She's been coming to our church for several years now, but I don't know her well. I've talked with her several times, trying to draw out more than one-word answers, trying to find a subject that makes her come alive, but I still don't know her beyond what her resume' might tell. I think I make her nervous, or maybe it's that I'm overbearing, so I give her space to find her way.
I invite her to our women's day retreat, not because I'm the pastor's wife and am filling some quota, not because I'm teaching and want a huge crowd, not because it's something to talk about when I see her at church. I invite her because I see that look in her eye: the look of being an outsider, the look of isolation, the look of being contentedly closed off but also deathly afraid to stay that way. I invite her because I want to know her and I want others to know her. I want her to experience community that, in reality, is well within her reach. I invite her because it seems we're playing some sort of game of jumping in, hesitating, and then jumping back out, and it feels like a fear filled charade.
She says no. She says it with absolute, total conviction, a "no" that feels like it's answering all future invitations, a "no" that indicates it's not busyness keeping her away, a "no" begging for explanation. So I gently probe. She describes past experiences of women's events characterized by shallow conversation, girly crafts, and topics never veering far from marriage and motherhood. I tell her what we're studying (not marriage or motherhood) and guarantee there will be no girly crafts and lots of opportunities to make connections with other women. She thanks me for the invitation, reaffirms her "no", and moves off into the crowd.
As she goes, I am sad, not for me, but for her and for the "us" that is our church's women, because we're not going to know her until she lets us know her, and we're probably missing something wonderful.
But I am also sad because I understand where she's coming from. I understand what it's like to dread women's events at church, to walk in with a smile but also a heavy weight of insecurity, and to overanalyze everything I've said after it's all over. I understand what it's like to get all twisted up in paranoia about friendships and to wonder if I've said too much after sharing something personal. I understand the pressure to appear put together and the pull toward assumptions and comparison. I wish I could help her see that, even though I'm the pastor's wife and often out front, we have more in common than she thinks.
At the retreat, I stand before our women and, even as the words tumble out, I want to take them back. I don't always like women's events. I actually say it. The pastor's wife at a women's event says she doesn't always like women's events. Because I get nervous, I say. Because there is this pull to compare and a fear of revealing ourselves and I have all these insecurities. The room gets still. Raise your hand if you're nervous too. Raise your hand if it was hard to come this morning. Hands slowly go up all around. So let's just drop all that and let's get down to it. Let's give and receive. Let's share and learn. Let's love each other well today. The room releases an audible sigh and we get to work studying and discussing Scripture together.
Later, I have a moment to think and I immediately berate myself for saying such a vulnerable and stupid thing. But then one-by-one women that I know and love approach me and tell me of their own insecurities about relating to other women, insecurities about their appearance, about not knowing the answers, about sharing their struggles and doubts, about not having it all together.
They understand from my words that I understand. We have more in common than we think. Saying it out loud just did something for us all, because we women tend to think about and assume our differences more than our commonalities. And our differences, seen through the filter of insecurity, only drive us away from one another.
I saw that day what helps us push through our fears and insecurities and awkwardness and come together: naming. Naming our common struggle and our common need is what helps us get to the true community we crave, and with true community, true growth. Because where we name common need, we can also name common grace in Christ and grasp onto Him together.
We can't get to the community we crave as long as we embrace image-keeping. We can't get to it while also striving to be "good enough", because that striving conveys to other women that we're not in need of grace and coaxes them to race to "good enough" with us.
We must instead value faith, hope and love above appearance, affinities, and categories. We must value growth above self-glory and self-consciousness. Community among women blossoms when the love of Christ is talked about and shown, because that perfect love casts out all fear and insecurity. We're all in need. We all can come and receive.
I wish she had been there. It might have felt uncomfortable and awkward for her at first, but she would have found herself among friends expressing common needs and receiving common grace. I'll invite her again next time, and maybe I'll tell her that I don't always like women's events either, that I get nervous about them even as the pastor's wife. Maybe she won't believe how much need we have in common, but I'll speak to her of common grace all the same and invite her into the community waiting for her on the other side of insecurity.