By Brie Gowen
I thought I had just about gotten past every hurt in my life, but I suppose we humans are more like onions than we realize. One day you’re traipsing along thinking nothing bothers you anymore when all of the sudden you stumble upon something unexpectedly, and like a sharp stone sticking into your bare foot, a hard reminder of a past pain will pierce through your calloused psyche to the soft flesh underneath. Like an onion, another layer will be peeled back, fresh hurt that you didn’t even know was still present below.
So here’s the story. I’m scrolling through Facebook when I see a friend share a photo of her daughter on a local community college’s dance team, and bam, like that my feelings were hurt. You see, once upon a time, like twenty years ago, I wanted to be on that dance team. I didn’t make the cut; not once, but two years in a row. Now before you start thinking I’m overly sensitive let me tell you why it hurt. If I had not been allowed a spot on a team because I didn’t deserve it as a performer that would be one thing, but that wasn’t the case here.
There’s plenty of times in my life I’ve tried something and failed. That’s fine. Sure it hurts at the time, but you get over it. You move on, you try something new, or you work harder. Heck, that’s what I assumed the first time I didn’t make the college’s dance team. I thought I was either overweight (at a whooping 120 pounds), or I just wasn’t a good enough dancer. So I was determined to work harder, lose five pounds if that helped, step up my dancing game, so to speak. But the point is, not getting a participation ribbon never hurt me. It wasn’t about not being picked. It was about why I wasn’t picked.
I wasn’t raised in a typical Bible-belt, Southern Baptist home like many of my friends. It’s not to lessen my upbringing in any way that I say that. I was raised by loving parents who showered me with affection, and they always let me know I was a special girl in their eyes. But some of the concepts that are common in religious or Christian homes weren’t as much of a priority in my family. We belonged on a church’s roster, but we didn’t talk “church stuff” other than on Sunday. Because of this some of the ideals that my religious classmates had instilled were not pushed in my home. Abstinence wasn’t even a conversation. Drinking lots of alcohol was not frowned upon. I came from a long line of sailors so you can imagine the colorful language. It’s hard for me to talk about this because I think people will judge my family, something that would be terribly heinous, but something that is sadly common as this story proves. All I know is I never doubted my parents loved me, and though I didn’t truly learn about or experience a personal relationship with Jesus until I left my parent’s home, I know for a fact God taught me about unconditional love through the actions of my mom and dad.
It would be incidents like this one in college that showed me how religious people can hurt you, how they can judge you, label you, and make you feel unworthy simply because you don’t fit into their perfect little box of what a lover of Jesus is supposed to look like. Apparently I didn’t fit the mold.
After my second failed attempt to become a part of the sparkly lineup I was disappointed, and a close friend who had made the team decided to do some digging for me. I still recall getting up the insane courage to confront the woman in charge of the dance team, who apparently held my lack of scholarship in her hands. After calling out to her across the campus, and once she was facing me I just blurted it out.
“Is it true I didn’t make the dance team because I have a tattoo?” I asked.
I had gotten a small Pegasus inked on my right shoulder blade when I was seventeen. My mother had signed for it since I was underage.
She stared back blankly and sighed with inconvenience, “Tattoos are not how we want our dancers represented.”
The conversation drug on for a while after. I asked why she didn’t tell me that the year before, and she changed the subject into biblical references as to why my “body mutilation” was unsightly for the reputation of her squad. This wasn’t my first interaction like this with this particular teacher. On stage during practice for a musical she had called me out for my vulgar t-shirt that read “Mean People Suck,” stating how Jesus wouldn’t appreciate my shirt and I’d need to go home and change rather than continue rehearsal. So as I listened to her say, “I’m really sorry, Brie,” in a tone that didn’t sound sorry at all, and a disdainful glance that made me feel very small, I backed up and walked away from the conversation.
The thing is I didn’t know Jesus as a friend at that point and time in my life, but the picture I was getting would lead me to believe I wasn’t really made to be a part of that whole religious business anyway. I didn’t wear the right clothes, say the right things, do the right stuff, come from the right upbringing, or any of the hundreds of other actions that were apparently required to make me worthy of being called a Christian. Mean people sucked? Heck, the religious folks didn’t seem much better.
As God would have it six months later He found me in His own little way. He divinely appointed kind followers of Christ to come across my path, ones who wouldn’t judge me for my past, but would just love me. It wasn’t the religious people who led me to the Lord. It was the friends of Jesus who I followed.
After I saw that post today and realized I still was hurt it made me wish I remembered that teacher’s name. I would find her and message her. I would say, “I forgive you. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. I know at the time I didn’t fit into your expectations of Christianity, but Jesus found me. I thought you’d like to know. He didn’t see any of the faults you saw. For Him I was just the right reputation He wanted to represent His team. I was lost. But then I was found. Perfect fit.”
I’m so grateful that I don’t have to be religious to be a lover of Jesus. I’m so glad I don’t have to fit a standard mold to serve my God. I’m so thankful that He loves me despite anything about me, and that Jesus died for me tattoos and all. I’m in love with a Savior who sees the best in me and doesn’t look for the worst. I walk with a Risen Lord who doesn’t care that it took me twenty years to find Him, but is simply pleased that I found Him. He doesn’t point out the years that I fell away from His side, but He draws me closer every day since. I serve a God who doesn’t keep a tally of my wrongs or even my good works, but saves me with His grace. I live for a God who doesn’t demand I carry myself a particular way or perform within a certain ideal, but delights that I do because I love Him. I serve Him out of love, not because religion obligates me to do so.
Sometimes we “religious” folks can forget that. We get it all backwards and think it’s what we do that saves us when in fact we can do nothing. It’s by His grace we are saved, and when we can look upon others with His eyes of love and longing, rather than ones of judgment, perhaps we’ll see our family grow. Until then, there will be a lot of people hurt by religion. I just thank God He works beyond that.