As I’m sure Pastor Bob explained in one of earlier sermons, but by way of reminder, Slow Church is partly inspired by the Slow Food and other Slow movements to rethink the ways in which we share life together in our church communities. We ask: what if Christians slowed down enough to be fully and faithfully present with God and with each other in the pace and place of our local neighborhoods?
We believe God is inviting Christians to be co-participants with God in the work of reconciliation. We also believe one of the primary ways God has chosen to reconcile the world to Godself is place by place. My favorite writer, the Kentucky poet, essayist, and novelist Wendell Berry, wrote in one of his poems:
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Chris and I believe one of the primary jobs of the church is the re-sacralization of our places.
The British missionary Lesslie Newbigin put it this way:
“…the Church in each place is to be the sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God present in Christ for that place….As often as it gathers to hear God’s word and to share in the Eucharistic celebration, the Church is renewed as the body of Christ in and for that place.”
In our own Quaker tradition, we believe that every person—regardless of gender, age, religion, or even merit—has within them the Inner Light of Christ. Writing from a prison cell in 1656, George Fox urged his Friends to “be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people…” In this way, he said, “you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (emphasis mine).
Reflecting on this letter from George Fox, the twentieth-century Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood said that one of the primary tasks of a minister could thus be described as “answering.” George Fox believed it is possible to “nurture and to bring to fulfillment the vague yearnings toward the divine, which are in all men, but which are often underdeveloped.” To answer that of God in every one is thus to “[help] make actual what is otherwise only potential.”
I think what Fox said of people specifically can be applied more broadly to our places—most of which include people, of course, and their laws, values, and creations, but which also include nonhuman creatures, the land and air and water, and the cosmic agents which Scripture refers to as the “powers and principalities.” All these are knit together in complex biological, cultural, and spiritual ecosystems that are both particular to their own places and linked with other places.
There is no place on earth that has not been darkened by sin. But there is also no place so far gone that it does not contain within it some ember of the Divine that might be gently, patiently, and prayerfully coaxed into light and heat.
One of the great privileges of doing the work we get to do with Slow Church is the chance to travel around the country. I have visited more than eighty neighborhoods around the country over the last four years. Not only do we get to talk about Slow Church, we get to listen.
And we get to collect stories.
Stories of pastors who, in order to best serve neighbors in danger of being displaced by gentrification, are becoming homegrown experts in zoning laws and they are developing a theology of the built environment.
Stories of artists who are using their art to beautify their neighborhoods, celebrate what is wonderful in their communities, grieve what is broken, and point neighbors to Christ and to the Way of healing and hope.
Stories of Christians who are facilitating reconciliation, bridging racial divides, speaking out against injustice, and caring for refugees who fled violence at home only to find themselves isolated and lonely after a few months in the United States.
Stories of Christians who are settling in for the long-haul in remote rural communities, trailer parks, apartment complexes, and inner-city neighborhoods.
Stories of churches that are renovating abandoned and foreclosed houses on behalf of neighbors, creating community gardens, organizing intersection murals, building Little Free Libraries.
Stores of churches that are helping church members and neighbors start new businesses, spearheading efforts to improve the health of the land and soil, and more.
One of the benefits of visiting those neighborhoods and collecting those stories is that they help me see my own neighborhood with more attentiveness, with more accuracy, with more imagination, and with more hope.
A practice I learned from Bob when he was our pastor in Silverton is the practice of visio divina. Perhaps many of us are familiar with the ancient spiritual practice of lectio divina, which translates to “divine reading.” Visio divina translates to “divine seeing.”
To practice visio divina is to ask God for God’s vision of our places. We ask God, “God, what is your vision for this neighborhood.” We ask ourselves, “What are my hopes for this place?” We ask our neighbors, “What are your hopes for this place?”
As we walk, bike, or sit in our neighborhoods, I encourage people to pray three simple but powerful prayers. These are from our friend Mark Scandrette in San Francisco, and I’ve converted them into queries for today.
The first prayer is “God, show me where your glory is displayed in this place and among these people.”
The second prayer is, “God, help me to think your thoughts and feel your feelings for the people and places that I see.”
And the third prayer is, “God, may your kingdom come and your will be done here and now as it is in heaven.”
The Scripture passage for today is one of my favorites. It’s from Isaiah 58:
“Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.
“Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness.” How’s this as a reputation for the church?
Earlier I talked about how God can help us see our neighborhoods with fresh eyes. But lately I’ve also been drawn to another aspect of this relationship. In particular, what if it is within the context of the Neighborhood that the Church itself is best seen?
The metaphor I keep coming back to is one of bioluminescence, the chemical process by which organisms—fireflies, some deep-sea fish, and other creatures—emit light. I’m especially interested in bioluminescent algae and plankton, which can make waves glow, illuminate footprints in the wet sand, or appear as miles-long light trails behind ocean ships.
Jim Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission and a former Navy pilot, recalled the time in 1950 when he had to perform his first night landing on an aircraft carrier. Through a series of unfortunate events, he had gone off course. His instrument panel had shorted out (as had the cockpit light), there was no moon, and thick clouds blocked out the stars. He was plunged into darkness, with no sense of where to find his ship, the USS Shangri-La. But when his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw a faint greenish trail in the water below him. He recognized it immediately as the phosphorescent algae being churned up by the propeller of the aircraft carrier, a road leading him back home.
The British author Robert Macfarlane describes wading into the sea of an island cove near Scotland, and “flinging long streaks of fire” from his fingertips like Merlin. “When it was undisturbed, the water was still and black. But where it was stirred, it burned with light.”
Macfarlane also told an amazing story of a father and son who were sailing in the Gulf of Mexico in 2004 when their boat was capsized by a gust of wind. They were 60 miles offshore.
After night fell, the water became rich with phosphorescence, and the air was filled with a high discordant music, made of many different notes: the siren song of dolphins. The drifting pair also saw that they were are at the centre of two rough circles of phosphorescence, one turning within the other. The inner circle of light, they realised, was a ring of dolphins, swimming around the upturned boat, and the outer circle was a ring of sharks, swimming around the dolphins. The dolphins were protecting the father and his son, keeping the sharks from them.
Bioluminescent marine organisms live at least just below the surface of the water. They all have the capacity to make light, but most are so small that they can only be seen in community with each other. “By processes not entirely understood,” says Macfarlane, “these simple creatures ignite into light when jostled. They convert the energy of movement into the energy of radiance.”
Maybe you’re starting to see why I’m so drawn to this image, and why I think it’s relevant to the work I do with Slow Church. As followers of Jesus, we have the light of Christ inside us. We are “theoluminescent.”
Theoluminescent, we are “children of the light” (John 12:36). For too long, too many displaced and disembodied Christians have lived above or apart from their places. But what if the Church got below the surface?
What if we moved more of our lives into the ongoing life of our neighborhoods?
What if we let ourselves be jostled and churned up in our particular places?
And what if we did all this within the context of communities of other believers?
I think what would happen is that the Church, like those bioluminescent organisms, would turn the energy of movement into the energy of radiance. We would be a trail of light pointing the way home.
By God’s grace, we would shine.