Have you seen those memes going around the internet? The ones that say “check on your friends who have 2-3 year olds, we are not ok.” “Check on your teacher friends a week before Christmas break, they are not ok.” And so on and so forth. They’re funny and we can laugh at them because of the truth in them. Life can be hard, whether it’s our profession or our life stage, odds are we’re doing something right now that is one of the harder things we have ever done, and we crave the solidarity of others saying “I see you doing this hard thing.”
On Sunday after church I posted a photo and said “This is your friendly public service announcement to check on your friends who have served overseas and have come back and are trying to navigate American church. Much like your friends with toddlers, ‘they are not ok.’”
You see, I had just finished crying my way through a church service. Like I have every single week that we have attended church since we moved back to America 6 months ago. It makes me feel like a crazy person when I can’t make it through a service again and people just do not know what to do with me. Most people expect our life to be complete sunshine and roses since we’re back in the land of plenty. Not realizing the plenty also means plenty overwhelming.
The PSA was posted and the responses actually amazed me! A good chunk of my friends who have also served or do serve overseas responded back. Many of them with exclamations like “Preach!” “Yes!” and “Amen!” Some with heartfelt hurts like “I thought I was the only one” and “It’s so incredibly hard and people just do not understand.”
On the other side, I had a few questions of “I don’t understand” or wondering what some of the differences we are experiencing are.
The two different sides of the replies left me struck by the fact that this is really important and I wanted to open it up for a little more dialogue and give my response a little more in depth than an Insta-story allows for.
It’s not just people returning to America.
Church is often a hard place to be if you have been through any kind of grief, trauma, or transition, and God-forbid if you’re single. I think it stems from the fact that many people do not know what you have experienced, and they haven’t experienced it with you. It can feel very lonely and isolating as you hear voices around you worshiping, knowing their perspective and posture is so different from your own.
It’s common for church to be a place of rejoicing and singing that a mourner doesn’t know how to enter into or pre-determined norms that a new person might not know about.
It’s different for each person
There’s no set formula for what triggers people to have a hard time in church. My struggling through church is different than Craig’s, whose is different from someone who has been through something completely different than we have.
For me personally it can vary week to week. The reasons why I have tearful Sundays are as varied as the excuses my toddler uses to delay bedtime every night. Last week it was hearing a congregation sing that “all the earth will shout your praise….great are you Lord.” When I spent 8 years serving in a place that doesn’t and may not ever shout His praise, and feeling the crushing weight of hundreds of faces and names that I know don’t know Him while others around me happily sing along unknowingly. The week before that it was that I could understand every word and getting to sing corporately in my own language brought overwhelming joy. Sometimes it’s the sheer fact that I don’t have to do anything but show up and be served after years of being the one to facilitate that experience for others.
I could go on and on, but all that to say there is no telling what makes church hard for someone. Which is why good questions are so important.
Ask Good questions
I think one of the biggest blessings to a person who is struggling through church could be the gift of good questions.
Good questions are open ended and unassuming. They make space and freedom for a person to express their heart without fear or prior assumptions having been made.
For example, instead of asking “Isn’t it so wonderful to be back in a body of believers?” ask “How has the experience of being back in a body of believers been for you?
The number one thing I hear from families who are going through loss is that it’s more healing for them to hear you talk about their loved one than for you to ignore it out of fear of hurting them by bringing it up. We tend to leave hard things alone out of fear of causing pain, and while that’s admirable, it’s also healthy to dialogue through pain and a lot of people welcome the chance to talk about what they are going through.
As humans we long to connect on the things our souls are wrestling with and consumed by. Good questions open doors for those connections to be made.
In closing I just want to call us all to mindfulness. We all walk into church from different places, bearing different wounds, and we’re not the only ones. As Caroline Saunders says in her Prayer For Those Who Hurt on Sundays “One beautiful thing about wounds is that it makes you more aware of the pain others carry. For the destroyed, the despairing, the displaced, the angry, the abused, the ignored, Sunday is not a day of ease” Let’s not forget each other, let’s outdo each other in prayer and thoughtfulness and engaging with each other as we enter the courts with singing on Sundays.