Worthy of Love?
“The wages of sin is death.”
I first heard these words at Vacation Bible School (VBS). One of my neighbor friends dragged me along, insisting it was “thebestestfunnestthingever!” Dubious, until she mentioned orange drink, cookies, and crafts, I figured it couldn’t be too bad.
The Baptist church sat across the street from our school bus stop. White steeple piercing the sky, red double doors beckoning all to enter. Silent all days of the week except for Sunday morning, when men, women, and children in clothes nicer than any I’d ever owned, flocked to climb the faux-turf covered stairs and go inside. I’d never been inside a church before, but I always figured it was scary. After all, God lived there. He knew everything about me, I was told, so I figured that, much like a child hiding after doing something wrong, I decided it was best for me to stay out of His sight and out of His mind.
Every day during that week of VBS, the pastor came at lunchtime to teach us a Bible lesson. The only Bible I’d ever seen was my older sister’s, a marked up King James Version. I’d tried to read it once, but all that “begetting,” “thou,” and “thy” made me feel stupid. I didn’t want to read the Bible if it was going to make me feel stupid.
This day the Pastor read Romans 6:23, in a booming voice I was certain sounded much like the voice of God Himself: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
These words intrigued me enough that I actually stopped scraping the cream off half of my Oreo cookie with my front teeth. Thoughts raced through my mind. The wages of sin? Why would anyone want to work at sinning? (I didn’t even know what “sinning” was, but it sounded bad.) And most importantly, why would anyone want to earn death? That was dumb. I didn’t even try to comprehend “eternal life” and figure out who “Christ Jesus our Lord” was, too complex for a nine-year-old mind.
The pastor’s voice cut into my reverie, “Yes, boys and girls, if you sin, you will die. You don’t want to die, do you?” I glanced around. Everyone else shook their heads, but I didn’t. What was this guy on? We would all die someday. I had attended my first funeral, my grandfather’s, when I was five. I’d go to a few more between then and that summer a pastor tried to convince me that I didn’t have to die. And two years after that, I’d stand next to the frozen ground as my father’s casket was lowered down.
The pastor continued, “You can have eternal life through Christ, boys and girls, and I pray that each one of you will commit your life to him by the end of this VBS. Then you can all go to heaven and live with God and Jesus forever.”
As we walked home later that day, I asked my friend, “What happens if I don’t want to let Jesus live in my heart?”
She kicked a stone across the parking lot and shrugged. “I guess you die and go to hell.”
“But if we’re all sinners, how can I ever know for sure whether I’ll go to heaven.”
Another shrug. “You just know.”
By this time, we’d caught up with the rock, and as I watched her kick it again, this time ricocheting off the brick wall of the local gas station, I couldn’t help but think that something didn’t add up.
* * *
Beyond those summer days of friendship bracelets, boondoggles, and popsicle stick crosses, the red doors beckoned daily, and I glared. Why would I ever want to go someplace where they were going to tell me what a horrible person I was? Didn’t I already feel that way, being poor and half-black (so I thought at the time), abandoned by my mother at the age of three, and struggling with depression and anxiety, even at that young age?
If I did accept Jesus, I could never know for sure if I was going to heaven, and that thought upset me more than believing I was going to die and go to hell. At least that was a certainty. And in the life of a child where few things were certain, it was almost a relief to know I could count on something.
* * *
I understood the God of hellfire and brimstone. I knew of Him, and wanted nothing to do with Him. It would be almost two decades before I heard, for the first time, of the God of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. 1 John says that “God is love.” And even though I often struggle to believe that I am worthy of that love, I think of the name given to me at birth, “Amanda.”
It was my great-grandmother’s name, a gift she bestowed, placing her seal of protection on me. My grandmother’s attempts to have me, the bastard child of her rebellious sixteen-year-old daughter, “that nigger baby,” first aborted and then put up for adoption were thwarted, and her fury was re-ignited by the blessings of this name. A name that had never been allowed for any of the previous grandchildren.
It seems that the Lord always had a plan for my life, and even though I sometimes doubt myself, my faith, or His very existence, one thing I know for sure: my name means “worthy of love.” And by His grace, I’m starting to believe that I am.