Saturday, June 20, 2009

When Church is Hard

Here's something that most people don't realize: when you have a chronic illness, going to church is a big ordeal.

I was reminded of this last night when I talked with "Linda" whose knee surgery went awry recently and kept her out of the loop for about two months.

"Church," she said, "is hard."

Emily experienced the same thing, and so did I, with my pregnancies.

Healthy people find this hard to understand, especially healthy Mennonite people, for whom church is not only a worship experience but a social event and a time to both serve others and be recharged.

"Just come and sit in the back," they say. "Don't you want to see your friends? All you have to do is sit there; what's so hard about that?"

I am trying to think what, exactly, is "so hard about that."

Here are a few ways going to church is harder for a sick person than going for a drive to the park or a trip to the grocery store with your husband--

--you have to actually clean up and make yourself presentable and brush your teeth and comb your hair, all before 9:30

--and wear nice clothes, including pantyhose in some settings.

--you can't just sit in the car; you have to go inside

--and you can't lean your head back on a church pew.

--if you leave before the service is over, you feel conspicuous.

--sitting still makes all your symptoms--pain, nausea, weakness--manifest themselves at high volume.

--afterwards, everyone wants to talk to you, which is nice in its way, but overwhelming.

--especially if they ask a lot of questions.

--you feel like everyone else has a full, exciting life, and all these full, exciting lives are swirling past you, and you've been stuck in a stagnant little eddy for months.

--and when everyone talks about things you haven't been included in, like going out to eat last Friday, and Bible Club the week before, and a softball game, and somebody's wedding, you feel horrible and sad and alone.

--sitting in the park watching trees somehow ministers to your spirit a lot more than a sermon or Sunday school lesson that doesn't touch the profound questions you're wrestling with or the anguish of feeling like God forgot you.

No doubt there are other reasons I haven't thought of.

What can we/I do to make church a healing place for the chronically ill?

Quote of the Day:
"You contributed to the delinquency of adults."
--Konrad, when he and Shannon stayed up late reading blog posts


  1. It is interesting to note how that depression and burnout leaves a person feeling pretty much the same way about church as physical illnesses. "Church" shouldn't be hard, but sometimes it's the most difficult thing in the world to do. Thank you, Dorcas for being honest and open. It is refreshing.
    Willard Mast

  2. I totally agree with you. For years I had back problems to the point it was difficult to sit in church. But even more major, I suffered from having an emotional break down. I did NOT want to go to church. And yes, sitting on the back bench IS better than sitting up front--keeps you more out of the center of things. But it's extremely draining! The only reason I kept on going was because I knew I needed to be fed spiritually.
    Thanks for sharing! It blessed my heart to hear you be so honest!
    How can we help those struggling? Well, sometimes I give someone a listening ear at church when I know they are struggling with deep questions. I think more of that needs to happen. Make church a hospital for hurting folks!
    Catharine in Ohio

  3. Thanks for acknowledging this, Dorcas. Been there on lots of levels....and all this year!

    What to do about? Well, against my normal tendencies, today I said many times to different people, "I'm fine" and they left it at that. And that was helpful. Sometimes, like you said, it's between me and God, I should be able to come away with red eyes and a tear-streaked face without having to explain it to anyone.

    A listening ear when needed or an understanding smile...those are helpful....and, at times, a lack of questions...

  4. This is painfully true and Willard already added what I was going say...depression is difficult to take to church. So is infertility.
    I wonder sometimes why, when we are strong, we feel like we have so much to say and when we are weak we feel like we have nothing to say in a church setting. If we would do more listening to those facing a particular challenge and less giving of pat answers I think it would be a healthier place for those among us who are ailing...and for the strong as well. We have much to learn from people walking through a valley.

  5. Pain pretty much feels the same, no matter what causes it. And with pain often comes the feeling that the things we've believed in the most just don't make sense. It can make church very hard. Doesn't matter what kind of a church you go to. Pain is very isolating.

  6. Amen to this! I just got through a difficult pregnancy and found going to church so difficult. By the end I dreaded having people ask me how I was doing (even though I knew the cared) because it felt like I was always being negative. Like Carolyn said, IF is also hard at church!

  7. thanks for asking/dealing with the hard questions. I am finding the responses really good as well. Unfortunately "church" is often a place for the well and not the sick. What if "church" was more like "hospital"???!! When we spent time at the Children's Hospital with Mariah I was AMAZED at how open people were to share their stories, to sympathize free of any kind of judgement, to LISTEN. I came away from that experience wondering how our "church experience" would be more difference if we ALL faced the face that we are "sick" and need "healing" instead of putting on our masks and going there to talk about how "well" we are.
    and I realize I used way too many quotations here....but I hope you understand what I am trying to say.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I identified so well, and also with the comments on depression and burnout. I was always glad when I had a physical ailment, cause even though that was hard it was more "legitimate" than depression to stay at home. I have never heard anyone be honest enough to address it. I agree with the thought of feeling more ministered to in my spirit in other places than church at times.
    I feel so much for Emily, and as a mom know how hard it must be for you too. God Bless you.

  9. I've been there...for physical and emotional reasons...It must be really hard to understand unless you have been there. It's not that people don't want to understand. I am so glad it hasn't stayed there. Yesterday, when it was time to go to church, there was no place I would have rather been.

  10. I have found this so true. I have been in that situation too, and it is impossible to explain to others who either keep going when they should be down, or else never needed to be down. God has helped me with that in each of 4 pregnancies, back trouble, sprained ankles, hurting hubby...

  11. Been there, done that. Thanks for such an honest clear take on the subject. The amamzing thing is that I think most everyone CAN identify to some degree with this reality...but we are OH! so forgetful! I forget to be merciful and put myself in their shoes once I manage to get back up on the mountain top. I complain about pat answers when I'm down, but I find myself giving them too, when there is that akward painful silence and I don't know how to fill it and can't seem to remember at the moment that I don't have to... The bible tells us to mourn/hurt/ache with those who mourn/hurt/ache, but that goes against human nature. we would so much rather try to "fix" and "pick up"...but go figure, God's advice to just identify with them, is the one that would really be the best.

  12. Church is hard when you've lived in a third-world country long enough that your perspective on almost everything has completely changed. We have no idea how we'll handle church if we move back. Even now, when we're home to "rest" (a whole nother story), church is very uncomfortable.

  13. My daughter lost a baby recently and her husband asked her recently why she would tell people at church she was fine, when she wasn't and her reply was that some people ask "How are you?" when they mean "Greetings". Others ask "How are you?" because they really want to know. Apparently she can tell the difference. I can't.

    Recently in church, when I was praying for a newly pregnant mom of #5, and I was suddenly overcome with grief at the loss of our granddaughter. I was out in the hallway and my compassionate friend (mom of 8) came by and hugged me and asked, and I was able to mumble, "all the pregnant women" and her eyes filled with tears. No words, just "mourning with those who mourn". That's all I needed. No fix, no words, no uncomfortable smile, just sharing.

  14. I like what KaraBeagle wrote and something similar happened to me when I was in the thick of grieving our IF. One Mothers Day was particularly hard and after church one of my friends came up to me, briefly touched my arm and asked "are you okay?" She could tell that I couldn't talk, but just her recognition and the empathy in her eyes was so very healing.