Friday, March 20, 2009

Lenten Voices: Learning to Love Hypocrisy

By Laura Onstot

I spent a year in a small Southwestern town dotted with great Mexican restaurants, a bar where the devil supposedly showed up once for tequila, several gas stations catering to tourists passing through, and, of course, a giant Wal-Mart. When I first arrived I made a promise to myself—I would not shop there. And for a few months I didn’t.

Not shopping there was kind of tricky but doable. At least twice a month I’d make the drive to Santa Fe to stop at Trader Joe’s (those cheesy Hawaiian shirts were a great help in times of great homesickness). But in the meantime, the town had two smaller stores of the “grocery” persuasion. Both had food stuffs that had not been processed into something else. You could get produce, milk and uncooked meat—the basics.

It wasn’t exactly an uplifting shopping experience. Both stores had a weird smell that always hit with an accompanying wave of nausea when walking through the sliding glass doors. The lettuce leaves were inevitably wilted and the tomatoes too squishy. And then one day I got home with a jar of Alfredo sauce only to realize the expiration date had passed months ago.

The sauce was in a jar and I’m sure it was fine—but I already lived in a place where heroin needles dotted my yard and one kid shot another kid in the leg outside my apartment within a week of my moving in. Did I really have to suffer expired Alfredo sauce too?

And that’s how I found myself at the sliding glass doors of the Wal-Mart. Walking in, I found a small but fresh produce selection. A manager did once suggest that maybe there is no such thing as “polenta” but I could get a steak to grill and it would come out alright. A friend and I even picked up live lobsters there once.

It wasn’t long before I was buying other things there that I normally would have saved for a Santa Fe trip—a four cup coffee maker, laundry detergent, cases of Tecate (best beer in a can!). And just like that, I became a Wal-Mart hypocrite.

That word creeps up a lot in my head when I think about my faith. Last week I attended a service at a friend’s church. It was the kind of no-girls-allowed place that gives me a knot in my stomach and makes my throat close off a little. I believe down to my core that so many of the messages of those churches are wrong, completely at odds with the message of Christ, and frankly dangerous. But so help me I stood up with the woman next to me and sang my heart out through the worship songs, bowed my head when the pastor prayed (sneaking in a quick cross of myself at the “amen”) and sat quietly contemplating the sermon—a meditation on miracles that I actually resonated a little with right up until the second the pastor took a shot at rationalism.

I still don’t know how I feel about the whole experience. Was I playing along for show, hoping to avoid causing a scene or embarrassing a friend, and is that fair to him, his church, and the people that worship there? And I got a little chilled at one point during a worship song (complete with, horror of horrors, electric guitar!), actually feeling a little in touch with this God I understand so poorly—does that mean I betrayed myself and the things I believe about the meaning of Jesus? I don’t know but I suspect that much cognitive dissonance about your words and actions and feelings, you’ve definitely entered hypocrite territory.

The thing is I don’t think the fact that I shopped at Wal-Mart means I can’t keep being angry when the company busts attempts at unionizing the staff. And I don’t think the fact that I walk around in this hazy realm of being a pretty crappy Christian and a crappy progressive all at the same time means I shouldn’t keep trying to do right by both. And I don’t think the fact that I’m a hypocrite means I should stop clinging to the one thing I feel certain of—grace.

Laura attended her first St. Paul's mass on Ash Wednesday 2004 and now sings in the Parish Choir. She is a staff writer for the Seattle Weekly (online at, a novice knitter, a lover of mountains, and is always up for communing over an aged scotch.

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