Isaiah 40:28-31; Matthew 5:3-4
Rev. Tom Herbek
February 26, 2017
In her book, God is Always Hiring, columnist Regina Brett writes:
The gas bill to heat our old house kept getting bigger, so we decided to find out where we were losing heat so we could put more insulation in the walls to stop the leaks.
My friend Bill came over with his special infrared thermometer. It looked like a small yellow gun. Everywhere he pointed it, a red dot appeared on the wall and the temperature of the area near the red dot registered on the meter.
Once we found all the leaks in the house, we caulked and insulated and added weather stripping. Our budgeted gas bill dropped from $185 to $118 a month. We stayed cozy and warm all winter.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a little gizmo like that to point all over your life to see where the energy sneaks out? Imagine how much more productive you could be if you could get rid of all your personal energy leaks. Imagine taking on only projects that energized you. Imagine how you would feel if you chose only friends, partners, and coworkers who fired you up instead of blowing out your pilot light.
There are some days I feel like I’m having my own personal energy crisis. Days when I can feel the life force leave me, when I catch myself saying, “I’m so overwhelmed … I’m so exhausted …I feel so drained.”
I fritter away energy checking and rechecking e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. I lose energy when I skip breakfast and lunch.
Energy pours out when I gossip, complain, criticize, blame, and doubt. Energy sneaks out when I react and give in to drama instead of waiting and thoughtfully responding to someone. It leaks out when I handle the same papers over and over and keep reshuffling them on my desk. Energy seeps out in all the unfocused and unnecessary brainstorms that clutter my thinking and my desk.
I constantly try to squeeze more out of me and more onto my calendar, as if each day will expand beyond 24 hours and each week beyond 7 days. I’m not alone. We tend to respect our electronics more than our own bodies. We plug in our cell phones to recharge them every night but barely get enough sleep to recharge ourselves.
She is right. Certainly there are things in our life that we can control that drain us. There are ways we can decrease our energy drain and recharge our spirits every day, and, most of the time, we can control them. But then, there are those times that overwhelm us that are outside of our control: grief, illness, suffering. There are things that happen to us that just suck the energy right out of us. How do we deal with that? How do we go on when we are exhausted?
A member of our church family recently gave me something written by Irish mystic, John O’Donohue, entitled: “A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted”:
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks·
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.
We each will experience times of exhaustion. We each will need to find ways to return to ourselves as we experience “slow time.”
Last week I found a new book by Marianne Williamson, Tears to Triumph: The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment.
Williamson says in prose some of the same things that O’Donohue says in poetry. Williamson has suffered from depression during her life, and she writes realistically about the struggles and tears of being drained, yet needing to go on. She writes:
The pain you are going through is not what will determine your future; your future will be determined by who you are as you go through your pain. This process will be one of the great journeys of your life, as you will see things you haven’t seen and know things
you haven’t known. Your tears, your hopelessness, your fear, your anger, your guilt, your resentment, your remorse, your terror – none of these will be papered over or denied. You will not dissolve them by keeping them in the dark, but by exposing them to the light. And as you do, you will see beyond them such magnificence – in yourself and in the world – that you will actually bless the journey of your suffering, for it led you to yourself and to the meaning of your life. Spiritual healing doesn’t lie in denying your pain, but in feeling it fully and surrendering it to God.
Depression is an emotional fall, sometimes into a very deep, dark valley. That is true. Yet a life of spiritual triumph is not one in which we never fall into that valley; it is one in which, if and when we do fall, we’ve learned how to get ourselves out of it. We need emotional muscles in order to rise up emotionally, just as we need physical muscles in order to rise up physically. And developing those muscles is the work of the soul. It is the search for God and the finding of our true selves.
One of the neuroses of modernity is the impulse to rush what should not be rushed. We have taken the dictates of a business model and imposed them onto everything. If something makes us less “productive” for a period of time, then surely something must be wrong. But ultimately, what could be more productive than moving beyond deep debilitating sorrow and reclaiming our inner peace?
The right time to be heartbroken is when the heart is breaking. Grief allows us to process incrementally what might be too shocking to the system to have to process all at once.
No matter what happens in life, it is our choice whether to play it deep or to play it shallow. And whenever we play life deep, we feel our feelings deeply. Times of great sadness might open up painful wounds that were buried before. They might be wounds that are not just ours, but generational or societal. Suffering through them with our hearts wide open is not for sissies, but for seekers.
Williamson then goes on to describes something that she called “blessed unrest” about the world today:
Author Paul Hawken has coined the phrase “blessed unrest” to describe a general sense of unease that many people feel. If anything should be worrisome, it’s how many people are not horrified by so much unnecessary suffering in the world today. Sometimes neurosis is best measured not by the things that make us sad, but by the things that do not make us sad.
Grief over the grievous state of the world is healthy; where would we be if abolitionists had not been upset about slavery, or suffragettes had not been upset that women could not vote? Such upset is an early warning inside our guts, saying, “The world is going in the wrong direction.” People are depressed today because the world is devolving. We are not wrong to feel this way. Rather, we should be listening to the voice in all of us that’s saying: “Something is wrong here. Something is wrong.” Then we are awakened to the urgent call of history: that we must make it right.
The correct question is not, “Why do starvation, or genocide, or deep poverty exist?” The question is, “Why do we allow such things to exist?” The people who repudiate and stop such things share a common characteristic: they refuse to shut up. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
But when we are drained, when we are exhausted, when we feel that we have no strength to go on, what are we to do? Sometimes we just have to do the only thing that we can do: put one foot in front of the other.
John Claypool, whose young daughter, Laura Lue, died of leukemia at age 8, describes what the days during her illness and hospitalization, and her subsequent death, were like for him. He talks about the words from Isaiah 40, and the order they are in, and he says that Isaiah put them in order from easier to hardest:
“They shall walk and not faint.” Now I am sure that to those looking for the spectacular this way may sound insignificant indeed. Who wants to be slowed to a walk, to creep along inch by inch, just barely above the threshold of consciousness and not fainting? That may not sound like much of a religious experience, but believe me, in the kind of darkness where I have been, it is the only form of the promise that fits the situation. When there is no occasion to soar and no place to run, and all you can do is trudge along step by step, to hear of a help that will enable you “to walk and not faint” is good news indeed. The hardest thing of all for me in the last two weeks has been my helplessness in the face of Laura Lue’s suffering. If only there had been something I could have done to change things tangibly, it would have been easier – but there was not.
Some people feel the sequence of this Isaiah passage is all turned around, and that the highest form of God’s help ought to be the soaring of ecstasy. They say it should read, “First you walk, then you run, and finally you mount up with wings as an eagle.” But I think the writer knew what he was doing when he set down the promises as he did, for in the dark stretches of life, the most difficult discipline of all is not that of soaring or even of running. It consists of “keeping on keeping on” when events have slowed you to a walk, when it seems that in spite of everything you are going to crumple under the load and faint away.
– Tracks of a Fellow Struggle
Certainly there are times when we can soar, when we can remove ourselves from the suffering, see it in a new way, and get above it and beyond it.
And we must all use this resource when it is available to us. And there are other times when we have to take the bull by the horns, find the inner strength to take the steps to leave the abusive relationship, to do the hard work to find another job, or to take our loved one to the best teaching hospital in the world and get the best care available anywhere.
But then there are the times when we don’t think we can go on. We can’t get above it or beyond it, and there is nothing more we can do, at least right now. And in those moments, we must find a way to pick up our foot and put it in front of us, slowly making our way ahead, even when we are not sure where we are going.
And in such a moment we will find within us a tiny spark of strength, a strength that allows us to keep on, even when we have no idea where it came from. And we realize that we are not alone. There are companions on the journey who have been in this place before us, and they give us hope, because they have made it through.
And there is the presence of God, the spark-creating strength, the Spirit that is deep down inside of us, that is quite familiar with suffering, that helps us to go on, to walk and not faint.
For God is present with us when we feel drained of all our energy, and when we are indeed exhausted and grieving. Our God is acquainted with suffering and grief, and will not leave us in such times.
Sometimes, we will be able to find the ability to soar above it all, to see the big picture and then know how to move forward with our spirits soaring.
Sometimes, out of our blessed unrest, we will have tasks to do, ways to make a difference.
And then, there will be other times, of deep exhaustion, feeling completely drained, grieving and shaken, when- somehow- we find the ability to just put one foot in front of the other, to take one step at a time, and to keep on keeping on.
Even when we cannot feel it or see it, God has not left us, and God will bless us in our unrest, our suffering, our grief, and our exhaustion.
For as Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those mourn, for they will be comforted.”