Bob Sabath: What it Takes to Avoid Success

Sojourners co-founder Bob Sabath has written a wonderful reflection titled “Poorer, Poorer. Slower, Slower. Smaller, Smaller.” I commend this to all faithful dreamers and those who once were and are now floundering a bit.

Below is an excerpt from Bob’s reflection and then a poem by Rilke that Bob uses with his meditation. As an extra bonus, Bob’s son Peter set the Rilke poem to music.

…You had to be a bit crazy to be in the early community. And yes, we were poor. And we were small.

We tried to slow down. I tacked to my office door Thomas Merton’s warning to social activists about the violence of overwork:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects … is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism … kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

To stay alive, we needed prophet, pastor, and monk.

On our best days these three energies were at least on speaking terms with each other. But like every other community that I know, most of the time we majored in one, minored in a second, and had a hard time with the third.

For us, the outer journey of prophetic ministry was our major. The journey together in community was our minor. And the inner journey was our blind spot. We did not know how to be silent, or still, or slow. And so, like most young communities, we often could not see our own inner contradictions and arrogance, our own excesses and extremes.

Now, 40 years later, Sojourners has grown up. We are not poor, or small, or slow. We have a large budget with many full time staff. For better or worse, Sojourners has become an “institution” with the necessities of policies, procedures, protocols, precedents, and concerns about hiring and firing, supervision and management, promotions and salaries, lawsuits and litigation.

Some might say Sojourners is now a “success.” We certainly have a bigger public microphone than we did in the past, and the message of faith-in-action that we have been pushing for 40 years seems to be taking root.

But it all boils down to this: Poorer, slower, smaller may be necessary for the inner journey, but it is not a very good business plan.

In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr talks about the journey of descent that characterizes “second-half-of-life” spirituality. He reminds us that institutions by nature are “first-half-of-life structures” that “must and will be concerned with identity, boundaries, self-maintenance, self-perpetuation and self-congratulation.” He goes on to caution against false expectations:

“Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary.”

In Bill Plotkin’s model of the eight stages of human development in Nature and the Human Soul, institutions can, at most, be stage four, which in his view is still an adolescent level. In his opinion, only 15 percent of Americans have crossed into mature, initiated adulthood, and we are stuck in a pathological-adolescent culture that lacks the wisdom of initiated men and women elders.–Bob Sabath. Read the whole essay.

The Man Watching
by Ranier Maria Rilke
set to music by Peter Sabath Man Watching by psabath. Uploaded with Studio One

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

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