“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”Rachel Held Evens
When I was a kid, Jesus was my buddy. He was, in fact, quite close to the only friend I had. Growing up, both in the church and in the neighborhood, I was bullied a lot. In the church because my Dad was a preacher and some kids resented that, and in the neighborhood because I was skinny and weird and went to church every week. At the time I didn’t recognize why I was being bullied, and the truth is it was probably far more complicated, but I did know Jesus wouldn’t put up with that kind of crap. I also knew Jesus would probably forgive the bullies, so I didn’t waste much time sticking up for myself.
I used to talk to Jesus all the time. I didn’t do much praying. That was what all the grown-ups did, and it sounded creepy to me. I remember thinking if I thought it was creepy as an 8-year-old it must really freak Jesus out. I can’t say Jesus ever talked back, but I didn’t really expect him to. After all, when people are sad or upset they mostly want someone to listen. Jesus always listened, and I loved him.
One thing I loved about Jesus was that Jesus loved everybody. Yes, even me. All of the church songs told me Jesus loved me, and the church knew that because the Bible told them, and if the Bible told them something it had to be true. Kid’s don’t question this. They have no reason to, and probably wouldn’t even if they did have a reason. Because Jesus is the greatest friend any kid could have, and kids stick up for their friends.
So, to sum up: I didn’t waste much time sticking up for myself because Jesus would forgive the bullies. Consequently, I knew well before the age of ten how important it was to stick up for other people. Keep this in mind as I attempt to explain my first encounter with Biblical hypocrisy:
We attended Bethany Lutheran Church in Roseville, Michigan. For the most part, aside from the bullying and one incredibly painful Red Rover incident during Vacation Bible School, I had wonderful experiences there. My parents were well liked and respected parishioners, and my little sister was cute as a button. Part of this may have been due to Dad’s status as an ordained minister, but honestly, I think it had more to do with both he and Mom being genuinely good and likable people. Did I mention my sister was cute as a button? Bethany had a nice bit of land that we used to have picnics on, and there was a wonderful gigantic willow tree out back. It was at one of these picnics that I started to notice small prejudices. One conversation between my Mom and another church lady was how Steven Spielberg should be ashamed of himself for making Indiana Jones into a devil worshiping so-and-so with the making of Temple of Doom (Ah, the 80’s). My parents wouldn’t let me see the movie, which bummed me out terribly, but whatever it was that made Indiana Jones a bad guy had to be terrible. Had to be, because he was shooting people and making them back up into airplane propellers in the first movie.
It was around that time (1984-ish) that Bethany’s minister was replaced by a woman. Pastor Julia was her name, and I thought she was wonderful! She was so nice, and she was funny, and she was short, and she wasn’t all grumpy like the other guy. When Pastor Julia took over at Bethany, I had absolutely NO thought in my mind that she was either better or worse because she was a woman. She was just… Pastor Julia. Pastor Julia took a particular liking to my little sister, and Pastor Julia told me to take care of her. I told Pastor Julia I would, and I gotta tell ya… I had no intention of letting her down on that front. Pastor Julia gave me a righteous assignment, and I thought that was awesome. I still think it’s awesome. Even though my little sister, who at 40 is still somehow cute as a button, mostly ended up taking care of me.
To the best of my recollection, a little more than half of the congregation left Bethany in protest over the hiring of a female minister. I don’t recall anyone’s decision having anything to do with Pastor Julia’s theology or personality. There was a woman in a leadership role at the church, and people lost their damn minds! I was not part of any of the adult conversations that took place about this, but nobody cared much about keeping things quiet either. “But… she’s a woman” they would say. “Women cannot be ministers of the Lord. It’s in the Bible”. There were many other, often quite more vulgar explanations, but that was always the basic argument. “It’s in the Bible that women can’t preach, so we’re all going to leave if this abomination continues. Take that!”
I was sad for Pastor Julia, and I did not understand why this was happening. Sure, people told me the Bible says… but no one ever taught me that. In fact, what I was taught was Jesus loved me, and everyone else in the world, because the Bible said. Something didn’t add up, and I clearly remember this feeling of unease. Raise your hand if you know the feeling I mean. It was the feeling of hopelessness in the presence of God, and nobody was willing to even attempt a rational explanation. At least not to some weird skinny pastors’ kid. I must have asked my parents something about the whole situation, but nothing they told me remains in my memory. I’m sure it was positive and reassuring, and I’m sure they were struggling to understand as well, but what sticks in my memory is Pastor Julia coming over to our house one evening a broken woman.
My parents led her to the basement and asked my sister and I to stay upstairs. I didn’t want to do that. Pastor Julia was visiting! I wanted to hang out with her! But I stayed upstairs. Before long I could hear Pastor Julia weeping uncontrollably, and saying something to the effect of “All I want to do is serve. Why won’t they let me serve? What did I do wrong?” Obviously, I’m paraphrasing, but the point is Pastor Julia seemed to blame herself somehow. And she was heartbroken. Pastor Julia was my friend, and I never forgave the people who hurt her. I held it against them for decades, and if I’m being completely honest… I’m still furious!
This event had a monstrous impact on me. I can’t say I lost my faith at ten years old, or that I spent a lot of time advocating for women’s rights in the late 1980’s, but I never forgot this and I could never explain it. So, naturally, when I began my recent journey into rediscovery, this was one of the first things I tried to come to terms with. It has taken me quite some time to bring it up publicly, partially because my entire perspective on it has childish. I don’t remember a single interaction with Pastor Julia after that evening at our house, even though I’m positive there were many. And as far as I know Julia remained the head minister at Bethany for quite some time. The truth is, when I reflected on this time of my life, I couldn’t let myself see past that night. I’ve always looked at it like a ten-year-old.
I wish I could tell you I’ve got more answers now. What I have now is more education, more distance on the pain of it all, and a desire to talk to Jesus again the way I did when I was little. In fact, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll do that right now:
“Hey, man. Look, I’m just gonna get right to the point. What they did to Pastor Julia was messed up! And what they told to all of us kids about it was crazy town! As you know, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching. I’ve been living out a lot of cliché’s, which… I’m well aware does not surprise you in the least. I want to forgive those bullies, just like you would. I really do. But that has been difficult. No amount of that reading, soul searching, or cliché-ing is going to flat out give me an answer here. I know that. Mostly, I guess, what it has done is lead me to a better understanding of why things like that happen. A lot of the folks I’ve been reading mention that God meets people where they’re at. Looking at this Pastor Julia thing, is it safe to say that the folks who left the congregation just were not ready to meet God there? By extension then, could that mean that God showed up with Pastor Julia expressly FOR the people who stayed? I know the ‘Biblical’ arguments they’d have made, though I don’t remember hearing any. They’d have pointed to the Apostle Paul and his rant in 1stTimothy about ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over man’, and how because Adam wasn’t the one who was deceived by the serpent in Eden, all women are to blame for the evil in this world, blah blah blah. But none of that matters. Not to me, anyway. I’m not interested in furthering the argument. I’m interested in moving beyond the argument and into the understanding department. I talked to my Dad about this a little (He says HI). Dad reminded me that although there were indeed many people who treated Julia badly, she was also surrounded by a great deal of love and encouragement. He told me he thought she moved on to be the chaplain at a hospital or some such thing. Didn’t let the bastards get her down, as Kris Kristofferson might say. Maybe that’s the moral of the story. Because when I think about it now, the spiritual turmoil it caused me as a child could not have compared in any way to the challenge Julia must have faced with her faith through that whole mess. If this were a Bible story, she’d be Job. She did not lose her faith, and because of that she was rewarded with a prosperous future. So, at the end of the day it’s not ridiculous to think Pastor Julia may actually thank all of those unfriendly parishioners. And if that’s the case, I have no good reason not to do the same. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the point. Forgiveness means the forgiven no longer make the sufferers cry in the basements of preachers. I can live with that. Thanks for the talk.”Joel