Monday, June 1, 2015

You Are Welcome

When we lost our son five years ago, I had no context for grief, no experience with loss of that proportion. My husband and I were in our mid-twenties and had been living a fast-paced, "highly favored" life as Christian leaders and church staffers since before meeting one another in college. At the time of our loss, we were living in Thailand as full-time missionaries.

After converting to Christianity as an early teen, I had spent the past decade speaking of pain and tragedy and hardship in the past tense. I heard others around me doing the same thing, shoving struggles and doubts and depression into a dark corner marked BC, "Before Christ". It was as though admitting struggle or voicing questions undermined the power of the Gospel, and so it was very taboo. Instead, the very definition of each of our "testimonies" had to carry with it a victorious ending so invigorating that it couldn't help but make you feel stronger in your own faith.

Except when it didn't.

After experiencing such confusing, wounding loss while in Thailand, we returned to the States bewildered and in desperate need of a compassionate, embracing community. And after years of serving and loving the church, we were now in the passengers seats, in need of being served and loved relentlessly ourselves. We fully expected to receive just that.

Unfortunately, going to church was immediately a painful experience. Not only had we been living out of the country for almost two years and had naturally drifted from some friendships as a result, we came back with the role of "parent" having been abruptly ripped out of our hands. We had to learn to function in a new culture, in new roles, and in almost every way imaginable felt like outsiders from the moment we landed.
Who could we talk to about the frustrations with Thai culture we had experienced? Who amongst our young twenty-something friends could relate to the two years of spiritual warfare and political struggle and heartbreaking losses we had experienced? How could we express the depths of our loss to people who had never even met our son? It was a confusing, lonely time.
Within a few weeks of returning to our home church in the U.S. - the church where my husband and I met and married several years earlier, the church that would be my first employment straight out of college, the church that had invited us into elder meetings and had laid hands on us along with the congregation to commission us on our journey to Thailand - we started to realize with deep sadness the level of our brokenness and disillusionment, and watched as a chasm grew, the result of others not knowing how to deal with our loss. We would be greeted with well-meaning smiles, but the real issues in our hearts always managed to be skirted around with talks of weather and jobs and God's goodness, as though our grief was a leprous colony inside us, our pain and questions the untouchables of our souls.

Rachel Held Evans writes in her book, Searching for Sunday, "It became increasingly clear that my fellow Christians didn’t want to listen to me, or grieve with me, or walk down this frightening road (of doubt) with me. They wanted to fix me." I think far too many of us can relate. 

Every week, for months, we would gird ourselves up for another Sunday morning - desperate for a tender touch, desperate for a word of hope in our suffering, desperate for a safe place to rest - but by the end of the service would leave in tears and sobs that continued to pour out of us for the remainder of the day. Sundays started to became so exhausting and confusing, that the drive in became heavy with a silent dread. The drove home, on the other hand, was full of sobs and screams and severe attempts to be heard, to be understood.

Finally, after months of this, we arrived to a Sunday morning service when a new sermon series would begin about Faith & Suffering. My heart leapt and for the first time in months, I felt a sense of hope. This is what we had been waiting for. This was the light at the end of our dark tunnel, the guidance and encouragement our souls had been so longing for. Today, surely, God would finally meet us.

The service began like always, with drums and guitars and confident prayers from youthful lips much surer in their faith than I had ever been. Too many lights, too many smiles, too much volume for my bleeding heart. 
By this point, my soul had forgotten the words, too clouded and confused to join in with choruses like, "Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God You are higher than any other. And if Our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what can stand against?" My soul could only respond with my own litany of replies and questions, "If our God is for us, then how could all of this have happened? And if our God is with us, then where is he now, in my pain and aching and longing to be touched? And if our God is able, then what am I doing wrong??"
I know now that these weren't even the right questions to be asking, at least not the most helpful ones. But with little guidance or perspective, the cavernous ache in my heart couldn't find the words to ask anything else. My heart was bleeding and drowning my faith with it.

By this point, too, we had stopped sitting in our usual spots. Instead of being front-rowers and part of the in-crowd, we now snuck into back rows, ready for a quick escape if needed. Instead of being the greeters and announcers, we now averted eye contact and tried to remain as invisible as possible, hoping to avoid as many painful pleasantries as we could. 

On this fateful Sunday, once we made it to the sermon, my soul was already losing hope. The light in the distance was already fading. God had seemed so absent, so silent for so long, that it felt nearly impossible to ever find Him again. I listened to the sermon, with only the tiniest seed of hope still aching inside me.

I don't remember much of what the pastor said that day. I remember a young lady, similar in age to myself, was brought up to give a testimony of her own struggles and suffering as a part of the sermon. She shared about family members diagnosed with terminal illnesses and her own bouts of bad health. I cannot remember the specifics of her suffering, but this I know: After speaking for just a couple of minutes, she spent the remainder of her time on stage sharing how miracles had happened, how God had been so present, how life had turned out even better than she could have ever expected. It felt like the "Before Christ" epidemic all over again. Victory, happy endings, a constant Presence - not my experience at all. I wanted to throw up in my lap and run out of the room. 
Why couldn't a testimony be given without the happy ending? Why couldn't stories be spoken by those still struggling, still suffering, still questioning and wrestling and on some days, doubting it all? Why did every testimony have to be presented in a pretty little package, wrapped with a sparkling bow, tagged to "Victorious"
It's not that I think this girl was lying. Or that miracles don't happen or that God shouldn't be given credit for all the good in our lives. It's just that many Christians have a terrible tendency of presenting a very lopsided view of life. Many Christians plaster on smiles, skirt around pain, lock themselves in certainties and avoid all questioning. In an effort to encourage and boost one another's faith, we often only share stories of victory, stories of completion, stories that have been wiped clean and wrapped neatly - but there I sat, drenched with tears, covered in the muddiness of my own doubts, unable to relate to a single word this girl was saying.

And the message I kept hearing over and over again was this: "Cry for a season, not too loudly, and then move on. Doubt for a season, not too loudly, and then move on." Instead of rest, I felt shamed. Instead of encouragement, I felt outcast. Instead of healing, I felt even more wounded. And instead of finally seeing an example of faith and struggle co-existing that Sunday morning, I was shown once again that if there is ongoing struggle, something is wrong. Because Christians are happy, Christians are victors, Christians have happy endings always.

That was the last Sunday I ever stepped foot in that church.
Evans goes on to write in her book, "I became a stranger to the busy, avuncular God who arranged parking spaces for my friends and took prayer requests for weather and election outcomes while leaving thirty thousand children to die each day from preventable disease. Instead I lay awake in my dorm room at night, begging an amorphous ghost of a diety to save me from my doubt and help me in my unbelief. Reading the Bible only made things worse, raising more questions, more problems to be solved. The words of the worship songs in chapel tasted like ash in my mouth. I felt my faith slipping away." Now this I can relate to completely. 
It took three years before I finally witnessed the fact - largely by brave, beautiful authors like Evans - that Christianity and struggle deeply coexist. That questioning and doubt are a part of life, even, and especially, the faith-filled life. That often there are no answers and that always Mystery is welcome. That to be a Christian is not to have a happy ending, or to never doubt or feel alone, or to know all the right answers. In fact, there are very few "right" answers, and the history of the Body of Christ is complicated and multi-faceted, and a heavy dose of humility would do most churches a world of good. 

But I didn't know any of these for three long, lonely years.

And so today, here is what I would like to say to you, friend: Your pain is real. Your suffering is real. Your loss is real. Your questions are real. And there is nothing wrong with you, as a proclaimed Christian or not, grappling and struggling and crying and despairing - today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life. All your mess is welcome. It is all fine. 

And this, too: God is real. I don't mean that in a snuffy religious way. I don't mean that with neat bows or clear answers or happy endings. Because many days you won't feel God at all. And many days you won't want to have anything to do with him/her. Many days you will be so wounded by others "in the name of Christ" that you will write off the church completely. Always, there will be grey. Always, there will be mystery. Always, there will be suffering and struggling and wondering and waiting. 

And always, God will welcome us. 

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  1. Thank you for this post, it's an encouragement to me, and I'm sure to others

  2. Thank you for reading! I'm so glad this resonated with you and was an encouragement! :)

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