“13%” – Oct 27, 2019
Life has its ups and downs. Life has its hard times and life has its times of plenty and satisfaction. “Then afterwards,” the prophet Joel proclaims on behalf of God, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
We don’t know when the prophet Joel lived and worked or much about him at all… which leaves us to interpret Joel’s words in a more timeless way. His prophetic poetry revolves around a locust plague and calls the people first to lamentation as they prepare for “the day of the Lord”… that time when God’s promises will be fulfilled. Lamentation eventually gives way to the call to repentance that we traditionally hear on Ash Wednesday: “return to me with all your heart…” God calls through the prophet. Following the call to repentance is the promise of salvation that we hear today and then finally, as a precursor to “the imminent coming of the day of the Lord, God promises the gift of the Spirit…” (NIB, 326) The gift of Spirit described by Joel is the recurrence of prophecy in the form of visions and dreams by a variety of people: male and female, slave and free. What prophetic inspiration is God revealing to you these days?
One of the visionaries of recent decades, one of the prophets who has been dreaming dreams for a while now, is Brian McLaren. He also happens to be visiting our fair city next weekend, so it seems worthwhile to consider some of his recent work. His most recent book, I discovered online, was released only earlier this month and is about a spiritual journey into the wilds of the Galápagos Islands. You can hear him speak about it in a lecture titled “Re-wilding Christianity,” next Friday night at Knox United Church. For today, following Joel’s description of God’s promise to pour out sacred spirit in the form of visions and dreams following times of trouble, we’ll consider the core ideas from McLaren’s 2016 book, The Great Spiritual Migration.
Migration is fundamentally about movement. It’s about getting from here to there… usually to a “there” that might be better than our current “here.” Many today wonder about the future of Christianity in general and the church in particular. The most striking statistic I’ve heard recently is this: In the 1950’s and 60’s, two thirds of Canadians attended a weekly worship service. 67% of Canadians were going to church weekly until the late-1960’s when a gradual but steady decline began. By 2005, that percentage had fallen to 21% of Canadians attending a weekly worship service. And less than 10 years later, in 2013, weekly church attendance was down to 13%. Let that sink in for a moment. In 50 years, we have gone from 67% to 13% of Canadians attending weekly worship. That is one heck of a migration.
We can lament this reality. We can blame immigration and new Canadians, or technology, or Sunday shopping, or a whole myriad of other things. But there is no one single factor, no magic bullet. We can be angry or resentful or fearful and just hold on for as long as possible. Or we can choose another way. We can choose to migrate in response, such McLaren proposes. Mirroring the three great days of our tradition: Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, McLaren writes about a three-fold migration. Just as Christianity was born on a weekend, we too can be re-born in our faith, as individuals and as communities. We can migrate, move, in response to the 13% “here” in which we find ourselves.
The first transformative movement in our tradition is the letting go of Good Friday. McLaren describes it as a spiritual migration from a belief-based faith to “something bigger, deeper, richer: a way of life, which is the way of love.” (13-4) It is a spiritual migration driven by loss, a Good Friday, that is devastating and yet we call it good. Somewhere along the way in our history, Christianity came to be defined as a set of beliefs. As such, the only thing that matters is getting our beliefs correct, “orthodoxy.” But it was not always so… Jesus didn’t say “This is my commandment, that you believe the right doctrines.” (19) It doesn’t mean that we have no beliefs, or that what we believe doesn’t matter. “It’s a matter of believing that right beliefs are what matter most… what we need is not simply a new set of beliefs, but a new way of believing…” (22) Migrating from a system of belief to a way of life means balancing the role of head, heart and hand differently in our faith. More than thinking, it means practicing our faith.
The second migration is a theological one that rises in the silent, contemplative pause of Holy Saturday. After the letting go of Good Friday comes letting be, “a sinking to the depths, a descent to a deeper vantage point,” where a positive theological migration can occur in our basic understanding of God: from a violent God of domination to a nonviolent God of liberation. (14) It is a migration in our very conception of divinity. The ways in which our view of God as violent and dominating have impacting our behaviour are numerous and gut-wrenching. McLaren calls it “the genocide card in your back pocket.” (71) It is about having a license to kill, if push comes to shove. We don’t have to look far for examples, from anti-Semitism to Indian residential schools guided by the theological warrant of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Migrating from a God of domination and violence to a God of liberation is about moving from what’s good for me to what’s good for all, to cooperation, self-giving and solidarity.
Finally, the new life and new hope of Easter Sunday, resurrection, characterizes the third migration – a missional migration as a movement from organized religion to organizing religion. Over the years, in one way or another, we have all heard the critique of: “I don’t believe in organized religion.” But people aren’t looking for disorganized religion in response. Disorganization is not the answer. The answer, rather, is about religion organizing for a purpose beyond itself, for the common good. It is a missional migration in how we view ourselves and how we operate as a community of faith. It is a movement from trying to save ourselves to joining with God to save the world… pouring ourselves out as a libation, an offering, as Paul describes today in his letter to Timothy. We may be part of only 13% of Canadians who attend weekly worship but organizing for the betterment of the 87% along with ourselves would mean an impact much greater than 13%.
“The Spirit of goodness, rightness, beauty, and aliveness, Jesus said, is always moving. Like wind, like breath, like water, the Spirit is in motion, inviting us to enter the current and flow.” (180) So Brian McLaren writes about the movement of migration… “from systems of belief to loving, compassionate ways of life… from violent and exclusive conceptions of God to reconciling and harmonizing understandings of God… from competitive institutional organized religions to movement-inspired religions organizing and collaborating as… builders of a better world.” (177) It is the movement from letting go, through letting be, to letting come… from death to silence to new life. It is a vision, a dream, of one man responding to the spirit of God poured out upon him.
What dreams is God’s spirit pouring into you? What visions have appeared about how the world could be? In what way is God’s Spirit, poured out upon you, moving you to respond?