Awakening our spiritual imaginations...

NOTE:  Two additional thoughts popped-up after an hour of cutting the grass that warrant consider.  They are offered at the end of the original post.
Last week I had to cancel our conversation on the film, "Jesus of Montreal," because during the set-up the LED projector bulb exploded. Being a small church on a budget meant that there was no spare bulb waiting to be used - of course. So, I pulled the plug on everything that evening and we will regroup in 2 weeks. Still I haven't been able to stop thinking about how prophetic this movie was in its day (1989) and continues to be in 2014. 

And this is especially true as I start to read Jaco Haman's reflection, When Steeples Weep, and the new Yale Divinity School's journal, Reflections, which explores "seeking the light of Christ for a new generation." Truth be told, I am in the twilight years of my ministry. I will be active for the foreseeable future and look forward to the journey. But at 62 (in July) with over 35 years on the ground, I am not really a part of what the next generation will embrace in its quest for light. Yes, I can be supportive. Of course I can get out of the way when necessary, too. And I can also listen carefully and offer my perspective when asked (see yesterday's post re: avoiding windbag status with my colleagues.) But I know that I am not - and will not be - on the cutting edge of new transformational communities of faith. That is as it should be, yes?


And this is where "Jesus of Montreal" offers us all a lens through which to consider our current context: the movie was created as a critique of Quebec's rapid descent into consumerism after the disestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church. In an email to my film class, I wrote:

In the 1970s the traditional foundation of Quebec was altered forever by the “disestablishment” of the French Roman Catholic Church by Rene Levesque and the “Quiet Revolution.” In rapid fashion, church and state were separated – within one generation Quebec was a truly secular society – with all the blessings and curses therein.  Theologian Douglas John Hall (who taught at McGill University in Montreal) has written extensively about this rapid social and cultural change and has concluded that without a viable alternative to Christianity, Quebec and much of Canada has embraced and/or descended into naked consumerism. Cultural critic, Thom Stark, has noted that this reality was the inspiration for the film. Jesus of Montreal was produced in Montreal, Quebec in 1989, written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand, as a follow-up to his widely-acclaimed film, The Decline of the American Empire (1986). 
Both films explored themes relating to the demise of traditional and spiritual culture in Quebec, and the rise of a consumer culture in which relationships serve only the end of instant self-gratification and in which human beings, especially artists, are commodities to be exploited and consumed as they are turned into apostles of the gospel of consumption. Arcand had the idea for Jesus of Montreal as he was in production on Decline of the American Empire. An actor of his was playing Jesus in the passion play at night, while auditioning for commercials in the day. This struck Arcand as profoundly ironic, and led to the development of Jesus of Montreal. 

Curiously, Arcand's critique of American consumerist culture in Canada is even more relevant today to the 21st century church in the United States than it was in 1989. In the YDS journal, Reflections, Javier Viera noted that "without exception... (the 20-30 year olds in his congregation) agreed that their work is what gave them identity above all else. Their church attendance, their Christian identity, was a "secret" they guarded closely and shared only on a need-to-know basis...(fundamentally) because work was where they spent the vast majority of their time... Since childhood, most reported, they had been encouraged to aspire to the best job possible. Their work was their raison d'etre, the value that mattered most to parents and family...(And) their spiritual interests would absolutely take a back seat to professional endeavors if necessary. They didn't imply they would compromise themselves ethically. Rather, work matters above all else." P. 18 in YDS Reflections, Spring 2014, p. 18)

Viera then goes on to conclude: "We have not yet made a compelling case for an alternative way of being in the world, a way in which Christian identity and vocation are paramount. For these younger adults, joining the world of the prevailing economic order, its rhythms and aspirations, seemed like the only real and rational way of living. Yes, there was much to question and change in this world, but they felt powerless to do something about it. This sense of resignation was breathtaking."

In Jesus of Montreal it was the spiritual imagination of the young actors called together to recreate a contemporary Passion Play that was awakened. When they were able to explore - and then embody - an alternative to the degrading rhythm of naked capitalism, they discovered the beauty of the unforced rhythms of grace. And that, perhaps, is what the charism of the contemporary Church is at this moment in time. I see it manifest in the adoration of Pope Francis I. Every where he goes, there is a tidal wave of compassion just behind the social resignation of this era. And he encourages people to express what is most tender in their hearts in small but real ways.

That resonates with what I have experienced over the years: whenever we in the local church can offer people ways of making a difference that are immediate, sensual and relevant - acts of compassion that clearly have a bottom line and make sense in this consumerist culture - people participate. The same is true for worship that is embodied, simple and honest: people respond in profound ways. Unlocking and awkening our spiritual imaginations is likely to be a part of the third reformation in Christianity.

Please know that I have NO idea what the transformational congregations of the next generation will look like. But I have experienced buy-in when people's spiritual imaginations are awakened. I have seen resignation become participation when the action really matters. And I have heard young parents say they want to offer their families new ways of nourishing their Christian identity. 

My hunch is that for whatever years remain in my ministry, everything will be up for grabs: when and how we do worship, the ways we financially support the ministries and even where we create space to honor and celebrate the holy within our ordinary lives. Some will have to grieve this - and others will have to be willing to let their imaginations run wild - but it is all to the glory of God for this moment of time.

(Additional thoughts after cutting the grass...)

When my children were small - when I was in seminary and in my first church - Reaganomics was becoming the lens through which all of life was viewed. With the fall of Russian and Eastern European Communism, some economists spoke of the 80s as the "end of history." With the triumph of aggressive capitalism and the end of competing ideologies, they believed the world as we knew it had come to a close.  And while international competition didn't end, they were right: without a compelling social critique of naked greed, the market place became the only metaphor for a meaningful life. 


To be sure, there were alternative visions at play in this time - I think of Scorsese's "Wall Street," Springsteen's "Born in the USA" or U2's Zooropa/ Pop tours that lampooned and lamented our loss of caring for the common good - but they were the exception to the rule. Dominant culture was celebrated by Madonna's "Material Girl" and President Reagan became an icon for freedom and market values throughout the world. I will never forget speaking with a Polish dissident in the late 80s when his country was under the boot heel of Marshall Law after the rise of Solidarity.  He said, "We really wish that our hero Ronald Reagan WOULD drop the bomb on the Communists. Then things would truly get better!" (No shit...)


As the Hebrew prophets used to say, without a vision the people perish. They also taught us "not to fret... wait upon the Lord." Forty years later most of the excess of consumerism has played itself out. More and more people have grown weary of the emptiness of living only for the bottom line. And we have the lived experience of what it means to re-enter a contemporary gilded age. I am not surprised that Pope Francis is so popular: he offers us a real and attractive alternative. 


The other thought that comes to me is that there is a role for elders in solidarity with the transformational and emerging church - and that is mostly to the members of our existing congregations. We need to help them grieve so that God's new order can come to pass. That's where When Steeples Weep is so helpful. Haman reminds us that when the prophet Isaiah tells the post-exilic community in Israel that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the wounded..." our word "preach" is too limited. It sounds like words only, when in reality the word in Hebrew means "to embody." Important distinction, yes? Before new life can come to many of our existing churches, they must live through and embody the deep grief of disestablishment. This must be done intentionally and incarnationally. For then, and most likely only then, will we be ready to embody the good news of healing and hope. 


In this regard I think of folk like Eugene Peterson and Richard Rohr and to a different degree Dorothy C. Bass or Phyllis Tickle:  they've been there and done that - they have gotten out of the way for younger leaders to emerge, too - so they stand read to offer their experience when it is requested. And they have some real experience to share. Too often we old folk still want to call the shots. We love to gather and tell war stories that are mostly self-aggrandizing acts of sentimentality. That's not what is needed now; we need to hold young leaders up in prayer, encourage them to step out boldly by faith and give them all the support we can must trusting that God will do the rest. We also need to help our aging and wounded congregatins grieve and come to grips with the new world. Some will die but some will be reborn. And we are called to do this now. Abraham Joshua Heschel used to remind us that Rabbi Hillel used to ask:  If not now, tell me when. The young civil rights activist, John Lewis (himself now and elder), amplified this saying:  If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"

At the close of a recent graduation address, artist and theologian Mako Fujimura told the students that today they stand by the banks of a river named "utilitarian pragmatism."  Utilitarian pragmatism is the type of thinking that constructs the point of education only to be to train us to survive in a materialist universe, as if the future is predetermined by our limited resources.  In other words, you are only valuable as your usefulness to society. When we think like that we can only see grey skies of fear all about us, and it does not reflect the Biblical path of valuing all people as made in the Image of God.  Utilitarian pragmatism can speak even in a graduation day; "well, your dreams, and your art, what you call the beautiful may be nice to think about, but now you are going to face a 'real world.' You are going to have to buckle up and be an adult about it all."

We are at a turning point and the energy is all about creativity and compassion.  If not now, tell me when indeed!


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