Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Over vs Through Part 2

In my last post, I talked about the necessity of pruning for spiritual growth. Because we are pain-averse, we try our best to avoid circumstances that are difficult or painful. But spiritual growth happens in the situations when we are most challenged. As Psalm 23 reminds us we go through the valley, not around it.

If we are seeking to travel faithfully on the path of discipleship, we have to recognize that the path will be rocky in places, dark in others, and sometimes impossible to see. For sure, we will have to give up our notions of control if we are to grow in our faithfulness. Parker Palmer says, “hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost—challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge.”

If we are determined to be in control, we will find ourselves unable to advance in faith. Grasping control may take us completely off the path of spiritual growth, because we avoid the difficult positions and places that call us to exercise our faith muscles. Grasping control keeps us from developing the traits needed for faithfulness. Joan Chittister notes that the goals and values of the spiritual life are “just plain different from the goals and values we’ve been taught by the world around us. Winning, owning, having, consuming, and controlling are not the high posts of the spiritual life.” These all revolve around possession and control.

The events of life will eventually wrest control from us. How we respond will determine if we grow bitter or faithful. Lack of control is a little death, and as we faithfully “die before we die” we are able to approach the next death, and the final death, with greater peace and acceptance.

Our willingness to go through difficulty, rather than over or around it, may very well be the refining that leads us to stronger faith and deeper love for God. And this leads us to a more faithful witness for Christ, who both told us and showed us that suffering is part of choosing the path of discipleship.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Over vs Through

I bought an Italian Parsley plant a few weeks ago. I put the pot in a sunny window, gave it water, and hoped it would thrive there. I snipped leaves off for several recipes that first week.

All seemed to be going well with my little plant until I returned from a weekend retreat. Yellow leaves greeted me on my arrival, even though there was still water in the dish under the pot. I got the scissors and began to trim the dying leaves, which took almost all the leaves off the plant. I wasn’t sure the plant would survive.

But just a couple of days later, I noticed lots of new leaves. The severe pruning allowed the plant to be healthy and grow. Had I simply repotted the sick plant, or just continued to water it, without any pruning, I am convinced it would have died completely.  

That little plant reminds me that avoidance of difficulty, or glossing over one’s pain (think Monty Python—“It’s only a flesh wound”) does not create the opportunity for growth that going through difficulty, enduring the pruning, or feeling the loss makes for us.

When we are seriously wounded, healing takes time and attention. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just get over it. The leg has to be set, protected and immobilized, so the bones can knit back together. The inner wounds of bullying, betrayal or rejection are no different. Wounds take time and attention to heal. Ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist is just as unhealthy as wallowing in self-pity.

A friend told me that cancer was the best thing to happen to her. She let go of her go-go pace, allowed her body to rest, and spent time with God. Her spiritual growth through the process of chemotherapy was tremendous, and she is a different person now—filled with a peace and wisdom that only time, reflection and stillness can bring. She told me how she felt sad watching others who, while undergoing chemotherapy, tried to maintain their lifestyle at the same level of activity as before their treatment. She said they missed the gift that their treatment offered—to go deeper with God. They were focused on getting over cancer. My friend focused on going through.

To go through, we have to let go. We have to relinquish our timetable, our sense of control. When we go through loss, pain and wounding, when we allow the pain to teach us, we learn that there is much we no longer need. Pruning makes space for something new, something that cannot grow without enduring the difficult.

Jesus fully went through his suffering. He drank it, without any self-pity, to the last drop. He died, the ultimate pruning, but he rose from the dead. And how did the disciples know for sure it was him? Because he rose with his wounds. He bore the scars in his resurrected body, a constant reminder of the suffering he endured.

Jesus, my parsley plant, and my friend remind me of the gift of going through, of allowing the pain to give us new life.