Role Reversal

I am the older sister. I grew up taking blame for naughty things my brother did, and taking the spankings, too. At least, that’s how I remember it.

“Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt.” Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

I’m reading Mary Karr’s book, and I’m noting how one-sided all our stories are, and impressed by how generous she tries to be when recalling stories about other people. So I will confess I know there were times the spankings were related to my behavior. I know I was far from perfect; in fact, I spent quite a bit of time in the office of the head of the  lower school at St. Agnes in my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade years. A core unrest whipped me around and around; I climbed out a window, and I kicked my teacher, and I pulled a fire alarm, or so they tell me. I think I am innocent of that last one. But who knows?

By adolescence, I had learned how to control myself a little better – or to pretend to, to pretend to be that professional good girl an older sister and first-born ought to be. As my brother got involved in typical teen-age shenanigans, I became pious and careful. I might disappoint my parents (I did), but it wouldn’t be on account of sex or drugs.

“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in… (Luke 15:25-28, CEB)

I think in the church we’re very likely to identify ourselves with the older son, to convince ourselves that we’ve always been well-behaved, loyal, hard-working, all the ideals of this American culture. The truth about me is that I have been all those things, but I’ve still managed to leave home, worry my parents, shock everyone who knew me by (1) going to seminary, (2) getting divorced, (3) getting married again, (4) getting divorced, (5) coming out, and (6) getting married again. To my family back home in Virginia, who thought of my brother as the imp and me as the nice girl, I have engaged in a complete role reversal. My brother is the steady one, long-married, established. I am the rogue, the prodigal, the sinner.

When I read this chapter now (Luke 15), I read it differently than at other times in my life. I can only read it as myself. We are all corrupt this way.

I read it as a person whose whole life is viewed differently, as a woman whose choices are well outside the realm of youthful sins, errors or peccadilloes. I read it as a woman whose marriage is considered suspect not because it’s #3 but because my spouse is a wife. I read it as the niece who was not welcome at a funeral, as the sister whose brother would not come to the wedding. I read it as a pastor’s wife subject to never-ending micro-aggressions not only from the people who question our “lifestyle,” but from the people who claim to support us. I read it as a pastor whose employability in a progressive denomination plummeted just for being queer.
When I read these stories now, I am grateful for these stories and Jesus’ assurance that God loves us, and seeks us, and returns us to the fold.

It’s only in some human eyes that I ever left it.

Holy God, sometimes we get lost in the wilderness of judgment, in the dark corners of oppression, in the foreign land of inhospitality. You nose us out, search for us, welcome us home, and in every case, rejoice when we are together again. Thank you for that. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

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