"This life is for loving, sharing, learning, smiling, caring, forgiving, laughing, hugging, helping, dancing, wondering, healing, and even more loving. I choose to live life this way ~Steve Maraboli
Last Sunday I had the opportunity to be on a panel with three others discussing where "Progressive" Christianity is today. Now I doubt that it would come as a surprise to anyone that I fall on the progressive side of Christian faith rather than on what you may call the traditional or orthodox side. But as I think I may have said before, it is "Traditionalism" and "Orthodox rigidity" that I find unhelpful. We belong to a tradition and I honour and respect that tradition. We need to have strong beliefs and I honour and respect that, but what it is very important is that we must always be open to truth and have a willingness to change wherever and whenever we find it. I suppose thats what is meant by being progressive. It has everything to do with being open to new possibilities and opportunities.
Anyway, the panel members each presented their perspective on the topic. They were each helpful and erudite in their own way. I had this urge to wander from the well-worn track. In the last months or so there has been a vigorous debate on what issues really form the centre or the heart of Christian faith, life and belief. Perhaps one of the more dominant views was that Jesus was a great moral teacher and that the beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, were what this Jewish peasant who was a great teacher was all about. And of course that is so important to our understanding of the faith and it will be where this sermon will end up. But I wanted to say that there is something more.
When I was a little boy I loved hearing stories about Jesus and the characters of the Bible. I didnt grow up in a particularly religious family, but my mother was keen that I went to Sunday school with my sister and brothers. So we were packed off each Sunday morning to the local Baptist church. So the Bible stories were a part of our learning and experience. I was enchanted by the stories. Noah filling an Ark with animals, Jonah swallowed by a whale; Abraham willing to kill his own son because God commanded it . King David and something or other happening with Bathsheba on the roof of the house. We never got all the details but it seemed to be very interesting. And then Samson, his hair cut by Delilah (as interesting as Bathsheba but not much detail) and his eyes plucked out. Then he was chained between two great pillars and, incredibly, still able to pull down a whole building.
Then to the New Testament with Jesus walking on the water, turning water into wine; healing the sick and restoring sight to the blind. That was the world I wanted to live in In fact, it was the world I was living in. Of course it was also populated with Aesops Fables, Santa Claus, Winnie the Pooh and, a little later, the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and a host of other childrens books. I think what was most important was that there was nothing that couldnt be resolved, solved and put right in a story. And the Bible became that book that could solve every problem and remove every hurt.
But then came the gift of dis-enchantment into my life. Now if you dont think it is a gift then it is probable that you have missed the centre of what life is all about. One of the books that were important to my growing up was J M Barries Peter Pan: the boy who never grew up. It is something comfortable and reassuring that you can live continually in an enchanted garden. But in the end it is life-denying. The suffering of the world moves from the resolution in childrens literature into everyday life. People suffer; friends are cruel; grandparents die and one experiences the pain of loss and suffering.
So we move to a new level of literature and conversation. We read books about life that doesnt always work out as we would like it. We are tested and pushed into new and at times fearful ways of understanding the world. We may cling to enchantment, "Please God, let my friend live. She has lived a good life and doesnt deserve this." "Please God, heal my father so that he wont die from cancer. I love him and I know you love him too." But she dies and my father dies a painful death. Dis-enchantment begins to do its work on us. At first we resist it. But there are only two ways we can respond to the gift of dis-enchantment. Either we ignore the necessary and difficult process of letting go of childish enchantment and hold tight to the literal story our community values so much. Or we recognize that these stories were for a time and that they demand a richer interpretation and more sophisticated understanding.
But now we let the stories go. Let them wait until their time, when we will come, re-interpret them and, pray God, experience re-enchantment. Maybe the poet-psalmist gives a lilt to this:
I said in my time of prosperity, "I shall never be moved". By your favour you had established me as a strong mountain. But then you hid your face; Suddenly, I was dismayed. I cried out, and made my request: "What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you?"
I think the time when we experience disillusionment, a dis-enchantment, is the most painful time, but it is also the most beneficial. Sadly for most in our culture and in our church culture, we never recover from the experience of dis-enchantment. The stories of the Bible in particular have been taught in a way that they must be either accepted unconditionally, or rejected altogether. But surely, when it comes to the great stories, narratives, myths and sagas of western tradition, they can be re-enchanted.
Again I go back to the poetry of the psalmist, and can I emphasise that it is poetry:
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. To you, my God, I will give thanks today and forever.
What is it about these words that can bring health and healing to our souls? I think it is hope, not just theological words about hope but the very practical things of tears and mourning, sackcloth and dancing
The Apostle Paul uses similar words to draw us back to the enchantment we found in the first message:
My friends, if any one of you falls, you who have received the Spirit should restore that person with a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.
Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are arrogant think they are something more than they are, then they deceive themselves. Rather reflect on your own work and not on the work of your neighbour, so that you dont become smug or conceited. For all must carry their own loads.
Perhaps the re-enchantment comes when we can see the first enchantment as a holding of each other; a loving of the beauty in another person; or just the willingness to be with someone without judgment and without condemnation. To carry the person as if they were your brother or your sister And the re-enchantment is to return to that state of being, knowing that while we can hold those we care for, there may come a time when we must let them go.
To care for another in a wise and worldly way is to know that one must care for oneself and that there are times when care for the other and caring for oneself are in opposition. Thats when we can see that even the stories in the Bible can be in contradiction to each other. There is no simple process here. One must pass through these stages of enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment to be a wise person. Well, at least a wiser person.