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The Church Is a Place for Healing

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By Martin Elfert

When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:17, ESV

One of the practices that I deeply value in Grace Memorial Episcopal Church’s Sunday assembly comes right near the end. This is when a group of people — sometimes as few as two or as many as 15 — comes forward and names big moments in their lives. Many speak of moments that are celebratory in nature, and I am glad that our worshipping community has the opportunity to say thanks with them. I am glad as well for those who share moments that are bittersweet or sad or hard.

Recently, for instance, the anniversary of a natural disaster was shared with us. We heard about how this event and its aftermath called one of our members into grief and into service — the way it shaped it her life. Similarly, we listened to the many emotionally, physically trying gifts that flowed out of a time of trauma and of healing resulting from a bike crash two years ago. And we heard as well about the beautiful melancholy of a child turning twenty years old; every parent wants his child to grow up, but there remains mourning to be done when childhood comes to an end.

I am grateful for the public naming of these sorrows and wounds and mixed blessings, for the public naming of these difficult gifts. I am grateful because it gives our community the opportunity to pray together, to send love and light and healing into the pain, to declare that Jesus stands with us in our losses and our griefs, much as he stands with us in our joys and our jubilations. And I am grateful as well because this act of public naming is a testament; it is a testament to the faithful bravery of everyone who stands before our church and shares his or her story.

Some 50 years ago, the Beatles sang the lament, “You’ve got to hide your love away.” In the culture in which we live, the corrosive song that we hear is only slightly different: “You’ve got to hide your pain away.” I am sorry that so many of us have deeply internalized the message that we mustn’t let anyone know when we are in a place of grief or disorientation or lostness. I am especially sorry when we feel that we cannot share these things at church, that the church is not a place in which we can be physically or emotionally or spiritually wounded, that we need to be whole and healthy before we show up in God’s house.

Because of the cultural norm that tells us to disguise our hurt, when an individual comes forward near the end of our service and speaks of her pain, she is engaging in a beautifully subversive act. She declares that she will not hide her pain away; she rejects the narrative that says her pain is cause for embarrassment or shame; she trusts the promise that Jesus knows humanity’s suffering and shares in it and will heal it; she believes that the church, the body of Christ, is called to walk with everyone who is in pain. She is declaring what our brothers and sisters in the Twelve-Step tradition know in their bones: that we do not come before God and into community because we are perfect and certain and without need — quite the opposite — we come because we are searching and lost and hungry.

And when that person is done with her brave declaration and our community responds with prayer and with song, we are declaring something as well: that we come to church not just to find our own healing, but also because we are called to participate in the healing of others. We are shouting forth the Gospel message that our neighbor needs us, that we need our neighbor, that Jesus is in the midst of us, that, with God’s help, we shall be made well.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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3 comments

  1. Martin, you bring up such a poignant issue for the Church. I know others like Rev. Molly Baskette have interwoven testimonies like these into their worship and found that it resonates with the gathered souls there. It’s so sad to see the Church moving away from it’s call to help and heal, and move toward programs and masks. Thank you for this reminder of what we, the Church of Jesus Christ, is called to do.

  2. This spoke to me in so many ways. I have been thinking a lot lately about the tendency to hide our pain away. As a leader in my church, I often think I should be more focused on others instead of sharing my feelings of grief or loss. You articulated all of this beautifully. Thank you.

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