“I can’t compete with a child all night. You need to take him out of here.”
I freeze, feeling the curious eyes of the congregation on me. My son, oblivious to the ruckus he seems to have just caused, squirms and continues trying to yank the front of my shirt down, complaining loudly when I don’t comply. Quickly, I scoop him up. “Don’t worry, we were on our way out anyway,” I mumble, unsure of whether the speaker has heard me or not. I briefly wonder how he couldn’t have noticed that my husband had already started gathering our things the moment that our son had started indicating that he wanted to nurse.
We are at a summer retreat, hosted in part by my father in law’s church, which I had attended with my husband ever since we were dating. We had left the church amicably mere months before, mostly because as a congregation with a majority of older members, and meeting weekly in a school gym, there was no nursery to take our son to. He was now learning to walk, which meant that he was in to everything, and the storage room I had been using to discreetly nurse and change him in was no longer safe for him, surrounded by stacks of chairs, wooden benches and a barbeque. We now attended a church a few towns over, with a large children’s ministry…including, a fully stocked nursery to take him to during the sermons. There, we had the option of leaving him with the nursery workers, or staying there and playing with him while watching the sermon on a television. The summer retreat, however, was a family tradition, and very important to my husband. I agreed that we would attend the weekend long retreat, and my mother in law kindly offered to take our son part of the time, so that we could enjoy the messages. I didn’t for see any issues, as at the church we had kept our son in the services without issue until he fussed. Happy, social baby squeals invited some friendly chuckles and smiles, but no one bothered us. If anything, he was the church darling, being the pastor’s first grandson, and the only baby regularly in the service. The speaker was not from our church, however, and wasn’t expecting what he saw, I suppose, as competition.
Moments before this, the speaker had pulled a puppet out of a black garbage bag and had been using it as an illustration. My son, seeing the toy on the man’s arm, began to squeal and point to the puppet, bouncing up and down and babbling excitedly in baby talk. What fun! His grandpa had never played with him during a sermon before! How was he to know that the man was using the puppet to make a point, and not for his amusement? My husband and I chuckled quietly, along with many of the other people in the room. The speaker glanced briefly in our direction, and frowned. I noticed it, but it was gone as quickly as it had come, and my one year old’s attention span predictably lapsed. He started to toddle off down the aisle, and I scooped him up before he could get too far and set him on my lap.
This pulled his attention to the fact he had not eaten in a while, and wanted a snack. Before the service, my husband and I had discussed what we were going to do for the night already. Since the service would run past his bedtime, we agreed that we would pull our son out of the service as soon as he started acting up. I would nurse him, as I always did before putting him to bed, and then my husband would take him back to the room for the night. Then, I would be free to come back for the healing service that would take place as soon as the talk was over: something I was very much looking forward to. I loved to pray for people, and be prayed with. I loved sitting in the presence of God with His people, and ministering to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. To me, it was the walking out of our faith: the chance to respond to what we had been learning all weekend. This service, I was particularly looking forward to, as the speaker this year was dynamic, and had a past that I could identify with. He had been burned by churches, and had left them for a long time, spiraling into a deep depression. He said that as a church, we needed to minister to the broken, to the marginalized. I had longed to hear this message from the pulpit, to see people really understand that. As someone who had been to many churches, and had been deeply scarred by many of them, I sought healing and safety. I thought that if anyone could understand me, it would surely be this man.
But there were signs early on, signs I ignored. At one point during a talk, he told the congregation about how he counseled people during sessions. He said he was patient and walked with them, but at some point he always asked them, ‘how long will you remain a victim?’
My husband had glanced at me when the speaker said that, worried I would take this badly. He was correct, that it didn’t sit right with me. I had been asked that question before, during the many times I had cried, deep, gut wrenching sobs over the hurts I had endured…hurts that I had chosen to forgive others for, but that the pain and rejection I bore remained. Each time I was hurt, it took me a little longer to trust again. As someone who always wanted to see the good in others, and admittedly has an issue with wanting so much to be loved that I will often overlook things, this in reality was a good thing. I was learning that I could forgive, but the reminder of the sting kept me from making the same mistake again, (at least as quickly.) There really isn’t any way to sugarcoat it: I have been abused spiritually, emotionally, and yes, sexually, by people in almost every church I had been in. In a few cases, I have been rejected and threatened by pastors, whose very job it is to bring comfort and gentle teaching to their sheep. While I do agree that people will can become bitter, or refuse to move on from their hurts because they are scared to be without them, I find that this attitude of “tough love” isn’t helpful, nor is it wise. I had learned all about holding hurts in and trying to force myself to ‘get better, faster,’ and it had almost destroyed me. However, as I often do, I overlooked this man’s words, and tried instead to see the good that he was doing by bringing light to the subject of hurting people at all. It isn’t exactly something regularly preached from the pulpit.
One of the yearly traditions of the camp was a talent show, where people shared songs, poems, jokes and other gifts with everyone. I decided to share two poems, one of which was particularly raw. It was about reaching out to outcasts, and sharing God’s love with them. About being Jesus’ hands and feet. It seemed like it was well received, and the day went on. My son is very musical, and as the speaker was strumming and talking, my son clapped and squealed. Since the talent show was just that, a show, I didn’t see this as a problem. The speaker suddenly turned to my son and told him to “Be quiet.”
In the split second of awkward silence that followed, the speaker shook his head, grinned and said, “Just kidding. Don’t go running out of here or anything.”
The congregation, including myself, responded with what I can only assume were nervous giggles. Looking back on it now, I wish I had taken this as a more serious sign that he did not handle interruptions well. I wish that I had chosen then to advocate for my son, whom I will not allow to be silenced in the way that I was as a child.
I sit down in the lobby, settling my son across my lap and nursing him, so that we both have a moment to calm down. My husband pulls a chair across from me and looks me in the eye. He doesn’t need to ask if I’m alright. His eyes are full of understanding, and he looks just as distraught as I am.
“Jesus said let the little children come unto Me,” I say, in as firm a voice as I can muster. “He needs to practice what he preaches.”
My husband sighs, and says, “Yup. I’m so sorry hun. That was way out of line.”
Neither my husband or I get much sleep that night. We talk for a long time about what happened, and how to address it. I don’t go back to the healing service, as I feel that I would only want to confront him, and both my husband and I agree that the Biblical way to handle it is to go to him privately. I call my godmother and dear friend, who suggests that I write him a letter, and I decide that is my best course of action. My husband still wants to talk to him, man to man, and ask for an apology. I find out from a friend, after the service is over, that there was no healing service this year. The speaker simply finished his sermon, and dismissed everyone after it was too late to stay for prayer.
In the morning, I get up and go to breakfast, allowing my husband to stay behind until our son wakes up. In the buffet lineup, the speaker is across from me. He nods at me and says, “Sorry about your son making noise last night.”
I blink, as I watch him sit down. What does that even mean? How can someone be sorry for something that they are upset that someone else supposedly did to them?
I can’t leave it like this. I swallow down my breakfast, and walk over to him. I ask him if we can talk in private: he says, “Sure.”
When we are alone, I tell him that I need to know exactly what he is sorry for. He answers without hesitation, “I’m sorry that I had to ask you to take your noisy baby out.”
At this point, I am admittedly angry. I take a deep breath, and tell him that what he did was wrong, and that I was very hurt by his actions. The conversation then becomes very back and forth, with him telling me that I was just as wrong for not taking him out of the service earlier, for not sitting at the back, for allowing a distraction, and on it went. His apology is repeatedly only for what he ‘had’ to do as a result of my actions. I explain to him that my son simply thought that the puppets were toys, and that he was playing. My son reacted the way any young child would in that situation. As soon as my son started whining instead of babbling, I prepared to remove him. I tell the speaker that my husband or I would have gladly taken our son to a nursery during the service if one was available, but it wasn’t an option made available to us. I had even discussed the possibility of my mother in law taking him during that time, but she had also wanted to stay for the message.
I am told that the fact that I keep insisting his apology isn’t good enough, it is my problem. He tells me that he didn’t want to get into it right then and there, but that I obviously have hurts and issues that I haven’t dealt with yet, and that is my own problem, not his. He keeps insisting that he deserves the apology, for me being inconsiderate, and not sitting out of the service with my son. My husband walks into the middle of the fray, repeating to the speaker courteously but firmly that he owes us an apology. He backs me up, agreeing that a proper apology is to acknowledge the wrongdoing, and repent for it, not to make excuses or return the blame. The discussion goes in circles, the same things repeating over and over, with the same old tired refrain. I finally sadly tell my husband that this is going nowhere. The speaker continues, angrily and defensively, until I manage to at least thank him for his time.
My husband and I are weary, neither of us wanting to stay for communion. “I can’t break bread with someone who is not in communion with me,” he says sadly. I agree. The principle is scriptural, and neither my husband nor I feel that we can put the matter to rest in our hearts that quickly, as there was no reconciliation there. We try to inform my father in law that we wish to speak with him, to inform him of why we are leaving. Unfortunately, the whispered message is lost in translation, and the speaker is annoyed that people are whispering during his message. My father in law remains where he is, and it isn’t until days later that we are able to discuss the matter. To his credit, my father in law apologizes for the speaker’s behavior, and says that he has had, and will continue to have, discussions with the speaker about it. However, we are still given excuses: the speaker’s nationality is one that is very by the book and serious, and he is good compared to them.
– He apparently used to be much worse, and has improved a great deal.
-He runs his church differently, and isn’t used to how indulgent they are at my father-in-law’s church
Ultimately, I forgive him. This isn’t really about that. The stage I am at now, is still wondering if I was right to trust again so easily. If it was alright for me to be optimistic. I have had many people repeat the same things, that all churches are fallible, because we are all human. That “Church is imperfect because you are in them.” (ie. we are all sinners.) That everyone makes mistakes. I acknowledge all of that. I admit I am just as big a sinner as they are. The problem I have, is that it seems everyone uses that line to avoid responsibility. Very few people are willing to say, “Everyone makes mistakes, and I just made one. I am sorry, and I will do my best to rectify the situation, knowing that I may never do so.” The speaker was correct, in that it is my job to decide to forgive him, but that does not absolve him of his part in it. On a blog I reccently stumbled upon regarding the controversy at Mars Hill church, written by a former, wrongfully cast out member of the church:
The center of the narcissistic apology is the offender saying “I am hurting because of this.” The real apology sees the victim in the center and says, “You are hurting because of this.” The difference – and a critical one – is empathy.
I admit that I am not fully where I want to be in terms of healing from past abuse at churches. After reading some of the blogs about Mars Hill church and Pastor Mark Driscoll, I have decided to chronicle some of my own journey: some of my own spiritual abuses. You may have noticed that I have not used names in this story: it is because I do not wish to send this man ill will, even though he is a pastor of his own congregation, and I do worry for other young, impressionable mothers who go there, and may be hurt as I was. My goal is not revenge, nor badmouthing. Some of my posts in the future may contain names, but only as it pertains to a church I attended which I now believe to be a cult, and I may post as a warning to others. But while the pastor in this case may have made a hurtful decision, I don’t believe it is right to shine a spotlight on him.
I was a lost sheep, at one time. I was a hurt and broken, wounded and angry young woman, and it took compassion, love and understanding to bring me back. In Jesus’ day, there were no daycares, no women’s Bible studies, no Mothers of Preschoolers groups, no youth groups. Everyone was assembled together, and Jesus preached, noise and all. As a modern church society, we are so easily distracted, so used to the convenience of not having to reach all people groups at once, and only having to preach to the majority. “Oh, that is so-and-so’s calling.” Well, may I suggest: We are all so and so. Not everyone is called to children’s ministry, I realize that. However, we are all responsible for treating children the way that Jesus would: not as burdens, or distractions, or nusances. Their parents are also just as deserving. They work just as hard as any other person in the congregation, sometimes doubly, as they parent and have another job during the day. The only difference, is they just happen to bring their work with them. Also, the reward is priceless. In baby dedications and baptisms, there is often a part of the ceremony welcoming the child into their midst, and promising to help the parents raise that child to know God. Like it or not, it is our responsibility, and part of that child’s security, is allowing that child to know that they belong. If you teach them that when they are young, they will remember it when they are older. Conversely, if you reject them when they are young…you will be inflicting a lifelong wound on their life.