"Reclaiming the Sacred" by John Morris
For the past several years I’ve had a recurring dream. The details and depth are subject to change, but the basic situation is always the same.
In this dream, I’m getting ready to move to Florida to accept a teaching position at a university. I’m going to be part of the graduate school too, working on an advanced degree in philosophy while teaching undergraduate courses. This position was offered to me years ago, through winning some sort of scholarship. But I’ve only now chosen to accept it, and I’m concerned about whether the faculty member who originally offered me the job even remembers who I am, and whether it’s OK for me to show up after so many years. In many versions of this dream, I root through a drawer of correspondence, trying to find the letter that this person sent me, so I can contact him and let him know I’m coming. I also need to refresh my own memory – did this really happen? Was I actually accepted for this position?
There are several extensions or plot developments of this dream in which I do arrive down at the Florida university. Usually, all goes well – I feel excited and rather special, starting this interesting new career. But this morning I want to stay with the earlier moments, when I’m still here in my old life, wondering whether I was really called to this new job, and whether the person who called me even remembers who I am, and still approves of me.
Well . . . here’s the psychological explanation, as I would give it to a therapist. Like many middle-aged people, I’m able to look back at my life and wonder if I’ve lived up to whatever promise I may have shown as a young man. There was a time, wasn’t there, when I was chosen, special, offered an opportunity to succeed? And yet I put it off, and now I’m wondering whether the window has closed. That young man of promise . . . does anyone even remember who he was? Do I?
I have all sorts of feelings that ring true with this interpretation. It’s undoubtedly accurate about who I am, as far as it goes. The information it’s giving me – that I need to come to terms with my actual life, as opposed to a fantasy life of specialness and worldly success – is important.
However, I can hear an entirely different, and perhaps deeper, message in this dream. Does the person who called me even remember who I am? Does he still approve of me? Who is this person?
Here, among fellow Christians, I can share with you that I think this is also a dream about God, about the Christ, about an entirely different kind of "specialness." There was indeed a moment in my life when I was called by God, and yes, in my deepest, most lonely place, I wonder whether I have put off doing God’s will – and whether it’s now too late. How long can God keep open that lovely calling down in Florida?
Let me tell you a story about my first call.
It was very dramatic, what they call in A.A. a "burning bush experience." It happened in August of 1986, when I had been clean and sober for almost five years, but still had no real faith in a Higher Power. My life felt like it was falling apart, as the result of a lot of chronic character defects that I didn’t know how to change. There was a guy named Lou who went to a lot of the same meetings I did; he’d been sober around eight years. I knew he was a Catholic priest, but he never talked much about that. He seemed to have the same problems and satisfactions as any other recovering alcoholic. He came up to me after one meeting when I’d been venting about how horrible I felt, and said, "Feel free to drop by the rectory if you ever want to talk." I liked Lou and I knew he meant, Drop by as a friend, a fellow drunk, not for "pastoral counseling" or whatever they did in rectories.
And one hot humid night, I did drop by. After listening to my troubles, Lou offered to pray with me, and I said sure, why not.
Lou put his hand on my head and began to pray. I don’t remember the exact words, other than that they were embarrassing; he addressed God in very personal terms, informed him that his son John here was a sinner in great pain, and needed to have the works of Satan cast out of him. He asked in the name of Jesus for God to do this.
And it worked. I had an amazing and almost indescribable experience. Actually, I can describe it in a lot more detail and will be glad to if anyone wants to hear it, but for the purposes of this sermon, I’ll keep it brief. I’ll just say that I felt like a Higher Power had indeed entered my soul and my body, and that my heart was opened, and my troubles seemed small in comparison. From that day on, regardless of whether I wanted it or not, I now had a relationship with God. And over the next year or so, I came to accept the truth of the Christian path for me.
So what was God calling me to do? First, as I’ve said, I felt called into relationship. Everything was reflected through a sense of God’s presence. This most often manifested itself in prayer and meditation, but I also experienced new ways of understanding just about all the things in life that I had ever loved. Music, writing, philosophy . . . I now saw them all as aspects of divinity, as manifestations, however crude, of the mind of God.
Second, and really for the first time in my life, I became aware that I was part of a community called human beings, and that we were each and every one of us children of God. (And let me add that eventually I came to widen this sense of community to include all living creatures.) I felt that God was calling me to spend at least part of my time doing something that directly benefited my brothers and sisters who had less of the world’s resources than I did. And it wasn’t long before I met one of my favorite Christians, Bill Milliken, the founder of Communities In Schools. I won’t lie to you; I didn’t exactly jump at the chance to be a part of CIS. Bill had to talk me into taking even a part-time job as a writer; I was very nervous about giving up my freedom and commitment to creative work. But as soon as I did it, I realized how right it was for me. Here was my prayer answered – a chance to give back, to help the needy, by using a gift that God had given me. And of course, as Bill so often said, it really is more blessed to give than to receive. I was the one who needed this call, regardless of who else may have benefited from my work.
Through my 17 years as a largely part-time writer with CIS, I continued to write stories, poems, and songs. By the world’s standards, I was moderately successful. I published nearly everything I wrote in good literary magazines, which is more than most writers can say. As for the music . . . well, I didn’t even try to "succeed" there, other than to make the best recordings I could. Having spent my youth as a semi-professional musician, I was sick and tired of the music business and all its perfidies.
I also continued to sin on a regular basis. What a funny thing to say! If I said it to a non-Christian, I guess fornication and lying and maybe greed and cruelty would come to mind. Well, I was guilty of those things. But what I really mean is that being called by God, even in such a spectacular way as the one I experienced, didn’t make a huge, immediate difference in my day-to-day moral habits. Has there been a slow change, a gradual conforming of my own will to the will of God? I hope so, but the process is very incomplete. No one is likely to look at me and see the image of Christ, or at least not very often.
This has always bothered me. It’s as if I got a special delivery letter, or better yet, a personal visit from God, and let’s face it, that must make me pretty special, right? So why didn’t it wipe my hard drive, so to speak? Or to use more familiar language, if this is what it means to be born again, why did I find that the new me was so much like the old me, when it came to those daily habits that probably say more about our character than fancy notions of penetrating the mind of God through musical creativity?
There are conflicting views about this in Christian literature. Consider the reading for today from Hebrews: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." All we need here is some reference to "smiting," which has always sounded more dire to me than merely blowing somebody to smithereens or whatever it was the Old Testament God was prone to do. Basically, this is bad news. Unless I can make a case for clemency using the "deliberately" clause, the author of Hebrews is saying that I should have had my hard drive wiped, that a call from God means no more sinning, because there’s no more mercy.
But then there’s the Paul of the letter to the Romans, telling them "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate to do. . . .For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out." Paul is clearly upset about this, but he doesn’t appear to see it as a hopeless situation. He doesn’t think he’s going to hell. I would invite David Lloyd and others in his Paul class to talk about what Paul does think will happen to him; I find it a little confusing, or ambiguous. What is not ambiguous, however, is this question and answer: "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord." That sounds more like the God of mercy.
The spiritual literature I know best, which is the Gospel according to A.A., also takes a pretty evenhanded view of the Christian sinner’s plight. The Twelfth Step says that we will have had "a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps," and for the founders of A.A., that was definitely an acceptance of Christ – a born-again experience, if you will. But the Twelfth Step concludes, "we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all affairs." The emphasis really is on the word "tried." The collective wisdom of A.A. seems to be embodied in this passage from one of founder Bill Wilson’s writings: "No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. . . . We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection." And for what it’s worth, Bill Wilson apparently had a "burning bush" experience that also made him at first feel special, and then guilty for being special. He wrote in a newsletter article, "It now seems clear that the only special features of my experience were its suddenness and the overwhelming and immediate conviction that it carried. In all other respects, however, I am sure that my own experience was essentially like that received by any A.A. member who has strenuously practiced our recovery program. Surely the grace he receives is also of God; the only difference is that he becomes aware of his gift more gradually."
So I’m willing to drop the idea that I was called by God to be perfect, to never again have to ask God’s mercy for my sins. Instead, I’ll substitute the idea that God pronounces everyone to be special, each in his or her own way. Why, then, my recurring dream of the last several years? What was that opportunity, that job opening, that I was given but that I now fear may be gone?
I left CIS in 2005 to work as a freelance editorial consultant, and to pursue my creative work more vigorously. The Florida dream began when I made this change in my life. I’ve been frank with this community that I am still not sure what my new call is. What I am sure of, is that creativity alone is not enough. I’ve asked the Growing Edge fund to help me explore some of the practical results of my musical projects, and that will be a real spiritual challenge, and that’s the subject of a whole different sermon. But I know I still need to be doing something for others, in a way that feels joyous and "special" – just the way I feel in my dream when I look forward to my new faculty position in Florida.
Here’s the last thought I have about call this morning. That dream is about reclaiming something – a special position I was offered years ago but have neglected to accept until now. I realize with a shock that I must be entering the second phase of Marjory Bankson’s call cycle, for "reclaiming" is exactly what that stage is about. She writes in The Call to the Soul, "The work of Stage Two is to reclaim from the unconscious collective of past associations who we truly are. We need to discover a larger context for our lives . . . reclaim ‘the sacred.’"
So let me try to give a final version of my dream. Years ago, God sought me out, touched me, declared I was special, and promised me a calling. Now, once again, I need that call. But does God still remember me? Do I still remember God? Where can I go to find the sacred in my life? I have to go back, into the past, to reclaim my promise from God. And I also have to go forward, into the unknown, to find a new place to call my own.
One more thing about that dream: I have never been to Florida.