It was an accepted practice at my church that in order to be a part of the youth group you had to be twelve. When I was eleven this was an injustice of cataclysmic proportions. Not one to accept artificial boundaries, I wormed my way into as many youth meetings and events as I could as I was a rebel from a young age. Specifically, I remember wanting to be a part of the youth Sunday school class led at my church by Sister LaWanda. Sister LaWanda was a saintly church lady who was active in the church but single. She lived with another single lady, Sister Lois. These two were mirror opposites of each other. Sister Lois was vocal and didn’t mind telling you her opinion about anything, whether you asked for it or not. Sister LaWanda was meek, soft spoken, diligent, and always ready to share a word of exhortation, which is “church speak” for encouragement with judgmental overtones. I always thought that their relationship was an odd combination, especially considering that Sister Lois was my pastor’s sister and Sister LaWanda was the Pastor wife’s sister. Yes, I know, the ratio of sisters to brothers in my church was challenging to keep up with. I suppose it made sense from a family solidarity perspective in leading our small Pentecostal church. Additionally, they were both single, so absent a man to wed either of them, a domestic partnership flourished. It was like a marriage with none of the benefits but neither any of the encumbrances.
In my estimation, Sister LaWanda was also an odd choice in leading the youth class as she was in appearance, demeanor, and attitude, a contemporary of Methuselah. Or at least seemed so in my eleven-year-old estimation.
Learning and navigating my church’s culture came relatively easy to me as I was present at my first service shortly after emerging from my mother’s womb. I learned very quickly that getting noticed and rewarded with attention at church involved two basic behaviors. Being very bad or being very good. As a small unexceptional child with neither athletic ability, musical talent, or personal charisma, I opted for being very good. Being very good involved sitting on the front pew, knowing the answers to basic bible questions, carrying the biggest bible you could find, occasionally wearing a neck tie and being respectful to elders. I was accomplished at all of the above, yet because I couldn’t find a bible big enough to fit in a brief case it was necessary to find another artifact of goodness that would distinguish me from the pack. For me this involved vacuuming the church. Among the options available to my aspirations of goodness, vacuuming was a relatively easy activity that didn’t require a lot of physical exertion but garnered a lot of accolades from the acolytes. The return on investment was a no brainer. Strategically I would position myself in and around the vacuum cleaner following fellowship meetings, church suppers, or other churchwide activities. And invariably when some very good person wannabe would momentarily abandon their vacuuming post to help others take out the trash (another very good church person job) I would seize my opportunity to push the heavy outdated machine across the cheapest of carpets that fine church people could afford. It was easy to be noticed doing this as typically it was the fellowship hall, a large second story room that needed attention, and vacuuming demanded pushing the massive machine in a circle around the middle of the room as other relatively mediocre church folks could only envy my goodness as they watched from the periphery.
Vacuuming as I quickly discovered was my ticket to access the youth group early, as most of the youth group was preoccupied with each other and their raging hormones. I would show up early to vacuum the youth Sunday school class, paying attention to important details like actually pulling back the folding metal chairs, vacuuming under them, and returning them to the optimal position for students to hear the gospel truths that would eventually flow from the mouth of Sister LaWanda, after a few excursions down her memory lanes. This was my contribution to the eternal wellbeing of the half dozen students that would show up any given Sunday for youth class, at least for the ones who managed to stay awake after a donut induced coma. I understood that Sister LaWanda’s lack of charism, a characteristic that was ironically scarce in our charismatic tradition, wouldn’t help keep the students awake, but all of these factors were beyond my control and concern, as my focus was the intricate whirl of cooperative brushes against the rough surfaces of indoor/outdoor carpet. My goal was to impress the hell out of Sister LaWanda. By doing so she would certainly recognize my commitment and reward my goodness with early admittance into the youth class. I would be the exception, like Samson who got to grow his hair long while all the other weak chumps had to make weekly visits to the barber shop. If I timed the vacuuming just right, I would finish up just as Sister LaWanda arrived for her class, demonstrating both my eagerness and conscientiousness by arriving early and doing what few, if any would have thought to do. I was vacuuming the youth class room!
Sister LaWanda did arrive as I had imagined and immediately complemented my service to the church and specifically to her class. But I had heard such trifling superlatives before, my ambitions were much higher. I wanted early admittance to the youth group. So even before her glowing review of my superior vacuuming skills had ceased I asked the question, “Sister LaWanda may I start coming to your class a little early?” I remember hearing something like “If it were up to me…” But what follows is a blur as I only caught bits and pieces of her defense of the rules as my illusions of youth group grandeur disappeared in phrases like “If we make an exception for you we’d have to make an exception for everyone.” At her heart, Sister LaWanda was a rule keeper and no amount of good works could convince her to make an exception for me. Which set up quite the conundrum for someone like me seeking to earn my way into good favor. Now I was in a position where If I chose to abandon my weekly practice of vacuuming the youth class, I would be exposed as a fraud. And because I had no talent or experience for being very bad, I had but one option. I would continue vacuuming the floor ever Sunday, being good for nothing. I wagered that perhaps this at least would serve me well should I have the opportunity to trade my perseverance at goodness for some future favors once I turned twelve.
This was a solid plan until my well-meaning brother in law, who was the church custodian at the time, was convinced by a traveling salesman to purchase the “Rainbow vacuum cleaner” which was a monstrosity that utilized a water system that had to filled with clean water and emptied of dirty water after making its pass across what seemed like only two inches of carpet. This severely hampered my expected returns in complements on goodness investment ratio. By the time I managed to haul the shallow pan of water back to the vacuuming apparatus all of my potential audience had given up watching me work and with no one there to praise my efforts were they really worth pursuing? I was convinced this machine was forged in pits of hell by Satan himself to thwart my piety.
My whimsical recollection strikes me as how most of us were taught to think about our relationship to God. The Christian life is seen by many as an attempt to earn the favor of a reluctant rule keeper. And only by doing better and trying harder will we ever earn the right to be admitted to the congregation of the saved. Thankfully God isn’t Sister LeWanda and no amount of vacuuming will render me worthy of the heavenly city. Rather my life is cleansed through no effort of my own, and like Noah of old, I find grace not in my goodness, but in the eyes of my Lord. And while we are at it, God’s rainbow, reminding all of us of His continual love is much preferable to that vacuum machine that bore its namesake. And certainly, grace is preferable to goodness. Being good, as it turns out, is too much of a burden for any of us to bare.