The gift of a stone in your shoe (or, “How to build a better life”)

I’m running to the library on a Saturday afternoon because there’s a book waiting for me there about the Grand Canyon.  The run will be 3.4 miles, and somewhere between the first and second miles a tiny stone found it’s way into my minimalist shoe.  It’s smaller than a rice-krispy, but the level of annoyance is out of proportion to the stone’s size.  Even so, I ran on, feeling a mild pinch underfoot with each step, hoping it will go away on its own.

I arrive at the library, procure my book and a couple movies, and then it’s back to running around the lake, the long way home.  The stone!  Ever present, it reminds me with every step that it doesn’t belong there.  What’s funny to me is that there’s no mystery here, either in regards to the suffering or the solution.  I can stop at anytime for less than one minute, remove my shoe, remove the stone, replace the shoe, run again in freedom.

In spite of the clarity, of both diagnosis and solution, I press on, “not wanting the stone to win”.  “Play through the pain” I tell myself with each step feeling like mild electric shock therapy.  “You’ll be home before you know it” I say, along with “you don’t have time to stop” along with a few other laughable classic one liners of denial.

Finally, just before the bathroom that marks just over a mile from my house, I stop, sit down on a bench, and do the deed.  I look at the stone for less than a second before discarding it, replacing my shoe, and running the rest of the way home pain free.  “Why” I ask myself, “did I wait so long to respond?”

That’s the question of our day isn’t it?

Why do we wait when a still small voice says, “my work’s no longer meaningful” or “this marriage is stuck” or “same stress, same addiction…again” or “what are you doing with this one wild and precious life you’ve been given, beyond watching Downton Abbey”?  The questions, like a tiny stone, poke at heart.  They pain us, but only a little, and we’ve become good, most of us, at trying to silence the voice of the stone.

We do so at our peril, because the truth of it is that our capacity to feel pain in its many forms (loss, betrayal, failure, shame, boredom, barriers, injustice, disease) is, in nearly every instance, the first act of our redemptive and transformative story.  Abraham?  He’s crying out to God because in spite of God’s great promise to him, nothing meaningful seems to have happened yet, especially not in the offspring department, which is where the whole promise was centered.  Jacob?  He’s a fearful and anxious liar who finds himself trapped in the wilderness ready to meet his bitter stronger brother, so he has it out with God, getting a promise and dislocated hip in the process.  David? He’s king, on paper, but in reality he’s a fugitive.  The disconnect is more than a little pebble; it’s a full on thorn.  And speaking of thorns, did I mention Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and his “despairing even of life?”

Ouch.

Why, then, if we’re born with the gift of pain, and if pain is the prelude to transformation and wholeness, do we fear it, ignore it, and numb ourselves in order to not notice it?  There are a few key reasons, and each of us would do well to see which apply to us:

Fear of Change -  We get in a rhythm, just like jogging, and we don’t want to stop, because stopping would be, well, stopping.  Who do you know in western culture who is upheld as a good role model because they stopped?  Truth be told, there are millions who’ve had the guts to stop, to stand up say, “I’m an alcoholic”  or “this work is sucking the life out of my soul” or “this marriage needs an infusion of truth and grace if it’s to be life giving”.  These stories though, don’t make the headlines.  Instead the headlines are only about the rarest kinds of glory and failure: Star athletes, moral catstrophies of famous people, American Idols, dysfunctional congresses, none of which are helpful for the rest of us.  Media doesn’t say much about stones, and pain, and the courage of those who listen to the pain and take the needed steps to change things.

Look at a little closer though, and you’ll find ‘stone stories’ everywhere; about people who quite there jobs and moved to Africa, or downsized their lives in order to free up time for living more beautiful lives, or people who changed their food and exercise habits in order to recover health, or people who are making movies, or writing books.  In every instance, it began with a stone – an annoyance, or discontent that eventually led someone to say “I’ve had enough” and take a step of change.

Pride -  Pride is different than fear of change in a nuanced sort of way, because fear of change has much to do with what we will need to face as individuals, whereas pride is about how we’re perceived.  For some, who we really are is less important than who we’re perceived to be, and this is why Jesus warns against taking our cue from the religious leaders who love to seat at the “main table” at parties, and be given titles, and awards for their holiness.  How Jesus became the figurehead of myriad religious systems filled with pomp, pretense, position, and propriety, is a subject for another time, but these tendencies explain why people don’t change, and why they cover up their sins and failures ignoring the stone in their shoe.

Some of the best times in my life have come on the far side of me saying “This isn’t working any more” when talking about a job, or a relationship, or a living habit.  In most cases, I wasn’t advocating abandonment of said job or relationship, but rather, a discovery of the stone, for in the process of discovering and removing the stone, we’re granted some great gifts:

… better progress moving forward

….maturity, wisdom, and the discipline to pay attention to pain

…joy

This lenten season has already revealed a few stones in my soul, as I listen intently for God’s voice in order to hear what God is trying to say, how God is shaping me.  And this, like stopping to take a stone out of my shoe, is good.

 

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About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.


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