Binkies for Wrinklies (Part 1)

She sat halfway back, right on the aisle, an elbow crooked over the side. It was her seat. The congregation had become familiar with her presence in that location and thus had conceded the spot to her dominion, sort of like squatter's rights for church pews. It was a 200 year old congregation, and Evelyn Cash had sat in her pew for 199 of them. Give or take.

She was always early, which was a good thing, because she wouldn't have been able to give the church bulletin a thorough pre-service edit otherwise. Evelyn had a perfect helmet of hair, "done" every week, gray and white, with highlights of ashy blue mixed in. Large glasses accentuated the predator's eyes, which roamed the sanctuary for the out of place: a fallen offering envelope, missing flags from the stage perhaps, or a youth pastor with an untucked shirt or an unwanted goatee.

Once the "out of place" were located, any listeners unluckily caught in her whirlpool of grumbling got to hear about them from a perfectly pinched and wrinkled mouth, like she had been born smoking an invisible cigar and told to never let it slip from her lips lest she die.

I was the untucked and goateed youth pastor who knowingly swam into the whirlpool each Sunday morning, hoping each week my chipper can-do attitude would break the chains of complaining. . .

"Good morning Evelyn, how are you?"

It's cold in here.

It's hot in here.

I don't know any of these songs.

I saw some of your kids running around outside behind the gym.

You think he's gonna preach past twelve again this week?

Where's the choir? We haven't had the choir in a month.

No organ? These songs don't sound right without the organ.

When are you going to shave that?

Slowly, Evelyn became my enemy and her negativity just an accepted part of my Sunday morning liturgy. Arrive early. Help the Pastor get ready. Meet my students. Tell my students not to run around behind the gym. Get an earhole of complaint from Evelyn Cash.

I began complaining about her complaining. She was becoming a joke to me and the students, like a church version of the old men in the balcony on the Muppets, except without the humor. I wish she'd get with the program and stop being so negative.

"Good morning Evelyn, how are you today?"
"They moved the water fountain out of the foyer."
"Yeah, it was leaking on the floor, and now we have more room to greet people."
"Hrmmmm. Well, now I can't get a drink when I come in."

I just walked away gritting my teeth and shaking my head. And then a thought occurred to me, Evelyn Cash is my enemy, what am I supposed to do with my enemies? Love them.

I went downstairs and got a cup from the kitchen, filled it up from the water fountain and brought it back to the sanctuary. . .

"Here you go Evelyn."

 A pause. Something resembling a tentative smile crept onto her face, a coy look softening her hawk eyes. . .

"Thank you."

One cup of cold water was all it took. I got pre-service hugs each week instead of complaints about my casual attire. Some weeks I even slid into the pew beside her and flirted a bit. . .

"Whatcha know good looking?"
"You stop it!"

A highlight of our holiday youth group caroling that year was stopping at Evelyn Cash's and everyone getting hugs from a teary and gentle saint. (Pic below, complete with my Youth Pastor Hair Blonde Edition 2.0)

I remember the story of the cup of cold water that turned an enemy into a friend often, because it speaks in multiple ways to life in American Churchianity. . .

I've already commented recently on the lost art of listening to those who have stories to tell ( so I won't go into that any further. And the lesson on loving your enemy rather than complaining about them or avoiding them speaks for itself. . .but another thought. . .

Pacifiers (or Binkies) are what we give babies to stop them from crying, to pacify them, to calm them down. They are momentary fixes in the emotional development of the child, and parents with toddlers who love pacifiers have to not only potty train them, but also eventually get them off the binky.

Did I pacify Evelyn? Without being condescending, I did to some degree. But how did she go from crying to contentment? With an act of love, with a bridge of relationship by serving her. She was not pacified by me succumbing to her preferences. I did not order the music team to play the 17 organ-led hymns of Evelyn's worship canon every service for the rest of her life.

The danger in pacifying by preference is that you can end up with a congregation of babies.
The power of pacifying by love is you build a community of worshipers who belong to one another.

Tomorrow we will journey a little farther along with these thoughts. . .

Matt O.