Saturday, January 30, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Offended by a Compliment

Aunt Dorcas and Whistler's Mother

Dear Aunt Dorcas--

What is the difference between compliments, praise, and flattery? A friend arrived at our house and I complimented the dress she was wearing. She didn't say anything, but several weeks later before communion she called me saying she had to let me know that my flattery really bothers her. I was stunned and asked for an example and she brought up my remark of how I had said "I really like your new dress." I had really liked it. It has made me doubt myself, wondering if it's ever okay to compliment anyone? I've never made any that weren't sincere. Should I keep them to myself or is it okay to speak?


Dear Caroline—

I’ve been circling your question in my head like I would circle a hornets’ nest. Where do I make the first poke at this tidy wrapping that surrounds a swarm of troubling elements?

[Please note, Readers: This question is pretty specific to the Amish/Mennonite culture, in case you are bewildered by it.]

Caroline, I’m guessing you know this is not actually about compliments vs. praise vs. flattery.

I think it’s really about three things:

1.       Life without grace.

2.       Weaponizing communion.

3.       A denial of beauty.

Some conservative Anabaptists, in pursuit of good things like righteous living and obeying the Bible in all things, have become obsessive about doing everything right. Every word they say must be parsed and analyzed and judged. Every action is observed under the neighborhood microscopes, and motives are duly assigned. Much energy is spent on making the most minor decisions.

[Before you write to me and say, But my church isn't like this, please note that I'm talking about the ones that are.]

Communion services twice a year become the apex of this desperate trying to be good. “So let a man examine himself,” the Bible says. All right then. People, including myself at age 15, lie awake at night trying to decide if they were actually angry last week, or not, and is not wearing black nylons actually a sin, and what if they were black but not quite 30 denier? They stand up in church and confess small lapses in judgment, cringey personal sins that should not be aired to a crowd, and attitudes that speak of weariness and humanity, not sin.

[The actual heinous sins that are never spoken out loud are a subject for another day.]

Not only is the air at the “counsel meeting” beforehand heavy with the burden of trying to be good enough to take communion, it also reeks of judgment, because not only are those of tender conscience frantically examining themselves, but others are grimly noting the sins of everyone else.

“Approaching” someone with a “concern” and saying, “I’m not sure I can take communion with you next month because of this and this,” takes shame and manipulation to Olympic levels.

When I lay awake in agonies, my sins parading across the movie screen of my mind, I wanted most of all to atone. So I did it the only way I knew how. Shortly before communion, I would write notes of apology. People at church that I had talked about unkindly, kids at school I’d been annoyed at, family members, and many others.

My conscience would be briefly satisfied, but the humiliation was intense, and communion was still torture. I knew Jesus had died on the cross for me, but this had no effect on my current situation.

I recall other examples of trying to be good enough:

--A sweet little sixth grade student of mine who was constantly afraid she was lying. “Oh, Teacher. Remember yesterday I said that we went to my aunt’s house and made donuts? Well, it was mostly my mom. I didn’t work on the donuts myself very much. I’m sorry. I just wanted to make sure I was telling the truth.”

--The elderly woman I spoke with who was facing the end of her life. “I just think and think—is there anything I’ve done that I forgot to confess? I just want to be ready to meet the Lord, and I just try so hard to remember if there was anything I did that I still need to make right. It worries me."

--A guy in a church in my past who was always making sure everyone else kept the rules. “What are we going to do about John? He’s been parting his hair on the side. I don’t think he should take communion until he repents.”

That was the thing—there were so many rules that if you had it in for someone, you could always find a rule they were breaking.

Somehow, a long time later, I discovered the Gospel that had been waiting for me all along.

We are sinners. We cannot be good enough to meet God’s standard of holiness, to save ourselves, or to keep ourselves saved. We cannot scratch and claw our way into Heaven--but we don't need to! The work has been done for us.

That was the whole point of Jesus coming to earth, dying for us, and rising from the dead. He loved us and did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He changes our hearts. He saves us when we believe. He keeps us saved. That part is important for Anabaptists to know. I had gotten saved and baptized, but it sure seemed like it was up to me to keep myself saved, hence the agonies and apologies. I was endlessly and fruitlessly trying to atone. Eventually, in a moment of recognizing my helplessness to love a certain enemy, I realized that if Jesus didn’t do the saving for me, I was toast.

It changed everything. The Holy Spirit was more than happy to take on the burdens I had been carrying. I began to let go of the endless trying to be good enough. Paradoxically, that was when my heart and attitudes really began to change. 

Living without grace brings heavy burdens and a twisted reality. You don’t have permission to make mistakes, get tired, have limits, say no, or not know. Everything is suspect and potentially sinful—beauty, fun, talents, blessings. If you don’t shame yourself for something you said or did, someone else will be happy to do it for you. Everyone around you gets to decide if you’re good enough, or not.

Grace is different. You’re allowed to be human and normal. You can make a mistake, laugh at yourself, and try again. You can have a growth mindset, where you understand you can’t get from here to maturity without a share of mistakes. You can live with tension and not knowing what to do. You can enjoy God’s gifts. You’re covered, held, loved, and kept. You learn to recognize what's important and where your energy is best invested.

I mentioned God’s gifts. There’s a specific swath of conservative Mennonites that has a problem with beauty.

I once heard a darkly scowling Mennonite minister preach about thinking through why we do what we do. Well, so far so good, Brother. But. “Let’s say one of you sisters wants to buy a purse, and you find one you want.” His frown deepened. “Now, WHY do you like that particular purse You need to ask yourself that question."

The implied message was: you like it because it’s pretty, don’t you? I knew it! You know very well that’s wicked.

The women in this minister’s life have some of the saddest and strangest notions I’ve ever seen regarding femininity, nice things, and likes. Pretty is ugly. Beauty is sinful. Ugliness is virtue. There’s a strange gaslighting effect in this sort of denial of normal opinions and preferences, where pretty soon you don’t trust your own mind. Caroline, you said, “It has made me doubt myself. . .” and ". . . is it okay to speak?" No wonder, when you’re met with such a response to a perfectly normal compliment.

Years ago, I visited my sister in Yemen and attended a baby party. For forty days after the birth of a child, all the ladies in the family and neighborhood gather every afternoon to celebrate.

Except you have to be careful how you celebrate. “Don’t say that the baby is beautiful,” my sister instructed before we left. “The fear is that that will put the evil eye on it.”

There’s an Arabic phrase that sounds like mah-sha-LAH. It means “what God has willed,” and it seems to be the one comment that’s never inappropriate. I heard my sister say it in all tones of voice—shocked, alarmed, amazed, bewildered. This time, she stepped over to the new mom, smiled at the baby, and said, “Awww, mah-sha-LAH,” in crooning, admiring tones.

It was funny but sad. Didn’t God create beauty for us to enjoy and appreciate, and aren’t babies the crowning touch of his creativity? Why can’t you just say it out loud?

Your friend would no doubt agree with me, in word at least, and write off the Yemeni custom as heathen ignorance.

And yet, there she is, so uncomfortable with you noticing a pretty dress that she is filled with fear that it is all sinful and wrong, so she brings up communion, the ultimate weapon of shame, as a way to make you shun such foolishness.

I’m sure a part of her is hungry for kind words, but she can’t let herself enjoy them.

These are gifts and blessings from God: kindness, encouragement, beauty. Joy, colors, babies. Laughing at yourself, resting in Jesus, letting the little stuff go.

My advice is to enjoy God’s gifts, immerse yourself in his grace, and don’t let this woman’s threats or harsh words shame you into a fear of getting it wrong. She’s obviously watching your life, and maybe someday she’ll ask you for “a reason of the hope that is in you.”

That's what I think. I wish you courage and joy.

Aunt Dorcas

P.S. Since you asked:
a polite expression of praise or admiration.

Praise: express warm approval or admiration of.

Flattery: excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one's own interests.


  1. I appreciate this so much!
    As someone who was raised Mennonite I baffle my husband by rejecting compliments without even realizing it.
    As an artist, I look at creation and know that God is a creative and an awesome artist who appreciates beauty.
    As a Christian this reminds me of Col. 2:20-23.

    1. so true, that when you look at Creation you see the creativity and artistry of God.
      And the verses definitely apply.

  2. Maybe Caroline's friend should read Evelyn Miller's book on modesty for women. Her description of the ideal modest dress is: Long, Loose, and Lovely. LRM

    1. Thank you for sharing! I like that description so much, it's so inviting! Usually 'modesty talk' makes me recoil.

      Hm. Maybe I liked it because I want to look lovely. Oh! this wretched, wretched vanity. 🙂

    2. I hadn't heard that, but I like the affirmation that a dress can be both modest and beautiful.

  3. I can relate to this dear woman angst having been brought up in the Gospel Hall where women were not allowed to cut their hair, wear perfume, speak up at church, etc. I've been out of this Plymouth Brethren sect f oou r many years and kik ed you discovered The Grace of our Glorious Lord

    1. It's interesting how many other denominations could relate to this post.

  4. I love how you dig down to root causes!I believe we need more of this dissecting of our hearts! Keep writing!

  5. I had heard the phrase, "When you sin, you crucify Jesus all over again." My brain took that to mean that God was so totally disgusted with me when I overreacted. (My mental illness brings this on.) Finally, through prayer, reading Scripture, and good counseling, I realized that when I sin, I can go to Jesus and say, "I'm sorry." And he delights, DELIGHTS to give me grace. This was such a relief for me.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. "He delights to give me grace." I love that.

  6. I had many questions for elders, women n men as I was tryin to grow in my faith in an Amish community-" Well, that's just how its always been "and I was shamed ( as were my parents) for my asking questions that no one cld answer, according to God's Word. A sin is a sin in God's eyes and I never believed that He really cared much about outward appearance- rather what is my relationship with Him? That's what He wants from His children. This 'blog' cld become a lengthy study topic. Thank You for addressing 'sensitive' Amish/Mennonite ideologies.

    1. Thank you, Ellen, for the kind words and the reminder that what God wants is a relationship with his children. So true.

  7. Thank you, Aunt Dorcas, for getting to the heart of things. I appreciate that so much, you're naming what is.

    1. Thank you for reading and encouraging.

  8. Conrad Hertzler2/01/2021 8:35 AM

    Oh, my! Dorcas, this post was so ON POINT! Such a needed message for us to hear. The fear that surrounds communion in our conservative churches is heartbreaking. I am convinced that we have mis-read and mis-applied the 1 Corinthians 11 passage for many years, and that this has done untold damage to our churches; but most tragically, it has made sheep run away in fear from their Shepherd who would love to sit and commune with them. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thank you, Conrad. I wish you the best as you pastor and lead your flock to a better way.

  9. Thank you, Dorcas, for sharing so openly and as others said, 'get to the root cause.' I struggled with this for so long and it still crops up at times but now that I have a better understanding, it doesn't get me down like before. Thank you, again. It has reinforced it for me.

    1. I'm so glad to hear this, and I wish you all the best.

  10. I’m still trying to wrestle with my dad’s conservative background and how I was affected as a child. Your words are comforting and healing.

    1. Some of the negative patterns filter down through the generations unless they're deliberately recognized and stopped.
      I wish you the best in this process.

  11. Thanks for coming by and your kind words, Sue.

  12. Beautiful, wonderful, and true.

  13. The Baritone2/04/2021 8:04 PM

    Pardon my ignorance since I don't know anything about "Whistler's Mother", but is that a Lego(TM) statue in that picture?? If so, where is it located? (Since I think I can safely assume it's not at any of the big "Lego Land" park attractions)

    1. Yes, that is indeed a Lego statue. A few years ago, OMSI had a special Lego display, and Paul and I went to see it along with the other OMSI offerings before he took the BMS kids for a field trip. As I recall, they had a battleship, famous people, artworks, and an Easter Island head, all made with Legos.
      Pretty sure it was a temporary installation so sadly you can't go see it.

  14. "Living without grace brings heavy burdens and a twisted reality. You don’t have permission to make mistakes, get tired, have limits, say no, or not know. Everything is suspect and potentially sinful — beauty, fun, talents, blessings. If you don’t shame yourself for something you said or did, someone else will be happy to do it for you. Everyone around you gets to decide if you’re good enough, or not."


    I can only communicate my response to this paragraph through emojis or tears, neither of which unfortunately is available to me at this time. Thank you for taking this question to a deeper level than the obvious. I'm grateful for what it gave me tonight.

  15. This brought tears to my's so me/was me exactly! It's a terrible place to be, trust me. How did we ever get here! Thank you, Dorcas, for verbalizing/naming my feelings so perfectly.