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I have done my best in ministry not to challenge people’s theology in the midst of moments of pastoral care.
When the father of a dying teenage girl told me it must have been God’s will that his daughter lose her life in this car accident, I (a student hospital chaplain in my 20s at the time) listened on the outside and kept my internal dialogue about God’s will on the inside.
When people tie up their difficult stories with the ribbon of “Well, everything happens for a reason,” I say something like, “I hear you; tell me more about that.” At the same time, my heart whispers, “I’m not so sure that everything happens for a reason! Someone I really respect actually thinks that’s a lie!”
(If you are a pastor, perhaps your internal theological dialogue is different from mine. Or perhaps you have a different approach to pastoral care. Feel free to challenge my theology or pastoral care methods in the comment section!)
The one instance in which I rarely keep myself from a gentle challenge is when someone tells me that they can’t complain. Or that they shouldn’t complain. They describe an ailment or a frustration or a sadness in their life, but then I can just see the shift in their face. The gears of their mind turn as they remember that other people have it much worse than they do and they say, “I shouldn’t complain.” Or they think about the fact that their life, on the whole, is quite good, and they say, “I can’t really complain.” They place their suffering in the bigger picture of the suffering of the world or the goodness of their life. They minimize their current difficult experience and say, “I can’t complain!”
“YES, YOU CAN COMPLAIN!”
I try my best not to shout it. I just preach the tiniest little breath-sermon as quickly as I can before I get out of the way to give them more space to complain. “The psalmists complain all the time!” I say. “It’s called ‘lament!’ God wants to hear your pain. Can I get an Amen?”
Honestly, my mini-sermon, encouraging them toward holy complaint, doesn’t usually have much impact. By the time I’ve finished (and even before), the person has already moved on. They’ve become self-conscious. They don’t want to talk about themselves anymore. They don’t want to dwell on their pain.
I respect that – and I keep loving them fiercely, holding their stories in my heart and in God’s heart. (And I remember, once again, that sermons belong in the pulpit – and even there, I must take care not to preach with passive aggression!)
Several weeks ago, this quote from Henri Nouwen caught my attention.
(The full quote, in an essay that you can at least begin to read here, is even better. I’ve also included the quote in full as a note below.)
So, apparently Nouwen doesn’t want complaining either. But his invitation away from complaint is not a minimization of personal pain via comparative suffering. Rather, the narrow-minded complaining he names is the persistent sickness of self-centredness. It is the pattern of the grumbling of the Israelites, the unchecked frustration of Martha in the kitchen, and the protest of the workers in the vineyard who got paid just as much for working a full day as those whom the landowner hired in the late afternoon.
I shared this Nouwen quote on Facebook on Sunday, January 30, 2022. This was the day after a convoy of trucks, protesting vaccine mandates, had arrived in Ottawa. I admit that when I posted this quote, I may have been thinking of the flag-waving and the truck-horn-honking as the kind of complaining Nouwen was talking about. (There are those who instead heard in the honking horns the echo of the priestly trumpets which were blown on the seventh day the Israelites marched around Jericho [Joshua 6]. Still others may have linked the horns to psalms of lament or to the parable of the persistent widow [Luke 18]. I do not share these perspectives, but I acknowledge them.)
When I posted this quote, I was surprised by how much traction it got in my little Facebook world. All sorts of people reacted positively to it – people from both the US and Canada – and people from both sides of the political divide.
It struck me that no matter the positions we hold, at our worst, we all share a tendency toward narrow-minded complaint. As soon as I see narrow-minded complaining in someone else, I remember that my “lament” can often turn into a sick complaining. After all, there is a difference (isn’t there?) between true lament and grumbling-complaint. You can feel it (can’t you?)… the times when your heart is open and lamenting the evil in you and around you and the times when your heart is hard and grumbling about the lack of instant gratification or pushing against the self-sacrifice that is required to move together toward the common good.
I suspect that some of the people who tell me they “can’t complain” or “shouldn’t complain” are saying so precisely because they do not want to dwell in self-centred narrow-mindedness. All the more reason not to preach my tiny-little-breath-sermons.
At our best (and no matter the political positions we hold), I want to believe that we all share the hunger to be called away from this kind of complaining. And I do believe as well that, at our best, we all share a desire to be called toward the weeping and lament of “real human pain” (for the whole world is under the control of the evil one) and toward the dancing and laughter of “true human joy” (for we are God’s children, no matter what).
Let us mourn, and let us dance.
Note: Nouwen’s quote in its context from the 1992 essay, The Duet of the Holy Spirit: When Mourning & Dancing Are One:
Consider the words of the Evangelist John: “We know that we belong to God, but the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One.” These cool, stark words bring us straight to the place of healing because, as healers, we must face the Evil One while staying safely in the embrace of God. Thus healing is mourning as well as dancing: mourning over losses that the world, captive to the forces of Evil, inflicts on us, and dancing in the house of God where we belong. We tend, however, to stay away from both mourning and dancing: too afraid to cry and too shy to dance. We say, “It is not as bad as you think, nor as good as you hope.” We prefer to fuss about our own petty problems instead of dealing with the ominous presence of evil, and we prefer to cling to our little self-made moments of happiness instead of entering fully into the joy of God’s Kingdom. Thus we become narrow-minded complainers, avoiding not only real human pain, but also true human joy. But true healing calls us to face the harsh realities of our lives and to come to grips with the truth that, while we live in a world subject to the power of the Evil One, we belong to God. That’s what mourning and dancing are all about.
Header Image: Photo by Santiago Lacarta on Unsplash
I think you’re right. And your pastoral practice is the right one.
Interesting article, Heidi.
Given that this blog is “The Reformed Journal” I wonder how you square Kate Bowler’s catch phrase with Lord’s Day 10 and Belgic Confession Article 13. I don’t intend this as a trick question, but am genuinely curious how believing “not everything happens for a reason” can be squared with the Reformed Church’s high view of the providence of God. I look forward to your response.
I realize you asked for a reply from Heidi. Nonetheless, here’s a reply — “Trouble in Providence.”
Thanks for engaging me on this, Steve. Your article doesn’t quite get to the question that I posed. When I read historic Reformed theology, the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty and providence is not a “top shelf doctrine” or a minor point. I agree with you and Heidi that the doctrine can be coldly misapplied. We could probably have a good and productive conversation about how to apply it in various pastoral situations (the Belgic Confession rightly describes the “unspeakable comfort” of belief in this doctrine). However, there is a wide chasm between “not everything happens for a reason” and “nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement.” My question remains as to how Bowler relates to de Bres (among many others).