She was the cashier at Sam’s Club who checked us out last week. When I gave her a check for our groceries she began talking to Gary and me about her grandfather, who was dying of cancer. She said there was no treatment that could help him anymore, he couldn’t stand up, and it was difficult for her to get a good night’s sleep. I asked if she was especially close to her grandfather, and she replied, “I live with him. I’m his caretaker.”
“I am so sorry for you and your grandfather. God bless you during this difficult time,” I said. Already suspecting the answer, I asked Gary on the way out, “Why do you suppose she shared this with total strangers?” “Because the top of the check said Rev. Laurie Haller and Rev. Gary Haller.” Those three letters, “Rev.” not only reminded the young woman of her pain but opened a door for her to seek a blessing.
This encounter sparked the memory of a seminary professor whose class forever changed my life. In 1977 I was studying music at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music but lived and also took some classes at Yale Divinity School. I met my husband in this class where we were in the same small group, and we were married the following year. Hmm. Could Gary have somehow arranged to be in my small group?
Our professor was Henri Nouwen, and the class was Ministry and Spirituality, which Henri (as everyone called him) described this way, “This course will focus on the relationship between the practice of ministry and the spiritual life of the minister.” At the time all I knew about “practice” was the two-plus hours I spent on the organ bench very day.
I was a twenty-two-year old with zero practice in ministry, and I had no clue what the spiritual life of a pastor was all about. Therefore, when Henri talked about clergy being wounded healers it was a purely academic exercise. I didn’t have the life experience for his words to move from my head to my heart. Yet from the very first day I sensed that Henri Nouwen was a living reminder and that what I learned from listening to and watching Henri would last for a lifetime in ministry.
Nouwen focused on three unpublished papers which were typed on an electric typewriter and copied for the class, “The Healing Reminder,” “The Sustaining Reminder,” and “The Guiding Reminder.” These papers, which I still have today, were published seven years later as The Living Reminder; Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ.
Henri kept reminding our class that one of the ways in which humans suffer most deeply is through wounded memories that need healing. Our painful memories are often deeply hidden but can cause much harm because they are often raw and ooze into consciousness at inopportune times. Our challenge as clergy is not to avoid our own wounds but to recognize, acknowledge, and lift those wounds into the light of Christ’s love. Once we seek and receive healing, we are able to connect our pain with the suffering of God, the world, and its people. By becoming wounded healers for others, we prevent further wounds in the future.
I’d never heard anything like it, but neither had I ever suffered deeply in my short life, having grown up in a sheltered family without significant trauma. Now I know. As a pastor and parent I’ve experienced the horror of childhood sexual abuse, the tragedy of suicide, families torn apart by addiction, the humiliation of bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger, and the hopelessness of incarceration. It is the reminders of my own woundedness and healing that enable me to empower healing in others.
Not only did Henri Nouwen teach us about being healing reminders for others but he himself – by his words, actions, and demeanor – modeled what it meant to be a wounded healer. It is the Christ in us who heals. Who will be a healing reminder of wholeness?
In his second paper Nouwen explained that not only does the memory of past wounds lead to healing in others but the memory of love sustains us in the present. In John 16:7 Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
How many times in your life have you looked back and said, “Aha. I never understood why that happened. But now I can see how the puzzle pieces fit together.” Although the disciples would grieve Jesus’ absence, only in death would they realize the full impact of Jesus’ life.
Our memory of love received and given helps to sharpen, clarify, and shape the present. In my life leading up to graduate school and seminary I had little understanding of divine presence in the face of the darkness of God’s absence. Yet now I can look back on months and even years of uncertainty and pain with no clear word from God and admit that it was precisely during those times that I experienced intense spiritual growth. When all else was taken away it was the Jesus I experienced through the love of others who sustained me. The heartache of God’s absence is just as formative as the joy of God’s presence. Who will be a sustaining reminder of love?
In his third paper Nouwen writes, “The memory that heals the wounds of our past and sustains us in the present also guides us to the future and makes our lives continuously new.” Jesus’ mission was to remind the people of God of their past, challenge their misunderstandings and narrowness, and renew the vision of God’s continuing care and presence. So we minister to the wounds of others by not only reminding them of the One who lived, died, and rose from the dead for us, but by becoming a guiding reminder ourselves. Even when we are weak we can inspire. Even when we are down and out we can witness. By the transparency of our own struggles others see God in us. Who will be a guiding reminder of hope?
We have entered Holy Week. With each successive year I feel more deeply the passion of Jesus, the pain of my own wounds, and the suffering of our world. I don’t want to follow all the way to the cross, but I am compelled because Jesus is not only a healing, sustaining, and guiding reminder of God’s love, he is also a passionate reminder of the victory of grace.
The word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patiov, which means “to undergo or suffer or submit.” It’s the same root from which we get our English word “passive.” I don’t know about you, but I need to see and experience Jesus on the cross. The empty cross is not enough. Skipping Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is way too convenient … because it’s too difficult. But it’s in the gutsy agony of life that resurrection occurs.
It was in a later book Adam that Henri Nouwen writes about passion. “Jesus’ passion came after much action. For three years he went from village to village, town to town, preaching, teaching, responding to people’s questions, healing the sick, confronting hypocrites, consoling the sorrowing, calling the dead back to life. Wherever he went, there were large crowds of people admiring him, listening to him, asking him for help. During those intense, nearly hectic years, Jesus was in control. He came and went as he felt it was right. His disciples accepted his leadership and followed him wherever he went.”
But in the Garden of Gethsemane all of that ended. There Jesus was handed over to others to undergo suffering. From that moment on, Jesus could not do anything. Everything was done for him. He was arrested, put into prison, whipped, had a crown of thorns put on him, was ridiculed and given a cross to carry. He could no longer act. He was acted upon. Jesus was totally given into the hands of others, and he did it willingly. It was pure passion.
“The great mystery of Jesus’ life is that he finally fulfilled his mission not by action but by passion, not by what he did but by what others did to him, not by his decisions but by decisions others made concerning him,” not by his will but by God’s will. So Jesus’ passion is a radical call for us to accept the truth of our lives and choose to be healing, sustaining, guiding, and passionate reminders of God’s work in our world.
To the young woman at the Sam’s Club register, “Thank you for sharing your burden with Gary and me. I hope that we inadvertently reminded you of the power of God’s love to heal, sustain, and guide you and your grandfather during this Holy Week of the Passion of your Savior. God bless you.”
To whom will you be a reminder this week?