One of the running jokes among my friends who are experimenting with emergence ways of doing church is the ongoing aggravation we have with sermons. There is nothing inherently wrong with sermons, of course, and we all appreciate the inspiring elocution of a good homiletician who has something important to say and is saying it with flourish and passion. It’s just that we’ve gotten so unfortunately accustomed to actually responding with thoughts of our own that we feel a serious discomfit as we stew in the pew. The preacher asks rhetorical questions, and we habitually open our mouth to respond before we catch ourselves and remember our surroundings and swallow our thoughts. Where they sit in our gut until we must inevitably blog cryptic responses to them.
The one that is currently stuck in my craw was an otherwise helpful sermon that was unfortunately built on a wobbly foundation. An encouragement to steadfastness, it posited ‘the faith’ or ‘our faith’ as a single monolithic entity. Moreover, it quickly promoted what seemed to be a false binary between our ‘faith’ and our ‘expectations’ of life (and where the preferred choice was more than obvious). When life is disappointing, the preacher said, we need to adjust our expectations and cling to our faith. And on a deeper level the false choice was applied to ‘faith’ as well: in times of duress, we must choose between ‘faith’ and ‘no faith’.What this brought to mind was the way in which our faith and our expectations are not fixed points, but are both fluid and flexible parts of our psyche. Furthermore, it’s not as though we intentionally change our faith (though that is certainly sometimes the case). Instead, our faith usually changes right there in front of our eyes… circumstances shift, seasons change, and (in the wise words of the famous philosopher Jeff Lebowski) “new stuff comes to light,” whereupon we find ourselves facing a new frontier of faith. If some religious authority forces a choice at this point, the outcome will be clear. And unfortunate.
But if we can admit that faith does change– in spite of our intention, level of devotion, and expectation– we can likewise recognize that thoughtfully shifting our faith is a good and healthy thing. Scary as it might sound, we should allow and even encourage our experiences of life to change our faith. This can seem to some a terrifying epistemological innovation, until we stop for a moment and realize that it is an obvious through-theme of the whole Bible, where person after person is pulled along toward God’s greater revelation as they struggle to reorganize the pieces of their life.
Mike Stavlund is chasing the dream of emergence Christianity with Common Table outside Washington, DC, teaching on the topic at Wesley Seminary, and is currently writing a book about the integration of all kinds of grief into our faith and life.