I’m a good church girl.
I’ve been practicing a long, long time and I’ve gotten pretty darn good at it. I know the right answers. I know what to wear, what to say, how to pray, you name it. I have the hymns and all the key verses memorized. I blend in beautifully with all the lovely, shiny church people.
Or at least I did. Until I couldn’t anymore.
You would think just having kids would take care of that. Kids are loud and messy and slobbery and boogery and can be downright embarrassing at times. But, the strangest thing is — we start teaching those babes before they can walk how to pretend just like us! We indoctrinate, making sure we cover the bases of how to be a good little church girl or boy.
One morning at church I saw a young girl come bounding joyfully through the sanctuary to her mom’s side after Sunday School with a huge, panting smile on her face. Her mother abruptly turned to her and said, “No, ma’am! We do NOT run in God’s house.” The girl obediently straightened up, wiped off her smile and composed herself.
The whole thing seemed harsh from my perspective.
Yet, I’ve done it to my kids, too. Judged them, threatened them, spanked them, and worse. . .just for being kids and not pretending to be little perfectly-packaged versions of me.
Having kids seems to crank the righteousness competition up a notch or two. Now it’s not just about how perfect I am. It’s about my family, and my kids and how perfect we ALL are.
The discipline I use or don’t use. Whether or not my kids behave. The way they dress. The activities they’re involved in. The foods we eat. Whether we homeschool or choose private school or public school. What TV shows we let them watch. What books we let them read. The list could go on and on.
Good grief, we are so judgmental.
I have been guilty time and again of thinking myself vastly superior because of the way I do or don’t parent. And I’ve also been put in my place a time or two by those who are doing something better, causing me to regroup and redouble my efforts to “do better, try harder.” Like a hamster on a wheel.
Maybe something doesn’t always happen to ruin one’s best-laid plans.
But it sure happened to me.
What happened to me was autism.
While it is possible, at least sometimes, to teach so-called “normal” kids how to pretend to be as perfect as we want people to believe they are, it’s practically impossible to teach that to a kid with autism.
By the very nature of his disability, my son doesn’t really care what others think of him and it also would never dawn on him to even try to be somebody he isn’t.
We’ve had that boy in church since he was five weeks old. By the time he was two, he was rocking their world. Nobody had the slightest idea what to do with him. I’m not sure I have the slightest idea what to do with him, even to this day!
At the ripe old age of six, my little boy was already being excluded. At church.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people at church who really genuinely love him. Those who truly care for him have blessed us beyond measure.
But there’s a whole other group that he bothers. A lot.
He’s loud, he’s aggressive, he’s odd, and he calls a spade a spade. He doesn’t fit in like the other children. He misunderstands why “the rules” even exist in the first place. When church is boring that day, he’s not afraid to say it out loud. He’s certainly not going to be deterred from running in the sanctuary, despite all my earnest attempts.
When individuals don’t fit the mold, it tends to make other people really uncomfortable. Why is that exactly? Is it because most of us are pretending to be something we’re not? What are we afraid of? Is such blatantly honest and open behavior a threat to the masks we wear?
The people behind the masks turned on me whenever autism took mine.
I couldn’t hide anymore. I wanted to. I sure tried to. But autism yanked off my mask and threw it in a gutter somewhere, and I was forced to show who I really am.
I scared them. My son scared them. Our reality scared them. It didn’t fit their mold.
I worry about my church. I worry about a lot of churches, the church at large. Are we so caught up in our good intentions and our idea of what a “perfect christian” is supposed to look like that we are
creating a generation of Stepford Christians?
You know, drilling them in how to act, what to say, how to look — and in the meantime just plain sucking the life out of everything?
I bought into it for so long it felt real to me. But now I’m breathing again. And I have no desire to return to the slavedriver of appearances.
There’s an old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I wonder if what we’re offering up in some of our churches is weekly spoonfuls of vinegar. We preach and teach and offer our kids — and everyone who steps through our doors for that matter — a list of things they shouldn’t do or be if they want to be good Christians. We make lists of all the “Thou shalt not”s and we look down our noses with a good “bless their hearts” at all the people who don’t quite make the cut of what we think righteousness ought to look like. We talk about the sinners as “the bad people,” somehow implying that we’re the “good people” simply because we walked through the church doors that day. We bring people in and give them a nice “do good” message to inspire them to “try hard” to live the way the Bible says, then give them a pat on the head for showing up and send them out the door. We hammer the law and let grace fall by the wayside.
I’ve done it. I was a full-fledged, willing participant. But I’m not proud of it.
Especially now that I’ve been at the receiving end. Vinegar. Sour smiles and words meant to maintain “holiness” and “integrity.” But words that, in reality, bite like salt in a wound. Words that divide and tear apart rather than words that bind and heal. Words of rejection instead of acceptance.
I read a sermon the other day on John Ortberg‘s website. He says that during Jesus’ day, when a Rabbi was teaching small children, he would often put a drop of honey on their tongues as he read scripture to them. The idea behind it was that he wanted the children to associate God’s word with the sweetest, most wonderful thing they could imagine.
I love that imagery. Somehow, despite a lifetime of mostly vinegar, I’ve been drawn to the honey of God’s word like a bee to a sage in full bloom. It’s beautiful and life-giving. It makes me want to sing and dance and be silly in my joy. It makes me want to run through the sanctuary with a goofy smile on my face, bounding and leaping like a child with freedom in my limbs. How many people would frown at that scenario?
If we truly want our kids, and the world, to know the truth of God’s love — which IS the gospel — then maybe it’s time for the old sourpuss stance to go. I for one, want my kids’ church and spiritual experience to be sweeter than anything they can imagine. I want them drawn to Him. I want them to find the gospel irresistible.
So I think I’ll choose the honey. After all, it’s waaaaay better on my biscuit than pickle juice!
How about you? Any similar church-y experiences? How about ideas on addressing authentic living in our local congregations? I’d love to hear your thoughts.