Marketing the Most Undesirable Thing Ever

Just after the table of contents of Richard Rohr's book Everything Belongs, we find this statement/poem entitled Inherent Unmarketability

How do you make attractive that which is not?
How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability and non-success?

How do you talk about descent when everything is about ascent?
How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture?
How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind?
How do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?
This is not going to work
(which might be my first step).

The book is about contemplative prayer and how it is a great gift given to us but often not appreciated in the Western expression of the Church. These questions push against the temptation of the Church (and her leaders) to be more relevant and spectacular and powerful.

"How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability and non-success?" 

You can't. 

The Gospel is not something we sell. It is not something that has a slick marketing campaign and it is not something that comes with guaranteed success, wealth, and/or luxury. It is the very thing that calls us to abandon those idols and leads us to the cross. For it is through the cross, where we die to ourselves, that we place our hope. 

Success in the Church is just different. It looks like broken and contrite spirits. It looks like mercy and not sacrifice. It looks like doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

That sort of life does not get you famous or many followers. It may even be considered unsuccessful. 

But success is not what we are hoping for. We are hoping for resurrection.

The Time I Hear a Sermon in the Bathroom

This very hard working man violating two social mores in one moment: 1) the oft cited rule that socially acceptable conversation avoids politics and religion and 2) the unspoken rule that conversation between men in the restroom is restricted to dads coaxing their sons to aim properly. So when he said, “give me a word.” I was caught off guard.

Photo by  Paul Green  on  Unsplash

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

I shared with him that I have been reading about Saint Moses who said that a monk should sit in his cell for the cell will teach you all you need to know. I said I have been reflecting on this as a need for silence and solitude in a hyper-connected and noisy world.

The worker smiled and grunted with satisfaction. So I asked in return “give me a word.”

The worker began to tell me the story of the rich man who avoided Lazarus their whole lives. He recalled how when they both died the rich man, from hell, asked that Lazarus would come, from heaven, to give him a cool drink. (Those of you who know this story from the Gospels can fill in the details.)

I smiled and grunted with satisfaction.

We “man hugged” (the handshake where you pull each other to bump chests and slap the back of the other two times before you disengage) and went our separate ways.

The life of the Christian is one that holds the call to action and the call to contemplation in tension. It is not sufficient for the social justice warrior to dismiss the need for silence and stillness. It is not sufficient for the hermit to dismiss the prophetic action need in the world.

You may think that action and contemplation are opposite ends of the spectrum, that they cannot coexist in one church much less in one person. We are led to believe that we must be either/or. Justice or worship. Action or contemplation. Left or right. Unity or disunity.

The deeper call of Christ is not either but both. Perhaps this is in part why the way of Christ is so difficult – you have to embody a constant and unresolvable mystery.

It is easier to take a side.

"Mystery isn't something that you cannot understand..."

The conversations in and around the denomination that I serve (United Methodist) are complex and, at times, frustrating. I expect that 7 billion people will have different conclusions/positions on the issues of the day. I was prepared for that since the times I would be in an argument with my brother as a child who each saw "what happened to the lamp" much differently (no matter what you hear, I did not throw the ball!) What throws me off is the relationship to mystery that we have. 

As a teenager, I came across a VHS tape of the cult classic movie "Clue". The 1980's were bold. If you are among the odd people who, like me, has seen this movie you may recall there is not an ending to the movie. For those who have not seen the movie, I should clarify - it has more than one ending. Like I said, bold.

left to right: Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Wadsworth (Tim Curry), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan)

left to right: Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Wadsworth (Tim Curry), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan)

The end of "Clue" is what you might call a mystery - the irony is not lost on the filmmakers that a 'who done it" movie leaves you wondering "who did done it?" It is not a mystery because you don't know the end but it is a mystery because there is more than one ending. 

(Insert smooth pivot and classy theological language here so the reader makes the transition from a weird movie to spiritual formation...) 

Richard Rohr's book, Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, has a great little line near the beginning of the book about mystery:

"Remember, mystery isn't something that you cannot understand - it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, "I've got it." Always and forever, mystery gets you!"

Part of why so many people are captured by the movie and board game of "Clue" is the mystery. It is not the one answer, but the endless answers to the question of "who done it?" that draw people in until it "gets you!"

(Head nod to the reader that they are smart enough to see how this relates to God.)

To my fellow sisters and brothers in my believed UMC, let us remember that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are mystery not because we cannot understand them but because we can endlessly understand them! There is not one interpretation of scripture that is "it". There is not one version of the Bible that is "it".

My heart aches not when we disagree but when we reduce a mystery to something that we cannot know and thus become content with the first answer that "feels right."

There is more than one ending to this story.