Theology From the Mop Closet

February 19, 2010

emergent / theology

I got married, as I’ve said, on December 6, 2003. A couple of weeks after that, I got a job as a full-time, night shift (4pm – midnight) custodian at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, Florida. At the time, I was a junior in college. I kept the job until February of 2006, less than a year before I finished at my second college.

For most of the time that I worked there, I worked with another guy who was double majoring in religion and music at another college in Lakeland. The college where I pursued undergraduate theological education is fairly conservative, and is solidly situated in the Pentecostal movement, and more specifically in the Assemblies of God. The college where my friend pursued his undergraduate education is solidly situated in classic liberal Christianity, and has connections with the United Methodist Church.

Both of these colleges have religion departments. Sadly, there is no dialogue between the two colleges or their religion departments, which are barely two miles apart; just as there is very little dialogue between the larger worlds of conservative and liberal Christianity in the United States. In a very broad sense, though with notable exceptions, the one I attended is more focused on “church ministry,” while my friend’s is focused more on theology, and expects folks to go on to seminary to learn “church ministry.” In any case, because my friend and I worked together, for forty hours a week for roughly two years; cleaning toilets, vacuuming rooms, sweeping and mopping floors, and moving lots of heavy furniture, we spent a lot of time in this kind of dialogue.

During the time that we worked together, we impacted each other’s theological and spiritual views and thoughts in significant ways. We spent large amounts of time discussing theology, the Bible, spirituality, ministry, politics, activism, and any number of other things. We agreed, disagreed, changed each other’s minds, agreed to continue disagreeing, and knew regardless that both of us were seeking the heart of God. Later I was in his wedding. We remain close friends today.

For a year or so, I also taught the high school Sunday School class with him at that church, and loved it. I think the folks in the class benefited from dialoguing with us, as we trusted one another enough to give freedom to teach things differently than we would have taught them, even within the same lesson. Even now, four or five years after the last time we taught them, we occasionally hear from some who remember things we said and did, and were impacted by them.

Now. This all probably sounds fluffy and idealistic. But for the first several months that we worked together, at least, we didn’t do any of this. We just argued. We talked past each other, we didn’t listen to each other, we didn’t hang out with each other. As I’ve said, our colleges didn’t dialogue with each other. But they did mention each other. Students at his college thought the folks at my school were crazy, primitive conservatives in the vein of the Falwells and Robertsons of the world, maybe combined with some old-fashioned revivalism. Students at my college thought the folks at his school were crazy, overeducated liberals in the vein of the Jesus Seminar, maybe combined with a complete lack of experience of the Spirit.

Neither were true. It took us time to learn this. Time to learn that we could listen to each other’s theologies, experience each other’s spiritualities – and take on and be shaped by them to varying extents (though we did, and still, disagree on many things) – without losing our own identities, our own theologies, our own convictions. These things are important. The failure to remember this is the failure of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.

It could potentially be the dividing factor of Emergent Village, and this is why many of us who are not saying goodbye are saddened by the goodbyes of those who are. For the last few years, I have seen this kind of dialogue happen within Emergent circles. To an extent it is continuing to happen as folks here and there state that, regardless of whatever theological differences they might have with whomever they might have them they don’t need to say goodbye. I’m with them on that.

Mike Clawson‘s to that effect is especially relevant in the context here, as he reflects upon the accusation that Brian McLaren (in light of the controversy around his new book) and other folks are too liberal, while in the setting of a mainline seminary they are not liberal at all. This is where the dialogue can end, and maybe it is unavoidable. I’m hoping it isn’t.

This is another example of us talking past one another. The friend I’ve mentioned in this post is a liberal, attending a liberal seminary (where my wife is, as well). Professors regularly call him a heretic. I occasionally think he’s really sketchy. Aside from his ecclesiology (which may in fact be part of the broader issue here, with jobs and such on the line), he thinks most Emergent theological thought is moderate to conservative.

But it’s okay. There’s a deep awareness that, regardless of disagreements, the Spirit is present. Desire for the kingdom of God and the lordship of Jesus in the lives of real people is present. And it goes back to a mop closet, a custodial cart, and a vacuum cleaner.