The church doesn’t exist to make the congregation happy. The church exists to wake the congregation up. Of course, the congregation is at once the church and the congregation. The congregation is, you might say, divided against itself. It resists its own efforts to wake itself up, and wants nothing more than to remain asleep at the wheel. This is the division, the fragmentation, the incongruity that is the source of all our woes. It is the only thing standing between us and being fully, deeply, joyfully alive.
The scriptures lay it all out. The ideal is right relationship. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. And, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What’s so hard about that? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What’s so hard about that? Everything, it seems. In the Bible, the right kind of community is called the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God, and Paradise. And, Paradise is never good enough for us.
Peggy Lee walks through Paradise, looks around, and asks, “Is this all there is?” Peggy Lee, of course, lives in each one of us. We walk into Paradise, looking for more. Looking for what’s in it for us. Looking for excitement, and thrills, and gusto. Looking for the advantage. Wondering where the pay-off is.
Trying to turn Paradise into personal gain, we do unto others BEFORE they do unto us. We use our neighbor as we use ourselves. We let nothing stand between us and what is important. But, we lose sight of what is important, and aren’t satisfied with any of the stuff we think we have to have. It is at this point that we all could use the church in our lives.
The church exists to wake us up. To help us sort things out. To enable us to find our way back to what is important. To encourage us in the work of bringing to life the wisdom within, growing into discernment, knowing what is good, and doing it. It sounds interesting, but we really don’t have much time to spend on it. Can’t they just tell us what we need to know so that we can get on with our lives?
This is were we need to wake up. Our lives don’t exist apart from knowing what is good and doing it. You see the problem. We want our lives to go better without anything changing about them. We want to feel better about what we are doing without doing anything different. We still want the excitement, and the thrills, and the gusto. We just want to be more satisfied, content, happy.
Here’s the bad news. We have to come to terms with the discontent. Peggy Lee is discontented in Paradise, for goodness sake! Don’t think the church is going to exorcise the demon of discontent for you. Here’s the stinking furry deal: Shelton Knopp says, “We have to solve our own problems every day for the rest of our lives.” Don’t think you are going to feel good about having to do that!
There is no escape from the weight of our lives! We have to come to terms with our lives, and make our peace with our lives, and live our lives! Getting that is enlightenment. After we are enlightened, we step into our lives, and live them, as well as they can be lived, one day at a time.
From the standpoint of enlightenment, “everything is transformed and nothing changes.” We wake up in the same lives, with the same choices, and the same obstacles, and the same duties, and responsibilities, and obligations. With the same degree of cooperation. The same amount of debt. The same amount of income. The same assets. The same liabilities. Do you know how long we can stay awake in lives like these without the encouraging presence of the right kind of company? We do not have what it takes to live these lives that are ours to live without the church-as-it-should-be. Which is to say, without the right kind of company.
That is because what is important is context sensitive. It depends on where we are and who we are with, and what mood we are in. It changes as we move through our lives. We cannot be counted on to remember, and live in light of, what is important in one place, with one set of people, when we are in another place, with another set of people.
In an AA meeting, surrounded by recovering alcoholics, under the watchful eye of our sponsor, we know that sobriety is important, essential, a matter of life or death, and our utmost concern without doubt or hesitation. Driving by a bar on our way home from the meeting, a beer becomes important. In the bar, surrounded by a host of folks who have just become the best drinking buddies in all the world, all the beer we can drink is important.
As our context and mood of the moment changes, our idea of what is important changes. We cannot live long cut off from the right kind of company without losing the path, forgetting the way, and taking up a way of life that has no connection with life, but is death in a thin disguise. When we hit the wall, land in the gutter, or dangle at the end of our rope, we wake up and say, “I’ve been such a fool! Why didn’t I see it coming? Why did I ignore the warning signs? Why do I keep shooting myself in the foot? Why do I keep telling myself what I want to hear? When will I ever learn?”
What we have to learn is that we cannot do it alone. We certainly cannot do it in the company of the wrong kind of people. We can only do it in the abiding presence of the right kind of company. We have to know who they are, and where to find them, and hang out with them. I have to warn you, however, they are BOOOORING!!!
Being fully, completely, wholly alive is boring. Think of the most alive people you have ever known. Boring. They had no life. The Dali Lama? Boring. Boring, Boring, Boring. How long can you sit, meditating, before you have to scream? How long can you wear the same orange outfit, day after day, before you have to yank it off and streak around the courtyard just to spice things up? Peggy Lee walks through Paradise and says, “Boy, is this place boring!” We cannot handle the way of life living requires us to live. We cannot live the kind of life being alive requires us to live.
Living well asks hard things of us. We can only do it in the company of the right kind of people. The right kind of people are a buffer for us, and a mirror. As a buffer, they put themselves between us and what you might call “temptation.” Or, what you might call “the Peggy Lee Syndrome.” The right kind of company protects us from those who would lead us astray by enabling us to see them. In ourselves.
We are our own worst enemy. Whose side are we on, anyway? We are what we hate. Or, to put it another way, we hate in others what we fear in ourselves. Thou Art That. Get it? When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he didn’t mean only those people over there. Healing the divisions begins with the divisions within.
The Buddha and all the Dali Lamas lived and died in a region that produced Martial Arts and Genghis Kahn. Wake up to contradiction, paradox, split and division. Violence and non-violence vie for space in the same region, in the same body. Blood-thirsty-ness and loving-kindness do business in the same soul. “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” “Love your enemies.”
The right kind of company enables us to face squarely the opposites within. Enables us to see who we are, and who we also are. Enables us to decide what is important and how to live in light of it, in spite of wishing we didn’t have to. Enables us to bear the pain, and pay the price, and maintain the tension of internal opposition in light of the enlightening realization: In living we die, and in dying we live.
The formula for abundant life is this: Authenticity, Integrity, Congruence, Compassion. Or, this: Right Seeing, Right Thinking, Right Doing, Right Being. And, it is not easy. It is as far from picnics in the park, and strolls down the lane, and light-hearted walks through rolling meadows and along gently flowing streams as it gets. Embrace contradiction and paradox. Bear the pain. That is the path of holiness and life. The truth is what is true, and what is also true.
The church does not exist to make the congregation happy, but to wake the congregation up. The church mirrors us to us. It enables us to see ourselves as we are, and as we also are. It points out the discrepancies, and the inconsistencies, and the conflicts, and bears with us as we bear the pain of realization, recognition, and decision about what is important and what we are going to do about it. And, as we solve our own problems every day for the rest of our lives.