This morning I was in a group of friends reflecting on the journey, and one of them said something that brought up joy in me, the kind of joy that signals connecting to the Divine:
I need a place to tell the whole truth, and that’s this group.
It’s the kind of simple truth about life that’s so deep it’s hard to talk about. It sounds obvious, or silly, or …duh. But it’s somehow revolutionary.
He was telling us the truth about how he is so good at putting on a put-together face, showing the world that he’s on top of it all, that he’s in charge and has it all covered, that he’s doing just fine, thank you, while behind the mask he’s slowly self-destructing, drawn like a moth to flame to things that suck the life out of him. And he was open about what this self-destruction looks like. As he was saying this, I was surprised, because I’ve been fooled by his mask–it’s a handsome mask. He’s cool and smooth and smart. He has great facial hair and the kind of glasses that give me the impression he’s creative and deep. He’s got that manner and voice that scream wise.
…And now you expect the conjunction but. But I realized I don’t really know him. Or But that’s an illusion. Or But now I wonder who he really is. He’s telling us that behind this ‘success’ persona is a troubled man who is struggling to let go of the demons he knows are killing him. Doesn’t that lead me to pull away? To keep a ‘healthy’ distance? To tsk,tsk under my breath (while keeping an appropriately compassionate concerned smile on my face)?
That’s certainly a familiar response in the church, isn’t it? And that would be among the least destructive responses I would expect if this were a usual church group. God knows there would be gossip thinly disguised as ‘concerned sharing’, judgment in the guise of righteousness, covert sideways glances and awkward distances.
But this isn’t a usual church group, and that helped me feel that joy that comes when the Realm of God becomes visible right smack in the midst of everyday life. In this space, my friend’s openness, which felt vulnerable enough to him that he had to end his sharing with a self-deprecating joke, was greeted with calm acceptance. The group responded with a sense of communal connection and identification–everyone in the group, rather than distancing themselves from him by judging or comparing in a way that sought differences, recognized the ways in which we are like him. The reflecting continued with someone else, who had the courage to honor this man’s openness by being similarly open with their struggles. Instead of his truth-telling separating him from others, it connected us all to each other. It was like he opened his arms wide like a child asking for a hug, and this group had the humility to respond not simply with tolerance but with real loving embrace.
And here’s the beautiful, mysterious part of this. The group loved this man not by dropping everything and focusing only on him, not by surrounding him and trying to make him feel better. That would be more comfortable for the other group members, certainly, because they could focus on his stuff instead of seeing their own. Instead, the group honored the man’s vulnerability by responding in kind. We cared for him by hearing him with love and then opening our stories to each other in ways that connected to his story. There was no competition (You think that’s bad? I’m worse off than you!) or triumphalism (I once was a bad as you are; now I’m totally different.). Just each person sharing their experience, recognizing that we all have our own versions of what our friend named. The meta-message was I’m right there with you, brother.
That’s so very different from I’m sorry you’re so messed up. I’ll pray for you.
I thank God for places where real, actual truth-telling is safe and valued. In those places, the Divine Presence is real and …now.
And this takes work. Developing this culture of truth-telling is no small task, and protecting it against the gravity toward self-protective judgment requires the commitment of the vast majority of the group members. The good news I experience: once a person has experienced the Divine embrace that comes through this profound openness, they don’t want to go back to the old ways of polite viciousness and the isolation of ‘safe’ distance.
This is my dream for the Church. That it might become an outpost of this part of the Realm of God, a place of absolute safety for truth-telling, a community that has the capacity to listen without judgment. The Church can be known for the kind of embrace that happens with eyes wide open to ugly brokenness. I yearn for the Church to be a primary sign that Divine love is truly unconditional.
God help us, for we have a long journey ahead.
And I see glimpses of blinding light along the way. This past Sunday, our congregation gathered around a man who had gone way beyond his comfort zone and had asked for prayer. As he was preparing for a horrible, once-in-a-lifetime cross-country road trip to take his only son’s ashes to a meaningful place for scattering, he was able to reach out and ask for the care of his church. We listened with wide-open hearts and tears streaming as he choked out the story of the journey ahead in the next couple of weeks. He brought forward the bag with his son’s ashes, we gathered around him, and we put our hands on him and the bag and each other. We sang a favorite song of his to him. We stood in reverent silence, tears flowing again, prayed, and we sent him on his journey with more love than could possibly be expressed.
And it all started with his courage in being real (the ultimate truth-telling), by asking for prayer and by allowing his grief to be on the surface in the presence of his congregation.
Thanks be to God for such everyday, extraordinary, mundane, holy moments and for the truth-telling that makes them possible.