Obstacles – 8/29/21

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, our house had not been well-maintained when we moved in.  And this was manifest not only on the interior of the house, but in the plant life which surrounds it as well.  It appears the previous owners planted several trees.  And these trees were surrounded by supports to strengthen them as the matured.  But the owners never removed these supports, and the trees eventually started to grow around them.  When I saw this the first time, I worried these trees would not last.  That growing around these supports had weakened them such that they would easily fall in a strong wind or snap under the weight of an ice storm.

Wondering if there was something I could do to help the situation, I began to do some research online.  There is a word for this:  edaphoecotropism.  The most famous example comes from Scotland.  There, a sycamore tree grew along a blacksmith’s scrap heap.  As the tree grew, it grew around a number of abandoned objects.  These are said to include an anchor, a horse’s bridle, and most notably a bicycle.  The story goes that the owner of the bike left it resting against the side of the tree when he went off to fight in World War I.  Because he never returned, the tree laid claim to it.  The background for our slides today shows this bike with its handlebars and frame protruding from the tree’s trunk.

Reading about this phenomenon, I learned how these obstacles which stand in the way of the tree’s growth influence its future.  Living things not only heal, they can incorporate foreign objects in their structures.   As the tree grows, and as obstacles stand in its way, the living tissue surrounds and engulfs the object.  It binds itself to it, and this connection grows over time.  And rather than weakening it, trees which grow around their obstacles provide strength, add stability.  Instead of growing in an unnatural way around the object risking its stability, the tree embraces the barrier in its way.

In our first reading for this morning, we find a people facing obstacles, searching for a way to grow through them.  The people of Israel are on the verge of entering the promised land.  After years of slavery in Egypt, after a difficult journey, they finally arrive at their place of hope.  They are presented with an abundance of new opportunities.  They are on the threshold of a new life in a new land with their spirituality at the center of it all.

As they arrive, Moses sends men to spy out the land they were to invade.  A man was chosen from each of the twelve tribes to go in and assess the situation –  to see what the land is like, whether the people who lived there were strong, whether their cities were fortified, whether there were many enemies or few.  They were told to be bold, to bring the fruit of the land back to show the people what was in store for them in their new home.  To create a sense of hope in the face of the obstacles in their path.

When they returned, the spies first reported the land flowed with milk and honey.  It was fertile.  The fruit of the land was abundant – pomegranates, figs, and dates.  But they also reported that the people who lived there are strong, the towns are large and fortified.  They compared themselves to grasshoppers in the face of the size of the obstacles they would have to face.  Rather than growing through these obstacles, the spies told them the land would devour them.

But among the many voices proclaiming the danger which lie ahead, there was a voice of reason.  Caleb was one of the twelve spies.  And instead of feeding into the growing fear, instead of emphasizing the stories which caused the people to hesitate, Caleb gave an opposing message.  He told the people that they were well able to face the obstacles in their path.   He said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”  Caleb gave a message of hope rather than feeding into fear.

When the people heard both stories, when they compared the message of Caleb to the remaining spies, the obstacles overwhelmed them.  They raised a loud cry, they wept through the night, they complained against their leaders.  They stated that they wished they would have died in Egypt or in the wilderness on their way to the promised land rather than being in their current situation.  The only reality they were able to see was that they would soon die by the sword, that their wives and children would be taken as slaves.  The obstacles seemed so great that they decided to choose a captain to return them to Egypt.

This is not the first time that the people of Israel wanted to return to Egypt, not the first time they thought it preferable to embrace the certainty of a painful past to avoid the pain of facing obstacles.  After the plagues were brought on Egypt and the people were delivered from slavery, after they made their escape, the people of Israel found themselves without food in the wilderness.  And rather than trusting that they would receive provision, that they would overcome this obstacle, the people complained and said, “if only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt.”  Even after the powerful experience of deliverance, they could not choose hope over fear.

But this is the first time that they make an actual plan to return to Egypt, to turn from the promised land.  Caleb and Joshua urge the people to have faith, telling them not to fear, reminding them that God is with them.  But rather than listening, the people threated to stone them.  It was easier to go back to a known bad situation than to step out in hope.  The obstacles in the promised land seemed too insurmountable to listen to reason.

Like most of us, the people of Israel sought a way around their obstacles.  And this decision to avoid the obstacles had significant consequences.  For 40 years, they wander in the wilderness.  That generation passes without entering into the promised land.  Fearing conflict, doubting their own abilities, abandoning hope of what could be, they choose avoidance.  Overwhelmed by the voices of fear which surround them, they were unable to hear those few telling them to have courage, to embrace what lie before them.  To shut out even the voice within which told them to walk forward.

Contrary to our natural tendencies, obstacles are not something for us to avoid.  When we encounter obstacles in our path, we are not meant to change paths but to incorporate those obstacles into our journey.  The Tibetan word for obstacle, parche, means “what cuts our progress.”  In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that the more we are engaged in our spiritual practice, the greater the obstacles on our paths become.  But by understanding those obstacles are an integral part of our journey, we are able to learn from them.  These obstacles become messengers to raise our level of awareness that something more is happening.

There are three types of these obstacles.  The first are outer obstacles, those things in our external world which preoccupy our thoughts and keep us from focusing on our spiritual path.  The second are inner obstacles.  This can manifest first as conceptuality – a fixation on a particular idea.  It can also manifest as an inability to focus, causing our energy to be dispersed. Finally, it could be manifest in powerful emotions like anger, jealousy, or vindictiveness.  The third type of obstacle is secret obstacles, and these have to do with the way we view them.  Becoming overwhelmed with doubt, losing our sense of commitment and our sense of joy.

By working with our obstacles, we are able to learn from them.  As we begin to appreciate our experiences and our emotions, we begin to transcend them.  In working with our obstacles, Buddhism calls us to engage in our spiritual practice, renew our inspiration, and practice loving kindness.

One of the greatest obstacles I have encountered in my path is the need for control.  While I recognize from where this obstacle emerged, I have always struggled in my response.  Until just recently, I searched for ways to go around it, to grow in such a way that it is no longer a barrier in my path.  But the more I have tried, the more I have realized it is not something I can grow around.

There have also been many times in my life when I have chosen to avoid obstacles in my path rather than finding a way to incorporate them into who I am, to embrace them and move through them, to allow them to become part of me and give me strength.  Difficult relationships that I have ended or marginalized so that I did not have to do the work of healing, so that I did not have to risk further hurt.  Career choices I have made to avoid the risk of failure.

But there have also been those times when I was able to move through those obstacles.  Trusting someone with who I am has always been difficult for me.  After painful experiences, I found it challenging to allow someone to fully know me.  Those painful experiences became something I grew around rather than allowing them to be part of me.  But when I opened myself to trust and be fully open with Kathy, those obstacles were transformed.  They could become a part of me, something to give me a source of strength, rather than barrier I grew around which weakened my ability to grow and stand.

Having the honor of being your minister, I know the obstacles which lie in the paths of some of your lives.  The difficult experiences you are enduring now and the fear which comes grappling with how to incorporate those obstacles into your journey.  And being your minister during this difficult time in the life of the community, I know the sadness and fear many of you have over the future of NCC.  My prayer is that together we are able to face the obstacles in our paths.  To, like trees, allow them to become part of us, to strengthen us.  That we may not wander but land in the place we are meant to be.