Tending the Soul: Incarnation

It was a cold morning. A few passersby glanced at us, some confused, others clearly offering compassion and sympathy. We were gathered in the driveway of my neighbors, where they had lost their son to an unexplainable act of violence only a week earlier. It happened on Halloween.

He was handing out candy – something he didn’t think he would be able to do that night because of his work schedule. He was grateful that someone covered his shift so he could take part in the family tradition. His dad was inside putting more candy in the large bowl when shots rang out. What had just happened didn’t register immediately. It was only when his son’s girlfriend came in screaming, “They shot him!” that he realized the incredible horror of the situation.

I remember the dozens of police cars speeding down our street that night. I remember walking outside to ask an officer what was going on. I remember being told to go back inside, because the shooter(s) had not yet been apprehended. I remember fearing for my children, but also feeling heavy for my neighborhood. I remember praying. I remember reading the news article the next morning and recognizing the house behind the grieving couple.

It is impossible to numb selectively.
If we numb ourselves to the sorrows of life, 
we will also numb ourselves to the joy.

The spirituality I found myself pursuing in my early 20’s was exciting in so many ways. It promised me a greater joy than I had ever known. It promised me that the world would make sense in ways it hadn’t before. It promised me a sort of escape from the harshness of life. I pursued this spirituality with fervor, because I desperately wanted what was being promised. I desperately wanted to escape.

The problem I eventually ran into in my pursuit was Jesus. To be more specific, the problem was that when I read the Gospel narratives of Jesus – the man my spirituality was supposed to be following – I didn’t see him escaping. I didn’t see him experiencing euphoria and somehow avoiding all the deep pains of the world around him. What I did see was a man who found the deepest wound, and touched it with such sincerity and compassion that others began to notice. I saw a man who dared to touch the untouchable, eat with the most despised, and love those who were seen as deserving only disdain. I didn’t see him avoiding sorrow, but taking it on himself and reclaiming the victim as a child of God rather than a cursed fool. In short, I saw the incarnation.

It is this incarnation that is transforming my life. The contemplative way of Christianity is ultimately incarnational. It invites us deeply into the reality of the human experience. Rather than transcend and escape the sorrow of this world, it invites us to be fully present to it – to mourn with those who mourn.

Rather than otherworldly as people sometimes imagine, trustworthy contemplative practices are practical - developing in us the ability to tune in to what's happening most deeply in the present moment. In a situation like what happened on our street, it helps us respond genuinely from a grounded place rather than a fearful or reactive one.

The ironic flaw of a spirituality that avoids and numbs the sorrow of life is summed up in the wisdom of Brené Brown, who teaches that it is impossible to numb selectively. If we numb ourselves to the sorrows of life, we will also numb ourselves to the joy. It seems that the invitation of Jesus is to dive deeply into the fullness of the human experience. It seems that it is only in embracing the sorrow of life that we become able to truly experience the joy.

That is why we were in my neighbor’s driveway, inviting the grieving parents, siblings, and friends to remember their loved one. We were responding to the invitation to mourn with those who mourn. We were following Jesus into the deepest of wounds, trusting that the simple act of presence, the movement toward incarnation, was enough.


For Soul Tending

How is God inviting you to practice incarnation – to step into the sorrow and joy of life? What are some practical ways to respond to that invitation?


Ben Edwards, communications director for Centering Way, works as a youth director at Joshua Station in Denver, CO.