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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fitting In

                                                                        Fitting In

Dorothy had always been a Christian. Her faith in Jesus was her life. Her church was her family: she belonged and fit right in. The first time Dorothy saw Jim out on the streets passing out gospel tracts she was attracted to him right away because he loved Jesus so much. That’s the kind of man Dorothy wanted to marry. When the two began dating no one was surprised because they were so much alike.

Driving a nice car or earning a big salary didn’t impress these two. The evangelical church in the early ‘50’s preached against Christians having material possessions. And Dorothy and Jim believed everything the church taught. Dancing and drinking were considered ‘sinful’ and going to the movies was ‘worldly’. Jim slept on the hard floor without a mattress because back then fundamentalist Christians considered it virtuous to suffer. And Dorothy wouldn’t wear lipstick since wearing makeup was discouraged by her church. They would gladly give up everything to follow the Lord.

Dorothy and Jim married after they finished Bible school and both started teaching in cash strapped Christian schools. Jim taught adult classes at the Bible school and Dorothy taught third grade at a neighborhood Christian school. She could have doubled her salary by teaching third grade at the local public school, but Dorothy would never consider doing that. She wanted to influence children’s lives for Christ and if that meant earning a small paycheck to stay in a Christian school then that is what she would do. Both Jim and Dorothy’s salaries never amounted to enough to allow them to buy a house or take a nice vacation, but none of their fellow church friends had anything either. Their church was their family: they belonged and fit right in.

The years passed by and the apartment they rented seemed crowded as their three boys were growing up. The constant worry over how to pay the bills began to take its’toll on Jim. And after working all week, Dorothy had to baby sit on weekends to help make ends meet. The police caught their oldest boy with marijuana and some of their church friends quit speaking to them. Behind their backs there was the whispering. “If they had been good Christian parents surely their boy wouldn’t have gotten into drugs.” Dorothy and Jim felt judged by their church family and they tried harder to fit in.

The Christian school where Jim taught eventually become an accredited college and had moved into a larger more impressive campus. New wealthy trustees were chosen to run the Christian college in hopes that these successful businessmen could attract more funds for progress. Jim had always received minimum wages and as the years went by his salary remained low. He didn’t mind sacrificing so that more could be spent to improve the school. He worked as an electrician on weekends to help pay the bills. The welfare of his students and the mission of the college became his life. Members in his church gossiped because Jim drove an older model car and Dorothy was still babysitting. Their church had changed and they hadn’t. This couple wasn’t making the proper impression in order to fit in.

Because Jim and Dorothy had raised their children as Christians they had great expectations for them. Their boys were their world. When their youngest son married, his bride refused to invite the oldest brother to the wedding because his hair was too long. Soon the newly married couple had also distanced themselves from their parents. The young people made it clear that they didn’t want anything to do with Dorothy and Jim. The heartbreak took its’ toll but Dorothy couldn’t share her sorrows with her church friends. As a Christian she had to keep up the appearances of a victorious Christian life. Dorothy and Jim kept going to church and pretending that all was well. But by now they weren’t included in the life of their church, even though they wanted so badly to fit in.

Even though Jim had been teaching at the Christian college for thirty-five years and had always been popular with the students, several fellow professors began spreading rumors around that he should go. Since the school had developed a reputation for excellence, the word spread that Jim no longer fit in. Old friends at the college were barely speaking to Jim now and each class he taught was evaluated and criticized. The people at church quit speaking to Dorothy and Jim and the Sunday school classes they had taught, as well as the jobs they had been doing over the years, were taken away.

Dorothy and Jim were frightened and confused. They didn’t know what they had done to cause their Christian community to turn against them so. There must be something wrong with them or this wouldn’t be happening. It seemed that within a few years these two had become scapegoats at their church as well as at the college. Everyone seemed to be gossiping about them even though they didn’t know what was being said. The judgments and bullying from their fellow Christians didn’t let up and Dorothy and Jim clung to each other for support. Why couldn’t they fit in?

And then Jim had a heart attack! Fearful that the toxic work environment would eventually kill him, Dorothy begged Jim to quit teaching. And after several more difficult years of harassment, Jim retired early. Things had not turned out the way Dorothy and Jim had dreamed that they would. They couldn’t afford to move and the church they had served for decades was not there for them. Lonely and disillusioned, Dorothy developed high blood pressure and arthritis. Eventually she wasn’t able to continue teaching her third graders. Alone and without purpose the couple struggled to pay their bills. Their son and daughter-in-law still weren’t speaking and Dorothy was feeling desperate about it. How had she failed as a Mother? Why didn’t she fit in?

A few months ago I got the news that Dorothy had died. They said that a stroke had taken her, but I wonder if she didn’t die of a broken heart. I wonder if she would be alive today if the people in her church had spoken to her. If the “Christian community” at the college had not isolated the couple, would things have turned out differently? If the couple had been valued by their fellow Christians, if they had been allowed to contribute something, would Dorothy still be with us today?

We think it’s terrible when we hear about school children committing suicide because they are bullied by their classmates. But is it possible for a Christian community to bully or ignore a member so totally that they no longer have the will to keep going? Is it possible that some older Christians become set in their ways and aren’t willing to change? Have we ever been part of a Christian group that indulges in gossiping or judging a fellow member? Let’s serve our Lord and be part of the answer and not part of the problem. Let’s be generous and loving to everyone, even the unattractive. Let’s make sure that everyone is able to fit in.

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