2 weeks ago CBS This Morning started a new series called “Note to Self.” As the series unfolds, a wide cross section of people will be invited to offer wisdom and guidance to the person they were as a teenager. The series began with celebrated civil rights activist, poet, author and activist Dr. Maya Angelou. (Click here to view.)
I was fascinated by Angelou’s letter to self and decided that it would be a spiritually enriching experience to write a letter to myself when I was 15 and also a letter to my church, The United Methodist Church, when it was 15 years old. Today is the letter to myself. Next week I write to my church.
At age 15 your world is limitless, isn’t it? Your days are filled with classes, studying, sports, organ lessons, church activities, friends, and a part-time job. Your life is rich, and you are so eager for God to use you to make a difference in the world. Your parents taught you that you can be and do anything you want. Oddly, the one thing you currently are not permitted to be you are already being called to be and will eventually become: a pastor.
You don’t have a name for it now, Laurie, but I wish for you a sense of Intimate Immensity, a phrase first used by the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard. Do you remember that first trip out west when you found God in the vastness of the desert, canyons, ocean, redwood forests, and snow-capped mountains as well as in the intricacy of wild flowers, lizards, birds, shells, and fossils?
Always pay attention, God asks you. Embrace the complementary opposites of intimate immensity, freedom and responsibility, solitude and community, emptiness and fullness, fear and trust, security and exposure, immanence and transcendence, and local and global. Never underestimate the ripple effect of one person’s passion, and you will understand incarnation.
Embrace your passions, Laurie. Pursue excellence and make the most of every opportunity. Do not grasp for things that do not ultimately satisfy. Remember that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” At the same time, don’t ever lose your joy. Don’t let the demands of your ministry prevent you from living fully and completely.
Notice the red bird. Get outside where your heart can soar, and your feet can run. Laugh till you cry. Learn another language. Go to concerts. Lose yourself in a novel. Make a snow angel. Lie in the grass. Make friends with someone who is not like you. Make a difference. Practice shalom.
Lead with your heart so that one day you will say, “I have made the most of what God has given me. I have tried to bring in God’s kingdom to as many people as possible. I have modeled the love of Jesus as best I could. I have listened more than talked, but I have not been quiet when I was called to speak out against injustice and oppression wherever they have presented themselves.”
I know that you are compelled to give yourself away in service. But do not sacrifice the intimacy of your relationship with Jesus for the immensity of the world’s needs. Stay connected with God and keep a good balance between work and play, doing and being, acts of mercy and acts of justice.
Allow scripture to surprise, challenge, and convert you rather than selectively using scripture to justify your own purposes. Be curious and aware of yourself as well as others. Live fiercely and boldly, but stay in community. Be radically inclusive and tender-hearted, and forgive extravagantly. Soar with the Spirit, be persistent, and live in the paradox of intimate immensity, for you only get one chance at life. Follow your dreams, and never for a minute doubt that you can and will make a difference in God’s terrible, precious, dangerous, mysterious world.
You might think that the first half this letter is a pep talk, and it is. I do want you to become the very best that you can be. The last part of this letter may seem discouraging and even scary, but you’ll understand some day.
You’ve led a safe and privileged life so far, Laurie. Many doors will open to you in the years ahead, but life will not always be kind, either. You will experience disappointment, rail again injustice, and shake your fist at God. The immensity of the world’s groaning as well as the intimacy of your own personal distress will break your heart in ways you cannot even imagine now, but suffering will be the crucible of your spiritual growth.
Discomfort, pain, and suffering will be your lot, as it is for all human beings. Will you embrace them as a good and necessary part of your life’s journey? It’s helpful to think about this in terms of sports, which you love. How do you become a stronger runner or a better cyclist? By moving out of your comfort zone and going faster than your mind or body wants to. By experiencing discomfort, you eventually adapt to higher levels of intensity.
When you stress yourself even more, you experience pain, like searing lungs and burning quadriceps at the end of a marathon. You’ll be sore for a few days, but the stress on your body builds endurance and eventually leads to faster times. When you dig deep within and go beyond what you think you can, Laurie, it becomes a mystical experience, the proverbial runner’s high.
But there’s even more. Some athletes drive themselves to the point of real suffering. One of your heroes will be Julie Moss, who suffered so much during the 1982 Hawaii ironman triathlon that she literally crawled the last 30 yards. While leading the race, Julie’s body literally shut down, and she was just yards away from the finish line when the winner passed her. That kind of suffering builds character
In your short life, you have felt some discomfort and pain, but you haven’t really had to suffer yet, Laurie. One day, however, something will happen that you won’t have the resources to handle or is beyond your control. You will experience the loss of relationships, dignity, health, jobs, dreams, trust, and even hope. Things won’t go your way, and you will not get what you think you deserve. You will be slandered, discounted, and abandoned. This will happen more than once.
The suffering is beyond description. No one wants to go this route. When Jesus told his disciples that he was going to undergo great suffering, Peter violently protested, and Jesus said, “Get behind me, You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Yet in the Garden of Gethsemane, even Jesus pleaded with God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
One of the greatest learnings of the Christian faith is that suffering is redemptive, that it is possible to descend into hell and rise again. Could it be that Jesus came to earth to show us how to suffer, how to carry “the legitimate pain of being human,” as C.G. Jung called it. One of my friends has written, “Suffering is the launch pad for transformation.”
Suffering is necessary because it leads to a spiritual maturity which recognizes our shadow self but does not give in to childish responses or narcissism. Redemptive suffering opens the door to a new life where you will be free of your lower self, free of the lures of the world, and free to become who God created you to be. Richard Rohr has written, “If you do not transform your pain, you will always transmit it.”
I wonder whether we ever really know the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ until we experience ourselves the full range of human suffering as well as joy. Your future seminary professor, Henri Nouwen, famously coined the phrase “wounded healer” to describe the way in which the wisdom and compassion we gain through suffering can become the catalyst for healing in others.
Someday you will understand that fullness of life includes failure as well as success, falling down as well as moving up, letting go as well as grabbing hold. You will always be able to choose how to respond, however. Will you choose judgment, resistance, and bitterness or surrender, obedience, and soulfulness? If you truly trust that God is at work, hold on at all costs, surround yourself with spiritual companions, and allow the intimate immensity of God’s grace to reside in your heart through Jesus Christ. If you can do that, you will not only experience fullness of life, but you will discover your true calling. I’ll be cheering you on.