The other day, I went to two churches… one, the place where I am experiencing some healing through welcome and kindness. The other, the place where some of my deepest pain originated.
As I sat in the one service, tears came to my eyes multiple times. The singing was authentically beautiful. Words from the scripture passage in Luke leapt at me. The pastor’s words were full of grace, compassion, and truth. Tears flowed down my cheeks as the pastor said, “the very nature of God is to hear and respond.”
My son lay down on the pew and fell asleep for a while. The woman next to us smiled and shifted down so he could have more room. When he woke up and started to rock and flap his hands, no one stared or even gave us looks. When we needed to leave in the middle of a prayer, all the embarrassment I felt seemed to come only from me, not from the judgement of others.
This, for me, has been a space I could enter tentatively, my uncertainty offered grace without even knowing my story. It has been a place that has reminded me of home… of the little country church where I grew up, where people still love me after (and through) everything.
It has become one of very few spaces in my life where I feel I can let my guard down a bit with my son, my hypervigilance in this public gathering reduced by the kindness I feel in the very air around me.
As I left that space to go to the next church, I had a visceral sense of anxiety… my chest tightened and my shoulders tensed. Even as I got in my car, I considered just going home. The excuses began running readily through my head… all the ways I could justify not going to the place I had said I would go.
But I had said I would go. My daughter had asked me to come. She was singing her favorite songs and was excited. I had told her I would go. So I would go.
Pulling into the parking lot, I recognized every person. Some had aged, some had grown up, some seemed to have stayed just the same. Some waved, friendly. Most paid no attention, or just looked at me, perhaps wondering if they recognized me.
I could have told you each of their names. I had made it my job to know each one.
Walking in, I passed some people who did not smile, did not greet me.
Was it because it was me, or because they would not have greeted anyone?
I made it through the doors and hid for a moment in the bathroom, gathering myself together. Then I stepped out again. The service had started. I could hear my daughter singing.
I breathed deeply and looked in at the sanctuary to try to find a seat. A wave of relief washed over me as I spotted one of my best friends sitting with her family in an otherwise empty row. I made a beeline and sat down. It was right up front, on the side. No hiding here. Breathe.
My friend’s son saw me first and smiled, getting his mom’s attention. Welcome. A smile and a hug. “Come over here, beside me. I’m so glad you’re here.” She knew how hard it was.
Then my daughter spotted me and smiled from up on stage. I had made it. I was there for her. I forgot everything else and focused on the beautiful human up on that stage, nervous and excited, helping to lead worship. My girl.
I watched people notice and recognize me slowly. One by one, eye contact, few smiles. Perhaps it was just the space… not the time for smiling. Perhaps it was me.
The striking contrast I was feeling between churches continued as the scripture was read… a Psalm calling out to God for justice against enemies. A delineation between “us” and “them” in which the writer is the dove and his enemies are wild beasts.
My self-righteousness reared its ugly head as I related to the Psalm. The part of me that wants that kind of justice could have laughed out loud at the irony of the moment.
That part of me wants to tell my story and all of its particulars to the world. That part of me wants to blame others for the mistakes I made, to justify my failings with a childish “he made me do it” complete with a pointing finger and red-faced tears.
In some way, I know I must find expression for that part of me too. She is the hurt child who just wanted someone in a position of power to protect her, to stand up and defend her. To tell her they believed her, that what was done to her was wrong, that those who did it would have to be reprimanded, that it would not be allowed to continue any longer.
That is the part of me that feels so deeply betrayed and abandoned.
And as I let those thoughts and feelings wash over me, they were followed other thoughts…
The recurring realization that God’s justice does not look like ours. God’s justice is for everyone, not just me. God’s justice says there is no “us” and “them,” but we are all one. Loved and delighted in. God’s justice means that God wants good for me just as much as good for those who hurt me.
Indignation followed close behind. Because how will I ever find my voice if I keep being this egalitarian empathic freak?!?!? It would seem to me that one cannot tell a story about pain, without discussing the reason for the pain.
My child comes to me with a cut on his finger, and my first question is, “oh baby, what happened?”
If someone said that to me, how would I respond?
The question brought me up short. Because that is exactly how God comes to me, comes to each of us, in our pain. “Oh my child, what happened?” Spoken tenderly. The Unconditionally Loving Parent bends down to be with us and hear our story, holding us while we cry. That same Parent knows the best way to heal the wound, carefully tending it. And like a child, we might resist… “No!!!! That will sting!!!” But when we embrace the care, and give it time, healing does come.
God has more than enough good, more than enough healing for everyone. For me, and for those who hurt me.
When I find my voice from this internal space, sharing my story can be for the benefit of those in similar situations. To let them know they are not alone. To offer some hope that they, too, can make it through. It can also be for the learning and growth of those who caused pain, that they might not repeat what they did before.
As I’ve reflected on these two church services, it struck me that they are a reflection of our culture.
For the past few years I have felt that we are at a crossroads… on one hand, devolving into “us” and “them,” in which anyone who is “them” is ridiculous, or stupid, or aggregiously wrong and “I can’t even listen to you because you are clearly insane.” This path leads us to division and pain… to everyone losing.
On the other hand, we could notice this time in history as an opportunity… we could allow our nature to be like God’s, ready to hear and respond.
We could take time to listen to the painful stories others share about their experience and simply believe them without defending ourselves (“but we didn’t mean to,” or “that may have happened, but it wasn’t me,” or “but you are not the only one in pain here, I’m in pain too”).
We could choose kindness, graciousness, and welcome, instead of dividing those around us into the camps of doves and wild beasts.
I believe with every fiber of my being that everyone is doing the best they can, and the path to healing involves radical belief in the highest good existing in every one of us.
I believe that the vast majority of people do not intend to harm others, but they do. And those who do intend harm are filled with pain in such a way that it overflows to those around them.
It is my deep hope that each of us can experience the healing of welcome, kindness, grace, and understanding… and that we can, in turn, offer the same to others in the best way we are able each moment.
Where have you experienced welcome and kindness?
Where have you experienced pain?
We each have a story to tell. Sometimes the particulars are things we share only with our closest, most trusted friends. Sometimes we pour them out only to God. May our stories bring us together. May they be vehicles of hope, learning, and growth for those willing to hear and respond.