[SPOILER: This post does not intend to be “helpful.” I’m wrestling with something and I’d love any insight, if you have any.]
In the last six months or so, I’ve started to find the language for a tension I live with. I’ll never forget reading Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer years ago and coming across these profound and memorable words:
It is my growing conviction that in Jesus the mystical and the revolutionary ways are not opposites, but two sides of the same mode of experiential transcendence…Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change.
When I first read those words, I found them encompassing the nature of my experience as a follower of Christ like an old glove, discovered after having been long forgotten. “YES!” I thought, “here is language that helps me make sense of and even authorizes how I feel inside… the mystic in me – the contemplative, the one who longs for prayer and for intimate union with God – does not need to be opposed to the revolutionary/activist in me – the one who longs to bring reform and renewal and radical change to the church and society. In Jesus they comprise a single garment. And they can for me too!”
The reality, however, of trying to live that out has proven to be much more complex than my initial euphoria led me to believe. I think, quite honestly, that I do a terrible job of it.
Here’s how it works for me – I pull away, find some solitude, carve out space for myself, “enter the desert”, as it were, to get clear on who I am, what I’m about, and to hear the voice of God. I read, study, pray, think, read, pray, write, think, ponder, converse, pray, study, read, think… etc etc. And somewhere in there, “the moment” happens. A new vision, a flash of insight, a deeper understanding, a sense of how I want the next 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 years to play out. I see both the moment and the momentS ahead in compelling and elaborate detail, and I also see the deep significance of what it is I/we are going to do (since my plans for my life and my plans for what we’re going to do at the church I pastor are intimately linked). Like I said, “THAT MOMENT.” Clarity. Powerful, beautiful clarity. The mystic heard the voice. Again. And everything is about to change.
And so the revolutionary/activist goes into motion. Plans are made and refined. Action plans are developed and meted out. The gears of progress begin to turn. Slowly at first, and then much more quickly. And sooner or later, the dreams begin to take on substance… bone to bone, sinew to sinew, muscle and skin. The word (lowercase “w”) becomes flesh again.
And there is a season in which it’s all just SO FUN. But then somewhere along the line, it starts feeling like what the mystic and the revolutionary conspired together to create is cannibalizing the very things that made the progress, the vision, the dreams possible in the first place. An inundation of emails, meetings, phone calls, 1st 2nd 3rd 4th and 5th drafts of plans and debriefings once the plans have gone into motion… somewhere in the middle of it all a voice from the center of myself bellows, “You’re going to lose yourself here if you’re not careful. You’re going to lose touch with who you are, what you care about, and why you’re doing any of this. And if you do that, you’ll have lost not only the thing that makes progress in any of the things you care about possible, but more than that – you’ll lose your very self. Pull away.”
And so I do. Or I try to do. But it’s damned hard. The more you build – and I’m not talking about just work here, but family, friends, etc – the more it takes to maintain what you’ve built, and it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in touch with the voice that sent you out to build in the first place. My gut tells me that is a LIFE reality that besets anyone who intends to build and do ANYTHING meaningful with their life.
Does anybody else out there struggle with this, or is it just me?
And in reality, this happens both on the large and the small scale, all the time. What I’ve described above is a sort of “archetypical” example of how it works on the large scale. But in any given month, I’ve got a handful of truly great ideas (and some not-so-great ones too, but we’ll save that for another day) that go into motion and wind up cannibalizing that “mystical” element of my life that is crucial to survival.
So what to do about it? What do YOU do about it?
What complicates matters here is that the easy and obvious answers are off the table. There IS space in my schedule for solitude, prayer, and reflection, and I make good use of it. We “sabbath” weekly, and I rise before dawn daily for reflection and prayer. If a person can be “good” at spiritual disciplines, that’s me. That’s what makes me think this is a 9-5 issue, and not something else. It’s a matter of how I manage myself IN the noise that the mystic and the revolutionary conspire to create.
So I’m wondering, for those of you that live in and with this tension – How do you handle it?
I’m quite curious.