“The Downward Path” by Elizabeth Gelfeld

September 19, 2021

When I was a student at Arizona State University, I started hanging out at the Catholic student center. I made several friends there and, despite my almost total lack of experience with the Catholic Church — or maybe because of it — I enjoyed attending the masses and study groups. One of my friends was a woman named Onoosh Garay, a graduate student who also taught part-time at a preschool. She was a devout and progressive Catholic. One day, when a few of us were talking about school and work, Onoosh said cheerfully, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in original sin should spend a day in a preschool.”

“Original sin” is the belief that we arrive on this planet already in a state of sin, just because we’re human. It’s a belief that has been replaced, for more progressive Catholics, with “original blessing,” an idea that is also the title of a 1983 book by the Episcopal priest Matthew Fox.

Onoosh was, of course, joking about the tendency of young children to be totally self-centered, unreasonable, uncooperative, and given to biting people who get in their way.

Children also have other qualities that are more reflective of their original blessing. They are curious and questioning. They are full of creative energy. They have fears but, until they become infected with our adult fears, children have a basic trust in the goodness of life. They are able to change and adapt to even difficult circumstances with relative ease.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says to the twelve, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate this, he takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As I considered this passage, I read a reflection by Kayla McClurg. She was one of the earliest members of the Church of the Saviour and remained active in many of its ministries until her death in 2017. She created and edited the Inward/Outward website and wrote the weekly reflections on the Gospel readings, which continue now, thanks to a team of writers including our own Deborah, Erica, and Marjory. Kayla’s reflections have been published in three small books, one for each year of the lectionary cycle. Her reflection on today’s Gospel, titled “Who Will Be Greatest?” begins with this:

“The disciples are not understanding very well what Jesus is saying, and they are afraid to ask — a deadly combination. Not understanding is never the problem. This is the natural state of children and other wisdom figures who have accomplished the beginner’s mind.”

The term “beginner’s mind” is a translation of the Japanese phrase shoshin, and it comes to us from Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen monk and teacher who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the United States in the 1960s. A book of his teachings, titled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, opens with this: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

And Kayla says, in her reflection, “Knowing that we do not know, and being unafraid to admit this about ourselves, is rich with potential.” She continues: “Being afraid to ask, this is where our problems begin. Being afraid closes the door to achieving wisdom … .”

We are now in the second week of our annual Recommitment season, which will take us to the third Sunday in October, when each of us will choose whether or not to commit to membership in Seekers Church for the next year.  In our guidelines on how to prepare for Recommitment, which Deborah sent to the Seekers listserve a few days ago, it says,

This time before Recommitment Sunday is an opportunity for all of us – recent arrivals, attenders, Members, and Stewards – to review our commitment to God and to Seekers Church. This year, as you reflect on the call of Seekers Church and our commitment statements, you might consider these questions:

† What does “commitment” mean to me? To Seekers? To my mission or other small group? In other places in my life?

† Have I had a moment when the veil between the spiritual and the material world gave me a vision of what God intends? If so, how has that affected my commitments? If not, do I wish it had?

† What am I learning about call and commitment at Seekers?

Mission group members usually discuss with one another their thoughts on these questions and their discernment process during Recommitment season, but I don’t know whether that kind of sharing also happens more publicly among Seekers. If not, why not?

I made my first commitment to membership in Seekers on Recommitment Sunday of 2010. Since then, there have been three years that I did not recommit and mostly did not worship at Seekers. The most recent time was a year when I had such an all-consuming job that I couldn’t commit to anything else. The other time, I left Seekers for about two years because of conflicts within this community that I felt hurt about, and that I did not think were being handled well — based on my judgment.

Anyone who remembers that time might be surprised to hear me say this. I did have some other reasons for leaving, unrelated to Seekers, and I shared those reasons at the time, but I did not share my unhappiness about Seekers. I actually lied in a spiritual report to Peter — I discovered this a few days ago while rereading some of my reports. In explaining why I was leaving, I wrote, “This is not about Seekers.” Well, it was partly not about Seekers.

Why didn’t I tell the truth? Well, I was afraid.

“Being afraid closes the door to achieving wisdom and sets a sure path to failure,” says Kayla McClurg. I don’t want to follow that path, but what can I do instead?

I found some wise guidance on dealing with fear in the book The Creative Habit, by the award-winning dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp. She calls fears “mighty demons” and says, “I combat my fears with a staring-down ritual, like a boxer looking his opponent right in the eye before a bout.”

My opponents, my fears in situations of conflict, are mainly two: first, that people will get mad and be unpleasant toward me; and second, that I will disappoint someone I love.

So, as I stare down these two fears, this is how I respond.

People will get mad and be unpleasant toward me. When I react from a place of upset or annoyance or anger at someone, I know that it’s not really about that person. It’s about me. It could be that something in the conflict is hooking an underlying fear that I hold and I’m feeling threatened and defensive. Or, it could be that I’m over-tired and stressed and I need to take care of myself. But in the moment of conflict, I’m too much in the grip of my feeligs to think, so I just react. Because I know this about myself, I can assume others also struggle in similar ways, and I can choose instead to pause, focus on my breath, and feel the ground beneath my feet, before I say anything.

This is so hard — and I’m not often successful at it. But practice makes progress. And, as Anne Lamott says, “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

How about my other fear: I will disappoint someone I love. This one is harder to stare down because I never know how my loved ones will respond to hearing my truth. The best I can do is remind myself that I have good intentions, and so does the other person. We both want to foster not discord, but unity.

There are situations of conflict going on now, among Seekers. There will always be conflict; we are ordinary folks, after all, members of Christ’s broken and beloved body. Yet we belong to a community that welcomes discussion, doubt, and dissent.

The way through conflict doesn’t have to be upward, striving like Jesus’ disciples to come out on top. And the way doesn’t have to be out — the way I chose a number of years ago. Jesus tells us that the way is downward, toward the ground of my commitment. Those of us who commit to membership in Seekers Church will say, in our commitment statement, “As a member of this church, I will deepen my relationships in this local expression of the Body of Christ.”

When I have named my fears and stared them down, then my heart can open to a deeper relationship, and I can be brave enough to ask questions. I can say, “I don’t understand. Please tell me more.”

Kayla says, “Being afraid helps us maintain the illusion that the way can, after all, be one of success and continual upward movement. We can, after all, rise to greater and greater achievements. But Jesus says otherwise. The way, he says, slants ever downward. To be like a child, to be the servant of all, these will be the signs of true achievement, real power.”

With grace we can be as children, not as the unruly preschoolers my friend Onoosh joked about, but as Jesus calls us to be: curious and questioning, the least and the last, servants of all. As we choose the path of love instead of fear, our hearts open and we experience true power. The God-light in me recognizes the God-light in you, and we are one. We can depend on this in times of disagreement and conflict, as well as the times when we agree.

Kayla’s reflection concludes with this: “Do not be afraid to come in last, to be the lowest or the least. In this way you welcome God, who in turn will welcome you.” 

Amen. May it be so.

Source: Passage by Passage: A Gospel Journey (Revised Common Lectionary Year B), Kayla McClurg, p. 54. The Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC, 2014.

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