Mike Morell is masterful with words. He’s a deep thinker with an accessible heart. And I’m a huge fan of his writing, his teaching and his way of seeing the world.
Oh yeah, and this is what U2’s Bono said about Mike’s latest project, “The Divine Dance sketches a beautiful choreography for a life well lived. In our joy or our pain, true life is always relational, a flow, a dance.”
He was kind enough to shared some great gems in this interview… for free.
1. Lots of racial tension/issues/conversations in American recently. What’s your take?
Such a valuable question, Carlos. I ‘present’ as a white dude (even though I’m half-Turkish), so I experience a lot of privilege in my day-to-day life. My wife is Black, and even after over a decade of marriage sometimes I find myself surprised as how she’s treated differently than me in everyday life situations. Structural racism is real, and I wish more of my fellow white folks understood this. It isn’t only what we “feel in our hearts” (though it certainly is that too), but whether the actions we take reflect empathy and shared humanity.
And by “actions” I don’t just mean what individuals decide to do in particular moments out of the kindness of our hearts, but the ways in which we encode love and respect into our everyday culture, lives, and laws. The actions we take should reflect the policies we make.
For Christians especially, Carlos, of our age and older – who came of age during the ‘Promise Keepers’ movement – racial reconciliation often looked like folks crying on a football field and saying they were sorry. I in no way make light of these gestures; such acts of public worship – of liturgy – can be powerful! But as God speaks through the prophet in Amos 5:21-24:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Words – even seemingly heart-felt words – that are spoken with great feeling but not corresponding actions to back them up (read the entire chapter of Amos 5 to get an inkling for the kinds of actions God is suggesting through the prophet instead) are heart-breaking and soul-dulling to those who are repeatedly at the losing end of such words: our First Nations people, immigrant communities, Black and Latino communities, and so many others. Langston Hughes famously wrote, in Harlem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
This, of course, is echoes of Proverbs 13:12:
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
If you’re white and reading this, I invite you to ask: How can I stop contributing to the heart-sickness of my siblings of color, and instead contribute life? And, How can I do this in a way that doesn’t make the story all about me and how awesome I am for getting this and swooping in to save the day?
If these questions resonate with you, there are three things you can do to make a shift today.
First and foremost, I encourage you to check out a local gathering of Showing Up for Racial Justice (or SURJ), a group doing excellent work in helping white people love their neighbors of color.
Second, check out this ongoing guest-series I run on my blog, highlighting voices of color and aspiring allies writing from their experience about oppression and grace, setbacks and breakthroughs.
Finally, check out this brief mediation from Richard Rohr, How the Trinity Dissolves Racism, which draws from our work on The Divine Dance.
2. Speaking of: How was your experience collaborating on The Divine Dance with Richard Rohr?
It was such an honor, Carlos. Years ago when I was deconstructing and composting my faith, Fr. Richard’s voice was a clarion call to what really mattered. Over a decade ago, he did these incredible audio messages (one series with Cynthia Bourgeault) called The Divine Dance and The Shape of God. Cynthia’s material from these messages had already been turned into an excellent volume, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, and I felt compelled to help Richard’s contribution see the printed page. At the encouragement of our good friend Don Milam from Whitaker House, I approached Richard to see if he’d be open to collaborating in bringing his message to new life. To my delight and gratitude, he was just as interested as I was.
As I was able to share with Richard, working with the raw material of his spoken words and translating them to the written word was a precious kind of lectio divina for me. Lectio is an ancient Christian mediation form where we’re invited to savor the words of Scripture and other sacred texts, taking them less as information and more as soul-formation. Marinating in these words, formed in his many decades of prayer and service, really served to ground and deepen my own experience of God as the Three-in-One and All-in-all. Which impacts how I relate to my friends and family – and even those who would be my enemies.
3. If someone is curious about The Divine Dance but they’re not ready to fully commit, what should they do?
They should download my totally-free Divine Dance Bonus Chapter! It has a preview of the book itself – the first several chapters – plus some writing available nowhere else, where I testify I bit from my own story about how encountering God as Trinity changed my life. There are also some bonus exercises in the back of the book, where the reader is invited to experience the fellowship of the Trinity directly – which isn’t as difficult or ‘woo-woo’ as you might think! So yeah, folks can grab that here.
4. What was your lowest point in ministry?
Can we make this question plural, Carlos? Lowest points in ministry? ☺
First I want to say that, having spent a decade in a radically decentralized house church context where we were each expected to contribute to the spiritual life of our community, I hold strongly to the apostle Peter’s articulation of that classic Protestant idea, the “priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Peter 2:5). Beyond lip-service, I think that each of us are called and equipped by God to give life to each other in visible, practical ways.
Now to actually answer your question: My lowest points in ministry are when I experience a failure to communicate: My message, or even who I am as a person. I believe that the best public ministry is an expression of my heart, and of my life. There have been times when I’ve participated in faith communities where they just don’t get what it is I’m trying to share, what motivates me and gets me out of bed in the morning. And thus, it often feels like they aren’t getting me, as a person.
This really came to the fore just at a decade ago when the house church community I was part of imploded. We were given excellent teaching and modeling on grace, unconditional acceptance, and our collective interior life – we touched certain heights and depths of vulnerability and spiritual tenderness together that I haven’t before or since. But we were “half-baked” in that we didn’t have nearly the resources or support for living the outward life together, well. I was inspired by my then-new friends like Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove at the Rutba House Community, and Shane Claiborne at The Simple Way – the burgeoning ‘New Monastic Movement.’ I was zealous for us to combat human trafficking, get to know our neighbors, and spend time with those neighbors especially who lived outside. But the way I communicated this wasn’t received; I felt too intense for some, too “agenda-laden” for others. My sincere desire to compost the best elements of a more socially-oriented, outwardly-focused community life were seen as competing with the interior contemplative and relational arts that our movement had spent so much time cultivating. My words and actions contributed to a split that tore us apart.
As a communicator, my default is to assume radical responsibility for the lack of mutual communication. Of course, it could be that my message isn’t a good fit for a particular community, or good timing – these things are worth reflecting carefully on. But by and large, when I feel like someone (or a group of people) flat-out doesn’t hear me, or worse, maligns my character or motivations, I take this as an invitation to dig deeper: into the silence and words of fellowship with God, and into what the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff calls “external considering,” and what the biblical writers call considering others’ needs as greater than my own. By meditating on others – practicing their presence, really – I might be able to catch something I missed.
5. Can you explain to those who haven’t experienced it yet what the Wild Goose Festival is – and your involvement in it?
Just a few short years after my local house church community in North Carolina imploded, I took my lessons and helped create (with my dear friend Gareth Higgins and many others) a nationwide community in the Wild Goose Festival.
‘The Goose,’ as we affectionately name it, is four days of camping, music, workshops, collaboration, and fellowship around justice, arts, and spirituality. Rooted in the subversive hospitality of Jesus. The Goose – a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit, by the way – seeks to be a safer space for those willing to take the risk of relationship and a new way of being.
This community, too, has not been without its heart-ache and growing pains – as just about any worthwhile endeavor is. I haven’t been on staff in years, but I participate every single year.
THIS year, Happy Sonship readers should:
a.) Come to the Goose for the opportunity to hear from and hang out with you, Sir Carlos, and
b.) Come to the pre-festival day-retreat I’m curating, called Wisdom Camp. I’ve gathered together a half-dozen amazing teachers who lead by example in that alchemy I sought in my house church community days: Contemplatives who take an active role in their lives and communities, and activists who know what it means to root their daily struggle for justice in the eternal joy of Spirit.
Seriously, take a look at this Wisdom Camp lineup right now – I dare you not to come. ☺
6. What would you do if members of ISIS wanted to come over for dinner?
I have a personal story about something like this that I’m not allowed to tell yet! So here I’ll say that I have many friends of Muslim persuasion who are emphatically not ISIS. For those assuming that Muslim = Terrorist, I invite you to ask yourself: Do you believe that Christian = IRA, LRA, Crusader or Westboro Baptist Church? If your answer is to contextualize for me why these groups don’t represent true Christianity as you understand and practice it, I encourage you to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And read my friend Jeff Burns’ testimony of How a Muslim Child Saved an Evangelical Minister’s Soul.
7. Favorite author not named Carlos A. Rodriguez? And why?
Well, I’m glad you specified. ☺ In this moment, I’m going to go with Sara Miles. I love her work from a literary and a content perspective. You can’t go wrong with her memoir trilogy: Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead, and City of God: Faith in the Streets. If you’re ever in San Francisco, it’s worth worshipping alongside her, Paul Fromberg and company at St Gregory of Nyssa in the Mission District – and, if they need extra hands on a Friday, hanging out at their amazing food pantry.
8. What will the church look like in 2020?
Um…in three years? Probably a lot like how it looks now. ☺ Which is to say, a mixed economy of all kinds of churches. I think one change we’ll likely see – even in three years’ time – is even fewer people attending bricks-and-mortar, Sunday-morning churches, if churches keep accommodating and endorsing the powers-that-be, rather than challenging the status-quo with the subversive love and prophetic power of genuine Good News lived out in Table and service.
I really, really hope we step up to the plate on this one. Because faith communities – for all of our flaws – are one of those few places where messy people from a variety of social, economic, ethnic (hopefully) and political persuasions can get together face-to-face to seek (and enjoy) Someone Whose allegiances transcend our own.
We’re starting to see the cultural results of both conservatives and progressives leaving congregational life in droves, and it isn’t pretty. When we don’t have to sing and eat and bury next to each other, God help us.
9. Favorite shows on Netflix?
Right now I’m loving Better Call Saul, which has differentiated itself from Breaking Bad nicely, while still maintaining the quirk and the grit. Also Bojack Horseman, which is a surprisingly poignant commentary on the absurdities and despair of celebrity culture for being a cartoon about talking animals and humans hanging out! And finally The Americans, which to me is the best show on television right now. It’s not only about deep-cover Russian spies during 1980s Cold War America, a theme executed in a surprisingly well-acted and low-key manner, but it’s a story about family, about relationships, about loyalty, and about love and marriage in ways that strip away sentimentality and sucker-punch the viewer with reality. Oh, and there are Christian characters who show up who aren’t hypocrites or psychopaths! So yeah – go watch The Americans.
House of Cards? I like it, but it really can’t compete with the drama of this season of American Politics: The Reality Show. ☺
9. You were part of a house church movement – lessons learned?
Oh, man! So many lessons learned. This could be a whole interview in itself. For now, let me bullet-point them:
God’s people are infused with Divine creativity. Let loose a group of 10-40 people outside the traditional Sunday-morning monologue church style, and there are an endless variety of ways to gather in open, participatory teaching and fellowship.
Contemplative prayer is better in community. I appreciate practicing solo Centering Prayer, but some of the absolute depths of fellowship I’ve ever experienced are when small groups of 2-4 people get together and touch the heart of God in lectio divina, contemplative silence, and what I can only describe as prophetically speaking forth from God’s experience of us.
A group of men ‘clumping’ to sing and pray can be pretty dicey, from a ‘breath’ perspective. Fellas, if you’re going to pursue a life of radical face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder fellowship, be sure to pack a breath mint.
Even the most brilliant paradigms are no substitute for humility. In the particular branch of the house church movement I was part of – we understood ourselves as “the radical wing” – we had so much going for us: Relocating to live in community, substantial egalitarianism between women and men, experienced ‘apostolic’ church planters, a contemplative focus on the heart and not just Bible study, and a narrative appreciation of the New Testament and church history that allowed us to see a pattern that we believed was more faithful to God’s original intention for the church as an expression of unfettered divine fellowship on earth. That said, everything we had going for us also became our fatal flaw: We were proud of all we saw and knew, and this kept as at arms’ length from other believers, movements, and ideas. This made us woefully out-of-balance, and ultimately led to our undoing as a movement.
So I’d say whatever your ‘thing’ is – be it the revival that’s just around the corner, the restoration of ‘the gifts’ or the ‘five-fold ministry,’ new monasticism or house church, grace or justice or soaking prayer, Calvinism or Liberation Theology – take heed if ye think ye stand, lest ye fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12, if I may invoke a bit of King James English. ☺ ) You very well might have the Next Big Revelation, but without love it’s only so much noise. Stay curious. Stay open. Learn from whomever you can.
10. What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?
He loved with all of his might. He didn’t always do it perfectly – at all – but he loved well.
Read / Follow / Connect @ MikeMorell.org