Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Recovering Our Love of Mystery

The farther I get in my journey, the more I embrace the mystery. In fact, I am falling in love with it. I find more comfort in mystery than in any semblance of certainty.

Now that I am in mid-life, I'm growing to love life in a whole new way because I'm discovering that life is not what I thought it was. I'm tired of accomplishing, achieving, and performing. I'm ready to play again.

Here's a quote that I'm enjoying:

"As our dark nights deepen, we find ourselves recovering our love of mystery. When we were children, most of us were good friends with mystery. The world was full of it and we loved it. Then as we grew older, we slowly accepted the indoctrination that mystery exists only to be solved. For many of us, mystery became an adversary; unknowing became a weakness. The contemplative spiritual life is an ongoing reversal of this adjustment. It is a slow and sometimes painful process of becoming 'as little children' again in which we first make friends with mystery and finally fall in love again with it. And in that love we find an ever increasing freedom to be who we really are in an identity that is continually emerging and never defined. We are freed to join the dance of life in fullness without having a clue about what the steps are."

Gerald G. May

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

This Week's Pentecost Response to the Word

I created this for use at Saint Mark on Sunday as a Response to the Word. You are welcome to use it with my permission, giving appropriate credit underneath.


The congregation stands and takes three deep breaths and exhales, breathing in the presence of the Spirit.

Lord, our minds seek to know you, our hearts long to feel you, and our souls desire to serve you. Come, Holy Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit!

Fill us with the passionate fire of your love, blow our minds with your holy wind, pour out a rush of living water through every inch of us. Come, Holy Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit!

Make us, while many, one. Make us, though broken, whole. Make us, despite death, alive. And so we cry, Come, Holy Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit!
And so the church shouts, Come, Holy Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit!
And so the earth pleads, Come, Holy Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit!

May we become the fire you light under us. May we become the wind you blow through us. May we become the water you pour into us, that we may reveal you to others, and know you ourselves. Come, Holy Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit!

Amen. And Amen.

By Stephen P. West. A small portion is adapted from “Eucharistic Prayer: Triple Praise” by Gail Ramshaw.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dark Night of Methodism's Soul

Some Methodist leaders have been gloomy for two weeks. They feel that General Conference, the massive every-four-year international effort of the United Methodist Church, failed to produce change. There was a dramatic overhaul of the structure planned to downsize and simplify. Many feel the present system of agencies is too expensive and top heavy for a declining membership, and less and less relevant to the mission of local churches and average members. I agree. But in a late-game ruling, a negotiated effort was deemed unconstitutional and failed. One delegate told me that I couldn't imagine how disillusioning it was to work so hard and then be told by the Judicial Council on the last day that all would be undone. He added, "you might as well just take a 2012 sticker and put it on your 2008 Discipline. Why buy a new one?"

I hope that disappointment will be redemptive, leading us to do a better job of working it through next time. Perhaps it simply wasn't time yet, and the meeting was part of a larger overarching journey. I know that sometimes, our history is that it takes two or three General Conferences to do something of major proportions. I have been interested in monitoring online responses, some of which have been highly anxious, unhealthy blame and finger pointing. Some doomsayers say the church is headed toward a colossal dismantling.

I passionately believe in Wesleyan spirituality, and see God's Spirit moving everywhere in our church. I love and serve with my whole heart, but you must  know that I don't think of General Conference as the definition of "church". The church is where two or three or gathered in his name, where the Holy Spirit is alive and Christ is present. I don't believe that in this period of institutional decline, we can hold onto life as we know it. If certain aspects of our institution falls apart, that's okay.

I have seen several articles and open letters after General Conference expressing frustration of leaders in a system riddled with institutional anxiety. But the one that resonates with my soul is Non-Anxious Evangelism in a Time of Decline by Sarah S. Howell. With Sarah, I believe that we are experiencing a dark night of the soul. That's not a bad thing. It just is, and like mid-life crisis or grief, it's something we have to go through to find our hope, to be made new, and get to the place God would call us to be. It can't be avoided or escaped, as much as we'd like to try.

The language of the dark night of the soul comes from deep in our spiritual heritage. It is a place that feels void of God's presence, yet it is pregnant with meaning as we let go of things we have held onto. For the denomination, it's been a long 40 year night. But the problem is not unique to the United Methodist Church. This dark night is part of the larger, overarching decline of American Protestantism. Proponents of our anxious efforts to keep the institutions propped up sometimes lack the wisdom of seeing the larger picture of where we are spiritually and what God might be doing during this time of the dark night.

Perhaps most of us can't see past our own favorite issue, which we think is going to fix the problem. So we work, work, and work harder to change the system. Some of the changes are good, but may not address the larger issues of relevance in contemporary culture. The idea that working harder will turn the church around is a new form of works righteousness.

There is no way around this dark night with a flashlight, and there is no one thing that we can do to fix it. Those who are frantically pointing fingers were probably placing their emotional eggs in one basket. Some leaders get caught in a tailspin of anxiety, working diligently to fix it, but the reason we are declining in number is the same reason that ALL mainline denominations in America are declining. It's not an institutional issue that institutional reform will fix. It's a spiritual issue. We need to plunge into a new mystery, a revolutionary revival. And it appears a cross will precede the resurrection. That's our story, isn't it?

On the local level as well as the global level I see the Spirit at work in amazing ways. Our membership is growing like crazy in places like Africa and Korea. We each have a candle to light in our corner of the world, and I see vibrant and wonderful things going on in the local church. Let's keep the Spirit alive as we bloom where we are planted, knowing there is a disconnection between the institution and the local church.

I'm not sure how long this dark night of the soul of American Protestantism will last or where it will lead, but I find hope in the language of the dark night. One thing I'm certain of. Working harder doing what we're doing won't turn institutional decline around. The only uniquely Christian understanding of transformation is that it involves a cross and a resurrection, and you can't work hard to create a resurrection. I'm afraid of what taking up the cross might mean for our beloved institutions, but I know that when a cross happens, God is in it. And something new and beautiful will emerge, even if it hurts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No More Ladder Climbing

I have concluded that the song "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is poor spirituality.

It is a nice reflection, of course, to express desire to rise to God. But Jacob did not rise. In fact, I have come to believe that the detail of his dream at Bethel is profoundly important.

Jacob had stolen both birthright and blessing. He was away from home because of the threat of violence against him from Esau. Jacob, in fact, was growing tired of ladder climbing and foot grabbing. The dream was starting the journey of letting go and letting God, a heart journey that would eventually lead to wrestling the angel, the very identity of Israel, and justice and reconciliation with his brother.

This movement of his heart started with letting go of the ladder, watching God's angels go up and down instead. May it be so with me, Lord.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We Are Led by Mystery

Here is a quote from the introduction to Richard Rohr's book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. These paragraphs resonate with my soul.

None of us go into our spiritual maturity completely of our own accord, or by a totally free choice. We are led by Mystery, which religious people rightly call grace. Most of us have to be cajoled or seduced into it, or we fall into it by some kind of "transgression," believe it or not; like Jacob finding his birthright through cunning, and Esau losing his by failure (Genesis 27). Those who walk the full and entire journey are considered "called" or "chosen" in the Bible, perhaps "fated" or "destined" in world mythology and literature, but always they are the ones who have heard some deep invitation to "something more," and set out to find it by both grace and daring. Most get little reassurance from others, or even have full confidence that they are totally right. Setting out is always a leap of faith, a risk in the deepest sense of the term, and yet an adventure too.

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always be definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push - usually a big one - or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in - but only to be moved out from.

Most of us are never told that we can set out from the known and the familiar to take on a further journey. Our institutions and our expectations, including our churches, are almost entirely configured to encourage, support, reward, and validate the tasks of the first half of life. Shocking and disappointing, but I think it's true. We are more struggling to survive than to thrive, more just "getting through" or trying to get to the top than finding out what is really at the top or was already at the bottom. Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Silent Cry

No matter how happy I am, how meaningful the work, how fun the family occasions, how fine the friendships ... there is always a lingering, silent cry.

Thank you that you are a God who knows and loves me for who I am. You know I feel so deeply - it is my greatest strength and my weightiest albatross.

Conform my passion, Lord, so that what can be quietly deafening in me flows into love for your broken world. Carry me to a place of both longing and blessing.