There’s a moment that I love in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the fourth book in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.
One of the main characters, Eustace, has been turned into a dragon. Just when Eustace is starting to freak out about being left behind by the crew of the Dawn Treader (a ship for those of you unfamiliar with the story) who need to sail on to other waters and fearing that he’ll remain a dragon for the rest of his life, Aslan shows up. He tells Eustace that to become human again he must bathe in a nearby pool of water. But first he must take his dragon skin off. So Eustace scratches the scales and old reptilian skin off — quite easily, calling it a “lovely feeling.” But as soon as he tries to step in the pool, his dragon skin reappears again. So he repeats the process until he realizes that he can’t rightly take his own skin off. Aslan, of course, can only do that.
Eustace describes Aslan’s scraping off of his skin:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away. […]Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”
Sometimes we can’t do things by ourselves, especially when it comes to getting to the heart of the matter. We can think we’ve done a bang-up job of healing ourselves, of getting ourselves to the next level, of understanding ourselves or what’s happened to us, or whatever it is that we think we’ve got a handle on.… And then God steps in and says, “Oh, you missed a spot. … Actually, you missed the whole thing completely… Let me help you out, there.”
Usually, when I try to do it, I try and get over it, or through it, as quickly as possible—like tearing off a Band-Aid or jumping off a cliff. I try to force the issue, force my emotions into something they’re not, or force internal growth to be able to tell everyone as soon as possible that I’m just fine, thank you. But then I realize somewhere down the road that that was just a quick fix, and there’s still deeper issues to deal with.
Often times God’s work in us takes longer than we would like and is more painful, but He does a much more thorough job and the end product, i.e. us, is ten times better.
* * * * * *
Recently one of my friends challenged me that he thought I was waiting around for a ‘best’ opportunity that would never come and in the process, passing up all these other great opportunities that could easily work out.
I will admit, that yes, recently I have turned down an amazing job opportunity… but not because I thought I could get something better. I stepped away from that opportunity because God wanted something better for me. And yes, there’s a difference between me wanting something better and God wanting something better. –Most of the time me wanting something more translates into me wanting something that’s probably not the best thing for me, while every time without fault, God wanting something more for me translates into something so good for me that I couldn’t even imagine it before –but which also requires a bit of growing to be ready for it.
Recently I’ve tagged my life as a journey through the desert, but more and more it seems to be mountain climbing/hiking rather than sandy dunes or cracked wasteland. …which is nice, because mountains are a whole lot nicer view than sand, and it’s easier to track your progress and feel forward momentum. You know you’re going somewhere specific even if you can’t always see the top. And the rigor of the journey is a good way to build up some muscles.
But for a while there, I didn’t know I was mountain climbing. I’d get to a certain point on the hike and think it was the goal or destination and start specking it out, only to realize when I started to settle in that I’d still got farther to go, that this was just a learning place, not the summit. Like the running I’ve been doing –running 7 miles, reaching that goal and living in it for a while, but then realizing that I could run farther, that I wanted to run farther and challenge myself more.
It’s very easy to get comfortable with a community, with a friendship, with a relationship, and see it as the answer, the end destination, the goal. I know that’s been the case for me recently. But I’ve been realizing (or God’s been showing me) that there’s something that fits me better. As thorny as it might sound, sometimes it’s necessary to move on to where and who God is calling you to be, not because the place where you’re at isn’t good or life-giving, but because God is calling you to more.
The refrain of a Third Day song that I like goes, “This is who I am. So take me and make me something so much more. This is who I am. So change me and make me someone better than before.”
Ok so what’s striving to up your personal best and what’s following after God’s call to be more (the difference between me wanting something better versus God wanting something better for me)?
One is focused on the fruit and the other on the labor. This past Sunday’s readings were all about the vine and branches deal:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.” –Jn 15:1-5
In improving yourself, you’re focusing on yourself. In following God’s lead to be more, you’re focusing on God, watching Him make the moves so you can imitate Him. It’s all about abiding in God, resting in Him, not searching for results or making it happen. In improving yourself it’s easy to get caught up in the work, driving so hard to change, because that’s what you’re focused on, the end product, when the real focus should be not the fruit, but the labor. And the labor is this: to abide in God, to remain in God as a vine remains on the branch, drawing life from its source. Not saying so many more prayers, not doing so many more good things, but just in sitting with God, listening to His voice, hanging out with Him essentially.
(See this homily by Fr Gary Braun for more details: http://www.onlinehomilies.com/sessions/3075. Note: this homily is also a good explanation for what I’ve been doing for the past year – hanging out with God because he asked me to. That’s more important for me right now than finding a career. It’s also true that I know more of who I am and what my life is about because of it, more than finding the right job or person or community could ever tell me.)
And, as I’ve highlighted in the gospel text, striving yourself to change doesn’t get you anywhere. Only spending some quality God-time changes you.
Now, I’ll admit, a prolonged “abiding in God” time and nothing else caused me grief for a while there. I used to hold a pity party to the tune of Switchfoot’s song Thrive, especially the lyrics, “Feeling like I travel but I never arrive; I want to thrive, not just survive.” But that’s because I was focused on the not arriving yet part. I’d see all my friends thriving in their lives as adults in the workforce or in their graduate studies and be jealous of their ability to earn successes like finished projects or reports or papers. It was a thorn in my side because I didn’t see myself as “there yet” or thriving.
Until recently. When I realized that all my hard “work” in spending so much time with God was paying off. When I realized that I was thriving, because I wasn’t “there yet.”
Like I said, I’m mountain climbing, or hiking or whatever. Never having done this before spiritually, I wasn’t very good, wasn’t very fast or strong when I started out. And it seemed impossible. But the longer I went at it, the easier it got because I was changing to combat the obstacles. It’s easier to see why I’d get in a funk sometimes and therefore easier to get out of it. It’s easier to understand what God’s trying to tell me and therefore easier to see what’s going on in my life, what this current uphill hike looks like, even though I can’t see the destination. Sometimes it feels like I’m bounding up sheer walls of rock (not because I’m so awesome, but because God is giving me the graces to move like this).
And the thrill is in the expectation that there’s more mountain, more challenges to come. Thank goodness I haven’t gotten to the top yet! And every time God tears off another layer of dragon skin, I feel fresher and stronger and more alive. It’s slow work for sure, and there’s a continual letting go and letting God direct the route, but that means there’s time to notice so much more, to appreciate what’s been even if I couldn’t appreciate it at the time because it was causing me grief, and to anticipate the new possibilities in life because of this journey.