Today’s epistle is from the letter of James (1:1-15), where it says “whenever, you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” And although much of what we read in Scripture about testing can be read through an historical lens of the early church, it is just as true for us today. We face trials, as Christians in a secular world, as the liberal church tried against the conservative church. And as just plain folks, navigating through the maze of getting along with each other on a daily basis.
I am currently reading a very kind and wise book by the Rev. Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. For all of us the gift of opening our hearts and our struggles to another is a doorway to opening ourselves and our hearts to God. Ultimately the burden of hearing the Spirit is ours in prayer, asking for wisdom, asking to have ears to hear. But sorting out what we hear and what we do means also sifting it through those hidden, broken, frightened places which life deals all of us, from those who live the most loving and easy lives to those who have known betrayal, failure, and at life’s worst, torture and war. James tells us to ask God for wisdom which will be given generously, and then he chides those of little faith or shaky faith. But to be fair, aren’t we all those people at one time or another. And some guidance from another helps a lot.
In Guenther’s book she comes right to the point when she says that opening up, that purging of hidden demons and protective denial which block us from God’s grace and tests our faith finally comes to the need for confession, especially in the Rite of Reconciliation. For ultimately we are asking God, either through a priest of the Church or through the prayers to the Holy One to absolve us of those things which push us away from God and each other, deafen us to the Spirit, blind us to the love poured out in the world around us.
What I have discovered is that I, and here I will take the leap and say we, have a shadow side, and that shadow is the very shadow of our best, our blessed selves. Gracious self-sacrifice is smothered with proud self-aggrandizement. True humility in love and fear of God and gratitude for the very sacrifice of his Son which gives us forgiveness, peace, and eternity is drowned in ego and spiritual pride, the appearances of goodness to garner honor and respect in our community. We walk a tightrope, and one we are asked to confront every day. And to do that willingly takes love, the love of a parent for a child, for a spouse for a partner, for a doctor for her patient, a teacher for his student. It is hard going. We hear it in Jesus’ words in the Gospel for today (Lk 9:18-27). Just after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, not John the Baptizer or Elijah, but the very Christ, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” And so as we grow in love and trust we realize that we have to give up those false things we thought were ourselves in order to take up the cross of sincerity and truth.
But in real life this is complicated. This is how I see it. I know that when I sin, that is, when I am bad tempered, or angry, or strike out for any reason, justified or not, my hurt is carried to the other person, and beyond that to the others around me and the others around them. In that way the sin is passed on. Sin is not just coveting one neighbor’s house, wealth, or sexual partner. Or robbing a bank. Those are the big things, and pretty much are intentional acts. The basic sin between us sinners is not so intentional, but often rises up out of old wounds. A bad parent, a rebellious child, a cruel teacher, and we remember the hurt in our bones, in our souls. When we mature as Christians we can learn to recognize these things. We can’t avoid or ignore them. We must transform them, and try to make amends.
What this has to do with spiritual direction seems to be this. When I either share my pain with my director, or hear another’s pain in direction or in a healing ministry, in compassion, the pain is shared. I hurt when I hear it. Not that I deny the absolute power of God to heal. I know I am not a sin eater, and that the Spirit is doing the work. But I am embodied, and when I hear sorrow, frustration, fear, I feel, and those feelings become at least a little mine. Without feeling some pity can we move to compassion? And without compassion I am no better than a robot. Even boundaries need to be permeable. In Christ, cold professionalism won’t do. When I realized that I was causing pain I was overcome with sorrow and shame for everything I have ever shared, especially with those who have mentored and taught me. In seeking forgiveness, I have hung my sins out to dry. Repentance is a painful business before it is transformed into joy (and sometimes sheepish laughter). But it is needful, and I received Christ’s gift at the hands of another. Then I realized that this circle of sin and repentance and absolution held a deeper blessing. The process of healing in Christ is a shared business. Both parties are vulnerable. If we did not share each others’ pain and joy, would we be human? Would Jesus’ gift on the cross mean anything?
Jesus felt our sin, our dysfunction, our imperfection, and was willing to be so true to us that he took up his cross, gave his life, died for it. And then rose again to sanctify us, not in our perfection, but our imperfection, our humble, bumbling attempts to be better, to be more like him, to know his Father. We share the same Spirit that binds us into the Body of Christ. So I grieve and joy at how my life is connected with those around me. And I love them all the more for it, as I pray they love me despite my humanness. Because what else can I be?
I think of that mutual bonding in pain and forgiveness, in sin and absolution, as the door to our salvation. Of at-one-ment with God. Of growing deeper into the mind Jesus. Of learning how he over and again felt compassion, reached out and healed, lifted up, gave life, and forgiveness. That models our Great Commission, how we take up our cross, spread the Gospel, love as we are loved. Let us, imperfect as we are, go forth in the name of Christ. Alleluia, alleluia.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.