Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Provoking our Collective Community Imagination I

“Hey, we have a fellowship group that meets tonight……and would love it if you could join us”. It was with those words (or something close to it) I entered the world of Redeemer fellowship groups nine years ago. Though I was a believer, I was deeply discouraged by Christian community. Today, I participate in overseeing hundreds of groups here at Redeemer as a director of fellowship groups. That small encounter with a fellowship group leader served a very big purpose in my present vocational life.

Why have I become so heavily involved in fellowship groups? I could give a thick theological answer that includes talk of calling, providence, divine sovereignty, and the like, and that response would be correct. But the straight forward facts-on-the-ground answer is quite simply – someone asked me to visit their group. An unpretentiously courageous group leader extended an invitation to an unfamiliar newcomer.

To my surprise, joining that fellowship group, challenged and provoked my imagination about Christian community in fresh, exciting, and encouraging ways. That group experience was formative in helping me to think about (and experience) what small group community can be and also served as a helpful reminder of the prophetic wisdom of not ‘despising small things’.

So, how might others in Redeemer come to participate in a fellowship group and experience robust renewal in gospel community? What could substantially increase church wide participation in small groups thus transforming our big city? One way is to issue cattle calls to join and/or lead a group. This is a helpful and needful thing and usually works to a degree. One of the things that scripture does is convert our community imagination and then challenge us to live into that renewed vision.

Community imagination

Catching a vision of what can be is always deeply inspiring and motivating. When a person is provoked to imagine new possibilities, to see beyond present material circumstances, he/she will move confidently in the direction of seeing that new horizon realized. This is true regarding the dynamics of Christian community formation. When a believer catches a glimpse of what transforming community looks like, gets a taste of thick rich community life, they will seek more of it (and often invite others to do the same). We see this kind of vision casting and provocation to community imagination in the Biblical prophets in particular.

The OT prophets are commonly understood as a cranky community of grumpy divine spokesmen. They blow into town and, with bony pointed finger, announce doom and gloom on a community gone wild in sin. They blow in, blow up, and then blow out of town (if they don’t get beat up first!).

There is another (better) way to see what they’re doing. As Walter Brueggeman states, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us”.

That is, if Israel found itself in a state of disrepair and surrounded by hostile enemies, the prophets would provoke their collective imagination and expand their visionary awareness by painting pictures of a time when the community (particularly, the big city – Jerusalem) would flourish and its enemies would flock to it (cf. Isaiah 2).

Wherever there were pockets of darkness, the prophets would often inspire repentance by describing images of what an alternative community transformed by the light of the gospel would look like. They would inspire a people experiencing a failure of community imagination, with their words, giving them a window into the world to come.

This is what a fellowship group can do. When those members are together doing community group practices (praise, scripture study, prayer, fellowship, and mission) they are demonstrating and living out a taste of the world to come. An onlooker is getting a fresh little vista into life in the New city. This is attractive. Light, in the midst of darkness always is.

What is needed is people who will dream together with others about what gospel-driven group life can be and then will fund that vision by forming (or hosting) a fellowship group. What is always needed is people who’ve undergone (or are willing to undergo) a conversion of their community imagination and then challenge others to the same as well.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

love's long resolution

So I watched Pride and Prejudice (Keira Knightly) the other night and let it percolate for a few days while I read about half of a critical essay on it, talked briefly with a couple women in the office, all the while doing a cursory comparison with Ang Lee’s rendering of ‘Sense and Sensibility’. After all, its summer, a time for cinematic exploration beyond that permitted by the rest of the year.

Here are just a few discursive thoughts.

I enjoyed it immensely. I find many of the 18th century social conventions, (to say nothing of the British accents), charming and engaging. There is just something about that era that appeals to my moral and social sensibilities in an interesting way. There is no uniform antiquarian delight here - the ‘soft’ caste hierarchy and classism are undesirable - but the defined parameters of social intercourse appeal to me. It seems that folks knew what was expected and how things (like marriage proposals) were to go down. In our own day, not knowing those things and consequently not having a generally well understood way/manner in which relating of all sorts happens, makes things awfully confusing in my opinion. I’m not hankering after the ‘good ‘ol days’. Still less, am I suggesting a social straight jacket be imposed on male/female relating….just think it would be nice to have more common cultural understanding in these matters.

Be that as it may. The aspect of Pride & Prejudice (and all of Austen's stuff) that I most enjoy is the insightful psychological interactions of the characters. The way she opens up human intentions (for all to see) and common ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, just leave me breathless. There are numerous 'ah ha' moments in listening to the exchanges, far too much to digest and process in one hearing (or reading). Darcy and Elizabeth's argument/misunderstanding after the first proposal was a study in the ways people misunderstand each other, a paradigmatic demo of ways in which out of 'pride', we show 'prejudice'. Elizabeth and Jane's discussion about Elizabeth’s initial would-be suitor was brilliant and so eloquently got to the heart of the oftimes abated approach and retreat of a man in the early phases of pursuit. So much of what she says rings so true and is so well put that I'm left in awe. I wish I could reproduce the insightfully precise phraseology of that exchange.

And of course, the way the meta-drama of love plays out drew me in. I was aching for love's long resolution! When Darcy finally called her....named her...had her hand in marriage....called her 'Mrs. Darcy' (not less than three increasingly intense times), a 1000 pound weight fell off of my shoulders. Finally, all was right in the romantic universe. Things were as they should be. And this was just the 2 hr version. I can't imagine the tension of watching the 6 hr BBC production. 'Hope deferred makes the heart sick' undoubtedly must take on new meaning.

Admittedly, I go about life with abstract notions of romantic love most of the time but when I watch something like p&p, enter into the sympathetic motions of heart vicariously with the characters (the initial rebuff of Darcy was oh so painful), I feel, hope, and long more than ever for what he eventually obtained - love. Isn't that the heart of the universe? Isn't love the way the world is made right ultimately (Richard Hays’ ‘moral vision’ notwithstanding)? "God so loved the world', 'Christ loved the church….'. This is a reality beautiful beyond belief!

In some ways, I found p&p more hopeful than s&s. Sense’s Colonel Brandon was just so perfect, so patiently persevering, so self-giving that it actually had the effect of discouraging me from romantic pursuits. He evinced no proclivities for ‘prejudice’. He showed no ‘pride’. Darcy, on the other hand, while fundamentally honorable, still found love in spite of his 'chinks in the armor'. I loved that. I see and feel the inner logic of gospel redemption in him. He embodies the hope that one must not be perfect to get the great woman in the end.

I wonder if so many of the frustrations, dashed hopes, deferred desires for marriage among so many Christian singles would be beneficially addressed by seeing the noble love embodied in the films of Jane Austen repeatedly. I mean, what would happen if men/women communally sat down and watched these films together over and over and over until they were compelled to walk away and imaginatively inhabit in real life, the relational grace so on display in this drama?

This movie was such a helpful hermeneutical tool in opening the deep structural vision of love in Ephesians 5.

……just some ramblings on p&p