“Harriet”

Posted: January 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

Sooner or later the ones with their eyes wide open will see behind the curtain. The wizard has no clothes. He’s really just a fat, balding man with a great sound system. Some of us break down and can’t ever look at him the same way. Some of us try to shut the curtain again. Some of us try to burn his house down. None of us are ever the same.

In my own time I’ve tried to do all three.

When I was younger I was the son of a preacher man. I suppose I still am that son, but the experience, now that I am no longer a part of my father’s congregation, is much different. I don’t know when it started, but I knew from a very young age that something was wrong with the church. I can remember lying awake in bed at night and thinking about how I would fix the church at large if I ever got the chance.

When I got a little older I started going to a youth group with my cousin. I was mesmerized by the young youth pastor who was teaching us in between working on his ministry degree at Lincoln Christian College. He had ALL the answers. For every question I had there was a clear and concise biblical answer. I felt like I was finally safe. I had the rules. I had the answers. I just had to follow them and everything would be alright. Then I met her.

In Communist Russia…it’s a lot like a Christian Youth Group

Harriet came from a poor family. Her mother and siblings attended church, but never her father. She was one of the kids youth-group leaders love to worry about. It seemed that, for some reason, before I got there, everyone had decided that Harriet was going to screw up her life. (Luckily there were plenty of people there to tell her exactly how to live it.) Harriet never really fought those judgements. I think she figured out early on that people expected her to screw up and accepted that role instead of fighting it. That’s probably why I was drawn to her, if nothing else she was authentic. That and I thought she was cute.

Since Harriet was the person I got along with best at these meetings we would often spend time alone together talking afterwords. This raised more than a few eyebrows. Now I was not a saintly young man by any means. But I was a prude and though I had ample opportunity I never once made a move on Harriet. Most of our talks were about God or about her life and how she was viewed by the rest of the world. That and a whole lot of not-so-sage advice from a much younger, and dumber, version of myself.

One incident that sticks in my mind came right after the youth pastor’s lesson on Titus chapter 1. His big point was that as christians we are to be “above reproach.” Now, if any of us had any understanding of the scriptures (Youth Pastor included) we would have noticed that, in this particular passage, Paul is talking about appointing elders in the church. “Make sure the people leading you are the best of you.” Is the basic message of the passage.

After the lesson Harriet and I found ourselves alone on the balcony outside the meeting room. I was attempting to give her some advice when we were called back in a reprimanded for being alone outside. “We just told you that as christians you’re supposed to be above reproach!” I’m not sure what is reproachable about trying to give advice to a friend. But as you know, in church, we are all guilty until proven innocent…which no one ever is, so don’t bother trying.

I’ve thought about Harriet a lot over the years. I thought about how she was treated by the youth group and the effect it had on her. I’ve wondered how I might have been a better friend and how I should have stood up for her. I’ve thought often that I really should have stolen a kiss. The group fell apart and we lost contact not long after the youth pastor left. As time has gone on I realize just how little I was able to help her; and how trying so hard to help was probably the problem. Even when I was trying to be different and not judge Harriet, I had already bought into the identity she had been assigned by the group. Our talks always came back to me trying to save her from herself. She did some dumb things, sure. But she was a kid and so was I. I had no more moral high ground than she did but I let myself slip into the role of the priest who listened to her problems and then told her how she could do better. The thought of being genuine and sharing my own broken-ness; of expressing encouragement and God’s love regardless of results; of not treating her like a ticking time-bomb; never crossed my mind.

I’m sorry, Harriet. Wherever you are.

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