Lying in bed, I looked up into the darkness, imagining Jesus was somewhere out there. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, anguished. I could feel nothing but emptiness where my Savior’s presence should have been. How did I get here?
I grew up a pastor’s daughter in a small American town where at least twenty Seventh-day Adventist churches were packed into a thirty-mile radius. Being so full of churches, the place was chockfull of pastor’s kid, so I had no shortage of PK role models, including my three older siblings.
As a child, being a good Adventist was very easy to me. I received a set of rules, and to my understanding, the best Adventist was the one who followed the rules the closest. I had a guilt-sensitive temperament as far back as I can remember, and this black and white system combined perfectly with my personality to create fervent obedience.
I was in grade school when my family emigrated to the States from a pint-sized European country that was mostly Catholic. We were pleasantly surprised to find such a dense Adventist population in our new town, and my father became associate pastor of a small, but well-established church of expatriates. That close-knit ethnic church became my new home.
Diasporic communities like ours usually stuck closely together, and strict behavioral rules were set the religious group members apart from mainstream society. In my community (and in other minority Adventist churches, I suspect), these rigid rules were treated almost as having been passed down directly from God. Perhaps the greatest impact of such rules was reflected in the behavioral expectations placed on children.
As an obedient pastor’s daughter, I was very familiar with my community’s rules, especially those concerning our Holy Day.
We would not play on the Sabbath except for pre-approved, non-physical Bible-themed games. We would not squirm or fidget when the church ladies came up and squeezed both our cheeks and told us stories about their own children. To me, Sabbath meant waking up early to get ready for church and sitting with Mommy during the service, attempting to listen to Daddy’s sermon. Sabbath meant helping Mommy and other church ladies put out all the precooked foods on the potluck table after church while the men sat in circles discussing the latest blasphemies in the media that week.
The church ladies, their husbands, and even my parents ooh’d and ahh’d about what an obedient little girl I was. To me, this meant that I also had the ultimate approval—I was accepted by God. I was doing all of the things that I knew that God wanted, and so I reasoned that God must be happy with me. Because of that, I felt happy.
While I was, by all the standards I knew, a very good Adventist growing up, there came a point where my saintly trajectory hit a solid wall, and I could not, for the life of me, get past it.
Entering middle school in my Adventist academy brought with it an awareness of a higher religious standard than the one I’d followed in childhood. Starting in seventh-grade, the Bible teachers put a new spin on the doctrine of the Trinity—particularly Jesus. During our weekly chapel services, the praise team sang about Jesus being the lover of our souls, and that in the secret and quiet places, he was there. Our chaplain drilled into us the importance of talking to Jesus and relying on his presence in hard times. Studying books about Jesus and human life, we learned that now we weren’t only supposed to follow God’s commands, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to become best friends with God’s son. Bit by bit, I shed my elementary-school rule-keeping reasoning and settled into my newfound “grown-up” mode of thinking about God.
The new formula went like this: “If you spent enough time doing devotionals and focusing on the still, small voice in your head, then you and Jesus would start ‘walking together.’ This walk would become the closest and most important relationship you would ever experience in your life.” It sounded magical! Amazing! I liked this fresh “Good Adventist” formula, and felt excited about taking on a new challenge.
Up to this point, I had been keeping up with my checklist of rules. As my girlfriends hit puberty, they started talking about (and even actually wearing) makeup and nail polish. I ignored their actions. They fawned over ear piercings, high heels, and frilly skirts…but never me! Even hair-curling was a big “no” in my mind because I’d been taught that God preferred simple looks. So, of course, I complied. While my close friends openly discussed their interest in beauty and fashion, I tamped down my own curiosity and became repulsed by adornment like that and by the people in magazines who wore those “worldly” things. With all these personal victories in my arsenal, I felt upbeat and very sure about being able to meet this new Best Friend standard that the chaplain and religion teachers pushed.
In fact, I felt so confident that I decided to read the entire Bible that year so that Jesus and I could be on the same page when we started talking.
The year crept by. When I finally started the eighth grade, I decided to try this thing for real. After finishing my homework one night, I dressed in my pajamas and re-read the daily section of my “Read the Bible in 365 days” Bible. After that, I knelt at my bedside and prayed. I thanked God for the wonderful things I had—a loving family, a warm bed to sleep in, food to eat…I told God my worries about the past day and asked him to forgive all of my sins from the past 24 hours. I added more thanks so that I could end my prayer on a positive note.
Then, it was relationship time. I turned off the lights and slipped under the cool bed covers. I shut my eyes and focused on keeping my mind empty. I wanted to make sure I stayed open to any feeling, image, or sound that Jesus might send me. I wrestled with my 13-year-old mind to stay focused and unclouded by distractions, succeeding for only about 10 seconds at a time. Still, I felt good. I sent out a silent message: I’m ready, Jesus.
Silence. I opened my eyes and stared upward. Something felt wrong. He would have turned up already if nothing was wrong. Where was He? I shook the thought away and shut my eyes tightly, refocusing. Every few seconds I reshuffled my thoughts to help keep my mind empty and optimistic. More silence. I opened my eyes again. Some street light filtered through the blinds on my window. I watched patterns shift and move across the stucco that covered my ceiling. I cleared my mind once again. On the makeshift canvas of the ceiling, I tried to paint the image of Jesus that my teachers and worship leaders described to me. A loving Jesus, earnestly seeking me. A Savior desperately reaching out to talk to me. I’m here, Jesus. I’m here, I silently sent out again.
I lay in that silence for a long time, picturing Jesus’ hand trying to reach me in the darkness. He must be here. He’s there for the sheep that lost its way, and he’s there for me. He must be here somewhere, unless…
In that instant, it occurred to me that this unbreakable silence might be my fault. Maybe Jesus wanted to talk to me, but I had done something that interfered with our connection. I recalled reading in an Ellen White book that at the cusp of death, Jesus had reached out to God saying “Abba, Abba!” but because of the collective sin of the entire world, the connection could not be made. Sin must be my problem, I thought. I imagined Jesus trying desperately to get through to me, but that my sin created too great a divide. I felt a dull heaviness in my chest. He could have been here if it wasn’t for my selfish actions. I lay unmoving as shame and self-hatred spread through my entire body.
I cried a lot that night, but after the tears faded and empty silence returned, I consoled myself by solemnly promising Jesus that I would do better tomorrow. If I didn’t sin, or at least didn’t sin as much tomorrow, then maybe we could talk the next night. I hoped that even through the dark divide my sins caused, a certain message would still get through to him somehow: I’m sorry. I will try harder in the future.
It will come as no surprise that my “solution” to the problem didn’t actually fix anything. Throughout that school year, I settled into a destructive routine. Starting the minute I woke up, I focused and tried as hard as I could not to sin. I concentrated on not sinning throughout my waking hours, but by the end of the day I could still find at least ten things I had done wrong—ten things that were keeping Jesus from talking to me and walking with me. If only I hadn’t made that one comment, or had that one thought about a boy…If only…
I wanted to talk to my parents and teachers about my problem with Jesus. I wanted to tell them we weren’t walking together like we were supposed to, but I felt ashamed—as though this were a problem that I caused. I didn’t want to hear them say it was my fault that this wasn’t working out. Besides, it seemed like a common problem. During class worships, I heard students and staff alike apologizing for letting other things get in the way of their quiet time with Jesus. They prayed to feel the presence of Jesus and to walk with him daily. We are dealing with the same thing, I thought. This must be the daily battle that typical Christians go through.
The weight of Jesus’ absence wore heavily on me, and by the end of that year I fell into depression. I wanted to “walk with him and talk with him” like successful Christians seemed to be doing. I would have given anything to have successfully sent even one message to Jesus. Most often, the message I tried to send was that I was trying. It wasn’t a one-sided attempt; I wanted Jesus to know I was reaching, too.
I really hoped Jesus would talk back to me. I wanted him to comment on my day, and to share in my joys. Mostly, I desperately wanted to feel his approval. I wanted to be assured that despite everything else, I was still a good girl, that He loved me, just like his Father had loved me when I was younger.
Jesus and I never became best friends. By the end of ninth grade, my depression had gotten so bad that it forced me to decide: keep trying or give up on feeling things entirely. In the interest of self-preservation, I stopped doing things that made me hate myself. Unceremoniously, the days of pursuing a relationship with my reaching-but-distant savior ended.
It’s been almost ten years and I’m still attending an Adventist institution. I’m pursuing a healthcare degree because I want to serve people. I don’t know if I am a good Adventist, but people certainly tell me that I’m a good person. Jesus and I still don’t talk these days. However, I have learned the importance of reaching out to my peers for support. Throughout the years, I have built great friendships and experienced levels of intimacy with friends that previously eluded me.
If I’m being honest, though, I’m not sure I’m completely at peace. On some level, I still wish that Jesus would provide the understanding and acceptance that I feel I could never have with any other person. I wish that I could share some things I’m worried about with him and have him envelop me in a big hug and quietly tell me “It’s okay. I love you. You’re gonna be okay.” But that’s not my reality right now, and when I think about how lonely and desperate I felt back in eighth grade, it’s a relief to have let go of the expectation.
On some nights, lying in the darkness of my dorm room, I feel a sense of loneliness creep up on me. In those moments, my hand reaches under my pillow and grasps the smooth plastic cover of my smartphone. I shoot out a text to my good friend, Rachel. “Hey, I’m feeling down. Can we talk?”
A smile spreads across my face as the screen lights up with her reply. “Sure. I’m here. Let’s talk.”
Sara Telemon is the pen name of this author, who grew up Adventist.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6440