I opened my Facebook page a few weeks ago to find a post in which an acquaintance lambasted people who don't attend church. He referred to them as "lazy" and, if they called themselves a Christian, "hypocritical", and he baldly stated that there are no reasons (other than illness) for missing church. In fact, he declared, any other reason is simply an excuse.
Here is a paraphrase of my reply:
From experience, I have to disagree with the idea that any reason other than illness is an excuse. I can't speak for everyone, but I can tell you that after my husband died, I found church the most difficult of all places to return to, even though at the time, I belonged to a wonderful church filled with some of the most loving, supportive people I have ever known. In fact, I often shared with others -- and it was true -- that it was as a member of this congregation that I felt I had, for the first time in my life, found a church "home". Even so, there was more than one Sunday where I could not walk in the doors. At least twice over the next year, I got ready, drove the 15 minutes to church, and sat in the parking lot and cried. Since I've moved up here [to a city about 2 hours from my hometown], I've found church continues to be one of the most difficult places to go. I don't want to go on and on, but you have no idea until you've walked in my shoes how difficult it is to be so very alone in the very place I should find most comforting.
He responded, making it very clear that he felt I, too, was simply making excuses; I gave it one more shot, but he simply blew me off. I didn't want to go on and on, and I didn't want to make his thread all about me, so I let it go. Here, though, is what I wanted to say to him.
Back when I was still attending that wonderful little country church back home, I found it incredibly hard to go back after my husband died. It was a small Methodist congregation that still used a hymnal and sang all of the old hymns I remembered my grandmothers singing around the house and garden when I was growing up. Back then, though, I never noticed how many of them refer to death, to taking your last breath, or to going up yonder to be with the Lord. As a grieving widow barely holding it together, it seemed every hymn was fraught with lines that made me pause, sometimes even gasp lightly, my eyes filling with tears. Nobody noticed, thank goodness. I just kept my head down, staring at the blurred lines on the page and moving my lips noiselessly.
That church, like the ones I've visited here since my move, was a veritable sea of happy couples and happy families. Oh, there were a few widows or widowers, but they were all quite a bit older than me, and I didn't identify with them. No, I identified with the women who shared a hymnal with their husband, his hand resting on the small of her back as they stood to sing a hymn; the women whose husbands draped their arms around their shoulders during the sermon; the women who looked up at their husband from time to time to share a smile. I'd make myself look away, to focus on the pastor, but then I'd find myself peeking again to get a glimpse of what was mine no longer. And the pain was so strong it was actually physical.
After I moved to the city and began visiting churches. I was amazed at the lack of friendliness. I would arrive early so I had plenty of time to give myself one last pep talk before going inside. I'd remind myself to smile and speak to people, to walk slowly so people had a chance to respond and perhaps even engage me in conversation. I'd get out of the car, walk among others -- couples and families, usually -- chattering away, and enter the church. Of course, the greeter would smile and hand me a bulletin, but not a single one asked if I was a visitor or spoke to me other than a brief greeting, if that. I'd walk slowly to the sanctuary, making eye contact with other people and smiling gently and saying "hello" or "good morning". Most of the time -- and I mean this wholeheartedly, the people I smiled at would briefly glance at me and sort of nod, all the while moving briskly along. The same thing happened after the service ended as well.
I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. I was dressed like the other congregants, I looked like I "belonged", but I quickly discovered that a single woman alone is virtually ignored except when the pastor instructs everyone to greet those around them. The people that haven't even made eye contact until then smile, say "welcome" or "good morning" and move on to someone they know. At that point, their smile becomes more animated, more real, and they exchange more sincerely-expressed greetings and chat briefly. I stand, alone and uncomfortable. I walk to where others are standing to greet them; the same thing happens, and I end up returning to my spot, feeling like the outcast kid sitting alone in the junior high cafeteria.
One Sunday, at a church I had been attending for 3 or 4 months, the pastor walked down the aisle near my seat about 10 minutes before the start of the service, stopped to speak to the couple who sat along the aisle, and then glanced past the empty seat between the wife and I to make full eye contact with me. I smiled and said "good morning"; she nodded once without smiling and walked away. Needless to say, I didn't go back to that church.
It's not just that the people aren't very friendly, though. All of my life -- until my husband's passing -- I attended church with someone; first, as part of the family I was born into, then as half of a couple, and then again as a member of the family made up of my husband, son, daughter, and I. Some widows and widowers say that eating out is difficult, but I've always enjoyed going to a restaurant or fast-food place by myself to people-watch or read while I eat. Church is the one place I rarely, if ever, attended alone. Perhaps that's why, then, it is in church that I'm particularly aware of my aloneness and my loneliness. Perhaps that's why, then, the loneliness strikes so sharply, so very painfully, on Sunday mornings.
Sadly, too, it is in church among other Christians where I feel the strongest need to "put on a happy face" and not let anyone see that I'm struggling. Everyone else is so darned happy -- I don't want to be a "Debbie Downer". Besides, as my mother always reminded me, people are drawn by smiles, not by sad faces. And she was right. Not only do stern faces shout "Don't approach me", but sad faces also make people uncomfortable. And so, in the very place I should be able to find comfort and support, I act like everything is hunky-dory, that I've got it all together, that I am as happy as can be.
Ruth Graham wrote an interesting book titled In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart; interestingly, I (as a member of the outreach committee at the church we were attending) read it when it was first published, just before my husband was diagnosed with cancer and before I became one of those broken hearts myself. I remember quite a bit about the book, and I remember that at the end of the book, Graham hadn't found a solution to the problem of feeling so alone and heartbroken while at church. Instead, she offered other strategies for meeting spiritual needs; I've found those strategies helpful, but I still long for a fulfilling church relationship. I'm hopeful that someday, maybe even soon, I'll find a church that is warm and welcoming and in which I don't feel so alone. Until then, I'll keep looking.
Before I close, I'd like to share one more thing I wish I'd said to my Facebook acquaintance.
For the next 4 Sundays, I challenge you to arrive at church about 10 minutes early and not spend that time chatting and laughing with your friends or family. Instead, look around very carefully. Search for someone who is alone. Approach him or her with a welcoming heart and a sincere smile on your face, visit with them, and get to know them a bit. Heck, invite them to sit with your family or, better yet, wave your family over to sit with you and that person. After the service, introduce them to a few people you think they might connect with. So much better than judging and name-calling, don't you think?