Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Then the Bitter

I didn't go to church much while I was away at college, but I always went back to my this church when I was home during breaks. One of the very last times I went was the Sunday after I graduated from college. I had decided to go to seminary to get an MDiv with a specialization in Pastoral Counseling, and I was so excited to tell my church family my plans. Jay was with me. It was one of the first times--if not THE first time--that he had ever been to my church. He didn't grow up going to church and might have been a little leery of the whole thing, but he went with me because he's a good sport.

All was well until the service was over. I had told a couple of people about my plans before the service had started, and apparently word had spread. Jay and I were standing up, getting ready to leave our pew, and I was sharing my news with a few other people. As we headed toward the door, a group of four or five church elders came toward me. They literally back me up against a pew and formed an arc around me. I don't remember their exact words, but it was clear that not only were they not pleased about my decision to go to seminary, but they were also very concerned that I was a) going to a Methodist seminary, and b) going north of the Mason-Dixon line to do so. In fact, I've never been clear about their primary concern because I've only ever been able to hear the sound bytes in my head:

"They'll just tear your faith down and leave you with nothing."
"How can you think this is a good idea?"

Mostly I just remember the panic. And, of course, the fabulous impression this was making on my soon-to-be-fiance whom I wanted so badly to love these people as much as I did.

I laughed it off and went home. That afternoon I got a phone call from one of the women in the church telling me that there was going to be reception after church that night for high school and college graduates. Since I was, in fact, a graduate, she invited me to come. Big mistake.

Jay and I went back to church that night. We were eating some cake, visiting with some folks, not worried about much, when the pastor came over to "talk." He asked me by what authority I had made the decision to go to seminary (I'm still not sure what that means), if I was familiar with the seminary's statement of faith, and if I had done enough research about the school to make a good decision. This line of questioning was not pastoral; it was accusatory and humiliating and demeaning. And it still makes me question whether he took issue with my choice of school or my choice to go to seminary as a woman. I'll never know.

I cried. I sat in my chair and bawled. Jay sat in his chair and boiled. There were plenty of people who tried to be comforting, but the best offer anybody made was that maybe I should go to a more evangelical school in Boston, as though the draw of the school was its location and nothing else. Unable to stand anymore, we left. For the last time.

I went to a few Bible studies that summer, but I never again stepped foot in that church. The last Bible study I went to had the leader asking the rest of the group for suggestions of steps I could take if asked to, say, give answers on a Theology test, should the "correct" answers be at odds with "what I really believed." Yeah, I was done after that.

It has taken a long time for me to realize that those men who approached me were really doing so out of concern. Maybe not for me, but they were nonetheless concerned. Maybe they were concerned that my decision to stray from what they believed was right was somehow a reflection on the church, somehow an indication that they had failed to teach me the right thing. As a parent now, I get that. That doesn't make it right, but I get it.

And the twist of the knife came when Jay and I were living in California. I received a package in the mail from someone from that church, I don't even remember who anymore. It announced a retirement party for the pastor, and requested that everyone create a scrapbook page of sorts for him and his wife. It took every ounce of my being not to take that scrapbook page and pour all of my hatred and anger and hurt all over it in pictures and in words. It's hard to believe that someone there knew how to find me all the way in California, but never tried to make any other connection.

So it hurts to look at those pictures I mentioned a few days ago. It hurts because it's like looking at a family that stopped loving me, that made it clear that I wasn't welcome to come back until I decided to play by their rules. And yet, even that experience has clarified my call to pastoral ministry: My church had it right, to a point. Where they stopped loving, I want to continue. Where they were humiliating and demeaning, I want to be gracious.

That church showed me the very best of what a church should be, and the very worst of what a church can be.


Mommy of two said...

I have followed your blog for sometime now - I found it through InCircle (AOII) - I wanted to comment today because your post today touched me and has made me stop and reflect a little on my own about those people who may have taught me without me realizing it at the time. Thank you.

Jenny said...

Seriously, Mary Beth, that makes me cry. Cry for people who go confrontational without the love, who speak what they feel needs said without waiting for God to provide the time and place (a reception for graduates? NOT the time or place)... Cry for the people who are turned away from the body of Christ because of a confrontation that should not have happened in the way it happened.
Wow. So sad. :(

Anonymous said...

This nearly makes me cry, your articulation at the end, the obvious depth of your love for these people, and for the church. "Where they stopped loving, I want to continue"...this buoys my trust somehow that redemptive love can coexist and outrun all of what is even unwittingly demeaning and ugly.

wow, yes, sad and wonderful, thank you for sharing...Shelly