Earlier this year, we posted a series by Julian Reese, UT-Knoxville Graduate and Faculty Minister, called “Incarnational Presence.” Having articulated a vision for Incarnational Presence in the last series, Julian Reese with Teresa Hooper discuss the habits or practices of an incarnational presence approach to ministry, proposing three “social imaginaries” that shape these habits.
Julian M. Reese with Teresa Hooper
“Ivan Illich was once asked what is the most revolutionary way to change society. Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform? He gave a careful answer. Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story.” Quoted in Frost and Hirsch, THE SHAPING OF THINGS TO COME, p. 33
CULTIVATING HABITS OF INCARNATIONAL PRESENCE
In our last series of posts, we introduced an alternative story of a way of seeing ministry to the academic community.
We call this vision “Incarnational Presence.” In this ministry paradigm we participate with Jesus to establish a presence in a community, to earn a voice in that community, and to encourage creative participation in the invisible Kingdom of Jesus in a visible way.
In this next series of five posts, we will think about cultivating clusters of spiritual habits emerging from three imaginaries, the imaginary of Parish; the imaginary of Farmer; the imaginary of Jazz Ensemble. The purpose of the imaginary is to provide an image that captivates the imagination and shapes the way we envision our work on campus.
We inhabit the imaginary. We cultivate the habits that emerge. Then, we watch for the fruit of presence, of voice, and of creative participation.
THE PARISH: ESTABLISHING AN INCARNATIONAL PRESENCE
Matt Canlis tells the story of how he wanted to learn how to be a pastor. So, he found himself a parish assistant in the Methlick Parish, Scotland. The first day in his position he turned up and asked the Senior Pastor, “Well, where is my office?”
The older man took him to the front walk of the church building. “There is no office.” Then he pointed down the street to the village, “There is your office.” Matt began to learn a new imaginary for ministry—parish.
To serve the parish as their pastor requires that you see yourself as a pastor to ALL the people in that place. You enter the world of their shop or business or family or play. You listen for the things that matter to them— their work, their kids, their families. Their professional standing. Their health issues.
A ministry of incarnational presence in the university imagines the university as a parish. There are interlocking communities of people working there, and most of them will never come to one of your groups. But nevertheless, you are called to the ministry of a priest on their behalf. You are their shepherd, and the shepherd must know the sheep.
There is no office. The incarnational presence goes to them. The faculty department floors, the departmental lectures and reading groups, the campus coffee shops — these places are your office, wherever your “people” gather.
You show up. You listen. You pay attention. You pray.
FARMER: EARNING AN INCARNATIONAL VOICE
One of my literary mentors in pastoral ministry is Eugene Peterson. His understanding of what is means to pastor people and his commitments to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and study, have resonated deeply and shaped my entire ministry.
When I was a young pastor, just out of seminary, I found a Peterson reference to Wendell Berry, where he talked about how much he had learned about being a pastor from Berry’s books. So, I found a Wendell Berry book in the library, and eagerly sat down to read it.
After reading a chapter or so, I closed the book in frustration, thinking that I had gotten the wrong book. The work I had been reading was about farming. I was looking for a book on pastoring.
Only years later did I find the answer to my confusion. Eugene Peterson writes of Berry’s work, “The importance of place is a recurrent theme— place embraced and loved, understood and honored. Whenever Berry writes the word ‘farm,’ I substitute ‘parish’: the sentence works for me every time” (Under the Unpredictable Plant).
Eugene Peterson adopted the imaginary of farmer because farmers settle on the land and stay put. They bind themselves to the land. They inhabit the land and participate in the rhythms.
The farmer earns the trust and the respect of the people of his community, giving her a sense of authority in her words and actions. The farmer earns her voice.
Twenty-seven years ago, George Marsden published THE SOUL OF THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY. In his “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” he writes: “campus ministries help many individuals yet, as presently constructed, hardly touch the anti-religious heart of modern academia.” (1994, n.7 pp. 441-2)
When I read that shortly after joining Graduate & Faculty Ministry, I circled it, and asked myself “Why not?”.
So, our campus ministry began planting seeds. We set about to establish a presence in several of our supposedly “anti-religious” academic departments, and to earn a voice in their intellectual conversation. We approached them as humble learners, gladly receiving what they had to offer, and were welcomed into their midst. We began planting seeds of Christian thought that was engaged in the things they were talking about. We sought ways to help these departments succeed in their mission. We found creative ways to encourage participation in dialogue around Christian thinking, and to facilitate relationships with Christian scholars.
Today, we enjoy sweet fruit. We are welcomed in their offices and their lectures. We are invited into their classrooms, and even have them ask us to arrange dialogue events with the secular department faculty, and the Christian campus ministers.
The farmer takes the long view. The farmer plants the seeds. And then she waits.
THE JAZZ ENSEMBLE: ENCOURAGING CREATIVE PARTICIPATION
The imaginary of the jazz ensemble displays the fruit of creative participation in the presence of the Kingdom of God.
There are good things happening in the University—Kingdom of God things. Things where we can identify the Kingdom and participate.
Eugene Peterson reminds us that “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places,” and the Christian attempts “to provide structure and coherence by working from a scriptural foundation and with a Trinitarian imagination.”
The Jesus Gospel is “the Kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1:15). Christ is playing in “ten thousand places,” including right in front of us in the secular university department. We do not bring the Kingdom of God. It is already a present reality. The music is already there, waiting to be recognized. What is needed is a witness, someone who can participate in the ensemble and perform a fresh beauty in the music.
The incarnational presence paradigm enters the conversation we find already ongoing in the academic community and participates with a fresh melody. The Gospel dynamic seeks to contribute to what is already there, and to help it flourish. Every member gets a turn to improvise while the others support their work. The conversations become richer, more fruitful. The music sweeter. The artistry more creative.
We take a place in the band. We participate in the music. We surrender our need to be the conductor, and we join together in making the music.
In our next three posts we will further develop these imaginaries and suggest some ministry habits that emerge to help us enter our parish, plant our seeds, and participate in the music. In our final post of this series, we will consider the fruit we wish to see, and how to discern the quality of our harvest.