“Can’t Go Around It…Gotta Go Through It” (by Alan Ward)
There was a book we used to read Brady and Becca when they were a bit younger that was called We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. The characters are searching for an elusive bear and encounter a series of “obstacles” they must overcome—e.g., forests, swamps, blizzards, etc. And the refrain upon encountering each on is: “Oh no! Can’t go around it… gotta go through it.”
We’re did a class on World Religions as part of our parish’s Vacation Bible School this summer—studying an excellent book called Christianity and World Religions by Adam Hamilton. One of the religions we looked at was Buddhism, a religion that seems to me to be built around one question: What do we do about suffering?
It seems to me that, unlike the Bear-hunters mentioned above, Buddha’s answer to the problem of suffering was to “go around it”. [See NOTE ON HISTORIC CONTEXT below.] The Way of Buddha leads us on an eightfold path whose ultimate goal seems to be to circumvent all of life’s “obstacles”. The idea is that through good deeds, meditation, and discipline, we can detach ourselves from the people, things, and desires that encumber us and “drag us down” into suffering. We eventually become so adept at “detachment” and “denial” that we are no longer impeded by obstacles or impacted by the worlds suffering.
All well and good as a philosophy I suppose, but it seems to me as a Christ follower that it comes at a terrible price. As we succeed in detaching ourselves from life and numbing ourselves to suffering and pain, we begin to lose our sense of connection to the world around us and, eventually, even our sense of self-identity in the Universe. In the end we are like a candle whose light is all too soon snuffed out in the wind; it is like we never existed.
As Christians, we claim faith in a God who is intimately present and available to every believer at all times in all places—the priesthood of believers is a fundamental tenet of Protestant faith. However author Larry Crabb makes the point that many Christians tend to function as “practicing Buddhists”. We think that “good Christians” are supposed to suppress all our desires and pretend that “bad stuff” doesn’t bother us. We’ve all probably witnessed this. How often, at church, when you ask someone how they are do you hear: “Everythings great!”, “God is good…”, or some combination thereof. If we’re honest, leaders probably feel the most intense pressure of all to profess these kinds of “false” platitudes to their congregations. Leaders are supposed to “have it together” and be “strong” for the people they are called to serve and lead. They are supposed to set an example.
I have also experienced firsthand in my faith community the “unspoken” rule that if you experience a loss you have a certain “socially acceptable” amount of time to “grieve” and then you should be ready to move on—people worry about you if you take too long to “snap out of it”. I have also felt the not-so-subtle pressure to be positive. It’s okay to say, “What we went through was bad…,” as long as you follow quickly with a reassurance like, “… but God is clearly working to bring good out of the bad situation”.
The problem is that sometimes, especially right after you experience a tragedy, it isn’t clear to you how God is working. In fact, God may feel very distant to you at this moment. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we felt safe admitting our doubts and uncertainty to our Christian friends?
Given these sobering realities it’s not surprising that many choose to function as “Buddhists” in our Christian communities. It just feels like the easiest thing to do. To risk being vulnerable and admit the truth about how you are really doing just seems too hard.
And so our churches are full of “Christian–Buddhist” hybrids. This approach to faith helps us ‘keep up appearances’ and hold pain and suffering of our lives at arms length, but by trying so hard to avoid the pain and hardship, we also dramatically reduce the possibility of having transformative encounters with God. And it is in these encounters that we experience the union with God for which we were made and discover our deepest desires and our truest selves—and ultimately, find our true joy.
The true Way of Jesus, both Crabb and Hamilton agree, is not about full detachment from the entanglements of life but, rather, full attachment to God. It will lead us on a twofold path that requires we take the risk of relating by loving God and loving our neighbors.
This Way of Jesus is a messier way than the Way of Buddha for it requires that we “go through” obstacles rather than “around them”. We will experience pain—often intense pain—as we walk this way. We will reach points where we realize we can’t get us through this on our own. And in those moments of brokenness comes freedom and unspeakable joy as we realize God has been with us all along. And what is impossible for us is possible for God.
We discover that “going through” obstacles in our lives rather than “around them” draws us closer to God and reveals a more complete expression of who our Creator has made us to be. In time, our light is transformed from a transient flickering candle struggling to stay lit against the howling storms of life into a steady eternal flame that shines brightly for all the world to see.
NOTE ON HISTORIC CONTEXT: Buddhist faith arose out of a Hindu culture where God was seen as distant and inaccessible. Only members of the priestly caste could gain access to God. While they could mediate on behalf of others through elaborate rituals, even priests were reluctant to claim close connections with the divine. Thus, the solution that “the Buddha” (a man named Siddhartha Guatama) found to the problem of suffering had to be something that you and I could do ourselves through our own efforts—i.e., he would not think to “look to God” for answers as those of us raised as Christians might. It is a reminder that our worldview always impacts the conclusions we make about how life works.
Alan Ward writes about Science for NASA, but his true passion is to write to further God’s Kingdom. Many of his articles discuss aspects of discipleship and spiritual formation — in particular how our life experiences shape the person we become. He is husband to Laurie (a United Methodist pastor) and father to Brady and Becca. Read his blog at: http://bigalscorner.blogspot.com.