By Tommy Airey
Over the past four months, I enjoyed my little “sit-spot,” right in front of our one-bedroom flat in Ojai, CA, perfectly postured for daily communion with two dozen mourning doves posting up in a centuries-old Oak tree across the street. This was a spiritual practice.
Our favorite afternoon adventure, though, was the Shelf Road run, a three-mile jaunt from sit-spot to a weather-beaten bench overlooking the entire Ojai Valley. It was a challenging climb up a steep fire road, but the endorphin-infused walk down together inevitably fueled the conversation. Sweat stimulating Spirit.
On the way home from our final, wheezing, tree-pollen-intoxicated jog, a large lizard shimmied across the street right in front of us. When we looked up, a red-tailed hawk fifty yards was homing in on us, attempting to turn the poor little guy into happy hour. The lizard barely escaped under a conveniently parked Jeep. The hawk perched up on that rig, waiting for him to journey back home.
Meanwhile, my native watershed a hundred-fifty miles south couldn’t seem to shake the great white sharks swarming to her shores. Two dozen were spotted when we were home celebrating our mothers last month. One of them took a bite out of the hamstring of a woman going for a morning swim.
These predators were on the move a few days before Ric Hudgens’ timely post calling radical disciples to heed the words of St. Peter–to be disciplined and alert because the devil roams in our midst like a roaring lion. Ric warned against romanticizing our spiritual and theological re-wilding efforts—predators are serious business, whether corporate, financial, legal or those prowling around our own hearts.
The swoop of the red-tailed hawk and the swarm of ten-foot sharks have become prophetic warning signs for communities of discontinuity in the trenches of church renewal and social change. We know how painfully difficult it can be attempting to cultivate a little faith cluster “out of the ragtag and dog-eared and wounded and energetic and disillusioned,” as the late Dan Berrigan described. We are so easily triggered into gossip and irritation, shaming and blaming, projecting and posturing. None of this is new. St. Paul warned the diverse Galatians community, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:15) If you want to see some wildlife, chances are you can find some at one of our churches.
Codependency guru Melodie Beattie pinpoints what we all want: intimacy. With God and each other. She defines it:
mutually honest, warm, caring, safe relationships—relationships where the other person can be who he or she is and we can be who we are—and both people are valued.
Doesn’t it just make you want to cuddle? But seriously, it is precisely what we all yearn for in community. However, no matter how much church-shopping we endure, we rarely find anything resembling it. Beattie maps the terrain, filled with minefields:
Addictions and abuse block intimacy. Unresolved family of origin issues prevent intimacy. Controlling blocks intimacy. Off balance relationships, where there is too great a discrepancy in power, prevent intimacy. Caretaking can block intimacy. Nagging, withdrawing, and shutting down can hurt intimacy.
These obstacles call each of us to inner work, what Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Torres calls “incessant processes of decolonization.” My own guilt-driven workaholism, need to control and propensity to withdraw into resentment hold me back from the intimacy I crave. Concise and confessional words from my own therapist Dr. Terry Hargrave stick with me, “When I get in touch with my own humanity, I understand why people are so resistant to change: because I am too.” In this context of nearly-universal dysfunction and fragmentation, committing to the task of my own inner work—therapy, 12-step meetings, mindfulness meditation, genograms, ethnoautobiography, unlearning racism and patriarchy, dream analysis, grief work and much more—becomes vital.
Our communities of discontinuity aren’t rearranging pews on the Titanic. We are striving for what Parker Palmer calls “circles of trust.” In short, we pledge ourselves to resistance and recovery. We actively resist red-state austerity dreams, blue-state mediocrity memes and neoliberal prosperity schemes. However, until we take our own inventory and commit to the long process of inner healing, we simply project our own predatory ways on to them. They become convenient scapegoats. Meanwhile, nobody really gets saved. We keep drowning spiritually and emotionally, just stubborn great whites devouring those most dear to us.
The twenty-five-hundred-year (+) prophetic Tradition of radical discipleship, though, offers us robust resources of compassion, creativity, confession and courage to galvanize us in our commitment to inner transformation. This, and each other, is all we need to fuel our task of learning to be free from predatory captivity. Here’s to a summer of intimacy. Release the endorphins!