Always pain before a child is born
Why the dark before the dawn? – U2
Few of us are very good at waiting..
We wait in a thousand ways… We wait in an airport for a plane that is delayed. We wait in a dentist’s office for our turn in the chair.. We wait in the line up at The Bay or Circuit City for that gift for a friend. We wait ..
And we wait for those transitions that are too slow in coming: the end of a job that is outworn, and the beginning of a new one that lies nearer to our passion. Perhaps we wait for something even more basic: we wait for health, the end of a prolonged illness. Or we wait for the good news that the child of a son, daughter or friend is born healthy.
We wait in a thousand ways, like we wait for the birth of a new world. Or perhaps we wait for the fulfillment of a promise made many years ago; we wait for a world of justice, peace, and light that seems so slow in coming.
It isn’t easy, because in our “now” culture of instant gratification, waiting is a lost art. Waiting as sacred space has been lost as we have lost our sense of rhythm, and found a way to cheat seasons, cheat aging, and streamline nearly everything into rational patterns of efficiency. The only ones in touch with rhythm are those who have learned to pray, or those who live by the sea, or perhaps women, who still know rhythm in their bodies and in the waiting for birth.
But if we have lost the ability to wait, what do we do with hope? For nearly four hundred years the Jews waited for the Messiah, but when he arrived, all but a few missed him. They had learned to occupy their time so well, that they had lost the ability to perceive difference. They had their system rationalized down to the smallest detail; nothing escaped their notice. Nothing.. yet everything.
While we wait we live in between the times. That is a sacred space when we wait in hope. And when we wait in hope we are formed and transformed by waiting. Hope shapes us into a faithful people, looking to a future we have not yet seen but we trust will arrive in good time. As Dame Julian put it,
“All will be well —
and all manner of thing shall be well..”
See also Hope and Memory in a Place of Exile
O Come O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel..
This prayer is still ours as we wait for the return of Jesus. We are God’s people in exile, a broken people, at some times worshipping the true God, at other times worshipping an image of godness, self-created, a dead idol that will not confront our compromise. Walter Brueggemann writes,
“As I reflect on ministry, and especially on my ministry, I know in the hidden places that the real restraints are not in my understanding or in the receptivity of other people. Rather, the restraints come from my own unsureness about this perception… I, like most of the others, am unsure that the alternative community inclusive of the poor, hungry and grieving is really the wave of God’s future. We are indeed “like people, like priest” (Hosea 4:9). That is likely the situation of many of us in ministry, and there is no way out of it. It does make clear to us that our ministry will always be practiced through our own conflicted selves…
“We ourselves shall move in and out [of certainty, of our convictions about the nature of the kingdom of God and His body, our awareness of what God is doing] precisely because of our poor capacity to grieve the death in our own lives and so be amazed at the new futures. We are not more skilled in that than all the other children of the compromised community, and therefore we must engage in the same painful practices of becoming who we are called to be. I have come to think that there is no more succinct summary of prophetic ministry than the statement of Jesus: “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21), or “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4).
It strikes me that the grief that we avoid, as we face the realities of a dying world and a powerless church, is truly paralyzing. It is part of the experience of lostness, our inability to generate adequate answers or solutions for the need, and thus part of the liminality the Lord invites us into. Accept the invitation — but don’t go there alone! Grief is one of the preconditions to the newness the Lord will one day bring.
In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah, calling to him; O Wisdom! O Root! O Key! O Light! Come to us!
The evening prayer, also know as Vespers, always includes the great prayer of Mary known as the Magnificat. Each day, the Magnificat is preceded by a short verse or “antiphon” that links the prayer to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the antiphons before the Magnificat are very special. Each begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes increasingly urgent.
These moving “O Antiphons” were composed when monks put together texts from the Old Testament, particularly from the prophet Isaiah, which looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of scriptural images. The great “O Antiphons” became very popular in the Middle Ages when it became traditional to ring the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.
Each of the O Antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS. These can be understood as the words of Christ, responding to his people’s plea, saying “Tomorrow I will be there.”
This sonnet based on the first antiphon is composed by Malcolm Guite.
I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of Being, always grounding me,
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.
May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to explore new frontiers
To break free from the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dreams no longer
But to do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no longer
Standing on the thrusting grass by the choked pear-tree
The gnarled gardener is older than the trunk he tends.
The tendrils of the weed he strips from the limb
Have wrapped round both its twigs and his
And link the laddered acid of his seed
Back down to planet and to plant.
His fingers tend the garden’s need:
Yet the transpired breath of the garden is
The respired breath of his work, which is the hymn
Of his soul and the grown voice of the soil rejoicing:
That dropped and rotting seeds may blossom yet from the dirt.
Now in the darkening afternoon
The animals watch from the garden’s verge,
Shaped like versions of myself in the forests
of my sleep (Though I wake to kill them and eat).
Caught by their horns in our thickets they thresh
To escape us, the birds and the beasts.
And still through the ripped veils of their flesh
We enter with trampling feet
The violent sanctum of our unkept Keep:
And no slain lamb or ram nor any blood of bull
or dove Can give back the peace of our lost first task.
Image of God, we say, and image of the world:
Eve, sorrowing, and blest-for-all-of-mankind, Mary
(Ruth-like in the fields, hopeful in the reaped wheat
To glean the grace of her promised pain),
And Jesus, like a mother at the town’s dark side
Stretched with pain of making, and of making Man,
Who taught us how to be crucified
(We who would rather be slayers than slain);
He whom the Magdalene only could greet
At first as the gardener: Exactly the image of God—
Christ, who returned us the gardener’s task.
Creation waits now for the gardener to speak:
And the eager weeds await their release
From the bondage of being weeds.
Eden and Zion lie far apart
But atom and ocean, beasts and plants
Wait for the one who will grant them peace.
Then the planet will spin in a sabbath dance
(And the dancing place will be the heart).
Fruit will burgeon from scattered seeds
And garden and town be clean as a fleece
Early in the morning, on the first day of the week.
Adam – the name means literally “of the earth.” From dust they were made.
Of the dust, yet of the sky. Filled with the breath of God, the spirit that animates this clay. Reading an excerpt from Matthew Fox the other day and thinking about the relationship of these two, through the lens of the city. Fox relates an interview with someone from the New York Times. They ask him about the connection of his creation spirituality to life in the city. He says, “look out the window. What do you see?” “Bricks,” she answers.
Bricks, red with the earth of their making. Are we distant from the earth, or surrounded by it? We are still building towers, raising the earth to God. When we drive our cars, we are burning the stuff of earth — oil, which is mostly decayed vegetable matter, made of carbon and earth. Rubber tires, made from trees that draw their sustenance from earth.
Similarly, our technology. Now instead of the, we use sand – silicon. Silicon has become the building block for intelligent life. If we have our way, that intelligence may one day surpass our own. But it will be creation in our image — born of our fertile imaginations, and made of the earth, the stuff of our own making.
“The Jacobsians sought fresh methods of making cities work — from the grassroots and the bottom up. The subaltern was exalted, the master laid low. Drafting tables were tossed for pickets and surveys and spreadsheets. Planners sought new alliances in academe, beyond architecture and design — in political science, law, economics, sociology. But there were problems. First, none of the social sciences were primarily concerned with the city; at best they could be only partial allies. Second, planning was not taken seriously by these fields. The schoolboy crush was not returned, making the relationship unequal from the start. Even today it’s rare for a social science department to hire a planning PhD, while planning programs routinely hire academics with doctorates in economics and political science. Indeed, Nathan Glazer observed that one of the hallmarks of a minor profession is that faculty with “outside” doctorates actually enjoy higher prestige than those with degrees in the profession itself. They also tend to have minimal allegiance to planning.
“This brings us to the first of the three legacies of the Jacobsian turn: It diminished the disciplinary identity of planning. While the expanded range of scholarship and practice in the post-urban renewal era diversified the field, that diversification came at the expense of an established expertise — strong, centralized physical planning — that had given the profession visibility and identity both within academia and among “place” professions such as architecture and landscape architecture… Today, planners themselves often have a hard time explaining the purpose of their profession. By forgoing its traditional focus and expanding too quickly, planning became a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And so it remains.
“The second legacy of the Jacobsian revolution is related to the first: Privileging the grassroots over plannerly authority and expertise meant a loss of professional agency. In rejecting the muscular interventionism of the Burnham-Moses sort, planners in the 1960s identified instead with the victims of urban renewal. New mechanisms were devised to empower ordinary citizens to guide the planning process. Tools and processes introduced to ensure popular participation ended up reducing the planner’s role to that of umpire or schoolyard monitor. Instead of setting the terms of debate or charting a course of action, planners now seemed content to be facilitators — “mere absorbers of public opinion,” as Alex Krieger put it, “waiting for consensus to build.”
“The fatal flaw of such populism is that no single group of citizens — mainstream or marginalized, affluent or impoverished — can be trusted to have the best interests of society or the environment in mind when they evaluate a proposal. The literature on grassroots planning tends to assume a citizenry of Gandhian humanists. In fact, most people are not motivated by altruism but by self-interest.
“The third legacy of the Jacobsian turn is perhaps most troubling of all: the seeming paucity among American planners today of the speculative courage and vision that once distinguished this profession…”
Leeman, Jonathan. Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 403 pp.
“What is the local church? What exactly is going on when a seemingly unimpressive group of people gather week by week to worship the risen Christ through prayer, song, preaching, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? These questions have always fascinated me. As a local church pastor, I have often sensed a disconnect between the Bible’s exalted language about the church and the attitude of many who participate in its activities. For so many it seems like an optional add-on, a time to feel closer to God, or perhaps even worse, a tortuous tradition that needs to go. In Political Church, Jonathan Leeman argues that the local church is political in that it is “an embassy of Christ’s kingdom on earth, whose corporate life embodies a rule that has been imported not across geographic space but from the end of time” (386).
That’s how David Prince introduces his review of Leeman’s new book. You can find a longer review HERE at Mere Orthodoxy, which I believe is in the Anglican tradition. And you can also find a lengthy response to the review on that site. It’s a topic of growing interest, perhaps because evangelical theology on the whole has neglected ecclesiology. And maybe because in the Twitter-verse it’s getting harder to have in depth conversations. I’m waiting for my copy of the book – as one in the Anabaptist tradition it’s a serious interest.
Other questions that are really critical here are the popular (though people can’t always name it) two kingdoms theory advocated by Luther. But does that separation into secular and sacred spheres really make sense of the overwhelming victory and Lordship of Christ? So David writes,
“Two kingdoms theology” … argues that as Christians we occupy two kingdoms, the creation kingdom and Christ’s kingdom. God rules these two kingdoms in different ways, and we have distinct obligations in each realm. This view tends to minimize the pursuit of cultural justice as belonging merely to the creation kingdom and separates one’s obligation as a Christian from one’s obligation as a normal citizen. Leeman … rejects the basic conceptuality of two distinct kingdoms: “Just because the state possesses the power of the sword and the church possesses the power of the keys…doesn’t mean they belong to separate kingdoms; it only means they have different licenses from the same king” (179). He also (rightly, I believe) rejects this separation of realms on the grounds that “our worship determines, is determined by and displays our politics. A common cultural concern like the stock market is for many people a place of worship” (179-180). In place of “two kingdoms,” he later argues for “a doctrine of two ages” which rejects the division of life into spiritual and political realms in favor of a biblical division between this present evil age and the age to come which has been inaugurated and is awaiting consummation in Jesus Christ (275)
This book project is feeling more relevant than ever today. Here are the first few pages of chapter one.
We don’t need the Pew Survey or the Barna Group latest report to tell us that we have a problem. Christian leaders are well aware of the exodus from church. Studies like that of Alan Jamieson in New Zealand and Dave Kinnaman in the USA have unveiled some of the implications of the transition we are in. While some of the mainline churches are in a kind of renewal , evangelical churches in Canada and the USA are shrinking.
While the church has always been in crisis, uncertainty and transition mark our times. We live amidst the collision of cultures and of worldviews, and the collapse of the Enlightenment synthesis. Rapid and unpredictable changes generate anxiety within us and stress within the organizations we lead. Individuals, institutions and whole communities are in transition. Reggie McNeal uses the metaphor of a violent river to describe the tension. He writes that,
Culture roils and churns in the collision of the old with the new. At the dawn of the third Christian millennium, continuity battles with discontinuity; the emergent dances with what is passing away. Leaders of spiritual enterprises, like many of the adherents of the faith, have oars in both currents. The challenge involves getting as many through the rapids as possible, knowing some will never make it.
Transition is a place of liminality, of instability and contradictions. The old Latin word “limina” means threshold. Liminality is a space in-between where nothing seems clear. One April Sunday my family and I visited a young church community in our town. On the way to the meeting we noticed two very different restaurant signs. The first invited, “Come in from the cold; warm food and hot drinks.” The second proclaimed, “Swing into spring. Escape the heat with our smoothies and Frappuccino’s.”
Is it winter, or spring? When the seasons are in transition, and the old season hasn’t quite given way to the new, we don’t know what kind of weather to expect or even how to dress on a given morning. When we walk out the door it might be hot, or it might be cold. Worse, it may start out warm then shift to cold while we are on the road. We are plunged into uncertainty.
When the church is in transition, the same kind of confusion surfaces. Even casual conversations can become complex, with people using language in very different ways. “Church” and “Christian” now carry baggage they didn’t possess, and have different meanings relative to individual experience. The term “evangelical” once provided identity for a diverse group of believers worldwide. Now that marker itself is contested and fragile.
Liminality is a place in between. It is emptiness and nowhere. Adolescence is the liminal space between childhood and adulthood; but what if entire communities are entering liminal space? Gareth Brandt writes, “Societal circumstances in the past few decades have created another developmental stage now known as emerging adulthood. The characteristics of this stage are inherently ambivalent, ideological, and transitional, which is why it is not easily recognizable as a distinct stage.” Brandt is describing a new experience of liminality that grows out of unique cultural conditions.
While Brandt applies this concept to individuals, the transition from modernity to post-modernity and from Christendom to post-Christendom, combined with the rise of new media, has generated a liminal space for entire communities of faith. This is a new phase, a new space in ecclesial life. Churches are entering a nowhere land that has come into being in the turbulent waters of societal shift. We have become travelers with maps that are outdated and that no longer describe the landscape. The sense that our maps no longer function increases our sense of lostness, as well as our anxiety about the future. The higher the emotional valence, the less likely we are to respond effectively.
Complex cultural forces are now generating liminal space for entire communities of people. General systems theory recognizes that the dynamics between individuals are mirrored on other scales. What is true for a family system can also be observed in organizational systems. In The Critical Journey the authors describe faith transitions as “hitting the wall.” This difficult phase, beginning with an inward journey, often occurs for individuals in mid-life. Now, however, it’s happening for whole organizations. Hitting the wall is a manifestation of liminal conditions for faith organizations. Churches that have hitherto been very outward oriented, busy and successful, find themselves confronted with their deeper motivations as they begin to decline, and a thriving ministry passes into memory. The outward journey gives way to an inward journey that requires heart work and the integration of the shadow self.
In liminal space identity is suspended. In our time we are seeing entire church families in the throes of transition: suspended in a complex dance between life and death. This transitional space generates gut-wrenching questions and tremendous insecurity. As we move into a post-Christian and post-congregational era, we seek understanding and solutions as our congregations grey and dwindle, and our ministries decline.
Your vision will become clear only when
you look into your heart …
Who looks outside, dreams.
Who looks inside, awakens. ~ Carl Jung
There are two healings: nature’s,
and ours and nature’s. Nature’s
will come in spite of us, after us,
over the graves of its wasters, as it comes
to the forsake fields. The healing
that is ours and nature’s will come
if we are willing, if we are patient,
if we know the way, if we will do the work.
My father’s father, whose namesake
you are, told my father this, he told me,
and I am telling you: we make
this healing, the land’s and ours:
it is our possibility. We may keep
this place, and be kept by it.
There is a mind of such an artistry
that grass will follow it,
and heal and hold, feed beasts
who will feed us and feed the soil.
— W Berry, A Timbered Choir, 46
For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image. And whether we are to line up with him or against him, it is well that we should know all we can concerning his nature and potentialities.
When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed.
For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender,
and the action which follows them. It is as if garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The urge to escape our real self is also an urge to escape the rational and the obvious. The refusal to see ourselves as we are develops a distaste for facts and cold logic. There is no hope for the frustrated in the actual and the possible. Salvation can come to them only from the miraculous,