The Advent Day with Martin Smith was just what I needed right now. The following are some thoughts that I jotted down. Note that these are not verbatim quotes from Martin. They represent reflections on what I heard, which may be quite different from what was actually said.
The theme of his three presentations was "Intimacy with God," or how to be "agents of the mystical core of the Gospel." Intimacy may seem to be a word that makes us uncomfortable. It's not a particularly biblical word. It is suggestive of the type of things that would most likely cause the more Puritan side of our personalities to begin frowning. Heaven forbid that anyone actually enjoy something, or even have a little fun.
We've talked before about asking ourselves, on a regular basis, preferably each morning when we wake up, an essential question; "What do you want?" By articulating our desires, by envisioning them in our minds, we take the first step in making them become concrete realities. Beyond that, we enter the day fully conscious of those longings that are the underlying driving force behind much of what we will do and say.
I've suggested that the answer to that question needs to be as particular as possible. But, if we dig deep enough, I think there is a desire that we all share; we want to love, and we want to be loved. We share a longing for intimacy.
When we talk about this longing for intimacy, it is essential that we include the shadow side of this longing. Intimacy includes ambivalence, fear, resistance and avoidance. If we become vulnerable enough to allow another to love us, and for us to return that love, we may get hurt. We may be rejected. We're not sure we can deal with that, especially if the one spurning us is the living God.
Sometimes we sabotage these moments of intimacy, without even consciously knowing we're doing it. The conversation gets too personal, and we quickly change the subject. Someone mentions God, and we get uncomfortable, and launch into a discussion of the advantages of vinyl siding.
Here's the point that I think we need to let sink in:
Often, the Church facilitates and becomes the means of avoiding intimacy with God. Let's talk about biblical interpretation, the capital fund, getting new hymnals, when to genuflect and when to bow...anything but our experiences of being in the presence of the living God.
I think this avoidance has become even more pronounced in the last few years. I find myself much more on guard when I talk about God. I don't want to offend someone by being too "liberal" or too "conservative," depending on the topic. We've become so polarized that talking about personal experiences of God often feels like walking on egg shells.
But, as agents of the mystical core of the Gospel, we are called to "lean right into the painfulness of this resistance." The pain of ministry cannot be avoided.
So, let's lean into it, shall we? For instance, how does the message of "inclusivity" sometimes become a means for avoiding intimacy with God? When it becomes this message; "Come as you are, and stay as you are." This is the shadow side of inclusion; the message is not that God is inclusive, but that we are inclusive.
Of course we welcome all into the kingdom just as they are. But if there is never some kind of transformation, some kind of growth towards union with God, we're just another social club. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes parts of the Church feels that there is reason to congratulate ourselves for creating a niche for agnostics where they will feel comfortable, without any need to deepen their relationship with God. I don't think so. We are about the business of transforming lives. Some agnostics that I have known are to be commended for upholding their own intellectual integrity. But, at its root, could agnosticism be a rationalized fear of intimacy? If so, do we want to encourage that?
Clergy persons must always be looking for that tension between attraction and resistance. That is the place where we are called to bring the light of Christ. But clergy must never forget that we can be agents of avoidance just as easily as anyone else. The Gospel is not "for export only." I know too well how easy it is for a priest to begin avoiding God.
Are you surprised by that?
Think about it. You start out being faithful in prayer with the people on your heart, in your encounters with others you strive to draw out those moments when they felt closest to God, you preach about being the beloved of God, and for some reason you find yourself being avoided at social events, and whispered about when you enter a room. The community begins to treat you as a nicely vested accessory, so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good. And the community fails to thrive. Your encounters with God include the whispered word "failure."
Even though that is a response from your own self esteem issues, you believe it to be a word from God, so you reinvent yourself. You watch the cardinal rectors, read the latest books on management, and become a social butterfly. You join some service clubs and the Chamber of Commerce, begin networking with "the suits" and take on only those projects that will generate press coverage. But then, one day, as you are striving to draw closer to God's presence, you hear another word; "prostitute."
Those are extreme examples, of course. The point being that even for clergy, it is sometimes a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. And, if we are not careful, it is so easy to slip into the habit of avoiding God. We're much too busy running a non-profit organization, right?
So how do we overcome our fear of intimacy with God? First of all, by facing those fears honestly. We start by getting honest with ourselves. After all, it is only ourselves that we know we can change. Will that change ripple outward? Maybe. And maybe not. But by recognizing our own avoidance mechanisms, we will stop blaming factors "out there," and begin the much needed interior work that will lead to our own transformation.
And here is the wondrous thing we discover when we honestly look deep within ourselves. We find the spirit of the living God was always there. Through our failures and our simony, God never left.
We've somehow gotten this strange notion that we can evict God, and then, at some later date, invite God back into our lives. Where did that come from? Certainly not from the baptismal rite.
We begin recovering our intimacy with God by starting where we are, deepening what we have, and then, amazingly, discovering that we're already there! That which is the deepest longing of our hearts, to be the beloved of God, never ceased being true.
May we experience that which we already possess; the love of God. And, as agents of transformation in this world, may we seek out new ways to invite others into a deeper intimacy with God.