I grew up in Tokyo. When I was in my teens, my friends and I, like all obnoxious teenagers, used to do dumb stuff like slide down the steep escalator banisters at Sunshine City shopping center in Ikebukuro. I’ll never forget the thrill as we’d lift our legs and shout apologies while passing crowds who patiently and politely stood in the descending line.
We were having mindless teenage fun, but we were also flouting the Japanese convention of dignity and order.
At some point, officials had to post bright yellow signs that warned, “NO SLIDING!”
It’s a silly story, but I find an interesting parallel here with how culture works and the systemic “banisters” we live by, for better or worse.
Societies, communities and families function with cultural safeguards to guard our identity, ensure our safety and differentiate one place or person from another. Though metaphorical banisters necessary, they might be a hindrance to innovation and needed change.
On a recent OnBeing podcast interview with Krista Tippett, Lyndsey Stonebridge, a professor of modern literature and history at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, England, shared her thoughts from her article with the UK’s Jewish Quarterly, “Thinking Without Banisters,” Stonebridge concludes that the ability to make judgements and pursue our own understanding without preconceived categories is our pathway to innovative thinking and transformative change.
For those of us wanting to enact God’s restorative possibilities in the world, how do we honor our tradition and stay true to Scripture while fostering God’s innovative mission? What does it mean to think and act beyond some of the banisters that have dominated our imagination?
These are three cultural banisters that I believe are a hinderance to some of our most meaningful, missional work.
The Banister of Self-Protection
The term “immunity” is an assumption that we are exempt from certain consequences or implications because of pre-existing (sometimes earned) rights or realities. You know, like finding the immunity idol in the reality TV show, Survivor. Once you’ve found it you’re safe from being voted off the island. It’s gold.
But life in the real world is not a game of Survivor. No one has the right to flourish over anyone else. Yet so much of our sociocultural game, even within the Church, is hinged on a prerogative that mimics this televised, self-protective, competitive edge, which is in complete contention with God’s message of love and salvation for all.
Christianity is not a strategy for winning but a pathway for all people to flourish, in this life and in the next.
Jesus teaches, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake, will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24) To live in this world as a follower of Jesus means we embody the spacious, gracious, self-sacrificing love of God in all aspects of life.
The goal of missional innovation is not immunity but transformation in the here and now and ultimately for the eternal good.
The Banister of Sacred Restrictions
In her book, What’s Your God Language? Myra Perrine suggests that the Christian stream has limited our menu of sacred disciplines. What would it look like to find what Perrine calls our “spiritual circuity,” and how could we offer this to a world that longs to hear from God?
Limiting our sacred practices restricts our spiritual growth and stunts our potential for being agents of transformation in the world.
Drawn from the writings of Gary Thomas, Perrine explores ways of connecting with the Divine through nine spiritual pathways:
- Sensate: finding God through our senses
- Activist: connecting with God through acts of justice and peacemaking
- Caregiver: sensing God’s presence through caring for others
- Contemplative: practicing the presence of the Spirit in the everyday
- Traditionalist: communing with God through the history and traditions of our faith
- Enthusiast: enjoying God through celebration, movement, song and corporate worship
- Aesthetic: finding God through silence, simplicity and solitude
- Naturalist: enjoying God through nature
- Missional innovation requires an attentiveness to what God is saying and doing as we translate God’s love into the world.
The Banister of Spiritual Hoarding
A couple yoga studios have opened up just a few blocks from where I live. There are seemingly more people who walk to yoga on a Sunday morning in my neighborhood than those who walk to church.
In addition to yoga, there are countless other ways in which people are fervently seeking out spiritual awakening, transcendent experience, human connection and divine peace; all expressions of a human longing for God. Yet, these gatherings and activities don’t fit neatly into our preconceptions for how people should encounter the Holy Spirit.
The assumption that we Christians have the corner on the activity of the Holy Spirit is what I would call “spiritual hoarding.” Throughout Scripture, the presence of God is described as “breath” or “wind.” This Holy breath is beyond our comprehension and containment. Jesus says in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The Spirit, like the wind, blows in unexpected places and we get to follow the current.
Releasing our spiritual expectation lets us attend to the untamed current of the Holy Spirit.
To become a people of Spirit-led discernment and instruments of God’s transformative change in the world, we must learn to slide down the banisters of self-protection, sacred restrictions and spiritual hoarding. Like my teenaged self, flouting the conventions of Japanese society, Jesus followers can show the world what it looks like to live beyond inhibiting banisters. This way of life will indeed lead to the innovative mission we hope for and will alter the world as we know it.