Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Way to God is Down

"I had to be forced underground before I could understand that the way to God is not up but down."

So writes Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.  In his case, Palmer is reflecting on his experience of clinical depression and the way in which it taught him to accept his limits, his vulnerability, and thus his humanity.  For each of us the way down may be different, the source of gravity emanating from a different place, but the downward movement is inexorable.  Each of us hits bottom at some point and, if we are the least bit open, touch God.

This is a difficult truth for those of us who were taught that the way to God is up, an ascending from triumph to triumph.  "Defying gravity" is what we aspire to do, as Elpheba sings in the Broadway musical, Wicked.  But in art, as in life, Elpheba must lose her life in order to gain it.  There is grace in accepting our limits as well as embracing our gifts.

There are workshops, trainings, and books galore on identifying and sharing our gifts.  In the church, we often focus on honoring people's gifts: code for recruiting volunteers!  The church readily conspires with the culture's emphasis on "leading with our strengths" and "cultivating habits of success."  It's all about being productive so that we can feel good about ourselves and be helpful.

Is that really what it is all about?  What ever happened to being redeemed by a God who loves us in our brokenness, a God whose strength is made perfect in our weakness?  Surely, at least half of what "it" is all about is knowing what we can't do, as well as what we can.

I've seen a great deal of harm done to self and others when people live in denial of their limits, often because of the fear that they will not be accepted if they don't appear to "have it all together."  Frequently, this is done with the best of intentions.  But as Palmer wisely notes, when we try to give what we do not have our gifts mask an emptiness that can consume us.  He is worth quoting at length.
When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality, loveless - a gift given more from my need to prove myself than from the other's need to be cared for.  That kind of giving is not only loveless but faithless, based on an arrogant and mistaken notion that God has no way of channeling love to the other except through me.  Yes, we are created in and for community, to be there, in love, for one another.  But community cuts both ways:  when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need. 
One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout.  Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess - the ultimate giving too little!  Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have:  it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.
The good news is that this revelation of nothingness can be the means of grace whereby we come to accept our dependence upon God, and begin to rightly discern between our gifts and our limits.  When we touch bottom, we discover that only God can love unconditionally and, resting in that love, become willing to offer the conditional love that is ours to give, with compassion and humility.

The way to God is down.  One way down is through suffering.  But there is another way: through contemplative prayer.  We can descend by the force of suffering's gravity, perhaps kicking and screaming.   We can descend through cultivating intentional awareness, including awareness of our limits.  In my experience, it can be a combination of both ways that take us there.  Either way, the way to God is down.

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