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There are many types of journeys we take – some that we choose to go on – our vacations, our pilgrimages – and some we are forced to embark on. Refugees escaping crises, war, famine, natural disasters. In life, there are journeys of loss, journeys of trials and tribulations, journeys leaving something, someone or somewhere behind.
There is a story in the Bible of a journey a family was forced to take.
In chapter 19 of Genesis, when God rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his family had to escape to a little city nearby.
The angels said to Lot, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.”
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Jesus says “on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them —it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife.” Luke 17:29-32
It is a disturbing narrative – disturbing because we don’t know much about Lot’s wife other than the six Hebrew words that translates as: “And his wife looked back from behind him and she became a pillar of salt.”
We find it difficult to square a loving and merciful God with what happened to Lot’s wife. She just looked back.
Most people would assume and interpret what happened to Lot’s wife as punishment for disobeying the angel’s instructions. But what the angels said to Lot – “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed” – was it a command, or a warning? Who turned her into a pillar of salt? Was it really God?
There is alternative to interpreting Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt as punishment – Steven Luger offers an alternative reading. He reinterprets the story of Lot’s wife by applying the clinical psychiatric framework of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
After experiencing a traumatic event – some people struggle to return to normal functioning. We get stunned, shocked, and sometimes, some people get stuck in that state of shock.
“Lot’s wife disobeys and…sees the world as she knows it destroyed. What is her reaction to this terrible loss of her entire world? She becomes a pillar of salt (19:26) – a catatonic reaction to stress. She becomes as immobile and rigid as a pillar of salt. This catatonic reaction, too, has been described in the psychiatric literature as a result of severe psychological trauma.”
Lot’s wife was overcome and immobilized by tears – salty tears over all that was lost.
She looked back at the place she called home. She looked back at the place that she lived all her life – a place that was everything to her. Surely, if we were in her shoes, it would be hard not to look back.
On that journey to escape from destruction, she was unable to move forward after watching the destruction of all that she knew.
What about us?
Are we stuck somewhere on our journey, our pilgrimages, our lives? Does it feel like we are unable to move, or does it feel like we are moving in circles and going nowhere?
It could be fear of what lies ahead that is holding us back.
It could be attachment to how things are that we are unable to move.
It could be unwillingness, or the inability to let go of the past that we are going around in circles.
It could be how we are unable to forgive that we keep returning to the pain and the hurt.
What are the things we must let go of to move forward?
During my time in seminary in a conversation with my friend Paul Arensmeyer from seminary, I talked about an email someone wrote to me. Even though I claimed it didn’t affect me, Paul asked me, “Why are you still carrying it with you?”
Our past can be unnecessary baggage that we carry around. Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE writes wisely “Our past informs our life; it may also have deformed our life, leaving a residue. That residue will get in the way of living our lives abundantly, as Jesus promises us. The residue will leave us reacting rather than responding to life.”
How do we live our lives abundantly?
I find great wisdom in what Br Almquist wrote:
““I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”6 Jesus obviously learned something about cultivating a garden and its cost. I’m not talking about the cost to the gardener – the time and labor expended, which is real – but rather, the cost to the plants. I cannot imagine that anything is more confusing to a living plant than to be pruned. For a plant, whose sole reason for being is to be alive and to grow, to be cut back . . . it must feel like death to a plant! And yet, every gardener will know that unless the plant is pruned back, the plant may grow, but it will likely grow wild and it will spend itself prematurely, missing its great potential to flower with form and beauty, season after season. Gardens need to be cultivated, and plants need to be pruned back to bring forth the best of what they’ve been created to be. Is there something in your life that needs to be pruned? Something you may carry as baggage or freight in your soul that would be helpful for you to part with?”
Fruit trees sometimes produce more fruits than they can sustain. Many growers will prune away excess fruits, so that the fruits that remain become higher in quality. This technique is used in many places – in Japan, in Malaysia for durians, and even in my parents’ backyard – they cut away many starfruits so that the ones remaining get all the nutrients and grow well (and hopefully sweet).
Are there things God is inviting you to prune in your life?
Are there things in the past that you need to let go of?
Are there people that you need to forgive so that you move beyond the pain and the hurt you are currently in?
Br Almquist on forgiveness:
It may have to do with forgiving someone. Jesus speaks of unforgiveness as an imprisoning experience. Is there someone who has negatively affected or infected your life? Not forgiving them leaves them imprisoned – impeding them from changing – and it leaves you imprisoned as their prison guard. Both the prisoner and the prison guard are in prison. Forgiveness is a liberating experience for the other person and for you. Should you wait for them to ask for your forgiveness? No, absolutely not. To wait is to continue to give them power over you. If they have hurt you, you are colluding with them by your unwillingness to forgive. Unforgiveness will metastasize in your own soul and become resentment. Very dangerous. Nelson Mandela, when he was freed at age seventy-two from his twenty-six years of cruel imprisonment in South Africa, felt bitter toward his captors, but was determined not to let it ruin the rest of his life. He spoke truth; he sought reconciliation. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.” Forgive. Forgiveness may need to be your daily practice, otherwise a residue may build up like barnacles, weighing you down, impeding your life.
Are there things you need to forgive yourself, so you can become who you are called to be?
There are several times I have to say this to people and told them this – there is only one person in the universe who has not forgiven you. That person isn’t God. Or the friend you hurt, or the loved one you let down. The person is you.
You need to say “yes” to your life and yourself, amazing person that you are. If you find yourself having this internal battle – one part of you always critical about yourself, what should be different or better, and the other part pleading that you’re doing the best you can – you need to get on good speaking terms with yourself. Jesus has come, not only to break down the dividing wall between us and other people; he has also come to break down the dividing wall within us. Claim your life, the whole of it. What is clearly good, cherish and cultivate. What is clearly broken, venerate, because your brokenness becomes a breakthrough for God. Never dismiss yourself. You are a work in progress, one that will require your attention for the rest of your life. Co-operate with God. That, inevitably, will involve pruning for you to be fully alive. There’s an endearing word of insight in the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” Co-operate with your soul’s God-implanted will to grow and be free.
Going on a spiritual pilgrimage requires us to let go of our baggage, and travel light. That is not something that happens after you sit through a sermon. It requires effort on your part to let go of things, to embrace and accept things and situations beyond your control, to become more resilient.
This process of letting things go and leaving things behind doesn’t overnight. It is something we practice and get better at. Last week, I talked about the Rule of Life. We have 18 folks in our whatsapp chat group embarking on this journey together.
The Rule of Life is one way of working on different aspects of ourselves so we experience spiritual growth. Even as we create the rule which is like a trellis / frame that helps us grow towards the light, we would need to prune so we do not grow wildly, and so that we would bear fruit.
Invite God to help you remove the branches in you that bears no fruit, and every branch that bears fruit invite God to prune to make it bear more fruit.