Sitting there, I recall what I understood about Jesus/God back when I was a kid before I stopped overtly considering such topics. Without benefit of Bible study or Sunday school classes, I was left to piece together a portrait from the random particulates that floated into my field of vision. The first I heard of this so-called God guy, I was maybe four years old. I was at daycare and one of the adults said, “God is always watching.” It was said in passing, not even directed at me, but I latched on to the idea of being constantly spied upon. I was extremely curious about the logistics. I remember being alone in my bedroom later and thinking that God must be watching even now, although it seemed I was by myself. I decided He must be spying through the open window despite the enormous hedge blocking the view. I went to the window and studied the little spots of yard I could see beyond the leaves. God was out there, I just knew it, the big Lookie Loo.
I was not overly concerned until sometime later when the idea of “hell” entered my consciousness. How did it get there? I can imagine that the window to this notion was opened on the playground. Some kid taunted another with “you’re going to hell,” because that seemed to be the most awful thing you could say to a person at that age. I think kids hurl the worst at one another to see what riles, to gauge reactions, a sort of passive “survey of opinions.” I’m sure I pressed a friend for details. What was it? The answer: a fiery place under the ground where bad people were sent to suffer forever. It sounded horrible, but it wasn’t until my parents separated and my mom and I moved from Austin to Dallas that this notion became associated with God, specifically as a punishment that could be directed at me personally. On two occasions, I accompanied my grandparents to Sunday services at Chapel in the Woods, just a simple one-room church they belonged to with a few rows of chairs and an upright piano. I don’t know if it was from the details I picked up during the sermons or if my grandparents started to fill in the blanks for me, but it was while we were living with them that I became preoccupied with being judged by God. I had always had a twinge of guilt buried deep, a vague feeling of not being all good, and here was the proof, the specifics of why and how justice would be rendered. In my mind, my mother and I didn’t fit the mold of a God-approved family—no dad, no house, no church attendance. With our deviance, we were all but begging for one-way tickets to hell where we would be strung up side-by-side and licked by unforgiving flames for the rest of eternity—like two shish kabobs on an endless barbeque. I pictured the flesh on our faces boiling and melting off, our screams of agony as our limbs caught fire. Some nights I shook and cried at the thought of it. This underlying sense of doom stayed with me to varying degrees for the years I lived in Dallas so that by the time I turned 13 and moved permanently to Los Angeles, it was pure relief to let the ocean breeze blow those images away. Finally, I could laugh at how silly I was for once thinking of God as some big man who alternated between peeping at me and reclining on the puffiest cloud. How wonderful to know that beneath my feet was nothing but dirt and, much further down, magma.
If God got tangled in the complicated feelings of my self-worth, Jesus carried none of this weight. Jesus was God’s son and he was nice. My cousins taught me the words to “Jesus Loves All the Children” one afternoon and for hours we marched up and down the driveway of my great-grandmother’s house in Cockrell, Texas belting it out. Behind the preacher at my grandparents’ church hung a small framed illustration of Jesus. He had rosy cheeks, a gentle smile, and the same long, wavy locks grandma and grandpa hated on my dad. I didn’t understand why they approved of the look on Jesus, but thought my dad needed a haircut.
God filled me with anxiety about my essential deficiencies, but Jesus made me feel okay, good even. This changed the older I got and the more examples I saw of individuals publicly promoting Jesus: television evangelist, shouters on the news, with the too-much-makeup and mascara running down and enormous shellacked hairdos and the constant requests for money and the insisting we were doing wrong and the speaking in platitudes that seemed not only superficial but also to contradict their actions. They did not strike me as authentic humans, or even humans acting authentically. I might see one of their minions in person, standing in a crowded public walk way, yelling to passersby, spittle forming at their lips. I would give them a wide berth. That kind of fervency about anything was an illness I did not want to catch. That’s when Jesus joined God on the back shelf of my mind, filed under the heading, “stuff that makes me feel icky.” Yet, in interest of full disclosure, I must admit there have been times in my adult life when I have loudly cried out for Jesus. This has usually occurred following a night of too much alcohol, when I find myself curled up on the bathroom floor or hugging the toilet for dear life. I have misjudged my tolerance for mixed drinks and now I am violently sick and it’s my own damn fault and I just really, really, really do not want to die although death is surely imminent and, much to my surprise and that of anyone who may be within earshot, I shout, “Oh, Jesus!” or “Jesus, help me!” Which seems to indicate that some barely conscious, maybe even primal, part of me still trusts in this notion of Jesus, wants him near me, and automatically reaches for him at times of great need.