Letting Go

letting go

Image courtesy of admitchell08, licensed under Creative Commons

Nothing is as difficult, or as necessary, as letting go. At this moment you are burdened by things from your past — damaging words, destructive arguments, hurtful parents and other role models, painful situations. These things build and build in your life, starting in childhood. You put them on the back burner so you can pay attention to other things, but that back burner is getting pretty crowded lately. How much can you ignore? The back burner only holds so much, and soon it is falling all over the floor, spilling out of your life like a wound that won’t stop bleeding.

You’ve tried everything.

  • Not thinking about.
  • Complaining about it.
  • Not worrying about it.
  • Hating God for it.
  • Not talking about it.
  • Keeping busy.
  • Telling yourself to grow up, that there’s nothing you can do about it.

But that’s not true. There is something you can do. You can let go. Nothing is as difficult, or as necessary, as letting go. Letting go is not the same thing as not thinking about it, not worrying about it, not talking about it, keeping busy, or telling yourself to grow up. All of those are attempts to minimize or deny the hurt you have been feeling. Letting go acknowledges the hurt and feels it. It sits there in the hurt for a little while, lets it be exactly what it is. If you do not allow your hurt to be what it is, it will come out in ways that are harmful to you and to others. In fact, it is probably already doing that. You must let it be.

Then go beyond that. You acknowledge the hurt and you feel it. Then you forgive it. You forgive the person who hurt you. You forgive the world for not being fair. You forgive whoever or whatever for the hurt you are feeling and this includes forgiving yourself. You determine to be done with it, and you let it go. You can only really do this when you have been through the other steps. As long as you are running from your pain, it will be impossible to let it go. The hurt you are suffering now is at least as much from running as it is from whatever hurt you to begin with.

There is no healthier way to deal with pain than this. You can return to this process again and again with everything that has caused you grief. Letting go never gets old. Letting go never gets easy. Letting go never stops setting you free.

Question: How do you work through the process of letting go?


A gift Brittany made me for Father's Day

Until the moment my first child was born, I didn’t have the capacity to love a child. I know this because of the magnitude of the heartquake I experienced when I first saw her. In that moment, everything began to shake. All of my assumptions about myself. All of my selfish worries that I couldn’t fit a child into my life. Layers of prickliness that had enshrouded me for years. And along with the shaking was a kind of melting. In just a few seconds, the person I was melted down and ceased to exist. In its place was a brand new man — a man capable of feeling extremely deep emotion, even of crying; a man in love with a tiny baby; a man swept away by something he had never known before, and quite okay with that; a man who was suddenly able to see himself in relationship to a child; a man connected to this child in a way he had never been connected to anything.

Yesterday another heartquake began as we helped her move into her room at college. Only this heartquake is different. The heartquake when she was born felt amazing and liberating and joyful. This one aches. The first one felt like I had just gained the world. This one feels like I have lost so much. In the first heartquake, I attached effortlessly to this child. With this one, I will fight a great battle to let go. The first one brought fulfillment. This one is a struggle against giving in to a sense of emptiness.

I keep reminding myself that we’re not the first parents to do this. My own parents did it. This morning I was startled to realize that when you walk through any public place, many of the people you see have waved goodbye to a child as they left the nest, and have lived to tell about it. Most people have carried that wound. I take comfort in this, but of course my struggle remains.

So my plan is simply to feel the pain, and allow the fire to rage for a while. I realize this heartquake hurts as badly as it does because it is fueled by the same explosive that caused the first one. Love. It just burns in a different way. And I realize that just like hundreds of millions of other parents, I too will learn not only to carry this wound with grace but to take joy in it. I know it will make me stronger, more compassionate, and grant me deeper wisdom.

I know I’ll get there. But for now I must respect the size and significance of this quake and not attempt to minimize it or make efforts to control it. My mantra for now is those famous words of Martin Luther: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And I cling to what I teach those in my congregation. We must live in the expectation that what is on the horizon will be greater — not lesser — than from where we have already come. That is my hope and my expectation. But right now, I’m in the middle of a quake, and all it is appropriate to do right now is hang on tight and wait until the shaking settles down.

Dealing with pain

I have a group of fellow pastors I meet with once a month for breakfast.  We socialize and talk shop, but mostly we just hang out.  That’s right.  We hang out.  It’s not usually very “spiritual.”  It’s not usually what a person might expect from a group of pastors hanging out together.  No one brings a Bible.  There’s no “devotional,” and we’re not working our way through some heady book.  We eat breakfast, get caught up on what each of us is doing, and most of us drink too much coffee.  But God is there.

Oops, did you think I lunged into something spiritual?  Because I didn’t.  What I was saying was spiritual all along.  The Christian understanding (and the Jewish, and the Buddhist and that of other religions, for that matter) is that God is everywhere.  We don’t have to baptize our meetings in overtly spiritual purposes for God to be there.  God just IS there. The issue is whether we realize that at every instant we inhabit HIS world.

Working directly with people is incredibly rewarding, but has its share of pain and frustration.  The last few weeks have been full of moments like that for me and so recently I made the difficult decision to reach out to this group of guys and tell them about my pain.  That’s not easy.  It’s far easier to keep stuff to ourselves, not share it with the people God has placed in our lives to love us, and then complain about being isolated and unloved.  In fact that’s the choice most of us usually do make, and the choice I have made most of my life.  But I chose to share this with them.  The responses were amazing — encouraging, insightful, patient — the kind of stuff that helped me know that I really don’t have to bear my burdens alone.  Below is a note I wrote just today to the group that probably sums up a lot of things I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to deal with the pain that inevitably comes into each of our lives.

I have really appreciated hearing from you guys, each in your own way.

Richard Rohr says that only two things, ultimately, lead us up the hill of spiritual growth — great love, and great suffering. I think Paul knew this when he welcomed suffering into his life and was thankful for it.

Dudes, if we can do this — if we can actually learn to be present to our own failures and sufferings, we will accomplish something great. Here’s what I mean.

I’ve been going to counseling for about eighteen months. My counselor is brilliant and he shared with me a little while back that in his 20 years of doing psychotherapy, he has only had a small handful of pastors come in to counseling and actually stick it out. He says most have wanted only to feel better about some specific situation and then once the immediate pain was gone, they bailed out of counseling. So they were not present to it. They sought only freedom from pain, but did not seek to learn from it, to be deepened by it, or to ask the hard questions like Brad was talking about — “where is this my problem? where is it truly not? what can I learn here?”

While it made me glad to be the exception to the rule, it also deeply bothered me. As pastors, we know that we’re working with colleagues who are deeply, deeply wounded (after all, they’re pastors — enough said). Either those wounds are faced squarely, or else they will be passed on to those in our congregations — as if our people aren’t bearing their own share of deep wounds. What’s this thing with pastors so often not being willing to be present to their pain? The answer is that pastors are people too, and people in general don’t want to be present to pain. But deep pain and deep love are the fires that forge deep spiritual understanding. If we are actually to lead our people anyplace worth going, we must be on this journey, because it’s the same journey Jesus took, and it must be the same journey we are teaching others to take as well. That simply IS the narrow gate — and, being fashioned by pain, we can certainly understand why it’s narrow.

Thus we leave an incredible legacy for our people as we determine to be present to our own pain. And I am thankful for how you guys also have been willing to be present to my pain. It was really hard for me to write that note to you because we’re taught to only share our stories of pain in the past tense, once we have knuckled through it and are feeling powerful and victorious again. But when we open up and actually share pain, that’s where others can identify with us and know us — and ultimately love us. And where love is, there is God.

Thanks again, my friends.


Don’t mistake what I’m saying.  I do this wrong the majority of the time.  I usually do not reach out to people who care about me, and I nearly always bear my burdens alone.  But I wanted to share some thoughts on this with you, to encourage both my readers and myself that the only upward path is the path of presence to pain.  It’s a path I plan on taking more and more often in my life.

QUESTION: Who are the people God has placed in your life to help you deal with your pain?  Are you willing to let them carry some of your burdens?  How will you do that?