Author Flannery O’Connor once noted in a letter to a friend, “It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the church as for it.” I believe her. The most painful experience of my marriage came courtesy of the church.
In 1985 my wife, Joni, gave birth to our daughter, Katie. We were thrilled, but our happiness dissolved into grief when we learned that Katie had a terminal neural tube birth defect. Her condition was known as anencephaly, meaning that in the womb her brain had not developed normally. She basically possessed just the brain stem and was not expected
to live more than a few hours or days. The delivery-room doctor described her situation in physician-speak that I will never forget. “Her condition is not compatible with life,” he said.
Our shock and grief were immediate because Katie would have no chance to enjoy a normal life. There would be no cure, no hope for even modest improvement. I went through the painful process of calling family and friends. And I had to tell our two sons about their sister.
But Kathryn Alice Burchett confounded the doctors and lived. She was never able to open her eyes, nor could she smile. Katie also lacked the ability to regulate her body temperature, so her room temperature had to be monitored. Part of Katie’s deformity was an opening with exposed tissue at the back of her skull. It had to be covered regularly with a new dressing. Joni loved and cared for Katie in a way I will always respect and never forget. She insisted that Katie come home with us. I worried about the effect that caring for Katie at home might have on the boys. Truthfully, I
was probably more concerned about the effect bringing her home would have on me. But Joni would not have it any other way, and when she sets her mind to something she is scrappy. So I showed my spiritual wisdom by agreeing with her.
Katie found her place in our family’s routines. She could drink from a bottle. Katie responded to her mother’s touch and even grew a little. We took her on a camping trip with us, and she was a regular at the boys’ ball games and other events.
Sometimes people would make hurtful or mean remarks. A kid at school taunted our oldest son because his sister didn’t have a brain. (That was something the classmate had no doubt heard at home, and it reminds me that we should always be cautious about what we say in front of our children.) Once, when we wanted a family photo taken, we dressed up the troops and went to a photography studio. The photographer insisted that Katie needed to open her eyes. We explained patiently (for a while) that she physically could not open her eyes. He informed us that we couldn’t get our picture taken because their lab would not develop a picture if any person in the group didn’t have their eyes open. Katie totally upset their system, and they would not flex. We finally left without the photos and ended up
going to a private photographer. Still, all things considered, our life with Katie went about as well as it could.
Then the church entered in.
One Sunday morning before church, a friend called to tell us that Katie would no longer be welcome in the nursery. The moms had met and decided (without any input from us) that Katie might die in their care and traumatize some volunteer worker. They worried that the opening at the back of Katie’s skull could generate a staph infection. In truth,
however, the nursery workers did not have to deal with potential infection because the opening was covered with a sterile dressing and a bonnet, and it required no special attention during the brief time she was in the nursery each Sunday. And there was almost no danger of spreading infection because Katie did not interact with other babies. Clearly, a little caution would have eliminated any possible risk.
As to the possibility that she might die while in their care, we knew she was going to die. No one would have been to blame. Since we were in a church of only one hundred fifty people, I think they could have found us fairly quickly in an emergency. If they had come to us with their concerns, we might have been able to put the volunteers’ fears to rest. But the decision was made without us. Katie was no longer welcome, and our church had done what I had not thought possible: they made our pain worse.
Joni was devastated, more hurt than I have ever seen her before or since. I am sure our church didn’t intend to wound us as they did, but the hurt lingered for years. And the pain was multiplied by the method. We had no warning that there were concerns. We received no invitation to come and address concerns. Instead, a secret meeting was followed by a phone call to tell us what had already been decided. I’m not the only one with this kind of story.
I know a pastor in the Midwest who suffered the tragic loss of his wife to leukemia. Within a matter of weeks the board asked him to resign because they did not want the church to be led by an unmarried pastor! This grieving man had to change denominations in order to continue his ministry. It is a miracle and tribute to God’s grace that he kept going at all.
In my hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio, an acquaintance finally decided it was time to get his family into a church. He loaded up the crew and visited one nearby. The church immediately showed a tremendous and heartfelt concern for his…grooming issues. You see, Roy had the audacity to show up in God’s house with a full beard, not unlike Jesus’ in the picture hanging in the foyer. A church leader met Roy on the way out.
“So are you going to start worshiping with us?” he asked.
“Why, yes,” Roy replied. “We want to start coming to church.”
The church leader looked at him and said, “Well, I hope you will have shaved by next Sunday.” Because of that comment, it took another twenty years before Roy found a regular church home.
Stuck in Legalism: The Airing of GrievancesAnd at the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around, and you tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the
—Frank Costanza, Seinfeld episode “The Strike”
Most of us chuckle over the invented holiday of Festivus. In the famous Seinfeld episode, Frank Costanza explains how he grew frustrated with the commercialism of Christmas:
Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.
Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that, a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!
Part of the “tradition” of Festivus was the airing of grievances to all who came to dinner. Frank Costanza’s frustration with Christmas commercialism mirrors my angst over the odd brand of Christianity that we’ve too often foisted on our culture. I am borrowing Frank’s concept of the airing of grievances. Actually, churchgoers are pretty good at the airing
of grievances, even without the Festivus excuse. In the Seinfeld episode, the airing of grievances is followed by the traditional “feats of strength.” The head of the household selects one person at the Festivus celebration and challenges that person to a wrestling match. Festivus is not over until the head of the household is pinned. Wouldn’t that be a fascinating addition to our church bylaws?
Section 7: Resolution of Conflict
The elders shall invite the congregation to an annual church potluck, followed by the airing of grievances. The potluck shall be followed by praise songs and then the feats of strength. The congregational meeting shall not be adjourned until an elder is pinned to the mat by a church member.
Perhaps the sight of a volunteer wrestling with an elder would be silly enough to help us understand that 98 percent of our grievances are pointless in the context of the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment. But there is a place for the airing of grievances, especially in reference to the way we do Christianity in this culture. But I pray that I will always come around to grace and truth that enable the real feats of strength to be our focus. I hope we will learn how to trust God to demonstrate truly amazing feats of strength, such as forgiveness, selflessness, serving, and unity.
Excerpted from When Bad Christians Happen to Good People by Dave Burchett. Copyright © 2011 by Dave Burchett. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.