Friday, July 27, 2007

Midwest Emergent Gathering

Hans Christian Anderson tells a story about a little baby duck who lives with other baby ducks and who follows his mom everywhere. Everyone stops to make way for the line of ducklings, even the nice policeman.

Wait. That’s not it. Let’s begin again.

This baby duck never feels quite like the other ducks. Her feathers are white instead of brindle. Some of the other ducks even treat her like she wasn’t really a duck when she would trumpet when she was talking instead of quacking. This hurt the little duck. But she knew there was value in duck community because she had tried to spend her time with dogs and goats and never really felt at home walking on the ground and licking all sorts of dirty things.

Wow. This allegory is getting pretty corny.

But it’s not untrue. I’ve felt like the ugly duckling among other Christians since I was in high school. My gut has always told me that some of the things that people are supposed to believe in order to be a Christian just aren’t true.

I blame my dad.

I was probably 8 or 9 when I asked him how dinosaurs could exist when the only other mammals that existed were small furry creatures that lived in trees. (That’s what the giant picture book told me. I figured they lived in trees because it was safer there because the brontosaurus would be less likely to step on them, little as they were.) If this were true, then how could God have created people only one day after creating the animals? Didn’t the book also say dinosaurs lived for a bazillion years before they all died? In order for me to have actually looked to my father for wisdom at that age, this must have been one of those rare moments when I wasn’t mortified by Dad’s humor, pissed at attempts to “control” me or pouting. (At a later date, I also had to ask him to explain the Far Side cartoon, “The real reason dinosaurs became extinct.”) I remember that dad paused and then explained that because God was so huge and lived so long, that a day to God was like a bazillion years to us.

It would be rhetorically effectively to be able to write here:

That blew my mind.

But I can’t.

I simply accepted it and went back to doing whatever I had been doing in the driveway. It was an explanation that made sense. It fit into the logic of the other things that I already knew. Dad’s answer involved sufficient mystery (God is bigger than we can imagine) to satisfy that desire within small children to believe in Santa and involved enough sagacity (God:people::bazillion years:a day) to satisfy my brainiac tendencies, as well.

In one fell swoop, Dad had nixed any possibility that I would ever even consider Creationism as valid and set the groundwork for the idea that the Bible might not be entirely literal. In fact, the Bible might take a little puzzling to figure out how it applies to the current context of our lives.

This foundation led me to question folks who told me that the reason we do or don't do things is "because the Bible says so." I would talk about the fallibility of translation and the inconsistencies of the text, not just of "facts" but also of interpretations. If the new covenant of Jesus Christ commands us to love our neighbors, how can you tell me that it is your Christian duty to discriminate against gay people?

This type of common sense often led other Christians to view me as not-quite-Christian and to relegate me into the category of to-be-led-back-to-the-flock, rather than embracing me as a sister.

That hurt. Luckily, my youth director, Malcolm Davis, had a faith that went a little deeper than legalism. The example of the way he lived his life proved to be a magnet that kept me coming back to The Christians even though I felt like I needed to keep quiet about my "heresies" to be accepted. I guess I can't blame it all on Malcolm. Jesus is fairly compelling, as well.

This past weekend I attended the Midwest Emergent conference about creating missional communities. At this gathering of about 150 people, I found the other swans in the Hans Christian Anderson tale. This is not an epiphany story. I knew these folks were out there. I've been reading their blogs, communicating on their sites and reading their books.

But the experience of being surrounding by people with whom I do not have hide from was a relief. My shoulders let down and I simply basked. I didn't have to prove anything to them. I could just listen and converse and ask questions without a need to assert myself as different and unique, which is my usual defence mechanism against others naming me weird and un-saved. This comfort is an odd experience for me. If you'd like an example of some of the thing that I was listening to, audio of much of the conference is available here. Some highlights would be Nanette Sawyer (my new pastor), Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, James King and Alise Barrymore and Spencer Burke.

What is particularly exciting about these Christians-like-me is that they take my gut instincts about truth about ground it in scholarship and scripture. I'm astonished at just how tightly these folks stick to the Bible. I'll be honest, I have been starting to drift into a thought-process that considered the Bible anachronistic to our contemporary life experiences. But these folks in the emerging church have said, "Don't throw out the Bible. Go back to it and read it again. But this time, don't read it as a rule book. Read it as poetry and history and oral tradition and rabbinical teachings. Learn from it the same way you learn from art museums and stories but remember that the lessons are so much more because the art and the stories are created by the children of God and have the same insight that all children have of their parents: deeply intimate and full of uncomfortable truths but with the potential for misunderstanding." They call this letting the Bible's authority be descriptive instead of prescriptive. It describes what other people who want to live out God's plan for their life have done and tells us to go and do likewise, but learn from their mistakes.

Basically, this emergent movement changes the way we look at how church is done. They say that because so many of us live in a post-modern world and because the traditions and structures and languages of the church were created in a modern world, we have discover new ways of following Jesus that make sense for the new ways that we relate to one another. As Doug Pagitt said, "When people join the church, they don't just make it bigger, they make it different. Therefore, when new people join Christianity, they change Christianity." I know that can make some people get all huffy, but notice that Doug didn't say that Christ is changed in any way. Only the structure on which we follow him.

It's really exciting. I am particularly entranced by the shift in thinking towards talking more about transformation than about beliefs. This means that "faith" becomes more about trusting God than it does about which doctrines we must agree with.

Ack. Apparently, I can go on about this for hours.

The conference itself was well-run, with lots of time for deeper conversations with other people but also a set schedule so it didn't feel like chaos. All of the workshops that I attended were small or were broken up into small groups so that the dynamic was different from those of the main presentations. The first session that I went to was a little CCDA 101 but the second was about running cohorts, which are local monthly gatherings of emerging Christians. The Chicagoland cohort doesn't have a city branch and I'm thinking about running it. In this session, I got a chance to interact with Sarah Notton and Jeff Kusomething, who coordinate the cohorts, as well as a couple of other neat folks. Saturday, I met with the folks from Reba Place, an intentional community in Chicago, thus scratching an itch I've had every since I started trying to casually research island-style community in Chicago.

It was the big sessions that really made me feel at home, though. This conference was able to attract some of the major authors of the movement (for free) and that also impressed me. They talk about flattened social structures (as opposed to hierarchical ones) and they really demonstrated that they lived this out by being there. Tony Jones opened up his talk by claiming a lack of authority on the topics he was about to speak on. He said something like, "Of course, if we are not [humble], excoriate us on your blogs." I liked that no one needed to ask those of us who had blogs to raise our hands so that we could all look around and be impressed at how much the world has changed.

Ironically, my experiences with Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt were the only bleak spots of the conference. I LOVED their talks in the main presentation setting. I thought they set the tone for the conference perfectly. They were well-spoken and right-on. Funny, charismatic and intelligent. But I ended up walking down the hallway with them both after brief interactions with both of them in smaller groups and they struck up a conversation with me. I felt a little lost and I think they felt obligated, what with the stated goals of camaraderie and all. When we arrived at the counter to retrieve our box lunches, they had trouble finding mine and Doug's. When Doug said he'd go down the street to Chipotle and Tony said he's forgo his box and join him, I asked if I could come along, emboldened by their earlier outreach. They both said, "Sure," and promptly turned away to talk to other people. When I realized what was going on, I gathered up the box lunch they had found for me and went to sit with two woman sitting by themselves but at the same table. I gathered them together in a triangle and we had a great conversation. Neither Doug nor Tony ever asked what happened to me. Flashback to junior high, high school and college, anyone? Now, to be fair, I've done this, too. Often deliberately. I usually feel bad about it and then I usually justify it to myself with a little righteous indignation about the audacity of some people. I suppose I'll give them room to be inhospitible in the ways I have been inhospitible to others. However, I've read about how good that Chipotle lunch was from at least two of the folks that they DID invite along. Salt in the wound. Salt in the wound. But, the conference coordinator came over to sit with me specifically at that lunch because both he and his wife think I'm cool (thanks, Mike) and we then had a rotation of neat folks, including the author who was releasing his book that week, Will Sampson. So maybe fair is fair.

Later at dinner, I ended up seated right next to Doug. Again, I don't want folks to walk away thinking that I don't like these guys now or that I think they are not good leaders of the movement. In fact, one of the major problems that most people have with the traditional church is that leaders tell their parishioners to do one thing, but then fall short of those standards themselves. This movement finds strength in admitting that we'll all fall short of the glory of God most of the time. You can't fault a leader for living up to that, can you? I actually really enjoyed Doug's company at dinner. Like I said, he's funny, opinionated, passionate. How could you not like that as a dinner companion? I don't even mind that he tore both Presbyterians and CCDA new assholes. So what if those are major groups that I put my identity into? I mean it, though. I like hearing other perspectives on things I love. And, in fact, I couldn't disagree with anything Doug said about Presbyterianism. I did take some issue with his reactions to CCDA; I felt he was judging from a place of ignorance even though he dropped a few names. CCDA is constantly evolving, just like the emergent movement. It was like he had made up his mind on the subject 5 years ago and never looked any deeper into what we mean when we say, "Redistribution." But I love listening to passionate, funny, intelligent people talk. And what was more interesting than the content of his rants was his style of conversation. I'm an intelligent, passionate, somewhat funny person, myself. However, over the years, I've worked hard to incorporate conversational habits that make my partner feel listened to (the result being that, unintentionally, I actually listen more) and that don't make me seem abrasive and shrewish. I say things like, "That's a good point," or "I hadn't thought of it that way," or "Tell me more about that," or "I don't disagree with you but . . ." The other unexpected benefit of this stylistic shift is that I'm not embarrassed when I think back on the conversation and remember that as I got on a roll once firmly ensconced on my soapbox, I said things for the sake of emphasis that maybe I regret saying now. Also, I don't hurt people's feelings out of ignorance as much when I slow myself down and make sure that I'm hearing them as much as I'm loving hearing myself.

But based on my conversation with Doug, he's not worried about seeming abrasive or shrewish. I guess for men, the words are overbearing and boorish. Let me say again, though. I enjoyed listening to him thoroughly. He's affable and interesting. I didn't walk away from the meal with a bad taste in my mouth. In fact, just to stick it to him, I didn't tell him that my father is part of CCDA leadership until the very end of the meal. He took it well, laughing at himself and playing with me about it. I liked that.

I like complexity in people. Although I don't like being dissed as a lunch partner, I like that a man capable of that can also say such insightful and well-phrased sentences as, "In charting a "third way" between liberalism and conservatism, you are still defined by those two categories." He can be a leader of a movement, even when his complexity in known by the group. (And in talking to others, I'm not the first person to encounter this side of Tony and Doug.) It gives me hope that this group will embrace me, with all of my complexity.

I include these stories about Tony and Doug because I wanted to highlight that hope. Also, I thought people might worry that I was joining some sort of cult if every description were hagiographic. (Dad, substitute the word "rosy" in that sentence for the big word and that will help.)

Because I am ready to work for this movement. I want other people to feel this sense of "home" that I feel. My new pastor, Nanette, spoke to the group about our church and I felt way down deep inside of me that this was an effort worth putting my energy into. I've decided to quit my job entirely in the fall, instead of staying on for 10 hours a week, so that I can give more time to developing this church. We are doing new things that will fit like Tetris with the people of my demographic and we are healing the wounds that these same folks receive because they didn't fit in traditional church. We'll do it through art and mission and community. What could be a greater calling than that?


tony said...

Well, I'm definitely sorry that I didn't cajole you into joining us for lunch. I wish we could have talked more.

And, YES, there's space for you in this emerging church thing...

Sarah Anne Sumpolec said...

Very interesting thoughts...glad you shared.

Nanette Sawyer said...

Rebecca, this is awesome. Thanks for posting.

PrincessMax said...

Thanks for responding so graciously, Tony. I was a little nervous posting something that might be viewed as critical. However, my blog is a lot more about my personal experience and story-telling than about abstract ideas, so I wanted to be true to that.

Sarah, it's great to have you come and visit. Please come back again.

Nanette, it's good for my dad to see that there are other readers of my blog than just him. Also, it gives me validation with my readers that I'm not just making stuff up to have you here. :-)

Mike Clawson said...

Hey Rebecca,

Your experience of finding the EC to be a place where you can finally be yourself is common to many of us. Spencer Burke describes theOoze as a place to discover that "you're not the only crazy one out there", and I think that just about sums up how a lot of felt when we first stumbled across this thing (for me it was when I first read "A New Kind of Christian").

Anyhow, it's such a compliment to those of us who planned this conference to hear that you came and felt welcome. Nanette talked about "hospitality" at the gathering, and I'm glad that our Gathering could actually demonstrate hospitality in addition to discussing it.

BTW, I also love your description of an emergent approach to the Bible. I think you hit it right on!

Regarding Tony & Doug, I've told others this before, but they're not the "gatekeepers" of the emerging church. Of course they are influencers, and I can understand why you'd want to feel welcomed by them - but at the same time, no one needs their permission to be a part of this thing. They're just a couple of guys coming along for the journey with the rest of us (they just happen to have been on the journey a little longer than some of us, and have had the privilege of writing a few books about it). Anyhow, I'm sure they'd agree.

I'm excited that you want to commit yourself to pursuing this vision and movement. I can't wait to work together with you to get up/ started. It's going to be fun!

See ya this weekend!