Promises Cut Both Ways

This promise from Romans 8:28 is one of my favorites:

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (NLT).

I repeat it to myself a lot when things aren’t going well or when terrible things happen to people I love. Depending on the distance from and severity of the event, it’s either encouraging or almost offensive — or both. The idea that trauma can somehow work for good is offensive — why not remove the trauma and figure out some other way for the good to come about? But there it is. In the Bible. And I’ve seen it in my life. I have a friend who can acknowledge the good things that happened in her family because her father died when she was young. Another friend went through a horrible illness, yet in the process of needing so much care, came to know in her bones that her father loved her — something she’d felt insecure about before. So there is pain in this promise, but also hope.

I’ve been part of churches that had to cling onto this promise by our collective fingernails. In one church, there was a situation that halved the membership. It was traumatic and upsetting and terrible. And yet. There were some of what is called, “blessed subtractions” — people who’d become negative voices in the church left. Which meant we could move ahead in different ways than we could when they were there. It took some time, but we were stronger and more unified and built a firmer foundation for growth.

I’m not saying it wasn’t hard. It was, in fact, one of the worst years of my life, at the end of which I blew up at someone who didn’t deserve it, had to apologize to her and ask her forgiveness and accept it when she gave it (yes, it was difficult to accept forgiveness). It was awful. But what came of it was deeply good, both in the life of the church and in terms of my spiritual growth.

Despite knowing what it felt like to be one of the remnant, I left that church last year. It was hard. I’m still sad about it. But I can see things working for good in my life and my family’s life because of it.

And here’s the kicker: I can see it my old church, too. My leaving made people sad, but it did not devastate the congregation. In some ways, it set people free and things are better because I’m gone.

We like to think of ourselves as setting people free from their insecurities, pretensions or anxieties by the wise and insightful things we say or our warm heart, or the intentional way we live. But sometimes we need to leave.

My previous church is experiencing a glorious renaissance in dance. I was a dancer there. Although I’d always been happy to dance under someone else’s leadership (and three of the best dances I’ve ever done were under someone else’s leadership and choreography), the last several years there, I was the sole one who organized and choreographed group numbers. I loved doing it, and did some wonderful work with kids and adults there, including my favorite, the Lord’s Prayer dance in the picture to the left. But I was also the sole one left doing children’s worship, as I had been off and on for many years. I was burned out.

People would encourage me to dance more, always out of enthusiasm and an appreciation for my gifts, and the kids who loved to dance always wanted to do it more (including my own child), but I had no “more” to give. I’d politely evade the request/comment, while inside I was a stew of stress, guilt, and exhaustion.

Somehow, I never said to anyone that I didn’t have to do all the dance stuff, that if someone had an idea, they could go for it. It would have been easy to say. So easy. It wasn’t like I thought I needed to hang onto control of the ministry, but that was the result. I feel bad about that now, because I held people back. One woman in particular only got to dance a couple of times while I was there, but I’ve seen her in church videos many, many times now, almost weekly for awhile, and I haven’t been gone a year.

When I first started seeing this, oh the guilt I poured down on my head. But I’ve gotten to the point now that I can recognize that it’s God, making everything work together for good. It’s embarrassing to me that it took me leaving for my church to get really into dance, but I’m happy for them. And grateful that God used me, even if it in a negative way.

Anyone else out there brought positive change to a group or organization by leaving? Or am I the only one?


The Insidious “They”

This post would be so much better if I could find the article that prompted it, but my Google-fu has failed me, and the piece remains floating out there in the aether of the internet. So instead of a concise summary, you get my memory of it.

Last summer, a friend alerted me to an article about the use of the word, “they.” The author, who was proud of his concern for the poor and the downtrodden, found himself making pronouncements about what “they” needed to do to change “their” situation. At some point (during or after the conversation) he became aware of how unbearably smug he sounded. How, by his use of “they” in that repetitive and sure fashion, he was presenting himself as The One Who Knows Best, although he did not grow up with the people he was discussing, did not live in that neighborhood, and had not talked with the “they” in question about their own analysis of their situation, nor had he talked with them about any history of attempts to address their low socioeconomic status. His language revealed him as exactly the kind of person he didn’t want to be, and he vowed to stop using “they.”

Although we can’t really remove “they” from our vocabulary, because it is the grammatically correct pronoun for a group of people that doesn’t include you, we can work on removing the sureness that we are right and if only “those people who can’t understand themselves” would only listen to “the one with the correct interpretation,” all would be solved.

Because often “they” know better than The Experts.

There’s a TED talk to cover every topic, and this is no exception. This one is about an international aid guy, Ernesto Sirolli, who refused to swoop in as an “expert” about what people in impoverished situations needed, and, instead, listened to the people in those situations. He hung out in coffeeshops and gave small amounts of money to local entrepreneurs who, in turn, made huge changes in their lives and fortunes. The talk is, perhaps unsurprisingly, called, “If you want to help someone, shut up and listen.”

Here’s an example, not from that TED talk (although the TED people are on to this kid). In Kenya, lions are a major tourist attraction, but they kill a lot of livestock, and then people kill lions in retaliation. There are fewer than 2,000 lions in Kenya now, down from 15,000 ten years ago. People were looking into this problem, and the best solution they found was for property owners to install huge and prohibitively expensive fences. Then they heard about an 11-year-old kid, Richard Turere, who discovered that lions stayed away from his family’s cattle at night when someone walked around with a flashlight. He rigged up several flashlight bulbs, wired them to a motorcycle indicator box, and powered them with a car battery and solar panel. The lights flick on and off all night to imitate a person walking outside. No lions have attacked his family’s livestock in the two years Lion Lights have been installed, and now families all over Kenya are using them. At a cost of about $10 per installation. Very cool.

That doesn’t really have to do with the topic at hand — I’ve just been wanting to share that story.

So back to us and them

The article about the guy not wanting to use “they” anymore stuck with me, because, when I read it, my husband was being courted for a job at a new church, which meant we’d be attending said new church as a family. It was quite different from the church we’d been part of, and we were full of talk about what “they” needed, and what “we” could bring to “them.”

On the one hand, this was correct. They wanted to hire him because of what they thought he could bring to them, and my husband wanted the job because, with his unique blend of gifts and experience, he felt he could make a difference there. But there was more than a hint of smugness in our conversation. And it didn’t sit well.

It takes time for “them” to become “us.” I moved to the U.S. from Canada when I was 18, and, although I was granted American citizenship before arriving, it took several years for me to say “us” and “we” about my adopted country. I had to drop my Canadian disdain for how much America loved itself, my Canadian distrust of how much power the U.S. wields. I had to recognize that I wasn’t moving back to Canada: I chose to stay during the summers, I kept dating American boys, and I didn’t even look for a job in Toronto after graduation. I was an American. So I started talking like one. And feeling like one.

It’s taking time at the new church, too. But it’s happening. The more people we get to know, the more we worship and pray together, the harder it is to maintain the separation necessary to see these wonderful and complex people I worship with as “they.” Which is how it should be.

The best “them into us” moment came the last time I led children’s worship. I’ve written before about how worshipping and sharing Bible stories with kids has become a real passion, a calling, even. At the old church, I knew all the kids so well. I was more comfortable talking with them than with many of the adults. And we did talk and interact outside of our children’s church time. We had real relationships. At the new church, I don’t have that yet, although I’m getting there.

Last month, at the end of our time together, we were singing their favorite silly song about Joshua and the Israelites blasting their trumpets and the walls of Jericho coming tumbling down. We’d done about four rounds and were all in a good mood. I was still kneeling on the floor when the quietest little girl came up and gave me a hug. It was so sweet. And then her sister joined her. And then another kid. And then all the kids left “the wall” and piled on me until they knocked me flat on my back. We got up, and they did it again. And then again.

It was one of my happiest moments at this church so far.

I love that they felt so free with me. It suits how I am with them — a little less formal, a little wackier than the other worship leaders. It gave me hope that I’ll get to the point of knowing them and them knowing me.

Their dogpiling of me was like the Kool Aid man busting through a foam brick wall in those old TV commercials: now there’s a huge hole in the wall of “they.” And the warmth of “us” is shining through.

I’m not saying I want them to do it the next time. That might be too much of a good thing. But God sure did use those kids that day.


Kool Aid man image found here.

What Do You Do When Someone Lies To You?

These diary entries circle around a drama in the life of a friend at my high school, a girl I met either through the Inner School Christian Fellowship or at camp. There’s a twist at the end, which I didn’t chronicle, but I remember it clearly. I’m just going to get right into it, so I’m not tempted to foreshadow the ending. I apologize, in advance, for how often I use the word “neat” in the first entry.

Saturday, Mary 17, 1984  EK is in town, she called me today and we had a talk. She told me about S, at her request. Her mother and her mom’s live-in boyfriend Tom both serve Satan. The two of them will move to B.C. when they get married and they want to send S to Jewish foster parents in Ottawa. When she said no way, Tom beat her up and she was put in the hospital. Nobody believed her. S also has cancer in her knee. Nice life, eh? Well, I think God is finally giving me something to do and someone to help.
I made a pair of pants today. I wore them to the coffeehouse I went to at AJ’s Pentecostal church. It was different. The music was OK. During the break some guy came and talked about temptation. That being tempted was a blessing because them Satan thought that you were worthwhile to tempt. That was neat. There was some more music 🙁 and then this neat guy Claude talked for 40 minutes: “Why sit we here ’til we die?” It was about the spirit and works of a church dying out. It was interesting. J and H were rather shocked because of the spontaneous Amen’s and Praise the Lord’s. I loved it. It was not the sort of coffeehouse that I expected but it was neat.

Sunday March 18, 1984  Last day of freedom 🙁  Dad was gloating about that after church. NERD. Young People’s tonight was a riot! We went over the to JJ’s for a social. I was playing snooker and I was doing really well. I was proud of myself. JP was nice to me today, so was JJ. I was pretty happy. Later on JP and M teamed up against P in hockey on that game. He was beating them 7-1 until I started playing goal. Then he beat us 9-2. It was a scream. Then all the girls except me went upstairs to sing. Someone up there couldn’t. I was left down with the guys minus N and D. We had earlier played coffeepot. I made a few funny remarks. The action was showing and JJ asked if you could do it in front of other people; they said yes. I said, I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t coffeepot in front of anybody. I made a few more remarks as well. The real story was on the way home. JP’s alternator and battery were shot in his Bessie. It took us 20 min. to get the car started at JJ’s that lasted us without lights or anything to Bayview and Soudan. We tried roll starting, push starting and we flagged down a car and tried jump starting. M was with us. We walked to the [minister’s house] and they were still up. [M’s parents] were there! They took care of M and the rest is too complicated to explain. I got home around 11:20.

Monday, March 19, 1984   S called me tonight to talk to me and I found out some more stuff. E has thought about killing herself! She almost did try once! I’m really shocked. I knew she didn’t like school at all but I didn’t know it was that bad. I’m meeting her tomorrow morning at 8:15. I met S and E this morning at 8:30. S still goes in for chemotherapy for her secondary cancer. It’s really hard knowing how to treat her. I called C and she gave me lots of good advice about not just sitting passively but actively doing something. Both of us feel that some disaster is about to happen: I don’t like that feeling. But I also do feel that God will somehow work through me. I hope. S needs all the help she can get. She went with her Mom and Tom to that group last night: she didn’t know she was going there. They tried lots of different ouija boards on her but none of them worked! Praise God! A whole bunch of them grabbed her and put “Satan” on her arm with red nail polish. She just barely got it off for school.
H skipped today because L wasn’t feeling well. I called their house at lunch. It took them a few minutes before they realized that it would be either me or N so they answered it. The didn’t even invite me!

 Tuesday, March 20, 1984   Several big things happened today. We found out this morning that Mrs. Denny, the quiet nervous gym teacher died last night of hepatitis. I still can’t believe it. The flags were flying half mast. I’m glad. It shows that the whole school mourns her. The thing with S is also part of the way to being resolved, I pray. Her Young People’s leader called the Children’s Aid, and they called Mr. S at school. They came over and she talked to them and she has an appointment next week. Praise God! She had to tell them about E because she had been called down earlier for her absence on Monday and had told Mr. W about her. Tom and S’s mom had to come down and were really angry but I still praise God that something is happening. That’s about it, because besides that the day went as usual. I loved the discussion in English; we’re doing poetry. I love poetry! I should start to write some more; I think I will.

The twist

S was lying. She made the whole thing up: the cancer in the knee and the secondary cancer that had an amazing new kind of chemotherapy that didn’t make her extremely thick hair fall out too badly, the Satanist parents, the group of people writing Satanist stuff on her arms (she’d done it herself). All of it. Once school and other officials became involved, it all spun out. I found out from the school guidance counselor. I remember a hollow feeling in my stomach and disbelief, but not anger. There was even a little guilt in there because I hadn’t thought to talk to the guidance counselor or call Children’s Aid myself. My second reaction was compassion: she didn’t have to make up that story to get us to like her. I talked with her, either that day or the next, to tell her that, and to tell her that I wouldn’t drop her as a friend — my thinking being that she needed friends more than ever now that the story was out. We had a few intense conversations after this, and I was still friendly, but things weren’t the same and S soon drifted away. Probably to a fresh group of people to scam into pitying her.

Am I that compassionate now?

It depends on who’s doing the lying and who they’ve hurt.

I’ve written before about a woman at our prior church who was highly skilled in planting seeds of discord to distract us from the fact that she was stealing from us. She would give little reports of conversations with other church members that were racist or obnoxious in some way, or do little put-downs that were funny in how she said them. She got involved with someone who brought a great deal of drama that we were all compelled to help her out with — money, groceries, clothes, etc. She was my partner in dance and I’d thought we were friends. I gave her money, listened to her, prayed with her, had her pray for me. But she was stealing from us the whole time.

It almost destroyed the church — literally, I’m not being dramatic. Two-thirds of the church left in the aftermath, and those of us left had to deal with the trauma, except that we didn’t. We who remained all went to our corners to lick our wounds and treat everyone with suspicion for a while. I was stuck with some very large jobs when she left, that dictated the next eight months of my life. They were not good months.

It took several months of Spiritual Direction before I wrote a letter to her about what she did to me — the classic, unsent therapy letter. By the end, I felt profoundly sorry for her. Her life had gone even more to pieces after this: criminal prosecution, physical disability, no friends or church support system. I forgave her in absentia. That said, I could never be her friend again and if she came to any church I went to, I’d make sure she wasn’t given any position with authority over or access to money. I have no idea whether I’d hug her or ignore her if I saw her again. But chances are pretty good I’d make like I didn’t see her unless she forced the issue.

Then again, we had a situation this summer about which I will be vague, but a young person we’d trusted did something untrustworthy. My reaction: firm compassion. We forgave the young person immediately, largely because the person had been to our house hundreds of times with few problems, so the evidence weighed heavily in the person’s favor. It was firm compassion, though, because we analyzed the events that may have contributed to the untrustworthiness and don’t let things play out in the same way anymore. This is just as much out of compassion for the young person as for us.

But if a young person does something untrustworthy and I don’t have the long history with them, or if the untrustworthiness has to do with the personal safety of anyone in my care, they are not invited back. There are only three kids who’ve qualified for this, but my door closed to them quickly and decisively.

So now what?

Because of the lying church lady who so effectively used gossip to split up the congregation, I no longer listen to negative church gossip. If someone starts going on to me about what another member did or said to them, I stop them in the middle and tell them that I’m uncomfortable talking about this, but if they have a problem, to bring it up with the other member and the pastor. I’m not always in the loop these days, but that’s okay with me.

I also have a little core of suspicion that won’t go away when someone keeps bringing the drama, and that makes me a little sad. I’d like to treat everyone who needs help in a straightforward way, but I don’t know that I can anymore. I’ll have to find a way to keep myself from being gullible and yet remain compassionate.

Anyone else want to share a dramatic story about a liar?


Humbling: Being the Problem

In the summer of 2007, I was freelance editing this book: A Practical Guide for Life and Ministry: Overcoming 7 Challenges Pastors Face, by David Horner. It was a good project, pretty well-written and well-organized, with engaging stories about church life and what seemed like good advice. I was well into Section Five: Learning to Grow Through Your Troubles. I was shaking my head at all the terrible congregants who make life difficult for their pastor. At least I wasn’t one of “those.”

Until, of course, I was.

Right smack dab in the middle of editing that section, I lost it at church. I’m not saying I raised my voice or snapped at someone. I went ballistic: high-pitched, barely intelligible screaming and crying to one person on the phone in front of someone else. I wrote an impassioned email to my pastor. Because I was right. And because I’d worked so hard at the church for so long, I had no doubt that he’d see my rightness, too.

Thank God he didn’t.

A little background. One year earlier, our church administrative assistant and my partner in the dance ministry was arrested for and charged  (later convicted) with embezzling money from the church and from our pastor. This was a serious sucker punch for me. I’d thought she was my friend. We not only danced together, but I also trusted her guidance when she told me God wanted us to “flow” in a given dance, which means we don’t choreograph it, we go where the Spirit leads us to. This was not in my tradition, but I prayerfully did it, and it was a tremendous and intense experience. We’d prayed and cried for and with each other. And we’d laughed so much.

The church didn’t handle it particularly well. As often happens in multiracial churches, everyone “went to their corner” and most of the white people voted with their feet, including almost all of the other children’s ministry leaders. We talked about leaving, too, but after a discussion with the pastor, decided to stay. The correct phrase for my attitude would be soldiering on. I went back to leading the children’s worship program (which I’d been about to hand off to someone else who left). Being one of what were now only two teachers, I was downstairs with the kids half of the time, two weeks on, two weeks off. We were also back to having all the kids together, age 3 through second grade, which leads to less worship and more crowd control.

I also wound up taking over the administration and leadership of our church’s Calvin Institutes of Worship grant. I went to the opening retreat/conference mostly because I was available during the day. The language on our grant application (done by the embezzler) was so garbled and jargony that I couldn’t understand what the grant was about, and I had to talk about it repeatedly. I was in tears or on the verge of tears almost the whole few days. But as the conference went on, God inspired me to really take charge of our group.

It was a tough year. We were all hurting, but gritted our teeth and pushed ahead. It was also a good year. Through studying multiracial worship and church life, we were drawn together and encouraged that what we were doing was worth it.

However, I know now that I kept a little part of my heart hard. I nursed grievances. I expected problems. And when my calculations for the grant disbursement didn’t match those of the money team, I lost it, utterly and completely, to one of our financial managers over the phone, screaming and getting nasty and personal in a way I will be ashamed of forever.

The pastors let things calm down for several days and then called a meeting. Nobody was treating me like I was right, so I wasn’t hearing anything until the woman I’d screamed at faced me and said, so simply and quietly, “I feel like you’re accusing me of doing what embezzler did.”

That’s exactly what I was doing. I’d never gotten the chance to confront my old friend, never gotten the chance to be upset with her, never dealt with the betrayal at all, so I took it out on this other woman. Everyone knows what it’s like to be blamed for something you didn’t do. It’s a horrible feeling. And I’d just done that to her at my highest possible decibel. I was the problem.

I cried and apologized profusely on the spot. I apologized to the man who’d witnessed my end of the phone call. And then a few months later, I confessed this story and asked forgiveness of the woman in front of our Women’s Fellowship group. She gave me her forgiveness, something I’ll always be grateful to her about.

And all the while, I had to edit these chapters about what it’s like for the pastor when there’s a problem person. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the defining moments in my church life. I am a better congregant, a better leader, a better Christian for having failed so spectacularly, for being forced into the humble position of asking for forgiveness and being granted it.

This experience also informed my recent decision to leave the church that had taken such good care of me in that low time of my life. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision done in a blaze of emotion. It was the culmination of a six-month period of prayer and conversation with my husband and with others. Even so, it’s breaking  my heart. This is the week of “lasts”: last praise team practice for my husband, and for me, the last time dancing with one of the kids, last time giving the second grade “graduates” their Bibles, last time leading children’s worship. It might be the last time I’ll worship with some people I love. I’ve been cleaning up my office and straightening up the story materials, finding old photos of now-big kids back when they were little, wallowing in nostalgia. I’m just plain sad. Grateful for how important this place has been to me, but sad.

No pithy ending for this longish post. It just isn’t in me today.