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Breaking Out: Leaving Comfortable Places

One of my favorite philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard is now remembered most for his many parables, and perhaps this one most famously: “A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. ‘My fellow travelers on the way of life,’ he would say, ‘can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence? I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. For did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.

The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. ‘How poetical,’ they thought. ‘How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.’ Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies. And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher’s message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!”[1]

The tame, unflying geese must simply remember they can fly, to be who they are, to just go. The geese may find a counterpart in the insect world. Imagine the moment the newly formed butterfly begins to leave the chrysalis. How terrifying it must be- for geese, for butterflies, and of course, for us to live into our potential, to be all that God created us to be, to believe in the miracle of our own transformation, to become the imago, the mature version of ourselves. I’ve been thinking this week that leaving comfortable places requires three things: calling, faith, and courage.

The text that Zelda read to us earlier is the beginning of a chapter that catalogs the faith and lives of many “heroes of the faith.” The most significant portion of the chapter goes to Abraham and Sarah, recounting and summarizing their experience we read about in the book of Genesis. You may remember God’s call to Abraham- “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Go, God says, just go. Go, and I’ll tell you when you get there. It’s a wild idea, really.

Of course, Abraham was wealthy, comfortable in Ur. He seems to have lived with his father on the land he would one day inherit. This was the plan, these were his people, this was his place. “Go,” God says. And Abraham went, “he set out” Hebrews 11:8 says, “not knowing where he was going.” But that calling, that nudge from God- whether it comes as clear as a bell or as vague as a tug in your gut, it must happen in God’s timing. Had Abraham gone without God’s direction, had he waited until he felt ready, perhaps there would have been a different outcome.

This week, I got to wondering how moths and butterflies know when it is time to leave their cocoon or chrysalis. Sometime, typically between 5-21 days depending on the species, the caterpillar soup has formed a new creature, and the process of eclosion begins. The newly formed butterfly begins to leave the chrysalis. The insect secretes a hormone that causes the protective outer layer to change color- sometimes becoming translucent. And it’s time to emerge. It can’t happen too soon or the butterfly won’t be fully formed. If it happens too late, the butterfly will starve to death. It has to happen just at the moment of readiness. Some butterflies who live in the desert stay in their chrysalis for much longer than 3 weeks, though. Those little guys don’t just wait until they are ready- they wait until the conditions in the desert itself are ready, until rain falls and they know they will have food. They stay in their cocoon for up to 3 years, waiting until the time is right.

In my reading about butterflies and moths this week, I saw one piece of advice offered several times- don’t try to help them leave their cocoons. If a human interferes, it will disrupt the whole process. The butterfly’s growth will likely be stunted, its wings likely too weak to fly. It’s the same way when we think about following Christ, stepping into new ministries, our own process of transformation. We grow in God’s time, we understand in God’s time, we develop in God’s time. No one can do the work for us, no one can rush it, no one can prevent it. We quite simply watch and wait expectantly with readiness. The calling, the tug, the “urge to emerge” comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is simply our job to be responsive when the time comes.

Part of the butterfly having to emerge on its own is that the struggle is a critical part of the process. The eclosion process happens while the butterfly is upside down. It needs to be in that position so gravity can help its wings unfold and dry. Gravity also pulls the meconium, waste products from the metamorphosis process, down into the wings to give their structure before it is ultimately expelled. Coming through a very small opening in the chrysalis is necessary for all of those steps to unfold properly. If it isn’t a struggle to emerge, the butterfly would simply fall to the ground, its wings still folded and wet, and it would die.

It takes a great deal of faith to emerge from our comfortable, safe spaces. And of course, the writer of Hebrews is trying to help us understand what exactly faith is, what it causes us to do. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The Greek word translated here as “assurance” in the New Revised Standard Version is hypostasis. It doesn’t just mean assurance as in comforting words. No, hypostasis is substance. Commentator Christopher T. Holmes describes it as “real, tangible, objective.” Faith isn’t just a churchy word we trot out when people are having a hard time. It’s tough, strong, real.

Religion professor Bryan Whitfield writes that faith does two important things for us, saying “First, faith provides a guarantee, the peg on which we hang our hopes. Because of faith, our hope is no flimsy dreaming; it has substance and reality. Faith provides a ground to which we may hold fast. But that grounding also orients us toward the future and gives us courage to move forward, launching out into the unknown. The second dimension of faith is that it moves us forward.”[2]

You see, faith is what gives us the power to live as hopeful people. Faith gives us the energy to believe in miracles, to be convicted that a better world is possible, that God’s Spirit has empowered us to act, that transformation is coming. Faith is saying “thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” and knowing that it is possible. Faith is knowing that life outside the cocoon is scary and hard, but it is worth leaving the cramped spaces of our current life. Faith is knowing that when we begin to break free, we will have what we need, and it will be worth it.

Breaking free begins with the calling- knowing that there is something waiting for you, it requires faith that life beyond is better than this current, comfortable life. But breaking free hinges on the courage to go. The courage to say yes, and to push through, to come out of the comfortable place and to begin.

In World War II, Irishman Ray Davey, served as a chaplain. He was captured twice and imprisoned in Italy and Germany. In a POW camp in Dresden, Davey saw the bombing of the city and was himself transformed. He returned to Belfast after the war and continued his chaplaincy work there, living in the midst of the tremendous strife in Northern Ireland now known as “the Troubles.” In 1965, Davey, alongside a group of college students, founded the Corrymeela community. It was meant to be a place of refuge and reconciliation for all people, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs. Reporter Alf McCreary of the Belfast Telegraph explained that Corrymeela took in “families of the paramilitaries on both sides, refugees from the violence, and reconcilers from inside and outside the churches who were trying to grapple with the trauma of a society tearing itself apart.”[3] Their mission was and is to create lasting peace by wading into the hardest realities of life, and from that messiness, to emerge stronger, more whole. Early on in the community’s life, it was believed that the name Corrymeela meant “Hill of Harmony” in Irish. After a little digging though, it was discovered that the word really meant “Lumpy Crossing Place,” a name perhaps more apt for the messy, confusing practice of making peace.[4] Despite the hard work of reconciliation, one of their long-time teachings is that one must “light a candle rather than to curse the darkness.”[5]

Lately I have been using the Corrymeela prayerbook by Padraig O Tuama most days in my own prayer life. It centers around a morning, midday and evening prayer, but in both the midday and evening prayers, the reader is directed to read another prayer- a Prayer for Courage. It struck me as so odd, at first, that the author and compiler of this book writes that one ought to pray specifically for courage twice a day. To be kind, yes. To be patient, probably. To be loving, definitely. But to be courageous- surprising. Surprising, at least, until I understood more fully the community’s purpose and until I realized that courage is the starting point of all transformation. So here is Padraig O Tuama’s Prayer for Courage from Corrymeela: “Courage comes from the heart and we are always welcomed by God, the heart of all being. We bear witness to our faith, knowing that we are called to live lives of courage, love and reconciliation in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of each day. We bear witness, too, to our failures and our complicity in the fractures of our world. May we be courageous today. May we learn today. May we love today. Amen.”[6]

Nothing- not a tame goose’s attempt to fly, not the breaking out of a butterfly, not peacemaking in a war-torn country, not volunteering with those living in poverty, not opening your heart to another, not going where God tells you to go- nothing begins without courage. God offers grace, we find the courage to respond.

Hebrews 11 calls us to join in the holy work of making the invisible visible. That is our calling, we have faith that we can, so we find the courage to do it. We join with Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and so many more in making the invisible visible, in making God present “in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of each day,” as the Prayer of Courage puts it. We seek the homeland, the city that these heroes could see, the homeland in which God will dwell with us, and we will be God’s people, and God will dwell with us. And there in that city, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for we will be in God’s holy city. We hear the calling, the invitation, to lay the foundation for that city. We have the gritty, sturdy faith to know that it is possible and to find the energy to hope. And we live with the courage to break free and begin. This is resurrection life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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