Message 76, “Winter Readiness: Threshing and Thriving” (How Challenges Help Us Grow), 11-13-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved

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Showing wit and a sense of humor in the midst of a crisis or challenging time is one hallmark of those who survive adversity.  Revealing her own subtle form of wit, Mother Theresa once said that, “I know God does not give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”  Winston Churchill remarked during the dark days of the German bombing campaign on London that, “If you are going through hell, keep going!”  Adding an exclamation point to these thoughts, an unknown wag suggested that, “It just wouldn’t be a picnic without the ants.”

How do you react to difficulties in life?  Do everyday challenges that come your way bring out negative emotions of anger, victimization, anxiety or bitterness?  Or, do you find a certain determination, grace and calm in such episodes?  Research shows that those who best handle the small bumps in the road are best prepared to meet the much larger potholes of life – ones we will each likely face – the loss of a loved one, a personal health crisis, or losing a job.

In our November series on “Winter Readiness”, concepts of threshing and winnowing evoke the ideas of struggle and pain.  Following immediately after the harvest, which we discussed last Sunday, the process of threshing traditionally involves flailing and beating grain so that the edible seed is separated from the chaff.  As we found with harvesting, there are lessons for us in the process of threshing.  From the beatings of life that we all face, come seeds of growth and spiritual maturity.

I have recounted in here only a brief history of my trials just before and after I left my previous church.  I had come out to a few trusted friends but was betrayed to the larger church by one of them.  Even so, I hoped to find support and understanding – after all I was still the same Doug.  Instead, I was received almost like an axe murderer.  I knew that homosexuality in very conservative Christian circles is a major sin – I had no illusions that a gay Pastor would be celebrated – but I expected the adage of “hate the sin, love the sinner” would prevail.  I was confused and lost and needed the love of friends and people I had served.  I was instead attacked.  I was called a sodomite.  I was condemned to hell.  I was forbidden to have any ministry contact with members of the church.  I was ordered to attend a conversion therapy center if I had any hope to save my job……and my soul.  Friends avoided me.  One friend, for whom I had just recently cared for, visited, soothed and presided over the funeral of his mother, totally rejected me.  He was horrified a gay Pastor had comforted his dying mom.

I fell into one of the darkest times of my life.  I questioned myself and my identity.  I could not sleep and I lost a lot of weight.  I was clinically and seriously depressed.

One rare friend who did remain at my side gave me wise advice.  He said that I could run away from my pain, reject it, cover it up and seek to numb it………or I could embrace it and learn from it.  He suggested that it would not be until I was genuinely able to give thanks for the pain I felt, that I would begin to heal.

And that would be a year long process with a lot of solitude, many setbacks, but slow and steady growth.  It culminated a year later when I began looking for a faith community that would accept me as I am.  I walked in the door here, and into the smiling, gracious face of Patti Wiers.  I remember that moment vividly.  Many of you welcomed me too – as a gay man – and I knew I had found a place that would love me, for me.  My journey through the valley of darkness was near its end.

The lessons I learned from that very difficult time are many.  Mostly, I have lodged in my thinking and in my heart the words of my friend – adversity, challenge, struggle and pain all have their benefit.  In future trials, I will remember not just to endure, grit my teeth and hope for an end to my suffering.  I will remember that gold does emerge from the refiner’s fire.  I will remember to give heartfelt thanks for the blessing of threshing – for the good of winnowing the chaff from inner kernels of wisdom and peace.  Malcom X said it well, “There is no experience better than adversity.  Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve…”

This truth is embodied in most world religions.  Spiritually, we know that life is full of suffering.  To learn and grow is to find ways to survive and prosper out of the depths of adversity.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthian church that his strength was made perfect as a result of his weakness.  Khalil Gibran expressed an Islamic mystic view of suffering – the greatest of people, he said, the strongest of souls – are those seared with scars.  Indeed, the Koran suggests that Allah will test the mettle of people in order to find those who persevere with patience.  And, the Dalai Lama offered a Buddhist view by saying it is because of adversity that the potential for great good results.

Modern research further confirms the advantages of life challenges.  The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports a recent study that showed 91% of all cancer patients experienced many benefits resulting from their disease.  94% of all dementia patient spouses and partners report similar feelings.  Nearly 80% of new mothers to severely premature or sick infants found great value in the long hospitalizations of their child.  Most said they had increased empathy for others, a better perspective on everyday problems, a greater love for their newborn and improved relationships with family and friends.  The study concluded that while genuine hardship does occur in the midst of difficulties, people who emerge with new strength had found ways to cope and strategies to again thrive.

Nevertheless, some often retreat into a downward spiral of depression, denial and attempts to numb their pain.  Many addictions are ways to dull perceived suffering.  Instinctively, like all animals, we pull back from hurt.  The survival impulse is often flight from that which threatens.  Instead, researchers are finding that the fight impulse is the better.  And that is not an endorsement of violence.  Fight in this context is to purposefully confront challenge – not run away.  As someone whose nature is to avoid conflict, I must continue to learn the value of addressing difficulties head on.

And that reminds me of an old fable.  Two frogs fall into a bowl of cream.  One simply resigns itself to fate and soon drowns.  The other begins to swim and vigorously kick its way toward the edge.  As a result, the cream is churned into butter and the frog simply stands up and hops away!

Experts advise similar strategies for how to survive any crisis.  The Army Field Manual on Survival offers the same advice that many psychologists do.  When faced with a major challenge, we must literally S.T.O.P.  ………..and then act out each letter in that word.  We should Sit, Think, Observe and Plan.  The goal is to prevent panic.

Psychologists note that those people who devise a game plan for dealing with adversity are the best able to prosper in the long run.  A story is told of Giles McCoy who survived the infamous sinking of the destroyer Indianapolis near the end of World War Two.  Finding himself in a sea of burning oil and hungry sharks, McCoy hauled himself atop some floating debris.  Then, along with a few others who joined him, he proceeded to clean his pistol.  As idiotic as that seems now and to others at the time, it was a purposeful and methodical approach to dealing with crisis.  He took apart the pistol piece by piece, cleaned and wiped them dry, then reassembled it.  Later, it proved crucial to his and other’s survival when used to ward off attacking sharks.

After forcing our brains to think clearly and devise a plan of coping, experts encourage a survival attitude.  We must draw upon an approach to life that asserts total control of our personal destiny.  Instead of giving up and resigning to the bad hand one is dealt, survivors refuse to give up control over their lives.  Such people, experts say, are also better able to deal with everyday challenges.  They rarely complain, whine or blame.  They are not victims of fate or of others.  They accept the Karma they create and they set out to change their circumstances in a positive direction.

This leads directly to what Stanford professor of psychology Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.”  Those who think positively, who are not discouraged by challenges, who adapt and change with adversity – they are most able to adjust to and overcome obstacles.  She cites the story of a young man named Jerry Long who, after breaking his neck in a diving accident, adopted a life credo by saying, “I broke my neck.  It didn’t break me.”

To embrace adversity is not a form of masochism.  It does not deny the fact that real pain and suffering does exist and will happen to all of us.  Our spiritual challenge is to value our lives, and refuse to flee from its hardships.  We each have stories to tell, I imagine, of positive outcomes from difficult times.  As we remember them, we know the value of grief and mourning – how they are needed expressions of sorrow.  We understand the blessing of family and friends who surround us with love and concern.  Most of all, we see the chords of strength in ourselves that helped us survive and then thrive.

In our early years here at the Gathering, things are not easy.  We do not have a big and shiny building nor million dollar budgets nor a surplus of members.  As we approach the end of each year, we anxiously await a Treasurer report – do we have enough to pay expenses?  But we do have many intangible assets.  We have passion.  We are a close and caring community.  We work and sacrifice to achieve our mission and purpose – to change lives for the better, those of members and those in our community.  Such assets are worth far more than money.

I look back on that dark time in my life and refer to it as the worst of times and the best of times.  More and more, I see it was invaluable to the person I am now.  In its small way, it does not compare with other tragedies people face, but from it I know I can survive.  From it, I was blessed with finding this place and a new perspective on what it means to be inclusive, forgiving and compassionate.  I know there is fear and loneliness, suffering and pain, worry and doubt in many of our homes.  Our collective hearts ache when we see such hurt in fellow members and in our community.  But we are survivors.  We are people who overcome in order to thrive.  Let us give thanks not just for the joys of life but also for the challenges.  In the winter readiness of our souls, may we embrace the opportunity of adversity.

I wish you all peace and joy………..