Alternative Power

dreaming-spires-photoI believe that the first time that I took my political ideas to the streets was about 20 years ago. I was in college, with, in truth, very little to complain about as far as my own life was going. I was a student at a university that was opening up my world. My school fees were paid by the government and each term I received a check from the Department of Education to help me with room and board. Aside from the weather, which I remember often as grey, life at university was pretty idyllic.

Yet, as idyllic as it was, the world still pressed in against the windows of the vaulted ceiling libraries and old English pubs, and it gradually dawned on me that a political life in the world no longer needed to be a practice I observed in others; I could also take part in it myself. I was buoyed by visits to the Oxford Labour Club by then, junior shadow minister Tony Blair and his vision for a more just Britain. A few months later, I had the chance to shake hands with Desmond Tutu and heard his account of the profound struggle for freedom the black population of South Africa endured under apartheid. Something in me was stirring.

Earlier in the year I had slept with others overnight in the main shopping area in protest at the high incidence of homelessness in the city, and so having had a taste for at least a modicum of activism, when the opportunity came to join a group heading off to a march in London, I took it. I can remember piling onto a bus in the early morning in Oxford, and marching along a few streets until we made it into one of the Royal parks for a concert. There were no counter-protests. No scuffles or any sort of animosity I could see at all. It was all very British, and orderly and at the end of the day we headed back home to the dreaming spires of Oxford and to our essays and cloistered college quads.

20-Iraq-March-Getty.jpgSome five years or so later in seminary, I had stepped from being a participant to becoming just a little bit more of an organizer, trying to stir the hearts of my fellow seminarians to join me at a peace rally, again organized in London. My theological studies were opening up new literary worlds and I can remember being particularly taken by the beautiful imagery of Amos, as he describes ‘justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’. I wanted my practice to mesh with my theology.

Why do we march? Why do we get on the move with others, taking over streets and singing songs with complete strangers? We do so because we feel something stirring in us, a call to action, and a desire to move beyond the complacency of passivity and indifference. In short, we feel that we have to do something.

Indifference to the plight of others is one of the easiest of the sins of omission. The New Testament letter of James puts it simply, like this: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” That for one, makes sinners out of us all.  Since I got married and moved from student life to professional work, the apparent reasons for inaction seemed to have multiplied: not enough time, or energy, or both; too many conflicting commitments; the packed schedule, the full inbox, the pull of expectations tugging in opposite directions, and before I had noticed, the taking of my political ideas to the streets became something that I used to do, when I was closer to twenty than I am to fifty. Yet God is faithful. As the second letter of Timothy says: ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.’ He cannot disown himself, the God abiding in me and you, calling us to seek out that kingdom born of Jesus, yet promised to us all. He cannot disown himself and we cannot disown each other.


The first stirrings of dissatisfaction with my political inactivity appeared in my heart when a neighbor of ours attended a meeting of the governing body of our church wanting to make plain that he took exception to how we were ‘welcoming the homeless’ into his neighborhood. It was when he referred to people living on the streets as rats that something turned within me. Since that meeting, we have held two memorial services for a homeless man and woman, and listened each time to the gifts of beauty and grace that each of those lives offered to the world, and I knew as we gave thanks for their lives that thanks was not enough.

And so we organized, and a little under eighteen months ago, we founded the Pacific Beach Homelessness Coalition, raising awareness and building bridges and breaking stereotypes one encounter at a time. Our church building has hosted a tiny house of prayer to help focus our minds and hearts on the needs of those around us, and the coalition has held  a ‘Tiny House Expo’ – building houses and relationships at the same time.

img_5997This long road brings me to the Women’s March on Washington, the standing in a bone-crunching crowded San Diego downtown street, unable to reach the rest of the contingent from our church, and doing all I could to keep my kids of getting knocked over through the hour and more speeches and rallying cries. Once more, after quite a hiatus, I was back on the streets on the march with others. I was there because while women are still underpaid and passed over more often for promotions at work than their male counterparts, while they still fall victim to more sexual assault and are objectified by billionaires and bigots alike, indeed while they are not yet treated with the full dignity that God bestows on all of us, man, woman and child, there is a compulsion to be there. Yet this time there was something more. As we stood there, literally rubbing shoulders with strangers, one of the women turned to me as said, “I want you to know why I am marching today.” She pointed at my daughter, “it’s for her. I’m marching for her”, and as she said it, I realized, so was I.

people-powerAt the same time, I was also there for something more than just her. Of course. We all were. And it was happening as we marched, an alternative picture of power replicated across cities in America and the world, from its epicenter in Washington to London to  Paris to Sydney. Place by place, person by person, power was being renegotiated not in the corridors of power in Washington but on the streets of power’s lived articulation, where women and men and children make life together. Were there more people on those streets than had been there the day before at the President’s inauguration? Who can say? Those are alternative facts to the concerns of the people on those streets who brought their children to walk with them; alternative to the irrepressibility of the imagination wherein another power is birthing.




immagine1In Dwight Zscheile’s edited collection, Cultivating Sent Communities: Missional Spiritual Formation, theologian Christian Scharen argues for the Church to adopt practices of ‘dispossession’ as it seeks to express its missional identity in contemporary society. Citing Donald MacKinnon who speaks of the need for Christians ‘to live an exposed life’ as integral to their ‘sent-ness’, dispossession implies a certain exposure to sight, a movement toward visibility for a church that for centuries has been accustomed to being seen on arrival as it were, as people crossed the threshold from street to sanctuary. Such a movement toward exposure, argues Scharen, is possible if grounded in the movement eternally present in the Trinity. Here he draws on Rowan Williams’ reflections on mission seen as ‘a matter of dispossession’ wherein the Church is sent, as the Son is sent of the Father, as life outpoured for the world, willingly dispossessed through the Spirit as God’s reconciliatory movement for the sake of the world. What Scharen invites us to imagine here is a kenotic, self-emptying common life wherein the identity of the Christian is not secured by our possession of the Church but in our receptivity to the other; in how much space we have made to receive the other through the outpouring of our selves. Such dispossession, thus enables the body of Christ to become a eucharistic people: taken, blessed, broken open, and given for the world.

our-ladies-church-night-prayer-serviceOne of the images that Scharen uses to express what such a Church might look like is from Oslo, Norway, where one community, the Oslo Domkyrka, leaves its doors open not only through many of the weekday hours but through the night Friday to Saturday for what it calls Night Church. During these small hours of the night, the sanctuary becomes an open space where people can wander in and engage in various stations scattered around the building, lighting candles in a giant orb representing the world in one or folding prayers into Jesus’ sculpted open hands in another. The space is open like this from mid-afternoon on Friday until Saturday morning. A meditative prayer service is offered during the time and staff are available for conversation. In other parts of Scandinavia, night church happens several times a week, such as at the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen,  Denmark, open every Thursday, Friday and Sunday night.

What might it mean to be a Church that keeps watch with those who seek to pray and rest and search for the divine life in the darkness of night? Dwight Zscheile’s introduction to his edited volume invites an answer to that question in the form of wonder. He encourages the Church to imagine Christian formation – the shaping of the people of God to the pattern of Christ’s life poured out for the world – as practices that cultivate wonder, ‘wonder about the mystery of God’s presence and movement in our lives; wonder about what God might be up to in our neighborhoods and world’. The ‘night church’ offers a glimpse of what it might be like to be people who accompany those who wonder for God on their own terms, dispossessing ourselves of the notions that have shaped what church-going looks like with its protocols and procedures, from the cultural norms of charismatic Spirit-filled praise and worship to the intricacies of high Mass. ‘Night church’ worship, whether held at night or at other times and in other ways calls for clergy and lay leaders to gather the church as a body curated more than presided over as the liturgy, the ‘work of the people’, is co-created among fellow travelers.

panagia-theotokos-orthodoxpost-virgin-mary-orthodox-icon-byzantine-painting-ikona-59-orthodoxAs much as the ‘night church’ offers a fascinating window into the shape of what Christian community might look like as a people dispossessed, the other side of dispossession is that the prime mover of that self-emptying is Christ, one whose possession of us means that we are, with Mary, theotokos, God-bearers for the world. Here we might think of German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann’s vision of the Church as held in tension between two poles. One is of identity, the contrast that the Church offers to the world which in its counter-cultural nature has the capacity to be a catalyst for change in wider society. The other is of relevance, not here a church that people might care about because they believe it matters in their lives, but a church that cares about the world and sees it as relevant to the Church, seeking to confront systemic evil and standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.

If truly lived into, such a twin possession as Christ’s own – grounded in an altogether other value system than the dominant power system of the world – makes Christians susceptible to the same rejection by the values of the world that crucified the vagabond rabbi of Nazareth. When we dispossess ourselves of the world’s monetizing of our presumed value in society and its trappings of status and power, we invite the possibility that our standing in that society will be devalued, counted, as Paul says, as loss. Yet it is only when we can embrace and live into this twin vocation of dispossession – our assumption of control over the sacred on the social landscape and our attempts at social power and value – that we can begin to live into the sent-ness of the Son, and live that ‘exposed life’ that mystically is able to make Christ more visible to others. How though might a community of faith, thoroughly versed in church life as we know it, cultivate such a manner of life together? What practices might bring us to live out such a vision of discipleship in Christ?

Concept Of CommunicationDiana Butler Bass has described an emergence within mainline protestantism of churches that she would characterize as ‘intentional’. Intentional congregations are in her words, ‘highly tuned to spiritual authenticity and communal coherence’ and tend toward higher levels of discomfort with their cultural context. Such congregations locate this spiritual authenticity within their particular appreciation and life within tradition; the dynamic lifeblood of the shared life of faith not valued because it is old to some degree or other but because it acts as a tap root into the incarnated life of Christ himself. This sort of connection with the past is not though an anamnesis that merely recalls events of ancient times, it is rather a re-membering, a joining together with the events of the past to become in union with them as one embodied community. In such a vein, to partake in the Eucharist is somehow also to participate in the last supper of Jesus with this disciples, and to be baptized in Christ is also mystically to be present at Jesus’ own baptism.

Yet how exactly these acts of re-membering the tradition of the Church are done and what exactly they mean for us remains what Dorothy Bass calls the ‘ongoing argument’ of Christian discipleship, thus making the ‘practicing congregation’ a dynamic learning community, fluid in its interpretation yet fixed in its commitment to seek out a deeper communion with the God and his world. The commitment to practice is key, for mission as dispossession requires the repeated attempt to grow deeper into the mystery of God rather than further into the distractions of religion lest the practices themselves merely become another act of possession that stands between the practitioner and that true communion.

new-growthSo, can we be dispossessed? Can we learn to be learners of a Way that will beckon us to give ourselves away to God, shaped by the practices of a kenotic life shared with fellow travelers? Epiphany, the season of God’s manifestation, is a great time to ponder such things. ‘Sing a new church into being’, the hymn says. It goes on: ‘Dare to dream the vision promised, sprung from seed of what has been.’ New life is emerging, fruit born of the ancient seeds of our dispossession and of our hope.

More Rollercoasters Please

deadliest-coaster-622x415This past week, our family headed out to an amusement park along with what felt like half the population of Orange County. We whizzed and whirled, span and splashed in hourly intervals as we otherwise whiled away our time in lines that snaked slowly around loudspeakers playing Frosty the Snowman on an unrelenting loop. And then came the question: who was going to go with the one  daredevil child who wanted to be shot up into the air 250 feet and then dropped to the ground at 50 mph. The ride, if that is the word, is called ‘Supreme Scream’, which is actually a pretty accurate description of what happened in our case. “I’ll go with you”, I said, with unconscionable haste. And so they strapped us in, feet dangling, heart racing, face whitening. We waited, and waited, and shook more than a little. Then with a jolt, we began to rise.

I’m not a great fan of sheer drops. 20 feet off the diving board is enough to put me over the edge, so 250 feet took me out of my comfort zone by more than a little. Finally, we reached the top, sank just slightly, and waited. The waiting is of course only necessary inasmuch as it adds to the terror. I looked at my son; he was loving it. And then, down we shot. I screamed like a baby all the way down. Legs kicking, hands clinging on for dear life, and a mad glee emerging within. When we finally reached the bottom, I had aged at least three years and my stomach was somewhere near my sternum. I looked over at my son again and the look of unalloyed joy on his face said it all. “Let’s go again”, he announced immediately. And so we did. Not on the ‘Supreme Scream’ this time, but the 200 feet high 82 mph ‘Xcelerator’. And so it went.

roller_coaster_track My reasoning, such as it is, for this new found commitment to being strapped in and scared out of my wits is simple. It is a brief yet essential new year’s resolution: draw closer to my children. Parenting to me is the most challenging and joyful and mystifying thing that I know. As I stumbled off rollercoaster after rollercoaster this week, I saw in the joy our children found in sharing that experience with us an affirmation that what any child wants perhaps more than anything from their parents is their solidarity, for them to be alongside them.

confusing-authenticity-with-perfection This desire to be alongside others is a profound human need. Yet to draw near to others requires us to be willing to be seen as we really are. Solidarity does not spare us disappointment or pain as much as we might resolve to fill our lives with joy and fulfillment. And if we are to meet people as we are we have to be prepared to enter into a an authenticity most of us are not accustomed to. Yet in many ways, the vocation of the Christian life is one that calls us to live authentically. Rowan Williams speaks of Christian identity as that which we live into when all of our pretenses, the games we play with one another and with ourselves about who we are, are ended, and we accept the true name God alone calls us by.

We cannot know what sort of rollercoaster ride this year that lies before us will be. I cannot know what sort of parent I will manage to be through it. All we can know is that should we dare to live more deeply with one another, coming alongside one another as God comes alongside us in Christ, then we might have the opportunity to know a life and find richness in the joys and sorrows of others. I plan on riding more rollercoasters. You?