taking an "unplugged" journey this summer...

Having been a big fan of MTV's old show, "Unplugged," I wasn't surprised when it recently
revisited me during a sermon series planning session. For a variety of reasons - those some of us have anticipated over the past nine years and others thrown at us by circumstance - we must make yet another change in the culture of our congregation: privilege and power. 

The presenting issue, of course, has to do with adapting to the realities of limited resources,
diminishing demographics and a popular culture that is more spiritual than religious. As you might imagine, that's how deeply some analysis goes:  fewer people attend worship so we must make changes. I hold a fundamentally different perspective that seeks to go beyond the obvious to ask:  what new/old ways of doing mission and ministry is God asking of us given the very real changes that shape this moment in time?  In part, I defer to St. Paul when he confessed that "now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face." That is one truth: until we spend time in quiet, thoughtful study, prayer and conversation we can't pretend to know what is of the Lord in our future.

I also trust that "God is still speaking" - that there is ever more light and wisdom to be discerned from the gospel than we currently grasp - and that it speaks to this moment in time as much as it did to those who followed Christ in the early years. It is too easy for people who have mostly been in control of their lives to grasp that we/they are unable to predict God's future. How many times have I heard various individuals tell me their unqualified predictions about the church? That's why I sense that a huge part of this transition has to do with naming, grieving and repenting from traditional ways of thinking and acting built upon privilege and power. When the Psalmist invites us to "sing a new song unto the Lord" he/she is NOT asking us to keep singing our old favorites as if nothing has changed. Nor is the call to simply change a few words and/or notes. Rather, as Walter Brueggemann makes clear in his study of how the elite of Israel made sense of exile in 587 BCE, we must first face reality, then let it lead us into honest grief before we are empty enough to hear God's still small voice for the future.

During the post-Christmas season of Epiphany, I used Brueggemann's text (Reality, Grief and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks) for a worship series. When I spoke of the elite needing to face reality with grief and learn to stand in solidarity with the wounded of the world, many loved that notion - but only so long as it applied to the USA. When I suggested that the same truth was operative in our own church culture - where we needed to come to terms with the fact that once we were the First Church filled with financial and social wealth and power, but now those days are gone forever - well, then there was more tension and angst in the room. There still is: we like to believe that we are in control when, in fact, God is calling us into solidarity and servanthood rather than leadership and prestige. A staggering symmetry was highlighted for me when I read Fr. Richard Rohr's morning reflection:

I think there are basically two paths of spiritual transformation: prayer and suffering. The path of prayer is taken by those rare people who consciously and slowly let go of their ego boundaries, their righteousness, their specialness, their sense of being important. In the journey of prayer, as you sink into the mystery of God's perfect love, you realize thatyou're nothing in the presence of God's goodness and greatness, and that God is working through you in spite of you. For many people, it is deep love which first allows them to pray. Authentic prayer is always a journey into love.

The path of suffering is the quicker path to transformation, but as I shared in yesterday's meditation, men are hard-wired to block suffering. The male psyche is, by nature, defended; we have a difficult time allowing events, circumstances, or people to touch or hurt us. Such blocking may have allowed us to survive--if you want to call it survival--the endless wars of history. But it has also restricted the male capacity to change. Most men don't change until we have to. Until economic disasters, moral or relationship failure, loss of job or health are forced upon us, our tendency is to project the incoming negative judgment somewhere else. We don't do shadow work well, because struggling with our dark side is humiliating, and we've been trained to compete and to win. When winning is the only goal, we can't admit to anything that looks like failure, or even allow basic vulnerability. We have to project weakness and failure onto others, making them the losers. Such dualistic thinking and resistance to change only guarantees more war and conflict.

Relationships, experiences, and mirroring change you much more than ideas. You cannot really do something until you have seen someone else do it. You do not know what patience is until you have met one truly patient person. You do not know what love is until you have observed how a loving person loves. We hold great power for one another--for good and for ill. Thus, rites of passage were communal, led by elders, father figures, and spiritual teachers, who could mirror the initiate instead of needing to be mirrored themselves.
Spiritual masters are not interested in social niceties or logical buildups, but in deep resonance. They say, as it were, "Deal with it. Be scandalized and shocked. Face your resistances and your egocentricity and let a greater truth unsettle you." They lead their students into a space of transformation, but they don't always lead them back immediately. They leave you alone, deliberately askew, without your usual mental protections--until you long for guidance and hopefully recognize that: 1) you are somehow the problem, 2) the answer is within you, and 3) you need help from a higher power.

It takes a wise master to teach you that you are not that important; otherwise, painful life situations have to dismantle you brick by brick, decade by decade. I suspect that the basic reason initiation died out is because there were not enough spiritual masters around. We had to settle for institutionalized priests and ministers, many of whom bore roles of outer authority without being people of any real inner authority. In other words, they were never initiated themselves.

Typically it is the prophets who deconstruct the ego and the group, while priests and pastors are supposed to reconstruct them into divine union. True masters, like Jeremiah and Jesus, are both prophets and pastors. As Yahweh said in the inaugural vision to Jeremiah, "Your job is to take apart and demolish, and then start over building and planting anew" (see Jeremiah 1:10). The only reason masters can tell you that you are not that important is because they are also prepared to affirm your infinite and unearned importance. The prophetic charism has been out of vogue for many centuries now in Western religion, thus the ego is out of control.

Every master's lesson, every parable or spiritual riddle, every confounding question is intended to bring up the limitations of our own wisdom, our own power, our own tiny self. Compare that, if you will, to the Western educational approach of parroting answers, passing tests, and getting grades, which make us think we do know what is important and, therefore, we are important. Information is seen as power, as opposed to the beginner's mind, which wisdom deems absolutely necessary for enlightenment. Jesus called it "receiving the kingdom like a little child" (see Luke 18:17). To submit to being taught means accepting the wonder and largeness of truth and our own smallness in relationship to it. Eventually we must learn to hold the paradox of our finite self held within the eternal and infinite Love.

Sacred cultures could tell individuals they were not that important because they knew they were inherently and intrinsically very important. Secular cultures like ours keep telling individuals how special and wonderful they are--and they still don't believe it--and thus have to run faster and faster! Do you see why we need some form of initiation now more than ever? We are an uninitiated society, except for those who love deeply, pray deeply, or suffer deeply.

It is not my job - or calling - to take away the necessary suffering and grief we must embrace as we forsake and repent of privilege and power.This is true personally, pastorally and professionally.  It IS my task, however, to interpret it from within the tradition and celebrate God's grace that cuts beyond our limitations. And this brings me back to MTV's "Unplugged." Being smaller and quieter on MTV was not simply doing lesser versions of the good old songs. No, being "unplugged" meant having the freedom to discover a whole new way of sharing the music so that it spoke even deeper and more beautiful truths than the original. It was then, and is now, a time to sing a NEW song unto the Lord. ( And here's my favorite from the unplugged series...)


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