I had the opportunity this weekend to participate in a gathering of emergent church leaders – folks who are involved in or seek to be involved in planting missional, emergent faith communities rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. I was able to hear speakers such as Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Kathy Escobar and Anthony Smith. I also attended workshops on Christian ecology; turning Jesus’ teachings into living practice as a community; developing new Christian communities alongside more traditional congregations; and a discussion on the way forward for Christians who are neither willing to exclude queer folk from the Church, nor downplay our respect for Scripture. Finally, and most importantly, I was privileged to connect with folks from all over the country, including quite a few from my neck of the woods.
The most spiritually-charged and powerful moment for me this weekend was Friday evening, when we gathered to hear Peter Collins preach. He spoke to us about the importance of doubt in our walk with God. Rollins observed that Christ himself cried out in doubt on the cross, and he emphasized the need to release our comforting beliefs and sense of identity, because they in fact separate us from God. God is Truth, not our limited and self-serving conceptions; the Truth – as terrifying and incomprehensible as it can be – must be a the center of our life in Christ. To place our own beliefs and desires at the center is to replace God with an idol, and to dodge the suffering of the cross, which we as Christians are called to bear with our Lord.
Peter Rollins believes that our worship together should reflect the “dark nights of the soul” – our times of spiritual despair, doubt, and sense of separation from God. Our corporate worship can tend to focus exclusively on our experiences of assurance and connection with God; but Rollins encouraged us to consider the role that acknowledgement of suffering, darkness and doubt might play in our shared life as church communities.
To give us a taste of what this might look like, Rollins asked Vince Anderson and Amy Moffitt to perform a song from the Ikon community in Ireland, where Rollins serves. It was a hymn of darkness, despair, loss and doubt. To be honest, it made me feel very uncomfortable. As the hymn came to a close, though, something remarkable happened. The Holy Spirit descended on us, and the entire gathered assembly was still and silent, hushed with awe. This was a clapping group, which normally gave applause after every event – but after this hymn, no one moved.
The awed silence was broken after a short while by the facilitator, wanting to move us along in our evening program. I felt grieved that the work of the Holy Spirit was being brushed aside. Others certainly felt this way, too. A man rose from the audience, interrupting our facilitator, “Thy kingdom came!” I heard voices say, “Amen!” The man continued to address the facilitator, “can we acknowledge the grace of God among us for a moment?” After perhaps a minute more of silent reverence before God, the facilitator again took up the schedule.
When we were dismissed a few minutes later, a young woman rose from the audience, interrupting folks as they greeted one another. She invited anyone who wanted to pray to join her at the front of the sanctuary where we were gathered. Faith and I immediately rose and followed her to the raised area at the front of the room. Five of us gathered in a circle while the rest of the group socialized and made their way out of the building. We took turns praying aloud as we were led. Praying for the gathering; that God to continue to pour out the Holy Spirit on us; asking forgiveness for the way in which we had turned away God’s presence from our midst. I feel so grateful for the way in which a few of us were drawn together in the Spirit in that moment to cry out to God and intercede for the Church.
I am in awe of how I see God at work in the wider Church, despite our failure to fully embrace the Spirit’s work in our midst. I feel grateful for the connections that I have made this weekend with other followers of Jesus, both here in the DC area and across North America. I had never been exposed to the emergent church movement before, having focused almost all of my attention on the Quaker community in the years since I became a Christian. As a result of this gathering, I feel energized to engage with emergent Protestants; both to learn from them and their experiences as disciples, and also to share with them the rich heritage of Quakerism, which informs my own walk with Christ. Together, I believe we can grow into more faithful friends of Jesus.
A few relevant links: