Monday, June 6, 2016

more wandering into uncertainty...

Yesterday was a full day - and last week was jammed with various commitments and challenges - so today is comp/chill time for this old guy - and what a stunning day to do nothing!  Well, that isn't exactly true as I have reading and thinking about the on-going movement of the Spirit in my life and ministry. Two inter-related quotes (from the ordination sermon I preached yesterday) cut to the chase:

+ The first comes from Fr. Richard Rohr from his recent series on the spirituality of the 12
Steps: We have to be led to this place through our own failure and experience of death. Men call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross, but they’re all talking about the same necessary step.

I am emphasizing exactly this insight in my current "unplugged" worship series. Not only is this "great defeat" essential for individuals - men and women - but I have come to see that this is vitally true for congregations and institutions, too.  Especially churches that have basked in the light of power, prestige and privilege most of their existence (like ours.) As Douglas John Hall has made so clear: churches formed and raised on a "theology of glory" have no place in our contemporary world. That is why they have been so thoroughly rejected and abandoned. It is not Jesus who has been forsaken, but rather the arrogance of his followers who continue to insist that they have a monopoly upon wisdom. The evidence of our empty churches suggests that the greater population knows better than we.. 

Hall also notes that the emptying of our out of touch sanctuaries need not be the end of the story:  we can become small, vulnerable allies who live and act in solidarity with all who ache for compassion and justice. Not only is this the essence of Christ's life in the world, it is the way God's call can be heard in our generation. - especially among those who are rightfully suspicious about institutions long run by powerful elites. When we embody the good news from the bottom up, joining our neighbors as servants for the common good and learning to listen to their needs carefully, we live the love of God in our world. Doing this, we honor dialogue not doctrine, modesty rather than control, and possibility instead of the certainty. Hall writes in The Cross in Our Context:  "We must have the courage and the grace to live without definitive answers... (for) I, like many of you, am only a disciple of the poor man from Nazareth. He has made me content with mystery. He has made me less afraid of chaos. He has told me that control is not my task. He, like the cosmos itself, is about two things: diversity and communion."

+ The second quote strengthens the first by celebrating the double whammy blessing that comes to those individuals and institutions that die to the self: the more we own our broken, wounded humanity – and entrust it to God’s care – the more trustworthy we become for the people we have been called to serve. M. Craig Barnes, currently the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, is unequivocal: What parishioners really want more than anything else is a pastor who knows what it means to struggle against temptation and despair, like they do. They want to be led by someone who has also stayed up all night fretting over choices, regrets and fears, but who then found the quiet grace to start over the next morning. They want to see the Gospel incarnated in a human life that is still far from complete, but has become more interesting because the human drama is now sacred. In other words, they want a pastor who knows what it means to be them, but them in communion with God. Innocence is precious, but it’s the glimpses of redemption and gravitas that truly compel.

As I sensed upon returning from Montreal last fall, there is a tension that arises from living into this truth:  it is personally liberating and yet it draws out a negative reaction from those who don't really want to relinquish the illusion of control for the way of the Cross. So what if the Cross is the way to real life? Many of us will hold on to our illusions rather than die to self, yes? This is one of the mysteries of addiction -  and privilege is no less addicting than opioids. Hall speaks to this clearly in the  ntroduction of The Cross in Context:

What kills in religion is not only, or primarily, the exclusionary deed, the aggressive and proselytizing stance, the crusading attitude and act, but t underlying doctrine that functions both as inspiration and justification for all such actions. A religious community that believes itself to be possession of 'the Truth' is a community equipped with the most lethal weapon of any warfare: the sense of its own superiority and mandate to mastery. In short, it is the theological triumphalism of Christendom that must be altered if the Christian faith is to exist in the world today and tomorrow as a force of life and not death.

Not many openly believe that our way should be imposed upon others - our triumphalism is much more mannered and covert - but it is equally destructive.  In our era it rears its ugly head by denying uncertainty, doubt and self-criticism.  Indeed, our tradition resists ambiguity and paradox and many shades of grey. It chafes when encouraged to discern the still-speaking God in mystery. And regularly rejects a theology of the Cross that believes that:

God hides in the very act of self-manifestation...(that) God's revealing is simultaneously
an unveiling and a veiling. God conceals Godself under the opposite of what both religion and reason imagine God to be, namely the Almighty, the majestic transcendent, the absolutely other.

Just as Rohr and Barnes speak the truth about the connection of humility to gravitas in service to credibility for the individual, I am coming to see that this is true for our congregations, too. And equally as challenging.  That is why we have come to a cross roads:  will we embrace dying to our old self so that we might be reborn and renewed - or simply die?  This year as been one of dying and limbo for me on many levels - hard but essential - and the jury is still out as we unplug from the past in community. Rohr's insight about initiation rites are good ones to bring closure to this posting:

In the larger-than-life people I have met, I always find one common denominator: in some sense, they have all died before they died--and thus they are larger than death too! Please think about that. At some point they were led to the edge of their private resources, and that breakdown, which surely felt like dying, led them into a larger life. They went through a death of their various false selves and came out on the other side knowing that death could no longer hurt them. They fell into the Big Love and the Big Freedom--which many call God.

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