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.


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I have often meditated over 2 Corinthians 6:17-18 which states “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” I imagine this verse being treasured by 3rd century monastic Christians since this is exactly what they did. I too, value solitude and space. My wife and I, with my mother, are building a reclaimed hewn-log cabin in the Huron mountain range of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The eighty acres the unfinished cabin sits on enables us to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and “get back to the basics.” This is my sanctuary. I feel very nostalgic for the perceived homestead life and often think I would be much happier living in such a way. Yet, then comes what Dr. Hess describes as the “stumbling block.” For example, how would I serve my brothers and sisters in Christ here? How could I help to further the kingdom of God while living apart from it? This is what brings my focus back to city-living to what I would call “necessary suffering.” Instead of completely immersing myself in one or the other, I have reasoned to live in both. Jesus, being my example, often withdrew to the wilderness to pray (Mk. 6:46, Lk. 5:16). There is a time and a place for both. God Bless.

Comment by Brian Sullivan

I enjoyed reading the professor’s piece and your response, Brian. I admit to sometimes sharing that same desire to escape into a solitary life where I would think about God without those sometimes annoying people in my churches. But then I shake my head at my own stupidity–those people are who God has called me to minister to, in his name. That life of contemplation leaves much of the work of the kingdom unaddressed; we are created to be in community with one another and to be out in the world. As you said, Brian, Christ did not stay out in the wilderness praying–he engaged people!!

I appreciated Dr. Hess’ thought that it may be in our often dysfunctional churches where we undergo “necessary suffering” to allow growth: I am going to cling to that idea in the future. It may help!! The churches where I pastor are so often big, messy, dysfunctional families that can drive me crazy—but oh, how I love them. And I know God loves them, too.

Comment by Cheryl brown

There have been so many times when I have heard the word Sanctuary–and yes, think about church as a Safe Haven for all who need it. I must say that I have not wanted to think of church as a stumbling block, though I see Dr. Hess’ point very clearly made.
In my years as a youth director, I took many trips to Montreat, NC for week-long youth retreats. One of the closing rituals was to gather around the pond and sing the song “Lord Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary.” I think we all need to be prepared to be a Sanctuary, especially when our Safe Havens seem to be “stumbling blocks.” If we can remain still and feel safe surrounded by God’s love, then nothing can separate us from it. Romans 8:38-39
The way that I have found Sanctuary and Stumbling Block (sometimes at the very same time) is at Pine Ridge Reservation serving with youth on a Mission Trip. In the 3 years that I went to RE-Member (an Oglala Lakota Souix Mission) It was probably the most luminal of experiences that I have ever been blessed to have. Truly I feel like I experienced God in a way that I had not before or since then. A new passion arose within me to continue to serve. It was a powerful place for me–the beauty of the people, the Black Hills, the way the Souix dance and exchange wisdom, building bunk-beds for families, and sharing communion with them at Wounded Knee.
So many times we are our own stumbling blocks–what color carpet or paint we need on the church walls–you can only imagine the arguments that take place over silly paint samples! I am one who becomes squeamish with the politics of church life and would just as soon be hold up in a youth room playing broom-ball or explaining to teens why it is important to serve and give back to the community as Jesus did. Jesus expressed his love through identifying with others and meeting their needs–and then shared what gifts of eternal life could follow.

Comment by Michelle McDonald

As this article discusses, I struggle with my relationship with the church,it seems dysfunctional. At times with strong attraction, slight irritation, suspicion and disgust; my feelings can be anywhere on the continuum at any point. But it is still the church. And I believe God knew what we would and would not be – vacillating yet still striving, to the best of our ability in allowing Him to have control. All that we have that is constant is the truth of the Word. The good thing about the truth is that whether it works as an agent to bring freedom or a stumbling stone – you can trust it to be constant for Them and for Us.

Comment by Phyllis Lemon

On Authoring Lives & Authorizing. When I consider who I have given authority to in my life someone immediately comes to mind, my Presiding Elder. Primarily because he is real. He is an Elder, a pastor, a husband and a father, but he is also a guy. Talking with him provides a safe environment that doesn’t threaten but still challenges, he understands my lows but encourages me to reach beyond them. I struggle with trusting my voice and intuition in the midst of members that have been doing church for longer that I’ve been alive. Thankfully, God continues to show himself as the ultimate authority because even as I question my own authority, or lack of it, He gives confirmation about a decision that I doubted. Authority to me is like respect – it has to be exercised in relationship, it can’t be demanded. Whether we give authority to someone close who we have learned to trust, or to someone at a distance who we have learned that we don’t like very much, connections and relationships (in varying forms and degrees) are crucial for personal development. Some teach us what can be done or show us what to avoid, others confirm who we believe ourselves to be, but they are all valuable. May especially the ones that we don’t particularly like.

Comment by Phyllis Lemon

I have come to learn, through the years, that my greatest gift, friend, and ally is: opposition. It can form me, recreate me, and lead me into a new birth, a new self. I have found conflict and opposition, regardless from where it comes, to be necessary ingredients to my spiritual maturity.

Comment by Joseph Phelps

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