catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 4 :: 2012.02.17 — 2012.03.01


Put your whole self in

In my experience of visiting churches, the number one topic that churches avoid is the recognition that even if “the victory has been won,” the kingdom has nevertheless not yet come and we often live in an ugly world. Paired with this is the number one posture (and at this point I want to recognize my West-centric background) that churches are reluctant to address and express: that of grief and lament.

Too many churches are wholly unequipped to confront what is often the reality for so many within their walls — frustration and difficulty. While most people experience struggle or disharmony as not insignificant aspects of their lives, the assumption on the ground seems to be that the vast majority are happy and contented, and that only a small minority will be harboring fear and angst. Or, otherwise, might be the underlying assumption that grief and suffering are only fleeting experiences, that lives are not characterized by struggle but might “hit a few bumps in the road?”

The fear seems to be that in recognizing and honoring the suffering in life, we spurn God’s grace and salvation. Put another way, sometimes it is almost seen as selfish to reside openly, whether alone or corporately, in a state of lament. “Don’t you believe that God has saved the world?” “Don’t you know that you have nothing to fear?” The maintaining of spiritual euphoria can, tragically, be a litmus test for faith, so when we admit that “life sucks right now,” we’ve simultaneously admitted that we’re unable to put our trust in God.

When I was visiting churches in London soon after arriving here, there was one in particular that was so wonderful in so many ways, but then there was the music — always so peppy and upbeat and band-concert style; I’ve developed a bit of an allergy to it which I do need to shrug off. I remember one Sunday during the sermon/message the speaker was talking about how we need to be able to talk about our difficulties in church — about how life isn’t always rosy and it’s okay to admit that. Then she pointed out how difficult it can be, when you’re feeling depressed, weak, lonely or whatever, to come into church, put a smile on your face and sing along to all the happy music. I would suggest that it is not enough to just “say” that we should talk about our own suffering — we must also face it and embrace it with the fullness of our church liturgy and worship.

There shouldn’t be anything problematic about lament. For a people whose scriptures include so much crying out to God, it’s shocking the extent to which we have neglected and avoided this part of our experience. To beat our fists against God and ask why things are the way they are is not heresy — it’s human. To pretend that we can always and unfailingly trust and understand the ways of the world is not only unrealistic, it’s dangerous. Unless we allow ourselves to be angry, frustrated and saddened by what we experience or see others experience, we will instead find ourselves in denial or perhaps even worse, hardened.

We also shouldn’t be surprised by challenges in life. As true as it is to say that we should expect grace and miracles from God (I hope I never stop believing that miracles do happen!), it is also true that we live in a broken world, tainted and fallen. As everything is created good by God, and everything is likewise distorted by sin.

Other than feeling that we’ve failed as followers when we reside in discontent, there’s at least one more reason I think that churches avoid engaging with the suffering of their own: because it’s hard. Recognizing suffering and feeling bad for people in an abstract way is not that difficult, not that challenging. I doubt there are many churches that don’t pray for the global poor and hungry, or the homeless on their streets. This is important of course, but it’s so much easier to talk about the suffering “out there” than “in here,” in you, in me. Once we lay struggle bare, we are forced to confront it. Talking about struggle is scary — you might fear judgment, alienation or simply being subjected to the catch-all advice of that problem-solver church-goer who thinks he or she can fix all your problems for you, if only you try a bit harder, believe a bit more strongly. As hard as this is though, if we don’t do this then we don’t truly know each other.

To conclude, a few bullets on how churches can move to break the “life sucks” taboo.

  1. Lead from the top. I’ve rarely been more inspired and freed than when a church leader has laid bare his or her own struggles and mess. I’m not saying pastors and priests should divulge every tiny ugly thing in their life, but when church-goers only see seemingly perfect leaders, it’s no surprise that they will feel they’re falling short and be reluctant to embrace their own challenges.
  2. Before you conclude your teaching with messages of hope and salvation, include reminders of the broken world we live in. It’s already bad enough to suffer, but if you’re freaking out because you’re suffering, wondering if something is terribly wrong since you’re sad, then you’re going to struggle to come to terms with it. We need to be spiritually prepared for disharmony even as we fight to bring harmony. This is the character of a fallen creation, of the almost-but-not-quite-yet, of the in between times. Hope may rule our hearts but we have also to accept that we need hope because we’re not there yet.
  3. Practice lament fully. Although a sermon on suffering may be just the ticket for some people, hopefully my story about the church above depicts how there can be a huge disjoint between the mood of a whole service and a message of words. If recognition of our fallen world is to be fully felt and embraced, it will require experience at more than just the cerebral level. It would be foolish to suggest specifics in this regard — churches have such different liturgies and worship rhythms! — but I will make, for where it is relevant, a special plea for music. Music so often cuts through us, bypasses our abstract notions and doctrines, and can speak a truth of experience. If the only music we hear is energetic praises of thanks and joy, we are missing part of the picture, and inevitably there are those (perhaps many) who will feel their spiritual experience is not reflected. Incorporating dance and other art forms in this regard may also be invaluable.

One final qualifying statement: I do not intend to suggest that we allow lament to overwhelm us, or give it an equal place to hope, joy and thanks (although measuring these is probably unhelpful). Instead I mean to suggest that, even as uncomfortable it might be to confront, if we pretend most of the time that we live in a broken world (that we ourselves do, not just the poor or war-stricken), we aren’t going to know each other, aren’t going to see the world as it is, and are going to struggle to deal with difficulty when we experience it. Let’s let ourselves off the hook a bit and open the door to a “sometimes life sucks” spirituality.

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