Editor’s Note: Today we are starting a new series called WHY CHURCH? We have asked ten people to share their stories for why they love the church. Today’s story comes from Bethany Suckrow, a staff writer at Prodigal Magazine. Enjoy.
A throng of people are making their way to the alter, but I’m running to the bathroom. Once I’m safe in the stall I let my tears flow freely. I hear a toilet flush and the sink run, the crank of the paper towel dispenser. I hold my breath as heels click across tile. The door bangs against the jam and then silence. I’m relieved; I just want to be left alone.
In the silence I beg God quietly, Why?
The sermon today was about breakthrough. For all the hope and desperation I feel for those crying and praying at the altar for their breakthrough, their healing, their lotto ticket, their free pass to happiness, I hide back here in the bathroom, drowning in my own tears because I feel an anxiety and sorrow that seems inconsolable, too big for God to break through.
When mom died three months ago, I had this peace, this feeling that God had healed her fully. I could picture her healthy and strong again, happy and relieved of pain. I felt her joy, even as I felt sadness for myself and my family.
But then I started having flashbacks. Her in a hospice bed. Her in a casket. Her vomiting everything she hadn’t eaten that day. Her hitting the cold bathroom floor in the hospital and a rush of nurses running to grab her.
And then I started having dreams. Her body in a casket, but her eyes flick open suddenly. Her dead body in a casket that becomes our living room couch, and she reaches up her hand to brush back her hair like I’ve seen her do a million times in my life, as though she were just sleeping.
Is she alive? I wake up in a panic.
An anxiety began to follow me around, and today, this Sunday morning when all I want to do is worship in relief that she is well and safe, this anxiety hits me full-force, stealing every ounce of strength and sanity I had left.
I didn’t believe, I tell myself.
I didn’t pray hard enough.
I didn’t advocate for her.
If I had, she would still be here. Right?
Isn’t that what the pastor is telling me today?
“People die because people don’t pray,” were her exact words, if I remember correctly.
So where is my breakthrough?
A part of me knows that this theology is wrong. A part of me knows that this theology is about control and not about faith.
But a part of me misses my mother so acutely that I feel that rush of panic,
What have I done?
And in that moment I forget the truth. I forget that everyone dies eventually, even me. I forget that salvation is about eternal life with God, not about avoiding sickness and suffering.
I forget that one really crucial fixture of my faith :
Death is the end of dying, not the end of life.
Next week, I skip church. I don’t even have to explain myself to my husband.
I have another dream. It starts with her in a casket that again becomes our living room couch. I’m crying, confused, terrified. Why won’t they bury her? Why can’t she – why can’t I – rest in peace?
But then I see her, and she is walking out of my parents’ bedroom door and into the kitchen. The rest of the house is dark, but in the kitchen there is light and warmth. She smiles, opens her arms wide, wraps me in her embrace. She’s wearing her pink robe, the one she wore for 20 years that now rests in my dresser drawer.
She points to her body on the casket/couch.
“That’s not me, honey,” she says. “I’m okay now. You’re okay now.”
I wake up, and I sob. But I know. It was her, and she is okay. I am okay.
Another week I go to a friend’s church and he preaches about suffering. Do we know what suffering is? With gentility and compassion and absolute certainty, my pastor friend tells us that we’ve got our theology wrong on suffering.
Suffering is not atonement. Suffering is sanctification.
Because while Satan intends circumstances for Evil, God uses them for Good.
Our suffering is not God coming to collect His debt, my friend says passionately.
Is he talking directly to me? I wonder.
I sense that his words are God-breathed, and it blows me away. The storm that has tossed my heart on rough seas of anxiety and despair slowly ebbs away. I feel God’s peace again. Because while I never wanted my mother to die, I wanted her life and her story to mean something, and it does.
Less than three months before she died, my mother was interviewed by a local newspaper reporter. She said something that few who knew her will ever forget,
“I choose to live like I was living with cancer, instead of dying from it.”
And in this moment when I hear my pastor friend preach, I remember the truth. I remember my mother’s words. I remember that Jesus is with me in my mourning. I remember that Jesus says,
“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
I find my way back to that crucial fixture of my faith.
My mother is alive, and my lack of faith did not kill her.
I attended one congregation in one building for the first 18 years of my life, and they are my family, the family that has prayed over us, prepared meals for us, and served as a reminder of God’s daily act of sanctifying our spirits.
In the seven years since moving away, I’ve visited at least a dozen churches, most of which I’ve left in varying degrees of disaster. So many times I am confronted with a sense of wrongness, a discernment that there is toxic theology weighing in on their inhabitants and they don’t even realize it. It’s been a great excuse to run when my fear and anxiety are at their worst, and it has given me a strange solidarity with so many of my generation who find themselves alienated from a Church that doesn’t get suffering. But for all the disappointment and confusion I feel at one church, my heart finds solace and truth in another.
And maybe this is why no matter how many times I cry in a church bathroom or run for the exits, I keep being drawn back.