My family didn’t begin to attend church with any regularity until around the time I was in the sixth grade. My mom made the decision that spending Sunday mornings wearing uncomfortable shoes and learning about the Bible via a felt board was obviously preferable than my staying home and watching The Muppet Show on second-generation VHS tapes.
We became members of the church down the street where I attended from the time I was in junior high up until I left to go to college. And although I spent numerous weekend retreats, endured countless lock-ins, and was witness to and participated in rededications with the same people year after year, no one I was friends with at church knew the truth.
By All Appearances…
Forget what you may have heard about the reign of cotton in the South: appearance is actually king. What people saw was what they knew about you, and through inference, what they knew about your family. If you had reptiles or men with mallets on your shirt, then your family clearly had it all together.
People knew when they saw you drink a name-brand soda that your parents could afford to pay the extra .20 per can for caffeinated sugary goodness. And when you went out in public, there was never, ever to be any indication that your home life was anything shy of a shining example of perfection. Your family was to be the epitome of a good, Christian family that showed things the way they should be.
I had to reapply this veneer of perfection to my life every time I stepped out the door, covering up but never attempting to heal the cracks that lay underneath. We were a family that never fought, never disagreed, and were always okay with each other. Our lives reflected all the fabricated warmth and closeness of a 1950s sitcom. My friends may have known something was amiss, but they were too polite to say anything to me about it – mainly because in doing so, it might have accidentally exposed something wrong with their own families.
That smell of stale cigarette smoke on my clothes?
If I was asked about it, I out and out lied. No one was supposed to know my parents smoked.
The reason I went to so many church functions in high school? They became a refuge, albeit one of closed conversations. I was never to talk about the fights my parents got into that left my mom in tears or that caused my dad to storm out of the house.
Our house was lived in, but never occupied. Rooms were kept in pristine condition, so much to the point that our living room, immediately viewable upon entering the foyer, became a symbol of irony in that we never got to go into it except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. When Star Wars came out in 1977, despite the fact I was a raving fanatic about it as a kid, I was never permitted to have Star Wars bedsheets, because then my room would stand out.
I would be committing the cardinal sin of being different.
Gaining the Truth, Letting Go of the Lie
I remember one night leading into my senior year in high school when, at one of those aforementioned lock-ins, something in me snapped. I gave up. I gave up holding back and in doing so gave up a number of my family secrets. After the initial “wow” shock wore off (after all, we were by all appearances just perfect), instead of becoming a pariah due to my years of living a lie, I received sympathy. One by one, we began sharing our stories of what all we had been hiding from each other. We exchanged true empathetic expressions of sadness between one another about what we had carried alone for so long and why we had done so.
In having to set my family apart as something to aspire to, I wound up spending years without experiencing true community. It turned out that my friends and I all had familial appearances which were deceiving. Only after the floodgates of confession opened up did we begin to find out that we all had a great deal in common, far more than what the years of surface-level conversations had shown.
This was what in many ways began to move us from simply having fellowship to truly having relationships. After wasting so much time trying to look “right,” it wasn’t until we began to allow ourselves to look real – scars, missteps, and imperfections readily available for viewing – did we begin to establish friendships, some of which still exist to this day.
Only now we’re all much older, and lock-ins seem far less appealing.
[photo: bigbirdz, Creative Commons]