I’ve been trying to write a follow-up blog post about my trip to The Great Emergence event in Memphis since I returned to New York last week.  This should have been a no-brainer, really.  The event was well produced in a stunningly beautiful Episcopal cathedral.  Author and keynote speaker Phyllis Tickle delivered her thought-provoking thesis about the unfolding of a new Christian reformation with a perfect balance of humility, humor and passion.  The more than 300 attendees were engaged and friendly and I was able to connect with a handful of people with whom I look forward to keeping in touch. I even had the opportunity to sample some down-home Memphis cooking on Beale Street with some new friends.  All in all, this should be a simple and stellar review.

But…

This is the point at which each of my attempts to capture the event derailed.  In the midst of it all, there was—something—that gave me pause.  I’ve spent the past week trying to put my finger on it.  I even reached out to the organizers of the event to see if I could gain some clarity.   And yet, while they were responsive, I’m left with a mixed reaction that I am finding difficult to articulate.

When a couple of people who generously follow my blog asked when I might write a follow up, I told them the same thing.  This conversation is important, I said. It tends to create more debate than dialog outside of the folks that embrace and follow it.  I want to take care before I write to be sure that I am part of the dialog, not adding to the he-said-she-said noise and contributing to what appears to be a growing dis-unity between those who embrace a new vision for the church and those who view it as everything from irresponsible to heretical.”

So I decided not to force it. To wait and write nothing unless I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to do so.

On Saturday morning, my intention to work on my manuscript for an hour or two before heading over to help set up the room for my son’s Christmas play was thwarted by a familiar compulsion. So I closed my computer and pulled out a small black leather Bible that I opened without intention to the first page of the book of Ecclesiastes. As I began to read, I knew there was something there for me.  Something relevant to my struggle to understand my place in this conversation and, ultimately, my place in this disparate Body of Christ. 

Then, as I read, it hit me.  This one-two punch that came in the form of a deeper understanding of meaninglessness and what the author of the book repeatedly calls “chasing the wind.” 

Phyllis Tickle may be right. We may be in the midst of a dramatic shift away from Sola Scriptura toward a more Christ or Spirit-centered expression of faith.  Then again, those that would call her a heretic or an apostate may be right.  Sola Scriptura may, indeed, be the way and this new movement may not be of God at all.  And, I suppose, it is quite possible that those who embrace the Catholic faith might say that both camps are wrong and have been for 500 years.

Which brings me back Ecclesiastes.

There is nothing new under the sun.  God is on His throne. We are broken people.  Some of us seek this God and attempt to do what we perceive to be pleasing to Him. Others like me don’t seek, but get found anyway.  Revolutions and reformations come and go. The sun rises and sets on Christians and non-Christians alike.  So we eat and drink and, if we are blessed, enjoy our families, our work and our lives. Wisdom is better than folly, but ultimately we (and our ideas, books, podcasts and blog posts) are miniscule when compared to Creator of all things. Big questions have big answers that we can wrestle with to our hearts content.  In fact, I believe that the pursuit of a deeper understanding is likely pleasing to God. But if we set out to know it all or have a hand in the big change that will finally get it all “right” we are, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, just chasing the wind.

So I choose to follow the author’s suggestion to fear God and follow His commandments.  Simple advice that I read as a call to love God with reverential awe and love God’s creation sacrificially. 

At least it’s a start.  

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Repost from Sept 13, 2008.  Happy New Year all…

I don’t think I am remotely cool enough to roll with the new Christians. I’m forty-two and I sometimes watch mindless television. I wear pointy high heels and makeup and I don’t drink beer.

Of course, I used to be cool enough. Back when I sat on the roof of my apartment smoking cigarettes, reading A Clockwork Orange and looking down my nose at the people who didn’t get it. Back when I didn’t wear shoes or makeup but I did drink beer…and rye whiskey, which I preferred.

When I was cool God was in the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita or captured in a rose quartz crystal or dancing next to me at a Grateful Dead show. God was in a kiss or on a breeze or buried in the deep recesses of my mind when I’d created the perfect chemical storm.

And then, once I’d applied my considerable intellect and more considerable arrogance to the question, God was nowhere. I stopped searching and I was alone.

Fast forward a couple of years, a couple of kids and a couple of drinks and God became a “power greater than myself.” And, armed with a hint of humility I began to change.

Jesus had not called me yet—but I think he was watching.

When he came it was unannounced and uninvited. There was no frenzied altar call or sinner’s prayer. There was no hip pastor or tail-kicking band. No French roast coffee or modern art. There were no candles and no incense. No Power Point presentation or fill-in-the-blank bible study. It wasn’t even a particularly welcoming environment.

No, my Damascus Road was not modern or post-modern or denominational. It was God doing what God does wherever and whenever God wants to do it. Once I assured myself that the pain in my chest, inability to breathe and nausea was reverential fear and not a heart attack, I somehow knew that I believed something and that I would never be the same.

Of course I knew nothing of Christianity or Jesus or the Bible at the time. I thought I did, having debated the atheist party line for years. But, in the true spirit of Amazing Grace, I went from blindness to sight in a moment and was compelled to learn.

This story could go on for pages—and it eventually will—but I need to get back to my original premise, why I am not cool enough to be a new Christian.

It has been a little more than five years since I came to believe. In that time I have had some of the most wonderful and some of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I have learned from everyone—the whole mismatched Christian family—including televangelists, silver-haired, hymn-lovers, Southern Baptists, emergents, people who used to believe and Mike Seaver from Growing Pains.

While I might not share their style, or their politics or their history or their views on what it means to be a Christian (or a follower of Christ), each and every conversation, sermon or rant is a gift from God. These folks— like it or not—are my new family. And I am learning to love this new family; every quirky one of them. Even when I don’t really like what they say or how they act or what they claim to believe.

This unconditionally loving approach to life is brand new for me and it makes little sense. It is often uncomfortable and always counter intuitive. Sometimes I fail miserably. But sometimes I don’t. And when I don’t I have come to believe it is a gift from God.

Because, back when I was cool, I loved conditionally, starting with myself and extending to a small group of people who also read A Clockwork Orange and smoked cigarettes and drank beer…or rye whiskey…and looked down their nose at people who just don’t get it.

Thankfully, I’m just not that cool anymore.

I started to write a follow-up to the “Am I the ‘Not the Religious Type’ Type” post in an attempt to share, as promised, my experience at the first (first annual?) Center City Summit: Where Faith and Secular Culture Meet in Cambridge, MA. In high journalistic style, I sat at my laptop and laid out the details:

  • More than 150 people from more than a dozen states
  • Compelling speakers sharing a heart-felt desire to connect with and communicate with secular culture
  • Interesting uses of models and psychological theories to help understand the variety of ways people approach (and retreat from) God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit
  • Passionate times of prayer and conversation.

This observe-and-comment format is easy for me. I get to play the role of subject matter expert. “Here’s what I saw. This is what I liked. This is what I didn’t like. This is what they should keep doing. This is what they should do differently. This is why.”

And, there were a number of things I liked. I enjoyed learning more about Dave Schmelzer’s centered-set verses bounded-set model of faith, Carl Medearis’ stories about two-decades of communicating with Muslims in the Middle East, Charles Park‘s amazing story of making and losing $43 million and his wife Caroline’s loving attention to prayer and obedience.

There were also a couple of things that gave me pause. Like how easy it might be for people to misuse M. Scott Peck’s stage theory to perceive themselves as spiritually superior to people at ‘lower stages’ or what I perceive to be some potentially confusing uses of the word ‘mystic’. But, when push came to shove, it was clear to me that even if I reread the books and reviewed my notes, I was no subject matter expert. In fact, as I considered this post, I realized that I came away from the Center City Summit with more questions than I did answers.

And that’s a good thing.

This conference made me think. It made me wonder what questions my new, thoughtful friends at deconversion.com would have asked if they had been there. It made me wonder how other Christian “factions”, particularly those who are less familiar/comfortable with the notion of having a direct “experience” with the Holy Spirit would react. (This was my first time rolling with people who I would describe as mildly ‘charismatic’ or ‘pentecostal’.) It made me wonder about the notion of Christian “factions” in general, the wide variety of ways that people experience God and how that frequently leads to in-fighting among Christians and confusion for people who are on the outside looking in.

And that made me think about my friend.

This is a real friend not one of those metaphors. She has a name and a home and a family that is crumbling under the heavy weight of untreated addiction. She and I spoke by phone several times while I was away. She is hurting. She feels very alone. She says she has no hope. She tells me that she has always needed “a rock” upon which to anchor herself. She has relied on her parents, her husband, and–more recently–friendship. She says that friendship has been “a shining light” in her life, that it has provided the “strength, the truth and the love” that she has needed to see through deception and see her circumstances “as they really are.” Without that, she says, there is “only darkness.” This woman is one of those people out in “secular culture” that they were talking about in Cambridge. She grew up without God. She had many successes in her life without God. And now, in her darkest hour, she needs “something” that she describes by unknowingly and unintentionally speaking the language of faith–without God.

And that made me remember.

I recalled that God was working in my life long before I knew he was. Back in the early 1990s when I was the one whose family was falling apart. Back when I was the one who was hurting and alone and needed a shining light and an anchor. Back when I thought I had no hope. Back when I found hope in a recovery program through a relationship with a “power greater than myself” that turned out (after 7 years of Christ-bashing agnosticism) to be the same God (with the Son and the Spirit) I pray to now.

And, ultimately, it reconfirms my belief that God is real. That, while I believe that there is one way to the Father, there are millions upon millions of ways to the Son. Unorthodox ways. Irreverant ways. Unpredictable ways. Doubt-filled, messy, leave-it-to -the-last-breath ways that I don’t always understand or even agree with. Ways that don’t fit into 45-minute Sunday school sessions, line-by-line intellectual assessments of Bible passages or high-tech “culturally relevant” A/V productions. Ways that paradoxically challenge my notion of love and mercy in the face of discipline and hardship.

And so, despite the uncertainty, I choose to continue to pursue this God. This Jesus. This unexplainable Holy Spirit of God. I seek Him/It/Them in solitude and in the community that is created in church, online, and at wonderful conferences like the Center City Summit. I try to understand him in the face of my friend’s pain–and in the memory of my own.

Unbelievable.