When I was a kid, I can remember those Sunday mornings. It was quite a bit of work getting my sister and me ready for church. Mom would have our Sunday clothes out. We would get dressed as she and Dad would get themselves dressed. Then she would do our hair (mine was easy but required a bit of Vitalis hair tonic), and my sisters had to be brushed out, curled and then put up in whatever fashion she and Mom negotiated.
There was usually some amount of fuss until my sister and I were placed in front of the television to watch the claymation series produced by the Lutheran Church, Davy and Goliath (linked for those interested in ancient history).
Then we would all get in the car. No eating was permitted once we were dressed … especially after the “Fried Pie Fiasco” that I created and had to completely change clothes making us late.
As we travelled in the car, there was one clear rule given: Be on your best behavior! You are going before God and everybody else, and we don’t say “those words” or talk about personal or family things. We are taking only our best to God. While likely a bit of an overstatement, it was the rule that was imbedded in my mind. For God, we always put our best foot forward. It might sound oppressive, but for me, it provided a pattern that was comfortable and knowable. It’s also why people rarely see me on Sundays without at least a tie and white shirt (if not a suit).
The one downside was that it took me years to realize that God didn’t want my Sunday self to show up … God wanted all of me to show up. It was part of the duality that is so prevalent even today in religious life. The ego part of us wants to be thought of as good … pure … saintly … Christian, and the ego doesn’t easily abide the vulnerability that comes from being fully known. We divide even our own selves into good and bad, and we can only take the good parts into the presence of God.
You see, our egos want us to be known as “the good people.” These are people who show us only their best side, and they are the ones we talk about over Sunday lunch. We fantasize at how wonderful their lives must be. Their fall from grace is usually spectacular when it finally comes.
When we lived in Arlington, our family would often go out to eat at a Chinese Restaurant near the church. One day as we sat in a booth, an older couple were seated at a table next to us. They had come from their church, which I knew was different from our church. As is true to this day, because I was clergy and had to greet people and wrap things up before leaving church, the only people who arrived at the restaurant at the same time we did were likely from the Baptist or Church of Christ churches in the area … the Methodists had already eaten and gone home.
The older couple were both impeccably dressed. His hair was perfectly in the place. She had on a lot of makeup, and she was smiling … constantly smiling. There was this moment though that stands starkly in my memory. The man got up to go to the restroom, and she stopped smiling. Not only did she stop smiling, she showed a face that had tragedy etched in the lines … she wasn’t just sad … she looked devastated. Then as soon as he returned to the table, the smile came back. That smile was all she would show to him … at least in public.
For some reason, she couldn’t bring her whole self to that moment. Not when they were together. The memory of this poor woman still stands for me as a constant reminder of what it looks like when we can’t bring our whole selves even into the presence of the One who knows every fiber of our being.
I have always found it interesting that we use the phrase “keep yourself together” in a way that means, “we don’t want to see your shadow self … we don’t want to see the part of you that is too real too or embarrassing … we need to see only your best side.” I wonder what would happen if we changed that to mean something like:
Keep yourself together and don’t leave any part of you out. I see you, and God sees you. You are loved just as you are.
Parker Palmer writes in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life the following: “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the integrity that comes from being what you are.”
God does not expect us to divide ourselves. As we live our lives in God’s world and, most especially, when we place ourselves in the presence of God in meditation, prayer, and worship, I think perhaps the best thing to do is to “keep ourselves together!”