Why Church: On Crying in Church Bathrooms.

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.

  • http://sayable.net Lore Ferguson

    “Suffering is not atonement. Suffering is sanctification. Our suffering is not God coming to collect His debt.”

    These concepts absolutely changed my life in the past two years. There has been more than my fair share of suffering in the past decade of life, enough that others whisper about it in church hallways or stare pityingly at me across the room. But to know that it is for my good, His glory, and because of His great love for me: this astounds me, humbles me, drives me to gratefulness and love for Him.

    Great post. Truly.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Right there with you, Lore. Such a strange miracle that after all I’ve been through, I only love Him more. I definitely hadn’t planned on that. Blessings to you, and thanks for reading.

  • Louise

    Wow…this is so beautifully written. I find it such a hard concept to grasp when there is any pain in my life that it is not that God is angry with me, but that He is drawing me closer. But reading this helps me understand a bit more.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      So glad that this resonated with you, Louise!

  • RObert Crouch

    Bethany, I am always moved by your writing and today is no different. Your mother was and continues to be an inspiration to me. I am honored to have been your mom’s pastor. Don’t stop writing because you have so much truth to share. BTW, it was good to see you in church yesterday.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      As always, I thank God for you and for the people of FBC, the family that raised my mother and me in the faith. Thanks for reading, Robin! Much love.

  • http://unknownjim.com Jim

    Bethany, thank you for sharing this. I know you were being honest when you said this is the most difficult thing you have written. Pain and suffering are the biggest challenges we will face in this world. Thankfully, it is all temporary. I think maintaining a long-term perspective is so important. Know that God’s heart breaks when you are in pain. As a dad, there is no feeling that crushes me more than seeing my daughter cry. I believe that God loves us infinitely more than I love my daughter.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Long-term perspective is what keeps me focused, Jim. Thanks for drawing that parallel between your relationship to your daughter and God’s relationship to his children. That is exactly what Prodigal Mag is all about. :)

  • http://meredithannemiller.com Meredith

    “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?” When I recently lost my daughters after going into pre-term labor, I struggled with this feeling. The part of me that believes that prayer really changes things was threatened by this lie that prayer can control things, like saying the magic words. You feel like you failed someone you most love. Thanks for speaking to that confusion, and for a lovely piece.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      “The part of me that believes that prayer really changes things was threatened by this lie that prayer can control things, like saying the magic words.”

      Yes, Meredith. Exactly that. It’s such a fine line, to know that God hears our prayers, but doesn’t always answer them the way we expect. My heart goes out to you, Meredith. Thanks for reading.

  • Jennifer Finley

    This is one of the best articles I have read because it’s so honest. Most of us have felt that sense of questioning, wondering if we could have done anything to cause a different outcome than the one that leads to our despair. I think this is where faith steps in and, as you point out,where God uses our circumstances for His good. But I’ve spent many Sundays crying in the church bathroom, too, especially when exposed to tainted theology. I didn’t know your mom, Bethany, but I can see that God is working in a dramatic way through her earthly and eternal life. Thanks for addressing these faith issues in such an articulate and heartfelt way.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Thanks, Jenn. Great to hear from you! Hope you are well. <3

  • Kim Bookless

    Bethany,
    Such a beautiful piece, Bethany. Your pain and emotion suffuse it and make me wish I could say something, anything, that would make you feel even a little better. I applaud you for walking away from a pastor who tried to lay responsibility for your beloved mom’s death at your feet. Surely this is not the role of faith. I’m glad you felt some peace at your friend’s church, and I hope you find what you’re looking for.
    Kim

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Kim, thanks for your beautiful and thoughtful comment. You’re right; it’s not the role of faith or the church to imply blame for circumstances like this. So thankful that God leaves room for questions and discernment and dialogue to bring these issues to light.

      Hope you are well!

  • http://katiemaesdailies.blogspot.com Katie Alicea

    Thank you so much for sharing so honestly. This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. I was just telling my husband last week that what makes me feel worse when I’m struggling is when I feel like if I just prayed right, believed right, and/or had enough faith I wouldn’t suffer. I believe that prayer works and changes things, but I like Meredith said above, I don’t believe it’s some magical incantation. Knowing the truth, that suffering is a vital part of our growth and relationship with Jesus, brings me peace and gives me strength. I am reading a book right now called Hinds Feet in High Places and it is amazing. It shows how Sorrow and Suffering are our companions and helpers on the journey to the High Places with God. Thank you again.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Sounds like a great book, Katie. I will definitely have to check it out. Thanks for reading!!

  • http://www.midwesternerabroad.com Chris

    I really enjoyed this. I have a hard time feeling comfortable in church environments in some part because of “toxic” theology like what you describe, and also because of the political-social aspect of many congregations…

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Chris, I can totally relate to your frustration about the political-social stigma that comes with many churches. Praying that you can find the kind of environment and community that is uplifting, respectful, and welcoming to you and your faith story. Thanks for reading!

  • Debbie Hart

    Awesome article and very heart felt, Bethany! You have such a magnificent articulate and natural way of expressing yourself – It gives us all a perfect meaning of life. You’re right, your mother impacted all of our lives – everyone who knew her. Also the quote from the newspaper article is so Tina – so perfectly stated by her and the way she chose to live her life. I painfully miss her with you!

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Thanks, Debbie! Your words are always encouraging and it means so much to me! <3

  • Edie Reay

    Bethany,
    The “Church” may not know about suffering but many of us people in the pews do. I watched my mother die slowly and painfully with Parkinson disease. One family member asked “why you?” My mother’s answer,”why not me?” Her witness will be with me always. As I care for an ailing father I sometimes just cry in the pew. I can’t take him with me to the bathroom. . As far as junk theology, I can only take going to church for about six monthes and I have to take a break. We need more broken hearts in the pulpit.
    I really appreciated your article.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      “We need more broken hearts in the pulpit.” Love that, Edie. So true. My prayers are with you and your dad.

  • bonnie clark

    Bethany,

    Just loved your ideas on suffering being santification. This easter will mean more to you than any others of your lifetime.

    My love and His,

    Bonnie Clark

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Thank you, Bonnie. Easter will be special this year. Dad and the boys are coming to spend Easter with us in Chicago and I know it will be a great day of worship for all of us, to dwell in the knowledge that because He died, we can live. Blessings to you. <3

  • http://www.eileenknowles.com Eileen

    Beautiful post, Bethany. I lost my mom to cancer over 20 years ago when I was a teenager. This statement really resonates with me, “Because while I never wanted my mother to die, I wanted her life and her story to mean something, and it does.” So true. And I think the legacy our loved ones leave behind and the ones we then leave behind for our own children mean so much!

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Yes, Eileen. What we do with our suffering leaves infinitely more impact on the world than if God had answered our prayers and let nothing happen to us, you know?

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthewjasonband Matthew Jason

    I just love the honesty in this article.

  • Sally Nash Boyd

    Your words are so eloquent. The passion that you write with never ceases to amaze me. Continued success. Hugs from MI. Sally

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Thanks, Sally!

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    This, right here: “Suffering is not atonement. Suffering is sanctification.”

    It’s so crucial to understand this. God invites us to pray but our prayers don’t control the outcome. How well or little we pray is not a window to our faith. When we grasp this truth, there is freedom in knowing God will use the ups and downs. I love your honesty here, Bethany. I know what it is to rush out of church in tears, just as I know what it is to be surrounded by community. Praying for you, friend.

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Thank you, Leigh. <3

  • http://inhisloveministries.blogspot.com Pilar Arsenec

    Wow. This is poignant.

  • Jessica K. Sullivan

    Bethany, thank you for your story and the stark honesty in which you tell it. I believe that by you doing this, you are helping many other people with broken hearts come closer to God and understanding Him better. I am glad to read you will be with your family on Resurrection SONday. God bless!

  • Deanna D.

    Bethey,
    From the moment I met you, I knew that you were going to be a person that would continually be a source of encouragement and influence in my life. No matter the distance between us and how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, you are among the few women in my life that I know I can trust to always be there to fall back on. When you posted this article a week ago, I knew that I wanted to read it today on Easter Sunday. So I waited, and now I sit, tears falling on my laptop, imagining how joyous your mom is to celebrate with Jesus today of all days. Bethey…she gets to be with Jesus for her first Resurrection Sunday in Heaven… can you even imagine?!? She would be so proud of you and Matt and the work you are both doing–and the fact that you aren’t giving up on church even when it hurts. This article is beautifully written, and I can’t wait to share it with some friends of mine who are struggling with the same things. Love you girl. See you soon.
    Deanna

    • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com bethany

      Love you so much, Dface. Thanks for your encouraging words, and for your prayers and support. Definitely had happy tears yesterday just thinking that she was worshipping with me – and with Him!

  • Pingback: mic check «

  • http://www.torrch.com/blog/ Timothy Snyder

    While I can’t pretend to relate to the personal suffering you have gone through, I know what it’s like to feel spurned by a church. I’ve sat through countless services where something has hit me the wrong way, and I know that something someone just said isn’t quite right.

    And yet, despite having a bucket full of reasons to never return, I am constantly drawn back to church. There is something that all the hypocrisy and showboating in the world can’t cover up.

    God’s love. His perfect love that leads us home.

    Thank you for this beautifully written article. You have a great gift.

  • Pingback: Watering the Peace Lily | Prodigal Magazine