last night i woke up around 3:30 am. i haven’t installed the new-to-us air conditioning unit in the bedroom window as of yet and yesterday was the first day in the chicago summer to feel like it spiked ninety degrees. so i was up in the not-yet-grey hours of the morning, dehydrated and unable to fall back to sleep.

naturally, i turned to karl barth to keep me company while i drank a cup of decaf chocolate-hazelnut tea (good stuff) and sat next to the window. as i struggled through church dogmatics‘ thick prose, the distance between barth’s germanic-reformed meaning of evangelical and my own rocky mountain, non-denominational take on the word kept pushing its way to the fore of my mind.

at times i really like barth. in many ways the same unhelpful alternatives face us that faced believers eighty years ago: the protestant modernism and catholic (super)naturalism that barth protests are still with us, though in new and modified forms. barth swoops in from above to offer a third way, completely outside the assumed possibilities of the dueling protestants and catholics. this much i like.

but i don’t like barth enough. not enough to become like him, to take him on as my theological exemplar. it’s the same problem i have when i consider attaching myself to a denomination: i find things i like in many of them (anglicanism, mennonite-ism (?), even catholicism) but nothing that compels me to become one of them.

this, i think, is a classic evangelical problem. i’ve called evangelicalism the orphan and the widow of the church, and i will stand by that. as for those of us raised in un- or losely-affiliated churches (often with “bible” somewhere in their names), we have no roots, no tradition to draw on. further we have no authority to appeal to, no one to give us definitive direction. so many of us end up walking around like a little bird, asking “are you my mother?” to whatever crosses our path. when we go looking for tradition, we can’t perform a chestertonian or eliot-esque conversion, not because of a lack of good options but because of our lack of something to be converting from. it’s like trying to learn a new language without even a glimmer of the rudimentary grammar of the language we already speak.

this said, i think a quest for a tradition (or even for what can be redeemed in evangelicalism itself) is a worthwhile endeavour–just a difficult one. it’s not one to be stumbled into unreflectively or haphazardly (slapdash, cindy would say). for my own part, i’ve pasted together two somewhat firm guides for the manner in which i go about this:

1. no tradition will be perfect. every denomination, organization, association or movement has its falling-down points, its embarrassments, its closeted skeletons. there will be the inspiring, captivating prophets who draw me to it (the barths, von balthasars, rahners, and john howard yoders), but each tradition will also have its loud, awkward, blustering members (whether in the pew, in the pulpit, or holding the pen) who smell funny, talk loudly, and misbehave (in ways not in vogue). don’t shoot for shiny perfection.

2. broader is better. (this perhaps betrays my jesuit education.) the older and more rooted a tradition, the more varied and sometimes in tension its current manifestations will be. i used to go a-questing for theological orthodoxy, down to my fine points of disagreement with my undergrad’s conservative systematics textbook. how dumb of me! a strait-jacket’s a strait-jacket even when you agree with it. a broader tradition (even if sometimes doctrinally-fringey) has room to listen and respond to God’s voice in ways that go beyond my own interests. it opens up the possibility for me to care about imagining what the claim “Jesus is Lord” looks like lived out here, to read church theology, to invite people over to our very hot apartment for soup (maybe a bisque), and yet the concrete physical needs of refugee families or the prophetic voice to power (etc.) still are carried out by other members (if not other orders).

it’s a hot afternoon now, and i need to see to that air conditioner if i want to sleep better tonight. i’d love to hear your thoughts on your traditions and how you’ve come to them.

as cindy has already adverted, we’ve been experiencing some internet connection difficulties over the last month. but i hope we have them straightened out now. something about IP addresses and passwords and the need to meet up with one of my neighbours at a local cafe.

this missing month has been full of seeking direction, making surprising connections, and then losing both just as quickly, only to stumble on them once more. it began with a church-planting conference the second week of may. cindy and i have played with the idea of starting new churches since well before we were married four years ago; our seven months in macedonia with a church-planting mission helped put a little flesh and bone on the real life struggles of growing new churches. this idea has lain dormant for the last two years of my grad program, but with its close, new possibilities our pushing up all over the place.

so we found ourselves attending a nine-hour series of seminars everyday for a week up at trinity evangelical div school (a good half-hour without traffic/hour and a half with traffic drive from our apartment). going in, i had serious misgivings about how “evangelical” the conference would be. some more liberal friends earnestly warned me that the evangelical free church in america (the organization putting on the conference) supports the subjugation of women and prohibits any critical, scholarly investigation of faith and practice. the last thing i wanted was tutelage in how to prop up the status quo.

what i found during the week, however, was an organization wholeheartedly dedicated to the multiplication of local congregations as a testimony to the gospel. far from towing some doctrinaire line, they are more than ready (for better or for worse) to latch on to whatever innovations or reformations that will help “transform consumers into disciples.” the experience was definitely a mixed bag, admittedly. for every mention of neil cole’s organic church, there were five references to willow creek and seven to saddleback. and the appropriation of new ways to be the church often veered off into the realm of gimmicks and charlatantry. but more than the long hours of powerpoint and occasionally-rambling speakers, the new relationships really made the week worthwhile. i met people living out the communal, humble, honest gospel from cor d’alene, idaho, from duluth, minnesota, from flint, michigan, from some city in norway. one conversation would revive my convictions about the church’s responsibility to be working for social justice in its neighborhood; another would challenge me about prayer; a third would pull me out of my usual shy and introverted self into dialogue and interaction. i saw right in front of me the sort of Jesus-following life that i want to be living.

but now its three weeks later. my dreamings and schemings about what the church might look like have cooled. i find it more difficult to see myself as capable to pull people together into a community that proclaims Jesus in its pattern of life as much as in its worship–at least at this point. don’t i need more training? wouldn’t an mdiv help fill out the academic grad degree in theology i just finished?

at the conference a guy named jeff from anchor point community church presented on the topic of prayer during one of the first or second day “preparation” seminars. true confession: i’ve always struggled with prayer. i either feel like i’m whining to God about my somewhat trivial problems or i feel utterly overwhelmed by hurt in the world–far too much for me to express in words. plus, God already knows about this stuff, doesn’t he? but jeff spoke primarily on prayer as listening for God. i’m sure i’ve heard this elsewhere, but this was the time that it stuck with me. in prayer, he said, we are quieting ourselves, abandoning for a moment all our concerns to our Father’s wise caregiving, and waiting for him to speak to us in his Spirit. we wait and listen.

this is where i am now, waiting and listening.