Let’s do an experiment. If I say “How are you?” what is the first word that you think of? If you are like most people, you will probably respond with the all-too-popular ‘Fine.’ Alternatives might me ‘Good’, or for those in our community we are more comfortable with, we might choose ‘OK’ – but these are mere masks. These responses have almost become instinctual for us. They exist as a guard, designed to keep people at arm’s length. Of course, there are times when all is fine; yet the difficulty is that we rattle off these responses even when they are, in fact, bald-faced lies. After all, when is the last time that you responded to that question with the words ‘I’m suffering’ or ‘I’m doubting’ or even ‘I feel like everything is falling apart’?
We don’t answer this way because we perceive those feelings as deeply personal, our private thoughts and feeling that have no business being expressed to those around us. So we keep them inside. We lock them up and barely speak about them, even to the ones we would consider our closest advisers. Added to this is often the desire to save face with our church communities. For some reason we have garnered to the belief that struggles and questions are a sign that one is not as faithful as the others. Or there is perception tightly held that to be a strong Christian man or woman is to be someone for whom life’s slings and arrows have no effect.
Remember the movie U571? There is a scene in that movie where the newly appointed captain, played by Matthew McConaunghey, responds to a question with the words ‘I don’t know’. He is then taken to task by a seasoned officer Chief Klough, who states “You’re the skipper now. And the skipper always knows what to do whether he does or not.” Sound familiar? There’s little room for honesty. What is important is the perception of strength and endurance, the ability to fight through all internal doubts and uncertainties even when we are left without energy or drive.
It’s not just those in the pews, or novices in the faith that feel this way, either. This even extends up to those of us who are in ordained ministry. We often add the pressure to care for others, to lead our communities with strength and fortitude, and never let our congregations know that we are struggling on the inside. Thus, we inadvertently illustrate that the faithful way to deal with our stresses and struggles is to keep our head down and plod through the darkness alone.
Sadly this is all too prevalent today, an extension of the overly privatized and individualistic culture we are immersed in. It has lent itself to a ‘Jesus-and-me’ type of spirituality. A ‘Jesus-and-me’ faith is one that is solely focused on one’s own status, feelings, and perceptions. It is independent and solitary. Just as worship is about the individual ‘being fed’ or what he or she ‘receives’ from it, times of struggle become about the lone endurance of the individual. Thus we are quick with our response of ‘fine’ even when all is not fine, we say we are ok even when we are not, and we distance ourselves from a community of people who are there to uphold us and pray for us.
The call to community necessarily means that we are called to involve others in our life of faith. The book of James says ‘if any one of are you are sick, you are to call the elders of the church to pray for you.’ (5:14) What I find interesting about this verse is that the onus of eliciting prayer is on the person who is sick. Of course there is a call for the community to pray for those who are sick and or suffering, but there is also the call for the sick to step outside of their individual privacies and declare their need before the community. As James notes, the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective, yet this can never be fully realized without the risk needed to enter into full community.
It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to not know what to do. It doesn’t mean you are weak or faithless. It doesn’t mean that God is turning his back on you, and that others will reject you. It means you are human. It means that you need to the church and its ministry. It means that you need to be strengthened by those around you, and will be willing to lend strength in return when the time comes.
Thus I encourage you to open up, to risk the bare vulnerability that is needed for you to receive the prayers and care that you need. Take a breath and be honest when asked how you are doing. Until we are willing to stand bare before all others; to disclose the joys and turmoil’s that lie deep within, and to risk letting others know us in our messy, broken, wavering, unkempt selves, true community can never be fully achieved.