Mercy and Aaron both decided to stay with me for “big church” this morning. I gave them little activity handouts and pencils, and Mercy had a bottle of water my Mom had given to her. They spent the beginning of worship waving frantically at Deb who was on stage playing bass with the worship team and at Candace who was leading the singing. They were moderately squirmy and needed frequent reminders about when they needed to stay quiet and that staying quiet actually meant not talking. My mom was on the other side of the two of them and she spent a fair amount of time wrangling and shushing and containing their energy as well.
At one point, Mercy knocked over the water bottle that was sitting on her chair with her, and I had not realized that it was open. I turned and watched as at least half of the bottle emptied out on the floor behind me, and I made a quick trip to the kitchen to get some towels to soak it up. At another point, and it was of course during one of the quieter times, Mercy decided to put her paper down on the floor and furiously poke holes in it with her pencil, relishing every “pop”. Again, lots of shushing and reminding were required.
As much as I value having my kids with me in Sunday worship, I breathed a sigh of relief when it was time for them to be invited to Children’s Church.
I thought about the ways it can feel tempting to have Sunday worship be this time where we present the best of ourselves. We dress up. We comb our kids’ hair. We sit close to our spouse. And inside we can be falling apart, but somehow feel the pull to put on shiny, happy faces with one another. In some ways, worshiping with my kids keeps me honest. They broadcast that my life is not tidy and manicured; their wiggles and spills reek of humanness.
As I walked out with my kids this morning mid-service, I saw a dear friend rush out of the sanctuary in tears. He was a mess inside: a mess of grief and emotion, and like me he struggled with how to manage the messiness of that in the midst of our worship.
I have a friend who struggles with a wide range of challenges that range from the financial to the physical, and recently she confided in me through her tears that the para-church Bible study program she has been involved with for years recently asked her to stop coming. “Your needs are just too overwhelming for some of our women,” she was told. I seethed inside imagining the new wounds my friend had received with those words, and I marveled at the ability of this leader to steward this ministry with such a mentality of scarcity: to protect and ration just how much compassion or kindness a bunch of women studying the Bible together could “handle”.
A few months ago I went to a reading and book signing with Heather Armstrong, author of the popular website “dooce”. And she read an old blog post she had written about visiting Seattle years ago, and in this post she tells the story of being in a public bathroom when someone passes gas quite dramatically in a nearby stall and a few women in other stalls start to laugh uncontrollably. And she writes this: “I fart, you fart, we fart, they fart. People in bathrooms fart. If there’s a place on earth where you should be able to fart, where it’s wholly legal to fart, it’s a bathroom, for crying out loud.”
I remember thinking about the church when she read that line aloud. If there is a place on earth where we should be able to share the messiness of our lives, it’s the church, for crying out loud. Yet for how many of us is church the place where we feel the need to put on more pretense or where we most fear being judged?
A few years ago, I lost someone dear to me to a very heinous crime, and I remember going to worship at my home church in Portland the following weekend after helping bury my friend. I am not sure I made it through the Call to Worship before I started to sob. I left the sanctuary and went into the Women’s bathroom to cry and find Kleenex and cry some more. My friend Maria saw me leave and came and found me in the bathroom, weeping. She put her arm around me and told me that I didn’t need to stay and we could go somewhere, wherever I wanted to go. And I remember telling her that I wanted, maybe I said needed, to be there. I needed to be with my family.
We went back into the sanctuary and I stayed through the service, crying throughout. Those around me offered comfort, and honestly I was oblivious to whether or not I was a spectacle. One of the people who sat with me that morning was a girl from our youth group, and I remember thinking later that it was good that she saw that it was okay to be a mess at church, and that being a mess didn’t mean you had to leave until you could get your act together. The mess was welcome. The mess belongs.