If we were to redefine the church for our times, as Martin Luther and John Calvin and the other reformers redefined the church for their times, we would have to find a center, a core around which the church could coalesce. We would have to form a new identity, reform our understanding of what we are about. Of course, I have a suggestion.
I recommend that we be about what Jesus was always about: Waking up. Paying attention. Being fully present in the moment of our living. I recommend that our chief concern be, not getting to heaven when we die, but developing eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand in the here and now.
I recommend that we take up Jesus’ cause in the service of radical equality, around the table and across the board. Of non-violence. Of compassion and justice even for the least of those on the margins of society. I recommend that we take up Jesus’ practice of putting truth on the table and keeping it there, no matter what. And, his practice of integrity, as in living aligned with what is deepest, truest, and best about us, and being who we say we are. And, his practice of being true to oneself within the context and circumstances of one’s life and letting the outcome be the outcome. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Loving God, and neighbor and self. Being as concerned for the interests of others as we are for our own. Doing the work we came to do, then stepping back and letting nature take its course. All this follows from waking up.
Think of waking up as being synonymous with growing up. People wake up all the time. People grow up all the time. No one ever wakes anyone up. No one ever grows anyone up. People wake up in the presence of people who are awake. People grow up in the company of people who are grown up. If the most grown up people we know are adolescent in their thinking and living, there isn’t much hope for us. If we want to be more awake than we are, we have to associate with different people. We have to run with a different crowd.
Part of the work of waking up, of growing up, is hanging out with the right people—hanging out with the people who are who we need to be. To do that, of course, we have to have an idea of who we need to be. To be awake, we have to be awake enough to know we are not awake, and know we need to wake up. We have to be awake enough to know we aren’t who we need to be. There has to be something missing, and we have to know that it is missing. We cannot think that things are just fine exactly as they are and wake up. We have to know that things are out of place, not right somehow, out of kilter, off center.
We have to be at the place of asking, seeking, and knocking. We have to be looking in order to see. Of course, some people see without looking, but the Buddha sat for a long time under the Bodhi tree, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, adjusting his eyes to the light. Seeing doesn’t come automatically. There are no rules to follow, no recipes to cook up, in order to see. Seeing is like being born from above.
Here’s how it works: Sometimes, we look and see; sometimes, we look and don’t see. Sometimes, we don’t look and see; sometimes, we don’t look and don’t see. See? Sometimes, it takes being shown; sometimes, we see without being shown; sometimes, we can’t see even though we are shown. See?
Or, here’s how it works: If you sit in a chair in a room where the grandchildren are playing, sometimes they will get in your lap. Or, here’s how it works: If you read enough books on photography, and take enough photographs, you will eventually take some photos that you really like and that others like as well. Or, here’s how it works: If you want to be a cowboy, you have to do more than buy a big hat.
Right seeing (and hearing), right thinking, right doing, right being—how do you arrange to have those babies in your life? Not all conversation is the right kind of conversation. How do you arrange that? How do you call people together to say what needs to be said the way it needs to be said? I think you will have to admit, upon reflection, that the important things have a magical air about them. Right seeing happens, for instance, but we do not make it happen. We are not in control of its happening. It comes to us as amazing grace.
There are people who are good company, who are the right kind of people, but they don’t strive to be that way. They don’t work at it. They don’t carry a checklist for right relationship and refer to it during the day. They have a sense for what is right. But they don’t dance by stepping in the black foot prints to make sure they are doing what’s right correctly. They just seem to have a knack for it, for doing what’s right, for being the right kind of people. The people who are most awake just seem to have a knack for it, for being awake. How do we become like they are? That’s the question, isn’t it? Jesus had a knack for being Jesus. How do we become who Jesus was?
The one thing Jesus didn’t do was follow the rules. Jesus did not think about being someone else. Jesus lived a life of transparent engagement with the moment of his living, a life of transparent investment in the moment of his living. Jesus was alive to whatever was before him in the moment. Being awake and being alive are the same thing. We cannot be alive and see the same old things in the same old ways. We cannot be awake and be dead to the moment of our living. Whatever wakes us up enlivens us, whatever enlivens us wakes us up.
What do we need to be truly alive? What is the difference between a prop and a tool? What is the difference between striking a pose, or fostering an image, and living a life? One life does not fit all. As we wake up, we decide of what our life shall consist, and that becomes our life. There are no requirements, no standards, no rules depicting how one must dress and act and believe. There is no Rule of St. Benedict to follow. There is only a loose confederation of people intent on listening one another into ever deepening realizations of what it means to truly live. There is nothing like the power of listening to wake us up. As we wake up, what it means to truly live will be different with each of us, yet, there will be striking similarities among all of us. For one thing we will speak from the heart about things that matter, and be heard.
Being awake is a function of listening, and being listened to. When we speak, what do we not say? What is the nature of the conversations we never have? We can lull ourselves to sleep by saying the same things to the same people. We will never see anything new if we only say what we have always said. To see things we have never seen before, we have to say things we have never said before. To do that, we may have to talk to people we have never talked to. To see different things, we have to see things differently. To see things differently, we have to say things differently.
“Jesus died to save us from our sins so we can go to heaven when we die,” she said, repeating the line that had been instilled in her by her teacher at her church-sponsored kindergarten. “Why do you want to go to heaven when you die?”, I asked. “To be with God,” was her quick reply. “Isn’t God everywhere?”, I asked. “Can’t you be with God right now.” That was a wrinkle she wasn’t prepared for. Now she had to think. She paused, then replied, “Yes, but in heaven God won’t be invisible.” “Well,” I said. “I prefer for God to be invisible.” “Why?”, she said. “Because I don’t want to see God’s hairy back,” “God doesn’t have a hairy back,” she said. “How do you know?”, I said. She frowned, looking for what to say. “Besides,” I said, “I don’t want to take the chance. So, I’m not going to heaven when I die.” “You have to,” she said, back in the swing of things. “Everybody goes to heaven.” “Not me,” I said. “I’m going to the mountains. Maybe the Canadian Rockies. I’ll visit the Smokies and the Blue Ridge on vacation. And walk through the Sierra Nevada’s for an occasional change of scenery.” “You can’t,” she said. “You HAVE to go to heaven.” “Not me,” I said. “I’m not getting on the bus.” “There is no bus,” she said. “Then how do you get there?”, I said. “You just are there,” she said. “Not me,” I said. “I’m going to the Canadian Rockies.” “Mama!”, she said, calling in the reinforcements. “Pops says he’s not going to heaven when he dies! He says he’s going to the Canadian Rockies!” That pretty much ended the conversation, and I don’t know if it shifted anything substantial in the budding world-view of the five-year-old grandchild, but I do know no one wakes up in an atmosphere in which everyone says the same things about the same things.
We cannot just repeat the old formulas and wake up, and be alive. Having eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that understand means seeing what we are not supposed to look at, hearing what we are not supposed to be told, understanding what we aren’t supposed to know anything about. Now, this is in direct opposition to the story of the Garden of Eden. Don’t see, don’t hear, don’t understand is the moral of that story. Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! Don’t have your eyes opened! Don’t know right from wrong, yes from no, good from evil! That’s what the Garden of Eden is about. Yet, Jesus comes along saying, “Wake up! Pay attention! Be aware! Have eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand!” And, no one ever talks to us about that fundamental conflict. Jesus saves us by telling us to do the very thing that got us in such trouble to begin with.
You see how it works, seeing? We say things that have never been said, that are not supposed to be said. “I’m not getting on the bus!” “I’m not going to heaven!” “I’m going to the Canadian Rockies!” “The moral of the story of the Garden of Eden is ‘Don’t ask, don’t see!’, but Jesus says ‘Ask, and seek and knock!’, and tells us to ‘Wake up!’ and to ‘Have eyes that see, and ears that hear, and hearts that understand’! How can what’s wrong for Adam be right for Jesus?” We have to look if we are going to see. And say things we aren’t supposed to say. And listen like we have never listened before. And wait for the miracle, the magic, the grace of enlightenment, awakening, awareness, and understanding.