This is part two in the “Why I Go To Church” series. You can read the first post here. And the second post here. These articles are my response to a reader who reached out with some honest questions about the importance of church in a believer’s life. I’m breaking his original email down into parts, responding to the various points.
Traci, I enjoyed the Lectio Divina post I just read. I was raised Catholic and much like you, felt that the church I went to was somehow superior. I went to a parochial school and we studied in school as well as in church. At some point in my adolescence, I strayed from church as a regular activity, as time passed I stopped going altogether…
After the death of my brother and sister (among others), I sort of stopped having the conversation with God. I knew he was there and I knew he still loved me, but I just really did not have much to say. When I went to church, it was overwhelming. The raw emotion and feelings that I felt could not be contained. Often I could make it through church, fighting back the tears- but I was exhausted from the whole deal and it basically did not do justice to my relationship with God. This went on for quite some time. I was in some sort of denial over the whole deal and it was easier for me to avoid and ignore it.
This part of your letter gave me great pause. What do we do with grief? Everyone handles it differently, but I’ve become convinced we are not meant to handle it alone. You said, “I stopped having the conversation with God.” What a lonely place that must have been for you.
I’ve been learning more about the act of lament, voicing our deep grief and frustrations to God. Sometimes with words, other times sitting silently or reading Scripture while the Holy Spirit groans on our behalf. You went on to say, “I knew he was there and I knew he still loved me, but I just really did not have much to say.” It left me wondering if your Catholic tradition taught you about lament? It’s a form of communication with God that he created for our benefit, because this life is very hard. Losing your brother and sister is tragic. It’s more loss than one person should experience. I’m sorry.
My dad passed away at 56 years of age. It’s the closest experience I have in my own life that might compare to the shock and grief you have known. In my rush to pack a bag for the drive home to Missouri, I discovered I’d forgotten to pack my Bible. It nearly made me crazy to realize this. We stayed with my in-laws overnight before making the nine hour drive home, and I asked my father-in-law if I could borrow his Bible, which he graciously let me do. I needed to read the Psalms. They helped start the conversation I was desperate to have with God. Why did Dad have to go so young? How could he be gone forever? You mentioned being in denial over the loss. I get that. It’s a lot to process. It’s interesting to me how we handled our moments of grief differently. You were right, God did still loved you. I’m sure he was aching to give you some kind of comfort, if you would have known a healthy way to have the conversation. That’s lament.
There’s another thing I’m learning as I study the word lament - it’s intended to be communal. You mentioned when you went to church, it was overwhelming. One of my favorite things about Catholic Mass is all the silence. I feel Christ’s presence the most when I’m sitting in his sanctuary and I could hear a pin drop. The closest thing my church tradition offers to this is the reverence surrounding Communion. At church, you experienced raw emotion and feelings you felt could not be contained. You’d make it through church, fighting back the tears - but emerge exhausted from the whole experience. I believe your greatest discomfort came in the moments when you found yourself in the presence of God, with nothing to say.
What if you weren’t meant to keep all that inside? What if, instead, you discovered in your church experience a safe place where you could let these emotions out so you could process them? Maybe you didn’t want to do that in front of the whole congregation. But what if one or two people cared about you and the grieving process enough to ask how you were doing on a particular Sunday morning? What if someone in the congregation asked God who she should pray for during the service, and with tears in her own eyes, He prompted her to pray for you? What if a friend asked you to stay behind for a few minutes after church to inquire about how you were feeling? What if a person dropped you a card in the mail, or even an email, saying I know you still hurt and it’s OK - I’m praying for you. What if the priest called and reminded you the church had open hours during the day so you could come and pray in the quiet sanctuary if you needed to? What if you received an anonymous note that someone had lit a candle for you and your loved ones? What if a church leader encouraged you to read a particular Psalm and talk to God about what you read?
Lament and church go together. I think your church let you down while you were mourning. I’m not saying that in judgment - I’ve gotten this wrong a hundred times myself. Sometimes we have to try and help a hurting person, even when it’s awkward and we feel stupid doing it. Remember, we’re the hands and feet of Jesus. In all your grieving (even while you still grieve because we never truly stop), Jesus never left your side. The church shouldn’t either.