Our choices limit our choices. We give up this to get that. This is called the agony of how things are. We cannot have it all. Some things are mutually exclusive. We have to decide. In light of what do we make the decision? We are always surrendering something, handing over something, walking away from something, for the sake of something else. What is the overriding concern around which all our other concerns revolve? What is central? Primary? “God,” if you will? What do we care most about? That’s what governs our lives. What we care most about and the decision we make—the commitment we make—to care about what we care most about even when we don’t care at all about it.
Let’s say we care about each other, and about our relationship, and decide to marry. Marriage is the commitment we make—not to each other, but to the relationship, to the marriage. Before we are married, the relationship is one of convenience and mutual satisfaction. Either of us can walk out at any time. “There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.” When we get married, the relationship becomes the core value around which our lives revolve. When we get married, we promise to be married, no matter what, regardless of inconvenience or dissatisfaction, even when something better comes along, for no other reason than because we said we would. We promise to do what it takes to be married, even when we don’t feel like it or want to.
“But, we didn’t know what we were doing,” we say, having second thoughts. “We take it back! We made a mistake! We were wrong! We were young and stupid! It’s too hard! We can’t do it! It’s not worth it! We don’t care any more!” We always fail to understand how difficult it is to be married. To merge lives. To care more about the relationship than we care for, well, practically anything.
Being married asks hard things of us, and it takes both of us to be married. One person cannot be married alone. One person alone cannot tend the relationship. It takes two people to be married. But one person alone CAN keep a bad situation from becoming a really awful catastrophe. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. We can, on our own, just like the cowboys in the old westerns turning a stampeding herd of cattle, turn an argument from going over the cliff, or keep a disagreement from escalating into a nuclear holocaust. But, we cannot, on our own, be married. It takes both of us to do that, to be married, to make marriage work.
And, we have to realize that the commitment is to the relationship, not to each other. To keep the relationship healthy, we have to care about the relationship, to care for the relationship. We have to do the work of relationship. And, we have no idea of what that means. No one ever explains it to us, or shows us how to do it. The only guidance we have to go by is our parents’ marriage. Well. You know how helpful that is. We are on our own, together, in a relationship we don’t begin to know how to maintain, for life. Where do we get the help we need to do that?
Or, how’s this: Let’s say we don’t get married, but decide to join the church, a church, any church. We don’t know any more about being the church than we do about being married. It’s still a matter of learning to live in right relationship with each other, yet, no one teaches us how to do that. We don’t know how to take care of relationship. We don’t know how to tend relationship. We don’t know how to live together in right relationship, and, they don’t talk about that in church.
They tell us to “love one another,” but that generally means keeping our mouths shut and making someone else happy. Maurice Allen says his experience with church comes down to “doing what he says do the way he says do it.” With “he” being the minister. My experience is somewhat different. It comes down to doing what they say do the way they say do it. With “they” being the congregation. We are all here, it seems, to make someone else happy.
Churches are worse than marriages when it comes to doing the work of right relationship. Because no one in church understands that it’s about relationship with each other. They think it’s about relationship with God. About faith, and doctrine, and discipleship (shutting up and doing what you’re told), and prayer, and Bible study. And they treat one another terribly, while talking all the time about love, and charity, and grace. It’s like your parents beating you and telling you they love you. And you can’t comment on the disparity because the No Comment Rule is always in place.
The No Comment Rule is the primary rule governing wrong relationships. We cannot comment on what is happening, or not happening. We certainly cannot comment on what we want, or don’t want, to happen. We most certainly cannot ever ask for what we want. That’s selfish! And, if we do comment, we are discounted, or ignored, or belittled, or abused. Commenting in the wrong kind of relationship is worse than not commenting. Nothing changes for the better, ever, and we have to leave, or be utterly miserable, and, perhaps, destroyed.
The primary rule for right relationship is: Comment, comment, comment. Everybody gets to talk about the relationship, and everybody gets to be heard. The secondary rule for right relationship is: Everybody gets to be treated with respect, and honor, and appreciation, and gratitude. After that, there are 10,000 other rules, which we are always uncovering, and understanding, and applying. But, the essential prerequisite for the church as it ought to be (The Church of Right Relationship, if you will) is just enough structure for us to be able to do the work of being a good place to be. And, what do we get out of it, out of doing that work, out of tending relationships, and being the right kind of company? We get ourselves, that’s what we get. The right kind of company, the right kind of relationship, gives us, us. We get to be who we are.
It comes down to you and your life, to me and my life, to us and our lives. We are here to help one another to live life to the fullest. We are here to live, and to help each other live, the lives that are ours to live. What do you need to live YOUR life, the life that is yours to live? What do you need to do the things that are yours to do? What is keeping you from your life? What is standing between you and your life? How can you utilize the resources at your disposal to live the life that is yours to live? How can you help the rest of us live the lives that are ours to live? How can we help you live the life that is yours to live?
Don’t think this some new age elixir I’m handing out here. It’s hell, what I’m talking about. It will wring you out to dry. It’s like being married, only worse. The life that is yours to live will require you to set yourself aside. No kidding. It isn’t all roses, and rainbows, and white picket fences. Self-actualization means self-abdication. Self-denial. You have to give up this in order to get that all the way! What do you think the Garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha are about? Ho, ho. How’s that for what you do not want to hear? Too bad. The life that is yours to live is not just yours to live when you are in the mood to live it. The life that is yours to live is not just yours to live when you feel like it. It is yours to live all the time, whether you want to or not. But, we don’t want to! It’s hard! We were wrong when we thought it would be fun! We can’t do it! It isn’t worth it! …You know the story.
Look around. See the mess the world is in? It’s that way because no one wants to do what is theirs to do. No one wants to live the life that is theirs to live. You know what sin is? The easy way out. Refusing to pay the price. Refusing to bear the pain. Losing sight of what is important.
When we lose sight of what is important, we try to will what cannot be willed. We try to have what cannot be had. We try to force what cannot be forced. We try to make happen what we want to happen, and keep from happening what we don’t want to happen. Or, we give up. We surrender. Capitulate. Cave in. Collapse. Die. Lose heart. Lose our soul. Lose our will to live. Lose the point. Lose our purpose. Lose our spirit. Lose our enthusiasm. Lose our fight. And we just don’t care any more. And, we come here grasping for straws, hoping that someone will give us some reason to go on, because we have had it. Well, YOU are the reason to go on!
Let’s say you are a poet, that your business is poetry, that your life is poetry, or art, or drawing, or sketching, or painting. And, let’s say you’re 7 years old and your parents are too poor to have the luxury of paper in the house for you to write on, draw on, paint on. And, there’s never enough food. What are you going to do? Give up? Forget it? Forget about writing and drawing? Just because it isn’t easy, being who you are? Just because it’s hard? What are you thinking? If you give up YOU, what do you have left? YOU are IT, don’t you see? You can’t abandon YOU! Bide your time. Look for your openings. Write, draw, paint where you can. Take care of your relationship with YOU. It’s your life’s work.
I have come to think of myself as a photographer, as one who sees with a camera. It took me about 20 years to begin to get a glimmer of that. I didn’t know it upon arrival. And, by 20, I had other things on my mind. Things like college, and marriage, and seminary, and children, and congregations. And, 30 years later, I began to see the camera as a way of seeing. You might say that’s 50 years of having no paper in the house.
The moth circles around the flame, even when it doesn’t know there is a flame. What’s the flame, is the question. What is your LIFE, is the question. What are you circling around whether you know it or not?
I’m not suggesting that you should forsake all, abandon your family, quit your job, run away from home, and pour yourself into what you think maybe is your LIFE. I mean wake up. At least begin to wake up. Pay attention. Be aware. Wake up to what the flame is and work it into your life some way, somehow. There may be long stretches of time in which there is no paper in the house. The flame may burn low during those stretches. But, don’t forget the flame! As if! You belong to the flame! You only have to recognize it for what it is, and let it become what it can be in your life. You only have to let your LIFE become what it can be in your life.
It comes down to your and your relationship with your life. We are here to be fully alive, to live the lives that are ours to live, and to help each other do that. What do you, what do we, need to live the life that is yours, that is ours, to live? What do you, do we, need to wake up, come to life, be alive in the life you, we, are living? That’s the question. There is much about our circumstances to distract us, divert us, disorient us, and lead us astray. When we lose the way, when we lose sight of what is important, we only have to remember. We need a community of the right kind of people to help us remember. To get us back on track in the service of what is important: finding the flame and letting our lives take shape around it.