Being fully present and fully alive...

Earlier this summer I read something in Richard Rohr's examination of the 12 Steps - Breathing Under Water - that continues to challenge, encourage and haunt me.

After trying to teach the Gospel for over forty years, trying to build communities and
attempting to raise up elders and leaders, I am convinced that one of my major failures was that I did not ask more of people from the very beginning. If they did not turn outward early, they tended never to turn outward, and their dominant concern became personal self-development, spiritual consumerism, church as 'more attendance' at things, or to used the common phrase used among Christians 'deepening my relationship with Jesus' (most of which demands little accountability for what you say that relationship is...) Until people's basic egocentricity is radically exposed, revealed for what it is and foundationally redirected, much religion becomes occupied with rearranging deck chairs on a titanic cruise ship, cruising with isolated passengers, each maintaining his or her personal program for happiness while the whole ship is sinking.

I couldn't agree more - I've wrestled with this failure of ministry over the years, too - and am still trying to make sense of it. It is discouraging when congregations apply the symbolism and methodology of the workplace to the healing of our soul. Small wonder so many churches in the West are dying: grace is NOT about a quid pro quo. There are two other insights Rohr offers , however, that provide some perspective and purpose as well as a plan for sticking with this thing called church:

+ First, he notes that, "All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it to those around us." Without an encounter with a love greater than ourselves - and that love's ability to absorb our brokenness and even heal it - none of us know what to do with our shadow. Most of the time, we deny or ignore it - and hurt people right and left as a consequence. Our acts may be unintentional, ignorant or willful - I've seen them all - but the result is the same: increased suffering because we refuse to be set free from our own agonies.

+ Second, we cannot find liberation by ourselves - it requires both the crash of failure (so that true humility has a fighting chance to take up residency in our hearts) and the grace born from above. "The path of descent is the path of transformation: darkness, failure, relapse, death and woundedness are our primary teachers rather than ideas or doctrines." When we truly know that there is no other option but God's grace, some of us surrender to the Lord and start to become whole while others turn their despair and pain into a fetish, becoming mean-spirited, arrogant and cynical.

When religion does not move people to the mystical or non-dual level of consciousness, it is more a part of the problem than any solution whatsoever. It solidifies angers, creates enemies and is almost always exclusionary of the most recent definition of "sinner." At this level, it is largely incapable of its supreme task of healing, reconciling, forgiving and peace-making. For when religion does not give people an inner life - a contemplative life - a life or real prayer, it misses its primary alternative conscious is the only freedom from ourselves and the lies of our culture.

The way of the heart - compassion and connection - doesn't come from a book, a doctrine or an idea. "Heart space," Rohr has learned, "is often opened by right brain activity such as music, art, dance, nature, fasting, poetry, games, life-affirming sexuality and of course the art of relationship itself. Mass murderers are invariably loners who participate in none of these things but merely ruminate and retreat into their head and their own explanations." Our hearts are filled when we empty the mind - when we let experience rather than our own selfishness or pain shape our response of compassion - when we become vulnerable and tender. 

Please know that I am not advocating a foolish anti-intellectualism. Rather, I am affirming what I have seen over 34 years of ministry: we cannot think our way into a life of compassion, hope and trust. Those who insist on simply acquiring more facts and knowledge as the key to transformation are delusion and become people of the lie. The way of the heart demands that you let others actually influence and change you. Pope Francis told his American bishops as much when he said: Look at the person in front of you - not an idea, not your expectation of what they should be, not a doctrine - look at the person in front of you and let love guide you. In this, you will be changed. In this, the way of the heart is strengthened. In this, God's tenderness becomes flesh in our midst.

My hunch is that this truth necessitates a worship and pastoral strategy quite different from  the status quo. We all need space to slow down. We all need encouragement to trust God rather than ourselves. We all need right brain encounters to help us let go of fear, arrogance, shame and sin. We all need to be led into a new life that has transformed our pain through grace.  So we played with a new style of contemplative worship today - more music, more silence, more conversation and story-telling - as I asked, "Where were you fully present, fully alive this past week?" I know I was totally connected to heaven and earth when my grandson, Louie, threw himself into my arms, hugged me and laughed heartily from his little belly on Friday night. "This is where God is calling to us," I confessed. "To life... to tenderness... to being fully present and absorbed in grace."

I want to live more fully in the present moment - to be fully present to those aching in their pain and to embrace our beautiful deep joys, too - and after all these years I know it won't happen without practice.  And so a new journey begins...


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