Ecology of Incarnation: A Love Song - by Kristin Foster
In 1988, my husband, Frank Davis ’77 M.Div., and I moved with our three year-old daughter to Mountain Iron, MN, a tiny town perched on the edge of an open-pit taconite mine. In this deeply pitted landscape called the Iron Range, surrounded by boreal forest and northern lakes, we would raise our two daughters. Until February of this year, I served as pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church, ELCA, the same congregation that called me in 1988.
After nearly three decades, the town is not the same town, and the congregation is not the same congregation. A whole generation is gone. Another has grown up. A devastating fire led us on a journey to a new location and a new role in our community. After years of discussion, we became the denomination’s first Reconciling in Christ congregation in the rural Upper Midwest, welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. We launched a sustainability movement and now host the largest Earth Day event in northern Minnesota. Always we attempted to reach consensus. Sometimes we failed. Here and there, beloved members dropped away.
Can We Outlast This?
After nearly three decades, our country is not the same country either, and earth is not the same earth. Many changes are familiar: digital access, globalization, climate disruption, species extinction, rural decline, Rust Belt backlash, the war on the poor, the end of school desegregation, mainline church decline. We could celebrate marriage equality, as well as the massive demonstrations for the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants. Yet how, we might wonder, will we ever be able to talk across differences about things that matter for our common good, maybe even for our survival?
Like an accelerating polar vortex on the weather map, political polarization creates a kind of inversion that disrupts the climate patterns necessary for the life of the polis to regenerate itself. The vibrant tension that holds together opposite poles is dissipating. Language degenerates into angry code words. Labels replace the lace of observation. To preserve relationships, people stop talking about issues that matter to them. Conversations become smaller. We tiptoe around each other. Or we just leave. A relational monoculture takes over, where we associate only with the like-minded. Can democracy survive this? Can churches?
In many church bodies, an enormous gap exists between its public prophetic voice and many people in the pews. Or ideology masquerades as theology, or self-improvement as salvation. Adding to this, our theological language does not readily speak to the culture of post-Christendom.
What can we do? Can churches speak prophetically without being caught in the vortex of polarization? Can we do the work of reconciliation when basic facts are in dispute and only one side is worth listening to – your own?
These large questions cannot be addressed apart from the particularities of actual Christian community. There we often avoid confrontation for fear of losing relationships. However, it is also there that we may have the best chance to learn how to live with difference and find the courage to move through it.
In my nearly 30 years as pastor in one place, I have asked these questions countless times: Can we talk about God’s justice and mercy across apparently opposite poles? Can we stay in relationship while we move beyond our comfort zone for the sake of God’s call?
These questions never met me in the abstract. They are shaped like a heart, where all the people of my parish also live. These heart-shaped questions live not in the head but between the ribs. Sometimes they burn in me like a live coal.
Over the years, heartbeat by heartbeat, I have begun to discern not answers so much as heart-shaped movements. The movements are shaped by the paradoxes at the heart of faith. Christian theology moves in dynamic tension between apparent opposites: humanity and divinity, power and weakness, mercy and justice, folly and wisdom, saint and sinner, politics and spirit, finite and infinite, least and greatest, heaven and earth, death and life. These theological polarities act like a heart, pumping blood in opposite directions. When the church fails to honor or inhabit its paradoxes, theology collapses into ideology. The church slides into polarization. Political powers and moneyed interests use the church as a pawn in their game of thrones.
Yet when pastors preach and lead from these indispensable tensions, we and our congregations might learn to attend to the paradoxes embedded in our personal and political sensibilities, not run from them by retreating to one pole or collapsing the poles in a flaccid neutrality. Amid the spiraling of anger and fear, shame and blame, dread and desperation, we might name deeper polarities we are likely avoiding – hope and grief, certitude and doubt, fear and confidence. We might even embrace these tensions as an energy field where the Holy Spirit moves. It is not easy, but I have experienced it.
Yet difficult conversations need something more than good theology. They need a rich soil ecology. In the life of my church and its many passages through heartache and heart song, relational soil was forming. A soil of respect and affection built up among people of different ages, personalities, and wavelengths that could sustain relationship when disagreement emerged. It is much harder to reduce to a label the person with whom you share communion or serve at a funeral.
This biodiversity of relationships is not limited to the living. It is composted by the stories and spirit of our ancestors and aerated by hopes for the generation coming of age. The church’s language fertilizes this soil. Ancient, poetic, sacramental, it can speak a word that frees people from bondage to flatness. It can draw each person’s story into a much larger one.
These thoughts here are tendrils of hope. Just maybe, churches are uniquely suited to host community conversations where real speaking and listening are possible. Just maybe, churches that cultivate respectful relationships can overcome fearful paralysis and walk with those who are being marginalized.
My thoughts are also a love song.
At the celebration of my ministry in February, the pews were packed with people for whom the church has become a centering point, a horizon of purpose, or a place that held their families through life’s milestones. Some came to honor my role in the community. Others who left in painful disagreement returned.
Amid unities and divergences, something had grown and lived, a benediction of deep love and gratitude. It is all grace. Maybe this is what the church can offer a society caught in a vortex of polarization – not a formula for civil discourse exactly but an ecology of incarnation, in which common ground is cultivated not from who we ought to be but who we are, in all our contradictions.
My hope is that such an ecology can sustain relationship as we act from the margins into the center of people’s lives, even when some of our own dearest siblings in Christ take offense.
The question shaped like a heart is still a question, but it is beating, burning, catching in the throat. Alive.
The Rev. Kristin Foster ’77 M.Div. is a member of the YDS Alumni Board, where she serves as immediate past president.