As I intimated in my last couple of post, I’ve been going through a down patch, experiencing some discouragement and burnout. In our pre-deployment training, we had lectures and sessions on this, and they were helpful, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s a little tough to see an obvious escape route.
One belief in Christianity is that we often get in the way of our own relationship with God. The image is one of a door, with you on one side and Christ on the other. He’s knocking to come in, but the door only has a handle on your side: God’s side of the door is blank. We often shut the door, and then complain bitterly that God is absent, or doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care. God is always present, waiting for us to open the door, but it doesn’t work if we close the door, close off the relationship.
Reaching for that handle, opening the door, re-establishing relationship with our creator, can be difficult. Difficult not because it requires knowledge of a certain denomination, or sacrificial practice of an esoteric spiritual discipline. Difficult not because the key to that door belongs to a certain sect, and not because one needs a mantra or wisdom from a gnome-like guru sitting cross legged in his mountain cave, or in his palace in Rome.
The opening of that door is difficult, because to grasp the handle, we must let go of what we’re holding on to.
From the Gospel of Mark:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”…
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
I don’t think this passage was meant to say that everyone is supposed to go out and sell everything and give it to the poor. If you look carefully, an unusual sentence is inserted into the passage: “Jesus looked at him, and loved him.” In his day, Jesus was a hugely popular and controversial figure. He attracted crowds of thousands wherever he went. But over and over again in the Gospels, we see Jesus as very “one on one.” On only a few occasions does he address large groups of people. Rather, he spent three years wandering around from town to town, engaging individuals deeply. Touching lepers, dining with people we might despise, confronting the possessed, really “hands on”.
And in this particular circumstance, he stops, looks at this rich young man, looks into his soul,and sees what is preventing this particular person from experiencing God. In this particular instance, this man cannot reach up and open the latch on the door because he is clinging tightly to his wealth.
The current Roman Catholic Pope Francis is a rock star. The press loves him, mainly because he embraces humility, poverty, and authenticity, over the trappings of his office. There was a recent flurry of concern over his comments on yoga! Is the Pope yogaphobic? Is he prohibiting Christians from using yoga for core strength or to get those six pack abs? If you take the time to look at what he said, you’ll find this non-controversial statement: “You can take a million catechetical courses, a million courses in spirituality, a million courses in yoga, Zen and all these things. But all of this will never be able to give you freedom”. The Pope tells us that only the Holy Spirit can “move the heart” and make it “docile to the Lord, docile to the freedom of love”. If we are seeking a zen-like peace from yoga meditation, or wealth, or security, then we are seeking peace from the wrong source.
So the supposed papal statement on yogaphobia also includes a warning that Catholic theology classes (catechetical courses) aren’t the way to go! It turns out that the path to peace in your heart is just letting that door open, and experiencing God directly. But again, to do that, you have to put down what you’re grasping.
One of the great poet-sages of our time, Neil Young, captures this pretty well:
Workin’ hard every day
Never notice how
the time slips away
People come, seasons go
We got something
that’ll never grow old.
I don’t care
if the sun don’t shine
And the rain keeps pouring
down on me and mine
‘Cause our kind of love
never seems to get old
It’s better than silver and gold.
I used to have a treasure chest
Got so heavy that I had to rest
I let it slip away from me
Didn’t need it anyway
so I let it slip away.
I don’t know what Neil Young’s spiritual beliefs are, but his song “Silver and Gold” captures exactly the same point. Holding on to wealth, pride, security, pain, whatever is in our “treasure chest”, gets very tiring. It’s okay to rest, put down whatever you’re holding on to so tightly, and reach up for the handle on the door.
So I think the Pope and Neil Young would agree: if what you seek is peace, no amount of striving can get you there. If you’re burned out and discouraged, trying harder, working harder, wishing people would just see your vision and fall in line, just isn’t going to put you on your zen mountaintop.
One of the advantages of living in a village in Africa is that you can get away from people pretty quickly. Yesterday afternoon, I was in such a black hole that I couldn’t stand myself. I put on my running shoes, and within five minutes of old man shuffle, was on a muddy twisty mountain road with dense bush on all sides.
This is a great place to talk with God without looking like a crazy person. No one to judge you but baboons. I shouted, I pleaded, I got angry, I let Him know exactly what I thought about my current situation. But the door was firmly shut. He was nowhere to be found. Great.
Just when I need Him, He’s either not paying attention, doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist.
The only thing listening were the baboons, and they had nothing helpful to contribute.
I expected to come back from that run rejuvenated and energized. After all, I had done my part, I had “gone to the mountaintop”, spent some quality time with God. It was time for him to do his part. So why did I still feel so black?
Last evening, we had a dinner engagement at our house with some of my favorite people in Kijabe. Chege is one of our senior trainees, and his wife Evalyn is a nurse in the operating theatres. They have a beautiful four year old boy named Nimwell. They are gentle, loving, kind, amazing people. Chege is in the middle of a spine surgery fellowship in Egypt, and so hasn’t seen his family in a couple of months. He’s spending a short break back here in Kijabe, and they were good enough to agree to have dinner with us.
We had a great dinner of Irish stew and mashed potatoes, which, it turns out, is very similar to Kikuyu cooking. No surprise that mashed potatoes and beef with gravy are everyone’s comfort food. Great conversation, hilarious stories, just one of those nights of fun and relaxing relationship. As we stood up to say our good-byes, Chege asked if he could pray briefly.
I’ve heard Chege pray and preach before, and he is a gifted speaker. But he was moved at this moment to pray for me, to encourage me, to lift me up, to allow me to let go of my treasure chest of pride and insult.
As he prayed, I could feel the anger, resentment, burnout, begin to melt. I went to bed, and woke up this morning, with the blackness gone, and the enthusiasm and energy returning.
I don’t pretend to understand how prayer works. I don’t know how Chege knew that I needed prayer to help me let go of my treasure chest. Theologians could debate paradoxes and mysteries for lifetimes. But like this laptop, I don’t need to know how it works. I’m just glad that it does.
I’m heading off on an outreach trip tomorrow, and I wasn’t sure how that was going to work. The travel, cross-cultural setting, and security measures are all exhausting. To head into that week depleted looked like a recipe for disaster, and I had contemplated a last-minute cancellation, knowing how disruptive that would be.
But I think that all had to do with what I was holding on to. And I think my friend Chege saw how firmly I was holding that door closed. His prayer helped me to just let go of what was bothering me, quit taking myself so seriously, and see the beauty around me. We hold on so tightly to the chains that bind us, hold on so tightly to what we treasure. Too often, the peace we seek is right in front of us, but we refuse to accept it. If you think that might be true in your current setting, I encourage you to pray, find someone to pray for you, let go of your treasure chest, and see what happens when that door opens.