Guest Blog Post: Today’s post comes from my good buddy Mathew Mitchell. Mathew and I went to Christianity 21 last week, a conference held in Phoenix, AZ that was designed to bring together 21 different voices across the spectrum of Christianity to speak in to where the church might be heading in the 21st century. We had an incredible time together, and were impacted in profound ways. So here are his insights/thoughts/takeaways from #C21PHX.
Christianity 21: Up From The Ashes in Phoenix
Truth and Reconciliation
I had the pleasure of attending the JoPa hosted Christianity 21 event in Phoenix last week and it was nothing short of a mountain top experience for me.
I share these reflections as a first time attendee of this kind of Emergent conference, as a non blogging, non pastoral regular Joe who got tossed into church planting a year ago after a series of unexpected events.
My goal was to support my buddy and Sojourn Grace Collective pastor Colby who was selected to give a talk (his wife Kate couldn’t go and so I went in her stead) and to get a closer look at the progressive Christian personalities that have shaped much of my thinking and whom I have long followed from afar.
I was essentially knocked on my rear from the word go and struggled to right myself for the remainder of our time there.
Admittedly I went a bit doe-eyed into it all, not entirely aware of the differences in theological position or relational dramas that were being played out. But even as these aspects became clearer, the Love of God shined bright as if to say “I’m still here making things beautiful”.
I would describe the event as a time of Truth and Reconciliation – powerful Head and Heart examples of how God has, is and will continue to move in the world.
I note a few things here that touched me personally and have organized them as either items of the HEAD (things that are true, facts, data driven, cerebral) or HEART (reconciliatory, directly experienced, the palpable presence of God).
The most stand out Heart moment for me was the Dieter Zander talk detailing a man’s journey from physically vibrant stage personality and musician to Trader Joe’s floor sweep and back room spoils sorter. A debilitating stroke took almost all the mobility of his right hand and his ability to speak. It reminded me of the phrase Ram Dass uses to describe his similar experience “I was stroked by God”. One can feel such radiance and presence emanate from Zonder’s face in the midst of what remains such a challenging and wholly life altering circumstance. His discovery of joy and God’s playfulness in all things as a result of this experience moved everyone to their feet. What a testimony.
Glennon Doyle Melton is all Heart all the time…a genuine resurrected Christlike figure walking upright in our midst, open and vulnerable and in that way is courageous and warrior like. She is a shining example of the transformative power of a spiritual identity and all you want to do is cheer when you see her. Her personal story of bridging the gap of ideology with one of her more conservative readers was so appropriate for a group consciously attempting to include a wide range of thoughts on typically divisive issues. She showed us how to sit in that tension and not “piss on the other guy’s fire” to quote Doug Paggitt. She also fed us cookies made by the person in her story (Samantha) which was fantastic.
Another standout HEART talk from my time in Phoenix came from the Richard Beck. He described hospitality as an act of both seeing and approaching and talked about his experience with a disabled person that attends his church. He’s a big fan of the The Little Way of St. Therese. You get the sense that Richard has really wrestled through the events that he is describing and is delivering us messages from the front lines of lived experience. We got to know him and his wife Jana while we were there. They are salt of the earth people with an easy affection and the world is a better place with each of them in it.
Other talks from Rob Bell on shame and wonder and Shauna Niequist regarding how to stop doing good things for the sake of connections that truly matter left lasting impressions. A wrenching talk from Danny Cortez who told us about his son coming out and his efforts to keep his church reminded us of the work we have yet to do.
Christianity is up against some very real cultural issues that will require some innovative thinking if it hopes to remain a relevant resource for those in pain.
There were three talks that really stood out to me in this regard.
Brian McLaren whom many see as the father of the Emergent Church movement ceded his time to a man from a local Navaho reservation (Mark Charles @wirelesshoggan) who talked about institutional racism and steps the country could make to better deal with the pain of marginalized native peoples. The gesture on the part of Brian was REALLY inspiring and Mark’s content was compelling. I talked to him at length afterward. He is planning a public national apology to all Native American people for December 2016 and hopes to get Obama and Pope Francis involved. I’d love to see it happen. Canada and Australia have made similar moves…it would be great to see the USA get real in this way.
Rabbi Joseph Edelheit gave us a Torah lesson full of passionate Hebrew and the suggestion that we Christians regain a sense of the deeply mysterious living God whose name cannot be represented in a word. He dove into the “I am that I am” (ehyeh asher ehyeh) line from scripture and emphasized that God is that which God has yet to become. He suggested that dialogue about what God is or has been isn’t as exciting as that which God has yet to become. His talk was a great example of interfaith communication and a refreshing perspective for all Christ followers. I really enjoyed his presence there.
Kristen Howerton gave a lesson on white privilege which was both brave and crucial. Issues of sexuality and race continue to challenge churchgoers as folks increasingly ‘come out’ and integrate and in doing so form relationships which are the true catalyst for change. However the language to describe how one might see and begin dismantling the real pain felt by marginalized people is still tough to frame. As a blonde white lady and mommy to two black boys she is well placed to help guide her peers into a greater understanding of their unconscious bias. I think she could be a pivotal voice for churches that long to move more actively to identify white privilege and deal with it.
Music from Heatherlyn, illustration from Paul Soupiset and theatrical performance from Ted & Company helped give the entire experience a creative tone that helped keep us engaged and entertained and aware of the fact that God is working through all of us always.
I would have enjoyed an inspiring voice directly from a member of the LGBT or Q community. We talked around them more than anything and although I had great conversations with gay and lesbian conference participants, a voice from the stage was missing and this to me was an oversight. It was hard for me to embrace the passionate and poignant plea from Efrem regarding inclusion of our most impoverished knowing his stance on the issue but Jacqui Lewis rounded that conflict out for me. Discussion regarding the marginalization of sexual minorities by marginalized racial minorities is one for another day.
I had so much fun watching Colby nail his talk and build community with other like minded folk at the bleeding edge of Christianity. I spoke with people being sued by their denomination for performing same sex unions and others on the verge of losing their churches for the same reason. I was proud to represent a community where they would be celebrated for their acts of radical inclusion and was at the same time reminded that we have work to do.
However, I left feeling more invigorated than anything else, confident that we are on the right path and resolved to continue the beautiful struggle that is following Christ in a world that often seems to be walking in the opposite direction.
I look forward to remaining connected to those I encountered and showing the world that love wins…every time…with God’s help.
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(all photo cred, minus the epic selfie at the top, courtesy of Courtney Perry, the official C21 Photog.)