27 Feb For What It’s Worth
I feel a tug to write about the sea change in the mainline church, where I have served as a pastor since 1984. George Orwell’s dystopian novel, imagined the year 1984 as a hellish scene of alienation and control, which seems much more apt as a description of today, than the year, 1984. In 1984, the norms of church and its place in America seemed secure to me. I imagined a career in which I would be able to pursue a life of meaning, security, service and success. Today, I wonder if my Presbyterian denomination will survive the century. It’s a very disorienting period for churches and their leaders.
As the cultural waves have shifted so dramatically, my sense of self and calling has been transformed. What does it mean to be a religious professional and keeper of the institution, when the institution is disappearing in plain sight? The difference between ministry then and now is like getting onto a flight wondering if the person sitting next to you would allow you some elbow room and hearing an announcement from the pilot to prepare for an emergency landing. Life’s normal anxieties and irritations have been replaced with fear of survival.
Crisis can create a physiological response that shuts down our ability to reflect and to be truly present, or it can heighten our perceptions and bring clarity. With time, it has dawned on me that the Jesus story makes much more sense from the perspective of crisis than of maintenance. For much of the recent period for white, Christian America, the church played the role of blessing and baptizing the cultural position of privilege and success. Cultural success was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. But now that the culture itself seems in crisis and the church is seen as irrelevant, those of us who still care about the church are forced to do some serious reflection about who we are and what we are to be about.
It’s been a long road with many unforeseen twists and turns and experiments with strategies of all kinds, but where things have sifted out for me is in the conviction that Jesus was in the transformation business and that the largely forgotten, but rich Christian contemplative tradition contains treasures for which we should be willing to sell everything in order to purchase. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven was like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great value. Let go of everything else to obtain the prize (Matthew 13:44-46). What is plain as day to me now is that this kingdom Jesus gave himself for is an image for a transformed heart and consciousness, available to us here and now. “The kingdom of God is within/among you,” said Jesus (Luke 17:21).
On another occasion, I might spend time exploring the wisdom teachings of Jesus. Some in our church have been looking at Cynthia Bourgeault’s illuminative book, The Wisdom Jesus, where she makes a more than convincing case for Jesus as a teacher of consciousness transformation. Contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer, Welcoming Prayer, chanting, lectio divina, and reading the great mystical writers are surfacing in communities and in churches across the globe. I sense that my work is to introduce people in my church and community to these and other resources for transformation. The riches of the contemplative path, I hope, show up quietly and compassionately in the things I do as a pastor and person—from preaching to leading a meeting, from answering the phone to washing dishes at home.
I see, now, the purpose of the church is to support people in an inner and accessible experience of God that enables us to show up in life with a deeper sense of presence and trust, and a growing ability to see God in all that is arising. With a daily practice of recognizing and letting go of our reactive self, we can begin to experience more of a greater wisdom and love moving within and through us. It’s not as simple as the wave of a magic wand, making us into instant saints; but with time, those of us showing up in the work and support of each other, see some growth and breakthroughs along the way. And we lovingly hold each other in our all-too-persistent humanness.
As Buffalo Springfield sang over fifty years ago, “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” What is becoming clearer for me is where we can find the spring of a living water, as Jesus called it, which enables us to show up in our lives in a different way and as mediators of something beyond our small selves. Sounds like a new sense of calling for the church to which I want gladly to give whatever energies I have to give.