“He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” Psalm 18:19
It might have been 1975. My dress was navy blue with full, white sleeves. Its hem rested above my knee and my new, white stockings looked sharp and fresh (although a bit wrinkly at the knees) all the way down to my Mary-Jane shoes.
I was proud to stand beside my three older sisters for the pre-church photo. To match, to look like, to be like them was my highest aspiration. The sun made our eyes squint as we smiled for Daddy to snap the picture of us colored in blue and white and ready for church.
My new dress, sewn by my mom, was also 100% wool.
I itched. I squirmed. I scratched. I wriggled. All through Sunday School.
By the end of the hymn-singing in Big Church, I was about insane. My fair, sensitive skin became inflamed and I had raw, red abrasions at all the seam lines, under my arms, along my torso and back. I didn’t want to go to children’s church. I wanted to go home, and take a bath and put on soft, not-scratchy jammies.
So sad that my blue dress failed me, I insisted that I was allergic to wool. I ran my hand over the skirt as it lay on my bed and wondered how something that seemed so soft could be so painful, how something I wanted so badly could be so wrong for me. How did other people wear wool without reaction? Why did I have to be allergic? I really was sad, deeply disappointed, gypped.
That itchy wool dress is the best way I can describe my relationship with the church. Not Jesus, but his bride. Not God, but the institution. I grew up with memory verses, hymns, flannel-graph bible stories and church potlucks. I wriggled for ages in the confines of the rules and expectations of Christian schools. I grew near-sighted to the imperfections – and imperfect people, myself included – woven into the fabric of the church.
They say a church is a hospital for the spiritually sick to find—like free candy or clean water—mercy unending and a grace unimaginable. Instead, it’s often a place where the mediocre coffee is free and sometimes there are donut holes and the message of the gospel is muffled with the ministrations of spiritual activity.
I have examined the chafing and the raw parts of my soul and asked: how could something so right, so purposed by God, be so wrong for me (or I for it)?
Would I be better off bare and unclothed, free of the confines of the church and all its rules and programs? If it were just “me and Jesus,” moving in those beautiful, melodious unforced rhythms of grace I would know truer joy and freedom.
As a youngster, I worked toward perfection. As a teenager, I strived for non-conformity. As a young adult, I sought independence. I moved through these normal phases and always “the church and God and my parents” were one-in-the-same. If I rebelled, it was never just against my parents’ rules, but against God, too. If I lied, I lied to Jesus, too. If I became angry at injustice or hypocrisy, my anger splashed against God, the church, and my parents, too.
As a full-fledged grown-up, with a husband and a daughter, I found myself repeating the pattern. Perfectionism became my modus operandi. If I had a perfect husband, I could submit to his leadership. If I had a spotless house and a parenting plan, a balanced checking account, cars in working order, bible study completed each week, meals planned out, budget met, the prayers said – I might fit in the itchy wool wrappings of being a church lady.
That was twenty years ago. In the two decades since, I have not once become more comfortable in my wooly church dress. But I haven’t abandoned it, either. I still wonder, will I ever, ever fit in? Do I want to?
No. I am and will always be a church misfit. Yet I have always fit in with Jesus. He alone authored my faith. He alone is my Savior, Redeemer, Friend, Comforter, Creator, my Rock and my Strong Tower. And he’s given me permission to cast off perfectionism: Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. (Galatians 5:1, The Message)
The uncomfortable tension I have with the church led me into a spacious place of grace with my savior. There’s room here for you, too.
Alyssa Santos plays with words. She also plays in the dirt, in the kitchen and at the lake. She and her husband have four children, ages 10 to twenty. She began blogging as a personal experiment in June 2011. In August 2011, Alyssa and her family were hit by a drunk driver. Alyssa suffered critical injuries and nearly died. However, God saw fit to keep her here a little longer. Life took on a surreal and fragile beauty in the weeks after the accident and she began to see the gift in living in moments graced. Because all life’s moments are graced, it’s all gift. In the months of recovery, Alyssa wrote through the process of pain and learning to walk again, living with limitations and staying connected, however tenuously, to her source of joy, in search of grace-gifts. Rocks. Roots. Wings. , Alyssa’s blog, is a safe place where grace and truth and the nitty-gritty come together. She’s known Jesus as her savior since she was a little girl, and she’s come to learn that he is always saving her, always redeeming the moments, the time, the hurts and the questions. She is currently working on her memoir, studying how to write fiction, trying to grow potatoes and renovating a little lake cabin they’ve named Grace Cottage.