“The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.” — John Muir
On Friday December 14th, the Riverside Innovation Hub staff visited the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park in Park Rapids, Minnesota. The Mississippi River has been an important conversation partner for us throughout our project. It serves as a reminder of the depth and breadth of God’s mercy flowing into our world (see Ezekiel and the Public Church: Everything will live where the River Flows).
It takes a drop of water at the headwaters 90 days to reach the Gulf of Mexico. That means the water we saw while we were there will be flowing through the Mississippi River valley until March 14th, the second week of Lent. That is a long time for these lovely drops of water to wait before they meet the warm waters of the Gulf. But Advent is all about waiting. And it is strange to think about Lent during Advent. But Advent is strange. Anticipatory waiting is strange.
Christian theologians use the phrase “the already-not-yet” to describe the era in which we live. God’s deep and wide mercy has already begun flowing into our world, but the fullness of the life and healing this mercy brings has not yet been fully realized. We wait for it, with anticipation. It is this anticipatory, strange waiting that our project is experiencing right now. We are in the already-not-yet. We are already experiencing the challenges and blessings of the slow work of innovation – the journey through the river’s valley – but we have not yet fully seen its fruits. This feels strange to many of us. We are not good at waiting. We prefer to control and initiate.
This is where I think John Muir might have something to offer us. God’s mercy is not something we sit next to and observe. It is something that flows “through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.” We long for every drop of God’s mercy to reach its destination. But it does not make its journey through a river valley, it makes its journey through us, through our bodies.
Mary, the Theotokos (God-bearer), teaches us how to carry God’s mercy in our bodies. 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46 –55).
Innovation is the same. The work of accompaniment, interpretation, discernment, and proclamation are not things that flow past us. They flow through us. We carry this work in our bodies. It becomes incarnate when we show up and engage a person, a place, an idea. We carry it in awe, and gratitude, and humility. And we wait. We wait for God’s good work that has already begun but is not yet complete.
The Riverside Innovation Hub is convinced of two things.
First, we are fairly certain young adults do not want to be targeted by efforts to win them back to church. They would much rather be participants and leaders in efforts to target pressing issues impacting their neighborhoods and the globe.
Second, we are fairly certain innovation, theologically understood, is not the creation of new, shiny programs. Rather, it is best understood as vocation. It is that thing that happens at the intersection where we are simultaneously aware of our neighbors’ deep desires, our deep desires, and God’s deep desires. Innovation happens when we are responsive to God’s call to be in life-giving relationships with and for our neighbor. We believe the Public Church Framework offers us an effective way to engage young adults — and all people — in that life-giving work.
This document seeks to explain the Public Church Framework and the biblical imagination that serves as its engine, specifically Ezekiel’s vision of God’s abundance.
The Public Church Framework
The Public Church Framework is based upon three presuppositions. First, the Triune God is present and active in our world working to create a future for God’s creation. Second, God calls God’s people to join God in this work of co-creating a future for God’s creation out in the world. Third, most — but not all — of these places where this work happens are places of suffering. Douglas John Hall defines the practice of theology as the work a Christian community takes on when it is seeking to proclaim good news that will actually displace bad news, or suffering. He says,
“Theology is that ongoing activity of the whole church that aims at clarifying what ‘gospel’ must mean here and now. . . The good news is good because it challenges and displaces bad news . . . Gospel addresses us at the place where we are overwhelmed by an awareness . . . of what is wrong with the world and with ourselves in it. It is good news because it engages, takes on and does battle with the bad news, offering another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.”1
Displacement does not always mean elimination, but it does always mean the suffering no longer has center stage, it is now accompanied and challenged by a hope which changes the nature of the suffering. Therefore, the Christian community’s call is to proclaim good news that challenges bad news, simultaneously discerning and proclaiming both incarnation and vocation — how God is at work in the world and how individuals, faith communities, and institutions are called into this work.
The Public Church Framework is a method for doing this work. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive in that it describes a natural rhythm or method many undertake when aiming to clarify “what gospel must mean here and now.” It is an approach to Christian formation and discipleship that begins with a movement out into the public square rather than beginning in church doctrine. The framework walks faith communities through four movements, or artforms, designed to move the faith community into their neighborhood’s story, into God’s story, into their own story, and into a time of discerning how God might be calling them to be proclaimers of good news into their neighborhood and with their neighbor. These artforms include:
Accompaniment: The movement into the neighborhood in order to hear the neighbors’ stories. In this movement we learn to engage and listen to the neighbor for the neighbor’s sake.
Interpretation: The movement into God’s story and the faith community’s core biblical and theological commitments. In this movement we learn how our core theological commitments shape our understanding of our neighbors’ stories and we learn how our neighbors’ stories shape our understanding of our core theological commitments.
Discernment: The movement into the space between our neighbors’ stories, God’s story, and our story. In this movement we learn how to listen for who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do in light of the present reality and God’s promises.
Proclamation: The movement back into the neighborhood, this time prepared to proclaim good news in word and deed with our neighbors. In this movement we learn how to boldly speak the truth of Jesus Christ in ways that challenge the way people in our neighborhoods are suffering.
We believe the good news is always Jesus Christ, but we also believe this good news of Jesus Christ will look and sound differently depending upon how individuals and neighborhoods are experiencing bad news. Young people, actually all people, will be drawn to a faith community actively engaged in proclaiming good news and challenging bad news in its neighborhood. The Riverside Innovation Hub’s Innovation Coaches will be guiding faith communities through the artforms of the Public Church Framework. Ezekiel’s vision of the abundance of God’s creative love as it flows away from the temple provides us a compelling image for this work.
Ezekiel’s Vision (Ezekiel 47:1–12, NRSV)
1 Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. 2 Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.
3 Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. 4 Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. 5 Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. 6 He said to me, ‘Mortal, have you seen this?’
Then he led me back along the bank of the river. 7 As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on one side and on the other. 8 He said to me, ‘This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. 9 Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. 10 People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. 11 But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. 12 On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.’
Ezekiel had trained to be a priest in the temple but ends up living his adult life in Babylon, exiled around 598–597 B.C.E. In 589 B.C.E. he receives word the temple and all of Jerusalem have been destroyed. True to the Hebrew prophetic tradition, Ezekiel sees the destruction of the temple as a direct result of the peoples’ unfaithfulness. Therefore, he begins to share these visions as he prophesies against the temple, but it is a vision and a prophecy of hope, not despair. In this vision, Ezekiel encounters an enigmatic figure who, after touring him through the temple, takes him beyond the walls of the temple in order to show him exactly what happens in those places where the water flows when it leaves the temple. Many biblical scholars connect this river in Ezekiel’s vision to the river that wells up and waters the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:8–14. The temple cannot contain God’s creative force. In turn, the temple becomes a source of blessing for the entire land, rather than a fixture intended to serve its own purpose.2
In a move very similar to Hall’s understanding of good news as that which challenges bad news, Elsa Tamez claims the river in Ezekiel’s vision to be a metaphor for God’s jubilee. A jubilee that can only be proclaimed if it becomes specific in ending actual suffering.
“When one speaks of the jubilee, it is essential to have before one the concrete situation that one is experiencing: debts, poverty, unemployment, violence, discrimination, exclusion, conflicts, sorrow, dehumanizing consumerism, the lethargy of the churches. For the jubilee is the good news that supposedly puts an end to that reality of suffering and dehumanization. . . If we speak of jubilee in a generic sense, the injustice is hidden, and the jubilee loses its power and ceases to be jubilee.”3
Therefore, Ezekiel’s vision becomes an invitation to follow God’s jubilee as it flows into the world and and makes everything live where it flows. The Public Church Framework provides faith communities with a way to do this, to become blessings for the entire land on which they are rooted rather than existing to serve their own purpose. We are Ezekiel, following the enigmatic divine tour guide along the river as we learn to see the breadth and depth of God’s love flowing away from the temple and into the world.
Accompaniment: Mortal, Have You Seen This? (vs. 1–6a) — The river flows out from the temple and towards the desolate places. We are called out of our temples and our comfort zones to follow this river and to stop and notice how wide and deep it becomes. As we hear our neighbors’ stories, we become aware of how God’s deep and wide love and mercy are at work in their lives. We learn to hear and see so that when we are asked this question – Mortal, have you seen this? – we can answer with a yes. Accompaniment is the practice of learning to see and hear God’s love bringing life to our world.
Interpretation: The Water Will Become Fresh (vs. 6b–8) — As the jubilee river flows it brings fresh water into salt water. This fresh water desalinates the salt water and makes it fresh. The jubilee water dwells in, with, and under the salt water and makes it able to support and create life. The same happens to us as the stream of God’s story flows into the streams of our stories and our neighbors’ stories. God’s story begins to dwell in, with, and under our stories and our realities. This brings hope to stories that were at one time hopeless. Interpretation is the practice of learning how God’s promises (the fresh water) change the way we look at suffering in our world (salt water) and how those sufferings change the way we look at God’s promises.
Discernment: Fishing and Spreading Nets (v. 9–11)—The living water brings about diversity and abundance. The fishing is good along this riverside. We have now seen the fullness of this river and we now have some choices to make. Is it time to fish? Is it time to dry our nets? Is this a place to fish? Is this a place to gather salt? There is work to be done along this riverside and we are invited and equipped to do it. Discernment is the practice of learning to hear God’s call and to know when, where, how and why to act on that call.
Proclamation: Fruit for Food, Leaves for Healing (v. 12) — Ezekiel walks the riverside and notices the trees on both sides of the river and the harvest they produce. The trees are growing fruit for food and leaves for healing. The gifts of these trees create a future for God’s people. These trees do not only produce seeds that ensure the future of the trees themselves, they produce leaves and fruit for the world. Proclamation is the practice of producing and presenting our world with our gifts for the sake of the world, not for the sake of our own propagation. Christian faith communities re-engage their neighborhoods with fruit for food and leaves for healing — gifts to be given away that create a future for God’s people.
God’s creative, life-giving, jubilee river flows out from the temple and into the world. Our call is not to damn up the river and keep it in the temple. Our call is not to expect our neighbors to come to the temple to experience the life giving water of the river. Our call is to follow the river as it deepens and widens and makes all things live. As we learn to do this — to see, to fish, to spread nets, to grow and harvest fruit for food and leaves for healing — we will find ourselves in the midst of innovation. Our innovation will be the work of co-creating a future for God’s world with God and our neighbor along the riverside. Our young adults will be drawn to this work. They are not looking for the temple, but they surely are seeking what they can find at the riverside. They are looking for others who are eager to bring the fruit for food and the leaves for healing to their neighbors.
Which of the four artforms gets you most excited? Why? Which one do you think your faith community will struggle with the most? Which one do you think your faith community will have the easiest time putting into practice?
What are some examples of how your faith community is currently proclaiming good news that challenges the bad news of your neighborhood? What are some examples of where your faith community has failed to challenge particular bad news in your neighborhood? Where is there good news happening in your neighborhood beyond the current reach of your faith community?
What part of the Ezekiel text do you find most inspiring? Where do you have a hard time connecting with it or understanding it?
What would it look like for your faith community to follow the river of God’s living water out into the neighborhood away from the church building? Who are the guides that might accompany you on that journey? What might happen?
1Douglas John Hall, “What Is Theology?” Cross Currents 53, 2 (2003): 177–179.
2Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel. Vol. 20–48 . Word Biblical Commentary, V. 29. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2016).
3Elsa Tamez, “Dreaming from exile: a rereading of Ezekiel 47:1–12,” In Liberating eschatology: essays in honor of Letty M Russell, ed. Margaret Farley, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 69.