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.