Her words of kindness, they cut like a knife.
Pain has a way of taking your heart to peculiar places like that.
They’d passed a pad of paper around the table, and when it came to me, I read the headings at the top of each column I was supposed to fill in:
Name. E-mail address. Small Group.
Sounds like a simple sign in. But that last column, it came as a punch in the gut. It’s so loaded for me. Because we’re not in a small group, and we long to be a part of one again like we used to be, but we can’t right now. Haven’t been able to for six years. Six years . . . And we feel the loss. We grieve it deeply, as I shared in Accepting the Sidelines.
I’ll spare you the details except to say that since my health crash, simple things have become monumental achievements for me, including going to church. In fact, at a dentist appointment last month, I needed the hygienist to help me simply walk down the hall. My body’s not what it used to be. And sadly, neither is our church involvement.
Seeing the list of every name with a small group home for their heart listed, I deliberated as to what to write. Nope, not N/A. And no, I didn’t want to leave it blank. So I wrote my honest answer just like everybody else did. Only mine looked quite different:
Can’t wait to be able to be a part of one again!
We continued to hear the hearts of the women from the panel, and attempted to make our way around the table to share our own stories. We listened, we encouraged, we, uh, accidentally started a fire when a piece of paper got too close to the tea light so our quick-on-her-feet table hostess quickly put it out while our table disrupted those around us with all our loud snickering from the corner of the room.
[Note: Peaceful picture above pre-pyromania]
It’s the stuff memories are made of. I only spent two hours with these women, but I felt as if we’d been hangin’ out together for a long, long time. There was just something about that table in the corner.
Shortly thereafter, the evening came to a close. And the sweetest table hostess you’ll ever meet offered me a brochure listing all our church’s small groups. Assuming she offered it in response to my sign-in comment, she was likely confused when I declined, but I told her I knew all the info was online, and that I had an invisible illness that limited me. Not always my favorite ice-breaker when meeting new people, but my strange reality is that it's not a lack of information that stands between me and a small group.
Amidst all the dismissal activity, a sweet new gal two seats down likely didn’t hear my response because she followed up by sharing which small group she’s a part of and how much she loves it. (The friend sitting between the two of us had been in that young marrieds group we led a while ago, so she was the only one at the table familiar with our family’s journey.) I turned to the new gal and replied,
“We LOVE small groups. But we don’t have one.
Because I have illness instead.”
I turned to my friend next to me, said how much we’ve missed it, and unexpectedly, the flood gates of tears opened and opened wide. And let me tell ya, they weren’t closin’ anytime soon.
A thoughtful invitation to be part of community unearthed my deep pain of not having been able to be a part of one for a long, long time. So there I sat, a sobbing mess in my friend’s arm while everybody got their coats on and exchanged pleasant good-byes.
This friend, she wasn’t intimidated by my pain. Her tender heart spoke words of comfort and words of hope into my hurting soul. The freedom she offered me to freely grieve was a rare gift. Thank You, God. For Your hands and feet through her.
Truth be told, amidst the pain, there was likely a heaping portion of pride in the mix as well. Because I wrestle constantly with thinking that my value is in what I do, rather than in Who He is in me. And that includes my part in the body of Christ. So since I’m not able to be involved in formalized ministry, I constantly battle voices that question my worth – because I’m not contributing. I may be a leg in the body of Christ, but I feel like a broken one that’s not doing its part. I get loving Jesus mixed up with performance so easily and so often.
And small groups that meet on Sunday mornings? Well I’ve been going to Sunday School since before I was born, so to have somebody “reach out to me,” well, my pride felt on the wrong end of that conversation. I’m used to being the reacher outer, not the one being reached out to. So I felt misunderstood. Because deep down, I wanted to be thought of more highly. I want to be perceived as the active, valuable member of the Body, not the uninvolved one who needs reaching out to. I guess not all that different from wanting to be one of the cool kids in school, huh?
It’s a humbling journey these nuances of chronic, invisible illness. Quite an awakening to all that lurks in the heart. And I wrestled with whether or not to even publicize this pain. Reliving the pain by getting it on paper made for another difficult day emotionally, and it left me asking, “What’s the point? Why not just talk about the good stuff? The joy?”
I was tempted, yet again, to stuff.
Then I went back and read the comments on Accepting the Sidelines. And I rediscovered several comments from folks saying I was describing their struggle, that they were facing the same pain. I remembered my mission here, and realized I needed to write it for them. For Tina, for Lizzy, for the rest of you who are facing the same painful isolation. This piece is for you – to remind you that there is somebody out there who truly understands. Who cares. And who feels your pain with you.
You are not alone, my fellow sojourners. You are not alone.
The other reason I struggled with whether or not to share this was because I’m concerned about the prospect of those sweet new friends stumbling across this piece and feeling badly when they have nothing to feel badly about, nothing they did wrong.
What those two precious souls don’t know is that the Lord has been lovingly leading me along a journey the past couple months as it relates to my pain on the sidelines of church. I’ve discovered that during this long journey, I’ve primarily been stuffing my pain the entire time with the intent of protecting my beloved church family. Or rather, protecting myself. Protecting myself from the relational temptations that can accompany pain. In other words, I love my church family far too much to open a door to a temptation to be bitter, and so I’ve pretty much closed the door to my feelings in that arena of life.
Not necessarily the best way to manage pain. So God’s giving me permission. Permission to acknowledge my pain in that context even though it doesn’t feel pretty or churchy or appropriate. The freedom to grieve our relational losses because I’m (finally!) learning that it’s healthier even to grieve than to stuff.
Our pastor reminded us just yesterday morning that Jesus has the authority to change our identity, and I believe that’s exactly what He’s doing in my emotional being these days. I believe He’s changing my identity from that of a stuffer to that of one who lets her heart feel, who lets her heart beat. Because even in the painful feelings like grief and loss, it’s in our allowing ourselves to feel that keeps our feelings alive, keeps our souls alive.
There's a strange sense of encouragement hidden in my grieving the other night. Evidence of emotional health and healing. That night, God offered me the opportunity to tell my heart to beat again.
With heavy tears, I said yes.
Image complements of Women of Providence Baptist Church