2,000. Buildings shoulder the street with unchanged faces from the 1800’s. There are cars and even motorcycles that hurry toward one defining intersection, but what anchors the flow of movement are the horse drawn wagons of the Mennonites. Their buggies are square, black and tall, the interiors hidden from view.  The father reins in his horse wearing a dark brimmed hat, and suspenders. The mother sits by his side in sunbonnet and simple dress, while the kids stand next to them, fingers wrapped around the edge of the buggy. Theirs is a devout life that pulls a centuries old thread into the present.

My younger sister has lived in this area most of her life. Her roots are deep, and her comfort strong. She is not Amish or Mennonite, but might as well be. She is Baptist. My sisters God is the only God, his rules are black and white with no room for grey, while my God is unnamed, vast and personal. To me the essence of the sacred is more complete in a handful of dirt than in a church. We are respectful, she and I, dancing around our similarities and differences in the hope of continued connection.

I used to pull her in the wagon as a child, eager to explore our surroundings. She insisted on staying within boundaries defined by our parents and following their rules to the letter. Our differences were already apparent. Nothing in my sister longs to be elsewhere or to have anything other. What a wonderful thing that must be. Her children were born there and prospered under her loving care, while I spent my life wandering and searching, believing I would stagnate and die in such an environment.

How torn I felt today, like a woman split in half as I studied the real estate posters in the window on main street. They said, You could afford to live here, if you wanted. This architectural treasure could be yours. Wanna fix it up? You could be near your sister, play on the lakes, and come back to the land you love so much. It wouldn’t really be like starting over, more like coming home.

Oh, but I must not be seduced by this crisp autumn day and the open arms of a willing sister. It is not my place. There is nothing to push against here, nothing to define myself by. The area is depressed, the people good hearted but with a consciousness I cannot share. The snow is significant. Winter comes without disguise, boldly asserting its season without apology.

Still there is something pulling on me, something deep, old and almost tangible that calls to my spirit, it moves through my veins softly and tenderly like the old hymn, Come home, come home, all who are weary come home.

written September 19, 2008