Where it belongs

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.

14 thoughts on “Where it belongs”

  1. 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”.

    I do not know enough about this situation to say that whether it was handled properly or not, and I certainly sympathize with your friend. Whatever else is true, our churches DO need to be better about meeting the needs of ALL of our members.

    However, I find myself with some sympathy for the leader who asked your friend to leave. I have often seen (second-hand, more than as the leader involved, I’m somewhat thankful to say) situations where the intense needs of one particular member threaten to monopolize the group’s time to the extent that no one else can have their needs addressed. However unfair it is that the “needy” person to be asked to leave (and it IS unfair), it is also unfair to the rest of the group to have all that attention focused on just one person.

    I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this problem, but felt that a counter-point needed to be said.

  2. Christianity is nothing if not messy. Those in recovery understand this perhaps better than others. I don’t know where we got the idea that following after Christ is an experience where messiness does not occur, or is not allowed.

  3. Thanks for this post, Erika. If we don’t weep and mourn with those who weep and mourn, how are we conforming to Christ’s image? It’s important for those who are hurting and struggling to know that being among the members of the Body is safe harbor from the world, and on the other hand (reflecting on Mark’s comment), to grow in ministering to others. Our temptation when in pain is to shut down and need healing attention, but we cannot remain there too long and be healthy, either.

    Driving away or shutting down those who hurt should never be our responses, either, though! How may we help them grow stronger in Christ, so that they may console others with the same consolation we receive from the Lord?

    Ann

  4. I love this about you. I realized once, when going to a Bible study, that the others there never shared in the midst of their struggles. Only when they had overcome them. I felt like I was in the midst of struggles all the time. Needless to say, I didn’t develop a strong relationship with that group. I have always loved that you are real and make it ok for me to be real too.

  5. Hi, I really appreciate your blog.

    I don’t know (obviously) the setting in which your friend’s expulsion occurred but it touches a nerve with me. Sure, perhaps her expression(s) of need were not timely or were too much but still, she leaves feeling she’s a needy fool. Could not other options been presented to her at least? That’s cold.

    I have envy when I hear of your experience of being so open and vulnerable and transparent in church. Church (or “church”) is not a safe place for me yet I long for it to be, if that makes sense. There is something very clean and healing about what you describe. Maybe I’ll find that or bits of it in future.

    Thanks again

    Troy

  6. I just got a call today from the leader of the small group we just joined on Sunday. We haven’t even been yet, but are officially uninvited because we have too many children.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

  7. I’m serious.

    And they didn’t say it like that, of course. They said, “Oh, we didn’t realize you have a three-year old in addition to the twins. That puts us over the quota of children we can handle in our group.”

    It still stung.

  8. This ended up being particularly relevant to my life this week. So thanks for the reminder. It helped to have just read it before I broke down in our worship service this week.

  9. This made me think about the KINDS of messes we allow and disallow in church. Countless times where I’ve wished some kinds of mess, such as public displays of status and power, be a little bit less acceptable in church, whereas, like you mention, expressions of mourning and humility (can you say, beating of the breast?) be considered normal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>