Fill in the blank, I guess.
Since September of last year, visits to my church have more often than not included crying. Occasionally it’s been graceful, silent tears streaking down my cheeks; but more commonly it’s been body-wracking sobs complete with seemingly desperate gasps for air, resulting from me trying to contain said crying and failing miserably. And snot. There is typically lots and lots of snot. I cannot remember the last time I cleaned my purse and didn’t pull out handfuls of used tissues. It has not been pretty, folks.
So yesterday, when I came across an article entitled Grief Hides in the Church Bathroom, which is well worth your time, for what it’s worth, especially if you’re going to continue reading the tripe I’m writing here; I had a self-righteous moment of ‘thank God it’s not like that in MY church.’
Truth be told, that initial reaction, for me, was, if not completely delusional, then at least lacking in scope. Because in the 12-ish years our family has attended our local mainline, albeit progressive, Lutheran church; there have been countless occasions when I pasted on a smile, walked into church, recited the words in the bulletin, sang the songs, and acted like everything was A-OK. All while simultaneously falling apart on the inside.
I’ve written here about how I love my church because I feel ok admitting to being broken when there. I feel fairly safe typing that now, but 10 years ago; at a time when shit was really hitting the fan in my family*, I most definitely did NOT feel comfortable sharing our brokenness with my church community. It required a helluva lot of cognitive dissonance, because I knew I should have been able to be open about this aspect of our lives at church, but I simply couldn’t do it.
I’d like to be able to blame our silence and secrecy on my faith community, but there were many factors which kept Chris and me from wanting to share this part of our lives with anyone, let alone our church people. Which was ludicrous, because it was consuming damn near each and every one of our thoughts at the time. We were still relatively new to the church, we were still relatively new to parenthood, and we were just starting to feel like we were finding a groove in terms of living/adulting/parenting in Minnesota.** We were, I think, looking to pretend it simply wasn’t happening. We did come to a point where church leadership knew what we were going through, as did some of our closer church friends; but for the most part we didn’t talk about it at the one place we should have felt safe being authentic about our struggles: church.
I have two very specific and vivid church related memories from this period in my life. In one, we were in a circle of parents going around sharing highs and lows, and I stated that we were doing well(!) and had no current issues troubling us. It was such a complete and total crock of shit. At this point I can look back and laugh, but at the time I was thoroughly disgusted with myself for putting on such a facade.
My second vivid memory is communion on Palm Sunday, the day our family member left to self-report to a federal prison. During a prayer, the pastor had said something about praying for the imprisoned (not uncommon in our services). As I ate the bread and as the pastor poured wine into my little ceramic cup, tears streamed down my face and I had to work really damn hard at holding that cup steady so as to not spill wine all over the damn place. Prior to this fall, it’s one of the few times I remember crying in church (I’ve admittedly had a couple of ugly cries on All Saints Sundays). Nevertheless, before finishing our communion ritual, which in our church involves standing in a circle, I pulled myself together, wiped my eyes, and walked back to my seat as if nothing were amiss. It was a rare moment of graceful, contained emotion for me; drastically different from what has occurred in recent months.
So, I’ve apparently reached a healthier place in terms of owning emotion in church. Again, reasons for this are multitude. We’ve all been traversing the awful road of unexpectedly losing a pastor together, we’ve repeatedly been told to honor and share our grief, and I no longer count myself as a new member, which has made it easier for me to be real. Also, depression. Much as I’d have liked to have been able to control my emotions, there’s no way I could have.
I still frequently feel a fair amount of disdain with myself for not being able to hold it together. And even though I’ve known it was ok to show emotion, I’ve been in a minority for doing so, because even after over a year of very intentionally building beloved community; our congregation is still largely made up of Scandinavian Lutherans. Speaking in generalities, which one really shouldn’t do (but I will, because it’s my blog), they are a lovely population. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a stoic crew, though.
And, despite any progress I’ve made in this department; most of the folks I worship with have no idea of the angst I’m typically dealing with in terms of raising our teenaged son. Other readers here really don’t either, as I’m still walking a tightrope where I balance his right to privacy with being fully truthful with my writing (though it’s possible I’m going to throw his right to privacy very soon, because this kid is bringing me to my knees on a damn near daily basis). My kids’ right to privacy within our church, though, really shouldn’t be an obstacle. If there’s any safe place to talk about what we’re going through, it’s our church. But even after 12 years there, finding what feels like the appropriate time to share our struggles feels challenging. I still feel a need to be strong, to present a brave face, to tell folks everything is ok, to seem like I have my shit together.
So, does this article represent my church? No, I don’t think it does. I don’t believe there is any expectation of my grief being relegated to the bathroom (or, as pointed out by my friend Katherine, the stairs behind the sanctuary). I believe our community has a pretty profound respect for grief and authenticity.
I still find it really hard to share the whole, complete Anne. It’s exponentially easier for me to blather on about it from behind my laptop. Like most other things pertaining to me, it makes zero sense. For now, I suppose it’s good enough to know I’m welcome to be authentic. Now I just need to learn how to make it happen. And oh, my heart, how I’d like to sit down and hash all this out with Pastor Stephanie.
*Reader’s Digest condensed version: we had a close family member in trouble with the law, it was completely unexpected, there was seven or eight years of prison time involved, and it was altogether unpleasant and heartbreaking in any number of ways, and it should be a whole post unto itself, but what the hell; I guess for today it’ll just be a vaguely explanatory footnote
**We LOVE Minnesota, and after nearly 19 years here, I can tell you we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But breaking into the local culture was challenging. You can read more in this timeless article.