I admit it was a bit lazy. I have a habit of reposting articles that relate to my experience, and hopefully provide a better way. Yesterday, I reposted “What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Been Hurt by the Church.” (And who, by the way, hasn’t been hurt by the Church, if you’ve spent any amount of time with her—after all, she’s only human.) My comments about our experience with a former church [unsurprisingly] drew some fire. One member said, “That’s so negative. Why not post positive things a person can do?” Well, because that requires me to sit down, think it through, and type it out, but since the kids are occupied right now, I’m freed up for the task.
I’ve been turning this over in my mind for the past ten months. What could have been done? What if I could go back and successfully hide all my grief? Would I want to? Or would I still be walking secretly through it for the rest of my life if I hadn’t been honest about it? I’ve tried to release guilt and shame related to the pain I experienced. I’ve tried to forgive and let live. I’ve prayed, God knows I’ve prayed, my heart bleeding on an altar, my tears filling a thousand bowls.
I thought I’d forgiven. Finally. I didn’t give up on the Church, because Jesus didn’t give up on me. I found a safe place to heal. My wounds were bound up by the kind words of brothers and sisters who loved me again. Their prayers were a balm, as they spoke words to God in my presence for joy and peace, and yet they did not know the details of my pain.
And now, I find myself at the end of the year. Ready to begin anew. Ready to lay aside the pain of the past and embrace that joy and peace. Ready not to care anymore why we were cast aside, unloved and unwanted by those who were left. Ready to accept God’s love.
As we have learned, though, from raising children from broken families, no one heals without first walking through their pain to the other side. Sometimes that means calling out the wrongs that were done. One can say “I forgive” in a moment, but it takes many moments to walk out that forgiveness, to choose and to feel that forgiveness over and over until the wound is a just a fading scar. Ignoring a broken arm does not bring about healing. Resetting and protecting it does. The cast that is worn says, “I am still healing from injury. Please don’t inflict more.” One day, the cast will be removed and the bone will be stronger than ever. But not right now.
I need to set the stage. We were at our church for five years. I was baptized there by a pastor whom I, at one time, thought knew and loved us. It’s the place where we first learned about grace. Our community group was like family to us: we saw each other almost daily, we shared things, we supported one another. It was all very Acts 2. We disagreed, we challenged, and we sought Jesus together. Over the course of a year, all but one person from this group moved away to serve Jesus somewhere else around the world. Our community disintegrated, and no one else invited us into their circle in the same way. About the time the first couple left, we accepted the adoption referrals for our daughters. Adoption is traumatic for everyone involved. It’s totally worth it, but it’s traumatic.
A week later, after I began having panic attacks and neurological issues, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness (Hashimoto’s) that required me to change my entire diet. I learned I have food sensitivities to gluten, dairy, eggs, yogurt, and black pepper. I rightly feared that this would further hinder us from being accepted by the larger group. Leaders thought I was lying or that I was crazy and the issues were related to a psychological problem. I eventually agreed to see a therapist, where I learned that I was indeed not crazy, the food struggles were real and that, by this point, I was depressed. A “Dark Night of the Soul,” the therapist called it. I struggled to find where God was in all of this mess. I couldn’t feel him at all. I couldn’t figure out how I’d sinned so that I could finally make amends and feel the Holy Spirit again. I had fought to believe and follow God through the hard things and now he was distant, silent, and his Church refused to embrace—or even pray for—me during the first major crisis I’d faced during our time there. I lost faith and tumbled deeper into depression.
When our girls came home, our church hastily merged with another in the area and everything changed: the people, the location, the leadership. Now, I was supposed to make new friends with people who did not know me, or even want to know me. I sobbed all the way home from church every Sunday. I would begin to make strides during the week and then I would return to the weekly service, feel like I was watching a movie, float out to the car without a word from anyone, and begin the process all over again. I began taking medication because I now cried all the time over everything–ridiculous things. I worried about what the kids thought, and then I would cry harder out of guilt for what I was probably doing to them. Harsh words were spoken to us by the leadership. At another point, the leadership did not speak to us for six months, because they thought that would somehow help. We (even my husband) were removed from every avenue of meaningful service with no plan for restoration, even though they repeatedly stated that I had not sinned. At every meeting, we were given less and less hope for inclusion. Ultimately, the leadership became more interested in image than in the healing of broken hearts.
I tell this story because it is My Story. Notice I don’t mention the name of the congregation. I hope that things will be rectified there and that this will never happen to anyone again. I still believe that Jesus’ Church—when members are living with their true mission in mind—is the best hope for the broken in this world. We have found goodness and truth in another of the same.
My story is a story of brokenness and redemption, of a life restored, because eventually God rescued me out of depression and out of a place of pain and indifference. It is a reigniting of a passion for justice that will finally be delivered for the broken: the orphan, the refugee, the sick, the oppressed, those who cannot return hospitality, yes, even the mentally ill, the clinically depressed. All who need good news. Jesus came not for the well, but the sick.
As I’ve learned with our children who were adopted, the hard parts of their stories are still a part of their stories. We don’t sweep it under the rug because it is hard, embarrassing, or unconventional. We tell of the brokenness because it leads to redemption.
This is my story. I own this story. I walked through what was surely the closest I’ve ever been to experiencing hell on earth—the terrifying feeling of the absence of God and the dreaded thoughts of escape that visit in the silence of night, the loss of an identity that had once been deeply rooted in Christ, but was scattered by the wind. I understood what Jesus meant when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” on the cross. I have earned the right to tell this story, and it is a bridge between two of the most joyous periods of my life. So, if I must bear the scars of these past two years, and I must, I will tell my story that gives them meaning.
So, in keeping true to my purpose for writing this in the first place, I present to you nine positive ways to care for the struggling in your local Body.
1. Really Listen
Talk to the person who is actually walking through this crisis. Talking only to the elders, a spouse, or other church members is not acceptable. Listen to what she is saying, not to what you want to hear. A lot of misunderstandings would have been avoided if someone had spoken directly to me and really listened to the heart behind what I was saying.
2. Allow for Transparency
It may be difficult to hear that someone is struggling with the reality of what they know to be theologically true, but we must be open to hearing it out. Telling me that God was present was like telling a colorblind person that the grass is green rather than brown. Sure, it might say it in a book, but she is not seeing it for herself. Questioning in itself is not wrong. In fact, it can deepen faith. Feeling like you must gloss-over your struggles and keep a smile on your face in order to be accepted does not deepen faith or community.
3. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Check in with the person on a regular basis, recognizing that a depressed person can barely choose what to have for breakfast, much less whether or not she should check in with you. A brief call or text once a week (especially if it’s encouraging) helps a lot.
4. Understand that People are the Church
The Church only exists because of the people that belong to it. People are always, always, always more important than whatever image your church is trying to send. If your church is full of broken people, then God wants you to minister to broken people right now, not to get rid of all the broken people so that you can fill it up with the most competent. Para-church organizations can get away with hiring only the best and brightest. The Church cannot. In fact, I’ve come to believe that if your church gets rid of all the broken people, God will just send you more broken people, because there’s still something for the church to learn about brokenness.
5. Gentleness is a Fruit of the Spirit
Personality is no excuse for an elder speaking harshly to someone who is broken and hurting. Some really ridiculous and painful things were said to me by elders and their wives, who just wanted me to get over it all.
6. Let the Person Serve
If the person wants to serve in a meaningful way, let her. Communicate about how and where she might be able to serve in her giftedness (by the way, asking a depressed person to be a greeter is not helpful). I had asked to step back from leading a small group, but not to be taken out altogether. I wanted to be able to see people at the quarterly meetings and to host or lead prayer occasionally or hear my husband teach. I wanted to be part of a team again (something I lost when my friends left). I just didn’t want to be singularly in charge of all the things.
- Pray for the Person
Pray for her immediately and often. It was ten months before leadership thought my illness was real and serious enough to pray for healing, though we had asked for it before. This might sound petty, but when you fully believe in the power of prayer and in the biblical command for elders to pray for healing for the sick, this is a big deal. Prayers are both free and effective, so why should it take weeks or months to plan for this? It could easily happen during service time (as it does in our current church).
- Invite the Person to Events
Fellowship is one of the five purposes of gathering together as a church. It doesn’t matter how good the preaching or worship time is if every time a group gathers for a meal or a birthday or holiday party, you leave out the broken. Sure, she may not be the life of the party, but you will be proving that you love her despite the fact that she is in the pit. I can’t tell you how many times I wished someone would just invite us out after church, even if I had to sit and drink a Coke because of all my dietary issues.
- Have a Plan
Plan out how the person can regain their former level of service in time, if she wants. A plan is a hope for being able to function again. This is not the time to say that the person has done enough to serve God for one lifetime and that she should now sit back and retire (while her friends have gone off to do even bigger and better things). Do not tell her to quit doing to very thing that she is gifted to do! This was the point at which I lost all hope. I knew God had called me to work in a certain field and I am grateful that he has since restored that. If you don’t have a plan to reinstate someone to community, let her go somewhere where she can find hope again.
I have hope! And God has a plan—he is not finished with me. I refuse to walk in the darkness of shame anymore.