I Want to Be a Church Lady

Soul shaping takes time. Some people go to church a few times hoping for a dramatic encounter with God and an entirely new life—in six weeks! That does happen occasionally. As Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” a metaphor he immediately applied to the Spirit (John 3:8). But instant transformation is not the typical pattern. What with our own obtuseness and tendency to suffer from bad worship and all, most of us require years of churchgoing before showing improvements. This is what is meant by spiritual formation, a term sometimes used to describe people’s growth in the faith. People don’t get stamped into spiritual shape on an assembly line. They’re all handmade.

With that in mind, we celebrate the treasure of faithfulness. Faithfulness is a quality of soul our culture does not readily cultivate. Our typical approach to consumption, professions, relationships, and even philosophies is best symbolized by the television remote control. If you’re bored or there’s a problem, press a button and change channels. Faithfulness is everything we think we don’t want: it’s difficult, self-denying, countercultural, and limits our choices.

In my memories of growing up in a certain row on the right-hand side of my church, I can see the couple who sat in the balcony opposite. He was a short, silver-haired man with a broad face. She had a sharp nose, thin glasses, and silver hair smoothed back into an elaborate bun that looked something like an overabundant waffle. They both wore very neat, conservative clothes and crisply tailored overcoats. I don’t remember any conversations with these people, and they were not leaders in the church. They simply showed up every week, like many of the other faces around me. But I am grateful to them because without even knowing it, they demonstrated that there is something redemptive merely about long-term commitment to a good and important practice. I recently found out that these people were watching me, too. My mother took my son to the mall one day, and there they ran into the lady of the couple. She took one look at my son and, having not seen me in years, she still said, “I can tell he’s Debra’s. He looks exactly like she did as a child.” There is evidently a close relationship between faithfulness and community.

People who criticize faithful pew-sitters as purveyors of empty ritual have a rather naive view of the religious life. Anyone who has been at this soul education process for a while will admit to having dry spells. Partly it’s our own failures of will and attentiveness, and partly it’s a result of dealing with a God who does not perform on cue, at the press of a prayer button. As with anything worthwhile that takes a long time, you must keep at it. You learn faster, and you get through the dry spells eventually if you don’t give up.

In the religious life, this is called piety. Though I am not terribly disciplined myself right now, I try to aspire to piety, in the sense of going through the practices routinely whether I feel like it or not: Bible-reading, prayer, and church going. Piety can become empty and an end in itself, but that’s not much of an indictment. Anything can become an empty end in itself. I think of piety as simply a matter of keeping one’s sails up and hoping for wind. Or of practicing an instrument every day (or almost), whether the music sounds good or not. Freedom and ease arise over time, as any musician or athlete knows, from the discipline of constant, sometimes jaw-clenching practice.

I grew up among pious people, and I live and work among them now. Piety filled with love and devotion is a beautiful thing. Out of its fertile soil, hope grows. Mostly I have noticed that piety gives strength, holding people up when they’re weak. In a crisis, words and practices that normally seem routine suddenly feel like a blessed life raft. You’ve heard Psalm 23 a thousand times, but when you and your brothers hear that your sister has terminal cancer, you go to church numbly, expecting nothing. Then someone reads aloud those familiar words, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and they seem written for you, for this moment. And they bring you into company with thousands of others who have also known pain and fear. Amid those words, your grief falls to rest on the cushion of God’s faithful love.

My one ambition for my old age is to be a church lady. Not the kind who has turned bitter, complaining, and judgmental but the kind who has grown nearer to wisdom and peace. I will be the lady in the same pew (or whatever we sit on by then) every Sunday, and I’ll know all the little kids’ names. I’ll show up at the potlucks and volunteer to tutor the neighborhood kids. I’ll sing loudly even though the people standing around me will secretly wish I had retired my voice years ago. Mostly I will pray, pray for people even when they haven’t asked for prayer.

I need more work on my soul yet before I’ll be ready for that life. I need to become more patient, more silent, more disciplined in prayer, less restless and ambitious and fearful. But I know where to go to have that work done. Sometimes it feels like work, sometimes it’s boring; but more often it feels like getting my balance again, like finding my orientation with everything around and also above me, knowing where I am and where home is. Or it feels like drinking deep at a well—at once satisfying and arousing my thirst for the living God.

Debra Rienstra is professor of English at Calvin College