One of my favorite books is TURN MY MOURNING INTO DANCING by Henri Nouwen. I’ve read it more than once and given away at least 15 copies in the past four years. Some say that it gives them a “framework” for dealing with suffering and others say that it has helped them learn to mourn their past and their sins and to receive healing. To me, it is all those things and more.
In this short 110-page collection of Nouwen’s writings and sermons on suffering and finding hope in hard times, we learn to remember and forget and to move forward from the depths of pain and challenge. This is all a great handbook for the valleys of a life lived from a whole heart, but how could some of the principles be applied to a whole community of people. Skeptical? So am I.
The church that I’ve been a part of for some 28 years is going through a very hard time. With that as background I came across these words recently in this book: Memory also reminds us of the faithfulness of God in the hard places and joyous moments. It lets us see how God has brought good from even the impossible situations. Remembering in this way allows us to live in the present. It does not mean to live in another time but to live in the present with our whole history, with an awareness of the possibilities we might not otherwise think to look for.
And this is no problem for an individual because all of my memories are contained in my heart and mind. But this is a major challenge for a church because our memory is a collection of all of the remembrances from all of the people who ever been a part of this community of faith. Those who are a part of this body in the here and now represent only a fraction of that memory of the faithfulness of God over the years. And changing pastors on multiple occasions is like transplanting the cerebral cortex with a new set of disconnected memories or starting over. The body has joys and sorrows, beauty and sadness, but only selected remembrances tie them together.
So, what do we draw upon when times are tough? Our corporate memory fails us. For an individual, here’s the advice Nouwen offer. Would this also work for a community of individuals?
1. Count your losses. As a prelude to our dance, we need to ask ourselves to remember what we have actually lost. For most churches, we have lost people over the years. Sometimes our loss is because of life changes, or illness or death, but too often it is “painfully, through misunderstanding, conflict or anger.”
2. Live in Hope. If we had a memory, we would experience the possibility of God’s rescue through a variety of means. Hope is not dependent on peace in the land, justice in the world or success in the business. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness.
3. Open your community to receive compassion. To receive compassion, we have to allow others into our despair and pain. One of the hardest times for me was a few years ago when I suffered great loss and pain and was forced to let others know; including letting God know. I had to come to Him with empty and open hands and then to share weakness with people I knew and people I didn’t. Pride does not die easily and sharing our weakness and failure with family, friends and acquaintances can be excruciating. But, when shared, suffering is a catalyst for community and compassion. The key component to the word “compassion” is “with”. It is “suffering with” and “sharing with” and “sitting with” and “praying with.”
4. Overcome your activity to stop and pray. When things are great or tough, or life is sweet or it stinks, our vitality and movement into wholeness and allowing the voice of God to invade our prayers is dependent on a discipline of quiet or solitude. Our mind may tell us to get busy, but new beginnings or pressing the re-set button are only possible with the energy produced from prayer. Light a new fire through prayer.
5. Read life backwards. Nouwen instructs us that without memory there is not expectation. “For by not remembering we allow forgotten memories to become independent forces that have a crippling effect on our functioning and relating and praying… Like the people of Israel who repeatedly reflected on their history and discovered God’s guiding hand in the many painful events that led them to Jerusalem, so we pause to discern God’s presence in the events that have made us or unmade us.”
There’s more in the book and there’s more in the Bible, but here’s one of my favorite lines as we finish our time of sharing. This is the money quote for today and always, for individuals and churches.
For even while we mourn, we do not forget how our life can ultimately join God’s larger dance of life and hope.
So, if churches were more like people, perhaps we would experience more hope when our churches go through hard times.