Monday, July 30, 2007
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear and do it?' But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it... I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil... therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live...
'Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.'
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
In the shadow of thy wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. O my enemies, do not exult over me; I have fallen, but shall rise again; though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is my light. Although the fig-tree does not burgeon, the vines bear no fruit, the olive crop fails, the orchards yield no food, the fold is bereft of its flock and there are no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord and rejoice in the God of my deliverance I have forgotten what happiness is...
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.
For we should like you to realise... that the things we had to undergo in Asia were more of a burden than we could carry, so that we despaired of coming through alive... we were carrying our own death warrant with us, and it has taught us not to rely on ourselves but only on God, who raises the dead to life. So we do not lose heart.
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.
(Deuteronomy 30: 11-15, 19, RSV; Joshua 1: 9, RSV; Psalm 42: 11, RSV; Psalm 57: 1, RSV; Micah 7: 8, NEB; Habakkuk 3: 17-18, NEB; Lamentations 3: 17, 21-23, RSV: 2 Corinthians 1: 8-9, JB; 2 Corinthians 4: 16, RSV; 2 Corinthians 5: 17, RSV)
The image of the valley evokes different pictures. It may be a beautiful place, full of tranquillity and fruitfulness, a haven of safety and satisfaction. But it may at times be a dark and difficult area where a sense of vulnerability and exposure fill us with fear and terrible insecurity. It is gloomy and dangerous and we are conscious of being enclosed by the hills with no way out. Escape seems impossible and we are unable to conceive of any worthwhile future. No far horizons beckon us to new and exciting possibilities. The long wide view so easily seen from the summit of the mountains is painfully absent here. Everywhere we are surrounded by the barrier of impenetrable hills and there is no apparent way of moving beyond them. Hope fails, courage melts, dreams topple and we are reduced to an enervating and sorrowful existence with the spectre of self-pity constantly dogging our disheartened steps.
We cannot live on this planet without sometimes finding ourselves in such a valley. Perhaps we blunder there by our own foolishness and the bitter remorse of this does nothing to alleviate our despair at finding ourselves in such a situation. More often, we are plunged into the valley by circumstances which hurtle in upon us -- unexpected, unwanted, unasked. Without consultation with us, we are thrown from the higher ground of the mountains, over the precipice and into the deep valley below with a frightening rapidity for which we are unprepared. Failure, illness, betrayal, bereavement and a host of other related calamities can pitch us without warning into the dark valley experience.
What we do when we find ourselves so unwillingly there is of tremendous importance. It is usual to feel overwhelmed with fear, despair, exhaustion and sometimes deep bitterness and anger. Such emotions are characteristic of the valley. All hope seems gone. The laughter and happiness of other places flees. We want most of all to curl up and sleep in a small safe hole where we can avoid the overwhelming weariness and pain of the place. But such luxuries are seldom permitted and we find ourselves plodding along day after weary day wondering when it will all end.
In utter defiance of the terrifying misery and hopelessness of the valley, God speaks. What he says is in such blatant contradiction of the circumstances that it leaves the listener stunned: ' My presence is sufficient to sustain the most feeble traveller on the arduous valley trek. There are no dead ends. There is definitely a way out into the more invigorating and beautiful heights of the mountains and you will find yourself further along the range than you were previously. More than this, there is even a rare beauty to be found in the valley, a different, but wonderful music, and where you have felt so isolated and alone there are many travelling companions to share the journey and enrich you.'
Whilst the valley experience may underline the fact that our control over our own destiny is more limited than we had thought, and our freedom to choose more hedged about by restrictions than we had believed, it is nevertheless true that we retain the freedom to choose our basic mind-set. To believe or not to believe, to choose life or to choose death, to open our minds to the transforming power of the Christ who promises to bring resurrection, or to remain buried in our disaster -- these things we may decide. Not that choosing life is easy or painless -- it, alas, involves the agony of a death also. A very real and very hard death. But it issues in a birth into new life and full of promise and unimagined possibilities. 'Behold, I have set before you Life and death... Choose life.'
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from us but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude to any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way.
Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
What if I cannot recognise the given as blessing? What if it is not sunshine that pours down on us, but hailstones like hammer-blows? What if it is acid rain? Here again, the gift within the gift is opportunity. I have the opportunity, for example, to do something about that acid rain, face the facts, inform myself about the causes, go to their roots, alert others, band together with them for self-help, for protest. By taking each opportunity as it is offered, 1 show myself grateful... Why not drop the complications we put in our own way? What brings fulfilment is gratefulness, the simple response of our heart to this given life in all its fullness.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer
We require a perspective that reaches beyond the particularity of events and encompasses our life as a whole. Since all the events that we experience are part of the moving process of our life, they reflect something of our past and they also carry the possibilities of our future. Those events that we perceive as adversities may be experienced as painful, and we may wish that they had been avoided; but they may also be the vehicles by which an expanded awareness of the meaning of our life is being opened up to us.
The choice we have before us... is whether we shall react directly to the event itself, or whether we shall place it in the context of the movement of our rife and let it speak to us. In general it is more usual for setbacks or other painful occurrences to serve as the events that have a message for us.
Ira Progoff, At a Journal Workshop
In every life there are a few special moments that count for more than all the rest because they meant the taking of a stand, a self-commitment, a decisive choice... The turning points in life are generally few in number. They are always an encounter... before which the subject cannot remain neutral. One has to take sides, commit oneself.
Paul Tournier, The Seasons of Life
. . .There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?... I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning; meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning.
Chaim Potok, The Chosen
If we do not believe, the waves engulf us, the winds blow, nourishment fails, sickness lays us low or kills us, the divine power is impotent or remote. If, on the other hand, we believe, the waters are welcoming and sweet, the bread is multiplied, our eyes are open, the dead rise again, the power of God is as it were drawn from him by force and spreads throughout all nature.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
In any lifetime... there are innumerable little deaths -always painful and frightening (that can't be avoided): the break-up of a love affair; the loss of a childish faith; seeing one's child leave home for the first time; moving house; the loss of a job; retirement. Cling to what you have at that moment, and you're lost. Unclench your hands and let it slip away, and you are ready to receive the unimagined new life. If we learn that habit from all the small occasions for dying which may come to us, then when the last letting-go is called for, it will be familiar and confident. Our formation of that habit will be immeasurably strengthened as we keep our eyes on the truth about God and life revealed in Jesus, whose attitude was: 'I lay down my life to receive it again. No-one has robbed me of it. I am laying it down of my own free will. I have the inner authority to lay it down and to receive it back again. This charge I received from my Father' (John 10: 17-18).
So the choice for every human being is between death or death -- the death of a letting go that hurts like hell but leads to resurrection, or the death of slow extinction as all the energies are spent on getting and keeping instead of living and giving.
John V. Taylor, A Matter of Life and Death
If there are any among us who are at their wit's end, they ought to try for once to put aside all their grievances and perhaps even all their petitions and simply praise God... Nothing so changes us -- precisely in the darkest moments of life -- as the praise of God. We can praise human persons only when we have seen what they accomplish. But we must praise God in order to see what he accomplishes. And therefore we should praise him at the very moments in life when there seems to be no way out- Then we shall learn to see the way out for our own lives, simply because God is there at the end of every way and every blind alley.
Helmut Thielicke, The Prayer that Spans the World
Father, when the way is hard and I am overwhelmed and shattered by my situation, help me to choose life. By the mysterious working of your Spirit in my mind, rekindle in me the courage I need. Strengthen my feeble resolve to allow you to perform your healing work deep within me. Help me to co-operate with you in the mending of my brokenness and increase my faith that you will keep your word and out of this death experience you will bring new and vital life.
By your help and grace I choose not to remain in bitterness and despair, but to allow you to lead me beyond it. I choose not to indulge in self-pity, but to cultivate the spirit of gratitude for all the good things which have come to me. I choose to follow your leading along the valley in the hope that you will bring me safely through it and up into the clear air of the mountains where you will give me views I have not yet glimpsed. For your mercy and compassion, I thank you. For your faithfulness which is new every morning, I praise you.
For your life which overcomes all deaths and swallows them up in abundant life, I worship you.
Rise up with Christ into a new day, a new life; because for anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old has gone and the new is here. Therefore, go forth in joy. Amen.
From High Mountains Deep Valleys, ed. Rowland Croucher, Albatross/Lion, chapter 25.