The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
We are continuing our Lenten journey through life's five hard truths. These truths are explored in more detail in Richard Rohr's book Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. Last week, we talked about the truth that life is hard. This week's truth is that you are not that important.
On my men's retreat last May, during which I learned about these five truths, I had a particularly powerful encounter with this truth. In the last part of the week the leaders sent us all out into the wilderness surrounding the valley where we were staying. Our task was to find a spot where we were completely alone--at least 100 yards away from anyone else. They handed us five envelopes, and every hour or so we were to open one, and to reflect on the contents. Spoiler alert: each envelope was a hard truth. Now, let me say, we'd been working through these all week, so we were somewhat prepared for this, but that didn't make the time easy, necessarily. Envelope #2 contained a card that said, "You are not that important."
I'd found a nice spot on the slope of a hill that allowed me to see some incredible snowcapped mountains in the distance. Storm clouds rolled over them, and I could even see a little lightning. An awesome sight. Things were calmer in this spot, and I was surrounded by brightly colored yellow flowers that looked a little like sunflowers. As I sat with this truth, a bee would occasionally fly by my head. I'm not afraid to admit that I've not been much of an outdoorsy person, so the bees were giving me a little anxiety. Why were they bothering me? I was swatting at the air as I'd hear them, and it was really starting to get under my skin. I also started to wonder if they were bees at all because the buzzing sounded big! One of my teasing friends reminded me before I left for this trip that Washington state is one of the places people had found murder hornets during the previous year. I'm out there all alone, and I begin to imagine myself being attacked by murder hornets thanks to my good friend. What a friend, huh? And what a chicken I am, huh?
At some point, the bees got annoying enough that I got up off of the blanket I'd packed and walked around a little. I saw some of the bees pollenating the flowers and begin really to observe them. After stopping at a flower or two I'd see them fly off, and I noticed they were flying off in the direction of my blanket, and right over it. That is when it hit me. These bees didn't care about me. At all. They were not flying around trying to bother me. They were simply doing their job, and I was sitting in the flight path.
The Holy Spirit then lightly slapped the back of my head. "Guess what, Rob--you're not that important."
That storm over those mountains, these bees, the flowers--you don't matter a whit to any of it. They're all on the "Be Team": "they be here before you arrived, they be here now, and they be here when you're gone." You are not that important.
Two things washed over me during that hour, and frankly for the rest of the day and beyond: 1) in the grand scheme of God's wide creation, I am insignificant. Yet, 2) at the same time, I am a part of it all. More than one thing can be true at one time. It's true, then, that you and I are not that important. BUT, as a part of a creation that God calls "very good" (Genesis 1:31), as people made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), as God's beloved children (Galatians 4:4-7), you and I are infinitely important.
Jesus said, "Aren't two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don't be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows" (Matt. 10:19-31)
The world tells us that life is what you make of it. Make your own way. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Your worth is in what you produce. What's one of the first questions we usually ask someone we've just met? "What do you do?" Our American culture in particular loves the self-made person. This world is all about doing in order to show our value. Spirituality is not about doing--it's about being. You are not valuable to God because of what you do for God or others. Your value in God's eyes is not earned. It's inherent.
In Adam's Return, Richard Rohr writes, "If there is no list of names in eternity, we are burdened with making our own personal name day after day. Either we are made by another or we must be self-made. Then it is every [person for themselves], dog eat dog, as we vie with one another for a zero-sum dignity and importance. If you have it, then I don't, or I will use you for my measuring stick. In either case, I am lost in comparison, envy, competition, and codependency. Spirituality: if you have it, I do too, and if I have it, you do too. Authentic spirituality is an experience of abundance and mutual flourishing instead of scarcity. Material gifts and ego gifts decrease with usage, whereas spiritual gifts actually increase with each use, in ourselves and in those around us" (p. 155-156).
"You are declared important; you cannot declare yourself important."
I kept one of the yellow flowers from that hillside. A friend of mine is helping me to enclose it epoxy so I can keep it with me always. I need it to remind me of the truth: you are not that important. BUT, "you have been given new birth—not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn't. This seed is God's life-giving and enduring word. Thus, 'All human life on the earth is like grass, and all human glory is like a flower in a field. The grass dries up and its flower falls off, but the Lord's word endures forever.' This is the word that was proclaimed to you as good news" (1 Peter 1:23-25).
You are not that important. BUT. at the same time you are infinitely important. And as we grow, we discover what truly is important.
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Last week I introduced you to the five hard truths. The first of those hard truths is that life is hard. This one has to be one of the easiest truths to recognize and relate to.
Most of the people at St. Paul's live pretty comfortable, upper-middle class lives. While such lives may not seem difficult we know that's an illusion. Wealth and comfort simply make it easier to hide the stresses many people face. Maybe some of these examples make life hard for you:
Life. Is. Hard. BUT . . .
BUT. There's good news! Each of the negative messages of the hard truths have a corresponding positive message. Life is hard, but . . . grace abounds. Yes, life is hard, but it's in the difficulties of life that true transformation takes place. Success is certainly wonderful, and I wish for success for myself and you, too! But for me, the most growth I've experienced in my life has come on the other side of difficulty. That is the story we are entering into here in the Lenten season, namely the story of the cross and the empty tomb, death and resurrection. As Jesus teaches us in the gospel of John,
"I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit."--John 12:24 (CEB)
Life is hard. And this is why it's important to be spiritually grounded. Sometimes, we think that if we go to church more, or pray more, or read the Bible more that our problems will disappear. As a priest of 14 years, a lifelong Christian, and a person who engages in regular spiritual practice, I can tell you that being a Christian has NOT made my problems go away. I still face hard things every single day. But. What I can share with you are more of the words of Jesus,
"Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I'm gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves." --Matthew 11:28 (CEB)
Being a follower of Jesus does not eliminate the problems of life. What following Jesus does do is offer spiritual support in carrying life's load. It provides me a strength beyond my abilities. A peace that passes understanding in life's hardest moments. It also places me in the midst of a community of people who are there for me when I need them.
Life is hard. That's my experience. It's also my experience, though, that God's grace abounds.
Are you facing difficulty right now? Reach out and let us help support you.