“Room for Woe” – Why Churches Need Space for Sadness

This year during lent, I decided to preach a series that I called “Woe to Us.”  Lent is the season in the Church that leads up to Easter, and it is traditionally a time that Christians use to reflect on their need for Christ.  This lent, it felt fitting to preach about the ways that we need to say “woe to us.” In a world that often wants to hurry past sadness or discouragement, we decided to make room for woe. We named together the ways that we are like many of the people in the story of Jesus who made mistakes or didn’t live up to their own good intentions. 

woe cross
Our cross of woe that we created during lent

But I didn’t want this to just be about sermons and the spiritual woes we experience.  I also wanted to make space for real and honest lament of the many ways we feel pain. As a pastor, I look out at my congregation each Sunday, and I see a lot of woes. There are many people who are hurting, and I realize how often churches may not feel like safe places in the times of our greatest anguish.  Churches are usually full of happy songs, upbeat music, and stories of redemption. And sometimes – we’re not there.

Sometimes, we have a story where we haven’t seen the redemption yet

Sometimes we are hurting too much to find joy in the happy music on a Sunday morning.

Sometimes, we need room for woe.

I realized making room for woe meant making space for the real stories of woe in people’s lives, and so each Sunday I asked someone from our church to share a story of woe.  They had only one rule – they were not allowed to (quote): “Tidy it up with a nice Christian bow at the end.”

(You know the bow I mean, right? The “But-God-is-good-and-all-things-work-for-good-and-praise-God!” bow).

It’s not that I don’t believe God is good and not always working to redeem our lives.  It’s that sometimes we need space to let the sadness be, just as it is, before God and before others in our lives.  Sometimes we need room for woe.

I lined up two people to share our first two Sundays of lent. The first week someone talked about losses they had experienced during retirement and having to sell their home.  The next week a woman shared the raw pain of living in depression. After that, which was no surprise to me, I didn’t have to ask people to share anymore. People started volunteering to tell their story of woe.  Someone shared about struggling with being single in a church full of families, another about caring for her mom with Alzheimer’s. Another week we heard from someone who had experienced a sense of failure in their career and the next week someone talked about the grief of having recently losing a loved one.

I admit, it was painful some weeks, to just let the woe sit there.  To hear someone you love simply end a story by saying: “It’s really hard” – and sitting back down.  Sometimes it took lots of willpower not to jump up and start the “But God is good – all the time” chant.  I didn’t. It was time to make space for woe. 

And it was so very very beautiful when we did.

Each week, I would hear the gentle sighs and see the nods of people thinking: “Me too.”  I would physically feel the love in the room as someone shared and people stayed with them, every minute.  I would talk to those who shared after who said: “Thank you for letting me to do that.”

And after six weeks of woe, I have learned something: There is great power in making space for pain.  In fact, over the last number of years, I have come to believe this is one of the callings of the church. The Church SHOULD be a place where real, honest, lament can be expressed with no judgement and no need to rush to explain it all away. 

Sadly, this isn’t always the case.  We have not always made room for woe. We have been good at quick “God has a plan!” explanations – not so good at simply saying: “I share in your pain.”  

Making room for woe doesn’t mean that we all need to do a “woe to us” series.  It can be as simple as letting someone share their story without jumping in too quickly with Christian platitudes. It can mean carving out time for lament in churches in the same way we do for celebrating.  However we do it – we need room for woe.

And remember that we can make this room because we know woe is not the end of the story.  We have been in lent, but Easter is coming. After six weeks of woe, I am so excited for this Sunday when we can celebrate the joy of the resurrection, and what that means for all our woes.   And I believe our joy this Sunday will be even fuller not because we have denied the woe, but because we have made space for it.

So, this Sunday, we will sing happy songs.  We will hug each other and say “He is risen!”  We will eat treats and laugh and celebrate. There will be joy because that is the hope of the resurrection.  We have spent some time in the tomb – but the tomb is not forever. And the darkness of the tomb only makes the light of resurrection shine brighter.

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