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Posts tagged ‘John Bunyan’

Rising and Falling

I have made a new friend this summer. Ok, I haven’t actually met her in person, but she has been open, honest and wise with me, sharing lessons from a difficult life. She is writer Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me which I began to review in an earlier blogpost.

In pondering the theme of my next blogpost, a phrase from her book has stayed with me in recent days. She quotes a desert monk from the 3rd century who told his disciple,

Brother, the monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down, I rise up and I all down. I rise up and I fall down.

This quote reflects one of the lessons I am learning this summer. Those who know me know that I am prone to perfectionism. This tendency to need to get everything right has given me (and no doubt others) much grief in life. People frequently tell me that I’m too hard on myself, something I know all too well, but I catch myself at it all the time. Like an addiction, I don’t know how not to do it without a Higher Power. How do I give up trying to get it right, and the larger problem behind it of wanting to be seen as a “good person”?

Norris’ book has reminded me that I’m not alone in my struggles. She writes of facing many struggles: her husband’s illness and death, and her own tendency towards depression and perfectionism. She has reminded me that the true failure is not in having struggles common to everyone. The real failure is forgetting that God is with us amid them.

321e4bbc08c97370010f78258e54e998This summer, I’ve had to do a bit of climbing out of what John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress calls the “slough of despond”. With health and emotional issues in the spring, I felt I’d lost the battle to “get it right” as grouchiness and a sense of despair gripped me, and was left with a sense of underlying depression. As I’ve sat with it in prayer, in talking with friends and in my reading, I’ve realized God has been speaking to me in my time of perceived failure, reminding me that like the old childhood game of Ring Around the Rosie says, “we all fall down”, and that, by God’s incredible mercy, we all rise up as well. The monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down.

You might be thinking this is pretty obvious, and I agree. The teaching is not new to me, but in the application of it, I think I am a total beginner. The question is, have I accepted God’s love of me as I am, warts and all? As the new school year approaches, can I learn to live in whatever each moment has for me, whether rising or falling, and learn contentment? I feel a stirring of hope in me lately that God is digging these lessons more deeply. And as the 13th century poet and mystic Rumi wrote, the invitation never ends:

“Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn’t matter
Come, come yet again, come”

Back in early May, Lyle and I went to Minneapolis for a weekend. We had a great time, but the congested cold I had combined with an airplane ride left me with stuffed ears, a condition called barotrauma. It’s been 13 weeks, and while it is slowly healing, I am still living with this weird symptom.

As I’ve been considering the lessons God is teaching me, I have to confess that my inner ears have been

plugged as well. God was speaking all along but I was so caught up with falling that I didn’t hear God’s invitation; God’s reminder that falling doesn’t matter. What matters is walking into the future with trust that God is in every rise and fall, forgiving our stumbles even before we know they’ve happened.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Psalm 121:5-6

Picture from vladstudio.com

Picture from vladstudio.com

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I don’t know about other teachers, but Mondays are usually a tougher day at work. Come to think of it, I guess Monday’s are usually difficult for just about anyone heading back to their routines, whether school or work. No more sleeping in or “free” time. Schedules, lessons and the tasks of self-extension beckon once again.

I’m not immune to the Monday morning blues, and I don’t even have a difficult home situation to cope with like some of my students. Even so, I am often exhausted by day’s end and this Monday was no different. In the evening, I had decided to work on my questions for our Wednesday night study. I’d sat down with my cup of coffee but my mind was a whirlpool. While I was trying to focus, a stream of consciousness movie played in my head but it was the heavy heart that was the most distracting. Where was the off switch to my mood?!

These types of moods always seem so convincing, as if they are a permanent state of mind, and I tried to focus. Luckily, my environment was quiet and I had the house to myself but I was squirming. It felt like the waves ruffling my surface would never settle. I took a few (ok more than a few) deep breaths and tried to bracket these alarmist feelings. I’d given myself an hour before I needed to turn to my school work.

Slowly, as I concentrated on the content of the questions, the negative turmoil lessened and I was surprised by the end of the hour that I was a lot more settled and at peace. Focusing on the scripture for Wednesday had been really helpful, turning my attention on to something much more life-giving. I was delivered! It was such a turn-around that I found myself wondering whether it’d be the God-experience of the week.

I learned a valuable lesson that Monday night. Reflecting on it later, I realized it was exactly the type of choice I often have to make. My thoughts went back to the day before and the sermon we’d heard and talked about at our Sunday morning.

The scripture for the service was the story of the rich young ruler. He had asked Jesus what he could do to be saved. Jesus told him to follow the

“What must I do to be saved?”

commandments but like me on Monday night, the man was still restless. “I’ve done all that, what else can I do?” Jesus looked at him lovingly and told him to give away everything he had to the poor and to come follow HIm. The rich young ruler walked away sadly, unwilling to take that radical step.

After the homily, we were asked to reflect on the question, “What is Jesus asking us to give away?” People talked about various things that have become precious – time, doing things right, projects, status, relationships. These are all things that are not bad in themselves, like the ruler’s riches, but when they become all consuming, we are prevented from following God in freedom and single-focus.

The “precious commodity” that kept coming back to me was “emotions”. I give way too much authority to them when they are turbulent and I know deep inside that I get addicted to a 9-1-1 emotional buzz. I added my prayer to everyone else’s that Sunday morning, asking for help to keep my focus on God and not on lesser things.

Long ago, maybe 22 years now, Lyle and I were going to Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, an inner city church that became the precursor to Watershed, our present day house church. Its pastor was our present pastor, Paul Patterson. Paul has led us on many fantastic studies over the years. His love of God and love of learning have left our lives vastly richer as we’ve dived into his courses, which evoke not just the head but the heart as well.

After my Monday night experience, my thoughts went back to a study we did of an old Christian Classic called Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Published in 1678 when Bunyan was in prison, it has been almost as popular as the Bible. It has never been out of print and has been published in more than 200 languages. Not bad for a guy in prison who was often tortured by fearful visions and mental turmoil.

The main character in the story is Christian, who is making a journey to heaven. Along the way, he meets with many dangers and traps which of course are metaphors for the struggles we all encounter.

“On the right, there lay a very deep ditch, into which many had fallen in all ages, and perished miserably. On the left there lay a marsh so dangerous that even a good man, if he were sucked in, was never seen again.” -John Bunyan

One picture remains as one of the most vivid memories of the study so long ago. In this scene, Christian has to walk a narrow path. On either side of him are deep gorges which would spell his death if he took one misstep. I remember what Paul taught us about this picture at the time. He said that we have to walk between emotionalism and rationalism, being careful to stay to the path God has given us to walk.

James Gillray, Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis (1793)

Walking carefully between two evils is an old idea. We talk of being “on the horns of a dilemma”, of being stuck “between a rock and a hard place” or “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. I’m told all these expressions go even further back to Greek mythology, where sailors would have to navigate between two treacherous sea hazards, a rock and a whirlpool. These became known as the sea monsters “Scylla and Charybdis”. Located in the waters of Italy and Sicily, a sailor would have tough decisions to make. Avoiding one would mean getting too close to the other and vice versa.

I don’t know about you, but I find this image incredibly helpful. Steering our way safely through multiple things that can harm us sounds like daily life to me. I am more prone to emotionalism, but I can also become overly rational if I try to “think” my way through my problems, which I am hopelessly poor at. Most times if I am in trouble, I can’t even think my way out of a paper bag! Either way, I can’t win.

A third way is needed, and to me, this is perfectly symbolized by the narrow path that Christian teeters on in Bunyan’s story. In the story about the rich young ruler, Jesus tells his listeners that it is as hard as a camel walking through the eye of a needle. They are all astonished and ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?!” Jesus told them, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

I desire to stay on God’s path but I know I can’t do it on my own strength. The only thing that has ever seemed to work is placing my trust in something, or Someone, who I can’t see, asking for help as I navigate through the often churning waters. The only choice before me is to bring my will there, and I don’t think I can even do that by myself!

But I remember the verse, that all things are possible with God. Daily I find that I am never left alone, and that a third way is possible with God. I am so grateful for this path and the friends I find who are walking along with me, reminding me to stay steady.

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