Friend has been home now for nearly a week, having completed her first official voyage through the U.S. Postal Service. (You can read all about Friend here.) I wrote on Facebook before she left about how she was feeling a little nervous and had requested extra crackers just in case she got hungry. At first, it seemed like there was nothing to worry about. Her trip to New Paltz was uneventful, and her visit with Friends there—in which she joined an ordinary meeting for worship—went well.
Then came the journey home.
We don’t know exactly what happened, because Friend was inside her box and couldn’t see and because the only information I could get was the tracking info. But somehow, she wound up lost in the mail for 27 days. She bounced from New Paltz to Newark to NYC to Newark to NYC to a delivery truck in my neighborhood to NYC central processing to Albany to White Plains to NYC back to a delivery truck in my neighborhood to NYC central processing to Jersey City to New Paltz before finally being returned to sender with all her shipping labels ripped off.
(And it’s only supposed to take about a day and a half to make the trip by mail.)
Reflecting on this has reminded me of times when I’ve had similar experiences. It reminded me of my first experience of being called to travel in the ministry, when my visa was rejected after I’d already given up my apartment and my job. It reminded me of my first weekend facilitation experience, when an attender took me aside after the evening session and said, “You can change the content of the weekend to what I came to talk about, or I can just hijack it. Which would you prefer?” It reminded me of times when I’ve been judged wrongly, when I’ve been physically lost, when I’ve been alone in a room with a man who frightened me, when I’ve made mistakes that have resulted in painful consequences.
It’s a funny thing, the relationship between faithfulness and difficulty. On the one hand, Friends have this concept that we refer to as “way opening.” We tell one another that one indication of right discernment is that “way will open,” by which we mean that the necessary opportunities, support, and resources will appear so that we can move forward.
That’s a reasonable principle when we’re talking about it as one possible indication of right discernment, when we say, “If way opens, that’s one indication that it might be right.”
But it’s another thing altogether when we switch it around, when we say, “If it’s right, then way will open.” When we say this to one another, we are accusing those for whom way does not open of being unfaithful.
We don’t intend it that way, of course. But especially when we’re talking about money, that’s how it can feel. Any number of times, a Friend has said to me, “If it’s right, the money will appear.” I am curious what magical bank account they’re referring to. When I have done all that I can—reduced my spending, applied for grants, asked for help from multiple Quaker organizations—and the income is still insufficient, is that an indication that I have been unfaithful, or that I have wrongly discerned?
I’m actually less worried about this for me than I am for others, for those who don’t have a history of a well-paying full-time job, for those who didn’t have a family to help cover college expenses, for those who don’t have a savings account that can cover the leaner times, for those who don’t have the privileges that lead to the necessary time for things like applying for grants, for those who have children or aging parents or chronic illness and are prevented from reducing expenses.
So it’s a funny thing, the relationship between faithfulness and difficulty. If we listen to this idea of “if it’s right, way will open,” then that would seem to be an indication that faithfulness should be easy. I don’t believe this to be so.
On the other hand, there’s another perspective, one that glorifies suffering. Some have the idea that faithfulness should be hard, that there’s some sort of virtue in being lost in the mail for 27 days. I wonder where this idea comes from. For a few of us, it’s theological, rooted in a particular understanding of the cross (an understanding that many Christians don’t share). But for most of us, I don’t believe that’s it.
Sometimes I tell myself the story that suffering is virtuous. Usually, I tell myself this story when I’m suffering. I think it makes me feel better because I can imagine that I’m somehow earning God’s approval. It feels like I’m racking up faithfulness points, and that means I’m on the right track, doesn’t it? Or I tell myself that God must be teaching me something.
This is dangerous, too, though. For one thing, if suffering is virtuous, if there is such a thing as faithfulness points, then the natural next step is that I have more or less value based on my actions. And that isn’t true. We all have infinite worth, and we all have divine love, and there’s nothing we can do to earn or to lose that.
Worse still, if my suffering has virtue, so does yours, and where do we draw the line? What level of suffering is not an indication of faithfulness? This line of reasoning is unimaginable when applied to those who are born into hopeless conditions or who have had the kinds of experiences that—well. This line of reasoning is unimaginable when applied to those in circumstances that are unimaginable.
When I look back at the times when faithfulness has been hard, I can only see that whatever pain I experienced is neither an indication of rightness nor wrongness. I can’t say that faithfulness should be easy. And I can’t say that faithfulness should be hard. I’ve learned from many difficult experiences, and I’ve also learned from wonderful ones. Faithfulness is about relationship with God.
None of this means that relative ease or difficulty is irrelevant. Pain, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional, is a hugely important indicator of the kind of care we might need, of whether we should ask for help, of when we need to rest. But it is not an indicator of our level of faithfulness.
Friend will be traveling to Wisconsin tomorrow. That seems like the right thing to do. As for me—I’m grateful for the chance to stop and reflect.