Hard Times

It’s 8:50am as I begin writing this, which means that I’m less than three hours from needing to show up….for surgery. I’ve never had surgery of any kind, never been anesthetized (unless you want me to wax philosophical here); so I will admit to being a bit nervous. I’m having a partial meniscectomy. It’s arthroscopic; so that’s nice, I’m told. They’re going to make a few incisions near my knee, and shove in a camera and a tool that can be used to bring instruments into my knee. Once inside, they’re going to cut away the torn part of my meniscus, including the “flap,” and probably “shave” down the rest until it’s somewhat smooth again. Lord willing, when all is said and done I’ll be able to run again. I sure hope so, as I haven’t been able to without pain for at least a couple of years now, and all that weight I lost (twice) is back. The surgery should take about half an hour, barring complications; so let’s pray for no complications. I’ll rest up this weekend, and then head back to work Monday, again Lord willing.

Of course, having surgery for the first time has me thinking about my own mortality. As surgeries go, this one is very common and quite low risk, but as they say, “surgery is surgery.” You just never know. So, with that context, here’s what has been occupying my thoughts. First, this song, another one by Gillian Welch:


The lyrics are:

There was a camp town man, used to plow and sing
And he loved that mule and the mule loved him
When the day got long as it does about now
I’d hear him singing to his muley-cow
Calling, “Come on my sweet old girl, and I’d bet the whole damn world
That we’re gonna make it yet to the end of the row”

Singing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more”

Said it’s a mean old world, heavy in need.
That big machine is just picking up speed
They were supping on tears, they were supping on wine
We all get to heaven in our own sweet time
So come all you Asheville boys and turn up your old-time noise
And kick ’til the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor

Singing, hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, brother
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

But the camp town man, he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come on, you ragtime kings, and come on, you dogs, and sing
And pick up the dusty old horn and give it a blow

Playing, hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, honey
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, sugar
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

It’s a nice idea, isn’t it, not letting hard times rule one’s mind any more? I like the turn the song takes. It’s a potentially devastating one, when the camp town man has lost his mule, and his song, but it’s one that seems quite true to life for me. Of course I can’t know exactly what Gillian meant by the lines that follow, but there seems to be some hint of the song being picked up by others, perhaps many others. This too seems true to life, or true at least to the life I want to be a part of. The camp town man may have lost his song, but others will pick it up and sing it, perhaps for him. This, by the way, is why I appreciate liturgy and the historic, communal prayers and songs of the church. They provide words, and songs, when we have none. So here are some other words that I’ve found useful of late, from Rod White’s blog:

This week I had two experiences that taught me more about following when it is hard — in these cases when justice is hard to find. Here’s the essence of what I am learning: When we “break the law” (the “truth” we beat people with) and forgive (the love that doesn’t lie about who we are and what has happened), we are learning to walk in His steps. We must get beyond the rules and get to the Ruler.

More than one of my friends is harboring resentment toward another friend for something that person did — several of them are married to each other! You’ll probably relate to this: at one point the resented one did something my friend did not like or thought was wrong — or maybe they did it repeatedly, or maybe they just are it. In the case at hand, that person did something and it rubbed my friend the wrong way. It set off an unexplainable reaction in him. He told the person what he felt and got no satisfaction because they could not change what they did and they didn’t feel it was wrong.

So in some place in his heart, he cut the person off. In a very real way, the person had violated some law by which he ran his life. Just running into them began to feel awkward. They needed to be punished. If they got away with it, he would be giving  up something precious. The way he punished them was to cut them off. As we talked about the impact of this reaction, we found that it had a lot more to do with my friend’s heart than it did with the other person’s actions. (Meditating on the people who bother you the most may be fruitful at times). The resented one tripped off some ancient alarm wire in an area God needs to enter. After a long consideration, he realized that instead of holding on to this sense of injustice he felt, he should just forgive the person – even if they were still bad.

Forgiveness is the starting point that God gives us. Reconciliation follows. Holiness might be quite a ways down the road, justice even farther. Like God in Jesus, we also need to start with forgiveness, not judgment. Your truth might kill someone. Your “law” might need to be broken. In a cell group, starting at the starting point becomes even moreimportant to teach and to learn together. There are so many opportunities to trip over someone’s wire in a small community that people can quickly get the feeling that they need to be very careful, instead of ready to risk love. There is a lot more to a relationship than the starting point with God and others. But we may never start at all we don’t forgive as we have been forgiven.

Gary Bunt — Some People Following Jesus

The other experience is more theoretical because it came up as part of my dissertation presentation. My subject might be too dissertationy to introduce here. But part of it dealt with how psychotherapists apply their ethical standards and follow law.  One of the ethical standards therapists keep is to maintain a professional relationship with clients. It is outside their boundaries to have sex with clients, but also to have business relationships, social relations and other kinds of relationships that muddy up the waters of the alliance they make with a client in service to the client’s health. We discussed how hard following this law can be in a small community such as Circle of Hope where a therapist might run into a client (for example “At the Love Feast,” someone said). My research showed that most therapists take this ethical principle seriously. Some take it so seriously that it becomes a law they are afraid to break – even when breaking it might be in the best interest of their client. The dialogue reminded me that we are all prone to letting a law do the work of relating for us. We live under the influence of unforgiving powers and it takes some courage to violate their will.

At the heart of the world, Jesus is our law; he’s the way, the truth and the life. Our characters are containers for his Spirit. Whatever laws and agreements we might make are subject to his rule; they should be containers for his truth and love, too.

I told someone about my experiences and I said, “I want to be ruled, not just follow rules.”

Most of us are going to begin by following rules – the ones installed in our hearts by parents and teachers and the ones put upon us by governments and associations. But, like Paul says, even the Mosaic law was just a tutor to help us learn Christ, the king of the kingdom. Sometimes the rules will reveal our Ruler because of how absent he is from them.

If you are exploring all the rules you live by, how about installing a better one in the heart of your spiritual territory? Let’s try this: When someone is doing something wrong (at least wrong according to your rules you live by), maybe the first rule should be to follow the example of our ruler: forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.

Usually, I don’t fully know what I am doing either! It may seem backward to let ourselves or someone who offends us start off as forgiven and deal with the law later, but I think that is the gift God has given us. We may not get things right, but we can be righted. All those other lawbreakers need the same break as we do. Forgive them.

I appreciate this post for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that Rod unwittingly alludes to my mantra for many years now, that “rules are for relationship” (here’s an early articulation of this idea). Beyond that, though, I’ve been running into this theme a lot lately- forgiveness. Most likely it’s because I’m challenged to do so, to forgive some significant and deep wounding that has occurred over the past year+ (of course on top of a lifetime of it, but who’s counting). Maybe it’s like when you get something new (to you at least) and suddenly you start noticing other such items everywhere when you hadn’t before. I’ve seen t-shirts at farmer’s markets that trumpet the need to forgive; I heard a story on MPR about it; this was waiting for me as I picked up my Sunday paper recently. Is there a message in this, some divine, cosmic intention? Maybe.

I like the notion from the Star Tribune article of forgiveness as “a practice, a habit, like compassion or mindfulness.” It’s not linear. It’s a choice to be made, perhaps every day, like love.

It’s a choice I keep getting confronted with. Of course, the inclination when you’re hurt is to run, to get away and lick your wounds. There’s wisdom in finding a safe place to heal and recover, especially after trauma, but that healing, and recovery, will always be incomplete and unfinished without the work of forgiveness. I know this. Notice, I’m not addressing reconciliation. As Rod said, “forgiveness is the starting point” in a journey. Other steps may come. Anyway, through circumstances I won’t get into here, I’ve been confronted with reminders of my pain of late, just when I had hoped to be done with it. When one recent event happened that served as such a reminder, I remember having the image of my feet being held to the fire, and the thought came, “That’s right; you’re not done yet,” as in literally not done, still cooking. Like the new title of Rod’s blog, “development” is still happening….hopefully. Apparently my pain is an invitation to grow. If I can find the courage to face it and go through it, not to run away before I’m “done,” I might learn something. There’s a freedom there that I yearn for. In the meantime, “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.”

Now I have some work to do.

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