Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Potato Stamp Epiphany
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
One of the great benefits of teaching religion to college students is the sneak-peak I get every so often of what the church might look like in twenty or thirty years. Every Monday night, for example, a campus group known as Common Grounds meets at my house to discuss issues of faith, politics, community service, or whatever seems most urgently to present itself at the time. Last night the gathering was pretty low-key and, I must admit, geared specifically toward my own desire to celebrate the Advent season in an old-fashioned way. We all sat around chatting, drinking tea, listening to Leon Redbone sing holiday carols, and decorating homemade Christmas cards with potato stamps. There was nothing exceptional about it, really – it was pretty much a reversion to our days of childhood when we had the luxury of such frivolity. Yet the evening was extraordinary on one account: it offered me one of those cherished intimations of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
I suppose it is common on most college campuses, as in the church or society at large, for people to segregate themselves into cliques according to their mutual interests. In our small community the associations are predictable: the athletes hang out together, as do the art and theater majors. Even the Christian ministry minors have a tendency to congregate around their shared values. Everyone seems content to remain safely cloistered behind the imaginary walls that have been constructed by their tribe. But interestingly that was not the case last night (or on other nights with this group). In many ways what I witnessed bordered on the miraculous, because those who were gathered around my kitchen table, potato stamps in hand, were perhaps the most diverse collection of human beings I have seen in a very long time.
There were a handful of rather conservative Christians present, but they were balanced out by several students who might be considered more progressive. Those of varying sexual orientations were represented in the mix, and among the believers there was even an agnostic or two. But everyone was enjoying their common creative task, without conflict and with much laughter. Somehow – and pastors here take note – the student leadership of Common Grounds has been able to create a safe place where a diversity of opinions and perspectives can be honored as part of the complex fabric of a vital human community. Many of those present last night might have had little problem seeing their time together as a unique incarnation of the body of Christ. Some may have even been comfortable calling it "church."
The experience – what I think I will call my "potato stamp epiphany" – was made all the more poignant by the fact that earlier that day I had received an e-mail from my friend, Toddie Peters, alerting me to an occasional paper that had been published earlier this year by a Presbyterian elder named Beau Weston. Its title seemed a bit presumptuous but compelling all the same: "Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment." I cannot adequately summarize here the entire thirty-three-page document but I can say that negative reactions to Weston's thesis seem well-founded. In his analysis of the Presbyterian Church (USA) over the past half-century, Weston draws a correlation – some have even said a causal connection – between a decline in church membership and the introduction of new structures of governance that have allowed the gifts and voices of previously unrepresented groups to be recognized. Implicit in all of this, it seems, is a longing to return to the good ol' days when the white male hierarchy of the church suffered little in the way of challenges to its authority. As I read the paper I could barely believe what I was seeing, but there it was in black and white (and I paraphrase liberally): diversity in the leadership of the PC(USA) has been the pact with the devil that has led to its present decline, the disestablishment of its power.
I think it is instructive here to consider the question of our ecclesial future in light of the words of Third Isaiah. Indeed, the theme of "rebuilding" is explicitly present in our First Testament reading for this Sunday. Standing amidst the ruins of a broken city, the distinction of the people's past barely a distant memory, God's spirit rests upon the prophet and compels him to speak of hope. Yet in the absence of the once glorious Temple, deprived of a righteous king in whom they could place their trust, the breath of God reveals through Isaiah a new vision of how things were going to be. The rebuilding, he suggests, will begin from the ground up, from the strengths and insights of those whose voices had long been ignored or forgotten.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor… (Is. 61:1-2a)
I find it interesting that it is not entirely clear who is being anointed here. Commentators are fairly certain that this is not some misplaced coronation hymn, as was once claimed. Another possibility is that the speaker is a symbolic representation of the people of Israel, the collective, the suffering servant whose vocation was to declare to the world through their humble, even despised station in life that the Lord was doing "a new thing" (Is. 43:19). The people of God would indeed build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations, but it is clear from the prophet's words that they could not rely simply on the established and exclusive order of their past. But in this precarious uncertainty lay their hope.
It is true that there was not simply one theological voice that was being cultivated in Judah at this time. Though reconstruction followed the lead of Ezra and Nehemiah, there were nevertheless some among the people who saw in the reestablishment of the status quo a threat to God's freedom and mystery, and thus a challenge to God's authority. In short, they were not content simply to fall back on tradition, and especially on one that had been so obscured by their recent captivity. Rather, they sought intimations of divine wisdom not only in scripture but also in nature. So when Isaiah appeals to shoots springing up from the earth, the implication is that God's work in creation provides a glimpse of how righteousness and justice might eventually be established in the land: not according to human design but by God's immeasurable providence. From the scorched earth of ruin new life would indeed spring. And from our modern vantage point we can now observe that if there is anything to be offered by the wisdom of the earth it must include the insight that true vitality lies not so much in the monoculture of establishment but in the polyphony of diversity, in dynamism, in the ability to balance the conversation among many voices.
Recently I have had the opportunity to spend some time with Phyllis Tickle's new book, The Great Emergence, which is basically an eloquent elaboration on an observation made by the Right Reverend Mark Dyer, that "about every five hundred years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale" (p. 16). Both Dyer and Tickle, among others, believe we are currently in the midst of packing up the things we want to divest and polishing up the things we want to preserve. As I read Weston's analysis of where the PC(USA) is as a denomination, and how we came to be in this place, I could not help but think that his idealization of past ecclesial glories should be one of the first items to be placed on the discount table, with prices slashed dramatically.
For if there is anything I have learned from my "potato stamp epiphany" it is this: given the faith and openness demonstrated among many of the younger members of the body of Christ today, and given the inscrutable wisdom of the Spirit, we cannot even begin to imagine the direction the church might take in the not-so-distant future. Who knows? Perhaps one day we will find communities of Christians who are open to including agnostics in their fellowship. Maybe liberals and conservatives will eventually come to co-exist in the same community. God forbid! We must not limit the power of the Creator to do "a new thing." Shoots will spring up among the ruins; life can return to a barren land.
So while Beau Weston's paper certainly disturbs my admittedly liberal sensibilities, I do not perceive it to be a significant threat. Rather, it is the dying gasp of a five hundred-year-old model of authority, an indignant yet toothless objection to finding oneself on the hard luck end of a rummage sale. But I am grateful for one important insight here. Weston has helped me to realize this Advent that while we anticipate the coming of Christ, in humility and in glory, we also await with eager longing the revelation of the children of God in the form of a radically renewed image of the church.