Monday, January 23, 2017

The Connection Conundrum

Moving is never an easy process, but for those who are significantly limited by toxic illness, the challenges are magnified exponentially. How do you even begin to build a life when you’re shut out of most public places?  How do you meet people?  How do you find your tribe, your support, your place of service and belonging?

My goal has been to get my construction project completed, and then to turn my attention to trying to answer those questions. One thing I’ve been doing already, however, is watching as many webcasts as possible from churches in the area. I need the spiritual nourishment, of course, but I’m also trying to get a feel for what the church options are on the remote chance that I can somehow find a way to be connected to one.

This blog post is prompted by a survey I took for an area church a couple of weeks ago (which was open to guests and to people watching online) and by the sermon I heard yesterday from another. The theme of both was connection, and why people aren’t as connected to the church as the leaders would like them to be.

I don’t remember all the details of the survey. I do remember that there were questions about church attendance, small group attendance, and ministry participation. I seem to remember that one or two questions had a fill-in-the-blank type option, but most were multiple choice.

Completing the survey was exceptionally frustrating. Generally, the questions were something like “How often do you do x or y, and if it’s not very often, why not?” The possible answers rarely fit my circumstances and I don’t remember a single answer that acknowledged health limitations. The possibilities seemed to generally assume either a lack of knowledge or a lack of desire.

By far the most frustrating question for me was about participation in mission projects. None of the possible answers fit at all, so I finally settled on the last option given: “I don’t know.” That’s a fairly blatant lie. Of course I know why I don’t participate in mission projects. It’s because at some point in my life, most probably after I had been appointed as a missionary, and while I was studying at the Missionary Learning Center, I was infected with Lyme disease and not diagnosed. It’s because I got sicker and sicker as I served overseas. It’s because doctors didn’t take me seriously and the toxins overwhelmed my genetically weak detoxification system to the point that I could eventually no longer serve as a missionary, no longer enter most public places, including churches, and no longer participate in mission projects without accommodation, which people don’t generally seem willing to give. That’s why.

The sermon I heard yesterday, from a very different type of church, was entirely about small groups. The preacher spent time talking about the importance of Christian fellowship, then listed the reasons he imagined for people not participating in small group ministries. The reasons he proposed included being too busy, fearing vulnerability, and being unwilling to engage with people different from ourselves. At one point he mentioned “getting in our own way.” Again there was no acknowledgement that some of us need some of you to make changes if we’re going to be able to study, pray, and worship together.

I’m not sure I can explain what these sorts of messages, which are constant, feel like to those of us who are shut out of the broader church community. Maybe the spiritual and emotional hunger can be compared to the need for physical nourishment. Imagine (or remember, if you’ve experienced it) not having access to a steady source of food for years at a time. You’re constantly thinking about and looking for options, and you spend a great deal of time and energy focusing on how to feed yourself enough that you can stay upright and not pass out. On a regular basis, while hunger pains knot your stomach and you’re wondering where to find your next meal, well-fed people come and lecture you about the importance of eating right. “Eating is very important,” they tell you. “You should really eat more and not sabotage yourself.” They say you should come and eat with them, but the door to the room that holds the food is locked, and although many people appear to have a key, you don't. When you mention the problem, you’re told that unlocking the door would be too difficult, or you’re simply ignored.

It’s hard to be locked out. It’s also hard to be implicitly blamed for the inability to access longed-for resources. Reading and hearing church and small group slogans is often hard. When I hear something like “There’s a place for you,” my automatic mental response is “I seriously doubt it.”   

Won’t you consider letting us in?  Won’t you consider keeping toxicity in mind when making decisions about building materials, cleaning and pest control methods, and personal care products?  Please unlock the door. We’re very hungry.