It’s been a long time since I’ve had a toddler in the house. Gloria is reminding me—sometimes uncomfortably–of things I’d forgotten and she is keeping me on my toes. I’ve learned to read the look in her eye that means “I’m going to eat your favorite plants now” or the hop in her gait that says, “if you don’t take me outside real quick, I’m going to leave you a present on the carpet.”
Managing her sweet, playful, energetic, and just-learning-the-rules personality has its upside and its down-side. She brings youth and joy and fun and cuddles to our house. That’s a great blessing. But learning—and teaching–boundaries is hard, and I think it’s possible I was more flexible 20-some years ago when my kids were little. Maybe it has something to do with the belief back then that we had all the time in the world—we had time to grow up together, time to figure things out, time for mistakes and trying again. Time to do better next time. I’m beginning to wonder if, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost some of that easy ability to go with the flow. Maybe I’ve become less comfortable with the idea of progress and more focused on perfection, hoping for the unrealistic outcome of teaching something once and having it stick, forever and ever, amen.
But I’ve started to notice that perfection isn’t a language a six-month-old Great Pyrenees puppy understands. So last week I downloaded Cesar Millan’s audiobook, Short Guide to a Happy Dog, and I listened to it each day as I drove to and from the hospital, morning and evening. I had never seen his show, but it was obvious to me right from the start that this was a person who understands dog language and psychology and has a lot of experience—and a unique perspective—from the four-footed side of things. I began to understand why all my “No!!”s, exclaimed after some unfortunate event, were having little impact on Gloria’s behavior. There she’d stand, over the chewed up plant, wagging her tail madly, so pleased that she elicited such an energetic response from me. “And by the way,” her happy face would beam, “Did you know that I love you?!”
One of Cesar Millan’s big teachings—something he returns to again and again—is that energy is a dog’s first language. If we’re full of stress and tied in knots, our dogs feel that more loudly than any words we speak. If we’re upset or frustrated, it flows right down the leash, resulting in an anxious dog that is more likely to misbehave. I took this idea to heart and almost immediately, I began to notice something surprising. I discovered what the energy of “No!” feels like inside me. It’s like a super tight knot in my stomach. And there’s tightness in my shoulders and my jaw too. Soon I began also to notice the “No!”s in other people at the hospital, when they told stories of difficult things or circumstances in their lives that were causing them pain or worry.
Perhaps we could try it here for a moment. Think of something in your own life that brings up a big “No!” in you. Maybe it’s something you saw in the headlines this week. Or some boundary your neighbor is testing. An upset with a coworker or family member. A child or grandchild that is growing up too fast. Or something else in your life right now that just feels wrong.
Whatever it is, let yourself try it on for a moment, thinking the thoughts and feeling the feelings that are associated with it. And take a breath and notice where in your body that big “No!” lives. The energy camps out somewhere in there. Maybe you’ll feel it in your stomach like I did. Or it might be your shoulders or your chest, maybe your neck. We know grief sometimes feels like a tightness or achiness in the chest.
Whatever the issue, the internal “No!” that arises when something we don’t want shows up in our life begins as a thought but then takes on physical form. It moves from our mind—as our thoughts swirl around, fussing about the outer circumstance—and triggers endorphins that get released into our bodies, stirring our emotions and firing up our fight or flight response. Our whole systems go on alert. Muscles tighten. Breathing gets more shallow. Stomachs churn. Hearts burn. Necks and shoulders stiffen.
And there’s a good reason we feel things so acutely, on so many levels. We are wired this way—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Life happens and we feel it, every bit of it, deeply. And in this fast-moving and over-stimulating world, we have plenty to react to. Wrongs happen. Injustices occur. Horrible losses come our way. Worries mushroom. None of these things are things we would choose. Of course we resist them. It’s normal—and human—for us to want to turn away from those things that hurt, those things that fly in the face of our belief in the goodness of God. We say “No!” to those unwelcome intruders, over and over and over again. We don’t want them, in our lives, in our bodies, in our minds.
Our Old Testament reading is a pivotal moment for Joseph—who you remember was betrayed by his older brothers and thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery. What a hard life he had, this boy who was his father’s favorite, rejected, abandoned, and wronged by the ones who were supposed to love and protect him. In the section of the story we heard, Joseph is now a powerful man, the second most powerful person in Egypt, and his siblings come to ask for grain so they won’t starve in the midst of a great famine. Joseph now has his brothers right where he wants them. He has his chance to get even for the great wrong they did to him, to set things right. His wounds, his memories, even his logical human nature must have been crying out for justice, but instead Joseph chooses something different. Instead, it is a moment of grace.
Hearing that his brothers remember and now regret what they did to him—and that they attribute their current anguish to that transgression—Joseph turns away and weeps. Perhaps before that moment his mind had been ready for a fight, but when he heard that—even though his brothers didn’t yet recognize him–his heart softened and opened to God’s leading. Joseph was miraculously able to let go of decades of hurt and anger in a single moment. Everything opened to the flow of grace.
Christian Larson was a New Thought teacher and writer in the early 1900s, and in his book, The Ideal Made Real, he offers an interesting idea about how we sometimes unintentionally get in the way of the grace God wants for us. He writes,
“When things are not to your liking, like them as they are. In other words, while you are working for great things, make friends with the lesser things, and they will help you to reach your goal.”
His idea is that when we are constantly saying no to what is—perhaps a job we don’t like or a car that doesn’t work or a puppy that won’t stop eating plants—we are pushing against the situation and resisting it, adding our negativity on top of everything else. Things won’t get better that way. Larson writes, “We cannot get away from present conditions so long as we antagonize those conditions, because we are held in bondage to that which we resist.” We need to be in harmony with our present if our present is to be a stepping stone to a better future.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “What we resist, persists.” When we have that big internal “No!” to something—no matter what it is—we certainly don’t want it to persist. We want it to change. In fact, that’s what our No is about, we’re saying this is not what should be happening in my world or in my life.
In his 2007 book, Are We There Yet, author Dennis Hunt explains why our resistance makes a problem stick around:
“When we are opposed to something or try to stop ourselves doing something that we do not want to continue–like overeating, or smoking–whatever we are seeking to resist invariably will persist because of the energy we give to it through our increased attention to it. Imagine that you are facing someone and trying to push them over. Likewise they are resisting and trying to push you over. Think what would happen if either of you suddenly stopped pushing, without warning, and stepped to one side. The other person would be impelled forward by their own impetus and most likely fall flat on their face. So to remove energy from something will lead to it collapsing. Literally–to oppose is to support.”
Isn’t that interesting? It points to the idea that what we pay attention to, how we use our energy, either goes along with or interrupts the flow of grace. When we resist what is, we put a big boulder in the stream, and perhaps only a little bit of good will be able to ripple around the edges. But if we make our peace with things as they are, however they are, the flow of grace runs freely in our lives. That means we’re more likely to see God working in our situation, and that deepens our trust and builds our faith.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians carries on this idea of staying in the flow of grace. He encourages them to thank their teachers, especially the ones who challenge them. He adds, “We urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.”
He’s calling not for judgment for those who fall short, not for putting people out of meeting if they don’t live up to the rules, but rather for the energy of God’s grace to be allowed to flow through the group so that people seek to do good, be good, encourage and share good with one another and to all the world. What a different world this would be if we were willing and able to trade the energy of judgment for the energy of grace.
Paul also gives us practical ways to continue on in tune with this flow of grace, saying, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” And then, he adds a fourth, “Do not quench the Spirit.” What a mysterious and powerful phrase. What does it mean to quench the Spirit? Maybe throwing a big boulder or building a barricade in the living flow of God’s love. Perhaps we quench the spirit whenever we say “No!” to a situation we don’t like, forgetting that God is working precisely there, right in the very circumstance we are resisting.
This idea of being open to the continuing flow of God’s grace—in any and all circumstances—is beautifully captured in a famous quote by Dag Hammarskjold, who was the youngest secretary general of the UN:
“For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, Yes!”
Yes to everything stretching before us into the future, whatever God has in store. What a bold statement of trust and faith that is. This is a person who has come to trust fully the goodness and grace of God. He knows not to impede the flow. From our own Friends tradition, you may recognize these beautiful words Isaac Penington wrote in 1667:
“Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting. Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another. And then, ye will be a praise to the Lord; and anything that is, or hath been, or may be, amiss, ye will come over in the true dominion, even in the Lamb’s dominion; and that which is contrary shall be trampled upon, as life rises and rules in you.
So watch your hearts and ways; and watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all. So mind Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts; and so to walk, as ye may bring no disgrace upon it, but may be a good savor in the places where ye live, the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.”
The meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in us—that is the flow of God’s grace in our very own lives, Friends. May we trade all our “No!”s for the healing power of that singular Yes!, and spend the rest of our lives giving thanks to the Grace that so tenderly, faithfully, and consistently responds.
- OT Genesis 42: 18-25
- NT 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-24
- Cesar Millan, Short Guide to a Happy Dog: https://www.chewy.com/cesar-millans-short-guide-to-happy/dp/145869
- Christian Larson, The Ideal Made Real: http://www.brainybetty.com/2007Motivation/Christian%20Larson%20-%20The%20Ideal%20Made%20Real.pdf
- Dennis Hunt, Are We There Yet? https://books.google.com/books?id=QdcM-0vqQScC&lpg=PR3&ots=r-FsjuJ1A5&dq=%22Are%20We%20There%20Yet%22%20Dennis%20HUnt&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q=%22Are%20We%20There%20Yet%22%20Dennis%20HUnt&f=false
- Dag Hammarskjold: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dag_Hammarskj%C3%B6ld
- Isaac Penington: https://archive.org/stream/memoirsoflifeofi00inpeni/memoirsoflifeofi00inpeni_djvu.txt