Date: 7 August 2016
Sermon: Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life Pt. 1
Site: Bethany United Church - Halifax, NS
For the next five weeks I will be sharing with you insights I have found in the pages of Fr. Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward. This morning’s sermon looks at the first two chapters of the text: The Two Halves of Life and The Hero and The Heroine’s Journey.
In 1988 my life was at a crossroads. I had just completed a six month work term with Frontier College teaching English to recent immigrants in the far, far north. Frontier College then hired university students like me to work as Labourers on construction crews and rail gangs by day and teach English by night. Believe me it was the most money I had ever made in my life! But now what? I was 24 years old, two degrees, no obvious career path or purpose for my life.
There were two questions that I was wrestling with; what would be the wisdom I would carry with me as I lived the rest of my life and what concrete actions would I undertake to bring this wisdom to life? Or to put it more bluntly, what would be my mission for life and what did I intend to do about it? As with all life changing experiences what happened next was pure chance, a friend who later became a UCC Minister wrote me to share his experience at Koinonia Farm in southern Georgia. Darrow lived on a farm that was an intentional community of 40 Christians, all committed to living together, praying together and sharing all possessions with each other. The farm produced pecans and peanuts but it also carried out an outreach ministry to the larger area, building low-cost homes for people living on low-incomes. I was intrigued.
There were two ways to be part of this community which modelled itself on the Book of Acts. One was to formally join as a full member, which meant divesting yourself of all your earthly possessions and putting all of same into the common pot. So when you drove your truck onto the property it was yours but after you became a member someone else from the community could drive that same truck, it belonged to everyone at the farm. The other way to participate in the community was to join as a visitor, which was only a short-term commitment. No divestment necessary for visitors, you worked on the farm or the outreach project and shared in the meals and accommodation.
When I arrived at the farm I had a few pieces of wisdom in my back pocket, I valued creativity, I valued generousity, and I valued community. My religious faith played a part in this cherished wisdom, Jesus was creative in his feeding of the five thousand, Jesus practiced and preached generousity, with time, possessions and miracles, and Jesus lived in and cared for community. My mother was also a strong advocate for the old Methodist axiom “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” That was another piece of wisdom I carried in my back pocket.
So I carried this wisdom with me, it was my truth, my mission statement. But all of it was inherited. I had not properly vetted this wisdom, picked over it, investigated whether it was me, whether I wanted to make this my wisdom. And that is where Richard Rohr comes in. Early in my stay at the Koinonia Farm the members invited Rohr to lead them on a retreat. Rohr is a Franciscan Priest known for his rigorous writing on both contemplation and action. In the retreat Rohr focused on helping us identify what we carried with us as wisdom, what wisdom we had been given and how that given wisdom had been both life-giving and problematic.
Rohr writes that we need to “develop the gift for winnowing reality, which is what we mean by wisdom, separating essentials from nonessentials, and discerning with subtlety.” And so I began to winnow my given wisdom as a way of discerning what would be my wisdom, my mission, and my truth into the rest of my life. Rohr points out that Jesus himself did such winnowing, inheriting the ancient wisdom of his Jewish heritage, a wisdom he would both affirm and love and yet wrestle with to his dying breaths. “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Our text for this morning reads in part, Jesus was “growing in wisdom, age and grace.”
So let me turn this to you, let me ask you the questions Richard Rohr asked us that warm day. Think about your childhood faith, the lessons your Sunday School teacher taught you, what you remember your Minister saying and doing, what your parents and grandparents taught you about what your life was about, what the purpose of your life was to be. Take some time to think on this. Think of one or two, maybe three, pieces of wisdom you distinctly remember being taught. Now turn to someone beside you and share this now. I know this is hard, but believe me the winnowing is so important. (Break for sharing.)
Now that I have your attention again I want you to think of the times in your life when experiences or new pieces of wisdom ran contrary to some of the given wisdom of your childhood. How did you make sense of that? For me the tension was always around our commitment and responsibility to persons who were not family. Even more the call to care for those who were not our friends, to love complete strangers, to do for those who had not done for us (Luke 14). In spite of the fact that loving our own, “charity begins at home” (not in the Bible), was so pervasive in our culture I knew deep down that was a limitation that did not work for me. And the people whose wisdom deeply moved me later in life were those who placed no boundaries around those we were called to love.
Where did your inner wrestling take place? What kinds of inherited wisdom did you find yourself winnowing and discerning new path ways to your mission?
I often found that the places I went helped me do this winnowing and discernment. If I wanted to hold the inherited wisdom and the emerging new wisdom together, to see what I needed to keep and what I needed to let go, I needed to be in physical places where I was beyond my own comfort zone. So after the retreat, after I had left the farm to work at Habitat for Humanity’s headquarters in the town of Americus, I attended an all African-American Pentecostal church with the office administrator where I worked. I sat with Angela’s family and experienced worship in new and different ways. To be honest what pushed me outside my comfort zone was not being the only Caucasian there, they made me plenty welcome. No, what really pushed me outside my comfort zone was the Pentecostal theology, ecstatic worship, the tactile expressions of faith and love. By the end of the service I wanted to curl up in my apartment, where there would be no more touching, hugging or someone else’s tears dripping on my white dress shirt.
The experience did not convince me that this was to be my wisdom but it did convince me that one piece of wisdom that would stick would be diversity, being with people very different than me, people who thought differently, acted differently, felt differently, than me. The wisdom I discerned from this new and uncomfortable experience was that I could find wisdom in people and places that had very little in common with me.
Wisdom is a gift. It is a gift from our Creator God. It is a gift we receive from those who love us. It is a gift that helps us make sense of our world. But there will come a time, there will come many times, when we will either learn to lean very heavily on that inherited wisdom or we will need to winnow some of that wisdom to help us meet what is an emerging purpose for our lives.
May all of us lean on and give thanks for many of the pieces of wisdom that have been life-giving throughout our lives. And may we have the courage to discern and winnow those piece of inherited wisdom that are blocking our way to a deeper calling as God’s disciple in this beautiful and broken world. I pray this comes to reality. Amen.