“I just don’t feel heard,” she texted me.
“I know, but I hear you,” I thought.
Awkward silence was the norm in the kitchen at one place I worked. You’d slip in for coffee or water or your lunch, and shuffle around each other with cringing politeness and fumble for what you came for in silence.
The old fellow with dancer’s feet and bright eyes walked in with me, silent. Then: “Did you see that new zombie movie?”
I hadn’t, but he saw me. We talked. I wasn’t invisible that time.
She was eloquent, but no one responded. She voiced her frustration, but she still felt marginalized. Two words on the screen made all the difference. “I’m listening,” she read.
We all struggle with this, I think. It’s human to want to be heard. “Hey anybody!” says a kid, and we all know what he means. Hear me. See me. Feel this with me.
Being unheard and feeling alone is the most miserable place. I think maybe Lewis was right in The Great Divorce that hell is a state of mind that creates the most ultimate isolation.
It’s what motivates us to blog, to tweet, to commune, to write, to gather. Tell me I’m not alone. Tell me you hear me.
When I had been at my old SGM church for about nine years — after serving in Sunday school since I was 14, after raising $4,000 in bake sales ever Sunday for a year for the church building fund, after my dad played on the worship team, after attending every Sunday service and every weekly care group, while the church grew from about 200 people to 800 or so — I was in a van going to a church conference and the pastor was driving. He turned to me, and called me “Hannah” with a short a. (It’s pronounced with a long a, like in “father”). “So, Hannah,” he said, “how are you?”
And I cringed, and for the first time I realized: when I left town for my freshman year later that summer, I was going to be glad to leave that church. I’d poured my life into it, and they had no idea who I was. I was invisible. He didn’t even know my name.
That isn’t what the church is supposed to be like. The image of the church as the Body of Christ makes me think that the church is supposed to be a place where we are intimately known, heard, seen, and cared for. When one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer. We rejoice and grieve and grow and hurt and heal together.
After that, I was set adrift for a while, but everywhere I went that wasn’t KingsWay, I was met with more pastoral care and kindness than I’d ever experienced. Even those places where the theology was twisted and bordered on spiritual abuse, and I maybe wasn’t really heard, they tried to care for me better than I’d ever experienced before.
I left school and moved to a new area and got married, and promptly found myself in the tailspin of a faith and identity crisis. The church we were at had abstracted faith in such a way that there was no life there, and I spent our Sundays there evading detection by volunteering in the nursery or reading Harry Potter in the church office or outside in the sun.
And then. This year. This bizarre year. Where so much change has left me feeling exhausted and excited and cracked open and nomadic.
I find myself receiving the kindness of near-strangers at church, because they know. My pastor sits across from me in his office and I’ve only scratched the surface in my storytelling and he stops me and asks me about his preaching, how he can make sure he’s being intersectional and show how much he cares by not marginalizing people. And asks for book recommendations. And then prays for me and prays for unspoken things that he heard in between the lines of what I told him, and I sit there and choke back tears because I have been heard.
I wake up to an email from a girl who used to be afraid in her church, who’s now landed in a new church and has found love and isn’t afraid to show her face to God there anymore, and in all this crazy mess of change I’m forced to be still for a minute there and give thanks.
Because this, this, this beautiful listening-talking-praying-holding-each-other-up mess? This is what the church is supposed to be. It’s not a unicorn fairytale wishful thing. It’s magic, sure, but a real kind.