Date: 21 August 2016
Sermon: Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Site: Bethany United Church - Halifax, NS
This morning’s sermon looks at chapters 6 & 7 of the text: Necessary Suffering and Home and Homesickness.
This is the third part of our five part series on Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. In the first sermon I shared with you Rohr’s belief that all of us need, crave, hunger for, a sense of identity, a set of beliefs, rituals, ways to make sense of the world we have inherited. This experience comes to us, or it doesn’t, at different parts of our chronological lives. For instance for me it happened rather early. My parents took me to church, shared with me a sense of my inherited wisdom, what values and rituals were important to us. I gladly received this wisdom and gave thanks for the security and orientation it gave me to life. But as Rohr says for many others this does not come at childhood, in fact a vacuum is filled with many distractions, some very destructive. Rohr met many men in his prison ministry who had still not experienced a first half of life.
In that first Sunday of this series I talked about Rohr’s call to examine this inherited wisdom, to winnow it, to separate those pieces that continue to speak to our maturing lives and experiences and to leave behind those pieces that no longer address the lives we make today. Last Sunday I talked about Rohr’s rather tart analysis of our falls, instead of quickly covering up our failures or blaming everyone for them to look over the fall with a careful and discerning eye. Rohr believes we fall upward, rather than downward, when we learn from our mistakes. He says that each of us carries certain illusions about ourselves that need to be addressed if we are truly going to fall upward, that these illusions about ourselves are often the largest cause of the fall.
This morning I want to share Rohr’s belief that to move into the second half of our spiritual lives we need to shift from reciprocity to empathy. In short we need to move away from love as a contract and towards love as a covenant. For those who never move beyond the solid ties that bind that binding can be a form of reciprocity, as Jesus says in Luke 14 “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” Keeping track of who does what for you so that you can do likewise is an example of taking our sense of identity and embedding it with borders, some are in and some are out. Those who do as I do, those who do for me as I do for them, these are inside the borders. Those who do not do as I do, who do not do for me as I do for them, they remain outside the borders.
A covenant is a mutual understanding that together we will seek to be a people, that together we share a vision where everyone matters and everyone is connected to the whole. If we can take the strong identity that was given us and use it as a launching pad to a deeper sense of connection to others we will have made that transition to the second half of our spiritual lives.
Let me give you two local examples. Back in the so-called “good old days” of Halifax my paternal grandfather was raised a good Roman Catholic. His family attended Mass each and every day. This upbringing was very good for my grandfather giving him a great sense of belonging, an identity and a moral compass. But late in life he married a Newfoundland Methodist and his family were not impressed. This division created untold suffering, tension. Lest you think I am picking on Roman Catholics my maternal grandmother was none too pleased when my uncles brought Roman Catholic girlfriends home. There was much tension and suffering for all. Again, the faith formation was a positive, necessary and good experience for all of my grandparents. But using these markers and rituals of identity as borders did not help them in their search for a deeper faith and deeper empathy.
Richard Rohr has a quote he uses to help us understand the need to press forward and stretch beyond the borders of our religious identity. World famous psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the legitimate suffering that comes from being human.” What Jung means here is that once you take the identity you were given in the first half of your spiritual life and you make it into borders with large walls you create the conditions for exactly the kind of conflicts I shared about my grandparents here in Halifax. That is unnecessary suffering according to Jung and Rohr.
The other kind of suffering Jung calls legitimate suffering, happens because we are human. As human beings we suffer because we age, because we move into and out of relationship, we suffer because we die, we suffer because we are frail and fallible and fearful. That is baked in to the human condition. It is the way God made us. It is our DNA. We are born broken and thus we will suffer. This suffering is unavoidable. But we can learn in this kind of suffering. And when we learn to be with those who suffer, to listen, to cry with, to heal, to care for, we develop a deeper empathy. We become human. And when we do this we enter into the second half of our spiritual lives.
My spiritual mentor is 90 year-old retired United Church Minister Nathan Mair. After his wife Vi died in a car accident he returned to his ancestral homeland PEI. There his family cared for him, healed him, reminded him of the first half of his spiritual life. What a gift they gave him! But Nathan was hungry for more life and a home that was bigger than the gentle island. So he agreed to represent the United Church at a World Congress of Methodists held in Zambia. At that congress Nathan met by chance a young man who had been orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Tobias wanted to study in Canada and the two of them felt an instant kinship. After Nathan left the Congress and returned home to PEI he felt a tug on his heart. Deep in his soul he felt Tobias was family. How could he explain this rationally, this 20 something man from Zambia being related to this 70+ year old from Georgetown, PEI? It made no sense. Nathan prayed over this. He examined his UCC pension. There was not much there. So he wrote a letter to all his friends and family requesting assistance. The money came rushing in. Nathan decided God was calling him to invite Tobias to come and study at the University of PEI.
That relationship was the stuff of Christian hope and family. Nathan received the love of a son and Tobias called Nathan Papa. Later Tobias became a social worker, met and married his wife and together they moved to Alberta. Tobias now works with troubled youth in Calgary. All through Nathan’s home in downtown Charlottetown are photos of Tobias and Nathan’s grandchildren. What a family!
THIS is what happens in the second half of our spiritual lives, we build on the identity and ritual of the first half of our lives and yet we expand and deepen that love so that the other is not outside an artificial border but rather inside a growing family of belonging. Klyne Snodgrass in his commentary on the parables of Jesus says of the Gospel text Elroy read today, “Discipleship is not about humans straining on their own; it is the necessary result and consequence of faith in and following after Jesus.” Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Jesus is telling us that our family ties, our cultural ties, our ties of nationality and community, these ties cannot contain our love. Instead we are sisters and brothers of a different kind. Matthew’s Gospel points us in the right direction, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of our God in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Richard Rohr ends this section of his book with this instruction, “Identify a wisdom person or elder whom you know who lives life in deeper communion and community, who sees and acts toward the other as kin. Conduct an interview with her/him. Share your deepest yearnings to connect, to expand your love and listen to the wisdom of the other. The Good News today is clear, we are being called to deepen our love by taking our blessed identity and stretching it to include family we have not yet met. Thanks be to God for our new sisters and brothers, what a family! Amen.