“There’s No Getting to God Without Going Through My Neighbor”: Community as an Essential Means [and Expression] of Grace

It’s a line I threw out in a sermon a few years ago — a sermon focused on the importance of what I call the “horizontal beam” of Christianity (i.e., our relationship with our “neighbor(s)”).

Here, many of you know how I’ve likened Christianity to its core symbol, the cross—in which there is 1) a [vertical] beam (which emphasizes our connection with God) and 2) another [horizontal] one (which emphasizes our connection to one another). Both “beams,” I have variously suggested, are necessary for a full understanding and experience of Jesus, the Gospel, and our Christian Faith.

So, here I was, arguing for the essential place of our relationship with others in our Faith and Living: “There’s no getting to God without our going through our neighbor.”   I remember at least one raised brow at the time—whose owner came to me at the end of the Service: “I think I know what you were trying to say,” she said, “but the truth is that I do not need anyone other than Jesus to have access to God!”

Technically, that Soul was and is very right. The Scriptures are quite clear: “There is no salvation by anyone else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Still, there are ways that Jesus and the Gospel defines our relationship with others — if not as a key to our relationship with God, then as a key barometer or indicator of that relationship with God:

  • Truly I tell you, whatever you did [or did not do] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did [or did not do] for me…. (Matthew 25:40, 45)
  • Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
  • Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…  We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:7-12, 19-21)
  • By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

More and more, then, do I find myself affirming the notion that “there is no salvation apart from the church (or immersion in loving community).”   But, here, I want to be careful and make it clear: the church’s role and place (in salvation) is not a condition for that salvation as much as it is an expression of that salvation.  Here, there’s an acknowledgment of the cornerstone of Protestantism: namely, that there is no salvation apart from faith in Grace revealed in Jesus Christ.  However, I can not help but also affirm that that Christ seems to point me to community and a life of love in community (with God and neighbor).  God in Christ establishes life and living in communities [of love and accountability] as an essential “means of Grace.” (Is this not the basis of James writing that “faith without works is dead” – and his going on to illustrate this with a communal example?)

The Question is Not “Do You Have a ‘Rule for Living’?” But “What is Your ‘Rule for Living’?”

In various religious circles, a “rule of life” refers to the definition or regulation of rhythms, rituals, and relationships — held to be conducive to individual and communal spiritual formation.  Various religious orders have such rules.  There’s the Rule of St. Benedict, for example, which governs the life of Benedictines around the world.  But, lest we think of it only as a “Catholic” thing, there’s Wesley’s “General Rules” for his United Societies.  Most recently, it’s in vogue for pastors and authors to invite individuals to craft their own, personal rules for faithful living.  It’s a focus, in fact, for one of our explorations here at Zoe-Life.

Leading a course a few years ago on the process of developing such a rule, I began by suggesting that we all have internal rules for our lives and living—even if they are unconscious or subconscious.  To make my point, I showed the following clip from an episode of NGTV’s Brain Games:

It’s true, dear Soul: we all have rhythms and rituals for the living of our lives—whether we are aware of them or not.  Writes Steve Macchia: “All of us have an unwritten personal rule of life that we are following, some with great clarity, others unknowingly. We wake at certain times, get ready for our days in particular ways, use our free time for assorted purposes and practice rhythms of work, hobbies, worship, vacation and so on. There is already a rule in place that you are following today.”  (Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way, p. 14)

A necessary beginning (or two), then, in any program of spiritual formation is:

  • To acknowledge that that each of us has a rule of living—that inclines us and our souls in some direction, and
  • To become mindful of our habits and rituals of living (embedded, in part, in our checkbooks and calendars and daily rhythms)

Note: Be on the lookout for the next issue of Ruminations, a free quarterly resource from Zoe-Life Explorations (coming at the end of the month)—with its focus on next steps in creating a rule for faithful living!


Our Common Journey Back Home

At the intersection of the Enneagram and my love for great movies-stories are books like Michael Goldberg’s Travels with Odysseus: Uncommon Wisdom from Homer’s Odyssey. (Kathy came across it in a discussion last week while about advanced Enneagram training with Jerome Wagner and Kathryn Grant in San Francisco.)

Goldberg suggests that each of Odysseus’ stops on his way home is an encounter with one of the Enneagram personality styles – in reverse order. He spells this out a little more precisely, in fact, in his book, The 9 Way of Working: How to Use the Enneagram to Discover Your Natural Strengths and Work More Efficiently (p. 340):

The Enneagram styles are very old. Homer (ca. 750 b.c.e. ) knew the nine basic themes essentially as they are today. Odysseus travels through each of the Enneagram domains in exact reverse numerical order [beginning with type 2 and working counterclockwise around the enneagram]. Here is his itinerary:

2. Calypso, the Two nymph who offers Odysseus every worldly good and even immortality if he will but stay with her.

1. The Phaeacians, perfect Martha Stewart One hosts, where honor, respect, fair play, and courtliness count most, along with beautifully prepared meals.

9. The Land of the Lotus Eaters, dreamy, forgetful Nines.

8. The Cyclops, powerful, vengeful giant Eights; “Each one dwells in his own mountain cave, dealing out rough justice to wife and child, indifferent to what others do.”

7. Aeolia, a Seven island that floats whimsically on the sea, relocating with the wind, where the Seven residents feast and party.

6. The paranoid Laestrygonians, Sixes who attack Odysseus with-out provocation.

5. The solitary Circe, the cunning Five sorceress.

4. The visit to Hades, the psychic underworld. The Sirens, Fours who bewitch passing mariners to tragedy with melodious song.

3. Scylla and Charybdis, a monster and a whirlpool, a rock and a hard place, where skillful sailing full speed ahead is the only way through. The conversion of the precious golden Cattle of the Sun.

It’s not the first grand epic that scholars have connected with the Enneagram, by the way. There’s a pretty lively discussion out there, for example, about Dante’s engagement of the Enneagram in his Divine Comedy – not to mention a host of more contemporary articles on the value of the Enneagram for Hollywood script writers.  (Like Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” the Enneagram appears to be a pretty standard go-to.)

All that seated, what really caught my eye and heart was Goldberg’s review of the Illiad and the Odyssey in his Introduction:

The story before [the Odyssey] is the bloody Trojan War, a 10 year struggle over the most beautiful woman in the world, named Helen. She was married to King Menelaus of Sparta. But Paris, Prince of Troy (Ilium in the Greek), spirited her away (with her consent or not, we can only wonder, since versions differ).

Menelaus gathered his fellow Greek kings to fight the Trojan War for the return of his queen. The Iliad recounts the events in the last year of that 10 year war – it was 1184 BCE – when the Greeks finally win and Helen returns with the triumphant Menelaus to Sparta.

The Iliad’s warriors venture out to do battle; they win conquests and recover from defeats. they build their egos and test their powers. They are generally not shy about demanding their way or asserting their will.

The Iliad is about devising strategy and taking action, about fighting for what you want against others who want it too; it is the story of how to (or how not to) make your place in the world. (Travels with Odysseus, p. 12)

Homer’s Odyssey is the great story of homecoming.

Since ancient times, The Odyssey has been known as the journey that each of us – having been out and about, struggling one way or another, pretending to be this and that – must take to return home, to who we really are and what we are supposed to become.

On his long odyssey, Odysseus gets sidetracked, distracted, waylaid. Some truths he learns easily and others he resists. He meets magical and powerful beings who can help the journey along or cause disaster. Some see who he is in his heart and help him, and bring him insight and attainment. Others – aggravating and difficult strangers – try to do him in.

In all of this Odysseus is not so different than the rest of us. (Travels, p. 9)

And there, it hit me. I suspect I’d heard it before – in and through, say, Richard Rohr and Joseph Campbell. But, here it really hit home:

  • Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey capture and recapitulate my story—indeed, each of our stories.
  • There’s the first half of life, our Illiads – where we leave home, fighting battles, making (or trying to make) a name for ourselves,…
  • And, if we are lucky enough (and humble enough), there’s our coming home [to our true selves] – persevering, becoming present and mindful and aware [even self-aware], engaging and defying the delusions and illusions,…

It’s another way of framing our mission at Zoe-Life Explorations:
“Companioning with others
in our common [spiritual] journey
of returning home.”

Embracing “Good Enough”…

“Good enough”; it’s a concept my friend and counselor (I think I can use both labels together), Gerry Desobe, introduced me to a few years ago.

We were talking about parenting. Like a lot of folks, I have my laments and regrets. (It’s something that we 1s [or “Perfectionists”] on the Enneagram are particularly good at: seeing how things could be better… or could have been better.)

At a pause in the conversation, Gerry introduced me to the concept of “good enough.”   None of us is a perfect mother or father. On the other hand, most of us are not abusive. Our kids have turned out to be productive and usually happy as adults. Can’t there be a middle ground in which and by which we can affirm that your parenting has been ‘good enough’?   (The concept, by the way, was first coined by British psychoanalyst and pediatrician, Donald Winnicott. His ideas were captured and conveyed in a book by Bruno Bettelheim, A Good Enough Parent.)

Since then, I have come to frame a lot more of my life as “good enough.” Imperfect days aren’t automatically bad. They can (and indeed, most are) “good enough.”

Even this post. It’s not perfect. I had to fight the notion that it wasn’t profound enough or earthshaking enough (or any other number of qualifiers)… But, it’s “good enough.”

It’s among the charms of Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” for me. There at the end – after we’ve prayed for serenity, courage, wisdom, taking it one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, etc – it concludes along the lines: “[we pray all this to the end] that we might be reasonably happy in this world and supremely happy forever with you in the next.”

Yes, dear Soul, “reasonably happy” is “good enough.” In fact, if you will accept and embrace it as such [dropping all the inordinate control and perfectionism], it can be pretty darn good!

Working Out a “Theology of Repentance”

“The proper response of a white American male is to work out a theology of repentance.”  It was the response of Dr. John Deschner, a seminary professor at Perkins (30+ years ago), on the other side of my asking about where I fit into the environment of the various [Black, Hispanic, and Feminist] Liberation Theologies we’d been discussing.

My initial response was defensiveness.  (And it lasted for quite a few years.)  “Okay,” I told myself, “I’ll repent of the ways I’ve been on some kind of high horse – so long as ‘they’ repent of the ways they’ve failed or refused to get on any kind of horse at all!”  Yes, a bit harsh.  I am embarrassed to admit those words now.  Still, I have to be honest about my journey.

lies teachDeschner’s words came back to me amidst a re-reading of James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995).  Early on, he posits the process of “heroification” as the “degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest” (p. 9)  Though I am barely into it, already I’ve been challenged (again) by real(er) portraits of Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, Christopher Columbus, and the Europeans who “discovered” and “settled” the Americas.  Already, though I have only engaged the first few chapters, there’s an awakening to the ways that U.S. history has for too long been “white-washed” (and “male-washed”) by the textbook writers of American history.  Here, there’s the obvious corollary to the “Golden Rule” (that those who have the gold get to make the rules): that the winners of history get to write that history.

Of course, U.S. history is not the only arena for heroification – and the call to repent.  Just a few weeks ago, Franciscan Father, Albert Haase, addressed a group of us, here at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Bryan.  

“Holiness is a process we are constantly working on.  It doesn’t mean we’re going to be perfect.  I had the great privilege of meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  There’s no doubt she was holy.  She’s now canonized.  But you know what?  Let me tell you something about my dear Mother Teresa.  She had one major character flaw that she could never overcome.  She was rigid and hard-headed.  It was either her way or the highway.”

It was his way of underscoring that…

“Holiness is not about being perfect.  You’re still going to have your problems and struggles.   But, you are – we are—going to be transformed.  It’s a lifelong process.”

It all has me revisiting, as I have suggested, Deschner’s challenge—in a much deeper and heartfelt way.  Gone is the self-justification of former days. 

As I lay Loewen on the nightstand the other night, I was struck by a profound sadness.  “Yes,” something said from deep within.  “Yes, a theology of repentance is in order – for all the ways that I and my kind have (consciously and unconsciously) perpetuated a defense of and rationalization for the ways things are (over and against the ways things should be).”

It’s a sadness which I feel not only as an American citizen and a citizen of this world.  It’s mine, as well, as a citizen of God’s Kingdom – for the ways I have ever perpetuated a story of transformation and Sainthood that is, sadly (and falsely), out of reach and unattainable and unbiblical.