In talking about how a person without God is a “seed upon the wind,” the late Howard Thurman makes an observation, that people with God are actually seeds upon the wind. We struggle to be in right relationship with God, and it requires what Thurman says is “the commitment, the yielding to God at the core of his being.” This always includes a serious struggle; we want God but we also want what we want. We struggle subliminally when we feel like we are having success in our world, but that struggle becomes more intense and intentional when we are in cavernous place in our lives, sometimes because of our own doing or sometimes just because life happens. We become as Jacob was: serious and intentional about getting our “blessing,” and we are, at these moments, willing to allow God to give us what God has determined what our blessing is. We relinquish our determination to dictate to God what God should give us. In the process, we give God ourselves in a way we have never done before.
Thurman says we have the experience of “years of warfare,” when “at last the very citadel of (one’s) spirit is under siege and is brought to a place of “utter yielding.”
What does “utter yielding” look like? What does it feel like? We all have our own stories about how we have been brought to our knees, literally and figuratively, and though after we have gone through that experience we have found that we were and are able to survive spiritual battles, we only remember that we went through it. We cannot describe the experience fully because we cannot remember the actual pain we felt. In that sense, I am reminded of how my mother shared with me years ago that having a baby hurts terribly, but, she said, “once the baby is born you don’t remember the pain.”
We don’t remember. We don’t remember the depth of the feelings we have gone through in order to get to a place of spiritual freedom. But the pain happened and was so intense that we were brought to a place of “utter yielding.” It is at those very most raw spiritual moments that we say to God with no caveats, “Here I am Lord. Here I am.”
What many of us fight against is the ultimate will of God. It is God’s will, not ours, which has to take precedence in our lives. We bring an untold number of hours of spiritual misery upon and into ourselves when we decide that we will box with God. But that is a lost cause. We will not win. And our spirits, in that fight, will suffer.
But when the struggle has been intense – and for too long – we reach a point where we utterly yield to God. We have no desire to fight God anymore, and we ascend to a place of divine direction. We go there not begrudgingly but willing because we have no fight left in us anymore.
Iyanla VanZant did an exercise with a man recently which showed what the utterly yielded person must do in order to get to that point. This was an older man who had married years prior a woman who was years his junior. As time went on, they grew apart, and as they grew apart, he became worried that she would leave him. He was getting older, but she was becoming, and he saw it. He felt in his spirit that she would not want to remain married. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him anymore. It was just that she had gotten strong enough to trust what she was becoming, and strong enough to believe that she could do it without leaning on him for protection, emotional and spiritual support. She was ready to fly.
Her husband was fighting his new reality; he had been fighting for some time. In the exercise, Iyanla had the wife face her husband and tell him her truth. His pain was enormous. He closed his eyes as she talked. Tears rolled down his cheeks. You could almost see the wrestling he was doing with God and hear his words pleading that what he was experiencing would somehow stop and things be back to “normal.”
But it wasn’t to be. They were going to separate. Iyanla sat with this broken man and talked with him…and told him to yield to his new reality. Things were not going to go back to “the way they were.” “Let it go,” she said, and as she said it, she began tearing pieces of paper towel off a roll and giving them to him. “Ball them up,” she said as she gave him towel after towel. “Ball them up and throw them down and see that what you want is not what is to be. Ball up those pieces of paper until what you see and know doesn’t hurt you like you are hurting now.”
I watched as he began the exercise. Sometimes, he would take a towel and not be able to ball it up; he would break down and cry. Other times he would ball the paper towel up but not too tightly. Sometimes he would ball the paper towel up but now be able to throw it down.
But the process of utter yielding requires that we ball up the idea of the thing or things which we have stubbornly clung to, tightly, and throw them away. As we cast away from ourselves that which prevented us from hearing God and therefore following God’s plan for our lives, we begin to experience freedom and release.
Because that man’s experience was on television, we don’t know how long he had to practice making room for God in his life, in spite of his pain. But something happened…there was some release which freed him from his feeling of deep loss and fear of the unknown, because at the end of that program, he was able to look his wife in her eyes and tell her, without crying, without his face twisting into a painful grimace, that what she wanted to do was OK with him.
He had utterly yielded.
We hold onto situations and desires and people for reasons only we know, to our own detriment. Our going to God, even in frustration and maybe anger because God is not yielding to us is an important first step. God sees our dying souls and whispers to us, even as we struggle, “it’s all right to let go.” What God does is not unlike what we do when a loved one who is about to die refuses to let go. We have to tell their semi-conscious bodies that it is “all right to let go,” and often, those words help them. They utterly yield…and they pass on.
God wants us to utterly yield to the life and purpose God has in store for us. It is up to us whether or not we take God’s hand, and move on.
Amen and amen.
The beatitude says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The word “blessed” means, according to notes in the Revised Standard Bible, to be “happy” or “satisfied,’ and that happiness and/or satisfaction comes to those who believe because in all things, in all situations, God is there comforting, supporting and helping.
One of the sources of great pain for human beings is mourning the loss of a loved one. The mourning process is cruel; it gives those who mourn brief times of relief but also invades the hard-fought for space of peace at a moment’s notice. One can believe that he or she has gotten through the worst of it, only to be lambasted by some unforeseen trigger, which thrusts one back into rough arms of grief. Grief holds onto us for far too long – or maybe it is that we hold onto grief. Either way, the pain is immense and the duration of the grieving process is far too long for far too many.
While many believe that it is best to try to “move on,” perhaps we should examine how we move on, how we treat those who have passed over. Maybe our grief would not be so painful if we felt like it was and is OK to truly grieve …and in that process, “take care” of the one whom we have lost.
Elephants do just that. Elephants are glorious, majestic animals, but they are also highly intelligent and communal, and they take care of each other even after death. Mother elephants – and the elephant clan into which that calf was born – show grief when a baby elephant is stillborn. When elephants come across the skeletal remains of another elephant, they stop. They are known to caress the bones of the dead elephant, and they hover over those bones sometimes for days. They take some bones and tusks away and bury them, covering them with twigs, leaves and dirt. The belief is that they are protecting their own from predators, even after death. They walk away from their dead friend only after they feel like they have taken sufficient care of it. Their mourning is assuaged by their capacity to care for their “friend,” even after death.
We are taught in our society to “move on,” but the cloud of witnesses is ever over us, affecting our lives, our thoughts, moves and actions, even if we do not recognized it or acknowledge. When Caroline graduated from Spelman College, and all of us went out for dinner, I felt compelled to have us stop talking, before saying the grace, to acknowledge her grandmother, her father’s mother, by name. Jeanne Allen had been a presence in Caroline’s life. She had been proud of her and every time something significant happened in Caroline and Charlie’s lives, she had been there. She had been at our house for Thanksgiving, bringing her rice and peas on my request (her family was from Barbados), her stories, her laughter and her wisdom.
That she was gone was a fact, but at that dinner, it felt like she was there, or like we had come upon her “remains.” I lifted her name up and it took away some of my own sadness. We were taking care of her, even in death. We were covering her remains and taking them to a safe place… The silence at the table was stark at first, but then, as, I felt, she felt like her presence was being acknowledged, there was a collective breath of …something …maybe peace? Comfort? Both? Whatever it was, it was noticeable. It was present.
In this holiday season, maybe we should be like the elephants, and “take care” of the remains, the spirit-remains – of our loved ones who are now in the cloud of witnesses. Maybe we should light candle at our tables of food, and bring the loved ones to the table, telling the story of who they were and what they meant to us to our little ones, in essence, “writing it as frontlets between their eyes.”
The elephants teach us that the presence of a loved one is not gone just because of death; they teach us that, even in the bones, the spirit of that one living being is still active, still alive, still a part of this earth, still giving, still reaching. Still.
In the piece I heard about elephant behavior, the narrator said that the elephants “take turns” caressing the carcass of their downed friend. For hours, they take turns gently touching the bones with their trunks, dropping smatters of dirt over the bones to protect them. They grieve but they acknowledge that once, these bones were part of them, part of their family.
Maybe we should take the example of the elephants, and take care of, protect and perpetuate the spirits of our loved ones…beginning this holiday season.
Amen and amen.