The Broken Body

This is not a story about communion.  It should be, but it isn’t.  And therein lays the problem.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I went back to my hometown to live with my parents for two months.

I wasn’t sure I would survive the summer.

I was depressed.  Looking back, I can see that it was only the beginning of my struggle with depression, but at the time I felt like the world was ending.  I felt numb and isolated and hopeless.  I had just started self-injuring.  I was angry and hurt with my parents and felt guilty about being angry and hurt.  In short, I was a mess.

I came home to find that a girl I had been close to in high school, someone I witnessed to and invited to church, someone I had mentored spiritually and loved dearly had developed some pretty serious doubts.  She had become friends with a group of atheists, and her faith had slowly succumbed to their questions.  She had stopped attending church and started partying heavily.  Everyone was incredibly worried about her, but no one seemed able to get through to her.

I remember sitting in my car with her one evening that summer as she cried and being angry.  I couldn’t fix this for her, and I knew that she wanted me to.  These were hard questions that she had to work through herself, but beyond that I was in no condition to help anyone at that point.  I felt like I needed to be on spiritual life support.  But our relationship had always been a bit lopsided, and there was no room for me to talk about my own struggles, my own doubts and fears.  I will always wonder how things would have been different if I had been able to approach her on more equal ground.

Church makes me nervous because so much of it seems like window-dressing.  It’s easy to look holy on Sunday morning.  It’s easy to create a certain atmosphere and gain a certain kind of response.  A life of faith sounds easy in a pre-packaged thirty minute sound-bite.

Real life is a lot messier than Sunday mornings might lead you to believe.

For years, my parents have called me every Sunday afternoon and asked if I attended church that morning.  I no longer understand what the big deal is.  I was raised in church.  My father was a minister, so we were there every time the doors were open.  I grew up learning that real Christians attended Sunday morning service faithfully.  Because it’s important.

But now, looking back, it’s hard for me to get why it’s important.  What on earth does a two hour dog and pony show add to my spiritual life?  If church was about living in community, about honestly struggling together, about living transparently and serving each other in love, then I would understand.  Maybe I would even go, because that sounds like something that might change my life.

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On Being Invisible

Sometimes, I think my worst fear is being unremarkable.

When I was in high school, I always identified with Anne Hathaway’s character in the movie The Princess Diaries.  Not, of course, because I was secretly the heir to the throne of a tiny European country, but because people sat on her.  People sat on her and bumped into her and overlooked her.  And I knew exactly how that felt.

No one ever sat on me in high school.  No one pointed and laughed at me.  If there were girls calling me mean names, it was behind my back, and I never found out about it.  But a lot of times, I felt invisible.  I would comment on something someone said and startle everyone in the group I was standing with because no one realized I was there.  When I got tired of being talked over at my friend’s lunch table, I ate my lunch in the library or the park.  I was the girl people went to with problems not party invitations.  I was great for a listening ear but not for a good time.

College followed the same theme.  I spent twenty to thirty hours each week on the campus ministry I was involved in between attendance, volunteer work, and a part-time job.  Despite this, I always felt unconnected.  I barely managed a handful of friendships within the group, and only one of them was particularly satisfying.  Even then, I often neglected that one, genuine friendship because I was too focused on being the best possible servant.

And that’s really the key.  Ideal Christian femininity was model to me as quiet, submissive service.  Truly godly women did not ask for a place in the spotlight.  Instead, they served wherever they were needed, often without thanks or recognition.  The spotlight was for men (and strong-willed women, who were probably not all that godly anyway).  I remember standing in a circle at the end of a leadership meeting at that same campus ministry, waiting for one of the guys to get up the courage to lead in prayer because our pastor felt we needed stronger male leadership from among the students.  And while he was a great guy, and I don’t think he intended to push the women in the group down as much as he intended to challenge a group of guys that he felt were slacking, the message I took away from those meetings was that having women who got out front and led wasn’t good enough.  In fact, having women as the driving force in our leadership group was dangerous and ungodly.  So I waited.  I waited through moments when God was speaking to me about our group, moments when I had something important to say.  I waited and tried to find a quiet place of service, only to be overlooked.  And looking back, I can’t help but wonder what all of us missed out on.

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling invisible.

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The Family Business

One of the hardest things about growing up in a pastor’s home was that while Dad had the title, the credentials, and the pay check, we were all “in the ministry.”  Particularly at the small church where I spent most of my formative years, pastoring sort of became the family business.  While this had its advantages (like always knowing where the best candy stashes were), it also had its challenges.

Growing up, I heard my mother tell people repeatedly “I’ve never received my call to ministry.”  For the longest time, I had no idea what she meant by this.  Later I realized she was referring to couples who “co-pastor”, but in my eyes, my mother was in ministry.  She taught Sunday school and Wednesday night girl’s classes.  She sang in the choir and played the piano.  She made copies, folded bulletins, filed music, cleaned bathrooms, filled in for absent nursery workers, and spent countless hours creating scenery, costumes and props for various productions.  I’m not sure the church could have run without my mother.

My brother and I weren’t spared, either.  My father used to pick us up from school and take us to the church to fold bulletins on Thursdays.  I changed transparencies for worship until we got a laptop and projector, at which point I learned how to use Power Point and started making slide shows for worship, announcements, and the sermon three times a week.  My mother and I used to joke that we could start a catering company together based on our experience single-handedly setting up and tearing down for church socials, funeral dinners, baby showers, and wedding receptions.  I babysat during worship practice for free.  I prepared communion and cleaned up afterwards.  I substitute-taught Sunday school classes and even taught children’s church for a while my senior year of high school because there was no one else to do it.  I didn’t have a part-time job through most of high school because I was basically volunteering part-time at my father’s church.

And that’s really only the easy part of the responsibility that comes with being born into a pastor’s family.  The challenging part was the visibility.  Not only did I feel held to a higher standard of behavior, but because my father’s denomination allows the congregation to vote its pastors in and out of a job, I was constantly aware that my father’s employment could be affected by what I said and did.  When I found myself butting heads with my parents after I started college, I was afraid to go to my campus pastor for advice, worried that our problems would become gossip and affect Dad’s standing among his colleagues.

When all we have to associate with the church is hard work and pressure to be perfect, is it any wonder that pastor’s kids so often rebel?

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Sometimes I’m the Cowardly Lion

I really want to write about my issues with the professional ministry, and I’m terrified.

Actually, I probably want to write a series of posts because it’s a big topic about which I have a lot of feelings, but that’s not the point.  The point is I’m not sure I can do it.

I’m afraid of being heard.  I come from a family where children are meant to be quiet and women submissive.  I come from a denomination where people still debate the “appropriateness” of having female missionaries on a Sunday morning, and even if they get a chance to speak they may not be asked to preach.  I spent three years in leadership in a campus ministry where I was regularly encouraged to step back and wait for one of the men to lead, to the point that I sometimes wondered if they were emphasizing “godly male leadership” at the risk of having no leadership at all.

I’m afraid of being wrong.  I’m afraid that my arguments will be poorly thought out or poorly supported.  After all, I’m not a theologian.  I’m not a biblical scholar.  I have a degree in religion from a secular university, but I’ve always felt undereducated about my faith and under-qualified to have my own opinions.  I’m afraid that I’ll be too emotional.  This is an issue that gets me hot under the collar.  I was raised by a card-carrying Assemblies of God minister, and it left me with a less-than-neutral opinion on the issue.  I’ve been messed on by the church.  I’ve seen first-hand how painful and politicized and ugly the ministry can be.  I’ve seen how it creates unbalanced power structures, how it can become an insider’s only club, and how it can leave people bitter, hurt, and empty.  I’m not sure I can approach this issue without a bit of bias.

The truth is I feel like that about most important issues.  I don’t like confrontation.  I’m embarrassed to be wrong.  I’m not comfortable speaking out in a group that I’m not sure agrees with me.

I don’t want to be that person.

I know that I’m not the only person who struggles with this.  In fact, Sarah Bessey, a published author, recently wrote a great post on learning to own her authority as she edited her second book.  I think my concern is that I’m not sure I have any authority.  I’m not a well-respected anything.  I’m just a 20-something student with a blog, trying to figure things out.

But maybe that’s the point.  Maybe that’s the thing that makes it okay to be wrong.  I don’t have to know everything to have a starting point for a discussion.

So there’s a series coming on my issues with the professional ministry.  It probably won’t be the last topic I discuss that I feel insecure about.  But I hope that in posting I will learn something about myself and my readers and that maybe we can learn something from each other.

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Healing in Cracked Pots

Today, I got to hang out with my best friend.  Jac and I met our freshman year of college.  We were in marching band together but had never spoken to each other, so when she showed up in the altar at the campus ministry I had gotten involved with, I felt obligated to go pray with her.  When I asked if there was anything specific I could pray with her about, she (in her own words) word vomited on me about how lonely she was.  We exchanged phone numbers, and I started making a point of inviting her to come eat dinner with my roommate and me.  Over the course of the year, Jac and I became extremely close.  To this day, her friendship is the most honest, loving relationship I’ve ever had with another person.

Jac’s special gift is loving people on the fringes of society.  She marches to the beat of her own drum and seems to get endless delight from meeting and befriending those who don’t quite fit in anywhere else.  Odd ducks flock to her like flies to honey, and she’s always happy to lend a helping hand or listening ear.  I am incredibly happy to be part of her collection of weird, wonderful, wounded people.

As much as Jac loves those on the edges, she tends to be frustrated with those in the center.  This is one of the reasons we get along so well.  We talked quite a bit today about how we both feel God calling us to get back into spiritual community and accountability and how fearful and frustrated that makes us.

I feel incredibly conflicted about the church.  On the one hand, I acknowledge the need to be a part of the body of believers.  I acknowledge my own need for like-minded community, spiritual accountability, and corporate worship.  On the other hand, I have a lot of concerns about how the modern church operates.  I question whether the church in its current incarnation is really a place where I can be vulnerable enough to benefit from community and accountability.  And I wonder whether I can really, in good conscience, support a system that I see as so deeply and dangerously flawed.

I’ve been praying about this a lot lately, mostly hoping that God will tell me I don’t have to do it, but instead I keep being drawn back to the story of Jesus healing the blind man with dirt and spit.*  Dirt and spit are not particularly special or beautiful.  You have to work pretty hard to come up with any kind of meaningful symbolism in this gesture.  And yet, this is what Jesus chose to use as an instrument of healing.  Each time God draws me back to this story, he reminds me that the vessel doesn’t matter.  The instrument doesn’t matter.  Only the will and power of God matter.  If God is behind the healing, even spit and dirt can serve.

I guess I’m going to church tomorrow.

* See John 9

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