“The​ ​Spirituality​ ​of​ ​Matthew​ ​18:15-20” by Ron Kraybill

September 10, 2017

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

September is for me a nostalgic time of year – a month rich with the promise of harvest yet full of reminders the carnival is nearly over. This summer I somehow got in a September frame of mind early, listening to Youtube recordings of the Australian music group, The Seekers.

Do you remember Judith Durham and the Seekers? I hadn’t heard them or even thought about them for years, decades. But I stumbled across one of their songs on Youtube in July and can’t stop listening.

On our Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania, we didn’t have TV or pop records so it’s not like I heard so much of the Seekers growing up. But we had crystal radios, and transistor radios were eventually tolerated. I knew nothing about the Seekers as a boy, yet they were in the ambience. We heard Island of Dreams in the Prelude, but there were so many more!

California Dreamin, I’ll Never Find Another You, Georgy Girl, Morningtown, the list goes on. Listening to these songs today is a kind of delicious agony for me – a reminder of a time when harmonies were sweet and pure, the diction clean, the promise of a new and better world undeniable, my place in it assured.

It’s also a reminder of how far I’ve travelled since those days and how far away that world seems now. The Seekers captured the sweet essence of being young, alive, and full of hopes and dreams.

High in the sky is a bird on a wing
Please carry me with you
Far, far away from the mad rushing crowd
Please carry me with you.

The words and even more so the music are a piercing paradox. Celebration of the joy of beauty, life and hope on one hand but shot through with longing for another time, another place, a blissful world, a world that is hauntingly within reach yet never quite attained.

I see now this music mirrored a dimension of my experience of life, and in particular the perspective of a young person. Obviously I wasn’t the only one, and in fact I think it speaks to something pretty universal in human experience.

We are wired for connection, and fueled to reach out, across oceans and time to the far beyond. Yet moment by moment we are are rooted in the concrete boots of here and now. A haunting sense of disappointment and loneliness seems to be inescapable.

I felt a call in childhood and youth that quite mystical. I felt a deep magical connection to the natural world and I sensed a frequent piercing call to be in it. I imagined that the rabbits in our woods  understood I was their friend. On a snowy walk one winter night I was so moved by a row of desolate cornstalks that I rushed back to my room, tried my hand at haiku-like poetry in tribute to their lonely yet dignified stand. At least my 11th grade high school teacher seemed quite impressed!

For several years over the time of my divorce 10 years ago I couldn’t go into the woods any longer. The pain inside was of course intense. Somehow it was almost unendurable – and frighteningly so – in this place I always thought of my spiritual home. I felt that I was losing forever the sense of joy and hopefulness that all my life had seemed like my birthright.

It’s much better now, yet I can no longer count on the quick sense of renewal and connection to life, hope and mystery that I once took for granted would come my way when I go into nature. Hope and energy, imbued with a delicious sense of mystery and romance come naturally when we are young and life seems to stretch endlessly ahead. Historic movements of poetry, song, art, and literature have emerged from the hearts of human beings trying to give expression to the richness, the promise, the intensity of being alive.

Yet somehow, even in the most ebullient song and art, there is sadness and loneliness. We see and taste beauty and promise, yet the times when we feel they are truly ours are momentary. None of us gets to experience all the beauty and joy that we see on the horizons. We feel that others have something we should also have but somehow can’t grasp and retain. We long for things we feel we should have and can’t get – possessions, accomplishment, relationships, recognition, status. Much as I love the music of the Seekers, when I listen to the words of their music, today I see that they feed individualism, narcissism and escapism.

  • “Hey there Georgy girl, there’s another Georgy deep inside. Let out all the love you hide and, oh what a change there’d be, the world would see, a new Georgy girl.”
  • Far far away on the island of dreams.
  • The movement of the soul is directed almost entirely towards the self, and engagement with the world is an outward projection. To the extent that there are other people, the goal is about engaging them, it’s about begging them to join me in going to a far away paradise.
  • Even that great song, sung by the Seekers but also many others, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning….”, a great stalwart of the folk musicians and granolas, is all about me
    and the wonderful things I can do in the world if I just pick up the right tools.

I ponder often what seems to be a dimming sense of connection to mystery that for me corresponds to aging. I’m truly not sure if it comes with the territory of aging, if it reflects my own particular experience of life, or if it’s because I just don’t spend as much time in nature as I used to spend.

Regardless, at times I feel sad about it, like I’ve broken some covenant I made with myself to “never let it fade away.”

And yet, and yet. There is something else emerging in its place that I also value. Some deep knowing of something so deep and impenetrable that the sort of delirious joy I hungered for in the past seems a little out of touch. This is a knowing that calls only for silence, listening, being, rest.

Reading Mt. 18 my thought was that here is an understanding of spirituality that illuminates the journey I’ve described.

Some scholars suggest this is one of the most important texts in the New Testament because it is the only place where the word “church” is reported on the lips of Jesus. It occurs in the context of a passage about dispute resolution and decision making in the context of conflict. This suggests the thought that the essence of being church, the time when we are most fully expressing what Jesus taught and what God intends us to be in the world, is when we are resolving conflict.

It’s not by sending in the military. It’s by gathering, and talking, creating an expanding circle of wisdom. It’s a process, not a solution. It starts with conversation at the simplest level, and then draws in others if necessary, and things are still not resolved, the whole church becomes a resource.

When you do this in my name, Jesus says, I am there with you. No certainty of miracles or guarantees of easy answers, just a simple promise of accompaniment to those who come together for discernment in the name of Christ, (which to my ex-fundamentalist ears means, “in the tradition and spirit of Christ”).

What a different spirituality than “Hey there Georgy girl, let out all the love you hide inside!”And it seems to me that this process fits pretty well with the deeper, darker, more mute sense of knowing that I described as replacing my own earlier spiritual longings. The issues that confound us or bring us into contention as a church are too complex, too inscrutable, for any individual, no matter how brilliant his or her insights, to determine the answers to. Qualities of silence, listening together, being together and are essential to finding our way through these issues. This is what facilitators call “deep dialogue”.

Part of what has kept me in the profession of conflict resolution is the repeated experience that, although it rarely happens because the use of the processes required are so rare, human beings can in fact create powerful moments of deep encounter in the midst of painful differences. Some facilitators speak of conflict management in this way as “holy ground.” I have had enough experiences of amazing, meetings of the mind across angry chasms to know and feel and believe that the transcendent is truly available to human beings who are willing to do our part in opening ourselves to it.

And it need not always be in the context of angry differences. When I sit with others in my mission group, pray for the needs of the world and wrestle with appropriate responses, I re-connect to that transcendence and feel strengthened to continue.

I expect to listen to the Seekers for the rest of my days. I am inspired and moved by that sound even when I recognize it comes from an early and incomplete part of the journey. But it’s alive and energetic and helps keep alive hope of an ideal world.

It’s up to us to root that longing for more, for the wonderful far away, in structures of engagement that endure. When we commit to conversations with each other, when we gather for dialogue about difficult issues and truly seek higher guidance, we bring ourselves about as close to the shores of Avalon as it is possible to navigate on this journey.


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