The walls of my dining room are umber and the ceiling glows warm red. Mike and Alicia are here early, as usual, and they circle the room lighting all the little tea lights on the plate rail. There is soup on the stove in the kitchen and I have prayed for each member of my crew as I chopped and stirred until the kitchen is covered with peels and splatters.
There is a chalice on the table, a plate with bread from the bakery down the street. Sean is in charge of music and pro- vides a CD he has named “The Sanctified Mix.” We gather round the table. We sing a Peruvian tune in call-and-response. We pray our Sabbath prayer: Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God, who has given us the fruit of the vine, the grain of the earth, the blood of your vein, the pulse of your heart. We break bread. We pour soup. We drink wine. We keep Sabbath. We are a house church, a neo-monastic order. We are Thursday Night Gathering.
Later we will clear the table and wipe up the crumbs. By this time in the evening, the art supplies have been retrieved from the buffet drawers, and sometimes we do lectio divina — the Scriptures printed on cards in front of us, and our hands busy with pen and paper, paints and charcoals as we demarcate the words and images that rise up to us as we sink into the message.
Some nights April plays the harp and we lie on the floor to practice centering prayer, focusing on God and seeing what he reveals to us. During the high holy seasons we meditate on pieces of art created by one of the many artists in our crew. Once we lit candles and let them float in a pool to symbolize our intercession for one another. Sometimes we sing. A lot of times I make plans that fall short, or need to be altered. Often someone falls asleep on the window seat, or curls in an armchair reading or flipping through a magazine. In the summer we live on the front porch, or on the grass under Chinese paper lanterns. Then we relax and read bits of our favorite books and tell stories. We count it all as worship.
The bulk of our time is spent with our friends. Our missions’ budget is spent on things that will attract our neighbors, our friends. We throw a lot of parties. Our mission field feels like the moon to most people, but we are learning to speak the native language. The language in the post-modern world is one of welcome and embrace. As we abandon our old language of debate and persuasion, we find our own most intuitive tongue. We learn what it means to get out of the way and let the incarnational Christ move through us. We learn to hear and tell stories. We let the Holy Spirit worry about conviction. We sow and receive love.
I pastor this crew. I don’t use that term often, though it is what most people understand. I wanted to be called “Soul Farmer” but everyone said it was too creepy, so I am the Cultivator. I cultivate this company, try to tend the soil and pull a few weeds. Mostly I make the space to drink water. Sometimes I work in some fertilizer. I don’t lead them like a captain rallying his troops. Instead I take my metaphorical inspiration from a lecture I once heard by Brian McClaren. I am Dorothy. I am going to Oz — the real Oz not the one with the man behind the curtain. Sometimes I lead and sometimes I give the lead to others, to those who are learning to have courage, or brains, or a heart. I make sure we remember which road we are on; I point in a given direction. To use theological terms — I am a seminary graduate after all — I set the eschatology. Then I get out of the way.
How did I get here? Mostly I followed my gut. But also there were help-meets, some of the most significant of which happened to be men — men who didn’t see me as inferior to themselves, but as a peer and maybe even a prophet; men who had power, connection, and influence and used it on my behalf; men who sat in the same space as me and waited with me as we watched the Spirit give birth.
Three years ago I was ordained as a pastor in the Association of Vineyard Churches. I was to help a senior pastor, Ed Cook, begin something called “multi-congregational church planting” so we could plant several local congregations that would be linked together for support. Ed ordained me. The very next week the AVC said it was okay for him to do so. That is how I began my life as a professional clergy member — always one step ahead of the “go ahead,” always perched a little bit on the edge of acceptability.
I’m not really sure how I got from there (traditional church) to here (emerging church). I know it had something to do with the fact that I worked very closely with Israel Button, our then worship director, and he kept saying, “people intuit truth through art.” He spent long hours with me while we poured ideas like puzzle pieces out onto a table and shuffled them around, trying to see what picture they formed. Finally, we realized there was a little core of people who thought like we did. These people liked that I didn’t know all the answers. These people liked that instead of quoting Scripture I read children’s stories. These people were fine with skipping a worship set in order to sit in front of a sculpture. These people were hungry for something different, and so was I. So I asked to go with this crew to Oz, and Ed gave them to me — gave me these gifted leaders, these regular tithers, these productive healthy members of his congregation. He gave them to me and he let me go to a place that was largely foreign and at times quite worrisome to him. He made space for something new to be born, and it worked, and it was good.
I was happy with this. The church I was building was one I actually wanted to go to, and I felt at ease in my own skin. But I felt very alone in a strange and possibly heretical world. I wasn’t sure how to navigate these new charts. I wasn’t sure what methods would get me to Oz. One day I stood in my driveway and looked up at the man who was on an extension ladder, painting my house.
“Jim, would you like to go to lunch?”
“Are you asking me to have lunch with you?”
(Uh oh! Had I crossed some sort of unseen gender barrier?) “Yes. I am.”
At lunch, my housepainter-cum-mentor, Jim Henderson, said, “Ten years ago no pastor would have asked a house- painter to have lunch with him to talk about planting a church.”
I replied, “Ten years ago no pastor would have had lunch with me, a woman, trying to plant a church.” And so we misfits met and began our partnership. Since then I have walked through doors Jim has kicked open — doors I, as a woman, was not allowed the keys to. He has helped me find connections with other like-minded practitioners. He has introduced me to authors and conference organizers. He has ceded the floor at his Off the Map events so that I could have a voice, so I could lead the way for a while. He has made it a priority to set down his power and influence in order to bring me, and many other women, to the table where we can actually shape the conversation. He is learning how to do this, and his women friends are teaching him how to let us be not Vanna White — making a token appearance on stage — but Dorothy — leading the gang towards Oz.
What I am doing is not traditional, but it is becoming common. It is happening over and over again as women find their own voices and are empowered to lead in their own styles. This is not a typical way of planting a church, of doing missions, of preaching, of worshipping.
So I seek solace in my emerging friends, the small and unheard of practitioners who are pioneering this new ground, who are actively sweeping off the yellow brick road. Jim and I gather a little crew about us once a month. “Our Support Group” we call it. The men haul the women out of the kitchen and sit us down on the couch; they take turns jumping up from the table when crying erupts from the playroom.
There are no existing structures that work for us. We blaze on our own trail. That is why we are always emerging and never emergent — because we are still on the growing edge, still surveying the moon, still deconstructing and reconstructing a faith that must be made to have feet in a post-modern world. And while women have permission to be here, we must still find our own structures that will allow for children and childcare, story and ritual, new rules and new spaces. The praxis must make room for the ideology it has embraced. The men who journey alongside us help us kick down doors, and we show them new paths they’ve never considered. It’s getting better, there are things to celebrate — but still, it is a long way to Oz.