The New Authority: Trust

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Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence, outlines our past, describes our present, and previews our immediate, swirling future into what she calls the Great Emergence.  The book is now over three years old, but as astute as ever.  In it, she tackles the question of authority as I raised in a previous post about the Anglican Communion.  I wrote that the source of our biggest conflicts are around the nature of authority and that, as Tickle suggests, we battle every 500 years or so over the who/where/what/why/how of authority.  Specifically, how do we resolve issues in which  there is no discernible structure or force that has jurisdictional punishment over bad actors?  Or, how do we deal with conflict without either a person or a system that has authority to punish?  My response is simple: our punishment simply matches our source of authority.  We just have trouble seeing it yet.

The specifics of conflict are actually pretty common: the kid that gets away with bullying because he does it online or because she isn’t physically seen by a teacher; the youth that gets away with stealing from his neighbors because his Dad is a police officer; all the way up to the president who simply ignores the law on torture or war powers.  Each is a case of someone who gets away with a crime because there is seemingly no mechanism for curtailing the behavior.

Well, Tickle outlines the last two battles each yielding a new sense of authority that made sense for the age.  With the Great Schism in the 11th Century, the answer of who has authority was to put it in the hands (or the seat) of a single person: the pope.  Therefore one person can be the final judge on all things Christian.  Which was great, until there were more than one person claiming to be the pope.  And the pope didn’t seem to have all of the answers.  Or he had the answers, they were just inconsistent.  So in the 16th Century, through the Great Reformation, authority shifted from a human to a book.  Sola Scriptura! they shouted!  And suddenly all authority rested in an inanimate object.  All of the answers could be found there…until they couldn’t.  Until there were too many ways of reading a “plain reading” of the text.  The great revolution that put the Bible in the hands of individuals, led to the downfall of Scriptural authority, because individuals came to different conclusions without the structure of the church.  The Great Reformation worked almost too well!

How Tickle describes the current age, the beginning of the Great Emergence, is to argue that authority will be found not in a person or in a book, but in the network.  That the collection of people, not as a structure, but as a loosely affiliated network, would come to agreement more organically.  I loved the idea when I read it three years ago, but I haven’t been able to quite see it until now.

The problem is that we are dependent on those other means of authority, institutional structures, individual decision-makers, irrefutable texts, and we lazily understand our own part as imbibing what the smart people say and following along.  But the new sense of authority rests in how we come together and upon that which we can agree.  This is to say, not in ignorant cultural beliefs necessarily, but in active attempts to wrestle with questions and problems.

What this means for my specific question is that these individuals get away with criminal behavior because we collectively allow them to.  We don’t stand up to it, either as individuals or as a group.  We allow others to deal with it (or not).  This isn’t a call for vigilantism, far from it, but collective action. It is us who ignore the bully, relying on teachers and principals to act, rather than step in as a class.  It is us who allow a youth to be protected by his place in society.  It is us who allow a president to carry out heinous acts in our name or perhaps more disgustingly, in the name of freedom.  Our action opportunities are plentiful.


Image by hybrid756 via Flickr

It comes down to trust.  Our current behavior demonstrates that we don’t trust the system, we simply rely on it and expect it to function.  Then when it doesn’t, we condemn it.  Sometimes we even argue that the system can’t do it.  And even then we still don’t hold the community responsible for cleaning up the mess.

Perhaps this is why there is so much confusion about the Occupy movement, as it is not about political expediency but method and consensus-building.  The way it functions isn’t just a political tactic, but a vision of new community.  Community without a singular figure-head and decision-maker.  No Scripture to hold up as an idol.  No specific confession to demand adherence to.  No institutional hierarchy that demands allegiance.  It is people standing up and taking care of each other.

And that is also a vision of trust.

Telling Secrets: “…Another World Is Possible.”

Elizabeth Kaeton preached the quintessential Advent 4 sermon–about Occupy Wall Street.  Amazing!

This has me moved to see a simple idea.  Head on over, read it, and then reflect over that picture of Bishop Packard for a moment.  When you are done, come back and ask yourself the following question:

What if, in the midst of all of our structures and beliefs and plans, G-d is here, breaking through?  What if this is the image of G-d and anything but support for it is a denial of the kingdom?

The parable you never knew

Two of the most recognizable parables sandwich a poor, misunderstood parable in Luke’s gospel.  A parable of revolutionary proportions, often mistaken for an afterthought.  A small, instructive parable that speaks today in the volume of a whisper with the effect of a hand grenade.

Before we get to that parable, it is useful to talk about what is around it.Continue Reading

Forward living or backward obsessing?

My brain is intent on proving me wrong.

More than a decade ago, when my two closest friends were living in East Lansing, I moved down to join them.  Having only visited the apartment once or twice, and not knowing the area very well, I was confident that I knew the way to get there; however, I wasn’t confident of other ways to get there.  After getting stuck behind a few slow-moving cars, I sped around them, only to find I had misjudged the distance before my turn, so I checked my blind spot and did that merge/turn from the left lane.  I focus on that brief moment in which I waited to see if I a car would rear-end me.

I don’t know why, but that memory pops into my head whenever I have the slightest bit of doubt in myself.  I think of that dangerous, stupid thing I did when I was 22, that could have caused a major accident.  And the funny thing is that that comes to mind today when I poor the wrong cereal in a bowl.

The other day, I wrote that we must appreciate a broad view of history, particularly making account for the big picture and the unsavory bits, rather than cherry-pick the meaning we desire.  Sometimes we can’t help it because our feeble brains do that for us.  But I was reminded of the Soren Kierkegaard quote:

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

I don’t believe time is so linear as that: as if we follow a straight line like a never ending railroad.  Nor do I believe that we live in a circle; locked into a perpetual loop of constant relearning of the very same things.  Time is more mysterious than that.  But I do identify with the underlying difference between forward and backward thinking.  It does seem that those focused on the past are ill-prepared for new challenges: that rather than being knowledgeable about the entire historical endeavor, we relive it in a shorthand.  Like that crazy mistake I made years ago, popping up out of the blue.

A few days ago, Tony Jones wrote about a Hartford Seminary study that demonstrated steeper, more troubling decline across all Christian denominations than expected over the last decade.  The study isolated the one common factor within those places with high congregational vitality is innovation, while the steepest declines are being felt among the unchanging and rigid churches whose liturgy lives in yesterday.  This tracks with the emerging church’s sense that our living, including our liturgy, must be lived as if God is present among us, and should represent a current, interactive relationship.

It might seem as if this contradicts the earlier post’s suggestion of being knowledgeable about the past.  But it doesn’t.  Because the important part is our focus: where our heart resides.  If your heart lives in the past, living in the midst the memories of dead friends and family and life highlights, then your intentions aren’t prepared for the future.  Visiting the future is seen as rejecting the past, so an eternal present is spent in constant backwards comparisons.  However, if your heart lives for the future, then excursions into the past attempt to learn for future benefit, mindful that our present needs are a viable future.

That mistake that haunts me in the present doesn’t really inform me of anything, even safe driving habits.  I don’t remember it constructively or in instructive moments and my brain doesn’t think of it thankfully.  It comes at times of doubt–when I am not confident–and tries to sabotage the present and future, making me cowardly.  It is my brain’s own attempt at intimidating me into not growing up and not dealing with the future.  This is why the idea of seeing our thinking as backwards is so useful, and yet our living must be forwards.


I encourage you to click over to Tony Jones’ blog in the above link or right here, because he asks an important question about serving the needs of aging membership and the needs of the next generations.  My question is this: how might we help all of us to live forwards, even when our orientation is to be in our heads reading our history backwards?


© 2011 Drew Downs.  All rights reserved

On Ecclesiology: Leadership, Emergence, and #Occupy

In the Premodern world, humanity was led by “the divine right of kings,” in other words, authority was bestowed upon a singular human authority from a divine source.

In the Modern world, humanity was led by singular representation.  Authority was bestowed on an individual to represent the people, either through fiat or election.

The Enlightenment shook the world and transformed how we would come to understand authority; however, one thing remained the same: singular authority.  We only saw one vision of leadership, which was like a pyramid with a pointy tip–and only one man could be at its top.  In this way, it didn’t matter what kind of leadership it was or how a leader came to power.  Monarchies, military dictatorships, democratic elections (rigged or not), it doesn’t matter when the end result is one person that has power over others.

We are infected with the belief that leadership is singular and that responsibility for groups come from one individual.  We believe that groups cannot be held responsible and that it all comes down to the guy in charge.  This is not a contagion, but a mutation.

In the Postmodern world, humanity is increasingly led by a network of the people collected, rather than represented by individuals.  We know this as grassroots leadership in many parts of the world and groupings of people have been promoting this revolutionary leadership style for decades.  It has only become more relevant to those stuck in a modernist framework as it has become increasingly popular and powerful.  The rise of social media, from Facebook to Twitter, is proof of the power, not only of innovation or of technology, but of the rise of grassroots leadership itself.

This isn’t dogmatically destructive anarchy or rudderless ships or some other metaphor for the absence of leadership, but a prescient form that takes the uncontrolled id out of the equation–that constant individual pursuit of power–and the community’s subordination to such a figure.

The rise of the network leadership model is a principle driver of emergence–both the theory and the emerging church movement–in which the group bears responsibility for the fruits of its faith, rather than collected individuals or the charismatic leadership at the top of the pyramid.  The Occupy Wall Street Movement (#OccupyWallStreet, #OWS) is such an example of network leadership.  So there is no wonder the media has such trouble with covering it: they themselves are operating with the wrong assumption.

That assumption, of course, is that one person has to be in charge, or at the very least, one person has been responsible for casting the vision for the people.  One man that rides forward like William Wallace and declares that the enemy may take their lives, but not their freedom!  That one man must be responsible.  Not necessarily.

This is an erroneous assumption.  It is a fundamentally corrupted view of the world.  We don’t need ecclesiological fascism: one ruler with many followers.

We need to be the leadership together.

The obvious fallacy of “traditional” leadership is found in its devotion to not only physically male representation, but a masculine gendered one.  The alternative to this isn’t simply the elevation of women (which I support), but the elevation of the whole community to leadership.

Most of the criticisms of the Occupy Movement’s lack of “specific goals” or “unified vision” bear the hallmark of modernist leadership principles: one man responsible for the many.  But the true hallmark of democracy is shared leadership.  That each takes not only responsibility for themselves, but their neighbors.  At the same time, they show deference to the others who are doing the same.

See, this has nothing to do with purity of message, organizational structure, or other concerns for marketing the modernist leadership paradigm.  It has everything to do with creating together a more democratic, more honest relationship to our leadership.

I have seen no stronger example of how the church of the future operates than what has been going on at Liberty Square and popping up all over the country.  This is the vibrant, organic church we yearn for.  And the only thing stopping us is our own artificially narrowed sense of ecclesiology.


© 2011 Drew Downs.  All rights reserved

Occupy Wall Street’s collective statement

For those following #OccupyWallStreet, click on their first collective statement.

One of the criticisms of the movement has been their lack of central authority and a clear, concise statement of demands.  What is unique to this movement, and more typical of organizations today, rather than 50 years ago, is the belief that the first step toward organizing isn’t the assent to common beliefs articulated in a specific way by a singular individual.  Rather, the gathering of like-minded people to act in a certain way and form their beliefs together.  This is one of the hallmarks of the Episcopal Church, for instance, which sees common practice as the first step toward integration, rather than membership or assent to doctrinal faith.

What has come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement is a demonstration of real patience and wisdom that the process is important: how a group goes about forming its identity for itself.  It has also encouraged several leaders to guide different areas in working groups, to avoid both the charismatic leader approach and the very subservient nature of a group passively following such a leader.

In both of these ways, this is a movement representing the best of current political thinking, the spontaneity of the social media generation, and respect for the multiple avenues of public discourse.  Perhaps other groups and movements could learn to do the same, particularly our churches, who rarely recognize the fact that they are part of a social and political movement.

The Nines: at a conference in my office

This morning, the free conference known as The Nines will start. For more information about it, including how to register), see my previous post.

I’ll be updating this post throughout the day with some of the highlights and questions that come out of it, so check back later.

12:24 pm: I just got home a few minutes ago from the weekly art class with my daughter.  We read a book about fish called Swimmy and did art projects based on fish.  It was great!

Less than 30 seconds after I logged on, one of the leaders I hoped to see came on, Jon Acuff.  I’m in the middle of his book, Quitter and he covered the topic of time management.  Here’s the gist of what he covered:

Time is one thing we can’t get back, so we have to make it count.  There are two things that get in the way:

  1. Perfectionism: The perfect always appears closer than it is.  We can always read one more article or blog or take one more class and understand it better.  No.  90% perfect and published is better than 100% perfect and stuck in your head.
  2. Match the right level of energy to the right activity.
1:49 pm: Just wanted to point out that the first woman has appeared since I turned this on a few minutes after noon.  This is a cool video conference, but about 15 speakers an hour, so I’ve seen almost 30 speakers and Jenni Catron is the first one that isn’t a dude?
4:05 pm: I’m about to close up shop.  It has been a rewarding few hours, but not life-changing.  It certainly would have helped if there were a greater “mainline” or liturgical presence, and I would certainly prefer being able to cherry-pick some of the people I want see.  But I’ve got a family that needs me, so I’m signing off.  Talk tomorrow!

Finding the lost

As I prepared for the sermon a little over a week ago on Luke 15:1-10, I was bowled over by a thought—too tangential for what I was hoping to do on Sunday, but too important to ignore.

Jesus introduces a trio of “lost” things in parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son.  Many commentaries are more interested in the first and third parables, but there was something shocking in the way I started thinking about the middle one.  It says [NRSV]:

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

We are tempted to observe the humanity in these parables—that we are lost and that GOD comes to find us—and the lost coin doesn’t work for us, because we aren’t coins.  But this is far too literal a mindset for these stories.

Think about the woman’s actions: she tears her house apart.  She doesn’t wait until morning. She expends fuel oil to light a lamp, and besides, she should be sleeping anyway.  But she can’t.  There is something missing.  She overturns all of the furniture, pulls everything out of the covers, and even empties the trash can, looking for this lost coin.  She sweeps the floors and dusts the bookshelves.  And finally, after everything has been going through everything she finds it.  Then she throws a party.

There is a great image in this for us in the church and our devotion to our legacies and our buildings and our accumulated stuff that is worth examining.  That Jesus encourages us to seek out that which isn’t here—and that our buildings and our wealth are nothing in light of what, or who, is absent.  Who is absent is well documented: Generation X and the Millenials.  And what we are called to do, in hopes of revealing these missing generations is to potentially overturn everything of value and everything in our homes with such urgency that we burn our lamps because the time is now.

What would it mean for our churches to display that level of devotion and caring for the generations that the church is still ignoring?  Is it possible that the response could be forgiveness?  And isn’t the point that kind of reconciliation, not the adoration of stuff?

Given that, I’d forgive the church.

Section 2: Judgment–Tearing Down Mansions

This is the second of a tw0-part series covering David Rudel’s Who Really Goes To Hell?—The Gospel You’ve Never Heard. Rudel looks at how Scripture (The Bible) and our understanding of GOD’s purpose and of Jesus (The Gospel) intersect and where they diverge. My introduction can be found here and Section 1 is here.

In the second segment of the book, called “Judgment—Tearing Down Mansions” (chapters 5-7), Rudel constructs an immediate confrontation with the popular understanding of Jesus as judgment eliminator.  As I described before, the author doesn’t deny the judgment (far from it), but argues that the standard evangelical equation (Faith in Jesus as God is the only means of entrance to the desired afterlife) is a distortion of Jesus’s actual teachings.

Laying it out in three parts, Rudel makes the case that standard evangelical dogma is a distortion of Scripture (5), what judgment seems to really be about (6), and what faith in God really looks like (7).

“A Chain of Broken Links”

In Chapter 5, Rudel eviscerates the familiar teachings about judgment on several grounds, but primarily on their Scriptural inconsistency.  Each argument seems to rely on a human understanding or desire for what the judgment should be and uses that to fill in the gaps in Scripture.

Some of these arguments include:

  1. God can’t tolerate the unrighteous in his presence
  2. A single sin makes us unrighteous
  3. The theory of atonement based in sin/guilt/debt
  4. Does sinful behavior stop being sinful when we are ‘saved’?
  5. Jesus is the only means of forgiveness
  6. Payment for sin is a cosmic struggle beyond our ability to contribute

Rudel’s response to each of these arguments is thorough, consistent, and Scriptural.  But in ‘tearing down mansions,’ he also reveals the potential.  If the author isn’t steeped in deconstruction, he seems to naturally understand its practice, because his taking the machinery apart reveals both the essence within and our own failure to recognize what we bring to it:

We have manufactured a Judgment that suits our psychological needs rather than God’s attributes and designs.  We have our eyes so much on immortality that we’ve made the Judgment the end of the game.  We see it as a wrap-up session where God’s sense of justice (or, rather, our understanding of that justice) must be served.  But the Judgment and its aftermath are not God’s opportunity to balance a budget of wrath at the end of the fiscal year.

“What Judgment Can We Expect?”

For Chapter 6, Rudel begins to piece together what the judgment might look like.  Using the same methodology he used to deconstruct the elements of our tradition that are inconsistent and irrational, the author makes use of a broad reading of Scripture that shows integrity to its historical roots and to the guiding theology of the Hebrew Scriptures.

What Rudel finds at the core of the judgment is what we might cast aside as the old argument about Faith vs. Works—the old Reformation chestnut that continues to divide people within today’s worship communities.  But Rudel gives it a different spin—which is entirely consistent with what scholars refer to as the “New Perspective on Paul”.  Though I won’t go into this in any detail, it should be noted that a great deal of Protestant thought, most especially for Evangelicals, is based in a tradition that dates to 16th Century rereading of Paul.  Rudel’s suggestions, though not anti-evangelical (far from it) would no doubt be taken hardest by these very groups, whose theological foundation is based there.  For a good discussion about the New Perspective, go to Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, here.

To reconstruct judgment, Rudel uses several underlying currents in Scripture:

  1. God’s goal for humanity is to establish the Kingdom on earth—what Rudel refers to as New Jerusalem
  2. God’s ministry was extended beyond the reaches of Israel
  3. Jesus’s goal was to prepare the way for the Kingdom
  4. The primary concentration for followers should be on being Christ-like to one another

Each of these currents is heavily supported in Scripture and are a commonly-held understanding of how we work together.  There are other currents or teachings in Scripture that might be relevant to the conversation, but few have the volume of Scriptural support that these have.

Taking these currents, Rudel argues that Faith vs. Works is a false dichotomy, since Scripture strongly suggests that judgment has to do with what we do and how God judges us.  The Scriptural support leads toward God’s judgment of us being heavily based on how we judge others.

Rudel explains that he sees in Scripture an ongoing search for the Kingdom of God on earth, as represented by a New Jerusalem.  It also describes the way people would behave in this world.  So here’s his thesis on judgment:

Jesus chooses citizens for New Jerusalem whose history demonstrates they will contribute to its purpose.  All others are left outside (in hell).

Faith…and Faithfulness

The seventh chapter is an exploration about what Jesus seems to mean when using the words ‘faith’ and ‘believe.’

He writes:

[Jesus] mocks the Pharisees by explaining how their actions make no sense in light of their supposed beliefs about God.  He describes incongruities between what they do and what they claim to believe.  He points out it is incompatible for them to worry about what they will eat tomorrow if they believe God is loving, knows their plights, and cares for them.  Rather than store up savings against unseen future calamity, they should be aiding those in need today. He notes the hypocrisy of expecting long, loud prayers to a God who already knows their needs, and exposes the foolishness of neglecting to utilize God’s gifts for good.

What Rudel is dancing around is this tension in our faith—not between belief and actions—but between our actions and our nature.  For many of us, there is no tension—at least, not as we can see it.  We think that actions are actions and beliefs are beliefs and we go about our normal business as if there are easily divided walls between the world and us.  We say “I believe in God…” (and mean it), but seem to demonstrate little of that faithfulness in our personal lives.  Or we may formalize our corporate faithfulness in large demonstrations of generosity while ignoring the person that walks through our doors.

If we were better Christians, every action would bring the Kingdom closer, every action would extend beyond our comfortable boundaries, every action would help our neighbors get ready for the Kingdom’s arrival, and every action would help the people around us see Christ.

In the end, this is the work upon which God will judge us.

The final section of the book are in-depth looks at different parts of what Rudel has been arguing.  I’ve changed my mind and decided to address each one separately.  I will try to get to at least two of the four this week.  The titles include:

  1. What is The Gospel Anyway?
  2. God Surprises Everyone
  3. Making Sense of Paul
  4. Atonement Through Merit

EDITED: Changed the intro to reflect the new reality: I’m not planning on writing a third part.  That, and I listed this as the second “first” part.

into the wild

I just got back from a pre-Lenten retreat for presbyters of the Diocese of Atlanta.  The theme was about pastoring in anxious times, and the format was organized around five meditations with free time for reflection or rest.  It was a great experience and had me thinking from the moment we arrived.

To be fair, I’m not usually one that wants to wander off and think about what I’ve just heard, I want to engage it with other people or with action.  I either want to go with some friends to a bar to talk or write a blog post or do a charcoal response as if I were in Godly Play for adults.  This is how I prefer to respond to new thinking.

It was in this environment that I was becoming more obsessed with what connects the people in the room.  What is it that we as presbyters (priests) are?  The base and easy response to this is rehearsed and practiced so readily.  Every one of us had to give a defense of our aspirations at some point prior to ordination.  But what I kept wondering about was not a ‘what do we do in anxious times’ or even a ‘who are we when the times get anxious’, but a presupposition that we are anxious people in an anxious community and what does it mean to be leader in that system.

So then I though back to the previous Thursday, and Fresh Start.  We watched the video about leadership in anxious times by Edwin Friedman—a video I had seen four or five times before—but the synchronicity of these concepts was swimming around my head.  And today I watched this video of Peter Rollins interviewed by Spencer Burke:

And as I was watching, I was profoundly affected by Rollins’ depiction of Paul and his ministry: that we should be people of the Resurrection and that the Resurrection is about “dying, being reborn, transformed”; that our lives lived must be different.  And what all of these things are telling me and pushing me to understand is something I can’t say that I understood before: we must allow ourselves to be transformed.

I know this isn’t rocket science, but living transformed is different than assenting to the principle that we are transformed by sacramental rituals, such as baptism and ordination.  I always got that I had to live differently as a Christian, and I do.  I always got that I had to live differently as a priest, and I do.  And yet, what is always at tension for me as a Christian and as a priest is that the world no longer trusts that difference, nor responds to that difference with reverence or deference.  So that difference has become so codified and defined that it is not truly different, or understood as different, but as an ‘alternative lifestyle’.  And in some ways, an alternative lifestyle that is increasingly uncomfortable with letting go of being the dominant lifestyle.

So I lived with this tension and this difference and adjusted to what seems like a domesticated Gospel so as to live the same domesticated lifestyle that is expected of clergy serving a domesticated congregation in a domesticated church.  And I have seen myself as being restricted by all of this domestication and wanting and dreaming and internally screaming for the people to become wild for the gospel and to unleash it to transform our lives and to open the windows for the Spirit to descend upon us like a dove.  And the reality is that I thought that anyone who is born is able to grow wild and that, in baptism, I was given my invitation to grow wild, and that all of the people everywhere can grow wild—but when I put that collar around my neck, the Inherited Church had me, bound and domesticated.  My eyes would blur as the wild outdoors were living without me.  But there is no leash.  The yard is not fenced.  I’m sitting in the front yard because I’m afraid of the wildness and the domesticated life is secure.

Perhaps Paul does serve as the wise guide of wildness.  His ministry was clearly unrestrained.  His emotive style was occasionally disconcerting but always engaging and reverent to the people and place that he was at.  He embodied rebelliousness and even today represents the radical and the servant at their best and most authentic.  This is the wild.