The LORD is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid? Psalms 27:1-2
It was supposed to be a rhetorical question. Whom shall I fear? No one. Yet I found myself terrified meeting new people. I was petrified of the entire church.
“God,” I would beg Sunday after Sunday, “Please, I need a friend in Phoenix.” My desperate plea went unanswered every week. I would steel myself for church…This week I’m not gonna cry. This week I’m gonna smile. I’ll be myself. I’ll crack jokes. I won’t cry. I won’t cry. I won’t cry…and still, two minutes in, I’d be a snotty, tear streaked mess again. There more I tried to talk myself out of it, the stronger my fear grew.
Sweet, old church ladies occasionally dared to get close enough to cluck soothing words over me and give me a hug but most people avoided my eyes. We don’t do public grief well in the American church.
I gathered up all my courage and attended church events, like the new members’ welcome meeting, hoping the smaller group size would be less intimidating. I knew as soon as I saw the seating arrangement, I was in trouble. The rows of chairs in the smaller south sanctuary had been removed and replaced by round tables, each encircled by ten chairs. Every table, bar one, was full of a handful of happy, chatting, laughing individuals. There was no way I could push myself into a cohesive group where I knew no one. I relegated myself to the one empty table. And waited. And waited.
No one sat down next to me. No one introduced themselves or glanced my way. The seconds stretched into one lonely eternity and my tears welled up, finally spilling over. The only people to approach me that night were two of the pastors at separate times. Both of them started out friendly enough, greeting me, but when I turned my damp red face up towards them to reply, they nervously stammered some nicety and made a hasty exit. Even ministers, trained in the art of shepherding broken people, couldn’t sit with my sorrow.
In modern American culture, vocal and overt sorrow is frowned upon. We suffer a sufferer for hours or days but we’d like them to be quiet. To put on a smile. To soldier on bravely. To limit their grief to a slightly pained expression and a few sparkling tears caught in the lashes. O, brave American weeper!
In ancient Jewish culture there were professional mourners. People whose jobs were to weep and moan, raise their voices with despair. They would move from one funeral to the next tearing their clothes and rubbing ashes on their skin, no matter whether they knew the deceased or not. Their ability to demonstrate sorrow was prized and paid for, an asset to society. How flawlessly they were able to publicly display the effects of death on those left behind. What a gift.
There I was. Sunday after Sunday, sobbing gut-wrenching gasps into a Kleenex with rivulets of mascara and snot running down my face. Born in the wrong country and century, I had clearly missed my calling.
Every voice that has ever told me unloved, unlovely, alone, unwanted came back with a vengeance, drowning out the truth. My old standbys in awkward social situations, sarcasm and wit, failed me. How can you make people laugh when you can barely breathe through your tears? So I diagnosed myself, social anxiety. Groups of people make me nervous. Social settings feed my fears.
An extrovert with a people phobia. What delicious irony. How impossible to explain.
The one group of people I found the most frightening, the most intimidating, were the one group of people I needed the most. The women of the church. Now an individual woman of the church, that I can handle. But collectively? The “women of God” scared the holy hell out of me. Deep down, I knew that they were all blonde homeschool moms with Facebook worthy families (not that they ever went on Facebook; no time what with all the fundraisers, soccer games, and bread baking they were always getting up to!) who sedately hummed along to praise music in their mini-vans.
Even before I lost my snot, I avoided church women. Back in the good old days at my cozy little church in Hawaii, they couldn’t get me to a ladies ministry event. They’d be twittering over tea in the sanctuary on a Saturday and I’d be cleaning the church bathrooms. I didn’t attend women’s bible study. I mean, how often can we look deeply into each other’s eyes and assure each other that we’re daughters of the one true King and therefore princesses? You’d never get me to come play bunco or scrapbook with all those carbon cut-out, problemless women. I used to joke that I had two fears: paperwork and groups of church women. If they were intimidating to me before, they were downright terror inducing mid-mental breakdown.
But this desperate unanswered prayer welled up in me and consumed me. I needed a friend. I needed a lady friend who knew the Lord. Dear God, I needed a friend!
So I did the unspeakable. In what was perhaps the bravest act I have ever committed, I drove myself one night directly into the lions’ den. I parked, clutched my bible to my chest and walked right into Wednesday Night Women’s Bible Study. The roof didn’t fall on my head but, o my land, I swear I felt the deep earth shaking rattle of the earth shifting on its axis.
You will not be surprised to know, I instantly burst into gut wrenching sobs.
I tried to sneak unseen into the mostly empty sanctuary, head-bowed to hide the tears, all eye contact avoided. I slipped myself into an aisle seat, two-thirds of the way back with no one seated near me for rows, and attempted to keep my sobbing muffled in the darkened room. Despite my efforts, I did not go unnoticed.
An usher was walking up the aisles and spotted my distress. She approached me and whispered, “Come with me.” Obediently, I gathered my things and followed her back up the aisle, out of the sanctuary and into an adjoining side room. It was a little nursing room, meant for mothers with babies to still enjoy the service. In this glass enclosed room full of comfortable chairs, lit with muted lamps and blessedly soundproof, this woman tried to help me.
She tried to comfort me and find out what was wrong. There my sorrow turned to rage as she placated me with the same old verses I had memorized. I sincerely hope that whoever soundproofed that room cut no corners, because I sat in that room cursing God, cursing my depression, cursing those same old verses and stubbornly did not look the poor woman in the face who was only trying to help.
Needless to say, I made no friends that night at women’s bible study. After forty five minutes, the women were supposed to break out of the large gathering and meet in their smaller bible study groups. I darted out of that nursing room and out of the sanctuary vowing never to come back to women’s bible study again.
O dear Jesus, I cussed out the first church woman who tried to talk to me.
That is not how you make friends.
A few days later, the idea bubbled back up in my mind and stuck. It wouldn’t leave. Go back to women’s bible study this week.
Go back? They were all probably huddled in a prayer circle right that very moment praying for my dark, heathen little soul! I’d probably made the prayer chain! Oh horror of horrors. “Dear church, let us pray for that ugly, broken woman who spewed filth at our most precious usher last week…” They’d lay hands on me and attempt to exorcise the demons if I showed up at that place again.
Go back!? As if!
But it rolled and chewed and clawed at my mind. Go back, you need a friend. Go back.
So I went. I went back, and I cried. I wept right through announcements, the large group service, and the discussion of the various break-out groups. Blessedly, no one tried to intervene. Finally, I stood up, shuffled off to the room of the group I’d chosen, sat down and blubbered some more.
There were only two others in the room when I walked in, a young bubbly woman and a sweet-faced older lady. Both looked worried at the sight of me.
The younger one came over with an offering of tissues and tried to soothe me. She asked me what was wrong. This only started a fresh wave of tears. “Emily,” she said her name was, and I managed to assure her through sobs that even though I wasn’t okay, it was going to be okay, she didn’t need to fix me. So those women, the group leaders, let me cry.
One after the other, other women walked into the group. I wept, snotting into the proffered tissues, and avoided eye contact. Each new woman seemed alarmed but took their cue from the leaders, Emily and Linda, and let me weep as if it was a normal thing. As if this was how women started bible studies every day, a pile of soggy tissues growing at their side.
I hurt so badly; I was drowning in fear, but I did not die. I survived the study that night. And I went back the next week. I cried a little less and I talked a little more. Each week it got easier. A few weeks in I was almost normal. Almost. It must be admitted, they still kept a box of tissues handy at my side for flare-ups.
I even started to be able to look up and really see the other women in the room.
There was Crystal, a bubbly single mom, recently baptized; Angela, warm-hearted and mouthy; Angie, quick witted and snarky; group leader Emily, event planner extraordinaire; and her co-leader, who I came to call mama Linda, whose lips dripped grace and wisdom. Other women came and went, but those five and myself formed the core of a group that God knit together beautifully.
A group that I grew to trust so much that I allowed those ladies to drag me, petrified, to a Women of Faith conference where I would be surrounded by thousands of…gulp…church ladies.
My little knot of friends who enjoyed each other’s company so well we never took summers off from women’s study as the rest of the church did but went on meeting in Emily’s home.
The group of women who joined me in prayer as I became friends with a gentleman from Colorado and who drove two hours to be at my side as I married him last year.
And you know what? There wasn’t even a single blonde women among them. Nary a homeschooler. I was the closest thing to a blonde homeschooling women in the group! O what a blessed group of women. These were just a room full of stressed-out, flawed, fabulous ladies stumbling along trying to be Jesus followers. Just like me.
Though, it must be admitted, they seemed to manage it with a lot less tears.