A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Clothing, Cussing and Committees: Are They Barriers?

I have heard it said Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.  How deeply sad is that?!?  This should be an enormous red flag, a dead end sign, an emergency signal.  But instead, us church folks think to ourselves, “it’s not like we don’t want black people, or poor people, or hispanic people (or whoever the “others” are) to come to church. We just don’t know any of them.”  To tell the truth I have been a bit stymied here too.  I live a very white, very middle class, very rural/small town life.  I have been trying to think of ways to get to know people of different walks of life and I haven’t come up with many ideas.  And the truth is, I am a bit scared of people who are different from me.  What if I don’t understand them or what if I put my foot in my mouth?  Then there are the sneakier, slithering voices which I have to stomp down hard upon.  These whisper false, arrogant, prejudiced fears such as “what if they take advantage of me”...STOMP!  

There are huge barriers between classes and races and lifestyles in our society.  I don’t know how to break down these barriers but it occurs to me there are things done in congregations which actually shore them up.  How many things happen in church which might make people feel as if they are not welcome if they don’t dress or speak or act a certain way?  

Consider meetings which take place at church.  Often there is a president or committee chairperson or perhaps the pastor is in charge.  A meeting may be based loosely on parliamentary procedure.  There are people with more power than others.  There is a way of doing things.  Even if the structure is more casual or consensus based that doesn't necessarily avoid a meeting type atmosphere.  Might this make it more difficult for some people to speak up?  Though I am a former pastor and have run my share of meetings, still, having been out of that environment for a while, I have some difficulty finding the comfort level and the words to speak up when I am at a meeting.  Meetings require a different way of thinking from your normal conversation.  I observe people who work in business environments are often more accustomed to speaking forcefully, decisively, and quickly.  They know how meetings work and how to get something done in such an environment.  If I find this a bit intimidating, is it perhaps also intimidating to some who spend their days working in a factory or a restaurant or the like and may not often sit in meetings?  Might this create barriers for those who did not grow up privileged enough to participate in 4-H, Scouts or other extracurricular activities which teach parliamentary skills?  Are voices being excluded from decision making processes by the very nature of how these processes are conducted?

Consider how people speak in church.  When people allow themselves to feel shocked and judgmental over crude language are others being excluded who have learned different methods of communication?  Notice how convoluted the above sentence is.  Perhaps I should state this more simply and directly: when we gasp if someone says “crap” are we making it hard for those who are used to saying “shit” in their everyday conversations?  I have been thinking about this lately because I am pondering a writing project and my first inspiration was an idea which involved the phrase “I don’t give a rat’s ass.”  As I considered this and considered some of my friends, relatives, and neighbors I was concerned some of them would be shocked and find it difficult to hear what else I was saying.  But now I am considering the possibility it is not my calling to keep people from being shocked and the people I most need to communicate to would find such language liberating or normal.  The ones who would be shocked are likely already in the church, they are already in the "in crowd", and perhaps they should stop being our primary concern.  Can voices be heard in churches if they speak in ways which might be considered crude?  

Consider the way church folks most often dress.  Where did the idea of wearing Sunday best come from?  Is dressing in finery supposed to honor Jesus?  It seems odd to me to honor a man who touched lepers, chastised the rich and reached out to the poor by dressing richly.  Does dressing up for church create boundaries for those who might have limited clothing options?  Clothing with holes and stains?  Dirty clothing?  

I continue to dream and imagine what a different church could look like.  A church focused on service.  A church which would let go of a fancy building in favor of meeting at a different location each week to do work serving those in need.  I imagine this church would not have a president or a pastor or even a membership list in favor of a simple mailing/contact list and discussions while working or gathering around a meal.  I imagine people would wear clothes they can work in or clothes which help them feel fabulous or whatever they have.  I imagine people could speak without concern over linguistics but always being encouraged to speak love.  This is just the beginning of a vision so naturally it is idealistic and vague.  Yet, it gives me hope that someday....

I don’t know how to break down the barriers between classes and races and lifestyles.  Still, perhaps we can prepare ourselves for those few moments when the boundaries are breached by tearing down the portions we have erected ourselves.  For me it may begin by regularly wearing jeans to church.  I might even start this Sunday.  Easter Sunday.  Gasp.  Somehow appropriate.  After all Jesus showed up for Easter wrapped only in a burial cloth, covered in the marks of torture, and dead. 

I really am not setting out to shock anyone.  I am just trying to make a point.  Talking about being more relaxed when it comes to language and then carefully tiptoeing around potentially shocking language seems self-contradictory.  What do you think?  Is it important not to cuss?  Do you think clothing, language and the way business is conducted in the church are barriers?  What do you think of my idealistic and vague vision of future church?  If you attend church, what will you wear the next time you go?  
by Sheri Ellwood


Charlene said...

Sheri, you've read The Ragamuffin Gospel (Brennan Manning), right? If not, I think you'd really like it.

I was thinking about something like this recently, when I spent a day or so with an evangelical missions group in Texas and Mexico (I was there for my niece's Quinceanera). How, religious differences aside, I'm just not comfortable in evangelical culture and never was despite being raised in it.

Part of the Sunday sermon was about "finding your God-given gifts and using them". And I thought, while it's theoretically possible that God might have a use for an opinionated (mouthy) woman who doesn't like children, can't sing or play an instrument, and never successfully learned how to make small talk, the church does not. Well, maybe your experience in the Lutheran church is different, but in evangelical circles the roles women are praised for are pretty much limited to teacher, musician, and "ornament of the good-looking godly young preacher". I tried, I lopped off hands and feet like Cinderella's stepsisters trying to fit that damned glass slipper, but I never managed to fit myself into any of those roles.

It was interesting being around that culture again for just a little while. It was interesting being on the outside looking in. It was interesting to see the reactions (carefully controlled, as if they felt ashamed on my behalf) to the highly visible snake tattoo on my arm.

Yes, clothes, cussing, and committees can be barriers. But I think the problem goes deeper than that. I didn't feel uncomfortable in the evangelical crowd because of the tattoo. I didn't feel uncomfortable because of the unofficial "dress code" (which I can still approximate, actually). I felt uncomfortable because tattoo or not, whether they realize it or not, I know these people don't approve of who and what I am. And they never will.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Charlene, I have not read that book. I will put it on my to read list.
I agree an underlying disapproval is often at the heart of what makes people uncomfortable. Yet even when church members are more open minded I think we don't understand people who are different from us and we don't understand how the things we do in church might make people uncomfortable. And then there is the baggage of church having a history of being judgmental so that if I am staring at your snake tattoo you will think I am being judgmental even if I am really admiring the artwork and wondering why you chose a snake. Because of this we need to be intentional and thoughtful about doing things to break down barriers and hear voices of all people.
My experience at a main line church has been different than my brief venture into evangelicalism. However, not always as different as I want it to be. Women can be pastors and council presidents and ushers but ...well let's just say there is still much work to be done.

Charlene said...

Nobody stared, in fact they were quite careful to not even look at it! If you like my tattoo, say "nice tattoo" or "nice ink" or something like that. It's not an unfortunately visible imperfection that I have no control over and don't want you to see. I did it on purpose, I know it's there, I know you can see it. I guess that's a cultural thing too: those of us who have tattoos are always looking at and commenting on each other's. I say "nice ink" to somebody the same way I'd say "love those shoes".

I'm kind of amazed that you haven't yet read The Ragamuffin Gospel. It talks about all the things you mention here. It's been maybe 15 years since I've read it I guess, but it had a big influence on me. I guess it was a step I took on my way out of the church (though I didn't recognize it as that at the time), but I think it could just as easily go the other way, for someone with a different background than mine. Highly recommended.

Darin Elliott said...

Hello, Charlene suggested we visit here from the perspective of other religions and societies.

If I might offer one opinion, I don't think that clothes, language, structure ... any of that is at the heart of the issue. I feel you touched on the real core issue in your response to Char; judgment.

The very heart of Christianity is judgment. Namely, if you don't please God you will suffer unimaginable torture for the all eternity in Hell. How you please Him is debated by the various churches and denominations, but that's the core of the teachings.

If people feel judged, they will immediately become apprehensive and defensive. The people in the congregation may be very kind, caring and loving, but that can't overcome the core concept that if a person doesn't do as God (key word here) commands they will have to answer to Him and then go to Hell for all eternity.

That's not love. That's not compassion. Love is a mind that is concerned with the freedom and happiness of others.

Once we truly understand what love is (and trust me, I have a TON of work to do myself on that) and truly feel real compassion in our hearts, a tattoo or T-shirt won't have any affect. People won't feel judged because they will be welcomed with open arms and truly open hearts.

Now lets see ... I let me rock over ... ah, time to climb back under it!

Best wishes

Sheri Ellwood said...

Darin, thank you so much for writing. It seriously is so awesome to me when someone take the time to comment.
There are many Christians who actually don't think you are going to hell or that any of us go to hell for not following commandments and even some of us who don't think anyone is going to hell at all. Perhaps this goes back to worrying about offending the wrong people: we are not very good at communicating our beliefs because we don't want to offend those in our churches who still believe these things. Probably some of the same ones who would be offended by cussing. Our focus is all wrong.
Then I read what I just wrote and creep myself out because it sounds a little like I am trying to talk about how we could be more affective evangelists. Ick! This is not about trying to evangelize anyone but about how to communicate love and I think even the more progressive church does a pretty poor job of it. Being concerned about the freedom and happiness of others is indeed at the heart of it. Part of what I am hoping for is to figure out how to get together a community of folks to live that out.
Charlene, I totally know what you mean and I didn't mean to imply you were misreading the situation. Unfortunately you probably weren't. I do think this is part of the cultural thing/fear of the unfamiliar. I would be unlikely to say "nice ink" because I am somewhat shy and introverted but also because I would be afraid that while I think I know what "nice ink" means I might be wrong or someone might think I am being sarcastic or....I am pretty good at the fear and worry thing.

Charlene said...

Hmmm...case in point. Have you ever had a new commenter on this blog that didn't assume that because you're a Christian you must believe in a literal hell that non-believers will be going to? The people who DO believe that are doing a fantastic job of getting their message out (and the Phelps gang is only the loudest); combating that is going to be an uphill battle. Also, I fear the non-universalists have most of the old and respected theologians on their side (from at least Augustine onward, if not going back to before him), so it will be doubly difficult to convince other Christians of your position. Then again, you have Matthew Fox on your side, anyway.

Speaking of universalists, have you checked out the Unitarians? You might like them.

I understand the fear and worry and shyness! And truthfully I was somewhat amused to observe the reactions I got. In any case, watching them be a little uncomfortable with me was better than being an unwilling witness to the conversations about "those people", by people who assume I'm one of them though in reality I am one of "those people". Or the conspiratorial "he's a Christian" to mean "he's a good person". (I know LaVey Satanists who are good people too; what does that have to do with anything?) I've heard enough of that kind of conversation for a lifetime, I think. And sadly, if I'm feeling judgement when I walk into a church it may be more because of that history than anything the church is doing that particular day. And if you want to combat that, it's going to be an uphill battle too. But you're not the only one who has tried and is trying. Twenty years ago it was Rich Mullins and Brennan Manning; I'm sure there are others carrying the torch today.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Charlene, I am intrigued by the universalists but I am not sure I am quite there at this point. I have been wanting to look into the United Church of Christ. I like the openness of both but t this point I think we miss something if we don't immerse ourselves in one story and rather sample all of them. Not that we can't learn from other traditions of course. But I fear we would get a rather shallow picture of any of them. Does that make sense?

I was wondering if, in addition to being judgmental, some of this clothing and etc. stuff is a symptom of the church having bought into the ways of society. We run our meetings the way society does, we wear society's status symbols to church, we speak the way "proper" people speak by society's standards. Just a thought.

Charlene said...

I'd think if it were simply a matter of the church adopting "society's" way, strangers would actually feel more at home in the church rather than less. Part of what is happening, and has been happening since the '50s (or possibly before), is that the church is seen as being resistant to change, while the culture is changing rapidly. By the time some churches adopt rock music, everyone else is listening to rap. This is of course exacerbated by the trend toward fundamentalism on the conservative end of the spectrum, where an entire subculture has been developed around a kind of nostalgia for an idealized Victorian/19th century/1950s blend culture. There is a very large cultural disconnect. But even in "society", the subcultures don't cross over all that much (except in small-town America, where there aren't enough people in any one counter culture to make a community). Not sure what the answer is for the church, but I'm pretty sure that creating one's own subculture (complete with music, literature, video media, dress code) isn't going to be seen as inviting to anybody else.

I understand what you're saying about wanting to stick to immersion in one story, though I haven't chosen to do that. I rather feel like I get more depth and understanding from comparing them, from searching out commonalities. But to each her own; I don't think either way is "right" for everyone.

Sheri Ellwood said...

I guess that would assume we are talking about people who feel comfortable in society but I get what you are saying.
I think what you are saying is accurate as far as music, forms of worship and such. But as far as who has power, how we measure success, who we deem as acceptable, and so on I think the church has unfortunately kept up with society quite well.
Certainly there are ways the church has lagged behind way too much with social justice issues as well, uggh it is very frustrating. I agree, too, that what church considers "contemporary" music is somewhat laughable.

Charlene said...

Social. Justice.

I might not show up on Sunday morning for sermons on that (I do like to sleep in when I can), but I'd show up for the marches, the activism, the community projects.

Is there anybody, church or otherwise, within 50 miles of me, who is advocating for social justice issues? Because I'd like to get involved.

Angela said...

I've been reading this blog post and comments with great interest. It is neat to hear everyone sharing what is on their heart and mind. I have been thinking of posting, but not sure I can articulate my thoughts, but I guess I will give it a try.

I too was on the trip to Texas and Mexico that Char mentions, although our family was there for almost two weeks. From my perspective it was a pretty amazing trip that only God could have put together. We pray before each trip that God would bring unity to the team, and we got to watch Him do just that. This particular trip was our largest group, with 72 people going. There were caucasion American, African American, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Cuban people on the team, not to mention our Hispanic brothers and sisters from Mexico and Texas that we worked and worshipped alongside. Not only that, but we had at least 10 different churches from 2 differents states represented along with quite a few who would probably describe themselves as atheists and do not regularly attend church. As far as subcultures, we also had a diverse group. The young man who led the Sunday night youth conference is definitely in the hip-hop culture, and we all got to enjoy his performance of a couple of his original rap songs, but I had to laugh when one of the college students asked Grandma Mary (sweet 80-yr-old lady who comes faithful on every spring break trip) if she knew Kangman Style!

Anyway, all that wasn't really what I meant to post on here...I'm getting a bit sidetracked. Instead, I meant to share something God was teaching me on this trip. I can't help but notice how quite a few people on these trips are really drawn to the childdren in Mexico. Something about a sweet, vulnerable child tugs on our heart strings, and there is a natural tendency to want to love, protect and provide for them. As I was watching this, it was like God was saying, "I see everyone in this way! Each person is precious and valuable to Me. I long to show them My love; I care about each one, and I want you to look at each person in this way as well." This isn't something I can do an my own strength. Naturally I am a lot like Sheri mentioned, shy and introverted and worried constantly about what others are going to think of me, and this fear is paralyzing. It is safer to just stay in my little shell. But when God fills me with His love and acceptance then I am free to love others with abandon, and without fear of rejection. This is the barest beginning of a work in my life, and there are still many times when my natural, fearful self is way too evident. But even this tiny beginning in my heart is amazing! I wouldn't want to go back to the way I used to be for anything.

Back to the trip and the team: it was so neat to see, by the end of the week, how God had made us a family, in spite of all the outward differences. To watch people bridging gaps, showing love, and making relationships with those outside the little circle they came with was one of my greatest blessings. And then to hear one of the Chinese students say, on last day, "I don't know what to do with you guys. You just LOVE everyone!" I smile even now as I type this. Our God is an amazing God!!!

I certaintly don't have all answers to all the world's problems, but I have watched God work both in my own heart and in the lives of others, and I am firmly convinced that He does.
Following Jesus isn't about dressing in a certain way, or looking "Christian", or following a certain set of rules. It's about really knowing Him, not just knowing about Him. And the more I know Him and His love,the more I naturally overflow with love for others.

Thanks for listening to my experience and my two cents worth on this topic! Keep posting, I enjoy reading!

Sheri Ellwood said...

Charlene, I am looking for a community of folks working for social justice as well. Or perhaps to help build such a community. What exactly that would look like I am not sure.
Angela, thanks so much for taking the time to comment here. I am glad you found your mission trip so enriching. I agree God sees all people as precious. Unfortunately the church has a history of extending such love only to those who aren't women, gay, sexually promiscuous, and so on or only loving them to the extent to which they have a potential to convert to the church's way of thinking or loving them in a condescending "let us do what we think is best for you" sort of way. I have seen this played out as trying to help the adorable children "because their horrible parents don't know how to take care of them." Loving one by being unloving to the other does not seem helpful to me. Anyway, glad to hear you are feeling your heart opening.
One thing which came to mind while reading your comment is the tendency of the church to value extroverted gifts more than introverted gifts. I don't think being introverted or shy is a sin. Overcoming fear is a good thing but being forced to be someone whom you are not for the sake of someone else's vision of evangelism is not. I know I have felt that pressure anyway.
Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. It is helpful to hear from a variety of people!

Charlene said...

It's ironic, Angela. I know you wrote that in an attempt to demonstrate God's love and acceptance, but reading it I feel more than ever like a misfit, a creep, a weirdo, an outsider.... There is a serious cultural disconnect between where you are and where I am, and what you perceive as loving I perceive as condescension (at best), even coming straight from God.

I don't want a deity who treats me like a child. I am not an innocent, and I don't want to be either. I am capable of making decisions and living with the consequences. And what I want is for those decisions to be respected, not forgiven.

Also, while it may not be about how a person dresses (unless they're being "immodest", that is), I'll bet it sure is about who they have consensual sex with. Or want to have sex with. (Not everyone in the world is monogamous heterosexual cis-gendered, you know.) It's not about following a list of rules, so long as you're not drinking or smoking or doing drugs or going to dance clubs or whatever. It's about a relationship with Jesus, and you can tell what a person's relationship with Jesus is like by how they dress, what music they listen to, how often they pray, what kind of language they use, etc. And heaven forbid any woman be unnatural enough to not like children!** Or have an abortion for any reason whatsoever, and be bold enough to say about it "I'm not sorry"!

Well, that's what five years at a Baptist university taught me, anyway.

**(Children do not open up my heart. They trigger a fear in me so deep and primal that I generally shut down all of my emotions in order to not behave badly in their presence. I'm sure that's not "normal", but it is ME, and until a church can acknowledge the existence of people like me who aren't their definition of perfect--as something other than potential converts to be made "perfect"--I'm not going to feel at home there.)