Stifled

Sep 23, 2004 |J. Budziszewski

When Laura visits her parents' church she feels uncomfortable. Shouldn't she find a place more like her student fellowship group?

Laura tapped on the door of my office and stepped in. When she saw that I was on the telephone, she put her fingers to her mouth in embarrassment and began to back out. Since my call was almost finished, I gestured "it's okay" and waved her to a chair.

"Pardon?" I said into the mouthpiece. "Six o'clock. Why, is your committee meeting tonight? .... Then you'll be gone by the time I get home .... Oh, has Louise come home from the hospital? .... You baked her a what? .... Sure, I can be you tonight and drive it over." I wrote down an address. After a few more words I replaced the receiver in the cradle.

"It's so nice Mrs. Theo takes care of your neighbor," Laura exclaimed. "I'm sorry — that's none of my business, but I couldn't help overhearing."

"The casserole?" I asked. I waved my hand dismissively. "You weren't hearing secrets. It wasn't for a neighbor, though. It was for a lady in the church. That was all church stuff."

"I still think it was good of your wife to bake it."

"She is good. But don't the people in your church look out for each other?"

"I'm not exactly in a church right now," she said. "Or maybe my student Christian fellowship group is my church. I'm on the leadership team. I love it."

She hadn't yet asked for an opinion, so I didn't give one. Instead I asked "Are you here for another reading suggestion?" Laura wasn't my student, but she had been studying the Christian classics over the summer.

"No, I haven't finished Augustine's Confessions. I was hoping for another kind of advice."

"I'll give it if I can. What's the problem?"

"Church."

"Didn't you just say that you aren't in a church right now?"

"Yes, but every summer when I go back home to Nanoville, I go to my parents' church. I'm not a member — maybe I'm still on the membership rolls, but I don't consider myself a member — but I attend there."

"What's the problem?"

"The same as last summer. I want to be with other Christians, but my parents' church is stifling. I go trusting that God will work things out, and I know that in some weird way He has a purpose for my summer months, but while they're going on I can't wait for them to be over. I can't grow in faith at that church."

"Maybe you need to be in a different church."

"I've tried the other churches in town, and they're even worse. It's my parents' church or nothing."

"Do you get along with your parents, Laura?"

"Oh, sure. We're close. They're not the problem. Like I said, I just can't grow in faith at their church."

"I don't understand 'just can't.' Why can't you? Does it teach false doctrine?"

"No."

"Shallow doctrine?"

"No."

"Is there something wrong with the leadership?"

"No.

"With the worship, then?"

"Like what?"

"For example, does it take God for granted? Does it lack holiness?"

"Not really."

"Is it disorderly? Does it provoke scandal?"

"Hardly that. It's pretty staid."

"Is there something wrong with the people?"

"How do you mean?"

"Are they cruel, for example, or corrupt?"

"Oh, no. They're all decent folk. They don't even gossip."

"Do they shut you out?"

"Well, I don't really feel like I belong."

"That's not what I asked."

"Sorry. What was it you asked?"

"Do they shut you out?"

"Noo-o-o," she said, "I can't say they shut me out. I've known most of them since I was little. They're like old gloves. If anything, it's the other way around."

"You mean —"

"They'd like me to fit in. I just can't."

"There's that 'just' again."

"When I'm in my parents' church, all I can think of is how much I miss my student Christian fellowship group."

"Why?"

"I'm not happy there. It's just so — just so — stifling."

"You've said that. But how is it stifling?"

"Like there's no air. I feel like I can't breathe."

"I know the meaning of the word 'stifling,' but you're speaking in metaphors. The building is well-ventilated and so forth? It's not in outer space?"

She laughed. "No, they have oxygen."

"Then what's the problem?"

"I don't have anything in common with those people, Professor Theophilus."

"Do you mean you're better than they are?"

"No. They're the salt of the earth. But they're different. I really miss having friends my age to go to church with. Almost all of the people there are at other stages of life, do you know what I mean? There are little kids, older kids, married people, working people, old people — that's okay for them. But there aren't any college students, or hardly any, and they don't usually come. There's no point in trying to start a college group because it would fizzle — they're only there for the summertime, like me."

"Thank you. I think I'm beginning to understand."

"Good. I really need some advice. Is it going to be like this when I graduate? Oh, Professor Theo, do you think I'll never find people I can worship with after I leave here?"

I smiled. "We haven't dealt with today's problem yet, and you want to go on to the next one?"

"Sorry. But I worry sometimes."

"Laura, what is it that you're seeking in church?"

"People I have something in common with."

"Something besides Jesus Christ?"

"Him, of course, but people I also have other things in common with."

"People your age?"

"That's part of it."

"People at the same stage of life?"

"You're getting warmer."

"People who share the same kinds of experiences? People who are all in college?"

"Right. So they understand each other. So they can help each other grow in Jesus Christ."

"In other words, people exactly like you. Right?"

She frowned. "Not exactly. It's fine with me that there are lots of different kinds of people at church. It's just that, well —"

"That you're not interested in them?"

"That they're not what I look for in a church. You think I'm being selfish, don't you? I think I'm being the opposite of selfish."

"I didn't call you selfish, but explain how you're being the opposite of selfish."

"Christians are supposed to help each other in Christ, aren't they?"

"Yes."

"Share each other's burdens? Offer each other counsel? Hold each other accountable?"

"Of course."

"How can they do that if they're at totally different places in their lives?"

"Why should that stop them?"

"How could it not stop them?"

I laughed. "Picture an elderly woman in your parents' church. Let's call her Martha. She's a widow, she lives by herself and she has medical problems. Sometimes she needs a bit of help, and she's often lonely. Would you say that you and Martha are at different stages of life?"

"Yes."

"Does that keep you from sharing her burdens?"

"Well, no. I could visit her. I could pray for her. I could do like your wife is doing for the lady in your church."

"The hypothetical Martha could lift some of your burdens too."

"What burdens of mine could she lift?"

"The burden of having no one whose burdens you can share. The burden of having no one to whom you can show kindness for love alone, expecting nothing in return."

Laura looked at me oddly. "That's a paradox."

I smiled. "Some paradoxes are true."

"All right. But I can't see myself offering her counsel or holding her accountable, like my friends and I do for each other."

"Maybe not. On the other hand, I can see her offering you counsel and holding you accountable."

"Not like friends of my own age who are going through the same things. How could she understand what it's like to be someone my age?"

"She has been your age, remember? If your friends are all going through the same things that you are, why should their counsel be much better than the counsel you give yourself?"

"It was different when she was young. Most girls didn't go to college. By my age, they were probably married and had children. There was still such a thing as courtship —"

"All that is true. How fortunate it is that there are still women alive who remember all that and can give you a different perspective."

"I hadn't thought of it that way," she said.

I let her chew on it for a moment, then went on. "I'm not telling you that it's not important to have a campus fellowship group where you can spend time with other Christian students."

"You aren't?"

"Not at all. That's important."

"What are you telling me, then?"

"That it's a big mistake to take your student fellowship group as the model for the church."

"Then what is the model for the church?"

"Have you read this in Paul?" I asked. Taking a chance on my memory, I quoted from the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians:

"Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.... If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.... Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."

"If I understand it," she said, "that's pretty exciting."

"I think it is."

"Let me make sure I've got it right."

"I'm listening."

"In your view," she said, "the reason I feel stifled in my parents' church probably isn't that it's too little like a church but that it's too much like a church."

"Right. It's full of eyes and ears and knees and hips and lungs —"

"And here I come, expecting everyone to be a bile duct."

I grinned. "Which way do you think is more interesting?"

Copyright 2004 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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