The Church of Sunday Coffee
If you pushed me I would begrudgingly admit to my Christian faith. In recent months I have found myself to be on a bit of Church break. The communities and energies that have for so long sustained me now seem – tired, run out and out of ideas. While I value deeply the worshipping communities that sustained me for the last few years I find myself in need of something more.
Today, for instance, I am sitting in a coffee shop on Vancouver, BCs Commercial drive. I have a cup of green tea and I am watching the cold, grey post-rainy day through the large windows that look out on an Italian bakery. To my right a group of Italian men are bickering and at the counter a young girl is marveling at the ear spacers of the young woman serving coffee.
For now this is my church. It lacks something in community – unless I learn how to speak Italian and join in with the shouting old men that is. But it has so much more to give that I very eagerly welcome this opportunity for worship. And the sermon is not that good, though I am at a national chain coffee-shop and as such its message is not much different from that of most main-line churches: brand protection and promotion/large national structure to promote and protect.
But the cup of green tea is the best sacrament I’ve had in a long time, minus the long conversation I had yesterday with a friend who lives on the street. Its warm on a cold day and it is refreshing in a way that I need after a long week of work and financial insecurity as my wife and I start our careers.
I like the smell of it, the wisps of steam from the open cup as I breathe deeply before every sip. I like the way it makes me feel calm and at peace and at rest. With global economies going through turbulence and so much trouble, strife and insecurity in the world – not to mention my own insecurities and financial brinks – it’s good to have a day of rest. Its good to sit here with a cup of tea and listen to my own heartbeat for a while and to sing along a bit with John Lennon on the in-store radio.
Church and The Times
Of course the church is not necessarily supposed to be a place of rest, relaxation and calm in the midst of a loud, noisy, violent world. Or, I should say, it is supposed to be that also. In the book To Be A Revolutionary by Padre J. Guadalupe Carney he speaks to the need for middle-class and rich people to have a church that is one of rest and relaxation. This, he says, does not work for the poor and the downtrodden who need churches that speak prophetically to the condition and reality of their lives and demands justice. Whatever rest, relaxation and recharging the church brings for these people is to the end of advocating for justice and preparing the people for that work. We can see this in the historic black church and its commitment to civil rights and the community and in the LGBT church – such as the Metropolitan Community Church – as they continue to be communities of justice both in their embodiment as communities that function in light of the justice they seek and as communities that articulate the justice they want from the world.
This of course begs the question of what the church is supposed to be in the world. When the church becomes a place that mirrors the status quo then we should automatically be alerted to something being afoul in Christ’s church. If Christ formed a community of the lost, downtrodden and cast-aside by the powers of empire then the community itself is an alternative nation – a nation of believers, a nation of the oppressed – that functions in opposition to the ruling power assumptions. Their have always been churches who have gotten this and always been churches that don’t. If the world reduces the power and possibility of women in the world then it is the church that must give them a place to thrive and prophetically advocate for them. If the world reduces the participation of LGBT folks then it is for the church to be a community of diverse voices that declares that none are outside of Gods enterprise.
What I am not speaking of here is a form of Quietism that identifies the world as hostile and in need of abandonment and that the believer should retreat back into their cloistered world. Instead I am saying we identify the world as a place of goodness, beauty and truth but that they have missed the mark on the way to that reality The church then has an obligation to form communities of alternate realities in order to show the world what it can be and what salvation can be. If the world advocates dominator hierarchies and empires the church argues back with communities of mutuality and inclusive participation.
The Church that Is Not Church
In my new book Towards A Theopoetic of The Cross from the Progressive Christian Alliance Press (available on Amazon.com) I advocate for an ethic of church that is always involved in its own self-destruction. The church must always take a position in opposition to the powers-that-be/the ruling ethic of the day. Large communities always default to their own self-preservation, usually by defining whose in and whose out: we put things in categories of gay and straight, male and female, black and white, terrorist and patriot. The church in identifying that the impulse towards empire and exclusion are the spirits of the age must take up an ethic of resistance. But in doing that we must immediately turn around and destroy that new ethic we have just created so as to prevent an act of grace from becoming an act of law.
For instance: when we create a doctrine, theology or policy we must immediately take stock of which that new position excludes. If the church is to be Christ’s body in solidarity with the oppressed then we must always be careful to watch out for our own tendencies towards self-preservation. If we are trying to preserve our community as it is then we are not opening it to the work of Christ that could be. The church is not an institution for itself but a gathering space for people to come and gift the world with an impulse towards justice, relying on the gifts and talents of the assembled people.
As has been pointed out by more than one commentator the Church in North America is dying, and rightfully so. Traditional denominations have become so tied to the ways we have always done things and the status quo power assumptions that we have stopped dreaming of how to be about Gods mission in the world. I know too many priests who lament the end of the 1950’s and the so-called peak of Christendom.
But as the church dies something new will emerge. New communities of people who seek less to be Christians but more to be followers of the way of Jesus in the face of systems that seek to dominate and control human bodies. Church will become communities of resistance, action and justice in ways that draw wider the circle of inclusion. But we will also be a place of destruction, always destroying our assumptions, revealing our limitations and opening spaces for the Spirit to drag us into the future of Gods mission.
Tea Time is Over
I have been hiding behind the Church of Sunday Coffee (well, Green Tea mostly) for way too long. I have sought out quiet and renewal while shunning participation in Gods work in the world. I no longer know if traditional worshipping communities have a place for me, but I know that the work of God goes on. So I may have to begin by working out my own path and listening to the new directions of Spirit as I find my way. Maybe, just maybe, I will find a community that helps people find rest and renewal while preparing them for the hard work of Gods mission.
But I know that I can no longer stay here, hiding behind my teacup. And I can no longer be hesitant in naming myself as a Christian: the church does not work for me, but I am a follower of Jesus and a lover of the way of Jesus. Maybe that’s enough for now, like an Alcoholic taking the first of the 12 steps. Maybe confessing who I am and who I am called to be is the start I need. I will trust in God and Gods mission in the world, and I will see where that leads.