Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fear, Faith and a Really Big Sea: reflections on life, one year later

I originally wrote this post about a year ago.  The themes, for me, still ring true:  It's about fear.  It's about faith in the face of that fear.  It's about staring at the vast and implacable sea (of life, of the future, of the past-- pick a metaphor, any metaphor; they're all good, all true) and being stuck and being afraid and having faith.  It's about being forgiven, at last, and forgiving, all in the same breath.

The intervening year has been... interesting (in the Chinese curse sense of the word, their proverb (ie., curse) running something like "May you live in interesting times!")  It has been an interesting year of loss and grief and grieving.  I have camped along the barren shores of despair for much longer than I care to admit, and certainly much longer than friends have cared to hear.  Let's face it: I knew there was trouble when even I was bored with my recitation of woe.  

I was bored with it, and disgusted with it, and done with it, but apparently powerless to get out of it.  To move along, get over it, take down the tent and move to balmier climes.  

How could I not be sad?  How could I walk through a day and not feel as if my life were being ripped from my hands, my fingers flayed and bloodied as I tried so desperately to hold on?  How the hell was I supposed to let go?  Every time I convinced myself I had hit bottom at last, that I could not possibly sink any lower, I managed to find the trap door.  

There is always a trap door.  There is always lower.


I grieved for everything.  I grieved for nothing.  There was lost stuff, and much of that stuff was big and huge--- but stuff nonetheless.  There was the loss of people, friends who drifted away, some for no reason that I could discern.  They were in my life one day, gone the next, and I still feel their loss keenly.  I watched someone I love disintegrate into madness, and find (eventually) a path to healing and wholeness.  I witnessed my brother's death, a long, slow, courageous and transcendent journey that still leaves me breathless and uplifted and sad beyond words.

Like I said: it's been an interesting year or three.  

So the year turns, as it always does, and time flows in some holy and sacred river, and it is, once again, Passover.  There is beauty in that cyclical passage of time.  There is grace in getting to this season, again, of God's redemption.  Once we wandered a dark and empty desert, and then were brought home.  Once we were slaves, now we are free.  

Here's what I wrote a year ago:
I'm in one of those places: stuck, prickly, at the very edge of letting go, trembling with the effort to not tip over the edge into the abyss of the unknown, desperate to take that final leap of faith and soar towards light and wholeness. I am astounded, as always, when I think how inextricably intertwined my fear and my faith have become. I have heard (more times than I care to remember) that Fear (always pronounced with a capital F) is an absence of Faith. No. I think not. I demand Not. I am too intelligent--- God is too intelligent-- to demand unthinking blind faith like that, to insist that faith is a guard against fear.

Faith does not shield me from fear. Rather, it is a guard against Inaction. Fear is quite real. There are Monsters, real and scary. Always have been. They hide under beds and around corners, just out of sight. Barely glimpsed, more smoke and mirrors, but present nonetheless. Some are visible, some not so much. Some shout me down in the dark, loud and raucous and dissonant. Some whisper in my ear, sibilant and soothing, urging me to wander paths best left untraveled. Fear keeps the lights on at night and smells of sweat and tension and anxiety-- sharp and unpleasant. If the fear is great enough, it can keep me rooted and curled in on myself, covers pulled tightly over my head, unmoving. Paralyzed. Stuck. Tentative. Invisible.

But my faith: sweet and sure and graceful. It wraps around me like light, like breath, like life. It sometimes moves mountains. More often than not, it is just enough. Enough, not to beat back the darkness or vanquish the demons, but enough to put one foot in front of the other, to walk, however falteringly, forward. To know that, no matter what, I am enough, I will be ok.

And so, faith and grace being what they are, I think of my fear, and my stuckness, and I am reminded that it is Pesach (Passover). And in the midst of all of this darkness, there is also redemption, and release.

I got to tell the story of Nachshon at assembly a few Sundays ago at my synagogue. It is my favorite midrash, I think. (For those of you reading this who are now totally lost in the tangle of my narrative, a midrash is a rabbinic story, a device used to fill in some of the blanks and the holes in the Torah. Kinda folkloric, they are the stories behind the stories.) So, Nachshon-- he was a slave with all the other Israelites who found redemption at the hand of God. He was Let Go, with a capital L and a capital G, brought out with a Mighty Hand. He packed and didn't let the dough rise and ran, breathless and scared and grateful, away from the land of Pharaohs and pyramids and crocodiles and slavery--- ran into freedom.

And then he got to the sea. He and 600,000 other un-slaved people. Stopped cold by the Red Sea. It was huge, and liquid and deep. You couldn't see the other side. It was so big you couldn't see any sides. Just wet from here to... forever.

And behind him, when he (and 600,000 others) dared to peek: Pharaoh and his army of men and horses and chariots. And spears and swords and assorted sharp pointy things. We really can't forget the sharp pointy things. Even at a distance, the sharp pointy things loomed quite large in the eyes of Nachshon and his recently-freed brethren. Caught between the original rock anda hard place. Well, ok: between water and pointy metal stuff. At this point, I don't think anyone involved cared much about getting the metaphor exactly right. What they cared about was getting out from that perilous middle. Fast.

So Moses, because it was his job, went to have a chat with God. And just like that, Moses got an answer--- a Divine Instant Message. All that the Children of Israel needed to do: walk forward, into the Sea, that big, wet, deep forever sea. God would provide a way. "Trust Me," God seemed to say. "I got you this far, didn't I? I wouldn't let you fall now!"

And Nachshon and the 600,000 stood at the shivery edge of that Sea, staring at that infinite horizon in front and the pointy, roiling chaos of death and slavery behind them. And they stood. Planted. And let's face it: not just planted, but rooted in their fear and mistrust and doubt. They may have felt reassured by the image of God as a pillar of smoke or fire--- impressive pyrotechnics to be sure--- but the soldiers and the Sea were so there, so present, so much more real.

And then, in the midst of that fear and doubt, something changed. Nachshon, lately freed, trapped between death by water and death by bleeding, Nachshon leapt. He did the miraculous: he put one foot in front of the other and walked into the sea.  And the 600,000 held their collective breath, watching the scene unfold before them. Nachshon did what 600,000 could not  (or would not; that may be another blog altogether): he decided to believe, to have faith. To leap. And tho the water covered first his ankles, then knees, then chest, then kept rising, until he was almost swallowed whole, he kept walking, kept believing. And just when it seemed that Nachshon was a fool for his faith, would surely drown in that infinite forever sea, another miracle:

The waters parted.

The Sea split and Nachshon, so recently in over his head, he walked on dry land. And the 600,000 breathed again, in one relieved whoosh of air, and they found their own faith and followed Nachshon into and across the dry Sea to the other side.  And then the journey truly began...

I pray to have faith enough to walk into my own Sea--- of doubt and fear and darkness. I want to walk and feel the waters part, to be released from the tangled web of thought that holds me immobile and disconnected. I have learned, again and again, without fail: when I take that step, when I find the grace and the faith to put one foot in front of the other, to trust, as Nachshon did, I am carried forward, I am freed from my self-imposed bondage. I am enough, and I can walk again on dry land to freedom.

I think I am finally letting go, finally leaving the desert, stumbling at last along the narrow bridge to light and hope.  There is fear; yes.  But there is also faith and grace and redemption.  Even for me, there is redemption.

Once we were slaves, now we are free.

Chag Pesach Sameach.  Happy Passover.

19 April 2011