(Appeared first in July 2011, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians following a time of considerable frustration, disappointment and deep peril. He testified to being under such severe stress, far beyond his ability to endure, so that he despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8). I’m quite sure the Corinthian church’s ambivalence about Paul’s apostleship was one of the factors that drove him to despair.
But at the time of this writing, Paul had experienced a time of great comfort. Apparently a report from Titus about the Corinthian church brought Paul a deep sense of God’s comfort (2 Corinthians 7:6-7). On another occasion, after desperately pleading for God to remove a “thorn” in his flesh, Paul received the consolation that God’s grace was sufficient for him (12:9).
It seems that Paul, like many of us, experienced times of desolation as well as consolation, sometimes in response to social situations. “Desolation” and “consolation” are words used by St. Ignatius of Loyola to describe such experiences. This seems abundantly clear as I read the stories of the Israelite people. The Psalms express such times in the life of the Hebrew people. For several examples, see Psalms 10:1; 13:1-2; 22:1-2; 88:1-18; 130:1-4. These are prayers of people whose hope has waned, yet they cry out to God for help. They ring true of groups as well as individuals.
I notice that many of the laments in the Psalms are followed by a declaration of expectant hope or confident trust. See, for example Psalms 10:14; 13:5-6, 22:23-24 and 130:5-6, the same Psalms that begin with a sense of despair. Again, the writer of Lamentations 3:1-21 blames God for deep difficulty yet comes back to praise God for mercies that are new every morning (v. 22).
Although the Psalms were written by and for the Hebrew people, the Christian church has adopted them. Jesus was intimately familiar with the Psalms. He often referred to them. I believe he understands what it means to feel distanced and forsaken by God, particularly as he experienced it during his crucifixion, quoting Psalm 22.
I find it helpful to meditate on the Psalms. They help me notice the movements in my own soul from desolation to consolation. As I travel across Mennonite Church USA, I find that just like the Apostle Paul and the ancient Hebrew people, individuals and congregations experience times of desolation and consolation.
In times of desolation, our life may lose its sense of cohesion. Congregational attendance may languish. The worship may turn dull and insipid. Members may find themselves in intractable conflict. The church may lose its sense of purpose and direction, with people just “going through the motions.”
Yet there are times of great consolation, times of renewal when the same group has a palpable sense of God’s presence. People work together in unity of heart and mind.
At times when I turn my eye toward the internal divisions and troubles in our church, I identify with Paul in his interaction with the Corinthians. I feel a sense of desolation, and hope seems to slip away. Yet when I fix my eyes on all that God is doing in the world and in our church, my hope is renewed. At times I am moved to tears, a sign for me of God’s presence and power. I am confident that God is at work in Mennonite Church USA, far beyond my awareness or imagination.
As Paul told the Corinthians, turning to God in the midst of stress and trouble is an investment in hope. Praying for others who feel despair is also an investment in hope. By God’s grace, I will practice both of these disciplines and invite others in our beloved church to do the same.