Pandemic church

As I think about church and form, I am also wondering what form the church might begin to take over the next few months.  I’ve been leading – and now attending – church for the past few months online.  The church I served used Zoom, an interactive platform (though interaction in a larger group online is quite difficult).  The churches I’ve attended all livestream or record to Youtube.  While there is some interaction via chat (at least at the premiere) it’s more or less a “watching” experience.  While some of the churches I’ve been attending have done a very fine job of this, I’m not sure it has long-term life, for me.  Whatever its attractions as a short-term form, I’m getting frustrated with church as something that happens at home, in front of a screen, by myself. 

I want to go back to church, to experience community worship.  But… that’s a problem in a pandemic.  A sister church proved, early in the pandemic, just how easy it is to spread the coronavirus in a worship experience.  Whether it was the singing or whatever, more than 50% of the participants in a distanced gathering were infected, and to this day no one knows the source of the virus.  Minimum due diligence would suggest we ask seniors to stay home, we sit apart, we don’t hang around before or after, no singing, no touching, wear masks…  There may be something we can do together, but people have been abandoning our worship for decades now.  Surely the answer to our problems will NOT be gathering to do a marginally satisfying part of what we were doing before.  After all, we may be at this for quite a while yet. 

My gut says we are being presented with both a challenge and an opportunity.  The challenge is: how do we do church in a pandemic, when the connectional things we want to do we can’t do? 

But let’s not lose the opportunity.  One of my friends (thanks, Ryan!) early-on suggested that pandemic protocols take us into the kind of psychic space that feels like a spiritual retreat.  We are forced to be with ourselves; we are separated from the many things that normally keep us busy, distracted, that allow us to avoid a deeper encounter with our own selves, our souls, and God.  In our mystic tradition, we have some tools and understandings that can enliven this kind of time. 

We are in what I have learned to call liminal space here.  Things are changing, whether we like it or not.  But that also means, I think, that things can change.  Normally, most of us are resistant to changing our habits, particularly cherished habits.  At least some of those have been blown out of the water by this pandemic, and so experiments suddenly become possible, without some of the resistance that would otherwise be inevitable. 

Things are also – how can I put this? – pretty real right now.  There’s a pall of anxiety cast over pretty much everything right now.  Anyone with any kind of an addiction is probably in trouble right now, with all this isolation.  It’s easy to see the cracks in our society, our economy.  People are questioning their purpose, their careers.  Relationships may be strained.  The gospel we serve claims to be good news for the poor, hope for the despairing.  The situation we are in cries out for the kind of care and community that the gospel teaches and proclaims – if only we can find a way to embody it in a physically distanced pandemic situation. 

What do you think?  I can see gatherings – distanced, masked – in which we meditate together, for instance.  More silence, but still an experience we share…  And/or perhaps a move towards house churches, in which smaller “pods” or “bubbles” of people get together for personal and spiritual nurture?  Still some risk, but smaller than the big gatherings.  Can we be interactive and caring in other ways, in small groups?  Can churches foster a different kind of economics, or sharing societies as the earliest churches were, to care for people who have lost jobs? 

Building from Scratch

Something that has been sitting in the back of my mind lately:  what if it was my job to plant a new church?  What if it was my job to build a church from scratch?  What would I try to build? 

When you move into the leadership of an existing church, I think it is important to respect the history, forms, and identity of the church into which you move.  As with anything and anybody, some of that existing form and identity will be good, and some of it won’t.  Currently, in the United Church, as I’ve said before, we have some very long standing issues with structural racism, colonialism, a theology that has been wedded to empire and Establishment.  As we have faced a long decline, there is very often a bias in existing churches away from mission and towards institutional survival.  We need to maintain certain structures, buildings, and so forth.  All of that costs time, money, effort, and it is hard to change. 

When you start a church, you have a chance to start fresh.  You have a chance to start focussed.  You can set some new norms, new structures, and you’re not beholden to what has gone before. 

So if I was starting a church fresh, what would I do?  What would you do? 

First off, I need to remember that I embody a lot of the problems that have plagued the church that has raised me, trained me, employed me.  I’m a white middle-aged (can I still say that?) male.  I’m middle class.  I benefit from the privilege, the sexism and racism and colonialism that the church has been supporting.  And I am also very much an insider in the church system.  I don’t think it’s weird to sing hymns.  The church culture that our society is abandoning fits me pretty well.  Maybe I’m not the right person to plant a post-Colonial church. 

On the other hand, though, maybe I am.  If the church is about transformation, well, I need to be transformed.  I have skin in the game, as it were.  And perhaps loving what the church has been will help to build something that is still grounded in our tradition. 

In Richard Rohr’s daily meditation (November 5, 2020) he included a quote from Charles Peguy: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”   I think that would be a good watchword for a new church.  I would want this scratch church to be real and important, both in its spiritual life and in its practical mission.  For me, mysticism is the actual experience of a growing relationship with God and with creation.  Not believing the right stuff (at least, not only), not doctrine and institution, but the experience of a spiritual connection with God and with the world of which we are a part.  Discipleship not simply church membership.  Church would not be a spectator sport, but a participatory thing.  And our mysticism would not be something that remained inward and passive, but it would be something that issued forth in engagement with the real stuff of the world – politics.  There are so many issues that oppress and cause suffering, that threaten this world – racism, sexism, climate change, mass extinction, economic disparity, consumerism…   If we don’t both experience God, and engage the real world, I don’t think we’re a real church. 

I’d want this church to be joyful and alive, though.  I don’t think anyone wants a church of high angst, always serious, always fighting the good fight doggedly, determinedly, joylessly, on the brink of despair over the problems that threaten to overwhelm.  (Doggedly is an odd word.  Dogs seem to do what they do happily, for the most part.)  As real as suffering is, and as daunting as the problems are, I also believe we live in a world of wonders, full of grace and truth and love and full of God.  We do not do justice to the world as it is if we do not engage and address its vast injustice and suffering.  But we also do not do justice to the world as it is if we do not sing and dance and praise.  If love is our calling then let’s love! 

Hm.  This will go way too long for a single blog post.  So the last one on my list for this post is that I would want this scratch church to be experimental.  There are so many ways that my own thinking about church is influenced by what I hope to transform away from.  I think of successful churches as… well… successful.  Growing, expanding.  I have upward mobility on the brain, but I don’t think God is calling the church to upward mobility.  Growth is kind of organic but what kind of growth?  Jesus talks about emptying, serving, dying…  I’d want this church to be open to a kind of growth and significance that might not be marked by expanding staff, more and better real estate, larger budgets, more members. 

So what about you?  What do you think is important for a faithful church, if you could start from scratch?  What’s the mission?  What are the values?  Would you do Sunday worship?  How would you nurture that growing experience of God?  How engage with the world of which we’re a part? 

Church and State

Well, here we are – I am north of the border, in Canada, but we are still and nonetheless – wrapped up in the tension and confusion of the US election.  About 24 hours after the last poll closed we still don’t know who the next President will be.  We don’t really know if the voters will decide, or if the courts will. 

The language I have heard in this election has been stark, on both sides (and it appears there are really only two, very sharply defined, sides).  It’s a fight for the soul of American democracy – freedom or fascism.  And others say “I don’t see how any educated Christian could vote for anyone but Trump.” 

I find myself clearly on one side of this divide.  I think Donald Trump IS, in fact, dismantling democracy – effectively, if not single-handedly.  He has brought a level of carelessness and corruption to the presidency that is staggering, he lies constantly, incites division and hate, and where he has a coherent platform it takes the US and the world in what I believe to be a disastrous direction.  The many ways I have seen Donald Trump compared to Hitler are both disturbing and not a little convincing. 

About half of the US electorate voted for Donald Trump.  I don’t understand why.  I have heard what I think of as crazy-talk, from those who support Trump – but I can’t swallow the notion that one half of the American electorate is crazy, determinedly racist, corrupt, deluded, Fascist, or stupid.  And I know that there are plenty on the other side of the divide that probably think am crazy, deluded, Communist, elitist, and want to destroy America. 

I don’t apologize for where I stand, politically.  But neither do I want to demonize the voters who don’t agree with me.  That, it seems, is part of the problem. On both sides. 

We have a similar political divide here in Alberta, though we are not (yet?) quite as polarized.  Still, the divide is significant enough that our political parties seem to be using hate as a political tool.  Undermining, discrediting, destroying the reputation of one’s political opponents seems as important a task as leading the province in a particular direction, or arguing for a particular set of policies.  And that, I think, is damaging to society and ultimately counter-productive, no matter if the political strategists say (even correctly) that this is the way to win elections. 

While we call each other names and flood social media with one version or another of “gotcha,” our economy hangs in the balance.  We are in the midst of a pandemic that requires society-wide cooperation and care.  Looming in the background are the challenges of climate change and mass extinction, either and both of which are global tidal waves that build gradually and then suddenly explode into disaster.  Our political in-fighting locks us into short-term thinking, when our survival as a species depends on long-term thinking. 

I’ve heard it lots:  don’t talk about politics in church.  Don’t preach about climate change, about the oil industry, about political corruption or integrity, don’t talk about health care or poverty or taxes or racism or policing.  Don’t talk about sexism or about indigenous rights or reparations.  Well… why not?  Why should we not talk about the stuff of life, about the direction of society, about the things that make or break us?  If political decisions shape our society, what better place to talk about them than in a church dedicated to praying and acting such that God’s will is done, on earth as in heaven?  What better place to fight about politics, than a church in which we are called to love one another, even our enemies, as Christ has loved us?  Maybe, maybe, church can be a place where we can listen to each other, listen to the fears and pain that drives us, listen to the values that move us, and perhaps even be vulnerable enough to find common ground. 

Yes – we need to be careful.  Using the power of the pulpit to spread propaganda is not what I have in mind.  But if real life – real political life, real emotional and psychological life, real family life, real work life… — is not what we engage in church, well – why bother? 

And if we can learn to engage constructively with one another, even across the political divides, then maybe our society can, too.  And our political leaders will have to follow. 

A walk in the dark

I’ve begun to think about what might come next, for me, employment-wise.  Having been a pastor for some 32 years, my first thoughts move in that way.  If I am to be a pastor once again, what might that look like?  If I’m to take this business of divorcing Constantine seriously, what does a professional ministry look like? 

I think the challenge of unhooking a church like the United Church from empire, from colonialism, from white supremacy, is profound and painful.  It means leaving normal.  It means acknowledging that we have been part of something that has gone wrong, done significant harm.  We need to be willing to look at some very painful truths.  There’s a lot of repentance involved, here, and repentance is tough stuff. 

Not only that, but the way forward is rarely clear.  We have some role models, ancient and more modern, but it seems that wisdom and faithfulness are very local.  Copying what seemed to work somewhere else, in someone else’s church (or even the church we went to in _________) rarely works out.  God’s call in this place, for this time and this people, seems unique. 

So I think that pastoring a church right now means leading people on a walk in the dark.  It means discernment – a corporate process of listening to the Spirit, to our neighbours, to the signs of the times, to our own souls, to our tradition.  We’ll be leaving normal, leaving the familiar lighted paths, and facing some significant challenges, so we’ll need to stick together and move carefully – but we will need to move, and resist the temptation to stay where it is comfortable. 

Here are some things I think I will need to do in my next ministry:

  • En-courage.  This is challenging stuff, and we live in challenging times.  Courage will be, I think, a key resource.  How can I en-courage people?  I always hope to start by constantly proclaiming the love of God, that God loves us without exception and without condition.  Showing that love and appreciation to people is an essential part of that proclamation – paying attention to people, affirming their gifts, showing care in their difficulty.  But somehow also, I think it’s important to learn to take God more seriously, and ourselves less seriously – to pay more attention to God and God’s call than to our own ego needs (which is probably only possible if we know God’s got our back). 
  • Listen for the truth.  And I want to remember that the kind of truths we’ll have to be prepared to hear are the kinds of things we have been avoiding hearing, seeing, knowing.  They’ll be things about which we’re in denial, things we have hidden from ourselves, truths that may sting.  As I think they say in AA, “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”  This will mean a careful reading of Scripture – which I have tried to cultivate all my ministry – but I think it will also mean hearing from a variety of people and a variety of perspectives.  I imagine myself needing to go outside of the congregation, listening to people, talking with people (especially in the demographics the church would like to attract), and inviting them in turn to speak to the church.  Our first posture needs to be a listening one. 
  • Experiment.  I think this is a time for crazy ideas.  When I was working on my doctoral project on Sabbath, the rabbis encouraged me to ask certain questions as we developed our sabbath practice:  what would be, for you, a perfect day?  What most feeds your soul?  What do you need to STOP doing in order to truly rest?  These are the kinds of questions I think we need to ask, and we need to (reasonably, sustainably) try some of the crazy ideas that make us excited. 
  • Collaborate.  This, I think, has been one of the key lessons for me in the last several years.  We need not do this on our own!  In fact, this seems to be a time for reaching across religious divides, making partnerships in our communities, honouring and collaborating with the good work of others, respecting and supporting the good that others are doing.  We are far stronger, more effective, and, I believe, more faithful, when we work together. 
  • Evaluate.  This is something that, in my experience, churches do not often do.  We need to evaluate what we do:  is it working?  What are we learning?  Does this fit with our mission and values? 

This is probably long enough for one post.  What am I missing?  What other things are necessary in order to lead a church into a place of transformation in Christ? 

Falling Upward

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. 

Facing the Truth

I understand Donald Trump, by executive order, is penalizing anyone for teaching or asserting that the US is a racist society.  I suppose this isn’t surprising – significant change or challenge will always bring some reactionary response.  But it’s also depressing, because the awareness of structural racism that appears to be taking hold, finally, is a key component of what might be a real step forward for us. 

Reading the very fine book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo I am beginning to become aware of the variety of ways our society, and we white people, erect defences, change the subject, punish prophets, turn the attention to ourselves, and otherwise protect ourselves from seeing or constructively discussing our own racism.  Trump’s order is just another brick in the wall.  As long as we deny that racism is our problem, we prevent any action to change it.  Said another way:  if white people like me (or Donald Trump) pretend that racism is someone else’s problem, we are in that way supporting the structures of racism. 

Addressing denial is one of the key components of recovery from addiction.  Addicts build complex and effective mental defences that prevent them from seeing their addiction for what it is, that prevent them from acknowledging that the thing they are doing is actually killing them (and often the people around them that they love most).  That’s why one of the foundations of AA’s 12 steps is total honesty.  It takes practice, discipline, and help to simply see what is real, to see what is there before our eyes, and to name it for what it is. 

President Trump’s executive order may not be surprising, but it is devastating.  Land of the free, and home of the brave?  It is neither free nor brave to deny the truth, or to pretend to be better than we are.  The structural racism in the US and Canada is plainly before us, even if white folks like me need to be helped to see it.  Facing our racism, our sexism, our consumerism, our unsustainability, our violence – this is the courage that will give us a chance to step forward, to be better, to change, to be free, to survive

Oh, I think I do get it.  The price of facing these truths is the loss of privilege.  I’m afraid of that, but really – is there anything I’ll be losing that is genuinely good? 

Beginning with Sufficiency

Having just come through my first heart attack experience, I am now working on reducing stress.  Here I am, in my late 50’s, aware that I have poorly managed stress for pretty much my entire adult life – and only now am I (I think) getting serious about actually healing this, rather than avoiding it or coping with it. 

Here’s where I’m beginning: I think that at the core my stress comes from an internal narrative that has been with me ever since I can remember.  The narrative goes like this:  I am, at bottom, insufficient.  I’m not good enough, unless…  I cannot consider myself a success unless I am the best at something, I cannot be a success unless I tick off all the boxes – growing church, radical counter-cultural Christian lifestyle, levitation-ready spiritual life, passionate marriage… the list can and probably does go on and on.  I am a perfectionist, and something can always be improved – and I am not really okay until it’s all fully improved.  Never mind that some of these requirements are contradictory.  Never mind that achieving the whole list is totally unreasonable.  At a deep level, this is what I believe I must do in order to be acceptable. 

So I am always “on the bubble,” as they say at hockey tryouts.  Probably won’t make the team, but maybe with a superhuman effort he might manage it.  Or he might make the team, but never quite live up to his potential.  Normal life leaves me, in my own eyes, struggling to pass the test.  Any negative experience, response, criticism, drops me into “fail.” 

I write that, and right away I wonder if it’s actually true.  I don’t think this way all the time.  This is mostly unconscious.  After 30+ years of ministry I have a certain confidence in my abilities, and even though I have not led notably growing/thriving churches I think I am aware that what I do in ministry is not failure.  But there is, I think, a tension within me, a discomfort, a sense of fear and inadequacy from which I constantly seem to be seeking relief. 

My spiritual director recently pointed me towards two Scriptures.  One is from Jesus’ baptism:  “you are my Son, the beloved – in you I am well pleased.”  Over the years I am learning, slowly, to see myself as God’s own, beloved.  But the notion that God might be pleased?  With me?  That’s a real stretch. 

The other is from Matthew, the Sabbath reading I often come back to:  “Come to me, you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”   In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:  “learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” 

To begin with insufficiency is to always be in stress, always under judgment, never secure, never at rest.  I always must do this first, and then rest, then be okay, not now.  Not until. 

What would it be to begin with sufficiency, to begin with the sense of being beloved,  being okay, being enough?  This is what I hope for my own children, that they may have a secure place from which to offer their lives and service.  What would it be like to offer freely, rather than in a forced, “or-else” way? 

And how does one move from insufficiency to sufficiency?  How does one internalize the love of God? 

One thought, to close.  This is another gem from my spiritual director.  We were talking about my experiences on retreat, in a beautiful setting (Kingsfold Retreat Centre near Waiparous, Alberta) – how easy it was to say “thank you” to God for the beauty and restfulness of the place.  “Try this,” he said.   “Instead of just saying thank you, say ‘Thanks… I love you too.’” 

There’s something about giving love that enables me to receive it. 

Divorcing Constantine

I’m afraid I know the dreaded “little bit” about history, so this might be misleading.  But the story in my head is that Christianity was an on-again, off-again persecuted religion in its early days.  Around the end of the third century and beginning of the fourth, Constantine at least partially embraced Christianity (at least its symbols).  When he became Emperor of Rome he legalized the religion of Christianity.  He institutionalized it.  He made it an imperial religion. 

Those Councils of the church, that issued those statements of beliefs, those Creeds we often recite in worship to define our faith – Constantine initiated some of those Councils, presided over them.  The persecution stopped.  The church could build an institution, worship in beautiful buildings, I think the church grew faster in that time than any other time in history (I’m not sure, with the possible exception of recent times, in the two-thirds world).  But it was a devil’s bargain, in hindsight.  Where Jesus spoke truth to Empire, challenged Empire, was killed by Empire, Christianity under Constantine became Empire. 

Jesus said, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other one also.”  How then did the church come to the point of proclaiming Crusades?   We… accommodated.  We adjusted our religion to suit the needs of imperial power.  It is the price of escaping persecution.  Empire smiles only on clients and obedient servants.  So that is what we became.  And we were so good at it that now, we are discovering that Western Christianity has a hard time distinguishing any difference at all between white Eurocentric “civilization” (Empire) and the religion we still call Christianity.  We have become the Empire. 

A radically anti-hierarchical spirituality has become a support pillar for the many hierarchies of the imperial status quo:  men over women, masters over slaves, kings over subjects, the wealthy over the poor, whites over all others.  To even question these hierarchies engenders cries of blasphemy and attack on the fundamentals of religion – even though Jesus said, “the last shall be first.” 

A spirituality whose Scripture and story begin with the creation of a world in love, a Creation called “very good,” and a garden in which humanity is called to be the gardeners has become a support pillar for an unsustainable economy of exploitation, that sees the earth as nothing more than a repository of resources for our use and a place to dump our waste.   Capitalism and upward mobility is the unquestioned cornerstone of a religion whose founder said, “sell all you have, give to the poor, and then come follow me.” 

A spirituality  whose primary commandments are love – and indeed, which says that without love, absolutely nothing is valid – has become mostly about belief, and who is in and who is out.  These beliefs have become essentially tribal markers, indicating who is a neighbor to be loved, and who is an enemy to be fought – even though Jesus explicitly repudiated this idea in one of his most famous and cherished parables.  But imperial politics requires enemies, and so we have accommodated.  Our once-loving spirituality has become a pillar of support for the politics of division. 

And perhaps most usefully to the Empire, a religion that was about freedom for the slaves, healing for the sick, welcome to the outcast, good news to the poor, the very mending of the world (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”), has become a religion that is about nothing more than getting to heaven after we die.   Indeed, a significant portion of the church holds the bizarre theology that God will wipe the current world away, destroy it and re-make it in the end (even though, supposedly, the rainbow is a symbol of God’s promise NOT to do that).  So it doesn’t matter at all what happens here and now, and the religion of freedom and healing has become a pillar of support for the status quo.  You’ll get your reward in heaven if you sit down and shut up now. 

The church is not pure evil.  Of course not.  But alas that it has taken so much wrongdoing and suffering to wake up to the realization that it is long past time for us to get out of bed with Empire.  It’s time to divorce Constantine. 

Um… I think we’ll lose the house.  I’m pretty sure that this divorce is going to get ugly, and I’m betting most of the assets will stay with Constantine.  But we might find our soul again, and I’m beginning to be excited about that. 

Spiritual practice and spiritual work

I’ve been looking over some old notes lately and one of the cryptic notes says: don’t confuse spiritual practice with spiritual work. The notes mostly leave me to recollect what was meant in the workshop, but I think this is a helpful distinction. Spiritual practice is important, but it is what the name suggests: practice. Spiritual practices are the exercises we use in our spiritual training, the method of our formation as spiritual people. Spiritual practice is as important to us as physical training is to an athlete.

If I double down on that, I might say, with Gandhi, that we must be the change we seek in the world. Who we are is of primary importance in any spiritual work we might undertake. In spiritual work we are not primarily trying to accomplish something, but rather to embody something. Ours is an incarnational spirituality. So attention to the practices that form us, that shape our identity and relationship in and with the world, the practices that unite us with God and form us in community – these are critical and rightfully hold an important place in the life of the church.

But what are these practices forming us for? They are forming us for our spiritual work. When I think of spiritual work I think of what I believe is called tikkun olam in Judaism – the mending of the world. In my time at Knox we talked about making connections: God connecting us to God’s self, to each other, to our own deep selves, and to all Creation. In community organizing, we talk about bridging the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. We’re talking about personal healing, relational healing, societal healing (economic and social and racial and…), and environmental healing.

Spiritual practices mold and shape us that our world-mending work might be undertaken as spiritual work. Our political work is not simply political – do what it takes to win. We might win a battle then, or an election, or an issue, but unless we are being the change, unless we are embodying the health we seek, we may in the end do nothing more than strengthen the toxic spirit of politics by using its methods. We are not Machiavellian, able in any way to separate ends and means.

If our social justice work or our church development work is done in such a way that we are working beyond our capacity – if we are always exhausted, stressed, demanding of ourselves and others – surely there is something wrong! We are not embodying the grace and love of God, but rather the judgment and violence and exploitation of our society. I do not mean to say that all our work is easy! On the contrary, I expect our spiritual work to call us to transformation, to self-emptying. We are called to find our lives in the giving of our lives, which is challenging and counter-cultural.

We are called to show the world, show the spiritual powers of this age, something different. It’ll take spiritual practice, because in order to show the world something different we will need to learn to be something different.

What does the life of the church look like, then, if our purpose is to be the mending that God seeks for the world?

The heart of the matter

“It’s the economy, stupid!” is a phrase from one of Bill Clinton’s campaigns, if I remember correctly – an indicator that there should be no question about what the central issue was. And in so many discussions in our society, political and otherwise, “the economy” is indeed assumed to be the heart of the matter. Get the economy going well, and all else will fall into place.

Well, I think that’s wrong. It’s NOT the economy that’s central. It’s spirituality. And while I’m a church guy, and therefore biased, I don’t think it really matters whether one is religious or not. Spirituality is still the heart of the matter.

Okay, I know the economy matters. I’m out of work myself right now, and I understand that jobs, and supply chains — all the stuff of an economy — it really matters! Without it, we don’t get around, we don’t eat, we don’t communicate, and so forth. I get it. But there are many ways to “do” economy. And the way we are doing ours right now is — I think we all agree — unsustainable. We are using up non-renewable resources, we are doing harm to the biosphere on which our lives are dependent, we are causing a mass extinction whose extent and effect none of us know. There is also a social cost to our way of doing economy, that turns human beings and citizens into “consumers.”

Our societal choice to sacrifice both earth and humanity to GDP growth is a spiritual matter. It is about what we hold sacred, and what we don’t. It’s about what we value, and what we don’t. It’s about what we believe about humanity, and the earth, and our relationships. My use of the word “sacrifice” is not accidental. Spirituality is about what we worship as a god.

Every time I look south of the border, to the United States, and engage with political news, my gut clenches (actually, it clenches up with Canadian political news, too, but not quite as uncomfortably. Yet.). I thought the nation was polarized under George Bush Jr., but that was nothing compared to now. I thought there were political issues before, but now I see people nakedly, obviously, sacrificing the common good and the integrity of political institutions and processes to their own personal ambition. And they are getting away with it, for the most part. Sacrificing your integrity to the political game is actually rewarded. Dividing the nation, inciting hatred and fear, misrepresenting your political opponents, is how you win.

That’s a spiritual issue. It’s about our respect for the truth, our willingness to demonize and dehumanize other people, it’s about integrity and about who’s in and who’s out, it’s about whether we value the common good or our own individual privilege. It’s about whether we are called to love our neighbour or to compete and win.

There is a toxic spirit in politics and the economy right now. It is a toxic spirit that makes it easier to divide than to unite, easier to undermine than to build up, easier to destroy the earth than to preserve it, easier to play the game than to govern well. Whether you lean towards the left or the right, this toxic spirit is drawing the integrity out of both the parties we oppose and the parties we support. A healthier spirit would, surely, float all boats – even platforms and ideologies we oppose would surely be improved by integrity! But that isn’t happening. We are following a line of least resistance to a place few want to go.

A line in the Biblical letter to the Ephesians has been on my mind a lot lately. It was flagged by a friend of mine in a sermon some years ago. If you’re a Bible geek, it can be found in Ephesians 3:10. Here’s the line (it starts in the middle of a sentence, so if you want the context, go look it up): …so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Kind of a weird thing. What I get from it, though, is that the purpose of the church is to show the wisdom of God – in all its rich variety – to the spiritual powers of our age. It’s the job of the church to show the wisdom of God – the left-leaning wisdom and the right-leaning wisdom, and the wisdom that goes beyond either – to the toxic spirit in politics today. It’s our job and our calling to BE different, and to be different PUBLICLY, and to be different in a way that directly confronts the spirituality that is at the core of our problems.

I have some pretty definite political ideas, and loyalties, and opinions. But I’m not sure that God shares all my opinions and loyalties. I don’t think God belongs to any particular party, or ascribes to any particular political ideology. The wisdom of God is something that comes with “rich variety.” But there’s a spirit of integrity, public service, and compassion that can be brought to every party, every ideology, and if we lack that spirit, I suspect that nothing – nothing – will work as well as any of us hope.