[Author’s note: This post is a bit more “stream of consciousness.” I wrote it reflecting on Walter Brueggemann’s book, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, which I’m reading for a class as part of my Doctor of Ministry studies at McCormick Theological Seminary. So, as you read, be kind in your thoughts. This is a vulnerable piece for me, but I wanted to offer it as is.]
For I heard a cry
as of a woman in labor,
angishing as of one
bringing forth her child,
the cry of daughter Zion
gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting
Jeremiah 4.31 (NRSV)
Walter Brueggemann describes this passage from the prophet Jeremiah as “a desperate mother dying in labor.” Where Jeremiah depicts Jerusalem as a pregnant woman in labor, gasping for breath, the woman is dying at the hands of mythical foes, how easy it would be to place the modern Church in the U.S. as the fateful daughter of Zion—gasping for breath, dying at the hands of outside forces pressing upon her, while also giving birth to a new Church. Except, in Jeremiah, God is the one organizing the impending foe.
I have heard a lot of “God is doing a new thing” language over the past few decades. Some have sought to clumsily embrace this “yet unborn” new thing. Others have rejected it outright. But the news remains the same: the Christian Church in the U.S. and throughout the global “west” is diminishing and a new spirit seems to be taking form in the lives of many. The “rise of the Nones,” it’s being called—the ones who, in response to surveys asking for their religious affiliation mark “None of the above.” The late prophet Phyllis Tickle, who wrote honestly about this phenomenon, has said the Church of the last five centuries is dying, but at the same time is giving birth to something new and as yet still undefinable. The human temptation to compartmentalize has put up a sign, hastily handwritten in Sharpie on a piece of paper held up only by pushpins, that reads: “Post-modernism.” Like on a dry-erase board, many have attempted to describe this new thing, adding to and erasing some of what others have written, but little has stuck.
With this new spirit has come different understandings of the dangerous and threatening movements of what in modernist times we would have called “God’s Holy Spirit”—of course, when has God’s Holy Spirit ever not been dangerous or threatening to the established institutions of power and control? Every institution begins as a movement to subvert institutions of power that also began as movements around which rules began to concretize, slowing down the movement to the point it could no longer move forward. The movement, once established in power, seeks to contain itself and the power it has fought hard for. Soon, it becomes the institution it once fought against, until another movement seeks to break the concrete shackles that stopped its momentum and from realizing its original vision. At some point the institutionalized movement no longer serves its original purposes and stated values. It then turns only to serve itself.
We have seen this play out over and over throughout history: the Abrahamic covenant started in freedom and hope, only to become bogged down in rules and limits; the “New World” to which Puritans and other religious zealots fled turned into the behemoth we call the United States, which seem to be not so united these days; labor unions that sought to protect workers eventually sought to protect the unions themselves; fraternal organizations that sought to change society eventually are simply trying to survive; even political parties that sought to challenge the establishment eventually became the establishment.
I am terrified and excited at the same time about what may be becoming for the Church in the west. I am nervous and intrigued (like being scared of heights and loving rollercoasters—a lived paradox for me). I am challenged to let go and at the same time stretch out to grab on to, gasping for air and breathing the new air deeply. I find myself increasingly certain of my uncertainty about what can and may be. In my fear and my excitement, I cannot help but look around, looking for neighbors to love who might help me see the God who loves.
Soon, I hope, I will finally realize what Brueggemann describes:
The God who moves amid poetic utterances will not be settled or domesticated or managed. Thus reality is always at risk.”
Any claim of exceptionalism falls quickly flat on its face in the presence of an ever-moving, unclaimable, immeasurable God of justice and grace. Loving God and loving neighbor requires us to let go and reach out far and wide, listening carefully, discerning deeply, and allowing ourselves to be reborn again and again and again.
For those of us who seek to walk in the Way of Jesus, we practice this reaching up and out every time we come to the Table of Christ, noticing both who gathers with us, those who do not, and pay special attention to those we have not invited (is even this still too empirical?). It is not our table. It’s Christ’s table. It’s God’s table. It is in gathering around one another’s tables, sharing as both guests and hosts, that gives witness to the reality of the Kingdom of God among us and in us.
1. Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 22.
2. Ibid., 22-23.