Tag Archives: relationality

Initial Interpretation of the Findings

This section will provide provisional interpretation and reflection on specific findings from the data. I said, in chapter three, that this research was done from and for a missional imagination of the church. It is with this perspective in mind that we frame our findings. More specifically, it is with the leadership of the local congregation in mind—both clergy and lay leaders—that we name our findings.

Our specific research question was: How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations? Therefore, we must first address the obvious question. Did the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity have any impact at all on the team’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation? Then we can address the second, and more complicated question. If it did have an impact, how was it impacted?

Increased Awareness and Understanding

The first question is easy to answer. Yes. Every member of the team reported that they felt changed as a result of the project. This is an expected result. It would be highly unlikely for a group of people who spent twenty-two hours in large group conversation and nine months engaged in action projects to experience no change at all. So, it is not surprising that the process impacted the team.

However, before we move to the question of how the team was impacted, we must first pause and look more closely at the nature of the increased awareness and understanding itself. It is one thing to be aware of something. It is an entirely different thing to understand that thing. We asked how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the team. One thing that the team agreed on was that the project definitely increased their awareness of the social Trinity. None of the team members had previously heard the terms social Trinity, relational Trinity, or entangled Trinity. Therefore, the fact that they watched the videos and engaged in the subsequent discussion automatically raised their awareness. This was a success. However, it became painfully obvious that our success in understanding the social Trinity was questionable.

Many team members expressed a sense of confusion, and sometimes frustration, over their struggle to understand the idea of the social Trinity. Sharon’s statement was the strongest critique and serves as a representative of some team member’s thoughts. She said,

I think the instruction suffered. I felt like we needed more instruction to understand the basis, the project, the terminology…There wasn’t a good grasp of social Trinity. I don’t know that everybody was on the same level with what is the Trinity, who is the Holy Spirit, what is that? So, I felt, more instruction, using Bible verses on what is the Holy Spirit. What was his role with the apostles? What were some examples of the Holy Spirit at work after Jesus left the earth, would have been a better foundation to go to the next step.

A critique like this has an initial sting for the teacher. Did we fail? One could argue that the research was not valid because the team did not actually understand the social Trinity. Some of the team felt confused and frustrated by the vagueness of the question and the intention of the project. I must acknowledge the possibility that my chosen method of introducing the social Trinity was inadequate to the task.

I presented the social Trinity in three ways.[1] First, I engaged the team in Dwelling in the Word that was focused on the Upper Room Discourse in the Gospel of John. Second, I created four animated videos which we viewed during session four and to which the team had unlimited access on the website. Third, I presented a narrative during session four of how my encounter with the social Trinity impacted my understanding of spiritual formation. This narrative was followed by a group discussion. I did not choose to present a traditional lecture-style lesson or assign heavy reading to the group. However, the team was aware of the DITB blog and some engaged in my ongoing conversation and writing about the Trinity on their own initiative. I must be open to the possibility that these methods did not help the team increase in its understanding.

However, one could also argue that the fact that the team experienced confusion and frustration was not as much due to the methods I chose to present the social Trinity, but is due to three other factors. The first factor has to do with teaching methods. I stated in chapter two, that I draw upon the theories and methods of Parker Palmer and Stephen Brookfield. Palmer contrasts the expert-teacher-centered model with the subject-centered relational model. The object of study, in the first model, is observed by the expert and is separated from the learners. The expert then turns around and inputs the knowledge of the object to the students, filling them up like empty vessels. The second model that Parker presents is the subject-centered model. Here the topic is not the distant object of observation but is the subject that sits as a conversation partner in the center of the circle of learners. The teacher, in this model, sits among the circle as a participant learner and simply facilitates the dialogical process of interacting with the subject.[2]

Brookfield’s methodology similarly calls for communicative action in the learning environment in which adult learners are allowed the freedom to engage with the subject on their own terms.[3] Perhaps the RT expected the teacher-centered model and equated that model with “further instruction” based upon their experience in modern educational systems. My use of the latter methodologies, and their foreignness to some of the team members, may have contributed to the feelings of fuzziness and frustration.

The second factor that may have contributed to the sense of frustration is related to the topic itself. How can a finite human understand the Trinity? One might argue that we should be more worried about the instructional methods if there was not confusion and frustration. If the team members felt a full confidence that they completely understood the Trinity then that might be evidence that my presentations did not educate the team, but indoctrinated the team by colonizing them with a particular understanding of the Trinity. In other words, an authentic encounter with the Trinity should always leave the student with a certain level of confusion and frustration. This is true regardless of teaching style or the level of education—from catechism lesson to doctoral seminar. We simply cannot fully understand the mystery of Trinity.

The third factor that led to the sense of frustration may be related to the term understanding itself. Is it possible to measure understanding? Perhaps this speaks to the difference between the terms understanding and explanation. The modern mind has a desire for clarity.[4] It seeks to explain things through scientific language. However, there is a distinct, and theological, difference between understanding and explanation. To explain something is to approach the object with a sense of superiority and complete knowledge of the object. To understand something is to approach it as a subject, like another person, whose complexity defies explanation. To understand something is to come into relationship with it and to engage in an ever deepening, experiential knowledge of it. Parker Palmer says that the goal of the educational process is to know as we are known.[5] God knows us, not as an object to be summarized and explained, but as a person to be loved. Perhaps Sharon’s desire for more instruction was more reflective of the modern desire for explanation, than a true critique of our understanding. We, as finite humans, can never explain the Trinity. Her critique begs the question: How much further instruction would have been enough to reach an adequate level of increased understanding? There will always be fuzziness, vagueness, and a frustrating sense of mystery in the study of Trinity.

Heather offered a helpful perspective that brought balance to this question. She said:

In those first weeks, you presented the ideas, and then, whether we examined ourselves, or not, that had to be up to us. You couldn’t have made any of us examine ourselves. And, just by presenting the material, the only logical place to go is to examine your own thoughts to see where it fits. So, I think you presented complex ideas and presented them well, and then, going into projects and things…there was…I’m not exactly sure how to say it…there was a vagueness to that. And I don’t know if you could have done anything different about it. But, sometimes it kind of felt floundering. And if you intersected, then that means we’re not letting the Holy Spirit, do it. In some ways it would have been nice to have more direction, but in other ways…maybe its better if you’re not the one telling us what to do.

Was there an adequate increase in awareness and understanding of the social Trinity for the team to experience an impact on their ideation and praxis of spiritual formation? The completely honest answer is that there is no way to know. However, the data seem to indicate that the RT authentically engaged with the difficult subject of the social/relational/entangled Trinity to the point that it affected the way they think about and approach the practice of spiritual formation.

There is one saving grace in the way the question was presented. We did not set out to gain a complete understanding of the social Trinity. That, as we have already discussed, is impossible. We simply set out to increase the awareness and understanding of the social Trinity. Given the discussion above, it is safe to say that the RT did experience an increase in both awareness and understanding of the social Trinity that led to a change in the way they think about and approach the practice of spiritual formation.

How was the Team Impacted?

So far we have established that there was an adequate increase in awareness and understanding (in various degrees) of the social Trinity. We have also determined that the process of increasing the awareness and understanding did have some impact on the RT’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation. Now we must ask the more complex question. How was the RT’s ideation and praxis impacted?

The answer to this question is complex. The RT consisted of nineteen individuals, including me. Each of us came into this project with a lifetime of stories and relationships that have shaped who we are and, specific to this project, how we think about the Trinity, spiritual formation, and the suburban context. Each one of us engaged in this project at various levels of intentionality as we juggled the rich textures of our daily lives in the frenetically busy suburban context. How can I possibly represent the impact that happened in each team member’s life in the confines of this limited dissertation? I wrestle with the balance between, on the one hand, writing a paper that expresses my own perspective, in my own voice, about what I perceive happened to the team members, or, on the other hand, allowing the voices of the team members to speak without filling reams of paper with their words in verbatim.

Ultimately, this is my paper and I can only ever understand from my perspective and speak in my voice. So, I must acknowledge that the findings and implications for leadership that I will share in the next chapter are primarily my own synthesis of the total research experience. However, I think it is appropriate that I allow space for each team member to summarize their findings in their own words. Therefore, I have included an extended summary of each team member’s journey in appendix D. This appendix cites extended verbatims of each team member at the beginning of the session, notes the specific projects in which they were involved, and highlights his or her own summary of how s/he was impacted by the project.[6]

A Directional Shift

I cannot articulate each individual’s journey within the confines of this dissertation. Therefore, I will attempt a simple synthesis of what the research revealed in direct relation to the research question itself. The data seem to indicate that an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impacted the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the RT members in two primary ways.

Vertical-Personal Spirituality

First, it provided new language and attentiveness to the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. Each team member entered the project with some awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The team members most able to express the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, at the beginning of the project, did so in such a way that the Spirit was the presence of God that helped guide the individual in either (a) personal devotion and relationship with God, or (b) the process of making life decisions. The ideation of the Holy Spirit, prior to the DITB project, seemed to reflect one of an internal and personal relationship with God. Let’s call this a vertical-personal spirituality in which God is perceived as being up there and the Holy Spirit is in here, within the individual. The role of the Holy Spirit, they reported, is to help the individual look up to God and grow spiritually in an internal manner. This vertical-personal relationship does not negate the horizontal, social relationships that individuals have with others. In fact, many team members indicated that small group involvement and corporate worship were important parts of their spiritual practices prior to the DITB project. However, the important dimension of the vertical-personal spirituality is that the horizontal relationships with others are not necessary to spiritual formation. In other words, it is possible, in the vertical-personal spirituality, to have a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit apart from social interaction with other people. This, I would argue, reflects the typical, modern, Western individualism that is especially expressed in the suburban context.

vertical-personal spirituality

Figure 15. Vertical-Personal Spirituality

Horizontal-Communal Spirituality

The DITB project provided the RT with new language and a new awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit and, in my interpretation, helped them shift from a vertical-personal spirituality to a horizontal-communal spirituality. The horizontal-communal spirituality does not diminish the vertical-personal relationship of the individual with God, but expands the horizon of that relationship to become multi-dimensional. The RT team members expressed their increased awareness of how important, and even essential, relationships are to spirituality. The RT related that, when they began to use the language of relationality and entanglement to discuss the essence of God, and the possibility that it is the relationships of the three persons of the Triune God that creates and sustains life, it helped them to imagine how the Holy Spirit could be actively at work in the world apart from their own individual lives and even apart from the church. God’s presence was expressed in terms like air, wind, fire, and energy swirling around, in, and through us. The horizontal relationships that each of us, as individuals, has with everything and everyone around us is not only reflective of, but also essential to the essence of God. This kind of language was new, exciting, somewhat confusing, but also liberating to the majority of the RT.

_0025_Horizontal-Communal All Creation

Figure 16. Horizontal-Communal Spirituality

A Wholistic Umbrella

The second way that the social Trinity impacted the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the RT team is that it helped the team realize that all activity in life can be included under the wholistic umbrella of spiritual formation. This second point greatly overlaps with the first point. The shift from vertical-personal spirituality to horizontal-communal spirituality opened up the RT’s awareness that being attentive to the neighbor and to the environment is as much a part of spiritual formation as the classic disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and meditation. This is a subtle, but important shift for similar reasons to those stated in the first point. A vertical-personal spirituality views the horizontal relationships as secondary and/or derivative to the primary relationship of the individual and God. In other words, the individual disciple must first cultivate the personal relationship with God and then the fruit of the Spirit will overflow into the horizontal relationships with others. The shift to a horizontal-communal spirituality places the horizontal relationships on an equal level with the vertical-personal relationship and disrupts the linear progression of God-individual-other. A horizontal-communal spirituality recognizes that it is only through loving in the horizontal relationships—family, neighbor, enemy, environment, etc.—that we can actually love God in the vertical relationship.

We must pause and acknowledge the limitation of the terms vertical and horizontal. These terms may be helpful in one way to describe the difference between God and creation, but it is equally problematic because it creates a false dichotomy between the two. The encounter with the social Trinity offered the RT language to understand how the love of neighbor is both different from loving God and the same as loving God. We love God by loving the other, and we can only love the other when we are connected to the love of God. This is not a linear, top-down flow of God’s love and power, but is a multi-directional, capillary, perichoretic flow of God’s love and God’s power in the world.

The evidence for the shift to a more wholistic umbrella of spiritual formation is found in the nature of the action projects that the RT chose to pursue. One would think that, if a group was heavily dominated by vertical-personal spirituality, it would have created projects that emphasized the more classic internal spiritual disciplines. Further, one would think that if the RT engaged in the social Trinity purely as an abstract idea—as an object of study—that they would have created projects that would have engaged others in the pursuit of studying the object of the social Trinity. The opposite was true. The majority of the action projects involved the RT engaging in relationship with other people for the purpose of creating community and/or providing service. Granted, some of the projects were a form of personal journaling. However, the content of the journal reflections revolved around the idea that God is actively involved in every aspect of life, not just those activities that have been traditionally considered sacred or spiritual.

Conclusion

The key findings from the data report that the RT noted the importance of relationships, reflection, and an increased awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the World. This chapter attempted to analyze the “successfulness” of the project and synthesize these findings into a simplistic structure. The next chapter will turn toward theological reflection and implications of these findings for the academy and missional church leadership.

Footnotes

[1] I will explore these methods further in the next section.

[2] Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.

[3] Brookfield, Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices; Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995); Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching.

[4] Read Descartes’ desire to dissect the object to its basic components and, thus explain it with the clarity of looking through the optics of the microscope.

[5] Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.

[6] I must acknowledge, however, that I am the editor of these statements. I read through all the data from each individual and made a choice about what I thought best captured their experience of transformation as a result of the project. Yes, these are the quotes from the individuals, but I, as the author, have set the frame. Thus is the nature of all knowledge and communication. It is framed, limited, and open to interpretation.

Framing the Findings

I will reflect theologically on the DITB project by bringing the three primary themes from the data into conversation with the three types of frames that I mentioned at the beginning of chapter two. I make this move because a key assumption that I brought into this project—and one that has only been deepened as a result of it—is that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge. Human being, as Kegan notes, is the action of constructing meaning from experienced data that is received through one’s filter. As the individual human moves through time and space, in communal relationships, both the individual and society evolves.

Table 8. Intersection of Findings and Frames

Major Findings from DITB Data

Relationships

Reflection

Awareness of Spirit

Types of Frames

Shifting Time

Relationships in Time

Reflection in Time

The Spirit and Time

Shifting Structure

A Shift to Relationality

Transcending One’s Own Frames

The Structure of the Spirit

Shifting Horizon An Expanded Definition of Neighbor Reflecting on the Frame

Expanding the Horizon of the Spiri

I came into this project with my own set of frames, assumptions, and prejudices, as did each individual member of the RT. I placed the social Trinity, spiritual formation, and the suburban context into conversation and then set that conversation as the “great thing” around which the team gathered.[1] We engaged in communicative action around this subject and generated a great amount of qualitative data. I reflected upon these data and determined that the three major themes that were significant for the RT team were relationships, reflection, and an increased awareness of the Holy Spirit.

I will reflect on each of these themes by bringing them into conversation with the three types of frames that I mentioned in chapter two. The first frame is the motion picture frame, which captures a moment in time. I will take each theme and discuss how these themes changed over the time period of the DITB project. The second type of frame is the internal structure of a building, or the operating system of a computer. Both of these metaphors point to the conceptual structure and prejudices—e.g. personal narrative, socio-economic position, language, etc.—that one brings to any topic that shape the way one perceives new data. I will discuss how each theme was shaped by and impacted the RT’s cognitive frame. The third type of frame is the picture frame in which an artist/photographer chooses which part of the landscape/environment to include in the frame and which part to leave out. I will discuss each theme in light of how the RT’s horizon shifted and/or expanded to include new things, and which things may still be left out of the picture.

shifting frames

Figure 17. Shifting Frames

Finding One: Relationships

The first key theme that emerged from the data was that the RT became increasingly aware of the importance of relationships in spiritual formation. Most people seek to find authentic and mutually beneficial relationships that will “stand the test of time.” The RT entered the project with a mixture of relationships. The members of each congregation had varying levels of relationships with those team members from their own congregation. The Calvary women knew each other well. The Bethlehem men knew each other well. The group from Ascension had varying levels of prior knowledge and comfort with each other. None of the members knew members from the other congregations (with the exception of Sharon and Quaid). Therefore, the RT was comprised of relationships that ranged from stranger to close friend. Analyzing the theme of relationships within the context of each type of frame will reveal different aspects of what the RT learned regarding the importance of relationships in conjunction with spiritual formation in the suburban context.

Frame One: Relationships in Time

The first type of frame is the motion picture frame. It is the analysis of snapshots taken over time. Relationships take time. They require vulnerability and the time and space to demonstrate trust. The RT was only together for nine months, therefore may not have had enough time and interaction to form good relationships. However, the relationships did change over the nine-month period. Initially, many of the team members were drawn to the group in the expectation that inter-congregational relationships could be formed and followed by subsequent partnerships in the community. This did not prove to be the case. The women from Calvary completely withdrew from the group for various reasons. Three men from Bethlehem stayed engaged in the RT meetings until the end, but never connected with the other congregations. Quaid withdrew from the RT, but stayed connected with me personally through emails and coffee meetings throughout the course of the project.

The members from Ascension had varying degrees of relationship development. The S’mores team indicated that they experienced a significant deepening of their friendships with each other and other members of the congregation simply by meeting together weekly throughout the summer to cook s’mores in the church parking lot. John and Mary deepened their relationships with each other and with co-workers by committing to regular participation in Feed My Starving Children. Sharon focused much of her relational energy into the hard work of visiting door-to-door in her political campaign. She reported the value of reaching out to make these relationships as connected to her own spiritual formation. Heather reported that her connection with her sons and with one particular friend evolved over the course of the project in such as way that it revealed deeper insights into the process of spiritual formation.

Frame Two: A Shift to Relationality

The second type of frame is the internal structure of a house, or the operating system of a computer. The RT did not only experience a fairly natural evolution of relationships as a result of the passage of time, but they also indicated a significant shift in their understanding of relationship itself. The RT members each represent the typical white, middle-class suburbanite who has been shaped by the framework of the modern ideal of radical individualism. Relationships, in this framework, are primarily voluntary transactions that take place between autonomous selves. This voluntary type of relationship is also true of one’s connection to God. The typical modern Western Christian imagines a personal, voluntary connection to God as well as to others.

The increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity, through the communicative action of the DITB project, invited the members of the RT to rethink the nature of relationship itself. The more they discussed and contemplated a relational ontology in contrast to substance ontology, the more they indicated an awareness of the essential nature of relationships. They began to see that relationships were not a means to an end, but were constitutive of human being together.

Here I must further nuance the conversation. First, I must acknowledge my own journey in this regard. I am making the movement from conservative evangelicalism into a missional expression of the ELCA. Conservative evangelicalism is thoroughly shaped by modernity and the radical, buffered self. My earliest imagination of relationship with God was one of a personal decision that I had to make in order to bridge the ontological gap caused by sin and be reunited to God through Christ’s work on the cross. My imagination of having a relationship with God was shaped by decisional soteriology. My encounter with the social Trinity and relational ontology was one of the most significant points of impact for my theological shift. I began to imagine the relationality of the persons of the Trinity as constitutive of my own existence, and the relationality of all things as essential to the universe. There is no doubt that I brought that experience as a framework into the DITB project and expected that others would have the same experience. I was surprised to discover that no one had that same type of impact that I did when exposed to the social Trinity.

I believe the main reason the RT did not have the same experience of shift was because the majority of the RT had been raised in an ecumenical tradition rather than an evangelical tradition. The ecumenical tradition has been equally impacted by modernity, resulting in a buffered self, but it has been manifest in different ways than that of evangelicalism. Traditionally, the ecumenical Christian traditions have been more in tune with the connectedness of humanity and the need for social justice, whereas the evangelical tradition has been more focused on the individual relationship with God and personal salvation for the afterlife.

This reversal both surprised me and encouraged my intuition for the importance of this conversation. It surprised me because, as I have already mentioned, it was the exact opposite of my journey. It encouraged me because it reinforces the need to move between the polarized camps of the evangelical and the ecumenical. The conversation around the relational ontology of the social Trinity can bring people into a dynamic shift in how they think about the nature and purpose of relationship itself. [2] This is further reflective of both the constructivist epistemological framework and the communicative action that undergirds the pedagogical framework of Palmer, Brookfield, Hess, and Kegan.

Heather also noted another possible explanation for this shift toward relationality. She said that much of the need for this shift to relational ontology was not because of the decisional theology that was my framework, but because of the masculinist dominance in Western Christianity, both in the evangelical and ecumenical traditions. Women, she said, are more inherently in tune with relationality, almost to the point of becoming lost in their relational identities over against their individual identity. Ironically, many members of the team felt the opposite impact from the discussion of relational ontology than I did. They indicated an increased awareness of a relationship with God and with their own identity in God. In other words, they moved from feeling enmeshed in society, with a vague sense of God’s agency, to feeling a more keen awareness of God’s relational presence in the world.

Frame Three: An Expanded Definition of Neighbor

The third type of frame is the picture frame that selectively includes and excludes elements of the environment. A shift in this type of frame either moves the frame to a different location on the landscape, expands the size of the frame to include more things, or a combination of both of these movements. The RT experienced a shift in their frame regarding relationships. I have already noted that the nature of the relationship shifted from a vertical-personal relationship to a horizontal-communal relationship.[3] This is, indeed, a shift in the framing of the picture. However, another, and equally important shift became evident in the scope of relationships.

The RT experienced a shift in regard to the relationship with the neighbor that is outside the church. Sharon experienced a deep sense of connection as she shared her story and listened to the stories of thousands of people in the community. Her intentionality in framing her political canvasing in the awareness of the DITB project invited her to see the necessity of listening to the neighbor, no matter who they are, or what their religious/political views may be. John journaled extensively about his increased awareness of God’s presence in every person with whom he had contact. This expanded his frame to be able to see God present in the neighborhood, rather than confined in the church or the body of confessing believers. The s’mores team recognized the need to connect with the neighborhood immediately surrounding the church property in order to fully embrace the purpose of their project. Heather connected deeply with a woman from a radically different Christian tradition and racial background and found her framework expanded.

The discussion of neighbor and who is inside the frame came to an acute focus during the Holy Conversations held at Ascension Lutheran.[4] This congregation deliberated over whether same-sex couples should be married in the church. Essentially the congregation was asking whether God sanctioned these unions and if same-sex couples should be considered a neighbor in the same way as every other member of the congregation. When the decision was made to perform same-sex marriages, the relational frame shifted across the horizon. New people were included in the frame, but some people were either left out or chose to step outside of the frame.

The question that I am left with after the DITB project, regarding the shifting frame of relationships, has to do with who is still left out of the frame. The RT was comprised of white, middle-class, middle-aged Christians. Where are the people of color? Where are the poor, the homeless, the physically and mentally challenged? Where are the Millenials?[5] These people live in the same suburbs in which these congregations dwell. Why are they not as represented in the congregations as they are in the community?

I interjected the issue of race into the online conversation in August, 2014. The topic had not come up naturally within the RT, so I exerted my leadership power and placed the question on the table. It sparked a short flurry of conversation, but then the discussion died down. The data from this project does not address the topics of race and social justice regarding socio-economic disparity, so I cannot address them. They are topics, however, that must be included in the frame and should be another “great thing” around which the suburban congregation gathers.

Finding Two: Reflection

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. The RT echoed this idea in that the second major theme that emerged from the data is the necessity of reflection—the discipline of slowing down, taking time, and thinking critically on the actions previously taken. Several members of the RT explicitly indicated that it was the continual prompting to reflect on our action in the project that made a significant impact on their spiritual formation. All of the RT members implicitly indicated that the reflective process inherent in the project methodology impacted his or her thinking in regard to spiritual formation. The RT engaged in a reflective process in the following ways: (1) instructed pauses for written reflection in personal notebooks during the large group sessions; (2) personal journals throughout the entire project; (3) specific questions during the large group questions; (4) the reflective process inherent in Dwelling in the Word.

Frame One: Reflection in Time

The first frame through which we will evaluate the theme of reflection is that of the motion picture frame. Things change over time, and often the changes go unnoticed unless we stop and reflect on them. One simple change that happened during the time of the research project was the changing of seasons. We began in the bitter cold of February, finished Phase One in the emerging warmth of May, engaged in action projects during the summer and ended them as the leaves changed color and fell from the trees. Finally, we met for the last sessions as the first snow of the season fell.

I think it is significant that we moved through all four seasons of the Upper-Midwest region. The changing of the seasons is a huge factor in the white, middle-class, suburban context. Many people in this context take on radically different attitudes toward work and space based upon the season. The cold winter months are the times when people settle into the pressing rhythm of work, school, and civic involvement. This is especially true for those who have children in school. Their lives are dictated by work, school, and church schedules. Much of their time is spent racing from one activity to the next. The winter is bitter, dark, and cold, and the frenetic pace may help alleviate the darkness. Then, when the summer comes and school is out of session, people switch into a different mode where being outside and away from the rigorous schedules takes precedence over everything. The typical suburban congregation experiences a significant drop in weekly worship attendance during the summer because many people spend the weekends at a cabin or on vacation.

The leader who is not in tune with this seasonal rhythm may become discouraged and find herself fighting against a false idea of apathy in the congregation. The acknowledgment of this rhythm and the desire to enter into missional spaces in the suburban lifestyle was the primary impetus behind the s’mores project. Rob, Kelly, and Stephanie saw this weekend pattern, not as a negative, but as a natural part of the suburban summer rhythm and sought ways to engage the community within that rhythm by allowing people to gather on Sunday Evening in a space that lets them come as they are with no judgment. They reported that this experiment enhanced the sense of communal belonging amongst the congregation. This may serve as a clue to the missional leader to continually listen to the normal rhythms of suburban life and seek to meet people in those spaces, rather than expect suburban people to conform to rhythms that may have been carried over from a rural and/or pre-digital time.

I experienced reflection in time through a very different means. I engaged in a personal action project during the DITB project that may seem insignificant to some, but had deep meaning for me. I have a regular habit of walking at least three times a week along the same path. One leg of my walk takes me along a series of man-made ponds that line the edge of a shopping center. I have been walking along this route for several years and have always noticed that many Canada Geese live in these ponds. When the geese returned in the Spring, during phase one of the project, it struck me how delicately human society and animals live together in the suburban context. I decided to reflect on the geese and began to blog about them on the deepintheburbs.com site under the tag “suburban geese.” I watched the geese pair up and protect their nests. I greeted the first gaggle of goslings as they emerged from the cattails. I watched the goslings grow over the summer and don their sleek coats. Eventually they became indistinguishable from their parents. As the final leaves fell from the trees, I said goodbye to them as they flew away for the winter.

My reflection on the geese did two things for me. First, it marked time in a way that I had not previously done. I felt my own process through the DITB project become enmeshed with the development of these birds. The project matured just as they did. Second, it caused me to reframe my perception of the suburban neighborhood in which I live. No longer was this the asphalt and brick dwelling space owned by humans. I imagined this land long before the European settlers arrived. I imagined the ancestors of these majestic birds flying above the native people as they migrated through the area, living in tune with the land in a way that I could never imagine. My reflection on the geese connected me to time in way that my normal suburban lifestyle seldom affords.

Frame Two: Transcending One’s Own Frames

The second type of frame is that of the building or the operating system. This is the shape of how data is processed and meaning is made. Each member of the RT entered into the DITB project with a unique cognitive framework, or filter, that has been shaped over time. I would argue that the reflective process of the DITB project helped to reshape the cognitive structure of the RT: to give them a “system upgrade” in their theological imagination. To argue this point, I will step up on the balcony[6] and look through the lens of meta-theory to reflect on how the theme of reflection worked in the DITB project.

First, I would argue that the DITB methodology helped the RT reflect upon and become aware of their frames because it was built upon the pedagogical framework of Brookfield, Palmer, and Hess, as well as the cognitive-developmental theory of Kegan. Kegan argues that the typical adult functions in third-order thinking. This is the frame s/he brings to interpret the data of life experience. The key characteristic of the third-order thinking is that the individual is generally blind to the fact that s/he makes meaning through a particular filter. This “filter blindness” creates an immunity to change that can make life difficult in an environment of discontinuous change. “A way of knowing,” Kegan argues, “becomes more complex when it is able to look at what before it could only look through.”[7] Kegan and Lahey suggest that it is possible to help people to become aware of their filters and evolve into fourth and fifth-order consciousness through a series of intentional reflective actions, or praxis. The DITB methodology—PAR, Dwelling in the Word, and action projects—is praxis that helped the RT members to become more aware of their own filters.

Second, I would argue that the DITB methodology helped the RT reflect upon and become aware of their frames because of its connection to and the inherent nature of spirituality/spiritual formation. Schneiders defined spirituality as self-transcendence.[8] I would argue that self-transcendence is congruent with what Kegan calls transcategorical interaction, which is only possible if the self is porous[9] and has the ability to empathize with others, see from another’s perspective (as much as possible), and be open to the unseen, unexplainable, and/or spiritual dimension of the universe. I have noted earlier that Kegan’s argument for transcategorical interaction is also congruent with relational ontology, which is essential to the social Trinity.[10] Therefore, I would argue that PAR methodology—as experienced in the DITB project—is, not only praxis, but is Trinitarian praxis.

Further, I would argue that the DITB methodology helped the RT members become aware of their frames because the data indicate that the Dwelling in the Word exercise helped the RT to engage in reflective action, or Trinitarian praxis. The Dwelling exercise forced the RT to do two forms of reflection that are contrary to the normal suburban lifestyle. First, it invited them to slow down. They were, at first, frustrated with the fact that we dwelt in the same text for three sessions. The modern, suburban mind is used to taking in data in short bursts and then moving on to the next thing. The slow process of dwelling in the same text was foreign to the team. Additionally, the text was read twice during each session. The slowness of the process, according to their reports, opened up pathways of awareness that they had not experienced before. They said that the slowing effects of the exercise allowed them to be more focused on the task of the discussion of the project once we got to that portion of the meeting. Without the discipline of slowing, they said, they may not have been able to get the fullness of the DITB project.

The second thing the Dwelling forced them to do that is contrary to the suburban lifestyle is to listen. The typical white, middle-class, suburbanite is used to being in a place of power and privilege in society. This is true of the RT. Each of them are leaders in their own way, whether it be in work, church, or the fact that they all are parents. People who experience agency in society tend to speak at others and share their own opinion, rather than stop to listen to the other. The Dwelling in the Word exercise invited the RT into the uncomfortable, and unfamiliar space of listening intently to the other. The fact that each person was invited to represent his or her conversation partner’s thoughts and words to the large group compelled the individual to listen in a way that all of them confessed was unnatural for them.

The Trinitarian praxis experienced in the DITB project created spaces in which the RT could reflect. This reflection allowed them to become more aware of the filters (the structural frame or operating system) through which they were previously making sense out of their experiences. The reflective action further allowed them to reframe how they approached the questions that we were asking throughout the project.

Frame Three: Reflecting on the Frame

The third type of frame is the picture frame. The RT indicated that the invitation to reflection was crucial to the expansion of their theological imagination: the frame through which they view God. Reflective action made them aware of their frames and the limited and limiting nature of those frames. I have already mentioned that the RT became more aware of an expanded definition of neighbor. In that section I focused on who is in the frame and who is still left out of the frame of relationships. Here I will focus my attention on the power of reflection to expand one’s frame. Again, Kegan and Lahey argue that it is possible to help people to become aware of their frames, expand them, and, not only take on new perspectives, but actually change the way we make sense out of the world.

I would argue that this is a leadership issue. The role of the teacher/leader is to structure and cultivate holding spaces in which individuals can engage in communicative action—or Trinitarian praxis—through which they will have more opportunity to become aware of the frames, and then learn how to shift and expand them. One of the biggest lessons that the RT said they will take away from the DITB project is the need to engage in this process as a regular part of congregational life. That will not happen automatically. It requires the gentle invitation and modeling of congregational leaders to engage the congregation in the necessary Trinitarian praxis of reflection in order for more people to become aware of their frames in order to shift and expand them.

Finding Three: Awareness of the Holy Spirit

The data indicate that the DITB project, and specifically the Dwelling in the Word exercise, heightened the RT’s awareness of the Holy Spirit as an active agent in the world and broadened their horizon as to where and how the Holy Spirit is present. The RT came into the project with a robust awareness of the Holy Spirit, having all been raised in a Christian context with previous exposure to the Creeds. However, many indicated that the Holy Spirit was a confusing, enigmatic idea that seemed confined to doctrinal statements and abstractions. Now, they reported, as a result of the Dwelling in the Word and the DITB project, they are beginning to sense the presence of the Holy Spirit, not just in the church, but also in their daily experiences in the world.

Frame One: The Spirit and Time

The first type of frame is the motion picture frame in which we can compare snapshots over time. I have already indicated the power of reflecting on the passage of time. However, the RT indicated that the experience of the DITB project heightened their awareness that the Holy Spirit is active in the world. This awareness often happens in retrospect. When one’s frame has been altered to be open to the relationality of God in the world, then suddenly the sense-making of reflecting on past events becomes attuned to the activity of God the Spirit as an agent in the process.

This became evident in a few narrative threads that wove their way through the DITB project. One example is Kelly’s testimony of her awareness of God’s presence through the difficult journey of the Holy Conversations at Ascension Lutheran. She journaled extensively as she carried the burden of leadership through these turbulent waters. She confessed that, prior to this project, the Spirit was a nebulous concept. Through Dwelling in the Word exercises and the Trinitarian praxis of this experience she reported a heightened sense of the Spirit’s presence in ordinary things; like the passing by of an eagle, a sense of peace in a particular moment, the spoken word of a friend. She felt the Spirit’s guidance through the decision-making process, where, previously, she would have explained it away as intuition.

Another example of making sense of the Spirit’s agency over time comes through my own narrative and how it interwove with the DITB project. This is true in two ways. First, I have already indicated the power of the narrative as I told my story, both on the website and during session Four, as a means to communicate the social Trinity.[11] The second way my narrative connects has to do with a comment that Sharon made during session One. She introduced herself to the group and indicated that she had been involved in a prayer group at Ascension Lutheran that was praying for God to bring a leader to the church that would help the congregation discern how to move into the future. She was praying at the same time that I felt God call me to leave my home in Las Vegas and move to the Mid-West to pursue a PhD. That journey ultimately led to my joining the staff at Ascension Lutheran, entering the PhD program at Luther Seminary, and transferring my ordination into the ELCA. As we looked back on these snapshots over time, it became apparent that the Spirit of God was active in each of these moments to bring these narratives together.

A third example of an increased awareness of the Spirit’s agency over time is the experience of the DITB project itself. At each moment that the RT stopped to reflect, to look back at where we had come, to bring those experiences into conversation with our theological conversations, it became more apparent to the team that God’s Spirit was at work in and through this process. The Spirit’s work was not only in the reflective action of the team’s interaction, but, more so, through the way the action projects brought the team into the neighborhoods to experience God in the people and experiences in everyday spaces.

Frame Two: The Structure of the Spirit

The second frame is the internal structure of a building or the operating system of a computer. The RT’s increased awareness of the Spirit’s agency is, I would argue, a result of the shifting cognitive structure of the Trinitarian imagination. The increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity, made possible through the multiple pedagogical modalities, created cognitive space for the RT to become aware of God’s agency in the world in ways that, perhaps were less likely prior to this project.

I will reemphasize, at this point, that all the team members indicated a strong belief in the Trinity and the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the project. It is not that their belief in the Holy Spirit increased or changed as a result of the project. Rather, I would argue, the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity gave the RT new cognitive frames and new language to both be aware of the Spirit’s agency and articulate the Spirit’s agency when it was noticed.

John journaled extensively about his increased awareness of the Holy Spirit present in all people, both inside and outside the church. He had been raised in a Lutheran tradition that taught that the Holy Spirit was confined to the church, through word and sacrament. He now claims that humanity is part of the Trinity in that the Spirit is the animating force that unites us with all things. Mary also felt a heightened sense of God’s presence. She had been raised Roman Catholic and associated the presence of the Holy Spirit with the lit candle in the church sanctuary. Now, she reports that she senses the presence of the Spirit in each of us and it is the gathering of people in the sanctuary that is the presence of the Holy Spirit.

One of the most dramatic examples of a cognitive shift, in my opinion, is evidenced in Phil’s story. He is a retired Lutheran pastor who enjoys the original language of scripture, theological study, and teaching. He expressed a strongly dualistic understanding of the Trinity in our first session. He wondered how the Trinity, “which is up here” he said, holding his hand above his head, “connects to spiritual formation, which is down here,” holding his hand below his waist. I interpreted this to demonstrate the dualistic gap between the Immanent Trinity and our lived experience that I articulated in the animated videos and that his theological imagination was framed in this perspective. He was publicly resistant to my early presentations about the social Trinity. He was not mean-spirited and was a welcomed interlocutor. However, he was verbally resistant in the large group sessions and often engaged with my blog posts through the public comments.

I encouraged Phil to continue our personal dialogue via the blog comments and emails. My own research regarding the social Trinity continued during the course of the project. I had originally framed the question using the label “social Trinity” but quickly expanded that language to include the term relational Trinity as well.[12] However, I discovered a new set of metaphors borrowed from Quantum Physics that provide a model for the Trinity that speak of God as The Entangled Trinity.[13] Simmons specifically speaks of “Entangled Panentheistic Trinitarianism.”[14] As I blogged about the authors who proposed the entangled Trinity, Phil latched onto that language.[15] Given his particular bent toward science and mathematics, this model connected for him in a way that the previous language did not. He did not fully embrace any of the models that I had proposed, but the introduction of the third model, or language set, expanded his structural framework to a point that he became excited about the implications for a new imagination of the Trinity and its implications for the local church. He became a prolific author and inundated my email inbox with revision after revision of a plan to structure an entire adult educational curriculum around the Trinity.

Phil’s new language opened new frames of imagination for him to articulate the agency of the Holy Spirit in the world. Again, it is not that he suddenly believed that the Spirit was active where he did not before. He clearly believed in the Spirit’s agency as he reflected on his previous ministry experience in the early phases of the project. However, the conversation regarding new models afforded him new cognitive space and freedom. I believe that this type of expansion and reframing may not have happened had we not had the holding space in which communicative action could take place.

I will press the metaphor and suggest that every member of the RT experienced having at least one “wall of their house” torn down and a new room added to their frame, and one “upgrade to their operating system” installed as a result of the DITB project. It will be interesting to observe how these new cognitive spaces will allow each team member to make sense out of their stories as they move forward from here and are aware of the Spirit’s agency.

Frame Three: Expanding the Horizon of the Spirit

The final type of frame is the picture frame that encompasses one part of the environment and leaves the rest out. The data indicate that the RT entered the DITB project with fairly typical frames around the nature and movement of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was either “up there” with the other members of the Trinity, or, at best “in here” within the believer, enhancing the personal relationship with God. The Trinitarian praxis of the DITB project, I would argue, transformed the RT’s frame from a standard portrait configuration of a vertical nature to a full 360 theatre-in-the-round where the Holy Spirit is active on every side and in unexpected ways.

Reframing the Frames

I must pause to acknowledge an important aspect of the previous discussion. It, in itself, was a framework in which I appropriated the data from the DITB project and reflected upon it theologically. The simple fact that I chose to pass the three findings through the lens of these three frames impacted the way in which I thought about the findings. The simple, yet profoundly complex and perplexing, point that I make is this: It is impossible to communicate without frames. The missional leader must always keep this in mind. Our job is not to convince people of particular doctrines, but to cultivate holding spaces in which individuals can come together to engage in communicative action—what I would argue, through my frame, is Trinitarian praxis—to experience a mutual reframing that will bring about a preferred future for the community. This is a leadership issue and leads me to my next and final reflection.

Footnotes

[1] See my discussion of Palmer and Hess in chapter two.

[2] Coakley notes this distinction by naming Ernst Troelsch’s three types of Christian congregation: church, sect, and mystic. The church is the ecumenical type that is focused on institutional structures that hold society together. The sect is the type that is focused on doctrinal distinctives, the purification of society, and eschatology. Coakley argues that the mystic type might provide a third way that is suggestive of the Holy Spirit’s movement in and between these two types. See Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘on the Trinity’ (2013).

[3] See chapter five.

[4] See an explanation of the Holy Conversations under Phase 1.3 in chapter five.

[5] I wrote a large section regarding the aging suburbs and the age gap within congregations in an early draft of this paper. I removed it from the final draft because it no longer fit with the flow of the argument. However, I believe it is a vital issue for the missional congregation in the suburbs, so I have preserved it as Appendix E.

[6] Heifetz suggests that a leader needs to step onto the balcony to get a larger perspective of the organizational “dance floor.” I, as the leader of the RT, need to take this perspective to make sense out of the project from my own perspective. See Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

[7] Kegan and Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, 51.

[8] See chapter two.

[9] Here I am borrowing language from Charles Taylor. See chapter 1n84.

[10] See my argument for this in chapter three.

[11] See chapter five under the heading Phase 1.2.

[12] See my commentary in chapter three.

[13] See Polkinghorne, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology.

[14] Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology.

[15] I mention the entangled Trinity model, not to offer a new argument for my thesis regarding the Trinity, but to illustrate the communicative nature of shifting our structural frames that happened in my dialogue with Phil.

Why Did Jesus have to Come?

This sketch depicts how it was necessary for the Word to become a man in order to connect to our lived experience and category of man. Otherwise, God would be perpetually invisible and unknowable to our conscious minds.
This sketch depicts how it was necessary for the Word to become a man in order to connect to our lived experience and category of man. Otherwise, God would be perpetually invisible and unknowable to our conscious minds.

I became distracted this morning while reading Augustine’s De Trinitate. He was discussing the idea that we can’t love something until we know it ((Book X, p. 288)). When we encounter a new thing—his example was a word that we had never heard—it must, somehow, be connected to a category in our mind that we already know, and love, in order for it to become interesting or attractive to us. Our love for the already-known category of things will propel us to investigate the not-yet-known thing. If, on the other hand, the new thing does not connect to an already-known thing, then the new thing will either (a) not draw us in to investigate it, or (b) not register at all on our consciousness, being rendered virtually invisible—undifferentiated—to us, because it does not connect to anything we already know.

Here’s where my distraction happened. The question popped in my head: Is this why Jesus had to come in the flesh?

Allow me to muse. God is, by definition, that which is completely other than us. God is infinite, we are finite; God is creator, we are created, etc. Many theologies take an apophatic approach to God and state that it is impossible to say what God is, because there is nothing in creation to which God can be compared. If that is true—which I am inclined to agree—then, according to my statement in the previous paragraph, God could never be knowable to us, let alone interesting enough to us to draw us into an investigation of God. God, in God’s fullness, is the giver and sustainer of life, in which we live and move and have our being, but can always only be present in our undifferentiated consciousness. In other words, we could never know God because there is nothing in our already-knowing to which God can be connected that will draw us in.

When the second person of the Trinity became flesh, that all changed. We know what a man is. We have the category “man” in our mind through our lived experience of men. Granted, many people do not have a positive experience of “man” and, thus, may not be attracted to investigate a male from first century Palestine. However, there is, at the very least, an already-known category to which the otherness of God can now be attached.

This produces two things. First, it differentiates the God-consciousness in our thinking by connecting it to an already-known category: male. ((I need to emphasize that it is not that God is male, but that, in order for God to become human, God had to become either male or female. This is the nature of particularity. God could have just as easily come as female, or hermaphrodite, or bunny. However, given the culture into which God incarnated, male was a logical choice. see Newbigin’s Quote regarding particularity and election. Also, see Kelsey in To Understand God Truly and Farley in Practicing the Gospel.)) Second, by connecting to the already-known, the potential for interest in God is created and the further investigation, beginning with the known category of the human being, can begin toward the unknown, and ultimately unknowable, category of God.

God’s practice of incarnation is not a new thing. It happened throughout the Hebrew stories, ((here I am referring to burning bushes, talking donkeys, smoke and fire, cherubim over the ark of the Covenant, showbread, etc.)) so Jesus was not the first time that God was knowable in this way. However, by incarnating (and not merely manifesting, but truly becoming) as a human being—that which is closest to our lived experience, and most loved by us—the potential for attraction to the God-discovery-process becomes its highest manifestation. In other words, by becoming just like us, God got our attention enough that we could start to actually formulate ideas about the nature of God that would draw us into a positive God-orientation that did not denigrate too quickly into idolatry. Is this, perhaps, what is meant in Colossians when Jesus is called the image of the invisible God? (Colossians 1:15)

Now let me connect this to the Trinity. Not only is it the category of “man” that connects us to God, it is also the category of “relationship” that connects us to God. The relationships between the divine persons is beyond the scope of our ability to comprehend. Three-in-one is not something that exists in our experience, therefore, there is nothing to which it can be compared. It is rendered undifferentiated and unknowable. It is a mystery. However, without the incarnation, it would not be rendered knowable enough to even label it as a “mystery.” It would simply be invisible. When Jesus spoke of the Father and of “doing the Father’s will” (cg. John 14:8-14) he connected to a relationship that we know through our lived experience. Again, all of us have the category “Father/Child relationship” in our consciousness. It may not be a positive experience, and the Father/Child relationship differs from culture to culture, yet the category exists, nonetheless. Therefore, when Jesus speaks of God as Father, the idea of God having inter-divine relationships can connect to a human category that, again, (1) differentiates it in our consciousness, and (2) connects it to a category that has a high potential to be a positive one that draws us in.

Discussing the relationality of God will never explain God. ((Here, again, is the apophatic nature of theology. We must resist the temptation to declare that any model we build to discuss God is the definition of God. It cannot be that. Every model is simply a human construct that perpetuates the conversation, by which we engage in the relationships of interdependence.)) We need to give up that enterprise. However, discussing the relationality of God and relational ontology heightens our awareness that we are interdependent creatures. We are not autonomous selves, breathing our own celestial air. ((This comment “celestial air” is an idea I imagine when I think about the myth of the autonomous self. To think that we can be completely detached observers of the object is to believe that we somehow breathe different air than that which we observe. It is a dualism similar to that which separates God completely from created matter. God “breathes celestial air” as it were, thus denoting God’s distinction. We, too, then, must breathe our own celestial air if we are completely autonomous selves.)) We must realize that we exist because of the relationships we have with all things: God, the physical world of air, water, plants, animals, etc., and each other. We must think first of the other’s best interest if we are to ultimately survive.

This interdependence is true at every level of human existence. It is true within the single human body as all diverse parts must work together for the good of the entire body. It is true of the marriage relationship as each partner must submit to one another for the good of the marriage. ((It is not my intention to subtly promote the traditional nuclear family as the model of the universe. It is my lived reality, but I realize that this is culturally contextual. That said, all cultures have core relational structures as the basis of their society that correlate to the relationality of God)) It is true of the family, the local community, the nation, the world of nations, and the entire universe. It is all connected and must work for the good of the whole, setting aside personal power and gain. This, I believe, is one of the main things that Jesus taught us and demonstrated for us, and it is the mission of the church to be an example of this—to be a prophetic public companion. ((Simpson. Critical Social Theory.))

Here is the sketch played out in sequence of thought:

The Trinity and the Day of Pentecost

When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. I’ve heard that expression used to describe how teachers can manipulate any text to fit their own theological agenda. I have to admit that the relationality of the Trinity is at the forefront of my mind in all things these days, and tends to be the hammer that makes everything look like a nail. However, I don’t think it was much of a stretch when I crafted this sermon for Pentecost this past weekend. Acts 2:1-21 speaks of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the name of the LORD, which I interpret as the Creator/First person.

This sermon is part of my ongoing process of connecting the social Trinity to spiritual formation in the suburban congregation.

Sermon: What Language Does God Speak?
Text: Acts 2:1-21

LIsten to the Audio

I want to begin today by asking a question. What language does God speak?

Think about that for a second. The Bible records many stories where people heard God speak. What language did he speak?

If you were to ask this question to the churches that I grew up in, many people might have said, “Well, that’s easy. God spoke King James English. Everybody knows that.” Thou which art and whithersoever thou goest.

That’s the language of the Bible, right?

Here’s an interesting thing about Christianity. It is the only major world religion that doesn’t make people learn the language of its founder. Did you know that?

Do you know what language Jesus spoke? Well, the New Testament was written in Greek, so he must have spoken Greek. Nope. OK, he was a Jewish man, so he must have spoken Hebrew. Nope.

Jesus spoke Aramaic.

The interesting thing is that none of the original scripture is written in Aramaic. In other words, every word that we have ever read about Jesus is a translation of the original message.

Language is an interesting thing. Language isn’t just about words. It is as much about culture and non-verbal cues and situational context as it is about letters on a page.

Take this for example. If I was talking to a woman who I sincerely admired and she was wearing a dress that I honestly thought looked good on her. If I said, “Nice!”

Now imagine the same dress on a big, hairy biker dude who lost a bet. If I said, “Nice!” How would you interpret my words?

Those are the same exact words, but the context completely changes the meaning.

Language is an interesting thing.

Why am I talking about this? Today is Pentecost. Today we see an amazing miracle of language. The Holy Spirit shows up in a powerful way. The disciples stand up in front of a crowd and talk about Jesus.

Now, this crowd was an interesting group of people. They were Jewish people, so they had that in common, but they were from every region of the Roman Empire. They were from “the ends of the Earth.” What does that mean? They all spoke different languages.

So, the disciples are standing up there, and then the miracle happens. Everyone in the crowd heard their words in their own language.

So, I ask the question again. What language does God speak? Each person heard the message in their own language.

People have been trying to explain this amazing event at Pentecost since the day it happened two thousand years ago.
One common interpretation is to think that Pentecost is the reversal of what happened way back in Genesis at the Tower of Babel, where God divided the people up into different languages.

I thought it would be interesting to go back to that story in Genesis look at that again.
One reason I thought that would be interesting is because this sermon is the end of the series that we started way back in September, in Genesis.
All year we have been looking at the theme “God with Us: Are we in step with God?”
By going back to this story, and seeing how it relates to Pentecost, it will give us a chance to review the whole story and bring some closure to our year.

I want to look at story two ways. There are two versions of how to interpret the story and tie it all together.

The first version goes like this.

In the beginning God was perfect. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit formed a perfect community. One day they decided to create the universe and humanity. They created them male and female and it was a perfect situation, and everyone was happy.

Then one day the man and woman disobeyed God. Sin entered into the picture and messed everything up. Humanity fell out of the perfect community of God and plunged into darkness, completely lost and separated from God.

The rest of history has been the attempt to bridge the gap between God and man.

In Genesis 11:4 we see the story of Babel. The humans multiplied and decided to build a city and a big tower that reached to Heaven. They said,

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

God looked down at this construction project and said, in verses 6-8,
“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”

In other words, God thought, “Oh no, if we don’t stop this, the humans will be like us, and then what will we do? We must zap them. We must curse them with multiple languages so they won’t be able to build a tower tall enough to reach us.”

Time went on and eventually God sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay the penalty for sin and bridge the gap of sin so that people could come back up to God the right way.

Then, at the day of Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit down to draw people from all corners of the earth, to reverse the scattering of Babel, to unite them into one group, and show them the ladder of Jesus that they could climb to escape the dark world and be united with God again.

The Holy Spirit showed us how, through Jesus, we could be with God.

That is pretty much how I always understood the story growing up.

Now, here is a different way of telling the story.

In the beginning God, the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of life, three diverse persons living in dynamic relationship, created a diverse, vibrant universe, full of many wonderful creatures and complex ecosystems.

God created humanity in the midst of this complex diversity. It says, in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”

Humans were to go out and fill the earth. They were to scatter and be part of this complex and diverse earth. That’s why they were created.

Then we see the story of Babel. The people said let us build a city and a tower.
Think about this. Why do people build cities and towers? They build them to close themselves off and protect themselves from the scary things that are “out there.”

Then they said, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” They wanted to be the most important thing on the earth, and forgot about God, the giver and sustainer of life.

You see, the sin of Babel was twofold. (1) they did not fill the earth like God told them to, and (2) they were seeking their own name, and not the name of God.

Perhaps it was not that God was afraid of the humans building a tower that would rival God, but God was disappointed that the people were not fulfilling their purpose of creation. They weren’t scattering and they weren’t staying connected to God’s name. They had forgotten that God is the source of life. They were living a life of fear, isolation, and self-sufficiency.

So, when God scattered them and gave them multiple languages, God wasn’t punishing them. God was helping them to fulfill their original blessing.

You see, the diversity of language and culture in humanity is not a curse, it is a reflection of the beauty and complexity of who God is.

Jesus came to show us how to live a life that reaches out to all people in love, and does everything to bring glory to the Father, the giver of life.

When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost I want you to notice two things:

One, what language did the Spirit speak? Acts 2:8 says that each person heard the message in their own tongue. That is not a reversal of what God did at Babel. That is God reaching out to each person within that person’s native culture and language and meeting that person there.

Second, where did God bring the people? Did God bring the people all together to be reunited in one language and one culture, like they were before the Tower of Babel?

No. The people heard the message and took it back to their own countries, in their own language.

You see, God’s mission is not to form a single culture, but the mission is found in verse 21. “Everyone who calls on the name of The Lord will be saved.”

As human beings our natural tendency is to live life in fear.
We tend to build walls around ourselves. We like to gather with people who speak our own language and are safe, and we want to keep everyone else out. And, we tend to be self-serving and forget that God is the giver of life and it is God’s name that is to be praised, not ours.

The Jews were doing that in Jesus’ day. They had walled themselves off from the Gentiles and thought that the mission of God was to get people to come inside the walls of Israel in order to be saved.

Pentecost reminds us that God’s mission moves in the opposite direction. God is the giver of life and has created all things, and continues to create and sustain all things. The mission of God is not to get everyone to look and act exactly the same, but is to remember that it is God’s name that is to get the glory, not our own.

God calls us out of our self-serving and fearful ways into a life of generosity and trust in God, through Jesus, and in the Power of the Holy Spirit.

What language does God speak?
God speaks every language. God is with us, in every culture, and the mission is to bring every culture to call on God’s name, in their own language, so that God can get the glory in the entire earth, and be united in our dependency on God.

God is with us. God gathers us in this place around the body and blood of the crucified and risen Jesus, so that we can be scattered into the world to bring glory to God’s name with all people.

That is the Spirit of Pentecost.