To be beholden: Obliged, bound, liable, indebted, to owe.
To be held: to be borne, sustained, and supported, to be kept in the hand, to be kept in relation, to be considered of value, to remain attached or steadfast
As a child I remember being held by the church: being the pastor’s daughter and youngest of the family meant I was often quite literally ‘held’ by the church. Mom and dad were always on the platform. Our little churches were too small for a nursery—thus I spent the first several years of my life nestled in the bosom of various church ladies. They comforted me when I cried, kept Pepperidge Farm gold fish or Cheerios in baggies in their purses in case I got hungry, and made dolls out of handkerchiefs when I got restless. There was even one parishioner who attended our church in E. St. Louis who would actually spread her mink coat out on the hard wooden pew in order for me to lounge in comfort (my mother praying fervently all the while from her perch on the piano bench that my diaper didn’t leak). The church was my world—my cradle—and it wasn’t particularly hard to imagine myself, as we were wont to sing those days, being like the whole world—in His hands.
When my family became missionaries, however, and I was old enough to recognize the political machinations of the evangelical church, more often I found myself in an ecclesial hold: isolated (quite literally in the bush) and with familial ties all but broken (through traditions about loyalties, insistence upon boarding school as the only educational option, and a demand that nothing rise before a divinely-ordained command to save souls), the hold of the church tightened to the point of suffocation.
Suddenly being “in His hands” was levied more as a scare tactic than of a source of comfort. Pain and suffering, sacrifice and stoicism, detachment and pietism were idealized. Weakness, vulnerability, and the expression of pain were stifled—demonstrating little other than a lack of faith.
As I grew older and began to question the motivations for decisions that were made in the name of ‘the Great Commission’, it was swiftly made clear by ecclesial authorities that it was to the church I needed to reconcile my desires and issues and concerns (the suggestion that perhaps the church might have want or need to reconcile with me was beyond consideration). They made it clear to me that I was beholden to the church. In that sense, it became impossible to deviate from doctrinal norms or dogmatic proclamations.
I took a 5 year hiatus—a breather—from this ecclesial hold, returning to ‘church’ through a different denomination and with significantly different notions of authority. Naturally I’d grown quite cautious about the church, content to sit on the periphery of things and generally to come and go anonymously. I eased quietly into the Lake Street congregation in that fashion: slipping in and out of services and trying hard to not become involved, lest the church lay hold of me again.
However, in recent months there have been those whose arms have gently enfolded and engrafted me into the life of the congregation. Such beckoning gestures have been gentle and loving, concerned and considerate; they are neither invasive nor limiting, but have been respectfully circumspect and freeing. It is folks like ML who found room in ‘her’ pew for me; LL who helped me move into a new apartment; CBS who has listened and counseled, along with LS who has made space for me when I needed it; TH and LL who invited me over to a family meal; ALH who asked how she could help; and BV who fed my cats while I was tending to my mom when she was having surgery… folks who likely have little idea of the impact their kind and generous spirit has had in helping me find a spiritual home. It was the beautifully strange moment when I found myself willingly handing over the spare keys to my place to ALH with little other than the promise: “I’ll find someone to feed your cats…not sure who it will be, but I will find someone. Now go take care of your mom” that I realized my trust has shifted. I was willing to trust the congregation with my home—with my heart—in ways I never imagined possible.
For the first time in more than 30 years, I felt ‘held’ by the church.