I loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Peters, with a fierce and loyal love. She thought I was smart; unlike my exasperated old kindergarten teacher, who treated me like a nuisance because I was bored to tears by school, intimidated by the other children and otherwise not easily pigeonholed in her normal-school pedagogy, Mrs. Peters encouraged me to read books and explore my interests beyond her lesson plans, and she stuck up for me. I was a sickly kid who always had to stay inside at recess, so Mrs. Peters let me help her decorate her bulletin boards. As far as I was concerned, Mrs. Peters was my savior. I would have walked over broken glass for her. And so when I heard other children say disparaging things about her -- "I hate Mrs. Peters! She's mean! She's ugly!" -- it was like someone stabbing me in the heart.
This is how I feel sometimes when I hear people who grew up in dysfunctional churches with terrible religious instruction, who were bombarded with macabre details of the Passion and taught to feel personally responsible for every whiplash on Jesus' back and every hammer-pound of nails into his flesh, say that they can't feel close to Jesus; that he creeps them out; makes them feel uncomfortable, and judged, and so they'd rather avoid him. I was listening to theologian Karen Armstrong on "Fresh Air" this evening on the way home from work, and this was her experience of Christ as a child and as a nun. I know someone on Beliefnet, a progressive Catholic who has mentioned similarly gruesome childhood catechetical messages, and who seems to feel the same way; if she's waxing theological on a topic thread and someone else mentions Jesus you can practically hear her hair stand on end. She changes the subject as quickly as possible.
This makes me want to weep; it really does. A knife in the heart again. Because this isn't the Jesus I grew up with, or the Jesus I know now. Even when I went on an extended Christianity vacation in my 30's, I was never angry with Jesus; I felt bad for him for having such insane, revolting friends, who seemed to think and teach and do the exact opposite of what he said and did in the Gospels. (A thought that still surfaces from time to time, although now I am more able to, on any given day, recognize myself in that number.)
Of all the things my old childhood Missouri Synod church and Sunday School got wrong (in my humble opinion), one of the things they got right was teaching me about a Jesus who was not only a Savior but a Friend, a Confidante, a Big Brother. One of my earliest childhood memories is of running around the sanctuary as a tiny kid, while my parents were doing janitorial duty, and being absolutely mesmerized by an old German painting of Christ the Good Shepherd at the front of the church. I was never afraid of him. I wasn't told, in graphic detail, that I had personally helped kill him. Instead I was told that he had helped me, more than I could understand, and that he would always help me.
That message, I see more and more, is a real gift. I just wish I could pass it along to Christendom's walking wounded who find Jesus someone to run away from.