Friday, November 13, 2009

Birds Nests and Emergence

I took a break from sermon writing this afternoon and took Kate for a walk around the neighborhood. On the corner by our house, I saw something interesting, and thankfully I had my phone with me to record the moment:

It's a bird's nest that was either blown out of or physically removed from a nearby pine tree (about five feet away out of frame).

However it got there, it clearly went through quite a jostling, and despite being composed of very fragile pieces like pine needles and leaves, it is holding together perfectly because it's so well constructed.

A bird is a very simple animal, but in many ways it's far wiser than we humans. It takes simple, organic materials and weaves them together (without the aid of opposable thumbs!) and creates a dwelling to raise its children. The nest itself is nothing special, but what happens in it is. It cradles the eggs before the hatch and hold the chicks once they are born. It provides a place for the mother to nourish her young, and it protects them while she is gone.

It serves its purpose for a season, but then the chicks are pushed out of the nest and learn to fly. Once those chicks grow up, one or more of them may come back to this very same tree to have its own family, but it knows better than to try to use the exact same nest. Those organic materials that once sheltered it in infancy have become hard and brittle and wouldn't support the next generation.

So this bird, like its mother, gathers its own materials and constructs a nest that, while nothing special by itself, creates space for amazing things to happen. And so it goes, from generation to generation.

I wonder if our churches are kind of like this. We take organic materials from the world around us: artistic and musical styles, current trends in thinking, technological mediums, etc., and we weave them together to create space for something special to happen. What we construct isn't special in and of itself, but what happens there is. God inhabits these organic cultural forms and uses them to help us grow as disciples.

But like any organic materials, these cultural forms have a life cycle and eventually die. But humans, unlike birds, are often not wise enough to recognize this. We hold on to a dead, brittle bird's nest because it's been there for a very long time instead of looking for what is growing afresh around us.

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit quits using old cultural forms, of course (the Spirit is a bit more powerful than a mama bird), but that the most vibrant, fruitful things start happening outside the bounds of what we've already constructed and dwelt in long enough to get very comfortable.

Phylis Tickle talks about this idea in her book, The Great Emergence. She argues that every five hundred years, Christianity undergoes a "rummage sale" where it finds new cultural forms to bring the eternal gospel to new generations in fresh ways. Tickle says that these rummage sales were/are the first century time of Jesus, the sixth century liturgical reforms of Pope Gregory the Great, the eleventh century Great Schism, the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, and the Emerging Church Conversation of today.

While I find Tickle's semi-millennial construct to be a bit too neat (and, dare I say, too modern?), the way she differentiates the work of the Holy Spirit and the cultural mediums by which we understand that work is very helpful in an age where congregations seem to be at war with one another and even with themselves over styles of worship and means of communicating and understanding the ways God is working in our midst.

If you're a member of a group that inhabits an older bird's nest, that's great. Do what works for you, as long as you're worshipping the God who is working in that nest and not the nest itself (the difference is subtle and not often obvious). But don't discourage those who are finding new materials to build their own nest, even if that nest is right next door to your own. Everything old was once new and was criticized for being different.

And if you're someone who is inclined to seek out new materials for building your own nest, go and do so with courage! But remember not to be too hard on those who are living in older nests. God is still working with them, and even your fresh, green nest will one day be brown, brittle, and sitting on the side of the road, fit only to be used as a quirky illustration on a blog post.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Cool post,matt. Love to see what emerges nest . . I mean next