Out of the silence and across the meetinghouse a young man stood up and bared his soul before what appeared to be an unprepared audience. In what seemed to be both an earnest prayer to God and an urgent cry for human help, he struggled to share his pain and brokenness with us. When he was finished, he sat back down alone on the bench and buried his face in his hands.
The nervous fidgeting as the man spoke and as we settled back into silence suggested a level of discomfort within some who gathered that day. Wounds, especially gaping ones, are difficult to look upon. Often we feel powerless to know how to help a person in this condition. Moreover, when the wounds are found to be in any way self-inflicted, our compassion for the person may get tinged with other feelings that repel us, just a bit, from the person in need.
In Galatians 6, the Apostle Paul urges people to carry their own load. We have a burden or a bundle of human responsibility that is ours to manage. We are responsible for it and as best as we are able, we ought to shoulder it on our own rather than expecting others to be responsible for us.
In the same passage, however, Paul recognizes a wholly other instance when a burden may become more than we can bear. He doesn’t distinguish how this burden came to be — either by our own doing, through life-circumstances or by the hand of another. Instead, he only recognizes this reality and commands the community to handle these people and situations with skill and compassion, rather than by ignoring the problem or standing in judgment. The community is to be an instrument of God’s healing in the life of an individual who is entangled in sin, suffering in hurt or feeling crushed by the weight of a life they no longer feel able to bear alone.
The spiritual life, at least in the Christian context, is not only the individual, passionate pursuit of Christ; it is simultaneously an invitation and immersion into the community that dares to bear his name and abide in his Spirit. This makes community much more than a support group to commiserate with us in our woes or a think tank for idle speculation about religious or moral philosophy. Instead, Christ-community intends to be a healing and restorative fellowship in which our individual, communal and social selves are set right — reconciled, restored and empowered to align with God’s nature and way.
Across the meetinghouse, this young man sat all alone. There was a community around him — but it was not clear how or if the community would be with him. As the silence wore on, I felt moved to get up and go sit next to him. I laid my hands upon him and felt his heaving sighs and tears draining through his body. I whispered a quiet prayer in his ear — words that felt more like they came through me instead of from me. At the rise of worship, I told him to contact me if I could ever be of help or support to him.
His meeting is not my own and so I can’t say how or if they gathered round him and have carried him since then. I suspect they have because I have seen them be a balm of healing in the past. My own offer to help and even the laying on of hands felt woefully inadequate that day — more like the shallow refrain from the book of James that says, “I wish you well, be warm and fed,” but offers nothing of substance to keep out the cold or satisfy the pangs of hunger. This young Friend needed more than the well-intentioned compassion of a traveling minister; he needed the authentic and persevering love, support and accountability of a caring fellowship.
How well-equipped are our communities to adequately and authentically bear one another’s burdens in a way that fulfills the law of Christ and ushers in the deep healing many need? Do we allow room for people to honestly expose their wounds? Are we assembling and mobilizing skilled and mature elders or care teams with the courage and wisdom to accurately assess and diagnose problems and pain, coupled with the wisdom and compassion to handle it gently and appropriately within a larger community? How ready is your community to respond when a young or old Friend asks you to bear a burden they can no longer carry alone? How might you be called to serve in this way?