Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why I don't always like going to church

We started singing and I heard a tambourine.

I looked over the praise band (again. I had already checked them out to see if Abby could date any of them; i.e. gauging general age group, no ring on the finger, etc.) and spied no tambourine.

Where is that coming from? I thought.

And then I spotted it.

Two pews ahead of me, a little to my right.

This woman had a tambourine, and was just jammin' along to the music.



You know what my favorite part of this was, aside from the obviously joyous fact that she was praising Jesus with her own instrumental accompaniment?

This means she carries a tambourine in her purse.

And I just love that.

And here's the full truth about this situation. In another context -- another church, another day, another mood for Bailey -- I could have found this to be supremely annoying.

But I didn't. And for that reason I all the more enjoyed hearing the tambourine jingle two pews ahead of me, grateful I was in close earshot.

Because, you see, I find myself to actually be my most judgmental at times, in church.

I don't really know why, though I've dissected it and have some theories.

For a long time I was really down and struggling in life, and while I think church should be a safe place to come and be broken, it's often a place I find people to have smiles slapped across their faces. And when you're depressed, for me at least, this doesn't lift you up. It makes you feel more alone, more afraid to voice your problems, to really voice them without following up with a quick "I'll be OK" grin.

Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of genuinely happy people at church. And some of them walk in dejected and walk out feeling lifted up by God's grace and love, by music, by a supportive church family. And that's great and those people should smile. I find myself walking in these days with a smile already on my face.

But you know how when you're going through a tough time and you find a certain music album that carries you through? And then you get out of your season and you move on to another, probably more bubble-gummy, more poppy record?

And then one day you find that original album, that one that you once played over and over, in your car, on your iPod, and you give it another spin?

And then you feel those sad, bad, mad feelings of the past creep back in?

Maybe it doesn't happen to you, but it does to me.

I usually retire those albums, because the emotional tie is just too strong.

This is how church can make me feel sometimes, especially if I'm in any sort of vulnerable place -- hungry, tired, worried about work the next day, worried about a relationship, mad, sad.

Because it's such a quick trigger for me -- remembering how for all those shaky, uncertain years, how it felt to walk into a building full of Smilers. It felt terrible. And so walking into a super happy church can be one of the strongest triggers for judgmental-ness on my part that I know.

I hate this, of course, because when I was growing up I loved church. I was well loved, the music lifted me up, the messages made me think, the people around me made me smile. I was encouraged and at peace.

But then I walked into adolescence and my family started moving around a lot. The youth groups at new churches we attended had already-formed cliques. I got cynical. Then I moved into adulthood, and things continued to get hard in my life; namely, I struggled with up and down emotions that I couldn't control, which often caused me to focus on the negative ones. So when I saw those smiling faces at church, I saw them with new, not-so-innocent eyes, and I felt envy. Annoyance. Anger. Sadness.

Today, I'm grateful to say I walk in to church with a better attitude. But the judgment is still there, just barely under my surface. I suspect that all the Smilers aren't truly happy, that they're hiding something, that they should just be out with it and tell me how they're messed up like me so I can start liking them, using our shared pain as bonding glue.

But I have to give them their own time. I have to rest in the truth that we do all have pain, and have quiet compassion for the sad truths of people's lives that I haven't yet heard. Maybe hardest of all -- and this may sound super weird, or downright sick, but if you've been depressed like I have, then maybe this will make sense to you -- I have to accept that these people may never come forward to me with their hurts, past, present or future. They may always present the Smiler to me.

Like I said, that may sound weird, but I guess I've just dealt with enough emotional pain, and enough hiding of that pain, that I know healing really only comes when we begin to let things out. I don't know that I've ever known a case where someone's hurts have truly undergone repair without some air being let out somewhere, sometime.

So it hurts me to see smiles all the time when I know there's pain.

Especially in church, where it's all about God healing that pain. Putting fresh, wet clay in the dry, hardened cracks of our pottery. I hate walking into a church where the mood is just: "We're all OK, yay Jesus, let's sing this loud, happy song!"

So I'm sure you're wondering right now why I was so excited about that tambourine, then.

Trust me, me too. (But God works in mysterious ways on our hearts, and sometimes turns the grumpiest among us into tambourine lovers).

This weekend was my first time visiting the Tambourine Church.

I was greeted instantly upon walking in the door, by a European accent and a hand that held mine for an inappropriate length of time. I protested not, as I enjoyed the warm smile attached, and moments before had texted my roommate to tell her I was nervous to walk in to the church solo. Now I wanted to text her and tell her about my new, immediate friend.

Within five minutes I had met eight new faces.

I told someone about this later and he said, "This is a Lutheran church and it was welcoming?"

I walked into a church full of Smilers. But something about these Smilers felt real to me. Not fake. Like they weren't trying too hard. I'm not sure what it was but I felt OK there, among them.

My first ever therapist introduced me to the concept of survival, something I've taken with me in my life walk. She taught me about the strength -- and while she didn't say it specifically, the happiness -- that comes with survival. Not only do you know you can walk through something hard for a second time, but you feel strong and happy for having walked through, and hallelujah! survived!, the first time.

I didn't get a feeling, specifically anyway, that these people I just met had survived something, but I didn't feel like they were just in church for the happy-go-lucky ness of it all, either.

The sermon that day was preached by a very smiley -- and beautiful! -- pastor. There was much hope and happiness in her message.

But it was centered, actually, on death. She preached on John 12:23-26, when Jesus explained that a wheat kernel has to die in the ground in order to grow new life.

The sermon was all about letting your life, as it is, go, in order for new, better life to be birthed from the soil.

Her message used gardening as the framework, but it's opening narrative was about September 11th. It was preached with a smile, but it was one that understood survival. It understood the pain of life, and loss, and death. It was real.

And perhaps that's why the tambourine didn't jangle my nerves, but rather made a joyous song in my heart. Because when I walked in, yes I was greeted by Smilers, but I just had a feeling these Smilers would show me their Frowns, too, and let me do the same. Let me show my Tears. My Hurts. My Fists Thrown in the Air. At enemies. At friends. At God.

I could come to church as I was.

This Sunday, I was happy. I was a little self conscious, a little hyped up on caffeine, enjoying myself but also impatient to change location and eat lunch. Eager to get out so I could text Abby all about the new church without being rude and interrupting worship.

If I go back next time and need to cry, great. I feel I can do that, among this new family of Smilers I've met.

And I will be back to the Tambourine Church.


  1. Totally same here with having to never listen to music again because of the strong emotional ties to it. Some of the ones I just can't listen to and/or will always make me feel an exorbitant level of sadness are Jack Johnson and a few Nickel Creek songs, for pete's sake. But it's strong.

    This cracked me up: "I was greeted instantly upon walking in the door, by a European accent and a hand that held mine for an inappropriate length of time." ...hahaha. Jeremiah and I have been church hunting for so long back in the PNW and this sort of thing has happened on more than one occasion.

    1. miss you, sweet lady! our time was too short! those lutherans can be touchy. but i must admit i'm guilty of being a little too handsy at times.....not with the hand holding of strangers, but lots of shoulder and forearm touching. :)

      music is strong, girl. luckily it goes both directions -- the happiness and the love it provokes are great. obvi. duh.

      hope you guys find a church soon. hi to J.