The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

August 20, 2008

An Ernest Goodbye

August 19, 2008

Dear Ernest,

As you prepare to launch into the next stage of your vocational/life journey, I want to say how much I have appreciated working with you over the past two years. It has been a joy to have you around. You have certainly given as much as you have received and I hope that our interactions and connection will continue in the future.

I have been thinking about your studies and particularly your possible future work in the church. I hope it is not purely projection on my part, but it seems to me there is a chance one of your struggles is going to be with the institutionalism of both “higher education” and, eventually, if this is where it leads you, with the institutionalism of the church itself.

So, I think it would be good for you to keep the following Panikkar quote near at hand for use in the event of emergencies.

There is a strong temptation to criticize organizations and emphasize the betrayal of many Christians and, above all, of the official churches for having wanted to rigidify everything, regulate life, and proclaim laws. We are, of course, justified in sustaining a critical and open spirit and in not fearing to denounce what appear to us as abuses and deformations of Christ’s spirit. But let us not forget that it is good that he has gone, and good that we realize it was not necessary for him to remain, just as it was not necessary for an omnipotent God…to prevent us from abusing our freedom. It is good for the church to be in human hands, that humanity forge its own destiny, and that we become co-responsible for the world’s dynamism…. The immutability that breaks life’s dynamism is death. (Panikkar. Christophany, p. 125)

Panikkar is speaking here about church as visible institution. He speaks later of “church” in a cosmic sense – “The church is the very place in which the whole universe pulsates until its final destiny.” (p.178) This is the ultimate vision of the fullness of God’s purpose to restore all things in Christ until all visible reality is “church,” and the light and glory of God are inescapable. But I think we must not confuse this longed for cosmic sense of church with the visible institutional manifestation of church we experience in the present.

When we look at “the official churches” and see how they want “to rigidify everything, regulate life, and proclaim laws,” it is tempting to give in to despair. But I think Panikkar is reminding us that we must never confuse God and church. The church is not God; God is certainly not confined to the church, however we understand the term “church.”

When we confuse God and church, we fall prey to seeking in church some kind of permanence, stability, strength, or security that it is ill-equipped to provide. We seek in it “an immutability that breaks life’s dynamism,” and this, Panikkar says, “is death.” It is of course the very thing Peter wanted to do after the transfiguration (“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Matthew 17:4) Building “dwellings” kills the “dynamism” of transfiguration.

The problem with “dynamism” is that “dynamism” is messy. The energy of dynamism is the current that runs through polarities. Dynamism permeates differences, disagreements, confusion, and turmoil, all of which are manifest when people try to live together from wildly different places in life and spirituality. It is never easy to be together with people who are in different places; but there is no other place when real people are involved.

The danger I identify in myself is that I am often tempted to look to the church for more than the church is capable of delivering, or was in fact designed to deliver. The church, as Panikkar describes it is “in human hands.” The church, as we see it in its institutional manifestation, is a human and therefore deeply flawed, reality. When I try to make church be more than it is capable of being, I always end up doing violence to someone. I must be willing to receive the church as it is. I must learn to see God in the church in all its flawed humanness, just as I must learn to see the divine in the broken vessel that is my own life and in the flawed reality that is my brother.

Panikkar points out that God could have made a better church. But, Panikkar says, “it was not necessary for an omnipotent God…to prevent us from abusing our freedom.” If I had been God, I would have organized life differently. I would have made everyone agree… agree with me I suppose, and what a scary place that would be. I would have organized church to be a secure, safe, comfortable place where frightened people could take shelter from the harsh realities of the world and from which we could go out and recreate the world in our own image. But, church exists, like all of life, to cause us to come to that place within ourselves where we trust in absolutely nothing, but God’s Spirit. Church is exercise in believing that God is at work even in my flawed character and in the lives of all other imperfect beings. As Panikkar would say, church is just one more part of the radical “contingency” of our life circumstances.

We will all disappear. Churches will disappear. Clergy will disappear. Seminaries will disappear. None of these is the Promised Land. We cannot finally rest in contingent things. We cannot ultimately rely upon anything created. Each is only a door capable of opening into the vast spaciousness of God’s Spirit and ushering us, if we are willing to let go, more fully into the realm of God’s work.

For Panikkar the awareness of the “contingency” of all things is the paramount human experience.

To assume my human condition, to become conscious that my time has ended and I must leave, to be convinced that the Spirit must be neither suffocated nor controlled nor directed, constitutes the supreme human experience…. I must go. The ego will die and thus make room for the Spirit: this is Life and Resurrection.
(Panikkar. Christophany, p. 133)

The church is just another place to practice ego-death. Perhaps in church this process takes place at a level deeper than anywhere else, because in church we get to surrender our most cherished and deeply held convictions. Church requires being able to be with people who invest in things of which we might not approve. Church means worshiping with people who believe that those who do not believe as they believe are going straight to hell. Church is the place we get to sit down at the table with those who think church is little more than a business organization that should be run smoothly and efficiently along corporate lines. All this demands a constant return to the cross, where “the ego will die and thus make room for the Spirit.”

It is only through ego-death that we can enter into the fullness of our “own destiny” and “become co-responsible for the world’s dynamism.” This is the vision. Out of the mess, creativity emerges. Life is born in the process of dying. When we surrender and let go, we join God’s Spirit and allow the fullness of God’s work to take place in and around us. We are not in control. We are not the power that makes the world turn. We are called only to the costly path of love, so that love may be born and reborn in us and through us.

May the vision burn brightly in your heart. May you travel lightly always knowing that the first call is to let go and the second call is to open. Open to God. Open to yourself. Open to those around you no matter how peculiar, frustrating, conflicted, or irritating they may sometimes be. Each person God brings across your path is your spiritual practice. Each person you encounter is a gift to help shape you and through whom you can find Christ more deeply at work in your own life.

May the coming year bring you again and again to that place of depth within yourself where you know the strength of God’s call in your life and respond with joy and thanksgiving.

May God bless and uphold you,


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