I sat across the lunch table with a former key staff member of a well-known Christian ministry. We briefly exchanged stories and then Carol (not her real name) said, Bev, tell me the truth. Do you see any hope in the church?
Hope? I asked.
Carol continued. After my husband, a committed church leader, walked out on our 20-year marriage for a younger woman, I was devastated. I wish I could tell you someone from the church expressed care, understanding or support. But instead everyone avoided me, no one called or even came to pray with me.
After meeting with our pastor, I realized even he did not understand how much pain I was in. All he said was to make sure I studied the Bible and prayed every day.
Frankly, I wish I could have studied the Bible every day, but the pain and shock of it all hurt so deeply there were days I thought I wouldn’t be able to catch my next breath, let alone concentrate enough to read or study. I could only pray three words, ‘Help me Jesus!’
The most humiliating day of my life was the day I finally walked into my doctor’s office to ask for an AIDS test. Even though I had remained pure before and during my marriage, when I found my husband was a sex addict, I knew I was at risk. It took me weeks to gather the courage to go. As I approached the receptionist, I looked around, felt my face grow hot, then whispered, ‘I came for an AIDS test’. I felt so alone and so ashamed.
Bev, do you ever see the church becoming a place where people understand pain like this and express care to people in my situation? Frankly, I rarely go to church any more. The pain is too great, Carol admitted.
Is this a unique story? I wish it were.
Usually I am a defender of the church. I believe it is Christ’s bride, his body on earth. Having been a pastor’s wife for many years, I know it is more difficult to bring change on the inside than it appears from the outside. It is also easier to criticize what the church is not doing, than it is to jump in and contribute to the solution.
But on that winter day in February, I heard Carol’s pain. I had heard it too many times before. And I had no words of defense to offer.
Each school term I hear students of all ages express similar pain. Women often tell me that my seminary classroom is the first place they have found where they could admit their source of pain and feel accepted and understood.
I have discovered that once students hear the story of a woman who has experienced the pain of abortion, betrayal or domestic abuse they begin to feel a new level of compassion. Once students feel compassion, they open their hearts for an increased awareness of the issue causing the pain. This deeper understanding of the pain motivates students to acquire shepherding skills. This progression has become predictable.
Often in our desire to resist sin, we can miss seeing a real person behind a past sin. Even when we know domestic abuse is wrong, we can transfer our doubts about the “real story” behind the scenes onto the victim. Then we find it hard to feel compassion or express care. We are still in the judging stage, wondering if she “deserves” our intervention. The very ones she had hoped would understand and offer care only multiply the enormous pain and self-doubt she already feels. She again is marginalized and further immobilized.
We look at our full slate of Bible studies and women’s church programs and wonder why women like Carol do not feel accepted or why they are not involved. Our beautifully decorated Christmas Luncheons and Spring Teas are admittedly not “pulling her in.” Our busy pastors may meet with her. She may even attend Sunday services. But we sense we are not really connecting with her. We are not really meeting her where she is. Where does she fit? What do we do for her?
On that day Carol’s question, “Bev, do you ever see the church becoming a place where people understand pain like this and express care to people in my situation?” continued to dig deep into my soul as I cried out to God, tears running down my cheeks, all the way home.
God’s answer surprised me.
See next week’s blog for more…