I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles. In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
This morning as I reflect on this prayer I am drawn into the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread”.
I find myself so often, in times of trial and transition, becoming caught up in the “what might be’s?” In wondering what might be coming up around that next corner, good or bad. Growing up, with some close family members dealing with alcoholism and with mood disorders, often the unexpected which came around the corner was frightening, confusing, or disturbing. And so it is easy for me in transition or in trial to expect bad to come around the corner.
Yet also, while in transition from rebuilding from losses in my life, I have found it easy to be in a hurry to arrive. I can sit and imagine how much better my life will be when this or that thing happens and begin to day dream about a better life, a different life than my own, pushing aside the pain or fear of this moment.
Others tell me they often find themselves locked into their past. The list of “If only’s” are regrets which weigh them down, keeping them from being able to see the moment right in front of them. As a chaplain so much of my work is helping people confront and come to peace with their pasts so that they may embrace the moments before them whether few or many as gift.
What can be hard to see in the midst of the storm of trial when it feels like all the present moment brings are torrents of rain upon the meager frame of one’s life or in the midst of painful transition in which getting beyond this moment might be all one could long for, is that such approaches of fixating on what might be in the future, good or bad, or what has been in the past will only leave you stuck.
This reminds me of that now classic scene in the Shawsank Redemption in which, to get out of the prison that held him captive, the main character had dive deep into the sewers. The only way to freedom was through what was right in front of him, however smelly, awful, and disgusting. The truth of the matter is the only way forward in our lives is through being as present as we can to this moment in front of us.
In truth, even in the most painful moments, rarely is it that all that is in front of us, no matter how difficult things truly are, is merely sewage. I am constantly amazed as a chaplain and counselor in working with patients facing situations so much more dreadful and painful than I have ever endured, how many of them are able to find thin slivers of beauty, threads of wonder, which they can grab ahold of in the midst of all that is occurring. Seeing this happen again and again teaches me that surely in each moment and even around the corner of what is coming there are ugly, painful, and horrible things. But just as surely often right with them there is also beauty, wonder, love, compassion, which if we train our eyes to look for, we can also cling onto in such moments.
The prayer “give us this day our daily bread” is not just a request of God, but an invitation to each of us to choose not to rush beyond the moment we are in, whether painful or joyous, nor to get stuck in the pain, heartache, or nostalgia of the past, but instead to be present with the moment in front of us.
When we do so, we enable even the painful things to open us up to new lessons.
My good friend Nola from college has a wonderful tattoo on her arm of a lotus flower wrapped in a crown of thorns being held up in the hand of a female bodhisattva, which is a Buddhist saint or avatar of the Sacred in Tibetan Buddhism. The beauty of the image she explains is the lotus in Buddhism and the crown of thorns in Christianity have similar meanings. The lotus is the beauty, fragrance, and wonder of a full life. We must stop to smell the flowers. But Buddhism teaches us that as we do so we must also remember that what makes it possible for the fragrant lotus flower to grow is in fact the death of other plants and animals whose bodies make up the soil, the stench of feces used for fertilizer, the sweat and
toil of working the field and garden, the driving rain we might curse for ruining our spring day. And when those less pleasant things occur we must take time to become mindful that these are also the factors making possible such fragrant beauty. Similarly the crown of thorns is a reminder that the Christian image of the Sacred, Jesus, embodied our path to wholeness. The wholeness of new life pictured in Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning comes only after Jesus chooses to face into great pain, anguish, suffering, and rejection. A crown of thorns is placed on his head. He is beaten, abandoned, buried, left for dead. The end of this ultimately is a restoring of life to Jesus, a life deeper and more abundant than before, and an offer of the same to us if we embrace that journey. Jesus combines these two images in his beautiful saying in John 12:24 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Neither image means we ought to be self-flagellating ones who refuse pleasure and think we deserve suffering. Rather they call us to embrace the fact that suffering, struggle, pain, heartache, loss, all are a part of what makes joy, hope, new beginning, possible.
I would go further and say only as we choose to be as present as we can to this moment can we also see the joy. I remember when my late wife passed. After a couple of months passed, when the great darkness that loss cast over my life began to break with a little daylight, suddenly beginning to feel alive again. I began to notice joys, hopes, positive experiences, new friendships. A part of me felt guilty, hurting, in pain. A part wanted to say “how can you do this? You can’t stop and see the good. You can’t laugh and smile. Won’t that make this loss meaningless?” There was a part of me, a grieving part of me, that didn’t want to let me see and be present with the positive in front of me. When I was meditating as I do every day, suddenly it is like I could hear my late wife’s voice saying “You are alive. Embrace that. I set you free to live”. Call that experience whatever you will but to me it was my realizing, with God’s help, that I needed to continue to be present in this moment, not afraid of even the joys. I needed to know that caring for myself was important as caring for her those last days of her illness had been or caring for the many people I support every day in my work. It reminded me that just as we can try to flee in our minds from the pain we can also flee from the joy and new opportunities.
I’m not there yet. I have my moments I want to push down the pain, ignore it, and soldier through – forgetting that it is only by being kind to myself in my heartache, present to the lessons it teaches me, that I can discover the fresh fragrant flowers that will grow on the other side of the pain. And often too I will believe the messages I learned from childhood on that somehow I don’t deserve joy, happiness, love, new beginning. That somehow I cannot sit with this happiness without denying my losses, the pain of others.
I am reminded by this prayer and my dear friend Nola’s tattoo that, nope. I don’t have to make that choice. It is not an either/or.
We are people both of lotus and of fertilizer, cross and of Easter morning. After all, it is only the labor pains which birth the child. And what beauty each new birth in our life produces.
May you find such new beginnings now and always.
Your progressive redneck preacher,