Structuring Our Support for One Another: Old First E-pistle 11.15.12

Earlier this week, someone I did not know was in distress asked to speak with me. Long and complicated story — as most of our lives’ stories turn out to
be — that leaves its subject heavy burdens and unavoidable difficulties that feel too much to bear.

Essentially, this person’s been trying, and some of the problems have been held at bay. But still, he admits, his life isn’t getting better. Or as much as he would wish it to. At least there are still nagging and worrisome roadblocks and temptations. …So much so, he wonders if maybe it wouldn’t just be easier to slip back in to how he had been living.

As I listened, my first reaction was sadness for struggle and temptation. And then a bit of panic: was there something I ought to do or say in order to help him find the strength to keep up his good fight.

But more deeply I suspected this was one of the cases that pastors often face. No great idea or wise words can fundamentally change the situation, alleviate the suffering, or determine what is to happen. Often, the pastoral challenge is to resist flinching in the face of the pain, or, worse, running from the sufferer. Equally to be resisted is saying or doing something in hope of “fixing” the situation. Instead, there’s just standing mute by the hurting person so that he or she might for a moment not be or feel so alone.

So there I was out behind the Fox Building listening to a stranger in the dark, witnessing another’s pain, and worrying that I only had a silence and a hand on his shoulder to offer.

Then I remembered the four point meetings developed by NYC’s Episcopal Mission Society for working with children enduring traumatic situations. I explained I had been part of a group that had used this spiritual discipline. I asked if he might not want to try having the rest of our conversation in such a form. He said, he’d try it.

The four point meetings don’t offer any quick fixes or cheap solutions. In fact, part of the discipline is not commenting on what the other says. But the meeting can offer a means whereby the dynamic of sufferer and witness is transformed into two similar souls, fellow travelers if you will, both trying to figure out their journeys, and along the way “being there” for one another.

We began by each sharing a burden we are dealing with. Because, even though we often can’t recognize or ever know an other’s troubles, we all have them, though in different sizes and weights. But isolating ourselves with our troubles alone doesn’t help! In fact. there is some “wiggle room” created when we are courageous enough to share them.

Next we each shared a blessing we know currently in our lives. Because even when our troubles are great, surely God has not ceased to bless us. Instead, those blessings get overshadowed. Or even dwarfed by the magnitude or reach of our problems. We feel small before overwhelming burdens. Recognizing our blessings can reconnect us to God and other people, reinvigorate our relationships, and they can help us stand taller.

Then we both told the other a plan we promised undertake to make our lives more whole. As far reaching as big changes in our life, or as simple as reading a passage in the bible. Because God can make a way even where there seems to be none. And it’s the Devil — you will not hear your progressive pastor talk of the Devil very often! — when we let even the worst let us start believing there’s nothing we can do… no hope… no better future possible.

Finally, this man and I prayed for one another. Out behind the Fox Building, in the dark, we took each other’s hands and prayed. God had already heard every word that we had shared, and probably a few more that we hadn’t articulated, but were still germinating in our hearts.

But there’s a power in the act of praying for one another. Something we can always do for one another, no matter how constrained our circumstances. And there’s something about commending our hopes and trusting ourselves and others into God’s care.

My companion seemed to have found some consolation in this spiritual practice. He looked visibly less stressed. I too felt my burdens lighten up.

If anyone else would like to try it, or maybe we should form a group for people who are going through stressful situations…

See you in church,