The Boundary

Note – I wrote this while I was Rector of the Chapel of the Cross 1989-2001

Chapel of the Cross Church and Cemetery, Madis...

Chapel of the Cross Church and Cemetery, Madison, Mississippi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 People often say that the Church is not a club for the righteous but rather a hospital for sinners. I now believe that the metaphor of church as hospital for sinners doesn’t go far enough.  It strikes me that it might be better viewed as hospice and crematorium for sinners. Why such an image of dying and burial?  Following Jesus requires a certain kind of mortality and laying to rest.

 It is no accident that the first of the twelve steps of Alcoholic’s Anonymous is the recognition and embracing of powerlessness. Powerlessness siphons terror from the dark place within us where the wild things pace; when life finally reveals its inevitable mastery of all circumstances and we meet, perhaps for the first time, a boundary, not a border to be crossed, not an obstacle to be overcome but a boundary period. No finesse, grace or power we have honed will change anything. We are speechless for the thing that we have feared has come upon us.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman

At such a moment an inner voice says, “Don’t just stand there do something!”  I think I could move to the left or perhaps I could tunnel under this boundary.  There has to be a way.  I look of doctors, priests, and shamans to fix this so the boundary will go away and I can be in control again.  But there is none to help in time of need.

 I frantically look for what I might do. I inventory the past.  If I had done this differently or gone down that fork in the path rather than the one I chose.  I begin to feel anger that such a thing is true, that I am indeed powerless.  I feel guilt. Even though a part of me knows that no action on my part can change the boundary. But as Elaine Pagels says, “people would rather feel guilty than powerless.” But feeling guilt changes nothing. Nothing changes nothing.


Beyond Belief, by Elaine Pagels

Beyond Belief, by Elaine Pagels (Photo credit: Grace Commons)

 We can medicate against such occasions. We can take a pill or drink a drink or work harder and longer so that we need not know the truth of the boundary and choose to feel nothing rather than give in to the terror of powerlessness. But there is not enough to change the simple monolithic fact that we are powerless over the boundary.

Finally out of exhaustion or “fed up ness” (which a teacher of mine said was the greatest motivation for change)[1] we sink down before the unchangeable and concede that we are indeed at the mercy of the boundary of reality.  We are at the terminal phase of our struggle and are now ready to die and be buried.

 Then and only then suddenly the energy is released the energy to transcend the boundary. Like the boundary of addiction true surrender releases energy to accomplish the very thing that will alone can never achieve. The irony is that no matter how many times I experience the gift of surrender the struggle continues for surrender is counter-intuitive. I believe that a Christian community is the place where such paradoxical learning must occur. Let us then come the boundary, hear the voice of the savior and take up our bed and walk.

[1] Edwin Friedman in lecture


What is Christian spirituality?

Dr. Helen Barnes

Dr. Helen Barnes

It is about breathing.  Dr. Helen Barnes, a woman of color, a pioneer in obstetrics in Mississippi,  when asked what she was going to do in response to a catastrophic event replied, “I’m going to breathe in and I’m going to breathe out.”

If the goal of the Christian journey is union/oneness with God and sin is that which separates humanity from God then one of the foundational issues for Christian spirituality is how to face reality – the totality of existence and what is real.  Human beings use denial, avoidance, rationalization and other mechanisms to format reality to fit what we long for or demand.

Edwin_FreidmanWhat is the will of God for humanity?  I think that God wants his creatures, particularly human beings to mature.  Maturity comes from facing challenge.  Whatever moves human away from reality and toward unreality is not Christian spirituality.  I think often of the following statement of the late Edwin Friedman on Idolatry.  He wrote,

“The problem with the worship of idols is not the actual worship but what that adoration denies.  Idolatry in any age and in any form is always the false promise of immediate security, the pretense of certainty at the expense of the more painful experience of the growth that can only come through facing challenge. Taken out of its primitive context, idolatry today has many forms, from substance abuse, to bending others to one’s own will, to the panicky search for the right answer.  Always, however, it denigrates the power of a human being to cope with reality, always it goes in the direction of reducing one’s threshold to endure pain, always it dilutes the resolve to develop the emotional stamina necessary for managing crisis, and therefore always it denies the spark of the divine.”

We are called to move into the future in faith, to learn wisdom from our experiences, developing stamina along the way that leads to the maturity of our souls.  That is the work of the Spirit and a gift of God.  It’s good news. Remember the words of Jesus, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”