Growing up, the maternal side of my family was evangelical, fundamental Baptist and the paternal side of my family was Roman Catholic. So, to say I have guilt and debt embedded in my DNA is an understatement.


My parents, who were very young, were doing their best to protect their daughters from evil: namely, sex, drugs, rock and roll and, you know, the fiery burning pits of hell. I don’t blame them for having our butts in the church seats 4 times a week. Organized religion is a terrifying, responsibility-laden way to bring up children.

For the longest time, probably since I was an elementary school kid, I always sensed there was something very unequal about a friendship with Jesus. On one hand, we were told he was our friend, closer than a brother. On the other hand, the guy supposedly DIED because I am prone to screwing up. He didn’t just get his feelings hurt; he was, like, actually beaten within an inch of his life, and THEN killed, because I sin and can’t go to heaven without his forgiveness.


One of the most popular hymns in our church went something like, “He paid a debt he did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay – I needed someone to wash my sins away.”

Yeesh. Talk about some pressure.


As a kid, I couldn’t sneak a listen to the forbidden Top 40 radio station without picturing my friend Jesus, hands and feet nailed to a wood post, with blood streaming down his face. The church told us that sinning (like, say, watching the new Michael Jackson “Thiller” video) was just adding another nail to his hands or another lash to his back.


I owed him. I owed him big. I owed him love and fealty and obedience.


And you know what? I did love him. I tried to obey. But it was out of fear and a sense of obligation. In other words, it was a co-dependent love; almost an abusive sort of twisted love. As I grew older, the list of sins I would commit quickly outpaced my ability (or desire) to confess and get back on the right track.


So finally, I had had enough.


I didn’t want to feel guilty for reading Harry Potter to my kids or letting them dress up for Halloween.

I didn’t want to force them to go to Sunday School when we could be out on a hike instead.

Mostly, I couldn’t abide people who told my sisters they were sinners because they were in loving marriages with other women (“Oh,” they say. “We don’t hate your sisters; we just hate their lifestyle.” As if those things could be separated.)


I wasn’t having any of it.


So I upped and threw baby Jesus out with the bath water. I determined my shadow would never cross the doorway of a church again.


I worked really hard to rid myself of every vestige of religion, stopping just short of throwing out the Bible Larry and I carried on our wedding day and the rosary my beloved abuelita gifted to me. I was convinced the whole thing was toxic. Mention God or Jesus or church or evangelicalism and I was turning my back on you and walking out the door. Even if you were my kids or my husband.


But in those years of pointedly turning my back on religion, something continued to bother me. I still felt the thing: whatever that creepy, hair raising feeling it is you get when you get a glimpse of the divine.


It haunted me during sunrises and in the laughter of my kids or in the kindness of strangers or in the unconditional love of my husband or in the smile of a friend.


Look, I don’t know what “it” is.

I don’t know who Jesus is.

Or divine energy. Or Allah or God.


Maybe it’s collective human energy.

Maybe it’s the sounds of forgiveness as it clicks into place around the world.

Hell, I don’t know, maybe it’s Harry beating Voldemort.

But there’s something…something bigger than me. A goodness, a grace. I can’t explain it, and wouldn’t want to.


So I decided to take another look at Jesus.

I remembered the Jesus that, as a small child, I clung to as if he were lying next to me when I was afraid in bed at night.


And I saw hippie, communist Jesus. The brown guy with curly hair who started his life as a political refugee, and who would spend the rest of his short life hanging with that era’s version of porn stars, meth addled transients, and AIDS patients.


The Jesus who said if you’re rich or powerful or pray too loudly in public, you probably shouldn’t count on heaven.


I figured I kind of liked that guy.


I had left our relationship in which I looked at him through the eyes of a frightened, manipulated child.


I returned with the eyes of an adult who makes good decisions because it’s the right thing to do, not because she’s afraid she’ll lose his love. I returned as an equal partner. Yep, an equal partner with God.


You don’t have to call it Jesus. You don’t have to call it anything. Tomorrow, I may call it Janice. Or nature. But I don’t think that matters in the end.


And though I still cannot imagine the day I would ever go to church again, now we’re close because he’s a friend, and I love to warm my hands on the fire of his heart. And I like to think he warms his hands on the fire of mine. No pressure. No guilt. Just enjoying each others company and taking it a day at a time.