Turning Our Groaning into Dancing: A Reflection on Change and Complaint

Posted by: Richenda at Tuesday August 12, 2014 in

Photo: Woman holding hair (modified) by Helmuts Guigo 2012 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Change is an integral part of life, but it is not always easy. Change is often accompanied by stress and discomfort. For some, discomfort is really difficult and frustrating—at all costs we want the discomfort to stop! For others, discomfort is a sign of good things on the horizon—they sense new opportunities and new challenges ahead!

Our bodies are material, spiritual, and biochemical. We experience discomfort physically in our bodies and identify this feeling as ‘stress.’ For a long time stress was thought of as ‘bad,’ destructive to the body and its systems, and so to be avoided. Research proves the opposite is true. This is good news! In times of discomfort, our bodies, created by God, are designed to give us a biochemical ‘boost’ to help us out. This boost is a gift of energy and courage. We are biochemically ‘charged up to buckle down’ and make it through the present challenges to the good possibilities ahead. (See Kelly McGonigal’s 2013 TedTalk ‘How to make stress your friend.’ )

Complaint is a short term stress reliever. It can feel better in the short term to ‘kvetch’ a little. This can really be helpful when it does not bring people down, sort of like letting a little air out of an overly-stretched balloon. Complaint can help us release emotional turmoil so we can think clearly again. Prayer, peace, a nap, these things also help.

Complaint can also draw attention to important problems that need solutions. In the story of Moses and the Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, across the Reed Sea, and into the desert wilderness.

While there is plenty of complaining in the book of Exodus that is just not necessary, in chapter seventeen, when the people complain about the lack of water, it seems to me that this complaint is exactly on point. This is a people near crisis. They are exhausted, homeless, wandering, and there is no water. They have nothing left and cannot yet imagine a way forward. They complain to Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” God responds, saying to Moses, “I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.”

Photo: Split Apple Rock by Tristan Schmurr 2012 flickr cc by 2.0

We get a similar complaint in the gospels with the story of the storm on the sea of Galilee. Peter and the disciples are in a boat when a storm kicks up and they experience real fear. They do not think God is doing enough as the waves increase (Jesus is asleep in the boat) and so they wake him by crying out “Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8:24 ; Matt 8:25 ; Mark 4:38). Jesus is less patient than Moses as he admonishes the disciples for complaining! But he also listens. Jesus calms the storm and the disciples get a little lecture about needing to have more faith.

In both cases the complaint comes from faithful people as an expression of logical or emotional last resort. These folks recognize their lives are at risk from forces much bigger than they are, and their complaint is a protest to this injustice. If they have acted faithfully, why the storm at all? They experience real powerlessness and frustration. They call out to God recognizing it is God’s power they need and as a reminder to God of God’s promises to them. In the midst of massive cultural changes—as for the Israelites in the Exodus—or deep social and religious change—such as for the disciples—both groups want to know “is the Lord with us or not?” (Ex 17:7)

Photo: Lifeboat by Paul Appleton 2013 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Complaint has real use. But the catch with complaint is that it can be enormously destructive to good changes and good community. Complaints can become loud and build from one person to another bringing the whole group down. There is the group in Exodus who would much rather return to slavery and be fed, than face the changes required to live in the new community God is making.

Complaint is especially destructive when it is used as a strategy to gain power in order to destroy change and restore status quo. Complaining requires someone to complain to, and soon a group can form that complain together, thus dividing the community. If a complainant can get enough people ‘on their side,’ they can really undermine missional efforts and even insist all changes stop. Though the intent may be to use the power of complaint to restore their comfort, the result is a power struggle that actively divides people, thereby thwarting and/or complicating the mission of the community. (See this lovely video breakdown by Mathew David Bardwell ‘Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership Made Simple’ based on Edwin Friedman’s book Failure of Nerve.)

As a member of healthy community, there are some things everyone has a right to. As a community member, you have a right (in fact, your community is counting on you!) to speak your truth. You have a right to be heard, a right to lament, and a right to be loved and respected. You have a right to be part of what God is doing in this good world. But, you do not have the right to use your gifts and energies to bring down your neighbor or your community, consolidate power in your favor, or exclude others. No one person gets all the power or all the talent, that’s the strength of community. We delegate, include, invite, share, work, struggle, dream, build and reap the harvest all together.

A community is a specific group of people. I believe that in church work, we are called together because God—who is so loving and so good—has brought us here! Something about who we are in Christ is essential to what God is doing right now in and through relational community. Our communities are counting on us to show up with our gifts and to grow our knowledge and abilities because we are an integral part of God’s great work and essential to the mission at hand.

So perhaps, as you kvetch a little to ease the discomforts you feel, also practice seeing and using stress in a new way. If someone needs to kvetch to you, give them the gift of empathy and listen—then encourage them to be courageous and take some forward-leaning action that will benefit the mission of the community. Let us all rejoice in recognizing that the presence of stress is a ‘boost’, a blessing not a curse! Let the gift of stress energize your mind toward solutions, energize your body toward the necessary work, and fill your heart with courage. Extend a hand through the storm, strike the rock! And help your neighbor through.

Photo: Woman reaching out by Helmuts Guigo 2012 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

And in all things, practice gratitude to God who is steadfast in the wilderness. Mourn the losses when they come, for they are real. But do not forget to celebrate every new blessing from a loving God who is making all things new.

And yet we are alive!

In times of stress, trust to the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
• Speak your truth with courage, love and tact.
• Practice empathy and positive listening. Ask “How can I help?” Or say, “I really need help.”
• Actively seek constructive remedy. Ask, “how can my gifts and strengths contribute to a good outcome, here?”

And here is a hymn to sing as we rejoice:

And Yet We Are Alive
And are we yet alive,
and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!

Preserved by power divine
to full salvation here,
again in Jesus’ praise we join,
and in his sight appear.

What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!

Yet out of all the Lord
hath brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford,
and hides our life above.

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.

Let us take up the cross
till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss
so we may Jesus gain.

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