I’ve lived my entire life in church, nestled safely inside the Bible Belt and surrounded by believers just like me—flawed people who desperately love Jesus and are trying to do their best to figure this whole Christian-Living-thing out.
None of us are perfect. Churches can be pretty messed up places because, well, they are filled with broken, sinful people. Just like in Walmart. Just like in McDonalds. Just like in our homes.
During the past year, I’ve watched a loved one battle the crippling effects of a severe anxiety disorder. Fear, isolation, physical pain, heart palpitations, weight loss, nightmares and much more have marked my friend’s journey. It’s a battle that has taken every ounce of fortitude she has to keep going, to rise from bed each day, and continue on when all she wants to do is hide from the world.
Strength comes in so many forms.
Yet each week as this person has stepped beyond the fears quaking her soul and entered through the doors of her church, she is confronted with whispers when she slides into the back pew. People cut sideways glances when she chooses to remain aloof instead of joining the conversations around her. They scold and even glare when she eases away from social gatherings before and after worship. Instead they talk about her. They question her motives, the change in her personality and even her walk with Christ. And the scalding conversation continually finds its way back to her ears.
Now, each step into church causes this friend to succumb to crippling panic attacks. Instead of being the haven of comfort she needed, her church became one of the major catalysts driving her anxiety. I think the term I’m looking for is “friendly fire”.
It breaks my heart to pieces.
Where I once sensed a tenderness inside, I’m fighting against the brittle shell attempting to encase my heart. I’m angry. These things ought not be. As followers of Jesus, we have to do better. We must do better.
I’ve been pondering the kind of person I want to be, not just in theory, but in every practical sense. In so doing, it’s natural to consider the kind of people I enjoy being around. Not just the ones I find funny or interesting but those I find safe.
When I battled depression in 2002, I was in college and surrounded by a wide array of friendships, but the people who nurtured my soul the most were those dubbed by society as “hippies”. Let me explain.
I’m not talking about flower children, drug users, or dudes with long hair sitting around writing protest music. My hippie friends were mostly comprised of eclectic artisans who didn’t worry about the conventional norms. It didn’t matter if you wore your holey sweats to class or a tux. They would greet you with the same warm smile and ask you to hang with them at lunch. It didn’t matter if you were young or old, rich or poor, male or female, educated or ignorant…they took delight in learning about you and your story.
When I was having a good day, we would laugh and cut up. When I was in my deepest days of darkness, they made no judgments. No pep talks. They merely sat with me in the quiet, gently strumming a guitar with no agenda other than to be present with me. They accepted me exactly as I was, flaws and all. And I loved them for it.
As Jesus’ followers, that is the kind of love we should be pouring into others. Kindness, truth, gentleness. Our presence. No demands. No manipulation. Just a humble willingness to sit with the hurting as God heals their wounded places with His light.
It’s time for us to open our eyes. Anxiety and panic attacks are a real struggle for many people in churches all across our world. For some, victory is not singing a solo or teaching a Sunday school class. Sometimes victory is finding the courage to come and sit in the back pew.
We are not asked to have all the answers, but we are told to love like Jesus.
Sitting with the hurting. No expectations, just acceptance. What a beautiful thought.
They will know us by our love. John 13:35