Stumbling is not a movement of grace yet it can be the means of grace. Based on a reading of the story of Rumpelstiltskin, I can image grace as spun gold, and failing and being failed as part of the process of finding it.
Rumpelstiltskin is an unusual Grimm tale for its time, as the line between the villains and heroes is blurred when retold by Sara Maitland. This tale is most appropriate for a reflection on what happens when humans muck up, when attempts at self-repair extends the muck and God’s grace does the mucking out. Is it only at the end of the journey where we find gold? Or is it scattered throughout?
Rumpelstiltskin is about ‘it’s not my fault that everything is going wrong’. The Miller/father lusts after social standing, willing to sacrifice his daughter for it. The king/husband to be is held in the clutches of greed, willing to sacrifice a young life (his future queen) if a hare-brain scheme fails. What motivates the young woman (daughter/queen-to-be/young mother) to leave her home is not clear, but she does not go screaming and kicking. Then there is Rumpelstiltskin: an innocent, a paedophile, an adoptive parent or what? Together they form a story that is still relevant today as we continually repeat their same tragedy. We fall, with or without help, step-by-step or through habit, till suddenly we are at the same mucky place as these characters. But is this necessarily a negative story? Is there gold in the muck?
Interestingly, the young woman never asks for help, she just cries. In the story, crying plus bits of jewels equals gold – not a bad gig, at least at the start. Me, I tend to skip the tears and jewels bit. Bravery is more my thing. I just keep trying. Everything will turn out OK. That road of good intentions…. I sometimes drive circuits round it. But sometimes my home, and heart just stay filled with straw.
Yet throughout my city there is gold for me to fall into. Face first. Times when a friend will ring and we’ll help each other out of the mess. Sometimes even remembering to pray! Or I’ll get pulled to a book that contains the words I need to hear, so the log-jam releases. Our God is one generous being and our city is loaded with gold. A friend rings up saying her six year old misses me and wants a play date: two bits of gold for one. It can be that bad joke I just can’t keep to myself that becomes gold to the other person. Each of these things frequently frees me up from a growing burden, lifting my spirit, turning it to God. Grace in the journey, not just at the end.
I need these gifts of gold I keep stumbling into because I am human, so both villain, and hero, in, at least, my own life. Even when I get to be a hero, the high never lasts. They bring me back to the close tie of friendship, understanding and love that God and me have, though very imbalanced. But the gold becomes the norm and so I can forget I need it and my eyes shift away. And so often it seems I am quickly only left with one thing: a question: How deep is the next fine mess I’ve landed in? Yet each sinkhole I manage to plod into is not the end of my journey. It may in fact be my journey. Why do I assume that the hard way blundered into is the wrong way? Where the answer is in meeting God in the sinkhole and together digging out, looking about and scanning around. Seeking the Gifts that are all around me. Why the assumption that a hard place is the same thing as a wrong place? After all, if the miller/father had not been such a social climber, and the king /husband-to-be so greedy, the young woman would not have been holding her first borne: Her gold, stumbled upon.
Why do we feel that we only ever experience God’s grace occasionally? Is Abba so ungenerous as to only allow mortals to reach grace every few weeks, months or years into journey? Only when our critical voice, the world’s standards and God’s ways all match up? This is where the queen-to-be of Rumpelstiltskin lost her way. She never asked who she was following or what was good in her life that was worth growing. So when she fell, it wasn’t even on her path. She was without the tools, the Gifts, the journey companions needed to aid her along the way. And hers was a true sinkhole. One of those ditches we land ourselves in because of pride, because we followed the herd, because we desired what wasn’t ours. I hate when I land there. A true ditch, where the only way out is surrender and belief. But by then my pride is usually engaged. To ask for help, even in the full knowledge it will be given, is not the gold I am seeking. So I search for the gold that will let me find my own way out, so I can say to God, ‘See how I have grown!’ I want to be the queen sending her men out to learn Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Maybe frantic but with the appearance of control. It seems that growing up in Abba’s ways has not been about achieving perfection. God knew I would stumble before the world was made. It has been about learning to walk beside, no matter the road. And when I slip, to ask for help, the right help.
It is why the question: ‘Am I in a ditch or a sinkhole?’ is so important. Not about answers, but questions. What do I value that is coming out of this journey? Do I have the courage, the faith, the hope or even the willingness to ask Abba for help in crawling along this road? Am I willing to ask for aid and accept whatever form it comes in? Am I willing to see myself as God does, see the next layer of assumptions and prejudices, then get released? Those bindings can be so precious.
One of my most precious bondages was my hatred of American fundamentalist Christians because of the years of pain they caused me as a lesbian growing up in such a home in the bible belt…..till the day Abba showed me the pain THIS was causing me. On that day surrounded by gold I couldn’t see of people worshipping and praising God, the pain became physical. I felt like I was having a heart attack. My heart was going to explode. In a split second my gold of justified prejudice became the fastest shackle I have ever wanted to, and have been, released from.
In many ways my bondages were no different than the miller/father’s. Both of us were willing to sell someone out in the process of achieving the vision of ourselves that we wanted to hold. We both felt fully justified. No question of the justice of it. I have spent the last few years trying to understand how to live out the Gospel verses about “LOVE“. But until I was lifted out of the sinkhole of my precious prejudice I was stuck in my muck, unable to touch the gold around me. “Love thy enemy”. Wow! Understanding of these verses suddenly came into focus. One of my questions finally became – ‘Who do I need to love?’ The ones I don’t want to. Not about me. A painful turning of focus. A point where I will stumble between hero, villain and nose in the ground. But it is where the freedom I want lies. And, believe me, I’ll go stumbling all the way. Looking for the gold that I now expect to see everywhere, just not always in the quantities I desire.
It hasn’t been an easy journey facing myself, yet I would not change it. There have been points in pits of despair when I’ve forgotten there was an up. But Abba never does. I hope that you are on your own stumbling journey. If not, take this as an invite. We have not been creatures of perfection since the ‘Fall’, but we have never stopped needing a growing relationship with God. kalhan