Postures of the Spirit

One of my good friends, let’s call him Jim, told me about an extraordinary experience he had at work recently, and it has me reflecting on discipleship and a major purpose of congregational community.

Jim’s company has been through a great deal of struggle in the past few years, including facing significantly changing market conditions, poor management, changes in top leadership, labor struggles, and an organization-threatening work stoppage. It’s been a tumultuous ride for all involved. They’re coming out on the other side these days, and as they emerge from the crucible, they are taking seriously the need to attend to some real hurts inflicted during the struggle and some baggage that’s getting in the way today. Jim is helping carry out a process that’s accomplishing what the Truth & Reconciliation Commission did in South Africa following the end of Apartheid: tell the truth, really hear each other, and seek healing for the wounds that are named. The process Jim’s participating in called for a few people to serve as reporters to top management, interviewing folks throughout the organization about their experiences through the crucible time, seeking understanding of their concerns, and then voicing them in a feedback session with the organization’s top leaders. Jim was one of the ‘reporters’ in this process.

During the feedback session, the reporters were asked to share, in the presence of the leaders who serve as their bosses, what they had heard in their interviews with their colleagues. Sometimes, the feedback they had heard was strongly critical of those leaders. Most of the reporters, apparently so uncomfortable with speaking critical feedback in the presence of the leaders, softened their words to the point that the message was getting lost. The reporters had heard significant concerns and wounds that were consequential to the leaders of the organization. In order for the leaders to have the confidence and trust of the rest of the employees, they needed to be able to take steps to acknowledge and heal the wounds caused in the crucible. But it was so uncomfortable speaking the hard truths face-to-face that the feedback that mattered wasn’t reaching the leaders who needed to hear it. Jim felt the same fear as his reporter colleagues in the moment, fear that passing along what he had heard through the interviewing process might hurt others’ feelings, might lead to him being perceived as a jerk, might lead to reprisals from his bosses out of their hurt at hearing painful comments. Nevertheless, he was able to take a deep breath and tell the truth without blame or judgment. He simply spoke what he had heard in his interviews with his colleagues. Sometimes, one reporter would say something like, “People are excited about the future now and grateful we got through the hard time,” and then Jim would feel compelled to add, as evenly as possible, “I heard many folks say that they don’t trust Mr. Smith anymore after the way he talked about them in the media in the middle of the struggle, and they’re seriously concerned that nothing has changed.” That’s a really hard thing to say with Chairman of the Board Mr. Smith in the room, but that was the whole intent of the process. After the meeting, other reporters expressed their gratitude to Jim for having the courage to report what they had all heard in their interviews. It turns out most of the reporters were simply unable to tell the whole truth when the time came. They didn’t intend to avoid the process, but in the heat of the moment and in the face-to-face setting of the feedback meeting, they couldn’t bring themselves to say the hard things.

I asked Jim what he thought prepared him to be able to take that deep breath and choose to calmly speak the truth, in the face of potential consequences. He said it was primarily that he’s part of a community that practices telling the truth all the time. Jim is a recovering addict, and his 12-step recovery community is a place where he’s accustomed to hearing people say hard things about their own experience. The 12-step community is a place where Jim has spoken painful truths out loud about himself regularly. Recovery meetings are safe places for truth-telling, places of listening without judgment, and Jim realized as he sat in this challenging workplace meeting that he was prepared to say what needed to be said because he had spent years doing this in another setting.

As a result, Jim became a hero of many in his workplace––his colleagues whose concerns he reported accurately and his bosses alike––because his courageous truth-telling gave the process integrity and value that it wouldn’t have had if things had stayed in the ‘polite’ realm of avoiding the challenging things. Growth can happen, change is possible, reconciliation and deeper relationship are likely because there was a real sharing and hearing of experience and perspective in an attitude of humility and openness.

I see much in this for the church. There are certainly direct applications of this reminder that speaking directly and honestly with those with whom we have struggles is the best way forward. That’s biblical wisdom (see Matthew 18:15-20). At another level, I see that Jim was able to be used by God for the godly purpose of reconciliation at a pivotal moment in his organization’s life––because he was prepared. Not for the situation itself; he didn’t practice saying these particular things out loud. His life in recovery had prepared him to speak honestly even when it’s scary. It’s like the moment called for a posture that requires considerable flexibility and balance, and those who had rarely (or never) adopted it were simply unable to assume that posture in the moment. He was able because he had assumed it over and over again through the years. The posture of courageous, calm, humble truth-telling is one he learned by being part of a community that practices this posture every time it gathers.

That’s what the church is, at its best: a community that lives in a set of postures of spirit, mind, and body, postures that reflect the life of the Creator in human form. Jesus lived those postures throughout his ministry, even through facing his own death, so the Body of Christ in our time and place (the local church) is called to do the same. When we live in those postures of selfless humility, of hospitality to all people, of special concern for those at the margins, of pacifism in the midst of violence, of gracious forgiveness, of patience and faith at every level of being, of yearning for justice for all people, we can be the presence of Christ throughout our lives, especially when those ripe moments appear when God might make a significant difference and shift reality. What a profound joy to find myself in that moment when I know I have been used by God for God’s reconciling and healing purposes. Have you been able to notice moments when God used you?

The flip side of the coin is a familiar experience for me, too. There are plenty of moments when God might use me; some of them I can sense as they happen, and they pass right on by because I’m not able to be available. I can see the opportunity for God’s grace or peace or embrace to break into a moment of suffering, but I’m not able to be the vehicle. I can imagine the posture needed in that moment, but I find I’m not in it already, nor am I able to adopt it quickly enough (or at all). A helpful thought to speak pops into my head but I don’t say it, and then the moment’s gone. An insight appears in my mind, but I don’t share it. A newcomer is uncomfortable and alone, and I feel the tug to engage and welcome them, but I hang back. A person is hurting and I feel compassion, but shyness and fear keep it shut inside me. Injustice happens, and I know it’s wrong, but I stand back, a silent participant.

I need a community to form me, to teach me the postures of the Creator, to limber me up so that when those moments of deep possibility arrive, I’m in the posture to be available to God for God’s redemptive work. I thank God for all forms of this community––the church at its best is only one of them. In what communities do you experience being taught Christlike postures? What communities limber you up for lifegiving postures?

Easter

I’ve been reflecting for the past several days about how two seemingly opposite experiences can coexist.

Easter Sunday was, as I had hoped and prayed, an experience of incredible joy. Walking the road with a congregation in need of renewal is a challenging experience––for me and for the congregation. It’s a journey which cries out for an Easter. And this year, having fasted through Lent from our Sunday morning worship service, we really needed Easter. When Easter morning arrived, it was amazing. Months of hard work and difficult conversations, of dreaming and imagining, of navigating sensitive spaces, of confusion, of frustration, of groping in the fog bore some significant fruit. It was a new dawn. A new day for a congregation in need of a new life.

I concluded my sermon by playing the Michael Bublé song Feeling Good. It had popped into my head on my way home from church late Saturday night, after having finished setting up our new worship space for the first time. It’s a tune that I listened to every Sunday morning on my way to church for months after being appointed to this congregation nearly 3 years ago. Hadn’t listened to it in years, but it started playing in my head as fellow Christians in our time zone were beginning Easter Vigils. I decided to play it at the end of my sermon as a mark of the beginning of a new era. It’s a great Easter song! Could easily be Jesus singing,

Birds flying high, you know how I feel; …blossom on the tree, you know how I feel; it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. And I’m feeling good! …This old world is a new world and a bold world for me.

There’s no doubt it was the voice of our congregation, too. What a joy!

Easter sanctuary

I was full of joy to watch a vision realized. I felt joy at the actual experience validating all the theory that this crazy idea would work. I felt deep joy at doing what I am made to do––lead worship and spiritual life in community. I felt joy watching friends filled with joy. I felt joy when I experienced the embrace of God over and over through various worship elements: singing “Alleluia!”, watching my friend Sue lead and read scripture, preaching, leading the community to gather around those who lead the renovation effort & pray with gratitude for their commitment, launching the sharing of prayer joys and concerns and hearing people share their hearts with each other. It was a morning of overwhelming joy.

…And in the three days since, I’ve felt unexpected sadness. Sure, some of it is clearly the letdown on the other side of a finish line I’ve been anticipating for 6 months (and longer!). But my sadness didn’t wait to surface until we crossed the finish line; it bubbled up in the middle of worship. I was introducing the new-to-us prayer practice of sharing joys and concerns in the whole group as part of our communal prayer, and I wanted to demonstrate my request that we go beyond simply listing facts. I hadn’t thought this through carefully enough to have planned how I’d give instructions, so in the moment, the prayer request I could think of was my wife’s chronic health struggles. I had invited folks to share how they felt about what they were sharing, because when we do that, we create intimacy and compassion happens. So I said, “Instead of simply asking you to carry my wife and me in prayer as she deals with ongoing health concerns, I would say, ‘Today I’m sad because my wife couldn’t be with us to celebrate because of her health.'” I started to cry when I said, “I’m sad.” I was surprised by my own response. A parishioner wisely said to me later, “It was like when you hear your mom’s voice on the phone”––that moment when what’s inside rises to the surface and overflows.

I realized Sunday that I’m more sad than I had realized about my wife’s ongoing struggle with illness, and the challenges we both face in raising a toddler in the midst of it. But I think it’s more than that. I’ll keep listening deep inside for what’s coming up.

I share all that to reflect on the fact that joy and sadness can live together just like joy and fear, as I narrated in my last post. I’ve spent much of my life seeing happiness and sadness as mutually exclusive opposites. But, as I learn to be more and more aware and honest about what I feel, I’m learning that’s not true at all. In fact, I think the overlapping is a pretty normal reality.

When I allow the door to my soul to open, allowing real, honest emotions to rise to the surface, I don’t choose what they are. I just experience and accept what is. When the door is open, sadness sometimes comes through, but I can only experience real joy when that door is open, too. This feels like the most profound spiritual practice: choosing to be open to whatever is most real and true rising from deep within me, refusing to judge or try to filter it, deciding rather to trust that feeling it presents an opportunity to connect to the Divine. Whether joy or sadness––or both––it is when I am in touch with what is most real right now that I am most open to Divine embrace and communication.

Thank God for Easter joy! And for Easter sadness. And everything else that appears when I allow that door to my soul to crack open.