Letting Down Church Ladies

bobistraveling

God gave me a mother, and the church provided several more.

They were matriarchs varying in age and economics. Strong resilient pillars that held the church building upright, sitting in its pews each Sunday and rearing the next generation of parishioners.

On days like today, when Drew and I failed once again to make it to church, I think about these women. I think about them when I start to count up all the Sundays I have rolled over and fallen back asleep rather than throwing on pants and sitting in a church pew.  I think of them while eating a pop tart instead of feasting on Christ’s body.

I knew my church ladies by their casserole dishes and the designs on their crock-pots. I could have navigated our church potluck line blindfolded, filling the sections of my plate with heaps of Lisa’s mashed potatoes and Vicki’s fruit salad, feeling for familiar wooden spoons and the cardboard side of a KFC bucket (Jan always forgot potluck days). In those days, the church was familiar and comfortable.

As the hunters and gatherers of our community, the church ladies ensured the tribe got fed, especially during the hard winters, knee surgeries, and moving days of the congregation. In my family’s darkest hours, church ladies knocked on our door balancing tureens with chicken noodle soup and coordinated convoys of mostaccioli pans by calling through the 1997 church directory.

Church ladies opened their homes for women’s prayer groups and Super Bowl parties.  Floral wallpaper borders lined the ceilings of their bathrooms, rooms that always smelled of potpourri and jar candles. I spent time in their hallways examining pictures of them in puffy-sleeved wedding dresses or  posed in Olan Mills photo studios with all their kids wearing matching Osh-Kosh overalls.

The ladies still gather at celebratory showers for the daughters of the congregation.  They give new brides books with titles like “Sex Starts in the Kitchen,” and raise their eyebrows when they say things like “we always made sure to lock our doors when we were newlyweds; you don’t want to get…interrupted.”

At baby showers, they sound a collective “awwww” as the expecting momma holds up a onesie printed with dinosaurs. When she opens a Diaper Genie or video baby monitor, they impart legends of babies riding in the front seats of cars and swinging from doorf rames in Johnny jump-ups.

Church ladies formed the militia of my local church, sounding first alarm when the youth group “Snowfest” trip lacked supervision. In one such case, a church woman piled the entire youth group into her Chevy Astro and passed out zip lock baggies full of Twizzlers. She slept on the church pews with the rest of us, keeping vigilant watch by night and making  sure we didn’t leave our toothbrush in the host church’s bathroom.

Church ladies hoot and holler at Applebee’s. They laugh despite their divorces, chronic pain, and prodigal children. They snort over shared plates of calamari and proclaim that they wet their pants a little bit.They laugh together in cackles, shrieks, and snorts, a symphony that will continue through eternity.

When something bad happens, the church ladies pray. They pray in brown folding chairs with vinyl pads set-up in circle in the church fellowship hall or meet together in the sanctuary, squeezing hands and passing around boxes of Kleenex.

They laid hands on one another, on lumps, failing hearts, and bad backs. They forwarded emails to the prayer chain, whose links extended to those long moved out of state and others who now attended the local Baptist church due to an argument with the current pastor over the Celine Dion song used in his Easter sermon.

Church ladies helped raise me, getting their hands messy without any family title.

Shirley taught me how to make lemon bars, to slide a knife over the top of a measuring cup for a precise quantity of sugar. After I broke up with my fiancé, my church ladies hugged me longer at the greeting time. The same woman who took a splinter out of my foot when I was three noticed my pale color and sudden weight loss. She is the same woman who I used to see weeding on her hands and knees in front of the church sign on her day off.

If you wish to know an oral history of any child in the congregation, just ask a church lady. They mark your growing up years by piecing together Sunday school rosters and the parts you played in the Christmas pageants, remembering your reactions to flannel graph bible stories and recalling the summer they carried you around on their hip at the church vacation bible school.

I worry that at 26, I am rocky soil for the seeds they planted; they buried truths in good faith and entrusted them to a girl in smocked Sunday dresses wearing coke bottle glasses. Would they recognize me now, wriggling in the church pew and sitting with crossed arms during the refrains of worship songs among throngs of those raising their hands and swaying to the music? These days I no longer gulp the communion grape juice or offer to pray aloud.

They tripped over much larger stumbling blocks and kept going with graceful flourishes and sunday morning testimonies shared into the worship leader’s microphone. Church ladies held tightly to their faith, wringing it dry like a rag that always had one more drop of holy water. They exchanged Psalms and cassette tapes that encouraged them through their own hard times.

They weren’t leavers, they weren’t like me, not like my prodigal generation with our inabilities to be certain of what we cannot see. Will my own children be raised by the church, their support beams hoisted up by a community of faith? Will I teach them of an everlasting feast or will I be as I am now, unable to utter anything but the Lord’s prayer with my fingers crossed, hoping it’s true now, was true, and ever more shall be.

I love my church ladies and mourn that right now I am not one, at least, not like those who came before me. Maybe if I begin to show up on doorsteps with foil covered pans and on Sundays with my saran wrapped doubts held in open hands, I may yet become my own type of church lady.

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18 thoughts on “Letting Down Church Ladies

  1. Meredith, Oh I’ve been there. The hands crossed sitting during the singing, can’t pray out loud. I know how that feels. I’m still not at church these days. Somehow, leaving church has been one of the best things that could have happened to my faith. Maybe I’ll belong to one again someday. But there is more. Thank you for sharing your heart.

    • Thanks for your words J.L. I am so encouraged to hear all the ways people have made faith work.

  2. I think that some of those church ladies may have been where you are now. You might be surprised at the stories of struggling that lie under those competent exteriors. There may be more support than you think and less disappointment than you imagine.

  3. The wallpaper borders. The crockpots and ever-present KFC bucket. You took me back to roots I haven’t dusted off for years. I loved and was loved by that same variety of church lady. What a blessing, huh? I’ve wondered less about that church lady but more about that lady who knows, really knows scripture. The one who speaks Truth fluently, chapter and verse. I’ve floundered more in the “I think the Bible says something like…” realm. No chapter, no verse. But with time, it’s coming. Those Sunday School lessons, thirty plus years ago or just last week, are not returning void. I’m beginning to think it all comes from time well spent. Years and years, maybe. Maybe not always time in the church, but time in His presence, an intentional relationship with history, roots, depth. Either way, thank you for the reminder of those beautiful church ladies. It certainly made me smile.

    • Thanks for sharing! I am so blessed by hearing others stories of church. Thanks for the reminder of spending time in God’s presence. So important.

  4. beautifully written. love the humor. your heart may feel like rocky soil but i sense warmth and tenderness in your words. it’s hard to find your own place in the faith community and be comfortable with a faith that has room for doubt. sounds like your church ladies loved with no strings attached but you may also feel that there were expectations attached to their love and as such you may feel like you are letting them down. it’s hard to wrap my mind around unconditional love and the thought that it should (but sometimes does not) change me resonates. thanks for a story well told.

    • Glad we connected on Twitter as well! Yes unconditional love is hard to fathom! I know they would accept me with open arms, but I can’t help feel like I didn’t become who they thought I would. Maybe who I’ve really let down is myself…

      • I think you are on to something there… Those darn expectations. It’s hard to silence the voices of guilt and shame but it’s worth the work it takes to fully become yourself. Keep writing, my friend!

  5. Meredith, I. Loved. This. I had several church mothers too. Now in women’s ministry (a curveball I never saw coming), I try to create this “old-time religion” feeling with my ladies. And finally, please mother my daughter with me. I hope you come back to this community in your own way and your own time. It’s still good but can be hard to find for many, many reasons. Wonderful writing here.

  6. What a beautiful, thought provoking visit. I know those same church ladies, and for years I was a church lady. I left our church. Your words have made me think. There is so much that I miss. I think you are rich, beautiful soil, your words touched my heart. Wishing you peace.

  7. Thank you for reminding me of the beauty and the grace extended by church ladies in my own life. In recent years I’ve found myself looking down on “church ladies.” I’ve felt that I can never be that kind of Christian and even that I don’t want to. But this piece reminded me that these church ladies are often the ones who are showing Christ in the most real and tangible ways. Maybe I’ll never look just like them, but that doesn’t make them less valuable.

    • Thanks Lil! I definitely get the cynicism too, especially when political Facebook statuses pop up on your feed : ). But I also so admire their faith and hospitality!

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