Friday, July 1, 2011

Big Tent: Be Awake!

Presbyterians far and wide have descended upon the city of Indianapolis for the second Big Tent conference.  Starting in 2008, the Presbyterian Church brought together ten various conferences to meet during the summer alternating with General Assembly.

In her welcome to the participants of this year’s Big Tent Cindy Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly promised, “Unlike General Assembly… I can promise there will be no malfunctioning voting machines!”

Instead, participants are here to engage with each other on various issues from poverty and gun-violence, to Internet communications and international missions.

During the course of this weekend, I will be blogging occasionally on various conference events, sessions and discussions—particularly in partnership with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. I hope this can be a resource for those who are unable to attend the conference this year, and also be a springboard for discussion.

A discussion that has already begun here at Big Tent is the pursuit of meaning and ministry in a changing global landscape. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, began this conversation as the opening plenary speaker of Big Tent.

Comparing the shifting social landscape of 16th C. Europe, the world of John Calvin—where the mode of communication was changed by the printing press, boarders built between nations thus mitigating who could come and go, and the birth of the middle class upset feudalism. This world experienced growing pains that sound oddly familiar in the face of our own shifts in media, global economy, nation states and trade agreements.

“Rather than our world expanding, your world has collapsed,” said Jones speaking of the effects of the Internet. “It is overwhelming to grasp how big it is.” It this liminal space of oxymoron: of expansion and collapse, in labyrinths and abysses, in crumbling facades but exploding doors, this is the world we live in as reformed theologians, explains Jones.  “Reformed theology won’t take the easy way out. Human life is complex. We live in these tensions and we are called by God to be here now.”

Jones explains, further drawing a comparison between the world of Calvin and our own, that the most important thing Calvin did was to stay awake: “[Calvin] refused to close his eyes!” Staying awake is the active role of not falling asleep, in actively using our imagination, in seeing the world contradictions and all.

She states, “My social theory of social change is one that I have referred to as ‘just breathe’—stay awake, take in the moment we find ourselves, cast off the burden that it is up to you to in this moment change history; because what we all know is that it is happening—with or without us. Our task is not force history forward.”

She concludes with a final commission: “Be Awake!”

This begs the question, for the laypersons, the elders, and the ministers; for the policy and peacemakers; from the YAVs to the Seminarians—what does this calling mean to you?

For myself, it means to be awake to the contradictions we live in, to engage ourselves in the shaping of this world, but also (which is perhaps more challenging), opening my eyes to the providence of a God who set this world into being and motion.

I think there is another aspect to the call to be awake. That is to shake our church to awaken them. I see this as the role of the Peacemaking conference this year which its campaigns, for examples, against child soldiers and gun violence. On the other sides, it means being open to being awaken to those things we have closed our eyes to. 

So other than fighting against sleep as we run hither and thither around the JW Marriot this weekend, what does it mean for you to “be awake” here at Big Tent and as a Presbyterian?

Matthew Dimick is a Boston University School of Theology and School of Social Work graduate student. He is currently a Beatitudes Society Fellow working in the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness on HIV/AIDS related issues and policy. He can be reached at

To follow more of the Big Tent happenings, be on the lookout for the hash-tag #bigtent11 and also check out the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference blog