Part of my research focuses on exploring the sense-making process of walking with the Spirit in community (specifically, how this works in the suburbs). Let me walk through the events and conversations of the last week in an effort to make some provisional sense from it for my own life, for my research, and for the life of the community of which I am a part.
Two Sundays ago I preached on the Third Way of Love. The path between a rock and a hard place, I proposed, is the path of Christ’s love. It is the kind of love that died on the cross to open up a third way between the two extremes. I used our church’s Holy Conversations as an example of being caught between a rock and a hard place. The Holy Conversations is a nine-month discernment process in which our Vision Board is deciding whether or not we will perform same-sex marriages in our church.
I got to experience a small taste of the third way, of which I preached, in the days since that sermon.
Simply put, I lost 1/3 of my income five days after I preached that sermon because of the Holy Conversations. That was a weird Friday. Let me explain. I have been in a unique and wonderful situation for the past three years. A benefactor—who lives in another state—has provided the church with financial support that allows my family to have full health benefits and covers one third of my monthly salary. This generous support has allowed the church to pay me a part-time salary, thus allowing me freedom to work on my PhD. This has been an ideal situation, and I am truly grateful for it. My benefactor informed me last Friday that my support would end because of the church’s engagement in the Holy Conversations.
I understand my benefactor’s decision to pull my support. The evangelical world is struggling greatly over the “issue” of homosexuality1 and how the church should view/interact with it2 . My benefactor acted upon their3 own core convictions and obeyed the leading of the Holy Spirit as it was personally discerned. I cannot argue with that. I must simply accept it.
It did, however, leave me, my family, and the church in a precarious situation. In a sense, a part of me died that day, thus demonstrating a piece of my sermon. (note to preachers: be careful what you preach about, because you will have to live it. I have learned that lesson repeatedly throughout my life).
The events and conversations that happened since last Friday has demonstrated, yet again, the wonderfully mysterious movements of the Spirit…even in the suburbs.
A Typical Monday
I spent Monday in my typical “scholar day.” Half of the day was spent finishing a video on the Trinity. The other half was spent processing the stack of books that has been sitting on my desk for over a month. One of those books was The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology edited by John Polkinghorne. The voices in this collection of essays have woven their way through the events of the week in a remarkable way. As I am reading about the relationality of the universe, humanity, and God, I am observing this relationality play out in real time.
I met with a member of the Deep in the Burbs Research team on Tuesday afternoon. This individual has a deep interest in Dwelling in the Word and the process of spiritual formation. The individual said that, “We are really on to something with our research in the DITB project. God is up to something and a key component to this is the Dwelling process. We need to be able to listen to the Spirit and to each other if the church is going to be able to engage society in a positive way in the decades to come.”
Our conversation turned to personal matters. I shared with this person about how I had lost my funding last Friday. This person listened attentively and allowed me to share openly about my thoughts and feelings. The opportunity to speak was cathartic. The fact that someone outside of my local congregation, but connected to me organically, was willing to listen, was a healing balm.
Part of our conversation migrated to Michael Welker’s book God the Spirit. I tried to explain the pluriform, polycentric nature of the Spirit. That conversation is never clear, but the attempt to explain it produced excitement and affirmation that God is, indeed, up to something in all of this. We both acknowledged that we are continually called to walk in the cloud of unknowing as we seek to be attentive to the Spirit.
A small group from our church decided to use my Reading Paul’s Mail Bible study this year. They finished the study (16 weeks, 5-days per week) last week and invited me to join them this past Wednesday morning to mark the end of the journey. I had no idea what we would talk about, nor did I plan anything. I just showed up and waited to see what would happen.
One person asked a question that sparked one of those amazing, Spirit-infused conversations that accelerated my theological imagination. The question was whether Paul thought that he was writing scripture when he wrote these letters. The ensuing conversation led to a “mini-lecture/group-conversation” about Inspiration. I went to the chalk board and drew my typical continuum. I wrote “Spirit” on the left side of the board and “human author” on the right side. The question was, “What is the relationship between the Spirit and the human author in the writing of scripture?” In other words, “How did it work? What did it look like?” The conversation led to the articulation of two logical extremes. On one side it was 100% Spirit. This is the dictation theory. On the other side it was 100% human author. This is the Gifted Human theory. I then drew two opposing greater-than signs that overlapped and intersected in order to demonstrate the sliding continuum between extreme poles. We stated the logical problems on both extremes, and, together discussed how the answer must be some form of a mixture of the two. One person said, “It is a symbiotic, reciprocal relationship.” Nice.
I said, “since we’re throwing big words on the board, might I add the word ‘communicative’ to the list?” I wrote it underneath the other words, and they were stacked in the center, between both extremes. We then discussed how it was like a pendulum that swings back and forth between these two extremes. One person said, “If the pendulum stops directly between them, it is at peace, and at rest.” I said, “But, it is also no longer moving. Maybe it is the motion between the poles that generates life.” That comment sparked much lively discussion about how it is not that either side is wrong, but that neither side is 100% correct and life only happens when there is a constant interaction between the two sides.
Another person chimed in and said, “Look at your drawing. The intersection of those two signs forms a diamond. That is where all the good stuff happens.”
I looked at the board and sat in stunned amazement. Light bulb! I had never seen that before. The diamond is the communicative zone. It is the field of energy created by the swinging pendulum that brings forth constructive unity between the apparent extremes. Is it the pendulum that creates the field, or is it the field that generates the existence of the pendulum and the particularities of the extremes? (remember, I’m reading a book on relationality and Quantum Physics simultaneous to these conversations.) The answer? Yes.
Here is a sketch that tries to capture this conversation:
Here is a sketch that tries to recreate the above sketch into a more generalized model for the communicative zone as it exists between any apparently polarized views.
The conversation turned to how Paul was challenging his Jewish culture to move away from following the letter of the Law (as interpreted by any particular Jewish sect) to learning how to listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Paul was continually led outside of his comfort zone and realm of experience as the Spirit showed him how God works among the Gentiles in ways that make no sense to the Jewish follower of God.
One person commented that Paul was the Rob Bell of his day. I would agree. He was accused of being a libertarian on more than one occasion. We commented how ironic it is that, today, among some Christian circles, Paul’s words are now viewed as the new, universal law of conduct.
I commented that it is a daunting task to think that we might be leading the church in a suburban context to know how to follow the Spirit, and–to quote 1 John 4–to test the spirits to see if we are actually following the Spirit of God. The leader of this group is also a member of the DITB Research Team. I steered the conversation to the leader and said, “This is right in line with what we are talking about in our research. Here you have a group of suburban people who seek to follow God and grow spiritually. You need to journal about this.” The leader then invited me to share some of my thoughts regarding the social trinity. I did, as best I could in a short time. Later I realized that I had just “increased the awareness and understanding of the social trinity” in some suburban people. That is the heart of my research.
That conversation led us to discuss the reality of living in the suburban context. We talked about how the suburbs, combined with advancing technology, empower radical individualism and make it increasingly difficult to find, form, or sustain community. I mentioned how even modern plumbing works against community.
I shared the time I was walking through my neighborhood and had a vision of a community well sitting in the middle of the road outside our house. (I think I had just heard a paper presented on the image of the well in African culture). How different, I asked myself, would our neighborhood be if everyone had to leave their homes and walk to the well to get water for the day? Community would be more likely to form if we had to do that.
Our current, suburban situation allows us to forget that human beings are even involved the production of clean water. Rather than interact with humans at a communal well to get water, I electronically—thus unconsciously—pay a bill to a non-person, turn a handle, and viola, I have clean water. I have it, and nobody has to be involved, at least in my consciousness, that is.
One woman continued the critique of suburban life by reflecting on how she was raised in a small town in Minnesota. They were a Danish, Lutheran Community. “They wouldn’t sell land to Catholics in order to preserve the unity of the community,” she said, illustrating their staunch Lutheranism. That town shared everything. They went to the same school, worshipped at the same church, shopped at the same stores, etc. Then, she said, they grew up, and the goal was to move to the cities. They started in an apartment on the south side of Minneapolis, but then finally got to move out to the suburbs. Now, the disconnectedness of the suburbs that we had been describing left her, and the others that had made the migration, empty. They had arrived, but felt alone.
More on how this ties in later…
That afternoon I received a text. “How are you?” It was from a member of the DITB Team who was aware of my benefactor’s actions. A short text exchange led to a coffee meeting an hour later. We talked and shared life experiences. It was nothing intense. We just shared more of each other’s stories. It was not until an hour later that this person asked how I was doing in regard to benefactor’s actions. I shared the facts of the decisions that we faced. The lack of support would have impact on my timeline and how I would be able to give adequate attention to my dissertation if I had to step up to a full-time status at the church. Plus, the church is not in a financial situation to afford to make that move.
My plan had been to finish my dissertation next Spring and then expand from the church into a broader roll of teaching and writing at large. My intention was to stay preaching and teaching in the church, half of the time, and spend the other half in the academic/speaker/writer world. Now that things had changed, I’m not sure what God is up to, and what I am going to do. I am simply open to what God is going to do next.
This individual simply said, “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.” The bottom line of the ensuing conversation led us to realize that the disassociation of my external benefactor has opened up an opportunity for an organic connection of support—both financially and emotionally—to emerge from within my own community. I can stay the course with no interruptions.
Wow, I did not see that one coming.
This is yet another example of the disruptive nature of the Spirit. Again, be careful what you teach about.
I went home last night in awe of how God continually picks us up, just when it seems like everything is falling apart. It is Holy Week, so I did not have anything going on (that never happens on Wednesday nights). So, I read most of the Polkinghorne book and marveled at the relationality of God.
It is Thursday, which means that I had coffee with my Dad, like I do every week. I recounted the above story to him. He brought up an interesting topic. He wondered if the Muslim community might provide some insight into how the church should be in the suburbs? We batted this idea around for a while and concluded that the Muslim community is functioning as an exclusivistic, immigrant community that works very well for its members, but does not provide a valid option for the larger, global picture.
That is when it all came together for me and “inspired” me to draw the following illustration.
It begins with a syllogism (of sorts).
- If Reason replaced Medieval/Protestant religion as the social glue of European/Western society,
- and if Reason has proven, in the post-modern conversation, to be found wanting as a successful social glue–being equally violent and morally bankrupt—
- and, if faith seems to be the preferred social glue4 ,
- but if said faith cannot be a return to the Medieval/Protestant faith of pre-modern times,
- then we are left with the question: What kind of Faith are we talking about?
That is when I connected the conversation with the small group to the Polkinghorn book, my knowledge of suburban studies, and Robert Kegan’s 5 Orders of Consciousness.
The small town is 3rd order consciousness. It is a single, homogenous system in which every member understands her particular role in society.
Suburban life exemplifies 4th order consciousness. The suburban landscape is comprised of thousands of radical, atomistic, autonomous selves moving through the chaotic, ever-changing transactionally based networks. Each connection is a consciously chosen, transactional relationship that is accidental to the primary substance of the individual self5 . The 4th order consciousness recognizes that there are multiple systems, and each one of these systems are equally valid, and equally meaningless in the larger scheme of the mechanistic universe, in which the detached, objective observer and wielder of power can have free reign. This lifestyle ultimately leads to isolation, loneliness, abuse of power, and the high potential for violence and oppression.
Kegan claims that it is only in the later years of a person’s life that she comes to a place of seasoned wisdom and realizes that all the apparently disconnected systems are, in fact, interconnected and interdependent. It is impossible to be autonomous. The Gadamerian fusion of horizons is the reality of human existence. The apparently radical extremes need each other to exist, and are actually created and sustained by the pendulum that swings in the field of the communicative zone. This is the 5th Order of consciousness. This is a picture of relational ontology. This is the life of the Trinity.
What if God is calling us to dwell in the spaces between our enclaves of faith? We are not asked to abandon our faith cultures, but are invited to open ourselves to the interfaith dialog, to be willing to listen to each other; to dwell in the world and the words of the stranger.
Who knows, if we step into the spaces between, we just might meet the Spirit of the Living God.Footnotes
- I put the word issue in quotations, because this isn’t an issue. This is a conversation about human beings. [↩]
- them [↩]
- I realize this is bad grammar, but I do not want to reveal the gender of the benefactor [↩]
- this is coming from comments I made regarding Polkinghorn’s book [↩]
- to borrow from Aristotle’s playbook [↩]