A reflection on the Proper 10A: Genesis 25:19-34, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski
Joan Chittister is a renowned Benedictine nun, an author of 35 or 40 books and an international lecturer on topics concerning women, the poor, peace and justice, and contemporary issues in church and society. She begins one of her books titled, “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” with these words:
“Life is a series of lessons, some of them obvious, some of them not. We learn as we go that dreams end, that plans get changed, that promises get broken, that our idols can disappoint us. We learn that there is such a thing as human support and there is also such a thing as paralyzing isolation. We learn that life is a balancing act lived between poles of unreasonable hope on one hand and disheartening disquiet on the other. We learn these things but we do not always understand them…..I know that there is no such thing as life without struggle. I have met it…from one end of life to the other. Over and over again the foundations of life have shifted and slid away from me, sometimes changing the mental landscape only a little, other times shattering every given I’ve ever assumed into a kaleidoscope of pain. I have come through the death of loved ones, debilitating illness, life-shaping disappointment…no one escapes the soul-wrenching experiences that stretch the mind but threaten to calcify the spirit.” (Page 1-2)
In this book she goes on to articulate what she sees as the process of moving through struggle in such a way that it leads to a life transformed by hope. And from the struggle and the hope come nine gifts.
The premise is that all people suffer. Each of us has as this one common denominator in life, times of suffering. They come she says, just when we think life is perfect. Wham. Everything changes. Someone dies. Someone get sick. Depression hits. A job is lost. The list could continue on. We all suffer when life changes dramatically for unexpected reasons when we least expect it. These struggles are not just some mere inconvenience. These struggles are irreparable change. Life will never be the same again.
And the point is, how do we go about living through these times of great suffering with out giving up the soul?
She lists 9 struggles and the gift that comes from the struggle. By gift she means what we learn about ourselves, our lives, our faith, by living through the struggle.
The first struggle is change. Struggle brings unwanted change.
Jacob and Esau struggle. They are the paradigm of conflict and competition between humans. Jacob, the younger steals the family inheritance from Esau the older, a classic story of betrayal. Later Jesus speaks of the struggle we all go through just trying to live life and the effect that “struggling” has on our spiritual lives. Jesus gives us examples from gardening saying we can live lives that are rocky, thorny, busy or trod upon by others…in other words our lives can seem to be the least likely places for hope and therefore faith to grow. But, Jesus reminds us, that doesn’t mean that hope is gone and faith lost.
The second struggle is isolation. The struggle leaves us feeling alone, and in deep pain. From isolation comes the gift of independence. The point is NOT that we become independent from other people…we become independent from the isolation and pain of struggle and suffering. Actively working to move through our suffering leads us to a place where we can become independent from our pain, we learn to insist on living despite the pain. Anyone who has lived with a chronic illness or suffered for a long time knows this reality. Buddhists call this “mindfulness” having an observing eye, able to look with some detachment at the circumstances of one’s life even as one lives and feels life fully.
The third is darkness and its gift is faith. In the darkness of losing everything we come to believe in a life beyond the life we know, something greater than we are is acting in the world. On our darkest days it’s that something that gets us up in the morning. God stays with us in these dark moments.
Forth is fear. In our struggle we face things we do not understand and cannot name. We are paralyzed by our unknowing, but in moving through the fear we come to know the gift of courage. Every tiny act of courage: getting out of bed in the morning. Going to work each day. Seeking help. Each step we take to move through the fear produces in us a little bit of courage. Each little step reconnects us to our lives, even if on a small scale.
Fifth is powerlessness and its gift of surrender. When we move through struggle, eventually a healthy response means we give into the struggle. We give in because we know that someone is there to help us. It is not defensive. It is a giving over of the self. It is not an absence of self. Rather this surrender is trusting that someone is there to hold us up and keep us going. For Christians this is clearly the message of God’s love poured out in Christ. We sing, Christ beneath us, Christ above us, Christ behind us, Christ before us…where ever we go Christ is there.
Sixth is vulnerability and its gift of self acceptance. In moving through the struggle we come to a place where we have to admit that we are wounded. We need to accept our own weaknesses. And in this case our weakness becomes our strength. We are able to accept ourselves for being who are. This becomes a position of humility and grace. We know that God loves us in our brokenness, just as we are. Being loved like this by a gracious God enables us to love others just as they are.
Seventh is exhaustion – moving through struggle wears us out. But the gift of moving through struggle, of living though the exhaustion, we find the gift is endurance. We learn that life begins again. Endurance brings us hope.
Eighth is scarring. We cannot move through struggle without becoming scarred. Our woundedness leaves marks on us. These marks can make us bitter. Or they can make us better. We can become better people through our struggles. The very process of moving
through the struggle, of becoming scarred, is the same process that makes us better people. Our woundedness, our scars, become the source of our compassion. We wear our scars gracefully when we have compassion for others.
The gift of scarring is hope – that is the message of the resurrection – the message of our Christian faith, the message of scripture readings today.
We cannot go through the struggles of this life and remain the same. Struggle changes us. But these changes are not forced upon us as if we are victims, we have choices. For instance we can choose to become bitter. That is one kind of choice and change that can come from struggle. But we have many choices. That is what Chittister’s book and our scripture readings point us to understand. We have many choices.
Jacob gave Esau a choice between his birthright, his inheritance as the first born son, or food. Esau chose food and Jacob got the birthright. But along with gaining that duplicitous birthright Jacob got a whole lot of struggle, something we’ll hear more of next week. Esau on the other hand ended up OK. God stayed with him and he grew into a wealthy happy man. But, also, God stayed with Jacob, leading him to a place where he too became a happy wealthy man, but only after a lot of struggle. In both their lives God was present—guiding them toward transformation, aiming for what was best for the each of them, given their personal potential, and as a result ultimately what was best for the world as God’s creation.
Our gospel reading reminds us about choices we make by pointing out that no matter where we are in our lives, whether we are busy, or living on rocky spiritual terrain, or sticking it out through thorny times, the Word of God comes to us. And, if we make a choice like Esau made, one that would seem to go against the “will” of God these readings stand to remind us that God goes with us in our choices.
I guess that means there is never one “right” choice to make, never one choice that will seal our fate forever. There are always many choices, many possibilities, and each choice carries within the possibility of transformation, the kind of transformation that God offers in the ongoing creative living action of God being a real part of our lives. For example Esau’s story reminds us that if we make a decision that seems to be a “mistake” it might just be the decision that enables someone else to find their potential. Regardless, God goes with us in the decision and continues to work toward what is ultimately God’s desire for us and for the world.
Like our scripture readings today, Chittisters’ reflection on being scarred by struggle, transformed by hope helps us understand what can happen when we move through our struggles and stay connect to our faith. This book and these readings point us in a direction toward God. In this direction we can choose to not be bitter. Instead, we can choose to trust that in the depth of all our pain God is there, AND somehow, some way, God will lead us through. We may come out scarred but we’ll be filled with hope.
(In addition to Joan Chittister this reflection was influenced by The Rev. Dr. Jeanyne Slettom from the Process & Faith Blog: http://www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/YearA/2007-2008/2008-07-13.shtml. )