Isn’t it interesting how a song can take you back in time? Earlier today, I was listening to a song by country singer Lori McKenna. “Falter” tells the story of a kid she went to school with, someone who had a hard life and ended up becoming the town bum, an outcast. Though the narrator of the story-song felt bad for him, it never occurred to her teenaged self to reach out and help him as he faltered and stumbled through his cruddy life.
And, almost instantly, I’m back in high school, watching the new kid. He crosses the cafeteria. I don’t know (my memory can’t see) if he has a brown bagged lunch or not. He doesn’t make eye contact. He has the half-smile of a shy person, and he sits by himself. His name is Alex.
As I sit with my friends at my lunch table, I think, he’s by himself, he must be lonely. The fact registers with me, the same way the math teacher’s voice or the taste of my vanilla yogurt do. But it never occurs to me to pick up my Diet Coke-and-yogurt lunch and go sit with him, or to walk over and invite him to join my friends.
For a girl who prides herself on thinking independently (from my parents, teachers and classmates), I am dismayingly clichéd in my response. I know how lonely and alone feel but the knowledge of those feelings doesn’t translate into action to relieve them in another person.
He left the school after a few weeks. I’m not sure if his photo is even in the yearbook, or if anyone else remembers that he went to our high school, or why he was there for such a short period of time.
A couple of years ago, I saw in the paper that he got married. I recognized the name. He turned out to be a nice-looking guy with a college degree; he wasn’t the bum from the Lori McKenna song, talking to himself and picking up cans. I wonder, though, if he remembers sitting by himself in that cafeteria, and if there are wounds that can’t be seen. And if so, how do they affect his relationships?
I thought about this after I wrote my last blog post on “why I haven’t quit church.” While I haven’t quit church, I understand one common reason people do. Hurt.
Churches are composed of people, people aren’t perfect, and their imperfections can lead to hurt in relationships. Instead of experiencing church as a place of love, some people experience the opposite. They leave devastated, feeling like refugees and outcasts, unwelcome, unfriended. And that hurt cripples them enough that they can’t bear to go back to church. Not just that church, but any church. It’s too hard.
An excuse? A good reason? Call it what you will, but the wounds are real. They’re as real as any you’d see in a hospital trauma unit and they need to be acknowledged as such, because unless they are, they can’t be healed.
I’ve been in that trauma unit. I’ve been in the middle of a dark night of the soul, devastated, desperately praying before going to a new church, Please, Lord, just let them be nice to me. I know how it feels to need healing, and to receive it. It’s not a perfect healing—that won’t be until heaven—but it’s still there.
At the end of his book Father Fiction, Donald Miller closes with a story about Bishop Desmond Tutu. When asked what sort of people should work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, he said that they needed to be victims. But not arrogant victims—victims who have lived through atrocities, have developed empathy and have found it in their hearts to forgive. He called them “wounded healers.”
I think it’s up to us to be those “wounded healers.” By us, I mean those who have been hurt in or by churches, yet still continue to attend for more than propriety’s sake. We can’t afford to be self-righteous and arrogant or to ignore the wounds that so many people have. We can’t afford to be like my teenaged self, sitting idly at the lunch table as someone else is alone, hurting.
We must reach out.