Seeking Aliveness

Philippians 3:12–14

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on . . . this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on . . .

What we all want is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid... more awake, more grateful, more energised and purposeful. We capture this kind of mindful, overbrimming life in terms like wellbeing, shalom, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, life to the full and aliveness.

The quest for aliveness explains so much of what we do. It’s why readers read and travellers travel. It’s why lovers love and thinkers think, why dancers dance and filmgoers watch. In the quest for aliveness, chefs cook, foodies eat, farmers plough, drummers riff, fly-fishers cast, runners run and photographers shoot.

The quest for aliveness is the best thing about religion, I think. It’s what we’re hoping for when we pray. It’s why we gather, celebrate, eat, abstain, attend, practice, sing and contemplate. When people say, ‘I’m spiritual,’ what they mean, I think, is simple: ‘I’m seeking aliveness.’

Many older religious people – Christians, Muslims, Jews and others – are paralysed by sadness that their children and grandchildren are far from faith, religion and God as they understand them. But on some level, they realise that religion too often shrinks, starves, cages and freezes aliveness rather than fostering it. They are beginning to see that the only viable future for religion is to become a friend of aliveness again.

Meanwhile, aliveness itself is under threat at every turn. We have created an economic system that is not only too big to fail, it is too big to control – and perhaps too big to understand as well. This system disproportionately benefits the most powerful and privileged 1 per cent of the human species, bestowing upon them unprecedented comfort, security and luxury. To do so, it destabilises the climate, plunders the planet and kills off other forms of life at unprecedented rates.

The rest, especially the poorest third at the bottom, gain little and lose much as this economic pyramid grows taller and taller. One of their greatest losses is democracy, as those at the top find clever ways to buy votes, turning elected governments into their puppets. Under these circumstances, you would think that at least those at the top would experience aliveness. But they don’t. They bend under constant anxiety and pressure to produce, earn, compete, maintain, protect, hoard and consume more and more, faster and faster. They lose the connection and well-being that come from seeking the common good. This is not an economy of aliveness for anyone.

As these tensions mount, we wake up every morning wondering what fool or fiend will be the next to throw a lit match – or assault, nuclear, chemical or biological weapon – onto the dry tinder of resentment and fear. Again, this is a formula for death, not a recipe for life.

'our world needs a global spiritual movement...

...dedicated to ALIVENESS!'

So our world truly needs a global spiritual movement dedicated to aliveness. This movement must be global, because the threats we face cannot be contained by national borders. It must be spiritual, because the threats we face go deeper than brain-level politics and economics to the heart level of value and meaning. It must be social, because it can’t be imposed from above; it can only spread from person to person, friend to friend, family to family, network to network. And it must be a movement, because by definition, movements stir and focus grass-roots human desire to bring change to institutions and the societies those institutions are intended to serve.

I believe that the Spirit of God works everywhere to bring and restore aliveness – through individuals, communities, institutions and movements. Movements play a special role. In the biblical story, for example, Moses led a movement of liberation among oppressed slaves. They left an oppressive economy, journeyed through the wilderness and entered a promised land where they hoped to pursue aliveness in freedom and peace. Centuries after that, the Hebrew prophets launched a series of movements based on a dream of a promised time . . . a time of justice when swords and spears, instruments of death, would be turned into ploughshares and pruning hooks, instruments of aliveness. Then came John the Baptist, a bold and non-violent movement leader who dared to challenge the establishment of his day and call people to a movement of radical social and spiritual rethinking.

John told people he was not the leader they had been waiting for; he was simply preparing the way for someone greater than himself. When a young man named Jesus came to affiliate with John’s movement through baptism, John said, ‘There he is! He is the one!’ Under Jesus’ leadership, the movement grew and expanded in unprecedented ways. When Jesus was murdered by the powers that profited from the status quo, the movement didn’t die. It rose again through a new generation of leaders like James, Peter, John and Paul, who were full of the Spirit of Jesus. They created learning circles in which activists were trained to extend the movement locally, regionally and globally. Wherever activists in this movement went, the Spirit of Jesus was alive in them, fomenting change and inspiring true aliveness.

Sometimes institutions welcomed this non-violent spiritual movement and were strengthened by it. Sometimes they co-opted, smothered, squelched, frustrated, corrupted or betrayed it. If the movement slowed, receded or weakened for a while in one place, eventually it resurged again in some new form. For example, there were the monastic movements led by the desert mothers and fathers, the Celtic movement led by St Patrick, St Brigid and others, and the beautiful movements of St Francis and St Clare. Later reform movements grew up around people like Menno Simons, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Walter Rauschenbusch. Over the last century, we’ve seen new movements being born through people like Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Wangari Maathai, Óscar Romero, Rene Padilla, Richard Twiss, Joan Chittister, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Richard Rohr, Phyllis Tickle, William Barber, John Dear, Steve Chalke and Shane Claiborne.

And of course, just as the Spirit has moved among Christians, the Spirit has been at work in other communities, too. Too seldom have these diverse movements recognised their common inspiration, and too seldom have they collaborated as they should. It’s surely time for that to change.

This year long journey of reading scripture and commentary around it, is a resource for this spiritual movement in service of aliveness.

There’s an old religious word for this kind of learning experience: catechesis (cat-uhkey-sis). At first glance, catechesis hardly seems like a resource for aliveness and movement building. To most people, it evokes either nothing at all or the unpleasant aroma of dust and mould. For others raised in highly religious households, it may bring to mind boring classes taught by stern teachers where we memorised answers we didn’t understand to questions we didn’t care about for reasons we never knew. It suggests pacifying, indoctrinating and domesticating people for institutional conformity.

But before Christianity was a rich and powerful religion, before it was associated with buildings, budgets, crusades, colonialism or televangelism, it began as a revolutionary non-violent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. It dared to honour women, children and unmarried adults in a world ruled by married men. It dared to elevate slaves to equality with those who gave them orders. It challenged slave masters to free their slaves and see them as peers. It defied religious taboos that divided people into us and them, in and out, good and evil, clean and unclean.

Flooding Texas Neighbourliness

'a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility...'

It claimed that everyone, not just an elite few, had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility and peaceable neighbourliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.

In this light, catechesis was a subversive practice of movement building. It was a ‘people’s college’, transforming any room, campfire or shady spot beneath a tree into a movement school. It equipped the oppressed and oppressors to become partners and protagonists in their mutual liberation. Mentors (or catechists) would invite a student or students (catechumens) to meet regularly. They used a simple curriculum (or catechesis) of meaningful stories, healing teachings and transformative practices. Their course of preparation traditionally culminated in a kind of oral examination based on a series of predetermined questions (a catechism). Those who had been mentored through this process would then be ready to pass on what they had learned. In so doing, they would learn the catechism more deeply, since teaching is surely the best way to learn.

The subversive nature of catechesis was all the more remarkable because many of the teachers and students were illiterate. It was through the personal give-and-take of face to face conversation and interaction that people were formed and transformed, equipped and deployed as non-violent activists in the movement of the Spirit.

Catechesis had a resurgence about five hundred years ago. Martin Luther designed a catechism to help a head of household train or retrain family members in the emerging Protestant faith using simple questions and answers. A young leader named John Calvin also published a catechism that served as a foyer or an entryway into an intricate doctrinal system he was constructing. John Wesley came along two centuries later. He encouraged people into groups which gathered for spiritual formation, reorientation and activation. He published his sermons to help resource these groups. And to make his movement’s essential vision available to children, he published a catechism-like book called Instructions for Children.

These examples from history have helped give shape to the fifty-two chapters that follow.

We are joining this rich history of discipleship. We pray that the next 52 weeks will be a wonderful time of encouragement, growth, focus, transformation and clarity - that Jesus will be glorified as each of us seek to live for Him, and like Him in every area of our lives.