How Music works in Worship?

Recently my friend Bruce Reyes-Chow suggested I blog “How does music touch your soul?” He left it pretty broad so I’ll have some fun with this.  I’m going to unpack the use of music in worship and take it from a systems approach rather than a “everyone should sing because the bible includes songs and faith traditions invite people to sing” approach.  Not that I care to disprove the later, just that the former is more interesting to me.

Here are three thoughts on music/soul/worship:

  1. Beauty saves us
  2. When we sing we vibrate together
  3. Our selves are all we have

So First of all, how does beauty save us?  I know I’ll get some push back on this but before you do I want you to think of times that a favorite movie, a song, a concert, a painting, an elaborate meal, or the sun’s setting took your breath away.  Narrow it down to one example.  Can you recreate that moment?  Think of the time of day, the season of the year, those who were with you, the smells, the colors, the sounds. What comes to mind?  In what ways did your encounter with beauty take your breath away, reorient you, bring you in touch with or help you overcome your fears or anxieties?  Did you or those with you try to describe it in the moment, or just let it ring true?  If you did give it words, did they measure up to the experience?

Elaine Scarry describes beauty as (among many things) a “quickening” encounter, “it is as though one has suddenly been washed up onto a merciful beach: all unease, aggression, indifference suddenly drop back behind one, like a surf that has for a moment lost its capacity to harm.”(On Beauty and Being Just, pg25).  Instead of the mind successfully searching for precedents or names it is too filled with the present, “It is the very way the beautiful thing fills the mind and breaks all frames that gives the ‘never before in the history of the world’ feeling” (OBBJ, 23). Like Isaiah’s response to five chapters of wonder and glory, all of the mind is full and we respond, “Woe is me!” (Is 5.5).  Like the woman healed of hemorrhages who told Jesus her whole story, all our reservations are freed up (Mk 5.33).  Like the audience of new perceivers at the Church’s first Pentecost, when “Awe came upon everyone” because of signs and wonders, old “frames” are broken and new structures are suddenly created for living in the way of Christ (Ac 2.42-47).

I’m not arguing to replace the “Word made flesh, crucified and risen” notion of salvation.  I’m simply suggesting that we see more deeply how God’s accomplishes salvation in the way that beauty does, by drawing us into the new, awakening us to creation’s oldest song.

So music, uniquely pulls us into a place of appreciation, of awe, of love, of health.

 

Second, when we sing we are moving in a unified field. Music (and most notably music that we can feel coming from our own diaphragm sending air though our busy little larynx) is the travelling of waves.  Like we’re learning from quantum physics and theories like string theory, at the subatomic level all material things share properties.  We are less separate than we suppose.  Concerts of people singing together share a harmonic space. And when a bass drum is beating it is obvious, we’re shaken together as one material field through which the rhythm can travel.  Like a rock falling in the pond makes ripples, the music is the rock and the congregation is the pond.

Augustine is credited with saying that “when we sing we pray twice.”  Who knows all that he meant by that.  But in conventional circles, Christians site this quote to emphasize that the whole self—the whole body joins in the prayer.  Similarly to Yoga and other healing arts, song is something that involves more than the recitation of words or the intellectual concept.

When I coach bands and vocalists in leading worship I ask them to imagine an open tuned guitar and an oscillating fan blowing over the strings until they ring in harmony.  The musician’s job, and the leader of corporate prayer, is to bring the members of the gathering into harmony with each other, to ring together.  Like the spirit of God hovering over the waters, musicians have the responsibility to prepare space, to listen, to watch, and then to stir the winds.

 

Third, our material selves are all we have.  My friend Pete Rollins articulates this as well as any when he says “Christianity is nothing less than a material faith i.e. a mode of being that transforms ones material actuality”.  The longer I make music and work with people in community organizing capacities I am coming to believe that the so called “spiritual” world is not somewhere “out there”, but is instead known through the everyday, the here and now, the stuff of life.  Walter Brueggemann has written a prayer in which he invites us to be “rooted to earth, and awed by heaven.”  By this I think he’s pointing to the deeply integrated Hebrew tradition in which the God of the heavens is in our midst.

God is known, tasted, heard, in this world via material things of this world.  At the neurological level, everything ranging from the secret vision of a word from the Lord, to reading a paragraph of scripture, to appreciating a sunrise involves chemicals and electrical impulses travelling through your brain.  ‘Not to mention physical eardrums or retinas.  Just this morning on Morning Edition, I heard an interview with a neuroscientist whose research concluded that “music has some kind of privileged access to the motor system.” Songs uniquely utilize the senses and material world.  And like a familiar smell brings back an old memory, a song is capable of releasing endorphins and serotonins triggering inspiration, grief, or anger, or all these simultaneously.

Since music incorporates the material world, it befits congregations who seek to engage, bless, and transform the material world at their doorsteps.  And the breadth of musical tone, genres, and palates your congregation uses, the wider the range of applicability in the missional lives of the congregants.

When Bruce asked me about music and soul, the thought came to mind, “music is a window into soulfulness.”  Like the exiled Hebrews who loathed singing the wrong song in the wrong place, music has the unique ability to expose dissonance in any a context.  When bands play popular covers at bars that don’t sound like soul-felt words or tones, it leaves the experience wanting.  All to often worship music, seeking to “reach out,” to “be relevant” or to “validate” an underrepresented population group can do the same.  I think this has to do with the misunderstanding of the physical and somatic connections made with music.

 

With many of my African American friends, after a great concert someone leaves saying they just "had church."  I think this is due to the deep connections our bodies make between song and participation in worshiping God.

So, what do you think?  When have you "had church"?  And what are some of the best and worst uses of music you’ve seen in faith communities?

 

Advent songs of longing

Is it poor form to be sad that Advent is drawing to a close? Somehow the more maudlin honesty about longing, with the cooler air (though Atlanta has been uncharacteristically warm this December) and the bare trees invites me to a place of peace and deep beauty more than any other of the year. Not to be confused with the 25 day calendar countdown complete with daily chocolates, the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmastide originates in the Hebrew lament and apocalyptic traditions. The prophets and prophetesses of the Jewish people anticipated a day when their suffering would be reversed and when God would usher in an age of freedom, Sabbath, and reconciliation (check out Isaiah 27.6-28.13, or Handle's Messiah). Walter Brueggemann writes, "It is for good reason that prophetic imaging is characteristically done in daring metaphor, surprising rhetoric, and scandalous utterance, for to do less is to fall back into conventional distortions of reality." (Brueggemann, NYAPC, August 2006) Music has been a vehicle for that metaphor for centuries and folks like Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield brought it into the fore of pop music. Christmas season in the west is filled with the kind of longing aesthetic, just check out the #sadchristmas hashtag.

In years past songs like Tom Wait's Jesus Gonna Be Here, Joni Mitchell's  River, or U2's Wake Up Dead Man have been strong Advent soundtracks, but the two songs this year that particularly captured this feeling for me were Rory Cooney's Canticle of the Turning, and Paul Simmon's Getting Ready For Christmas Day .

My main-liner colleagues love the Canticle of the Turning written by Rory Cooney in 1990 (a GIA Pub). Cooney ties a Celtic vibe with the song of liberation starting from Mary's Magnificat to Hannah's prayer in the temple, and Miriam's dance after the escape through the parted Red Sea (here's his version). Usually these women's words are absorbed in the story but Cooney helps bring this theme of God's messianic shift to the fore. One verse goes:

From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev'ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;

In the last verse he roots the fulfilling Messianic work of Christmas in a creation theology:

This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, 'Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.

I have to admit, I was sorta hard on this song in seminary because it was always rendered with the aesthetic of a PBS special of The River Dance when sung to organ in straight 4/4. And it was a token song for youth-pastors-turned-MDiv students with djembes wearing indigenous shirts from past mission trips. But last year I heard Emmaus Way do it and then this year I was able to arrange it with the band at City Church Eastside and we landed in a more Joplin/Zepplin feel (or Blitzen Trapper for folks following current indie music) which is admittedly my own subcultural equivalent of indigenous shirts from mission trips. Anyways, the song's revolutionary tone and poetry came to life for me in this new setting. We began to joke that is was a song for 99%, but its probably more a song for the 2/3rds world (who's indigenous shirts are worn by ex-youth pastors).

This is all to say that songs, when deconstructed and rewritten by folks in your congregation can capture the imaginations of your community in ways that songs that with a educated "global" feel may actually keep at arms lengths. But I'll confess its hard to seperate my own subjective aesthetic from my argument, perhaps you'd have some better perspective to offer…

Someone who's appropriation of global and indegenous sounds has always felt more intergrative is Paul Simmon. A second song that has been working on me this Advent is from his most recent album, So Beautiful So What. The album deserves a post of its own because of his masterful poetry, clever delivery and outstanding folk/rock sensibility. But the first song on the album, Getting Ready for Christmas Day, is the one I'd love to share. The guitars are panned with a reverb going back and forth similar to T-Bone Burnet's production of the Krauss/Plant album, Raising Sand. Beneath the percussive guitars and drums you first single out the sounds of what could be party conversation but then you realize its a black church with the preacher and congregation in that unmistakable call and response. The cadence of his words are magical and makes me wonder if Simon wrote the song to fit with the sermon (but I'll bet the sermon was mixed to fit the song). The minister, Rev. J.M.Gates, was an Atlantan activist, Christian preacher, and gospel singer from the early 20th century and a pioneer of the new media of his time (its estimated that 25% of all sermons commercially released before '43 were his ). The sermon sampled in the song comes from shortly after the second world war. On Simon's web site he posts Gates' lyrics with his and it makes for a call and response of its own centered in the longing of Advent. Mike tweeted today that a conversation between a contemporary working class person hustling to live up to the acquisitive expectations of capitalism and an apocalyptic sermon about the brevity of life. Notice the interplay:

Paul Simon: From early in November to the last week of December I got money matters weighing me down Oh the music may be merry, but it's only temporary I know Santa Claus is coming to town In the days I work my day job, in the nights I work my night But it all comes down to working man's pay Getting ready, I'm getting ready, ready for Christmas Day

Reverend Gates : Getting ready for Christmas Day And let me tell you, namely, the undertaker, he's getting ready for your body Not only that, the jailer he's getting ready for you Christmas day. Hmm? And not only the jailer, but the lawyer, the police force Now getting ready for Christmas day, and I want you to bear it in mind

Paul Simon: I got a nephew in Iraq it's his third time back But it's ending up the way it began With the luck of a beginner he'll be eating turkey dinner On some mountain top in Pakistan Getting ready, oh we're getting ready For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas day

Reverend Gates: Getting ready, for Christmas day. Done made it up in your mind that I'm going, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. I'm going, on a trip, getting ready, for Christmas day. But when Christmas come, nobody knows where you'll be. You might ask me. I may be layin' in some lonesome grave, getting ready, for Christmas day

Paul Simon: Getting ready oh we're getting ready For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas day Yes we're getting ready

Reverend Gates: Getting ready, ready for your prayers, "I'm going and see my relatives in a distant land."

Pail Simon: Getting ready, getting ready for Christmas day If I could tell my Mom and Dad that the things we never had Never mattered we were always okay Getting ready, oh ready for Christmas day Getting ready oh we're getting ready For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas day

What songs bring Advent home for you?  Will you miss this season as much as me?

structure verses interaction, is this a fair dichotomy?

For year I've been having conversations with friend, blogging-preacher-mom MaryAnn McKibben Dana, about worship. We were in seminary together and led many an alternative approach to preaching and liturgy.  But now she is serving in a traditional context. Recently I asked her to hit me up with a question or two for this blog.

 She writes:

My question comes from serving a traditional congregation that has a lot of potential. I have introduced all sorts of things with them, basic stuff like prayer walls, talkbacks in worship, and the like. Thankfully, I have never experienced resistance to any of these funky things. But... I sense that they put up with this so long as I don't do it too often. I'd rather the interactive stuff be more of the norm, not that there's not structure, but it's a skeleton, not an exoskeleton, that limits our growth.
So I wonder what tips you have for congregations that are open to change, but are coming from a very traditional place (I keep using that word). This is a church that until 5 years ago did the Apostles' Creed EVERY Sunday. In other words, we're starting from scratch. What's the beginners' course for interactive, creative worship design?

I totally get where you're coming from, MaryAnn.  Just this Sunday I was curating sung prayer for a young adventurous church plant that loves alternative shaped music but still didn't know what to do when the wrong bulletins were printed.  And later that evening I attended a casual Episcopalian service where the attendees wanted to read their prayers, hear the gospel lesson, share communion, and be out in 45 minutes.  Neither of these congregations are ready for or interested in weekly open sourced interactive stations.  They might each agree that change is necessary to attract new comers, but that doesn't mean their worship incorporates change any more than your traditional Presbyterian church.  Among many ways of approaching this, I find a key starting point is developing an understanding of worship that engages the participant as a learner, facing new questions.  Does worship incorporate opportunity to encounter unsolved problems, or does your congregation expect worship leaders to solve all the problems before they arrive?  This is not the fault of structure but the fault of congregational expectations (or pastoral expectations, or both).  A great Phish concert, Jazz show, or improve theater will tell you that they plan meticulously, and yet they know that open spaces for serendipity are essential to the actual art happening.  In fact, high levels of interaction usually require structure.Most of us already do this in preaching, we set up a story or metaphor that places the listener in an aesthetic posture of "re-thinking" their presumed categories.  In their clever book on marketing, Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath call this "breaking the guessing machine."  One of the challenges in organized worship gatherings, however, is that people grow accustomed to the guessing machine and find comfort in knowing, resting in the familiar.  See if the rhetorical tools you use to engage the listener can be applied to other worship introductions, and to teaching and observation about the shape of worship. When you can break people's guessing machines when it comes to sharing a cup or pulling out your their wallets for an offering, then you're on your way.

I've spent the last 6 months closely reading Edwin Friedman's A Failure of Nerve in which he describes countless stories of the European explorers of the fifteenth and sixteen centuries.  Though their maps were incorrect, the sense of adventure in these explorers led them down mistaken path after mistaken path.  In fact, over that the hundred year period of extensive exploration, generations of European lived with incorrect maps based on false connections between the continents and major bodies of water  until they finally all synched up into a concrete picture of reality.  The break through into new ways of seeing and knowing our world had been forbidden by imagined bounds like geocentricism and the equatorial myth, and even after those myths were gone, it took 100+ years to rebuild what would become the current image of this planet.  He writes:

"The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.  The willingness to encounter serendipity is the best antidote we have for the arrogance of thinking we know.  Exposing oneself to chance is often the only way to provide the kind of mind-jarring experience of novelty that can make us realize that what we thought was reality was only a miror of our minds.  Related here is the neccessity of preserving ambiguity in artistic expression since, if the viewer's imagination is to flower, it is importaint not to solve the problem in advance." (Failure of Nerve p46)

 

I think the church is in an imaginatively gridlocked system.  When worship leaders (pastors, musicians, lay or clergy)  have to prove their omniscience to a congregation then its a tail tell sign that the congregation has begun to form worship and the one they worship in their own image. Worship, like therapy, is about generalization.  While I don't think therapy is always a good metaphor for worship, in this case it works—the couple that uses "I statements" with enough frequency in therapy eventually uses them at home in higher stress situatations.  Similarly, in worship, our minds and imaginations inhabit a story and a practice such that we then recognize that story in the wider world.  So I'd argue that worship without questions or "room for serendipity" actually misshapes the congregants. Congregants need their "imagination to flower" in worship so that they can find God in the unsolved problems they face in life.

 

Here are some tricks to try that don't require unscrewing your pews or painting faces.  And even when they don't go as planned they'll serve their purpose in rewiring folks to make room for serendipity:

  1. Try using a visual image in worship and asking questions about it that you don't already have answers to.
  2. Allow lectio divina to open some space for the "sermon" to crawl into unknown spaces, and then playfully say, "I wonder where that could lead you the rest of the week?"
  3. Regularly confess publicly when you don't know what you're doing
  4. Meet with some of your leadership (such as a worship committee) and identify various places in your worship gatherings (in the usual liturgy) that you can on some unexpected week, either break a guessing machine, or leave open space for serendipity.
  5. Then slowly introduce creative practices (such as those found in The Art of Curating Worship or Sacred Space ) for one element of worship, during session meetings, bible studies, sunday school, etc.
  6. Invoke responsibility: Always note that people are freely invited to opt in, to join the adventure, but that they can also opt into silent contemplation if they would prefer that over one of the exercises.

Let me know if any of these tips work or what other tips you might have.

Clayfire... failed pot?

So, what is Clayfire, and why would anyone care if its gone (here's the closing announcement)  ?

Their tagline, "reshaping worship together" sums up what I think they/we were after.  But they also needed to figure out how the reshapers or users of "pre-shaped" worship were going to access the designs... and in the world of Planning Center Online and various denominational worship resource companies, Clayfire never figured out how to break into the industry.

About two years ago at Christianity21 event in Minneapolis I met Linda Parriot and got reacquainted with Sally Morganthaler, they were beginning a project around worship that would combine resourcing churches as well as catalyzing artists who design worship and art experiences. The project would be both an affiliate of Augsburg Fortress Press' new imprint, Sparkhouse, and a sort of online resource store.

I joined up with the team as they were commissioning original content for the online resources.  Sally and a few others moved on around the same time because they were more committed to the catalyzing and collaboration than to an online resource site. I enjoyed working on a fresh collection called "God's Grand Work of Art" with friends like Tim Omara, Aaron Strumple, Todd Fadel, Josey Stone, Margaret Ellsworth and my brother, designer Jonathan Bronsink.  The collection was one of dozens designed by artist who not only lead worship music, paint, or preach, but who design worship as formational practice of missional life.  Influenced by the work of Mark Pierson, Clayfire coined this practice as "curation."

Then last summer I met up with Jodi-Renee Adams, Eric Heron and Lilly Lewin to plan a worship gathering at the Wild Goose Festival.  Eric had been leading a blog discussion on this for quite some time, and many of us had worked together before. But working at the goose was a chance to welcome other artists into the conversation and introduce this line of worship design thinking to pastors and missional leaders. Here's a picture of an experience curated that included the use of yarn passed between participants as a symbol of shared  prayers.

Then, this fall I had the chance to work with Mark, Jodi, Shawna Bowman (in the pic above) and ephemeral artist and Methodist campus minister, Ted Hatten. We co-facilitated a seminar in Chicago called The Art of Curating Worship (after Mark's book by the same name). In that space I really grew to trust the vision and focus of the Clayfire organization.  While they did need to make the business start up work (and the actual online subscription program had to roll back to beta because of so many quirks) they had carefully connected the success of the business and the online resources to the re-imagining of worship.  Not enough could be said about the courage to try that!

So, this Monday, when I learned that Clayfire would be unplugged I was sad but not surprised.  It was at once a struggling business venture and a burgeoning group of theologically nuanced creatives who could (and still might) reshape the practices of church.  For sure, these theological-artist and others were doing this before Clayfire, but nevertheless this was a rallying point and I met great people because of it.

In the art of throwing pottery, the potter often discovers that the clay just doesn't want to become what she had in mind.  If, in the middle she forces it one way or another the entire vessel collapses and throws slag and bits of unfired clay over the potter, the wheel, and the room. Sometimes potters luck out and an unexpected work of art emerges.  And then sometimes the pot seems to be done but it just doesn't feel right... it ends up sold at a discount because it never fits...  Sometimes its not until they are fired in the kiln that pots fail, because the slip and scoring weren't strong enough for the handle to hold or because the glaze bled.

So the question is what do we make of Clayfire? A failed business idea, or an early iteration in a host of ways forward in congregational formation and worship arts?  I'm sure that there remains more to be seen from the world of worship curation and I hope that Clayfire's legacy will play a significant role in whats to come.

What do you hope for the future of worship shaping, and what organizations, groups or networks have you found most supportive of this kind of work?

Two Christmas Poems

This Christmas here are two poems I'm returning to: "The Invisible Seen" —St. Athanasios (c. 298-373, trans by Scott Cairns)

When our dull wits had so declined as to set us mid the squalor of the merely sensible creation, the Very God consented to become a body of His own, that He as one among us might gather our dim senses to Himself, and manifest through such incommensurate occasion that He is not simply man, but also God, the Word and Wisdom of the One.

Thereafter, He remained His body, and thus allowed Himself to be observed. his becoming joined to us performed two appalling works in our behalf: He banished death from these our tender frames, and made of them something new and (take note here) renewing.

“Nativity” —John O’Donohue (1956-2008)

No man reaches where the moon touches a woman. Even the moon leaves her when she opens Deeper into the ripple in her womb That encircles dark, to become flesh and bone.

Someone is coming ashore inside her, A face deciphers itself from water, And she curves around the gathering wave, Opening to offer the life it craves.

In a corner stall of pilgrim strangers, She falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears. A red wire of pain feeds through every vein, Until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn. Outside each other now, she sees him first, Flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.

Inventing Intentionally Transformational Emerging Worship

Check out this online course we will be teaching through the Center for Progressive Renewal.  This course is open for anyone to register. Course is postponed until January,  shoot Troy or Josh an email if you have interest in the shape of the curriculum or other workshops we lead.

Inventing Intentionally Transformational Emerging Worship, a five-week course led by Troy Bronsink, an artist and pastor seeking the way of Jesus, and blogger, podcaster and activist Joshua Case, is designed to help you look at worship from a new perspective and to set the foundations for change. Not all healthy worship gatherings are organized as “emerging churches,” but the emerging design values of intention, transformation and participation are shared across the board. This course in designing worship keeps those values in mind. Whether you are starting a church or a new service, or you are ready to build these missional values into traditional worship gatherings, this course is for you. Students will utilize skills from community organizing and design thinking to articulate their congregation’s hermeneutic and mission, and then design a four-week worship series in teams comprised of other students or artists in their congregation. Weekly written reflections will be based on assigned readings from ecclesiology, aesthetics, liturgical theology and contemplation. To model transformational worship, the course will be structured as a journey of spiritual formation for all participants. Like a mini-study leave, space will be created for participants to re-imagine/deconstruct/construct congregational and personal worship. In other words, it will be an interactive prayer.

The course begins Tuesday, November 16 at 7 p.m. EASTERN time with a conference call for all participants. Tuition is $249. For more information, please contact Rev. Gregg Carlson, CPR’s Director of Online Learning at gregg@progressiverenewal.org.

Keep Singing!

I know I've been MIA, here's the latest and some of what is brewing in me... We're preparing our house and family life for our second kid, due September 28. I'm cultivating the early years of Neighbors Abbey's work in SW Atlanta and the emerging church planting that is a part of it.  Joshua Case and I have been teaming up on some Church as Art emerging worship coaching projects for this fall. I'm still working with the Village Counsel of Emergent Village as we live into our being a Village green. And I'm in the middle of curating worship for Clayfire, writing a chapter for an upcoming festschrift by Ryan Bolger about hyphenated emerging projects, curating music for City Church Eastside, and writing my first full length book for Paraclete Press about the intersection the Aesthetics and God's Mission. This book (provisionally titled, "Getting Drawn In") is about the creative nature of God's mission, and our own awakening to God's calling as we step into creative and intentional lives. In researching all this I came across an old book of poems called The Singer by Calvin Miller referred or given to me by my friend Ty Saltsgiver in the 90s. In it I found this chapter XII entitled"In hell there is no music—an agonizing night that never ends as songless as a shattered violin":

"Sing the Hillside Song" they cried. There were so many of them. He wasn't even sure he could be heard above the din of all their voices. He walked among them and looked them over. In his mind he knew that the Father's Spirit wanted each of them to learn his song.

Someone in the sprawling crowd stood and handed him a lyre. "Sing for us please Singer—the Hillside Song!"

"Yes, yes," they called, "the Hillside Song"

He looked down at the lyre and held it close. He turned each thumb-set till the string knew how to sound, then he began:

"Blessed are the musical," he said, "for their's shall be never-ending song."

"Blessed are those who know the difference between their loving and their lusting, for they shall be pure in heart and understand the reason."

"Blessed are those who die for reasons that are real, for they themselves are real."

"Blessed are all those who yet can sing when all the theater is empty annd the orchestra is gone."

"Blessed is the man who stands before the cruelest king and only fears his God."

"Blessed is the mighty king who sits behind the weakest man and thinks of all their similarities."

"Earthmaker is love. He has send his only Troubadour to close the Canyon of the Damned."

Then they broke his song and cried one with one voice, "Tell us Singer, have you any hope for us? can we be saved?"

"You may if you will sing Earth- makers's Song!"

"Is there another way to cheat the Canyon of the Damned?"

"None but the Song!"

The beauty of Miller's language here, to me, is that there is a song that wants to be played. There is a way out of loneliness and despair, that comes with willfully listening to the song within...  And that you can't short cut that listening pathway with some kind of formula or group membership.  We have to keep listening, and singing.

Have a GOOD friday

My friend Josh Case asked me to post again. I just noticed that he was the reason for my last post (I need to post more often, huh).  I want you to reflect with me on how Good Friday typically functions to form our faith, and to try a short exercise that might re-form that function: Good Friday can start to feel like a civil war reenactment once death has lost its sting.  So what, then, do a resurrection people have left to discover on Good Friday?  How does the holy-day serve liturgically to “shape” us as followers in the Jesus Way?  To answer that I want to start by throwing out ways that Good Friday might misshape us, and some guesses as to why.

So, if you grew up in a popular American Christian experience like mine, Good Friday was a time to recall the miracle of the Romans Road, when the cross was laid over the pit of hell (complete with hazard cones warning drivers to beware of impending doom) delivering to safety those individuals who would accept the torture of Christ in a representative capacity for their own cosmic debt.

And if you’ve been on a similar journey as mine since, you’ve perhaps grown a bit cynical about that thoroughfare constructed 19 centuries after the fact out of 5 sentences of a 20 page letter to the Romans as well as its complimentary campaign reducing Jesus’ Good-Friday event to a rescue mission to hack into the Matrix and change God’s rules- a mission that God would have sent Jesus to do for me if, even if I were one and only human on the earth (and yes, I’m proud to say that the “I” here is me, the guy writing this post, and not necessarily you- at least that’s how I remember the shtick going).

And if you were living and breathing 7 years ago you had to have heard of or seen Gibson’s Passion of Christ.  If it did its job, you might have gotten even more eeby-geeby about the gore and agony that Holy Week culminating in Good Friday represents.   And perhaps you shake your head, like me, at those friends who watch it year after year hoping to shame the sin away by “identifying with the pain” of our savior, or hoping to leverage the cinematic shock-and-awe to drill a deeper well toward even deeper gratitude than the year before.  But death-movies like Gibson’s have lost their sting to me.

So instead of blogging through biblical, theological or historical evidence that could either make you feel more self-confident, or could lead you to throw up your hands dismissing my argument as unfounded, I want to ask you to do a little exercise.  It is a directed meditation that will require 10 minutes of your dedicated attention.  Whether you’re reading this on your Driod or iPhone or laptop, or even if your secretary prints out RSS feeds from Josh’s blog and lays it on your desk next to your morning coffee, I need you to stop for a sec and get a blank sheet of paper.

SPOILER- don’t read ahead, trust your cells to the process and give yourself 10 minutes (9½  now) to go through this exercise.  This means you too, my old friend who is scanning this because you’ve just got a minute. Go ahead and get the paper… I’ll wait:

  1. Okay, now take your piece of paper and fold it in half twice to make four equal quadrants.  No need to draw any lines, the two creases should suffice.
  2. Turn it horizontally and write in the bottom right quadrant the names of people and organizations that fit the following categories:
    • People you are against
    • People who have hurt members of your family and those you love
    • People who hurt you when you were young
    • Groups that insult you or your friends or your religious practice
    • Countries that mean harm to yours
    • Political parties that sabotage what you see as right and just
    • Pundits and media moguls who profit from demonizing you and people you value
    • Companies, technologies, superstars, industries, ideologies, and leaders with power who misuse their power to devour others.
    • That neighbor that you just can’t stand
  3. Now on the bottom left write the names of people and groups that you self identify with:
    • Your family members
    • Those who enjoy living, shopping, eating, and working in the same places as you
    • Those who you help to get elected
    • Non profits and special interest groups you donate time or money to
    • Those who you’d take into your house when they need help.
    • Those who have given you favors, breaks, and gifted you with opportunities to progress in life.
    • Those who subscribe to and/or share your religious group’s gathering habits, styles, ideas, and language.
  4. Now draw a horizontal line along the horizontal crease above the two groups.

The gospels give us a window into three years spent by Jesus re-imagining a place over that horizon in which the divisions below the horizon no longer exist.  He saw a kingdom where those who were cursed would be blessed.  He saw a world where the oppressed would carry the oppressor’s pack an extra mile.  A future where it would be possible to love your enemies, or even that forgiving others' their trespasses would be a part of ushering in such a forgiving future. He saw a faith that would reunite the religious and irreligious.  Jesus’ mission to “proclaim freedom to the prisoner, and good news to the poor” would affect the prison guards and the wealthy as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Jesus did not say every behavior, group, or ethical decision was “relative” or that grace abounded such that injustice or self-sabotage would be free from consequences. Jesus said he’d bring a sword between parent and child.  He knew that his cruciform presence, his servant leadership would exacerbate divisions.  That either side would have to fall like a seed into the ground and die to be born anew with eyes for that other horizon.

He challenged those entrusted with power to measure out consequences for injustice and self-sabotage. And this challenge would wear out those authorities (imperial and religious, as well as the public power of social media who would cry “crucify him”) until they resorted to the last resort–violent death.

5. Now, draw a cross below the horizon, between the two sides somewhere along the vertical crease (of course I have ideas for what you could draw above the horizon, but this is a Good Friday blog not an Easter Sunday one).

Here's my beef with the Romans Road, it trains our imagination to think of ourselves first.  And when that is our primary metaphor it can pervert the power of Good Friday into a therapeutic form of asceticism. Instead of imaging this Good Friday, that it’s all about a back room deal to get you and those in your group on the bridge over troubled waters, image that the divisions of your everyday life are made physical, demonstrated in the crudest most humiliating of forms.  The cross and the torture devises of empire belong below the horizon line of the promised future. What changes the crucifixion’s cruel macabre character is Jesus’ vision for what lay beyond it’s horizon.  Empire and death are made a laughing stock on the resurrection side of that horizon. Join Christ on the road to Calvary by laying down your arms, your defenses, your revenge, your bounded sets, by daring what C.S. Lewis liked to call the “deeper magic” to happen.

No doubt, death is real.  We feel it to our bones and it is serious stuff.  But Good Friday’s glory does not come from death’s gravity. Good Friday is Good because it is the masterful cosmic foreshadowing of the prevailing community of forgiveness. The vision of the Crucified one, on Friday of Holy week, is good news to everything on this side of the horizon, it is proof that God would not want any single one to be left out of the story.  ‘Even if you or I would dream it otherwise.

Do you recall that curtain ripping in the Holy of Holies at the strike of 3pm?  Paul would later write that the dividing wall between people is also removed (Eph 2.13-16). So, what shall separate us from the fellowship forming love of God in Christ Jesus? Nothing!  There is no longer Covenanters or pagans, no longer male and female, no longer enslaved or free citizen… all things are made new.  Even that old foe, death, no longer has its stinging capacity to separate us.  The empty cross proves that corporeal threat is impotent in the face of God’s love, and the empty tomb proves that sacrificial death is empty too.  Jesus was betting on that! Good Friday is the inhaling of the deeper magic.  On Good Friday, we are invited to join Christ in letting-go of the demand we hold on others and in letting-come the power to forgive, heal, reconcile and belong within a New Creation.

Have a Good Friday!

Def: Actualization Space

I just got off the phone with Sally Morganthaler learning a ton about the journey from her book Worship Evangelism (a book critiquing the performance based worship of seeker churches in the 80s) through leadership coaching, and back again to worship as the ritualized space of mission.  While talking we coined a phrase "actualization space."  And I thought I'd throw it out there. Here's the idea: Its defining worship as the intersection combination of living deliberately and designing creative environments.

Deliberation involves encountering an "other" as something to learn from or admire, say for example the difference between seeing a picture in an advertisement and seeing painting above a mantle or in a museam.  When the picture is placed in an intentional space the viewer often makes a choice to lean in, to figure it out, to enter it.  Art has made its way back into advertising space in ways that cloud this, but imagine the quailtative difference between having eyes to see something with intent, and just glancing past something.  This is how art "puts you in play."  It works the same way with music, think of the difference between Muzak working to "numb" the buyer and Radio Head's "Fake Plastic Trees" written to awaken the listener.

Now, our lives are meant to be read in the same way.  If you develop ears to hear who you are and who others are around you, you lean in, you give qualitative value to the person's place in the world.  Actualization is simply about making an idea real. "Personal Actualization" in some sense, is the process of "listening to your life speak" (to borrow from Parker Palmer) and then acting on it.    And so to go back to our art analogy, a painting in a museum may cultivate desire, compassion, rage, all sorts of things.  And when you feel those things the art is "working" on you (to borrow an idea from Nicholas Woltersdorff).

Now, imagine that creation is designed with an appetite for re-creation, that we all "long for the revelation of God's dreams as enacted by people who know and join those dreams" (my very rough paraphrase of Romans 8).  Then the responsibility of the church, of those looking toward the coming of God with all our resources, is to create environments for people to "wake up." To create venues where not only art is hung, concerts are performed, or theater is displayed, but where people are listened to, and persons enact their calling.  Church is not space to memorize something "about" following God, in so much as it is a place to learn how to follow Jesus by being with others (when two are three are gathered in my name...).

So then the question that worship seeks to answer, is "is there a plausibility structure in which the kingdom of God is real?" This is not to say that the only or best place for God's dreams to be made reality is in a church or in a worship gathering.  But it just might redefine the way Jesus followers approach those things...

"Actualization spac,"  is an environment in which we lean into the possibility that all of life has meaning, and increasingly so as God comes near.

Thanks Sally for a thought provoking conversation!

GENERATE magazine

I'm excited to be collaborating with Paul Soupiset, Tim Snyder, and Makeesha Fisher, among others, on this long awaited project. I will be editor of visual and performing arts.

HERE'S THE SCOOP...

GENERATE Magazine has been an open, collaborative project in the works for more than six years now. And after many casual conversations — and the 2009 convening of an editorial team — we are ready and eager to involve you, the larger community, in helping realize this dream with us.

The seeds for GENERATE Magazine were sown sitting around a fountain in San Diego in 2004 — a few writers, poets, artists and designers explored and dreamed about launching a print publication that would embody the ethos and tell the stories of the growing, generative conversation that some have called the emerging church conversation.

Again at the 2007 Emergent Gathering, another planning group was convened to discuss logistics, bring some leadership to the dream, and get things rolling. GENERATE Magazine is the fruit of many months of their planning.

VISUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS?

Art provides resistance and lift to what the Spirit of New Creation is generating. The beauty that artisans fashion, sing, and perform can testify to what is possible and evoke imagination for what is yet to come. We are drawn to paintings and songs that put us "in play." GENERATE aims to fashion a synthesis of such works of art, and to celebrate the lives of their creators, in order to put our readers in play as well.

WHY GENERATE?

GENERATE exists as a forum to retell the stories of the grassroots communities and individuals who are finding emergent and alternative means to follow God in the Way of Jesus. We hope to create an artifact of this historical conversation. These stories will be transmitted through narrative, works of visual art, documented performances, verse, fiction, non-fiction, essays, and interviews.

We/you are the conversation; our art, our lives, our hopes and failures all meet up with God’s approaching dreams for creation. We converse and in doing so spread the news that we are not alone — that joy is found in our generative friendship.

GENERATE Magazine is a grassroots-organized, independent publication affiliated as a friend of Emergent Village, but not affiliated with any publishing house. We are currently exploring ways to distribute GENERATE Magazine via the Emergent Village Cohorts and wider friendships. More on that in the days to come.

make something...

So, Why is it that we always think of Pentecost as a glorified church service where everyone consumed a big 'excellent' program? One thing that I'm convinced of after growing up in the church and following Jesus into the World, is that we need better metaphors for what we dream of and what we remember. The story of Pentecost makes my point. How often have you imagined Pentecost (the first Christian experience of it recorded in Acts 2) as a picture of how your church service should be? How often have we assumed that they were building a church service for themselves, or for God, for that matter? Is it possible that Pentecost was more public? More of a cultural phenomena? Something mixing everything up to put everyone back in play instead of commodifying them to build an organization or institution? Imagine the chaos that ensued when, this sect of Jews following 'Yashua' (Jesus, literally the same name as Joshua, meaning Saving One), waited the designated 50 days after Passover and were then interrupted by synchronicity of multiple language, sharing, and neighboring. 'All because the Spirit inspired them. Pentecost was not planned, programmed, or strategic on the part of the community of Jesus... Pentecost is the name we place on the happening that occurred amidst a Jewish holiday of Shavuot- marking the giving of the Torah (10 commandments and the rest of Jewish Law) to Moses, and book-ending the two main harvests of their early agrarian culture (barley after Passover and wheat 50 days later). Pentecost interrupted that community with new Laws and new cycles. And the Spirit of Jesus accomplished this interruption by re-introducing a multi-culturallism (that was already around them, but had grown flat and unacknowledged) and agnecy (shared responsibility in making, crafting, doing, speaking). It put everyone, across their differences, in play.

Kelley showed me this video last week, about Amy Krouse and the community she was joined by, and I was blown away. The DIY/indie craft world is filled with innovators who "make stuff." And this story of Amy is what i imagine the feeling of Pentecost being as opposed to "the greatest church service ever" which is how I traditionally grew up imagining Pentecost. It's a great metaphor to replace the flattened idea of church. Every one was "in play" at the church's first Pentecost. People were around because of their media-socio-cultural practices (Jewish pilgrimages were made to Jerusalem 50 days after passover). They were a heterogeneous mix, not the same subculture. And a new "thing" emerged. The Jesus story became a story of a people at Pentecost- it was a "beckoning of the lovely."

Aperture and Wendell Berry's "Sonata at Payne Hollow"

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/99/286251424_f86a9a3a36.jpg?v=0 In Wendell Berry’s "Sonata at Payne Hollow," Harlan and Anna are deceased lovers speaking to eachother in the present as ghosts. Anna comments to Harlan about the river that he’s “never seen enough of,” he keeps gazing upon it even after generations have come and gone. Harlan replies:

It never does anything twice. It needs forever to be in all its times and aspects and acts. To know it in time is only to begin to know it. To paint it, you must show it as less than it is. That is why

as a painter I never was at rest. Now I look and do not paint. This is the heaven of a painter––only to look, to see

without limit. It’s as if a poet finally were free to say only the simplest things.

Wendell Berry: from Given Poems, "Sonata at Payne Hollow" (pg 43)

http://johnwmacdonald.com/8005l_night_lights.jpg

Writing “perfectly clear” theology, as with all other arts, is like stopping the river of God’s work. Comprehensiveness and clarity are always in tension. Theology likes to be comprehensive. otherwise theology requires a slow shutter speed letting in light from all sort of angles. Theologians must choose between the benefits of darker swirling light “night shots,”like the one above ove the Ottowa River Parkway by John C. McDonald or the benefits of those surreal smoky looking shots of rivers in motion like the shot above of the Rupert River By Ian Diamond. Theology is to be done along the way, utilizing the material on the ground, fraught with its own weakness, leaving the imperfections that make each experience unique, it is to be a transitory prayer- a song of assent. Consider the evangelist John’s long, loose, time-lapsed takes:

What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

To choose a pretend “captured” portrayal of God, as a snap shot, with 400 speed film and quick shutter speed, and small aperture is to avoid the exposure to the scorching-brilliant glory of God. ‘To be like the children of Israel sending someone else up to Sinai. To cover our eyes, to resist light is to attempt mastery of it, to contain it, to domesticate it. To choose a pretend “still life” portrayal of God’s creativity is to make life what it is not. Such a choice explains away life’s rhythm: death and resurrection caught up in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, awaiting the revelation of the Children of God. To theologize is, as Wendell Berry describes painting, to “show it as less than it is.” In this case we can learn that both the personal nature of God and the created nature of God’s work is like the Word of God, it is dynamic or “living and active,” as the writer of Hebrews has sketched.

Manifesto of Hope

Photo_187

I haven't posted about this yet, but I am excited to have been included with 24 folks, all better at this than me, enlisted to describe the emergent conversation. The book, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, was released April of this year, but I'm just now finding the time to blog about it.  My chapter, "The Art of Emergence: Being God's Handiwork" is a synthesis of the theories of missiology, creative systems, and anthropology.  I had a lot of fun with it.

I've you've had the chance to read it, I'd love to know what it did in you.  If you haven't you can click on the "Search inside" link on Amazon and search art, and start reading on Pg 60.  But You'll have to buy or barrow it to get the whole deal ;)

emergent cohort

Atlanta Friends

The Atlanta Emergent Cohort is meeting this Tuesday, October 30, 8-10pm at Carroll Street Cafe in Cabbage town. This month's conversation will be convened by your's truly and center around the metaphor of church as art. The following is an adapted article to prime the pump and to suggest some possible lines of discussion for the group. But as usual the discussion will be open and its outcome belongs to those who come for the fun...

We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance to be our way of life.

                                                    from Paul’s correspondence with the Ephesians

God is a craftsman (excuse the gender). God makes. You and I are among the things that God fashions. Those recipients of the epistle to the church in Ephesus are told by Paul that we who have been made in Christ (you know, the new creation) are made for the purpose of making/working.  It is important to our maker how we make- good. Rule or principals that underline how artist make, are called aesthetics. And a cohesive narrative of such rules is called an aesthetic. At the core of aesthetics are reasons for making, and postures or ways of perceiving. Our posture of making is informed by God’s posture: mission. And this making is everything, it is our entire way of life, not just what the Ephesians were asked to do when they gathered or when they were ask to give a reason for their faith. The good work of being created in Jesus is our way of life, it is an art inspired by an aesthetic, God's mission. This month’s Emergent cohort discussion is about that art and that aesthetic, and the community of artists commissioned to good lives in the inspiration of the Spirit.

God has commissioned a work of art. This art-installation has been God’s dream from as early as the Trinity’s eternal dance. Long before the Spirit of God hovered like an artist in front of a canvas over the waters that would become our studio, the triune God wanted to make man in God’s (literally the creator in Genesis said “our” implying a conversation with the creator) image. This is our commission: to be God’s art exhibit, a trail of artifacts rendered by God’s people and made through God’s ongoing relationship with creation. This commission precedes Jesus, it is what Abram and Sari were called to do and what the prophets both did and called others back toward doing. And this is our aesthetic the stories of these communities found in scripture, tradition, and experience, that narrate our work. So we are commission to make and to be made, to act and invite God to act upon us.

The examples of God’s dreams reach to us from deepest in our history. One of God’s earliest masterpieces is ha adam, literally the dirt, into whom is breathed the Spirit of life. And in Adam’s first orientation to his surroundings, God commissions him to name creation’s creatures, to be the poet lariat of life’s beginnings. Shortly thereafter, Noah, too, was commissioned to build an artifact to save people. Ten generations after him, God calls Abraham and Sara to parent a nation of people who’s art-of-life was to be a reflection of God’s plans for all creation, to bless all nations. The prophets, like Jeremiah, and psalmists like David, both live out the realization of and lament the postponement of God’s dreams. And this drama continues with some artists demonstrating courage and faithfulness and others stuck in self-sabotaging habits of self-preservation that build hedges around their imagination.

Into this drama the Author became Actor.  First, second, and third person were interwoven without being confused.  The Word was made into flesh, completely creat-ed (material) and completely creat-or (divine). God was subjective (seeing equality with God not as something to grasp but being made into the form of a servant) and objective (All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go…). It was Jesus, the one-of-a-kind perfecter of the art of living in God’s creation, who insisted that God’s art installation was open, in session, “at hand.” He fashioned withered hands into whole ones, he made party wine out of holy water, and he re-animated lifeless cadavers into dinner guests. It was Jesus who called a community of disciples to tell this story and to do even greater works of this art than he. And these disciples, in receiving the breath of the Holy Spirit, had the courage to witness to God’s plans for creation. By initiating a new art-of-life they began sharing meals, reflecting on precedents set by apostolic letters and sacred Hebrew texts, and setting new precedents making all sorts of music, adopting the exposed, and befriending the poor and widows. This is the narrative that we are a part of. This is the art we have been commissioned to make. We are apprentices who study these rhythms of life and practice them as lives of worship preparing creation for future generations. We are, like John the Baptist, and in the words of the poet Isaiah, preparing the way of the Lord.  And our practices tell an ancient story that is yet to be complete, “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes.”

…..

But here’s the fix we’re in today: in late modernity most churches in the Western world are stuck in creative block. These commitments betray the converting spirit of the gospel by placing equal signs between God’s work and our certitude regarding liberalism verses conservatism, contemporary verses traditional, or theology verses aesthetics. This keeps us from rendering authentic artwork and performances that witness to the kingdom of God. What if the church recovered disciplines of creativity, imagination, and ingenuity as practices unto faith? What if we stepped out of our cultural captivity to “either-or” thinking into organic habits of embodying biblical texts and reforming the tradition we have been handed? What if the church saw herself as both God’s artwork and God’s commissioned artists?

Not only that, what if the work of God of bringing righteousness like an ever flowing stream, and bringing the lion to lay with the lamb were acts that included the art of other people, other tribes, other cultures; be they socio-economically, politically, nationally, or religiously different from ours? Are these “others,” then, partners in the kingdom of God, other artists participating in God’s beautiful unfolding creation?

At the core, I believe the church does matter–but for entirely different reasons than most are fighting to keep the church safe or to make it grow. What if the church mattered as a community committed to this art: to joining God’s dreams, making God’s dreams, becoming patron’s of those making God’s dreams, and learning from others making these dreams? What would we do differently if the mission of God were our aesthetic, as people commissioned to make God’s beauty in the world?

Now here is what I’m hoping the cohort can help flesh out. 

1.    Push back at any and all of this! Let’s have some fun fleshing this out.
2.    What are the reasons we are not creating more new possibilities to participate in God’s dreams?  Or to put it another way, How does writer’s block manifest itself in the church and how have you seen it addressed?
3.    What are some entry-points to this idea of church as art?  Where does it break down for you or folks you serve with?
4.    What art are you making and seeing made around you and how do you see it participating in God’s dreams?

Thoughts on transitional institutions

My friend Ken, is in a place a lot like me, in Washington State.  He wrote this great email to me recently and I want to post it and respond:

Other than installation [recent formalization of relationship with congregation] things are going well.  Our membership is down from 76 when i started to 57 now.  We used to have a 6 elder session but now only have 5 because so few people are willing or able to serve.  A forty year member just left the church over what he considered to be apostate moves of the GA.  And someone just drove do-nuts on our side lawn of the church in an attempt to spray mud on the church.  they did a pretty good job.  i tried to see it as a Pollock type art work but our grounds guy didn't see it quite that way.  as i said, things are going well cause i try not to pay too much attention to numbers. 

we are in the midst of trying to hire a part time youth worker.  I've been more involved in some community organizing and our group is trying to move towards starting a community newspaper.  also, i just finished a retreat where rick ufford-chase led about 20 ministers in our presbytery through some good discussions.  he really is an impressive guy and his passion really provides some hope for a denomination that is sorely lacking for passion over anything not related to relationships with too many y or x chromosomes.  our presbytery is coming up on a big vote in regards to a response to the GA's actions and I'm not excited about it.  however, i was asked to give a few minute speal on why I'm Presbyterian after the vote to try to offer some hope in the midst of the struggle.  I'm thinking about starting my testimony with Maryanne's quote, "our system is the worst one out there accept for all the other ones."  what do you think about that?  I've found that quote oddly comforting until i saw how the Amish responded to the tragedy inflicted upon them.  man, i would love for my kids and our people to respond with the same forgiveness of that community and the same boldness as that little girl who offered her life in an attempt to save the other girls.  now that is a community that realizes what it means to really belong, body and soul, in life and death not to themselves but to Jesus Christ. 

Seek first the kingdom.  Not a self-righteous way of seeking but an integrated way of loving more than the church as a reason to stay “in” it.  I think you could do much with this in response to the PUP. 

Like you, I'm sure, I’m so tired of church renewal language or neo-(fill in the blank) or post-(fill in the blank).  Already, 8 weeks into designate pastorate, I am struck at what we all want the denomination or brand-institution to pour into that blank for us.  We want it to leave something behind for us, to guarantee for us, to deliver us from, to give us...  Who in the 2/3rds world has such a “right” to church?  Where in the bumbling emergence of the early church were they shown a self-preserving institution/faith-statement.  I think that "our system is the worst one out there accept for all the other ones" does get at this but fails to really answer, why any of these?

I’m struck by a helpful metaphor from (surprise surprise) art... It came to me when we were were starting an emergent cohort here in ATL, a friendship/conversation-based ecumenical theological discussions (except evangelicals come too). 

We realized it is like a guild, a place for artists to practice and hone their trades and, at times, to share resources out of a love for what the trade becomes- for the beauty of it all.  This is not to say music can be separated from the musician or that the only reason people write and perform is to deposit a disembodied “song” into space.  No, musicians like singing, we like writing, and we love what we make.

The reforming guild of the connectional church: Any connection of practicing congregations would benefit from a similar appreciation of (1)what we are (co)creating- the beauty of the kingdom of God, and (2)some common agreement of practices/disciplines/concepts that contribute to the generation of such beauty- shaping and being shaped.  What beauty do we seek?  How do we shape our sacramental life by the gospel narrative to becoming embracing people and, visa-versa, how is knowledge of the gospel narrative inter-penetrated by our sacramental life lived in this not-yet-fully embracing world.

Metaphors like this make space for disagreement, concessions, and preservation but organize all these virtues around an eschatological hope, they root the reason for church in something bigger than our own self-security and assuredness.  This PC(USA) might be just as good as any other game in town but only insofar as it can equip the sent community to go. 

Here's a quick sports analogy (I'm weaker at these, I admit): Rallying under "our team can ball too" is not the same as "lets take the game seriously enough to value this team and make much out of it."  This breaks down, of course, when you realize that our definitions for "game" have hardened since our team's heights in the 1600s and the 1950s.  But that does not mean that simply forming a new team or forever downloading new skins or pod-casts until you have your very own self-serving definitions of teams and games frees you from the real task of relearning the game week after week, generation after generation.

Here's the test for Presbyterianism, and the jury is still out for me.  Can this institution of Presbyterianism –or Presbyterianism at all– function in a semipermeable way.  Can definitions of the church's participation in the kingdom of God mature or are they necessarily law?  Do they serve, forever, as only a tutor and prisoner (Galatians)?  If so, then we need to reform- with gratitude, beyond our parents' best efforts, into another yet-to-be-reformed definition of the team... For the sake of the game  For the good of God's creation redeemed in Christ.

painting "and"

Nicea
In the last half of the twentieth century many churches have drawn new confession or symbols of faith.  As early as the Nicean Creed (worked on for over a hundred years between 325 and 451 A.D.), confessions were seen as symbols of the unity of the church.  They were a practice of reconciliation between differing opinions portrayed by new images or sketches for churches to share with eachother.  They were the historical equivalents of Christian Hutus and Christian Tutsis agreeing to draw together a new sketch of what they believed the faith-from-the-future taught through the texts-of-the-past called them to do-that-day. They were Jim Wallis, Jesse Jackson, and Beth Moore asking for God to equip them to live today by drawing upon the Spirit’s inspiration of their experiences of scripture to compare the historical work of God “and” the promises from God of what is to come.  So you can only imagine how long process must take.
Eberhardbusch
Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth’s biographer, has written an article reviewing these new confessions made for the most part by two-thirds world churches.   Busch’s article appears at the very end of a book of articles, Toward the Future of Reformed Theology.   I probably picked this article up because of my own personal encounters with Dr. Busch at Columbia Seminary, where he taught a semester seminar on Barth and joined us afterwards for beers and pipes.  He and Shirlie Guthrie were the reason I kept after the class and began to take seriously the reading and writing of theology. I can remember his eyes lighting up as we’d make comments and motioning us with his hands to “keep-rolling” when, as young students, we grew uncertain of our arguments.  He was my first German friend.

Unfortunately Dr. Busch grew ill and could not return to Columbia a year later as he had planned.  I had heard the stroke rendered his speaking and reasoning incapable of teaching.  Somehow I had put together the news that he had passed away.  And then two years ago I was on Columbia’s campus and saw him again.  It was the first time in my life that I thought I saw a ghost.  I didn’t know how exactly to say, “I thought you were dead” so I just said I was glad to see him, told him a bit about the work I was doing with emergent and in the inner-city and that was that.

In reading this article last night it seems to me that he is just as surprised to discover confessing churches.  As if meeting a ghost he meets churches that “confess not because they hold to a specials Calvinistic tradition, nor because they wish to define what ‘Reformed’ actually means.  They confess because they (alone as Reformed, or with other denominations in the frequently occurring case of a merger of churches) find themselves called to confess their identity in the church of God and of Jesus Christ.”   In contrast, over the last two centuries, Busch writes, there emerged “in the place of the freedom at times to confess and at other times to enact one’s confession… a freedom to do nothing, a freedom from confession… At the root of this lay a problematic conception of God, in which God’s freedom was thought of as a despotic regime which did not tolerate human freedom.”

In Atlanta in 2006 there exists a similar domesticated image of God as one contained to the scriptures and the confessions and the buildings of churches.  God has gotten trapped in sacred space consequentially loosing humanity into a spiral of capricious relationship with God.  Because we don’t know for sure, and because we assume that ordained folks like Troy might know better than us, we resign ourselves to a life of conscription or contradiction.  We’ve lost the ability to see God in action and ourselves in action.  We’ve lost the confidence to say “and.”

When faced with this dilemma, the church historically has landed on confessing (witnessing or stating, not simply apologizing or saying confession).  On drawing a new “and” a kind of creed, a new testimony.  The church does this as one congregation in its place and time but with universal intent, a belief that they are not an exception-to-the-rule but a specific location of God’s active spirit.  They speak as “the church.”  And they do this with an unique art.  The art of “and” is learned through contemplation upon the incarnation of Christ both human and divine.  Like Calvin, the church today practices that “that which the one Word of God has communicated to us by pure grace in the one mediator, Christ, we cannot say in one word but always rather in two.”  The following is a list of such twos drawn from historical and emerging confessions.  Busch describes these as the “characteristic doubling of assertions, in which throughout both are united yet remain unmixed; both are differentiated yet remain undivided, let alone made into opposite.”

    God’s majesty and God’s abasement
    the glory of God and the salvation of humanity
    Christ as truly divine and truly human
    Word and Spirit
    gospel and law
    eternal life and ordering of temporal existence
    justification and sanctification
    faith and obedience
    Old and New Testaments
        witness to the “norm” of faith and of life
    God in love and justice
        in grace and power
    Jesus Christ as crucified reconciler and victorious Lord and Judge
        thus justification occurs by:
        grace alone, excluding all self redemption,
            and
it is nevertheless inseparable from human sanctification, renewal, and discipleship

    The church must be determined both
        by gathering and by sending,

        by preservation of its identity
            and
by engaged openness to the world around it

        by the calling of Christians to serve and through the ministerial office
    thus in the sacraments:
        both God’s grace and human response are manifested
    thus regarding the relationship to state and society:
        both loyal cooperation and obedience to God more than human

    the law of God:
        reveals to us sinners our inability to redeem ourselves and shows those freed by Christ concretely the shape of our freedom


Do you get the point?  Incase you don’t, allow me to illustrate through visual metaphors.  Trevor Hart (Begbie, Beholding the Glory) does this in his description of mixing paint.  When you add yellow to red you do not get a “compromise.”  You make something that did not before exist, some sort of orange.  But it is made on purpose and with things that did previously exist.  When God was made flesh, we did not only experience one being as the Other, but an Other-possibility came into existence: the incarnation-idea.  The created “and.”  And yet, with out a paintbrush of “divinity” at our disposal we can only learn and watch this new phenomena.  The concepts of redemption are redefined, Paul sees new, that the old is gone-forever. A material world once filled with divine interruptions is now a material world redefined by the existence of “orange” incarnate interruptions.  “The word of God made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory.  Out if his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” (NIV for “grace upon grace”), now all this material is assumed, brought into the divine revelation of Christ and through the cross and resurrection- forever changed.

But if it weren’t enough to see orange for the first time and look toward the horizon with hope that a deeper orange would arrive.  The Son of God made flesh breaths the Holy Spirit on his disciples and paints the vision of their becoming orangeness, “as the father sends me, so I send you.”  The Spirit of God ushers in an new day, an 8th day of creation, when more and more of creation will not only be given eyes to see and ears to hear such an orange but hands to paint, feet to carry, and imaginations and swords and plowshares and tongues to create (or crucify) orange again and again. John places this at the end of that upperoom account, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now if my metaphor hasn’t gotten us in enough trouble I want to clarify what I am saying.  There are some of you (if you have been patient enough to keep plodding through this post) who’s yellow flags have gone up.  “If we make orange, you are forgetting the left side of one of the above “Ands”: excluding all self redemption.” To this I propose we do not make green, but always orange.  Here is where my metaphor breaks down and it begins to look like all we do as ambassadors of reconciliation is paint until the world looks like a 1970s TV with the color knob askew- monochromatic.  So I will work on some more elaboration but I’d love some of you own input.
Old_color_tv
How is the church to continue confessing with universal intent but to do so in a changing world where the gospel is suddenly informing us to believe differently than before.  How do we think about this difference in light of the one incarnation and not confuse ourselves as the “inventors” of orange or of the “new orange.”  How are we like John the Baptist who "himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light" while "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  And how do we handle that the true light that “was coming” has come and yet is still not completely here in fullness?  I think we would find some help in rethinking “and”…