It's like playing soccer on a field where there MIGHT be a couple landmines. You're not sure if they're there, but they MIGHT be so you'll need to diligently scan the ground as you "play" the game. All the while the other players on the field joyfully play the game without worries or hesitation. http://www.bonarcrump.com/2012/02/christian-ptsd-and-bunch-of-other-stuff.html
The title sounds a bit like a bad joke, but for me it describes how I have felt in church for many years. While my faith in God has grown abundantly during and after my divorce, I have continued to struggle with the church. It has been difficult to pinpoint the reasons for the feelings of panic and fear I feel while at church, or even just planning to attend church. Before my divorce, I couldn't imagine life without the church and its people being part of my life.
During those ministry years, I would counsel others to face their fears and attend as many things as possible. I would encourage regular attendance to worship and Bible studies, downplaying any fears or concerns. After all, the Bible encourages us to keep meeting together. And honestly the biggest blessing in the ministry was the many brothers and sisters in Christ who were part of my life and my family's life. I often felt humbled by the honor of sharing life with these people, who was I that I was allowed to share the good and bad times with so many amazing folks.
However, church now is a scary place. I keep thinking it will get better. Doesn't time heal all wounds? I have been counseled and counseled myself, it is the right place for me to be. My church is full of loving people who have looked after and loved my family. These people have stuck by the kids and me while we faced the challenges post-divorce. They have given us time, money and prayers. I am thankful the presence of the church in our lives, especially my younger two children. It provided stability when nothing else in their lives was very stable.
So, why is attending church like walking into a minefield with an elephant walking behind me? It isn't a rational experience. I can attend for a few weeks, begin to think about participating in choir or leading a Bible study and promptly dissolve into a sense of fear and panic. I feel like a failure. I feel like my friends are tired of hearing my struggles that seem outside of rational thought. I am tired of church being a place where I feel like an outsider who doesn't belong. I know being part of a church can be so much better.
An Irrational response to a normal situation is considered a basic symptom of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD). I wouldn't equate my experience with war, but it was traumatic and life altering. I began looking into PTSD in regard to divorce and religion. The quote at the top is in a blog entry entitled, "Christian PTSD and other stuff." I don't agree with his entire blog but the description of worship is just about dead on. Here are some of my thoughts so far on this topic:
- The Elephant in the Room – When I first returned to church after my ex's departure, it always felt like the proverbial elephant had followed me into the sanctuary. It was there but no one wanted to talk about it or ask me about it. And it was true in the first few months I didn't want to talk about it. I was ashamed of this elephant, my husband had broken the trust of the entire congregation, how would they feel about me? Perhaps I should have spoken more, shared more of my struggles, I was afraid. And perhaps others were afraid to hurt me or were asked to not speak about it with me, so the elephant never went away and I still feel its presence with me.
- Minefields – The church is full of things that bring up strong memories. Songs used to be the worse triggers. The entire building is filled with good and bad memories of my marriage and time in church leadership. While sitting listening to a sermon, I remember being proud of his preaching. Or I can walk by an office and remember him reprimanding me for saying the wrong thing. Events, scriptures, people, flowers or any number of things can cause strong feelings to explode in me like stepping on a landmine. I want to go to church to worship, but there are some many other things that distract and scare me. And most of the feelings are irrational, they don't fit in the time and place any longer and I can't always predict when they will show up. I logically know I no longer have to fear the church but potential landmines keep me afraid.
- While we want to say that the church is a safe place and a place to find comfort, it is not always the case. If I could go and spend time with God in his house and not risk the other things, I would go without fear. I haven't wanted to leave the church I have been part of for 13 years, but is that the path to healing? Maybe it is too late to talk about the elephant and make it leave. And maybe the landmines will never go away as long as I am in the building where it all happened. But going to a different church is pretty scary, too.
- Sadly, the truth is God's church does cause damage to people. I know I am not alone. The damage I am responding to isn't just from the divorce and its ugliness, it is also from years of confrontations, distrust, church splits and lost relationships. Churches are not always the safe places we want them to be. We must remember, a person's lack of attendance might not just be about laziness, selfishness or even their own sinfulness.
I have no idea what to do now. It is Saturday night and I know the decision waits for me in the morning. Do I go or don't I go? If I think about it too much, the panic will start. It is better to wait until morning to decide, the elephant can be such a bear to wake up on Sunday mornings.