The Impossible Now–Part Three

…we build Emergency Rooms…

Of course this doesn’t stop the im/possible from occurring again. Wildcard futures, the unexpected and unpredicted, keep on happening; but just not in the same way. If we can count on them, they are no longer miraculous; they would have crystallized into just another part of the natural world. The im/possible, in order to remain impossible, will always recede back into the swirling primordial waters of the edge of chaos where it awaits upsetting the apple cart another time, in a different way than before. Going back to the Exodus narrative we see this played out in several places. The absurd provision of manna, a sort of cake-like heavenly food (whose name literally means “what is it” and emphasizes the confusion such im/possible events leave us with) is a seminal occurrence in Hebrew literature. However, the manna’s presence ends as the Israelites cross over into Canaan. Most interpret this to mean that God’s miraculous provision was no longer needed in the light of the bounty of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, and so God withdrew the needless gift. But in another reading, the manna actually disappears just when they need it and can count on it the most. It’s been forty years that they’ve relied on manna from God-knows-where. In some ways the generation that grew up with manna pudding and manna tar-tar has no concept of how to hunt or gather, let alone cook, anything else. Their conquest of the land will take another entire generation—who doesn’t need a regular stock of food and supplies for such an undertaking, especially one such as this that they have learned to depend on? In a sense, the rug is being pulled out from under the Hebrews’ feet. The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable.

All I need is…

And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (even if there were no God). And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter’s and Papers from Prison

Recently I’ve been reading quite a bit of Bonhoeffer’s final compilation.  It is intimate and raw. It is the diary of a man caught up in realities that can scarcely be imagined. He is imprisoned; waiting for a trial that never comes; watching horrors from the Nazi’s, horrors from the liberating Allied troops as they indescriminantly dropped their bombs on Germany; the inhumanity of man, the decay of morals as survival took over.  His reaction is in some ways exactly what you would expect from a witness of such atrocity. But, the man also happened to be a theologian. And so his response is caught up in this grand lament, a wrestling with God. I find the letters incredibly compelling.

That having been said–I can’t help but wonder if Bonhoeffer was wrestling with issues that are a) not ours (clearly right?) and b) speaking from a modernist culture that had reduced God–in a way he was reeling from the explaning away of God.  Some of the things he assumes feel more like “the death of God” modernism that would later be the final conclusion of the defunct Protestant/enlightenment marriage. I don’t know–now I would say my questions are not how can we live in a religionless Christianity but a religionFULL Christianity. 

This brings to mind something I’ve been wrestling with too.  As I’ve come out of the house church movement I’ve been reflective of what the messages I bought into and propagated were exactly. One of them was reductionism/puritanism at its finest.  “If this isn’t in the New Testament then it shouldn’t exist”.  Or, even more beautiful but equally simplistic and positivist: “Take the world (and the institutional church with all its bells and smells) and give me JUST JESUS”.  At the end of the day one realizes that this means something very very different to countless people.  It’s a simplification. And one that truly people really don’t mean.  “Just Jesus” in the organic church world, for instance, means the system of no overt leadership, meeting in houses, and the demand that everyone “share” (typically through speaking).  What I’m saying is that if you say your about “just Jesus” it means something more than…well..just Jesus… Isn’t that funny?  It’s the same with the charismatic world, that statement can hide inside it tongues, gifts of the spirit, etc… On and on it goes. My point is that the reduction, the need to simplify to the lowest common denomenator is actually simply laziness, or self indulgent piety (in some cases).  But evangelical Christianity is, in some ways, built upon this, (see Paul Metzger’s fascinating book: “Consuming Jesus” for more on this). 

For many young evangelicals, I suspect, this is a primary (if unconscious) reason why they’re returning to “high church”.  Spirituality/church to the MAX.  Tired of the reductions we say (along with indie band Over the Rhine) “All I need is everything!”

And that’s how I feel these days…some days…like I can’t reduce what I need to a single “just give me ______” statement.  In fact, while I’m curious about Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, I also don’t identify with it.  Christianity and Christ with it is too big to isolate from even religion. It and he must be everywhere and everything for it to be the reality of what is said of it, of the proclamations it makes.  There it is then…my reduction, “Just give me a gritty down to earth Jesus who I can find everywhere and in everything…All I need is ALL”.

Check it…

I wrote and threw this together yesterday.

Partially it was a fun experiment to see what I could do at first blush NOT using guitars (or at least them not sounding like guitars). 

The words are:

Let all creation sing Her praise–to U. Let all the colors bleed to U. Inside my doubt there is faith. And in my silence a song remains. And won’t U carry me away. U spin me round–round in circles. U spin me round–round in circles. Outside my head.”

…So God offers you a Gift…

Imagine that God speaks to you—we’re not talking about general revelation here, this is specific divine interruption.  He lets you know that he desires to give you a Gift, but because of “free will” it will need to be one of your own choosing.  Having said that you’re given two options:

 

1.) You can spend the rest of your life being absolutely certain about God, there will be no questions of faith or doubt. There will be an abiding sense of God’s presence and smile in all your ways…but everyone you meet will instantly begin to doubt the certainty of their own faith. They may or may not ever recover from that crisis.

OR

 

2). through you many of the wrongs in the world will be righted, justice and mercy and grace will be exhibited, the blind will see, the deaf will hear and the lame will walk…but you will cease to believe in God at all. You will even forget this conservation between yourself and the Most High…it will have been all in your imagination.

 

Which do you choose and why?

The Conversation is Changing

The conversation has, for me at least, changed.  

10 years ago, 5 years ago for that matter, these were questions that were circulated around, “what could happen if we had a church that ________?”  or “What if the church was a place where people just _______?”  It seemed like all of the talks that were being had dealt with the church; its composition, make up, and activities, etc…  

The end result of those conversations was a 6 year experiment in flat leadership (where everyone was perceived as functionally equal), open source (where everyone was able to contribute directionally, situationally, content wise), de-centralized (without any governing committee or person, decisions were made by consensus or not at all), communitarian and incarnational (where we attempted to BE the church rather than GO to church, living near each other to create opportunity for further exposure and relationship), organic (little structure, if any; constant reliance on the Spirit–eventually becoming synonymous with perpetual spontaneity)  and Christ centered (as opposed to “issues driven”, an entire focus on the person of God as opposed to the activities of God).

It’s interesting because today I hear many of the “hot” church planters (even Guru’s for that matter) toting these ideas around.  They, and many others we lived, are the sexy new methods.  Interestingly, for me, they are now (in some ways more than others) old hat…we lived them to their logical conclusion the ultimate extreme; we road tested them and found that some drove better than others.  

What’s funny is sitting at a restaurant or coffee shop with one of the new champions of these notions.  I’ll listen to their passionate and intense rhetoric about “following the Holy Spirit”/being spontaneous, tossing aside leadership roles in favor of function only models where everyone can be anything and everything, throwing out events and embracing incarnate organic church lifestyles…and then I yawn.  I’m bored.  Or those bizarre moments when I mention something as random as “growth” or throwing some sort of event or planning an “outreach” towards the community–only to be rebuked for my lack of Christ-centeredness (because of planning). In the end, the new guru’s are disappointed by me.  They don’t understand why I feel more comfortable in an brick and mortar institutional church (Mennonite, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Orthodox) or not in one at all (All faith embracing spirituality discussion groups/centers for transformation and mutual support).  Either way…the questions that I was asking, that are now being asked with a great degree of mundane regularity are not the ones that interest me any longer. And I really can’t explain that.

The goodness of God, the bigness/all expansiveness/(un)knowability of the Divine, the transformation of the entire person/locality/world, the life of justice/mercy/faith/and love practiced by individuals and collectives, art and hinting about things too big for cognitive expression, discovering a new way of thinking by living the question and embodying the certainties, surviving/coping/medicating/figuring out how to hope again, letting the symbol become the real (communion IS the reality…don’t kid yourself into thinking its only a shadow)…these are the thoughts that keep on coming back to me…The other stuff…well, I get it…I just am not there any more.

Oddly, I sense that a lot of the others–the ones who began asking those same questions around the same time–find themselves in the same place.  

For them also, it would seem, the conversation is shifting.  Interesting…I wonder where it goes next–if anywhere.

Addiction to unlove

I’ve got a friend–but he really could be any of us, he could be me–who has been deeply wounded by years of addiction.  Underneath that issue are a meriad of others, the loss of a father at an early age, the upbringing by that father that was alternately over permissive and brutally exacting, the genetic imprinting of a lineage of users and abusers all of whom put on religious faces preaching like angels and sinning like satan.  Years of growing up in fundamentalist religion, suppression and repression and eventually depression, has buried itself in the lines on his face.  He, like many of us, and perhaps because of some of us, rejected institutionalized Christianity.  It made sense to do so.  It was the villain forcing him towards substance abuse.  He, and we, rationalized that the absence of religiosity would be the Presence of God–the changing, transforming Presence of God.  One can say what they want, that he didn’t try hard enough, that he didn’t go to enough meetings, or pursue as others of us did, but he feels he gave it his best shot…and he did.  Sadly, the god he was aquainted with was not enough to conquer the addiction he intimately knew.  

And the truth was that those of us who showed him this god were no better.  We were still locked in the system of hiding weakness, denying humanity (the worst and the best), and the deification of escapism.  The formation we provided was hardly one of tackling problems and wrestling with them, Jacob vs. the Angel of the Lord style.  No, ours was a transcendent deity fostering a transcendent focus on heaven and soul (or spirit).  Our wisdom sounded like novice Gnosticism: reject the material realm, lose yourself, loathe yourself…come to the place of your own darkness.  “Arrive.”  “Get yourself to that spot.”  “Once you’re there.” In the end, it didn’t work.  None of it did.  He drank more and with greater secrecy.  Again, religion had told him to hide it.  That’s exactly what he did.  He dropped out of our lives, though he lived in the same intentional community.  He was gone.  

I struggle with that reality, with what is now a memory.  I wonder if I’d handled it differently how things might be changed for him.  I really don’t know.  Even recently, when he and I have talked, I get the impression from him that his expectation of religion is no less than what he received.  And even as my spiritual realities have changed and can offer him distinct advantages over what he once heard, he tends to reject those claims.  He, oddly enough, holds fiercely to the old religious view points of his father and lately of his friends–that didn’t work for any of us then and still don’t work for him.  On one hand he rejects the fundamentalism of his past as a failed set of unrealities, on the other hand he refuses to allow it to expand or be expanded.  There is no alternative Christianity for him, or even spirituality.  There is only the dogmatic claims of a late 20th century Protestantism, caught up in it’s own post enlightenment PR.   The funny thing is…it’s a straw man argument for him…as long as he can beat up what no one is actually saying, he doesn’t have to address what is truly be said in this moment.

What is being said?  What is the quentisental difference (at least in me) from now to then?  

Belovedness.

The sacredness of humanity.  That below our brokeness, the scar of a thousand millennia of falls and choosing from trees we know better than to eat from, lies the substance of God.  The smile of God saying: it will be alright.  Weakness is beautiful.  Strength is profane.  You’re ok.  It’s going to be alright.  Not because you belong to this little group or slightly larger grouping of those who believe in like manner.  But because you are.  Being is belonging.  That God, not the devil, is in the details.  That faith is simply living.  I get it now, like I never have before, that my certitudes and platitudes, were not faith…they were science, and an artificial science at that.  Faith (and true science) is found more often in the inky blackness of the universe, the absence and the Void, the unKnowing and the hidden stillness of parabola or the unSeen but intimately felt reality of a billion trillion minute strings pulling the chords of the universe through Word and anthemic Song. 

 And you…you with all of your imperfections…you are gorgeous, just as you are.  You Truth, hidden beneath a murky milleau of Lie, is bursting to be seen; to tear out and kiss God as though embracing a mirror.

That’s what I wish I could communicate to him.  That’s what I’m starting to know…deeply…and, for me at least, it’s making all the difference.

House Church vs. Emerging…

In response to the conversation the Mike started over at zoecarnate.com I’d like to a little bit about the convergence of house church and emerging church. 

FIRST: A DISCLAIMER

My own spiritual biography is as much all over the topography of evangelicalism as the next guy.  I grew up in the belly of Churchianity and in 1998 took a neccesarry time out.  I was young, I was opinionated, and I had an ax to grind.  Since then I’ve spoken about many of those moral outcries’ against the institutional church simply being daddy issues getting worked through. And I do really believe that; not so much about the actual points of contention, make no mistake, I still have real and, I believe, legitimate concerns about that nature and conduct of much of what passes for the Way of Christ today.  But actually, in reflection, most of my daddy issues came out in the manner I reacted against the institutional church in.  I was angry and brash and fundamentalist to the core.  Those attitudal leanings clouded much of what were actual prophetic concerns for direction of Christianity.  I made it easy for people to disregard the message. 

FROM ONE SYSTEM TO ANOTHER

I cut my teeth in the house church world.  I called it primitive church. First century church.  I made pithy (read: obnoxious) comments like “God is at home when His people are at home”.  I centralized the role of the house in all things. And I was not alone.  It felt like most everyone in that stream, be they more radical (ala Gene Edwards, Frank Viola, etc) or more moderate (Rutz, Simpson, Dale), were all reacting deeply to the institution. 

Eventually I ceased to live in deconstruction.  My enjoyment of labeling denominated Christianity as “them” and those who met in a home as “us” faded.  Truth be told I was seeing much of the same deadness I had reacted against, in my own church community.  Many of the same issues were incredibly present. Of course I ended up realizing that institutions were not the problems…people were.  And without sounding too Augustinian (which I’m not on this issue)…I realize that people are simply going to be…well…people, wherever and in whatever form or system you set up.

That was the other thing I realized.  No matter how much you try and escape culture or systems, you are making them.  Every point of view is a view from a point.  In other words we all bring our entire culture with us. It’s false positivism to imagine we are uninfluenced by our pasts or that THIS church experience will be pure in being detached from our previous ones.  Besides all that, if you do something twice you’ve just created a working ritual. And I inherently began to understand some things deserved to be done twice. 

ENTER THE EMERGING CHURCH

In many conversations with a variety of people and friends I discovered that there was an entire world of friends and followers of Jesus who were exploring these same radically complex issues.  They were doing so with a level of honesty, humility, and dogged experimentation.  It felt like they had learned many of the lessons that were now hardpressed for me.  For that i was grateful.  It also felt like they had not veered quite so reactionary as had I and others in what was now being deemed as ‘the house church movement’.  In many of these conversations, culture critique (and church critique) was redirected into culture creation (and church creation)…something I consider infinitly more worthy of time spent. 

SOME COMMONALITIES

Over the past while I’ve come to see that the two streams are more connected than disconnected.  I found relationship, narrative theology, informality, bottom up distributed leadership, a reappreciation for a more thorough reading of the New Testament, all in house church AND emerging church.  I found in both, an honest appraisal of the short comings of modern Christianity and the plight of the Church.  And, in both, I found a lot of people who loved Jesus and were attempting to explore the implications of living in His reality. 

DIVERGENCE

There are however real differences.  I’ve often postulated what they are.  For me, and this is based only upon my interpretation of my own experience, as well as my limitted experience of countless groups meeting in homes across the US and several across the world, some of the difference lie in the demographic attracted to both.  Take your average house church. According to one well documented source, the average age in the US is over 40. Interesting.  Over 40.  (That is certainly the case with the group I was a part of. The initial radical birthing of our group, whose thought and aspirations resembled much more of the emerging thinkers of today, was more recently replaced with secure/stable/systematic thinkers…all of whom are typically over 40…nothing bad about that by the way…I love them all) 

IT’S ALL ABOUT STEREO TYPES

They are the last hold outs of the boomers.  Sociologists say that boomers are the last generation raised in a Modern (philosophically) environment.  The boomers then radically changed the landscape didn’t they?  But meanwhile they, themselves, are not all that different than their “greatest generation” parents.  That’s why the hippie chicks grew up to be hypocrites.  Why peacenicks gave birth to war mongers.  They created a different society but found it to be too difficult to live with. (I’m speaking in generalities…however, this is hardly original to me…) 

WHAT ABOUT GEN X?

Enter Gen X and their children. We are pluralists raised in a pluralistic society.  We match our contexts in a way that our parents really didn’t.  And so go to your average (if there is such a thing) emergent gathering.  There tends to be more of an embrace of culture, more of a nuanced appreciation for symbol and sign, and an ability or at least a desire to live in tension rather than running to fundamentalism (left or right). There is a consideration of form and tradition that the Modern mind cannot grasp.  This difference is carefully articulated in the difference between my mother (a boomer) and my wife (a gen x).  My mother cannot understand the love of older more distressed furniture that my wife has chosen for our house.  The reason…”I want my house to look new…not old”  The Modernist Experiment was always forward thinking. The illusion of the Enlightenment was that the present was racing towards a glorious horizon of future completely detached from the old, and should then no respect what the old ways brought.  This then is played out over and over in how postmodern worship is characterized as both “future AND ancient” rather than simply searching for the NEXT thing…

As I look at these two experiences I can’t help but wonder if the real difference for me is one of social tendencies.  Two different expressions of the church for two different generations or era’s. 

To be honest, the house churches I’ve seen seem to be more focussed on deconstruction, even in their constructive forms (as in: “Institutional church says “No!”…I’ll say “Yes!” and so on…this is reactionary even if it’s not deconstructive…and I think it is done at a far deeper level than any one is cognitive of). 

SO OFF MY THEORETICAL SOAP BOX

I appreciate that both streams have allowed people who might not otherwise be within the fold of Christianity any more, to inhabit it with a measure of good conscience.  I know I hear a lot about radical conversions in both groupings…however, I think as a whole emerging churches and house churches tend to be started by, inspired with, and ministering to the broken and battered children of church; who, filled with Sunday School promises of a deeper life of miracles and mighty wonders, were crushed that those just didn’t come true.  For that, both cultural moves should be thanked.  They’ve extended the bounds of “orthodoxy”.

In the end…the emerging church conversation enfolds and overtakes the house church movement.  The Church truly is emerging. She is growing and maturing. She is reimagining herself and what she was called to be in her birthing moments.  Perhaps she always is.  A generation ago that reimagining and reaction brought forth the Jesus Movement and thousands of communities meeting in homes for the first time, that gave birth in dream and vision to the house churches of today.  Now, younger generations are stumbling along groping for light and life, trying to make sense of the headship of jesus Christ in today’s world. Call it the emergent church, the simple plan, life in the Way of Jesus…whatever…it is changing…the world is different and the Church, both an influencer and influenced by Her culture is changing with it.  That change, including the house church exodus of the past, is emerging. 

(And all that while realizing there is some debate among emergers about the sustainability of that brand name as such, that being Emerging Church.  I get it.  I really do.  What did we expect when we put thought generators and idea first takers into the same room and then asked them to be content for more than five years with one label?  It was inevidable.  The word no longers describes the new ideas…though scientifically speaking…I can’t find a better more palatable one)

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