April 6, 2020

Being the Church

helping_hands-300x199Three and a a half weeks ago my college roommate from nearly 30 years ago went missing. Two weeks later he was found in his vehicle. Suicide. (I have withheld his name for privacy reasons.)

I wish I could write a flowery tribute to him. I can’t. I had lost touch with him for many years, finally making contact with him about nine years ago. Since then I have had only the occasional brief interaction with him. So, I find that I can only share the thoughts and feelings that came in  response to his death.

When I heard the news I was instantly assailed with self questioning. A thousand “what ifs” raced through my brain. “What if I had been a better friend? What if I had maintained better contact? What if he knew that I would have been available to be a listening ear, or a helping hand?” I question myself the same way when friends or neighbors get divorced. “What if I had been a better neighbor or better friend? Could I have helped in anyway? What if they knew I would have been available as a listening ear, or a helping hand?”

But I wasn’t. In neither of these cases was I the friend or neighbor that I could have been or should have been. At my church I have the reputation for being friendly, outgoing, and welcoming. But if truth be known I live a pretty isolated life. You might say that we can’t be all things to all people, and that is true, but I think many of us can make a much better effort at reaching out to those around us who may or may not be obviously struggling. I know that there have been those on Internet Monk who have expressed their struggles and I apologize for not being as supportive as I should have been.

I am not a person who easily experiences discouragement or depression. I tend not to have “dark” episodes in my life. So, it is not easy for me to understand what others are going through. I do on occasion ask myself, “Why them and not me?” Often is is more like “there but for the grace of God go I.”

There are obviously things that go on in someone’s brain that I do not and cannot understand. Setting that aside for a moment, their has been one thing that has helped me not descend into dispair, and that has been the support of others.

We have had several crises in our family in the last few years. One of them was a house flip that flopped and left us in dire financial straits. It was only through the support of friends, family, and church that we were able to pull through. It is pretty humbling when you are dependent upon others to help pay your bills. We are so grateful those who offered us assistance.

More recently it was the death of my father-in-law, Gord, who died two months ago after a short battle with brain cancer. Again the support was heartfelt, and significant. Church families and neighbors brought meals. Pastors visited and brought communion to the hospital. Their were a lot of people at the visitation and funeral who didn’t know my father-in-law, but came in support of the family members they did know. Five pastors attended the funeral!

There have been other issues, some bigger, some smaller than the two mentioned here. The support of others have been crucial in how we have coped.

I wanted to leave you with one final thought. Sometimes I struggle with being a member of an evangelical church. I feel like I don’t fit. (To be fair, I am not sure where I would fit, but that is a much longer story!)

The biggest thing that keeps me there is that we have found a caring community. One that recognizes when we are hurting and wants to help. (“Don’t worry about teaching Sunday School this semester, we have you covered.”) One that stands alongside you in difficult times. (“We want to give you both a gift and loan from the benvolent fund.”) One that cares about how you are doing. (“Is everything okay, I felt burdened to pray for you this past week.” – At a time when I felt I needed prayer the most.)

I feel fortunate to have found a church like this. I feel sad that others haven’t.  Maybe, just maybe, if we could “be the church” a little bit more there might be a few sadder stories like the one that prompted this post.  I know this is something that I will be pondering for many weeks to come.

Comments

  1. Very sorry, Mike, to hear about the death of your friend.

    I think we could all do a better job of reaching out to people. I know that I could, But it is tough. We all have our problems and and worries, and often we are consumed by them, at the expense of our neighbors.

  2. I wish churches would see that the need to take care of people and be a family is so much more important than the success of any program or project. Thanks for your words, Mike.

    • And taking care of our present communities, and the communities that surround our communities, is more important than increasing membership according to some artificial church growth criteria.

      “Love one another…by this the world will know that you are mine…”

  3. Thanks for sharing that Mike.

    My wife is Canadian, and a life-long Believer. She tells me that Christians in Canada generally appreciate each other much more so than in the States because of your country’s higher degree of secularization.

    T

  4. i know the feeling of not ‘fitting’ in our church but I dont know where to turn, so I ‘hang in there’ thanks for your words,

  5. Sorry about the loss of your room-mate, Mike. My husband’s father killed himself and my uncle killed himself. Suicide leaves loved ones with so many questions and great sadness. I think the ones that kill themselves are in such a dark space that they can only see their own pain at that moment. I think that God is a God big enough to take all the hurting souls into his great heart of love. We can reach out to the people who are hurting but even then we can only offer so much and they sometimes (often?) still kill themselves. I am so glad that you are in a church that has caring, loving people. That is how it should be.

  6. I will say, from personal experience, that many very caring church communities when it comes to financial problems, physical illness, family difficulties, etc. have an incredibly difficult time responding to mental illness. Families and individuals can be effectively cut off because people don’t know how to respond. And it genuinely is tough, even as a family member, to respond well to someone with mental illness (of whom there are as many varieties as there are individuals who deal with mental illness).

    The best advice I can give is just to make an effort. If it feels like a phone call, letter, email, or visit falls flat, it may not necessarily have. It may have a delayed effect or prevent a darker episode. Stopping by and dropping something off, dinner, a book or movie the person may like, is probably the best: the benefit of personal contact without the difficulties that can come. Any and all of this also applies to family members of someone with mental illness, also when that family member is in the hospital.

  7. John Donne may have said in 1624 that no man is an island, but I have come to the conclusion that some people are definitely peninsulas. They try to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, and there is nothing the rest of the world can do about it.

    We are peculiar creatures.

    We have private thoughts that we don’t want to share with anybody, and private fears that (in the words of John Keats) we may cease to be, and private demons that come to us in the dark of night.

    Thank God for Jesus.

  8. Thanks Mike. Your simple and eloquent words point us to love and remind me again that, without it, we are nothing.

  9. Anonymously Yours says

    I have a friend who is disabled. On good days, he does not look like he is disabled, so he is wary of letting other people know what his life is like, because he fears they will contact the Social Security Administration and trigger an investigation into whether he actually is disabled. This means he has not gone to church for several years, during which I have been his “friend.” I would say we have not been friends so much as I have been his helper. He does not seem very interested in doing anything I would like to do as friends, even if he had the time and energy.

    I finally told him this past week to visit a church and not to call me again unless he has visited a church and can tell me about the church. “What if I have an emergency?” he asked. “Go to a church,” I said. I cannot be his church over the phone. Neither can Youtube sermons be his church. If he honestly cannot join a church because of health reasons, which do not stop him from doing chores or going on marathon shopping trips (which he does to save gas and time, not because he has a lot of money to spend)…if he cannot go to church, then I told him to visit a church and get on a shut-in list so he could receive regular pastoral visits.

    This did not sit well with him. Never mind the irony that on the day I explained the ultimatum, we talked on the phone for over three hours, which is much longer than most church services. He had a church in mind to visit, but he worries about his clothes. He does not have a collared shirt, for example. I explained that, although I dress a little nicer now, I used to wear whatever I felt like at any church I visited. Shorts and a T-shirt were my usual wardrobe. I looked like a mess, and people did not make much of an issue about it. He explained what he has to go through in order to make it to a doctor’s appointment, and a church service would require the same amount of preparation days ahead of time.

    Even though I have known him for years, during the conversation, which encompassed more than just church, I listened to him prattle on about his problems, and it sunk in a little more…perhaps a lot more…that my friend is disabled. This guy has problems. Nevertheless, I held the line. Despite his disability, I have known him long enough now…his varying energy levels, his schedule, what he has done and does do…that I know he can get to church if he makes the effort.

    Go to church, my friend, and don’t call until you do. So I may not hear from him the next few weeks, or months, or years…or ever again.

    • I can’t tell if this is satire or not. What does going to church have to do with friendship?

      Would Jesus give this ultimatum?

      • Anonymously Yours says

        I wish it was satire. I doubted whether I was doing the right thing, but I’m not cutting him off. I’m encouraging him in, I suppose, a tough love manner to find a community of believers with whom to share his life. He is, in a a manner of speaking, a face-to-face recluse whose sole means of communication is the telephone. If he has anyone over to his house, it is to help him with a project. I live too far away from him to help him like that, but I have a hard time helping him, anyway. For example, what if I wanted to help him cut his grass? It would go a bit like this: I would not be able to use his lawnmower; he would not pay for the gasoline; he would want the grass cut in a checkerboard fashion (no joke!); he would probably follow me around the yard to make sure I was doing it “right” and to make sure I would not kick up rocks or twigs, which might damage his house, car, garage, or garden; he would not offer me anything to eat or drink other than maybe a glass of water; and I would not be allowed to use one of the three bathrooms in his house. This, despite the fact that we have known each other for years.

        I believe in face-to-face fellowship. It became clear to me that my friend never intended to return to church when he asked why he could not learn what he needed to learn from television and Internet sermons. I once told him that his way of “love thy neighbor” is not to have any. He denied it that time, but when I brought it up again, he pretty much agreed that is what he is shooting for…

        • I see. I have a similar friend who calls occasionally, and it’s always difficult, as he’s very egocentric and a pathological liar, as well as suffering from substance abuse in the past (and occasional present).

          But I don’t understand your insistence that he attend church in order for you to be friends. That seems like a cop-out. Why not simply tell him that he’s too difficult for you to be around, and leave the church out of it?

          • By the way, I support your attempt at tough love, and I’ve had to use this a bit on my friend. I just question some of the means.

          • Anonymously Yours says

            It does seem like a cop-out. I have wanted to kick him to the curb and just go on with life. (I did do that with another disabled acquaintance, who only called when he wanted something out of me.) But I do not want to completely give up on him, and I believe, so to speak, in the more mysterious aspects of the Church…that we need face-to-face fellowship, the impartation of spiritual gifting by the laying on of hands, the value of corporately worshipping Jesus…which value we cannot achieve alone. I also am cognizant of how easy it would be to act the Pharisee, laying a heavy burden on him while not lifting a finger to help…except I haven’t. I visited a church not far from where he lives and let him know what I thought about it. He has a church in mind for his first visit. I plan to visit that church this Sunday and possibly their Tuesday evening evangelistic service, too. That way, if he ever visits it and calls to tell me about it, I can surprise him and tell him I have been.

            Still, I am looking forward to my “vacation” away from his long and exasperating phone calls. I don’t expect him to visit any church any time soon, even though my ultimatum gives him significant leeway. I just want him to visit. He doesn’t have to join the church. If he joins it, he doesn’t have to go to Sunday school, small groups, prayer groups, or neighborhood outreaches. Just go!!! Meet some new people. Get some real friends.

            I’ve encouraged my friend to go to church for years. We didn’t become friends until after he ended up disabled. And before his disability, he used to come to a church where we both were in the singles group. But church always seems to get pushed into the future, something he would do if there was absolutely nothing else in his schedule. Meanwhile, he wears me and I’m sure the few other friends he has out with talk. For everything he seems to have to do, he sure does spend a lot of time on the phone.

          • Can you call his bluff and offer to take him to that church?

          • Anonymously Yours says

            I would call his bluff, but he lives just three and a half miles from the church. Plus if I go, he will want to carpool to save gas (which would be fine with me), but I have little doubt he would call me at the last minute to say he was too busy or ill to go. Then he will ask me what the church is like, find reasons from what I tell him why he would not like it, and be back at square one. He met the pastor by happenstance and thinks it may be God’s providence, so I do not want to dissuade him from stepping out of his current routines.

            I may have to give him directions to the church, though, because a direct search on Google Maps gives the wrong address. My friend is intelligent, but his disability seems to have affected his reading comprehension skills, and despite working in IT before his disability, he seems almost completely incompetent at formulating a proper Google search. I helped him find the right location for the church once, but he tends to forget a lot of what we talk about, too. And I have told him not to call if all he has to say is, “I tried to go, but I could not find the church when I drove there.”

        • Lester Bangs says

          “I doubted whether I was doing the right thing”

          Well let me clue you in: you’ve behaved abominably.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        >Would Jesus give this ultimatum?

        It seems like he gave lots of them; he told the rich man to go and sell everything and then follow me. That’s an ultimatum.

        Ultimatums can be made in love. Especially when you have someone you love and know what they need is a swift kick in the ass.

    • I’ve been here. I know exactly what you are talking about. It only took time and physical distance for my friend to let go of me and start seeking out God and others for help. It’s a tough thing to explain unless you have lived through it.

      And remarkably, our friendship is stronger now because we don’t communicate or see each other that often anymore. But I still get those text messages and calls periodically that are just like they used to be.

    • I couldn’t make it past the first one fourth or so of your post. Your friend for whatever reason, has difficulty going to a church in person so you tell him never call me again unless and until you go to a church? That appears rather mean spirited to me.

      You are the church. The church is not a brick building.

      If you are finding this friendship draining because this guy is phoning you every other day to complain or cry for ten hours in a row, and you’re worn out by that, then do what any good therapist would tell you to: draw your boundaries. Tell him you’re sorry he’s hurting, but that you can no longer tolerate ten hour phone calls three times a week and hence forward you will only accept X calls per week that last X minutes.

      But to tell the dude never to call you ever again unless he goes to a church seems pretty harsh IMO.

  10. “Being the Church”
    Michael Spencer rightly put his finger on problems with evangelicalism. If transforming people, transforming them into a community, and so transform the broader community is a template, the middle part isn’t there. Evangelicalism has turned out to be just individualism in new clothing. They have produced new isolated individuals in an old society. If it was a truly new community those around it would have noticed. It did not become a new society, just an admirably culturally open one.
    Mike Bell is being pushed out of himself. To listen to him is a call to all of us. Every beatitude and catholic virtue is diametrically opposed to the deadly sins. Humility, diligence, gentleness, responsibility, mercy, sanctity, and peace ought to be the signs of “being the church”. You can’t be part of a culture war and be said peaceful, you can’t have divorce rates as high as anyone else and be seen as sanctified, you can’t have the highest numbers opposed to immigration and be seen as merciful, you can’t be the most segregated hour of the week and be seen as responsible, you can’t consume the most resources of anyone on the planet and be seen as gentle, you can’t not be in touch with depressed friends and be seen as faithful, you can’t love your life and yet be unwilling to reform and be seen as humble. I think every individual needs to take fresh scrutiny and if necessary reform. If a group can congregate around this, I think you have ecclesia.

    • Very insightful T.S.

    • About the first part of what you said. That seems pretty true.

      A lot of evangelicals, seeker friendly churches, and Southern Baptists are obsessed with making converts, but after you are a Christian, they lose all interest in you.

      Other than the benefit of going to Heaven when you die, I am not seeing any benefit to being a Christian in this lifetime.

      I used to have clinical depression, so I know how cruddy and insensitive Christians can be if you have mental illness.

      My Mom died a few years ago which was terribly hard on me, and the Christians I went to for help and sympathy either brushed me off or gave me criticism.

      As a never married middle aged woman, most churches don’t want me, they are too busy catering to the already married who have children.

      Christians love to make converts, but they don’t care one iota about people who are already Christian who are going through a tough time, lost a loved one, or who have mental health problems, or who have some other difficulty.

      Why do so many Christians work so hard to get you to believe in Jesus and/or go to their church, then drop you like a hot potato once you show up to their church and/or become a Christian? I don’t get it.

  11. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your roommate. I had a few friends depart when I was in my teens to suicide. About five years ago, a “friend” passed away in the same manner, leaving a wife and a young son who adored him. I have friend in quotations because in truth, I have not seen him in at least 25 years except occasionally. We had drinking in common back in those days. I was not there for him.. in fact I didn’t even make it a point to stay in contact. My heart ached for his son. His wife couldn’t even attend the viewing.

    I am similar to you Rob in that I tend to be friendly and I will pretty much talk to anyone in my general vicinity. But I am not the guy who will sit with someone for hours and talk about what hurts. That is my flaw, probably some deep seated selfishness about my time.

    I think church can be lot of things. I think church with a caring community is a treasure to be enjoyed because there is nothing like relationships, and concern and feeling like we are loved.

    This piece gives me something to think about today.

    • Sorry… I meant to reference Mike Bell, not Rob Bell…. note to self – edit your own content….

  12. I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend and the loss of another human being. I’ve lost a lot of members of my family to the insatiable beast of suicide, and each time we gather and go through the what ifs and cast an eye around wondering which of us will be next. And if we have no idea how to stop the beast (5 in the past decade if I count correctly), I’m not sure anyone does or can. I’m sure it’s separate to each individual. In some cases, it may came down to untreated (or mistreated) mental illness, in others to common misery.

    I try to keep the maxim of be kind, and treat everyone like they’re fragile because some are. And I love the song, “There But For Fortune” by Phil Ochs.

    • Hi cermak_rd,

      When I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s my parents bought a sound system which was expensive but was supposed to come with a whole bunch of LPs. The records never arrived. So for most of my youth I heard my parents play the same albums over and over again. The one I like the most was by Joan Baez. And one of my favourite songs was “There But For Fortune.”

    • Ironically, Phil Ochs also committed suicide.