Orthodox Jews have their way of looking at things. Evangelical Christians have their way of looking at things. Islam fundamentalists have their way of looking at things. Tibetan Buddhists have their way of looking at things. Pakistani Hindus have their way of looking at things. You have your way of looking at things. I have my way of looking at things. And, so it goes, around the world and throughout the universe.
We have our way of “structuring reality,” of “securing the future, of saying how things are, and how they got to be that way, and how we need to live in relation to them to give ourselves the best chance at a life worth living. How can we protect ourselves, guard our interests, break even, or, perhaps, come out ahead? How can we turn the odds of winning at life in our favor?
We all have our angle, our rituals, our system. Everyone knows what to do to get God, or the gods, on his, on her, side. Everyone expects a pay-off, either in this life, or, at least, in the life to come. Who are we kidding? What are we thinking? That our fortunes are going to turn on whether we bring our votive offerings to the altar, or wear the prescribed costumes, or pray at the prescribed times in the prescribed ways, or believe the beliefs of our ancestors?
Here’s the deal. It comes down to your life and you. What do you need to give yourself the best chance of living a life that is worth the trouble? And, it is trouble. It is not easy living out a lifetime in this world. Living takes the life right out of us. Where do we get the energy for the undertaking? It takes more than eight hours of sleep and three squares a day (and just achieving that is hard enough). I don’t care who you are, or what kind of life you have, you have to make your peace with it. How do we make our peace with our life? How do we restore our souls?
That is the religious problem. How do we take life as it comes to us in one hand, and ourselves in the other, and merge the two, blend the two, reconcile the two in ways that take the requirements and realities of each into account? How do we feel good, happy, content, and at peace about the lives we are living? It is easier, of course, for some of us than others (To be gay, or black, or poor, or Native American, or to have special needs, for example, is to have your work cut out for you), but the suicide rate and the amount of prescription “mood-altering” drugs taken by the well-to-do suggests that none of us have an easy route to nirvana. How do we get there? We all have our mo-jo. The Mormons have a particularly compelling approach. “If you just do it like we tell you to do it,” they say. “Your kids will not be on drugs, you will not be divorced, or destitute and homeless, and the societal family ideal will be yours forever.” A large number of people feel that letting someone else tell them how to live their lives is a small price to pay for security, stability, predictability, and peace of mind. That has been the way religion has tended to “solve” the problem of reconciling ourselves with our lives over time. “Just let us tell you how to do it, and you will live happily ever after.” The spiritual approach is quite different.
Joseph Campbell says, “We know when we are ‘on the beam,’ and when we are off.” The spiritual task is to be “on the beam,” and stay there. The spiritual presumption is that we are happiest when we are “on the beam,” and unhappiest when we are “off the beam.” There are two problems with being “on the beam.” Finding it and figuring ways to stay on it and “pay the bills.”
“The beam” has a spiritual dimension and a physical dimension. You might say it is “sacramental,” in that it is an outward, physical, tangible, concrete expression of an inward, spiritual, orientation, intention, perspective, or way of being. “The beam” is how we incarnate our “essential self,” our “essence,” our “spirit,” who we are really in the world of normal, apparent, reality. It is not easily done. It is what we do to bring our spirit to life in the world.
The world is not interested in our “essence,” or, in our spirit. The world is interested in goods and services, “food, clothing, and shelter,” hot and cold running water, garbage pickup and mail delivery, money in the bank. and internet access. What you do with your soul is not the world’s problem. The world is not a soul-friendly place. Neither is the church.
The church talks about saving souls, but the church has no process, or method, for helping you connect with your soul, or restore it, or express it in the way you live your life. The church is quick to tell you what you should think, believe, and do—how you should live—what you should be interested in. But, the church does not spend any time helping you discover what your interests actually or and how you might serve them with your life AND pay the bills. The church, like the world, operates out of a practical, left-brained, rational, logical approach to the problem of adjusting you to the world. “Just do what we tell you,” it says. “Think what we tell you to think, believe what we tell you to believe, act like we tell you to act, and you will be happy.” The soul has to re-invent the church in order to survive in the world.
And, of course, that is what we are about here. The re-invention of the church. The creation of an atmosphere that focuses us, not on the solution, not on the resolution, but on the recognition and experience of the spiritual problem. This place is not an escape or a hide-out. It is more on the order of a torture chamber, a dungeon of nightmares and horrors. Here we face realities square on that the church of our experience dismissed, discounted, or denied. Here, we look into the heart of things, understand how things are, and bear what must be borne.
For instance, you have heard me say before, and you will hear me say again, that we live on the boundary between yin and yang. We bear the pain of the tension of opposition within and without. The cross in our midst reminds us of the agony that must be borne when transcendence and imminence coincide, as they do in us. The thematic dichotomies in the Bible, and really, in all great literature, come alive in us: Bondage and freedom, guilt and redemption, death and resurrection, being lost and being found, sin and forgiveness, fear and peace, resistance and surrender… All these themes play themselves out in our lives, and tear us apart, or would, if we didn’t deny them, or face them squarely in the company of one another.
The church as it ought to be enables us to live on the boundary between yin and yang, and do the work of integration, which is the work of recognition, and realization, and awareness, and acceptance, and peace. We live at odds with ourselves, our lives, one another, and God. And, it is the work of the church—it is our work—to make our peace with all that pulls us apart. It is the work of the church—it is our work—to face squarely what must be faced, and to bear consciously what must be borne. “If you want to be my disciple,” says the Christ, calling us to the task of being the Christ ourselves, “you must pick up your cross daily, and follow me.” The cross is the agony of The Beam and The Bills.
We live strung out between two mutually exclusive realities. We cannot stay on The Beam and pay The Bills, but, paying The Bills only enables us to live without being alive. We live on the boundary between yin and yang, and work to integrate the opposites of Beam and Bills. That is the spiritual task, and we will work hard at it every day for the rest of our lives.
You have heard me say before, and did not like it when I did, that we live on the boundary between despair and denial. That sounded too raw to you, too negative, nihilistic, dark and ugly. You come to church to hear something light, and inspirational, and sentimental. You come to church to hear an encouraging word. There is discouragement aplenty where you come from, and you need something to counter the daily doses of despondency and desolation. I call that denial. But that doesn’t mean the alternative is despair.
On the boundary between despair and denial there is something else. Call it hope. Call it faith. Call it love. Call it a new reality, a new world. Call it the relentless refusal to be done in by the futility and desperation of lives that have given up on, or forgotten the importance of, doing the work of integrating The Beam with The Bills.
On the boundary between despair and denial, we come alive to the work of being spiritual beings in a material world. On the boundary between despair and denial, we look both in the eye without giving into, without being consumed by, either. We say something on the order of, “Yes. That’s how it is, all right. And, THIS is how it also is!” And, we align ourselves with, and live out of, our heart’s true love in the direct, exact, midst of the world’s denial and despair.
We do not buy the world’s requirement that things have to have an impact and make a difference in order to be valuable and worth doing. We take photographs that stir our souls, even though we would make a lot more money from photography if we quit taking pictures. We talk to people about the church as it ought to be, even though the church as it is has all the power and momentum it needs to stay as it is forever. We write songs and sing them, even though no one pays us for them, or applauds. We share ourselves with those who need an experience with caring presence, even though the cold winds of the Void seem to prove it’s a waste of time to love anyone, or anything. We live between The Beam and the Bills and laugh at the wild absurdity of needing to be true to ourselves in a world that pays us handsomely to turn our backs on ourselves and pretend we are someone else.
The work of the church as it ought to be is the work of waking up, being fully aware, and becoming completely, wholly, joyfully alive in the world of the walking dead. It is the work of living on the Beam and paying the Bills. We cannot begin soon enough!