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Thursday, March 31, 2016

More on Dwelling and Seeking

Recently I stumbled across the most amazing singer. Her name is Eva Cassidy.
Eva Cassidy
She has a voice of such purity and beauty, such a rare combination of power and fragility, it’s hard to describe.

Eva Cassidy died of cancer in 1996. She was only 33 years old. She sang in local clubs and festivals and made a couple of self-produced CDs. But outside of her hometown of Washington, D. C., she was virtually unknown.

She became famous by accident. The host of the big morning radio show on the BBC in Great Britain was given one of her CDs. He played Eva’s rendition of the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  
The switchboard lit up with people clamoring to know who this incredible singer was. Sales of her CDs took off in England.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics, figure skater Michelle Kwan used Eva’s version of the Sting song “Fields of Gold” as the music for her routine.  She became a hit in the US. 

Since her death, her CDs have sold over 10 million copies.

So why didn’t she become famous when she was alive? How could it be that someone as gifted as Eva Cassidy was only discovered after she died?

The main reason is that she refused to be put in a box. She couldn’t be categorized, so no record company would sign her. She sang folk, rock, jazz, blues and country tunes. But the record producers kept saying “What are you? Are you a jazz singer? A pop singer? A folk singer? You have to pick one.” And because she wouldn’t do that, she never got a recording contract.

In a documentary about her, a record executive tells how he called Eva near the end of her life and tearfully asked her to forgive him for not recording her. He said that it was the biggest mistake of his professional life.

So where am I going with this?

In my last blog post, I wrote about two different kinds of spirituality – the spirituality of “dwelling” and the spirituality of “seeking.” Dwelling is about home, belonging, and the safety and predictability of sacred spaces. Seeking is about risk, uncertainty, and the quest to find the holy in unexpected places.

And our temptation is to view these two kinds of spirituality as mutually exclusive, as an either/or. Either you’re a dweller or you’re a seeker.

Some would say that the day of the spirituality of dwelling is over. We all have to be seekers now. 

Isn't that human nature -- to always be trying to draw sharp lines and make clear cut distinctions? We do it in the church all the time. “Is your worship traditional? Or is it contemporary?” “Is your theology orthodox? Or is it progressive?” “Is your church attractional? Or is it missional?”

But we forget that the most contemporary forms are often those most deeply rooted in tradition; that most progressive theology (whatever that means) can be the most orthodox; and that the most attractive churches are the ones with the strongest commitment to a mission.

I'm always reminded of the worship writer Robert Webber who talked about our "ancient/future faith." 

The truth is that the deepest things of life are rarely hard-and-fast either/or’s. We wish they were. It would be simpler. But they are almost always both/and’s and life is about learning to navigate the paradoxes.

This is at the root of Christian faith. For centuries, Christians have affirmed that

·         God is transcendent. God is immanent.
·         Jesus is fully human. Jesus is fully divine.
·         God is one. God is three.
·         We are justified by faith alone. Faith without works is dead.
·         God is just. God is merciful.
      We must remember the past. We must forget the past. (Isaiah 43) 
·         If we want to live, we have to be prepared to die.
·         If we want to be great, we must be humble servants.

The life of faith is the ability to hold things that appear to be opposites in creative and energetic tension. It's what keeps faith alive and ever renewing. We don’t like tension, so we want to resolve it, to make it either/or, to fit the messiness into clearly labeled boxes. But whenever we do that, we end up with something much thinner, much poorer, much less true.

Eva Cassidy remained true to herself by refusing to be put in a box.

And Christian communities are most true to themselves, and more importantly, true to God, when they can learn to live in the life-giving tension between a spirituality of dwelling securely in the presence of God, and a spirituality of risk-taking pilgrimage. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dwelling Seeking and Practicing

The American sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote an important book about twenty years ago entitled After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. This book helps to explain the challenges that the church is facing in the 21st century.

Wuthnow argues that there has been a major paradigm shift in the last 60 years from a spirituality of “dwelling” to a spirituality of “seeking.”

In a spirituality of “dwelling,”  God has a definite place in the universe and human beings set aside sacred spaces where God is encountered. We know where to go to find God. We have a sense of being “at home,” of dwelling safely and securely in the “house of the Lord.” This spirituality expresses itself by constructing specifically religious buildings with “sanctuaries” and sacred objects that mediate the presence of God. We find this paradigm in the Old Testament traditions centred on the temple.

The 1950s, according to Wuthnow, represented a last flourishing of the spirituality of dwelling. Following the chaos of two World Wars and a global depression, there was a great hunger for stability. Churches were built to recreate the home, complete with parlours (living rooms,) kitchens, nurseries and family gathering spaces – but also with sanctuaries exclusively devoted to worship.  Churches and denominations were structured to create stability, which is one of the reasons we are finding it so difficult to undertake organizational change today. We have inherited structures that were specifically designed to inhibit change.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Wuthnow argues, the spirituality of dwelling was eclipsed by a spirituality of seeking. Rather than looking for safe and secure places where we can meet with God, the spirituality of seeking is the quest for fleeting moments of encounter with the sacred. God is often hidden, and then shows up unexpectedly, and not necessarily in times or places we think of as religious. Access to the divine can’t be be managed or taken for granted, and becomes detached from established forms, rituals and spaces. The spirituality of seeking is an individual journey of discovery, with restlessness and pilgrimage superseding predictability and home. Biblically, it is expressed in the exodus tradition.

Congregations formed out of a spirituality of dwelling find it very difficult to adapt to the fluidity and uncertainty of a spiritual culture based on seeking. Furthermore, younger generations who have been nurtured on the concept of spiritual seeking find traditional congregational life with its emphasis on conformity and belonging so unattractive. There is a sense of the irrelevance of the church in an increasingly needy and complex world.

Many would see the spirituality of seeking as an unmixed blessing, but Wuthnow argues that it comes with its own set of problems. Because it is so individually focused, it is inherently unstable. When everyone is on his or her own journey, and faith is seen as purely a matter of personal choice, the structures that are able to build and maintain community are undermined. So we have the phenomenon of the free-lance spiritual consumer, dabbling in whatever catches the attention at the moment, skimming the surface without ever reaching a place of depth. The very thing that attracts people to a spirituality of seeking – individual freedom to choose one’s path – makes it hard to sustain over time.

What is required is a third way which Wuthnow calls a “spirituality of practice.” Practices are habits of action cultivated over time that can lead to spiritual maturity in the individual, but also shared communion with others. They are not necessarily tied to institutional structures, but they can connect us to what is worthwhile in our traditions and to one another in bonds of community. Practices can also be borrowed and adapted from other traditions, broadening our horizons and our appreciation of those outside our familiar circle. Wuthnow’s work laid the foundation for the practice-based faith advocated by Dorothy Bass, Diana Butler Bass and others.

This is a good news/bad news story. The bad news is that much of our traditional congregational life simply doesn’t have much of a future. Congregations that simply try to hold onto scraps of a remembered church life will continue to struggle and decline.
But the good news is that our churches have rich resources of memory and tradition out of which new practices can be fashioned. I say “new,” but in fact contemporary spiritual practice often means the recovery of extremely ancient forms that are rediscovered and relived in today’s world. Time-tested practices of prayer, discernment, Sabbath-keeping, simplicity, care of creation, reconciliation and justice-making can both keep us connected to what is life-giving in our tradition, and guide us in our seeking of new ways to journey with God.

What it takes is time and intentionality.

After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s is still in print and available from and elsewhere.