Falling Upward

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                 Sept 27, 2020

Phil 2:1-13


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God. Amen.

When I was in Germany two years ago, I noticed some small plaques buried in the cobblestone road in front of certain homes. When I looked closely, they each contained the names of Jewish people who had lived in that home. The names were accompanied by their date of birth and date of deportation to various concentration camps. The name of these small plaques that have been placed across Europe is “stolperstein”, which means stumbling stone. The engraved writing is intended to stop people in their tracks as a sobering reminder of humanity at its worst.

Why do we need to be reminded of this? The same reason we need to wear orange shirts on Sept. 30 as a reminder of the children in the residential schools. 20th century philosopher George Satayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The need to remember the horrors comes also from scripture. The cross on which Jesus was tortured and killed is called a stumbling stone in I Corinthians. The cross could be seen as proof that either God didn’t care or didn’t exist. It caused people to stumble in their faith. The prophet Isaiah tells the people that God is both a sanctuary—a haven in the storm—and a stumbling stone that will bring Israel down (Isaiah 8:14).

Why the cross? Why a God who offers comfort and also downfall? The cross was a travesty. It also showed us the depth to which God was willing to suffer for us. One of the attractions of Christianity for me is that suffering is incorporated into the very heart of the Christian faith—never to justify it, but to acknowledge that it is very real and that God is there—in the absolute depths of suffering.

I am also learning that suffering can help us deepen our faith. The Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, describes not only the last steps of Jesus, but also the way of Christian believers who embrace the suffering of life into the very heart of their faith.

Many of us here follow the daily emailed meditations of Father Richard Rohr. He has written a book called Falling Upward in which he describes the two halves of human life. In the first half, we are establishing ourselves—our careers, our families, our homes, our reputation. The extent to which we are successful determines our health and happiness. That is, until some things fall apart. At that point, we could move into despair or we could move into the second half of our lives which begins to place less importance on everything we worked so hard to establish. During this second half, we begin to move inwards and find contentment not with our role or image but with our real self—the self that is our core, deeply loved by the Creator. It is the divine spark within, love at its best, that can find union with the Creator regardless of what begins to fall away from our external self-image.

What helps to move us into this second stage of life is failings, fallings and losses. What is catastrophic may actually help us move deeper into the core of our being where we can tap into a wellspring of love. Richard Rohr writes that those who have failed, fallen or gone down may be better able to rise above. We may learn more from doing things wrong than from doing things right. And in this sense, our failings and our sufferings may best help us grow spiritually.

St. Teresa of Avila, whose prayer inspired our mission statement about being the hands and feet of Christ, understood the role of failure and suffering in spiritual maturity. In fact, every mystic I have read speaks a lot about suffering and what it taught them. St. Teresa wrote, “To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience.” She then cautions, but “don’t let your sins turn into bad habits.” St. Julian of Norwich recognized that both our failings and our restitutions are part of the spiritual journey. She wrote, “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”

It is such a relief to know that we don’t have to be perfect—it would be impossible. God doesn’t want perfection. God just wants us to be honest about our failings and sincere about trying again. God asks us to be humble and accept our limitations. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t try to be what others want. To move into the second half of life is to stand naked of pretensions and be content even when our hard-fought roles and accomplishments fall away.

The second half of life takes us into the heart of Philippians 2, where we are told that Jesus humbly emptied himself. Of what? of his role as a prophetic rabbi, his reputation as a healer, his identity as God’s chosen beloved. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried from the cross.

A social psychologist who is an atheist was once asked what constructive contribution Christianity could make to society. He replied, “Humility.” That’s not the answer most churches would expect. Some feel their contribution to society is morality and family values. Others believe they are called to work for social justice. But I don’t think a church on any side of the political spectrum would think that their contribution is humility. Morality, family values and social justice all require firm positions and clear distinctions about what is of God and what is not. But humility requires a lack of certitude. It is self-confident and secure enough to say, “I don’t have the whole picture. I don’t know the whole story. I need your perspective and your eyes to help me see.” Humility requires interdependence, believing that we all need the gifts, knowledge and wisdom of one another. Humility takes us into the second half of life.

Each Sunday through to Thanksgiving, we will be talking about a different angel. Today’s angel is the angel of humility. It is a difficult gift—often painful, sometimes humiliating. But humility ultimately helps us separate the chaff from the grain. It helps us know what is of lasting importance. The angel of humility quiets our spirits and takes us into a thoughtful peace that characterizes the second half of our lives.

Describing this second half of life, Richard Rohr writes, “We should not be surprised that most older people do not choose loud music, needless diversions, or large crowds. We move toward understimulation, if we are on the schedule of soul. Life has stimulated us enough, and now we have to process it and integrate it, however unconsciously. Silence and poetry start being our more natural voice and our more beautiful ear at this stage.”[1]

Thomas Merton moved early into the second half of his life, reflected by a poem that describes how self-emptying of status and reputation gave him peace. He writes,

“…It was a lucky wind

That blew away his halo with his cares,

A luck sea that drowned his reputation…”

Rohr explains that the gradual loss of symbols of status “is the necessary stumbling stone that makes you loosen your grip on the first half of life and takes away any remaining superior self-image.” What’s left is simply your inner core of beauty, illuminated by God within. We trip over the stumbling stones of disappointments, illnesses and failures and fall upwards into the second half of our lives. There, we find the things we can no longer do because of who we’ve become, the things we don’t need to do because they are not ours to do anymore, and things we absolutely must do because they are our deepest desire. On the journey of the soul into the second half of our lives, our driving motives are no longer money, success or the approval of others.[2] Instead, what matters more than anything is to live honestly and humbly from that inner depth of love, offering our hands and hearts as Christ’s.


[1] Richard Rohr, “Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011): 144.

[2] Rohr, 165-6.