Healing: A Community Project
I wasn’t the only one. On that tragic Tuesday, almost everyone I know did the same thing: called to see if their families and friends were okay, and tried to find other people, any people, to be with.
September 11 not only brought tragedy and a sense of invasion to our relatively safe cocoon, it crystallized our fears. We felt anger, loss, grief, anxiety, outrage, terror, and almost every possible range of emotion. But we also discovered the terror of isolation.
I wanted to be with friends. Having no immediate family other than my husband, I gravitated toward my church small group. A quick phone poll gathered 14 of us for dinner at a friend’s house. We huddled around the living room TV, pondering the tragedy. We prayed and worshipped, reminding ourselves and each other of the grace, comfort, and presence of our unshakable God, “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
The presence of friends and the presence of God allowed us to share our pain, our fears, and our deepest feelings. It was safe. It was holy. And the combination of our vulnerability and the comfort of the Holy Spirit brought us closer and began the process of healing.
We’re a people who need community. However much we must focus on Jesus to meet our needs, standing straight and not allowing others to define us, we still need each other.
We share major life events in community. We dance together at weddings, grieve together at funerals, exchange presents at Christmas, worship together on Sundays, and eat together whenever our busy lives permit. Even the service of communion is shared together.
So why don’t we make healing a community activity? We see counselors and psychologists alone. We experience healing prayer in the quiet of a small prayer circle with one or two others. We pray and agonize alone for God to heal the despair of years of pain or hidden sin. But our brokenness happened in community, in relationship—and so must our healing.
Often we shunt our broken parishioners and students to some professional safe caregiver, which, depending on the circumstances, may be a wise decision. But too often we also isolate those very ones who need the safe support of community to get through the process of healing.
And worse, we forget that what’s acted out in an extreme (or felt in the extreme) by one individual, is often experienced in milder fashion by many in the larger group. In other words, if one student has experienced extreme abuse or addiction or anger, how many others are walking through depression or dysfunction or stressed-out relationships? And how many will go through the extreme later on?
Learning by Watching
The problem with using the “isolate and hope it doesn’t affect the rest of the group” technique is that it deprives the group of exactly what it needs—the opportunity to wrestle openly with tough issues and learn about healing by walking though these times of trial together. Many students will never internalize positive ways to deal with pain or failure or terror or trauma unless they see the process lived out.
If Courtney watches her friend walk through pain and then recover from abuse by a family member, she might have better tools to face similar incidents herself. If Jonathan helps one of the students in his small group overcome an addiction to porn he may have the experience to help stem his brother’s (or his classmate’s) budding addiction. If Julie remembers our group prayer and dinner after the terrorist bombing, she may instinctively know how to gather students for support when there’s tragedy at school.
What Are We Afraid Of?
Even if we buy into the benefits of a community approach to healing, we still seem to be afraid—afraid of Pandora’s box; afraid of copycat acting-out; afraid of our own issues charging to the surface; afraid of making mistakes; afraid of parental disapproval; afraid of lawsuits; afraid of offending. And rightly so, this is messy territory.
But that can translate into an inability or unwillingness to take a strong stand. And a strong courageous stand is exactly what our hurting students and groups need. If we panic and run, we become ineffective at exactly the wrong moment. It’s the moment when we have the potential to do the most good. I’ve seen more than one youth leader try to dump their “problem kid” on me, and look terrified when sexuality issues emerged. “Oh no,” their eyes said. “Not that!”
Our students need us to be unafraid—unafraid to have “broken” people tell us their problems; unafraid of the issues and complexity; unafraid of the pain. And even unafraid to face the thorny issues and undealt-with memories of our own lives, which may come up when we hear their stories. They want us to be confident as well as transparent—confident that they’ll get through this; confident that we will too; confident that God heals; confident that it may be painful but it’s worth dealing with the issues; confident that no matter how bad it is now, either it will be alright in the end—or that God will still be there, strong and redeeming, in the midst.
Our courage in the face of great risk will speak much louder than a thousand good youth group meetings. Our willingness to be solid and stable and press into the painful issues will allow them to be safe in the midst of their brokenness and pain.
A Safe Place
Safe places for healing won’t happen without intention. And intention involves creating the right environment. At least three things are essential for that environment: confidentiality, compassionate listening, and resisting the urge to give pat answers or quick advice. It’s easy to judge quickly in an effort to help, but no one feels safe if they are judged or belittled for struggling with a problem. They want to be listened to and taken seriously. They need to be respected, not demeaned. Above all, they need a place to be real with each other so they can be real before God.
A fourth element goes even further toward enabling sharing our painful stories, but it’s much more difficult: it’s only safe for group members to share deep issues when leaders do it first. Not inappropriate sharing, mind you, but open sharing about our journeys through pain to healing, even if we’re still in the pain. So what is inappropriate sharing? How can I be transparent and confident and unafraid and “working through my stuff” at the same time?
It’s inappropriate if we look to our students to meet our needs while we work through our own issues. Students have too often been forced to parent their parents in dysfunctional homes. They need new models of adults with good boundaries as well as good vulnerability. There’s a subtle but crucial difference between blubbering about a struggle with pornography and implying I need the help of my students, and sharing honestly about the painful battle I’m getting help with. Sharing with them is different from needing help from them.
And finally, the group will relax and become more real when there’s honest sharing within a community. Honesty and lack of shame promote freedom. Shame keeps sharing from happening, but the act of sharing breaks the pattern of shame. Just finding out that others have struggled in the same way we have can help break the hold of painful memories or struggles, both current and past. (Actually, the un-dealt with past almost invariably makes us act wrongly in the present. It’s that connection that has to be broken). But whether it’s from being victimized or from bad choices and behaviors, the “shame for who I am” that haunts us is lifted in community.</p>
James reminds us for a reason to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5.16). We weren’t meant to have to do this growth process alone.
Numbers Aren’t the Issue
What kind of community can handle this level of sharing and healing? Maybe our whole group. Maybe not. Or maybe not yet. But at the very least, there are always a few who are desperate, and the appeal will be contagious. A smaller group that has a strong bond and needs to go deeper will attract others as healing happens.
Perhaps we’re trying too hard to keep our youth groups safe and focused on the positive. We want to lead with vision and hope and confidence. But what about vulnerability, reality, and honesty? Increasingly, our students have to deal with tough issues, internal and external conflicts we never dreamed of. They’re used to it. They can probably handle the wrenching honest struggles better than we can.
Jesus Healed in Community
Jesus wasn’t afraid of broken people, nor of allowing healing to happen in the public forum. He did everything in community. He lived with the disciples, ate with them, healed with them, taught with them, went fishing with them, and even agonized in Gethsemane with them (or tried to). He only slipped away to be alone with his Father.
He healed the demonized in front of crowds. He comforted (and forgave) a prostitute in front of Pharisees. He refused to isolate and expel Peter when the fisherman denied him and brought shame into the community. In fact, Peter wanted to isolate himself; it was the Lord who brought him back into the group, as a leader (John 21:15-18).
Community in Action
How much more effective healing is when we realize there’s a family who loves us despite our sin; a community that encourages us in our deepest depression and cooks meals when we can no longer manage; a small group to pour out the forgiveness and cleansing of Jesus when we fall; and a circle of friends we may love and serve as they express their own needs. It puts skin on the love of Jesus.
In an effort to avoid the peril of Pandora’s Box, we’ve become too isolated, too professional in our approaches to healing, too careful so “sin doesn’t invade the camp.” We’ve stayed safe. But perhaps we’ve lost something—the rough-and-tumble, real world of loving community, sharing our falls and our pains and our deep fears, only to find love, acceptance, and the encouragement of friends who understand what it is to be wounded healers.
The power of the cross is revealed in our shared lives—our worship together, our prayer, our reaching out, our meals, our rejoicing, and our tears. As we’re real together, we’ll see Jesus heal more than we can imagine.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.