It would be a very brave person to say that grief is desirable. Such thinking is anathema to the “feel good” world in which we live. The idea that suffering is not something that we should avoid at all cost, borders on the absurd in our success/merit-based society. In our thinking, suffering is the symptom of failure, injustice, inequity or weakness; those who suffer deserve our pity, right? Or, if we believe that their suffering is self-created, they should surely receive our derision and pity.
For me, being in suffering has afforded a most wonderful change of perspective.
From even before Ngaire died, I found myself in a world where I became aware of people beginning to make decisions based around my and my family’s well being. Kindness, love, consideration and thoughtfulness towards us, was something that grew to be normal; and I had to learn to receive it, which is not all that easy.
Because of that, I have in many ways discovered greater levels of intimacy than I have really known before: I am experiencing richer and stronger bonds in my relationships with my boys; likewise, in a number of my friendships, I am enjoying a level of loyalty and inter-commitment that I once only theorised about. I have realised the potency and beauty of being a part of a small but vital, loving community.
I am not convinced that I would have had my heart open to receive in quite the same way, if I had not been on the “way of grief.”
Growing up and living in a world that rewards achievement and places value in all kinds of social status, means that we learn what is and isn’t acceptable socially; accordingly, receiving from others is not something that many of us do well.
Yet, for those of us who follow Jesus, it is what we must do. If we don’t, then our beliefs will lead us deeper and deeper into a morass of self-defeating efforts to be good enough, which will eventually destroy us or at best, leave us jaded and bitter.
Grace is not something we can earn; it is a state in which we must simply be.
In spite of the fact that most Christians may say amen to that, over the considerable number of years that I have been a member of this “club”, I have observed a different reality.
I am reminded of something that I read the other day, written by Richard Rohr:
“Switching to an “economy of grace” from our usual “economy of merit” is very hard for humans, very hard indeed. We naturally base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value, appearance, or worthiness of some sort—it can be called “meritocracy” (the rule of merit). Unless we experience a dramatic and personal breaking of the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit, it is almost impossible to disbelieve or operate outside of its rigid logic. This cannot happen theoretically, abstractly, or somehow “out there.” It must happen to me.”
There’s a point – “the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit” – a system that we adhere to and perpetuate.
Go to any party and what’s the first thing that we will say to someone that we’re meeting for the first time?
“So, what do you do?”
It’s a question that helps us identify where this person fits within our cultural context – their worthiness, if you like.
Sadly, in many churches, it’s not all that different. Go to any Sunday service and may well have a similar context for a visitor to our gathering. It may be the same question, using the same value system, or we may frame it differently. We may say, “So where do you fellowship?”
Their response will let us know whether their cultural framework approximates ours, and therefore, whether or not they “fit” with our value system.
If what they think is nothing like how we do things at Happy Town Church, then we’ll probably politely show them where the tea and coffee is, and move on.
It’s quite normal and the same everywhere in society. Our friends and those with whom we like to surround ourselves, generally think like us and are usually in a similar socio-economic group.
We build sanctuaries of like-mindedness and create frameworks of exclusion, which by their very nature don’t allow us to truly receive or give. We may even truly believe that we are “saving the lost”, when all we are really doing (as we did to ourselves) is make people fit into a cultural framework that gives them a sense of value. The more that we “do” to fit into this framework – meetings, small groups, committees, etc – the more value we have. Sadly, those who aren’t prepared to fit this framework are often viewed as fringe-dwellers who are not really “walking with the Lord.”
We shape our beliefs to fit what we want our lives to be. We have made theologies out of how God wants us to be happy, prosperous and comfortable. We shape “mantras” that help us to get handles on God, so that he can fit into our lives and therefore, we can have the lives that we want.
But, in all of this following of our dreams, at the back of our minds is the ache that maybe this isn’t how it was meant to be.
Jesus said things completely contrary to that, things like:
“In this world you will have trouble.”
“Whoever loses his life, will find it.”
“He who would be greatest, must serve.”
From my not-too-distant past, I can tell you how we Christians spin interpretations on those very confronting words of Jesus’, so that we become “faith-filled overcomers” of our situations, thinking that it is the outcome of success for us that is the proof of what we believe. It becomes a lifestyle of denial that doesn’t allow that pain and suffering is anything but bad, never allowing us the freedom simply to be, to feel, to love, and to be loved. It is a theology that equates “successful” faith as that which fulfills my dreams – one that is no longer centred around God’s purpose of oneness and unity, but around the needs of my ego – which is the opposite. Somehow we have written theologies that pretty well say, “God wants me to be happy”, when maybe God really just wants me to be real – that in the Universe there is everything from the budding of a flower to the catastrophic destruction caused by a supernova, vaporising millions of worlds in an instant; my dreams need to be understood in that context.
Of course, the God-wants-me-to-be-happy theology can never work, so our lives become more and more a search for which speaker might approximate the truth more closely to how we feel at any given time; which “teaching” dangles the carrot that is a little sweeter from our point of view. We may tarry for a while at those places which call us up to a “higher place”, then move on to another conference, a deeper understanding – all the while feeling inside that there must be a magical ring, the key that will unlock the secret – never realising that God is in all life, not just the good bits.
He is in that which we deny, as much as that which we pursue, the prayers that are unanswered as much as those that are, the people with whom we disagree, as much as those whom we worship….
So now I find myself in a place that is one of rest, where it is possible to hold the good and the bad in balance, only attempting to change that which is naturally altered by love, though I confess to being far from competent in that. My litmus test is my behaviour when in traffic and so far I’m not doing all that well!
What I have learned is what I may have touched on before; that most of our attempts at theology are about us trying to get a handle on the God who refuses a handle. Life will always throw something up to break our perfect mould.
Maybe these are the ravings of someone who has been hurt and is reacting negatively; or maybe God is infinitely bigger than the tiny box in which I had him; or maybe this is what the mystics call the second half of life. As Richard Rohr says of the spiritual journey of the second half of life:
“Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have—right now. This is a monumental change from the first half of life…holding life’s sadness and joy is its own reward, its own satisfaction, and your best and truest gift to the world.
“Strangely, all of life’s problems, dilemmas, and difficulties are now resolved…by falling into the good, the true, and the beautiful—by falling into God.” *
* From Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – Richard Rohr