Sweetness With an Edge

ChurchWhen I tell people I once worked for a church, I know what they are thinking. They envision steeples rising toward heaven and organ music booming from the choir loft, but it wasn’t like that at all.

I worked for the IT department of the American Lutheran Church.

Instead of warm wooden pews and sunlight filtering through stained glass, think instead of ergonomic chairs and muted office lighting. Still it was a church and therefore a unique environment.

I have to say I had never encountered such genuinely sweet people before which only made sense because working for a church demands the best of people.

But after a few months, I noticed an edge under all that sweetness – one that cut without warning, like a shard of glass in a spoonful of honey.  One day at lunch, I asked a coworker about it.  Why the sweetness with an edge?

She explained it was common among pastor’s kids. There were a lot of them working at church headquarters.  “You had to be sweet,” she said, “it was not just expected, it was demanded.”

I told her I could see that.

She shook her head no. She doubted I could.

“My dad’s job, our house, even our furniture all depended on what people thought of us. We could never be ourselves, we could only be what the congregation wanted us to be.”

That was a lot of pressure to put on a kid, I told her.

“You don’t know the half of it,” she explained, “imagine the constant scrutiny. It wasn’t just in public; but at home, in the parsonage, there were ghosts who followed our every move.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that.

“You don’t believe me?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“Let me tell you how bad it was. Every piece of furniture in the parsonage had a brass plaque, a Dedication. These were tacked up everywhere: on the bookcases, on the kitchen cabinets, on the linen closet door – even at the bottom of my dresser drawer, a plaque read, IN LOVING MEMORY OF THELMA THORSTON.

I snickered.

She didn’t think it was funny. “How would you like to have the ghost of Thelma Thorston glaring up at you through your underwear?”

I guess that explained a great deal. When you suppress your feelings, they will eventually cut their way to the surface.

In 1987, The American Lutheran Church (ALC) joined with the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Like so many corporate mergers of the era, jobs were shed; including mine.  So I fished around for another position and landed one at The Minneapolis Police Department.

What attracted me to the police was how radically different their culture was from the church.

Cops are sharp with each other; street cops especially. Gruff in the best of times, intolerant of foolishness most of the time, cops are brutally unforgiving of errors all of the time.

They use expletives as punctuation, get in each other’s faces and occasionally settle their difference in the parking lot.

But under all that harshness there is something far beyond sweetness – cops will lay down their life for a stranger – without a moment of hesitation.

I am not suggesting cops are better than church people – rather I am saying this – people conform to the shape of their environment.

In church, we do what is expected in church. In a back alley, we are different. It is only personal integrity that keeps us somewhat consistent.

So when we think about people, it helps to understand what world they walk in – and it also helps to understand that who they are depends on where they are.

Author: Almost Iowa


20 thoughts on “Sweetness With an Edge”

  1. First of all, I loved that last sentence! Insightful and true, it pretty much sums up how we need to relate to each other.
    And yes, being a PK did mean living in a fish bowl in many ways. I was spared living in a houseful of other people’s furniture and plaques (we brought out own furniture, shabby as it was), but since our house belonged to the church, most of its members didn’t hesitate to just walk in without knocking. Which cured my dad of his habit of watching TV in his boxer shorts very quickly. Acting out as a teen wasn’t an option for me, because what I did reflected on my father and could cost him his job.
    Later, I worked at a Seminary, so I also agree with what you said about working at the Lutheran Church’s headquarters. I was at the Seminary for four years (and liked my job, but came face-to-face with passive aggressiveness more times than I can count) before I moved to a regular University. And one of the things I liked best about my new job was how much more open and blunt people were. It was refreshing! Now I volunteer at an animal shelter and see a lot of what you are talking about with cops. People can seem crude and blunt, do to what they deal with day in and day out, but underneath the rough exterior there is almost always a very caring person.

  2. Hey, how do you all like the new picture of the pond that I posted today. I love the way that the fog has settled on the pasture.

  3. I never change with my surroundings. I’m always sweet, loving, mild mannered and I never lie. Now, if you believe any of that, you should have your head examined.

    1. I recently had my head examined. i thought I might turn it in for a new model. You know like trading in a used car and getting something off the new model. They told me that I would have to pay them to take it. So I guess I am stuck with the same model head as I’ve had for years. The good news is that it’s cheaper to keep the old model. I can’t afford the payments on the new one.

      1. You’re smart. Your car probably doesn’t think for you. On the other hand, considering what you know about women, maybe a new car isn’t a bad idea.

  4. At least it’s a major factor in who we are. Some of us conform more than others, but I agree that you can’t understand someone without understanding the culture within which they live, work or were raised. Well written as always.

    1. I am sure you have seen this in medicine, the same way cops see it on the street. Behavior is often driven by micro-cultures. Literally, by who you hang out with.

      How many times have we seen a parent utterly shocked by the behavior of their kids?

      “That is just not like (him or her),” they will say. Sorry, mom or dad, you just haven’t seen your precious when they hang out with that group. The best way to turn a troubled kid’s life around is to reboot their social system.

  5. True, all of this and believe it or not, our town was small enough, that we grew up without a police force and even now, there aren’t many, so we all tend to know each other. A good thing.

    Our firefighters/first responders are all volunteer and you couldn’t ask for a nicer group of people than these, some are very good friends and during some of the responses, I know what they’ve faced and their courage and integrity is amazing.

    Our main church here? Catholic and it was one priest for two churches, but he’s been “suspended” for selling guns and making bombs. Guess nobody is perfect, while at the “other” end of town, the Congregational church runs the food pantry – all volunteer folks, we volunteered there for 2 weeks, that somehow turned into over 2 and a half years…..we’re still not sure how!

    And the other church (same end of town), has a free clothing building, that used to be in Human Services – sure, we volunteered there, too – still not sure how, and yet another church, I forgot what kind, has the free meals that are better than any soup kitchen you’ll ever see, which we know, because yeah, we volunteered there too. 🙂

    1. Volunteer firefighters and first responders are proof-positive that humanity has a future. I would also put volunteers in most churches in that category too but I have been compelled to endure some God-awful pancake breakfasts – so I am not as generous with church-folk. On the other hand, the blueberry/oatmeal pancakes at Saint Mary’s are always top-notch. 🙂

  6. Wow – so true. My husband is a former cop who is, right now, heading north for a Lutheran conference (Higher Things sound familiar?). You can imagine how the culture shock works out every year between him and everyone else.

    1. You can imagine how the culture shock works out every year between him and everyone else.

      I imagine the culture shock only goes in one direction.

      Cops, by nature, straddle a wide array of behaviors and cultural attitudes that are far beyond the imaginations of most civilians. For instance, who else has visited the homes of Somalian, Hmong, Honduran and Sudanese immigrants – all in one night?

  7. Very, very nice. Insightful. I have to concur with the preacher’s daughter on ghosts in her knicker drawer. That would be a little off putting. I am pleased to say my religious affiliation has no paid clergy – all are volunteers. It makes for a completely different outlook when you’re not dependent upon the flock to pay the bills. 🙂 Poor girl. As for the cops, I loved that bit. Very true. I guess they have to possess a singular toughness to stand on the line day by day. Frankly, I love British cops. The few I have had brushes with have been just wonderful. Mind, my brushes with them have always been on the RIGHT side of the law… hahaha!

    1. I am also impressed with British cops. Back in the 1970’s, I witnessed a protest get out of hand. Here that would be a green light to bounce truncheons off people’s skulls, instead the bobbies linked arms and marched forward singing. I wish I could remember the song.

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