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    Picnic food spread out on a tablecloth

    Church for the Broken and Weary

    In a season of profound depression, strangers offered comfort and support.

    Rachel Pieh Jones

    October 8, 2020
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    • Rev. Deborah Rose

      This is soooo compelling! I am a retired minister who is trying part-time to lead a very small church to discern the future God has for them, including closure. It has been and I am sure will continue to be emotionally draining. BUT GOD, (my favorite words) will see me through. I love the image of church that you paint, and may it be so. Thank you.

    • Al Owski

      I wish I could have more safe spaces, safe people to listen. I have my wife and my sister, and for them I am very thankful. There have been rare, treasured times, when I was gathered with a small group of believers and felt absolutely safe and loved. It was never in a formal church setting. It was always outside the building, at the margins. You were braver than I to share yourself and your struggle among a group of people you hardly knew. Thanks for sharing your story. Peace. Al

    • Vanessa Luu

      I loved this article. It spoke to me and comforted me that the way I feel about the church in my adult stage is complex. It makes sense, I relate to it well. Thank you.

    • Stephan

      Thank you for sharing this. I wish we could always speak the truth about our struggles at the church gatherings.

    • mark bloom

      What Church is she talking about? We've only had "virtual" church since March.

    Sometimes church feels more like the kingdom of pretenders than the kingdom of God. When someone I loved tumbled into depression, I dropped my life and flew across borders to be there. The first Sunday we spent together, I asked if she wanted to go to church.

    “No,” she said.

    I felt relief. I didn’t want to go either, but I asked her why not.

    “I don’t want to be with those people, pretending.”

    Amen.

    We slept in, went out for hamburgers, and listened to a podcast interview with Richard Rohr. I prayed for healing. It felt holy.

    What is church?

    It’s easy to go to church and keep your distance. Facing forward in the pews, you are free to engage with as little or as much of what is going on as you would like. If you have honest questions, doubts, or brokenness, you may not be encouraged to express them. If you choose to bare your soul, you do it silently, privately, to God.

    In The Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, Nora Gallagher writes, “I don’t think Jesus had in mind a place where you had to tolerate the empty predictability of a service and stand upright at the coffee hour if you had been diagnosed with lymphoma or sarcoidosis or lung cancer. He was, at the heart of his ministry, a healer.”

    I understood that my loved one didn’t want to endure the empty predictability of a service. Even getting dressed was hard in those days.

    What we both needed was the Healer. The Jesus who knelt in dirt, mixed it with saliva, and spread it on a blind man’s face. The Jesus who touched a woman who hadn’t stopped bleeding in over a decade. The Jesus who raised the dead son of a widow. The Jesus who was not afraid of dirt, stigma, or sorrow.

    When I do go to church during this season of depression, the pastor stands with bread and wine and I am supposed to receive the elements with cupped hands. What I need is hands to knead the pain of grief and confusion from my shoulders. I want hands that say, I, too, have pain. I assume the pastor has pain – he is human – but he doesn’t speak of it. I don’t reveal mine, either. And so we exchange the broken body of our Savior in hands that hold back the truth. At the same time, I long for the bread and wine. I need the healing and restorative and redemptive power of his life, but I don’t know how to receive it. Being on this side of pain and confusion is disorienting. I look across the aisle and wonder who else is stifling a scream?

    Left on their own, my fists want to stay clenched. I need someone to cup their hands around my terrified ones, to hold my hands, to press the warmth of human flesh and human pain into my body until I’m ready and able to open, to release my vice grip of a false control, and together, receive life, poured out over us in our shared vulnerability and weakness and need.

    But I have not allowed myself to be helped, or to be needy. Now that what I have is brokenness, now that I need the Healer, I am afraid to be vulnerable, afraid to ask for what I need.

    I want to sleep. I want to run long, lonely, empty, numbing miles. I want someone to bless me. I want the person I loved to be healed. I want it so badly it becomes a demand.

    I am drawn to spiritual people. Often, these are hurting people, people with a little less outer shell, vulnerable and open to attack, like lobsters in molting season.

    Shellfish are most vulnerable when they are between homes, when they have shed one protective casing and are still growing the next, larger, more spacious one. They are tender, sometimes cautious, sometimes desperate.

    This is where I found myself, among the walking wounded without a protective layer. It was in this state that I found the human church I had been missing, a gathering of hurting and spiritual people. It happened when a couple sat down with me at a tiny table in the back corner of their kitchen and told me what had made them afraid for my loved one, what had made them call and say someone she trusts needed to come right now. After the couple talked and I asked some questions, the wife looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m so sorry.”

    We both started to cry. It was a Sunday, and that moment of vulnerability, her affection and her courage to express her sorrow and fear, felt like church.

    The human church happened again when I needed a place to stay during the crisis, and a family I have never met, who were away for a vacation, opened their home to me for two weeks. A house with a fireplace and a washing machine, a porch with swings, an English garden and a French press, a view of mountains and the valley.

    The human church happened when I went to the neighbor’s house to borrow a scoop of laundry detergent, and she shared her own struggles and voiced the same questions I had asked myself: “What went wrong? What does this mean for the person whom I love? Will she find joy and healing? I feel so alone and confused. Why didn’t I see it earlier? What does this mean about me? About God?”

    Picnic food spread out on a tablecloth

    Photograph by Tom Magliery (Public domain)

    In the middle of the darkest months of the season of depression, I spent one weekend with friends. I was weary, lonely, afraid, grieving, confused, and uncertain about the future. My friends host a weekly dinner and prayer group called Sunday Sandwiches. The food is simple, the kids watch movies, and the adults share their lives over baguettes and sliced deli meat, potato chips, and wine.

    “Rachel,” my friend asked before the others arrived, “can we use our time tonight to pray for you?”

    I almost said no. I almost said, “I don’t like praying in groups. I don’t know these people. I don’t want to take your time. I don’t want to expose myself. I don’t want to presume strangers would care to pray for people they don’t know. I don’t want to demand anything or ask anything.” It felt selfish, presumptuous, needy.

    “Yes,” I said, surprising myself. “I would like that.”

    I regretted it as soon as the words came out and fought all day not to take them back. I had planned to watch a movie or do yoga in my upstairs guest room, to not even attend their dinner group. It felt easier to pretend I was fine and to be alone with my grief. I wasn’t ready to meet strangers. But I said yes and forced myself to believe that yes needed to stand.

    I felt awkward when the people came over, three families plus me. But they were not awkward. Everyone made themselves sandwiches, and they laughed and asked about kids and birthdays and celebrated that there would be, finally, no school Monday morning because summer was here. We sat outside, beside a fire, with candles and plastic plates.

    There weren’t enough glasses so I sipped wine from an orange plastic child’s cup, and we broke off chunks of chocolate from a bar of Dairy Milk for dessert.

    When most of us were finished eating, my friend introduced me and asked me to share whatever I wanted to share.

    I don’t know exactly what I said. I talked about navigating this trial while in a foreign country, about being away from my husband and children, about shifting homes, not having a car and relying on Uber, my terror of a potential call to an emergency ambulance or psych ward, long walks to pharmacies and grocery stores and feeling trapped, being scared a lot of the time, not knowing the future, learning to live day by day, loneliness, loss of what I thought I’d known. I tried to be vague but specific. I didn’t know how much this group usually shared.

    They listened. They asked a few questions, but not many. My friend played a song about resting beneath the wings of the Almighty. It spoke of both motherly tenderness and fatherly strength. Then we sat in silence.

    I closed my eyes, which felt natural in this setting, although I don’t know what the others did. For the first time in a long time, I let myself relax into silence and into presence. Tears started. Small beads in the corner of my eyes and then a steady stream down my cheeks, gathering at my chin and dripping onto my fingers. I let them flow. The silence was thick, like a blanket, like arms, like mercy.

    Someone spoke a single sentence. It was full of thankfulness. The first words spoken over my loved one were of thankfulness.

    Then silence. Then more prayers. Prayers of blessing, of images, spoken words, a song, passages of scripture. Psalm 23. So familiar and simple. With her name prayed into the words, I wept silent tears as the words soaked into my broken places. I sent them on the wings of the wind to where my loved one was and trusted they could penetrate her darkness too.

    Psalm 139. More word pictures. More prayers filled with truth. These people did not know the person they were praying for. They did not know me. They did not know my husband or my children. But they prayed as though they had known us all our lives. They prayed with detailed words and deep insight. They saw us. They did not begrudge that I took their whole prayer time. I did not feel selfish – I felt upheld.

    I felt church, churched. For the first time in years, among strangers.

    This, the community of the saints, the fellowship of believers, takes place around candlelit tables, around ham and cheese sandwiches, while children watch movies and adults sip wine from orange plastic cups. It is in admitting need, in the release of tears, in meeting brokenness with tenderness and open hands and generous hearts.

    Of course, these examples are from before the pandemic, back when we flew internationally and gathered for corporate worship and shared meals together with friends in our homes. We will do these things again someday, and will appreciate them all the more.

    I was ready to abandon the church, to say I didn’t need community. But that isn’t true. I am desperate for it, for the church of the God of love. Never forgetting how the church said yes to me when I did not expect it, I will have to say yes to it too.

    Contributed By Rachel Pieh Jones Rachel Pieh Jones

    Rachel Pieh Jones is author of Stronger than Death. She has written for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, Runners World, and Christianity Today.

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