Transformation Happens

I recently discovered another “cherished illusion,” as Jim Finley calls them, namely that I grow and change through my own initiative and on my own schedule. This is simply not true. We’re not so different from the rest of creation. We can no more decide to enter a new phase of life before we’re ready than a tree can decide to drop its leaves in spring.

If a six-year-old informed us that she was going to learn to drive or do calculus or carry a thirty-pound rock, we wouldn’t expect it to happen. Yet when we become adults, we think that we should be able to will ourselves to be whoever we want however and whenever we wish.

Just as shorter days mean less sunlight and therefore less green chlorophyll to hide the stunning reds and yellows always present but not visible in the trees’ leaves, we change in response to events in our lives, most of which are beyond our control. The big difference between us and the trees is that we often have different plans. Maybe we want to be green all the time or, come August, are impatient to display our more showy selves.

Though what’s happening doesn’t originate with us, we can choose whether to resist or participate. If you’re like me, there’s a fair amount of push back going on. At the heart of my resistance is a lack of trust in the cosmic becoming in which we all play a part.

Let’s be clear, there are a lot of reasons to mistrust: black holes, dying starts, war, famine. But let’s be equally clear that my cosmic plan doesn’t extend much past dinner, so just maybe the Creator of the universe has something going on that I don’t fully understand, something bigger than me and my preferences, and maybe, in ways we can live but not grasp, it is a “plan for [our] welfare, not for woe” (Jeremiah 29:11).

This transformation is happening, but it’s not being done to us. It is coming into being with, in, and through us. “The world becomes new, if one does not stand in the way,” my friend Bardwell says. Let’s practice not standing in the way.

Loving Our Failures

I saw a man at a bus stop this week trying to look as if he chose to be there, and I thought, how much time and energy do I spend maintaining that “everything’s OK, nothing to see here” front?

Nadia Bolz Weber in her book Accidental Saints says that we live in a society that only loves winners. In that society, we must ride the bus as a preference, not because we can’t afford a car. That would make us unlovable. In that society, we will be deserted if we fail, and the norms of that society are alive and well in my brain.

This mindset guarantees a life of fear because as long as we’re human, we are going to fail. We’re even going to fail at the same thing over and over again despite our best intentions. I certainly do, and I avoid looking at those failures because they terrify me, because part of me believes that whoever sees them will walk away and never come back.

The first thing to do when petrified in this way is to read this article from The Onion because it is true and on topic and funny, and it’s hard to be afraid while you’re laughing. The second is to consider surrendering, which may initially kick the fear up a notch. I tend to picture my post-surrender life as oppressive, but we’re raising the white flag not to an enemy but to a God who loves us, a God we can entrust with our failures without dreading abandonment, a God who gives life and freedom.

A little anxiety might be reasonable, though, because with surrender comes greater vulnerability. God doesn’t suddenly transform us into the faultless person we’ve always known we could be. Instead we are opened more and more to our own shortcomings, to our and others’ humanity. We let go of needing to appear on top of it and paradoxically find that, even in the midst of failure, we are much more than OK—we are loved.

Follow Me, Really

Almost every Palm Sunday of my life, I have joined the rest of the church congregation in reading Jesus’ Passion—the cheery bit where he is betrayed, arrested, and crucified. We the church have always been given the role of the crowd, and our main line is, “Crucify him!” This is a terrible mistake.

As Cynthia Bourgeault wrote in a recent meditation, the Christian path is one of “acquiring [Jesus’] consciousness.” Not an easy task on the best of days but almost impossible when we’re taught to relate to the resurrection story as those responsible for Jesus’ death. He didn’t say, “Feel guilty forever for being sinful”; he said, “Follow me.”

That means follow me into the garden. Follow me when you’re facing something terrifying that you know is too big for you, when you’ve been betrayed, when your friends have fallen asleep and aren’t watching out for you, when you’re near death and know it. These common human experiences—I shared them with you. Do what I did. Put yourself in my place.

You probably don’t have to look beyond your circle of friends—perhaps beyond yourself—to find someone who is sweating blood right now. None of us knows what to do in those times.

Follow. Jesus prays. He says, “Thy will be done.” He doesn’t say it with equanimity. He doesn’t say it with great enthusiasm or even a shred of enthusiasm. It’s closer to, “Are you kidding me? Could we please do this any other way, take your pick? No? Are you sure? Well then, OK, I’m in.”

How much more in touch with the grace of our own suffering might we be if we experienced the Easter story from Jesus’ point of view? Maybe we would start to see, as he did, God’s presence in the midst of our suffering, not willing it, not causing it, but present with us as it happens.

Resurrection—the transformation of suffering into new life—comes from “Thy will be done.” We get to Easter through surrender. Not to the inevitability of suffering—though it may be inevitable—but to the reality of God’s grace and presence in every moment of our lives.

We have a fantastic teacher to show us the way. Let’s follow.

Don’t Whack, Wander

Last week, I had a vision of my life as a giant whack-a-mole game about the size of Texas. I lay splayed flat over the fake gopher holes trying with all my limbs to keep the little critters underground, but of course there was a slight problem of scale.

In other words, as always happens about halfway through Lent, I found myself thoroughly embroiled in exactly what I was attempting to give up: effort, which arises from attempting to control a situation, any situation.

Then I went on vacation and began to wonder whether our lives might be easier, more effortless, if we lived every day as if we were tourists. Wandering around downtown Minneapolis with no particular destination, I walked over a bridge and saw a train passing underneath. A flat car held what looked like giant, metal spools of thread. Another held what might be girders for a bridge somewhere down the line.

I can’t remember ever watching a cargo train pass from above before. It would never have occurred to me to schedule in this experience, and had that been an ordinary day, I probably would have walked right by, focused on making life match my expectations of it.

Not one of us can look back on our lives and say, yes, that all went exactly according to plan. I knew that if I whacked that gopher first, I could easily get the next three that were obviously going to pop up over there. So why do we insist on approaching our current and future lives as if we can clearly chart the path forward?

On my monitor at work, I have a blue sticky note with the poem “Fluent” by John O’Donohue:

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

Though it is often really, really hard, we can trust our own unfolding. Every river flows toward the sea. Our own destination—emptying into divinity—is just as certain.

There’s No Escape

A friend and I were talking about our limitations the other day, our differing resistances to God. While we both want to surrender to the spiritual stream like a leaf floating on the surface of the water, content to go where the current takes it, we see ourselves as fighting upstream or trying to stay rooted in the mud.

I think we missed the point, though. We’re not the leaf—we’re part of the flow. All of us are the current and the water molecules. We were seeking to surrender to something external when all that’s needed is to recognize our true nature. As Richard Rohr says, you are what you seek.

This is somehow, incomprehensibly true even when we are in full resistance mode. And I do mean incomprehensibly. How can we be the flow that is God on the days when we’re mean or self-centered or just plain crabby?

I don’t know, but it must be true: in God we live and move and have our being. That statement contains no qualifiers. Not “sometimes,” not “when we’re fully present,” not “when I’ve been so good I’m sure my third eye is going to open any minute.”

To claim that we’re not that flow is like saying, today, I choose not to be a carbon-based life form. Not gonna happen. Today, I choose to be separate from God. Sorry, not up to you.

Does this mean it doesn’t matter when we’re impatient or unkind? I ask questions like this a lot, but they’re kind of stupid. The people on the receiving end of our misery-making—including ourselves—can answer that question. Of course it matters. It’s just that there’s room in God for all of it, and when we see that none of our faults can change that, we’re more likely to say, with the Sufi poet Hafiz,

I do not want to touch any object in this world
Without my eyes testifying to the truth
That everything is
My Beloved.

Or perhaps when we get even more daring:

All I know is Love,
And I find my heart Infinite
And Everywhere!

Poems “Today” and an excerpt in the introduction from The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

A Push Stroke

There are a couple of certainties when my dad comes to visit: we will eat a lot of fish, and home improvement projects will be completed. Odds are also pretty good that we will go kayaking.

I was much more relaxed during this kayak trip than during the previous one with the death machines/motor boats, relaxed enough to think about my form. “It’s a push stroke,” Dad always says, meaning that to get the most power, I need to lean back against the seat, push against the foot pegs with my legs, and then, with all this support in place, push the paddle through the water using my back muscles.

When something terrifying is happening—for example, I can’t get the boat to turn around, which is really urgent because I’m in open, calm water with nothing around me—I do the opposite of this. I lean forward and try to pull the paddle harder through the water using my massive arm strength.

I do this in life as well. Rather than leaning into the Divine, I often decide that I need to attack whatever it is on my own. I don’t trust that when I lean back there will be any seat to hold me.

The problem is, I’m kind of puny, like the strength of my arms compared to that of my legs and back. I’m not going to move the kayak of my life very far by relying on myself.

It would be nice if God were out in front of us, visible, parting the Red Sea as he did for the Israelites (although, really, who was volunteering to take that first step?). But charging forward is most often not how we experience our connection to God, to the power that sustains and ultimately moves us. Richard Rohr would say we have to fall into God, to let go of being in control. Perhaps that journey can be as easy as leaning back with trust.

In which God and I Disagree about Surrender

Apparently it is not particularly effective to wake up and say, “Today, I will force myself to surrender to the Divine Presence in my life.” This approach, it turns out, is opposed to the whole surrendering gig. It is a little like saying, “Be happy or I will smash you.”

My approach to surrender has looked something like this:

God: I got this.

Me: OK, I’m going to do these five things to put myself in the right frame of mind so that you can get this.

God: But I already got it.

Me: Right, that’s why I have to do these five things—so you can get it.

This tightly controlled worthiness doesn’t seem to be exactly what we’re called to do.

Surrender, like every other gift in life, is not something we can earn. It is given or it is not, and the only thing we can do is create a space so that we can receive it when it comes. Creating space is not the same thing as doing it ourselves. Practice is good, but practicing with the aim of accomplishing any sort of goal is not so good, which is an annoying thing about the whole spiritual journey. I mean, what would a little bit of achievement thrown in here and there hurt?

Here in California, the first trees are starting to blossom. On campus, there are trees covered in flowers, and a hundred feet away there are trees with bare branches. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the bare-branched trees look at the flowering trees and start trying to form buds. They know enough to wait, and when it’s time, buds will form and then surrender to the beauty of full bloom.

Wave the White Flag

I love it when my friends tell me exactly what I need to hear and I actually listen. Sometimes I ignore or resist their good advice, but now and then, it goes straight in.

This week a friend and I were talking about how change happens in life. At a time when things were shifting for her, a friend of hers said, “Well, you’ve gone over it mentally every way you can for months. Now all you have to do is give up.” She asked, “How will I know when I’ve given up?” Her friend said, “That’s when it will change.”

Though I’ve spent plenty of time resisting this truth, it’s still true. I also think we’re on God’s time, and we’re unlikely to give up ahead of the universal roll-out schedule. We still need to practice, though, so when the time comes, we’re ready to do it.

The spiritual journey is so odd when considered with the same lens we use to do the grocery shopping or complete tasks at work. We can’t rush it, we’re not in charge, but if we don’t participate, it doesn’t work. Participation mostly means practicing giving up.

I am of course not the first person to say this. Teachers in every wisdom tradition have been saying it for a long time. God’s will, non-action, falling into grace—it’s all the same thing: we’ll only find what we’re searching for when we give up thinking we’ll get there by ourselves. It also helps to realize we don’t even know where there is.

We need to strike out in some direction that we think is right— another strange twist—we just shouldn’t get too attached to the destination we’ve chosen. Julia Cameron describes this in her book The Artist’s Way. She says we go out looking for apples and end up with oranges, only to discover that’s what we wanted all along. But we never would have happened upon the oranges without leaving the house in search of apples.

None of this to say I’m particularly good at giving up. That’s why I write myself reminders like this; that’s why we practice.