February 2010


This morning I have on my cranky pants. Actually, I have on a pair of wide-legged menswear-y pants You know that old adage dress for the job you want? If you’re a receptionist hoping to work her way up to CEO, this probably makes a good deal of sense. But I like to occasionally dress like someone who works somewhere else. I find it soothes me. Cranky pants is a metaphor, a needlessly adorable way of saying gee, I really want to smack everyone. Hard.

I’m not pms-y. I hate that assumption that all feminine moods are tied to ovaries. I hate it even more when someone sort of obliquely inquires whether possibly my irritation with their idiocy is somehow my biology and not their…. Oh, you get the idea.

One of my challenges in this job and in my life generally is speaking tactfully. I’m a person with readily articulated opinions and a good measure of frustrated idealism. I enjoy impassioned discussion of politics and religion and what region of India has the tastiest food. And I like to tell people off. I like it a lot. I try not to do it, at least not unless the situation really, really warrants it. But I’m not especially hung up on the idea of being a “nice” girl, and I’m not a person who’s troubled by people thinking that my strong opinions mean I’m a bitch.

I do believe, though, it is important to be kind, to speak to people in love even in the midst of my own frustrations. I try to be unstinting with my praise. I try to avoid letting my schedule or the tenor of my day dictate my friendliness to gas station attendants or baristas or whatever. I try to be kind because it has often been the kindness of others, of strangers even, that has sustained me during difficult times.

Yesterday I said something like this “I understand you’re a person who seeks consensus, and I appreciate that about you. It’s a wonderful attribute. But I hope you’re willing to consider that this is a circumstance in which consensus may not be as important as accomplishing what we seek to accomplish here. We may be better off dealing with this issue forthrightly.” I said that instead of “Can you just not be such a coward and do what you’re supposed to? Dumbass.” It almost killed me. Or it felt like that anyway.

During Lent this year I’m trying to do, well, a lot of things differently. I’m trying to speak only kindly to and about people. I’ve thought about undertaking this project for a while, but I had some reservations about it. Positivity is so often, well, stupid. I am not a person–don’t wanna be a person–who sits on a pile of poo and looks around for a pony. I’m more of a c’mon motherfuckers let’s shovel this manure kind of a girl. Or, at least, a who did this? girl. But I’m finding that selecting charitable words has a small transformative power. Our vices and virtues are so often tied up together: profligacy with generosity, for instance.

The psalmist wrote that his sin was always before him, out there in front leading the parade. I’m working my way through Imitation of Christ–the classic book on Christian living, not the clothing line–right now. The author says we can do no wrong by considering our own sins a little worse than those of others so that we may exercise charity to one another. I imagine we could a lot of wrong–no one benefits by a badness contest or a lot of melodramatic breast beating–but I take his meaning.

There is a continual interaction, it seems to me, between the gentle mechanics of grace and the oily ropes of human failing. I think it is this interaction I’d like to keep always before me, this notion that the grace of God is at work in and on and around us, because in it lies charity, hope, and even salvation.

…You know, especially when I’m wearing cranky pants.

Remember how bonkers I went when the pastor and the Rich Old Guy gave me a firm lecture on my finances? My frustration was as much with their impropriety as with my sense that my work isn’t fairly compensated. I’ve decided to write an article on the subject and submit it to our denomination’s weekly publication. Churches in our denomination, it seems to me, rely very heavily on volunteer hours and on secretaries. These are positions that have a pretty high burnout rate. We also have a shortage of excellent–or, let’s face it: adequate–pastors. It seems to me that smaller churches could address this issue by professionalising my job and combining it with that of a few volunteers while dividing pastors’ ministries into more multi-point charges. Church finances, new media, and traditional media as well as day-to-day operations could be easily managed by a single, full-time employee who’s paid a decent, nay, competitive wage. Volunteers would maintain their vital role but to a less vitality-sapping extent. The burden of paying clergy and providing them with benefits could be shared.

I’m trying to be, well, less of an ass during Lent. I should try to be less of an ass all the time, but I think it’s especially appropriate to focus on it now.

The main thrust of my not-so-assiness is a campaign to speak kindly of people. I have reserved for myself the right to speak critically of organizations, lest my head explode. I’m also praying more deliberately for those who irritate me. Toward that end the timing of Dick Cheney’s heart attack really couldn’t be worse… better… oh dang. My head? It just exploded a little. Let me go find a moist towelette.

The pastor where I work has recently presented me with a box of towelettes for my computer screen and a can of air. I appreciate this. I have been using my own laptop at work, and it has a lot of diet coke and cat hair on it. And crumbs. And Churchrat hair. And beer.

I’m working on a newsletter now and, because the issue’s theme is a weird melange of the Olympics and my abortive run at Girl Scouting, I’m interviewing a number of old and new members. I just spoke to our oldest member for about an hour. He’s ninety-four years old and has been an Our Kind of Mainline Protestant for ninety of those years.

He’s kind of an old fart. I love old farts. I’m looking forward to getting old so people will fully appreciate my curmudgeonliness. Spell check, by the way, suggest “curvaceous” for “curmudgeonliness.” Thanks, spell check. Anyway. He’s grumpy and wears his sweatshirt tucked into his pants. He is, however, passionate about the future of our church and of Christianity in general. He talked a lot about the importance of being relevant without being silly, of remembering that Christianity is a transformative thing. He talked about how some people are idiots and how some people go ’round acting like idiots. He spoke thoughtfully and critically about a lot of issues, about a lot of the things that irritate the holy crap right out of me and him too. But he spoke with kindness, with affection for the idiots and the people who go ’round acting like them. He spoke with hope. Then he told me to email him the article I was writing about him before I published it.

I warned him the email would come from my personal address because my work computer’s in the shop.

What do you have, computerwise?

I told him, and he chuckled.

Does it take its power from steam? Whoo boy. What a dinosaur.

This is the sort of old person I want to be I think. And the sort of young one too. A person who remembers a personal and corporate past but who casts eyes forward. A person who hangs onto a sense of injustice, a sense that the world isn’t how it ought to be, a sense that we’re sinning and falling short like sinning and falling short is the new black. But a person who laughs about it and who stays kind. I’m not always that person. I wish I were.

My church isn’t holding Ash Wednesday services. I find that problematic, but instead of complaining I’m meeting my older sister and am attending church with her. Later we’ll have a dinner she may or may not let me pay for. I put on somewhat churchier clothes this morning: black flats, grey jeans, a black blazer and what is apparently the only top in my closet that shows all of my boobs. It’s a grey and white striped tee shirt that is always, always, always a surprise in its cleavage-baring capabilities. The kind of surprise you don’t notice until you glance down trying to find your coffee cup and find yourself staring at boobs instead.

From dust I came, to dust I shall return… but the push-up bra will take somewhat longer to decompose.

Sigh.

Your average mainline Protestant church is wildly, desperately lusting after young people. In a non-sexual way, of course. Mine is no different. My congregation is paying a good deal of money to a denominational organization so they’ll come in an perform an audit of our congregation and make suggestions on how we can increase our membership, particularly our membership within the cherished Gen X and Y demographics.

They’ve sent out a batch of old people to do the job. And, not surprisingly, they’re making recommendations that have all the sweet cluelessness of your granny’s facebook page.

Some things seem logical, if difficult for a lot of middle-aged people to execute well: for instance, they think we should consider podcasts of sermons and frequently updated blogs for our small groups and our organizations.

A short and some what shirty debate arose when the head auditor suggested that a subject older members ought to broach with younger ones is the question of “regular” attendance. Young people, he said, tend to go to church less often. I raised my hand and asked if maybe that had anything to do with the fact that we’re supposed to be uploading everything from Sunday morning on to the internet? I added that, although the people in my congregation are important to me, that I cherish some of the relationships I have here, I do not consider this group the extent of my church family. I find, I said, fellowship, encouragement, and accountability with friends around the country really.

Yes, that’s wonderful you have those relationships said the auditor.

I wasn’t trying to brag about my friends. I was trying to make a point.

Church attendance is important, churchrat.

I know it is. But you’re not exactly incentivizing it, are you? I can sleep late Sundays and still catch a podcast, which makes getting up much less appealing. I can, theoretically anyway, attend a small group meeting during the week for fellowship and what have you. I could listen to the worship team’s mp3s in my car–again, theoretically. So it seems to me that you’re telling us to tell other people to do something because we say so. Am I missing something?

I think we all can agree that going to church is important.

Okay.

Increasingly–and horrifyingly–I find myself inclined toward a career in the church. As I’ve said, this is ridiculous because I’m the swearing and drinking and generally bad sort of Christian. I struggle a good deal with my frequent inclinations to tell everyone to go straight to hell in a rusty bucket or to pass my time in the company of strange men. It’s also weird because of how much I’ve always been troubled by the church and how it seeks to accomplish things.

To wit:

Dear Churches Who Want New Members-
Be personable to new people. Don’t stare at them or make them stand up and introduce themselves in front of God and everybody. Ask them to sit with you or to check out your Sunday school class next week. Ask them to join you for lunch at the Pizza Hut after. And think really, really hard before writing “hey, girl friend! thanx for comming to church with us on sunday. we think your awesome. lol!!!1!*” on their facebook page. Talk to them, regardless of their age, race, sex or nationality, like you would talk to anyone else. Communicate the gospel. Communicate your genuine affection. Worry less about communicating what I can nearly guarantee will be your failures at hipness.
Yours truly-
churchrat

*a composite of actual messages, in case you were wondering.

Ugh. I’ve been trying to write a neat little essay. Instead, I shall euphemistically say that I’ve received the same unsolicited advice from thirteen separate sources in the past three months. When advice giver number eleven asked me if I’d ever considered what he was suggesting, I told him, laughingly, he was number eleven to suggest it. I was noticing a trend, I said, but was holding out for an even dozen.

Because, really, it’s just not appropriate to say gee golly I have and it scares the ever living shit out of me, but that doesn’t matter because I’m sure it’s ridiculous notion that just happens to be held by several people whose opinions I otherwise respect.

Like young earth creationism. Or being a Republican.

Today a twelfth person walked into my office and said “Hey, Ratty, have you ever thought of XXXXX?” Her husband came in right in after her and said “Yes, Ratty, I’d been meaning to talk to you about XXXX too.”

Ten minutes later someone else came in with the pertinent paperwork.

I think I’m going to give up on everything and move to Australia, mmmkay?

Pray for me, if you do that.