I was a bit apprehensive about the conference I was to speak at last weekend (November 7-8), sponsored by the Center for Faith and Work (the cultural renewal arm of Redeemer Presbyterian Church) in New York City. It’s such a famous church, and the line-up of speakers was impressive, with a very large crowd expected. So I anticipated a high-powered, somewhat elitist event, where I might feel out of place.
Plus, the conference was focused on New York City, whose population of over eight million can seem overwhelming to someone from an island of less than three million souls, who has bounced around Canada a bit, and now lives in Rochester (upstate New York).
Thankfully, all my fears were laid to rest. I not only enjoyed the conference, I ended up being profoundly moved by the entire experience.
The conference started Friday evening (November 7), with an introduction by David Kim, the executive director of the Center for Faith and Work.
Following the introduction, Margaret Newman, from the Municipal Art society of New York, gave a talk on recent changes in public space in the city and projections for the future (which tied in with the conference theme of “Making All Things New: Imagination and Innovation Required”). Then Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer, presented a thoughtful theological grounding of the conference in God’s creative and redeeming grace. This was followed by a Q&A with Keller and Newman, led by Kim.
My own talk (called “A Sacred Call for Sacred Work”) kicked off the Saturday morning session (November 8). Drawing on my work on humans as the image of God, especially my more recent sacramental take on the subject (emphasizing the priestly side of the imago Dei), I tried to weave a biblical picture of ordinary life (including work) as worship rendered to God in the cosmic sanctuary of creation. Then (having done my “duty”) I was able to relax and immerse myself in the rest of the day’s activities.
I heard a variety of other speakers on Saturday, including Dave Evans, Adam Wade, Nancy Ortberg, Robyn Shapiro, Christian Wiman, and David Brooks.
Leadership consultant Nancy Ortberg spoke on the importance of collaboration in innovation; storyteller Adam Wade kept us entranced with a tale of his teenage years with his idiosyncratic Greek yiayia (grandmother) and her sister; Christian Wiman, past editor of Poetry magazine, read some of his poems and reflected on the role of faith in the the creative process; and Robyn Shapiro shared her vision of an innovative underground park in NYC (the Lowline) lit by solar technology.
I was particularly intrigued with Dave Evans‘s application of his training in design to courses he now teaches at Stanford in which he helps students design their life. The principles he articulated are things I want to follow up on.
And I found David Brooks‘s reflections on the dialectic between “resume virtues” (required for success in the world) and “euology virtues” (the substantial values people embody) especially thoughtful; as a writer myself, I appreciated the way he applied this dialectic to his own vocation of writing.
Throughout the weekend there was a commissioned video documentary on a young man’s incarceration, an intimate ballet performance (in the middle of the audience), and an LED light show accompanying an avant garde string quartet (playing Sufjan Steven’s recent music).
On Saturday afternoon there was an expo of innovative start-ups in NYC, all in one large carnivalesque room.
I was involved in an afternoon Q&A about my talk, one of more than two dozen simultaneous sessions in the expo—the noise level was crazy, but it seemed like the day of Pentecost to me.
To top it off, I had long and wonderful conversations about theology, spirituality, life, and work with a variety of people at different points throughout the day (and into the evening).
At one point even David Brooks fooled around with conference organizer David Kim.
Throughout my time at the conference I was impressed by the organizers and behind-the-scenes people I interacted with. David Kim, Dasha Rettew, and the entire team consistently exhibited a blend of high professionalism and honest, personal vulnerability (I haven’t always found those together). This set the tone for the entire experience.
The conference ended with communal worship and a guided reflection time by David Kim.
The entire experience (perhaps prompted by Christian Wiman’s poetry) led me to write a poem in the reflection time, which I’ve posted as a follow-up.