Distorted relationships

Credit: kalebnimz, idpinthat.com

Recently–as in, weeks or months ago–I ran into an old acquaintance. We’d known each other for years, from various churches and schools, but we’d never truly been friends. She was part of the popular kids during our teen years. I wasn’t. She wasn’t a “mean girl” or a bully. Only popular. And I wasn’t.

(And I was a bit of a snob regarding people I perceived as popular; I didn’t like them, had no use for them, suspicious that they must have compromised their standards to attain their popular status. How else could people climb the social ladder of success?)

So we floated around in different social circles, never connecting except when it was forced on us.

Over the years, I’d perceived that even though we were adults, she was still treating me that same way. We talked only when necessary (almost never) and I perceived a certain superficiality on her part. I loathe fake friendliness. Pretense. Artificiality. Bleh. So it was better that we didn’t talk, I told myself, because I would rather be around genuine people. Not fakes. (Notice the pride in my attitude!)

Circumstances changed. Some changes were small, others life-altering. When we ran into each other, I was startled that she was friendly to me. And I mean genuinely friendly. I assumed the changes in our lives might have contributed to this.

I was right about that, but only that.

I learned that she’d been living with pain for years. It had taken all her energy to keep this hidden from others.  Now that her life had changed, so had the pain. She could drop the pretense that life was fine and the oh-we’re-doing-wonderful-how-about-you? the churchy, socially-acceptable answer to the horrible phrase, “Hi, how are you?” (There ought to be a law against this question being used as a social greeting.) She was free to be honest.

I was flabbergasted. Not at the secret per se–I’d had a weird feeling about one aspect of her life for years–but at how badly I’d mangled my interpretation of our relationship. That artificiality? That perception that she was treating me like we were back in high school?

I was wrong. It wasn’t about me at all.

It was about a woman trying to protect herself from pain.

Never mind what this particular pain was. You can fill in the blank with whatever you think it might be; it could be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, any sort of thing at all. And this particular situation could be applied to multiple people whom I’ve known for years; after living in the same area for twenty-eight years, I know a lot of people. So there’s no use trying to guess who it is (if you know me in real life) or what it is (if you know me online). That’s irrelevant.

What is relevant is how I made a situation revolve around me and my interpretations of events and people, and how I was wrong. 

It reminded me of the novel Rebecca. After the big revelation that the narrator’s husband not only killed his first wife but never loved her at all, the young narrator begins to look at all the things she’s misinterpreted since she got married. Her sister-in-law’s attitude. The estate manager’s manner toward her. Her husband, and a multitude of things surrounding his late wife Rebecca, who’d pretended to be perfection and was foul and rotten beneath the surface.

She hasn’t known any of this. Instead, she’d built up a picture in her mind of the wonderful life her husband Max and Rebecca had: love and devotion and passion. It had been none of those things. She hadn’t known because she felt inferior to the first wife and was too shy to ask questions.

It seemed incredible to me now that I had never understood. I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. —Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, chapter 20

Like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca, I had done exactly that. I’d let my  self-perceived inferiority build up a wall between myself and the world. It was built, stone by stone, from insecurity, from past embarrassments, from present slights, from future fears. High school experiences had been perceived through the grey cloud of depression then. Now, those experiences were even more distorted by the extremes of bipolar disorder, the fickleness of memory, and arrogance. (What can be more arrogant than self-abasement? It emphasizes self, exalting it by giving it undue credit.)

The situation wasn’t about me. But it did reveal how distorted and self-centered my thoughts were. Now I look around and I wonder how many other times I’ve misjudged people’s attitudes and actions. All those things that I’ve seen as hostility or superficiality or some other negative attitude toward me could really be exactly what it seems: hostility or superficiality of spirit. It also could be hiding personal pain. I might never know.

But I can stop focusing on me and pray for a discerning mind and an open heart–and be willing to see that truth revealed, no matter how ugly it is.

Excuses, excuses

A few days ago, my older daughter was peering over my shoulder while I cleaned out my email inbox. She was curious about how many emails ended up in my trash folder. (At last count, it was 3600 and counting.) I was bemoaning how many emails I receive, many of which are blog posts from blogger friends, and how I couldn’t keep up with reading ALL of them. “Some people blog every day,” I told her. “Great material, but I could never do that.”

“How often do you blog?”

“Uhh . . . well” (cue sheepish look, tiny voice) “I haven’t blogged since January. Too busy.”

Cue the teenage look of disbelief, incredulity, and slight grimace that might or might not have been sympathy. She’s fourteen. She knows the rules of the internet even better than I do: to maintain an online presence, one must produce new content often.

Here I am, typing away, producing a new blog post. And apologizing for not blogging more often. I am, however, getting an astounding number of comments and email about the invisible in church post. (I’m also receiving an astounding number of spam on the post. Do spammers not have better things to do with their lives? Like, you know, get one. Or is it all computer generated now?)

I digress.

Here’s the rundown of what’s been happening:

The short story contest for Ruminate brought in 340+ submissions, with a huge number arriving in the last week. That was terrific. (I can’t wait for y’all to read the grand prize winner. I pegged it as a finalist the first time I read it.) But it also meant lots of time reading. I’m fairly certain I logged 40+ hours of work in that last week, between reading all of them, notifying my editor when submissions had author’s personal info in the body of the submission (a no-no when it’s a contest), and choosing my top 15 stories.

That meant that I had stopped working on my own novel. When I surfaced from contest-reading in early March, I realized that a huge part of my novel’s premise didn’t work. I mean, if it were an engine, it’d need a total overhaul, not a mere jump-start. Jumper cables weren’t going to do the job, y’all; this baby needed a tow truck to the auto mechanic shop, where some guy with grease-stained coveralls would pop the hood, mess around, and say, “Miz Droege, this here engine is gonna need a total overhaul, but me and Earl here” –slaps another big, grinning, grease-stained guy on the back– “we’ll fix it right up.” Earl chews his tobacco wad and nods and says, “Yep.” And I’d get a bill for a thousand bucks or whatever the going price is.

The biggest problem? The wrong antagonist. Changing that changed the entire story. I had ordered Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel, and it was a godsend. His exercises helped me focus and deepen the characters and think about the story in different ways. (As a bonus, he uses many examples from current fiction. After seeking out some of the titles, I’ve found a few new favorite authors.)

The 5th draft was written in two months. I’ve spent the bulk of my writing time working on it, trying to finish before my daughters got out of school. My older daughter’s last day was Friday the 19th, I finished the draft on Saturday the 20th, and my younger daughter’s last day was yesterday. Goal accomplished.

There were other stressful things going on. Some were small (two concerts in one week, a complicated schedule). Others were large (a family emergency that took my husband out of town for a week).

I suppose all of this is my long-winded excuse for not blogging or having an online presence. My brain can handle only so much before it goes on strike and demands better treatment. I hope that I’ll be able to return to blogging on a more frequent basis.

A plea to church leaders from the invisible woman in the church pew

Let me be completely honest: I’m angry right now. It’s a dangerous thing to be angry while blogging, and I’ll probably wait an hour or two after writing before hitting the publish button, but I think this is something that needs to be said.

Ever since I first posted about feeling invisible in church, I’ve received emails and comments on that post and the subsequent ones on the same topic. So many people are hurting. They feel alone in church. They feel that no one cares, that they have no friendships, that they might be physically sitting on the church pews but no one sees them. This is sad.

What is sadder to me is that, in many of these stories, the people have tried to fit in at a particular church:

  • Bible studies.
  • Small groups.
  • Ministry involvement.

If these things weren’t available, often they tried to start them. Tried . . . and failed, for reasons too many to count. (Lack of leader support, not spiritually gifted in that area, etc.) Too many people have told me, “I thought I was the only one who felt like this!” And then they thank me for sharing because it’s helped to know that someone cares, even if it’s a total stranger in cyberspace.

Yet at many of the churches I’ve attended and visited, the majority claimed to be a caring body of believers. They urge people to join small groups or Bible studies or get involved in various ministries. These are the best ways to make you feel like you belong, I’ve been told.

But my blog readers have done all these things, and they haven’t worked. They’re still alone. Still hurting. Still invisible in the church pew. All these wonderful, promising things that are supposed to help us follow Christ together and share life and blah-blah-blah: they’re failing.

I’m sure there are people for who these groups and methods work. They’ve found close friends and feel totally accepted and loved at church. Terrific. But others are falling through the cracks.

People are asking me to pray, and I am. I’m heartbroken for them.

But at this point, I’m also frustrated. The one group of people I haven’t heard from on this topic are church leaders. (There have been a few. Thank you.)

I can’t imagine that they are entirely ignorant of this problem. (I think some leaders acknowledge that this happens at other churches, but convince themselves that their church is not like that. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not.)

Nor can I imagine that pastors, elders, and deacons don’t give a damn that people feel rejected and alone. I’m sure many or most do. (For example, when I told my psychiatrist that I’d had a negative experience visiting his church–I was totally ignored both times I attended–he nodded and said, “People come to the church through small groups, so they don’t feel the need to reach out to people in the pews. The leaders know this is a problem, but we don’t know what to do about it.”)

Nor can I imagine that the leaders want congregation members and visitors to suffer silently. (There would be exceptions; egotistical masochists end up in every profession, unfortunately. But surely most pastors desire to have a pastor’s heart: compassionate and merciful, shepherding people like Christ, the Good Shepherd, does. Imperfectly, to be sure, but longing to help and guide.)

So what’s the problem?

Why can’t leaders acknowledge that sometimes methods fail?

That includes

  • The join-a-small-group method:

(This seems to elicit more enthusiasm in my area than it deserves. Many involve the church putting the groups together, so you might end up with a group of people you don’t like or trust or even know, and somehow you’re supposed to “do life together” with weekly meetings that are heavy on food and fellowship and light on anything more substantial than coffee cake and sweet tea. It’s an introvert’s–and nutritionist’s–nightmare. Maybe the small group idea works better when you’re already friends and get to pick each other. But then how do outsiders join?)

  • The participate-in-a-Bible-study method: 

(A lecture-based group isn’t conducive to building friendships. And the discussion-based ones aren’t either, as it’s too easy for one or two people to dominate or derail the discussion, many people are too intimidated by public speaking or feel too ignorant to talk, and a lot of Bible studies are filled with fluffy material that doesn’t satisfy mature believers or educate and equip young ones.)

  • The get-involved-in-a-ministry method:

(Theoretically, this should work. Working alongside other people is a terrific way of getting to know others. But I’ve heard from people who said that they signed up to help in a particular area but were never contacted by the leaders. A variation on this situation is where there’s a small clique that owns that ministry and they don’t want to share the work, power, or glory. It’s “theirs.” Another variation: the same clique allows you to do the gruntwork but your ideas and concerns aren’t heard, and you’re never really accepted by the people who are involved. Your gifts are never fully utilized. You walk away frustrated.)

All three methods are things that I’ve been told by church leaders (and read in various places) are great ways to feel like I belong in church. I’ve tried all three. None of them are bad. All work for certain people in certain circumstances. (Praise God and give him glory!) But none work for everyone. And for some people, they don’t work at all, and those are the people writing to me. Pastors and leaders, why is this?

Please hear me: I’m not blaming the pastors. Often, they’re doing the best they can: preaching until they’re hoarse about loving others around us, trying to set a good example in their own lives, truly trying to reach the lonely among the members. But the congregation members are hardhearted. In that situation, I’m not sure there’s anything they can do besides pray.

I realize that the pastor’s role is difficult. I understand that. I understand they’re torn in 500 different directions, personal and professional, and feel overwhelmed and alone and frustrated. I understand the burnout rate is high, the depression rate is incredibly bad, and there’s often no one they can confide in within their church. I understand that there’s a thousand different aspects to that job that I’ll never understand because I’ve never done it. I get that. I don’t want to add a burden to their heavy load.

But I’d like to hear from church leaders about why some Christians might try so hard, do all the build-friendships-at-church methods, and still end up alone on Sunday morning. What is going wrong? How can we, as the body of Christ, move beyond mere methods to something more substantial? How can we stop having people fall through the cracks? What would you advise my lonely readers to do? 


(P.S.: I did wait a while to cool down and edit this. If you feel condemned by my words, I ask your forgiveness and please let me know so I can edit.) 

Anne Shirley’s philosophy on mistakes

tomorrow has no mistakes in it yet

Yes, Anne, it is lovely to know. Even if today was difficult, and I made too many mistakes to count, tomorrow is a new day. Reading this passage always makes me smile.

The photo is one of mine. One evening, I saw a gorgeous sunset. I grabbed my camera, ran out barefoot, and snapped a dozen or so shots. I got a splinter in my foot from the wood on our back porch, but fortunately, my husband was able to extract it without too much pain. (Lesson learned: wear shoes when outside!) The photos were worth it, though.

The virtue of Father Christmas

tosantaornottosantaThe Christmas conundrum: To allow Santa or to not allow Santa, that is the question.

Of all the things that divide Christians, this has to be one of the most seasonal controversies. Along with Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas,  whether or not to sing Christmas carols in the worship services, etc., this one appears for one month of the year (possibly two, if you begin Christmas festivities before the Thanksgiving turkey is properly digested), disappears for eleven months, and then reappears, just as contentious as before.

Frankly, I’m ambivalent. I’m neither pro-Santa or anti-Santa. My parents believed that it would be too damaging if they lied to me and pretended Santa was real. So I never did the Santa photo or cookie plate on Christmas Eve or had presents under the tree labelled from Santa. Besides, I was terrified of the Santa in the mall. Go sit on a stranger’s lap and smile? Little Laura burst into tears at the thought. (This also applied to the Easter bunny, scary Halloween costumes, and handling Fourth of July sparklers. I was an overly sensitive child, okay?)

My husband and I haven’t had Santa with our daughters, either. Neither of us grew up with it, so we didn’t have cherished family traditions surrounding the guy in the red suit. Why bother?

Recently, I read a blog post on the subject. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read anything else on that blog, nor do I know the authors’ views on any other subject.) The author writes,

“Every part of Christmas, Team Jesus or Team Santa, can be grossly misused. There is no escape from the distracted desires of our heart, even on Christmas. It’s not as simple as choosing a side. In truth, Santa and Jesus are not at war. Rather, we are just a little confused. Our culture has lost the virtue of a fairy tale.” –Cindy Koch (emphasis mine)

That last line reminded me of a quote from G. K. Chesterton:

Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

Immediately, I thought of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the beginning of this fantasy (Lewis called it a fairy tale), the White Witch has captured Narnia under her spell. She makes it always winter and never Christmas. 

However, as the human children enter the world, another, more powerful person is at work: Aslan. The lion: wild but good, self-sacrificing and all-powerful, fierce but forgiving. When he is on the move, the White Witch’s spell begins to break. The snow melts. Frozen rivers thaw. New life springs from the ground.

And Christmas happens.

Three of the children meet Father Christmas, who arrives in his sleigh, Santa-style. But like John the Baptist foretelling the coming of Christ, he is also heralding the arrival of someone greater than himself.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” 

Then he gives them gifts. They are tools, not toys, he cautions, and must be used wisely. A sword for Peter, who will soon be leading an army in battle. A quiver of arrows, bow, and horn for Susan, who will need to call for help. A bottle of healing cordial and a dagger for Lucy, who will care for the wounded.

(Clearly, Father Christmas hasn’t gotten the message that his presents are supposed to be the fun, plastic-entangled, batteries not included, difficult-to-wrap toys advertised in shop windows.)

Father Christmas isn’t at war with Aslan. These gifts aren’t for their own self-advancement or pleasure. They will be used to serve Aslan as he defeats the evil corrupting his beloved Narnia.

This fairy tale tells the readers

  • that good will overcome evil,
  • That Christmas isn’t about presents or merry-making but about the arrival of Aslan, the Jesus figure,
  • That the children will be given the tools they need to fight the White Witch,

and most importantly,

that it will take the self-sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan to totally defeat evil. A bloody, violent death. A glorious, unexpected resurrection. That’s what it will take to atone for wrong. At times the outcome seems uncertain and the children fear that the Witch has won and her evil will destroy Narnia for good.

At times, I, too, despair of the world around me: violence and division, hedonism and nihilism, abuse and ignorance. I feel ill-equipped to fight it. I wonder when God is going to step in and save the day.

And then I remember that he already did. 

That is a gift more glorious than anything Santa or another person can put under the Christmas tree.

Evil will be defeated.

Good will reign.

Let’s focus on that this holiday season.

 

 

 

 

Happy Wednesday

 

My daughter’s friend sent her this photo. I have no idea where she found it. I thought it was funny–and accurate. (Especially the statistic for Fridays!)    unnamed

His love endures forever

blog-photo

In church, a group of children read Psalm 136. An older child read the “give thanks” parts and the younger ones echoed, “His love endures forever.” It seemed an appropriate reminder for the day before Thanksgiving: all we have has been given to us by God.

The photo is one I took last Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law, an interior decorator turned nurse, had her house all decorated for the holiday, and I wandered around with my new camera, snapping photos. She found that odd, especially when I took photos of the desserts and stuffing and casseroles. The turkey got away, though. He was delicious.