God's Not Mad at Me: things I've learned about sex, God, shame, and church. In the book Grace Eventually, Anne Lamott writes, “Grace arrived, like the big, loopy stitches with which a grandmotherly stranger might baste your hem temporarily.” This past week, I lifted my hands toward heaven and said, “I still get butterfly’s for you, God,” while recalling the day, I should have died.
At an early age, I made the correlation that sex and love were one in the same, and that affection came with strings, like kites and sneakers and Yo-Yo’s. I was six years old, the first time my uncle placed twenty-five cents in my hand, and said, “I love you. You’re my good girl,” before pulling up his pants and tucking his greasy mechanic shirt in. His acts became more grievous when he began including my disabled older sister, and even more so, when he started making a profit by selling us to his friends.
Around the age of ten, my uncle moved away and the abuse stopped. Two years later, I was raped by a stranger in the woods, who when he was done, gave me twenty-five dollars, as though it was a peace-offering. And when I was thirteen, a sixteen-year-old, who I secretly loved, cemented my theory of love and sex being the same, when he asked me to have sex. That awkward and humiliating memory went something like this…
“The same week, Kristen and her brother Shawn knocked on my door. They were headed to Danny’s cabin, and Shawn asked me to tag along. He’d never been to my house before. I dreamed of this moment a thousand times—the moment Shawn would realize he loved me—the moment we’d ride off into the sunset—the moment I would prove my undying love by showing him all the bubble letters with his name spelled out over my bed.
Collywobbles fluttered and I welcomed them. I threw on the white Soda Pop sneakers and kaki parachute pants that Kristen loaned me.
As we walked down the road, Shawn stopped, and said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, ask me,” I said, batting my eyelashes, and cupping my hands in an unintended heart-shape.
“Have you ever done anything with a boy before?”
He stood still, and said, “Like sex?”
“Why do you wanna’ know?”
“I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“No, not exactly. Not willingly anyways.”
I wanted to kick myself ,and shouted in my head, “Did I really just say, not willingly?”
He raised his brow. “Well, do you wanna’?”
I thought about my decision, too afraid to say “Yes,” and doubly afraid to say “No.” If I said, “no,” he probably wouldn’t speak to me again, but if I said, “yes,” the hope that he’d fall in love with me still existed.
The harder I tried to deny my love for him the stronger it became. Sex seemed the right and logical next step, so I shook my head, “Yes.”
“Come with me,” Shawn said, taking my hand and making me feel warm and fuzzy, as he led me into the cabins dusty back bedroom.
He sat on the edge of the bed. I stood at the foot. I didn’t want to get too close; afraid he’d hear the cryptic moans my stomach made, like Night of the Living Dead. I didn’t dare sit beside the god-like-man either, so I leaned against the footboard and waited for instructions.
“Pull down your pants.”
“Okay,” I said, peeling them off.
“Now take off your underpants.”
Naked from the waist down, I crossed my legs and covered my secret place with my hands. Even though I had been naked and exposed before there was still an innocence I knew should remain hidden.
He looked down at my underpants and with a quizzical look, asked, “Are those skid marks?”
Kristen and Danny chuckled from the other room.
“I certainly hope not,” I screamed in my head.
I peered down, and then back up. I wanted so badly to dissolve like cotton candy or a hot Krispy Kreme donut does when being consumed. “Yes, I guess,” I whispered, kicking them under the bed with my toe… (a small excerpt from my memoir titled, In the Land of Canaan, Maine: A Little Girl’s Giants, to be published).”
Having sex and letting boys touch me made me feel accepted. It became the way I expressed affection and received attention. “If a boy wanted to look—you let them look,” “If a boy wanted to touch—you let them touch,” and “If a boy wanted to have sex—you let them have sex.” I didn’t own the rights to my body—they did, or at least that’s what my uncle taught me.
When I was fourteen, I was baptized and started attending a small church. I vowed I wouldn’t have sex with Shawn or any other boys, until I was married. So the next time Shawn asked, I said, “No.”
Shame is a Squatter
When I was seventeen, I moved to Virginia and served in a church within the same organization—I lived, breathed, and dreamed about church. I didn’t curse or use vulgar words, like “shut-up” or “fart.” I didn’t, do drugs, smoke, or drink. I didn’t wear pants, jewelry, make-up, or cut my hair. I didn’t listen to rock and roll, go out dancing, attend prom, or go to the movies. I prayed, fasted, volunteered for the bus ministry, taught Bible studies, sang in the choir, was the Virginia District Bible Quiz champion, and could quote more scriptures than the entire congregation combined.
I was by all standards—a good girl.
Two months after the move, I broke my vow when my boyfriend said “have sex or I’ll get it from my ex.” The decision to have sex resurrected two very familiar giants, Shame and Promiscuity. Over the next eighteen-months, we continued having sex. I prayed, fasted, cried, beat myself up, and tried to abstain from sex. I wanted desperately to fix what I’d done without the church finding out, but I couldn’t. The “flaw” was intricately woven into the fabric of my being.
Months later, when the pastor found out, he said, “I’m disappointed in you, Francine.” Hearing those words made me shrink with shame. If he was disappointed, then how much more was God disappointed in me? It felt like my prayers to conquer Shame and Promiscuity fell on deaf ears and that God, like the pastor, didn’t have any grace left for me. I was humiliated openly when the pastor removed me from the choir, bus ministry, and quiz team. After that, it wasn’t long before my “flaw” was exposed, and the ones I trusted the most shunned, judged, and gossiped about me. I wrestled with Paul’s words, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death.” Shame magnified my loneliness, and church felt like a barren and graceless place. I went from worshipping on the front row to hiding on the back row.
Edward T. Welch said, “Shame is life-dominating and stubborn. Once it enters your heart and mind, it is a squatter that refuses to leave,” which takes me to something I heard Sheila Walsh say, “Guilt is when you’ve done something wrong. Shame is when you are something wrong.”
The pastor told my boyfriend and I that we had to break-up, and we did. But because Shame was a squatter and continually told me that “I am something wrong,” breaking up didn’t dissolve the conflict of—the good girl was now the bad girl.
Two months after we split-up, a guy from work asked me out, and after two dates, he invited me to meet his parents. When we arrived at his house, he said, “Oh, I forgot, my parents are out of town.” I clammed up and feared his intentions. That day, while everything in me screamed “I don’t want to have sex with you,” I didn’t say no, because Shame told me that—I did this to me—I should have seen this coming—I led him on. We only had sex the one time and I became pregnant. When I told him that I was expecting, he told me to “Take a hike,” (but not that tactfully).
The most painful aspect of being unwed and pregnant was having to disappoint my pastor again. A week after confessing to the church that I was pregnant, I was awakened by a series of severe cramps. I made my way to the bathroom and as soon as I sat down, blood began to gush. Feeling lightheaded and woozy, I tucked my head between my legs. Not having the strength to yell, I chirped, “Mom… Mom…”
I tried to stand, but my head went black and my legs collapsed. I knew I needed to get help before I lost consciousness, so I began to crawl. The floor was slippery and my red hands acted as paintbrushes, leaving scarlet swooshes behind. The opaque tile looked like a Jackson Pollack mural.
I crawled past Father’s feet that dangled off the bed, and down Mother’s side. “Mom,” I said, in a barely audible whisper.
“What? Huh?” she said, springing up.
“Something’s wrong,” I cried.
“Oh jeesh, Babe! She’s hemorrhaging!”
When the paramedic’s arrived, Mother said, “She’s bleeding like a stuffed pig,” and handed them the fetus she'd bagged from the toilet.
My twin sister grabbed my hand. Her voice trembled, as she said, “I’ll call pastor.”
As the paramedics wheeled me to the ambulance, I told them, “I don’t want a transfusion. The church doesn’t believe in them.” I was concerned what the church would think—afraid another mark against me would prevent me from ever finding my way back to grace. These were the last words I said, before my eyes rolled back in my head and my body fell limp.
At the emergency room, I could hear the urgency in everyone’s voice. My mother stayed beside me answering their questions and talking to me, as they rolled me down the hallway. I heard the doctor say to her, “She’s not going to make it. She needs a transfusion,” followed by my mother reiterating, “I have to honor her wishes. She’s eighteen. I can’t legally make that decision for her.”
My body was a tomb, inside which, I was trapped. I could hear everything around me, but couldn’t respond to anything. I screamed in my head, "I don’t want to die. I want a transfusion," but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. I tried to force my eyes open, but failed. I tried gesturing with my hand, but couldn’t lift it, so I did the only thing I knew to do, I prayed this prayer in my head, God, please don’t let me die. If you save me, I will live for you with everything that is within me. As soon as my prayer ended, the doctor said, “We can try thinning her blood and doing a DNC to stop the hemorrhaging.”
Thankfully, God gave me a second chance, and later, after the anesthesia wore off, I asked my mother, “Did Pastor come see me?”
“No, he’s angry with you. We all are,” she said.
Grace is the absence of condemnation
Edward T. Welch couldn’t be more right, "Shame is life-dominating and stubborn. Once it enters your heart and mind, it is a squatter that refuses to leave." Shame is intense, and pervasive, and personal. I know. I spent decades wishing to right the wrongs. I allowed the words “I’m disappointed in you” cause me to shrink in shame and rob me of the truth, that God’s grace is sufficient.
There's a story in scripture of a woman being caught in adultery and publicly shamed. After the elders departed, Jesus asked, "Where are your accusers?" She answered, "I don't have any." Jesus responded, "Neither do I condemn you." There's an important lesson here. The lesson being that, Shame will condemn the place in which it squats. The only way to get rid of the squatter is to silence the accuser. If there's no accuser--there's no condemnation. If there's no condemnation--there's no shame. It took me years to realize this. I read the other day that "What someone else thinks of you is none of your business." The only story that matters is the one that God says about you!
And yet, God's love doesn't come with strings attached, as I was conditioned to think. He wasn't pacing back and forth with a measuring stick, or a stone, or a switch to punish me with. Grace is the absence of condemnation and it empowers us to live a life without shame. Grace isn't a ticket to sin--it's the freedom not to!
Fortunately, God's love isn't dictated by what others thinks, and although the pastor was angry with me and didn't show up--grace did. Looking back, I wish I knew at eighteen what I now know at forty-three, that God's Not Mad at Me, and contrary to what Shame may be telling you, God's Not Mad at You, either!
I am M.O.R.E., and so are you!