My life is a story of getting my heart smashed and the many times I have chosen to get up. I have gotten up because of the people in my life. I have put a lot of intentionality into the people I have chosen to be a part of my life. Because I know too much about church gossip.
As a pastor I say often, people are a part of spiritual formation. Ugh, people. Because people bless and people disappoint. People are going to disappoint us. You are going to disappoint people. But people are still a part of spiritual practice. I wrote my book about this.
I choose to live my brave life in the church despite of the gossipy church ladies. Why are churches made up of gossipy church ladies? Why do they flock and thrive in churches? I won’t answer that sad question but I know it is true. You know it is true too. You’ve been hurt by them too.
I served as a single youth pastor for 15 years. I also chose to date publicly so I could teach my teens about brave dating practices. (Note: This was back in the 1980s and 1990s. No harmful purity teaching came from me.)
So imagine the gossipy church ladies with me! I overheard some of it. I imagined a lot of it. I didn’t shrink myself because of them. I also made wise decisions because of them. While those ladies were sinning in their gossip, it also provided me an accountability in my decisions. The gossipy church ladies have shaped me in good and bad ways.
Gossipy church ladies can do some lasting damage.
This may not be your story but does this hit how you have felt?
“I heard he’s on drugs,” Mrs. Cline said. She was a deacon at the First Assemblies. Fifty-five years old, unmarried, straight as a broom with lips so thin they looked like a slit across her face.
“No,” Mrs. Morton gasped.
“Oh yes, honey. Why do you think he doesn’t come around here anymore? He’s not busy playing this season, so we know he’s not too busy.”
“That’s sad. That’s sad he’s on drugs.”
“It is sad, but—and I really do hate to say this—there kind does seem to have a taste for drugs. I mean, they are always on drugs. That’s why there’s so much crime.”
“You’re right. I have noticed that.”
I had been studying my Bible verses in the Sunday school room when I overheard that conversation in the hallway. If I’d heard it today, I know what I would have done. I would have marched right outside and told them that there is no data to support the idea that black people are biologically more given to drugs or crime than any other race. I would have marched out of that church and never looked back.
But I was ten years old and I was ashamed. I sat stock still in my chair and hoped that they couldn’t hear me on the other side of the door. I gripped the open flaps of my Bible so tightly that I left marks pressed into pages. When they left, I let out the breath I was holding, and pinched the skin between my thumb and index finger, a trick I’d picked up to help keep me from crying. In that moment, and for the first time in my life really, I hated Nana (brother on drugs) so completely. I hated him, and I hated myself. –Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom
You have felt shame like that, right? These words cause you to remember that moment when you froze, wished you could disappear, and you decided to hate yourself instead of hating the situation or hating the awful gossiping church ladies.
This excerpt comes from the fiction book, Transcendent Kingdom. On the back cover you can read that the story is about suffering and God and science. The protagonist is wrestling with all three as she does neurological experiments on mice and deals with her mother’s depression. These two life events find her desiring her childhood faith. You can see why I devoured this book.
It is easier to hate ourselves than it is to hate the sin of those awful gossiping church ladies. This is the web of shame.
Shame wants me to stay small.
Shame changes the truth of the story.
Shame survives by convincing me I’m alone.
Shame tells me that I am unloveable.
Shame survives by convincing me that I am alone.
Shame is never being enough so I thought I had the entitlement to do wrong.
The sin of the gossipy church ladies changes to become my excuse to sin.
I’ve written a note to you, the gossipy church ladies, and to those of you who have been hurt by the gossipy church ladies.
Dear gossipy church ladies, please stop it.
This is a sin. Your desire to be “in the know” and to power over your own unhappiness is harming precious souls who are trying to figure Jesus out.
You already know that at the bottom of your unhappiness is your own struggle with sin and shame. You are doing your best to make your own imperfect progress. So to be with your gossipy church ladies is a reprieve from your own struggle and a moment of joy away from your shame. I see you, too.
The signature mark of God is redeeming the shame. Your shame too. This is the story Jesus lived out. This is the victory won for us on the cross that dark Good Friday which became this beautiful day. Beauty is uncomfortable but can comfort others.
May you embrace the beauty of all of our imperfect progresses. May you embrace the beauty of your imperfect progress. So you can stop the ugly of your gossip.
My prayer is you can’t unsee this.
From one brave soul of imperfect progress to you, Brenda!
Dear you who has been wounded by gossipy church ladies, please trust the church again.
There are more not gossipy church ladies than gossipy church ladies. They are just not as loud. They are, like you, bravely making their imperfect progress and have a lot of wisdom to give you if you bravely ask. This is the kind of wisdom learned and the kind of wisdom learned from failure. They are worth trusting as you make your brave decision to brave decision to brave decision.
It is these people who have defined my life. It is these people who allow me to live this brave life. These are the people who are a part of my spiritual formation. Try to trust these people who attend church with these gossipy church ladies.
My prayer is you can’t unsee this. Because we want to see you.
From one brave soul of imperfect progress to you, Brenda!
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto.