If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
--James 4:17 NIV
In yesterday’s email, I shared about our need for wholeness and the struggles we face in our attempts to avoid leading divided lives. By divided lives, I’m referring to our actions and the outward presentation of ourselves which are in conflict with our true or inner selves and convictions. More than mere hypocrisy, a divided life is a violation of who God created us to be or a desecration of the “image of God” in each of us—what has sometimes been described as the true self, the divine spark or the inner light. I am depending heavily on the writings of Parker Palmer, especially his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life.
One of the books that has had the greatest impact upon my own spiritual journey and sense of identity is a different book by Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Until I read this book, I did not trust anything that came from inside of myself. Growing up Southern Baptist, I had been taught that I was a product of a “fallen world” and was utterly corrupt in my sinfulness. As a rather nerdy and unathletic child with a low self-esteem, this negative description of my spiritual identity fit like a hand in a glove. Well, of course I was a sinful mess, because I felt awful about myself anyway! So, I probably bought into this understanding of the wretched state of my soul at a much deeper level than my well-meaning Sunday School teachers ever intended. I learned not to trust any kind of inner voice and depended on sources of truth outside myself for guidance and direction.
Thanks to Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, I began to understand there was something inside of me, something I had been created to be, that I could trust. He writes:
Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.
In his writings, Palmer differentiates between the “true self” and what we might call “ego,” “arrogance,” or “vanity.” These latter things are not “true” but merely false understandings of who we are and why we matter. Palmer quotes the great spiritual writer Douglas Steere, who “was fond of saying that the ancient human question “Who am I?” leads inevitably to the equally important question “Whose am I?”—for there is no selfhood outside of relationship.” A healthy understanding of our true selves can only be found with a balance between inner individual work and outer accountability in community.
In A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer moves from discerning one’s true self to creating communities (congregations, workplaces, institutions, etc.) where people’s true selves can flourish. The costs of living a divided life are not paid by individuals alone but by everyone in relationship with a divided person. Parker writes that we grow into adulthood and become alienated from who we were made to be. He says
Dividedness. . . comes highly recommended by popular culture. “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” and “Hold your cards close to your vest” are just two examples of how we are told from an early age that “masked and armored” is the safe and sane way to live. But our culture has it backward. The truth is that the more dividedness we perceive in each other, the less safe we feel. . . The perceived incongruity of inner and outer—the inauthenticity that we sense in others or they in us—constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work. So “masked and armored,” it turns out, is not the safe and sane way to life. If our roles were more deeply informed by the truth that is in our souls, the general level of sanity and safety would rise dramatically.
The alienation we feel from our true selves becomes manifest in our relationships with others. Our personal alienation becomes an interpersonal alienation. People who feel alienated from themselves are alienated from others who in turn feel alienated from themselves. Unhealthy individuals create unhealthy communities which helps create unhealthy individuals. It is a vicious cycle: no wonder we need God to save us.!
Parker illustrates what our true selves look like by reminding us of our childhoods. A starting point for getting back in touch with our true selves is asking what delighted us as children? The messages of our culture that demand we stop being “childish” and “grow up “can cause us to lose track of delight, awe and joy. Yet, discovering our true selves is no easy task. Palmer writes,
Occasionally, I hear people say, “The world is such a confusing place that I can find clarity only by going within.” Well I, for one, find it at least as confusing “in here” as it is “out there”—usually more so!—and I think most people do.
He describes his love for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series of children’s books and uses the children of the novels’ trip through the wardrobe as a positive image of our own experiences of childhood delight. Yet the world they find through the wardrobe is not all paradise; there are trustworthy voices (e.g. Aslan the lion) but also voices of “temptation, deception, darkness, and evil” (e.g. the White Witch). How does one discern between the two? Only relationships of trust provide space for people to allow their true selves to flourish. This is the goal of all healthy relationships.
It is a strange paradox (another subject Palmer has written a book on) that for communities (workplaces, congregations, institutions, etc.) to be healthy they require individuals who act out of their true selves, the image of God inside of them; yet at the same time individuals seeking to act out of their true selves require communities that operate in a spirit of trust and support. One cannot exist without the other. For a church to be healthy, it requires spiritually healthy individuals; and for individuals to be spiritually healthy they require spiritually healthy communities of faith. Both are necessary.
When Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’” he was inviting us to step out of our divided lives. Making the same point, the writer of the Letter of James says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” The way out of our divided lives—ways of living that Jesus and the early church condemn--requires individual spiritual work and the work of spiritual communities.
I have no idea what the future of churches in America will look like, but I unreservedly believe that communities of faith that create what Palmer calls “circles of trust”--spaces where individuals can be in touch once more with their true selves rather than the facades they have taken on--will always remain necessary. Churches who make this kind of work their priority will flourish and those who focus on other things will die. They will die, because they are more concerned with external and superfluous things that contribute to rather than lead us away from divided lives. Just as divided individuals lead lives that cannot be described as really alive, so also divided churches are likewise not really alive. One needs only to look at the astounding number of dying congregations and the number of church buildings now on the market for sale to see what happens to churches who live acting contrary to their true purpose for being in the first place.
Grace and Peace,
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.