The Church & The Cynics: Some Final Thoughts

Penguins after blizzardWhen I say “cynic,” I’m talking about all of us – a whole generation, a hundred thousand broken, beating hearts.

But also, I’m talking about that one fifteen-year-old blonde who led all the Bible studies and the small groups. The one who waited for the boy while he went off to missionary school, waited every day, until he came home and said, “I feel like God is telling me to break up with you.”

I’m thinking about that first semester of Christian college when she showed up with bobbed hair and a burned-out heart, and she felt their suspicion, subtle but sure, an undercurrent coursing beneath the whole thing: Perform. Prove your faith to us all over again.

She moved to the periphery then, finding her home with the writing people. She got married. Church was a Saturday-night game night in married housing. She was serving Aldi-brand chips from a garage sale table, and it felt like communion.

I’m thinking of the next year, when they went to China, and nothing could have prepared her for the loneliness of it. The smoke rose thick and black from the buildings of her factory town, and it was like it blocked out God himself. I can still see her, staring down at the canal every morning, feeling like if she could just get to a church where they spoke her language, maybe she could be healed.

But then she came home, and the Church People smiled empty smiles and spoke empty words, and she spiraled. They joined an evangelical church. A house church. Another evangelical church. All those buildings, all those people, all that hot dish – and still, she was a ghost.

One night, as a last ditch effort, she went to a Beth Moore Bible Study, and she needed someone to look at her and see it. She needed them to say, “Are you okay?” But instead they said, “If you were a fruit, what would you be?” And while they giggled and said orange! and raspberry! and pear!, she slipped out early, drove home fast and furious, too mad to even cry.

I’m thinking about the coffee that she drank obsessively, black and thick and bitter. About the rum and coke and the tequila and entire bottles of wine. I’m thinking about the other places that she looked for community and understanding and church and how the whole thing almost broke apart.

When I say “cynic,” I’m remembering the long nights bent over the toilet, throwing up. I’m remembering the fierce, sharpness of anger and the endless cavern of not caring, and I know what it feels like to be falling. I know what it’s like to need someone – anyone – to reach out and catch you.

And when I say “cynic,” I’m thinking of me.

*

It’s been five-and-a-half years since the worst of it. Four since I heard my son’s heartbeat for the first time and knew I wanted to get well.

It has been a long, slow journey, but I am at the far edge of cynicism now. I can feel faith breaking through again like a new, spring sun, and I’m surprised by it every day.

We are at this church that feels like life to me. It’s just a normal church, but I can hear it there: Gospel. Love. Grace. The sun shines through the windows, and I am my whole, broken self.

Sometimes when I think about those dark days, I wonder why I didn’t just say it. I need you to fight for me. Why didn’t I stand up in the middle of that Beth Moore Bible Study and say, I am falling and I am falling apart, and I need you to catch me.

Would it have changed anything? If I had spelled it out, said it bold and loud and desperate, would they have rallied around me?

And what I keep coming to, again and again is this: I couldn’t.

I was paralyzed in anger and in Depression. I was afraid and ashamed and broken into a thousand pieces.

So I’m saying it now. I’m saying it for the person who can’t. I’m saying it because it needs to be said, because I want to remember what it felt like to be in that desperate place. I’m saying it because I believe that what Jesus did, most of all, was see people. And I want to be a woman who sees.

In the end, God healed my cynicism not through the Church but in spite of it.

I suppose it’s fitting. The Bible study leader in me – that Jesus-Freak Superstar – needed to learn that she belongs to God even when she does not belong to the Church People.

And I know that, when it comes down to it, the Church is just a bunch of people trying to figure it out the best they can. We can’t heal anyone. We can’t really fix anything. We are broken ourselves, all of us, every last one.

But we can do better.

What I’m saying is that once there was a paralytic. And there were people who picked up the edges of the mat where he was lying and carried him through the crowds. In order for him to be healed, someone had to take on that weight. Someone had to haul him to the top of the roof, and lower him straight down through so that he could get to Jesus.

And before the Church is anything else, it has to be that.

People who see. People who carry.

People who will grab onto each other’s sharp edges and lift.

49 thoughts on “The Church & The Cynics: Some Final Thoughts

  1. love this and i love seeing how your journey has made you equipped–not just to carry others, or speak for them when they don’t have the words–but to splash us all in the face with these truths.

    i’ve been slowly walking down some spiritual paths myself, my cynicism masking deep-down lies that i believed about god and myself. it is so freeing to confront them, to ask jesus for the truth, and to receive it. and all i want to do is talk about jesus, how he makes all of us wonder how in the hell his good words can be true for us. because they are.

    1. Thanks so much for these good words. I love the bit about wondering “how in the hell his good words can be true for us. because they are.” Yes.

  2. So Addie – I can say ditto. I followed your every step as you were speaking about your experience. I am that person and it is me that is very angry and isolated and I have a son who keeps me going as I hear his heartbeat too. I am just trying to survive and I am not doing a good job of it.

    I have not found a place to be who I am and I am so isolated. I hate it. And no “pat” answers make it better as a matter of fact I hate the “pat” answers and I hate anyone saying it is going to be ok. I hate what I see and I need a “life giving” place, I yearn for one and have not found it. I have been in this place for almost seven years and it is hard. It is a small town and lonely place. The painted plastic faces I meet in hopes that I can have an honest conversation go nowhere. I hold out hope sometimes but most of the time I just do life alone. Thank you for being honest it is refreshing. I am not going to say well now God has equipped you to do better things all I can say is I am glad you have found a life giving place.

    1. I’m so sorry that you’re feeling so isolated and lonely, Diana. I remember those days so clearly, and I know how unending it all feels. Grace and peace to you as you work through your own angry season; may you find a few true souls who can walk this road with you.

  3. Yes – people who see. People who can see past the facade. Someone I would bet that if you had walked into that Bible Study with a pink mohawk and all black clothes that you would have had a dozen people asking you what was wrong. But because (I am just guessing here) you looked pretty much like everyone else in the room, no one thought to reach out.

  4. Your words are beautiful Addie. I can relate to so much you say but I think the difference in our experience is my alchoholic bi-polar mother who raised me. My evangelical background, as broken and twisted as it was, was my lifeline on too many days to remember. It was better than what I experienced at home. I knew I didn’t want that life. And so I’m committed wholeheartedly to be the person who sees. Because I know what it feels like to be the person who needs to be caught by someone. Thank you for the way you share your heart, it inspires me.

    1. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story, Shelly. I love this: “My evangelical background, as broken and twisted as it was, was my lifeline on too many days to remember.” Both/and. Yes.

  5. Amen to being a person who sees. Because you are right, we can’t fix or heal, but people need to be seen.

    And I’m so glad you wrote this. Because back when I was the Bible Study leader I would have agreed with a couple of the comments on your last post saying that if someone needs something from the church, they have to come ask. How else could we know? We WANTED to help.

    But you are right. When you need help that desperately, you can’t ask. And unless there’s a culture in place of people seeing and listening to each other, there’s no way you want to risk opening up just to hear well-meaning platitudes. No one wants to be the Person with the Problem.

    Really, I think you’ve nailed it. We need to see each other and then do the little we can, which is help carry each other to Jesus. Because he’s the only one who heals paralyzed souls.

    1. That’s exactly it: “there’s no way you want to risk opening up just to hear well-meaning platitudes. No one wants to be the Person with the Problem.” Well put, friend. Thank you.

  6. I’m in tears again. Gracious, friend. Thank you for being the person who picks up the corner of the mat I’m laying on. Keep proclaiming your story. I’m listening and I’m seeing.

  7. “In the end, God healed my cynicism not through the Church but in spite of it.”

    Yes. Christ is always the source. I have walked the dark path of depression and anxiety for almost 20 years- some of it debilitating. Its HARD. I just finished an in depth study of Job. The amazing thing about Job is that even in his complaining, God still called him blameless. How is that? Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we can fear no evil (Ps 23) because God is WITH us in the darkness of our suffering. Having been through church after church looking for THE Church to heal me, love me unconditionally, etc etc., I’ve come to understand, as you have, that the church is broken- how can it NOT be broken- filled with broken sin-wracked people? In my brokenness, I left the modern evangelical church model (about three years ago). I just couldn’t get past the hypocrisy and plastics after 20 years of searching for the perfect or even mediocre church that would meet my “felt needs”. Only after I left, and started attending first a Reform and then Lutheran liturgal church, did I come to know in a very real and tangible way, the historical Jesus of the Bible that I had never experienced before. While I agree that we can do much better in loving our brothers and sisters, and there are plenty of faults to be counted within the Christian church universal, we can also let Christ use our darkness and anger and depression to mold us into vessels of worth for His purpose. In the end God did not tell Job why he suffered so much. In the end Job could only cover his mouth and bow low. Those who walk this path are at the same time both fragile and steadfast. Fragile in knowing that the darkness can descend at any time and cocoon in fear. Steadfast in that I am utterly and completely convinced that nothing will separate me from the whole of God (Ro 8:35-38). Healing, as it involves trust, comes slowly and deliberately as you’ve written. But knowing that Jesus also inhabits the darkness, I can walk that valley- although sometimes Christ will need to carry me should the looming cliff terrify- and it frequently does as I move into or rather out of agoriphobia.

    “It has been a long, slow journey, but I am at the far edge of cynicism now. I can feel faith breaking through again like a new, spring sun, and I’m surprised by it every day.”
    As you can glean from your comments, Addie, the Lord is using your gift of writing to love and encourage broken and marginalized people. And what a wonderful gift it is! God bless you as your faith takes on new wings!

    1. Thanks for this kind and true comment. I LOVED this: “Those who walk this path are at the same time both fragile and steadfast.” Lovely.

  8. People who will grab onto each other’s sharp edges and lift.

    That is the most profound metaphor of empathy for another I have ever seen. That image is going to stick within me and will always serve as a good reminder. Thanks, again, Addie.

    1. Thanks so much Jim. It’s always been an important image to me. Glad it resonated!

  9. I sat in ladies bible study yesterday and scribbled furiously on my note paper. The thought crossed my mind, “they probably think I am really into the study and taking a lot of notes.” Instead my paper was filled with anger and questions in thick lines and many underlines and exclamation points, so I tilted my paper so nobody could see!

    1. Oh, girl: BEEN THERE. You should see some of my “fill-in-the-blank” Bible studies from the mad season. They are something to behold.

  10. Deep, contented breath and a big yes. That’s what I’ve got as I read that post to the very end.

  11. How many of us women in the Church are dying to cry out but afraid of judgment or rejection?
    How many of us are sitting next to someone who is looking for that real ‘how are you?’
    How many of us are both?

    1. That’s a really striking thought. It’s hard to give the gift you need someone to give you when you’ve just got nothing to give and no energy to give it with, but if we’re all like that, well, hmmm.

  12. I don’t remember what circuitous path led me to your writings recently, but I am oh so very grateful that I did. Thank you for giving me something to hold onto, that there are others like me out there. Thank you for giving voice to those of us hanging on by our fingernails and just wishing someone would say or do something more than a lame “i’ll pray for you, bye, got to run!” And yes, as another commenter has said, oh Lord, help us recognize in others fellow travelers and help them to their feet. Only then can we all complete this journey in Christ’s footsteps, carrying each other as He carries us all.

    1. Thanks so much for these kind words, Judy. I’m so glad that this place and these words have been helpful in some ways.

      I can’t tell you how much I hate this “i’ll pray for you, bye, got to run!” business. It almost did me in those really hard, cynical years. Now I’m very careful about when I say it. I have to know I’m telling the truth. I have to genuinely mean it. I will not use it to end an uncomfortable conversation. I will not use it as an escape hatch. Gah. Makes my blood boil.

  13. weeping, weeping at these words, Addie.

    this is my heart. this is my experience. this is how the healing belongs to the very wounded themselves.

    i don’t know why you wrote this or what you thought you posted it for, but i can tell you that it was for ME today. to know that as alone as i feel, there is another set of footprints on this path, and another broken, whole self behind another screen somewhere.

    a whispered, mascara-streaked thank you.

  14. Deer Sweet Addie, I love you. I love your words. And I love that you dare to look the church in the face and call it to the carpet. I also love that you look your own pain in the face and help us to do the same.

  15. My story is different, yet the same. I knew exactly which cymic you were thinking of, right off the bat…

    The Church is so busy trying to be this complicate, mysterious Church thing, whatever it is, that we can’t ever attain (Worms! Worms, I tell you! How can we do anything ood?!?!?!) that we don’t do the only things we’re really called to do that make us teh Church. Love God. Love each other as ourselves (which means learning to love ourselves and be ourselves).

    I’m so thankful you found your way back out of that hole.
    I’m so thankful I found my way back out of that hole.
    I’m so thankful God came in after us and brought us out.

    Church… go forth and do likewise.

  16. thank you for sharing Addie! Oh how I can relate. And I once served as a licensed lay pastor and I saw how the people refused to reach out, and it was impossible to change them. As I now travel in a semi with my husband I am noticing church building after church building and I try to pray for those who are serving as pastor and for the congregations who attend that the Spirit might work in them and out world.

    1. That has to be one of the most frustrating things for pastoral staff. To understand that we need every single person’s involvement but to be unable to stir that kind of movement in them. Yes. It feels so impossible sometimes.

  17. I am so very very glad you didn’t stand up in that ladies’ bible study and expose your need. It gives me something akin to night terrors to think what their response to you would have been (and what that would have done to you at that time). My wife has declared a lifetime moratorium on her attendance of anything akin to a women’s bible study. So, back to the comment I made on your post about accountability: it requires trusted friends. Transparency is good when it’s appropriate transparency, and a large group setting can never handle transparency (except non-church things like AA or Al Anon). Oh crum, I’m still shuddering at the thought!

    Here’s a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes that describes that cynic’s journey:
    “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

    Most evangelicals experience and demand a “simplicity on this side of complexity,” i.e., “believe it because it’s in the bible,” “the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” “the pastor said…,” ad infinitum, ad nauseum. It’s a simplicity that denies, runs from, refuses to engage and close the eyes at anything difficult or complex when it comes to the intersection of life and faith.

    At this point in my life, I have no simplicity on either side because I still in the complexity, the cynicism, the disbelief, the deconstruction. I’m hopeful that by engaging with your writing (and others), I might once again (or, for the first time) encounter Jesus.

    1. That Holmes quote stopped me in my tracks. Perfectly said. Thanks for sharing this (and giving me some peace about it somehow being my fault for not saying what I needed in those times).

  18. Hi Addie,
    Thanks for writing this blog. I’ve been hurt, but reading this article helped somehow. 🙂 Thanks.

    1. I could write a book on that. Oh wait — I did! (Seriously though — I could try to give you a short answer here, but the truth is found in the whole long story of it. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll pick it up!)

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