Now, I'm no theologian, but the general gist of the New Testament, back when I read the thing, was that there was no such thing as a problem child. Indeed the whole 'vibe' of the Gospel seemed to loosely be that you didn't fix yourself, but went up to the Son of God and said, "here, work with this! This is me!" and then things fell into place. So this seems to be in contrast to those statements that say: You are the problem. You should not be here. You should just try harder to serve everybody and be happy.
So when I titled this post "Why I 'suck' at going to church", it was not actually me being down on myself or blaming myself. I'm about 75% sure that I don't 'suck' at going to church, and that's a pretty high score for a person with my self-esteem to give myself. But it is one of those areas where I can look back at the last 15 years of my life and say without a doubt that I have contributed to my churches. Countless youth missions and years working in Sunday preschool? Tick. Leadership at holiday programs? Tick. Contributor to and occasional leader of worship music? Tick. Helped start up not one, but two different Mainly Music programs at two very different churches? Tick. Washer of many dishes? Tick. So why haven't I done better at church? Why haven't I been happier? My church history reads like any evangelical 'good kid's yearbook.
The problem, I believe(my opinion only), is that my journey with mental illness has made it increasingly hard to be a fully included member of anything. I get it, it's hard to love someone with 'baggage'. I'm easily hurt, because I love easily. I attach myself unwisely to people who don't care anywhere near as much about me. Is this part and parcel of Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder? Probably. Does this mean I don't get to participate in church? I don't think so.
Having chronic depression, like a swollen tumour across one's shoulders and back, hobbling like Igor, messes with a lot of systems in my brain. Poor brain. In terms of faith, it means(deep breath)... that I have never personally felt the presence of God in my life. I've never felt that buzz. Does that make me doubt Her existence? Hells yeah. Which is why, for me, participation was the way that I felt tangible proof of my faith. I had to DO the thing so that I could SEE that there was a thing. For me, seeing and doing is believing. Maybe this explains why I never doubted God's existence and love for me when I was at a small conservative church where I could do as much as I wanted, no previous qualifications needed. I struggled so much with the politics, with the theology, with the gut content of every sermon at Church No. 1, but I could still sing on the worship team and help out in the creche and lead youth teams and preach at the youth services and help revamp the Sunday School. I could work out the Gospel with my hands and arms, and see it with my own two eyes. I left eventually after my post-natal depression climaxed with an overnight stay in hospital and yet I couldn't tell anyone at church about it. I didn't want secrets like that. I needed to be supported with my mental illness, not judged.
At Church No. 2 it turned out to be the opposite. I was drawn to it for its content, its slightly-more-liberal-reading of the Bible, its tolerance for different views, its stellar music. The leaders were funny, clever and erudite, yet somewhat unapproachable. What I didn't see at the beginning was that the strength of its purpose, its clever sermons and passionate talk of community, was that as a fairly young church plant, the inner core of about 20 or 30 people(all individually amazing, loving, faithful, awesome people) were close close friends who had long histories with each other. This made for a strong, passionate core from which to spiral off its various ministries. It also made for the most lovable non-snobby clique ever.
Unfortunately, my early involvement with this group, who were welcoming and affable and lovely, was untenable long term because of my lack of history with them, and ended in pain and hurt - for me.
"The feeling of being excluded, by definition, creates an intense loneliness... People leave church because they start to feel like an outsider, and that makes them lonely. It is an emotion that is painful, powerful, and given enough time, unbearable."
Now I genuinely do not believe that this was their intention, rather my own, rather innocent mistake. Instead of remaining on the outside, as I should have, being a newby, and making friends with other newbies, I fell right into the middle of the middle. That our friendships never progressed further than they did is no one's fault. I hadn't lived in London with them ten years ago. My children didn't go to the same schools. I didn't live in the central suburbs. All rather trifling details that meant we were never destined to be bosom buddies, but the damage had been done. I attached myself quickly and easily to them, too fast, and fell in love with them all. A more decent bunch of people you will not find easily. And so, my heart started breaking, especially as new people who ticked the right boxes were easily scooped up.
The leaders and their group were the core of the church, and as such, it became impossible to become more involved. As a slick city church with standards of excellence, my ten years of experience contributing to and leading children and youth ministry counted for nothing, when I didn't have the right university degree. And as I kept pushing and applying and knocking, I began to get the feeling that my mental illness was an issue here too. At a lousy job interview they asked questions about how I would cope under pressure, how I would stand up under the stress of working part time and being a mother, how I would deal with my emotions. I began to also believe, along with them, that the limitations of my mental illness were far reaching. They were probably right, I probably couldn't cope, I'd probably go all mental.... And when they went outside the pool of applicants to headhunt one of the inner circle of friends who was not looking for a job, I knew my fate was sealed. I was just NOT GOOD ENOUGH. I had wanted the job, we needed the job(our income was and still is approximately half the average income there), but I just wasn't good enough.
In hindsight, at Church No. 2 I began(and continue) to have the opposite problem as at Church No. 1. Denied entry into such a competitive church 'industry', and unable to commit to the huge time involved with the music group(although I did 'pass' the audition - phew!), my hands were tied, and I began to lose my faith. I still sang along lustily to the worship music, but tears poured down my face. Eventually the emotional rawness of exposing myself to that atmosphere - where the melody and harmony soared, scooping you up on a wave of feeling, and then left you high and dry on the beach in real life - became just too much and I stopped singing along. My continuing struggle with depression - and the newly diagnosed Chronic Fatigue - left me unable to keep up with attendance.... and no one noticed... As I wept in the congregation, and then wept at home, no one called or emailed to see where I was. Why? Because I wasn't important. I wasn't part of the essential core. I hadn't been particularly useful or involved, so why would my attendance be an issue? I was - and am - a difficult person, a high-maintenance friend, and a super-sensitive soul.
I recently read this article, on the super-excellent Rachel Held Evans blog, about 'Mental Illness and The Church', where the author describes it as "the ‘'no-casserole' illness, meaning faith communities don’t always rally around a person or family suffering from mental illness the way they might a family walking through cancer."
She goes on to explain:
"When someone comes to us and says, “I have cancer” or “I broke my leg,” we don’t freak out and think, “I have no idea how to fix that, so I’m going to tell the person to get professional help and walk away.” No, we don’t feel a sense of obligation to cure cancer or reset the person’s broken bone. We know what to do. We pray for them. We ask them what they need. We bring meals to their house to feed their family. We give them rides and make sure their kids are taken care of and even do the laundry.
But when someone is having a mental health problem, our first thought is more likely to be something like “I don’t know how to help with that.” We might tell the person to get professional help and figure we’ve done our job and there’s really nothing more we can do. Why don’t we offer casseroles to people who have a family member in a behavioral health hospital or a depressive funk? Why don’t we make sure they and their families are taken care of?"
My family doesn't go to church any more. Don't even get me started on the problems we've had trying to attend normally with two kids on the spectrum who hate noisy kids programs. Do I still believe in God? I'm having a hard time with that one. I don't necessarily think that there is no God, I just tend to feel like He or She is rather oblivious and unconcerned with the state of things down here, but again, I know that is just my depression speaking. Do I still believe in Church? Yup. I think when it works, it works good, and its essential. I can't even imagine how people who don't go to church have babies... I mean, who makes their meals? Who does their laundry? What? No.
Is church for me? I don't know. What I do know is that I need and long for a community that is tolerant, non-judgmental, and approaches you with open arms. I think I am the kind of person who needs church, because I need to feel loved. But it just doesn't always work out that way.
I have been trying to write this blog post for years now. Because it's my blog, and it's my pain, and instead I've just bitten my tongue, and sat on my hands, and tried to be a good, non-complaining churchgoer. Which is why I'm trying really hard not to feel guilty about having written it now. If you read this, and you've been at a church with me, I'm sorry if you react with anger, surprise or hurt. I know I'm a hard person to love. But this is my blog.