There is something archaeological about moving—the artifacts of past lives and forgotten experiences we unearth, the evidence of emotional layers long since covered over. When I recently moved, I came across a 4×6” piece of paper on which I’d written in large letters, “God is in the obstacle.” The words were likely written four to five years ago and tacked to the edge of my bathroom mirror so I could let the meaning sink in.
But I’ve since forgotten that meaning. These words scrawled on a paper and lost to the back of a drawer with mismatched earrings and lipsticks I never wear are new to me once again. And I find myself wondering at them: God is in the obstacle.
I do not contend that God is the obstacle. Or that God puts obstacles in our way like some cosmic game designer trying to frustrate our impulses. So the phrase resonated for me in another way. I expect what I got from the phrase is that through our experience of the obstacle, we encounter God. Perhaps in a way, because of how we humans tick, we even need the obstacle to encounter God.
About this, I don’t know how to generalize. I cannot tell someone the painful disappointing dreadful unthinkable thing that has landed in their life is going to bring them to a restorative encounter with the all-ness I call God and associate with love. But I can tell how it happened to me.
At the time I scrawled the words “God is in the obstacle,” presumably circa 2015-16, I was newly abandoned. My husband of five years (close companion for ten years, in total, by then) went through his own disorienting painful dreadful time, and quite suddenly and unexpectedly left our marriage. Betrayal was involved. Because of this, you might think I was too consumed with anger or the sting of betrayal to be fully heartbroken, fully bereft. But no. Our breaking felt like the loss of half my body. My heart was shattered for interminably long months that ran together in a flood of my tears—my hope tinged, longing for him, wanting my marriage back tears. Yet two and a half years after the parting, we ended up divorced. While he and I are friends today, our shattered marriage wasn’t puzzle-pieced back together. And during those most bitter months, I wrote and tacked to my mirror the words: God is in the obstacle.
I’m not sure I ever experienced an obstacle as painful as that loss. Yet obstacle is a funny word for it. What I was facing was a stripping away of something, not an immovable, in-the-way obstacle. What I faced was a void where I had formerly had dancing in the kitchen, shared mornings in bed, laughter and hugs, camping by the lake. If there was obstacle in the experience, I came to see, it was my struggle to accept the loss. My unacceptance, my seemingly insatiable wanting of what I’d had in the best moments of the marriage, was like a 50-foot wall I hurled myself against for what seemed ages. In reality, those prized moments were never to be had again. They were gone. I just could not see it.
My prayers are simple, though, and long have been—often a short phrase repeated like a mantra. During this sudden loss, I inhaled and exhaled short prayers. At some point during this period, the prayer-mantras evolved into nearly-always “thank you’s.” Something like: Thank you for showing me the way. … Or, thank you for providing for (insert person I love). I started praying with gratitude as if various obstacles were already removed. (This spiritual practice was shaped, in part, by mysterious insights I was gleaning from quantum physicists—not that I really understand them.)
And the practice changed me. Over many months, I started to heal and to become genuinely happy. Eventually, I knew I would be content no matter what the outcome to my marriage and no matter what challenges I faced as a result of the upheaval—and whole chapters of upheaval were still to unfold. At the time I was studying brain plasticity and coming to understand the malleability of our minds; how we can alter our moods and minds in different ways, including using gratitude or choosing what thoughts to feed. What I was experiencing was brain plasticity at work. But it was also more than that. For me, the whispered or imagined “thank you” was a deepening experience of surrender to a God I’d countless times experienced as trustworthy and loving. My gratitude practice has a component of faith.
I like to image God as a restorative, nourishing flow undergirding everything since the precarious, freedom-giving moment of creation. And I was learning at this hard time of my life how better to give way to that flow, to enter into it with less resistance and more grateful trust. If it wasn’t for the seemingly insurmountable obstacle I faced, I expect I wouldn’t have felt a compelling need. I would have continued distractedly in my every day, unconscious resistance. Instead, during this time, I was especially open. And what I encountered in my openness was provision amidst struggle, an outpouring of divine love through countless people and experiences, and actual contentment—at least far more than I’d experienced in my life to that point.
This makes me wonder if faith is never something in our heads—such as notions or theological beliefs, and instead is something birthed, again and again, in encounter with our day-to-day lives. Faith likely comes no other way—but is always raw-ly experiential. And I’ve observed that the experiences bringing us to faith encounter are most often obstacles.
I sometimes wrestle with the why of this: why suffering or loss or pain so often open our eyes and hearts, or maybe just tire us, causing us to surrender to the divine flow that is there to carry and restore us. Surely, I spent much of my life swimming against the flow because I trusted myself alone and felt I needed to figure things out—which often enough I did unskillfully. Obstacles usually arose as a result of my or someone else’s unskillfulness, those obstacles being the “causes and conditions” of many choices, to borrow generous Buddhist language. Whenever I did pause my attempts at self-rescue long enough to enter “the flow,” it was because of the obstacle. My exhaustion at banging against the obstacle has always been what awoke my desire for surrender and rest, for help.
In the years since my ex-husband’s crisis and departure from our marriage, I have faced many struggles, but I am astounded by how okay I feel. Everything is radically okay, to use the words of a favorite teacher, Richard Rohr. I experience this again and again as I surrender to trust instead of worry, striving, or pushing against the obstacle. Somehow, way opens. This doesn’t require denying the hard stuff of relationship loss, an exhausting move, a business folding, health challenges, changing my legal name and IDs (again), profound disappointment, or the mind-boggling, unbelievable things happening around us historically. These things still happen. They are part of the obstacle; and the obstacle will always arise. The difference is knowing there is something more than the obstacle—and perhaps the obstacle is the way to it. In my case, what I have encountered because of the obstacle of 2015-16 has been inconceivably rich and good. But then, that is a story for another day.