When Church Is A House Of Pain

The title to this blog post sounds mighty negative. I get that. However, my goal in sharing what you are about to read is that it not be another post bashing the bride of Christ.

To the contrary.

I love the church and have much I owe her. I have not always gotten along with her well–there have been many days when she frustrated or made me angry.

But when you are dealing with mistake prone people–family and friends even who are as damaged by sin as the next guy (the next guy being me), you’re going to find flaws. And where you have flawed people, you will find pain–self-inflicted as well as inflicted by others.

As Uncle Si would say, that’s a fact, Jack!

I have written before about the pain and anguish felt as the result of people who didn’t handle the hurts and disappointments of others very well. Especially those who are struggling with death and loss.

Obviously, everybody’s story is different. But for most, the initial days, weeks, and months after the funeral is over are just the beginning of new adjustments, new levels of anguish, and trying to rebuild. Frankly for me, the second year was harder than the first. I don’t know why, it just was.

To illustrate how it works for some, read what Pam McCutcheon says about the aftermath of losing her son….

“I have a confession.  Please don’t judge me.  I haven’t attended a church service for over three years.  My relationship with God is strong and my faith is not in jeopardy.  But church is a house of pain, on many levels, since Max was killed.

First and foremost, my grief lives deep down in my soul.  A vulnerable place.  That same place in my soul that I tap in to when I worship God.  The tears naturally come.  And I refuse to “play” church and keep a happy face on.  I bawl when praise music starts.  God is fully worthy of my praise.  But (He already knows this, it’s well discussed territory), I am mad at Him for the decision to take Max to heaven at 18. I cannot sing about the faithfulness of God when I know very well I feel like He betrayed my trust.  I cannot sing about His goodness, even though I know and believe He is good.  Not in public.  I know others cry in church.  But I don’t have a ‘pretty’ cry.  My face gets red, I am vocal, and I melt down.  I’m a spectacle and truly, I don’t want people gawking at me when I’m that exposed.  It was much easier for me to sing “I Surrender All” when it didn’t require me surrendering my oldest child to death

Secondly, I have been betrayed by those who genuinely love and follow Jesus.  Some do not know how to minister to grieving people.  Some can only do it for a short while. I’m not talking about those people, although they have hurt me because I truly needed them and they weren’t there.  No.  I’m talking about the horrible things said “in the name of Christ”, or “telling the truth in love”, both phrases thrown around with too many cliches that have no meaning or power in my grief.  I am not going to get too specific because I hope to mend those fences someday, even if I have to wait until I reach eternity for unity again.  The self-righteous, smug, advice-givers inflict the most damage.  And they are not the reason I stay away from church.  But they certainly contribute to the church being a house of pain.  I do not doubt that they love Jesus, but they surely don’t reflect His heart for grieving people.

Do you know what Jesus did when He came upon the sisters of Lazarus right after he had died?  The sisters were angry with Him, yelling, they told Him that if He had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died!  Did Jesus say “but he is in heaven, a better place”?  Did Jesus say “you might damage your witness by grieving so outwardly”?  Did Jesus say “here is some Scripture”?  NO.  Jesus simply WEPT.  He wept with them.  He was deeply moved and He wept.  Even though He knew He was going to resurrect him that very day.   He wept out of love.  (John chapter 11)  I pray more would use His example and not say damaging things, but simply weep with those who weep.
The man who asked me to write a blog on this topic has this to say in HIS blog – ‘I discovered that theological arguments, debates, and discussions matter little to people living on the jagged edge of holding it together or losing it entirely. And, I discovered that more “church members” are in that category of folks than we could possibly imagine.’ 

And finally, if you (as a church) are looking for people to minister to, please humbly accept my suggestion to start with your own congregation.  There is plenty of pain in your own back yard.  Talking of grand mission trips are fine, but only if you are taking care of your own too.  Know someone in pain in your congregation but don’t know how to help?  Take a meal, send a note of encouragement, organize a group to come over and surprise with a cleaning crew or a day working in their yard, take the kids out for an afternoon so the parents can be alone for a few hours, call them for lunch, meet them for a walk, ask questions that allow them to talk about their pain rather than avoiding them.  The gestures don’t have to be big, but they need to be ongoing beyond the first days of crisis.  People in pain look around at the others in church and beg to be helped, yet it seems easier not to get involved or bring “it” up.  Please do.  Get involved, bring it up, JUST DO IT.  Otherwise, your personal church is a house of pain.

I will attend church again.  I want a place to belong and feel loved again, a place that I can contribute my gifts and talents to.  But not yet.  Just not yet.”

Yes.

Even though everyone does not have the same grieving experiences, those are hard words to read.

And, in an effort to help the church be what she should, may I humbly suggest… We can do better.
We can.

Part of my mission in life is to help those who hurt and those who might minister to us.

Here’s the second rule to follow: when striving to help the hurting, patience is the key, along with lots of mercy, grace, and compassion.

And the first rule is even more simple: use hugs and actions. Words just muddle it all up!

God bless us all.

Please remember my in-laws in prayer… Joan Brown is very sick and Bob is keeping a bedside vigil. They have experienced so much loss…

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Basement

I think five times.

Just five.

I have visited five times.

I have this strange urge to go now, but three and a half hours is a long way to travel for a visit that has never quite lasted even ten minutes.

I am not a fan of cemeteries. They are not places of peace. They don’t engender moments of quiet reflection. They don’t inspire sweet memories.

They do, however, spark moments of rage and anger. They do inspire transcendental and irrational thoughts. They do bring a fresh feeling of horror and pain. Of disbelief and incomprehensibleness.

I don’t like cemeteries.
Especially this one.

Especially this one.

Maybe there will come a time in our journey where I can visit. Say hello. Or spend a quiet afternoon. But not now. And knowing me the way I do, quite possibly never.

It is hard to write of these things. There is renewed grief. And an aching in my chest and tears in my eyes that make it difficult to say anything of much sense or value. At 8:00AM on a Saturday morning as I write this, I am already exhausted.

So much has happened since the first day we traveled in the company of hundreds of others to that particular cemetery. So many changes.

Casey is growing up fast and missing his front teeth.
Conner is a Junior in High School, talking about colleges, and becoming this new man-child I hardly recognize.

So many changes. But one remains. I still don’t like cemeteries.

I don’t go there, but I do go to our basement.
Reluctantly.

Outside of October 10, 2011 and the subsequent funeral services and burials, the hardest days of my life were watching my mother and sisters pack up Karen’s clothes and things and the day I finally emptied Cole’s bedroom in preparation to move.

We boxed up some items for the boys when they are older. They will each have some jewelry, dishes, keepsakes, etc. Things they can look at, use, and remember. Or at least in Casey’s life, he can hold something tangible that once belonged to his mother.

Do you get the inherent unfairness of what I just wrote?

In my basement are stored things for their future lives to help them remember what must seem like a distant memory even now.

And I want to rage at the senselessness of it all.

In my basement are two footlockers once owned by a former neighbor. Those footlockers traveled all over the world on various US Navy Sea Bee deployments. These days they see no travel at all.

None whatsoever.

I hate going to the basement.
For anything.

We store lots of stuff there. Things that are helpful. Things that are seasonal. So sometimes we go there to bring up and out those things we might need for the occasion.

I hate going to the basement.
When I do, I am always drawn to those two green and battered footlockers.
Cole no longer has a bedroom to store his earthly treasures, so I store them there.

His Sea Wolves hockey poster.
His favorite CD’s.
Hats.
Balls.
His graduation cap.
Books.
Stuff that he surrounded himself with.
And Brett Farve memorabilia.

Going to the basement is hard.
Opening those footlockers is an agony all its own.

As it turns out, basements and cemeteries have a lot in common.
At least for me.

At least for me.

For those who are hurting and grieving, know we are fellow travelers. May our hearts be healed. May our painful places be less so.

Thank you for reading.

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Stop, Drop, & Listen

If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas–no wonder my words have been impetuous. (Job 6:2-3 NIV)

Don’t be a fool!

Yes, a fool.

And yes, I am talking to you.

I have made many foolish mistakes in my life. Sometimes I am afraid my picture has been used in the dictionary as the illustration of the definition fool.

Free Online Dictionary: Fool–One who is deficient in judgment, sense, or understanding. One who acts unwisely on a given occasion.

IMG_0067

I wish I had cornered the market when it comes to being a fool, but it would be foolish of me to think so.

So when I say Don’t Be A Fool, it’s really about saving ourselves from creating more heartache, pain, anger, and stress in those who are already dealing with a painful reality.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this post is really about what to do or not and what to say or not when people are grieving.

Grieving is the hardest work I have ever done. Grieving turns your already upside down world into a life that is now also inside out.

Try to imagine.

Let it be the loss of a child and then the depth of the grieving pit is bottomless… to my friends that belong to the cruelest club in all the world, can I get an Amen?

Here’s how not to be foolish when interacting or attempting to comfort those who grieve:

1. If you can’t control your need to say something with words, buy yourself some duct tape or otherwise, don’t say anything other than I am sorry and I love you (repeated over and over again).

Please try to get this. Job’s friends were most helpful when they sat silent with him in the ashes of mourning. But as soon as they opened their mouths… well, you know the story. Their words did not help. Their words created more pain, more stress, and more anguish.

Even now, well meaning people keep trying to fix me. Sit in the ashes with me, but please quit using your theological arguments to fix what can’t be fixed. My heart may be, but I am not broken!

I suffered a great loss and dealing with that is different for each person. It is a journey, a path, a road that must be traveled. You cannot make it shorter, but you can surely make it longer, harder, and more difficult.

I know my friends have a need to make things better. And I know you would be more comfortable if my grief or struggling wasn’t so evident.

But think of the alternative… Wouldn’t you rather me engage God and wrestle my way back to a stronger, deeper faith than ever before? Wouldn’t you rather me limp with God than not walk at all?

2. This is so important: See what was written above!

Please don’t take this wrong. Please don’t see this as being just about me.

It’s not.

It is, however, about every lost soul who wanders hurt and lonely in the darkness wondering why God has disappeared…

Give us enough time and we’ll find our way again.

God is patient and you should be too.

“Therefore I will not keep silent;
I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. (Job 7:11 NIV)

PS. Please hit the share button–and go DWTBA Facebook Page and like and share!

Les Ferguson, Jr.