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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Transcending Trials

“Then to Adam He said,
‘. . . Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you shall eat of the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You shall eat bread”
(Genesis 3:17-19)

                The year 2004 marked the peak of my earthly desperation.  Our second child, Melanie, was born at the end of 2003 and our first child, Andrew, was an unwilling potty-trainer.  To maintain enrollment at preschool, Andrew’s preschool director required he be potty-trained by a certain date, which arrived without any success.  Desperate, I met with his pediatrician.  After asking both me and Andrew a series of questions, our pediatrician reported what any mother of a reluctant potty-trainer already knows: he wasn’t ready yet and pushing him to be was futile.  “Could you tell that to his preschool director, please?” I pleaded.  She gave me her business card and said she’d be happy to have the director call her.

                Fully equipped with all my arguments, our pediatrician’s business card, and my nursing baby in my arms, I met with the director.  Melanie was my first line of defense: how was a nursing mom to potty train a toddler who wasn’t yet ready?  The director claimed lots of women (including herself) had done it, so could I.  While such a remark usually makes my blood boil, I maintained composure and continued with my need to return to work, Andrew’s lack of readiness, our pediatrician’s perspective, and even her willingness to talk to the director herself.  That offer went over with the director about as well as her comment went over with me that she potty-trained while nursing just fine.  Finally, she offered a compromise: if I continued to work on potty-training, Andrew could stay for three more months, and then we’d revisit his enrollment. 

Three weeks before that next deadline arrived, Andrew was finally ready.  Although he wasn’t fully potty-trained by the second deadline, he had made so much progress in the previous few weeks that he was welcomed to stay.  A few weeks later, potty-training was complete.  As all the experts say, once a child is ready to potty-train, it’s quick and easy.  Six months of painful prodding went by before six quick and easy weeks did the trick.  I was both relieved and frustrated.  Why had I, as a working and nursing mother, been required to expend such unnecessary energy?  And why had my little boy?

Potty-training Andrew was just one of a myriad of earthly pressures pounding unnecessary anxiety into life.  Many of these are about one stressful word that makes our culture tick: “Now!”  Potty-training Andrew felt representative, symbolic even.  It was like this one experience explained it all.  Life doesn’t have to be futile. 

I sensed that we women not only face what Eve was told she’d face, but we also face the one to Adam.  While our tradition has tended to call these “curses,” by the way, I’d like to call them “trials,” just as thorns are “trials” to the gardener tending the plants they occupy.  At the time, I had yet to perceive the benefit of “trials,” and instead complained that life shouldn’t have to be consumed with “thorns” and “toil.”   If only our culture was willing to be patient, I thought in frustration, we could all be set free from a great deal of anxiety.   Instead, we toil by the sweat of our brow, and we do so unnecessarily.  We do so, in part, because our culture expects us to.  Andrew could have been easy to potty-train, but I had made a promise to the preschool director to try – in other words, I had promised to “toil.”

As a mother of young children, I couldn’t see any way out.  My own anxiety level had reached a point that worried me as a mother.  Little things set me into a rage.  How could I teach my three year old to avoid tantrums when I was having them myself?  It was especially his tantrums that set me off.  I couldn’t handle them.  He’d scream and I’d scream right back, “Don’t you dare scream!  I need peace!”

Eventually, I discovered a mystery: God has been committed from the beginning to set us free from the trials He spoke "in the beginning."  He is not waiting for the Messiah, the “second-coming,” the after-life, or some "salvation" we experience later.  Would not complete “salvation” bring us the power to face the trials, name them, confront them, battle them, declare victory over them and transcend them?  This hints at a competing yet complementary mystery: to declare victory, we must enter the battle.  In faith and with God's great power, we battle a great trial.  As God miraculously helps us overcome the great one, He also helps us to transcend the little ones.

Notice Genesis explores the development of human trials and how they play out in mankind.  The rest of the Bible and, especially, the very next book, Exodus, is all about God working to rescue His people from those trials!  Too often, we're led to believe God waits thousands of years to set us free (with the Messiah), or thousands more (with the “second-coming”), or after we die (in the after-life).  But scripture shows in the very next book after God proclaims the trials, He is already rescuing his people from those same ones!

Perhaps we're led to believe freedom is so far away because it is not at all easy for us to get there . . .

At the beginning of Exodus, we find Adam and Eve’s descendents in the most bitter and ultimate end of Adam’s trial: slavery.  Not only do Adam’s sons till “in toil,” “by sweat,” with “thorns and thistles,” but now their trial has become so extreme that Exodus records it as follows:

“And the Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously;
and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks
and all kinds of labor in the field,
all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them”
                                                                                                                (Exodus 1:13-14)

What happens after this?  Most of us already know: God sends his prophet Moses to “set My people free” and then ushers them into a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  We may “know” this story, but do we know it?  Have we internalized it into our being, our soul and our life?  Once we do, we find ourselves living this story.

In a nutshell, what is that story?  It’s the story that begins – like the Book of Exodus – when we discover ourselves in slavery.  We had already been there, but we hadn’t known it; and our story starts when we discover it.  Our story continues as we struggle, with divine help, to be set free.  This is the moment when we are likely to face a very great trial.  We thought we were miserable before.  Oh how little we knew of misery!  Thank goodness we knew so little.  Had we known the magnitude of the trial for our breakthrough, we may never have left the land of slavery.  This hints at why the Israelites begged Moses to send them back to Egypt

We continue in our great trial, wandering around lost and wondering whether the benefits of freedom are worth the price of freedom.   The climax occurs when we bravely enter the place of blessing – typically by confronting even mightier trials, like the well-armed enemies at Jericho

Our story concludes when we enter the promised land, flowing with milk and honey.  No longer do we “toil” against “thorns” “all the days of our life” by “the sweat of our face.”  Instead, our needs (“milk”) and even our wants (“honey”) “flow” for us.  We need not toil; the ground “flows” its most precious nutrients.  Even any circumstances we face that others would call “trials,” we have transcended, as St. Paul, who learned the secret of being content in all things.  This is the story God desires for every one of us.

                At the end of my year of desperation, my pastor posed a challenge to us all in his sermon.  It was the day after Christmas and he asked us whether we “got what we wanted for Christmas.”   Then he asked, “Did you ask God for anything for Christmas?  How about a character gift?”  Then came his challenge: “if you haven’t asked God for a character gift for Christmas, why not ask Him for one in place of a New Year’s Resolution?”

                After a year of tearing out my hair, I was ready for this challenge and took my pastor up on it.  I decided I would pray every day of 2005 for a quality in 1 Peter: “a quiet and gentle spirit.”  Unlike typical “New Year’s Resolutions,” this was one I diligently followed and I really did pray every day for God to perform this miracle.  The trials that arrived, in order to usher in the miracle, made me chuckle at the “trials” of trying to work, nurse and potty-training at once.  Thankfully, I was desperate enough for God to change me that I submitted to the suffering of the greater trials, and by battling them, I began to find victory over the original ones.

At the other end of God’s radical work in me, not only was I developing a quiet and gentle spirit, but I was also gaining a new understanding of myself, Christ, God, life, humanity, femininity, and the scriptures.  That great trial we face just before entering the promised land is beautifully symbolized by the cross.  Upon perceiving a few of these mysteries, I recorded the following into my journal:

Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross was not given to us so that we could obtain a “get into heaven for free” pass.  The cross was designed to give us the power to become the men and women God created us to be, in His image.  Once we choose to internalize this mystery and God chooses to grace us with it, the cross mystically bestows upon us the capacity to live like Christ.

Learning to live like Christ is certainly a life-long journey and process.  Once we've tasted the fruits in the promised land, however, this journey is a remarkable adventure.  May we each discover God’s desire to set us free and the power He has given us to do so.  May we face the trials, call upon the Lord in faith for His strength, and declare victory over them in Christ.  May we transcend them by faithfully recognizing that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.  Amen.

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