When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative . ~ Henri Nouwen
You could hear the collective intake of air. She’d fallen. They waited impatiently for her get up. Everyone knew the dance. They were embarrassed for her. She didn’t even seem to be trying to hit her marks.
An audible groan came from the audience. There was a short silence, a pregnant pause, before the whispering began: What ‘s wrong with her? Why doesn’t she get up? She’s ruined here!
They confirmed each others thoughts with raised eyebrows as they pelted the stage with candy and popcorn and ice from their sodas. Impatient, the foot stomping started in the far back and crept up the aisles. Even the VIP seats, the ones saved for family and friends and important patrons began to vibrate. Why won’t she just dance the dance?
If she heard them, she didn’t show it. She didn’t show anything. She hadn’t forgotten the steps. She was weary and blistered and tired of dancing. She remained crumpled and still. The spotlight swept the stage and panned the crowd, pausing on a woman who had begun working her way toward the aisle from the middle of the very last row.
As she approached the stage, the whisperers shifted their focus, urging the stranger, prompting her as she moved toward the front: Good for you! It’s about time someone sets her straight! She’s an embarrassment!
Encouraged by each others indignation, the audience began to hiss like disgruntled fans at a sporting event. Tell her if she can’t dance, we think she might be happier somewhere else.
As the woman made her way onto the stage, the crowd silenced in anticipation. She looked at the sea of scorn and quietly said: Go home. The show is over.
Just like that, the stage lights dimmed and the house lights came up. The audience shrugged into their protective clothing and turned their backs. No one noticed the lone silhouette heading for the exit sign, silently leaving the church.
I disconnected from the church that day when I found myself broken on the stage. My problem was, I wasn’t secure in the Source. It was several years before I made a physical exit and several more before I found a church that didn’t require dancing.
I found people who were flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.
Their music called me from the open windows. It was a simple tune, the sweet song of love and redemption and grace.
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares. ~ Henri Nouwen
Six simple sentence starters: who, what, when, where, how and why. They’re great if you’re writing a news report, doing research or initiating a police investigation. The 5 W’s (and one H) are considered the gold standard for information-gathering.
The problem begins when we apply interrogation techniques to our interpersonal interactions. These fact-finding questions are well suited for a courtroom or a lab or a room with a two-way window, but they don’t give us a glimpse of the interior of someone’s pain.
Of all the words listed above, we would be particularly wise to erase
Why from the list altogether. It’s almost impossible to divorce Why from the realm of accusation.
Why did you?
Why didn’t you?
Why don’t you?
It’s rare ask someone to tell you why (in terms of their behavior/attitude – not the mechanics of a clock) and not raise their defenses. We’re insecure souls by nature and weary of justifying our choices.
I wonder if it’s so different with God? When we persist in asking Why? – isn’t it often an accusation or complaint or an expression of our disagreement, couched as a question?
God, unlike us, isn’t the least bit insecure and certainly wants our whole hearts poured out before Him. I do wonder though, if He, too, doesn’t get a little weary of why (Job 38-42)?
If we have any hope of truly sharing and carrying the load together, we’re better served by would questions. Would you like to talk, to be alone; would you like me to stay with you, to pray with you; would you like some space, some coffee?
To be a friend who cares beyond curiosity (because that really is often why we ask, isn’t it?), we have to practice tolerating not knowing, not healing, not curing…
And with God, real rest comes before the question, being confident that if it were necessary to know, we would, and finding contentment in the not knowing.
When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. ~Henri Nouwen
On the last day of my summer internship at the Mental Health Clinic, Gret, my mentor and my friend at MHC, gave me a good-bye gift. It was Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. For three months we’d worked side by side, facilitating out-patient therapy groups. I struggled with not knowing how to lead, how to help, how to heal the shattered souls we spent our days with.
Gret knew we weren’t the healers. She knew when to gently encourage and when to be silent.
As the years passed, I forgot many of the lessons I learned that summer. I got caught up in the culture of the church and my own natural inclination to try to fix things. I learned to deflect a portion of the pain with a quick prayer or a verse or a pot roast.
It was in my own moments of brokenness that I was reminded of what Gret had modeled and the gift she had given so many years earlier. I know now that when healing comes, it’s God, not me, who is the Healer.
I’m trying to practice giving the gift of not: not curing, not leaving, not quoting, not fixing, not solving.
I used to pray for answers. Now I pray that my presence will be a comfort, my hands warm and tender and my lips, still.
I know that I have to move from speaking about Jesus to letting him speak within me, from thinking about Jesus to letting him think within me, from acting for and with Jesus to letting him act through me. I know the only way for me to see the world is to see it through his eyes. ~ Henri Nouwen
I thought of Nouwen when I received an unusual Christmas present yesterday. I was given chickens. They’re a gift to help me see the world through His eyes as I watch someone else let Him act through them. The chickens came in a card that said this: Greetings! A life-changing gift has been given in your name to benefit a child or family in need.
I live a very simple life, but I’ve been blessed with more than I need. The giver of the chickens has all that she needs, but certainly less than I have. The actual recipient of the chickens lives in a place where her most basic need for food and clothing and shelter aren’t met.
So this year, she’ll get chickens – soup for the soul. The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:40
My only part in this gift was to share in the joy! My needs are abundantly met now, but that hasn’t always been the case. There was a time when I received my own Greeting. It said: Don’t be afraid; I bring you good news of a great joy … For to you is born this day in the town of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord!
True soup for the impoverished soul.
Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. ~ Henri Nouwen
This is going to be a rather odd little post. I’m writing for your help. This is the time of year when both joys and sorrows are magnified by the expectations of the season. For those who are grieving, over and over you hear I’m sorry for your loss.
I don’t like that sentence. This is likely just my own personal quirk since I’ve never heard anyone else object to it. I don’t know exactly why I don’t like it. I guess it seems like such a platitude to me. It doesn’t feel like going with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. It feels more like fleeing from another’s suffering or applying the obligatory quick cure.
It’s what every one says on TV when delivering news that a loved one has died. Actually, it’s what everyone, in real life, says whenever someone else is sad. I’ve heard it applied to the death of a spouse, a child, a parent, a marriage, a pet, a career, a dream, to bankruptcy, to theft and to competition. It’s on Hallmark cards, Law and Order and the lips of our neighbors.
However well-meaning, I don’t like it, but I don’t know quite how to replace it. It’s a different message than I’m praying for you. It doesn’t have the same intent as I’m thinking about you.
I know sometimes there aren’t words, but when we’re separated by physical distance, sometimes words are all we have.
So, I’m wondering, what words do you use? Me, I generally just end up saying I’m so very sorry. But I’d love to learn from you – all of you. What has comforted you. What have you said to offer comfort?
It is, after all, that time of year when compassion may be the greatest gift we give.
Living spiritually is more than living physically, intellectually, or emotionally. It embraces all that, but it is larger, deeper, and wider. It concerns the core of your humanity. It is possible to lead a very wholesome, emotionally rich, and ‘sensible’ life without being a spiritual person: that is, without knowledge, or personal experience of the terrain where the meaning and goal of our human existence are hidden. The spiritual life has to do with the HEART of existence. This is a good word. By heart I do not mean the seat of our feeling as opposed to the seat of our thoughts; I mean the center of our being, that place where we are most ourselves, where we are most human, where we are most real. ~ Henri Nouwen
I believe this to be both true and troublesome. It’s true that the spiritual life has to do with the heart of existence and that the heart is where we are most real. There’s the trouble.
My friend Kari took this picture of a milk weed, past it’s prime. At least that’s what she thought she saw. It was later, in looking through her photos, that she saw the heart. The heart is so often hidden.
If we’re truly to live larger, deeper, wider; if we hope to be more than just good and decent it will take the One Who has made everything beautiful in its time and has set eternity in the hearts of men (Ecc. 3:11) to traverse the terrain of the heart that we hide from others, and the heart that is hidden, even from our own view.
Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions… Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence. ~ Henri Nouwen
I think the key phrase in this Nouwen quote is: When we have come to believe in the voices that call us… You can complete that sentence in any number of ways. Few question the destructive impact of criticism but we rarely talk about the destructive power of flattery. Often, others will praise in us, strengths we know we don’t hold; attribute to us virtues that our motives belie.
We all have a litany of language used about us: a cocktail of criticism and praise, never measured in equal portions. We lift the glass and drink in the words that are castigating or lavishly lauding, while knowing the speaker knows little of our heart of hearts, because the heart is a mystery even to its keeper. We assimilate what we hear until the off-handed words of others form the reflection we see as we glance in the mirror.
In truth, when all noise has stopped and we stand in silence, listening only to the Sacred voice, we find that we are, to the core Beloved. Nothing more, nothing less. Just Beloved.
Our brokenness is always lived and experienced as highly personal, intimate and unique. I am deeply convinced that each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers. No doubt, we can make comparisons; we can talk about more or less suffering, but, in the final analysis, your pain and my pain are so deeply personal that comparing them can bring scarcely any consolation or comfort. In fact, I am more grateful for a person who can acknowledge that I am very alone in my pain than for someone who tries to tell me that there are many others who have a similar or worse pain. ~ Henri Nouwen
Pain is so deeply private and intensely personal. How often have you shared just a bit of yours, only to have someone say: just be thankful that… No wonder we put barbed wire on the fences.
Not only do other people minimize our suffering, we do it to ourselves. Instead of just acknowledging it, we seem to think it’s more Godly to qualify it. We say things like: It’s my own fault for… or There are so many who have it so much worse… True or not, that doesn’t invalidate the pain.
I’m a temporary resident of Texas where it’s extremely hot. It hasn’t been under 100 degrees for almost 2 months. In the NE, rivers and towns and homes are flooding. It’s heartbreaking and horrible. Both are real. Does the disaster in the NE make it not hot in Texas?
Is there always someone whoose suffering is worse. Yes. Always. But we aren’t comparison shopping. We’re told to weep with those who weep. We’re never told to help them gain perspective or to evaluate the worthiness of their weeping.
We don’t need to qualify pain. We do need to stop minimizing each other’s suffering and start maximizing the comfort we give by the simple grace-filled act of offering compassion.