It all started with a simple email. My friend Stacey was rounding up volunteers for our church’s summer vacation bible school, and since my gaggle of children makes up an overwhelming percentage of the attendees, I felt compelled to put in some time. She asked me how I’d like to help, and this was my ever-so-eloquent reply:
I’m fine with leading if it’s something I’m good at. So, like, no physical sports or teaching of important doctrine. I’m fine with music/drama. Maybe hospitality depending on how outgoing with adults that would require me to be; and maybe crafts if they involve little to no artistic ability. My lord, I just re-read that and I am not fit to do anything. I don’t know– tell me what these things involve. I want to help; I just suck.
You might think that was enough to let me off the hook, but our church, for all its lovely and generous members, never, ever has enough children’s ministry volunteers, and so Stacey zeroed in on that short little sentence about being “fine” with music/drama and my job was cemented: I was going to be the turtle in the tortoise-and-hare-type skits.
It was my job for the week to dress in athletic wear and a giant handmade turtle shell and belly, act out short scenes that demonstrated the day’s lesson, and then go from class to class helping and visiting the vacation bible schoolers. Sounds simple enough, but you have to get into the mindset of a character-loving five-year-old to really appreciate what this means: I was a celebrity, the kind who gets manhandled by adoring fans, screamed at in passing, and grilled by the press. Was I really a turtle? Was my shell real? What was under my turtle belly? Why did I have human hands? The questions and the fascination were unrelenting, and so I began to really stick to my turtle-identity story, even referring to myself in adult conversation as the Turtle.
Most of the kids sincerely and deeply loved the Turtle, but one little girl just seemed to be there for the express purpose of debunking the whole thing. Her questions were filled not with hope and curiosity but with derision and contempt. She would stand at my hips’ height, squinchy eyes full of condescension, and flip up my turtle belly with a tiny hand of fury. She caught my shirt with it a couple of times, threatening to bare my baby-worn stomach, and it was all I could do not to say to her, “Listen, kid. Jesus loves you. But the Turtle just wants you to leave her alone.”
Between the demands of my enthusiastic fans and the torture sessions with the miniature terrorist, I was exhausted. By Thursday it had already been a long week, and the last thing the Turtle felt like doing was pole dancing. But I had already paid for the lessons and committed to going with a friend, so I dragged my slow turtle ass into the studio.
In the daily skits, the Turtle was kind of a goody-goody. I’ve been called plenty of things in my life, but I have no recollection of “goody-goody” ever being one of them. But the Turtle had a message I could get behind, a message of staying on the path laid out for us and trusting the One who laid it to bring us back to Him, so goody-goody or not, I liked her and I liked being her. I also happened to like learning how to spin with one leg around a pole and hang upside down.
Before you go calling up my pastors demanding I receive some sort of swift and terrible church discipline for my harlotry, let me assure you: I was taking the lessons because they were fun and they were good exercise. I have no intention of ever trying out my new skills by wearing lingerie in public and dancing for dollar bills. Even if there exists in the world a small set of men who might actually be tantalized by the pole pirouettes of a flabby thirty-year-old mother, they will receive no such satisfaction from me. The Turtle does not give performances.
And it might surprise you, but I think there’s room for pole dancing on the path the Turtle talked about. The path of life that leads to God isn’t about rules and appearances and technicalities– it’s about forgiveness and love and grace. They say the path is narrow because it’s built on just one Person, but once you’re on it, you see how full of freedom it is. You might even see a Turtle free to pole dance.