Friday, February 27, 2015


      Back in the 80s, Linda and I were rediscovering Christian faith. When we visited DC for work, we set out to visit The Church of The Savior,, which along with The Sojourner’s Community (also in DC) and Koinonia Farms (in South Georgia), was at the cutting edge of socially engaged progressive Christianity in those days. We did not understand that The Church of The Savior was no longer a church but a partnership of 6 different faith communities then – 9 today – each serving God’s mission in a distinct way but connected to and supported by The Church of the Savior Partnership.

         So what we found at the CTS location was just an office, a mostly empty office. We were greeted by an unremarkable older lady who introduced herself as “Elizabeth O’Connor.” We did not take much note of her but she invited us to a gathering at The Potter’s House, one of the affiliated faith communities. We attended and enjoyed The Potter’s House. A few weeks later I learned that Elizabeth O’Connor was a brilliant and prolific writer. She was in fact the author of a seminal book that became a classic of faith, Journey Inward, Journey Outward.

         I won’t quote her book, hoping you will read it for yourselves. Instead I’ll give you my own take on her message using resources that have more recently become dear to me. O’Connor’s book has a message for each of us as an individual and also for our congregations. How apt is that! The life of a congregation should shape and sustain each of our individual spiritual lives and each of our individual spiritual lives should serve as a tributary to the mission of God’s people praying and serving together.

         O’Connor’s message to the individual Christian is two-fold: On the one hand, we cannot serve others effectively unless we first put our own souls in order. Arguably the greatest peacemaker of the 20th Century, U. N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold said:

         Our work for peace must begin within the private
         world of each one of us. To build a world without fear,
we must be without fear. To build a world of justice,
we must be just. And who can we fight for liberty if
we are not free in our own minds?

A follower of Jesus, Hammarskjold knew Matthew 7: 5:

First take the plank out of your own eye.
Then you can see clearly to remove the speck
from your brother’s eye.

This is why Hammarskjold built a room for quiet, meditation, and prayer in the United Nations Building. When this great activist for peace was killed on a mission of peace in the Congo, he was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was accepted by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Edberg. In his acceptance speech he said of Hammarskjold,

He had a room of quiet within himself.
No one was ever able to reach into that room.

Except for the random sociopath, we all would like to do some good in the world. Perhaps we simply and humbly aspire to be a positive presence in our family or with friends. Maybe we play on the larger field of social and economic justice. We cannot live a truly human life without some engagement with our fellow mortals. We hope that engagement will be a blessing to others. But if we do not tend our own souls, then our interactions with others will be warped by something. Augustine had one way of describing that something. Freud had another. Whatever we call it, if we have not attended to our own inner work, our efforts to be helpful to others will do more harm than good.

First take the plank out of your own eye.
Then you can see clearly to remove the speck
from your brother’s eye.

But there is another side to that coin. Hammarskjold also said:

         In our era the road to holiness necessarily lies
         through the world of action.

A privatized spirituality is not the path to holiness. It is the path to spiritual narcissism. The late Marcus Borg challenged this individualistic me-&-Jesus spirituality in one of his last writings. But it isn’t just conservative evangelicals who fall pray to spiritual narcissism. We have plenty of more-spiritual-than-thou contemplatives tripping on their own cloud.

The main reason individualistic spirituality doesn’t work is that it isn’t true. We live in a matrix of relationality. When we Christians set out to say Reality is knit together by relationality, we call it the Trinity. When we say we are called to live as part of each other, we call it the Body of Christ. But this truth comes across especially clearly in the African spirituality of Ubuntu, so beautifully expressed and exemplified by a great peacemaker and liberator of our time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It comes together in this simple axiom:

         I am only me because of you.

The Holy Spirit in Scripture does three things – life giving; empowering, connecting – but they are really just three aspects of one thing. Life is a power that arises in our midst when we are in godly relationship. I believe it was Rabbi Heschel, who after returning from the march at Selma was asked if he had prayed while there, and he replied;

         I prayed with my feet.

He would have been paraphrasing Frederick Douglass who said:

         I prayed for 20 years but received no answer
         until I prayed with my legs.

This is why Quaker writer and educator wrote The Active Life as a guide to the spirituality of engagement with the world we all inhabit together.

         Authentic spiritual practice leads to and is inseparable from work for justice and mercy. Authentic work for justice and mercy leads to and is inseparable from intentional spiritual practice.

         So the message to each of us in our personal lives is clear. Health requires a balance of spiritual practice (which in turn is a balance of prayers, study, worship, and other elements – that is for another Epistle) and action (which is also calls for a balance of elements such as charity and justice – yet another Epistle). For now suffice it to say that the journey inward and the journey outward are like two paths that have been intertwined into one. I cannot do you a bit of good until I see the image of God in you. And I cannot see God unless I see God in you. 1 John 4: 20.

         But if what is true for us as individual Christians is also true for the Church, then what does this say to the Church? I wonder – just wonder -- if in the era roughly 1995 to 2005 perhaps we spoke a bit much about contemplation and not so much about mission; and if roughly 2005 to today we have spoken more about mission and less of contemplation. I am not at all sure of the history of that. It is just a musing. But I will say with confidence that contemplation without mission is bogus; and mission without contemplation is bogus. This does not mean we all have to pray in any particular way or that we all have to serve the world in any particular way. There is plenty of room for variety on both sides of this equation – but it is an equation. We need both in tandem.

         So is the business of the Church to tend to the flock or to send the flock out into the world to love and serve the Lord, seeking and serving Christ in all people, striving for justice and peace among all people (sound familiar?)? The answer is clearly and unambiguously: Yes.