September 4, 2016

Some of you know I have a part-time job in Dartmouth North and downtown Dartmouth helping people on Income Assistance access employment readiness programs. To do this work I need to be aware of all the great programs in our city that help people overcome barriers to employment. Last week I met the staff at Futureworx, a non-profit agency that trains Income Assistance clients so that they are ready to work at local restaurants and hotels.

During our conversation the staff told me that each client must complete a self-assessment. The questions cover eight different factors that employers weigh when deciding who they will hire. I shared with them that these self-assessments have been problematic to some of the agencies where I have taken clients. On a scale of one to ten most of the clients I work with give themselves a ten on almost everything. This can create some tension when the agency’s experience of the client does not reflect the ten out of ten self-assessment.

The staff had an answer to this challenge. They use a new online form with two parts, in part one the client assesses her/himself and in part two the staff assess the same client. The results are plotted on a graph, side by side. It’s called the Employability Skills Assessment Tool. The genius of this technique is that it takes away the confrontation approach. The staff are not telling the client that s/he are this or that, rather they simply ask, “if we see this in you there is a high likelihood that an employer will see the same things. How do we deal with this?”

Richard Rohr, the author of the text I am using for this five-week summer preaching series, would love this assessment tool. In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life Rohr says, “Spiritual maturity is largely a growth in seeing: and full seeing seems to take most of our lifetime. What do you now see in a different light than you did in the first half of life?” This transition in “seeing” is a change in a spiritual perspective. Instead of seeing things only through your own lens you learn to take the other into consideration, other people’s perspectives, other people’s needs. Whereas in the first half of your spiritual life you are building up your identity, learning what you believe, practicing meaningful rituals and traditions, immersing yourself in a culture that makes you who you are, in the second half of your spiritual life you are learning how to take that identity into relationship with others. As a Roman Catholic Priest, a member of the Franciscan order, Rohr is deeply grateful to all who helped him come to understand who he was in the world. But some of the deepest wisdom he would learn in the second half of his spiritual life came when Rohr entered into relationship with Buddhist Monks.  

Like the Employability Skills Assessment Tool being in relationship with the other allowed Rohr to see himself as he really was, not as he assumed he was. By spending all of his time with like-minded Catholics Rohr was blinded to a larger view of himself, he lacked the insight someone from outside his world could bring to his understanding.  

Another insight that Rohr shares in this quest for the second half of his spiritual life is the openness to wisdom in the other. When one is secure in one’s own identity there is “no I to protect or project”. The participants in these conversations are not out to convert one another, not even to persuade one another. Rather the aim is to share what we see and in comparing what I see and what you see from your own sense of identity we deepen our faith. Our God is too big for one identity, for two identities, for several or even a hundred identities. If that is so that does not mean we have to rub all the rough edges off every kind of spirituality or try to make one homogenous faith story and practice. God lives in this diversity, God shows us different ways to live faith and be connected.

I remember an inter-faith dialogue we sponsored in Tantallon between the United Church and the Buddhists. One night we talked of forgiveness. The Buddhists were all raised as Christians so the Buddhist faith came later in their life and as such they could easily articulate why they were Buddhist and what they as Buddhists were called to do in forgiveness. When it was over several people from the church I served came up to me. What they shared with me was not a need to be more like the Buddhists but rather a hunger to know more about what they as Christians were called to do in forgiveness. They had been raised Christian and thus has taken their own story for granted. The conversation opened up for them a chance to think more deeply about their own beliefs and practices.

Finally, Rohr says that another level of conversation between people of different identities is the openness to failure. All of the world’s great religions have at their core a narrative of redemption, of falling and rising, of falling apart and coming together again. We Christians call this resurrection. That is why the title of Rohr’s book is Falling Upward. The effect of honest failure is to open one’s self to the possibility of deeper growth, breaking open the illusions we tell ourselves about ourselves and letting the truth of those around us penetrate our souls. These holy conversations are like an assessment tool, when we allow them to break open our façade we find the truth in Leonard Cohen’s words, “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”

Or as Rohr writes, “The bottom line of the Gospel is that most of us have to hit some kind of bottom before we even start the real spiritual journey…At the bottom, there is little time or interest in the illusion…You just want to breathe fresh air.”

Rohr uses the Colossians text we heard earlier to break open what God is doing inside us to make us a new creation. Hear The Message translation bring this to life. “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ…don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on…See things from God’s perspective. Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God.” Something inside you in this second half of your spiritual life is coming alive. It is the seed God planted inside you, it is a mature, grounded, and loving spirit and it grows when you breathe the fresh air of connectedness.

This week I received a phone call from a woman named Wendy. Wendy is a 56 year-old woman visiting from Ontario. 40 years ago Wendy left her home in Toronto abruptly and came to Halifax, knowing no one. In a short time Wendy ran out of money and realized she needed to go home. Having no money and knowing no one Wendy decided to reach out to various churches for help and the one responded. The minister at the time offered to call the folks from the church to find someone who might drive Wendy back to Toronto. One of the people in the office, a volunteer or a staff person, overheard this conversation and went home to tell her parents. The parents, immigrants and new to Halifax themselves, immediately offered to pay for a plane ride home for Wendy. Wendy vowed then to pay them back. As a 16 year-old young woman there was not much money for her to save to repay this family.

By the time the money was available to Wendy the family was no longer connected to that church and thus Wendy lost touch with her benefactors. This bothered Wendy for 40 years and recently she had the opportunity to "pay it forward" for someone in need. She came to Halifax this summer to tell someone about her story. She started calling on various churches in town, most of the Ministers were on vacation. One Office Administrator suggested Wendy call me.

Wendy told me she learned so much from that experience, that she had to hit bottom before she could begin to see the light, that her fall revealed some hard truths about her life that she needed to address, that when she reached out for help it came from sources that had little in common with her. Wendy told me her United Church roots kept her from making any big mistakes, gave her strength to endure her fall. But she said only when she moved out from the place of her comfort and security did she see what God intended for her. The seeds of generousity inside her were nurtured and brought to life by a connection to others.

Thank God for the seed inside you, thank God for the seed inside me, and thank God for the way we water each other’s seeds with the living waters of the Spirit. Amen.