As a child, I learned faith and theology through service, community and a big, long list of dos and don’ts.
And through the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s State Bible Drill.
I was good at all the Baptist things: choir, puppet ministry, hand bells, flannel board storytelling, children’s church and taking notes during “big church,” just to name a few. But Bible drill was an area of expertise for me. I could memorize just about anything put in front of me, so the long list of memory word that included the books of the Bible (in order), dozens of Bible verses and long passages of scripture pertaining to topics such as The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Commandment, The Beatitudes and the Love Chapter… these were not a big deal for me.
The other drillers and I met early every Sunday evening in order to practice with our coordinator. Standing in a straight line facing her, we ran drills on finding books of the Bible by responding to each prompt she called out.
“Philippians,” she’d say.
Then came the commands required for us to begin the drill.
“Attention. Present Bibles. Start.”
The moment we heard “Start” our hands whipped open our Bibles with barely restrained intensity, searching feverishly for the book of the Bible or verse called out. As soon as a driller found the correct book or verse, she put a finger on the Bible opened up to that spot, and then stepped forward… with barely veiled disdain for those drillers still sweating over their Bibles behind her.
The first driller to find the book and step out was then required to call out a response such as, “Philippians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians.”
For those unfamiliar with the sequence, this means I named the book I found; next I named the book before it; then I had to name the book I found again; and finally the book that followed it in the order of the books of the Bible.
Like I said, I rocked at this.
You had to complete the entire sequence in order to win the round.
But that was just the Books of the Bible section.
The real memory work lay in the lists and lists of memory verses and key passages we were required to know.
I knew them all. In fact, I was so good that I ended up State Perfect in the Tennessee statewide competition.
Not one mistake.
And, yes, I was proud of myself… just in case you weren’t sure.
Points were deducted for a variety of reasons:
- If you needed more than ten seconds to step out after a call
- If you gave an incorrect response when called upon
- If you failed to stand up straight or to keep your eyes on the drill caller until the command “Start” was given
- If you stepped out before your index finger was placed on the correct response
- If you mishandled or misused the Bible during the drill
Speaking of handling the bible, there were very specific guidelines for this: where you placed your hands and which way the Bible faced could cost you precious points if not done exactly as the drill required.
It was no joke.
I know it sounds intense, but I actually remember loving it. I felt motivated.
Focused on making sure I was perfect in every category.
And, yes, competitive. I guess since I still laugh at my opponents (who are usually my sons or daughter) when I hand them their asses over a game of cards, I’m still a bit competitive.
My Sunday School teacher saw an opportunity to harness this scripture-memorizing gift I had and challenged me to memorize an entire chapter of the Bible, saying it would help me in my relationship with God. He was probably on to something with the initial idea, but I think he was misguided when it came to his particular selection.
He assigned me Romans 6. A chapter of the Bible that can be summed up in two words:
I mean, this guy had the opportunity to use my weird little splinter skill to teach me all manner of things: God’s love for me, God’s father heart for me, God’s hope for relationship with me. Instead he chose to drill the rules.
And the thing is, I was comfortable with this drill. I was comfortable with the drill approach to my faith as a whole. Since I spent so much of my time and energy trying to please a father who was unreliable and inconsistent with me, it was soothing to have a list of behaviors that I believed would ensure God’s favor and connection with me.
That said, it was confusing then when I rarely felt anything akin to a relationship with God through the programs I participated in at church. Bible Drill, Sunday School, Mission Friends, Girls in Action – all of these programs created by the church to “train up a child” did little to help me experience God as a loving father whose primary goal was to be in relationship with me. In fact, it felt more like God was a distant, all-powerful Force – just another being I worked my ass off to try to please… but never actually did. The lists of dos and don’ts, the points deducted for every little mistake, the care required in order to show respect, well, I wasn’t going to be “state perfect” here. These were impossible standards.
Without awareness of the futility of my efforts, though, I bought into the whole system, working with all of my self to achieve the standards that I hoped would please God.
It’s very difficult to reconcile God’s grace with the striving that is born out of a rule-driven culture. We’ll never experience the embrace of love we so desperately long for when consumed with our attempts to meet impossible standards for that love.
Even now, with this awareness, I battle the tendency to work for perfection in order to please God and my significant others. This way of living is hard-wired into my brain, so learning new pathways is my current work. But, thankfully, it’s a work tethered to grace and compassion.
I’m spending a lot of time these days as a 50-year old woman trying to help my child self understand that she is okay. That she is loved without condition. That her life isn’t meant to be a drill with the goal of perfection. That her desire to achieve perfection was misguided by the adults in her life and so she has misunderstood what it means to be loved with holy grace that is freely given.
More than a year ago, my therapist helped me create what she calls a “safe place.” It’s basically a visualization exercise where I go to a place in my imagination that calms me. Some people visualize a beach or a cabin in the woods. It can really be anything you want it to be as long as you can access your sense while there. You need to be able to hear, smell, see and feel as you experience the environment you’ve created.
My safe place is in the mountains. There’s a mountain stream with cool water flowing around submerged boulders. I can hear the rush of water as it runs by me. I’ve placed a perfectly situated fire pit in the midst of a small clearing near the stream and surrounded it with wooden Adirondack chairs (since those are the only outdoor chairs my broken body will allow me to sit in pain free for any length of time).
I also took the liberty of moving the kudzu-covered woods I explored as a child to this place in the mountains. I know that you won’t find kudzu in the mountains in the real world, but this is a work of my imagination. I can do what I want. I even included the tree bridge I ran to as a frightened kid who needed to jump from its heights in order to test my courage.
I know. It’s strange. But the safe place can be anything I want it to be as long as it calms me and helps me bring my body and emotions to regulation when distressed.
The problem was, though, that after months of using my calm space as directed by my therapist, I wasn’t experiencing the help from it that it was supposed to give. It’s hard to do this, you guys. It takes a trust in myself and in my therapist that I don’t easily access. I drilled the exercise for a long time, but it felt full of pretense and totally ineffective.
So I quit.
Because as a Tennessee Baptist Mission Board State Perfect Bible Drill participant, if I can’t do it right, then I’m not going to do it.
Thankfully, my therapist isn’t keen on letting me walk away from things just because they are hard, and I don’t get it right the first time. She insisted I keep at it. She can be pretty bossy.
One day, as I restarted the practice, but still struggled with my safe space, I let myself get curious what might be missing. It was an idyllic setting, so that wasn’t the problem. It hit all the marks when it came to my senses. I was technically doing everything right. So what then?
And then it came to me.
I’m not meant to be there alone.
What was missing was the One whose very nature compels Him to embrace me with love and compassion despite my condition, despite my mistakes, despite imperfections.
I need God with skin on. I need Jesus. And more specifically, I need Him sitting on the tree bridge 20 feet above the safety of the ground below, holding me in my anxious state of fear and disgrace and letting me know that there is no height from which I can jump that will make me as I long to be – perfectly whole and perfectly loved.
No, only He can do that.