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Sermon for June 29, 2014

Laws for Living #2: Peace with Hardship
If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen
from “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining Into the World” by Jane Hirshfield
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.  For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. James 1:2-4
We are told each moment offers a gift. James seems to say this. He writes to first century Jewish converts to Christianity – people who know a little something about trouble and hardship. James writes, “Troubles are an opportunity for great joy.” In other words, “Each moment is a gift.”

Is this true? Is hardship a gift or is it a curse? What exactly do we call the wildness that thunders and storms into our lives – the sudden illness, the loss of a loved one, the awakening that leads to a spiritual crisis, the unexpected reconfiguring of your world, the tempest of love? Events like these break in and break us open. Are these roars and rumbles gifts or curses? Are they chances to surrender ourselves or dangerous opportunities to finally experience life?

Many of you are familiar with the serenity prayer, or at least the beginning of it. It goes like this:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
The second part of the prayer – perhaps the less familiar part – goes something like this:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as God did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that God will make all things right
if I surrender to God’s Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with God
Forever in the next.
Let’s go back to the line that says “accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.” That’s quite a statement. Common sense tells us that if we can solve all our problems, eliminate all hardships, and remove all the causes of stress in our life, only then we can find peace. We tend to believe the reasons for our anxieties lie in circumstances over which we have little or no control. If we can gain the upper hand over our problems, we will have serenity. We can make peace with hardship.

For some, we have to fix life’s problems on our own because God has fallen asleep on the job. We must draw upon our human capacities. No supernatural help is coming. That’s why we struggle so hard to gain control over difficult people and impossible situations. We secretly tell ourselves that we will only be happy once we become more omnipotent. We try desperately to manipulate people and situations over which we have no control. We end up failing and we get upset because we always fall short in one way or another. What we eventually discover is the more we struggle against unmanageable circumstances, the further we are from the peace we seek.

Scriptures like the Book of James, and modern texts like the serenity prayer, put us in a tough spot. They suggest we are looking for peace in the wrong places. They say the reason for our anxiety lies not in our circumstances but in whom we are trusting. They propose we must admit we are only human and then surrender our will over to God where it belongs. They talk about accepting hardship rather than by struggling against it. Peace is the by-product of trusting God.

Our scriptures are rather insistent on this. “Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding . . .” Well, that’s all fine and good, but so what? What does it mean to trust and surrender to God when hardship is staring me down?

Poet Jane Hirshfield thinks about some of these ideas in a poem she calls “Each moment a white bull steps shining . . .” She opens the poem saying,
If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen
.
Jane Hirschfield wants is to imagine a strange and frightening white bull – no ordinary creature, but one that steps forward, shining into your life. The bull is the embodiment of strength, power and sexuality. It is also dangerous and scary. You have probably never encountered such a beast before. Is it a gift or a curse? Perhaps your life was coasting along. Fulfilling. Predictable. And then, out of nowhere, in this very moment, something enters your world that you cannot fail to notice; something strange, fascinating, and overwhelming. Your comfortable, conventional circle is suddenly broken. Everything is thrown out of kilter. What do you do when you are offered a gift like that?

Can we trust that this can be a true gift and not the curse we may take it to be? Can we accept it with grace – as if it were kind of gift we would have chosen for ourselves?

Eastern Christianity offers us a tool to help answer that question. Eastern sages said that the way to find peace is to remember that there is a divine resource, deep within us. The Eastern Church calls it theosis. God’s aim for the world is for all of us to be restored to the full potential of our humanity. And our full potential is a lot bigger than we can imagine. We actually have the potential to be one with God. We were created to be one with God. We were created to be one with all creation. If we can reach full union with God, we will be able exist within God’s love. The Eastern Orthodox Saint, Basil the Great, said. “The human vocation is to fulfill one’s humanity by becoming God through grace.” United in love, we become divine. That is theosis. Ok, let’s admit that this kind of talk makes Protestants twitchy. It sounds like idolatry. So take a deep breath and hear me out. The idea of theosis is that, through daily spiritual practice, we become more and more like Christ, slowly and steadily. With patience and practice, we arrive at union with God. In union with love. We can’t help but to become love in the flesh. Thomas Merton has this experience. He wrote of his own theosis.
“In Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to each other, even though we were total strangers ... I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God became incarnate ... If only people could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Despite the pain, despite the hardship, no matter what comes our way, we hold one another in love. Tenderly. Gently.

What might happen if we stop looking at hardship as a barrier to serenity and begin sensing it at it as the pathway to a much deeper and more enduring kind of peace; not dependent upon circumstances beyond our control, but upon loving union with God?
If the gods brings to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen.
Jane Hirshfield wrote another poem that speaks to our condition and can help us make peace with hardship...
FOR WHAT BINDS US

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around you, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle.
I like the image of proud flesh. It’s actually called granulation tissue. Treating proud flesh is an important and necessary part of healing a wounded horse. Horses are majestic animals but also incredibly fragile and thin-skinned. The most frustrating injury a horse can get is a cut on its lower leg where there’s very little muscle or fat between skin and bone. The skin pulls apart, and it’s virtually impossible to suture. The healing process can be deceptive. Healing appears rapid. You can almost watch fresh pink tissue forming on the horse’s leg injury. But the new tissue keeps growing, pink, ugly and lumpy, growing above the healthy tissue around it. That scar tissue is called proud flesh.

It’s a long, painful process to treat a horse with a wound on its lower leg. It requires patience and hope, courage and stamina. The horse hurts and doesn’t want you messing with its wound. The horse sees you as the source of its pain and will most certainly kick.

I get it horse. I’ve been there, kicking against the threats in life. I imagine you have been there too. We face those painful moments and ask, “Is this a gift or is this a curse? My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? How could God let this happen to me? How dare you try to comfort me?”

The wound hurts. The hardship is real.  But with care and attention, with attentive love, that horse can heal up and run with stallions.

Maybe people are not so different: Worn, weary, wounded, and wondering if these moments of life are gifts or curses. Then, in a flash of grace, in loving union with God, we experience theosis. We make peace with hardship by becoming the presence of healing love. We become one with God and God’s creation. And they are one with us. We are changed. We are God's love. We rise. New life stirs. Yes, the indelible bruises of hardship mark us. We still bear our scars and wounds. New life doesn’t remove them. They actually have a purpose. Those scars show us where healing has happened. Don’t ignore the wounds. Touch them.

Touching my wounds is only way to know who I really am,
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds.

Sources:
http://pjmiller.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/proud-flesh-a-metaphor/
http://www.mpbconline.org/sermon.php?sermon=2008-09-07
http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2009/08/our-praxis-gives-theoria-of-our-theosis.html
http://interruptingthesilence.com/2011/07/09/theosis-the-human-vocation/
http://interruptingthesilence.com/2011/07/14/theosis-in-the-episcopal-church/

Roger Housden, Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again & Again (Harmony Books, 2007)

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