“Tell us again about the time you …” Fill in the blank. It all depended on who shouted loudest. “Tell us about when you started to bury your dog and it turned out he wasn’t dead and he jumped up and ran away!” “Tell us about the time you made Kool Aid out of crepe paper!” or my personal favorite “Tell us about the time you camped out all night at the recruiting station to sign up for the Army.”
To me, this was the best story ever because so many other stories derived from its stock. In my father’s case, the story of going off to war was the story of leaving teeny tiny Frost, Texas behind once and forever. It was the story of seeing the ocean for the first time, having clothes for winter and for summer that weren’t hand me downs and traveling across Europe, albeit on foot.
For a storyteller like my dad, enlisting that morning in the US Army was like getting the golden ticket to the world. Years later I asked him about it again. “You always made it sound so romantic,” I started. “I know it can’t have been.” Then I left him plenty of space to decide how to unburden himself. After some silence, he said: “Well, it turned out to be a little more walking than I’m comfortable with, but I got to see the world.”
“Go! You, go! Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the place where I will show you and there you will be a blessing.”
Like so many great adventure stories, the original patriarch’s story begins with Abram leaving home behind, and setting off toward an uncertain destination. This scenario is the ultimate adversarial condition to test a hero’s mettle – deal with people you don’t know, an unfamiliar landscape, and foreign customs. But, of course, the secret to the hero’s success is rarely that he or she succeeds against all odds as a singular sensation.
Instead, success comes from the degree to which our hero forges new alliances, learns the lay of the land, and becomes familiar with new ways of living in community. In other words, “success” might be understood as what life looks like when one has made a new home in a new place. In the big scheme of things the actual problem to be resolved may be as common to the new locale as it was in, well let’s just say, Frost, Texas.
But we somehow imagine that being in unfamiliar territory elevates ordinary problems to dragons of mythic proportions.
I don’t think you have to leave home to test your mettle or otherwise become a hero.
But, I do think that everyone eventually has to leave or otherwise abandon something in order to have both hands free to fight the dragons. And that means experiencing a sense of loss. Maybe, we have to leave behind the narrative we have allowed to characterize our lives and begin to write a new one that fits who we want to be, who we feel called to be and not who everyone imagines we are. The truth is that sometimes, getting far away is the only way that can happen. But, what about the parents Abram left behind?
Up until a couple weeks ago, I might not have thought much about this, but owing to a recent health crisis with one of my children, I’m curious about the folks who are left behind. Surely, God’s blessings can travel in different directions simultaneously.
Because of a medical condition going back to his birth, the independence that my youngest has enjoyed has been connected to his dependence on me, a situation which he wisely and appropriately decided to transfer to his fiancé. I’d like to tell you that the transition went smoothly. But it didn’t.
Even describing the transition is difficult. I first thought of it in terms of me “handing over the reins” but that implies that I volunteered, which I did not. It actually felt more like a palace coup than a natural transition.
“Go! You! Go!!”
The Hebrew could not be clearer when God tells Abram to leave home. The verbs are strong imperatives that basically scream “Run! Get out of there now!”
How’s this supposed to work when the people you are running from have been connected to you for your whole life, because they answered God’s call?
How can someone just start over? It’s almost like…
…well, it’s almost like being born again.
“Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things, and how they work?”
Uh…that’s correct. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to rejoice that I am no longer in the role I have held for four decades. And, frankly, I’m not sure how to disentangle my role from my relationship.
We can know so many things theoretically and be so ignorant when it comes to our actual lives. Perhaps you have experienced this phenomenon.
I talk to folks every day who have very fixed ideas about how something ought to be in certain circumstances until it happens to someone in their family or to them and then suddenly they are filled with various options for responding that frankly all come across as much more compassionate than their earlier fixed ideas.
For me, every cell in my body was screaming out that this transition was not making me happy although of course I didn’t use that line of reasoning with my son. I used instead language around how familiar I was with his situation and was it really wise to make this shift to someone who had only known him a few years.
“Run! You, run! Get out of there, now!”
So many times I have referred to a wonderful sensation as akin to feeling “born again” but now I was having second thoughts about this term as a metaphor for a good feeling. Being reborn really is starting over with the same person but all new assumptions and goals. And, the older I get, the more I think that rebirth may happen multiple times. So, in that moment when it felt like the wind had been knocked out of my heart, I considered my options.
First, I could dig in my heels as I almost did. Look here, I almost said, I have taken care of you this long and I can continue to. But, that’s not true. I have kept the title, but I am so far removed from my son in distance and technology that the metrics by which I once calculated his health have been replaced by different, more accurate metrics about which I know nothing. Besides being practically unhelpful, imagine the damage to the health of their marriage if the narrative continues to be that I must be involved in important decisions. Still, I could use my position and my subversive psychological knowledge about which buttons to push so that, for all practical purposes, I would remain in charge. Obviously, an absurdity.
Second, I could cross my arms and appear to agree to this on the surface but pout. Well, that’s just ridiculous. There was nothing for me to “agree” to and how helpful is it to pout? I learned early on that guilt does not motivate my children to do anything but get further away. Besides which, that still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
At the heart of the matter, I had to confess that when the transition occurred, I felt “judged” and “condemned.” I moved all the energy toward why I felt judged and became very defensive about my participation to date. It was nearly impossible for me to begin to see the transition as the necessary work in order to “save” my son, literally and emotionally.
The solution for how to change my perspective from “condemnation” to “salvation” came from the witness of someone right here in this congregation who had lived out her own story in such vulnerable terms that her example had imprinted itself on my heart and in my mind. Hers was a love story about caring for her fiancé in sickness and in health, fueled by a commitment that stretched into the unknown and uncertain future with boundless energy. Because of her story in my mind’s eye, it became possible for me to begin to rejoice, really rejoice, in the transition.
And so, for the first time in many years, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus seemed like a personal love note. None of these things are possible apart from God — not the capacity to walk away from the home you’ve always known or the courage to move toward an uncertain future. Nor is it possible, apart from God, to celebrate leave takings when they happen, especially if you’re not quite ready for them to occur.
During Lent, as we prepare ourselves through examination and self-denial to fully participate in the joys of the Resurrection, many of us will come up against those things that we simply do not feel we can live without – even for a short time – regardless of whether we are trying to let them go or trying to accept the fact that they are gone. I am not as concerned about someone feeling like they cannot live without chocolate as I am concerned about them being unable to imagine what life looks like if people or things or situations that they feel “belong” to them were to change.
Hopefully, we can hold each other in this safe space where Stuart’s “Aunt Rosie” collapsed, overwhelmed by life but finally coming to the church when it became too much for her to bear apart from the support of a loving community. The reason that a well-lived Lent helps us enjoy Easter isn’t that we finally get back what we gave up. It’s because we realize that, apart from the presence of the power of God in our lives, we live fearfully, clutching hold of things in a futile attempt to control events that are beyond our control, and unable to even imagine what blessings might flow in all directions when people step out – or step back – in faith.
Here is God’s promise. Jesus did not come among us to shame us, to mock our small-mindedness, or to otherwise “condemn” us. Jesus came among us because it was the only way to save us. And, for that truly to happen to us, we must be willing to be born again. “God is doing a new thing in us and asks us to do a new thing, as well. (The Rev. Stephen P. Gerhard’s personal “Commentary on the Readings for Lent 2 A, used by permission).” Whether leaving home to start a new home, or letting go of someone you love because it’s time, none of this can happen as it needs to happen apart from God’s prevenient grace that prepares the way for us to make these transitions.
And, for that grace, which abounds on every side, we give thanks to God.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
March 12, 2017