This past spring The Contemplative Society website (http://www.contemplative.org/) posted 12 summary statements about the future of church I gleaned from a Lenten Series I attended, accompanied by a response from Cynthia Bourgeault. With Cynthia’s encouragement, I am reposting the original paragraph, followed by her response, and my response to Cynthia. We hope this may generate some conversation. Cynthia will check in and respond to comments if she feels inspired.
6. The church will not recover its nerve, its creativity, or its authenticity simply by instituting fancy new gimmicks, implementing flashy programs, trying to get more organized, or working harder. The way forward is through the development of meaningful spiritual practices, a renewal of corporate spirituality, and a profound shift of consciousnss in the way we do church. These deep inner changes will only be achieved by creating space for an awareness of the presence and action of God to emerge in our midst.
Cynthia: Amen, brother! More than seventy years ago the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly penned these prophetic words:
Continuously renewed immediacy, not receding memory of the Divine Touch, lies at the base of religious living. Let us explore together the secret of a deeper devotion, a more subterranean sanctuary of the soul, where the Light Within never fades, but burns, a perpetual Flame, where the wells of living water of divine revelation rise up continuously, day by day and hour by hour, steady and transfiguring. The ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’ can become a steady light within, if we are deadly in earnest in our dedication to the light and are willing to pass out of first stages into maturer religious living. Only if this is possible can the light from the inner sanctuary of the soul be a workaday light for the marketplace, a guide for perplexed feet, a recreator of culture-patterns for the human race. (The Light Within, p. 31).
If that Light within truly exists, there is only one authentic way to find it, and it is just as you have named it: “creating space for an awareness of the presence and action of God to emerge in our midst.” If we don’t trust that the light actually exists, if we resign ourselves to being no more than the caretakers of a “receding memory of the Divine Touch,” then we might as well close up shop right now and go join the crew at the Sunday market and soccer practice. At least there’s fresh air!
Christopher: It all comes down to the challenge to trust that the “Light within truly exists.”
How do we grow such a trust when so much of the evidence of our senses appears to contradict its reality?
The world is a difficult and a painful place. We are surrounded on all sides by suffering. Everywhere we look we are confronted by the duplicity of human behaviour and the dividedness of our own hearts. We are too familiar with darkness, too accustomed to the brutality that afflicts so much of the human condition.
In the midst of all the world’s failures, the church stands often as a pale testimony to the vibrancy of the Christ-life in our midst. Churches are full of pain. Our sharp edges frequently rub up against the rough edges of those with whom we share in community. Faith, particularly in its communal expression, is not an easy path.
John the Gospel writer affirms that
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)
But there are times when it is almost beyond imagining that we should trust in the reality of such an inextinguishable brightness. Where might we look for evidence of a light that is never “overcome”?
It would be encouraging if we could point to one piece of irrefutable evidence and say, “Look there is the light that never goes out; there is proof that this eternal light is real.” If only the church could be such a place. If only the community of Christians was eternally bathed in the light of the Christ in whose name we claim to gather. If only the world felt compelled to look at us and declare, “See how they love one another,” as the “pagans” are reported by Tertullian to have done when looking at the church of the Third Century.
Sadly, we know only too well, that the church is a community of human beings every bit as flawed as the rest of the world. We forget this at our peril. Any attempt to point to the church as some kind of idealized community is doomed to failure as soon as it runs in to the reality of our human frailties. We will let each other down. We will fail again and again in our witness to the reality of Christ in our midst.
But perhaps this is the point. Paul says,
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
We are imperfect vessels containing the extraordinary richness of God’s Spirit. It is this reality with which we need to stay connected in the church. We do not point to ourselves as perfect examples of love and light. We acknowledge our frailties in the confidence that the light shines out through the cracks that form part of the reality of our lives and our relationships.
It is not by chance that one of the most familiar injunctions of the New Testament to the earliest Christians is to just put up with each other:
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.(Colossians 3:13)
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. (Romans 15:1)
To make space for God’s work in our midst means making space for one another in all of our conflict, confusion, doubt, and contradiction. We follow a Master who carried on with his followers despite their obvious shortcomings and their abundant failures. Jesus stayed with his disciples. When they got it all wrong, when they fell short of the most basic standards of faithfulness and wisdom, he did not walk away. He bore their failures, even to death upon a cross. And, in his faithfulness, a cosmic explosion of love was unleashed throughout the cosmos. We can choose to enter into the energy field of this love with one another and with all the world.
The call to the church is to stick it out in the midst of our failures. If we are to be a church that follows Jesus we need to surrender our demands and even our expectations that the church should be anything other than the flawed broken organization we know it to be.