Sep 5 2013

On Desire Lines: Sarah Coakley, Vulnerability, and What Turns Us On

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DesireThis post original was published on the blog Women in Theology. In a culture which capitalizes so much on desire, exploring the topic is an important theological task. Though this is a longer discussion than is usually shared here, the E. Lawrence gives a helpful reflection on desire as a theological category. It is shared here with her permission. 

The older I get, the more I think that the crux of becoming a mature person, the person God has created you to be, is about discerning your desires. Your deepest desires. I have to admit upfront that I am not necessarily sure what you should do with your desires in all cases (especially since there are life-giving, truthful desires and selfish, destructive desires…), but I think we should decide it’s a good thing that desire is there, inside of us, and we should strive to know it.

Perhaps if I continue to get older, I will stop pursuing this line of thought and decide that something else is key. But, as it stands, as I am on the cusp of turning 30, I think that being honest about your desire lines is necessary for mature adult personhood.

If you’re studying Christian theology, I can imagine a certain uneasiness cropping up at this point, at least for some of you (especially some of my peers at my graduate institution). But no, I’m not blessing consumerist individualism. Or hedonism. Or any form of extreme self-indulgence, really. I’m not telling you to go in peace and excessively indulge in whatever happens to get you off, whether it be shopping or food or porn or sports.

I’m not even blithely endorsing expressive individualism, which, as a distinctively modern phenomenon, pivots around the centrality of the individual self and its unique worth, a singular identity that just has to be expressed. (“My self-expression is my only truth.”)

Importantly, I’m not adducing the concept of discerning your own desire as a way of ignoring the desires and needs of others. In reality, clarity about one’s own desires, and an ability to see—to empathize with—the hopes and wishes of others, should rise in tandem together. (But how all that gets concretely negotiated is obviously very complicated…)

Hopefully some of that throat-clearing is done now. What am I up to, then?

To begin, I’ll say that I’ve been reading Anglican feminist theologian Sarah Coakley lately. Also, she plays an important role in my dissertation. This return to Coakley’s corpus is especially timely given the impending release of her much-anticipatedGod, Sexuality, and the Self later this month in the US. (Could this turn of events be a beacon of hope for the coming release of David Tracy’s God book?! Do the books of lore eventually get published?!)

A couple things about Coakley. The cornerstone of Coakley’s work is a particular kind of prayerful practice: allowing oneself to be de-centered by God so as to become still, to be able to discern and follow through on the possibility of right relationships within the world. In her famous essay entitled “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing” fromPowers and Submissions, she writes (and I quote at length):

What I have elsewhere called the ‘paradox of power and vulnerability’ is I believe uniquely focused in this act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly ‘empowered’ here if we cease to set the agenda, if we ‘make space’ for God to be God…[E]ngaging in any such regular and repeated ‘waiting on the divine’ will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable…But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, ‘empowering’ in a mysterious ‘Christic’ sense.[1]

Even though I continue to have some reservations about the ease with which Coakley brushes past the potential psychological burdens of sustaining contemplative practice described in such self-effacing terms, I remind myself that she intentionally makes this argument in response to post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson and the latter’s rejection of a discourse of kenotic vulnerability before God. In other words, Coakley is keenly attuned to the reality of women’s oppression and noxious infantilization under the rough hands of patriarchy. And, it is precisely in and through this concern that she argues that making space for a powerful triune God in prayer does not reinforce subjugation, but rather, gives one the strength to resist it. So, to understand Coakley, you’ve got to understand how important the paradox of prayerful human vulnerability before a powerful God is for her thought.[2]

But to really understand Coaklian vulnerability, you’ve got to locate it in proximity to her account of desire, and that is what currently interests me. For Coakley, the act of making oneself vulnerable allows for a couple significant things to occur: you become in touch with your desire for God, and, through that, you also become in touch with God’s desire for you: “There is our own primary desire for God, of course, which we strive in prayer to put first; but underlying that is God’s unique and unchangeable desire for us, without which all our own striving is fruitless.”[3]To make space within oneself for God, is to connect—and reconnect—with a yearning for God, to be filled with God’s goodness (“Our hearts are restless,” etc.). And, then, if we sit with this desire, we realize we are being buoyed up by a stronger, underlying undercurrent of divine love directed at us, permeating us, praying within us (cue Romans). In grasping for God, we realized we are always already being grasped (and this point reminds me of Rahner’s notion of mystery as superabundant, positive and gracious).

Importantly, this matrix of divine and human desire that suffuses prayer also affects our desires as directed at people and things within the world. Specifically for Coakley, this means that our sexual desires and our desire for God are entangled with each other: “No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered…Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will nor allow this, or not for very long.”[4] Among many things, I take this to mean that our sexuality, in its essential goodness at its root, is a compass to help us discern the precise ways that we each choose to love God in this life. And, inversely, our love for God directs us to expend our energy toward particular people in particular ways, including sexual ways, in our lives. (Perhaps surprisingly, though, Coakley, as I recall, defends celibacy precisely as a particular kind of channeling of sexuality into various other forms of intimacy with groups of people.)

I like the way Coakley retrieves the Christian insight that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level, in relation to God (and it’s definitely there in the tradition. See the Bible, the mystics, other people). In making this argument, she—unsurprisingly—puts me in mind of Rowan Williams’s essay “The Body’s Grace” and the way he understands same-sex desire in a similar theological paradigm. I like what these Anglicans are doing.

At the same, time, however, as a Catholic who is all-too-familiar with JP II’s theology of the body, I know how this high theology of sexuality can easily be deployed in service of homophobia and static gender roles oppressive to women. (In sum: sexuality is amazing when you are in a heterosexual marriage and the husband/God/Christ “initiates” and the wife/humanity/Church “receives.” The ontology of Everything Ever, especially Your Interlocking Genitals, stipulates it!)

Furthermore, I am aware of the ways that construing desire almost exclusively in terms of sexuality can problematically reduce desire down to one particular slice of human passion and feeling. I don’t think Coakley actually holds such a narrow conception of desire, but all too often in her work, desire is glossed in terms of sexual eros, and then she rest content to play with the supposed scandal created by crossing the gap between that desire and the desire for God. But I want more. (Wording intentional there.)

So, in returning to the opening of this post, and my positing that discernment of desire is pivotal for becoming an adult, I’d like to take Coakley’s positive valuation of desire and think about it in ways that include sexuality but also go beyond that. I’d like to think about the importance of desire more holistically in living a good life.

Desire, to my mind, is about figuring out what—and who—gives you the energy to be an instrument, an agent, of divine grace within the world. What lights you up and sets your ablaze? What makes you fully alive for God’s glory? Where do your passions lead you? What gives you glimpses of exuberance, of ekstasis, of joy? In other words, in all senses of this phrasing: what turns you on?

This kind of discernment isn’t about opposing desire and work, or desire and self-sacrifice for others, or desire and other frameworks for moral reasoning. It’s about gaining the kind of self-knowledge that is rooted in being a creature of God. Note that, in the list of questions I offered, I didn’t separate the joy of authentic human desire from living for God’s glory. The two are together. That’s the kind of passion I mean.

As I’ve gone through my twenties, I’ve noticed that the push for adulthood as an escape from childhood seems to go hand-in-hand with trying to fit into the expectations and wishes of others for us. The pressure doesn’t have to be as blunt as your parents wanting you to have a Responsible Job even though you Let Them Down by doing something silly like going to graduate school for a humanities degree. (That’s actually not my particular situation, luckily.) Rather, the external pressure can be much more subtle and diffuse.

For example, if you’re at a prestigious graduate institution to get your doctorate, you can gradually imbibe through the general intellectual ethos that being a “good” scholar is about putting all your energy into research (so you publish like a maniac) and the intellectual crushing of opponents whenever possible (there has to be violence at some level…). Or, to take another example, you may think that one particular romantic partner is the “right” choice for you based on various external criteria you have appropriated over the years. But in both these cases, you may come to realize that what you’ve been “groomed” to think about what’s proper and ideal is not actually what gives you energy and sustains you. In the first case, maybe you want to teach and lead a quieter—but no less profound—intellectual life geared around mentoring. And in the other case, maybe you come to see that your partner, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into your desire lines as they orient your life. Maybe you want to be with somebody else, somebody who doesn’t fit the profile. Maybe you want to be indefinitely independent and single and use that particular freedom as an opportunity to direct your energy in new ways.

I hope these examples show that my emphasis on desire is not a rejection of broader frameworks for moral reasoning that include discerning right/wrong, the rights and needs of others, the formation of empathy, etc. (and these frameworks, of course, are initially exterior/heteronomous before they are internalized and learned over the years, and that’s good and normal).

I’m simply saying that there are too many people walking around with a false sense of direction in their lives when, in truth, they really don’t know what they want from life, who they are supposed to be, or that it is a good thing to stop and contemplate these desire lines as a mode of adult spiritual and emotional askesis. Women in particular, please listen up.

Before you dive headlong into the task of Meeting Expectations, at least take a second and think about protecting your joy and your energy any which way you can. The thing, too, is that God wants that, anyway.


[1] Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 34, 35.

[2] To be clear, I am not sure that Coakley ever adequately answers Hampson’s (albeit bluntly overstated) critique. Something to ponder.

[3] Sarah Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), 37.

[4] Ibid., 37.

E Lawrence is currently a PhD candidate in systematic theology. Her academic interests include theological anthropology, specifically theologies of disability, and feminist and womanist theologies; the intersection of ethics and systematics regarding love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; the relationship between suffering and oppression and the cross; and embodiment and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. And, as Netflix informs her, she also enjoys “TV shows with a strong female lead.”

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Apr 3 2013

Small Groups in Congregational Life

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Tim Harvey, pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, VA recently shared some observations on small groups in church life in preparation for their congregational business meeting. In this post Tim discusses the components of vibrant small groups in the life of the congregation. The post was originally shared on Tim’s blog on the Central congregation’s website

Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley.  We have each benefitted from their leadership.

Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708.  Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.

In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas:  someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides theirstudy together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.

The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.

Leadership is what brings the group together.  Leadership takes a number of forms:  a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few.  In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.

A commitment to stay together is also critical.  This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose.  A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete.  Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon:  how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.

The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group.  They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:

A small group should study together.  This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.

A small group should do mission together.  Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community.  When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.

A small group should get together for fellowship.  Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things.  Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.

Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth.  Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.

As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking.  Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.

First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over.  Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.

Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in.  How are the above six characteristics on display in that group?  Is there a clear investment in shared leadership?  Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group?  In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present?   If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God!  If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members?  Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose?  Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?

Tim HarveyTim Harvey is pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke, VA. He and the congregation work hard at issues of renewal and revitalization, both in the congregation and in the downtown community. Issues of spiritual and literal hunger are recurring themes in their mission and ministry. And yes, he rides a unicycle!

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Nov 27 2012

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: A Review

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By Dana Cassell

Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is getting a bunch of press, which I’m glad about. There’s a lot of predictable internet bickering going on, a lot of posturing and arguing and name-calling, some pointed and snarky responses and some responses full of grace. Some of the evangelical crowd is yelling about the book being a “mockery” of the Bible. Even some more progressive, neo-evangelicals and emerging Anabaptists are pretty inhospitable to the idea – though I’m not convinced they’ve actually read the book OR much of Rachel’s blog.

Honestly, I find most of that conversation silly. I don’t come from those circles where women in leadership is still an all-consuming and contentious subject. I’m not really invested in arguments about women’s roles or what biblical womanhood may or may not be. I like the book, and I like Rachel, not because she’s a woman or because she’s writing about women but because a) she’s funny and b) the way she incorporates an online community into her writing is fascinating and phenomenal.

When I say funny, I mean: laugh-out-loud, guffawing in the middle of the studiously quiet Starbucks kind of funny. Rachel is self-effacing in ways that I can identify with, she references everything from Anne of Green Gables to Arrested Development, and her ability to play off the mad-dash contemporary pop culture against the molasses pace of down-home Dayton, Tennessee is delightful. A scene near the beginning of the book in which Rachel attempts to purchase cipollini onions in an East Tennessee Wal-Mart nearly knocked me off my chair.

But what really intrigues me is the way that Rachel has been able to create space on the internet for real, sustained, honest conversation among people of widely varying theological stripes…and then somehow incorporate that communal discussion so gracefully into her in-print writing.

First: the blog. Rachel’s blog is built for conversation. I’ve been involved in several online blog-based initiatives meant to spark discussion, and none have been uber-successful. Whether we skewed the pieces too theological or aimed them at a too narrow audience, readership was high but participation was very, very low. I think people are often hesitant to participate online because of the dangers of being misinterpreted and because they’re wary that any conversation on the internet will devolve into name-calling and triviality. Surely, the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter debate has not eased anyone’s mind on that front.

But Rachel somehow creates and nurtures space that is meant to be about interaction, and healthy, productive interaction at that. The comment sections are long and encouraging – people actually engage the substance of one another’s comments. There’s very little snarking back and forth at one another.

The content itself is carefully planned and directed by readers. She regularly hosts guest writers in an “Ask A…” feature, where readers submit suggestions for the guests as well as their particular questions. The space has hosted funeral directors, transgendered Christians, Mennonites, messianic Jews, feminists, pagans, Pentecostals, and nuns, to name a few. Readers ask honest questions, and writers answer with openness and grace. Real conversation!

This sense of graceful community comes through in the book. Rachel writes about sharing the experience of her writing project with blog readers. She tweets for help in the kitchen, asks her readers about tips for baking challah, and surveys the blogosphere for perspective on motherhood. It is clear, reading the book, that while the hard work of writing (and experimenting: Rachel is definitely the one who slept in a tent during her period, abstained from cutting her hair for a year, and called her husband “master” for a month.) were done by one person, the authorship of this book is shared.

I’m not sure exactly what that means yet, literarily or theologically. But I like where it’s headed. I like that we can use technology to open space for communal conversation and discernment. I like that a book can be written together: not by committee, but by community. I like that this book and this blog are places where multiple voices not only get heard, but are engaged, regularly. I like that when I tweeted about guffawing while reading, Rachel saw it immediately and re-tweeted so that my experience of reading alone in a coffee shop was transformed into a shared celebration. I like that, as we Brethren say, discernment comes through scripture-read-in-community, and this book is an example of both creation and experience done just that way.

And in some strange, meta-level twist of the Spirit’s movement, I think that’s exactly the point that Rachel was trying to make: no work of art is pure and singular. Not even the Bible, revered as it may be, is a monolithic monotone dictation from God. It is a collection, a conversation, a squawking cacophony of voices that don’t really make sense until we agree to create some space for them to speak to one another in grace. Maybe that’s what the canon is, maybe that’s what the church is, maybe that’s what we are to be about. Thanks to Rachel for clearing away some of the clutter and getting the discussion started. Eshet chayil! Woman of valor!

Dana Cassell serves as Minister for Youth Formation at the Manassas Church of the Brethren in Manassas, Virginia, as well as Staff for Ministry Formation in the Church of the Brethren Office of Ministry. She blogs at Authenticity.

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Apr 18 2012

An Inside Out Faith

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By Randall Westfall

If I were to ask you to make a list of things that you loved to do as a child, what would be on your list? For me that list includes (but is not limited to): running barefoot, building forts, catching things, building campfires, climbing, getting dirty, telling stories, imitating animals, hiding, exploring, and a ton of other pastimes that would take up more time than I have been allotted here.

If you were to ask a child today what their favorite activities are, you’d likely get a different list of activities. Though overlap may occur, I suspect that most would involve a screen or an outlet as many have replaced formative experiences outdoors with informative experiences indoors. It’s even changing our vernacular as dictionaries are doing away with words like heron, dandelion, and blackberry in favor of iPod, broadband, and ironically Blackberry.1

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term nature-deficit disorder (NDD) to illustrate the significant psychological, physical, and cognitive costs that alienation from nature has on children today.2 NDD isn’t an actual clinical disorder as much as it gives voice to what many of us were already thinking by addressing our intuitive understanding that nature is not only good for our children but essential to their healthy development.

Children today spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors and less than 25 minutes a week outdoors.3 A trend that is leading to epidemics in childhood obesity, depression, ADHD, Asperger’s and more.4 Why is this happening? Studies are showing that there are: a) more demands on children’s time, b) parental fears of “stranger danger,” c) more sedentary lifestyles, d) urbanization of America and e) an increased use in electronic media (up to 44 hours a week).5 These “digital natives” are experiencing the world in a radically different way than their ancestors did and it has consequences on their spiritual development.

Throughout history, our ancestors encountered God primarily through two means: nature and storytelling. Nature was experienced through the senses (body) and the heart, and stories informed the intellect (mind) and the heart. Over time, our stories evolved from oral narratives, to being captured in written form. In the past 25 years, as technology has expanded its reach and outdoor experience has degenerated, we find ourselves processing our experiences more through our mind and less through our body. In fact, we are witnessing the beginnings of what some scientists are calling a “transhuman” era6 where we are no longer multi-sensory beings; rather we become one-dimensional as our experiences are increasingly filtered through some type of technological medium.

This is all a part of NDD, and it is affecting our spiritual landscape. In ages past, a child’s spiritual life was assumed, largely in part because of the way they interacted with the natural world around them. As we become less engaged with the outdoors, we can no longer make assumptions regarding spiritual development. Children are trading in outdoor experiences for a virtual house arrest in which they live through external, digital devices. Being outdoors has shaped who we are for centuries, yet in the span of a generation; children who are “nature-smart” are becoming an endangered species.

Could it be that we are actually doing more harm than good living in a “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” culture, as our efforts to protect and preserve nature are also creating barriers to interacting with it. When it comes to nature, we have adopted a “museum” approach whereby children are taught to look but don’t touch. Other adages like stay on the trail, don’t wander, may be inadvertently projecting our fears that when interacting with nature someone will get hurt, be it either human or the landscape. If you can’t interact with something, it isn’t long before you lose interest. And if enough time passes, we dishonor God by basically declaring that “what you have made no longer interests me.” We’re encouraging children to “play it safe” in controlled environments, hyper-stimulated by electronic media. If they aren’t hyper-stimulated, they either become anxious or disengage. NDD keeps our appreciation for nature so long as we don’t interact with it. Imagine the same being said for our faith? I appreciate God, but I don’t interact with God. What do spiritual disciplines look like to that person?

The paradox of faith is that the God who dwells on the inside often must be encountered outside. When we lose the appeal to explore outer landscapes, then what metaphors will navigate the journey for our inner landscape? Faith has become inside out and it isn’t until we realize our connection with nature; then the Mystery at work in the depths of our souls and the Mystery in the natural world are parts of the same reality.7  Author John Lionberger believes that “Being outdoors has the power to join two extreme states of awareness, consciousness and acuity, which lead to peak experiences the recipient finds deeply spiritual.8 In my time in outdoor ministry, I’ve observed that children who have a connection with nature are more aware of their relationship with God than those who spend little or no time outdoors.

This is not about doing away with our iStuff, rather we must learn to find a balance between the digital and the natural. What if for every text or email sent, we spent those moments sitting and listening for what the robins and towhees were saying to us? Or instead of recognizing the thousands of corporate logos we see on commercials, we take the time and familiarize ourselves with the wood sorrel, plantain, and nettle in our own backyard? Or every video game spent trying to get to the next level; we spent an equal amount of time following a set of raccoon tracks to discover hidden levels of its life?

How will we prevent NDD from being passed on to future generations? It’s time for us to start embodying those childhood passions we listed above, as spiritual disciplines to feed the fire of faith just as we do with devotions, bible study, prayer and worship. Only then can we become fully awakened, fully alive, and experience the abundant life that Jesus wants us to step into. Our eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, bodies, hearts, and even brains were created in such a way that it is vital for us to engage creation, in doing so we always encounter the Creator.

Randall Westfall is the director at Camp Brethren Heights and founder of Ancient Paths Outdoor School in west-central Michigan.He is a graduate of Wilderness Awareness School near Seattle, with certifications in Naturalist Studies, Wildlife Tracking, Edible/Medicinal Plant Studies, Bird Language, Art of Mentoring and Wilderness Survival. He spent just as much time immersed in nature as he did sitting at his computer writing this article.

 

  1. Morris, Charles. National Catholic Reporter. 18 November 2011.  []
  2. Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2005. []
  3. Play Again. Dir. Tonje Hessen Schei. 2010. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Richard Louv. The Nature Principle. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2011. []
  7. Robert M. Hamma. Earth’s Echo. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2002. []
  8. John Lionberger. Renewal in the Wilderness. Woodstock: Skylight Paths, 2007. []
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Apr 10 2012

The Anabaptist’s Will, The Pietist’s Heart & The Lover’s Gaze

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[Part 3 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.]

by Scott Holland

I’m writing my rather tardy contribution to the Brethren Life and Thought Blog on Easter weekend, a time when many Christians celebrate the bodily life and resurrection of Jesus. We are reminded at Easter that unlike the Greek philosopher Socrates, who faced his sentence of capital punishment with a calm, welcome acceptance as the cup of poison hemlock was placed in front of him, Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, resisted his death with the anguished plea, “Father, if it is possible remove this cup from me.” For Socrates, the body was the mere prison of the soul. For Rabbi Jesus, the body and the book and the beloved world were imagined as united in God and thus believed to be blessed by God.

James Smith’s marvelous book, Desiring the Kingdom, offers his readers a well integrated philosophy of God, world, self and others. As a philosopher schooled in both classical theologies and Continental philosophies, Smith offers us a theology of culture in which the heart, head and hand cannot be pried apart in naming ourselves and rendering God’s name in history. This theology of culture makes four important moves: First, it offers an anthropology of humans as embodied actors rather than thinking, theorizing, talking heads. It prioritizes practices rather than ideas or doctrines. It looks at these cultural practices through the lens of worship, liturgy and ritual. Finally, it offers a culturally engaged rhetoric and practice of antithesis without being against culture.

Working out of the best of the Reformed tradition, Smith critiques the rationalism so dominant in the academy and public life by offering a more holistic understanding of the human person as “a desiring, imaginative animal.” However, Smith’s project doesn’t merely replace the thinking head of rationalism with the believing body of the Christian. Indeed, in James Smith’s theological vision, the human is more than a reasoning, believing, narratological animal; the human being is also a longing, loving actor in a blessed, broken world. In this vision, we are offered a robust understanding of the narrative and performative constitution of the self.

Professor Smith trained at Villanova University, a school where classical Augustinian Christianity dances with postmodern, phenomenological and Continental philosophy. Desiring the Kingdom brings these rich intellectual and spiritual traditions into both implicit and explicit conversation with the Reformed view of theology and education. Much like Smith, I trained at a school known for blending a Catholic analogical imagination with Continental phenomenology: Duquesne University. For a window into how our theologies nicely intersect see my How Do Stories Save Us?.2

Brian Gumm’s blog suggests that James Smith’s work might resonate with my “The Pietist as Strong Poet.” Indeed it does. In that piece I accent the Pietist’s epistemology of the heart and theopoetics of desire as a corrective to received theological and philosophical orthodoxies. With James Smith’s satisfying book open on my desk let me reflect briefly on the “The Anabaptist’s Will, the Pietist’s Heart and the Lover’s Gaze.”

Continue reading

  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Holland, Scott. How Do Stories Save Us?: An Essay on the Question With the Theological Hermeneutics of David Tracy in View. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Louvain: Peeters, 2006. []
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Mar 6 2012

Ascetic Christianity: Brethren Dress and Smith’s Cultural Liturgies

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[Part 1 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.]

by Joshua Brockway

James K. A. Smith has written an accessible and insightful discussion of practices and the Christian faith. Smith turns to consider practices and liturgies as foundational for the ways we act in the world as Christians thus challenging worldview understandings of Christian education and formation,. Rather than discuss these practices in ideological terms Smith defines these liturgical practices as “a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God.”2 Yet, Smith is clear that liturgies are not just proprietary to the Church. All cultures have within them liturgical practices which aim a person’s desires towards some other ultimate end end.

Brethren, however, have not been warm to the language of liturgy. Following many other Radical Reformation traditions, we have come to define our worship as “Free Church” and our theology as asacramental. These moves are rightly understood as reactions to the clericalism of 16th and 17th century Europe. Yet, the effect has been that we are not attentive to the ways rituals and liturgies shape our actions. Smith’s work, on the other hand, makes very clear that the question is better framed not by a rejection of liturgy, but by asking which liturgy defines us.

Continue reading

  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 33 []
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Mar 5 2012

Coming Up…

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Now that the series from the Young Adult Forum is complete, here is what’s up next.

This week we will be starting a seriers of reflection/responses to Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith.  Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. He has written a number of books and weighed in on topics such as hermeneutics, Radical Orthodoxy, Post-Modernism, and Calvinism.

So why engage Desiring the Kingdom? Simply stated, too many theologians, philosophers, and psychologists have shown that what we think has little to do with how we live. We might know a lot of things, or even for that matter believe, certain things, but those beliefs are often contradicted by our actions in the world. This is especially true in the ways Christians have approached education. Smith comments on this reality near the end of the book:

To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder ‘from a Christian perspective.’1

Our next three posts then will engage Smith’s insightful work. These posts will come from Joshua Brockway- director, spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren; Brian Gumm- licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and graduate student at Eastern Mennonite University’s Seminary and Center for Justice & Peacebuilding; and Scott Holland Professor of Theology and Culture and Director of Peace Studies and Cross-Cultural Studies for Bethany Theological Seminary.

 

  1. James K. A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom, 219 []
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Feb 7 2012

Leaders Living Integrated Lives

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

 

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Anna Lisa Gross.


Narrative and identity

In postmodernity, narrative and identity are key. Narrative is the method of truth-seeking, meaning-making – and just like so many movements that we’re experiencing, this is not new, as the Old Testament and parables show. So, narrative is the method of meaning-making. Identity is the way of moving through the world, the foundation for our living. No one can speak with authority outside their own social location (class, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, ability, age, education, et cetera), and identity is increasingly about social location more than any one specific role that we play in our lives. I can’t speak with authority on being a mother, or having disabilities, or being a gay man because they are outside my social location. This is one of many reasons that leadership needs to be representative of the full spectrum of humanity, so we can hear the real narratives of real people, rooted in their own identities, especially as the Church of the Brethren and the culture are increasingly asking for multicultural conversation. But first, we need to talk and reflect deeply about our own ethnic identities before we can hope to build strong multiethnic relationships and we need to talk and reflect deeply about our own sexuality before we can make proclamations about someone else’s, et cetera.

Integration and boundaries

How many of you have an email address?

  • How many of you have a single email address that you use for work, for family, for school friends, for community involvement?
  • How many of you have a separate address for many of these aspects of your lives?
  • How many of you use Gmail, or another program that pulls all of your email accounts into one inbox?

Technology allows for and encourages integrated lives. We are available 24/7, as we’ve already talked about, to our work, our family, our friends, our community involvement, and each of these aspects of our lives can show up when we’re trying to focus on another. Technology will only increasingly affect culture in this way. Is that good or bad? Who knows? Perhaps we won’t know until we’re able to look back on this time. For now, what feels right for you?

How can the church, especially congregations, support leaders whose lives are integrated in these ways? We’ve moved from a model of leadership that had few boundaries, to one obsessed with boundaries, to this time of integration. Take for example, Ed. Ed IS a pastor, he claims this as his identity, his fundamental way of interacting with the world – no boundaries between work identity and home identity, because work is everything. Or, Sue. Sue is a minster, Sue is a friend, a daughter, a writer, etc. She has clear boundaries between each role, and seeks self-care (sometimes by switching to a different role that is more comfortable). Or, Alex. Alex is Alex. Alex ministers, is married, studies, serves on boards, but Alex is Alex.

I am part of this emerging model, and because that is my perspective, it’s easy to prefer it. But certainly there are strengths and weaknesses of each model. And certainly these movements are not determined only by generation: personality and culture matter, too.

Ed’s model of no boundaries could invite integrity – he’s a pastor everywhere he goes, so he probably wants people to see him fulfilling that role with integrity – and we know we have high standards for pastors’ morality. But many leaders in this model desperately need time to let down their guard and live into their flaws. In fact, the more we try to show a public, flawless face, the stronger our faults can be in our lives. For many pastors and other leaders, this has meant that a secret life emerges, where those with less power – often their children or spouse or others, suffer.

Sue’s model of clear divisions between roles could invite secrets – a part of her home life that she doesn’t share with her workplace, for example. And I’m not talking here about specifics – I don’t mean to suggest that anyone give all the details of their sex lives to their congregation, but that ministers be comfortable acknowledging that they’re even dating – and I know pastors who will NOT share this information with their churches. But the element of self-care can allow for healthier home life, work life, and greater longevity in all of these roles. Intentionally choosing a place in life to be a flawed person can mean that faults are lived into, rather than taking on a life of their own.

In Alex’s emerging model, all of who we are is present in all of what we do. In a counseling session, Sue may find that a parishioner’s struggle with her mother is triggering Sue’s own painful relationship with her mother, but because she is in “pastor” role, she shuts that door to focus on the parishioner. But Alex might think, “wow, I feel strong emotions rising that are about my own relationship with my mother, not about this woman’s story. What does this emotion teach me, and what are the differences between our stories that I need to remain aware of?”

Our struggles, failures, and doubts must be able to enter our lives in all aspects, including our leadership in the church. Have you heard these things during joys and concerns time?

  •  I’m drowning in credit card debt.
  • I’m ashamed of my sexual desires.
  • I can’t pray.

How can leaders model this vulnerability? Are there things we do NOT want ministers to be vulnerable and honest about? Should any of these things preclude someone from church leadership? I don’t think so – in fact, I think leaders who can hold these struggles in tension with their faith and commitment are particularly strong. Leaders in the church should not be morally perfect people – even if we could agree on what that would mean, it’s impossible. Leaders in the church should be as imperfect as anyone else, but willing to share vulnerably their imperfections. The very stories of their struggles – and their successes over struggles – are valuable testimonials.

And leadership is more than just airtime – we must lead with listening, and lead even when no one can see what we’re doing. How do we honor the vulnerability of others? How do we facilitate communities that honor each others’ vulnerability?

I said earlier that, beginning in our own narratives and identities, we need to talk deeply about our own sexualities, for example, before we make proclamations about other’s sexualities. This summer, Annual Conference passed revisions to the Ministerial Ethics Paper that specified that ministers should not have sex outside of marriage. I know many of you here, and I know that most of you, including myself, have had sex before and/or outside of marriage. So how can we pass a paper saying that ministers should not have sex before marriage, without acknowledging how many of us have and exploring why?

Those of us who are now married may be able to more easily vote for a paper with this language. Even if we did have sex before marriage, or even if we’re having sex outside of our current marriage, we’re much safer in the eyes of the church. But married people passing such a ruling has significant implications for single people, and people in committed relationships not generally accepted by the church (most obvious of which are same-sex relationships).

So this brings up privilege. It is just a fact that some identities give us more privilege than others. When we speak out of our privileged identities, for example, when I speak as a white person, I need to be particularly intentional about language and power. And I believe that Matt used his own male privilege very well earlier, pointing out to other men that the talking space was being dominated by men. Matt, as a man, can do this without eliciting the backlash that a woman might – you know, being called a feminist, or something. Matt can be called a feminist without it threatening his social influence.

Back to Alex’s model – living integrated lives means that self-care takes a very different form. We don’t necessarily find healing by switching roles, because our core self is involved in all aspects of our lives, and our core self is what needs rejuvenation. So we don’t shut the door on work to relax. Instead, we try to make work better. We don’t settle for poorly facilitated meetings, knowing we can go home, turn on the TV and forget about it – we strive for better facilitation. We don’t lose ourselves in an 80-hour work week to avoid the problems we’re having with our spouse – we know the problems we have at home affect who we are at work, and must be addressed directly. Similarly, we’re resisting the current over-mobility of our culture – moving around the world for school and jobs. Instead we’re seeking a deep relationship with a specific location, and technology can aid us in this. Of course, telecommuting and similar technology is still not available to all – we can’t assume it’s a common ground.

This model really is emerging – many of us in this room are still in Sue’s model, some, perhaps, in Ed’s, perhaps a combination of two or three. But I believe that most people 20 and younger are living primarily in Alex’s model. Facebook can be an example, here, as well. There is serious concern about what of our personal lives might end up on Facebook and affect our current or future employment. But the teenagers I know with Facebook accounts are not concerned about a picture of them with a beer affecting their future work opportunities. This may be youthful ignorance or short-sightedness. It may be a desire for complete authenticity. It surely is a combination of both. And this integration will only increase as the technology that fuels it advances, and as people relish their integrated lives.

What do you want as a leader in the church? To keep parts of your life fully private? To live a life that can’t be criticized? To live in a community that sees all of who you are, accepts you fully, and joins you on an authentic journey toward wholeness?

What narrative do you tell with authority that the world needs to hear?

How is your life boundaried? How is your life integrated?

 

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Jan 24 2012

Contemplating Our Changing, Challenging Culture

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Matthew E. McKimmy.

How do we even begin a conversation on a topic as broad as culture? There are so many angles from which you might approach it, and it can mean so many different things. Therefore, I think that my first order of business should be to state what aspect of culture it is I intend to address.

Like any modern young adult looking for a quick and general overview of a topic, I headed to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about how we might define culture. Some possibilities I was presented: that culture is a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; OR a particular way of life, whether of a people, period, or a group; OR the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity. The article then goes on to muddy things even further by saying culture can also be a mixture of these three.

So examples of culture can be anything from the particular, individual social constructions we use to relate with one another to the broad patterns and structures of human activity that define the entirety of our lives. As I speak to you today, it is the later, more “macro” aspect of culture I plan to address: the broad social constructions we operate within on a daily basis.

There is a definite advantage to being the first person to present at an event like this, where our topics intentionally begin broadly and then circle closer and closer to a more defined focus. The way I see it, I get to set the ball rolling by giving the pot a good stir, priming the pump, and bringing up some of the big questions that our subsequent topics and conversations must be mindful of.

Despite what some folks may say, or hope, or even preach, culture is inescapable. We cannot fully remove ourselves from culture, we can only seek to experience it differently.

The phrase “in the world but not of the world” gets tossed around a lot when the subject of culture comes up. I think it’s a good description of the inescapable nature of culture. We cannot help but be in the world, taking part in culture, but we must also recognize how that affects us. We are called to be aware of culture and avoid being blindly shaped by it, as best we can.

So who am I to talk about culture? Who am I to be here and a part of this presentation at all? This is an important question for all of us any time we attempt to discuss culture, for our social locations greatly impact our perceptions, opinions, and understandings.

A bit of background; some transparency about where I’m coming from as I speak on culture: I’m a white, twenty-something male from a lower-middle class background. I’ve spent over a third of my life as a full-time college student, and now, after finishing my M.Div. at Bethany in May 2008, I’ve been a full-time pastor since June 2008. Until relocating to attend seminary my predominant life experience was semi-rural and medium-sized-city life in Southwest Virginia. Now I call the small city of Richmond, Indiana home.

None of these places are the sort you might consider to be at the cutting edge of culture. If anything you might say they’re more likely behind the curve when it comes to the big-picture cultural shifts of the 21st century.

In many ways, our culture today is defined by such shifts. We are in a liminal time, a time in-between, in transition from what has been to what we are moving towards. While there are people who may refute the very existence of some of the particular trends and movements that I’m about to touch on, few can deny that there are massive cultural shifts underway in the world today.

The modern era has been shaped by a continual push for progress in all areas of human life, rooted in the ideals of the enlightenment. But somewhere in the middle of the 20th century we began to realize we might not be capable of the constant progress we hoped for. In a milieu of world wars, genocides, and other local and global atrocities the concept of post-modernity began to emerge. In our current age of seemingly endless information and advanced communications technology, post-modernity continues to gain traction. Absolute truths are looked upon with utmost skepticism. Traditional understandings of every realm of human experience are openly questioned.

Yet we are not a fully post-modern culture. We may be moving in that direction, but we have not yet arrived. Who knows, we may never fully arrive! It’s not an either-or proposition, whether we experience life and culture as modern or post-modern. Rather it is always an awkward mix of the two, which inevitably causes conflict and confusion along the way.

Similarly, our culture is shifting away from when Christianity has greatly influenced and shaped the predominant worldview. We’re moving into a time of post-Christendom where the influence of the church is greatly diminishing. Many people are questioning the relevance of the institutional church, wondering what role it will play in their lives and in culture in general. Not only intellectuals, scholars, and so on, but everyday folks in small cities and towns like Richmond, Indiana. This is especially true amongst us young adults. There are very few churches in the western world where the proportion of young adults is reflective of the number of young adults in the general population.

Some writers and thinkers have even gone so far as to say that rather than just moving into a period of post-Christendom, we are instead moving into a post-Christian or even post-religious era. This is less a statement about our culture’s overall desire to connect with the transcendent as it is a critique on the institutional nature of the Christian Church. I’m mindful of books like Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church and Spencer Burke’s Heretic’s Guide to Eternity that speak to many people’s desire to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus but also reflect a cultural backlash against how these are commonly put into practice within the church.

As we enter into conversations on the Church and Leadership, this cultural trend towards re-thinking the role and shape of the church as an institution cannot be ignored.

Another place this trend is reflected is in the shift towards post-denominationalism. Even for me, someone who has been brought up in the Church of the Brethren and is deeply committed to it, I can see where this is coming from. For decades now most denominations have been in decline. The churches where the most growth is now taking place tend to be non-denominational, or at most loosely associated with various evangelical or Pentecostal movements.

Whereas denominational identity once more clearly defined the beliefs and practices of a congregation or individual, now at most it might give an idea of preferred worship style and general theological leanings, and often not even that. These days it’s more common to find greater differences within denominations than between them. For example I know Brethren who feel a closer spiritual kinship with Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, or Episcopals than with other Brethren, despite still holding firmly to their identity of being Brethren.

If there is one constant in our culture it is that we are constantly in a state of flux, changing between what was and what is still emerging. Our constant is change, and it seems to be taking place at an increasingly rapid rate.

Deep change is afoot within culture, society, and in turn the church. Change that we haven’t experienced in centuries. Phyllis Tickle and others have likened this time we live in to other so-called “great” periods in the history of the western world, such as the Great Schism or the Reformation. If you haven’t already read her latest book The Great Emergence, I highly recommend it.

As I look at the tremendous cultural changes that have taken place in the lives of people my grandparents age, just a couple generations older than me, it’s difficult for me to imagine that the social and cultural changes I will likely face in my lifetime will be exponentially greater.

One question comes to my mind in the midst of all this cultural and social change: why are we so determined to define ourselves in terms of what we have been and are no longer, post-this or post-that?

Instead, why can’t we be proactive, recognizing where God is at work in our time, our culture, claim that for what it is, and seek to faithfully take part? Rather than lamenting change and trying to put the brakes on it, why not find it an opportunity for transformation. Our recent Annual Conference theme comes to mind: “The old is gone, the new has come, all this is from God!” Is it possible for us to claim aspects of these cultural changes as God at work in our lives?

I guess I should admit I’m very much a practical theologian. After all, what good is thinking and talking about what is going on in our culture and society and where God fits in if we as people of faith aren’t willing to act accordingly? Yes the world and our culture are changing, and so must we!

I challenge us all, in our conversations both here and beyond, to not simply lament what is no longer and how we’ve become so disconnected from culture, but to instead speak of how we can and are rising to these challenges we face.

Yes, we live in a time where spirituality is of much greater societal interest than traditional, institutional church participation. We’ve probably all talked to folks who are “spiritual but not religious.” How do we help ourselves and others to recognize God’s movement in that desire for connection with the Spirit, and to respond?

Our culture is moving in ways that value relationship and authenticity more than hierarchy and expertise. Servant leadership and flat, shared administrative structures have been gaining traction in the world outside the church for a while now. With tremendous repositories of resources available at people’s fingertips, via the internet and other means, learned expertise isn’t as crucial to gathering raw information we as it once was. How can we seek to be more relational and authentic in ways that reflect Christ to our culture?

As Christianity finds itself farther on the margins of mainstream society how can we adopt a sense of mission that recognizes our own cities and towns to be just as viable mission fields as locations on other continents? How can we cultivate a missional attitude that reflects the mission of Jesus: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and bringing good news to the marginalized and oppressed people that we live among?

We all know our denomination is struggling with its identity. So are many others. Is there a way for us to reclaim a distinctive Brethren identity in a way that is welcoming of our internal diversity and also relevant to a changing culture? How can we claim our history of ecumenism and continue to nurture it in radical new ways as what it means to be a denomination continues to change?

Brothers and sisters, these are just some of the challenges, or rather opportunities, that our current culture affords. This is the context in which all our conversations during this forum are taking place. It is the context in which our lives and ministries as individuals and as the church take place. We cannot allow our visions to become too narrow because we choose not to see what is happening around us, for our voices to become constrained by the fear of speaking the truth to power, for questions to go unasked because we know there are no ready-made answers.

As we prepare to boldly, openly, and authentically begin our conversations in this space, I leave you with you this question to contemplate concerning culture: Which of these many cultural shifts and changes do you feel present us with the greatest challenges and opportunities as followers of Jesus?

 

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Jan 17 2012

Young Adults and the Church

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Jordan Blevins.

Gregory Boyd writes, in an article in the Christian Century,

Jesus revolted against the powers that fragment relationships by modeling what communal life under the reign of God looks like. Though he was the Son of God, he didn’t try to go solo in his life and ministry. He had a network of friends, like Mary and Martha, on whom he could rely when he traveled. He banded with a group of 12 disciples who traveled and ministered with him. And he chose three people (Peter, James and John) to form his most intimate circle of friends. His life manifested the truth that where God reigns, individuals will be united together in close-knit communities.1

I have been extremely blessed over the last 6 months or so with my involvement in the Young Adult community in the church – both the Church of the Brethren and the larger ecumenical church. I serve on the Young Adult Task Force of the US Conference of the World Council of Churches, the Young Adult Steering Committee of the Church of the Brethren, and was a part of the planning committee for this gathering of young adults that took place in Arizona in December. And as I reflect on all of these experiences, one thing jumps out – young adults get what Gregory Boyd is talking about.

Roughly 30 of us gathered in Arizona in December 2008 to talk about what the future of leadership in the Church of the Brethren should look like – particularly in the context of the Church of the Brethren Ministerial Leadership Paper, and looking at revising that. But, it couldn’t just be that simple. To consider what leadership would look like, we had to think about what the church looks like. And to properly consider what the church looks like, we had to think about what the culture in which the church resides looks like. And so that is how our conversations moved. As Dana Cassell, Matt McKimmy, myself, and Josh Brockway wrestled with the framing of this conversation – and as I looked back over our planning notes, one particular piece of our conversation stuck out at me. Young adults don’t necessarily want to be a part of a committee or team that meets regularly and just does church business, but part of relationships and conversations. We want a more organic process, a more casual form of leadership. This also caused me to reflect on another piece of Gregory Boyd’s article, when he wrote

Think about it. Once a week we go to church (a religious building) rather than seeing ourselves as the church. As good consumers we typically choose a church on the basis of our own preferences, conveniences and needs. Since we’re conditioned to assume that ‘the customer is always right’, we believe we have the right to have things our way. If one church fails to please us, we simply shop for another that will. Since there are only so many of us religious consumers to go around, churches have to compete with one another to acquire and keep as many consumers as possible. This, of course, puts pressure on pastors to sweeten the religious product they’re peddling by adding as many blessings as possible to their message and by refraining from saying or doing anything that might drive consumers away.2

It’s not just in the church but in our culture as well. Young adults don’t want to be “programmed for” but rather “participate in.” It’s not just about program for program’s sake, but relationships in groups that are doing the work of the church. People want to feel like they’re a part of something larger than just themselves.

As such, that is what we tried to do. We began each of our sections for conversation with two brief paper presentations, in order to frame our conversation. Each presenter was invited to leave the group with questions, and once the presentations were over, we moved into a world café style session to wrestle with the questions. World Café moves people from table to table – aiming to get you talking to the largest number of people in the room as possible. We also had sheets of paper down on the tables, with markers, to provide for continuing reflection and conversation in that form, too.

One of the things that really amazed me about this group, and all the gatherings of young adults I have been apart of, has been that desire to enter into relationship with one another. We aren’t just coming together to make procedural decisions, or plot out a plan, but rather to figure out how to be the church, in relationship with one another. Around those world café tables, people disagreed with one another – a lot. I think it is safe to say that at the end of our time together; people still disagreed with one another – a lot. But no one was going anywhere. We were committed to figuring out what the future of the Church of the Brethren was going to look like – together.

We encouraged current church leaders to share are some reflections on leadership with us. One of those reflections came from Deborah DeWinter, of the US Conference of the World Council of Churches. She shared some thoughts to help us frame our conversation, and she said,

To be a leader in the church is to recognize in the other the image of God and to call each other to accountability in this relationship we have as children of God. There is one family: God’s family. One family table: the Lord’s table. One calling (the family business): to love one another, as we have first been loved.  Everything else is commentary. It is to live a life of expectancy (expecting God to work for good in all things)….to call others to join together in experiencing the Advent spirit…eyes and ears, hearts, bodies and minds focused solely on the manger where the unlikely Messiah, the Prince of Peace, promises to turn the kingdoms of this world upside down….doing this, using our gifts; using us.  Imagine that!

I think that vision of leadership is what we were seeking to come to – one that seeks to transform the church into a vital community of believers.

1 Boyd, Gregory. “Created for Community: Out of My Cave”. The Christian Century. 19 May 2009. http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933.

2 http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933

  1. Gregory Boyd, “Created for Community: Out of My Cave” The Christian Century. 19 May 2009. http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933. []
  2. Ibid; http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933 []
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