Do not despair. If you want to be different, you may. You too, can be changed for the better. Therein lies our hope-and the hope of the world. Peter Marshall
My resolutions don’t come on New Year’s Day. They come during the season of Lent and they’re more convictions than resolutions. Convictions because I am found guilty of certain things. Rather than resolve to do or be something better, these heart stirrings prompt first and foremost a taking off, a removal of things that have not been right or have not been working. In the introduction of a book I’m following for these forty days, it says this:
“Spiritual masters often refer to a kind of “dread,” the nagging sense that we have missed something important and have been somehow untrue-to ourselves, to others, to God. Lent is a good time to confront the source of that feeling.”
Each year I give up hours of scrolling down the endless feed on Facebook to make more space to listen and attend to this “nagging sense.” If I follow through and listen during the space that I’ve made, I am shown at least a few ways in which I’ve been “untrue.” This has been the case this year. In my inner being, I’ve been convicted in the area of judgement, and I’ve even been shown the source of that judgement. In a practical sense, I’ve been convicted of something I will write more about at another time: the detriment of and lack of trust in my personal sleep habits.
Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I can remember my therapist saying that, for the most part, people don’t change. That is not to say that he, primarily using cognitive behavior techniques, wasn’t trying to help me alter my way of thinking. What it means is that my basic personality- who I am- wasn’t going to be radically different. For example, an anxious person will probably never rid themselves of anxiety- but they can learn to manage it much better. Still, I remember finding his words somewhat disheartening. Later, when I became a parent, I read that most of the basic personality traits of my child would be established by the time she was five years old. More confirmation that change later on is hard.
But what I started thinking about a few days ago as I walked home from dropping Audrey off at school, the question I’ve approached these pages with, was whether real change is even possible. To invite real change, I must clarify in my own mind what I mean by “change.” I do not mean perfection. (although I find often that is what I’m expecting and where I go wrong!) By change I mean first, a letting go of thoughts and practices that are neither beneficial nor life-giving to grasp onto those that are, and secondly, a deep, inward turn of heart.
I think I’ve done more self-reflection in my 40 years than many people do in a lifetime. My reading list always includes biographies, spiritual works, and self-help books. I’ve seen numerous therapists, grief counselors, a spiritual director, and delved into my childhood, my marriage, relationships, and calling. When I took a Strengths test at a career counselor’s office two springs ago, the counselor asked me to guess the order of my seven strengths before she revealed them. When I did so accurately, she told me in all of her years as a counselor no one had ever done that. I know myself pretty well. I journal and have kept diaries or journals and used writing as a way of processing life since I was about nine or ten years old. But knowing myself and changing seem to be two very different things. Genuine, lasting change often feels slow or altogether illusive.
When I became a believer, I expected and hoped for noticeable change, but because I had pretty much always been a “good girl,” I felt I had no story of keen transformation. While the pastor at our old charismatic church in NYC had gone from being a drug dealer in the Bronx to a preacher, the changes in my life were less dramatic. I took up singing and songwriting. I learned to love myself. I was never the prodigal son- running home full of repentance into my Father’s arms, but more like the older brother in the story, still working hard to be worthy and as a result, slightly bitter, increasingly resentful.
When my husband died, throwing me into all sorts of crises of faith and worldview- I thought surely this would lead to the transformation. Now, now I thought, I will be different. And I was. And I am. How could I ever be the same? I wanted and expected radical change. It was the least I could hope for having suffered all that. I wanted to be wise and know what the important things in life were. And I think I do. But I still lose my patience when my child won’t put her shoes on so we can get out the door. I am back to writing endless to-do lists and grading myself each day according to how much I’ve gotten done. I still move the same pile of stuff I can’t seem to figure out what to do with from one room to another when guests come. I was startled to find, on a few occasions, an old email or list of goals or journal entry from years before his death and think, “Oh my God, I sound exactly the same.” I am still someone trying to “get it all together,” someone who is easily absorbed by details, and allows a fear of failure to lead to endless procrastination. Even the fire of suffering seemed to have been lost on me in some ways.
Even though we’ve been given a powerful impetus for change doesn’t mean that change will happen. In her memoir, Rhoda Janzen says this: “I had assumed that altered circumstances meant altered lives. I had assumed that because the external circumstances of my life were so radically different, I must be radically different. But change doesn’t’ work like that. Altered circumstances give us only the opportunity to change. We actually have to do the work.”
But what if we’ve done the “work” and see no fruit? When I look in bookstores or online and notice the proliferation of self-help these days, I know lots of us are working at it. These types of books have always been there, but now they litter the Internet, Ted Talks, articles that promise transformation with click bait like “The One Thing You Need to Know…etc.” or “Eight Steps to Getting it all Together.” I’m not saying none of these are useful or edifying. They are. I click on them. I’m pretty sure I’ve written a few. But they are also more like seeds waiting to germinate than the rain and the sun that will grow them.
Often, even though we have all of the knowledge in our heads, we cannot seem to put it into action. I read once that the difference between what we know and how we act equals the pain of our experience. I identified with this statement and shared it with a friend over dinner. I was frustrated with my inability to live out what I knew. It’s a mundane example, but let’s say you want to exercise and know it helps you, but you can’t quite make it a habit. Or let’s say your head is full of information on health and nutrition, but you can’t seem to meal plan. My friend looked at me and said that she disagreed, “because that leaves no room for grace.” She was right. Grace means you don’t have to do it all yourself. It means you acknowledge you need to work on something, but you’re not alone. There will be help.
The elder brother in the story of the prodigal son does not understand grace yet. In Henri Nowen’s beautiful book, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” meditating on Rembrandt’s famous depiction of the story, he writes, “”It is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.” Not only the brother who left to squander his father’s wealth on pleasures, but, “the one who stayed home also became a lost man.” I have been this kind of lost.
The elder brother feels he has worked hard and earned his due. But grace is not earned. His deep resentment prevents him from entering into the joy of the scene where his father embraces his younger brother. The elder brother cannot return home. He remains outside. What the “nagging sense” and the convictions during Lent really offer us is a way home. But can the elder brother get home by his own devices? Nowen ends his meditation on the elder brother with a resounding no, “Can the elder son in me come home? …Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen. I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights. … I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down. What is impossible for me is possible for God.” In the next chapter Nowen suggests that a trust greater than the lostness, and gratitude- which cannot coexist with resentment, are the disciplines required on our part for this conversion to take place.
I’ve been reading a small, out of print book of sermons and prayers by a Scottish minister, Dr. Peter Marshall, who preached in Washington D.C.’s historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and served as chaplain of the Senate in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He points out that even the disciples, who had walked with Jesus for three years and known him intimately, seemed slow to transformation and real change. They lacked courage, faith, were jealous of one another, fought and hid. “Of course three years did something to them and in them. The fuel had been laid on the fire, but it was not lit. The seed had been sown, but it had not germinated. All the possibilities of change in them had been created, but the changes had not happened yet.”
Sown but not germinated. These words resonated with me deeply. It gave me hope that maybe all of the deep soul-work I felt I’d been doing in the five plus years since my husband’s death was not in vain, that maybe the possibilities of change had been created.
But like Nowen, Dr. Marshall doesn’t see that change coming in and of themselves. Like the deep resentment of the elder brother, Peter’s denial, Thomas’s doubt, their collective fear, didn’t disappear even in Christ’s presence, even after the crucifixion, and even after the Resurrection. The real change in them came only on Pentecost. Dr. Marshall continues,
“Not until The Spirit had come upon them in power were they changed, so that cowardice gave place to courage, unbelief became a flaming faith and conviction that nothing on earth could shake, jealousy was swallowed up in brotherly love, self-interest was killed and became a ministry to others, fear was banished, and they were afraid of no man…no threat, no danger. And therein lies our hope.”
Therein lies our hope.
After Peter betrayed Jesus, after the rooster crowed a third time as Jesus had predicted, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter…and Peter went outside and wept bitterly.” In a recent excerpt in the book I’m reading for Lent, Henry Drummond points out that there are two types of sorrow one can feel over one’s sin. The first is just wounded self-love. “All this amounts to little more than vexation and annoyance with ourselves, that after all our good resolutions and attempts at reformation, we have broken down again. This kind of sorrow bears no lasting fruit.” This is the kind of sorrow that I have often felt- this kind of frustration with my inability to change certain things. Drummond goes on to say that this kind of sorrow is a “coming to ourselves,” but not a coming to God. Real repentance happens when God turns and looks at us. The prodigal son first comes to himself, but then he also comes home to his father. Peter did not look at Jesus. Jesus turned and looked at him first.
All of the self-help books, all of my self-reflection, therapy, psychological insights and strategies are just the coming to myself. They are valuable, but they are not necessarily empowering. They lack grace. They lack the glance of Christ, the coming home. Without that grace, we find ourselves still, mostly in the dark.
“Is there a way out? I don’t think there is –at least not on my side. It often seems that the more I try to disentangle myself from the darkness, the darker it becomes. I need light, but that light has to conquer my darkness, and that I cannot bring about by myself…I can desire it, hope for it, wait for it, yes, pray for it. But my true freedom I cannot fabricate for myself. That must be given to me. I am lost. I must be found and brought home by the shepherd who goes out to me,” writes Nowen.
I am reminded of the imagery in the third book of the “Chronicles of Narnia” that Audrey and I are finishing up at night. In it, the children are aboard a ship called the Dawn Treader sailing to strange islands on different adventures. One island is just called “The Dark Island.” As soon as their ship gets near it, they find themselves in utter darkness. They can’t see and when they find out the horrors that await on that island, they can’t seem to free themselves or row fast enough to get out of its clutches. As chaos on the ship starts to ensue in the darkness, Lucy whispers, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” And we are told, “The Darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little-a very, very little-better.” Shortly after that, an albatross flies to the mast and guides the ship out of the darkness. But before it leaves it whispers to Lucy, “Courage, dear heart.”
Real change is possible. In all of our resolving and striving, we’re all just trying to get home. We may be closer than we think to the seeds germinating, the fire being lit. We might add to that soil, to that fuel, the simple prayer of Lucy. We might meet Christ’s eyes with Peter, let slip through our fingers the oars of our self-righteousness, and steer towards home.