A few years ago, I lost someone dear to me to a very heinous crime, and I remember going to worship at my home church in Portland the following weekend after helping bury my friend. I am not sure I made it through the Call to Worship before I started to sob. I instinctively popped out of my chair and fled the sanctuary to the safety of the women’s bathroom. My dear friend, Maria, saw me leave and followed: she found me in the bathroom, weeping. She put her arm gently around me and told me that I didn’t need to stay for the service and we could go somewhere else, wherever I wanted to go. I remember telling her that I wanted…maybe I said needed…to be at church. I needed to be with my faith family. I needed Jesus’ body to be present and real.
We went back into the sanctuary and I stayed through the service, crying quietly throughout. One of the people who sat with me that morning was a girl from our youth group I was close to, and I remember thinking later that it was good that she saw that it was okay to be a mess at church. In that moment, I knew she was learning something important: that being a mess didn’t mean you had to leave worship or leave church until you could get your act together. The mess was welcome. The mess belongs.
Earlier this year, an author I admire published an article with a provocative title: “Grief Hides in the Church Bathroom”. As soon as I saw the title, I recalled my own church bathroom moment with Maria, and reading her reflection felt like a raw, honest look at what is too often the reality for too many of us. She writes:
“A friend of mine recently lost her daughter, an 8-month-old baby who was just beginning to get to know the world around her.
I saw my friend at church not long afterward, a grieving mother holding so much in and around her. As we entered the sanctuary, I could feel something in the air. It felt like grief lingered all around us.
In the middle of worship, while the congregation was preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas, my friend left the room.
I followed after her.
We ended up on the church’s bathroom floor, weeping together, as people came and went, unsure what to say to us. We chose to grieve together in that moment instead of holding things together for the sake of others’ comfort.
Church is often like that.
We celebrate together in worship but grieve alone.”
I have confessed before that pastors are often the worst offenders: we like to read the sunny, happy Psalms in worship, and we even go so far in our worship planning as to cut off the scripture readings before they get to any expressions of anger or abandonment, judgment or grief. I recognize that in doing so, we are the ones crafting that unspoken expectation that grief belongs in the church bathroom and not the sanctuary.
Jesus suffered pain and loss; he wept and showed anger; he grieved disappointments in his life, his ministry and with his friends. The Psalms gave Jesus himself language for speaking to God about what he experienced and I hope and pray we might become followers of Jesus in this way as well. Our bathrooms at SCC are quite lovely, but there is nothing we might feel or experience that “does not belong” in our sanctuary, in our worship, and among our family of faith.
The mess belongs.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30