Guilt is as much a Southern delicacy as turnip greens with hot sauce or biscuits with sausage-flecked white gravy. I even feel guilty when I acknowledge that my mother who I love dearly plated up guilt with the finesse of a gourmet . . . that's how good she was at instilling it.
But I can't blame her. She learned the lessons well having discovered at an early age that with a dying mother and a house full of half brothers and her own brothers and sisters it would be her fate to help in the fields and raise the now nutzoid younger sister who seems incapable of appreciating anything!
She also sat through the Bible teachings of a fundamentalist approach to faith. Which meant when she was older with her own children and (gasp) a non-church-attending-Methodist for a husband, she knew that we would only become the Christians we were intended to be if we attended every service offered by our small First Baptist congregation.
Fundamentalism and family -- two of the best guilt inducers traditionally served up as the main course at most holiday gatherings.
As a result, I spent most of my faith walk with guilt as a constant companion. I learned the Roman Road but never walked anyone through the marked New Testament I prepared in Training Union. I read the missionary prayer list in the girls' mission magazine on Wednesday night but misplaced the magazine throughout the week. Which meant I didn't reference those souls in the infrequent times when I actually set aside a Quiet Time (for those clueless with the language of this paragraph, that would be the time I was supposed to spend thinking about how God loved me and how I should pay Him back in some way with at least a little attention).
I clung to guilt even as an adult. Any straying off the path (a harsh word to a stranger, any act that might cause another to "stumble", a missed opportunity to "witness" on a plane or in a cab or wherever the last evangelist had suggested was a great place to win the lost) tightened the grip on me.
Then it happened. I intentionally broke the rules. I'm not talking about a slip, a curious blunder that resulted in less-than-spiritual-behavior on my part, an oops moment. No, I'm talking about knowing that what I was about to do went against every teaching I'd ever held as truth and thinking, "Then so be it" as I committed the act.
The push of that domino became the most liberating act of my life. And the chain reaction has been quite a ride. I'm not through with it all yet, but in the midst of it. And what I know at this point, is that the Creator God that I embrace isn't about chains like bitterness, anger, intimidation or guilt.
I think that's why I reacted so strongly recently when I read a letter from a missionary living in Angola. Nearing Thanksgiving, gratitude was on my mind and my first thought was "Thank you God that I don't live in that place." And my second thought was "And thank you that I don't feel guilty for thinking that." Eventually, I got around to gratitude for the way that missionary writes so vividly of life there and that for whatever reason, he and his family continue to try and serve the people there and even thanked God for the fact that while Angola is one of the most horrendous spots to live on earth, it's actually gotten better than when I first started reading these letters.
While I've moved beyond the ingrained reaction of my youth and guilt no longer has its hold on me, I do feel an internal push to respond. Needs like this letter conveys are everywhere and I can't continue to live as if inaction is an option. But this time my reaction is not a guilt-induced one. Instead, I simply want to do something. I don't know if it will be in the area of AIDS or cancer or another particularly devastating disease that has claimed the active part of a couple of my friends' lives. But I know that that domino string is still in process, freedom is now my faithful companion, and I freely accept that I can make a difference and will.