Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Do what you can do and trust God with the rest...

As part of my work on an emerging "spirituality of tenderness" I've been slowly reading a book by Charles Davis: A Spirituality for the Vulnerable. Davis was a former Roman Catholic who left that realm for the Anglican Church, taught theology and religion at Concordia University in Montreal before eventually returning to England and the Roman tradition. This book, originally published with the equally tender title of Soft Bodies in a Hard World, is not an easy read - but it is insightful. 

Last night I read through a short chapter he calls "Weariness in Well Doing," an invitation for people of faith not to get caught up in sadness, and a guide for how to avoid slipping into a "mood of spiritual depression." This is valuable wisdom that is neither taught to contemporary clergy nor congregations - and is vital for staying in ministry over the long haul. Davis suggests that there are three practices essential to maintaining our balance and integrity.

+ First, we must "acknowledge that we are finite... not just in words but in a practical realization of what it means to be limited, fallible creatures." We all have confines when it comes to wisdom, energy, virtue and ability. Writing in 1990, Davis was aware of the ideology of unlimited economic growth as the foundation of contemporary culture. His era marked the "end of ideology" when unfettered capitalism finally defeated communism and "greed became good" according to "Wall Street's" Gordon Gekko. In 2015 we sadly realize that a credo of greed is neither good nor sustainable - and is certainly unhealthy to apply to our real lives. "Inadequate as applied to economic activity itself, the pursuit of unlimited growth is disastrous when transferred to other areas of human living. It replaces the reality of human existence with illusory dreams. It destroys the joy in the reality of what we have and fills the empty space with febrile desires." One of the truths I relearned on sabbatical is to own my abilities and limits, trust that God does not relate to me in a utilitarian way, and cherish that God's grace is not dependent upon what I produce.

+ Second, a "requirement for avoiding a lapse into spiritual weariness is to call a halt to that incessant busyness which is a form of self-inflicted violence." The call is NOT to do more - whatever that more might be - rather it is to love authentically and be focused and tender with that love. I was speaking to a clergy person after Sunday's CROP Walk who expressed to me a staggering weariness and resentment over the way congregations seek to blame their clergy whenever their church isn't "growing." It must be the pastor's fault this soul said with a sorrow that was palpable. We both know it usually isn't the clergy person's fault that our culture and priorities have shifted dramatically from the 1950s. We also know that the self-inflicted violence of our parishioners own busyness is more to "blame" than any one thing we may do or not accomplish.  But still the blame game goes on: "It is violence to allow ourselves to be constantly carried away by a multitude of projects, concerns and activities. We take on too much. We suppose we can help everyone in everything. We think we are doing fine when we haven't a moment to rest or gather our thoughts... but (in this ) we destroy joy, we kill the spirit... We must shake off the false conviction that we are not accomplishing anything unless we are caught up in a tumult of activity." A friend of mine from a clergy consultation service reminded me when I returned from sabbatical: "Some people are going to resent your restful demeanor and others are going to want to get you back into the rat race of their lives. If, however, you are able to resist - and I hope you do - there will be fall out." Davis concludes: "we provoke a spiritual sadness when we drive ourselves forward by frenetic energy. I repeat that such busyness is a form of violence."

+ And third involves our "engagement in redeeming our sins." Sin, notes Davis and many others including Richard Rohr, is a failure to love: it is "a failure to meet the occasion with love or the spiritual energy (the moment) calls for." Our invitation, therefore, is to trust God's grace knowing that God's future can change, transform, heal and redeem both our past and our present. That is to say, it is learning to live trusting that God is God so we don't have to try to be Lord over heaven and earth. We can rest in God's grace. We can trust in God's forgiveness. We can stop the inner chatter. We can, as Buechner urges, "stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you... they are God's business not yours. Leave it to God.. unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy." Like the Psalm I read this morning - Psalm 126 - proclaims: "Those who sowed in tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves." This is precisely what the prophet Isaiah teaches, too: Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

An abiding commitment in these post-sabbatical days, practiced imperfectly to be sure, but affirmed nevertheless, comes from the wisdom of the late Henri Nouwen who wrote:

Prayer is leading every sorrow to the source of all healing; it is letting the warmth of Jesus' love melt the cold anger of resentment; it is opening a space where joy replaces sadness, mercy supplants bitterness, love displaces fear, gentleness and care overcome hatred and indifference. But most of all, prayer is the way to become and remain part of Jesus' mission to draw all people into the intimacy of God's love.

More than anything else I think, say or do, this is the key. I can't do it all, I can't fix it all and I can't know it all. I can just do what I can do and like Abraham Joshua Heschel said: trust God with the rest. Such is the wisdom of Sabbath rest - and it has saved my life!

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