If we are true to the way of Jesus, who invites us to take up our cross and follow him, perhaps we should hang a sign outside our churches that reads: "Enter at your own risk" rather than "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." So often, I hear people talk about how important it is for our congregations to be "safe spaces" for people. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we want to grow spiritually, what we really need are spaces in which we can take risks.
In his book, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, Parker Palmer expresses this truth beautifully:
There is an intimate link between our capacity for risk-taking and our commitment to learning and growing. A risk is an effort that may not succeed, and the bigger the risk, the less the chance of success. So why would anyone take such risks? There are many reasons, but one of the most creative is that by risking we may learn more about ourselves and our world, and the bigger the risk, the greater the learning. If we do not value learning, we will not risk, and our actions will be limited to small and predictable arenas in which we know we can succeed. (p. 23)
I'm reminded of the definition of a dying congregation: a group of people who keep doing the same thing well, over and over again, with an ever-diminishing return.
If our congregations are "safe spaces" that never challenge us, never invite us out of our comfort zones, then we condemn ourselves to an ever-diminishing circle of experience that remains within our control. We become enclosed in a world that will never grow large enough to exceed our fears. We will keep trying to make God "safe," refusing to accept that a god subject to our control is no god at all.
Not many people really want to grow spiritually. It is much easier to remain comfortably ensconced within our illusions. But those who do hunger for reality, for the experience of God, aren't looking for someone to make them feel safe; they are looking for people who will accompany them in the risky venture of discovering the truth about themselves, willing to embrace their deepest desire to love God and all things in God. And there is nothing "safe" about that. Its scary as hell.
Its scary because spiritual growth isn't about achieving security or success. Its about embracing our failures and fears, riding them all the way down until we touch bottom and discover what Thomas Merton called our "hidden wholeness." We have to be willing to lose our life so that we can receive it. We must be willing to die so that we can live. Only when we are ready to embrace loss as well as achievement, vulnerability as well as boundaries, can we find the freedom to act without regard for outcomes. Only then will we have the courage to take off the masks. Only then will we live and love in truth.
Recently, a deeply faithful member of my community came to me and said, "I'm tired of being such a fake. I go through the motions of 'good works' but inside I just feel so empty. I'm so hungry and thirsty for God." I almost shouted, "Hallelujah!" Here was someone willing to confront reality, in touch with his deepest desire, willing to lay down his life (taking his identity from the regard of others) so that he could live (realizing his identity as God's beloved). To encounter just one such person is a miracle, providing a lifetimes' worth of encouragement.
That is what our churches are for - to bring us into the community of those who hunger and thirst for the One who can satiate us. It is isn't always pretty, and it certainly isn't safe. But it is real. And in the reality, in the roundness of our brilliant, shadowed lives, we will discover the fulfillment that comes to us, not as our achievement, but as the gift of an Other.
That is a risk worth taking.