Date: 14 August 2016
Sermon: Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Site: Bethany United Church - Halifax, NS
Richard Rohr’s book title Falling Upward is truly counter intuitive. In our culture, how we were raised, to fall, to fall on your face, is to be a loser. Ask Donald Trump! Trump defeated 16 other Republicans, most Governors, Senators, Congressmen, largely on his tweets and verbal assaults in debates and rallies, where he would label those who praised him as winners, good people, success stories and those who dared criticize him as idiots, losers, failures, disasters. And I am only using the kinder words he used.
We live in a culture where you brag about your successes and either hide your failures or blame someone else for your falls. So in our culture we succeed upward and fail downward. Rohr knows otherwise. I mentioned last week that Rohr is a Franciscan Priest, a former Prison chaplain. There are only a small number of people who are forced to admit to their falls; addicts, those in shelters, and those in our prisons. It’s no surprise many who would admit to their fall would be all three; addicts who live in shelters who have recently been released from prison.
And that makes it even worse for the rest of us, we know what “fall” looks like and it isn’t pretty. So we will do everything in our power to deny or pass blame to avoid admitting to this reality.
Rohr says the mental energy that it takes to live in this space is unknown but it takes its toll. Soon we end up believing our own lies. And the cost of this self-deception, this illusion, according to Rohr is staggering. Rohr says we miss an important opportunity for transformation when we fail to fall upward. That is to learn from our mistakes, to take account of our own illusions, to see how this fall is symptomatic of some work we need to do for ourselves, on ourselves. Rohr believes that those who have the courage to be honest about our fall find the path to transformation, a new way of seeing the world and understanding themselves. In short a fall can lead to not only redemption but also new life like we never knew it before.
Our evangelical sisters and brothers are better at this than we mainline folks are. They will often reference their lives as Before Christ and After Christ, before we took Jesus into our hearts and after we knew Jesus personally. Almost always the precipitating experience was a fall, when who and what they were no longer worked, when the centre no longer held and there was a break. That crack allowed in the light of the Spirit and something new took shape. I like the authenticity, the honesty, of this testimony. My only two quibbles with this way of dealing with the fall are these, 1) the person in question then believes that her/his way of transformation MUST be adopted by everyone, that the path upward for him/her must be our path too. That can be tiring. 2) That what we become as we fall upward does not delegitimate everything about ourselves that happened before the fall. The idea that we suddenly moved from pitch fork to halo is too simple, too tidy and frankly false. Even with illusions to be undone who and what we were before the fall carried with them some very sacred connections. We need to honour that.
And I should add that taking responsibility for our part in a fall should never be confused with becoming someone who blames him/herself for every challenge life presents. Let’s be clear, people who are assaulted, abused, bullied, are never to be blamed or held responsible for their situation. But let’s be equally clear that there are indeed many falls in our lives where we played at least some part in the circumstances that led to our challenging predicament.
Rohr asks this question, can you remember a time when you experienced a necessary fall: a time of loss, of a job, of your reputation, of your self-image, of a relationship, of a moral failure. Did you own up to it? Did you talk to God about it? What did you learn about yourself, about God, what more about both do you need to learn after this fall?
Rohr uses this phrase, “illusions God has undone” which I found very helpful. For Rohr God can and does work in secret in our souls to undo our illusions. Some of you may have heard of Gerard May’s “Dark Night of the Soul”, an experience where you become aware that in the darkness of a fall there comes a moment for God to make changes.
Have you ever had a strong plan for your life that eventually proved insufficient? This plan has less to do with a God-given gift and more to do with pride, wanting to do what others do, be a success to others. There is a moment when your climb to this success ends in a fall, when you stumble and fail. Rohr says that is when the illusion is pierced, when there is an opening for a new path upward.
I chose this text from John’s Gospel for today because Peter experiences such a fall with Jesus. Gospel commentators Wes Howard Brook and Michael Crosby suggest that these questions by Jesus, “do you love me…” have to do with a deeper kind of love that Peter is confusing with ordinary friendship. Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."
Jesus’ love is agape love, a self-giving love, a love that involves pain and suffering for the other. Peter knows Jesus, there is loyalty and affection but at a critical point Peter will abandon Jesus, leave him alone to suffer, because his love is not the love Jesus is asking for. Later when Peter has fallen upward Jesus will suggest that the redeemed and broken Peter will be a rock for the new church built around this agape love.
In my own life I have seen this falling upward work its way into my soul. My false god was popularity and when I came to a church that would not let me be to them the most popular Minister I fell, I did things that undermined my own work. I could have blamed others for this fall or tried to cover it up but I knew I needed to stand on a deeper identity, that the love I was looking for was not based on being popular. Now I was a good Minister before and after the fall but I am a happier person after I fell upward. I do what I do now only because I feel called to do it. I am happy when others appreciate it but frankly it has nothing to do with why I do it.
I still have illusions that need to undone, Kim and Lucy tire of me bragging about my memory, which they remind me is far from perfect. Believe me God is undoing my illusions every day and I am a better person for it. Thanks be to God for falling upward, thanks be to God for your honesty and courage when you fall, may all of us here stand ready to walk together through these falls that we may enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus and find the peace and joy in this journey. Amen.