Lovers in a Dangerous Time

Don't the hours grow shorter as the days go by
you never get to stop and open your eyes
one day you're waiting for the sky to fall
the next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all

when you're lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time..

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
this vibrant skin -- this hair like lace
spirits open to the thrust of grace
never a breath you can afford to waste

when you're lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time..

When you're lovers in a dangerous time
sometimes you're made to feel as if your love's a crime --
but nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight --
got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight..

When you're lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time
     Bruce Cockburn, Toronto, 1983

We live in dangerous times, and there is no escape.

We live in constant danger of accommodation to our culture. We live in danger of becoming merely consumers of religious services.

We live in danger of substituting the menu for the meal, and worshipping the temple and not god.

We live in danger of maintaining the values of the modern church, efficiency and success, and using technology to tweak the system instead of allowing the Lord to transform us.

We live in danger of abandoning the fight, receiving the plastic identity offered by the world, retreating into privatism and neglecting the poor.

The challenge is to become lovers, even in these dangerous times. How will we get there?

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it's the name for a girl
It's also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace comes to us in unexpected ways.

In 1999 our church hosted a prayer conference. On the first morning I was about to get out of bed when the Lord showed me a picture of a clock with the hands at twelve. He said "I am watching over my word to perform it," and then, "the hour is coming, and now is, when those who worship the father must worship him in spirit and in truth." The meaning of these words didn't become clear until the mail arrived a week later.

On the cover of the Leadership Centre magazine was the same clock with the hands at midnight. The cover heralded, "The Church in the New Millennium." The magazine was filled with quotes on what the new church would look like, but the heart of it for me was in these ones:

The church in the New Millennium will be a major force in society only in as much as its leaders empower all of God's people to do the works of the church, inside and outside its walls. When that is allowed to occur and the people take hold, they will be the evangelistic light that brings people to Christ in record numbers and Christianity will once again be the dominant force in society. Sue Mallory, Executive Director, Leadership Training Network

The church in the new millennium will be defined through experience and relationship. Postmodern culture is looking for an experience of God, not an explanation. The future church, like the ancient, will live in the mystery of the presence of the risen Christ and demonstrate authentic community in a culture of isolation. Michael Slaughter, author of Unlearning Church

The dynamic that defines our time is change. Change creates tremendous tensions and insecurities, but offers great opportunity. Where we can feel like strangers in a strange land, we also have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves from the biblical story, and connect in new and creative ways to that story and to the culture around us. We can't hold on to the status quo, so listen to St. Francis. As he lay on his death bed he said to his brothers, "As yet we have done nothing. Let us begin again."

"A new church means reformulating the faith in radical ways in the midst of a community that has to begin again. For Ezra, as for Moses, new church starts do not aim at strategies for success, but at strategies for survival of an alternative community. What must survive is not simply the physical community; what must survive is an alternative community.."    Walter Brueggemann, "Cadences of Home."

The cover to Walter Brueggemann's "Cadences of Home," is eerily reminiscent of a picture the Lord placed in my mind in 1984. I saw a flower growing in the desert, and I bent three times to water it.

In "Cadences of Home" Brueggemann reflects upon the theological metaphor of exile as a means to understand the cultural shift that is occurring, and the place of the church within it.

"I have elsewhere proposed that the OT experience of and reflection upon exile is a helpful metaphor for understanding our current faith situation in the [west], and a model for pondering new forms of ecclesiology..

"The exiled Jews of the OT were of course geographically displaced. More than that, however, the exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed. Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral and cultural."

Exile is not primarily geographical, but social, moral and cultural. The writers of Missional Church point to the same cultural dynamic.

"The North American perception of living in a churched culture has collapsed under the weight of change [and] the church was decentered as its role shifted from public cultus to private vendor of spiritual resources."

Walter Brueggemann's work reaches toward a framework for survival for exiles. He concludes that the church model that dominated the modern experience was one that arose in the stable period of the Israelite monarchy, a relatively short period in Israel's history. The conditions that produced that model and made it workable were swept away in a cultural geo-political upheaval.

That upheaval is not unlike that which we are experiencing in our own time. The model that has worked while Christian culture was dominant is now being swept away. There are signs of collapse everywhere. Even those who are not theologically reflective feel the tension and the "cognitive dissonance...." The western church is losing its connection with the culture, and where it most accommodated itself to the old culture it is most irrelevant.

Thankfully, the monarchical model is not the only model for the church. Brueggemann finds other models in the Old Testament, rooted in times of exile and transition. "How will we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" Even our familiar lands are rapidly becoming foreign to us; this is a time to rediscover that "we are strangers and aliens here..."

These are dangerous times, because we are tempted to become so preoccupied with self that we cannot step outside ourselves to rethink, reimagine, and redescribe a larger reality. Brueggemann suggests that the stories of Joseph, Esther and Daniel can guide us. They refuse to allow us to embrace any fundamentalist us-versus-the-world model, but seek to embrace "an endlessly cunning, risky process of negotiation."

These are dangerous times, because they require a shift in our self-understanding, and a "new" church means the end of the old one. A shift in self understanding, however, only results from an identity crisis. Crisis and transition define the chaordic underpinnings of life in our times.

A new self-understanding requires the most difficult kind of transition. Transitions are difficult because they begin with an ending, asking for a process of grief. Marriage is the end of singleness; a promotion is the end of a former job-and the routines and relationships that went along with it. You are not crazy for feeling disoriented and moody when you start in a new direction of faithfulness in Jesus.

Everyone who leaves something behind is on a journey of discovery to unknown places. New directions raise new questions and bring a new insecurity. Because the journey is a spiritual journey, only the naked can go there.

"People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore." Andre Gide

My family and I have faced at least three major transitions in the past ten years. Transition invites us to embrace a new level of insecurity; each time we are forced to learn a new level of dependence on the Lord. Jean Vanier, in Community and Growth, speaks of the grace of insecurity.

"When a community is born, its founders have to struggle to survive and announce their ideal… When they are stripped of all their wealth, of all security and human support, they must depend on God and the people around them to understand the witness of their life. They are obliged to remain faithful to prayer and the glow of their love; it is a question of life or death. Their total dependence guarantees their authenticity; their weakness is their strength.

"But when a community has enough members to do all the work, when it has enough material goods, it can relax. It has strong structures. It is fairly secure. It is then that there is danger."

It isn't easy embracing insecurity. It isn't easy leaving our comfort zones, our titles, or our previous understanding behind. Because the goal is a living community we know that the home we seek has no professionals, only amateurs.. "amati" is Latin for "lover" and professionals tend to be hirelings who arrive with the baggage of identity and status.

It's funny how this works with my wife. No matter what I accomplish, no matter how many letters after my name.. no matter how impressed someone may be who only knows me through my writing.. she remains unimpressed by the externals and the labels and titles of the professional world. She still treats me like an ordinary guy, the one who forgets to pick up his socks. But at the same time she is impressed by something far deeper, because she knows me beyond all those externals.

Only lovers approach God, because He isn't impressed by our titles or accomplishments.

Only lovers will survive through dangerous times, because lovers are rooted in the One who stands outside time, and who does not shift or change. Love knows a security that is founded in covenant relationship, and not in circumstance or position or performance. But identity is first a political issue: to whom will we bow? Whom do we worship?

This is why there will be few organizations that negotiate the transition. With bureaucracy there is always too much to protect, and too much at stake. There are too many established modes and means, and too many with titles and power unwilling to forsake them. There is too much demanded personally of the leader when foundations are shaking. Margaret Wheatley comments in "Goodbye Command and Control" that,

"Whenever we're trying to change a deeply structured belief system, everything in life is called into question-our relationships with loved ones, children, and colleagues; our relationships with authority and major institutions. One group of senior leaders, reflecting on the changes they've gone through, commented that the higher you are in the organization, the more change is required of you personally. Those who have led their organizations into new ways of organizing often say that the most important change was what occurred in themselves. Nothing would have changed in their organizations if they hadn't changed.. (italics mine). "

We'll need the security of lovers, because the false Powers that demand our allegiance and demand that we remain good consumers won't appreciate our resistance to the system. As we stand up for issues of justice, it will be obvious that our allegiance is to another King and not Caesar.

If our values are shaped by Christ and the teachings of His kingdom, we will increasingly feel like exiles in a strange land. Brueggemann notes that the response of exiles is shaped by Isaiah 40-55.

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
"Behold your God."

"How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news
who publishes peace
who brings good news of good,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

As we deconstruct, and as we tentatively look for the presence of God in the desert regions, let's find a way to utter those subversive and liberating words. Because whatever we make of the current situation, we can't despair.. Because OUR GOD REIGNS..

God's sovereign newness is wild and free, amazing and spontaneous, unpredictable and fresh. It's the wind blowing in the trees, the waves crashing on the beach, the sun that rises over the world.

Grace, she's got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She's got the time to talk
She travels outside of karma
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

When our security is shaken we can react with fear and attempt to hold onto what we have attained. But the status quo is not an option, and to fail to learn and to grow is to admit defeat. We need to depend on God for our daily bread. We need to encounter Him in new and fresh ways in order to move beyond our stagnant and fixed perceptions. We must worship God, and worship Him alone.

As lovers in dangerous times, we must remain weak and powerless. We choose to love God and the things that He loves: creation and humankind in His image. He can find beauty and life even in desert places, just as Jesus found beauty among the poor. He is our example.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty the oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." Luke 4

In this time of insecurity and change there has been much discussion about the apostolic. Naturally, a fearful church is looking for new moorings. Perhaps if we had greater authority and more control, we could survive and even thrive through these uncertain times?

But the answer is not in seeking control; the answer is in surrender to the King and in hearing His voice afresh. He is alive TODAY and working NOW, but mostly outside the walls of the institutions.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus means living on the edge. He didn't seek power or privilege. He hung out with the poor and the marginalized. Instead of seeking status, he intentionally stepped down in the world. Benjamin Roberts wrote,

"Let us come back to the spirit of the Gospel. Let us get down so low at the feet of Jesus as to forget all our pride and dignity, and be willing to worship with the lowest of our kind, remembering that we are the followers of Him "who had not where to lay His head."

Howard Snyder in Decoding the Church argues that, "Apostolicity is rather abstract and easily loses its tie to the actual life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Serving the poor is concrete action, not abstract concept. It is done or not done. Claims of apostolicity ring hollow if the church is not in fact good news for the poor." Snyder quotes from an old Methodist author:

"Two fundamental claims about the nature of the true church are made here: First, that preaching the gospel to the poor is an identifying mark of the church -- part of its essential DNA. Second, that this mark is a test of whether the church is genuinely apostolic -- is the church walking in the steps of Jesus? Whoever ministers the good news among the poor "is in the true succession. He walks as Christ walked," Benjamin Roberts observed (1823-1893).

"But for whose benefit are special efforts to be put forth? Jesus settles this question.. When John sent to know who he was, Christ charged the messengers to return and show John the things which they had seen and heard. "The blind received their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up," and as if all this would be insufficient to satisfy John of the validity of his claims, he adds, "and the poor have the gospel preached to them." This was the crowning proof that He was the One that should come."

These are dangerous departures from the evangelical norm. Following Jesus means being willing to embrace the marginalized as a marginal community. It means being willing to be weak, willing to go unnoticed, willing to be unpopular. Too many leaders have compromised these essential characteristics of the Gospel call (see also Mark Strom, "Reframing Paul").

"What must survive is not simply the physical community; what must survive is an alternative community with an alternative memory and an alternative social perspective rooted in a peculiar text that is identified by a peculiar genealogy and signed by peculiar sacraments, by peculiar people not excessively beholden to the empire and not lusting after domestication into the empire.." Walter Brueggemann, "Cadences of Home"

The challenge is to break our addiction to the culture, even our addiction to church and temple. The recovery movement has taught us how to break free from addiction. We need supportive communities, friends who will hold our feet to the fire, love and encourage us as we seek to live out the disciplines of a committed life. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Savior, remarks:

"Most of us are living, to some degree, as addicted persons, striving anxiously after power and money and prestige and relevance, trapped in the turbulence of wanting more. These addictions are so subtle for most of us that we have the illusion of being free people when in actuality we are immersed in society's expectations…. We forget that Jesus, 'though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.'"

Imagine the change that Jesus knew in emptying Himself of power, position and privilege. Imagine His real descent from glory and light into the world of darkness and dust. Talk about cultural shock!

David's world was not so neat and tidy as our own. In Ps. 44 he writes,

Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day?
Wake up! Don't you care what happens to us?
Why do you bury your face in the pillow?
Why pretend things are just fine with us?
And here we are - flat on our faces in the dirt,
held down with a boot on our necks.
Get up and come to our rescue..
If you love us so much, Help us! (The Message)

No wonder that Walter Brueggemann writes, in The Message of the Psalms,

"It is no wonder that the church has avoided these Psalms. They lead us into dangerous acknowledgement of how life really is. They lead us into the unthinkable presence of God where everything is not polite and civil. They cause us to think unthinkable thoughts and utter unutterable words. Perhaps worst, they lead us away from the comfortable religious claims of modernity in which everything is managed and controlled."

CONCLUSION

When cultures collide, as modernity and postmodernity are currently doing, those who find themselves caught in the explosion can feel that their world no longer makes sense. Old paradigms collapse, and the frame of meaning is lost.

Those who thrive tend to be listeners and observers, and they join the process of communal searching and learn to ride the shock waves.. they contextualize meaning and discover a new way of making sense of the new world. They arrive at a liminal place.. a place between the two cultures where new possibilities arise.

Liminal places are typical of all transitional spaces; they breed anxiety. They cause us to question our old identity, while failing to provide solid new anchors. But they are powerfully creative places, places where the Spirit of God loves to rest and to speak.

Grace, she carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

Brueggemann closes his work..

"We can only stand in readiness for what God may do.. that standing requires the use of intentional disciplines that in every case are marked by danger.."

DANGEROUS MEMORIES reaching all the way back to our father Abraham and our barren mother Sarah. Israel was tempted to substitute more reasonable and respectable memories rather than embrace the ambiguity and embarrassment of such stories and such heroes.

DANGEROUS CRITICISM that mocks the deadly Empire. We must practice critical and reflective distance from our context. As in Isaiah, we need two kinds of critique. First, we need an ongoing religious critique of the tamed gods of the Empire. Second, we need the political critique of entrenched power, wherever we find it, whether in the church or outside it.

DANGEROUS PROMISES that imagine a shift of power in the world. Assimilated exiles who accept the claims of the Empire see it as an unmovable force. This makes critique impossible, and it becomes impossible to imagine a time when things will be different. But the promises of God are fresh, joyous, and sovereign. The kingdom of God will come. The poem of Isa.54:1-3 is first despairing, but then affirms a wild and outrageous hope.

DANGEROUS SONGS that predict unexpected newness of life. The people with dangerous criticism and dangerous promises have an odd stance toward the way things are. They gather to sing a new song and to affirm a reality they have not fully experienced. As in the first century, worship is a political statement.

DANGEROUS BREAD free of all imperial ovens. The manna in the desert, the food of Daniel, the feeding of the five thousand, the recognition of Jesus when he broke the bread by the fire.. Certain kinds of bread enslave us, and certain kinds bring freedom. But we know that the food God gives is reliable. Hardness of heart comes when we think the Empire controls all the resources.

DANGEROUS DEPARTURES of heart and body and mind, leavings undertaken in trust and obedience. Israel looked forward to a time of freedom from exile. Similarly, we need to imagine a time when we leave behind consumerism, ambition, and militarism for other territory.

DANGEROUS ACKNOWLEDGEMENT of how life really is. In the "glory" church that worships health and wealth it is easy to embrace a theology of the Spirit; less welcome is a theology of the Cross. But the kingdom of God opposes the comfortable religious claims of modernity where everything is neat and tidy, managed and controlled and we serve a tame God. Our God is good; but He is not safe. We sometimes cry out for the elusive Presence, and acknowledge like the early Apostle that we are "hungry and thirsty, homeless and ill treated."

The challenge is clear: to effectively engage our culture while maintaining our biblical identity as the people of God, a people (community) on a journey. Our failure to do this, and to explore new ways of faithfully expressing the biblical call to discipleship (in both edification and evangelism as missional communities), will result in our becoming increasingly marginalized and irrelevant.

The role of leadership, as always, is critical. We need a new kind of leader, unconcerned about issues of marketing and structural maintenance and focused instead on discipleship and transformation, faithfulness, brotherhood and authenticity. We need leaders who are willing to step down in the world. As Mark Strom put it,

Paul would not allow any human system or convention to hedge the communities against the risks of working out what it meant to live by the dying and rising of Christ. Such security would only throw the community back on their own resources and reinforce individual and communal boasting.... Paul urged leaders to imitate his personal example of how the message of Jesus inverted status... He refused to show favouritism towards individuals or ekklesiai. The gospel offered him rights, but he refused them. Reframing Paul, IVP, 2000

Similarly, Richard Quebedeaux writes that, "Because the very foundations of American society, including the family, are crumbling, we MUST seek and find strong leaders. But we need a new kind of leader - beyond the celebrity, beyond the pragmatist - to show us the way to the abundant life, the good life that God originally intended for his children and still longs for us to have." He continues,

"No medium or method of conveying the Christian gospel can meet people's basic needs for recognition, involvement, worthiness, growth, and indeed salvation itself without the loving give and take of person-to-person interaction over a long period of time. This is what community really means, and this is exactly where popular religion and its leaders are not successful.

"In a secular society, in a world where homelessness is the norm, the only way religion can really be "successful" is to provide a home for the homeless -- a family that includes not just my kind of people, but God's kind of people, who love him with everything they have, and who love their neighbour as much as they love themselves. The church does need to become God's ideal family, both in word and in deed." By What Authority: the Rise of Personality Cults in American Christianity. HarperCollins, 1982. Pp. 182-183.



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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2005