this is post 3 in a series called what could be, some dreams i have for “the church.” thanks, too, for all your feedback from the last one, what could be: God expanded. you can read my response in the comments section. and whether you’re a regular reader, silent lurker (i do it, too), frequent or once-in-a-blue-moon commenter, or just passing by, welcome.
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a few weeks ago when my son jonas had his coffee table debaucle, i noticed something that i have thought about now and then–during the whole crazy experience i didn’t for a minute try to make him stop crying. i let him express any pain he needed to express. he was in and out of hurting, amazingly articulate about what he was feeling and experiencing, but trust me, when that needle got whipped out in the emergency room to prepare for stitches, it got ugly. my oldest two kids and a few friends were in the room with me & i don’t think we’ll ever forget that poor little guys’ yelps. during that moment, my daughter julia and i leaned over him, stroked his face, and whispered that we were with him. and we just let him scream as loud as he needed to. when it was over, we stepped back and took a deep breath, knowing he had made it through the worst.
i hate pain. for many years, i was the consummate pain avoider, the one who tried to sweep it under the rug, pretend like everything was just “fine” (we all know what that means), and put on my happy face. this had absolutely nothing to do with church. i had been hiding pain long before i ever set foot into a church or really truly dedicated my life to following Jesus. but what i found is once i did become a christian and entered the wonderful world of discipleship that i picked up on an important cue: um, we don’t talk about pain here, either. i will be honest. i was utterly and completely relieved. i had so much pain stuffed down so deep–shame from my past, insecurity, and an overall feeling of just being a less-than in all kinds of ways. but what i found in the churches that we were initially in was that i actually didn’t need to worry about the pain, i just needed to worry about the promise. the promise of new life, of wholeness, of strength and peace and power. the only bummer is that the pain was all still there, it was just coming out in wonderfully helpful ways like performance addiction & perfectionism (they get you far in ministry circles). you see, pain will always be expressed; in some way, shape, or form, it always comes out. the beatitudes, a key guiding text for us as christians, all reflect some form of pain & the promise that in that pain the kingdom of heaven will be experienced. the question, in my opinion, especially for those who are trying to follow the ways of Christ individually & corporately, is then: “how can we learn to welcome the pain instead of run from it? how can we be people and places that accept pain as a universal experience of which none are exempt? how can we be less afraid of pain & acknowledge its presence & purpose & its power?”
i am currently co-facilitating a wounded heart group at the refuge for women who are healing from sexual abuse. dan allender, one of my all-time favorite authors, talks about inviting pain as a guest at our dinner table. how do we treat guests that come to our house for dinner? we treat them kindly, we engage with them, ask them questions, get to know them. we don’t ignore them and pretend they aren’t there. we welcome them into our presence instead of slamming the door on their face.
my experience with church has been that on the whole, the door is slammed on pain’s face. there is a subtle & sometimes direct aversion to welcoming pain into our lives, our communities. i totally understand why. it sucks. it is hard to be in the messy, bloody, unpredictable places of people’s real lives & let them into ours, too. into the addictions, job losses, shame, insecurities, abuse, divorce, wayward children, deaths, doubts, loneliness, disconnectedness, depression, the you-name-its. gaping wounds, when they are actually exposed instead of hidden, umm, not too pretty (and we all have them whether we live in houses or on the streets). so somehow as people & churches we send a message that says “please put a band-aid on that, do something to make me feel more comfortable, and then i can be in relationship with you.” we don’t want it in our face, so we send people to go “get healing”, we recommend professional counseling & certain books to read, and if the church is really big you can sneak into a recovery program, get what you need for a few months and slip back out. all these things separate “healthy” people from “hurting” people and carry with it a mixed-up meta-message of thinking pain can be separated from our regular experience instead of being more honest that really, all people are pretty desperate. it just looks different for each of us. Jesus was fairly clear that he came for the sick, not the healthy, and i believe of course that we’re all sick. it’s just a matter of recognizing it, embracing it, welcoming it so that God can enter into it & bring his continued healing to it.
alcoholics anonymous is one of the most powerful & thriving underground churches in the world. there’s no doubt they have hit upon a kingdom principle that i think is missing in so many churches: a safe place to express pain begins the road to healing that exponentially changes lives & hearts & relationships. hmm, how’d they manage to pull that off and not overtly use the word “Jesus”? i think what it is is AA has a culture that says “yep, we’re all desperate, and we know it. we know it enough to walk in the door, put our butt in the chair and admit we have a problem.” i think we can learn a lot from the 12 steps, as people, as churches. here are just a few that come to mind about some of my dreams for us as Christ followers. what if we–as people, as churches–could be:
aware of our pain & unafraid to say it. one of the things that makes AA safe is that everyone there is aware of their pain. pain is the great equalizer, the playing-field leveler. that’s why at a good recovery meeting you can have a very successful businessman next to a nearly homeless guy next to a girl who’s waitressing to put herself through college. part of our role as Christ-followers, i believe, is to stay in touch with our pain, our issues, our tendencies, our addictions (we all have them), so we live in reality instead of denial, offer the world and each other (and God) our real selves instead of one we constructed to look good & avoid pain. the first step says “we admit we are powerless over our addicitons & life has become unmanageable.” i always translate this to “the pain has gotten great enough, i can’t pull this off (whatever ‘this’ looks like) on my own anymore.” there are so many different degrees of pain, each unique to our own experience and situation; i don’t think we should compare pain or measure our own against some else’s, i just think we need to get more honest about what’s really going on inside ourselves, how it’s affecting our lives & learn to acknowledge it in relationship with others.
a safe place to feel. in the beatitudes Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” i’m pretty sure most of us can say that the american culture isn’t the greatest at mourning. we are uncomfortable with pain & sadness. it gives us a level of anxiety that we aren’t too crazy about so we do what is most natural: try to soothe & smooth over instead of just sit with. i think of how hard it is in groups for people to just let someone cry. kleenexes get whipped out & comforting words start flowing & next thing you know the person is blowing their nose and we’re moving on to the next person. what if we learned to hold the space, back off from our trite words of wisdom & just let them be where they are at for a while?
givers of room (space & time & grace) to heal. for the most part, real healing & life change takes time. and real healing can never, ever, ever be measured by us. we are not God. we can never fully know what is going on in a person’s heart and mind and life and while “fruit” is not something to ignored, we had better be darn careful we don’t assume that certain fruit is a sign of anything. God’s creative. whether you can stomach that there’s not necessarily an overtly christian focus to AA or not, one of the things that creates the likelihood for real change is time and space to get there. while there are some very specific markers to movement, at the same time, there’s an understanding that relapses are part of the journey & that it’s a long, long road to change. there ain’t no quick fixes or expectations that life’s all of a sudden going to be different. but what there is is a hope, for change & healing that comes from hearing about others’ experience, strength & hope, too. i think it would serve us well to learn this kind of long-haul patience.
again, i only scratched the surface, but i’d love to hear some of your thoughts & reactions to becoming people & communities that are less afraid of pain.
here’s what i hope:
that we’d be people and communities who would get better and better at inviting pain to join us at the table, to welcome it instead of push it off to the side, pretend it’s not there, or tell it to go figure out a way to feel better before it knocks on the door again. to be unafraid to enter into the darkest places of other’s lives, our own hearts, and trust that God is there, moving, healing, restoring in ways that our limited perspective can’t seem to see.
God, help us be people who are willing to welcome our own pain & the pain of others.