Last Epiphany, I asked that question of the four hundred or so people gathered for The Great Awakening, a two-day celebration sponsored by Seabury that included presentations by Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, and me, worship with the Diocese of Chicago’s own amazing Dent Davidson.
In response, people wrote their own permission slips. We collected them with the promise, now kept, that we would mail them back during Eastertide as a reminder—and a challenge.
As I read what people wrote on their permission slips, I’m struck by how much we long for permission to turn loose of fear. “Permission to say where the church is failing,” one person requested. “I want permission to try radically new ways of “doing” and “being” (the) Church whether or not they succeed. I want to be allowed the grace to fail,” wrote another. “Permission not to be afraid of failure,” another requested.
“Fear not.” Sound familiar? And yet the church spends a lot of time—an increasing amount of time?—being afraid of the future. We whine and argue about demographics and declining budgets and restructuring, resembling nothing so much as the petulant disciples who kept coming up with excuses for why they couldn’t do what Jesus told them to do.
These permission slips reveal our longing for the church to be a community of faith more passionately interested in the lives, the headaches and heartaches, the life and death struggles of people in the world than it is obsessed by its own internal organizational life. To be a church alive to the reality that God is not holed up in a building, or the possession of an institution, or captive to any theological categories.
We are longing, I believe, for permission to act as if we believe that God’s Spirit is at loose in this world. We want permission to name God’s presence, witness to it, celebrate it and help make it real in this broken world. I think people are dying for a church that will give itself without reserve to that task.
Last December, author Eric Weiner wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he articulated what I think we need to do:
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
Permission granted. It’s time for us to get busy. How do you think we should start?
–Jeffrey D. Lee