Yesterday, I sat in the bliss of the shining sun on the beach reading the final chapters of Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. These are truly words of hope. These are words that remind us that we are creating something new with God. We aren’t the victims of history but we are able to create the future in the ways that we choose to act now.
In the United Church of Christ, where we are blessed (and sometimes cursed) without hierarchical structure, it seems that we wouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that we can’t change the system. In a tradition that proclaims a Stillspeaking God, we seem to be just as burdened as other mainline Protestants with the familiar refrain, “But, we’ve always done it that way.” After reading these words, I am more convinced that this is the one phrase that will determine the future of Christianity. If we allow this phrase to dictate all of our conversations, then we will get stuck. We will never be anything else. History will swallow us because we made the conscious choice not to do anything.
I’ve been reading a lot about the power of conversation — how the simple act of engaging in conversation with another person can change the world. That might be too simple for you, but I believe it. I believe in the power of our stories. Diana Butler Bass pushes me further into this faith simply because she points to the fact that what people really want right now — that is, where there is real movement among the people — is to emphasize “connection, networks, relationship, imagination and story instead of dualism, individualism, autonomy, techniques and rules.” We want to hear more about how we’re related. We want to understand each other’s background and what makes each person tick in just the way that they do. There’s something about this current moment in time that requires us not only to listen but to start talking.
Something about me wants to lead this movement. I am fully aware that that is crazy — but it seems that this is where the world’s deepest need fits my greatest passion. It’s the vocation to which I seem to be called. I want to help others figure out not only how to listen but to tell their own stories. I realize that this is a huge shift for many. Historically, we are comfortable with the leader being the one that has all of the answers. We are expect the leader to have certain qualifications either by academic merit or learned experience that will make that leader the expert we require at this moment in time. I am no expert. I am fumbling along through life and faith — but I have this one qualification that doesn’t fit anywhere on a resume. I want to realize this possibility. I want to find a way for you to tell your story — but that’s not all. I want you to listen to what others have to say. There is no way to become an expert at creating this space other than a willingness to engage in its discomfort. So, I’m heartened by the words that Diana Butler Bass offers to leaders in her conclusion. She reminds us that, right now, leaders
“are not needed to comfort people feeling lost in times of change. Instead, spiritual leaders need to help transform these fears into urgency and courage. People cannot stay in a state of perpetual fear. To enable and empower people to move ahead calls for wisdom and love, two qualities we seldom speak of in political leadership. It also calls for patient insight twinned with the ability for prophetic proclamation of the new world.”
It strikes me in this call for leadership that it’s not one person out front. We tend to think of our leaders as the one in the balcony or the one in the front or the one going ahead — but this kind of leader is smack dab in the middle. She’s not rushing ahead because whatever will be hasn’t come yet. She isn’t even the one that has all of the gifts and talents to realize that next reality. Instead, her task is to captivate the imaginations of others. Her job is to say as many times as she can: “You can do this.” I don’t think there is a bolder prophetic vision than to love and trust the community of believers enough to start talking to each other about what their dreams really are. When I talk with older generations about these things, they talk about beliefs. They seem particularly concerned that the whole world believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but that might not really be what our world needs right now. It might not be that every knee should bend to worship Jesus. It may instead be that we finally find some way to make the realm of God tangible. It’s not a theological reality but one that exists in the way that Jesus imagined the Spirit of the Lord to change the world. You know, in that amazing possibility that there might be no more hunger and the oppressed go free. I hope I’m not the only one that has the courage to say as many times as I can: “You can do this.”