In 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.
One 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.
As 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?
Diana 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.
So, 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.