Monday, November 06, 2006

Ropes of Life and Death

Week nine of "Life Is Too Short To Be Wasted Being Mad, Angry & Emotionally Wrecked"

That [describing his journey] was all before. I now live after, after the death of our son, Eric. My life has been divided into before and after.

To love is to run the risk of suffering. Or rather, in our world, to love is to suffer; there is no escaping it. Augustine knew it well; so Augustine recommended playing it safe, loving only what could neither die nor change on one—God and the soul. My whole tradition taught me to love the world, to love the world as a gift, to love God through and in the world—wife, children, art, plants, and learning. It had set me up for suffering. But it didn’t tell me this: it didn’t tell me that the invitation to love is the invitation to suffering. It let me find that out for myself, when it happened. Possibly it’s best that way.

I haven’t anything to say beyond what I’ve already said in Lament for a Son. There is a lot of silence in that book; mo word too much, I hope. In the face of death we must not chatter. And when I spoke, I found myself moving on the edges of language, trying to find images for what only images could say. The book is extremely particular; I do not speak about death, only about Eric’s death. That’s all I could do. But I have discovered, from what readers have told me, that in its particularity lies universality.

I see now. Looking back, that in writing it I was struggling to own my own grief. The modern Western practice is to disown one’s grief: to get over it, to put it behind one, to get on with life, to put it out of mind, to insure that it not become part of one’s identity. My struggle was to own it, to make it part of my identity: if you want to know who I am you must know that I am one whose son died. But then, to own it redemptively. It takes a long time to own one’s suffering redemptively; one never finishes learning.

What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. But not all our gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That's OK too. Your words don't have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can't think of anything at all to say, just say, "I can't think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief."

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Exress your love ...

But please: Don't say it's not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it's not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
Nicholas Wolterstoff

What has God said to you during this series? What has God done in you?

There was a time when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own back yards.

The lost ones come from every walk of life: pastors and corporate executives, politicians and people on the street, celebrities and schoolchildren... Some of us fear that we, or those we love, will become lost in the storm. Some are lost at this moment, and are trying to find the way home. Some are lost without knowing it. And some are using the blizzard as cover while cynically exploiting its chaos for private gain.

…But my own experience of the blizzard, which includes getting lost in it more than I like to admit, tells me that however we deny it or forget it, however lost we feel in the whiteout, still we dwell in the soul’s backyard, with chance after chance to regain our own bearings. We can still tie a rope from the back door out to the barn, and survive the blizzards of this life without losing our hope or our way.

The soul’s order can never be destroyed. It may be obscured by the whiteout. We may forget, or deny, that its guidance is close at hand. And yet we are still in the soul’s backyard, with chance after chance to regain our bearings.

We know that we need time and space to slow down and to create margin in our life. We read about resting and recharging, but we can’t stop. And if we aren’t busy, we feel guilty that we waste time and are not productive.

Losses mark the spot place where self-knowledge and powerful transformation occur- if we have the courage to face our reality.

All of our losses ultimately point to our human limits. We cannot do or be anything that we want. God has placed enormous limits around even the most gifted individuals. Anybody seen the movie Cars? It is ultimately about the limits on a rambunctious, all-knowing young racecar. The young car learns from an older, wiser racecar, but in doing so helps convey a message to the older car. This is reverse mentoring.

Inherent in the discovering of our limits is learning how to actually see them, to acknowledge them, and to learn how to drop our hiding mechanisms. Remember the old Star Trek series and movies? They always brought up their shields to stop any attacks or unwelcome intrusions. “Shields up!” is still the cry of our heart.

We don’t want to be known for fear of rejection, so we keep our shields up or engage in a ‘cloaking device’, actually hiding our whereabouts despite being in physical proximity to each other.

All of these shields are ropes of death that we use as nooses, choking the fullness of life out that Jesus spoke of.

What kinds of things do we use as shield? How about ‘denial’? Or ‘minimizing’ our hurt. Or do we always blame others? Ever just repeatedly blamed yourself? That’s a shield, too.

We sometimes use the shield of rationalization-‘ that’s just how I am’ as a shield. Or we intellectualize and say things like, “My situation isn’t as bad as other people in the world who are suffering so what do I have to cry about?”

Sometimes our shield is distraction, changing the topic often in humor to avoid threatening subjects that will require us to get honest about what we’re feeling. Sometimes our shield is to become hostile and threatening, puffing ourselves up so that our friends know the areas of our life to avoid.

So what are some our limits? How about your body? I admire Chris Chelios, who is close to 45 and still playing NHL hockey. Part of my journey at this point in life is to wrestle with physical limits.

What if I were to love my body fully?

How about the limits you accrued from the family you were born into?

How about your marital status? Both marriage and singleness are gifts from God. Why do a great may married people desire singleness and many single people desire to be married?

How about the limit of your knowledge? Is our intellectual capacity a domain that we have to protect against encroachment? Do you always have to be the smartest, most knowledgeable individual where you are? Then don’t get married!

How about your talents and gifts? We must discover and live out of ours, and not those of others.

How about your material status? Why do those of us who don’t have a great deal desire more while many wealthy people do as well?

How about the make-up of you? That is, personality, temperament, your unique self. Our gifts also constitute limits, because we can’t radically improve on what’s not there to begin with!

What about your time? You can’t do it all. Your time is running out. So is mine.

Psalm 90:12
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Teach us to use wisely all the time we have. CEV

How about your work and relational realities? We will not finish the work fully, nor have perfection in our relationships, such as marriage, children or parents. We must learn to accept and grieve this limit or we will demand from others something they cannot give.

How about our own spiritual understanding? It’s easy to acquire knowledge about God, the Bible and the like, but how hard is it to have that knowledge be relational? We all have a public school file, but if someone read it, would they ‘know’ us?

How did John the Baptist deal with his limits?

John 3:26-30
So John's disciples came to him and said, "Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us." John replied, "No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, `I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.' It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.

Do you see yourself in John’s words? Is that the cry of your heart?

Too may of us do the reverse: thinking that God should become smaller and smaller and we become larger and larger. We often act like babies. A baby screams for his or her mom the feed it. The baby is the center of the universe, with others existing to care for his or her needs. Growing up helps us learn that we are not the center of the universe. The world does not exist to meet my every need.

We can easily fall into a Sesame Street "Cookie Monster theory" of human nature: see cookie, want cookie, eat cookie.

This is more painful than we all realize in my opinion. Our egos are very inflated. We have larger fantasies and wishes for God and ourselves than reality can support. Then we daydream about, “What if Madonna became a Christian? Can you imagine what could happen in her fan base?”

We will work frantically trying to do the more that God seems to intend for us. We burn out thinking we can do more than we can. We get stressed and blame others. We run around like chickens with our heard cutoff, convinced that the world- our churches, friends, businesses, families, children, whatever- will stop if we stop. Others of us get depressed because our desires are so high and unachievable that it hardly seems worth the effort to try.

What do we do?

Get off the throne!

A huge part of who we are hates limits. We won’t accept them. We need to learn to grieve biblically in order to grow emotionally and spiritually. It humbles us like nothing else can.

John the Baptist disappears from John’s Gospel after the earlier passage- he really did decrease, you might say. But it doesn’t come without a struggle. Listen to John’s internal doubt and grief as he faces severe limitation:

Matthew 11:2
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Grief is the price we pay for love.

In church, we know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, to argue its case, to make its point. We have been working on how to create spaces that invite the emotions to show up, to express anger or joy.

We know how to create spaces that invite the will to show up, to consolidate effort and energy around a common task. And we surely know how to create spaces that invite the ego to show up, preening itself and claiming its turf! But we seem to know very little about creating spaces that invite the soul to show up, this core of ourselves, our selfhood. Parker J. Palmer

Entering our grief and the grief of others helps create such a space. The guide is a rope of life called humility.

The rope of life: humility. Our first section of the rope is that we’re in love with God and mindful of Him: we often forget His presence as if He disappears after our ‘quiet time’.

The second section of rope is that we find ourselves busy doing God’s will, not our own or other peoples. When we listen with our heart we recognize our need to surrender our self will to God’s will and that becomes the touchstone top transformation.

The third section of rope is the openness and willingness to subject ourselves to direction from others. We can forsake our arrogance and all-powerfulness and become open to accepting God’s will through others. Plus, we do it without grumbling or an attitude.

The fourth section of rope is the patience to accept the difficulties of others. Life in community is full of aggravations. We give space to others to figure out their own weaknesses in their own way in their own time.

The fifth section of rope is the radical honesty about our weaknesses and faults. Let’s all quit pretending we’re something we’re not. We admit out weaknesses and limitations to a friend, spouse, parent or someone else who cares about our growth.

The sixth section of the rope is pour awareness that we are the chief of all sinners, as Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 1:15
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.

This is not self-hate or an invitation to abuse, but meant to make us kind and gentle.

The seventh section is to speak less and with more restraint, taking the focus off of us and allowing others to have it. “The wise are known for their few words.”

The last section of rope is where we are transformed into the living, moving love of God. There is no sarcasm, no put downs, no sense of self-importance. We are able to embrace our limits and the limits of others. We are aware of our fragility and that of others. No more self-illusions, we live fully on the mercy of God. Everything is a gift.

Job 12:13
To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his.
True wisdom and real power belong to God; from him we learn how to live, and also what to live for.

Write down your shortcomings, your struggles, your hidden fears, and your limits and lay them at the feet of the Father.

Job 12
"If he tears something down, it's down for good; if he locks people up, they're locked up for good. If he holds back the rain, there's a drought; if he lets it loose, there's a flood. Strength and success belong to God; both deceived and deceiver must answer to him. He strips experts of their vaunted credentials, exposes judges as witless fools.

He divests kings of their royal garments, then ties a rag around their waists. He strips priests of their robes, and fires high officials from their jobs. He forces trusted sages to keep silence, deprives elders of their good sense and wisdom. He dumps contempt on famous people, disarms the strong and mighty.

He shines a spotlight into caves of darkness, hauls deepest darkness into the noonday sun. He makes nations rise and then fall, builds up some and abandons others. He robs world leaders of their reason, and sends them off into no-man's-land. They grope in the dark without a clue, lurching and staggering like drunks."

The Father's love is extravagant. Let God increase and allow yourself to fully experience your limits in His presence.


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