This past weekend I traveled to my almost alma mater to see my Parents, sister, and nieces in a performance of The Music Man. It was the first time my parents ever did something like that, so there was no way I was going to miss it, but it was also the last show of the first choir director I ever had – there was no way I was going to miss that. Monica was great to me when I was in Springfield.
When I arrived at the school for the performance, I dawned on me that it was the first time I’d set foot in the school for over twenty years. As that realization dawned on me, it felt almost like I was transforming back into the scared and lost teenager I’d been while attending the school. Springfield was hard nut for me to crack – I never felt “real” there – it’s one of the reasons my parents ended up sending me to Lancaster Mennonite to finish high school (for which I’m extremely grateful).
I’ve never been good with “small talk,” my ADD and introversion get in the way, but as I bumped into people who knew me back then I felt like I took social awkwardness to a whole other level. My brain kept saying, “You know, you really aren’t that mumble-mouthed or socially uncomfortable any more,” but my body kept disagreeing. When I was in that environment as an adolescent, trying to hide as much as possible was how I responded to stress. Twenty years later my body remembered. It was weird, and slightly alarming.
Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful to see the stage, applaud my family, and say goodbye to an old teacher. If I’d been able to audition for the show and be on the stage I probably wouldn’t have felt so odd, but in the audience I had no where to hide and so old behaviors crept back in.
As is my habit, I started thinking about people who get hurt at churches – and why they find it so difficult to come back to the same congregation after they begin dealing with the pain (if any church at all). This “hurt” can be some kind of physical or emotional abuse, a relationship struggle, a bad experience with a pastor, a fight over style, or the decision to stop serving decaf coffee after worship. No matter what it is, when people depart from a congregation because they’ve been wounded they rarely come back – even when the hurt has pretty much been healed. Pastors often fret over these lost sheep, wondering how to get them back into the fold. To be honest, I’ve not spent a whole lot of time pursuing the matter, I just hoped that people who departed would be blessed by God. I’ve also prayed that whatever hurts the congregation and the person caused each other (or the pastor and the other person) forgiveness could be found. For the most part, it’s worked out OK. Having now felt the anxiety which comes with entering a place in which I was wounded I think I know why I’ve never done much to pursue people who have departed the church.
I’m starting to understand that people wounded by a congregation find it difficult to go back because when they are there, they regress. That is, they tend to become the people they were at the time the wound was originally received. It feels awkward, uncomfortable, and unsettling – so, they stay away. I don’t blame them.
Sometimes, healing needs distance. Sometimes, the survival habits a body forms in response to stress can do more harm than good – whether it be going back to a school, a church congregation, former place of employment, or even a house. Sometimes we can be healed enough to grow and learn and thrive, but not enough to go back. As painful as that might be, I think that just might be OK.