Sunday morning I walk into church at 9am and I’m already exhausted. It’s felt like I’ve run a marathon to actually get through the front door. The last two hours were a fight both physically and spiritually. My kids are always slower and grumpier on a Sunday, as am I. We can’t find shoes, kids are fighting, lots of coffee is poured, juice is spilled and tears are flowing. We are supposed to be there in 10 minutes yet nobody has brushed their teeth, breakfast is still slowly being consumed and church is a twenty minute drive away. Everything seems to go wrong and is preventing us from going. This doesn’t happen Monday through Friday for school. Mostly (not always) we are waiting at the door with backpacks on, matching shoes, and bright cheery faces for those days. But today is Sunday and that’s not how this day tends to go. I often whisper under my breath “is this even worth it?” as I am strapping down the toddler in the car seat. I put some worship music on for our drive, wipe my tears, try to calm myself and prepare my heart for what’s ahead.
The before church struggle is real, but let me tell you about the during church struggle. Once we are in the doors, I would think things would improve, but its an all new struggle that takes place and it’s predominantly all inside my heart. I check in my kids for their classes and all around me I see families gathered together. Everyone looks put together and happy. No one else looks like they’ve cried the whole way to church. During a a fellowship time when asked the question “Good morning, How are you?, everyone answers with a polite reply of “just fine, thanks!” What I want to say is, “Good morning, no I am not okay. My heart aches and I am not sure I am gonna make it through this day. How are you?” However I am sure that response would create an uncomfortable feeling for everyone involved, so I say my not so genuine calculated response of “just fine, thanks” and go take my seat. I sit in my pew and new emotions start to flood me. I see dads holding their kids in their arms with their arms wrapped around their wives. Church is great place for families. I flash back to just a few years ago, when I was in my home church in Texas. My husband on stage giving announcements or doing baptisms, teenagers all around us, and both babies of mine fully taken care of. I feel a place of belonging there. Now back to my present reality and I sit alone, unsure of how I fit in in this new community. So much has changed. I start to hear the whisper in my ear that I am too broken and messed up to be here. I hear the whisper that I am the only one struggling this way. I want to turn and walk out that door, but I don’t.
What keeps me walking through the door of church each Sunday? See, I know those whispers are actually lies and I know where they come from. Oh how the enemy would love for me to believe them. Now when I hear those whispers I look around and see the community of people around me, but I don’t see perfection anymore. I have to look a little harder and then things become clearer. I see other single moms wiping their tears with kids straggling behind them. I see widows and widowers pressing on. I see friends who are also fighting through depression or anxiety and choosing faith over fear. I see couples who are struggling through infertility and loss holding on to hope. I see cancer survivors and those with chronic illness. I see other exhausted parents at a loss with strong willed children. I see the behind the scenes stories of great faith that display the goodness of our Savior. As I see all those people lifting their hands up in worship, those whispers in my ear are drowned out by the congregation of God’s hurting people singing with one voice. There is nothing more beautiful and inspiring to me than to see those who are suffering through great trials continue to choose to fight for faith and choose to worship anyway. This is what draws tears to my eyes and brings me to my knees. It renews my faith and encourages me to keep going. It is a reminder that God is continually at work and redeeming the lives of his people. I believe the suffering church brings great glory to our Savior as we look to him together as a community of broken hurting people and declare with one voice that He is still glorious and good. It puts on display to the world where our hope lies, and it’s not in our circumstances, but in Jesus alone.
We all have different stories, but we all live in the same broken world. We all experience pain, loss and disappointment as we walk our faith journeys. Unfortunately in the world of social media we can only see a glimpse of others’ lives and what they choose to share with the digital world. It can still seem like a person has everything going right for them and free of hardship and pain, yet the reality is they are walking through the same depression just as you are. I once heard someone say we are comparing our insides to everyone else’s outsides. This is why authentic community is so very important especially to the Christian. How vital it is for all of us to know the suffering of those around us if just for the reason that we know that we are not alone?
So how do we know and learn the stories of those sitting across the aisle from us each Sunday? From my experience it often takes someone to be brave enough to go first. Brene Brown, who has spent decades studying vulnerability, says the “vulnerability breeds vulnerability”. She obviously knows what she is talking about. The church could use some help in this area. We often want to be viewed as godly and strong. We don’t anyone to know about the unbelief and doubt that keeps creeping in. We don’t want to appear needy or weak. We want to be able to just say glory to God and keep moving forward without facing the heartache right in front of us, but that’s not the way we were created. We were created to be in community and encourage each other. In order to encourage one another we must be willing to share the struggles we are facing. We must be willing to change our answer from, “I am just fine” to” I am having a hard time and need prayer”. From my personal experience, when I have shared both privately and publicly about sexual assault, anxiety, divorce, or doubts , I will receive a resounding reply of “me too”. Others realize they are not alone. Just this month a few different friends of mine have opened up with me about their battles with depression and thoughts of harming themselves ( some presently and some in the past), and made it safe for me to say “I have been there too!” It’s definitely scary to expose the parts of our story that are hard, but it can lead to the deepest of friendships. Unfortunately other times it can drive away friends that just aren’t ready to handle the hard stuff. If that happens then maybe they aren’t the people you need in your life during a difficult season anyway.
Some of you may not be in a present season of suffering, but have had times of heartbreak in your pasts that you haven’t talked about in years. The people you are crossing paths with in this season of life may have no idea about the seasons that are behind you, but they need to. That young mom needs to hear the empty nester she looks up to tell the story about the many battles she had with her strong willed child or how her now wonderfully grown up son once set fire to a field for fun in his youth. (this may or may not have been a story that encouraged me this week.) That young couple may need to hear of your many years of loss before you had the children who they see in church running around today. The woman taking chemo treatments could use your story of beating the odds so many years ago. TEven if the story isn’t the same scenario, it is still valuable to those walking through a trial. Someone may need to hear about your story of suffering in the past just so they know that someone else has gone through unfathomable circumstances and survived. They can find hope in our great God because you were willing to share your story. I have found great hope in the stories of those in my very own church who have walked or are walking a similar path of being divorced and a single parent.
I once learned that the word Testimony can be translated “To do again’ and my life has never been the same. When we share our testimony of how God has intersected with our story, we are literally proclaiming ” He did it for me, and He can do it again for you too!” Of course every story doesn’t play out the same, but in some way God always enters the story, no matter how tragic, and redeems and makes good from it. In Revelation 12:11 we can see the power of the testimony as its says ” And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”. It is through the declaration of our stories and God’s faithfulness in them, that we defeat the enemy not just in the end times but right now! Our stories are weapons against a powerful foe who desires to keep us silent. We see all throughout Psalms the command to declare the glory of God to all people and to make his works known. Our voices matter.
He is at work in each of our stories. Some of us, me included, are still trying to put the pieces together and understand what He is doing. However, I still know that He keeps providing and caring for me in dark and difficult seasons. So even though walking in the church door on Sundays is often still a spiritual battle , I am always strengthened in my faith as I walk out the door. The church is a messy messy place with messy messy people. Growing up I often heard the quote “Church isn’t a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. I never quite understood that until this season of my life. So this bloodied and bruised up girl is going to keep on walking through those doors each Sunday and find hope in Jesus and in the marvelous deeds He is doing among the people in the pews next to me.