what is saving your life right now...?

At the close of Barbara Brown Taylor's memoir, Leaving Church, is a collection of comments
constructed upon the question: "Tell us what is saving your life right now?" A most excellent question, I daresay: What is saving your life right now? She offers five clues about practices that are saving her life ranging from leaving being an official holy person, teaching school and living in relationship with creation to observing Sabbath and encountering the sacred in ordinary human reality. "Salvation," you see, "is so much more than many of its proponents would have us believe."

In the Bible, human beings experience God's salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God's name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life and God alone knows how it works.

So how does a pastor - and I specifically mean this pastor - help a faith community name and claim the gift of God's salvation in our ordinary experience? How do I move away from the traditional notion of Protestant worship as a constellation of powerful and interesting ideas to a celebration of God's liberating grace? How do we reinvent worship, administration and service as part of a sacramental way of being in the world rather than a commodity requiring an immediate use? How does all of this faith stuff move beyond disembodied intellectual concepts - or crass utilitarianism - to something more like trust in the Lord's mysterious presence? A lifetime process rather than a discrete product?  

The more I ask myself - and you - these questions, the more I discover small clues. This morning during tea and prayers I spent 45 minutes with Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Just like Taylor's Leaving Church, I've had this book on my self for years, too. Tomorrow I'll share a few insights about  how he suggests  we practice listening to our lives - Palmer's wisdom is time-tested and clear - but for now let me note that he insists it begins with silence. Contemplation. A long, loving look at what is really happening in our hearts, minds, souls and flesh. "How we are to listen to our lives is a question worth exploring."

In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not  work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal - tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing tow walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

We will discover what is saving our lives right now through contemplation, compassion and community connections and action. These three truths - contemplation, compassion and community - came to me over the course of last night when I couldn't sleep. That's one of the things my soul HATES about how I do pastoral ministry: I fret. I fall asleep and then wake up in a dither only to get up and pray. And fuss. And read and then go back to bed. Where I sleep for another 45 minutes only to wake up filled with anxiety and do the whole damn thing over and over again until a measure of grace or exhaustion claims victory. I haven't done the anxiety, fretting and sleepless dance for five months so I was pissed when it raised its surly head in my heart and soul last night. Some clergy drink themselves back to sleep. Others become cranky and cynical. I've tried those antidotes - and they work for a spell but are never satisfying. So, I surrendered to the dance and kept at it until those three words took root and led me back into sleep.

Contemplation - compassion - community: these are the things I not only know how to share
most deeply but also feed my soul. It is has taken me nearly 35 years to own this truth, but when I listen to my body it tells me: go there. Like the poet May Sarton said, "Now I become myself. It's taken time, many years and places. I have been dissolved and shaken, worn other people's faces.." So reinventing worship in a more contemplative, conversational way is essential for me - and for others trying to unplug from the madness. That is one clue.

Another comes from NOT being a part of the institutional church for four glorious months where I started to see what God is already doing in our midst rather than trying to name a NEW thing we must create. Taylor helped me claim some shape and form for this insight when she wrote:

A friend of mine, who was for a time in charge of continuing education at a seminary in lower Manhattan, challenged the idea (that the church is the center of all God's creativity) by reversing the usual polarity between the school and the city. Instead of inviting people to General Seminary to learn about God, Harry invited them to stay at General Seminary while they learned what God was already doing in the city. After days on the streets and nights at the theater, the pilgrims returned to the seminary to process their encounters with the divine. The clear message was that God did not live at the seminary. God lived in the world.... So what if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing int he world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if the church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church's job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?

My calling - my work and my soul - point towards practicing contemplation, compassion and community in action. As I've noted on other occasions, contemplation is "taking a long, loving look at what is real." It is not quietism nor personal piety. It is resting, trusting and looking at what is real in all of life with the eyes of love. Compassion is sharing God's love with human words and deeds and prayers and actions; it is cultivating a life of tenderness. And community action is moving beyond the confines of what is safe into the world as it is - with all its wounds and all its joys. I believe that I have both enough energy and wisdom to live into these three C's, but not a whole lot more. Last night in prayer - and fretting - I surrendered trying to manage bullies, soul vampires and those who reek of self-importance. I not only hate that part of the job, but my body tells me I can't do it any more. (I don't know who will manage them, I just know it ain't me, babe! I also know I will keep surrendering this to the Lord until I no longer serve a church!) And, ironically, I sensed that God can use even my fretting and ponderous anxiety attacks in the middle of the night for grace if I am willing to feel them and trust God. 

Parker Palmer also shared these words in this morning's quiet time - and they are a good place to stop.

I once heard Alan Watts observe that a Chinese child will ask,"How does a baby grow?" But an American child will ask, "How do you make a baby?" From an early age, we absorb our culture's arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere "raw material" that lacks all value until we impose our designs and labor on it. If, however, we accept the notion that our lives are dependent on an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control, we run headlong into a culture that insists, against all evidence, that we can make whatever kind of life we want, whenever we want it. Deeper still, we run headlong into our own egos, which want desperately to believe that we are always in charge. We need to challenge and reform these distortions of culture and ego - reform them towards ways of thinking and doing and being that are rooted in respect for the living ecology of life... we are here not only to transform the world, but also to be transformed.

Time for me to head off to the hospital for a visit before meeting with some young people and their parents. Then I need to spend an hour with my bass playing some scales and arpeggios for that will REALLY show me I am not in control of anything!


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