As regular readers know, I’m not a regular church go-er even though I have significant connections to it.
Mom used to tell me that I was the reason she got back into the church (a path that lead to national leadership and eventual ordination). I was closing in on my second birthday and she felt the need to get me baptized (or ‘done’ as her priest-friend said).
Through her, I was active in church through my teens. I attended church every Sunday and was the first girl to be an acolyte in my church. I was active in our youth group, went to diocesan convention as a youth delegate (and had one of my resolutions adopted), was a counselor at church camp and then took all of those good habits off with me to college. I found a church and went regularly (though no longer every week as transportation was an issue). My husband was baptized and confirmed at that church and we married there.
Then we moved to Texas and had a very mixed bag experience at the church we attended there. We met some great people who were friendly and welcoming but it was also the church where the priest stood up and gave a sermon about AIDS being god’s punishment to gay people. I met with him that week to tell him I how incredibly hurtful his sermon was.
Looking back on it that was the beginning of the end of my having a regular church home. It was another 10-15 years before I came to terms with the fact that weekly church attendance and all the attendant relationships just weren’t for me. I would come away from every service feeling like a burden to ‘do more’ and ‘be more’ was being piled on me.
I have had similar feelings since my mom died. I have been surprisingly okay since her death. She and I had a good relationship, I was able to help and support her (and dad) in the way that she needed and in a way that gave her comfort, which in turn gave me comfort. I do miss her and have the occasional sneaker-wave of grief when I see something that reminds me of her, but I have successfully reframed those times as it being a good thing that I miss her and still wish I could share my life with her—because those feelings are a manifestation of my love for her. As I’ve written elsewhere, she told me directly that she didn’t want me to be spending my life pining for her, she wanted me to be fully present for the people who are currently in my life.
However, some folks project their own loss and grief onto me. They say things like: you must really miss your mom, or you must be devastated, or I miss her so much I can’t imagine how you are coping.
Part of me understands that they are trying to be supportive and empathetic, but another part of me bristles at being told what I ‘must be’ feeling. Much like my experience being a weekly church go-er I am being burdened by the expectations of others. Or in this case, by their projection of their own feelings on to me.
Something to think about as we move into the new year (both church and secular) is what burdens we place on others because we aren’t really taking care of our own needs.
Jesus says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
It can be easy to place burdens on those around us without realizing it. From telling people what they should feel, to how they should act, or what the ‘right way’ is– it is frequently easier to project our feelings and needs onto another person than it is to confront our own feelings and needs and deal with them constructively.
While Jesus was not always an easy person to live with, he was consistent in three ways: he didn’t ask more of his disciples that he, himself was willing to give; he understood that not everyone could follow in his exact path; and he welcomed the outcast and downtrodden to just be. He gave them much-needed permission to lay down their burdens—especially those imposed on them by the greater society.
I personally don’t believe there is only One Right Way of doing things, but I do believe that the story of Jesus shows us A Right Way and that particular way has love at its heart, not expectation and not projection, just love.
Maybe as the New Year begins and the sun returns, we can learn to recognize when the gifts we try to give are really burdens in disguise and learn to let go of them, loving ourselves and others in all our brokenness.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
© 2018 Kristin Fontaine