the emotional point of signs

So my professor, Darrell Guder, would talk about the church as a community like John the Baptist (the guy in red with the old text, who appears posthumously in this painting), pointing to Jesus.

My new friend, Pete Rollins talks about “communities as Ikons,” living acting dramatizations of the story of God.

So when I saw this post by Daniel Pink about Emotionally intellegent signs I thought, hmm,

“The idea,” says The Globe, “is that seeing a child’s handwriting and drawing will make parents relate to the sign in a way they never would have with an impersonal version.

I wonder what our other pre-fabed IKONS (churches with stated orders of worship, prefabbed worship songs, sterile modern corridors, franchises, or inanimate sanctuaries and buildings) communicate emotionally?  What might it look like if our “pointing” were appealed to emotional intelligence…


So Adam Walker Cleaveland and Karen Sloan and I met at the Mainline Emergent/s event at Columbia Theological Seminary two winters ago and the two of them had a great idea to build an environment for emergent conversation within the PC(USA). At first I was a distant skeptic, then a related skeptic, and now a skeptical contributor to this growing discussion. I won't look to define Presbymergent here, but to note the synchronicity that as Presbymergent is looking to define herself Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence is providing some overarching theories for how such hyphen-mergents and Emergent Village are relitivised within a larger phenomena. Along the way I have even met Emergent Jewish Rabis, so who knows where all this will lead. Well, Ryan Bolger, co-author of Emerging Churches:Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures was asked by his seminary to devote an issue of their quarterly journal to Mainline Emergents, and I agreed to write a piece that needed to be longer than their publishing space. So it is split into two places:

The first installment can be found in Fuller Seminary's Theology, News and Note, Fall 2008 Issue.

The second is forthcoming on the Presbymergent blog. I will post more on this later and sometime in the next month will have a blog conversation with Ryan about the whole journal issue including the following other articles:

Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger wrote The Morphing of the Church; Walt Kallestad, Lutheran pastor, Community Church of Joy, wrote Redefining Success, Moving from Entertainment to Worship; Ryan Bell, pastor, Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist, wrote From the Margins: Engaging Missional LIfe in the Seventh-Day-Adventist Church; Nadia Bolz-Weber, mission developer of a Lutheran church plant in Denver, “House for all Sinners and Saints”, wrote Confessions of a Sarcastic Lutheran; Troy Bronsink, PCUSA pastor and community organizer in inner-city Atlanta, wrote Of Dying Breeds and Swelling Hopes: A Mainline Emergent in the Reformed Tradition; Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest, Seattle, wrote Quest and Its Relationship with the Evangelical Covenant Church; Phil Jackson, pastor of The House in Chicago, wrote A Reciprocal Connection: The Surprising Convergence of Hip-Hop and the ECC; David Fitch, pastor of “Life on the Vine”, in outlying Chicago, wrote On Being an Emerging Christian in the Christian and Missionary Alliance; Liz Rios, founder for Center for Emerging Female Leaership, and Luis Alvarez, pastor in the AG, wrote Will a New Church Emerge? Las Raices in the Assemblies of God.

Presence 1:Of Parts and Wholes

I am reading a book that Doug Pagitt lent me, Presence:Human Purpose and the Field of the Future (2004 Society for Organizational Leranign Inc. : Peter Senge, C.Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Flowers).

It ties together quantum theory, emerging creative systems, and education... so far.

I will make periodic posts as I go on this read.

Parts and Wholes:

everything is related. Since the industrial revolution most of society has thought in terms of machines. We assume a whole is made up of many parts, and wholeness depends on each part working effectively. Living systems do not work the same way. "Unlike machines, living systems, such as your body or a tree, create themselves. They are not a mere assemblage of thier parts but are continually growing and changing along with their elements." (3). The authors site Buckminster Fuller for holding up his hand and asking, what is this?" To which he would respond, a hand is not a static thing, "what you see it not a hand... Its a 'patterned integrity,' the universe's capacity to create hands" (4).

The hand is a concrete demonstration of the possibility of hand-ness. In fact, the cells in your hand replace themselves in less than a year and a half. Meaning: the matter crammed and ordered together that you are your using to scroll up or down your browser did not belong to your body 18 months ago--- ashes to ashes and dust to dust, huh? Dieing and rising is not a one time thing, we are continually being converted as participants in the Way of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is continually sending new information, new circumstances, new relationships, new possibilities for us to step into. And this in not only true about individuals, but also about systems, families, organizations, and... churches.

However, A living system's ability to re-create itself, "depends on our level of awareness, both individually and collectively." The authors of presence suggest that "The basic problem with new species of global institutions is that they have not yet become aware of themselves as living" (7).

This makes me wonder the same thing about the church. Do Presbyterians or non-denominational CCM churches recognize that they are a whole made up of parts that are continually growing. Are we able to suspend our current self understandings long enough to imagine new ways of participating in God's future revealed as the kingdom of God? And so the question of learning becomes significant. How do we change our thoughts and actions to include this kind of awareness? That will be the next post.

how to avoid getting a window in your head

Four strangers sat on our couch. They were joined by six other neighbors whom I already knew. "Five to thirty is the federal minimum and maximum sentence," we heard as we all sat in my living room last night to listen to Stank's attorney tell us what he was looking at, time wise, and what how we could help. It was Monday night, Eve had just started her second week of Kindergarten and wanted to show everyone her homework. It was clearly a pause in each of our days.

There is, we discover late and often, an arresting quality about your word to us. We do not want to be arrested or even pause, for our days are planned out…

Minister to us in our cowardice and timidity. Set us to be as bold as you are true, to meet the authorities who resist and arrest . . . our ancient mothers, our old convictions, powerful ordaining communities and last, even, city hall.

(from “We do not want to be arrested” by Walter Bruggemann, Awed to Heaven Rooted to Earth)

Stank is in his early fifties, and except for his balding head and pachy beard you'd think he was late twenties. Dark black, chiseled muscular physique, and tattooed by the sun that follows him every day as he works odd jobs for cash. And a contagious grin- always smelling like the cheap Black-and-Mild cigar that he is almost always smoking. He helped me build my deck, effortlessly lifting by him himself the 14 foot long 2 X 8 that I needed help lifting.

Stank has lived with his mom and nephews in this neighborhood for over 30 years. He is annoying, at times, with his inconvenient knocks on the door looking for a quick job or errand he could run for a few bucks. And then impossible to find when you do need help. But he’s also the very guy you want watching your house. The guy who can give you the scoop on trouble in the neighborhood.

‘Turns out he got close enough to the trouble a little while back that he is facing 5-30 years. Drugs and drug related burglaries and assaults are a problem in our neighborhood. And so the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and the District Attorney’s Office got together to build a plan. GBI and APD investigators would set up a series of drug purchases and deals, record them on tape, and build up cases on the dealers and users in our neighborhood. This covert operation would help them get to the real kingpins bringing the drugs in, catch the kids before they are caught in cycles of using, and clean up the streets of those habitual users who are nearly always the thieves and perpetrators of domestic abuse and assault. One officer told me that the whole thing is like a season of The Wire. The cases were built for as long as four months and then near memorial day they were all brought to a grand jury and bench warrants were issued for over 100 of our neighbors. The APD set up a road block a few weekends around memorial day and they would grab the suspects, over 70 of them we know for sure.

This detective work and police enforcement was met by a second judicial process designed by the DA’s office called Project Turnaround. The DA’s office appointed a community prosecutor to each of the police zones involved and that prosecutor gave the men (its all ‘men’ that we know of) under 25 an option of a year long rehab program and expungement of their record. And those who did not choose this deal or any born before 1983 would be recomend for the maximum sentence and banishment for the neighborhood.

Banishment, totally medieval, huh? It has been used in limitted courses in Georgia, and though it simply shuffles our problems on to another place and another neighborhood’s problems over to ours, it does have some benefits in the case of repeat offenders like house robers and drug dealers. But the community prosecutor is asking for banishment with every defendant over 25, including Stank.

And then add to all that what the court system in Fulton County has set up called the “non-complex” system. With all non-violent arrests the defendant is scheduled to go through hearning, arraignments, pleas, or go to trial in under 9 weeks from the arrest. Well this system has gotten bottle necked with the influx of the pick ups done by APD and GBI. This bottle-neck has also been worsened by the decision to eliminate 16 attorney positions in the PD’s office. So Stank and those picked up with him do not stand a chance, if they are over 25.

Stank got in trouble when he was supposedly doing work for a neighbor a few streets down (the 10 of us in my house were among Stank’s many landscaping/odd jobs clients). This client of his allegedly asked Stank if he knew where to get him $30 of cocaine. As the story goes, Stank obliged, took the man’s money, and returned with $30 of cocaine. They supposedly have it all on tape and are charging him with possession and selling cocaine. Now depending on the tapes and other court details this may be exposed as some sort of entrapment, but the short of it is that Stank may have a chance becasue we found him a good defense attourney.

So this is the background of what was going on in our house last night, learning about the justice system, learning about authorities, and saying to our neighbors, brown and beige, young and old, that we belong together with Stank in this issue. We had to determine that, though the District Attorney’s office and the federal justice system does not have good local ways for us to advocate for Stank, and though his age excludes him from access to any type of social support, we would be his representatives and we would be his suport. Some of his elders were able to nod and look him in the eye as one neighbor said, “We want to help you Stank, but you have to lean into this and stay away from that stuff.”

But, overall, it was a huge act of imagination- to collectively risk being for a neighbor who was being mistreated by the authorities. To join in Jesus’ Isaiah-inspired vocation “to proclaim freedom to the captive, and release to the prisoners.”

Because of the readings of Wendell Berry that I have been doing I was reminded of the importaince of such intentionallity. Many in our neighborhood might not have know about this. You might not have know about this. And instead of learning about the unfair systems we would receive them blindly. The resurrection of the crucified lamb reversed this. It placed the authorities in check. This kind of neighborliness requires the risk and hope and forgiveness and imagination of communities.  These kind of practices keep your head from opening into a future-less passive window.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know…

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed…

As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry, Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Everyday Liturgy interview about city, emergence, and Wendel Berry

I was interviewed by Thomas Turner of Everyday Liturgy, an quarterly journal, about the impact of Wendell Berry on my work as a pastor, community organizer, and artist. I can't believe he used as much of the interview as he did. I'm by no means a literurature critic or expert on Berry. Thanks Thomas for the chance to share my story!

The interview is entitled: The Art of Being in Atlanta

This issue includes other book reviews, several more articles about Berry and great reflection for folks looking to see the beautiful and divine in the everyday. And the previous isue includes interviews with Brian McLaren and a beautiful artful piece by Paul Soupiset.

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

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.

Presbymergence? pt2

My friend Adam Walker Cleaveland, posted a great warning on the presbymergent site about trying to "save the PC(USA)" .  You can read the good discussion in the comments section.  One discussion partner, Shawn Coons wrote a response that begins to bring this worthwhile discussion into perspective.  He asks is the PC(USA) worth saving, and argues that he would work to save presbymergent or pomomusings (adam's project- and a facebook group i joined) if they, too, were struggling. 

While Shawn's compassion is lovely, I'm not sure that people's obsolete inventions (what is implied by institutional death) are always helped by our enabling.  It could be that the very people maintaining these systems, my sisters and brothers in Christ, are called by the Spirit to rebuild them (continually being reformed) if we youngbloods didn't give them another way out. Sure, our Christian hope in the coming kingdom of God includes a servant church, the called out ones established in Jesus Christ,  but the church will prevail regardless of denominational inventiveness or preservation.  I'm hopeful that the church's task will be accomplished in the finishing grace of God, by people, and not by any other organizing metastructure. And so it seems to me that our relationship with a denomination or congregation is terribly thin, and rooted in our own promises to oneanother, not in promises to an ontologically necessary structure.  Using some presbyterian moves, I've fleshed this out in a reply to a couple great questions posed by Shawn

Great conversation!

I just left a presbytery meeting where we discussed a lower budget and, while one noted that campus ministry was cut by more than 35%, the presbytery was basically asked to either "trust the process" or  vote for "more funds for my or your idea."  The whole thing was not as ugly as it could have been, but it did leave me thinking, why are we doing this? 

Which makes Shawn's comments interesting.  you should read his post, but here are a few cursory responses (R) to the questions (Q) he poses to Adam, and to me by association, I guess.

Q. If you are not concerned about the dying PC(USA) then why be a part of it?
R. I joined the PC(USA) as a connectional community seeking to display the kingdom of God, and our connection is rooted in the fidelity of that God to bring such kingdom and provisional toward that end alone... 

In a sense we joined a team in the game of kingdom work, and when the court and the players adapt and we are no longer playing that game but simply running drills like the harlem globetrotters, then its time to let the team end on its own, not set up an endowment that it might play in perpetuity.

a few excerpts from our book of order:


G-3.0401c, "The church is called to a new openess to the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God's activity in the world."

G 30400. "The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk
of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of
life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that
point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ."

Q. If we choose to be here [in the PC(USA)], aren’t we affirming that God is at work here? And if we affirm God’s work being done here, shouldn’t we be concerned if that work should stop?

R. Niehbur might have said this best in his "approximation of brotherly love."  To grossly paraphrase this ethical concept, we work toward an ideal, toward an eschatological promise, and yet we are called to submit these working ideals to critiques.  We can learn by what is not working, that it may no longer fit.  While eschatological hope (and prophetic imagination) is a guide our prior hopes and actions are not "proof" that God's mission depends upon us hoping them and doing them forever.

I agree with Shawn's last comments, "I think we can be concerned about the survival of the denomination, without being inordinately concerned about it."  However, I am worried that we assume, then, that our call is to refine and protect our precious denomination/church/ideology because of it's historical precedence.  Survival of a structure does not guarantee its future usefulness.  But continually rebuilding and being rebuild (with consideration of the construction tools we have been handed by the great cloud of witnesses before us), that is missional. 

returning to the presbytery meeting I just left- What if we were led by images from scripture and the testimonies of those structure ahead of us (all signs that the spirit uses) to hand our denomination away, to put it in risk, the way that G30400 might dare, like Barmen dares, like paul dared as he met with Peter and others in the Jerusalem counsel?  What if we were not concerned with renewing a previous thing, but building something funded in those testimonies for our children and for our neighbor?

On sunday I spoke at a local Atlanta church on the topic of missional churches (you can download the podcast of the class here).  Using the Newbigin triad, i was explaining how the church is not the end-user of the gospel but placed in relationship with culture by the gospel.

Afterwards an architect came to me and described his firms approach to designing hospitals.  He noted that all the other firms in Atlanta come to the client with three different options, A, B, or C.  And they ask the hospital which would they would prefer.  His firm, however, asks the client to describe what they hope to become in their hospital service, to describe the functions.  He saw a similarly between his firm's work with hospitals and our church structures addressing culture, those we are called to bless with our hope-in-action.


I think that the "renew our denominations" drum is too concerned with finding clients to keep models A,B,or C in business.  And we could learn from the architects who (1) ask about the future that their clients hope to see, and (2) are building (appropriating classical knowledge) based on function and not precedence. 

Manifesto of Hope


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?

Ordaining Mary

I saw this entry today from a journal of mine, dated July 24, a day after my ordination.  Now, that word "ordination" brings a great deal of baggage with it, I know.  So, let me drop this quote for you first:

Nothing ontological changed.  I still perspire and regret and fear and hate to shave.  I’ve been reverend according to the traditional language of the church reforming for almost 20 hours now and I think the same thoughts and like the same things.  But yesterday during my ordination service some things new were planted and some old soil was given rest.

I’m sitting in a warehouse loft with large pieces of fine art and pop found art on the walls.  My friend Fred has spent several years on a painting he entitles the Call of St. Mathew,  it sits on the floor here in the lofts where I've managed a coffee shop.  Soon it will be brought back to him, I'm still not buying art like I hope to be one day.  Soon, the other art work will be picked up my the friends who donated it for the extended Eucharist that we celebrated here, turn tables, wine, cigars, bread left over from the worship gathering... all picked up, nothing really changed about this warehouse or the building we met in for prayer and charges.

I'm sitting here reflecting on the fact that we never really transform either. We keep being us.  After marriage.  After childbirth.  After divorse. After baptism.  After ordination.  But the names, and definitions and the dictionary change as we go.  New creation doesn't leave behind only an ex-creation.  What is born again does die like a seed, but it is not oblitherated like an atom split leaving only afterlife.... 

I was blessed yesterday, by old and new friends, playful mentors, and deep galvanic tradition. But that blessing is all around us.   In the beauty of the party, in the green of the summer fescue, in the pavers of the sidewalk and the lead paint of the old warehouse.  Blessing is waiting, everything is being anointed.  What is changed in the ordaining is our eyes, our ears, our imagination.

It's Advent and my imagination wanders to Mary.  And then to all the crazy theological gymnastics (artfully, no less) that were created to insure that what is pure is pure.  to insure that what is holy is holy... But whether the Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant theologians have this right or not it can't have unfolded that way to her.  To Mary blessing must have been an interruption of the mundane, a new set of eyes concerning her "state."  Advent, waiting for hope to be born, must have something to do with these new pair of eyes.  Yesterday,I read It Gives Me Hope, a poem by Cheryl linked from Johnny Baker:

it gives me hope

It gives me hope to believe that Mary did not always want to be pregnant.
Not at first. Not really.

It gives me hope to believe that Mary’s ‘yes’
was not always wholehearted.
That even though her body embraced this promise -
every cell of it -
her mind simply couldn’t.

It gives me hope to believe that maybe those first days or weeks
were coloured with despair and confusion
hopelessness and fear
too sharp and raw and private to ever be told.

It gives me hope to believe that one day
Mary woke
not quite knowing herself without the familiar feeling of dread

and found herself
inexplicably bathed
in irrational

And so, the mundane life, all that is disconcerting, the terror and regret, every cell in me is ordained, like it was in Mary.  A life spoken into and an utterance received.  Mary's apophatic practice of having ears to hear...

Hear the blessing
when its time, respect the yes in you (wholehearted and otherwise),
and consider what is ordained

The title of my journal was crops rotating, and i never finished it. 

But, I think this is the waiting.  As i think about it, now, six months later, I realize that our crops are being rotated as we name, as the dictionary changes, as we are "inexplicably bathed in irrational incomprehensable delight." 



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.

"the other" and the big risk of defining what is inside or outside the system

My friend Mark had a great comment on testimony/ counter-testimony and the "double blind" of a Marxist informed hermeneutic.  I was writing earlier that "utterance" as "world making" does not sufficiently account for the pre-verbal or the elaboration practice of "world making."  Here are Mark's thoughts...

According to John McClure, Brueggemann’s goal of forming a particularidentity for a community of exiles is already a surrender to the oppressive center that sustains itself through the corruption of all language into self-serving searches for security. The resistance language of Brueggemann’s testimony becomes a necessary part of the “double-bind” in which the center needs the margins to exist...

If we changed the subject, turned our focus from a language created reality and instead turned to the other, do we begin to escape that double bind? I think this is where Anna’s understanding of testimony undergirded by Chopp’s “open sign” points us forward. Instead of countertestimony that in the end props up the hegemony, the Word creates a new space of openness that refuses to be caught within the double bind. In this openness that refuses reduction, there is no longer the center and the margins, just the other. In this space, all our labels that locate “us” are dropped and a new language that transcends the bind is engaged, what McClure calls a language of love.

In this space, there is no closure. No moves to consensus, no focus on identity. And it is here where I think your thought about art can really help us. There is something about art that resists closure, resists being identified and systematized. Something about art that defers meaning.

I agree with McClure's critique of Brueggemann's Marxist informed "counter-testimony" project with a few objections.

'You Got Served: being addressed is an artistic and not simply verbal exchange

One, Brueggemann seems to present the community as texted as well, not simply text-ers.  In this sense the the cannon then operates as a more than egalitarian testimony (requiring the polarity you mention) but a new world, one created by Yahweh who refuses the domestication of either or any ideology that would use God as "puppet."  Old orientation - disorientation - new orientation happens the system as a whole.

Second, Brueggemann's later work moves beyond Prophet Imagination (Marxism), cadences from home(exile), toward a sabatarianism of texting (p136-140 Ichabod Toward Home).  For a moment he oppens the door for pre-text when he unpacks holy Saturday as a time when all our texting is paused and either the Father self-gives (a la Von Balthazar) or the community must play and imagine (pre-texting a la Steiner) or both.  In Ichabod Toward Home, Brueggemann presents a place for the apophatic and imagination (incubation-insight-evaluation) that, I suggest, is a departure from his prior socialogially centered criticisms.  He just has not closed the loop to see art's value in witness.

The hard part here is the Barthian move to Word to define the reformed experience of Christ-revealed through the text seems to require we place art within word.  This deeply limits our ability to take seriously our practices in light of the incarnation (here is some of the genius of Newbiging's Congregation as herminuetic of the gospel- it created a way forward incarnationally).  If words are, however, a part of art, then solo-scriptura must make it past Wietgenstien's "word games" another way... I'm not sure how, yet...

Where is the other?: in the text we have and coming from the future

But I am curious about the center-margin debate and have been thinking about that myself...

Is the place of "no margin or center" simply a recreation of an ontological "outside" system.  A re-Cartetianism?  I would love a bit more on Chopp, I'm not familiar with him yet (I'll ask Anna Carter Florence too).  At the core I think the art metaphor unpacks the dichotomy between narrative and practice, regardless of  sociological bent.  "The art of Church" metaphor presses us closer to a Husserl phenomenology where our words do interact within the kingdom as creative parts of a whole, they are a part of the system here.  ie: This blog is not just an idea, but the floating pixels connect to our choices and habits and move space, as it were.  My blogg is an extension of my domain (yikes).

And so, to address the objectivity question I am playing around a with a threefold wholism (I'm sure there's a better word here but i am working my damnedest to avoid "Trinity" by default- since that is not my point, yet) drawn from narrative theology.  From Biblical texts we encounter stories in which the  actor is pressed to narrate, and the narrator is percieved by a certain audience as author, and the tangle is inescapable almost taken for granted (God's redemptive word-game, if you will).  In the counter-testimony sense, Ruth the Moabite retells Israel's story as her own, and the actor becomes a narrator.  Jeremiah's Israel becomes the author of Babylon's city.  The Good Samaritan becomes the narrator of  Israel's story of neighboring... The son of God is send, not only as actor of the messianic texts, but actor of the realized kingdom, narrating the nexus... not only that but he authored new narratives (why do you say I don not have th power to forgive sins?) and authorized the authority of new authors (as the father has sent me so I send you, whatsover you forgive will be forgiven)...

Do we ever address anyone, why?

In this, because of the collapse of narrative and practice plus the missiological view of Jesus' Incarnation as an interruptive re-texting event ( limit experience -Ricoeur), the called community are those called to be:

1. actors sent to fulfill the text of our Author,

2. narrators, retexting ourself as a community organized by the polity of the text (Yoder)

3. and authors, responding to our contextually as makers of peace, forgiveness, and justice as those who, like Abraham, become the Righteousness of God (Pilgrim people with an eschatological end) in our texted world.

I think this gives back to the interpretive community an antidote to margin-center priocupations: the place of "subjectivity and the apophatic".  Of course this includes the "other." And yet does so without setting up an inside-outside system.  Instead with the perspectives of church as artwork, artist, and currator of God's Art, we must now also face our responsibility to "make" new orientations accounting for both margins (of all socialogical sorts) and the Other met in the dis-orientation.

While the "Elijah chair" of otherness brings subjectivity into the room, it appears to me, to create a "non-space" an "ontological outside" that betrays the incarnation.  The incarnation, however, bring practice and narrative together, brings the kingdom of God into the room as a partner to join in and to be addressed by.  To realize and to miss.  My current take on this otherness approach is that it is hard to land missiologically with it (to give shape to our art).

I could have missed Mark's point entirely so come back at me.


The church and creative process

Words Do Not Make Worlds

Okay, one of my biggest mentors is Walter Brueggemann, who in step with the Yale school of post liberalism, has argued that "Words make worlds."  This is an hermeneutic argument that what we say, speak into being, changes how we behave.  Citing Freud, Bruggemann writes that speech about our memory and hope open in us new possibilities.  He also then connects this to Biblical Theology as it pertains to God.  The God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, speaks the world into being, communicates as a voice, and instructs through prophets who say "the Word of the Lord."  It follows, then, that the New Testament's extrapolation in the incarnation of Jesus as the Word made flesh, is the embodiment of God's utterance.

The Church After Words
I have been drawn to this argument for quite some time but often get stuck on one thing, "words are not the only way, the primal way of knowing and communicating."  I spent a semester in seminary trying to make sense of this and created 90+ pages of words to prove my point (get it here:  Download arts_as_witness_02_revision

).  Missiologist Leslie Newbigin proposes a complimentary idea that the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.  Different than the Franciscan-Young Life motto- "preach the gospel at all times, only use words when necessary," Newbigin's argues that the congregation is a meaning making group who bear witness to the gospel of Jesus and the reign of God in their host culture.  In this way the words are only part of the witnessing component, and the gospel is not simply preached but performed.  Moving beyond Newbigin, I have seen this argument fitting well with the post-structuralists who suggest that disembodied words are actually tools of power- to manipulate others or evade responsibility.

Until today I have been stuck on how to connect the trajectories of these two formative scholars in my own approach to life in the way of Jesus.  I agree that words, utterance, change our reality starting with our own vantage point and hope.  I also agree that the church is the community witnessing to the story of this hope in word and deed, in the beauty of making a life together for the sake of its neighbors.  But Brueggemann would seem to protest that words are a prerequisite, absolutely necessary for the formation of this community and the Newbigin trajectory (now I'm projecting certain postmodern suspicions to his work, I know) would seem to argue that words are an insufficient. 

Words as elaboration
Today, listening to a pod-cast on hermeneutics and eschatology by John Green, I recognized that imagination is often pre-verbal.  That the church's failure of imagination is tied to our preoccupation with words, to well elaborated systems.  And I connected these two theologians to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "CHICK-sent-me-high-ee).

He describes the work of creativity as more recursive than linear, but proceeding in the following progression:

  1. Preparation (immersion in a problem that speaks to one's curiosity),
  2. Incubation (ideas call to each other without the pressure of linear logic),
  3. Insight (the aha when pieces of the puzzle fall together),
  4. Evaluation (utilizing former knowledge of the domain and opinion of the field determining if the idea is novel),
  5. Elaboration (paying attention to outside developing work, open mindedness, refining for elegance and simplicity, listening to colleges, and finally articulating the complete innovation). 

Here is the connection to the church as hermeneutic and the speech act. The church requires the disciplines of contemplation on Christ to shape our imaginations.  The church (to give props to my reformed fore parents) is shaped in the the proclamation of the Word.  The narrative of scripture re-scripts our imagination so that new problems emerge, new incongruence's between our selves, our church, or our world as they relate to the gospel-shaped world of God's dreams known through the gift of the Holy Spirit, scriptures, and tradition.  The speech act is "elaboration."  But this elaboration is, as Csikszentmihalyi shows points out, is not linear but recursive and continual.  And this elaboration is the fruit of an internal creative process, one the church exists to nurture.

Words as fruit and not product

I think this gets to the bottom of my beef with "words make worlds."  In a consumer centered late-capitalist world, we rush past practices as means to a desired end.  For preachers we need the next "word" and so cheap, flaccid, or self serving words are conjured up to meet 7-day cycle of market demand.  Consequently the church has shaped a generation of eager "utterers" looking to say more than they believe and content to believe or wrestle with far less than they like to say.  Churches and pulpits become the natural habitat in modernity for "vibrato" big sexy ideals.  CCM and "praise music" is just amplifies the point.  And yet pastors who preach every week play into this by demanding nothing, by saying words that therapize, validate (from a position of pulpit authority), or demean the other side (feminazis, homophobes, or culture-haters... you pick your idealogical enemy).

But utterance is not a consumable to be outsourced to experts or reduced into microwavable single portions.  Utterance is the fruit of disciplines of readiness.  Imagination is the gift of God from the future for the community to bear witness anew.  And the congregation can bear witness anew only after it has internalized the creative process, facing emerging problems between the "kingdom come on earth" and the inspired imagination of "as it is in heaven."  The church is not just a place for preparation (singing "Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary" or "Wait for the Lord") and elaboration (singing "Shout to the Lord" or "God Bless America" or "We Shall Overcome") but also for incubation (silence, and contemplation), insight (freedom to play and speak provisionally-divergently), and evaluation (lamentation, confession,reconciliation, and protest) as well.

What if... the kingdom of God where at hand?

You need to watch this presentation by Amy Smith to the Technology, Entertainment and Design awards about the changes she and her MIT students are bringing to Haiti, Ghana, India, and elsewhere. 

If we believed that all were becoming new we would put our stock in this kind of work.  She and her generous co-inventors humble me.

Ricoeur reads Jesus

Here is some intergrative work between notes for a sermon on the wedding of Cana and notes on Paul Ricoeur’s “Pastoral Praxeology, Hermeneutics, and Identity” from Figuring the Sacred, (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress Press, 1995) 303-314.  Come play with me...

Your mind is spinning. You see dark face after light face after dirty face after clean face. There are people from all over the region.  They have traveled to this party unknowing that you will be there.  You haven’t been able to sleep for days now.  Its been about three days since you met your first fellow sojourner.  You grabbed him because he was ready to try something new.  His brother was nearby and after a few quick calls he had joined you.  As the three of you travel you pointed out the futility of life to a few other folks and they decide to travel with you as well.  One person is an idealist, the kind that could kill a party with his politics, his better-than-Ezra speak, his certainty.  And so you point out your place in what he’s so sure about and suddenly he’s on the wagon with the rest of y’all. 

You show up at the party and y’all blend right in.  It’s a Grecian environment, expansive space, marble floors, large clay jars to wash your hands in.  They remind you of the bowls of holy water outside cathedrals, like the one your parents talk about.  You vaguely remember being washed in them as a child when the wrinkled hands of a gray priest received you from your parent’s arms and held you up in front of the congregation.  But that was a long time ago now. 

The party is what everyone came here for but the marriage ceremony came first.  You sit through the rituals but your mind is somewhere else…

You notice some of the other guests and the solutes, the mozle tov, the cheers ensue. 

Then you are at the bar and your mom overhears that the crowd are heavier drinkers than they had planned on.

Then it hits, your mom says it is time to do something… the limit experience hits and you choose to lean into the future that you’ve known all along or you chose to wait for it.  Not seeing equality with God as something to hold on to you chose to be a servant, to humble yourself in the form of

But now is the time and suddenly the plot thickens, it turns, you are a different character than ten minuets before.  The servants, the baptismal water jars we all washed our hands in, grab them, fill them back up with water.

But wait, they are set aside for holy purposes.  They are god’s provision, they aren’t supposed to be used for this.

Uh, now tell them to bring it out there, lets not leave the water here.  If this is going to work, it has to be the servants, not me or any of us.  When the servant is doing this I will not be given credit, the groom will.  The people will see a new day and enjoy the hospitality, the benevolence of God, and thank their host, the organizer of the event.

And for twenty centuries since, Jesus has been writing us into the script to take the risk of bringing recycled vestments and elements into the party.  Who changed the water, who was changed?  Who served as narrators of the story?  Who served as author of the event?  Who participated in the closed story of the master of the party? Did any of them look like authors? (yes the one throwing the party).  Did any of them feel like narrators (yes the servants of the party). 


To create is a sticky subject with evangelicals.  We want to see that God as "the maker" and to protect ourselves from the offense of changing God or God's text.  So what roles do Mary, Jesus, the newly recruited discisples, the servant, the MC of the party play? Who is made, who is being made?  Or is it that simple?

Much of this is rooted in our understanding of self through Cartesian and Kantian categories.  We see a character’s self-hood as “sameness”  whatever belongs permanently to someone/thing.  Kant sent this knowledge into the non-personal space of thinking.  Descartes’ immutable and reflexive self. 

And so when something new is introduced it must have already existed so as not to threaten the sameness of that character.  This is seen best in theater, literature, and movies.  The character development requires a “limit experience” where the character’s sameness is threatened and the “self” the “who am I” is laid bare.

Heidegger said it this way:  Self hood is a question of who, who did this, who did that.  Hannah Arendt, said that all things labor, and that some labor is work, and that some work is action.  Action, the highest level of the three is distinguished from these three basic human activities by the function of story and history in telling us about the who/actor of action. 

If Kant was right that the permantent part of the individual is the substance of one's self-hood, then Nietzsche must also have been right in saying that the only substantial difference between people are their unique piles of meat and sinews.  So I am persuaded by Ricoeur that maybe Kant was not completely right here.


“Narrativity” is “the intelligibility brought about by the plot of a narrative.” (Ricoeur, 308) Narrative unity (a post structuralism perspective) is a stronger vantage point in differentiating meaning than the movable rationales of structuralists and their counter point, irrationalism.  Narrative unity is constituted through the identification of an actor the objects/subjects of his intervention.  Changes or reversals of fortune that threaten concordance of plot are made significant by the plot.  When these changes are applied to characters their identity or self-hood is revised, this is called the “emplotment of character.”  In this act we recognize in ourselves/others the working of the plot.

The challenge to ministry, however, is that the plot seems open ended because life is open ended.  We do not know the last page.  We are always revising, being replotted, and changing the plots of other’s narratives.  We are simultaneously in several narratives from several point of view. 

So the church is an emplotment environment.  We re-text, reshape the identity of our self, the body of Christ as character interacting with others not in body, and the greater world as part of God’s work. 

The problem then is who are ministers, who is the church?  Are we a character, narrator, or author?  This very ambiguity creates an opening… it is a limit experience.  The ambiguity of who is in charge between Mary, Jesus, the servants, and the MC is the same ambiguity of being God's people, the church.

Ricoeur writes, “Surely we are a character but it is we who tell the story therefore we are its author.  But we cannot simply be the author because we are already caught in narrativity of enacted narratives. We are also characters in other’s stories and histories… Being caught up in others’ stories is what create an inextricable aspect to our lives” (310).

“We are caught up in stories, in histories, and in large scale narratives of salvation where one is a partner, a character who is partially a narrator and partially and author” (310).

And so we participate in life’s revisions, examining life to consider if a “closed” part of our character is to be “reopened”. In this sense we are be converted, re-emplotted, transformed by the renewing of our plot-making minds.  In this sense all of life is a potential limit experience. 

Elaine Scary writes in On Beauty and Being Just of the role of "precedence" in perceiving beauty. As such we encounter a remembered plot, a precedent,and change our character or we are surprised by an other actor or event that has no precedence- unprecedented, and are then emplotted, as it were, for the first time.  To learn then, to place ourselves in line with new meanings and to risk re-emplotment is to risk limit experiences by seeking (placing ourselves under a plot- being a community) and by being aware (finding limit experiences and trusting they are from the narrator/author and not a threat). 

With Darrell Guder we see our regular re-emplotment as the call to "continual conversion".  Like Elizabeth Barret Browning we see the potential limit experiences as “bushes ablaze…”  like Peter Mayer, we sing, “everything is holy now.”  And then we realize that everything cannot possibly emplot, we must sort out the plotters.  And then we face the challenge again of learning, we need a place where we seek emplotment. 

Imagination is a key part of this leap from a closed to a reopened self.  It is the only way to structure or adapt the plot.  The function of imagination, then, is to separate “self” from “same” to lay bare the question of “who am I.” 

This is where this brings us: to lose ourselves is to find ourselves.  To allow ourselves to be impacted by the "other" (persons or world) is to risk being in control of ourselves. A habit that Jesus demonstrates.  Moreover, to participate in another’s story is to become an actor once again.  We transform the world by our relationship to it.  Descartes was wrong, we are never detached.

And so the church is called to be a character- authored by God as God's change met in the world

And the church is called to be a narrator- heard by creation about God's change to come

And the church is called to be an author (objective) finding our lives as co-creation, as we participate in the closed/opened stories/histories of God’s created world.

This certainly is quite the drama, this thing of being church in emerging culture!

painting "and"

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.
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,
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
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.
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”…