25 Sep Looking for Breakthrough
Many years ago, a group in my church was using a tool developed by a pastor and friend, Tom Thresher, to help people explore why it is so hard to create change in our lives. He adapted a process outlined in Immunity to Change, by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan and added many of his own tools and insights. Everyone in our group identified change that they wanted to create and explored the competing commitments and stories we hold which undermine our attempts at change.
What I explored in this group was my desire to come out of the closet as a mystic and to integrate the mystical into my work and role as a pastor. Looking back, it is amazing how books, people, workshops and resources have appeared and led me into a growing fulfillment of this intention. The Living School of the Center for Action and Contemplation is the most recent gift in pursuit of this call. The Living School invites students to develop their own plan for a contemplative rhythm of life, which includes practice, study, community and solidarity. I can no longer complain that I do not have support for my desire to bring a contemplative stance to ministry. I have it in abundance!
Yet, the work of integrating a contemplative consciousness in oneself, much less into a congregation, is no easy task. Contemplative consciousness is not something you attain and then continue to possess without any effort. It involves daily practice, study, community and solidarity–a daily rhythm designed to support deeper awareness and compassion. Some days, we might find ourselves in a flow and connection which enable us to move throughout our day with ease and presence. Other days, we might conclude that we are spiritual frauds or pretenders and have no business trying to live or teach a spiritual path. At times, I find myself wondering at the unevenness of my spiritual life and how I can expect a congregation to embrace the hard work of transformation when it leads us to confront our own failings on a daily basis.
I feel the conflict when we gather for meetings. There is this unconscious, gravitational pull to fall into our “meeting” personas. Any inner sensitivity or contemplative awareness we might bring to the gathering soon gets chased away by the concern for efficiency and competence which arises in such settings. Defensiveness and judgment work their way, subtly, into the room. The heart begins to shut down and, with it, the possibility for something new ceases. The familiar way of being returns and spiritual objectives begin to seem ethereal and unrealistic. There are some Sunday mornings, when I find myself letting go during worship leadership and preaching, and can sense a deeper presence moving through me, bringing something new to our worship. I find it harder to let go when leading a meeting, though in theory, this should be possible and material for spiritual practice.
People will ask me occasionally, “What do you mean by mystic or contemplative or spiritual?” My usual answer is an experience of God which can be deepened and stabilized. I explain that spiritual practices and rhythms are designed to help ordinary people learn to bring a receptivity to God in every moment, even dry worship or predictable meetings. This out-of-the-closet mystical stance is still under evaluation by many, if not most, in my congregation. The only thing that keeps me going in my intention to plant seeds for the birth of a contemplative church is the longing for the touch of God from a heart previously touched. This is why I went into ministry as a young man. Not meetings and designs for a successful career. I believed that service in the church was the logical place to go in search for more of the touch of God.
I believe that others too have been touched by God in ways that they don’t understand or can’t explain. Perhaps, unbeknownst to them, their search for more of this inner communion with God is why they are here in the church. My calling is to affirm this search, to deepen it in myself and witness to its possibility for us all. This is where I take my stand as a pastor–to claim this for the church as our reason for being and our greatest service for the world.
There is a story from the sayings of the Desert Fathers: “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.'”
The flame of this story suggests transformation, a new seat of consciousness in which the heart is no longer asleep, but alive with longing for consummation in the Divine. It is a purification of the heart until all that remains is the Love which is our origin and fulfillment. It can be planned for, yet no plan achieves it. Our practices and rhythms prepare us for it, but they are not this fire. This fire so enchants us with its beauty until we simply give ourselves to it completely and trust its remaking of us. More and more, I think that my work as a pastor is to stoke this fire of beauty and longing, until we give ourselves to it fully.