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When contemplation turns outward.

At the turn of the millennium, I found myself in a situation that I was leading a church. Never applied for it, never wanted it, but circumstances conspire and there I was leading a small and very odd congregation in a little village incorporated into the greater metropolitan Leeds, called Horsforth.

At the time the impotence of church, as we then understood it, was patently obvious. Leeds, the most unreached city in the UK. One of only two cities in the UK not built around a church (London is the other). Second for finance, students and first for grumpy Yorkshireman (and women) but the men are particularly curmudgeonly human specimens in the whole Kingdom.

We started to believe that each little, often failing, congregation is simply not any version of that lighthouse and that it may take an act of letting go of our feudal divisions and come together to join forces of prayer to see if that may usher in a new and refreshing epoch for the society around us. Praying together, we started to map the city (I mean we got outside). We suddenly became aware of the whole city out there. Never before did I feel the claustrophobic sub-culture irrelevance of us. First and most noticeable was that among the poor there were no churches. Seemingly God worked only in middle-class neighbourhoods.

The more we went outside, the less I liked the congregation. All the endless micro politics, the struggles with tea and coffee, setting up, the terrible karaoke style singing, the fruitless preaching - I mean who actually do any of the stuff the they take such religious notes over? The construct was broken and useless, it was quite clear. So, we deconstructed it - or in plain language we stopped it.

Then for a brief moment, many people felt free and started to express their faith in very dynamic and interesting ways. And suddenly things started to happen. But, over time people filtered back to the same old construct ways, under some sort of spiritual Stockholm syndrome. We need a format of together, we don't know what that is, so we settle for so much less, for poverty of construct, currently known as church, but not as God intended. Man made, power centric, co-dependent, powerless, useless and wasteful.

Then I returned to South Africa for a spell. I could not get myself to attend any of the construct. A few of us met to see what other expressions of life together there can be. We considered all sorts of derivatives, but no matter how you paint it up, it was still the very prison we tore down before or escaped from in the dead of spiritual night. So no cigar.

John the apostle's vision of his city, Jerusalem, coming down from heaven was enthralling, A city set on a hill. Not a sub-culture construct, but a full-on city. What is a city but a compilation of a bunch of people, people doing people-like things. Commerce, services, vocations, politics, etc... What if God is seen in the midst of all of that? What if we all learn to live by the incarnation life and the very natural things we do on a day-by-day way becomes itself incarnated by the very spirit of God. What if work becomes spiritual, and spirituality becomes simply living? What kind of revolution will that be?

And infused by that, my brother-in-law and myself started a number of businesses. These where to be our 'church'. No more platonic division of sacred and mundane, but a new integrated oneness. Life in holons, not in fractures, a whole new holonomics. Where every part, politics, economics, social and spiritual are all just parts of a whole, faces of one reality. (Very utopian, very ambitious, very philosophical).

And it failed.

Then I returned to the UK, still unstructured, non participatory, and very much deconstructed. This time in the middle parts of the UK, Coventry. A dreary place Hitler tried to bomb flat, afterwards further ruined by the city planners. With people neither southerners nor proud northerners. A nowhere land.

We started to build a new form. Imagine an not-for-profit, non-government construct (always stupid when your definition tells everyone what you are not - not profit - not government). Add to this a church (as we still know it). Add to these two a marketplace. Now draw a line connecting all of the above and somewhere you get something called a social-spiritual enterprise. Wow, what a mess, we tried to build this. A business, not government, private sector set to solve social problems through a business outreach, making a profit, but not too much. We transformed the NGO baseline organisation to a full-on social enterprise, bringing in what we knew about the live in the spirit surreptitiously as the driving motive.

And it failed.

So, what now? What is the means of us organising together, to collectively build and respond to the emergence of the Kingdom of God, Kingdom of the invisible heavens?

How to organise individuals, trying to live incarnation, reflective and contemplative lives, to become a concert of collaboration and relationship, seeding our city, town or neighbourhood. Leaving a mark, making a difference, healing, feeding, teaching, loving and shoving a backbone up the jellyfish society around us, so that it can stand straight and stop bending to bad habits.

And, we are failing.

We are going bankrupt on great ideas. We are bust on pure intentions. The Kingdom of God, our participation in labour, effort and work remains wooden and unresponsive, What now? I can meditate, contemplate and wonder about the universe, God and all things incarnational. But it is so personal, so lone, individualistic. What does a society of individuals covenanting together look like when it gets busy. Busy against the entropic collapse all around? Or, are we no longer able to come-together. No longer know how to collectively bear fruit, fruit that remain?

Can we go beyond the me-in-contemplation nirvana to us-incarnatedly-reaching outwards? How is such a thing organised, without becoming the dreaded constructs of prisons?

Where is God the economist, the architect, the politician, the social worker, the builder, the teacher, the farmer, the worker, the manufacturer....

Where is a city, without a church, God is in the midst of her in all things, descending out of heaven? A heavenly Warwick (where I now live, having escaped Coventry) Ladismith, Pretoria, New York, Paris....

What is the final result of a contemplative life? Is it splendid isolation on a ten foot pole in the Arabian desert? Is it a clinging insulated monastery in a remote part of people huddling for a bit of spiritual body warmth? Do we ignore the ravages and rages outside our window? Can we ever bear the word 'community' again? If we can, can we be an intentional community? Intentions that will most likely be tainted with us and with a very high probability of failure?

I, for one, need a model. Seen to much failure. Some of the failure spectacular and glorious. Better that than nothing? So, I guess I want to know what is the 'church' the community, the people together. What is our filthy dirty earthy walk on the soils of the world that solicits change, revolution and healing?

What is the ultimate point of contemplative living? What flows from it? What is the outward counterweight to the inner light? How does God get active in this world and bring all things into order? Order of His influence? Making it right, making it straight.

My confession to you is this: "I genuinely don't know. I have only failed."

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Tracey Richardson
Tracey Richardson
Jun 13, 2021

Wow Joe, yes I too don't know what a community looks like, it seems the minute we start something which seems so good and pure automatically ends up in failure. I wish I had answers too. You know in all my readings and my saved quotes, I have only read two things that never really had a solution to the dilemma we are faced with... and are willing to leave the space blank .... holding the tension of the "no solution". Was your piece of very expressive writing and this one....

"You cannot trade the courage needed to live every moment for immunity from life's sorrows. We may say we know this but ours is the culture of the deal-making…

Joe de Swardt
Joe de Swardt
Jun 13, 2021
Replying to

Wow you are right on all

counts. There are no magical entitlements. No guarantees. But the longing to find that ‘on earth as in the invisibles.’ And a real earth response to the mystical light, our soul photosynthesis of spirit energy. This makes me still wonder!! I accept your challenge, and yet I long for that illusionary, flighty more.

Thank you for reading my confessions. Thank you for such careful and loving response.

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