Jean Vanier on the Rhythm of life

“While there is a waxing and then a waning in action and efficiency, growth can be continual at the level of the heart, of wisdom and of communion with God and with people. There are some precise stages in the growth of the heart. Tiny children live by love and presence — the time of childhood is a time of trust. Adolescents live by generosity, utopian ideals and hope. Adults become realistic, commit themselves and assume responsibilities; this is the time of fidelity. Finally, old people refind the time of confidence which is also wisdom. They cannot be very active, so they have time to observe, to contemplate and to forgive. They have a whole sense of the meaning of human life, of acceptance and of realism. They know that living has not just to do with action and running; they know that it is also to do with welcome and loving. They have somehow got past the stage of proving themselves through efficiency.”

Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 104-05.

Trauma, Suffering, and the Community

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog Patrick Stefan has written an appreciative critique of an article recently written on trauma and Reformed evangelicalism by Paul Maxwell. I want to weigh in with a question for Patrick. But before I get to this, I need to give a quick fly over of the discussion.

First, Paul’s piece was a reflection on his experience within evangelicalism and particularly at Westminster (Philadelphia). Paul was connecting a general observation about the culture of Reformed evangelicalism—its divisiveness and in-group vs. out-group dynamics—with the tendency of the traumatized to re-create trauma. He writes, “abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse.”

Not only is this re-creation a recipe for perpetuating abuse, but it is also a pretty terrible context for working through trauma. He writes, “But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for ‘survivors’ and ‘healing’ by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism . . . I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.”

Patrick Stefan builds on Paul’s article by telling his own very moving story of trauma. He suggests his narrative has two stories: “there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.” He gives his own account of Reformed evangelicalism highlighting the doctrine of the fall, the nature of trauma within this doctrine, and biblical examples of coming to terms with suffering.

While generally building on Paul’s article, he thinks “Maxwell has painted Reformed Evangelicalism with too broad a brush.” I wish Patrick had said more about this. Frankly, I am not sure he’s even talked about Paul’s most significant complaint, not about Reformed theology (Paul’s dissertation is on this), but the culture of the community.

It strikes me that Patrick has actually unwittingly contributed to Paul’s point by talking about the two narratives of his life. This leads to my question for Patrick: What kept you from telling your story to your church community? He says, “Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public.” This is precisely the point the Paul was making.

What struck me most about this piece—knowing Paul pretty well—is that it signaled a break with a sort of protective pretense. The fact is, this is remarkably courageous for a person in Paul’s position (Who wants to hire “damaged goods”?). The fact is our church communities do have informal in-groups and out-groups, those who are qualified for “leadership” and those who are not. There are the sufferers and the helpers. Emotional stability is a sign of spiritual maturity, and vice versa–circumstances notwithstanding.

I want to suggest that the reason that the community does so poor a job of supporting sufferers and the reason why Patrick was hesitant to show his suffering is precisely because we still tend to assume that negative emotion is a direct and simple manifestation of sin. Negative emotion, especially statements of anger, regularly disqualify people from being “in.” This creates a devastating catch-22 where people want to communicate strongly and risk rejection for doing so.

Many thanks to both Patrick and Paul for their vulnerability. I applaud them both for their courage. But perhaps, we could bring about a community where courage isn’t necessary for sharing suffering?

 

The Forbearing Community

The challenge of any community is that we all have ways of being that cause tremendous pain to others. Our own assumptions of what is due to us or just our unconscious drives for love, affirmation, and satisfaction can make life unbearable to others. We sin both by demanding what others cannot give and by not giving what we never even thought of giving. Yet the real pain caused by our inattention and habitual desire is serious. This is why the only real community that can exist is a Christian community. A real community must be sustained by forbearing the pain caused by others. We must be able to say, “This pain I charge not to them, because God has not. In fact, God has not charged to me the pain I am causing them, but has become the great bearer of pain, making forgiveness possible. And since human forgiveness and forbearance is always responsive to God’s forgiving, my forbearing this pain is simply doing less than what God has done for me in Jesus.”