Our congregation recently marked the one-year mark that we moved out of our building. Except for three months in the late summer and early fall, we have worshiped remotely. Not only has our congregational life been confined to individual houses. Our work life has sent us into nooks in our homes where we set up shop thinking it would only be for a short while. My sister transitioned from her office to a card table with a plastic chair for months on end. She needed physical therapy because the unyielding furniture did a number on her spine and hips. We never imagined we would be isolated for so long. Mandated to stay out of community, we were expected to teach our children, run our businesses, and cater our own meals (in spite of sold-out ingredients) with no advance notice.
And we have done it! Each one of us deserves a medal for adaptation but I suspect we would settle for hugs from the loved ones we have missed!
So now we begin to consider leaving our homes as vaccinations are administered. We accept that we have to continue to observe basic safety precautions but warm weather is calling us beyond the walls of our homes. I’m hearing that many of us are feeling anxious about the thought of freely mixing with other people. Even those who are fully immunized experience a gut reaction against meeting a friend for lunch or going back to the office a few days a week. We have become so reliant on the safety of our dens that we have almost forgotten how to interact with others easily. We long for companionship yet hold back from re-entering our world.
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar based in Albuquerque. I have been following his daily devotions this past year while squirreled away in my home or working in a quiet church building. I appreciate his theory of the three domes which he described in his January posts. Picture three conical domes that fit inside each other. The smallest and inner dome is comprised of my personal interests. Rohr calls it the world of “My Story.” It’s me living each day based on my needs. I thrive thanks to self-help books. I seek to fulfill my deepest desires. I immerse myself in my interests and can find it pretty rewarding! Many of our members have talked about what a relief it was initially to be mandated to stay home. We ate meals with our loved ones. We tackled home projects, read books, and slept in. We self-actualized by learning new cooking techniques and organized neglected files. When we focus all our efforts on ourselves, we risk settling for an inwardly-focused life. In our increasing narcissism, we easily take offense at others and are fearful of anyone foisting changes upon us. Every aspect to our lives, when we live exclusively in this smallest dome, resembles a selfie: Look at me! Tell me how great I look! What can you do for me today? Fixating on ourselves gets…boring, right? Think of how yucky it is to wear a mask, breathing our own breath for any length of time. Even if we’ve brushed and flossed our teeth, after 20 minutes of talking with our co-worker, our mask smells rank! Too much of me becomes unpleasant!
We place another dome over “My Story” and that is called “Our Story.” “Our Story” is the narrative of whatever group we claim as our own. We commonly base this allegiance on race, nationality, gender, religion, or occupation. We might call those in this second dome “my people.” We find value in associating with those who share our attributes and values. Being part of a group is the necessary training ground to lifelong trust. Church involvement fits under this dome as congregations live their faith together. Unchecked group-think, however, leads away from a healthy sense of belonging with others to an ardent defense of “our group.” We are willing to sacrifice for “us” so as to defeat “them.” We broadcast our group commitment by wearing the right swag and joining the proper on-line group. We seek out fame. Sometimes we even strive for domination, like rival gangs in an urban setting. The Bible values both of these domes as evidenced in Jesus’ command: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. God works in us on both a personal and communal level.
The largest dome encompasses the first two. This one Rohr refers to as “The Story.” It is here that we encounter patterns that are always true regardless of personal story and cultural bias. We cannot peg anything easily in this realm because it is so beyond our human level. We realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves and our best human communities. In order to find our way to “The Story,” we have to take responsibility at both the personal and group levels. We admit our errors that hurt us and others. We look at the group with whom we affiliate and notice their prejudice. We become aware of our blind spots. We are humbled by our blunders and discover that we need something more than personal satisfaction and communal belonging. We embrace the necessity of forgiveness. We are moved with compassion for those in need. We care for the earth as our home. We love others because we experience Divine love. When we live in the realm of “The Story,” Rohr states that we are saved from the smallness of “me” and the illusions of “we.” When all three domes are honored as worthy of our love and attention, we mature spiritually.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is written in the characteristically dense language of the Apostle. As we sift through it we notice a once/now structure. He begins by pointing out our status as individuals: The 47th selfie you took of yourself today may look great but you’ve missed the point! Your self-absorption has isolated you from all that matters. You have used your independence to serve your own personal needs which has damaged you and others. Paul warns the readers to be very clear about whom they follow. There are good guys and bad guys. There is God and Satan. Know that you are choosing your leader with each decision, thought and word. For all of us “My Story” is flawed and incomplete. We need community.
In verse three Paul shifts into the first-person plural: We, all of us, once lived among those who were busy building their resumes to promote their personal best. We were lost in sin and didn’t know it because “everyone was doing it.” If any reader was feeling smug about escaping the snare of peer pressure, Paul bursts that little ego bubble mercilessly. We were part of a group but our priorities were wrong. William Stringfellow wrote, “Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issues of ethics—and…of politics—is how to live humanly during the fall…” Perhaps what we are made of has been revealed more clearly in the past year of isolation and fear. Maybe we have retreated deep into our shell so that the light of a new day is barely discernible. So Paul reminds us that it is only when we acknowledge the reality of the powers to act selfishly that redemption can happen. It is only when a church undergoes self-examination that it can recognize and name the way it has become a power. We need the season of Lent every year to be reminded that we cannot overcome the forces of evil that surround us. Rather, we choose to follow Christ as He journeys toward Jerusalem. We witness to His strength and admit our own powerlessness.
Verse four beautifully describes a status shift. It features those of us who have transparently struggled through “My Story” and “Our Story” to find ourselves still on the dusty road with Christ. In spite of our lostness, God notices us. In spite of the stench of sin that clings to us, God reinvigorates us by placing us alongside of Jesus. Paul makes sure that none of us backslides into myopic arrogance by thinking we’ve earned this status shift. In verses 8 and 9 Paul issues a blunt reminder: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.” Paul was never one to mince words! Before we know it, the stinky face mask is removed, God holds our fully-revealed faces, and life-giving breath fills us with renewed purpose. “I am” and “We are” is abandoned for “God is.” A whole new life stretches before us, by God’s grace. We become the very person God created us to be. I love the sound of that. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good work. We feed the hungry. We love beyond our own tribe. We recognize our unity as children of a loving God who calls us to leave the obsession with self behind. God invites us to claim our story even as we celebrate the narratives of others. Following trusted guides who have navigated the potential pitfalls of “My Story” and “Our Story” faithfully, we find ourselves elevated beyond the pettiness of human life to the glory of God’s presence. The shift in status is God’s gift and it’s never too late.
We have spent months in virtual seclusion. We have expanded to safe pods, savoring the tenderness of hugs like never before. We may find it challenging to leave the safety of our homes as COVID begins to lose its grip. But we must remember the image of the three domes. Staying fixated on ourselves is deadly. Ian Markham writes, “Egotism and selfish preoccupation are so damaging to our being that our spirit is not alive to God and to love.” As a stroke victim labors under the direction of a rehabilitation coach, we must push ourselves slowly but surely back into our world. We can’t get stuck in a small circle that focuses on defending itself against all others. With our fears elevated unlike any other year, it would be easy to seek out “our” group and fully entrust our well-being to them. Only family. Only my closest friends. Only my church group.
Limiting our interaction to those within our circle of trust puts us in the driver’s seat and ejects God. Closing ourselves off to the beauty of complete strangers suffocates our God-intended humanity. Will we hang on to the wheel and avoid the places where we feel threatened? Or will we trust God with our journey? Will we leave our safe zone in good faith that God can shift our status from once to now, from lost to found, from lonely to home?
As we slowly leave COVID behind, we must carefully choose our Guide. Intentionally, sacrificially, we follow Christ’s lead.