Thursday, December 17, 2009

Where Do Christians Go During a Personal Crisis?

Building up to the last few scenes of the Great Gatsby, George Wilson is sitting in his old, run down gas station office in great anguish. That day he has learned that his wife, Myrtle had taken a lover. Then, in a desperate, but futile, move to save his love, he had locked her up in their upstairs apartment as he made preparation to move quickly west.

Myrtle had seen her lover, Tom, stopping by in Gatsby’s big yellow car to get gas on their way to NYC. When she saw the car coming back, this time driven by Tom’s wife Daisy, (but Myrtle assuming it was Tom), she broke out of the apartment and ran out to flag her lover down . . .only to be accidently struck down and killed.

Michaelis, a Greek friend of George, is talking to him . . . trying to bring him some comfort. “You must know a pastor we can call? Didn’t you ever go to church? Weren’t you baptized or married in a church? There must be a pastor there we can call. George you must know some pastor who can come or some church we can go to?”

Michaelis is thumbing, in desperation, through the phone book trying to find the name of a pastor whom he can call in this time of great crisis for George. In the meantime, George in his silence is slowly packing his gun into a paper bag. By sunrise he walks all the way to Long Island to take God’s revenge into his own hands . . . and does but against the wrong man.

There are those times when the same ideal comes at you from a variety of sources. I don’t think anything supernatural happened here like, “God is trying to tell you something” but just the timing. There have been many sources about this concept of Christians in crises . . . including our recent discussion here about newsletters.

My mind still carries the image of George Wilson in his time of catastrophe. I have both the image generated by my own imagination while I read the book and the one of the dirty, sweaty man in coveralls as portrayed in the movie. Even as one is superimposed over the other I still sense the great pain the man bore.

I’ve never experience an acute dismay as George. I mean I’ve never had the horrible experience of having a child killed suddenly in an accident or a wife walking out the door. I’ve heard from those, within our church, that when they have suffered such a calamity that our pastor does an excellent job. If I were George I would have called him.

But what about the more methodical, gradual drift into pain? Those are the difficult ones. Where first, your job is lost, then trouble in the marriage, then a new but not fatal illness . . . followed by doubt. Where do Christians go in this type of crisis? I think the answer is not easy.

But maybe Michaelis was spot on. We should be able to run to the church at those times . . . and be met by an unquestioning embrace. But does that happen?

I will first tell a true story when it did, then a one that reflects a far too common experience.

I read this story about ten years and it was true, but now I’ve forgotten the details. I will have to fictionalize it just to fill in the facts, which I’ve forgotten.

There was a large church in the NW, Portland I think, which had a great small group program. A married couple in one of the small groups (whom I will call Tom and Betty) were in their 50s. They had a daughter living with her husband and two children, I think in some place like Denver. The news broke one day on CNN that a man in Denver had walked into a post office (or some other building but I thought if I said “post office” I would have a good chance of being correct) and shot the place up, killing several people. It was on all the news stations. Then Tom and Betty got the horrible news that it was their own son in law (whom they had considered a good Christian man) who had done the killings, before turning the gun on himself. The news broke on the local Portland stations and soon the vans with the satellite dishes were circling their house.

Within an hour, the word got out through the church’s prayer chain. Men and women in Tom and Betty’s small group immediately sprung to life, walking away from their jobs, hopping in their cars and making their way to their house.

Some of the men barricaded the cul-de-sac, keeping all media away. Some of the couples were on the phone with the police in Denver taking care of all the business that they could. They were bringing food, sitting and crying with Tom and Betty, when needed. They were running urgent errands for them, washing their clothes (as this ordeal continued for several days). This crowd of “lovers” took care of their co-small group members like only someone with selfless love could.

But that example was still too much of the acute crises like George’s. The more common is what I’ve observed in my own life and in those of friends.

In this past year I’ve had two sets of friends at church go through a tough crisis. However, it was very, very difficult to find out about. It was usually the wife sharing with my wife after a long night around a campfire and a few glasses of wine. But it wasn’t simple things . . . but horrible things. Yet, they face they donned at church carried the same stoic smiles, and no one else had a clue what they were going through in their secret lives.

What the hell is wrong with us? How did we create a society where we have to enter the valley of darkness . . . alone? I’ve been there at least twice. Both times my Christian friends were the first to pull back. . . save one or two.

This post is getting long and I haven’t even start to try and understand why, let alone a solution. I do know of some people in these situations walk out the back door of the church forever.
I’ve tried to promote honestly, and openness within my present church as well as previous ones, but it is totally against the grain. When one of our central couples suddenly divorced a few years ago and one saw it coming, I made the comment that we have to create a safe place where we can talk about these things. A prominent leader, almost shouted out, “The church is no place to air your dirty laundry.” I was stunned.

Then I tried to lead a very open small group (wanting to create the same situation as in Portland). Then one night two husbands confronted me about, “Just digging up dirt.”

Both of those men have sense left our church. One, so I’ve heard, is drinking heavily, has been arrested for fighting with his son and other problems. Why can’t we talk opening about the undercurrents before they drag us under?

I think I really lack social skills for making these things happen. I feel like I am a foreigner. I’ve asked Denise what is wrong with me. She shrugs her shoulders and says, honestly, “Maybe you scare people off.”

“How” I ask.

“You get too personal. Men like to talk about sports and the weather. You can’t ask them how they feel about things.”

I guess she is right. But still there must be a way where we can talk and enjoy what I think is the essence of fellowship.


Anna A said...

I wish I knew, myself.

I'm going through a rough time right now myself, with no one tangible to help.

The only family that I have left are some cousins about 6 hr drive away. One of them is just over chemo, and shouldn't be around anyone who is sick. No problem, except I have recovered from my cold or whatever faster than expected.

I also am completely clueless about her spiritual life, other than knowing that she was hurt badly as a teenager in the Baptist one. And comes across as being anti-religious.

I don't yet know if I am going to be allowed to come or not.

If I stay here, it's just me and the cats for Christmas. There's no one around who collects human strays for holidays. (Or if they do, I've never met them and I'm in my 3rd Christmas here).

It's very, very rough.

Perhaps, for me, if I were more the expected woman, I might be welcomed in more. But I can't change that, nor how I came to meet others at my church.

MJ said...

I hope you find someone to take in "strays." If you lived here we be happy too. We just had two strangers (friends of my daughter) arrive and am looking forward to hosting them.

Becky said...


I'm guessing you are the same Anna A. who used to comment over at Internet Monk? Not that it really helps for me to say this, but I always appreciated your comments over there (not that many women comment) and thought to myself that if you were someone in my Sunday school class making such comments, we would probably have a good chance of becoming friends.

I'm really sorry to hear that you are having a rough time. I'd just recently thought to myself that I couldn't recall seeing your make a comment at IM for a while.

I'm not that much of an expected woman myself. I have fancy academic credentials in engineering and worked as an engineer for 16 years. I didn't get married until I was 35 and never did have any children. I remember quite a few Thanksgivings where my only dinner companions for the turkey dinner were my pet parrots. I tend towards thinking myself into melancholy, and had a bad depressive episode in my late twenties. I left my job in the wake of the dot-com collapse (when the enormous company I worked for spent several years gradually going under), was completely burned out, and decided to stay home, for various reasons. I haven't really found my "place" since. Getting married improved my church standing drastically, but I've never really fit in with the church women. I just don't get the whole female church social environment. I keep wondering if it is just me and my poor social skills, but then I convince myself I can't picture the women I worked with in the engineering world fitting in either. I've always been the quiet, thinking type who has just a few close friends, but now that I'm middle-aged without the social context of a job, I've had to admit to myself that my only friends are my husband (also a quiet person) and my mother (who lives far away). I have high tolerance for being alone, but it got to the point that I was speaking so little that I actually had to be treated for atrophied vocal cord muscles last year! I'm very grateful for my mother and husband, but my mother is elderly and males tend not to take care of their health ... and I'm the pondering, over-thinking type ... so I've pictured futures where I'm alone. Can keep me awake at night easier than about anything else.

Ah,well, probably none of that helped. But I did want to let you know that there was another woman out here in internet land who appreciated your IM comments, wishes I was hearing them in some in-person context rather than online, and is sorry for your rough time.

(My apologies to our host for hijacking his comment box.)

MJ said...

Becky, you certainly didn't highjack this. I'm glad you were there to share better words that I could. I wish that someone near Anna would be there for her right now.

The holidays are always a mixed bag. I lost my father at Christmas, so I always think of him at this time.

I just saw the wife of a good friend of mine. He died last Feb from Leukemia. However, he got really sick in Christmas Eve. Bev says she is crying like crazy these days . . . leading up to Christmas. I wish that we could comfort her better. It appears, and I don't blame her, that most of her comfort comes from friends that her husband worked with . . . rather than her church.

But Anna, if you are still there, I can tell you that we have been in the bottom of the pit before, short only by not divorcing or losing a child. So we've known pain. Life is easy for us at this brief moment in time. So, as a word of encouragement, there is always hope and the sun does rise again.

Anna A said...

Just wanted to fill you in. I will be with family this Christmas. My cousin decided taht her white blood cell count should be up by then.

Really looking forward to it.

Becky, I am the Anna A from Internet monk. I just haven't felt that my comments would add to the particular conversations.

I do appreciate the fact that I have found family on the Internet.

Thank you very, very much.

abmo said...

You are correct, the answer is not easy. A lot of the time it is the gradual decent that makes things difficult. The church loves the quick answers. We do not like to struggle and do not have a lot of patience with strugglers.

That said, I believe sometimes we must struggle alone. (Sometimes...) Christians tend to follow the crowd and never meet God. They never discover their own voice and their own journey. They never love God because it's in their heart to love Him. Pain give us a chance to struggle with God. To actually meet Him.

It helps of course if you are in the desert, to have people around you who have been there themselves, but in my experience you do not find a lot of them in church. It's sad.

Luckily for us, you have been to the desert and you have found your voice. Thanks for sharing your life. We stand stronger, because of you.

Kold_Kadavr_flatliner said...

I had one... about 10 minutes long at birth. But, I heard the Holy Spirit sayeth unto moi, "You'll be greatly rewarded when you croak - just gotta live THREW this weee, Finite Existence." God bless you, Anna. I'll pray for you. Be at peace, y'heer? I love you. Thar ain't no better Way than love to heal. IN HOC SIGNO + VINCES: Crux Sacre Sit Mihi Lux! Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!! (Latin - I'll tell youse if you write me in any post).

Collette@Jesuslovesmums said...

I just read this today and had to say something. I love my church family dearly but I see a facade often that I don't like. Smiles are stoic and there is always a postitive mental attitude. They don't like complainers or different opinions. I have often felt inferior compared to other women in my Church. I too am quiet, a thinker, don't shout loudly,or serve in totally everything at Church. There are those who do this and they get noticed. Problems are shared but when there is a crisis everyone becomes so strong and so faithful. Not a bad thing but so often I can see through this and just know that a person is really struggling. I suffered post natal depression and still am on medication (coming off just now) and wonder if my friends at Church really are my friends. I told one that I was having a hard time coming off them and haven't heard anything since. Anyway just my two cents worth!
Really enjoying reading your blog. So refreshing.
Collette x

MJ said...

I'm glad you stopped by Collette. I'm always puzzled by what we can do to change things.

My wife has said to me, that I should be the first to break the ice and share honestly. I've seem to have done that over and over, and like you, it seems to create this odd feeling between the person whom I shared it with and myself.

I think the tendency in most church settings is that you don't share something personally like this unless it is a severe crisis. For example, I don't have a perfect marriage but I would bet it is better than most. However, if I dare say that Denise and I are having some kind of struggle, suddenly they think we are on the verge of divorce.

I too shared that I've had a long problem with a general anxiety disorder to our Bible study group. They all looked like a deer in the headlights and were perplexed. No one, including myself, has dared to bring it up again.

But, I really think that all of us, every one, have these issues. The world is fallen . . . right?