When Church Hurts Like Hell

To the weary one, who has gone to church hoping to feel encouraged, accepted, inspired, but instead came away wounded, beaten and bruised…you are not alone. And I am so sorry.

I wish that never happened to you. I wish that never happened to me. I wish that never happened to anyone. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Why? Because people. That’s why.

People hurt. And the church is people. And so, church hurts.

No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. But nothing in this fallen world is how it’s supposed to be. Not even the church. Not even God’s people. Which is probably why the Bible teems with reminders, instructions and commands about how to get along, how to do this thing we call community, how to live broken and love the broken.

Have you ever seen someone create mosaic art by hand? They begin the long process by mixing earth and water to mold the tiles, which are then dried, cut and fired. The artist then breaks those tiles into smaller pieces – cutting and chipping, sanding edges or sharpening a point, pressing the pieces into a muddy sort of clay before washing them clean. Hundreds, thousands of broken pieces fit together to reveal one, complete, stunning master-piece.

When the sun is shining and I believe God is good and my spirit overflows with gratitude, that’s how I envision community: broken lives on broken lives – with all our imperfect shapes and sharp edges and rough surfaces – being fit together and made to shine. In the hands of the Master, we become a Master-piece.

That’s on a good day. And with spiritual eyes that see through the veil of a fallen world.

But on a bad day…oh, on the bad days, I am fractured glass sinking in mud. Like quicksand, it pulls me under. On every side I am pressed and scratched and pulled and scraped. I want nothing more than to escape. What beauty, I wonder, could ever come of this? Hopeless. On bad days, I am hopeless.

Because sometimes church hurts like hell.

Sometimes going to church feels like stepping onto a battlefied. You come armed and armored, like you’re bringing your fists to a pistol war. And if, like me, your church is not only your spiritual home and family, but your place of work, there’s no escape. Which has been both a challenge and a gift. When church hurts, it’s complicated.

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Frozen | Thoughts on Biblical commUNITY

Here’s the thing: If I knew when I committed to writing this post that the blogosphere would be buried in Frozen commentary like Arendelle in deep, deep, deep, deep snow, I probably would have reconsidered. But alas, I’ve promised a post, so here it is. 

If you have kids, teenagers, college students or well, even a young-at-heart-sister-in-law, then you’ve most likely spent your winter as I have: listening to said family members belt out the entire Frozen soundtrack morning, noon and night. My girls have even taken to singing duets, complete with knocking on a door, any door, before crooning: Do you wanna build a snowman?

And then they built one. Look familiar?

Family Photo

Family Photo

Anyway, I have this quirky habit of perceiving spiritual truth in all sorts of pop-culture media. Give me a minute and I’ll preach you a sermon on Finding Nemo, Perfect, The Hunger Games. (In some case, I already have.)

Frozen is no exception. Besides, you didn’t seriously think I could watch a movie with the tag-line “only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart” and not write about it, did you?

But that’s not because I want to preach you a sermon. Rather, it’s because I know what it’s like to have a frozen heart. To live so heavy under a curse, that I feared being discovered, being known. “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know,” were lyrics to the soundtrack of my life long before Disney wrote Let it Go.

Some hearts, like Elsa’s, freeze because of fear, and some hearts, like Anna’s, freeze from wounds caused by others. For most of us, it’s a combination of both.

I know what it’s like to be mortally wounded – to be struck through the heart with icy shards of rejection and abandonment. To feel the cold spread across my chest, squeezing the air from my lungs, leaving me breathless, face down in the hard earth.

And I know what it’s like to do the wounding, the destroying – to be the ice queen. To detest the woman in the mirror. To distrust my darkened self, because “I can’t control the curse.” To live in terror of corrupting everything I touch, everyone who comes near me because there’s “no escape from the storm inside of me.”

I’ve fought in vain to be “the good girl [I] always had to be” – not just because I don’t want to be hurt – but because I don’t want to hurt others. And I have run away, isolating myself in an ice castle of my own design. A place where fear bars the doors to pain…and love.

Ice castles. We all build them. At first they seem beautiful, protective, even empowering, like Elsa’s. (OK, hers was pretty awesome.) But they’re also cold and confining.

Like Anna, people have come knocking on my door, offering me love with open hands: “You don’t have to keep your distance anymore. We can head down this mountain together. You don’t have to live in fear. I will be right here.”

And like Elsa I have cried out, “You mean well, but leave me be. Yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free!  Just stay away and you’ll be safe from me!”

But can a person be alone and free? Our ice castles – fortresses built to protect and isolate – are less like palaces and more like prisons than we care to admit. But even if the cold never bothered us anyway, loneliness and disconnection weary the heart. And weary hearts can’t fly free.

We can be alone, but we can’t be alone and free.

Yet sometimes, a weary, earth-bound heart seems bearable in exchange for a life safe from harming or being harmed. But a life without love inflicts its own sort of pain. Not only on us, but on those around us.

Elsa’s cry, “Just stay away and you’ll be safe from me!” sounds like a noble sacrifice and a reasonable demand when considering the stakes. But she failed to discern the thin, sharp edge that separates truth from reality…

To avoid others, to avoid love or vulnerability or pain, is not to be free, but to chain ourselves to freedom’s great imposter: independence.

Elsa believed that she could shut away her frozen heart and live independently without consequence. But the opposite happened. By isolating herself and giving in to her fear and curse, she set off an eternal winter, nearly destroying her entire kingdom. She wasn’t free at all. In fact, things were worse than ever.

And so it goes with us. How often do we succumb to our darkest fears, satisfy our guilty pleasures, indulge our most agonizing curses, and tell ourselves that as long as we do it alone, no one will get hurt? But someone’s always getting hurt.

Build an ice castle and no matter how much it sparkles, you will wound hearts and court the eternal winter…because relational independence is a lie. Our choices and our actions affect each other in ways far beyond what our eyes can see or our minds can know.

The truth is that we were created for community, connection, relationships – with God and with each other. Relationships aren’t a luxury; they are a necessity – living water for our thirsty souls.

Community, first with God in the holiest of communities: where the warm, glowing Breath of Life and Love made ours by the ultimate act of true love, thaws our frozen hearts and lifts the burden of our curse so our souls can take wing. Only in binding ourselves to Him, our True and Mighty Fortress, are we set free.

Free to love from the fortress of His perfect love, we are Not Alone, but Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters. Like Elsa and Anna, we can face this life together, hand in hand, even though someone might get hurt.

And therein lies the greatest freedom: to throw open the doors of your heart and love, really love…despite the risk, despite the loneliness, despite the pain, despite the failure, despite the brokenness. That is true freedom.