When church hurts.

Monday, February 24, 2014

When Liam was six weeks old, we nervously returned to church for the first time since his birth. Along with an overpacked diaper bag, we carried high hopes that flu season had passed and his newborn immune system could handle the crowds. We sat up in the balcony - alongside other new parents trying not to disrupt - but he started to fuss about halfway through the service and I could tell it was his hungry cry. So I carried him to the designated "nursing mothers' room" behind the sanctuary. When I walked in, I saw 3 or 4 ladies already there. Some were nursing, others were just rocking their babies or letting them play on the floor. They were already in mid conversation, so I entered quietly and found an empty rocking chair.

As I nursed my son and listened to them, it didn't take me long to notice that one woman was leading the conversation with a few others nodding and "hmmm"-ing in agreement. And by "leading" I mean "dominating."

"I would never do anything but cloth diaper my babies. What a waste. And it's just so terrible for their skin to be up against all those toxins."

She then went on to discuss her plans to nurse her children until age 2, to opt out of all ultrasounds, to delay vaccinations, and to have a home birth for her next child with only a doula. No one was asking for her opinions on this wide variety of controversial parenting decisions, but she doled them out like candy. Bitter candy. Her tone was not kind.

I felt completely self-conscious as I ducked into the corner of the room to change Liam's synthetic, toxic diaper, hoping her eyes wouldn't wander over to me. And as I came back to join the rocking chair circle, I grabbed another wet wipe from my bag to wipe Liam's drippy nose.

"Oh! I wouldn't touch his face with that," she said sharply.

I looked up, stunned that she was talking to me. I had felt invisible up to this point, with hardly a glance in my direction from anyone since I walked in.

"Here... let me grab you a boogie wipe. It's all natural -- so much better for his newborn skin."

I felt her judgment burning holes in my skin, and my face heated up in shame as I held my hand out to accept the "all natural boogie wipe" from her. (Did I really just write "all natural boogie wipe" for all the internet to read?)

I felt like crawling behind my rocking chair with my baby and shielding both of us from this intensely uncomfortable moment as the other women looked on and said nothing. I at least felt like crying. I never wanted to be around this woman - or even this church that tolerated her kind - again. Looking back, of course, it was an overreaction. And it was a gross generalization to lump all women at our church into the same category as this one very passionate and obviously very insecure woman. But it was really the perfect storm as I endured the wild ride of postpartum hormones and I was just. So. Tired. A woman with a six week old baby needs much more grace than was given.

On our car ride home, I sunk into my seat and stared quietly out the window until Shawn asked me what was the matter. I spewed. I told him I never wanted to go back. That if I hadn't been a Christian, I probably would've never set foot in a church again. I was resolute. I knew not-ever-going-back-to-our-church was not a viable option (or a healthy way to deal with my embarrassed anger), so I did something else. Something equally detrimental. I let a shell grow cold and hard around my heart and decided that I wouldn't let anyone from this church get too close.

And you know what happened?

I missed out on so much. I let one experience with one woman characterize an entire group of people, and I missed out on knowing them. On letting them know me. I missed out on the beautiful opportunity to forgive and move on. I missed out on experiencing what a church really is - a group of very imperfect, sinful, hurtful people who are striving to love Jesus and each other but don't always do it well.

Unfortunately, I think my experience is all too common. For those who have spent any length of time growing roots in a church family, I am sure you could dig up pockets full of hurt that happened inside its walls. In our minds, we've conjured up a perfect church that is safe, holy, and comforting at all times. But the sin of imperfect people slices through that image and cuts shards in our hearts.

But whether or not the other person is in the wrong, we are held responsible when we refuse to forgive... to heal... to seek reconciliation and show mercy. We miss out on so much of how Jesus taught us to live together and love one another, as ugly and judgmental and hateful as we all can be.

When we moved to Raleigh in August, we joined a new church community. Because this church was the sole reason we moved (and Shawn's full-time employment), we were thrust into the community headlong. We arrived in Raleigh with two big suitcases, two friends (Shawn's brother and sister-in-law), and a church member's basement apartment to stay in until we bought a house.

I knew from the start that this church experience needed to be different. That I had to dive into the community here with nothing held back. So almost immediately, I joined a weekly Bible study to get to know a few of the women in my church (and it's been amazing). We joined a Sunday school class very early on (and it's been equally wonderful). We accepted many invitations to dinner and extended them ourselves, even with boxes still unpacked in our new home.

We've felt comfortable and open enough to let people know of our needs, and every single one has been met. A sweet lady in our Life Class has been watching Liam two mornings a week so I can continue to work from home. It has been absolutely life changing, allowing me to feel no guilt when I play with Liam and no guilt when I work. It has separated my time appropriately and built some boundaries that were desperately needed. We've had many people volunteer to babysit Liam for an occasional evening to allow Shawn and I to have some time together. We were given a car. I repeat. Given a car. And while these things have felt so undeserved and so humbling to accept, they are how the body of Christ is supposed to work.

At the same time, there's already been hurt. There's been miscommunication and confusion. There have been imperfect, sinful people who don't fulfill Jesus' commands to love each other perfectly, or on some days, even to love them at all. And we've been chief among them.

The two churches - our former church in Nashville and our current church in Raleigh - are just not all that different. But the way I've responded has been completely different. The change had to start with me, and had to start with my own understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ. The fact that even when I was His enemy, He loved me enough to die for me, just astounds me. And it's the only reason I can have any love for the person who hurts me. The only reason I can show any grace to the woman who snaps at me when I do something as petty as using the wrong baby wipe. But when I don't understand the love and grace that I've been shown by Jesus' sacrifice on my behalf, I don't give out love and grace to the people in my life. I simply can't.

So maybe there's someone reading this who needs to give their church another shot. To take a hammer to the hard shell that's calloused your heart to the people you see every week. Let me encourage you with this: it begins by understanding grace. And the only way to understand grace is to look long and hard at the grace that has been shown to you in Jesus. He lived the perfect life you couldn't live and died the gruesome death you should have died to buy your freedom. That, my friends, is such good news.

13 comments:

  1. Thank you.
    As the kid of a church planter and pastor, I've had plenty of these experiences. For years I've struggled with closing myself off to people even when I know all the answers as to why that shouldn't happen. Thank you for another encouragement to keep on loving, and forgiving, and sharing the grace I've been so boundlessly given.

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  2. This resonates so deeply with me. In talking with a friend 2 weeks ago, I came to the realization that our church (my husband is on the ministerial staff) has turned me into an introvert. The miscommunication-turned-to-hurt is all too real.... as is the overwhelming love and support of my husband and family. It's such a strange combination, having major needs met graciously (although we haven't gotten a car, some of our biggest supporters have blessed us tremendously) while remaining cautiously reserved with myself and my son.

    Some days I wish for a do-over like you described. A place where I could be resolve to be happily in the middle of everything and not fearful of those women who are brittle in their beliefs and always happen to be the loudest voices in the bunch.

    Thanks for sharing

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  3. I couldn't help but cry when I read this post because of how much I relate. My husband is the youth pastor at our church and I feel like I'm constantly surprised by the amount of hurt and bitterness that I feel on a regular basis. I always end up thinking "this is CHURCH.. right? Why do I feel so alone and unknown here?" I don't have the answers, but I do know that any change has to start with me. No one ever invites us into their houses? Invite them into ours. The leadership uses meetings as a time to gossip? Talk positively about the people that are being torn down. Your post was so encouraging and had such crazy-amazing good timing for me. Praise God for you!

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  4. What a wonderful article. I choked up, reading it out loud to my husband because I am sad you were hurt, I know the hurt and feel confident that I have probably hurt someone. What you shared will stick with me. Thank you for being honest and encouraging.

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  5. Thank you for your honesty, Whit. :)

    - Kayla

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  6. We talked about understanding where we are before we can move forward in our spiritual growth in our small group last week. I can't fully accept or extend grace unless I understand just how sinful I am. And that's a daily understanding, not just a once in a lifetime alter call of sorts. I need the Gospel each and every day. The end of your post reminded me of that lesson. Love hearing about what God is showing you.

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  7. Not the same situation- but we also have gone back to an "old" church- and we're so thankful we did!

    Manda from Eat Cake

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  8. I can relate to this is SO many ways. Thank you for sharing. I love your blog!

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  9. Well said. We are THRILLED that you guys are here, by the way! You guys have been an amazing addition to our church community, and its been awesome getting to know you in Bible study!

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  10. This is beautiful, Whitney. So much refreshing honesty here. Thanks for sharing.

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