The church foyer creeps with eyes of shattered glass as I make my way into the sanctuary. All of their eyes are sharp and pointing because every Sunday I look more and more like my mother and my mother is beautiful and she makes no apologies for it, so neither will I. I enter the sanctuary and there are lined rows of chairs that stretch for miles and I’m sure that if you took all the chairs out of here I could flip cart wheels for days on end and run barefoot from one white wall to the next and God would still be here and he wouldn’t mind at all. But there are chairs here. And there are candles and ties and families that want nothing more than to be whole all over again so I keep quiet and take my seat.
When the musicians stand up, I stand up. And then I read lyrics from a power point slide off the back drop of a waterfall, or a mountain, or a cross, and I remember that time at the old church when we didn’t have things like power points, just an overheard and a transparent sheet. We used to sing songs like, “As the Deer Panteth for the Water” and I had no idea what it meant but my prayers were always real. Back then nobody ever questioned my faith because children have childlike faith, even God said so, and that was enough for them.
That was long before I had boobs. Long before I intentionally wore bright red bras beneath my sweaters, just to feel a small victory inside myself. And that’s weird isn’t it? When something like the color red can make you feel so goddamn powerful? I bet you anything, half the women in here are wearing flesh tones or maybe even white. I had a white bra once. But mine was strapless and soft and nobody ever saw me in it but me and I thought it looked beautiful so nothing else really mattered.
When the music ends we all sit down. And the pastor takes his place at the podium and he is tucking in pant pockets and adjusting his notes. I see that his hands are rough and strong and I wonder if his hands are bigger than my father’s because the size of men’s bodies has always been captivating to me. Growing up, my dad used to rescue me from drowning waters or block me from being struck by on moving vehicles and every time it always took me by surprise. The way his arm could swoop with such unwavering power, the amount of safety he held in one handful. It was comforting to me, to see so much strength paired with so much kindness. Sometimes when I thought of God, I would think of just that, a giant man with strong, kind hands.
The pastor begins his sermon and all at once I am reminded that he is nothing like my father. I am reminded that I am sitting in a sanctuary, that my red bra is unwelcome here and so is my mother’s red nail polish. I grip the sides of my padded, plush seat, and endure as long as I can. The walls are so white and they are all glaring at me and I feel nervous to adjust the hem of my skirt or to cough or to breathe because everything echoes in here and the less attention I draw to myself the better.
I would’ve given up on church a long time ago, except for that I can’t seem to shake the unwavering suspicion that God is here. Somewhere. I keep looking for him behind the smiles of my friends, or the pages of the bulletin, or the gentle drone of our worship songs. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep digging around like this. I want God to be the kind of father that I can point out in a room and know with certainty that he is there, that he is home, that I could go over and touch him if I wanted to. Except for God never shows up to church with a tie and a Styrofoam cup of coffee like all the other fathers do.
The pastor continues his sermon and he is saying something about sex and marriage, and I am only half listening until I hear him say, “Don’t put a stumbling block in front of someone who can’t see.” And he is referring to women’s clothing and then I think of my mother and how she must be one hell of a stumbling block. And maybe we’re all just a bunch of stumbling blocks. And maybe we were all just women once until someone came along and called it a stumbling block so now every time a little girl is born the doctor might as well hold her up and shout, “it’s a stumbling block!” and everyone will cheer and buy pink shit and say congratulations.
I can feel the blood in my veins thickening, and my heartbeat quickens until I remind myself that this is not who we are. I think of my mother again except this time I don’t think of her as a stumbling block, I think of all of who she is. I think of that time she wiped the vomit off the face of a homeless stranger, and then handed him a cookie and said, “You got any kids? I got five kids.” She brought that man to church with her the next Sunday and all Jeff Henderson could think of to say was, “that dress is too form fitting.”
Sometimes the church walls leave me so broken that there’s an aching in my bones. A deep sorrow that buries itself further and further until I have forgotten what I look like, have forgotten my name, or what color of bras I liked in the first place. Sometimes when I sit down in the sanctuary, I crawl inside myself and watch the rest of the congregation move about. The men try to lead the women but they get it all wrong and then the women try to pick up the pieces but they get it all wrong, and now everyone just looks so lost and watching them look lost makes me feel lost and then all at once I’m not really sure who God is anymore or why we are meeting in this ugly brick building, every Sunday, in the first place.
I’ve been to a few places but every church feels the same. There is always those same sharp pair of eyes, the ones that cut and claw. There is always the aroma of brewed coffee and the sound of children playing tag. There is always warmth and kindness. There is always the men who are in charge of things, and the women who believe them. There is the light and there is the dark. There is oppression and there is equality. There is God and there is Satan all wrapped up in one brick building.
I sift through these paradoxes, stumbling through the dark until I accidently grab hold of something truly beautiful, like the way the pastor’s wife held the crying girl after her dad died, or when the entire congregation sang a song without any music. These are the moments when I find God. Except for that I don’t always know what exactly I’m doing here but I have this creeping suspicion that nobody really does. So why should I take someone else’s word whole heartedly when they tell me things like, “Your shirt is too low cut.” How can I be expected to believe anything other than what God tells me? Mainly, that I am loved exactly as I am. Is it really all that audacious to believe?
These are the things I tell myself when I am left cold and broken by the words of a pastor who will never understand me. He is still giving his sermon and I am desperately searching for God everywhere except for that I can’t find him. I scan the sanctuary up and down, but he is nowhere to be found and the pastor is saying, “Don’t be fooled by the temptress” and I am slipping through the cracks farther and farther. And I am looking and I am looking. And the pastor says, “Wives submit to your husbands,” and I’m drowning and I’m drowning, and then suddenly,
God is there.
I feel her.
She is a moving graceful tide that sweeps down the aisle and takes a seat directly beside me. I have no idea what she looks like but I am absolutely certain that she has boobs. She is listening to the sermon, and she is humble in all her magnitude, like a silent lamb being led to the slaughter, and all at once I realize where her son gets it from.
I want to know why she has come to me this way and why she is a woman because my whole life God has never been anything but a man with strong kind hands and this whole woman thing is sort of throwing me for a loop except for it’s the kind of loop that I don’t really mind being thrown, because it feels sort of good to talk to your mother when all this time you’ve been talking to your father who is kind and means well, but doesn’t always understand where you’re coming from.
God is not saying anything to me but she is there and somehow that is saying a lot. And then all at once I feel like crying. I feel like sobbing hysterical. But I am in a church and there are people all around me and if they see me break down, they’re all going to think I’m weird. So I keep myself mildly composed but there are still tears that fall silent down my cheeks, the way oppression is silent.
And the pastor is still saying that I am a stumbling block and I am running out of tears to cry, and then all at once, I hear her voice. A gentle authority that sweeps me up and out of my brokenness, she tells me, “You have to forgive him.” And I ask her, “How can I forgive him?” and she says, “I did.” And that shuts me up.
And a moment passes where we sit there, together like that. And after the silence has spilled its last tension, God says to me, “You are a beautiful woman and you’re made in my image.” And I have heard this my whole life, except for it never occurred to me that I am woman and that perhaps God looks something like me, with boobs and brown hair, and soft flimsy wrists. And after I’ve pictured this new image of God she tells me, “You have to remember that I am a mother who loves these men, exactly as they are. Not who they’re supposed to be.”
And then I felt the sanctuary change. And it is not the same sanctuary where I wear red bras to feel victorious or where men are sharp and powerful oppressors. It is a sanctuary where God meets us exactly as we are, where men are our fathers, and our brothers, and our friends, and women forgive them for everything they’ve done to us.