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Blessings of Challenging Times

What if the intention of (what we call) the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, was to remind everyone of their role as the Beloved of God no matter what they were going through? People in ancient times operated with a belief that God only blessed you if you were good, righteous, devout, and did what God wanted. If you fell on hard times, people believed it was your own fault and God was obviously punishing you for screwing up. Clearly our understanding of God has evolved and Jesus helped that evolution by teaching that God loves us no matter what. We are always the Beloved of God, God's favor is not withdrawn, nor are blessings ever taken away.

We all know that life happens. We go through difficult times because that's the way life is. I think it is entirely possible that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus was reminding folks that God still loves them and there are blessings to be found even in the tough times. Read through this lens, the beatitudes might sound a little more like this:

Even those who are poor in spirit are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who are mourning are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who are gentle and meek (something that was looked down upon) are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who hunger and thirst for justice are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who are persecuted are Beloved and blessed.

And, if we were to rewrite the Beatitudes to reflect life in this time and culture, it might sound a bit like this:

Even those who are refugees and asylum seekers are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who are LGBTQIA are Beloved and blessed.
Even those from broken homes are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who are addicts are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who are incarcerated are Beloved and blessed.
Even those who are down and depressed, or struggling with mental illness are Beloved and blessed.

And so on.

Being Beloved and blessed does not deny the fact that life throws really challenging times at us. Yes, we are Beloved and blessed, but that doesn't mean there won't be loss, pain, uncertainty, fear, grief and difficult times. What it means is that even in the midst of all this, there will be help, there will be rest, there will be strange graces (to quote Jan Richardson). It also means that the challenges themselves can bless us, maybe not at first, but  as Elizabeth Lesser writes," [H]ad I never stumbled down the mountain of my ideals, had my ego not been humbled by loss, and my heart not broken open by pain, I would not have discovered the secret treasure that lies waiting for each one of us at the bottom of our most difficult times."

Sometimes a new perspective helps us to see the blessing in the challenge. Henry Nouwen tells a story about a time at l’Arche Daybreak, a community where people with disabilities live side by side with their assistants and caregivers. The assistants come from many countries, sometimes for a summer, sometimes for a year, sometimes for many years. They develop deep bonds of friendship with the residents, but sooner or later the assistants leave. Some get married, some return to school, some lose their work permits, some look for a new direction in life… there are many reasons. Sadly, it was often very hard for the residents to say good-bye.

One day, Jean Vanier, the founder of l’Arche, came to visit at Daybreak. He gathered the whole community around him and said, “What questions would you most like to ask me?” Thelus, one of the core members who had lived at Daybreak a long time, raised her hand and said: “Why are people leaving all the time?” Jean understood this question was not just Thelus’ question but also… the question of all long-term Daybreak members.

He gently moved closer to her and said: “You know, Thelus, that is the most important question you can ask. Because you and many others want to make Daybreak your home, where you can feel well loved and well protected. What then does it mean when so often someone you love, and who loves you, leaves your home, sometimes for good? Why then do you have to suffer the pain of so many departures? It may feel as if people do not really love you! Because if they love you, why would they leave you?”

As he was speaking, everyone looked at him very attentively. They knew this man truly understood their pain and sincerely cared for them. They wanted to hear what he had to say. With great gentleness and compassion, Jean looked at everyone who was listening and said: “You know, your joy and your pain give you a mission. Those who came to live with you, from whom you received much and to whom you gave much, aren’t just leaving you. You are sending them back to their schools, their homes, and their families, to bring some of the love they have lived with you. It’s hard. It’s painful to let them go. But when you realize that this is a mission, you will be able to send your friends to continue their journeys without losing the joy they brought you.”

Seeing the blessing in something doesn’t necessarily erase the pain, but it perhaps makes the pain more bearable, gives you a way through it, and offers light for the darkness.

Elizabeth Lesser, in her book Broken Open, shares an interesting story about well-known spiritual teacher Ram Dass and the “strange grace” or “fierce grace” (as he called it) that he experienced after a life-altering stroke. Most people know him as a wise, compassionate and utterly brilliant man. She, too, knew him as this. But she also knew another side of him, a side that hated to depend on anyone, who fled the scene if relationships became too sticky, who was used to running the show. The first Ram Dass was instrumental in her own spiritual transformation. The second Ram Dass infuriated her. 

He was also on the Board of the Omega Institute which she co-founded. They were in the middle of one of their more difficult times when he had a massive stroke – his right side was completely paralyzed, and doctors didn’t know if he would ever walk or speak again.

Ironically, Elizabeth’s father died a week before Ram Dass’s stroke, of a similar stroke. Given the grief of this and the way they had parted the last time she and Ram had been together, it was a year after his stroke before she finally visited him in his home in California.

She walked up the path to his house and there he was, sitting on the front porch, slumped over in his wheelchair, his trembling right arm tied to the chair’s railing, his white hair in disarray. “Elizabeth!” he called with delight. Tears came to her eyes and her heart broke open.

“I’m home dear!” she joked.

“Yes, you’re home… Welcome home.”

She asked him many questions about his stroke and the aftermath. He answered a few. It was difficult for him to form full, flowing sentences. The words came out slowly. Toward the end of their visit she said, “Ram Dass, I think the stroke has made you more human. More a real human being, and more an eternal soul – both at the same time.”

His eyes filled with tears. He squeezed her hand. “Grace,” he said. “Stroke is heavy grace. Fierce grace… Ego gone. Nothing more to lose. Ego breaks open - then you see who you really are.”

Later Ram Dass wrote this in a book:

For me to see the stroke as grace required a perceptual shift It was a shift from taking the point of view of the Ego to taking the point of view of the Soul… What was changed through the stroke was my attachment to the Ego. The stroke was unbearable to the Ego, and so it pushed me into the Soul level, because when you ”bear the unbearable” something within you dies. My identity flipped over and I said, “So that’s who I am – I’m a soul!” I ended up where looking at the world from the Soul level is my ordinary, everyday state. And that’s grace. That’s almost the definition of grace. And so that’s why, although from the Ego’s perspective the stroke is not much fun, from the Soul’s perspective it’s been a great learning opportunity. When you’re secure in the soul, what’s to fear? Since the stroke I can say to you with an assurance I couldn’t have felt before, that faith and love are stronger than any changes, stronger than aging, and, I am very sure, stronger than death.”

In My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel Remen shares that she begins and ends every day with a very old ritual that was taught to her by an elderly Tibetan nun.

Each morning, immediately after awakening, she takes a special bowl (used only for this purpose) to the sink. She turns on the water, lets it run and then fills her little bowl to the brim. As the bowl is filling, she reflects on her life. The people with whom she shares her time, her health, whatever problems she may be facing, her skills and strengths, her disappointments and successes, her worries, her personal gifts, her personal limitations, her home, her possessions, her losses, her history as a human being. As the bowl fills, the goal is to receive one’s life openheartedly and unconditionally as your portion.

Then she walks very slowly, so as not to spill a drop, and takes it to a private place in her house, placing it in its special spot and dedicating all that it contains to the service of life. Then she leaves it there for the day.

The each evening before going to sleep she empties the bowl outside so the water returns to the earth. The bowl is placed upside down in its special place until morning.

Rachel has found this practice to be very healing. She writes, “The thought that all things can be used equally to befriend life seems to soften the edges of things, to break down the boundaries between one’s sorrows and one’s joys, one’s wounds and one’s strengths. They may be of equal value in serving life. Perhaps it is through such consecration that all things will ultimately reveal their true value and meaning."

And so it goes... Beloved and blessed are we by the good times and the times that challenge us. They bring us depth, soul-learning, grace and perspective to serve life.

Love & Light!