A short quiz: In the Bible, what is the event which immediately precedes the Feeding of the Five Thousand? The answer is "The beheading of the one man closest to Jesus, John the Baptist." Jesus, full of grief as well as of fear (because surely he would be next), does not retreat from life but enters into it fully and with compassion and care for those around him. He is affirming life in the midst of death -- that is the overriding aspect of his life and that forms the underpinnings of what I have to say.
This morning, I want to talk about some of the boundary situations we all face sooner or later -- hopelessness, severe depression, feeling unforgiven or being unable to forgive. Mostly I want to talk about the spiritual resources we have in dealing with those situations, ourselves, or in helping others as they attempt to deal with them.
What about the tough stuff? How do we deal with that? Most of the time, most of us do fairly well with life as it comes to us. We have plenty of reserves and when we are disappointed or hurt "Hey! That happens. . .life goes on." Thank God that is how life is for most of us. . most of the time. But there are the other times – either when something big overwhelms us or when the dailyness of life has somehow gotten to be too much. .and our reserves are gone.
We know what happens when our reserves are gone. Usually something small – it may be anger or loss or disappointment -- something seemingly small can touch us and we suddenly feel ourselves left defenseless before life. All of a sudden we feel we're close to going over the edge.
We usually begin by trying to handle that by ourselves, sometimes by toughing it out – which is usually only to postpone and to exacerbate. We reach down inside ourselves. .and find that we are empty. We reach for strength, but all we find is ancient pain.
So what are the resources of our faith? The first thing to do, it seems to me, is to acknowledge the truth: we human beings do not come equipped with a built-in reserve. The last thing any of us need feel guilty about is running out of reserves or feeling empty. It happens: that is how we are made. I used to run marathons. You know the phrase, "hitting the wall?" In a marathon, that is what usually happens at mile 20 of 26. What it means is that your body has run out of stored energy and if you body is going to use any more energy, it is going to get it. . . by eating muscle cells. When we hit the wall emotionally, spiritually. . .we have hit the wall, period. There is no place to go, inside. .no muscle cells to eat. So what is there?
There is first, simply entrusting ourselves – entrusting ourselves to the care of God, to the care of a spouse or friend. I hope we all know that it is more than ok to draw on someone else's strength when ours has given out. That's part of being a church family. If you are too far gone even to pray: ask someone to pray for you. . .or with you (and praying with someone can mean simply sitting with him in silence). And when you do entrust yourself to another or to others, take the time to feel the power of that depending on someone's prayers or support. That is important.
One of the spiritual meanings of sickness is that it is often the first time in our lives when we are able to come to terms with our dependence on God – our emotional, spiritual and physical dependence on God. This may be the occasion for our being able to understand and accept
and live. . within our dependence upon God. I think the reason so many of us are so frightened of death is that we have so little experience or practice of entrusting ourselves to anyone. . much less God.
So, first, we are incomplete –that is basic to who we are - not a matter for shame or guilt. We need others and we need God -- just as the Ringling Bros. were incomplete without Barnum and Bailey, hot dogs incomplete without mustard. That's the way it is. The only people God finds almost impossible to work with are those who see themselves as perfect.
When you entrust yourself to the care of a spouse or friend, be specific: when you ask, ask for specifics. In Salinas, one woman I had been seeing weekly, asked to see me in my collar every day – somehow that reminded her of the presence of her Lord, though with her pain, that was the only way she could experience that presence. That was something I could give her – or the congregation could give her through me.
A second matter: When we are in a crisis, that is not the time to question our beliefs: it is the time to trust them. There are so many things in life which assault us,which knock us for a loop. When the big ones hit us, they almost always do so in a way that brings our basic values/beliefs into question. "How could God have done this? "If this is what God is like, to Hell with God."
But even as the questions come, this is not the time to rethink, re-evaluate our beliefs. That is so for the very same reason I was told years ago that the time to make decisions about sex is not in the backseat of a car.
Even so, in the middle of crisis, if you are angry with God, BE angry with God. If you are disappointed with God, BE disappointed with God. But at the same time, reach through the disappointment and anger to trusting that God will be there to support you, to heal you. Try to trust that God will be present to bring some good out of the chaos, the fear, threat or loss you are experiencing.
Most of the time, in our relationship with God, it is like we are on a first date. We are nice. We are on our best behavior. However, when at the end of our rope, when we are really angry with God, that may be the occasion to move past a dating relationship and into a real relationship with God.
Third, it is important, sometimes, just to endure. . to live it through. The Bible often links Hope and Endurance, holding on -- and the heart of holding on is knowing, trusting, hoping that our present pain/loss will someday be a part but not the whole. .of our lives. Our lives are colored, changed drastically by deaths, divorce, disfigurements, long-term illness. .but that will not be the ONLY reality in our lives. In a word, it is important not to let the H.O.L.E. hole in my heart be the W.H.O.L.E. whole of my life. I know that has been true in my life – as time after time I have dealt with losses and death in my own life. There are holes, deep holes in my heart, as I know there are deep, deep holes in each of yours. And I honor that pain and sorrow and regret; but they do not constitute the whole of my life. .which continues to be rich in meaning, and joy and possibility. So part of the task is, simply, to hold on, to endure to that time when that hole in your heart is no longer the whole of your life.
Fourth: It is so hard when we are stressed out, depressed to allow our perspective to shift. That is especially so with the difference between healing and cure. So often when we pray for the sick, we pray that they will be cured. And often while looking for the cure, we miss the healing that happens. We miss the healing when it comes.
I remember when my father was very sick, how we all prayed that he would be cured. And in the looking for the cure, we all but missed the many ways that healing was occurring, not only in his own life and outlook, but in the family as well. And so it is with any significant loss: when we so focus on the restoration of things as they were before, we miss the possibilities of healing and the gift of new direction in our lives. Something has changed – and things will never be the same as they were back then. But with repentance and forgiveness and dealing with the changed circumstances, wholeness is possible.
The Chinese language has a profound way of understanding crisis. The Chinese character for crisis is made up of two separate characters, one superimposed on the other. One of the characters stands for danger. . .the other for opportunity. A crisis is the conjunction of danger and opportunity. With any significant loss, there is danger. . danger that we will lose ourselves in unending grief, danger that we will pull away from life, isolating ourselves from life, shutting the world out.
And there is also opportunity. .opportunity for finding new and expanded personal support, opportunity for healing, for deepening our response to life. Looking at things this way doesn't mean that our loss didn't happen – or that our hearts will ever completely heal . .but it is a path, a way towards wholeness.
I want to say a few things more about the crisis of losing something, someone important. Once we are well along in our grieving, it is important to throw our energies into living with the changed circumstances. That's a mouthful, so let me say it again: it is throwing our energies into living with the changed circumstances. It is not "Why did this happen?" or "How did this happen? I'll never be the same. ." but "How can I order my life in view of the changed circumstances? Our wholeness is not dependent upon following the original script. Our wholeness is not dependent upon any given scenario.
As an example, there are marriages which never recover from instances of infidelity or adultery. The hurt and the sense of betrayal is just too much to bear. The marriage simply can't bear that weight. But there are some couples – probably more than we know – who have been able to survive such a terrible, terrible loss . . as a way of confronting life and one another on a deeper level than either had thought possible.
One last thing – it is something called "Reframing." When we are deep into grief or fear or depression we are usually stuck with one perspective, one way of looking at our lives and our possibilities. At such times it is sometimes to open up whole new vistas by reframing our situation.
The first time I understood this phenomenon was when a nurse at the VA Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin told me about an encounter one of her patients had with a member of the clown troupe of seriously disabled people I had formed. As the patient told the story to her, he was lying in bed hoping to die. Both his legs had been amputated and he did not want to leave the hospital: he wanted to die. But then a strange sight was wheeled into his room. "It was a guy with cerebral palsy with clown make-up smeared on his face and a little cowboy hat on his head. The guy was flailing his arms around and making strange noises while looking at me. That went on for three or four minutes and then his helper wheeled him out of the room and into the corridor. At that point I broke down in tears. I said to myself, 'This guy had nothing going for him – nothing at all. But he was giving me everything he had. Everything.' And from that moment I could not wait to get out of that hospital to see what I could do with what I have."
Years later, my colleague in a neighboring parish came to me in great distress. He, a married priest, had been having a sexual relationship with someone in the parish. He had been canned from his job as rector and he had been forced to leave his home and family and get an apartment. "This," he said, "is the worst thing that could happen to me." On a whim I asked him to tell me why this could be the best thing in the world that could have happened to him. After a moment's thought he said that was easy: he really was not happy in his job, but didn't think there was a way out; his marriage had been a disaster for both of them, but now there was, at least, the possibility of confronting one another and working for a deeper and more satisfying relationship than either had thought possible. . and on and on.
Nothing had changed for either of them, but he had been able to reframe the circumstances – and thus could begin to hope. And that is so key for us at those times when we are depressed or overcome with loss or grief. It is holding on, remembering who we were before the crisis and remembering the strength and the goodness of our faith before our pins were knocked out from under us. It is remembering that the hole in our hearts is not the whole of our lives – and that with the support of others we will not only survive, we will live differently, but fully.
There is one verse in the 23rd Psalm which frames all this in a powerful way – and for me it is one of the two verses of the Bible that I trust completely. The first is "And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it." The second, from the 23rd Psalm, is this: "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil. . ." Notice the difference an "r" makes. It is "though," not if or perhaps or if things don't work out – it is "though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. ." And it is "through." And we all go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That is life and it is inescapable and it is not something that we have to do alone. We are surrounded by love of friends and love of God – and nothing can stop the influence and goodness of that love and support.