Lisa Larges Proposes “Politics of Prefigurement”

Lisa Larges, of That All May Freely Serve

The Seminary community had the pleasure and privilege of visiting with Lisa Larges, Ministry Coordinator for That All May Freely Serve, at two on-campus events during the last week: a talk “Humor, Hospitality and the Politics of Prefigurement” on Thursday evening in Caldwell Chapel, and a follow-up conversation over lunch in the Women’s Center on Friday. The Women’s Center in particular was glad to be able to make space for the lunch hour conversation on Friday, in solidarity with More Light at LPTS and That All May Freely Serve. These conversations with Lisa have us thinking deeply and hopefully about what it would mean to, as she says, “be the community we want to be and then invite the church to join us.”

This vision is in the context of the long-standing debate about the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the Presbyterian Church — a debate which, as Lisa notes, is in some ways a refusal to reach agreement on a minor issue, perhaps because the almost comfortably predictable moves, countermoves and frustrations of this debate keep us all from having to face up to the far more overwhelming challenges of the major issues facing the church. Environmental issues. Poverty. Violence. The future of the church. It is almost comforting to be able to remain stuck in the questions of ordination and marriage equality, these questions that for a generation or two of Christians and non-Christians alike have already become non-issues.

In this context, says Larges, it can sometimes seem that the attitude of asking the church for permission to participate is an act of “giving away some of my power,” and that there is more integrity in going ahead and doing what one is called to do, and then with humor and hospitality and (hopefully) grace inviting the church to come along. Not, as might happen, “inviting” in an arrogant way, in which the message would be “OK, now you’ve got a chance to join us and be on the right side of things.” Rather, “inviting” in a way that makes clear that we — whoever we are, the marginalized, the would-be disciples, the undesirables from some points of view — are trying to live towards and into a vision of community, of church, that we get from Jesus, from Scripture, from the church itself, and the more the merrier.

“Prefigurement” is Lisa’s term for this prospective, provisional, proactive ecclesial project. It’s a word that tries to get across the idea of a way of being that is doing what it is talking about, a way of being that involves trying to put into practice the principles and the commitments it is advocating and asking the wider church to adopt. Humor seems to be essential to that way of life — aside from the fact that it can help maintain sanity and equilibrium. Hospitality — openness, a making space for people and for life, through listening and conversation, through engagement — is also part of it. Hospitality would exclude some of the prejudices that beset the ongoing debate, and in particular the way this debate revolves around the struggle to negotiate attitudes towards and readings of Scripture. Larges names the prejudices as the opposed convictions that “liberals don’t love Scripture, and conservatives are stupid.” The practitioners of a politics of prefigurement would be working to set these prejudices aside, and to notice the intelligence and the love at work in the language and the practice of their conversation partners.

This vision of prefigurement that Lisa outlined on Thursday night is catching, in a good way.

But how does it work? That is, what would it mean for us to “be the community” we are longing to be part of? This was one of the big questions that occupied the conversation at lunch on Friday among a dozen or so students, faculty and staff members, along with Lisa, over soup and cookies in the Women’s Center. How do we be a community with an expansive understanding of God, for instance, when the mention of inclusive language in connection with the Trinity is enough to close doors to further conversation, for instance? Where in an existing congregation would this community take place? Or could it? Or would new congregational space need to be made?

Those of us connected with the Women’s Center like to think of the Women’s Center as a space where something like this visionary and envisioned community could practice its walking and talking — maybe those thoughts need more lunches and more sharing and inviting.

But there is also the persistent sense that the world around us is going through a time of “retrenchment” as some call it, or pulling back, or shrinking back from inclusion, diversity, questioning. It seems that calls to return to old orthodoxies that reinforce familiar patterns of power, privilege, domination, and control are louder than ever in recent years, and have a lot of support. One conversation partner named this phenomenon — hopefully, we thought! — as the last gasp of the demonic: that old oppressive order is about to be overturned, and its violent convulsion and lashing out is the sign of its imminent demise. Not to say that things are not about to get a lot worse before they get better.

And what would invitational, delightful practice look like, when, as another conversation partner noted, this longed-for community is one that practices a lot of hard work, and sitting with discomfort: recognizing our own racism, for instance, or coming face to face with the fact that we will need to give up some enjoyable habits for the sake of the planet’s well-being? How do you make that kind of embrace of dis-comfort appealing? Someone else noted that people have been enchanted into parenting for a long time, and that is a practice with lots of discomfort, too. [lots of nods and “oh,yeahs” to that] So maybe we can learn a lesson or two from what makes parenting attractive . . . ?

So we didn’t reach even one resolution. But the mood as the conversation wound down and people drifted off to other appointments and finally we bid Lisa farewell for now was changed, nevertheless. How? Maybe more thoughtful, and yes, somehow more hopeful. Thinking the possibilities is itself, it seems, one of the practices that makes space for those possibilities.

We thank Lisa Larges for reminding us of this, for sharing her wisdom and her humor in doing so, and for helping us turn the space of Caldwell Chapel and the Women’s Center, if only for some significant moments, into places of prefigurement.

[Edited for spelling 12-08-10]

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