Every so often I come across another article articulating the importance of being in regular community and the danger of missing church. A quick google search on the topic of “skipping church” shows some guilt and fear inducing headlines.
“The Selfishness of Skipping Church”
“The Sin of Missing Church”
“5 Spiritual Dangers of Skipping Church”
I’m not Catholic, but I found this one particularly forceful: “Is Missing Mass a Mortal Sin?”
While many articles on this topic lay out important and needed points, I always finish them feeling as though their exhortations have forgotten and missed the entire chronic pain and illness community.
In these articles, we are often reduced to a caveat that goes something like this: “I realize that a very small percentage of people may have real struggles that make it difficult for them to regularly attend church, but….”
But we are more than a caveat. And this “small percentage” of people is not as small as one might think. Unrecognized are millions of people with severe chronic pain and illness who are desperately lonely and desire to be in community but, at times, are unable to do so. During those times we are unable to attend church or be in Christian community, we are not being lazy, sinful or selfish. We are suffering, hurting, and struggling to walk, sit, and stand. Many who have been blessed with good health are unable to comprehend the reality of a body so broken that it cannot move into community. The message so often given is that those who want community enough will find a way to make it happen.
I am currently able to make it to church every week, but in the past, I have gone through months into years when making it to church was an immense physical struggle, and I would regularly have to skip service. I also stopped going to our church small group several years ago because it physically became to much, and I don’t believe I will be attending again any time soon. On top of my other responsibilities, sometimes regular community just doesn’t happen.
Is this selfish? Is this sinful? I give a resounding no, and wonder why I even need to be asking these questions.
I think these questions come to mind because teachings on Christian community say little to nothing about this strange category we fall into. So often, we are lumped into a category of individuals who choose to forsake Christian community for sinful or selfish reasons. The Christian messages around me have always taught community to be an essential part of the Christian life, and I would either be obedient to participate or disobedient if I did not. The message was that anyone who chooses not to attend church or community groups or service opportunities is drifting, not serious about faith, and not following God’s command to be a part of a body of believers. No one ever mentioned this third category I now find myself, at times, falling into.
The first time I felt that someone acknowledge this predicament was when I read the book Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoffer.. Even better than acknowledgement, he reminded me that even Jesus was unable to participate in community during many seasons of his life on earth as he lived among enemies, wandered in the wilderness, and suffered alone on the cross.
“It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed…It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
Recognizing community as a gift of grace and not a given in our lives does not make us long less for the fellowship of believers, but it does ease our guilt and calm our fears that tell us perhaps we are sinning. It helps us respond to those who urge us to “just try harder.” It helps us know that there is grace to make the choice to drop out of Bible study when we need to and skip church when we become physically incapable of continuing to make the trip each week. Community is a gift and not a given.
To those who wonder why we stay home each Sunday or stopped attending Bible Study, thank you for your concern. But please, don’t think we are lazy, sinful, or selfish. If you are really concerned about our spiritual wellbeing as we are forced to live much of our lives in isolation, here is what I suggest.
- Believe us when we say we are physically unable to tolerate coming to church or Bible Study, or whatever other function you think we should attend. Don’t ask a million questions about why. Sometimes it is confusing when you see a chronically ill person out on a Friday, but then they are unable to make it to church. This is just the way chronic pain and illness work: in unpredictable ways.
- Come visit us. If you are really that concerned about our lack of community, then bring community to us. Bring Bible Study to us, offer to Skype us in, or come for a visit and a chat.
- Offer accommodations and help. Ask the question, “Is there something specific that prevents you from making it to church that I could help you with?” Then, perhaps get more specific:
Could I drop you off at the door?
Could I go grocery shopping [or some other task] for you this week so you could use that energy to make it to church?
If we went to a closer church together, could you make it?
If I found you a better chair, could you stay?
What if I drove you there late or we left early – would you be able to make it for a shorter time?
As I consider this topic, James 2:15-17 comes to mind.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.”
When I read these articles about the necessity of attending church, all I can hear is someone telling the chronic pain community, “come to church, be in community, that you may be blessed and filled,” without giving us the things we need to accomplish that. And I ask – what good is that?
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