Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 2, 2019
"Let Your Light Shine!" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
During these weeks when graduations abound, I ponder sometimes what I’d say if I were to address a group of graduates. I’ve attended many, many graduations over the years, often providing a prayer or two, but never beyond prayers. If I were to give a commencement address, I think it would be titled “Let Your Light Shine!”
I’d begin by asking if we truly are “the light of the world“as Jesus proclaims in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 - 7), why do we not shine more brightly? I’d mention how I believe a major difficulty we face in letting our light shine has to do with how we handle pain and suffering.
Our light cannot shine if we fail to handle well the pain and suffering life inevitably brings to each of us. Our light cannot shine if we pass on the pain and suffering we encounter unto others. And there is no one, regardless of wealth or fame, who does not have to learn how to handle pain and suffering. As the Sufi mystic, Rumi, phrased it: “We all wake up empty and afraid.”
In my commencement address, I’d share some lessons about pain and suffering I’ve learned from the Gospel and from many years of practicing and teaching the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do. As most know, I’m a certified third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I do not teach or practice much anymore. The spirit is willing but my flesh is definitely weak! But clearly it was not easy achieving a first, second and third degree black belt. One cannot become a black belt overnight.
We probably know it takes years of struggle, discipline, and pain to move from white belt to black belt. We may not know that it takes years to move from first–degree to second-degree and years more to move from second-degree to third-degree. One of the necessary disciplines in becoming a black belt is learning how to deal with pain.
The most important life lesson I learned in the dojang (the Tae Kwon Do training hall) was to not take everything too personally. Life is difficult. We are often under attack.
I’ve come to know in my 45 years of ordained ministry that if one is saying or doing anything important, one will be disliked, criticized and attacked. It comes, as they say, with the territory.
But one must not return pain for pain, suffering for suffering. This is why our world is so much in need of healing, the suffering keeps getting passed onto others.
Look at Jesus. He came proclaiming the Good News of God and he was viciously attacked for his message. He was killed because of his message. But he accepted the suffering that came to him and refused to pass it onto others. He embraced his suffering and transformed that suffering into our redemption.
Living a true Christian life will bring attacks as well as suffering and pain. But we must not allow these attacks to poison our soul with bitterness or with despair. Attacks must be understood as the cost of living not only a Christian life but the cost of living any life that truly matters.
The first lesson a beginner in martial arts, a white belt, must learn is not to take it personally when someone punches or kicks him or her. This is not an easy lesson to learn. But in Tae Kwon Do, there is no way to progress from white belt to black belt if this lesson is not learned.
In my many years of sparring (fighting), I wanted to discover where I was most vulnerable. If my opponent was able to overcome my defenses and land a punch or a kick, I needed to be grateful for this lesson. This is why, both before and after a match, one always bows to one’s opponent. One’s opponent is also one’s teacher. Not all our teachers look like teachers!
If one take attacks too personally, one can become filled with anger and even rage and want to retaliate. When one takes attacks too personally, one can become hypersensitive to any and all criticisms. When one takes attacks too personally, one walks around with a chip on one’s shoulder, spoiling for a fight. When one constantly complains about how life is unfair and how one has been dealt a bad hand, one carries a chip on one’s shoulder. Going through life in such a way is both dangerous and depressing.
People with a perpetual chip on their shoulders are almost always spoiling for a fight, almost always arguing that their way is the right way: “my way or the highway.” We see much of this in our many fatally-fragmented political leaders and religious leaders. These leaders have chosen to return pain for pain, suffering for suffering. No one should aspire to join in their brutality.
When we don’t take everything so personally, we allow the suffering to stop with us. We can walk away from political fights, from faith fights, knowing that God will finally settle the matter. We can live without a chip on our shoulders. We can live without having to PROVE anything to anyone. We can live at peace. Our light can then fully shine.
Life tests us almost every step of the way. Tests are built into every life journey and every spiritual journey. As the psalmist proclaims: “For you, O God, have tested us.” (Psalm 66:10) The prophet Isaiah, speaking in God’s name, asserts: “See, I have refined you…I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.” (Isaiah 48:10) But as our brother Paul assures us in his first letter to the Corinthians: “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength...” (1st Corinthians 10:13)
We cannot escape the testing that life brings. We WILL be tested in “the furnace of adversity.” I wish there was an easier way. I wish life came with fewer tests and less adversity. But we run into serious trouble if we try to avoid all pain and suffering. We cannot escape the “furnace of adversity.” This has become abundantly clear to me as I plunge more fully into my “Elder Years” (a better way of naming these years than one’s “Golden Years.”)
I trust, I believe, that Jesus will be our companion when we face the “furnace of adversity.” As the author of Hebrews proclaims: “Because Jesus Christ himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrews 2:18)
How one deals with life trials, how one deals with adversity, is critically important for a well-lived life. How one handles the suffering life brings will determine the overall quality of one’s life. If one learns not to take it all too personally, if one decides not to pass pain on to others, then and only then will one achieve true adulthood.
Many people flee from adversity. Many people choose the easy and most pain-free path. But the safe and easy route is a dead end. Spending all one’s free time in front of the television or playing video games is a dead end.
Many are the ways people try to avoid the pain and suffering of life. One way of avoiding it is to blame someone else for one’s mistakes. Another way of avoiding it is to fall into any of the addictions assailing our society. Addictions often result from shortsighted attempts to avoid or lessen the pain and suffering of life. But all addictions, in the end, generate more pain and suffering.
Pain and suffering must be faced honestly. Pain and suffering must be understood as the price of living a worthwhile life. And, please know, I’m not suggesting one should try to generate more pain and suffering. I’m merely suggesting that one make peace with the adversity that inevitably comes.
In my many years of martial art training, I’d ask myself from time to time, why are you doing this? Why are you living with so many bumps and so many bruises? I was never free of bruises because of the sparring I did three days a week. But over the years, my pain tolerance, my ability to endure physical suffering, increased.
Because of this, I found it easier to carry the pain and suffering of my own life. And, yes, the loss of Beth was very, very hard. But because of my own suffering, I’ve found I’m more capable of carrying the pain and suffering of others that lies at the core of all ministry. Helping carry other people’s pain and suffering may be the primary way we let our light shine before others.
As a pastor and a counselor, one of my main tasks is to walk with people through whatever pain and suffering, whatever sorrows and challenges, life brings to them. If I did not have a fair tolerance for pain and suffering, if I took all the pain and suffering too personally, I’d fail in my calling, succumbing to “burn-out.”
But it’s not just pastors and counselors who are called to help carry pain and suffering; each us is called to help carry pain and suffering, one’s own and other’s. Sometimes one is called to help others confront the predators that abound in our wounded world. Sometimes one is called to just sit quietly with someone who is in pain. Sometimes one is called to weep with those who weep. Sometimes one is called to laugh with those who need laughter.
I’d end my commencement words by adding how I want them to have a truly blessed and beautiful life. I’d remind them of the wise words from Rabbi Heschel, when asked what message he had for young people replied: “I would say: Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, every one, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And, above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.”