According to HAI Global (www.hai.org/connection-is-essential-to-survival), the more we understand about neurobiology and social psychology the more we understand that humans are wired to connect. The latest neuroscience out of UCLA tells us that the drive for connection is as essential to our wellbeing as our basic needs of food, water and shelter.
Back in 2016, the US Surgeon General warned that Americans are facing an epidemic of loneliness and now we have experienced a global pandemic that has us shelter in place and keep a distance from each other to protect and care for each other so that the virus does not spread…But we see teenagers suffering from depression & committing suicide, people who struggle with addictions slipping back into unhealthy patterns of behavior, a growing rate of reported domestic and intimate partner violence issues, and increased loneliness among the more vulnerable population.
This is not to discount the death toll in relation to the pandemic, but it is to look at the science that says that our need for community is as important as keeping our physical bodies safe.
Even if you were the healthiest human being or the healthiest faith community in all of human history in 2019, we all experienced a degree of brokenness in 2020. If we did not recognize the many ways we are broken before 2020, we feel the weight of our brokenness today. The many wounds of our hearts need tending, need the support of community, and need for a people to bring a message of hope that healing is possible.
Today, we continue on in our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. In this book, we see a new friendship begin to flourish between a writer named Fred who identified as a secular Jew and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to step away from writing to people who are connected to a faith tradition and to instead write a book for people who are disconnected from any particular religious tradition. Fred was asking Henri to respond to the great spiritual hunger and thirst that exists in the world and to offer a message of hope to a people who no longer came to churches or synagogues. Fred said, “If you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” (23)
As you and I are beginning a new friendship and a new season of ministry in the life of The Heights Christian Church, I see Nouwen’s book as a conversation starter and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry. Nouwen suggests to us that a way to look at the journey of becoming the Beloved is to follow the path of the words that we hear every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. He offers us 4 words: Taken, Blessed, Broken & given.
Two weeks ago, we explored the challenges we have with the word taken or chosen which can feel exclusive and competitive. And Nouwen invited us to understand Chosen in a new way. Chosen means that God sees us in our uniqueness, is captivated by our differences, and chooses each person as God’s beloved. Last week, Henri pointed out that our prayer practices and cultivating the gift of presence are two ways that we get in touch with our blessing so that we can be a blessing to others.
Today, we arrive at the word broken. The order of these words reminds me of the many youth summer camps I attended. There was always a night where the message raised the level of emotions high and mixed in with lack of good sleep, we were all crying and bonding over the many ways our hearts were wounded. I can look back and smile at that experience but in the moment it was the most intense religious experience of my life. Maybe you are like me and you were raised in a faith community that structured your youth experiences in that way and now you raise an eyebrow at the push for heightened emotions or maybe you did not. But something that is true about that experience is that humans bond over sharing our woundedness. Nouwen writes, “The way I am broken tells you something unique about me. The way you are broken tells me something unique about you. That is the reason for my feeling very priviledged when you freely share some of your deep pain with me, and that is why it is an expression of my trust in you when I disclose to you something of my vulnerable side.”
Back in 2016, I resigned my former position as associate pastor. This was the result of 2 years of struggle that took a toll on my emotional, mental, and physical well-being. You see, I had been waiting for 10 years to finally arrive at a place where my son’s intensive care and therapy were manageable and I could devote myself to my calling. Many women dream of having the gift of staying home and caring for their children, but this was not my dream. In fact, in the tiny town I grew up in I would tell boyfriends that if they expected me to be the little wife and stay home, then they better move along. My husband knew the price I paid for choosing the health of our son over my career. It was a constant struggle and many tears were shed, but I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision. But even in making the right decision to care for my son, there are consequences. During those 10 years, we had embraced a new denomination that did not know me or any of the work that I had done before children. During the 10 years that I stayed at home, I felt disconnected from all the training that I had experienced in seminary. After 10 years, I was a different person and I wondered where I would fit.
So, this opportunity to work as an associate pastor represented all of my hopes and dreams that I had been waiting for over 10 years to see realized. And then just as quickly, it all came crashing down. The drive I used to pursue healing for my son was too much. My ability to think outside the box was considered hostile to the normal way things were done at the church. My care for the outsider was interpreted as a lack of care for members. And so I tried to change myself. I tried to fit a round peg in a square hole and it was painful. And the words that had been spoken over me my whole life came to fruition…you are too much. No one likes a saint. You’re too up in the clouds to be any earthly good.
It may sound silly that a job would devastate me, but this was the dream I had postponed and built up over the years. And a pastor’s job is not just a job…it is a calling from God and acknowledged through the church. I felt that my calling had been stolen from me by a diagnosis of autism. And yet, through my Doctorate of ministry, I would discover that the death of that dream, the brokenness that I experienced, and all of the tools I gained through loving my son…this is the vehicle by which I would bless others.
One of Nouwen’s favorite passages in scripture is John 12:24. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Nouwen understood this through an experience in his own life. In the 1990s, he felt a call to become the pastor at Le’Arche in Canada. Le’Arche is a community of people who have physical or neurological differences. In stepping into life as a pastor, he was given care over a community member named Adam. Nouwen’s one job was to care for Adam’s needs. But Adam did not speak and could not do many things for himself. So, Henri had to learn Adam’s unique rhythm so that he could notice the subtle communications that Adam would send about his needs. During this time, Henri suffered greatly from a wounded heart. He had experienced a broken relationship and was devastated at the loss. He also did not realize how much it would affect him to step out of the limelight of speaking, writing, and teaching and into caring for the humble needs of Adam. He did not realize that his self-worth was wrapped up in receiving praise, book deals, and experiencing success at the university. The death of that part of Nouwen continues to bear fruit today. It is through his relationship with Adam that he began to understand the importance of mutual ministry which is a new way to think about pastoral ministry. So much of pastoral ministry is about what the minister can do for the people and what the minister can do to grow the church. Give give give until you burnout. But what Nouwen means by mutual ministry is that the pastor is to recognize that every person that walks through our doors or shows up online is sent to us as a gift from God! Each person gives us something to learn. Each person offers us something that will help us flourish. It is the meaning of the statement The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.…even in our brokenness.
Nouwen suggests two ways to handle our brokenness.
First, we have to befriend our brokenness. What he means is that we must turn to face our suffering, talk to it, understand it is a part of us that needs attention, and nurture that part of ourselves back to good health. In another book that is a complilation of his writings, Nouwen wrote “Ultimately mourning means facing what wounds us in the presence of the One who can heal.” Xv So we turn to and develop a relationship with our suffering while sensing a sacred presence that gives us hope for our healing journey.
Nouwen says that the temptation is to distract ourselves from facing our suffering or to push it down and belittle our pain. As I looked at bestselling books in 2020, I saw the human tendency to escape our pain. Romantic comedies increased in sales by 188%, lots of murder mystery novels made the list, and not surprising a couple of comfort food recipe books. But then, many people turned to face their suffering by reading books to help them more clearly see the racism that supports, undergirds, and benefits white people. They turned to books like The body keeps the score to understand trauma. The pandemic forced many to look at the consequences of unhealthy behaviors/routines so books like Atomic Habits made the list. We also turned to poetry like Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur to give voice to our suffering..
The sections of poetry in Rupi’s book are about the experience of a broken heart. Rupi’s experience tells us something unique about her and it also speaks to the ways we are similar in our suffering as human beings…see if you can hear the cry of the human heart….listen.
“You tell me to quiet down because my opinions make me less beautiful but I was not made with a fire in my belly so I could be put out. I was not made with a lightness on my tongue so I could be easy to swallow. I was made heavy half blade and half silk difficult to forget and not easy for the mind to follow (30)…..I didn’t leave because I stopped loving you. I left because the longer I stayed the less I loved myself (95)…When you are broken and he has left you do not question whether you were enough. The problem was you were so enough that he was not able to carry it. (103) Losing you was the becoming of myself (174)” Milk and Honey
In her words, it is easy to hear the cry of women. Listening deeper, you can hear the cry of people of color. Allowing the words to sink in, these words resonate with the suffering of the poor, the oppressed and the refugee. This is the cry of the human heart that Fred hoped Nouwen would hear as he listened.
If we do not turn to and face the ways we are wounded, then the consequence will be that we will wound others intentionally or unintentionally. The way she ended that last line leads us to Nouwen’s final suggestion. Nouwen suggests that we “pull our brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing.” (97) Here is how I understand what he is saying. We all have stories that we tell ourselves about our lives and if you are not familiar with the story you tell yourself just ask a loved one because without being aware of it, your speech is filled with it. Some of us see the world as against us and so anything bad that happens we fit under that umbrella. For me, I was always told I was too much or too saintly so no one would want to marry me, or too direct in my speech so that no one wants to hear what I have to say. So, when my time at my previous church came to an end, I put that under the umbrella of the curse. I told myself, “well of course this did not work out because you are too much. Well of course people did not like your leadership style because you are too much. Well of course…..”
Instead, Nouwen invites us to pull our wounds out from that narrative that story that we tell ourselves and put it under our statement of blessing. So for me that would look like, “well now that I have experienced this pain, I want to create a safe space where people feel the freedom to share their experiences of the divine without judgement. Well now that I understand what it feels like to be rejected, I am able to see and hear other people. Now that I have experienced a pain that went deep, I am able to be more compassionate to the wounds in people’s hearts. It’s not that God caused this to happen so that I can be a blessing. It is that God uses everything in our lives, even the wounds, for the good of ourselves and for the good of the world.
The church that I left turned and faced their many wounds. My resignation was like an ambulance alarm that forced them to wake up to patterns of behavior that no longer served them. They sought out wise counsel from an expert outside of their congregation. And they had to let old patterns, old ways of doing things die. It was brutal. It was ugly and painful for everyone. But at the bottom of their pain, they suddenly felt a new calling to be an inclusive place for people. They felt a surge of energy to create a space that would welcome people who are different from them. And they are flourishing….
I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
 John 12:24 (NRSV).
 John 12:24 (NRSV).