“For salvation isn’t, in the end, being rescued from a fiery furnace and delivered up to an ethereal cloud. Salvation is being redirected from a spiral of fantasy and oblivion to a gracious, ordered, liberating, and often sequential process of reconciliation and healing.” — Sam Wells in Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church
For the past several months, a clergy colleague and I have been reading Incarnational Ministry together. Because we live some distance apart, we conduct our periodic discussions of the book via Skype. We do our best to stick to the chapters we’ve agreed to read, but as is the case with such things, we cannot set our specific contexts aside. So, we often respond to what Sam has written through the lens of “what’s happening in us/our congregations.”
We are in very different locales. We are in different places in our lives and vocations. We are contending with different challenges in our respective parishes. And…we share in a desire to live our vocation as priests as faithfully as we can. These chats have been life-giving for me in ways I had not anticipated.
As I prepared for our chat tomorrow, I reread some of the passages I’ve underlined in the book, and once again, I was called up short by the above quote. Full stop.
Now, I don’t think Wells is arguing for the non-existence of the afterlife. I think, instead, he’s arguing FOR fully embracing this life — with all of its messiness, incompleteness, conflict, hurt, anxiety, sickness, pain, and loss. He is inviting us to consider that salvation, God’s call towards wholeness, is not simply a theological concept, but is also a lived experience. One aspect of this lived experience is acknowledging all the parts of our lives we’d rather avoid, deny, ignore, or hide from others.
To face into those broken bits, and to offer them to God in the company of our fellow Christians is a risk we too often fail to take. An intellectual and theoretical salvation is crisp, clean, and without risk. We can keep it to ourselves without any need share anything with another soul. And yet, if the Church is the Body of Christ, the wounds it bears aren’t merely metaphorical.
I can certainly understand our reticence to engage in this sort of risk-taking. We’ve all been schooled from an early age about the importance of not showing any weakness, and of keeping up the appearance that we have “everything together.” And we’re so busy living our lie of spiritual competence we don’t even consider the fact everyone around us is living their lie as well. To trust one another with our brokenness goes against everything we’ve been taught. Yet to engage in such appearance-keeping is, I think, to actively participate in what Wells calls a “spiral of fantasy and oblivion.”
To be the Church — the people of God — is to first and foremost, simply be people. Learning to trust other Christians to listen to me, to care for me, to pray for me, and to walk with me in the journey towards wholeness is the beginning, I think, of learning to trust God. It’s in undertaking this kind of journey that reconciliation and healing can be known and understood — not as theological concepts but as a lived reality. And that sorta sounds like heaven to me.
Openness and being vulnerable is difficult and involves a process of “unlearning” as well as learning. We must “unlearn” what we have spent a life time learning which includes being strong, private and not showing weakness. A step at a time and often baby steps.