In my literary wanderings this week I picked up Walk Humbly by Samuel Wells, which is a book that is designed for dipping into and savouring rather than reading from start to finish. I then flipped it open at the chapter titled Be One Body
The opening sentences gave me pause:
Imagine being utterly one with God, completely reconciled with your neighbour, truly at peace with yourself and wholly in harmony with creation. There’s a word for those who seek such perfection: that word is “church”.
Church is not the word that came to mind for me… I happen to know that Samuel is not living in some utopian lalaland where church is manifestly different from what I have experienced over the last forty years and in four different countries – he lives in London. So is he just talking in ideals? Because we know the reality is much more patchy and shabby than this glorious vision.
Many of us have left or taken a break from church as we know it, and the reasons for that are many and varied and complex…but this chapter begins with the vision and acknowledges that it is mostly obscured in what we do and how we are church. And yet, it is rich with deeply thought-provoking reflections on what it means to be one body, so it gave me some good threads to pull at and tease out of the knotty mix.
Liberation and humility
To be the body of Christ means to dwell in the freedom Christ brings – freedom from the prison of the past and from the fear of the future.
This is a beautiful promise. How does it work for you? I think I was sold a ‘one time’ deal when I first became a Christian. Jesus had done the work of liberation and all that remained was my grateful acceptance, sincere repentance and ongoing praise. This was required in a repeating loop of sinful failure, but the freedom carrot was was always dangling there, just out of reach. Even though I never really tasted the freedom from my wretched past, I was assured that the future holds no fear for those who have enough confidence in God.
No longer caught in that loop, nor convinced by the ‘separated from God by my sin’ narrative, I’m able to recognise the prison of separation is an illusion – but it’s a powerful one. It is held in place by many and so I’m certain now that the past is not something I can simply let go of by myself, since I am not the only one who holds it.
My liberation cannot be only about me, although I am the only one I can work on to walk the road to freedom. There is a shared memory and a shared fear – this is true in every relational system: family, team, church – and so doesn’t that also mean there is a shared road to freedom we must consciously walk together?
In allowing your self to be grafted into the body of Christ, then, you participate in the life of God. But that means this:
You have given up your distinct identity, and you have yielded the final say on your own worth, purpose and flourishing…to discover and reencounter your nature and destiny.
This is countercultural. For those of us with a Western mindset, it feels a bit like…well, oppression at best, death at the worst. Either way it feels horribly vulnerable – at least this is how it feels to me.
After many years and experiences in church of being told (sometimes directly and sometimes craftily implied) that as a woman I am worth less, that I have a lesser purpose and that others know what will best contribute to my flourishing, I am cautious about who gets to define these things for me.
The reality of church is that people expect church to be an encounter with the divine but the joke is that divinity is everywhere clothed in humanity – often obstinate, opinionated and unimaginative.
And/or people are captivated by the potential of church and use it to fulfil their personal needs for affirmation, security or control – and the essence of what is good, beautiful and true is sacrificed for a momentary taste of power and affection.
For you to ponder…
How are you participating in the life of God? Who is participating with you?
What’s been your experience of oneness and where have you experienced this?
Taking the right things for granted
This is Samuel’s perspective on ethics – that participating in the liturgical rhythms of confession and absolution, praise and petition, eucharist, commission and benediction forms in us a habitual stance of humility, generosity, compassion and hospitality – among other things. The repetition of the words of confession each week allows them to sink into our bones and then rise up for us when needed to remind us not to judge, perhaps, or to loosen our hold on resentment, or to soften the voice of our inner critic.
The forming habit of the liturgy, like trimming and training vines along a wire, allows for energy to be concentrated in growing the fruit of community. It is a beautiful idea. How does it work for you?
How does it work alongside the truth that habits are one of the first ways many of us fall asleep to ourselves? Habits allow us to glide into autopilot, reassuring us we don’t need to pay attention, that nothing is changing, that even if things are changing ‘out there’, here in the church is the security and safety of unchanging liturgy.
For you to ponder…
What are your right things to take for granted? And how do you then turn your attention to growing the fruits of community?
To be church…
…means more than simply gathering with others to go through the ritual of worship once a week. Samuel suggests that it means to participate in the daily practices of forming and restoring a local body of people and helping it to flourish. Or does it? What does it mean for you? What does it look like for a community to realign our intention and attention in the light of God’s essence and presence?
Reflecting with scripture
This one verse from Romans gives rise to a poem reflecting oneness. Take some time with them and see what strikes you – what seems surprising or comforting, what you want to ask questions about or bring into clearer focus. Then maybe write your own poem?
If you live according to the flesh, you will die;
but if by the Spirit you put to death
the deeds of the body, you will live.
In living by the flesh
Paul doesn’t mean sex and chocolate.
It doesn’t mean the body is bad.
(The Word was made flesh!)
Living according to the flesh means living
as if “you“ are just this individual
enclosed in your body.
Instead—mystery!— by the Holy Spirit’s grace
you are not one isolated individual:
you are a cell in the whole cosmic body of Christ.
“You“ include everything.
Like your breath, which is not just what’s in your lungs,
it’s what you breathe
which is the air all around you,
all around the earth, one atmosphere
in everybody’s lungs,
one breath, One spirit, one body.
You are not your little finite mortal flesh,
you are our vast living Body.
We are the rest of you.
(So you really do love your neighbor as yourself.)
Living by the Spirit is mindfulness
of your belonging in the Holy One,
empowered and guided by God’s infinite love,
your every word and deed
an act of love for the Whole and its members.
This is what it is to really, truly live.
Oneness walking prayer
Take a walk in a familiar area and as you walk use this breath prayer, including everything (trees, seagulls, rocks) and everyone you see along the way:
Inhale: I am
Exhale: We are
See how widely you can spread your awareness of interconnectedness and notice – with curiosity – where you find it flows easily and where it seems more tenuous.
Fruitful gratitude and appreciation
There’s a story from the desert fathers and mothers of a monk who would take only one bite of each fruit as it came into season each year. One bite of one strawberry. One bite of one apple. One bite, savoured, exclaimed over, delighted in but not indulged. What might a version of this practice form in you, or reveal in you? One biscuit? One coffee? One piece of chocolate?
How might it help you take the right things for granted?