Throughout the month of May, we are focusing on the theme of “embracing life.” Though this may sound at first like a self-evident and even easy path, we realise something quite different when we look closer and remember the challenges that come along with life’s gifts – the thorns lurking behind the rose’s beautiful petals. To gain the beauty, we must risk the pain. Can we embrace life? Can we embrace it all, with everything it offers, both wondrous and terrible?
We began by talking about embracing work on the first Sunday of the month and we talked about the ways in which work can enrich or demean our lives – and how the way we approach it can make a difference. Last week, we talked about embracing love, and why – although it’s essential to happiness for ourselves and others – it’s not nearly as easy as it seems.
Today, we turn our attention to those times in life that we generally do not welcome – the struggles and hardships we encounter as we live our lives. Life is anything but a straightforward journey toward happiness and satisfaction. Along the way, there are obstructions and obstacles of all kinds. Sometimes, we overcome those obstacles. Sometimes, we need to find a new path or a new dream. Sometimes, we have to admit defeat.
Lately, I’ve taken on a new challenge. I am trying to learn to play guitar. I actually took lessons when I was young, but never got very far. [I don’t know why I didn’t become a virtuoso guitarist, but I have heard that it can be helpful to practice?] In any case, I now really want to make some progress. So, I’ve been working at it.
And you know what? It’s really hard work! Progress doesn’t come as quickly as I’d like. My fingertips are sore. The sounds that come out of the guitar are nothing like I’d hoped. I can’t find the chord positions. I can’t find the strings when I want to.
The last time I tried to learn to play an instrument, I rather quickly gave up in disgust. It turns out the clarinet is not nearly as easy as it looks.
I think every once in a while of pulling it back out of the closet, but it hasn’t seen the light of the British sky even once yet!
But I don’t want to quit guitar – at least not yet. Can I make progress? Is this struggle worth it?
How do we know when it’s time to give up? How do we know when it’s time to try a new approach to an old obstacle or to set a new and different goal?
Keeping at it is not just for stubborn people, of course. It’s not just about banging your head against the wall and doing the same old thing that has never worked before.
Sometimes progress is just around the corner. Sometimes, a change in strategy is what’s needed. Maybe a teacher can point out where I’m going wrong and help toward a more productive direction.
Now, I know that challenges with musical instruments are trivial in the grand scheme of things. I know that many of you have gone through much more serious struggles, as have I. Some of you are facing such struggles even today.
Some of the questions are the same though, whether regardless of the size of the challenge and its importance in the course of our lives.
When do you give up on a relationship and when do you keep working at it? When do you give up on a job? When do you keep trying to please your boss? When do you give up on a failing congregation? When do you pull out the sick plant and get a new one? When do you put your beloved and ailing pet to sleep and when do you go back to the vet for more treatments?
How much faith and hope is healthy? How much is delusional and self-destructive?
Of course, there can be no easy answers to these questions. They can be terribly hard. You can rarely know for certain whether there is hope for a turn-around or an improvement.
These questions are made that much harder though by the fact that, when in the midst of struggle, we can often lose sight of what is really happening. I think of the number of times I’ve tried to do some DIY job with the wrong tools – so often, a change of approach can change everything if we can step back long enough to gain some clarity.
Often, we know more than we think we do, but that wisdom can become trapped by our focus on “doing” and the feeling we must keep at it, or it may be blocked from our awareness by painful experiences from our past.
But one of the most powerful things I know is that – in a community where you can be honest and open – in a community where you can be truly and deeply heard - it is possible to find wisdom that is within you but that you have been unable to see.
In the face of challenge and uncertainty, the Quakers sometimes use a process called a clearness committee. That name reflects the fact that the goal is to help find clarity in finding the answer within rather than seeking outside answers.
The clearness committee consists of a number of trusted people. They give no advice. They ask honest, open questions and, more often than not, wisdom you did not know you held emerges.
Another important thing to remember is that we can learn and grow from adversity. We can. We do not always. When struggle is crushing us, destroying our spirit, harming our health, we have to know it is time to give up. Those who say “it’s your cross to bear” sometimes seem to forget where that story leads.
But my tender fingertips are a sign of effort and I know that this pain is leading to a toughening and strengthening that will eventually help me. We can also grow through our more serious struggles. We can learn patience and confidence in working with a difficult boss. We can grow in compassion in response to a troubled relationship.
Wendell Berry writes “the impeded stream is the one that sings,” He tells us that we may come to our real work and our real journey when we are baffled and obstructed.
Consider that for a moment. What have been the great turning points in your life? What made you stronger and more capable? What gave you creativity and compassion?
In my own life, a pivotal growing point was the terrible experience getting sacked from a job by a man who I thought was a friend. It didn’t feel good at the time, but eventually, it led me here. I would not have invited that awful day by any means, but I know that it eventually changed my life for the better because of the opportunities it opened and the way I began to think differently.
Our second reading today was about depression. Depression is both a struggle in itself and it is can also be a response to the struggles of our life.
Many of you have been there – enough so that we are starting a depression support group.
I’ve been there too. There have been times in my life when I couldn’t get out of bed – when facing the world seemed more than I could manage – much less embracing that world! There have been times when I thought that I couldn’t possibly bear to be in my own skin for one more minute. There have been times when - if I had the means and had not thought about how much it would hurt others - I would have rushed to take my own life.
I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I did not give up at those times. With help, I struggled out of the tomb of depression to find that life still had beautiful and wonderful things to offer me. I returned from rejecting my life as miserable and worthless to embracing it as full of possibility.
There is something powerful in Parker Palmer’s description of his struggle with depression. He does not talk about recovery from depression as being a process of cheering up and getting over it. In fact, the people who tried to cheer him up were the ones he found least helpful.
Instead, Palmer talks about depression as an irresistible force that forced him down to the ground – and his recovery only began when he accepted that down was the direction he needed to go. His recovery could only happen by passing through the darkness and in his encounter with the monsters of his own soul. Recovery would not happen by moving upward through cheerful thoughts. It happened when he embraced the monsters.
Parker Palmer did not soften in depression’s heat like the cooked carrot in our story. He did not harden to fend off and keep out the world like an egg hardens when boiled. Instead, he engaged in a process of change that changed him, changed his situation, and helped to change the world around him.
Of course, it was not as easy as a coffee bean changing the water around it. Transformation never is!
Transformation is hard and painful and terrifying.
That’s why something best done accompanied by those who love us. Although no one can embrace our monsters for us, our strength is replenished by the love that reminds us of our essential goodness – the love that tells us we are worthy – the love that ensures we are not alone.
The source of love may be your God. It may be your community. It may be both. In this place, what some of us call God is present between and within us. Whatever we understand by the word, I hope that we understand that sacred dimension of life is something we ourselves can elicit and bring into presence among us.
Let us embrace our struggles. Let us embrace them for the strength they bring us. Let us embrace them because our worth is too great to give up on. Let us embrace them to be transformed.
We close with the words that have become well-known through 12-step programmes as “the serenity prayer” – words that were adapted from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and which I have now adapted further.
May we have the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things we can,
Wisdom to know the difference
And may we grow in strength and wholeness from the struggle