Easy is Earned
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
“God is about to do something new.” When I hear people say that phrase, I think they mean it to be an encouragement. Amid life’s trials and tribulations, a minister says God is about to do something new and now relationships blossom into bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is a winner. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing. God is about to do something new. No more pain. No more tears. No more death. No more death. We will be changed.
“God is about to do something new.” If you’ve been listening to me for a while, you can probably guess I have a contrary thought about this. When I hear someone say, “God is about to do something new,” I say to myself, “Really? Then watch out!” Because, when God does something new, life does not get easier. When God does something new, life can actually get a lot harder. When God does something new, that’s when the heavy lifting begins.
Do you know what I mean by heavy lifting? I go to the gym every week day and throw heavy weights around. My goal is to build some muscle, so I need to lift heavy things. I want something new to happen in my body, but the change has not come without some effort and occasional pain. Heavy lifting stretches and tears muscles. Only over time, lifting heavy things day after day after day, does one see growth. In the gym, we say “easy is earned.” It means that what feel effortless today used to feel excruciatingly painful. Payoff doesn’t come without some hard work and sacrifice. So, when I hear someone say God is about to do something new, it’s a signal to me that change will come, but sustained change will take effort … and perseverance … and engaging in actions that feel awkward and we don’t want to do … and some heavy lifting.
Think about the people of Israel. IN today’s brief reading, God talks to them through the prophet Isaiah. God says, “I’m about to do something new. I’m going to make a pathway through the wilderness.” It sounds so lovely, like a stroll down a comfortable, flowering path along a bubbling stream. I don’t think that’s the intention. The wilderness in the Middle East is a craggy desert. When God speaks these words, the people of Israel are captives in a foreign land, their homeland is a distant pile of rubble. God offers a word of hope, “I am about to do something new.” Yes, God will make a road from captivity back home. Yes, a brighter day is coming. But the people still must walk through a barren, hot, unpredictable wilderness to get home. They will face hard days and sleepless nights.
At any point on their way through the wilderness, the people of Israel could have given up. They could have turned back. They could have stopped and made a settlement somewhere before they got home. They did not stop because the way was hard, challenging or uncomfortable. They travelled through the wilderness, step by step, mile by mile, day by day. The promise took decades to come true. And once they got home, rebuilding the nation was daunting and terrifying work. God is about to do something new. Watch out!
As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I think of God using people like Martin Luther to do something new. Luther’s life was no picnic in the park. Through Luther, God did something new in the Church. What we forget is Luther was labelled a heretic and excommunicated from the church by the Pope. Church leaders slandered him. His books were burned in Rome. He was put on trial numerous times, and even called before the Holy Roman Emperor to defend his views. At the most infamous trial, the litigator asked Luther to disavow the writings in his books. The prosecutor pointed to a pile of books and asked Luther, “Are these yours?” Luther replied, “I have to think about it.” The next day, the prosecutor asked Luther whether the books on display were his. Instead of offering a simple yes or no, Luther launched into a long sermon, but didn’t really answer the question. Finding Luther evasive, the litigator asked once more, “Martin — answer candidly and without horns — do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” Speaking before the Emperor and Lords of the court, church officials, and witnesses, Luther replied, “‘Since then your imperial majesty and your lordships demand a simple answer, I will give you one without teeth and without horns. Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest evidence…I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience … Here I stand. God help me! Amen!” Luther was released to await a verdict. Arriving back in his lodging after the two-hour hearing, Luther downed found a can of beer that had been left for him there by a friend, and he downed it in one gulp.
When the court announced the final verdict a month later, the edict called Luther, “A reviver of the old and condemned heresies” and an “inventor of new ones.” It called for the burning of his books and for confiscation of his property. It cut him off from the church, called for his arrest, and forbid anyone from harboring or sustaining him. Luther had already fled to Wartburg Castle, where he spent the next year hiding translating the Bible into German. When Luther eventually emerged from the Wartburg, the emperor, distracted with other matters, did not press for Luther’s arrest. Much of the remainder of Luther’s career was devoted to building a new Church based on his interpretation of Scripture and his guiding principle of salvation through faith and the grace of God. Talk about heavy lifting! God is about to do something new. Watch out!
At any point, Martin Luther could have recanted. He could have decided that the pain of persecution was more than he could bear. He did not stop because the way was new, challenging, or uncomfortable. God did something new through him, and his life and work eventually marked the transition from medieval to modern time.
God is about to do something new. Watch out! I am not comfortable with being made uncomfortable. I am not comfortable with being wrong. I am not comfortable with witnessing human suffering first-hand. I am not comfortable with learning that the world really isn’t the fair and friendly place I want it to be. I am not comfortable with encountering the legitimacy and sincerity of those I’ve labeled as enemies.
So for me, the way through the wilderness begins with my willingness to be uncomfortable – or at least a willingness not to turn away from the discomfort. Too often, our discomfort with having our heart-strings pulled by another person’s suffering makes us build ideological walls against it. We come up with a story or a rationale about why we can dismiss people whose encounters make us feel uncomfortable. For example, think about the “bootstraps” story we tell about poverty in our country. When a person struggling with homelessness asks us for money, we reassure ourselves that he’s entirely to blame for his predicament because he’s an addict, or just a stubborn, lazy person. If only he would pull himself up by his bootstraps, his life would be better.
Christians can be quite sneaky in our tactics for evading the discomfort of facing our own wrongdoing. In order to avoid feeling “uncomfortable” about our own wrongdoing, we will point to another person or group and try to fix them. For instance, conservative Christians distract themselves from their lack of love by fixating on sex and regulating women’s bodies. Liberals do the same thing with different content. We distract ourselves from our lack of love by talk about racism but never do anything to change it. Obsessing over other people’s behavior get us off the hook for our own personal wrongdoings. If God is about to do something new in our midst, then part of our daily, heavy lifting is taking responsibility for our wrongdoing, to admit mistakes without defensiveness, to listen carefully for find truths we can affirm from our enemies, and to sit with those who suffer without any quick-fix solutions.
So, yes — I don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Which is precisely what God is doing in my life right now. To most people, discomfort says “Stop what you’re doing! This is hard!” But for people who are dedicated to finding a way to improve in small daily changes, discomfort says “Ok – this is hard now, but if you keep at it, it can become easy.”
There is a basic principle of physical adaptation. It’s called super-compensation. All it means is this: When you put your body under training stress, say you do heavier squats at the gym or run 5km as hard as you can, you cause some breakdown in the muscle tissues and you stress the central nervous system. Because we are very adaptable creatures, when the body heals itself, it doesn’t just repair itself to the state it was before. The body over-compensates by making stronger muscles and neural connections.
The same is true for anything we engage in. When we are uncomfortable either emotionally or spiritually, that’s a signal to adapt and get better. It’s a signal that we are about to get stretched. If we give up, we stop adapting. If we stop adapting, we stop growing. But if we create and withstand even mild discomfort, that’s when we can start to make some progress. Whether it’s building a body, building a relationship, or building the best version of who we can be as a church, the secret sauce is always the same: there is no something for nothing. Do a handful of things today. Put a bit of effort in today.
Sometimes I think we at CCC are in our own wilderness. We see the road ahead. We sense some fresh blessing in the distance. We want to believe God is about to do something new. At our church, at times we have been open-hearted, following of our instincts in order in gain the experience and self-awareness to which we are committed. Sometimes we make it through with shear grit and determination. Sometimes we wonder how we made it through some possibly devastating mistakes. While the experiences we needed and sacrificed for are now part of our church history, there’s a lingering anxiety that still haunts us. I think God is about to do something new. But, to get there, we must find God’s path through the wilderness and journey together in that new direction. Once we set off, we will be faced with difficult decisions about how to use our time and money. If we don’t start because it is hard, or challenging, or uncomfortable, it will never be easy. But life will be much worse if we do nothing. What might happen if we start off? If we practice consistently? I wonder, will life at CCC continue to get easier each day because easy is earned? I think about this as we figure out how to move ahead with our decision to renovate our Retreat House after ten years of preparation. If we were willing to accept the pleasure and excitement of recent decisions, we must be equally willing to recognize the depth and meaning behind our actions. Now is the time for learning and growth.
My experience is that the people and groups who can adapt and grow by small gains for the long haul are the ones who succeed. Those who realize it takes a long time to build anything worthwhile are the ones making it look easy. Those who persevere when everyone else is looking for shortcuts are the ones who make lasting change. Fall in love with the process and you will get there. And you’ll know you’ve really arrived when arrival is no longer the goal.
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