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A Hopeful Reading

I am much less sad today than I used to be. Why? If you have been following this series of posts, you know I have looked at history according to Phyllis Tickle and I have found some hope. I always used to look at the world and at the churches and think about the church and the world as I have heard they once were, long ago and I have been sad. It has seemed to me that whatever the great river of Christian proclamation, power and community was like away upstream, now, much closer to its mouth, it has become so diluted, so dissipated by the things of this old world as to have become a swampy thing which has disappeared into a thousand rivulets, all shallow, a few barely navigable, all lacking power and strength of purpose, without any hope of bringing much of anything home to the sea at any time soon.

Then Phyllis Tickle changed all that with a little book called The Great Emergence. In it she notes, this has happened before, several times! Christianity has seemed to dead-end every five hundred years or so and then, in a few short decades, things have changed for the better and the faith community has grown like Topsy for a couple of centuries. Then, again hung up on the deficiencies and excesses of its own best, but fading light, cracks have begun to emerge again and another period of dissolution has begun, which has led to another and potentially even larger universal Christian reinvention of itself.

Why Anything Is Possible!

It is in this process and in the possibility of another such renewal that I have found some hope. It has always looked to me like what goes wrong just goes wrong and nothing good can be done about it, that bad things which darken the world come to be but then, never, ever go away, things like the Berlin Wall and South African Apartheid.

Oh, but I forget!

I have seen ‘the Wall’ come down and I’ve seen Mandela walk free!

More than walk free, I have seen a President Mandela and I have seen the Soviet Union collapse and South Africa resolve its deep and truly horrid racial divide without much bloodshed at all. You have to understand, you young ones who do not choke up at these changes. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961. I remember. I was twelve. Apartheid became official South African policy in the late 1940s, about the time I was born. In my life there was always apartheid. These were huge, terrible, massive, evil mountains which no force on earth could move. Like the threat of Geo-thermonuclear war, these dark realities hung over my whole young life: ever-present black clouds.

Um… So, what happened? Where are they now?

They have vanished. They are gone and so now I know, anything is possible, even a new, loving, gracious Christianity which speaks words and lives lives of hope and peace with one voice. I have never seen the like but I can imagine it now, finally.

See what I mean? Dark black things are not forever. Great, good things, like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission may actually happen in our time and the cacophony of denominational impotence need not be our story until Jesus returns with clouds, power and a trumpet-shout. A new, vibrant Christianity can come into being and captivate whole new worlds with the love and grace of King Jesus!

Why Nothing Good Is Certain

Or not.

As the old saying goes, ‘change is inevitable; progress is only optional.’ I have told the joke before: if the European Community gets it right they will have Italian food, French wine, German Industry and British Government. But they could go wrong, which would mean, British food, German wine, French industry and Italian Government! We could get none of what we hope for in the new, emerging Christianity. [1]

So, what do we need; what do we hope for? Well, I hope and pray for quite a bit. Among other things, I am as sure as I can be, our new, emerging Christianity will need to ground itself in the continuing story of God which we find told in the Scriptures. It must be incarnational, devoted to risky action for the sake of the coming kingdom. The new Christianity needs to throw off the dualisms which have sucked on the life of faith for over eighteen hundred years. It needs to be a more Jewish, devotional movement which rediscovers what Richard Foster calls “the disciplines,” I mean all the lost ones, and we must rediscover the ones at which the other communions do much better than our own, whatever our own bankrupt tradition may be:

Meditation                Prayer                Fasting

Study                    Simplicity              Solitude

Submission             Service             Confession

Worship                Guidance            Celebration

Is it any wonder our faith communities became vapid and so easily lost in the general society, given we had each lost contact, no matter which Christian group we belonged to, with nine of the twelve Disciplines?

Renewalists have much to teach the rest of us about Celebration and Prayer including healing prayer. Presbyterians have already been sharing their emphasis on Study with many other traditions. Now Study needs to be transformed from interesting somewhat motivational entertainment into critical, missional sustenance. Catholics and Methodists know more than anyone about Service. So how must Service again become worship and vocation? Worship itself has been a gathering of strangers for a few minutes on Sunday morning (or Saturday night, if that’s more convenient) rehearsing ancient stories, barely understood by anyone in the crowd. How will gathered Worship be restored as the hub of communal lives of Worship? And does anyone know anything about what it is like to “confess your sins, one to another”? We will probably need to go, as Henry Nouwen did, years ago, to the monks and sisters to learn about Meditation, Fasting and Solitude.

Is it any wonder we have spent so much time ‘telling the old, old story’? With fully half of our sources of Holy Spirit-filled strength and power cut off, what else could we do? We have had very few new stories to tell! So, who will teach us about Simplicity, Submission and Guidance? (More on that in the sixth and last of these posts.)

Doing the Future Now

My point is this. As I wrote in a post last fall, “Are We Bringing Heaven Down to Earth?” we are called to live as though the kingdom has come. And anything normative, which will be a part of the kingdom-come, should be a signpost which we build, a discipline which we practice now. If we enter into the Disciplines together we will rebuild our inner life and demonstrate corporate wholeness, we will surprise the world with integrity, grace and love.

Or Not!

On the other hand, we do not have to become the whole, integral people of God this time around. There is always the next great shift, at  A.D. 2500! God is apparently willing to give us many, many, many ‘quintecentennials’ until we listen to the Spirit and get kingdom life more or less right. We’re in something a bit like a massive version of the movie, Ground Hog Day, aren’t we?. Only with Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Hitler, etc., playing parts in their ‘day.’ We’re all in this ‘repeating day’ game, only the stakes are much higher.

Many Things Are Needed

Back to Tickle and then I am done. So Phyllis says it is a very good thing that when the new Christianity swirls together, leaving behind the things it cannot use, all the old forms and structures, rather than being lost, remain as perhaps somewhat grumpy (?) museums along the road which the new Christianity will travel as it sweeps up much that was long ago abandoned, much that it once could not afford to carry, much which it cannot now go forward without.

One Thing Is Essential

This is a hard time and a hopeful time. It is a time to pray and to groan when we don’t know the words. It could be bad. We could end up with Conservative Worship, Renewalist Service, Social Action Study and liturgical restrictions on lay-people in Prayer: “God is great, God is good and we thank him…”

Or it could be great! We might embrace compassionate social action, celebratory liturgy, charismatic spiritual renewal, deeply conservative biblical roots and help ourselves to some SimplicitySubmission and Guidance. Who will tell us of these lost things? I know just the teacher. In the next (and last) series post!

Peace and grace, Trace



1 Back to Post I have thought long and hard about a polite way of describing what getting it wrong would look like. I guess, Dualistic practice, Hierarchical polity (church government), an Enlightenment view of Scripture and “going to heaven” music. Actually, you can find all that in most mega-churches!