The title here is taken from a very good book by Richard Rohr, who has been quite influential for me. In the book Richard talks about two halves, or movements, of life. The first movement is to build a life, build a healthy ego – build a career, a family, a life. The second half of life is about meaning, purpose – what does my life mean and what is it for, in the end? Typically, the second half is a transformative journey, and we generally don’t take these journeys willingly. So we must fall upward: we typically enter the second half of life when we fail at something, or lose control – when a marriage falls apart, a career or our health is lost, when we wake up to an addiction, and so forth.
I believe my United Church is falling upward. Over the past few decades, we have been in decline. We have moved from being Canada’s largest protestant denomination, thinking of ourselves as “Canada’s church,” to now, where our membership and our staff are dwindling, we are closing more than a church per week, and things look bleak. All this has engendered hand-wringing, soul-searching, and a frantic search for something that might work to turn things around.
All of my ministry has been served in this time of decline. I’m not blaming anyone but me here (and this will be worth a post later on) but that cast a pall over my ministry, added a sense of anxiety and failure to the totality of my work and vocation. I’m not saying that’s what should have happened, only that that is what I have experienced. Now, I’m thinking that somehow we have (I have) both not taken the failure of the United Church seriously enough, and taken it too seriously.
Over the decades of my candidacy and ministry, the church has struggled through several controversies and scandals. There was inclusive language at first, which then spun wider into a controversy around human sexuality in general. And in the course of that controversy, I think we have discovered that we have inflicted profound harm on people who are lesbian, gay, trans, bi, queer, intersex… Anyone who does not fit what we deemed to be the “norm.” We have judged, excluded, yes and hated. We have systematically discriminated against women, subjecting them to all sorts of violence and denigration. This is not minor.
At around the same time, though the issue has been slower to gain strength in the church, we became aware of the residential schools, and the participation by the church in a program of genocide. We so desperately need to think of ourselves as the “good guys,” and here we are, squarely in the place of the villain. “Perpetrators of genocide” is not a phrase I want associated with me, or my people. From here we have gone on, we are going on, to discover that we are part of a systematically racist society, a systematically white supremacist society. And somehow our church, my church, has not historically been struggling against the white supremacy but has been actively upholding it. Our most recent General Council was notable for a discussion on the floor in which non-white United Church people told of their experience of racism within the systems and structures and communities of the church.
The inexorable approach of climate change, mass extinction, and ecological disaster has also made us aware of the theology that lies behind the colonial exploitation of creation. Our consumer society today, and the colonial society from which it arises, have treated the earth as if it were simply a cache of raw materials for us to exploit, and a place to throw our waste. Oh, I know that is too simple by far, but our societal systems are built much more on those assumptions than, say, on an assumption that the earth is of value in itself, sacred. We have filled the earth and subdued it, to such an extent that this earth may, in the foreseeable future, have difficulty sustaining human life.
I have taken the failing of the church too seriously in that the institutional success or failure of any particular church or denomination is probably of negligible importance in this world.
I have not taken the failing of the church seriously enough in that these are the failings, this is the falling, that could bring us to either extinction or transformation.
The strength and hope that I see in the United Church is simply that we are allowing ourselves to hear and see our own failing. The shock of our own racism, sexism, white supremacy, consumerism and greed – it allows us to be addressed by the gospel in a much more authentic way. This could be the Friday of our Holy Week, if we resist the impulse to put ourselves on life support. There could be an Easter ahead of us, if we allow ourselves to fall upward.