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The Emergence Upon Us

Written By Phyllis Tickle

The following reflection first appeared in November 2009 as part of First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010.

emergent churchIn March, during those hesitant days when Spring was more an anticipation than an observed presence in West Tennessee, I escaped the waiting by going, for the better part of a week, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. It had been years since I had been there, and either I had forgotten—hard to believe—the incredible, almost glowing or luminous beauty of that place or else, over the intervening years, the gods of sun and rain had re-painted it with a magical beneficence. Whichever of those were true mattered not, the place was earth and earthly existence at their best.

I was there at the invitation of Fr. Richard Rohr and The Center for Contemplation and Living. Fr. Rohr, who is the founding director of CCL and a Dominican priest, had invited a cohort of some six or eight folk to gather there in order to discuss Emergence Christianity not amongst ourselves per se, but amongst ourselves in front of an inter-active audience of Christians and others interested in what this Emergence thing is and what it is that God is doing amongst us through it.

Brian McLaren, the Martin Luther of Emergence Christianity, was to be there. An erstwhile Episcopalian, he and I had shared many liturgical sensibilities and practices over the years, and his company inevitably delights and refreshes me, though he is now what I would call “pure Emergence” without being able to tell you exactly what the “pure” part of that name actually means to say.

There was Shane Claibourne, a most beautiful evangelical who, through his Simple Way community in Philadelphia, is leading the life of a vowed neo-monastic Emergence Christian while at the same time serving as both example of, and voice for, radical obedience to the compassion and justice practices so integral to Our Lord’s message. Alexis Torres-Fleming, vibrant and steely woman whose Latina heritage and deeply devout Catholicism have made her a force in New York and beyond, was there with all the beauty of body and soul that she brings with her wherever she goes. Ian Crone, longtime friend and expert on both Emergence music and the lives of the saints, was there to do the legedemain that happens when music transports the whole of experience and being into sacred concourse among folk and with the Divine. And so it went … the point being that we assembled as Emergence Christians, but from all the extant branches of institutional Christianity. It was as if we were bringing with us not only the vocation laid upon us by this new expression of Christianity, but also the familiar treasures and gifts of our various natal forms of established Christianity.

I am not quite sure what I had expected to find in Albuquerque. Whatever it was, it certainly was not what I walked into. What I walked into, along with my friends and colleagues, was a massive hotel ballroom … the largest that could be found apparently … that legally was allowed a maximum capacity of a thousand people and that was clearly inadequate. By the time of the opening session, people were not only milling about outside the opened ballroom doors, hoping to catch something through them, but they were also glued to television monitors in adjacent rooms and, we were told, the web was abuzz with people attending virtually. Clearly, none of this was because of anything that we or any one of us had yet done or said or accomplished. It was the subject itself.

On the morning of the second day, by the time we gathered with Fr. Richard in an anteroom for pre-session prayers of discernment and guidance, it was very clear to every one of us … Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Reformed, Evangelical, and Presbyterian … that something else was also happening … that something else also needed to be named.

Just as we bowed to pray and be led in prayer, I heard Brian say softly and more or less under his breath and with some edge even of amazement, “The Reformation is over.” And I heard myself respond, “The Reformation is over indeed.” Across the table, Fr. Rohr nodded his head ever so slightly, but a wisp of a smile played across his lips as he did so. Then he went on to lead our prayers and petition God for blessings upon us and all who would be with us that day.

There are moments in one’s life … call them epiphanies, if you want to burden them with a label … when some thing or action or circumstances makes a rift in our singularity and, dancing us through that rift, shows us, ever so briefly, the Life toward which we are moving. One never forgets those moments, though I, for one, have never quite been able to report them with anything like adequacy. They just are, and that is enough. And Albuquerque was such a rift into Reality for me.

The Reformation is indeed over, its work complete, its place in the building of the Kingdom of God fixed for all of time in Western Christianity’s courses. But the bloody divisions and agonized ruptures its coming caused and the violent interruption of lives and families units and worship communities that attended it must also stand as a cautionary tale. Whatever else we do, as Christianity shifts once more into post-Reformation, post-denominational, post-modern Emergence, it is imperative that we remember the terrible prices paid half a millennium ago by good Christian folk as they fought their way through from Roman Christianity to Reformation Christianity. We are on the move again. Brian is right in his summation and Fr. Rohr correct in his smile and twinkle of blessing. We are on the move again, but pray God we move this time with affection that surmounts distinctions and compassion that is filial in all its expressions.

Postscript – Yesterday, as I am sure you must have realized by now, was Reformation Day, the four hundred and ninety-second anniversary of Martin Luther’s taking a hammer to nail his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. And today is a new Sabbath. Let us keep it well.

Copyright © 2009 Phyllis Tickle.