September is rainbow season in the part of the world I currently call “home”. It rains regularly here, often as brief and passing showers, and with September sunlight, this quite often produces rainbows. They are usually fragmented or partial in form, but it is almost indulgent how often they appear this time of year.
On the bus earlier this week, we were heading directly for the eye of a rain storm. You could see the virga at a great distance away that was quickly changing into official precipitation, drifting down to the ground on the horizon like gossamer.
As we got closer to the brooding grey, I saw the foot of a rainbow to the left outside the window. As we drove on the rainbow began to grow and arc, as if an invisible, celestial paintbrush was streaking it across the sky.
I was transfixed. I’d seen rainbows before, of course, but this was the first time I’d seen one be painted before my eyes. Somehow the saying, “there’s a first time for everything” came to mind as I marveled at the sight. And I got stuck on that phrase…questioned it: “Is there? Is there really a first time for everything?”
My thoughts on this were suddenly halted when we arrived at the eye of the storm. Rain pummeled the bus, dashing the rainbow invisible and rendering all outside the window a blurred impression. But, I was now fixated on “firsts”, and the notion we have that “There’s a first time for everything”. And I don’t think that phrase is accurate. I think the better idiom would be “Everything has a first time”.
I think most of us worry about change, or even flat out fear it. Maybe you don’t, in which case – teach me how. Fear of firsts is certainly something I wrestle with regularly. First times make me so nervous. A lot of the “why” hovers around one (or more) of the following: dismay of discomfort, apprehension of the unknown, concern about lack of control, worry about potential failure, stress about embarrassing myself, and a conviction that I just won’t be “good” about whatever the new situation or task is…so why even try?
I often put off (or avoid entirely) a new thing because of the above list of anxieties. I see others doing the thing or being in the situation I’m putting off or avoiding, and I see that they are good at it. And, somehow, instead of this encouraging me with thoughts of “well, that human can do it, and I’m a human, so I can certainly learn how to as well” I think instead, “well, they’re great at it, but I’ll never be able to stack up.”
Which is absurd.
We set this trap for ourselves, following this false belief penned by some misguided ghost writer within us which says, “that proficient person over there must have been born good at that thing.” We are somehow convinced others have always been good at various tasks and abilities, and are certain that they never had a “first time”. But the truth is, they too were once new at that thing – they too had a first time. The truth is: “everything (and everyone) has a first time.”
When we were younger we were better at facing firsts. When we are babies and toddlers, ALL things are the “first time” for a while. For example, walking is a first. Learning to walk is a constant process of standing up an falling down, and progress is an inelegant series of steps forward, with lots of failures enroute. If our nervousness of firsts kept us from stumbling forward towards them at that age, we’d never have learned to walk. Somehow, when we grow older, we lose sight of this. Somehow age drains us of reckless grit.
But, back to the rainbow.
Scientifically speaking, rainbows are a dispersion of light, a product of reflection and refraction. When light moves from one medium to another, it bends (or, rather, it changes direction) because it travels at a different speed depending on the medium it is in. Rain drops are both a different medium for light, and tiny prisms for light. When the sunlight hits raindrops it slows down (refraction), hits the interior of the droplets, changes direction again (reflection), and then speeds up when it exits the droplet (refraction). This process of changing directions breaks it into its different wavelength components, allowing all its colors to show.
If sunlight had human sensations and emotions, I can’t imagine the process of refraction, reflection, bending, and changing direction…only to then be broken apart into one’s wavelengths at the end of that process is all that pleasant. I bet sunlight would get twitchy and worried when heading pell-mell for a wall of rain drops, knowing how uncomfortable this change in form was going to be. This process of false acceptance by the raindrops (which welcomed the sunlight in), only to be rapidly rebuffed and sent back a different direction, thereby shattering it into its component parts, must feel like the marriage of rejection and betrayal. I don’t think any process of “breaking apart” carries a comforting connotation.
But this process of breaking apart reveals all that is a part of sunlight. And it is spectacular to behold. Maybe the sunlight didn’t even know how vibrant it was, how diverse, how much dwelled inside it. Maybe we don’t either.
So much of my life the past few years has been a series of changing directions. I look at the person I was even five years ago, and all the ways my life’s direction has changed, bringing many “firsts” along with it, and sometimes I almost feel like I’m reviewing someone else’s life. Many of the things I’ve done in those five years were not only situations I didn’t know I was capable of facing, they were things I was certain I was not equipped to even attempt. I still most often perceive myself as a singularly-hued sunlight, bland, and limited in my capabilities, not a multi-hued spectrum.
I am not praising what I’ve done, or what I’ve survived – the point is, I think it is the firsts, the changing directions, the willingness to step towards situations that will refract us, reflect us, and break us down a bit, that bring out our (forgive me for such a cliche) “true colors”. And by that I mean the spectacular spectrum that is you (yes, you). It is hard to believe that we have that in ourselves, but I guarantee others believes it dwells in you…I certainly do.
I am not sure why, but it seems that we often require a changed direction to break us us down a bit to better know ourselves – to better know what lies within ourselves. And this comes by braving firsts, by risking refraction. It is not easy, even when you have a fledgling faith that it will bring out good in the end. It is almost too much to bear when we cannot muster even a small seed of hope of such an outcome. The good news is that, Biblically speaking, rainbows are symbols of promise.
“I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:13)
After the Biblical Flood, God designated the rainbow as a sign of His promise that no such flood would ever come again. But, I like to think of rainbows as a nudge to recall God’s many other covenants that He keeps with us. One promise speaks to one of the ever-present, hard-to-answer questions of “why does a loving God permit suffering?” I don’t claim to have an answer, but the rainbow, and some written-words, have helped me understand how to live the promise underlying this question a bit better.
“We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. Here again we come up against what I have called the “intolerable compliment.” Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life—the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child—he will take endless trouble—and would doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and re-commenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
As C.S. Lewis puts it, God’s love for us is intimately tied to our nature as His creation – a creation that He has intended for a glorious destiny, but it is rare journey to greater things that doesn’t come with some ardor. Reading this passage, I found the notion that I was a “Divine work of art” dubious. I can’t think of myself even a throw-away-sketch level of “art”, but I do understand myself as a creation. As an aspiring writer, I know how much I slave over my written “creations” – editing sentences, replacing words with synonyms, changing the order of paragraphs. In the process, my poem or essay must resent me, must be confused at how I could be so cruel to prod it, scratch at it, delete portions of it. But I have a destiny intended for it, and that destiny requires that I break it down into its components (much like the sunlight meeting raindrops to become a rainbow), so that I can weave it back together again as something changed, but something more authentic to its intended design than it was before.
The rainbow is also a promise of reconciliation and healing. The sunlight doesn’t stay in its broken, rainbow, form. And neither do we. Eventually, its varied hues are reabsorbed into its stable, white-light form. Eventually we adjust to the challenges of the last change, as the “first” becomes a “second”, “third”, or even new “routine normal.” But the next time sunlight is headed pell-mell for a curtain of raindrops, it can perhaps face it with a little more courage knowing that it is more than what it thought it was, knowing that it has many hues inside itself, and that this breaking process is part of its making.
I feel like the hardships we face, the breaking-down we face with “first” and various hurts, are little deaths-of-self that are part of the making, and renewing of our spirit. I know that seems contradictory, but I think our approach to contradictions is perhaps misguided – I think God works well with contradictions…in fact, He almost relishes in them. I have found, personally, that by breaking down temporarily, I am built up in the long run. Like a muscle that breaks down in order to grow stronger, I feel we are often broken to not only become stronger, but to become closer to our intended design.
“Therefore, since God in His mercy has given us this new way, we never give up… You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, “I believed in God, so I spoke.”…That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (2 Corinthians 4)
The above scripture is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. I try to call on this promise from God when I’m facing hardships, and times of change. It is in such times that I feel most pressed in on by anxiety and stress, yet God doesn’t give me more than I can handle (although, sometimes I really feel I am almost at that point) – because I am, after all, not crushed or destroyed in the end. Such seasons of life become sermons to those who watch us, even when you don’t realize it. Seeing you push on through something can give courage, and encouragement to others. Your life can speak volumes of God’s provision as you break down, and reveal the dynamics of your God-given inner light. So, I try to remember 1) that these “present troubles…won’t last very long” and 2) that this is part of the renewal of my spirit, a spirit which has the light of Christ within it, that is being released in this process of breaking, which is part of my making.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” (Rumi)
Rumi says that “the wound is the place where the Light enters you”, but I think it equally true that wounds is how Light is released from you – and it is a colorful, captivating spectrum. And I’ll be watching for it, should you risk a new first sometime soon.