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Learning to hide

It’s been a long time since my last post.

Sometimes, I struggle with a post for a few days and when it’s done it’s like I’ve knocked down another wall. And I need to let the dust settle before I work on the next.

This particular wall is tough. It has taken years to understand and almost a month to put it into words.

* * * * *

When I was in the 5th grade, I got a scolding I’ve never forgotten.

My friends and I were supposed to be at recess, but we snuck back into our classroom to get something from one of our bags. I can’t remember now what it was. But for some reason, when we were caught in the classroom, we lied about why we were there.

The lie must have been pretty transparent because we were sent straight to the principal — at a  public school — who threatened with a spanking and a call home.

As the principal shrilly explained the consequences for lying (she never asked for the truth, by the way) she raised a cricket bat-like board with holes above her head & it whistled through the air landing with a loud smack on the arm of her naugahyde chair leaving tiny circle imprints in the upholstery.

Her voice was terrifying. The thought of that board hitting my backside was terrifying.

But that wasn’t the worst part for me.

The worst was being pulled out of class later that day by my Social Studies teacher who also happened to be my Sunday School teacher.

“How could you do such a thing?” she demanded. ” Don’t you know who your father is?”

My dad was getting his doctorate in theology at the seminary next door to my school, I knew that. But I don’t think I had ever realized that there was a reason why I should be treated differently from my peers until that moment.

It was a blow that left tiny circles of shame on my heart — and it ignited a flame that would eventually consume me: a sense of over-responsibility for what other people think.

* * * * *

That year my parents became missionaries. We traveled across the country visiting churches to raise support, staying with relatives, friends and sometimes strangers and made it to Bangladesh in less than 12 months.

We met so many people that year . . . I had no idea there were so many things to have opinions — convictions — about.

In this new life, I learned:

That going to see a movie in a theater was bad but watching them on video wasn’t.

That playing cards with faces were evil but playing the same games with faceless cards wasn’t.

That there were words that are not curse words, but so and so’s family doesn’t like them, so none of us use them.

That there were versions of the Bible you could read that would cause division, even if you were an expert in Biblical languages and said the translation was technically better.

That churches in the States would drop a missionary’s support if your son’s was too long for their taste in your prayer card photo. Even if it was really just a shadow.

That churches, when you pull up in a nice car, may decide your family must not need their support if you can afford to drive that (even though the car was provided for you by another church).

These things — and so many more — stuck with me. Resonated in my conflict-hating, people-pleasing nature.

I tried to conform to every conservative view to fit in.

* * * * *

But this is the thing that too often happens to children of Christian leaders. Even if their parents work hard (as mine did) to allow them growing room, to not bend to arbitrary standards — someone, somewhere will place undue expectation on them.  Like somehow, because of their parents, they are expected to be better than regular Christians. Better than anyone.

The same people usually put unreasonable expectations on the leaders as well . . . like there is an unwritten rule book of things you can’t find in the Bible. Expectations of behavior. Of dress. Of priorities. Of sacrifice. And there are people who feel it is their calling to make sure you “incur a stricter judgement.”

But these rules and standards are often as different as the people who have them. And you can make yourself crazy trying to keep up. Trying to stay ahead of the game and guess what may offend . . .

. . . maybe that’s why some of the most conservative churches have such terrible scandals, things that go on for years and years hidden. When there is so little room for tiny failures — differences of opinion, really — who would share a real struggle?

* * * * *

At camp, Dave was criticized for the strangest things. The expectations of dozens of different people aimed at him:

This is the way we’ve always done it. The way it’s always been done is wrong.

You have to hire her. If you hire her it will be your worst mistake.

You preached too much about grace at the fireside invitation. You didn’t preach enough grace.

Your wife shouldn’t help with that. We have summer staff to do it.

Staff should have a night off each week. You can take your time off when camp’s over.

Let me do that. I did it all, Dave did nothing.

You need to fix this. If you change it, I’ll leave.

Within six months, we felt defeated.

Damned if we did. Damned if we didn’t.

Dave turned back to pain meds.  And when all my efforts to please fell flat, I buried myself in to-do lists. Decorating the house. Homeschooling the kids. Oblivious to the fact that the changes I was beginning to see in Dave were more than just exhaustion from his new career.

* * * * *

I’ve spent a lot of energy in my life trying to live up to please people.

But over-concern for what people think eventually leads to image control. You learn to hide things. Because you know you don’t really measure up. . .

. . . in Bangladesh, there are high walls around houses. And if you’re worried that the walls are not protection enough, you can put a layer of cement on the top of it and imbed it with pieces of broken glass.

The first giant step on our path to recovery was to become a part of a church where no one knew or cared who our parents were. No one cared where we went to college. Few had even heard of it.

We were no one. And that was the beginning.

I was in a place where God could finally chip away at the walls I started building in 5th grade.

But as steadily as God was chipping, I was reinforcing my wall.

Lining the top of it with broken glass.

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