Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Running Up Against the Hard Places

crashing on the hard rocks

Stunning plumes of spray happen when the ocean crashes up against a rocky shoreline. While coming to rest on a soft, sandy beach is a lot more pleasant, we are often at our most impressive when we run up against the hard places.

When has running up against a hard place brought out the best in you?

Since early adulthood, my mother has been fond of saying to me and to my younger brother and sister, that we can handle whatever comes because the worst that could have happened already has. Her oft-repeated platitude is what Southerners call “a hard truth”.

It was as if the four of us crashed up against a rocky shoreline when my dad, just 39 died of a major heart attack. He was suddenly gone from our lives the Saturday before Thanksgiving, my senior year of high school. My brother was 15. My sister 12. I was the one on whom the responsibility fell to tell them that our dad was dead. It was a hard truth to share, a harder one to live through. Before that day came along our lives had been normal, happy. Our life as a family was like waves landing softly on the beach.

Then it all crashed up against a rocky shore.

Luckily, we were very involved in our church community. They surrounded us with love when the unexpected sad, bad thing that would reshape the course of all our lives happened.

We coped. We all coped. The congregation was wonderfully supportive in many, many ways. I remember being in the cocoon of care they surrounded us with until they seemed to move on to the next hard thing some family had to deal with. I kept traveling through life…as we all do…seeking, and often finding, support and understanding and ways to deal with my “hard” truth.

Who I became was shaped by the event of my dad’s death, by my church community, by how my family and friends taught me to deal with it. By all the hard truths of my life. As are we all…

What you have had to deal with may be different from the next person’s. Figuring out how to take it in, how you will put whatever your tragedy is in perspective, how you will answer “how then shall I live” when “the worst” has happened is never something that one ought to be left alone to deal with.

Making sense of life is what families, and congregations and groups of friends are for.

We say ours is a “covenantal faith”, rather than a creedal one. What that means is we bring our hard truths, those circumstances that have been ours and let ourselves be shaped into who we may become as we partner each other.

We rely on the power of relationships. Relationships that evolve, that ebb and flow. People we love die. People who ought to love us and care for us betray us. People hurt us and leave us alone. Yet, still we create community, immerse ourselves in community, open ourselves to relationship, continually creating how we will be in this world.

This is a story for those times when you may have, or will feel overwhelmed with all the rocky places we humans must deal with. It is from Marc Gellman’s Does God Have a Big Toe?; Stories about Stories in the Bible.

Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?” So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars and some of these rocks will be…just rocks.” Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will be clouds, and some of this water will be…just water.” Then the angels said, “Well God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?” And God answered, “Nope!”

So, on some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?” And God answered, “Nope!” God made a man and a woman from some of the water and stardust and said to them, “I’m tired now. Please finish up the world for me…really it’s almost done.”

But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.” “You are big enough,” God answered. “But I do agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.” The man and the woman asked, “What is a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we much not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.”

And they all agreed to that deal. Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” And God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”

This year we are forming Chalice Circles, groups of 8-10 folks. They will be spaces where you can form and then deepen relationship with others in this congregation. The potential for “partners” who will hear of, listen to the hard places in your life, who will help you understand what platitudes-good and not so good—that may be sticking you in place, and anchoring you in the past, can be let go when it is time to move on …

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, notable author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and doctor, tells the story of a young man named Jeff whom she describes as the angriest patient she’s ever treated. Jeff was an avid athlete, popular, and handsome. Then he was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma. In order to save his life, doctors had to remove his leg. Jeff awoke from the surgery a different young man: angry, resentful and bitter. He believed his life was over now that his body was imperfect. Jeff fell into a depression. He began using drugs and drinking heavily. A concerned former coach referred him to Dr. Remen. In their first visit, Dr. Remen could tell Jeff harbored great anger at the doctors who saved his life, but had to amputate his leg. She asked him to draw a picture of his body. He angrily scribbled a vase with a large crack in it, tearing the paper as he finished the drawing.

Jeff continued seeing Dr. Remen, who kept the drawing of the vase in her desk drawer. Soon Jeff started asking about how other kids live with an amputation. He started coming out of his anger and Dr. Remen recommended he volunteer at a hospital, visiting young amputees like himself. One day, Jeff meets a 21 year–‐old woman recovering from a double mastectomy because of a horrible history of breast cancer. The young woman would barely look up from her hospital bed.

After several attempts Jeff looked down at his leg. He took off the prosthetic device and dramatically dropped it. He started hopping around until finally he heard the woman start laughing. She looked up, saying with a smile, “Fella, if you can dance, maybe I can sing.” Jeff continued visiting the young woman. Years later they got married. During Jeff’s last meeting with Dr. Remen, he beamed with a smile. As he walked into the room, Dr. Remen pulled out that drawing of the cracked vase that Jeff drew nearly two years earlier. Studying it, Jeff took the drawing and said, “You know, it’s not really done.”

Taking a yellow highlighter from Dr. Remen’s desk, Jeff drew vibrant yellow lines extending out of the crack in the vase. Dr. Remen gave Jeff a puzzled look. Smiling, Jeff replied, “This is where the light comes from.”

This is where the light comes from, the cracks, the fissures, and the imperfections, the hard knocks, the hard truths.

Let us be here for each other, not moving from tragedy to tragedy, but living real lives in community with each other holding hands…through the sad, bad times and the good.