The Way

I was holding on to this idea: the idea was that my hurt needed to be fixed at all costs.

Most of the time I wouldn’t admit that I even have this hurt.  And even if you got me to admit that this hurt was lurking around…  I would not have owned that this was my number one priority.  When I started to recognize this…  I realized that I actually want it to be everybody else’s number one priority, too.

It’s a bit of an idol, my pain.

Further, I have been operating on this idea that the number one goal of everything is to not hurt.  Eradicating this pain has been this mission I have never even questioned.

There is all this power around the names of demons.  I feel like that is what I am doing: naming the demons.   And we are told to confess our sins.  I am doing that too: confessing my sins.

A child’s faith is one where magic wands cure pain instantly, and magically.  My faith is built on one who died on a cross and spent three days in hell, after he sweat his blood in fear and trepidation.

He told his followers there way was the way of pain.  And he showed them by taking the evil of the world into himself, absorbing it, transforming it.

The promise is not that this is free and easy: only that it is worth it.

I think that this gets easier (not easy!) if we do this together: Let us name our pain, recognize that it is real.  It is not the center of the universe.  It is not God.  But in some important ways, it stands between us and God.  So lets walk through it together.  It won’t go away just by us wishing it away.  We have to travel through it.

But we don’t need to walk it alone.  We can walk it together.

Even more awesome: When you read the story in context, when Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth.”  He wasn’t making any claims about why we shouldn’t be a Buddhist.  His followers were worried because they felt like Jesus was leaving them.  They feared he would only be at their final destination, and they did not know how they would find him.

When Jesus said “I am the way and the truth” he was proclaiming that the path is the destination, that he is the path itself.  The sacred is not only in the place that we want to end up: the journey to get to that place, the journey through the pain, Jesus is there with us, too.

 

 

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Pretending the Bloody Nose Doesn’t Hurt

I can remember before I learned how to drive.   There were some things that I did not know.  If I wanted to drive, I needed to learn these things.   I am not a very practical guy.  I love speculation and theoretical possibility.  I love thinking about thinking.  I love learning about other’s deep thoughts.  I love to share my own.

When it came time to learn to drive, I should have determined which one was the break and which one was the clutch and which one was the accelerator.  It was important for me to learn how to turn on the head lights.  At that stage in my life I lived in Southern California, so most likely figuring out how to turn on the wind shield wipers could wait; it wasn’t likely to rain any time soon.

Knowing the history of the automobile?  Even less relevant than operating the windshield wipers.  The kind-of guy I am, it is tempting, in situations like that, to want to explore thermodynamics.  I remember learning the term fitzgig around the time I learned to drive.  A fitzgig is a tiny explosive, the “spark” caused by the spark plug.  In the film “The Dark Crystal” they named a character fitzgig.  That animal is named after this concept.

Learning how to change a spark plug, that is not the sort of thing I get excited to learn.  I paid a lot of money to mechanics.  And I have had way more than my share of accidents.  I should have paid a lot more attention to these practical things.

I am learning that spiritually, I am not much different.  With the car I spent all this time contemplating theoretics.  I should have been practicing pushing down on the pedals.  And in my spiritual life, I have spent all this time arguing theology.  I have ventured to the edge of the sorts of things that can be expressed in words.   Probably, I have spent some time well beyond this point, trying to wrap my puny little human brain around stuff that I just won’t be able to explain or understand on this side of the grave.

I am in the midst of this strange time of transition.  Some of it is connected to my spiritual community at large.  Some of it is very personal to me.  Some of it I am in the center of.  Some of it I am on the peripherary.  And some of it I am only connected to indirectly…

I am feeling lead in a direction on this stuff.  I am learning so much important stuff.  In some sense it is so basic, just as the actual mechanics of driving a car are in some sense so very basic.  A way I can express this is to say that I am called to make peace through this turbulence.

I am learning that there aren’t any right words when people I love are suffering.  Explaining where I think God is can be callous.  Asserting that it doesn’t seem like God is there at all can feed into somebody’s struggles with faith.  Telling somebody that I know what their pain is like can belittle them and turn the focus on me.  Telling somebody that I can’t imagine what their pain is like can isolate them.

I am not saying that we should say nothing.  I am saying that all these words we have are not the important thing.

The important thing is that I am fully with someone who is angry or suffering or lost.   Right there, with them, in that moment.   Don’t we all know, when somebody is with us, in our pain?   For me, that is an incredible gift, when I know that somebody has stepped past their own baggage.  They are not thinking about how it is for them.  They are just with me.

I am probably not much good at this yet.  I am learning that in the past, the things I said to somebody else, they were at least mostly for me.  So often the words I have said to somebody else, they are motivated so very wrong.  When someone I love is hurting, it hurts me.  And I don’t like hurting.  And so in the past, too many times, I have found kind words.  It is less that I want my friend not to hurt because they are my friend, and more that I do not want my friend to hurt because there hurting hurts me.

Somewhere, we know it, when our pain is hurting someone else.  We know it when they are trying to stop our pain in order to stop their pain.  I remember when my youngest was tiny.  We used to wrestle-tickle.  Once (ok, twice, actually) he got his little fingers inside my nose.  His little toddler fingernails scratched up something good in there.  I bled all over the place and hurt quite a lot.

And he was really freaked out.  I found myself covering up the bleeding, covering up the pain.  And that is what a dad should do.

But there have been times in my life that I have been the toddler.  Times that people are hurting are greatly.  And me?  That hurt makes me hurt a little bit.  Perhaps the person hurting doesn’t want to see me hurting; they are avoiding some wierd and dysfunctional feed back loop.  At the minimum, they have enough on their plate.  They don’t need to wrestle with my pain, too.  So I offer up some stupid  plattitude, and they pretend it makes them feel better, and problem is solved.  (I am hoping the sarcasm in those last three words is duly noted.)

The first thing I am learning in this season of my life is that one of the things I am called to do is to walk toward pain, not away from it.  At this stage in my life, carrying my cross means that I put on my big boy pants.  I accept the idea that hurt is going to hurt.

I have been reminded that in this hurt, that is where Jesus dwells.  I have found him, as I have worked at being fully present to other’s pain.  Jesus was with me, waiting for a reason to manifest.  And he was in the other person, whether or not they follow Christ.  And also, he is in that space between us.

Hurt

Ponder an image with me:  A man puts his left hand, palm down, on a work bench.  With his right hand, he picks up a battered old hammer.  And then he brings the hammer down, hard.   I am wondering if metal on flesh would make a sound, moments before the man lets out a wail.    He grits his teeth.  Looks at the hammer.  And then, he does it again.

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In some sense, that is what we are called to do.  Smash our hand.  Take on the pain.  Wait a moment.  And then?  Do it again.

This has been on my mind recently.  I have been in several diffferent conversations about people who have been hurt.  One is a person who I know to be incredibly open, and kind, and brave.  He was hurt, and he said, “I don’t know if I will be able to trust people again.”  Two of the others have been hurt by people in the church.  It was said about one of them, “She’s fine with God, but she is having some trouble with God’s people.”

That last sentiment, it has practically become a cliche.  But like many clichés, it has become a cliche because there is truth dwelling in it: the armies of people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious are a manifestation of this idea, too.  Sometimes, it is easier to deal with God than God’s people.  It is certainly less painful.

There is something in us that runs from pain.  I suppose that this is generally a good thing.  We learn not to touch the hot stove, we learn not to test a knife by running our fingers over the edge, we learn not to antagonize the kid who is stronger than us and quite willing to beat us to a pulp.

And yet, we are called to transcend this.   We are called to open ourselves to pain.

Perhaps it is familiarity that dulls us to this.  But a thing that I don’t think gets as much notice as it should, is how leads us by example in this.

For now, I will leave aside the example of Jesus’ crucifiction.  Consider the Garden of Eden.  There are all kinds of remarkable things in this story.  But maybe the most remarkable?  The creator of the universe was willing to allow himself to be vulnerable to these flawed, broken, fallible little creations of His.

In some sense, on some level, it must have been a choice.  God might have kept himself above the goings-on in the Garden.  He cast aside his invulnerability in allowing himself to care for Adam and Eve in a way that is, perhaps, echoed by Jesus casting off his divinity to enter the created world.

There must be some limits to this.  We are not expected to submit ourselves to the abuse of an abuser.  I think the beginning of these limits lays in love: it is not loving to allow an abuser to abuse us.  But I think more needs to be worked out, more needs to be said, about how we find the limits of what we should be willing to sacrifice.  (As always, reader, if you have some thoughts, I would love for you to comment below)

Regardless of what those limits are, regardless of how we ought to find them… we are called to do a very unnatural thing.  We are called to be open to pain.  This open-ness to pain, this vulnerability, this is a deep and mystical thing about the way that God works in the world.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Christ being in us:  He dwells in the very deepest parts, waiting.  And when we take pain into ourselves, when we bring it to those places, he waits there, transforming it into something bigger, better, glorious, triumphant.

It All Came Together.

For the first time, maybe ever, Last week, I could not sit in church through a service. I love my church. I love the idea of worshipping God. But these life circumstances I am facing, they were like a pile of tinder. My attitude was a spark.
I had a splitting head ache. The lights felt like icepicks going after my temples. The guitars were digging into my ears. The sound of the vocals grated, and the words were such a cruel joke to me right then.
I don’t actually think the band was doing anything different than it ever does.
But I wasn’t able to see how it all worked together, as I sat there. Recognizing how God is at the middle of everything, that can make that space sacred. But it wasn’t. Because I wasn’t able to see how it all worked together, as I sat there.
By “it” I mean the music. And also everything else.
I left the service and retreated to my car. I eased the seat back and shut my eyes and their was the crackle of fire, the rising of smoke.

It’s been a hard week. Yesterday, I went for a hike.
I do all of my best yelling at God in the outdoors.
I have yelled at God during rough times for a while now. Even before I was a Christian, I was a fan of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult fiction. In one of her books, a pastor counsels a teen-ager. He observes that God is big and tough and he can handle our anger.
As I have developed a relationship with Him, I have seen first hand the wisdom in that. I have found that all of our relationships flourish when we can be open about being upset. This does not mean rage is in the driver seat. But also, we can’t lock it away in the trunk like a kidnapping victim.
I was walking fast. I was, like the guy in that comedy movie (Dewey Cox, maybe?) walking hard. I was walking angry. When we are angry, we are hardwired for tunnel vision. I was not taking in the wholeness of where I was. I saw some things that were directly in front of me. And that was all.

Just as I couldn’t hear the beautiful thing that was made by the guitar, drum beat, and vocals intertwining, the wholeness of the forest was not soothing me at first. Usually it does. It’s not only the breeze, or the fresh air, or the sounds of a burbling river that do it. It’s the way they all come together.
Somewhere between me and God came the idea that walking is running in slow motion. It’s symbolic, some times, of fleeing. And I found, from somewhere, the courage to just sit. It was this little stone bench.
I realized what I needed to do was to hold the pain. Just sit with it. Stop running and own it and accept it.
We don’t have a word, I think, for when all your senses gather together to come into focus at the same time. We should.
As this focusing, this converging, happened to me on that bench, I had this sense that there was somebody sitting next to me. And He was holding my pain with me.
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I know that I am halfway to that cheesy “footprints” parable. I wish I could say that Jesus carried me, and I am simultaneously repulsed by the cliché of all that. He didn’t carry me, though. He sat with me, and He held my pain with me. And everything seemed like maybe it was going to be o.k.
As I walked back, there was this little boy. He darted around like gravity had no claim on him. He moved in this awesomely unselfconscious dance. His arms and legs moving in ways that defied what our joints should do.
He was just a part of the whole thing. It was a perfect moment, watching his joy as the sunlight filtetred green through the canopies, as the freshened oxygen filled my lungs, as Jesus carried my pain with me.
Church was a lot better today.

Brain Freeze of the Soul

I kind-of hate brain freezes. I think hospitals should re-work their little pain charts. The “10” with the frowny face ought to have a guide of ‘kidney stone’ or ‘giving birth. Their ought to be an 11 with an extra-frowny face, with the words “brain freeze” under it.
(I have never personally experienced either a kidney stone or child birth. I hope you’ll forgive me a little hyperbole to make the point.)
The funny thing is, that if you could watch me in the summer time with my favorite frappacinno or ice-cold smoothie, it would probably be pretty funny, because I am not very good at avoiding them. Perhaps more accurately: I am not very motivated to avoid them.
untitledOften times, I will get one, and the spike that is lodged between my temples has barely been removed before I am on to the next gulp. It’s not that I’ve forgotten. It’s not that I am unaware. I take that gulp well-informed that I have an excellent chance of re-experiencing the same brain freeze I have just gotten out of the grips of.
I don’t know if this is alien to you. Maybe I am alone in my foolishness. I’ve recently realized I am a pretty smart guy… except when I’m not. And maybe this is just one of those times I am not.
I’ve been reflecting on why I do this, recently. Here is what I came up with:
A) I know the pain is temporary.
B) I really like the pleasure of the drink.
C) The pain can’t hurt me– so far as I know, brain freeze is not like a concussion. I am pretty sure I am not accumulating long-term effects.

Just to be clear, I hate pain. I am open to the charge of being a wimp. Ordinarily, I do my best to avoid unpleasentness and suffering in all it’s varied forms.
In fact, it’s this realization about myself that got me thinking of it all in the first place.
I have spent a long time, working hard at minimizing the pain — physical and mental– I experience. My willingness to subject myself to brain freeze is very much an exception, not the rule. The thing is that despite the time, work and energy I have put into minimizing the pain I experience, I don’t think I have been very successful.
Recently, I had this realization:

It is all brain freeze.

It is all temporary. It is all necessary for pleasure to come, too. In the end, there are no eternal pains. Someday — though maybe not in this life– they will all fade away.

I don’t know about you, but I am ready to stop living from a damage-control mind set. This does not mean I need to be reckless or masochistic. But it means that pain is just pain, and sometimes things hurt.. But in the end, hurt is just hurt. And there is no way to escape it anyway.

The Pieces of Ourselves that We Give Away

So I was dropped to my hands and knees, there in the hallway, just outside my classroom door.  I was desperately trying to gobble in some air.  For a moment, it didn’t seem to be working.  My coworkers were around, and the students, too, staring down at me. 

With the help of my classroom aide, I scrambled into the nearby principals office.  I began to put it all together.  It was hard to think, because their was this pain that dominated my whole consciousness in the side of my neck.  And there was something lesser, but unpleasant, going on in the back of my skull.

As I half turned in the doorway I saw that they were restraining the student (let’s call him Nate.)  And in something like a flash, I put it all back together.  I had just been assaulted.  He landed a closed fist on the side of my neck and I didn’t see him coming.

The idea that I hit the wall on the way down, I figured that part out later.

I teach at a residential facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents.  Being assaulted isn’t an every day occurrence.  But sooner or later, in places like this, it happens.

Several years ago, I spent three endless, pain-filled weeks on disability with a sprained back.  About once every couple months, I participate in restraints, keeping our students from hurting themselves or others.  I have had close calls.  I’ve been hit, spit on, and my experiences are nothing compared to some of the heroes I work with, who daily, regretfully, put their hands on our students; who have dealt with all manner of body fluids, who have been hospitalized, occasionally for quite lengthy stays.

My back still feels sore when it rains, after all these years.  I have been in a lot of pain today and spent the morning getting a cat scan to make sure I didn’t have a concussion.  I know that I will be feeling this one for quite some time.

These injuries that I carry with me, they have changed me.  Reduced how much I could, for example, wrestle with my youngest.  I was (if you must know the truth) feeling kinda sorry for myself this morning, as I sat in the ER, waiting for my number to come up.

And then I had this realization:

I am not any different than anybody.  Except that it’s just more obvious for me.

We are wounded by our work, whatever it is.   For all of us, our livelihood take things from us that they should not.  We give more than hours in exchange for our pay checks.  We give away parts of ourselves, and we know that these are parts are families deserve, but we have sacrificed them because we really don’t have an alternative.

Mostly I love my job.  I don’t have a solution, or a neat, happy thought to tie this blog post up with.  I guess I will leave it unresolved… like life.

Digestion

Stained glass window of the sacred Heart of Je...
Stained glass window of the sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in the former Mosque (Cathedral) of Cordoba, Spain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recent blog posts have lead to this exploration of the relationship between following Christ and experiencing pain.  It’s a given that the way of Jesus will lead to suffering.  The question is really what our emotional attachment is to this suffering.

Everytime I think I’ve got a grasp on how to approach this question I have to do a double take.  I suddenly realized there’s just this whole other side to it that I haven’t yet pondered.  My friendly readers (perhaps cheifly Billy) will be glad to know that I’m not planning on turning this into a series of 87 blog posts.

Instead, I’ll simply agnowledge that it’s a much more complicated question that I thought.  And make a couple general commments.

#1) There’s a host of suspect motivations for seeking out pain.  For example, we sometimes believe we deserve to be punished.  We sometimes like the attention suffering brings.  And let’s not even get started on all the icky sexual things…

#2) It does seem like suffering might be a way for us to be with Christ.  That’s a good thing.

Most importantly… and perhaps related to number 2…

If I’m right about the nature of victory in Christ, if the idea is that we undercome before we overcome, then it seems like a key aspect of this is taking in that which is painful.  Christ isn’t about waving a wand from the outside, and reversing something.  He is about internalizing a thing; his method of transformation is almost an act of digestion.

It seems like a critical aspect of this is to actual go through the pain, not around it.  Jesus didn’t bypass death.  He went through it.  Transcendence is so much greater than avoidance.  And to transcend a thing, we must be in the middle of it first.