Sanctuaries and Stumbling Blocks

God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, the Lord is a rock that brings Israel down, the Lord is a trap and snare for the people. (Isaiah 8:14).

Richard Rohr always seems to soothe and discomfort, both at the same time. He opens a chapter of his Falling Upward with this scripture, then simply observes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.” (p. 65). This is an obvious statement, of course, but in the context of a life of service, it does take on some undesirable if then desirable realities.

Unless this is not an obvious statement, I suppose. For many of us, failure at faith has been deemed as “lack” of faith. A personal failing. A weakness of spirit. A moral negligence even. But any classical “spiritual path,” in this case an orthodox Christian one, requires this failure, this hard-wall slam into the limitations of human finitude. We always hope the ‘slam’ will be the least painful possible, but ‘slam’ is really the only word that gets at the experience. The word I often use is ‘fracture,’ but the sense of difficulty, painful awakening, brokenness that is necessary for new awareness remains the same. Vulnerability in the face of righteousness of God is the only pathway to wholeness. We so often fear the vulnerability in the assumed righteousness of “others” or “them,” however, that sometimes we resist any vulnerability at all. Then we die, either spiritually or emotionally, because without growth and change, there’s no life.

So the failing, the stumbling stone, instigates the necessary discomfort, what Rohr calls “necessary suffering.” Whether we call this (as Rohr does) the groaning of creation, along with Paul (Romans 8:22), or the hating of family along with the Gospel voice of Luke (Luke 14), a travail or separation lies at the heart of spiritual formation unto maturity. We want the ego truths of our notion of good news, an easy intimacy of home, the thrill of the mountain top. We face the challenges of community or the dysfunction of denomination with an ego’s sense of injustice, lack of vision of ‘others’ or Them. Yet if we hear Isaiah’s words, that God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, then we must also hear and surrender to all these things as somehow within the provision of God, a “necessary suffering,” however it may be redressed in our actions along the way.

Take the church we have been taught to hold in holy awe…and (for some of us) in proactive disdain. Organized religion takes it on the chin every day in the news, in the hearts of frustrated (and wounded) ex-religionists (ex-Catholics, ex-Baptists, ex-denominationalists, secular Jews, non-observant “fill in the blank”). The largest category of statistical community in this respect to religion is the “nones,” those who may understand themselves as spiritual but not religious. My own path could be described as a love-hate relationship with the institutional church that professes the Gospel and distracts itself with arguments about sanctuary carpeting, that proclaims the Kingdom is at hand and bickers amongst itself about ideological stands deemed either about “purity” or “justice.” Many of us participate in communities whose identity is to be “purer than they are,” or “more filled with the Spirit” than where we were before. Or perhaps our token of truth says Our community enacts justice while They are only about words or worship or care of themselves. Protestants are by and large the most concerned with the authority of the Word and unity of faith, yet we fracture our Communion, split to avoid this “hypocrisy,” more than any others on the planet.

I’m beginning to smile with Rohr about now, however. You can almost hear his wry smile and gentle laughter: “Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable.” (p. 74). What if the most hypocritical “burr” of the institutional church is actually the necessary suffering by which we are forced to grow up in faith? What if the institutional church is the brilliant seed of “necessary suffering” which we refuse to allow ever to blossom every time we “leave” to be more “fill in the blank” than “them”? Rohr describes it in this way: “The pedestrian and everyday church has remained a cauldron of transformation for me by holding me inside both the dark and the light side of almost everything, and by teaching me nondualistic thinking to survive. It has also shown me that neither I nor the churches themselves really live much of the real Gospel—at least enough to actually change our present lifestyles! It is just too big a message. … the church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home. She is both pathetic whore and frequent bride.” (76-78; and if you’re startled or offended by the language, read Hosea; it’s canonical-scriptural).

Regardless of what I think, however, perhaps this is timely for the start of a new learning path, a seminary degree program, a calling into certification where the institutional body says it wants one thing while its actions suggest another. Or perhaps one could even imagine a covenantal peer-group in this light too—a space of sanctuary at times, but then also a stumbling block of wasted time, irritating colleagues, over-emotional peers or under-emotional and distant ones “who are supposed to care.” However we experience this “classical spiritual path,” it seems to be a rhythm of sanctuary spaces and stumbling blocks. Both of which Isaiah suggests are divinely intended.

Rohr concludes with a word of reminder, and of hope. For reasons unbeknownst to many, “It seems that in the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again—but now on a new level.” (p. 67). If you’re not losing something, then you’ll never find it again at the next level. And however we may rail against the community in which we practice, or the Body in which we serve, we are also given the full assurance of the good news. As Rohr says, alongside the church that is both whore and bride, “The Gospel itself is my full wedding partner. It always tells me the truth, and loves me through things till I arrive somewhere new and good and much more spacious.” (p. 81). Just because the truth may make you miserable at the outset does not mean it’s not true or God is not trustworthy. The truth will always love you through the stumbling block and though we may struggle to conceive it, believe it, God’s Truth is always more spacious on the other side than within our tightly-grasped, ego-driven truths.

But do be warned. If you insist upon only the sanctuary, it will simply become your stumbling block. You will always be a child of God, of course, but you can never determine in the end the nature of the path other than this “necessary suffering.” The world will simply pass you by as other journey-folks build the Kingdom all around you.


Book Providence and Boats

I believe in book-providence. As I am a Presbyterian, perhaps that’s not very surprising. One of our gifts to the Christian communion has historically been this reminder of God’s sovereignty and the manner in which events—planned and unplanned—will eventually fit into the plan God intended from the start. “How Providential!” we say. “Book-providence” refers to something a bit less dramatic than all that. Certain books seem to find me precisely when it’s time for me to hear what they have to say. In my business, we call that a Spirit-nudge, a Matrix-Oracle-tinged collision of a human hunger and God’s sustenance at just the right time.

Predictably, in excess of freedom, I sometimes try to make it happen all on my own. I’ll buy a book or check one out from the library that fits my current image or sense of what it is I need to learn. I suspect Spirit looks on such hubris with a heavy sigh and a smile, “There she goes again.” I sit to feast on such a book and it sits there in my lap, saying almost nothing of interest to me. I take it back to the library or put the book on the shelf with a sense of guilt or remorse for having either wasted the money or the time at the library for something that clearly wasn’t connecting with my prayer-life, discipleship, what-have-you. I forget about it, or more importantly, I lose the image I had grasped in my mind about where I am in Spirit’s learning/teaching.

It could be days, months, or even years later when I’m browsing my book shelf with an aimlessness or restlessness of spirit. My eyes light on a book that surprises me with its title or cover or topic. I pick it up out of curiosity, often not remembering when or where I got it. And in just the right amount of ‘will,’ the words jump off the page at me. I can hardly put it down. Something in its pages feeds something I did not know was hungry. I hear or see or sense a vision or Presence outside my ken or expectation. Book providence.

Books finding us precisely when it’s time for us to hear what they have to say. Authors’ voices on their own experience that come at a time when a particular loneliness opened us enough to hear new things. Never in the control of human will or imagination, but often requiring an intuitive, or even counter-intuitive willingness of human beings to venture into the risks of faith, a path of offering into the larger world what has been nourishing of self or community in unseen hopes that it will be received in grace, with grace, for grace.

Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr found me in this fashion about 3 weeks ago. I meant to browse a chapter over dinner then treat myself to a movie. Pulled into his text, I cancelled the movie-plan and devoured the text in one sitting. I’ve been ruminating on pieces ever since. While his words may or may not be fodder for such “book providence” for your learning, he does chart a pertinent path for all of us to consider on the formative journey of deepening discipleship.

Rohr observes much evidence suggesting at least two major tasks to human life. “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion.” (xiii). He acknowledges that North American, Westernizing culture is very much a “first task” culture. We are intent on surviving successfully, whatever survival or success comes to mean in media-speak. Caught in the thrall of a (perceivedly) successful church pastorate or regular affirmations of our gifts for ministry, we often miss the “tasks within the tasks” we are about, that drive us. Rohr calls this “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.” (xiv).

He’s getting at a root of curricular intent in Formation/Integration, in the challenges of training Spirit-led leaders for the church and world: if you think you’re doing what you’re doing for the only reason you are aware of, you are indubitably missing all kinds of other reasons you’re also doing what you’re doing.  How’s that for complicated?! Shaping one’s container for Spirit’s journey may seem so obvious to some of us, until we meet others whose shaping-container seems no less valid but so very different from our own. What makes it even more difficult, of course, is that this “task within a task” observation is scriptural. Think of Joseph. Ruth. Deborah. David. Peter. Each purported to be doing one thing while God had completely other ‘ends’ in mind, in the long run. None of us can really know, though we are gifted with conviction.

The formative journey in companionship, then, is learning new skills of paying attention, seeking integrity in the task within the task. Rohr argues that when we learn these things, the first task of life (shaping the container) opens into the second half of human living (filling the container with Godly surrender, whatever God places within). “Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions,” Rohr writes, “and a growing honesty about our actual motives.” (xv). No work is more demanding, and nothing else quite requires covenantal companions as much as this does.

The journey of container-shaping also requires sustaining a creative tension particularly difficult for Christians: living both law and freedom at the same time. Both are necessary for spiritual growth. And living, not necessarily understanding. Paul says it in Romans and Galatians. He learned it from Jesus “who says seven times in a row “The Law says…but I say” (Matthew 7:21-48), while also assuring us that he “has not come to throw out the law but to bring it to completion”” (35-36). Regardless of our intentions, we with Western dualistic minds “do not process paradoxes very well. …very few Christians have been taught how to live both law and freedom at the same time” (36).  The contemplative path is the only one I know so far that shapes Christians for such a tension.

So I ask, with an impish smile: how do you understand the “container” of your life, for God’s purposes, within the paradox of law and freedom in our tradition? Have you dressed up what you’ve been taught as God’s Way, disguising reliance on your own or your community’s competence with biblically-accurate words and phrases? That was my favorite of choice. It wasn’t until I began to track my actions, ask intimate companions in a covenantal circle for feedback, that I saw both my ego at its boat-building work in the sand and the rippling waves of grace just off the shore. Professional viability requires practice of good competence, after all. We negotiate the tensions here. We spend part of our time building a convincing, viable boat, knowing that the invitation is actually to invite ourselves and others to set sail in the boat of the Spirit. The boat was not the point. The life of Spirit is. Trusting God’s directions over 88-fathoms of deep-sea water and Leviathan.

Or perhaps your container is scriptural authority… the norms of your believing community? Perhaps your ‘container’ is a denominational identity—in my case, “being a good Presbyterian”—or defined professional role like pastor, educator, deacon, etc.? Perhaps you choose “social justice” or “liberation of self and other” as your container. Whatever you decide as “your own container” here amidst learning the historic-Christian-faith: how established is it and how open are you to having it shaped anew? How is Spirit inviting you into living the paradox of law and freedom, underneath and beyond your understanding?

The invitation to you here is toward shaping a ‘container’ that will last, which means one that must be refined in God’s potentially painful but purifying ways through doubt, failure, “lack of faith,” sustenance of creative tensions. These are the difficulties-opportunities in which seminary students think they are losing their way but which are actually the exact fodder for refining “blind faith” into one sturdy and supple for a much longer journey, a much more powerful witness. It is so human to attempt avoiding doubt or failure, and to assure everyone that our faith is unbroachable. Meanwhile, we miss the holy free-fall required to learn dependence upon the One who called us in the first place. We miss the reality that faith-fractures actually grow stronger faith, if we hold on long enough to welcome the Physician.

Then it gets even more ironic, which philosopher-theologian-poet Søren Kierkegaard identifies as a prime characteristic of faith. However you answer this question of container—crucial to answer and commit to faithfully within covenantal community—the container is not actually the point. It’s only the first half of what God holds in store.

Nothing to do but smile at yourself, saying, “There I go again.” Do the work. Shape and be shaped into a container. But prepare for the point that lies off shore…in God’s good time.

Renewal and Delight — a Prayer
September 6, 2011, 9:35 am
Filed under: church renewal, delight | Tags: , , , ,

Why are you here, and where precisely is here? If you are beginning (or continuing) a pursuit of a degree in higher theological education, you will hear this question in a particular way. Perhaps something like: What led you to pursue the degree? Why did you choose this particular institution? What role did (or does) the Spirit of God play in that learning, leadings, and choice? If you do not have that context or path in your mind as you hear the opening question, you may hear it with a much larger existential pull, I would suspect. What purpose do you identify in your life, in your day-to-day activities and in the largest frame possible—earth, the universe, the cosmos—and how do you conceive of that frame, that here? What if you cannot sense any purpose at all? What then? In either case, answering such a question can overwhelm or irritate each who listen to it, especially if a) we don’t have a clear sense of the answer or b) the answer seems to change over time.

So comes the cliché many of us try to resist for fear of a relativism or irresponsibility in what we value most: context is everything. Context determines how you hear speech. It shapes your body (appearance, choices of food, even comfort levels), your mind (habits of your community and history of family narratives), and even what we might call your spirit or your soul (hopes, dreams, imagination-visions of what is possible).  Then we hear, whether as protest from the deepest places of our spirit or from the communities in which we share faith: context is not everything. Nothing is impossible for God, especially with those who love God in Mind (Romans). We have inherited deeply rooted truths, Truths, both specific and shaping, particular and reliable. This Truth is not human-made nor negotiable, not within our grasp nor conceivable by (our) small minds. “Lord, Your thoughts are not our thoughts…” an apostle said once. Given the many ‘worlds’ we now inhabit—geographical, institutional, virtual, and more—our ‘being’ or our ‘loving’ (to honor Jean-Luc Marion’s wisdom) is shaped so intimately by things of which we are barely aware, let alone conscious.

In this largest of frames and broadest of questions, I invite you to reflect briefly on what “renewal of the church” means in your own response to the questions of purpose and context.

[I mean it…take some time to listen to your breathing, ask yourself what ‘renewal’ means in your context…]

For those matriculating into the educational setting and ministry at United Seminary, “renewal of the church” that is “Spirit-led” has guided communal formation and institutional growth for several years now. Each of us laboring in this vineyard will have an interpretation or ‘take’ on the momentum that has been built—Built—in these things, the ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘where’ of it all. Here you’ll glimpse dimensions of the response, character, interpretation I have received of these things. I do not claim it to be the way, or even a necessary meaning of renewal. I do profess its significance to be heard. If we’ve learned anything from the Spirit today, as in yesterday, it is her utter pragmatic and intimate knowledge of the difference in approach and need, in each of us, for what precisely and only the Spirit can give, available to each and all willing to open his/her heart-mind-body-spirit.

Any renewal of the church that is Spirit-led has, in its participants and its recipients, an ultimate signature of an expressive delight able to companion the suffering of self and others. Some of us call it a ‘kingdom’ quality. Others prefer the term “reign” to describe Spirit’s fruits received, harvested. Jewish brothers and sisters may name these fruits in the World to Come, result of tikkun olam or ‘the repair of the world.’ This is not to say all these terms mean the same thing or that each of us—or even each religious tradition—is all about the same thing. We’re not, and they’re not. See S. Mark Heim’s work (particularly Salvations) if you’d like to pursue that further. But in a phenomenal sense, in what can be observable and articulated in the realms of lived experience shared across irreconcilable difference, there are fruits by which we know the Spirit. There is a quality and character of being fully human invited within each and all of us. I call it an expressive delight able to companion the suffering of self and others, a descriptor of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians) that fulfill and extend human life, human capacity to be fully human, what God intended each of us to be in our particularity and to live together in our community(ies).

The tricky part, of course, is living into what is already given, right within us, right in front of you, even in the face of injustice, poverty, systemic sin or evil. Perhaps especially in the face of those things. For this delight is not a head-in-the-sand escapism from all that the world requires of us. Nor is it a communal lament and rage against what they have done to them about which we engage activism for us or ours. Nor is it even an insisted, persisted grasping of the Truth you know to be True and about which they or others seem to remain forever ignorant. No.

An expressive delight does just what it says: express itself. It flows out of you from the abundance of Spirit, rooted in your spirit’s life received in such Spirit. It is not achieved nor earned nor enacted nor learned. It is received, allowed, surrendered, released. And nothing will be as difficult or as demanding of you as learning this simple task, again and again: play your part, however small, and risk big, however foolhardy. Do the work in front of you. Listen for those voices silenced within your own body, your own home, your own faith community. Whatever you fear most? That’s the first confessional step toward sanctification, receiving your redemption in your flesh to offer as gift for us all.

These postings offer breadcrumbs that come to me for this time in shared communal life, from my own receivings of answers and unknowing in Spirit’s tether. For now, I’ll encourage you to listen in regular rotation to the facets or dimensions I know to be significant for a life of expressive delight:

  • When was the last time you were in your own body, not for satiation of some hunger-need-desire, but simply within, listening for Spirit’s touch in felt-sensation?
  • Of what does your prayer-life consist, at this moment? Solitary? Silent? Scriptural? Shared? Who knows, really knows, the struggles you are having in your own discipleship? God, of course, but who else here, to listen alongside you, challenge you, open you anew to who God is, the One-in-Three Whom you’ve not met yet?
  • About what are you curious these days? How open-ended is this curiosity? Does your faith require strict boundaries about even which voices you allow yourself to hear…or are you willing to listen to anyone who talks/rages/laments/opines with you, trusting that God will always be bigger than your fears, your doubts, your faith that will be broken open again and again or else be dead on the vine?
  • How goes the command to love your enemies? Those whose politics make your blood boil and whose faith or doctrinal belief you know is wrong? Do you feel devotion and self-sacrificial love for them?
  • When you come up against your own finitude—when you simply cannot love your enemies or you cannot seem to continue with loving the work and persons right in front of you—then how do you let yourself be led, to return yourself to the Holy Well, to the One who can do all those things if you but set your boundaries, rest in your own limitation, receive nurture in what you need? How do you relinquish control?

Renewal means many things to many people. The invitation here is to remember your own goodness as a creation of God ever being renewed, re-created, in Spirit’s time. Fallen, sinful, yes, but faithful when in your body, persistent with practice-rhythms of elation and dryness, curious and openhearted, loving, and limited. Attentive to these things, you may be startled sooner than you think with an abundance that flows out of you, strengthening your capacity to companion suffering within yourself and within the paths and practices of those next to you.

That is my prayer for us all: a life of devotion, worthy of the One who offers it to all those who receive it. That also happens to be my answer to the question of renewal of the church, Spirit-led: a prayer.