The Worst Thing I Could Do image

The Worst Thing I Could Do

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I haven’t watched Grease for years. Or hadn’t until recently, when I went to a singalong version at the Clapham Grand theatre. So. Much. Fun! My friends and I dressed up, sang along, did the hand jive, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

But amid the laughter I was struck by one of the songs, ‘The Worst Thing I Could Do’, sung by Rizzo. This tough, cool, sophisticated leader of the girl gang ‘The Pink Ladies’ is afraid she might be pregnant and, after hearing some other girls gossip about her, sings this song reflecting on what everyone thinks of her. It’s a self-justifying kind of reflection – “There are worse things I could do/than go with a boy…or two” – and at its climax, Rizzo reveals the very worst thing she can imagine that she could do: to cry in front of her boyfriend or her friends.

It’s a wistful moment in the film, but quickly passes as we return to the more upbeat, sun-drenched storylines. What struck me, though, was the thought that Rizzo’s belief – that to cry in front of her friends is the worst thing imaginable – is one that seems to be held by many in our churches.

I’m blessed to be part of a church where I feel welcome, loved and safe. It is a wonderful blessing, and something I don’t take for granted, because I know not everyone has the same experience of church. For some, even those who have been Christians for many years, it can be a challenging and intimidating place. They fear being judged if they don’t dress right, if the kids don’t behave, if they have slipped up during the week. They fear being left out because they’re too old, or single, or married. They fear the vulnerability of being seen and known. Or they fear the isolation of not being seen or known.

My heart breaks when I hear things like this. It makes me so angry – primarily at the enemy for keeping people locked in their fears by his wicked, twisted, terrible lies, but also at church cultures that suggest to people that only those who have got it together are welcome.

Church, we have to get better at this. We’re family. Family is – or should be – the safest space on earth. When you’re distressed, your family is the first place you should turn to, not the last. When you’ve messed up, or you’re afraid or lonely or you need a place to stay or help putting up a bookcase, your family are the ones you should feel comfortable with and confident to ask.

The term ‘safe space’ has been somewhat discredited by its use on certain university campuses to mean ‘a space where you can be protected from ever hearing anything that might distress you’, and much has been written on the ridiculousness of the notion of trying to protect students from hearing ideas they oppose or even disagree with, lest they – *gasp* – experience a negative emotion. Yet I think in some churches we are in danger of doing a similar thing, whether that’s in toning down what the Bible says about sin, or in being so afraid of upsetting childless women that we make Mothering Sunday a general celebration of women or ignore it altogether.

I’m not suggesting that we should be wildly insensitive or ride roughshod over the feelings of others, but neither do I think it is helpful to be so afraid of the very real emotional burdens our family members may be carrying that we become paralysed and unable to speak about anything but the weather.

Here’s a silly example to illustrate what I mean. This summer I haven’t been able to afford to go away on holiday. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked, ‘Have you been away anywhere this year?’ Now that could be a difficult question. I have in the past felt envious of my friends’ exotic holidays, when all I could afford was a weekend in Torquay. If you asked me that innocent question on a bad day, it might have felt painful, and even made me cry a bit. BUT THAT’S OK! When I’m among family I should feel free to be real about my emotions.

To be willing to cry in front of others (or to be vulnerable without tears if that’s more your style – not everyone has to sob uncontrollably to exhibit vulnerability!) is not a sign of weakness but of strength and courage. Rizzo thought she was being strong behind her wall of self-sufficient pride, but in fact she was taking the easy way out, nursing her pain and fear, and not allowing her friends to be friends to her. I should be able to cry if I need to, partly because if I don’t I deprive myself of comfort and help, and also because if I don’t I deprive you of the opportunity to minister to me.

When I show my vulnerability, I put you in a position of power over me, which you may well abuse. But I also create the possibility that some day, when you are vulnerable in your turn, you will feel more able to humble yourself and trust me to minister to you.

I nearly said earlier that I don’t know how we transform our churches to be the genuinely safe spaces they should be, but I think I do. I think it starts to happen when some of us pluck up our courage and allow ourselves to show our weakness. I’m blessed to be in a church where I’ve seen young and old willing to cry together and pray and support each other. I firmly believe that that creates a culture where others know it’s OK to cry. We can’t expect the church to feel like family if we refuse to let others be family to us.

It will take baby steps, but by ones and twos we can change the culture of our churches. What’s the worst that could happen?

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