Avoiding (one form of) Cannibalism

[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.

9 thoughts on “Avoiding (one form of) Cannibalism

  1. I think if the enemy can’t get you to be lazy and do nothing, he will overwhelm you with too many “good” things so that nothing gets your complete attention and total focus and therefore nothing is done well or to completion. And in the meantime, you get so wrought up, you don’t hear the still, small voice. I’m like you. I’m up to my eyeballs in dreams and visions for my life and the world, but there’s no way I can do them all, let alone do them all well. I live in that tension as well and this tidbit is in no way meant to imply that I have it figured out. However, after much reflection/seeking God on the matter, this is what I believe he has said: Seek him for the how/when as much as for the what. Many of the dreams he’s placed in my heart are for down the road. So if I try to bring them into being now, I will be frustrated. He has counseled me to complete tasks/projects concurrently instead of simultaneously. Focus on one thing at a time. Also, there are easier and better ways of doing things, prioritizing, scheduling – simple tweaks to be made – if I will just get quiet for a moment and ask. My nature is to get the vision and barrel ahead in my own strength instead of trusting/relying on him step by step. That’s when weariness and frustration set in. I am convinced that God doesn’t want us living stressed out, overwhelmed, busy, and distracted lives. When I get to that place it is a marker to go back to him and ask what needs to change or be let go of. Remember the saying, “good is the enemy of great”? Sometimes we have to let go of good things in order to let him manifest something great within and through us.

  2. One of a leader’s many responsibilities is empowering the people around me. In so doing, those people are released into what they’re designed to do (and can probably do better or at least more efficiently than me) and I’m freed up to continue to dig in for and clarify vision. I provide direction, but leave the day to day execution to others so they can exercise their gifts. My two cents…

  3. To whom much is given, much is required — BUT, to whom much is given, MORE will be given! Your wise stewardship of the teaching gift is leading to an increase in your apostolic gifts. A teacher instructs those around him, but an apostle empowers others to carry out the vision. Going forward, you’re going to find yourself empowering your friends more and more, releasing them into their giftings. You provide direction, but they carry out the execution.

    This isn’t just a “you should delegate more” message — it’s that your primary role in the Kingdom will shift to bringing up other leaders.

    Much love!

    ps. You might like this article. http://www.thetimothycenter.org/ttc/images/articles/Transformational_Leadership.pdf

  4. Hi Pastor Andrew- I have been reading a book by Frank C. Laubach called Letters by a Modern Mystic, and Dallas Willard described the book as “a treasure provided by Christ to all people who long to live their real life today in the constand presence and power of God.” The book is really short and I’m sure you could read the whole thing in a day or two. If you are interested, you are more than welcome to borrow it from me at church this Sunday, or here is the link: http://books.google.com/books/about/Letters_by_a_Modern_Mystic_Excerpts_from.html?id=D2lINAEACAAJ

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