by Linda Ryan
He said not: Thou shalt not be troubled, thou shalt not be tempted, thou shalt not be distressed, but He said: thou shalt not be overcome. — Julian of Norwich
We had our next-to-last class meeting of our Education for Ministry (EfM) groups last weekend. It’s always sad to come to the end of the year, but we still continue our practice of doing a theological reflection (TR) each week. We take a story, Bible passage, picture, poem, commercial, advertisement, or almost anything, and look at it from a number of different angles. We ask what the artifact means to each of us, what the world of the artifact is like, what is broken about it, and what would make it whole. We explore what culture says about it, where we would find something similar in our Christian tradition (Bible, lives of saints, hymns, readings), what our personal position on the artifact is, and what implication or epiphany we have had as a result of listening to others, voicing our own thoughts, and listening for God to put in a word to us. We take this epiphany out into the world and try to incorporate it into our lives and ministries.
This past weekend we had a picture of a group of kayakers negotiating a whitewater run. There were big black rocks on one side, and lots of small rapids, eddies, and turbulence in the water. Each paddler seemed intent on making his/her way down the rapids safely, keeping one eye on the water ahead, the other checking periodically the path of the one paddling ahead of them so they could either follow safely or look for a better way of negotiating the rough water.
One thing all of us agreed on was that all of us find ourselves in whitewater now and then, figuratively if not literally. There are times we all have felt we were not in control of what was going on around us. It was probably like what the disciples felt during the storm on Galilee, powerless and full of fear, even with Jesus in the boat with them. But Jesus was sleeping through the whole thing! So the disciples did what most of us do when we’re in over our heads: they called on Jesus to get them out of the danger. Now doesn’t that sound like something we would do?
Dame Julian certainly seemed to have grasped the concept of whitewater, whether or not she had ever seen the actuality of a stretch of it. She did understand, though, that we would all face trouble, temptation, and distress. Surely her severe illness at the age of 30 would probably count as one of those whitewater experiences, yet upon her recovery she began to have visions that have come to be known as the beginnings of her Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love, a spiritual classic. The visions lead her to become an anchoress at a local church. Julian may have abandoned living in the world, but the world came to her for counsel and direction.
Illness, like many experiences, make us feel we are not in control, and that we are totally helpless. It’s true; we quite often are not. Yet Dame Julian has a word for us: “But He said, thou shalt not be overcome.” What on earth does that mean? What if we or someone we love die as a result of illness or accident, despite many fervent prayers and assertions that we believe God will heal? What if we are in deep trouble and it seems like God is far away and totally uninterested?
It’s not an easy position to be in.
What is it to be overcome? Is it permanent, or can it be temporary? Are there things we can do to get ourselves out of the maelstrom or are we permanently stuck?
What if we could see whitewater as an opportunity? We can learn from turbulence, even if the experience itself is far from pleasant. We can learn that overwhelmed doesn’t necessarily mean overcome. Like kayakers who learn early in their training to right a kayak that flips over, we can learn to see the rapids as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. It is also an opportunity to learn to trust that God will not abandon us.
That may not mean that God is going to resolve all our problems or pull us safely out of every turbulence even if we shout “Help!” at the top of our lungs. What God will do, however, is be the second person in our kayak, the guide leading us onward, the quiet inlet where we can stop and rest.
It’s something we can believe in, and that’s what Jesus told us to do. It’s something to hold on to, even when we feel overwhelmed.
Image: Whitewater Adventures