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24 Questions for Advent: Ten

"Outgrown" by Emma Adams, linoleum block print, 18x24 (

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?” What will you answer?

― T.S. Eliot

My training in systems theory has woven a thread of continuity throughout my life. Systems theory, derived from microbiology, is the observation of how organisms are made up of connecting parts that develop & maintain rules for survival and growth. As humans, we do the same in our relationships to one another. Every “organization” is a system, including families, schools, churches, clubs, neighborhoods, workplaces, etc. What sets us humans apart from other organisms, it is been said, is meaning...that is, a sense of a higher purpose than merely survival.

It is meaning that makes life worthwhile and, at times, unbearable. Our consciousness of purpose, or the lack of it, is the foundation of any experience we have of love, hope, faith, loss, suffering or joy. We can pretend to live purely for pleasure or to avoid pain, but it is the why that makes us truly human, in the very image of God. C.S. Lewis has argued that it is the universal existence of ultimate discontent with things the way they are, evident in every human culture, that is the greatest evidence for the existence of God. We all know, in some way, shape or form, that the state of our world is not what it is meant to be.

So when an outsider to a system (a “Stranger”) asks: “What is the meaning of this (city, neighborhood, church, family)?” What will we answer? Do we huddle close together (stay in this particular system) because we love each other? Or is it fear of what’s outside? Or are simply trying to survive? Stay comfortable? Because we know of nothing else?

I pick on the Church often, because I both love and am grieved by it. For good or bad, the Church is the most visible manifestation of people who follow the Way of Jesus, though the Way is not limited to merely the institution of it. There is an organic, universal Church that has woven in and out of the institutional churches ever since Christ established it with the disciples. As an institution, the Church has had a terrible, wonderful history. I could go into details, but suffice it so say, the institutional Church is...human. Yet it includes the powerful movement of the Spirit---some might say, the true Church---all throughout.

Local church bodies, the degree to which they are open and obedient to that Spirit, are the systems which embody the Gospel witness in the world. However, the Spirit is not limited to them. If the external structure of any local church body were to disappear overnight, the Spirit would remain and continue to move. In my work as a consultant to churches and ministries, I like to pose such questions to the leadership team: “What if you woke up tomorrow and the structure was gone? What would remain? How would the members continue to interact together?” The answers to these hypothetical questions can reveal much about the meaning of an organization.

I recently purchased an art print (pictured above) from a wonderful young artist, that my wife and I knew as she was growing up, named Emma Adams. Entitled “Outgrown,” it speaks to me beautifully about the relationship between structure and spirit, even law and grace. The structure itself is beautiful, but insufficient for containing the growth of new life. And while we can be frustrated (and even condemning) of the structure, it plays a key role in the manifestation of that new growth. As the Law served as a custodian before the emergence of Grace, structure serves as framework for the movement of spirit.

Much like when we raise children. We recognize the importance of structure in a child’s life, especially when they are younger, as they require safety & consistency in order to thrive. Yes, as they mature, they must discover the inadequacies of structure alone; they begin to search for the meaning that makes life worth living, where they can discover their own unique place in the Story.

I have heard some compare the history of the Church to that of a growing child. Structures continually being set up to “contain” meaning, before the movement of the Spirit breaks through and shows the structures to be insufficient. And on it goes throughout history: spiritual awakenings, setting up structures to maintain them, those structures becoming outdated or irrelevant or oppressive, then spiritual re-awakenings.

The same cycles can occur in our individual lives. And in our families, schools, churches, clubs, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Birth, death, and re-birth. But it is the way we live through those cycles that reveals our true meaning. "You will know a tree by its fruit," Jesus admonishes us.

So when the Stranger says: "What is the meaning?"

What will you answer?

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