Bernard Johnson - spiritually speaking column EPN

Bernard Johnson

I’ve been thinking about life’s teachable moments. When is it that we are likely to learn something that will change our lives? Under what circumstances can a person’s life be transformed?

Richard Rohr wrote about this shortly after 9/11:

“Tragedy is the cauldron of transformation, the belly of Jonah’s whale. We are being chewed up and spit out on new shores ... It seems that pain is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego and the cultural certitudes. When it comes, most of us will flee to quick formulas to avoid that destabilization. Suffering is, I am sorry to say, the most efficient means of transformation, and God makes full use of it whenever God can ... Much of our understandable anger is actually disguised and denied sadness. Life should not be this way, but it always has been for most of humanity. Now this absurdity, this paschal mystery, has reached the shores of North America. This is a teachable moment, par excellence.” (Richard Rohr in “Grieving as Sacred Space”, Sojourners, January-February, 2002.)

In my own experience, I have learned very little and changed even less in times of joy. Joy and happiness are specific graces that in a strange way are carved out of sorrow. When they come, they are to be relished and savored for all the release and satisfaction they provide. As someone has said, “When it is time to dance, dance as if no one is watching!”

But today I am thinking about the situations in which we are made deeper and stronger in our soul and spirit. It seems that suffering and loss are frequently God’s chosen occasions for getting our attention. For instance, when a loved one dies it often seems as if time has ground to a halt. The daily routines of life are suspended for a while and most people with a mind and heart begin to think about the meaning of life. What am I doing and where am I going? If I achieve all that I am striving for will that truly represent my divine destiny? Do the ones I love know that I love them? Have I really faced my own mortality?

These are large questions and pondering them can lead to significant changes large and small. The problem is that we live in a culture that is allergic to pain of any sort. We are taught that pain is to be avoided at all costs. Very often we chase the prophet out of town before we have fully received his message. Douse the headache with aspirin before even thinking to ask, “Why am I squeezing my head?”

I am not suggesting that the distortions of masochism are pathways to God. I am simply saying that tragedy and sorrow will come to us all. In God’s economy, these are life’s teachable moments. When we are bruised and broken we are more likely to acknowledge our frailty and consider the possibility that we are in need of a profound relationship with God. When we cross the bridge from self as the source of life and hope to a higher power as the source of life and hope we cannot help but be changed.

So I am wondering, will America change as a result of two mass shootings in the same week? Some have said we have lost our way in a land where racism, hate and fear seem to be a new normal. What’s more, to live as if there is no bigotry and racism infecting the soul of our nation is only to give such things room to grow. To face them anew in the wake of profound pain and sorrow may be the first step in healing a social cancer. While the collective response and outcome are beyond my ability to predict, I can say with some certainty that our country is in the midst of a teachable moment.

Dr. Bernard E. Johnson shares this space with the Revs. Timothy A. Johnson, Rod Anderson and Trish Sullivan Vanni as well as spiritual writers Nanette Missahgi and Beryl Schewe. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.


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