Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Good girls

It was summer and I was sitting at my post behind the circulation desk in the campus library. I can still feel the grain of the wood beneath my hands when he walked up to the desk, with peppermint breath and a mint in his mouth. I can still feel the cringing inside, the trying to shrink back, make myself smaller. I wanted him gone, wanted him to leave me alone for just one day.

"Do you want me to kiss you like this?" His tongue rolled slowly around the mint as he leaned over the desk. And I don't remember what I said, because my mind is still fixed on that mint, fixed on the shock of his words and on the look in his eyes that told me he knew exactly who held the power, and it sure wasn't me.

It was a summer of trying to avoid being near him in the deserted spaces of the library, a summer of tensing up for the comments and the leering glances that would make my skin crawl. A summer of hiding when he came over to our house, of having housemates sneak me down the back stairway and out for errands that would last until he left.

In the fall he abruptly left campus to return home for a family emergency.

And I felt guilty because I wasn't sad for him, I was just relieved to have him gone.

.....

It was, I think, a Saturday at the library. The public one, this time. And I was early and so was he and so I didn't think when he chatted while we waited for the doors to open. It may have felt strange, and at some point the red flags went up and I shut up, but it was too late.

He showed up unannounced at my house one morning. The house that I had said just enough about to help him find. And my housemates sent him on his way with the words that it was NOT ok to be there.

Twice more I saw him, once slipping into the daily chapel (he wasn't a student) and then again months after I left school and had moved into an apartment. Suddenly one night, there he was at the door, too late in the evening for a friendly stop-by, telling me he recognized my car. And twenty-five years later it finally occurs to me that he had to have been paying specific attention from the moment we met to even attach that car to me. A car that wasn't anything unusual on a street that led to nowhere much beyond dead ends. I got angry, he acted hurt, and my roommate and her boyfriend must have sensed something amiss because they emerged from her room. Rocky, bless his weightlifting, motorcycle-riding heart, stood in the doorway and told him to never show his face again.

And I felt guilty. Guilty for being abrupt with him, when maybe it was all my fault that he was there.

.....

Here is the truth of what no one ever told me when I was growing up, when I was told in so many ways that feminism was a dirty word and that good girls looked, dressed and acted a certain way. Sometimes guys just don't listen, even to good girls. And the world is not so simple that it can be divided into two sets of women: Good Girls who wear appropriate clothing and attract Good Guys, and Those Other Girls, who wear mini-skirts, swimsuits with high cut legs, tight jeans, or shirts that show just a little too much cleavage. The world is not even so simple that it can be divided into two types of men, those incapable seeing a woman in yoga pants at the gym without lusting after her, and those who have mortified their flesh through hours on their knees to still their carnal urges. Just as it is possible for a woman to wear yoga pants for the sole reason of comfort and ease of movement, it's also possible for a man to look at a woman and just see a person. Really, it is, and I don't know how many men have to speak up and say that it is before they stop being disbelieved, before the morality mavens stop insisting that they MUST be rare exceptions to the rule.

And the truth is that the girl who attracted unwanted attention was the same girl who sat with guys in those years to talk theology and life and a million other things that had nothing to do with sex or lust or unbridled passions. The same girl, in the same clothes, with the same bumbling immaturities, the same laughter, the same mind.


Sometimes growing up female in the church is hard. With words and with actions we are molded into the ideal good girls, plastic dolls who dress a certain way and talk a certain way and think a certain way. Meek, quiet, unassuming, deferential. Holy vessels forged on an assembly line instead of lovingly crafted by a potter who delights in the unique stamp he gives to each creation. Because Good Christian Girls can't possibly wear miniskirts, and they can't possibly be outspoken, and they certainly don't listen to THAT kind of music or dance unfettered for the joy of moving, or...or...or...

I'd like to think that it's all a hallmark of the evangelical youth movements of the 80's and 90's, that we've grown past the burdens we put on our daughters, but I've seen enough to know that it's not, that there is still that pressure to believe that Good Christian Girls will look, act and think in certain ways. Sarah Bessey wrote a beautiful post about women in bikinis, a post that a commenter called 'shameless'. Another popular Christian blogger and speaker posted some songs she liked to her Facebook page and was chastised for encouraging women to listen to music that did not contain uplifting lyrics (i.e. it wasn't 'Christian' music).

If clothing choices were what it took to draw others to Christ, the Amish churches would be bursting at the seams.

If music choices are what we're all about, then we probably need to decide whose music and which culture and what decade and are instruments ok or not because we've had those arguments in the past and from what I can see we either split or caved and never really answered for once and for all the question of what kind of music is most holy. And should it be all instrumental, or can we trust our fallen human words to tap into a faith that is bigger than we believe?

But what if it's just love? What if all I have to offer isn't my goodness, or my meekness, or my record collection (er...sorry, dating myself much?...my Spotify playlist?). What if all I have to offer is just love? Outrageous love that shines on the good girls and the loud girls and the girls in bikinis and the girls with wild music ringing in their head and the girls who are quiet and the girls who run and dance and the girls who cook and knit and craft and the girls who talk theology and the girls who read vampire novels and the girls who are all of the above or none of the above.

What if we taught our girls what outrageous love looks like?

What if we taught them to see through to the heart?

What if we taught them not to be ashamed to speak up?

What if we taught them that they are worthwhile just the way they are?

What if we taught them they are loved, every blessed inch of them?

What if we set aside all of the rules and all of the measuring and just loved?

Here is what I know...those who know they are loved have more love to give.





Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On deep waters and letting go

Photo by Danielle Moir, via Flickr

I have always been afraid of deep water. Afraid to the very core of my being, the kind of fear that made me close my eyes and hold my breath when crossing long bridges (at least until I began driving on my own). Childhood swimming lessons didn't help. It was the week of summer that I dreaded the most, because water and I had an agreement...I would stay out of it and it would not try to drown me. And so I sat on the side of the pool each day like a barnacle refusing to be dislodged. Generally after day one the instructors just let me be with only a few token attempts to coax me from my square foot of safety, and so I passed my childhood never learning how to swim.

Motherhood can change your perspective. It can make you brave in ways you never thought you could be brave, and you will do things for the sake of your children that you were never able to do for yourself. That is why in my mid-30's I signed up for private swimming lessons. I learned that I liked swimming...except for the whole deep water part which still inspired panic and kept me lurking in the lane closest to the side of the pool. But a cross-country move and the unfamiliarity of a new place put a halt to my swimming progress for the next ten years, until this summer when I decided to deal with my fear once and for all by getting back into the water.

One round of adult beginner swim classes at the public pool later and I was ready to hit the pool at the gym. And by ready I mean that I may have posted a specific "I am going to attempt to not drown on this date at this time" status on Facebook because if you tell everyone you're going to do something then the rules of saving face dictate that you must carry through with it and that was the only way I was ever going to get myself into that pool.

Lap swimming in a real pool with a deep end is a lot different than practicing your stroke back and forth across the shallow end of a pool. It's one thing to tread water in pairs of two with the instructor a mere arms length away, it is a different thing entirely to consider heading into the deep end on your own while the person responsible for monitoring the pool sits on the other side of the room. So that first lap session? I grabbed a kickboard and didn't let go the entire time. I still did all of the movements and the breathing and the putting my face in the water, just...as long as my fingertips were touching that kickboard I knew I was ok. I considered the possibility of never getting rid of the kickboard. I was in the water, getting exercise, sort of swimming...it was all good, right?

Except, I was never really going to develop as a swimmer as long as I held on to the prop. I could get most of the movements functionally correct, but toss me in the deep end without my kickboard and fear and panic would still get the best of me. And it was limiting. There are only so many strokes that work while you are still holding on to something, others that just don't work at all.

...........

I love our current pastor. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that I have learned more and grown more spiritually under his leadership than I have under any other pastor in the past. That's not to say I haven't had good pastors, most have been gifted to lead in one way or another. Maybe it's because we came to this church at a time when we were desperate for community, having spent several years in the wilderness trying to find our place. Maybe its because it was here that I was finally free to question. I don't know.

What I do know is that I've known for quite some time that this particular season wouldn't last forever. I THOUGHT it would look like our church growing to the point where we planted a second church, and so I pre-emptively wrestled with the thought of being true to where God would call our family to go, even if it meant heading out (or staying put) with a different pastor. As it turns out, that becomes less of an issue when your pastor gets called to Canada.

.........

Sometimes a pastor is a little like a kickboard. We just get used to having that prop to guide us through our spiritual journey. The deep water isn't scary if we can hang on to him (or her) to carry us through all of our doubts and all of our growing, if we can count on him to wrestle with the questions and give us the answers. But if that's where our faith is, we aren't really swimming, are we? Life changes. The average tenure of a pastor at a given church is about four years so chances are good that at more than one point in your life you will experience a pastoral transition in your church. And oh, it can look scary to let go of that kickboard. You've heard tales of people who drowned in such deep waters. Maybe you've been there yourself, seen the struggling and the flailing of a church unable to swim on its own. It's easier to hop out of the pool and go grab another kickboard than it is to swallow a little water but trust in the properties of water and everything you've learned to keep on swimming.

.......

The church is not the pastor. I can't think of any place in the New Testament where church meant anything other than the gathered assembly of believers. It seems that the only time leaders are mentioned it's in the context of divisions being caused by people following one leader or another instead of living out the gospel message of Christ as a community. (Yes, it talks about elders, but always in the role of oversight, not sole responsibility.) So doesn't it stand to reason that we were never meant to hold on to a pastor as if he were our kickboard, our only means of surviving deep waters? Out of all of the grand and beautiful and messy community of believers, the pastor is ONE person, a fellow sojourner who happens to have been given the gift of teaching.

But we've made it out to be something it isn't, haven't we? We've elevated pastors to celebrity status when they are successful, blamed them for the failing churches when they aren't, expected them to be our mentor, our teacher, our compassionate ear, our intercessor, our Bible dictionary and our all-in-one reference book. And while we were elevating them we were neglecting the real church. We were neglecting the people in the seats next to us. The intercessors, the helpers, the teachers, the mentors, the explorers, the questioners, the co-learners. We were neglecting the community that helps us to navigate the deep waters, the ones who swim beside us in the depths, who cheer us on, who extend a hand when we get weary.

Watching a pastor leave can raise intense emotions. It can taste like fear and feel like drowning. Keep swimming. The water is deep, but there's freedom and there's growth to be found in the letting go.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Feast

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr

When I was little my mom used to make the most delicious rhubarb custard. Sometimes she made it just as a custard, sometimes she baked it into a pie. At least, that's the way that I remember things. All I really remember is that there came a time after leaving home that I began longing for the taste of rhubarb custard.

One day in town I noticed that a small bakery had a sign advertising 'Rhubarb Pies'. I think I managed to ignore it for a week before I finally broke down, pulled in one day after work and bought myself a rhubarb pie. (And when I say 'myself' I really do mean myself, because I was single at the time so there was no family to steal share my pie. Although given my children's food selectiveness, I am fairly certain I still don't have to worry.)

I returned home, carried my prize inside, got out a plate and opened the box. Only to find that it was NOT the rhubarb custard pie of my dreams, but some sort of rhubarb travesty of the gelatinous goo variety. Now, I do enjoy a good rhubarb crisp or crumble. But at that point in my life, rhubarb belonged in two forms...a crisp, or a CUSTARD pie. It just never occurred to me that someone would create a rhubarb pie that was not a custard. (But then, I'm also of the opinion that most fruit pies should just give up and be crisps instead, as God intended them to be. It's all about the crumbly topping.)

I probably ate it anyway, sharing the taste and my disappointment with my roommate. Later she gave me her mother's recipe for a rhubarb custard pie, and there were two of them cooling on my counter as I wrote this, over twenty years after that day.

Life hands us disappointments like that sometimes. We think we're getting one thing but we open the box to find out that it's not exactly what we anticipated. The base ingredient is the same, but the sweet taste of custard gives way to something with more tartness, less sugared. Maybe its a family life that isn't quite as you pictured it to be. The children are more rambunctious, more opinionated than you ever expected. The spouse leaves dirty socks laying on the floor and wears t-shirts with holes in them. (Any resemblance to specific spouses and children is purely coincidental and not to be construed as a portrait of an actual person.) The pretty new house has plumbing problems or noisy neighbors or an odd way of settling with creaks and groans at night. You take a job as administrative assistant at your church and then the pastor moves (true story). Friends who you thought would be around for years move a world away (also true story). (OK, Canada, they move to Canada. It feels like a world away.)

We get something other than what we wanted. But there, waiting on the sidelines are the friends who sit down with us and share in the feast anyway. And they listen to us talk about what we wish had been and they help us to find what we need to make something new.

I can't promise that disappointment will always lead to something sweet. You may need to eat a lot of gelatinous goo. Maybe you'll learn to like gelatinous goo, or at least appreciate it for what it is without expecting it to be custard. Sit down anyway. Sit down with your friends and your neighbors with your disappointments and their disappointments and dig in. Share in the tart and the sweet and the bitter. Eat with them the taste of tears and longings unfulfilled. And then go to the kitchen together. Pull out the flour and the sugar, the spices and the eggs. Set yourselves to baking something new, something that may turn out and maybe not. But bake anyway. Mix your hopes and your dreams, your longings and your prayers.

And feast together again and again.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Little white lies

I'm hesitant to jump on the whole 'let's blog about depression and suicide' bandwagon that's happening this week in the wake of the loss of a major celebrity. But I think there is a pull for many of us to tell our stories, to put a human face to depression and other mental illnesses when we see the words that hurt instead of healing, when we see people speaking opinions and declaring them Truth. Truth is, depression is complicated, depression is different for everyone, and (as The Bloggess says) depression lies. It lies to us and through us. It muddles our thoughts, our actions and our relationships. I originally wrote this post in 2009, it seemed somehow appropriate to edit and repost it for today.

Photo by David via Flickr
Yesterday I had both boys with me when I stopped in at the endocrinologist's office for a quick blood draw. I should have gone on the previous day when I could have gone alone, but I can't be the only one who spends the day thinking that there was Something you were supposed to do but you can't remember what. And then it's 5:00 and you finally remember, only it's too late. It was one of those days. It should have been simple, a brave face for a few seconds and then we'd be out of there.

I was doing great, smiling calmly at the boys (ok, Kyle was oblivious, Jordan was hovering with curiosity and a little trepidation); and then, the nurse couldn't find the vein. Couldn't...find...the...vein. There I sat, with a manic smile pasted on my face as I silently screamed, "OK, this hurts, this hurts, this hurts!" And Jordan asked the question that all children want to know when confronted with a needle, "Does it hurt?" "Well, a little bit," I responded. (Oh, please, please, PLEASE find that vein quickly and get this over with!) He hovered, I smiled, teeth gritted behind the upward curve of my lips, until the nurse finally found the vein. As we left Jordan said "I don't think I ever want someone to take my blood." He'd seen right through the lie of my smile and knew perfectly well that despite my attempt to mask it this was something that hurt more than just a little bit.

I do that a lot, you know. Most of us do. Little white lies to hide the pain we're in. "How are you doing?" "Fine, how about you?" Only we aren't, but we don't mention the fact that we've thrown out our back, or that the baby has been up all night teething and we just want some SLEEP, is that too much to ask? Or that our world seems to be falling down around us or we've got a child who has brought us to our breaking point in any of a thousand ways. We don't talk about loss or grief or the sadness of dreams that take too long in coming. We don't talk about how the joy we've prayed for hasn't shown up in the anticipated ways. We don't talk about how sometimes joy and tears can exist together or how hard it is to hold on to the joy through the tears. We don't talk about how "try harder" can kill our souls.

It's no big deal, it's not like it's a lie that HURTS anyone. So we paste our smiles on our face and we pretend we aren't in pain and 'fine' becomes that word that we always, always say even when all the needles are jabbing and we just want a moment of comfort and relief.

Let me tell you a secret...telling everyone we are fine when inside we are screaming "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!" doesn't help us. Sometimes there's a time and a place, and not every person is a good person to tell. But...and THIS is what I want you to hear today...that little lie of "I'm fine" does something. It robs those around us of the chance to express the heart of Christ to us. It robs them of the chance to bring comfort to the hurting, robs them of the chance to bind up wounds, walk beside, speak life and hope and peace and yes, joy, into our lives when we can't find the words ourselves. Left long enough, it will turn a church into a shell of a building filled with the shells of people all walking around with smiles on our faces saying "I'm fine." And a world full of people who are NOT fine will never enter our doors if all that we have to offer them is the message that the 'joy of the Lord' is an everlasting upper, instead of sometimes the only rock we are clinging to with bloodied hands as the waves of pain wash over us.

And to be sure, there is a balance to be had between complaining about our every ache and being honest about when we are hurting. And there is a time for knowing who to share your hurts with and who may not have the maturity to handle it. But in a world that is broken it's time for the church to come alive to its mission, ministering the love of Jesus to the physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally broken people both inside and outside of its walls. No more little white lies.