Growing Up And Growing On
I Corinthians 13:11-12
Several years ago now, a brilliant young woman came to me to reflect theologically on what was going on in her life. Four months before she had given birth to her first child, and there were many things about that event and what had followed that she wanted to share. I was particularly struck by one of her comments; namely, that now she understood what her college religion professor had called "the Fall of Man.""When I heard that image years before," she said, "it had seemed remote and morbid to me. But now," she went on, "I know exactly what my teacher was getting at. I have been amazed in the last four months to sense how at odds with reality my little one sometimes seems to be. It has been that way from the very first. For example, he needs very much to sleep, yet again and again I have seen something in him fight against going to sleep like the plague. His constitution demands that he eat periodically, but on more than one occasion, I have had to struggle to get anything down him. C. S. Lewis says somewhere that 'we come into this world with 'bent spirits' - at odds with the very structure of reality as it is given to us. What years ago was merely academic concept has now taken on existential reality for me. I now see how much we humans need to be redeemed - not just in terms of what we do, but in terms of what we are, all the way down and all the way back. I now see our problem and our need for Christ's saving work as never before."
I was profoundly moved by the depth of this one's insight, and she was right, of course. Something did happen far back in our human story that has left its mark on us all. There is a "bentness of spirit" that can hardly be attributed to human conditioning. We seem to come out of the womb suspicious of "the way it is" and at odds with life as it is given to us. I have referred before to Karen Horney's famous distinction between a psychotic and a neurotic. "A psychotic," she said, "is a person who says, 'Two plus two is five;' that is, they are completely out of touch with reality. A neurotic, however, is a person who says, 'two plus two is four, but I do not like it!' There is something about the way life is put together that does not suit them." On these terms, of course, we are all to some degree neurotic, for again and again we find ourselves at war with the way it is, and one of the places where this "bentness of spirit" shows itself most often is in our attitude toward the experience of change and the way we go about trying to cope with it.
There are two "givens" at this point that seem to me to be beyond dispute. The first is the fact that change is a fundamental characteristic of life as we experience it hour by hour and day by day. Someone has pointed out that the only thing in life that does not change is the fact of change itself. You think about it for a moment. Nothing remains exactly the same forever. Our bodies are continually undergoing real if largely imperceptible alterations. You will not leave this service with exactly the same bodily conditions that you came in with. I remember in college sitting up all one night arguing with two other philosophy majors about the assertion that one cannot step into the same river twice. The point was that you put one foot in the water and by the time you get the other foot in, the river into which the first foot was inserted has changed. My memory is that the truth of this assertion finally won out. The point I am trying to make is that change is the consistent element of existence as we know it. The other "given" in this area is that change is by its very nature profoundly ambiguous. Again, think about it for a moment. For something to qualify for the noun "change," there must be an experience of both gain and loss. This means that you get something you did not have and give up something that you did have. If both of these dimensions are not present, then the experience in question is not a genuine change. By its very nature then, what we are talking about is both inescapable and profoundly ambiguous, but how hard it is to come to terms with these "givens" of existence. There is a "bentness of spirit" deep in most of us that rebels against one or both of these facts. Like a defiant adolescent, we sometimes would rather kill or be killed than to submit to this shape of our givenness.
For example, have you not known folk who wage a lifelong war against the process of change, who never come to terms with this thing that happens to our bodies, our institutions, to our relationships, yea, to everything? Our increasing obsession with cosmetics, our desire to record everything on tape or film are each in their own way a rebellion against the process of change. We desperately want to freeze or even reverse the flow of time, but what can be more futile or ultimately self-destructive than this? One exuberant your woman said to Thomas Carlyle one day: "Sir, I accept the universe." To which the crust writer replied: "By God, you'd better!" What he meant by that, I am sure, is the hopeless mismatch of individual willfulness over against reality itself. It is about as futile as going to war with the way your lungs work and deciding to hold your breath forever. It simply cannot be done. If you try it, what happens is that you finally faint, and then the involuntary process of breathing out and breathing in takes over again. There are certain laws of reality that simply cannot be broken. They can break us if we insist on defying them, but we cannot break them.
John Mansfield says as much in his little poem entitled "Truth." "Man with his burning soul, has but an hour of breath to build a ship of truth, in which his soul may sail. Sail on the sea of death for death takes toll of beauty, courage, youth, of all but truth." Only that part of us that finally comes to terms with reality has any hope of surviving. And yet, I repeat: have not all of us seen folk who never overcome that "bentness of spirit" and wind up broken by that which they had no power to break? To deny the universality of change is to count tragedy indeed. The only thing that does not change is the fact of change itself. To try to escape that fact is folly of the highest order.
However, I have known folk to come to terms with this aspect of change, but not its ambiguity and that too can be disastrous. Make no mistake about it - it is hard to live fully into both the loss and gain dimensions of a change experience. We are always looking for some painless, easy, simple way to handle such things, but such an alternative is simply not available here. There is always a dimension of loss in a significant change experience - sometimes so overwhelming that you do not thing you can stand it. But if you run from this aspect of it; that is, try somehow to avoid or evade the pain, you wind up missing the other aspect of change, namely, the gain that is always an inherent part of it, too. Let me illustrate. Frederick Buechner had a professor in college whose wife died unexpectedly at seven o'clock one evening. The next morning at eight o'clock sharp, that professor appeared in the classroom and gave his lecture as if nothing had happened. In fact, he never broke stride from that day forward as far as anybody knew. An enormous change had occurred in this man's life, but he responded by "stonewalling" the whole thing - turning what was by nature deeply ambiguous into a simple experience to be endured and moved beyond stoically. I do not want to be overly critical here, for God knows I abhor pain as much as anyone, and have gone to great lengths in my days to avoid it. I also know that our society encourages this way of dealing with trauma. If we call funerals "celebrations" and put on a happy smile and never say a word about our sorrow, other people are relieved and do not have to invest energy in consoling us, which suits our overly busy society just fine. The simplicity of stoicism then, enables one to avoid the pain and gets you high marks from others, but never forget, it comes at an enormous price indeed; namely, failing to let the experience of change teach you what it would and thus deepen and enrich you as well.
I was honestly tempted to respond to my worst experience of change in the way that professor responded to his bereavement. When my daughter died, there were several folk who wanted me to jump right back in the pulpit and mouth a lot of shibboleths to the effect that it really was not so bad after all. Their fears and desires not to have to struggle called for this sort of response. But I did not choose to do it that way. Laura Lue died on Saturday night and I did not show up the next morning to preach as if nothing had happened. That might have been easier for some people, but something deep within me said it would not be better. No, I dared to feel all there was to feel at that moment in terms of loss, and in all honesty, it was HELL! To live into all the feelings of what I had had and now what I had lost, to look in the face the fact that interaction with that person in history was now over - it literally broke my heart. I did not try to preach for six weeks - in fact, did very little but let myself feel what was there to feel. And experiencing the loss, I am convinced, got me in touch with the other side of change; namely, being given something I did not have. I make no bones about the fact that I gained a tremendous lot in "the valley of the shadow of death" that I might not have experienced any other way. By daring to feel fully the ambiguity of it all, I learned for the first time what a gift life really is. I think I had taken things pretty much for granted before this experience of loss, but suddenly I saw how blessed I had been for ten years to touch life with such an undeserved gift. I also learned that God can be counted on in the worst and most terrible of times. "The bottom held" for me. When I got to the place that ahead time I though I could not stand, behold, strength I had never known before was there, not a moment too soon or a moment too late. And what a consolation that is in relation to future possibilities. If God was there for me in that kind of trauma - and He surely was - what do I have to fear in the Great Not Yet? Who or what can be against me with that kind of Ally? And then I learned that there are always options on the other side of trauma. They may not be what you most want or would have chosen, but as long as you find yourself breathing, that means God still has a future for you - there are still things that can be done with what is left, and this I might never have known had I not braved all the ambiguity that change brings in its train.
I remember vividly sitting in a restaurant some six weeks after Laura Lue died with my wife and son. I looked at the empty chair at the table and thought my heart would break. She was not - would never be there again, and for a moment there did not seem anything left to live for. And then I looked at my son and said: "But wait. There he is, representative of all that is left. To give up would be to say to him: 'Laura Lue was all that mattered' - and that is not true." There are still options - I thought, things to do, people to love, and a world impoverished but none the less real still here, and then and there I chose to live on - to go with the world as it was rather than giving up altogether. What I was saying is that for all I lost in that experience of grief, I gained much as well, and it never would have happened if I had denied the deep ambiguity of change, like Buechner's professor, and slogged on as if nothing had happened.
I want to affirm, then, that reality as it is given to us is good, if we would only accept it and go with its flow. For example - change - seen as inescapable and deeply ambiguous - really is God's way of growing us up and on. And that "bentness of spirit" that puts us at odds with the way it is - that is the real enemy and the thing from which we need to be redeemed. Christ has come to do that - to re-establish between us and our Creator a spirit of trust. He has come to show us that God is good - that what He wants for us is joy, and that in His will is our peace and our fulfillment. This is not just true in relation to change - it is true of all things.
Therefore, when St. Paul said: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became an adult, I put away childish things," what he is talking about is letting go that "bentness of spirit" that leads us to rebel and receiving the gift of reconciliation to the God of things as they are. This is redemption - and our only hope.
May God quicken the day that such healing of spirit will become an event for us all!
John R. Claypool