Darkness: Finding a Balance Between Being Real and Over-sharing

So this morning I gave a sermon titled Living With Darkness. This was the description:

Many people come to church or come to a religion when they are hurting – when they are struggling, looking for answers, or going through a difficult time. This morning’s sermon deals with those times of darkness in our lives – how do we bring this to our faith, or bring our faith to our darkness? How can we make space in church to talk about depression, addiction, or aching emptiness? And how can our personal stories of healing open up space for others to share, learn, and be at peace with the darkness that will inevitably be part of all of our lives?

I raised (although did not solve!) the issue of how we bring our darkness and our struggles to our faith. I actually mentioned this post over at Trivium that mentioned the Christian (more charasmatic-ish) tradition of testifying – of sharing with the congregation one’s struggles and problems, and offering those struggles and that darkness up to God, and, implicitly, to the community. This often involved sharing how God had helped with the problem, but not always. The Trivium blog brilliantly called this “joys and concerns amplified” which cracked me up. Amplified, I think is such an understatement. But anyway. I digress.

The point is that it is one thing to point out that many Unitarian Universalists struggle with difficult things in their life and are somewhat reserved in sharing this with each other – there is a lot of judgment, even with the most loving wonderful congregations, with issues like depression, addiction, financial struggles, or abuse. It is another thing to suggest what should be done about this sort of properness that surrounds how we share our struggles and woundedness.

Over at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist, in the context of writing about post-Christian worship, Dan Harper points out that Joys and Concerns is often a challenge and not an appropriate venue for congregations to deal with the struggles that individuals face. He writes:

At the most basic level, if you can no longer count on gaining a deep connection with God during post-Christian worship, there may be a desire to find other ways to have some kind of intimate relationship. On another level, it is likely that some people confuse private devotions, which are personal and intimate and revealing of the deepest secrets of the self, with common worship, where the needs of the common good must take precedence over, or at least balance with, the needs of the self. Similarly, it is likely that people confuse the experience of small support groups, where a semi-public confession about one’s personal problems may be made, with common worship (for example, when the “candles of joy and concern” serve merely as an inappropriate public confession of very private matters). Other things that can contribute to a cult of false intimacy include: the increased secularization of the wider culture and a concomitant ignorance of the purposes of common worship; the spread of false intimacy throughout the wider culture.

One of the questions that I have is what “inappropriate public confession of very private matters” means. Of course, there certainly are inappropriate things that one would not want to bring to joys and concerns. As I pointed out in my sermon, I am not calling for everyone to come up to joys and concerns next week and share their deepest struggle or secret.

But, what I am looking for is a way for my congregation to find ways that we can bring our more difficult, less-polished selves to church – to our church community. I think one of the reasons that evangelical Christianity has such appeal is because it does give people a way to say, “Oh, Lord, I am struggling. I am hurting and aching and I need healing.” How can we develop a Unitarian Universalist version of this where people who are in great pain can feel comfortable bringing that to our church? Not only people who already have a support system in the community, but the person down the street who has no church home and needs a place to go after her mom dies? Or the teenager whose boyfriend broke up with her after she got pregnant and had an abortion? Or the single, middle-aged man who has no church home, but is longing for something in the midst of a very difficult, empty, lonely time in his life? Do we just say, look you need to see the minister for pastoral counseling? I guess I want to find a way for our churches to be less proper and decent and “appropriate” in how we handle the darkness of people’s lives. It all seems so controlled. I don’t have an answer, and I acknowledge that, for instance, joys and concerns gone haywire with tearful confessions and such is not what we are looking for.

Yet – how can we invite people into our faith communities and really mean and really say it is okay to be broken. And wounded. With all that comes with that –

Or, is it that if you are too messed up, you might want to go down to the evangelical church in across town where you can be messed up and they will take you, but before you come to our churches, you need to have your stuff a little bit more together and be ready to be on some sort of committee….

Hard questions. Way harder answers.

2 Responses to Darkness: Finding a Balance Between Being Real and Over-sharing

  1. LaReinaCobrehttp://lareinacobre.net says:

    This is a tough question, Elizabeth, and I don’t have the answer. I think part of our awkwardness and discomfort with folks who are truly feeling broken is that, unlike the evangelical church down the street, we as UUs don’t believe we have the solution. Most of us can’t say, “God has a plan for you,” or “If you accept [this belief], these troubles will stop ailing you.”

    But I know that in my life, I am in relationship with people who are in a lot of pain. How do I help them? What do I do for them? And is it possible to extend that same service to the people at church – people I may not know well – who are also hurting?

    The perfectionist tendencies of people in our congregations might lead us to believe that if we aren’t the expert, or that if we can’t give the final answer, we can’t do anything.

    Speaking for myself, I can say that I need to be more comfortable with my own flaws … and those parts of my life that have disappointed me, or temporarily crushed me. The less self-conscious I become, the more available I am to the people in my community.

  2. Robin Edgarhttp://robinedgar.stumbleupon.com says:

    Maybe U*Us can start by working on avoiding inflicting pain on people and responsibly providing genuine justice, equity and compassion in response to U*U injustices and abuses. In my experience U*Us are amongst the most utterly conscienceless people that I have the misfortune to know and are pathologically incapable of dealing responsibly with internal injustices and abuses.

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