Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 25, 2009

Grief & Grace: “Remain Calm. We’ll Arrive in the Promised Land Shortly”

Part 2 in a 7-Part Series on Spirituality, Self-Image & World Religions

It takes a great deal of grace (or lots of therapy, or superior spiritual training, or better parenting) to let the truth of life’s brokenness sink in, way down deep. It takes guts to grieve, to not ignore those tiny daily deaths. And then it takes faith to not let the grief overwhelm you.

“The grass withers, the flowers fall, but my word will never pass away,” says God.

He says this first in Isaiah 40:8, then again through St. Peter in 1Peter 1:23-25… where Peter also reminds us of the need to be “born again”. In fact, we actually need to be re-born with great frequency, again and again, because like the grass, we too tend to wither. Sin and Satan (however you conceive him/it) just keeps on coming, chipping away at God’s work in our lives and in our world.  We forget God’s eternal “word”, which we thought we had learned. Or else we don’t act on it. Failure always lurks. Death happens.

But there is always hope, when the Holy Spirit is within us to help us make a change. To be “reborn” like this every day, we aspire to a new way of seeing our surroundings and circumstances. We can grow into a basic trust in the beauty and benevolence (or at least the neutrality) of God’s Creation, of reality. We grieve over the presence of sin in the world, but we also confess that the Universe is not “out to get us”. Therefore, love of our actual lives, messy though they may be, is soon allowed to take root and grow in our hearts. We need to trust God, and respond calmly and responsibly to the reality He presents.

Then hopefully, if our inner machinery is not too much in disrepair, we will increase our love, forgiveness, creativity, productivity or originality in response to grace itself. God gives, and our trust and appreciation for those beautiful gifts mean that His is the gift that keeps on giving. That’s your path to daily re-birth, our call to participate in the ongoing act of Creation, and to see the ways we are already participating and being reborn.

When we’re grateful, and want to be part of the “building project” (or God’s maintenance of this ongoing Creation), God can then pump our spiritually productive or generative behaviors up to more like 10% of our total time. Plus there’s the bonuses: along with that increased productivity, if we do it with an open spirit, we are given a certain increase in hope, in joy, in peace, in patience, in kindness –in all of what we call “spiritual gifts”. This is inevitable. Love begets love, right? If we can get out of our own way and let the Holy Spirit do its work, in us and through us, we may even reach 20% productivity, …if we’re particularly blessed or healthy (or lucky, not that I believe in luck).

But the other 80% of our efforts will still be boring old “maintenance” of the status quo, to keep it from getting worse. However hard we try to avoid it, that 80% is part of our response to the gift. We have to take care of it. As Bruce Cockburn — another of those great prophetic, musical Wise Men — once sang: “the trouble with normal  is it always gets worse”. In other words, death happens.

So the work of maintaining needs to be done, but there’s nothing much that’s new about it. It’s just the details of life, … and as the old adage says: “God is in the details.” (Of course they also say “The Devil’s in the details”, but that just indicates how sick our society has gotten. ) Another way to look at grief, and maintenance of what remains: we have to work against the “gravity” of sin  , that force which keeps us from a 50% growth rate per year, or keeps us from ever attaining perfection or nirvana, this side of heaven.

Also, even if we mostly stay at that modest 5% generativity level — which is okay, because we don’t want to define ourselves by what we do — nevertheless it’s still essential to remember the basic fact of  life’s imperfections. That way we won’t blame ourselves or God when something goes wrong. We don’t get all mad and depressed and self-loathing and accusatory –either lashing out or isolating ourselves– the next time something falls apart. I’m not advocating making excuses. We simply maintain, and accept the short-term nature of those temporary fixes. We “let go and let God”. We accept the limitations of those things or people we would like to depend on, but we know that we can’t.

We must forgive life for being less than what we want it to be, less than that vague image of Paradise that a relationship with God gives us a glimpse of now and then. As Martin Luther King once spoke so eloquently, we who follow Jesus really have seen “the Promised Land”. And we know we have not arrived there yet, either. So we must always do this acceptance work, of our actual  lives, so that the next time something breaks down, or someone isn’t measuring up to our standards, we don’t put our hands through a wall in frustration, and make a rotten situation even worse.

Okay, maybe the wall-punching thing is just my own rage issues bubbling up. God still has plenty of psychological and spiritual healing to do with me. I don’t think I’ve ever actually broken stuff, or thrown dishes, or struck anyone in uncontrollable anger. But I know I’m not alone here –especially among men– by admitting I do recognize that boiling, seething frustration, and the temptation to physically respond to it. It’s one coping mechanism, one practical (if destructive) way of trying to get that anger, pain, or grief out of you, before it does any more internal damage. I have even taken to wearing a child’s “Incredible Hulk” watch these days, as a reminder of the need to keep an eye on the unresolved anger I wrestle with. (Yes, it’s silly. But it’s working.)

This same unresolved inner anger (mostly male anger) is also the spiritual impetus at the root of most wars and violence throughout the course of history. Leaders and countries can’t deal with their own crap. So they drag entire populations through the mud in their quests for something that satisfies, or in defending their cheap substitutes, their toys and distractions — all of which perpetuate their denial of the scary reality. No, they can’t have whatever they want, no matter how much power they acquire. And even if they do almost manage to get what they want (through exploitation of others, or of the planet), they’re not ging to be satisfied with it. It won’t fill the hungry, angry, empty hole inside. Thus, violence is just another aspect of the basic human addictive cycle.

Whatever we think we need, we shouldn’t need it so bad, in other words.

If we all could be satisfied with less, wouldn’t we be happier? If we could grieve what was never quite there, or what is not quite perfect now, and then move on, wouldn’t we be at peace? If we could come closer to that Buddhist or Christian monastic ideal of less attachment to the physical world (but more appreciation of the “details”), and if we could attain the ideal of integrating grief and gratitude into one peaceful self, we would certainly all get along better. And the blessed paradox is that as God revealed His grace to our seeker’s soul, we would recognize more gifts already present in our midst (for that’s grace in action), and we’d actually have more general satisfaction with the gifts we do have, and with our lives overall.


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