Do you ever feel torn between worlds? Wanting to be fully present in two places at one time?
A while back homeless families from the CARITAS program were staying at my local church. CARITAS provides shelter to the homeless through local congregations who host residence for one week a year. In a large Sunday school classroom filled with cots my church was providing shelter to more than a dozen families.
I was headed into worship as the families were arriving and made a brief detour into the room where they were staying. As I entered Shanna, a young mother of two, recognized me and said, “Hey ya’ll it’s the Embrace lady!” I was greeted with warm smiles, hugs and words of excitement. Gloria shared that she was exiting the shelter in the coming week and Donna announced she was coming to see me the following week for our employment assistance program. I felt at home in that room, not because I was in my home church but because these individuals had become my community.
If my family had not been waiting for me in the sanctuary, I would have stayed in the back room with my urban friends. As I was leaving, a dear woman by the name of Anne came up to me, took my arm, stared deeply into my eyes and with soft intense words she said “Please pray for me tonight.” There was urgency to her words, as though her survival was dependant on my prayers. I wanted to stay there with her but I couldn’t. I wanted to take her with me, but I could not. This encounter is a picture of the tension I find myself in. My heart is in the city with the homeless I serve. I want to stay with them, but my family and friends are in the suburbs, so I am pulled back and forth between these two worlds.
As I sat in service that day, I felt a strange sense of loneliness. My Pastor preached on the importance of our new multi-million dollar building campaign and my spirit grieved. I felt so disconnected from this place. Every month I struggled to keep the doors of our ministry open so that poorest of the poor would have their basic needs met. I have received almost no financial support from my local church and as I sat there, I felt like an alien in a foreign land. My church is not a bad church, it is like most mainline suburban churches; it is focused on the needs of the affluent community surrounding it.
I have a third place I call home. It is the twenty-two heavily wooded acres my husband and I purchased several years ago. There is a small creek running through it and a steep ridge overlooking a grassy pasture on the other side of that creek. It is the place where I experience God’s presence most deeply. It is the place where I am reconnected with myself. It is the place where I am most creative, where most of my ideas begin to take shape. It is the place where I finally find the time to write all that has been stirring in my soul. My family often comes here on Sunday. For me this is a place of worship. The trees, the creek and the birds sing of God’s goodness and beauty. The sun warms me not only on the outside but deep within as I am reminded that God is in all of creation.
I began writing my first semester in seminary eight years ago. Seminary was such an eye opening experience for me. It has taught me much about the scriptures and the God who created us. However, it has also taught me that we never arrive; we are always on a spiritual journey.
One of my favorite professor, Dr. Stephen Brachlow once said “The way we know we are growing spiritually is that we are discontented.” When we become comfortable, satisfied, and secure, we are no longer willing to take up our cross and to follow. Following only results from a desire for change and a desire for change only comes from discontentment with where we are. I used to think my constant journeying was a curse or perhaps a personality flaw, but I have begun to see it as a gift. Dr. Brachlow called it “The gift of a discontented soul”.
I have reflected on Dr. Brachlow’s comment often and I think perhaps there is something missing from his statement. As I sit here on my ridge, high above a babbling creek and watch the leaves gently float through the air in the cool breeze, I realize I am completely content at this moment and in this place. Much of my journey has taught me to find this inner contentment. I am totally content with who I am. However, I am discontented with the world and its brokenness. I am discontented with racial and economic segregation. I am discontented with poverty and spiritual depravity. I am discontented with consumerism and the world’s ideas of success.
I think spiritual maturity is finding contentment with ones self as a child of God, but recognizing the brokenness of this world and allowing ones self to be discontented in a way that drives us to action. Christian leaders often refer to this as the inward and the outward journey. We must journey in both directions at the same time. The inner journey nurtures us and makes it possible for us to endure the struggles of the outer journey and the outer journey helps us to appreciate and crave that inner peace that can only come from God.
Teresa of Avila’s classic book, Interior Castle, teaches us about the beauty of the inner voyage. She paints for us a picture of this journey complete with the trials and difficulty of reaching that inner place where we are totally united with our creator. Liberation theologian Oscar Romero teaches us about the outer journey of discontentment that is willing to take up the cross and fight for justice for the poor and oppressed. Avila not only had a rich contemplative spirituality, she also served the poor in her community. The same is true for Romero whose deep spirituality would not allow him to be content with the oppression of his people for which he became a martyr.
While my life would be simpler if I just had one home, I am thankful for all three. My hammock on my ridge allows me time to continue that inward journey to wholeness while my time in the city teaches me discontentment and calls me to continue that outer journey to “do justice”. My time in between, in the suburbs surrounded by wealth and waste, reminds me that we are all in this together. We will never see an end to poverty until we take a hard look at wealth. I must struggle with the continual cultural messages of accumulation and consumption that my neighbors must combat. The hardest place to remain faithful to the Gospel is not the inner city with all its neediness; it is in the suburbs with all its affluence and its call to complacency and comfort. I am thankful for my discontented soul that seeks and finds a home in God alone.
How do you find contentment for your soul? What issues drive you to embrace your discontentment with the world?