What I have learnt in the past six months is that churches are not filled with shiny, perfect people. They are hospitals for the broken. Recently was a crap Sunday. A culmination of four days that had left my heart and soul fractured. Living on a fault line, as Katy Perry sings in ‘Grace of God’.
So the perfect day to go to church. Yet also the worst. When you are fragile, exposing your fragility publicly is terrifying. Yet I needed the comfort of faith more than I needed my mask of normality, which is what I had plastered over the fault line to get me through the four days prior. My strength tank was dangerously dry. The bowser of the Bible had nurtured me. Yet even though I was comforted by faith, I sought the magnification that regular attendance at church delivers.
My God it was tough. On my own on the drive over, I just cried. Not sure I can do this today. Not sure I’m going to be anything but a saline snot heap. Not sure I’m ready to crack that fault line. I sat in the car, parked outside church, wiping away tears, slugging back caffeine and praying for the game face that would get me in the door. Knowing it is a safe place to turn up to in a mess is very different to actually doing it.
Deep breath. Dark glasses. Open car door. Then, blessing one. Someone who was leaving after the earlier service, whom I have never met, was parked close by. He buzzed down his car window. Sent me a gentle smile. Introduced himself and hoped I had a good day. Insignificant in content, but significant to me. God’s gentle reminder of the comfort of His community.
I confess it didn’t bolster me so much that I marched in revived. I sort of slunk in, avoiding eye contact, and immediately revolved straight back out before I even made it to the name badge table.
Deep breaths. Back in. To blessing 2 – a jovial older member who has been supportive of me on this road. He stood talking and introduced me to someone whom I had not yet met, who kindly mentioned how lovely he had found my recent testimony. Which had me hiccuping, excusing myself and diving for the nearest ladies room. Where I replaced the prescription lenses in my sunnies for tissues.
Deep breath again. Exit the ladies room. Make it to the reception table. Where, of course, the senior pastor and connections pastor are standing, right in front of my name badge. FFS God, I’m not getting in under the radar here am I?
“Phil, how are you?” they enquired. Don’t know about you, but when I’m on an emotional fault line and someone asks me that question there’s only one result. Saline and snot. Time to be honest, or at best take refuge in flippancy. “Umm, I’m wearing my game face today,” I admitted from behind dark glasses.
Blessing 3, as the connections pastor takes the conversation to more neutral, less emotive territory: the books for sale, what had I read and what he wanted to read – which just happened to be over in a quieter corner. It felt like a kindly boarder collie gently shepherding me along. And there, right there, he picks up a book on a topic that pretty much covers everything I’ve been recently fractured by. Tears turn to somewhat hysterical laughter at God’s prodding. Let it all out, let Me, let My people help.
Well, obviously, I chose the back row at church. Where a fantastic older lady, for whom I have huge respect and admiration, asked if she could join me. I admitted I was slinking in with my game face on. “Me too,” she replied, as we both pulled tissues out our respective bags. She made me laugh as the Children’s Minister stood on stage announcing that there would be a water theme – complete with a water-filled, bursting balloon fight – as they discussed the birth of Jesus. Exploding membranes. Fluid. We caught each other’s eye like children misbehaving at the back of the school bus. “Probabably not the best imagery, water and birth,” she whispered.
Then God’s humour, His way of showing me that I was noticed – that WE were noticed in the back row. Of all the Sunday’s for the big screen church projector to fail. So everyone in the congregation turned around to face the back of the church to sing hymns from the smaller screen that was positioned directly above our heads. Everyone. Facing the back row. Yes, you are seen, yes, you are noticed, yes, you are loved.
And the finale? Over the days prior I had prayed, wished for a mother figure. Someone wise and maternal from whom I could draw wisdom. That, I admit, is my major hole. I did not have a typical maternal relationship with my own mother. Our roles had been reversed since I was quite young. I have always noticed that gap in my emotional responses, typically tending towards a more masculine ‘deal with it’ over feminine compassion. Not that those feelings are gender-dependent. Simply that I have always ‘dealt with it’ and too often forget that others require more support.
Seeking maternal wisdom is different to paternal. Or even using male and female peers as sounding boards. Blessing four: the lady who joined me in the back row delivered me gold. Gentle, wise-woman strategies to help navigate my confusion in a more compassionate, Christian-way. Along with the women’s minster she prayed and cracked open that fault line with sensitivity. Let in light and grace.
I went in broken and weak. When I came out I wasn’t shiny. Or new. But I was comforted, supported and strengthened for the next steps on the path.
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.