Somehow over the long winter a year ago, my favorite tree died. I loved this tree in particular because of the way one of its branches spread in a curving arc outward, reaching toward me from above like a benediction. I loved the sound of its whispering leaves and the songs of the birds it sheltered. But I guess I’d begun to take its blessing for granted, because I didn’t realize its life had gone until late that summer when every other tree had finally filled out with their lush green leaves and this beautiful tree remained barren. It stands there now with only a few thoroughly dried brown leaves still clinging to its desiccated limbs, a skeleton left unburied.
One day in another winter’s storm it may fall, eventually to be overgrown by vines and shrubs like a greening shroud, but for now it stands stark and naked against the life around it. I still feel a pang of grief when I look at it. I miss the gentle sense of blessing it gave me.
This may be how some things end in our lives: unnoticed at first, then startling, then sad, with a feeling of loss that lingers in memory.
There is a widespread feeling that as a nation, as a people,
we need to make some profound changes, but we don’t know how to escape the box
that we live in. Some people have put
forth ideas that at first feel radical and later come to feel necessary, but don’t
really know how to get there, while others feel stifled and stuck but also threatened
by all the changes being proposed. Lately
we’ve had a leader who has taken a sledge hammer to our way of life and our
cherished values, but that has only destroyed what was good without bringing
anything good to take its place. I think that secretly we want to expand our
boundaries and explore new possibilities, but without “leaving home.”
So if we are living in a box (even a box with smashed walls)
how do we get beyond it? How do we jump (to use a different metaphor) out of
the frying pan without landing in the fire? How do we effect change in a way
that will be life-giving?
Today I’m offering some thoughts I’ve long held and once preached about that I think might be helpful. If you like you can hear it here, in an audio of that sermon:
As I sat down to write this, not sure what needed to be said, these are the words that came to my mind. “Slip slidin’ away.” You may remember them from the once-famous Paul Simon song (of Simon and Garfunkel fame). I didn’t realize, until the song came to mind and clarified it for me, what I’ve been struggling with lately. It’s the sense that I’m losing hold of the things I’ve been reaching for.
Simon sings of a man’s fear that in his passion for attachment to a woman he loves he will lose his sense of his own life. He sings of life not working out the way one wants, hopes, or dreams that it will. He sings of a man who longs to explain himself to his son but who walks away leaving it all unsaid instead. Then at the end he sings this:
“God only knows, God makes his plan The information’s unavailable to the mortal man. We’re working our jobs, collect our pay, Believe we’re gliding down the highway, When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”
Opportunities lost, hopes unrealized, a fear of losing (abandoning?) our chance to do what was needed to reach our desires. Losing time, freedom, a sense of one’s self, a chance to deepen a relationship, or the chance to grow the meaningful life that we didn’t realize we wanted. So much of our lives we think we have an endless amount of time to work it all out, and then the nearer we get to “our destination” we discover that we’ve been moving in the wrong direction. Like a car on a snowy hill trying to get to the top, we find ourselves sliding away instead, and we can’t stop the slide.
I’ve not lived the life I hoped for. I have lived my life as well as I could, given who I was and what I was given. I’ve lived a greatly blessed life, given a goodly share of talents and opportunities, and I’m grateful for it all. But… now I feel that I may not have enough time left, enough health, enough chances, to accomplish the desires I buried for so long while pursuing the path that I took. So I find myself tempted to give up, to let go of the hopes and forgo the efforts required to achieve them, to just let myself slip and slide away. Procrastination is one of the symptoms of that. Self-indulgent, unproductive leisure is another. Giving in to aches and pains of the body or just to sloth of the spirit is another.
I’ll never know what prompted Paul Simon to write the lyrics to his song, but they’ve given me a fresh incentive to try again. With or without hope of success in getting exactly where I wanted to go, it’s worth the effort. Sometimes on a snowy hill I’ve been able to stop my car from sliding and by praying, shifting into 2nd gear, challenging the engine, and refusing to give up, eventually the tires took hold and I’ve actually gotten to the top.
Only God knows how my life will end up, whether I’ll ever get my book written or indeed anything published, but one thing is certain: unless I am determined to keep on going I’ll never get there. So I fight against the slide-away and I live in hope. I wish the same for you. Peace to you in this season of renewal and endless possibilities.
I was talking here the other week about change, how we hate it or tolerate it. About how hard it is to undergo (and it IS hard!). But the hardest changes we face and resist perhaps most strongly are not those that come upon us from the outside, but those we go through within ourselves as we grow and mature.
Reflecting on that, I was drawn to consider the humble lobster. You may know that a lobster as it matures must shed its spiny, hard shell to make room for the inner life to expand and grow. It’s called molting. I watched on YouTube a video of a pet lobster shedding its hard outer shell, and let me tell you it’s obviously a struggle. It looks painful, a lot like re-birthing.
At the end of the struggle the lobster literally pulls away from and out of that hard shell that was its protective covering all its life, and lands on the soft sandy floor of its watery home. What you see is that inside the old shell a new shell had been forming. As it formed it must have created intense pressure because the hard outer shell wasn’t made to accommodate the new one. This old shell must have constricted and constrained the growing lobster inside until the creature had to undergo the tremendous struggle to get free.
Freedom and expanding life come with its price, of course. The time just after the molting and before the new, soft shell has hardened is a time of great vulnerability for the lobster. Waves and currents wash over and batter it; predators can more easily assault it. But the new shell allows the lobster to grow. If the creature didn’t let go of the old shell it would likely die within it.
As for us, unlike the lobster that lives with its strong protective skeleton on the outside, we live with our “shell” on the inside. If you think of the lobster’s shell as a metaphor for the interior structures of protection and stability we have built up in our lives, then we are a bit like the lobster, aren’t we. We build up an interior shell against the outside world: ways of deflecting pain, of coping with challenges, ways of perceiving people and events, ways of judging, ways of thinking, and beliefs to make sense of life. They harden and for a while seem to serve us. But in the end they may come to constrict us painfully. Then we will feel the urge and the need to grow beyond them. That’s when courage is needed.
I’ve been thinking about all this in light of the story I’m trying to write. It’s about two headstrong people and their relationship with each other. I think of all their self-protective ways and the challenges their relationship thrusts upon them. Will they be able to shed the hard shells they’ve built up within them, the shells they’ve built against vulnerability? Will they be able to grow and mature as lovers as they risk new ways of being, risking intimacy and trust? Will they grow into a more expansive life, or wither within the old shells that have hardened against that possibility?
It has been said that there are only three reasons people will change: when they hurt enough that they have to; when they learn enough that they want to, and when they receive enough that they are able to. I would say this: we dare to change when pain and desire combine to create the urge to live more fully and the urge has become too strong to resist.
What is the urgent call you may be feeling now to grow, to let go of the old protective ways of thinking about and relating to the world, to risk living a new way? It’s a struggle, for sure. I hope and pray that you will be able, when it is your time, to change, to live a more expansive life, and that you will have courage for the struggle.
I don’t know who wrote this. I found it in one of my preaching files from years ago. But I like it a lot and wanted to share it with you. It can make you smile or cry, depending on how you’re feeling about the changes in your life. I hope it will make you smile.
Why Change Is Like a Slinky:
You have to take it out of the box to have fun with it.
It comes in many styles and colors.
Somebody has to launch it on its way.
The course it takes once it begins is entirely unpredictable.
It routinely gets stuck halfway down the stairs and has to be relaunched. Repeat as necessary.
It is messy, noisy, and chaotic.
Before it is launched, it has stored potential energy. When launched, that energy force becomes kinetic energy.
You really don’t control it once it begins its journey.
It rarely lands where you predict.
May I suggest, if change is coming, and if it isn’t absolutely devastating to you, try starting with number 1. Try to have fun with it. There are changes that are upsetting but not destroying of all happiness. Instead of hunkering down against it, play with it. It can turn into a good thing if embraced with the right attitude. Does your church want to paint the front door red instead of white? Don’t stress out over it. Think of it as the color of Holy Spirit, of positive energy, of a new vibrant invitation to come in. If your child comes home with a tattoo, try not to rant but to see it as body art (which is probably how your kid sees it), and be glad it makes him or her happy (but save some money for the day s/he comes to you and wants to have it removed). Do you have to downsize your living, move to a new town, find a new job? Consider it a chance to explore a new life, make new friends, discover new talents rather than the loss of an old familiar life however happy you’ve been in it.
I know that change is disorienting for most of us, the farthest thing we can think of as something to be sought. But life will be much more peaceful if we can find a way to make peace with change. My own experience is that changes I resisted for a long time have often turned out to lead me into better things, surprising me and bringing me to something new and good.
I hope whatever changes you are dealing with today will lead you to a good place, but if not, may you find the support and strength you need for the walk that lies ahead. May blessings and peace be yours no matter what comes!