Picture the scene: It’s Sunday morning. Our church holds three morning services. Early doors for the quiet ones, 9.30am for the traditional worshippers (organ and choir) and 11.15am for the ‘modern’ worshippers and those with children. With three children, you can imagine which one we go to!
We rush, ever on the side of being late rather than early. Our older children are dragging their feet, having been forced away from the comfy sofa and electronics. Our toddler is charging ahead, keen to get to the toys!
We enter to smiling faces from the welcome team, people who volunteer to say hello and help visitors when they arrive. The church is bustling, so much so that I think there must be an event on! There are familiar and new faces mingling together. The last of the coffee is being served and our three head straight for the biscuit barrel (a bit of bribery on the way!) and each choose one before taking their usual seats.
My hubby busies himself with coats and chatting to another dad about football. We are seated with other families with children, old and young, and new parents with babies in prams. There are also couples soon to be married seated somewhat nervously at the back, waiting to hear banns read. There are couples who’ve been married for decades, there are single people and friends sitting together. There is a pretty even spead of men and women, and the congregation includes people from many different backgrounds and heritages.
I take in the mix of people attending this service and it is pretty humbling and also uplifting- especially having read only a few days before how church attendance is dwindling as the elderly population die off! To see the range of ages was really encouraging. The people in this place were not ‘strange’ or ‘a minority’, they were there simply to be with like-minded people to worship the God of creation, to take time to reflect on their lives and situations. It didn’t feel ‘religious’, it felt natural.
In the background, the band was playing a melodic song – guitars, a flute and singers. And with brisk hellos and greetings, we all finally sat down and the service began.
Children of course don’t usually like to sit still or be quiet for long, especially little ones, and as a toddler runs up the aisle, the vicar begins the opening prayer. He ends the prayer by saying: ‘…and I pray that our children and young people enjoy their time here, and have lasting, happy memories of our church and its people.’
Yes! That’s it. This is why it’s important to be here. (Trust me, getting three children anywhere even vaguely ‘non-essential’ is often more hassle than it’s worth!)
But it is worth it.
Even if they don’t grow up to become faithful Christians and regular churchgoers, I still want all my children to value their church, to feel comfortable there and to feel able to go whenever they wanted and needed. The vicar didn’t say he prayed that all the children go to church every Sunday and be devout Christians (although of course that would be good), he was simply encouraging some trust and hope in the church, which perhaps is missing from the lives of young people today.
But church is just for the needy, isn’t it?
I used to have a preconception that church was for the needy, that everyone in church would have some kind of need, or go because they were lonely or find it the only place that accepted them. And yes, the church is made up of people who go there because of some kind of need. Talk to anyone in a congregation and you’ll be surprised how they reveal their histories to you – the losses, pains, sufferings. But there are also people who aren’t suffering. They are all people who are allowed to share their problems simply because they are in a church community. No one bats an eyelid in shock if you reveal a problem, a bereavement or tragic circumstance, you are given a friendly hug or chat, or someone will simply sit with you in comfort. Human comfort with God’s love.
The church is often referred to as a ‘house of God’ and that is exactly how it should be perceived. It is a home. A place for a family of people (God’s children) to come together, be together and pray together. It is a place to be yourself, to shake off the masks we all wear day in day out in the outside world – for our jobs, friends or communities (although some people do wear ‘church masks’ too). It’s a place where, just like our own homes, we can relax, feel at home, comfortable in our surroundings. At least, that’s what it should be.
We need to demystify what has been mystified
A school took some of their children on an outing to the church. Most of the children, aged around 8/9 years old, had never set foot inside a church and those that had had been taken along to Granny’s funeral when they were younger so could only remember tears and mourning. There were whispers and scary stories being told. They were afraid. The building was big, echoey and unfamiliar – unmodernised in appearance (no computer or TV screen in sight).
What is deeply sad is that this isn’t what the church is about, it’s not what God intends to be viewed as, it’s not a place to be afraid. Can you imagine if you invited some friends round to your house and they crept about, felt scared and uncertain what to do? Most likely you’d feel awful and do all you could to reassure them.
Being in church reminds us of our mortality, that one day we will die. I know too well that death and faith are two areas people avoid like the plague (my posts on faith have a much lower readership than my others). It seems that we are shocked by death and are apologetic for having any kind of faith. Church can remind us of death, but it should also be a place to celebrate life, because despite what we are told… life is an amazing gift!
Coming back to church was not as scary as I thought
I haven’t always been a keen churchgoer, far from it! Despite finding faith in God at an early age, I have my own very negative experiences of church as a child. I was utterly separated from church and ultimately my faith in God thanks to these experiences. To add to that was the seemingly constant media coverage of yet another member of the clergy being brought to justice over terrible crimes against children or some other crime being committed in the name of religion. I had deep issues with trusting the church (religion) and people who claimed to be ‘Christian’. Since Abi died, I needed to work through all that very carefully and I’m glad to say I have come out of it more sure that God and Jesus are the truth than ever before.
As a culture we are shocked by death and illness; we are shocked if we have any kind of suffering and, frankly, we don’t know how to deal with it other than to complain about how ‘unfair’ it is, how doctors should fix us. And I’m not saying that is bad, it is very unfair that my daughter died despite all the skilled doctors could do for her, it’s very unfair I lost three pregnancies, there is much in my life that has been unbelievably unfair. But I know that if I allow the sense of unfairness to take hold then I will end up bitter, angry and hateful. And I know this because I’ve felt it! I also know how fortunate I am. To have a loving family, an income, a safe and comfortable home, food in the cupboard, my health thus far… the list is endless of the spiritual and practical blessings in my life and that is my focus.
Surely the church is just a hook to hang our sorrow onto?
Because death and illness will come to each and every one of us, it’s immensely ‘comforting’ to imagine there’s a heaven up there where we can all be happy forevermore, especially when thinking of our children, but I know in my heart that this is more than just a ‘comfort’, it’s a truth.
I go to an Anglican church as I believe God is utterly loving and freeing. I don’t see myself as religious, more a believer in Christ. I very much doubt Jesus would be bothered by all the pomp and ceremony (we do like a ceremony!) or the politics, but he would like to see us living lives that honour God and His word. At a basic level, it’s really not difficult, love God and love your neighbour is pretty much it.
God wants us to know him and through knowing him we will know what love is really like, there is no room for hate, resentment and judgement on others.
Exploring what I actually believed
My faith journey started again after Abi died. I first had to be clear if I believed in God, a higher creator. Yes, I decided. I see no reason for us to have a conscious mind if there was nothing after our bodily deaths, and the more I studied the Christian faith the more I understood this. But I almost wanted to not believe in God! To know the truth is both scary and humbling at the same time. It would be far easier to pretend He’s not real and that this amazing life is one big coincidence!
So the next part was deciding if I believed in Jesus. He was undoubtedly real, but crucially was He the Son of God and did He rise from death or was He simply a very wise man?
Christians rely on the Bible, and some people have a problem with that as there isn’t too much evidence outside of that. It could all be one made-up story used to control others. But, when I read the Bible I see that it can’t be fictional or exaggerated, there is too much detail and there is too much that goes wrong! If it was fabricated it would be in such a way that suited the church, not God’s will. There is much in it that seems crazy or far-fetched, but I’ve learned to read into the Bible and that it’s not always literal.
I wonder why the church has survived for 2000 years if it is so wrong? Why would people bother to suffer persecution for this Jesus guy? This C.S. Lewis quote holds a lot of truth for me:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
So I established in my mind that I believed in God, and then that I believed Jesus Christ was who He said He was. So that makes me a Christian. My further studies of the Bible and apologetics has helped me to understand the key questions I have about life and suffering.
However, my intelligent, questioning brain is learning to trust my knowing heart. Since my loss I have felt, heard and visualised Jesus, so whenever I have a wobble, whenever I hear of another illness or death, I remember and pray on those experiences rather than the why’s and wherefore’s. It is beyond comforting! Hey, and if I’m wrong and have spent my life ‘wasting’ my time on this, what does it matter? I will be dead and living in glory having lived a life feeling loved and giving love, or I’ll be dead and just dead.
Closing our churches scares me more than anything else
Death is certainly fearful, the moment of death anyway, but pushing the church out of our culture frightens me more than death does. Humans have worshipped since the dawn of time. Regardless of who or what we were worshipping, every culture, group, nation, tribe has worshipped in some form or other – worship is part of who we, as a people, are, whether we like it or not. Humans have also fought and oppressed others since the dawn of time – since before ‘religion’.
We are more scientific and intelligent than ever before, we expect answers, we can do stuff by ourselves, we have an element of control on our lives and health now. In the distant past, we would have been deeply connected to nature and the world around us and above us. Almost a sixth sense. Now our senses are dulled and we feel we can live without any ‘religious nonsense’ especially when it encourages extremism. But extremism is a human trait, not a God-given one. It comes through people and their desire to control – by whatever reason they choose which makes their actions justified. And if a Christian tries to control or abuse another person they are not true Christians. Simple.
I probably know more non-Christians than Christians, made up of atheists and agnostics, and all of them are good people living good lives, and doing amazing things for others. You don’t have to be religious to be ‘good’ and to live a ‘good’ life. God sees all that. But having attended church as regularly as possible for the past few years now, and having attended an Alpha Course recently (which I will post about), I have seen for myself why going to church is so important, especially for our children.
I used to believe that I didn’t need to go to church to be a Christian, that I could do it alone and God wouldn’t mind that, but while that’s true in part, I’m also now very aware that physically going to church enriches my life and supports my faith, so much so it has become something I want to do rather than a feel I should do.
Yes, it can be a challenge to get everyone out of the house on a Sunday morning and sometimes I go on my own, simply to have that alone time and when I really can’t face the grumbles. But, at the very least, I will ensure my children do have good memories of church – that it’s not just the place where their sister’s funeral was held – and that they understand what being a Christian really means and what church can offer them and vice versa.
So what does physically going to church actually offer me?
Here are just some main reasons why I go out of my way to go to church:
- Being in a church service offers me the chance to discover more about God through the services and extra activities the church provides. I learn more about what being a Christian means and understand why I feel called to follow this faith.
- I have the chance to meet with like-minded people – this includes people who have questions, who are suffering or who are simply wanting to connect with others. Every member of the congregation is at a different place in their faith so there’s no pressure to act ‘holy’ or ‘righteous’, we can be human!
- I can get involved in something with the community – a sense of belonging and acceptance that is not experienced anywhere else.
- I have the freedom to be myself in a safe place with people who care and won’t judge me or treat me differently for my circumstances, losses, or beliefs. No one judges me if I talk about God, or looks at me strangely if I mention a prayer being answered or an encounter with the Holy Spirit.
- The friendship is consistent. I was welcomed as much on my first day at church when I attended in the weeks after Abi’s funeral as I am today, now knowing many of the congregation and counting them amongst my friends. The love is kind, constant and unconditional.
- I can learn more about the teachings of Jesus to support and enrich my life and the lives of those people I encounter during the week ahead.
Church is for grievers
Yes, it’s absolutely true that the belief in God and heaven has made my grief easier to bear. But what’s so wrong with that?
It is a comfort to know that Abi is resting in heaven. It’s helped me accept that I will lose family and friends, that further suffering is inevitable as part of my life, that my heart will break for others as they go through their own suffering. It’s given me a way to prepare for the future and address the issues as they arrive, but it’s given me hope in life.
Becoming a joyfully commitment Christian (not an apologetic believer) has not controlled my mind and my actions… it’s set me free in a way I never thought possible! (Trust me, a few years ago, I could never imagine writing these words!)
Going to church brings me these practical things as well as so much spiritual growth. I’ve never felt ‘led’ to believe something. I still have many unanswered questions, of course I do, but I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of demanding hard evidence and answers without listening within ourselves.
It’s very hard to describe a ‘knowing’ but that’s exactly what faith is. Going to church has enabled me to know the true love of God and what that means for my life. It’s encouraged me to explore faith for myself and has ultimately given me such a profound relationship with Jesus that I never thought possible. That all sounds very ‘idealistic’ reading back, but it’s simply how it is.
When my daughter died, I knew that I could not go on living my life not having true conviction in my beliefs (or non-beliefs!). I did not want to die not knowing, as much as I could do for certain, where I was going – or why I was here in the first place!
A person’s faith is often the first casualty following grief
I am sure that, for some readers, reading such positive words regarding faith can be hard to relate to, particularly if you’ve just lost a child or have had negative experiences.
One bereaved mother wrote to me and said she hated God now. Her mother, being a strict Catholic, almost dismisses her ongoing grief as ‘it was all part of God’s plan and she should trust in him more.’ Hearing things like that makes me shudder. I can understand her reaction to this, but it’s her Catholic mother who is misguided, and likely hiding her own emotions behind her faith, rather than God.
It’s taken me a long time and lots of soul searching to reach any clarity about this. So while I’m not sorry to write about what I believe and how it has helped me, I am sorry if you’ve found this and are upset by my positivity in faith.
I am still a grieving mother. I don’t brush off my grief. I miss Abi to my core and even more knowing how much I’m missing out on with her. I’m not hiding my grief behind faith. I’m trying to share a message of hope and strength. You may not be in the same place as me, but perhaps knowing others like me have found hope in faith after loss may be helpful? I have read many grief blogs that seem fixated on the grief, the early stages of loss and despair, the on-going pain of reminders. That side of it is vitally important of course, and something God doesn’t hide from, but I want to show a different side too. A hopeful side. That you can grieve but also still live.
If you read my blog from the beginning you’ll get a good idea of the journey I’ve been on to get to this point. I’ve been on the scariest emotional rollercoaster ride of my life! I still need a low dose of pills to help me with my physical stress. I still see a therapist to help my mental stress. I’m (a broken) human, but I see so much more in life now, as a result of my daughter’s death.
I won’t know why God allowed it to happen but I do know he’s loved me in my suffering and used it to actually help me. I am thankful for that every day.
If I could have anything I wanted, it would be to have Abi back living with us all, but with the spiritual awareness and deep understanding of life that I have now.