The dogwood tree at the side of the house has branches that look like claws. They seem to squeeze tight, holding without compromise the small pods and nubs that will be more. Given 70 and even 80 degree temperatures in Maryland these days, it’s becoming obvious that the claws will soon burst, and the something more will arrive. And though I’ve watched this particular tree for nearly 40 years (oh my!), and know what will explode soon, it is always a new seeing. But I feel for the branch-claws who are losing ground. They understand the present, but will be overcome soon with different life. The now must be shattered for the then to be gained.
Of late I have either been in or around living stories that parallel this natural phenomenon. Spring is full of these metaphors in real time. The seed shells must burst for the amazing impetus to life and color to move through dirt and to sun and fullness. The soon to come robin eggs will need to crack their strong-vulnerable containers for the little peep within to have the chance to squeak and fly. In spring, new life opens and discards previous containers almost heedlessly, running headlong for new incarnations. And the inbetween stages of growth are just that – inbetween. Fullness and fruitfulness and maturity do not arrive with first bud or burst – but must be come to through the ways consistent with the being of the life in question, and the boldness of attempts and paths and seeming errors that mark the often mixed-up-ness of the journey.
When we humans experience big changes or bursting-shattering moments on our journeys, we are perhaps more mindful of, and less than thrilled with, the losses. So comes my empathy for the dogwood claws!
Sometimes we see change coming, but cannot avoid it. Sometimes we are caught off guard by a huge shift. Sometimes the change is an add of something or someone in our life or context. Sometimes it is a loss of someone or something. At times the room we’re in just enlarges suddenly, or loses walls entirely! Other times it seems the space we’re in constricts and squeezes. Or it pops us out another door, as if we’ve moved down a birth canal without knowing it! Now and then change reconfigures key relationships and community for us.
The thing about change is that – even as it gives – it also takes away. Something we knew is gone. Given that change is a given, what are we to do?
First, I believe we humans need to tell ourselves the truth. We are forever going to be experiencing these moments; we are forever going to be seeing something shattered and something gained. There will never be a time when ‘settled’ means unmoving or untouched. We don’t grow up to settle down and reach a point of stasis. We have to learn another way to talk about life, another way to envision adulthood, peace, happiness. Movement is. Blood circulates. Cells divide. Hearts beat. Synapses fire. Stillness is rather a balance in the movement perhaps, not a capturing of a desired moment or set of circumstances like putting a lightning bug (firefly) in a jar. Such fireflies die. Change sustains even as it shatters.
Long ago, when I was regularly doing workshops and training in adolescent development and youth ministry, I would often note that part of what we (adult community) need to provide to young people is the secret and the joy of being en route, incomplete, dusty, unknowing, not having arrived yet. This is hard to provide to adolescents when we personally and culturally hold on to myths of some moment to come when we’ll arrive and all will make sense and we’ll be finished and change will have happened, been successfully navigated, and never come our way again. When we unconsciously live in a way that we hope for that myth, we are as silly as my dogwood branches refusing the life running through them to new birth, and as impotent in our resistance to how life works!
There is something about speaking about ourselves as pilgrims, and pilgrim church, that is just true. We were there, are now here. We were this high, and now are this high. We walked with them, and now we walk with these. The scenery held this, and now it holds that. We skipped and ran, and now we limp and stumble. We crawled and dragged, and now we sing and rejoice. We walked in silence, and now there’s noise. There was no traffic, and now we hardly move. The hands we hold have changed, the vistas we pass, the signs on the road are even different.
All of us spend such time wrestling with reality, as if we were in a rodeo, trying to trap it into manageable (by us, of course!) packages. And we each have favored ways of trying to control the uncontrollable, playing with mirages. (These might be addictions of various sorts.) If we dare to see clearly how life unfolds and approach it with the wisdom of tender acceptance, adding a gentleness with ourselves and others in the process, we might come to no longer need to fight against an unreal projection of what we think life is or how it should work. No doubt, many of us have questions we’d ask God and life in the category of ‘how come x’, but spending all our energy spinning there is an abject waste of this moment – the only one you and I have and are ever in. Change and transformation – regardless of our experience of and interpretations of these as good and ill – simply are going to be. In my book, the better place to focus energy and time is here: what is a spirituality, perhaps psychology, that supports the best of living in this reality?
I believe we must become audacious explorers, curious pilgrims, intrepid adventurers. We must travel light – in goods and in expectations. We can come to love the road and the process, even or especially when we do not understand it. Traveling boldly – even in the dark – comes to we folks-on-the-way when we realize this life-style is a gift from the Creator who knows much more than we about what is best for us. And so we can trust how we are shaped by the journey, develop trust and endurance (staying power!), for the God of the Way uses everything.
As we go, we must develop practices that keep us in shape for the road – stretches and disciplines, prayers and mantras, symbols and rituals – that wake and sensitize us to learnings. We must learn the art of grounding ourselves as we move, with compasses set to consistent points along the horizon marked by the mysteries and messages of the life of Jesus, who was also a way-walker. Our security can be reinforced in the embrace of our Creator, who plants such beauty along our way. Some beautiful moments on our journey we may want to grasp and hold in stasis – but we can’t. Still, the gift of awareness and of memory helps us treasure them and continue to be nurtured by them.
We must come to know our own littleness and need as pilgrims, and the delight of companions in all the diversity that gives us joy and makes us itch! Respecting each wayfarer as God’s loved one, we must learn to hold each other gently and lightly, celebrating the gift and shaping of one another’s presence, yet mindful of life’s limits in energy and years.
We can tell stories on the road of other travelers and how they handled disappointment and joy, terror and triumph, loss and gain… and we can make companions of them. We can have festivals and funerals, weddings and christenings, meals and singing… all as we travel. We can help each other through the emotions that just happen with change and loss, for good or ill – mindful of who on our part of the road is presently limping along and can use an arm or shoulder or an embrace. We can challenge each other when we want to ‘build tents’ as the three disciples wanted to at the Transfiguration, and help each other know that ‘it is good for us to be here’ means on the way. We can risk honesty with a pilgrim’s vulnerability, perhaps crying out in painful loss and terror at impending or experienced change. And even in tears, we might walk or be carried along with song and prayer around us on the road, reminded of the hope which flourishes with each new spring. Something shattered, something gained: whatever our feelings, we can pray to believe in the gained even when the shattered is our present view.
We are reminded in Romans 5 that “Hope will not leave us disappointed.” Our hope is not in ourselves, in answers, in arriving. Our hope is a person – Jesus. The Word was made flesh and set up his tent (dwelt) among us. God didn’t set up a stone temple, but a tent that is easily struck and packed for the way. God journeys with us and, in Jesus, knows all we know of the sunrises, sunsets, twists, hills, thirst, dust, joy, and vagaries of the way.
The surety of our walking all seasons of change is in our acceptance of the shattered/gained, death/resurrection rhythm that is not optional to the disciple. The rhythm is writ in our lives, not in some conceptual theological treatise – and it is our turn now to learn how to be with it and even dance it with a God who loves and guides us. We may sometimes want to escape a way that has such upheaval, and so my compassion for the dogwood branches. Wouldn’t it be fine to just stay put in the midst of what is and breathe, and let things just STOP? Why must we dance through pain or tears?
We believe in a God who is Love who knows how best to bring all forward – us, creation, all things and people we know, and all we don’t. We just don’t know how it all works, anymore than we can expect as creatures of great dignity – but creatures of a Creator.
We can cultivate compassion for ourselves and care for others in the sometimes painful shattering process of change and growth. We can do more – living in audacious hope, with a courage and confidence based on setting our hearts on a truth centered in God that Julian of Norwich framed so well. Regardless of our emotion or experience or interpretation or suffering (or many other ors) on the Blessed Way…. “All will be well. All will be well. And all manner of thing will be well.” (Showings)
If I were St. Francis of Assisi, I might say “Sister Shattering” serves a purpose and wakes us – individually and corporately – to new life we never might have engaged otherwise. Sibling to “Sister Death”, she breaks something in us or around us. Who knows of gain? And who can claim to see it? But we believe. We set our hearts on what and who we believe. And breathe.
May we all be sheltered when we shatter, and find the hand of God and the love of community to support us in light or dark, so that whatever is new and coming forth has time to mature. Patience to us each and all. All will be well. May we dance the roads with heavy or light heart – but with a leaning spirit on the One who holds us on the Way.
The dogwood branches cannot be expected to know what wonder and beauty will shortly arrive and fill their hands with soft petals of life that make visible cross and resurrection. We, on the other hand, can allow the Spirit to teach us to trust the work of God in process which will always be more than we can ask or imagine.