(Note: This post has been modified, via the comments. Sometimes, things are much better than they seem! In my experience, this is USUALLY the case….)
I went to church this morning. Please forgive the jumbled blog post. I’m still recovering.
My family and I arrived an hour late, and then my “things must always be as I expect them to be” son had a near-total breakdown over the fact that our messy crate of McCall notebooks, pens, crayons, and child-amusing toys had disappeared from its former place in the back of the sanctuary.
I can’t blame anyone for removing the eyesore. We had been absent for months.
Going back, even for half a service, was much harder than I anticipated. I was clobbered by anxiety and fear as I combed my hair, and changed out of my Betty Boop, “Naughty Girls get Nice Gifts” t-shirt and short black skirt into jeans and a conservatively cut sweater. The sweater was, for the record, bright orange. I still had my spark, but not my sense of humor, it seems.
The fact is that I am afraid of church ladies.
There, I said it. That being said, I know that even feeling that way is a judgmental attitude on my part. The very label, “church ladies,” hearkens back to a not-nice-at-all SNL skit. And, the fact is that a couple of my dearest friends (women, even!) were there this morning, and they have continued to be my friends, and to maintain those relationships whether or not I show up to the same building that they do on Sunday mornings.
Our pastor hugged me, bright orange sweater and all. He would have hugged me in my Betty Boop T-shirt, I’m pretty sure. I’m also pretty sure that he would have been answering to some church ladies if he had. But, now I’m judging. Again.
I judge people whom I perceive as being judgmental, and this makes me judgmental. And then I judge myself. What a mess I turn out to be!
When we showed up, our pastor was preaching about who the Accuser of the Brethren is, and not being like him. He was encouraging humility, and being willing to get kicked in the teeth when you get down low, and humble yourself. He spoke about how often being a Christian in America seems to be all about accusing others, and how wrong that is. He encouraged us to love unconditionally.
A few people did reach out. I appreciated each one, and then a few of the ladies beat a hasty exit, refusing to even glance in my direction. I expected that, and coming in the first place was an act of humbling myself. This afternoon, my teeth hurt. There’s at least a chance that they each had a pressing engagement, and simply had to leave. But I’m a bit over-sensitive at church, and a smile and a wave on your way out the door doesn’t take any time at all.
The fact is, though, that they probably have no idea what an effort it is for me to show up on Sunday morning. They have no idea that they have the power to hurt me. They’re running to protect themselves. They run because my family’s continued absence has made them feel rejected, judged and scorned. At least, I’d like to believe that. It hurts less than the alternative theories I could manufacture.
I have a long history of making church ladies (and men) VERY uncomfortable.
As a teen whose physical dimensions resembled a Barbie Doll’s, I listened to my pastor rail against young women who tempt men with their bodies, and I learned to walk with my shoulders hunched. I learned to wear baggy clothes until I grew up and away from them.
As a recent college grad, with a degree in Classical Studies and Religion, I learned that “conservative” country churches don’t appreciate women who are educated, and have opinions. Especially about God, or childrearing.
As a young mother, I learned that nursing, even discreetly, at church will create such a maelstrom of gossip and upset amongst the women of a “liberal” church that the pastor will call you and explain that you are a terrifying woman, and you’d better stop hurting his sheep.
And as a new business-woman, who felt called to fight the colossal mess that sexual relationships and marriages in our culture and churches have become by fighting the Madonna-Whore complex with every ounce of my being, I discovered that my pastor is amazing. He’s not threatened by female sexuality, me, or what I do. He floors me.
And church ladies are still church ladies, because the face says, “we support you,” but the actions, and the several complaining calls to said pastor last summer say otherwise. Frankly, I don’t know how to respond. The women who are my friends outside of church are still that, and both their faces, and their actions agree.
“We love you.”
“We support you.”
I believe them. And I know that my pastor wants so desperately to see his whole church that way. He wants to believe that we are all loving, accepting, etc. He is NOT the Accuser of the Brethren. That’s certain. I’ve never met a more accepting, yet call-you-on-your-bullshit man in my life. And he says, “WE support you.” In my limited understanding, he’s the first pastor to really try. (Except for James Reist. Dr. Reist, who baptized our first son, is also amazing.)
I meet women every week, men too, who need someone like that in their lives. I need more people like that in my life. We all need to be loved unconditionally, and told to get our shit together, too. But the Sunday morning mask-fest, where we all pretend to be something we’re not, and complain to the pastor when someone steps out of line, is not the place to bring them.
I know that much of my discomfort at church is because, in a group so small, “several” complaining calls is significant. I know that much of it is because of my history in churches. And I know that maybe, just maybe, I am supposed to humble myself, and let them kick me in the teeth. Half of me wants to climb on stage and demand that they just get the stoning over with. (Except that I’m pretty sure things are split about down the middle, and I’d just be creating a rift so large that the community itself might disintegrate. Or maybe it’s egotism that makes me think that they care enough, either way.) The other half of me wants to run away, so that I don’t have to, once again, be the woman who makes people at church uncomfortable. None of me wants to put on my shiny happy mask, pretend that I enjoyed seeing everyone, and then call to complain to the pastor when I get home.
No, I didn’t enjoy church this morning. Yes, I could tell that my casual, honest comments to a couple of people felt like slaps in the face. The avoidance of others felt like a slap in my own. The whole experience inspired me to don my running shoes. (Of course, Aaron can be VERY persuasive. He got me to church this morning, and if he so chooses, he’ll get me there again, I’m sure.)
Yes, I knew that the friends whom I see away from church, too, were genuinely happy to see me. And my pastor gave me the world’s longest hug. He can feel me pulling back; he sees my family and I slipping away. I don’t know what to tell him. He’s doing all he can, but the entire institution of church in America seems to be at odds with him.
He’s right. Being the Accuser of the Brethren is the American way of Church. And I’m just as guilty as anyone else. I was raised in it, and I don’t know how to get free from it, except to stay away from church. But in doing so, I am judging those I leave behind. I’m deciding that they judge me. I haven’t asked them, either. As soon as the church ladies called the pastor, instead of me, I categorized them as people who don’t really love or accept me, at all. Judge not, that you be not judged? Yeah, I fail at that. Judgment, it seems, is a web, and we’re all caught in its sticky strands.