As I get into my 4os, I'm seeing the value of stretching. Stretching regularly keeps me limber; it helps me prevent injury while riding my bike; it just plain makes me feel better. Without stretching, my muscles tighten and contract; they pull on ligaments and tendons; they cause me to stiffen up, lose correct posture, and generally feel lousy.
Accustomed to living at the crossroads, it makes me wonder: is there another parable here? Without activities and events and circumstances to stretch us beyond our normal comfort zones, can't we stiffen up in our personal lives? Without new experiences which call us out beyond ourselves and demand us to adapt, won't we otherwise allow neuroses and bad habits to contort and twist our psyches?
I think this is especially true in our spiritual lives. St. Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions that God "has made us for himself and our hearts are restless 'til they rest in him." Being in relationship with the living God is innately stretching: we can't contain, control, predict, or otherwise manage God. He's the consuming fire, the burning bush, the rushing wind that Scripture describes. To follow God is to walk on the edge of adventure, to get out beyond our comfort zones, to be stretched away from and out of the contortions of self-absorption. It's tremendously scary at times, no doubt; but it is reality itself and anything short of this is delusion, deception, and denial. And here's the counterintuitive point: to follow God, to allow God to stretch us as we relate to him, yields a deep peace and rest!
Two true stories of my spiritual stretching recently. The first has to do with a family river hike up a dangerously rushing river at floodtide. Twenty of us joined my cousins on this traditional hike up the Black River near Lake Superior this summer. It might have been foolishness itself as more than once we had members nearly swept away in the current. It also probably wasn't very smart to jump off those 25 foot cliffs into the river below, come to think of it. All along, as a parent, I wondered to myself: "At what point do I dig in my heels and demand that my son and I remove ourselves?!" Yet here's the rub: we made it. No one was hurt or killed (miraculously, I might add). And I was stretched to trust God in very palpable ways. I expanded my repertoire of activities; I learned that even after a long season of rehabbing sports injuries, I could sustain a several mile hike that called forth tremendous endurance trudging upstream against the current. My son was okay. I was okay. The whole clan made it. I was stretched and there was an exhilaration at surviving and knowing God was somehow in it all protecting us. It was a strange and wonderful sensation that felt fresh and new to me.
My other story has to do with two recent tragic deaths and the out of control feeling I get as a pastor when I'm plunged into peoples' suffering and called upon to offer comfort and meaning. This is the part of pastoring that I find very difficult. I wish I had advance notice and could ready myself for such tragedies. But, like the emergency room physician, I can't. I can only show up and offer myself and my abilities and hope they're useful somehow. Yet each time I do this, I find that 1) I'm stretched in ways that are good for my innately cautious personality; and 2) God feels closer to me in the challenges than he does in the comfortable, controlled environment I so often construe as "my life."
Are you being stretched right now? How do you respond to such stretching? How have you seen a greater good come from it?