I relate to Abraham Lincoln in his first standup comedy routine in this clip from Saturday Night Live.
Well, okay, I haven’t talked to any slaveholders recently. No one has tried arguing with me that owning a couple of dudes is okay. But I relate to Lincoln’s reality of having to “play nice” in these debates even though, really, he doesn’t want to. When it comes to base assumptions that completely disagree with what he believes, he doesn’t want to play nice. He wants to go WHAT THE…, drop the mic, and walk away. He doesn’t want to be nice.
Today, I didn’t want to be nice.
After the 11 am service, after I lost syllables in my pronunciation of names/prayers because of dry mouth (and throat and stomach – talking non-stop for a few hours without a touch of moisture on my lips wasn’t the smartest thing to do today), I talked to someone who was new to church. For a moment, I almost walked by her. I needed to clean three Sunday School rooms, say goodbye to a few families, and break down the “children’s” section of church before the next service started. But I decided that I should say hi. Engaging people is something I still need to work on. So I said hi. She said hi back. We engaged in small talk. And then she did something that made me swallow my tongue just a bit. She did that thing that I’m starting to dread because it is something that always happens when I’m busy. She said “So you’re a pastor here? Cuz I’ve got two questions.”
Sometimes, I really am not into that phase “I’ve got questions.”
Actually, that’s not totally true. I love questions. I love being seen as a person that might have answers. But, really, I love being a person that isn’t afraid of questions because I have questions. I’ll always have questions. And that’s a-okay.
But…my enthusiasm for not only questions, but Lutheran Christian answers to those questions (even if they are paradoxes) can get in my way sometimes. I’m too much of a punk to just reaffirm people’s beliefs when I’m answering “questions” and that gets me into trouble. Even though I can look cool, collected, and diplomatic – I’m actually getting slowly defensive, especially when I’m arguing against a belief that I find caustic, problematic, and down right annoying. So, of course, I get two of those questions today. “Why do you worship on Sunday when the sabbath in Saturday?” and “Shouldn’t women wear long dresses when they are at church?”
I never asked what church tradition she was from and I should have. I assumed 7th Day Adventist but it could have been something else. The sabbath question was a softball. I’ve never had to answer that question before but I racked my brain, argued history (which wasn’t necessary), and weaseled my way out by the usual claim that we are suppose to worship (and pray) always so the day we gather isn’t the end all/be all of our identity. Again. Easy. Peasy. I patted myself on the back for that one.
But that second question…Lord have mercy. Where to even begin? There is so much baggage in that statement – so much culture, tradition, identity, patriarchy, and social ridiculous in that question. We moved somewhere private were we could speak more frank. I tried to listen. I used a lot of “What I hear you saying…” statements. But – really – I didn’t know what to do with this. And that’s what really annoyed me because I should have. This wasn’t an “answer” question like the previous one. I went about this the wrong way – and, in my diplomacy, I was Abe Lincoln with slave holders – trying to be cool about something I disagree with. It ended up being 30 minutes of seesawing because I just wouldn’t say “you’re totally right – stripper heels aren’t church wear.” I hate the question about modesty for women (and only women) because I find the whole premise of the question to be sexist and problematic. It’s never just about what women wear. I tried the same tactics I used to answer the sabbath question but I blew it. I ended up saying half-truths, some outright lies (“oh, this is never a question I’ve ever thought about before”), and my diplomatic word choices and affirmations of the validity of her opinion left me with a bad taste in my mouth. That was my mistake – and I really had no one to blame but myself for this happening in the first place.
This wasn’t a conversation about questions; from my perspective, it should have been a conversation about why she was bringing this up in the first place. Why, at the invitation of a friend, did she visit a church with women leadership and come to church on a Sunday rather than a Saturday. Why did she want to try this place out? Why did she speak to me, as a male leader, rather than the head pastor (and associate) who were female? Why these questions rather than something else? I should have asked “why do you care?” or “what happened that makes you want to ask this question?” (using nicer words of course). That’s the question to answer. But I didn’t get there. I indirectly got close to those questions – but I should have sighted them first. And I didn’t. And we both left the conversation in an uneasy place. And I left with a bad taste in my mouth. Let’s see if she comes back again. If I’m given another chance, I’ll do better next time (I hope).