From Breath to Wonder: L.A. Night rocks Anaheim Convention Center Arena

McLaren calls for 'wholeness'; Poet Dominic Flores says, 'Jesus text me LOL'
July 16, 2009

Church happened in a dynamic and big and "transformational" way with multimedia presentations of themes such as breath, sky, earth, connectivity, mystery, and wonder at the July 15 L.A. Night at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena.

Bishop Jon Bruno of Los Angeles welcomed some 3,000 convention-goers, armed with "post-modern votives" -- glow sticks -- to the evening program, which focused on emergent church.

There were lights, cameras and action, as joyful participants alternately clapped, danced, laughed, and were silent, and reflective during presentations by well-known emergent church author Brian McLaren, the Rev. Jimmy Bartz of Thad's, a Los Angeles-area emergent church and the Thad's band, along with the Rev. Barry Taylor, a pastoral associate who began the "Se7en" emergent church service at All Saints Church in Beverly Hills.

Working in tempera paint on a lighted easel, artist Norton Wisdom depicted colorful scenes on glass throughout the program as photographic images of people and nature were projected onto screens. Also center-stage at various moments were poet Dominic Flores and a group of yoga enthusiasts performing sun salutations.

The evening program was divided into seven "cycles": Breath, Sky, Water, Earth, Connectivity, Mystery and Wonder.

In the "water" cycle, an enormous translucent bowl of water was brought into the hall, where Bishop Diocesan of Los Angeles J. Jon Bruno blessed it with words from the rite of baptism, and young people from the congregation took bowls of water to sprinkle on participants.

Wholeness is God's plan for humanity, McLaren says

"We are earth touched by water and light from the sky," said McLaren, speaking during the "Connectivity" cycle.

Weaving a theme of wholeness among God in Christ, humankind and nature, McLaren said, "Sin is, in a real sense, apartness. Sin is apartheid … sin is a breaking apart from the earth … for the benefit of one part."

In the King James version of the Bible, he said, the word now translated as "heal" is "make whole."

Referring to the healing stories in the gospels, McLaren said, that in story after story, Jesus restores parts to the connectivity of the whole. "Jesus enters into the sickness of humanity," he said. "He enters the body politic and binds us into wholeness with earth and sky and water and breath."

"In the Eucharist when we break the body and pour out the blood, we dramatize the brokenness of our lives," said McLaren. "The Eucharist has two parts of the drama. First the suffering: his body was broken, his blood was shed. Body and blood are separated by sin. You take this in and the body and blood are reunited. You are participants in restoration of a broken world."

After the event, McLaren praised the program as an example of "a new generation of leaders who are filled with creativity, faith and hope."

Referring to a tough legislative day at the convention, which brought news of $23 million in budget cuts, he added. "That pool of energy and creativity and talent is worth a hundred times whatever budget cuts you had to go through."

Overall, the Episcopal Church is emerging and transforming into something McLaren writes about in a book to be released next year, titled "A New Kind of Christianity."

"In my opinion, the Episcopal Church has engaged the thankless task of being pioneers … going into unmapped territory," he said. "At the surface level, that's appeared to mean dealing with the issue of homosexuality. But underneath that is the issue of sexuality, and under that is the issue of humanity and beneath that is how we related spiritually.

"The church, in all its forms, is in pain, and the church in all its forms, is pregnant. The pains don't have to be the pains of death, but of birth, of life. It is almost like the kernel of a seed has to crack and break open for the new life to emerge."

He said he is extremely hopeful about the Episcopal Church. "These struggles are painful, but if we have faith through the pain we can see the light come out on the other side," he said.

Living in the sacred secret
Through music and words, Taylor described an encounter with God as "a sacred secret … that can only be birthed within us and lived through us."

He also posed the question: "What if this God I affirm is always a delusion formed from the materials of my imagination and my desires? What if one of the steps towards God rests in the rejection of God?"

Bartz, a self-described "country preacher who's never lived in the country … but likes it" told the gathering that "the practice of the faith that most lights my fire these days is the flat faith, the eye to eye, palm to palm faith, this idea of being connected, to Barry, to Brian, to others and in that experience of relating dialogically or trialogically and getting a glimpse of the kingdom there.

"I love to read back into the Gospel and hear Jesus say the Kingdom of Heaven is now, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and I can say to my brothers and sisters and co-renegades, that I see the kingdom happening when we're eye to eye, when we're palm to palm, even when we're at odds with one another. Even if it means the chair needs to be left at the table for a time and that's part of our practice."

He also shared a spiritual discipline that his congregation tried a year ago of "turning worry into wonder."

Poet Dominic Flores delivered with 21st-century rapidity a tweet-style composition:

Between you and me
Jesus do you love me if you do text me LUV
Come on Jesus answer me asap
I need this immediately
Text me yo J
Hit me back man …

I fly by night
I google at the speed of light
Receive information from the ADD generation
Attention deficit spirituality
Fragmented message
From a cosmic reality forwarded to me
The Lord downloads in mysterious ways

Maybe these are the last days of fear
Those who have the handsfree here

Let them hear
The beginning is near …

Later, light painter Norton Wisdom said that his short-lived creations are spontaneous reactions to what he is experiencing. "I just stay out of the way and let it happen," he said. "That's my secret."

Asked if it ever bothers him that his paintings are washed away almost as soon as they're completed, he says, "At my age it's a joy that I don't have to store anything."

Wisdom is not a church-goer, but described himself as "a very religious person. I would love to be part of the Episcopal organization, but I don't have the opportunity, so I just support it in faith."

The screen images were created by Travis Reed, who produced most of the footage himself, but put other sections together out of historical footage. He has created what he calls "visual liturgy" for all three years of the lectionary.

Reed belongs to no particular church, but says, "I was in a hotel room and met Jesus," and that he has built a community of friends and fellow artists who draw their life from the spirit of God. He finds his inspiration in "the prophetic voices of the wounded."

Those attending reacted enthusiastically to the event, which was produced by the Diocese of Los Angeles as a gift to the General Convention.

Chris Ashley, a deputy from the Diocese of Massachusetts, said he would remember two primary images: "Brian McLaren's voice rising out of the crowd to bless us with his wisdom and words," and the way the blessing of water and the painting of light "sort of became one motion."

The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, also of Massachusetts, said, "I get excited every time we get to bring our whole selves before God in community. And this is happening right here in the middle of General Convention!"

"This is what our church is going to look like," said Ashley, who with Spellers participates in The Crossing, an emergent ministry located at St. Paul's Cathedral in Boston.

To see this style of worship here "feels like we're not alone," said Spellers. "I looked back and saw the Presiding Bishop clapping along to the music, and thought, 'This is my church!'"

Noting the enthusiasm shown by the crowd, she added, "This is how you ought to feel when you come out of church -- to be sent out with energy for God's mission."