Ask Andrew #1 (2016): Feeding the Wolf

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew 1 (2016): Feeding the Wolf

This question comes from the first visit of Kelly Running Wolf, a Mi’kmaq elder who came to talk to us about his Residential School experience. While here he shared this story that was important to him:

“An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The Grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Now the question arising from the story: “If you find yourself feeding the wrong wolf, how can you refocus your energies, so you can start feeding the correct wolf?”

Kelly Running Wolf understood this dilemma well. His sister died as he and she tried to escape from the Residential School. After she died, Kelly found the monk that had been abusing his sister and attacked him with a hammer, doing permanent brain damage.

Kelly went to prison, became addicted to drugs, and after a knife attack actually died on the operating table before being revived. During this last experience he had a vision that motivated him for the rest of his life.

Kelly’s life was full of anger, and he had experienced violence. He had to learn to deal with that, and so he understood about feeding the right wolf. His anger never completely went away, but he learned to prevent it from controlling his life.

Someone else who understood this kind of internal struggle was the Apostle Paul. This is clear from Romans 7:14-25. We have no idea what his struggle involved (of course there has been lots of speculation), but we are given no details. This is good, since we can focus on the fact that this is a very human struggle: a universal issue which cuts across centuries and cultures.

The Cherokee story contains one very important part of the answer to today’s question. It teaches us that it is a choice which wolf we feed. It is always a choice, even when it is not easy.

We could compare this to dealing with selfish impulses, or firmly established bad habits. We all know what that’s like. It is very frustrating to plan to do better and then catch yourself making the same old mistakes.

The first point I would make is that just because we make a mistake (again), it doesn’t mean we can’t get better. We need to remember that there will be another chance to get it right, and another after that. The more we can stay positive and remember that we have a choice, the more we feed the right wolf.

There’s a word that is becoming trendy: Neuro-plasticity. It is a fancy word that describes the fact that the brain can change at any age. We can re-wire our brains through experience, through practice. The most dramatic examples of this come from people who have suffered neurological damage. We hear stories about people who have had to re-learn basic skills: how to walk, how to talk, or do other important things. In many cases, they have managed to teach a new part of the brain to take over for a part that no longer works: different neurons are doing new jobs.

Studies have also demonstrated that the structure of the brain is directly affected by practice. When we do things over and over, new neural connections are made and re-enforced; and supporting structures are developed and strengthened. It’s the wiring part of how we learn. It’s the physical dimension of how “feeding the good wolf” really works. I find it encouraging and helpful to remember this when I slip back into bad habits.

Sometimes that’s not enough, though. The Apostle Paul is clear about that. In Romans 8:26-30, he identifies something that we each discover from time to time: we can’t do it alone. Paul recognized that no matter how wrong or inadequate he felt, God accepted him. God looked past his failures and bad choices and accepted him with love.

That’s important for us to recognize. Sometimes when we are in that place of internal struggle we can be very hard on ourselves, even unwilling to forgive our failures. After all, if God is willing to forgive us, who are we to refuse to be forgiven? The path forward to improve ourselves is much easier if we’re not carrying a load of guilt every step of the way. Guilt only works as a motivation to improve for a short time. For us to make progress, we have to want to be better, not “less bad.”

Paul also recognized that he needed help. Since he understood his struggle in terms of spirit vs. flesh (very much in keeping with the Greek Philosophy of his time), Paul relied on God for help to support his spiritual side.

I am not going to suggest that Paul’s duality between spirit and flesh is a good one. In many ways the vision of two battling (spiritual) wolves is more helpful. But the idea that he needed help is bang on.

Paul depended on God for strength and support, and expressed that in the language of prayer. This is a good idea: prayer is a great way for us to focus our energies and ask for help. Paul counted on the understanding that God is present for each of us.

More than that, we should also remember that we draw spiritual strength from others. Our friends can be wonderful resources as we try to improve our lives. Sometimes simply telling someone else what we are trying to improve can give us that extra spark to do better. And if they share their experiences of trying to improve, of “feeding the good wolf,” we may find that the sense of someone walking with us can be a powerful spiritual support.

The church has known this since the start. Central to our understanding of the sacrament of communion is the message from Jesus that we are not alone in our struggles. In communion we are given a powerful reminder of our ongoing connection with God and with each other.

That’s the strength Paul found. That connection is what the church is all about.

So what do we do when we find ourselves feeding the bad wolf?

1: We remember that we get to choose which wolf we feed.

2: We remember that even when we do choose badly, we’ll face the choice again sometime, and can choose well then.

3: We remember that we are not alone. God is with us, forgiving us, helping us, leading us to grow. And our friends are with us: other people who face struggles in their own lives. If we can learn to share with them our hopes and challenges they can support and inspire us on our way.

Bonus: As we build and strengthen these connections, we may discover that we have become an inspiration and spiritual support for someone else.

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