A New Way of Thinking About Church: Part 4

In this continuing series of notes from talks presented at the Refreshing Winds Conference at Canadian Mennonite University by keynote speaker Brian McLaren, we explore Stage 4 of a four-stage framework for understanding the spiritual life.  

McLaren introduced Stage 4 with a photograph of a female snapping turtle that had the plastic ring from a pop bottle around the middle of its shell.  When the turtle was much smaller it had likely swum through this ring which then stuck in place.  As the turtle grew it developed a deformity as its body grew around the constriction of the ring.  All of the turtle’s vital organs and processes had to fit through the constriction of the ring creating a life threatening condition for the turtle.  The turtle was young and continuing to grow.  The plastic ring was snipped and although its body shape remained the same (the shell being made of solid bone), the turtle would now have the possibility of a future, of surviving – everything had changed for the turtle.

McLaren suggested that this was a metaphor for Christians.  In Stages 1 and 2 Christians acquire plastic rings in the development of their faith in the context of a particular culture or religion.  These rings fit perfectly in Stages 1 and 2, but as our questions grow, the constrictive rings threaten our spiritual development.  When the rings are finally snipped, although it may seem insignificant at the moment, the freedom from constriction brings with it new possibilities.   McLaren quotes Richard Rohr:  “Great pain and great love pushes us”.

Stage 4: Harmony/Deepening

The focus on this stage is to regain simplicity – to seek first God’s Kingdom in rediscovering a few grand essentials.

Beyond Stage 3, McLaren states that we enter a state of harmony – a season of deepening.  The focus on this stage is to regain simplicity – to seek first God’s Kingdom in rediscovering a few grand essentials.  Love God, love your neighbour, in essentials, unity.  At this stage, we think about what is wise or unwise, appropriate or inappropriate.  Our motive in this stage is to serve, contribute, make a difference, fulfill our potential.  Stage 4, McLaren explains, is a time of synthesizing what we understand about our faith, using a wholistic frame of reference.  Our beliefs during this stage are that some things are known, many are mysteries.  Life is a quest.  In this stage we see authority figures as people like ourselves – imperfect, sometimes doing their best, sometimes dishonest, sometimes sincerely misguided.  Life is what you make of it, with God’s help.  In Stage 4, a Christian would see God as knowable in part, yet mysterious; present yet transcendent, just yet merciful.  Orthodoxy becomes paradoxy – we become able to hold truths in tension.  In Stage 4, the strengths of previous stages can be integrated and we develop stability, endurance and wisdom.   Harmony becomes the new simplicity, but we see the new simplicity with a sense of the experience of wisdom.  There is a purgation of Stage 3 – we don’t immediately analyze everything as bad or good.  McLaren explains that there is more to see than just throwing things into their categories .

Behold: The practice of seeing

It is important to stop putting people and things into categories and just see them.

Behold is the practice of being able to slowly and deeply see, to see with insight.  McLaren quoted from Richard Rohr’s book, the Naked Now, stating that we need to see as the mystics see.  This involves the ability to dispense with the rush to see things as either good or bad.  Judgements, McLaren says, are often based on what “I want”.  It is important to stop putting people and things into categories and just see them.  McLaren says really seeing is not possible until you’ve been through the deep, dark valley of perplexity.  Categories get challenged and shaken and brought to a new place.

Yes: The practice of joining

yield yourself and surrender to God

McLaren describes this as the natural next step.  It’s a step of surrender or consecration, of joining with God.  He explains, “I stop holding my separateness from God so strongly.  I yield myself and surrender to God.”   The term McLaren uses here is “theosis” or “catching a really bad case of God”.  McLaren uses the example of Steve Bell’s song, Burning Ember – an iron poker left in the fire will eventually take on the nature of the fire.  John Wesley referred to this process as “entire sanctification”.  McLaren points out that when we yield to God in an act of contemplation, we will find ourselves becoming one with God’s action.  Activism arises out of contemplation, the missional life arises out of the contemplative life.

[…]: The practice of being with

it’s a strange kind of prayer, not barraging God with words, but just openness.

The last descriptive word for Stage 4 is actually no word at all – just a deep silence.  In the practice of being with, in the midst of the silence, God and I are.  McLaren describes this as being like two fat people sitting in a boat who keep bumping into each other and laughing – the joy of being alive with God.  McLaren says it’s a strange kind of prayer, not barraging God with words, but just openness.  God is there.

McLaren quotes from Genesis 32 and 33, when Jacob was commanded by God to return to the land of his family after marrying Rachel and Leah.  He begins the journey home, but in fear of Esau’s response to his arrival, he sends gifts ahead of him.  During the night he wrestles with a man and his hip is dislocated.   In the end, his brother Esau welcomes him home and receives him with mercy.  McLaren says Stage 3 feels like a stranger, as if we’ve been mugged in the middle of our life.  If we make it through the struggle, through the night of Stage 3, even though we may have a limp and not feel as strong and confident, we will come out with a blessing.  We will begin to see the face of God in the face of the other, even in the estranged brother or enemy.   When Jacob meets Esau, he says, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God now that you have received me favourably”.

McLaren concluded his talk with a prayer: Lord, please snip the rings that hold each of us back from seeing.  Set us free to be with you. 

The series “A New way of Thinking about Church” is written by Nancy Phillips. This is the fourth article in the series.
Up next… the conclusion