like a shotgun

August 21, 2008

I just got back from a marathon trip to my hometown Montana.  The days stretched long past sundown, round bonfires or behind the steering wheel; sleep fit in wherever I could cram it–curled up on an air mattress or in the back of my old Jeep.  I hiked up to mountain lakes, waded in a geo-thermally-heated river, practiced my fly-fishing on what very well may be the best trout stream in the lower forty-eight, held a good friend’s baby daughter, and ate breakfast at a different diner nearly every day.  Cindy even rode a horse!  My college-aged brother and sister are exploring what it means for them to be adults, and my baby sister is already in high school.  I am learning to relate to each of them in new ways.  Very good times.

I also faced down some old, genetic (perhaps) flaws, brought to the surface by the hectic pace my parents’ family keeps.  I like to think I am a pretty good friend, that I really care for people and go out of my way to interact them at a really human, personal level.  But sometimes I really mess up. 

For instance, this past week I planned to meet up with an old friend for coffee.  My schedule was quite full, what with fishing and family and all, but I plotted and schemed and thought I could squeeze in just this one more thing.  But with the way things in my genetic-line work, everything never gets done.  I try to fit too much in.  And one thing leading to another, I ended up flaking out on my friend, feeling quite awful about making her go out of her way for nothing and feeling quite disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hear about the great things God was doing for her as she follows where Jesus leads.

I could almost spin this positively, saying that my heart is bigger than my abilities, that I try to fit so much in because I care about these people so much.  And it would be true to an extent.  But my conscience gets upset at the part untruth, and it won’t let me leave it at that.

You see, I am an irresponsible scheduler, a culpably irresponsible scheduler.  There are so many good things that I want to do, people I want to talk with, so much coffee to drink; and I tragically try to shoot the moon every time.  The basic problem is that I don’t prioritize.  I need to pick a few of the good things to concentrate on, and save the others for another time or for other people to do.  It’s the monkey and the peanut jar.

I always thought this was just my style–I’m laid back, unplanned, spontaneous.  No one can fault me for my style, I thought.  But this last trip has changed my mind.  This is really a wrong decision, and it shows an undervaluing of people, a disrespect for their time and their expectations (not that I ever make plans thinking they’ll fall through; it’s just that I should be planning concretely enough to know if things will work or not!).  So this is my shotgun apology to all of you who have been let down by my bad planning.  I considered calling and leaving voicemails to each of you individually, but sitting down to make the list ended up being like picking out a pebble from a dam–quite overwhelming.  So trust that this is much more heartfelt and thought-out than html can communicate, and please forgive me.

On the evening after I had this revelation, I sat out in my Jeep in the driveway beside the corral, watching the sun sink behind the Tobacco Root Mountains.  I felt bad, really bad.  I began to realize that this a personal fault that has its roots in the family culture I like so much–the culture that gets out and does things, goes flyfishing on a river five hours away, goes for a dayhike before a dinner party, invites twenty-five kids over to their house for a twelve hour party.  Later, as I was unloading fishing gear and tents from the back of the pickup, I asked my fifteen year-old sister if she thought our family tries to do too much.  “I guess, maybe,” she replied.  I want to find a way to be laid back, adventurous, and concrete enough in my scheduling to show people I love and respect them.  That, perhaps, is part of the challenge Cindy and I face as we continue to form our own family culture.

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the interesting conversation continues to grow. aaron klinefelter helpfully archives its progress here. and i recommend giving steve lewis’ post a read. great comments.

i have a confession to make (or perhaps it’s a disclaimer). here goes. i’m not an experienced church guy. yeah, i’ve been around a bit, but my day-to-day life is not the sweat-and-pulled-muscles work of bringing people together into a Jesus-following community. i’m much more at home in the academic theological community than hanging out on the corner where i live talking with my neighbours. so my ramblings are more abstract than i would like and quite humble. i’m open for revision.

so now that my dirty laundry’s out in the open, let’s get started.

whatever financial difficulties the church in the states is facing, we need to see them as an opportunity, a call, a chance God is offering us. it’s a recall. especially for mainline protestant and evangelical churches. (sidenote: i often think of the evangelical church–my tradition–as the church that got lost, left behind. it’s wandering around without roots and without any authority to help it get to where God’s calling it. among the congregation of christian traditions, it’s the orphan and the widow. just a sidenote.) changing economics, changing politics, changing ecology, changing technological web, changing ways of understanding identity, community, sexuality–these shifts are together forcing us not just to adapt (though any really wide, encompassing change can only come about through a multitude of small adaptations–we no longer live with a top down hierarchy supervising how we are the church) but to reimagine (to understand these very small adaptations in a new way, in a new grand picture).

let’s open back up our bibles, just for a minute, and lay our history books alongside. in the new testament, especially in paul’s letters, we encounter a picture of many small local gatherings, gathering together primarily for remembrance of Jesus through praise (spoken and sung) and eucharistic table fellowship. alongside these two primary activities, prophetic encouragement from both the hebrew scriptures (and soon the new testament too) and new words as inspired by the Spirit. reconciliation and community mediation of disagreements were carried out (with varying degrees of publicity), and people shared their material possessions to care for those in their community and those in other communities. lastly, we find that some sort of authority structure was in place, with wiser members keeping order and making sure Jesus stayed central to their meetings.

these gatherings/communities sit as a kind of charter, a beginning point we can’t go back behind. whatever church is going to look like now needs to be in dialogue with or in faithful development of these churches. but what we have now doesn’t fit that bill, it defaults on its responsibilities. we can talk about constantinianism (did i spell that right?) or the enlightenment or the emergence of a capitalist system and bourgeois religion. but however it happened, something’s wrong; it’s finally becoming evident that our way of being church is much more dependent on societal power structures than on fidelity to the Jesus communities.

so what could Jesus communities look like today? good question. what we can hold on to at this point is that they need to be faithfully (that’s the sticky word) related to the early communities. they should be local (in a sense), Jesus-remembering and Jesus-worshiping, prophetic (in many senses), reconciling (in many senses), sharing material goods with each other and with the ecumenical church (maybe this hints at a direction for how to train people in the Jesus tradition, though bi-vocational community leaders–organizers?–factor into the picture too, i think), and possess some structure that seeks to keep them faithful (that word again) to the Jesus tradition.

in my imagination, that looks a lot like the house churches i worshiped with while doing some short-term missions work in skopje, macedonia. the churches there fill the role of community, especially for the mladi–the youngish people. church was not the once-a-week wonder that it has become in the states. the mladi spent most evenings together, in each others apartments, in coffee shops, playing volleyball in the park. we spent more than a few late nights drinking chai or tursko kafe or boiled wine, talking about job prospects, about family, about Jesus. people helped support each other, helped each other get to church, helped each other become more like Jesus. leaders grew up in the community and were trained by those who were available (first missionaries and then the emerging elders of the church). things were local and small. people fought; people intervened to make peace. it worked like a church but without the budget.

what else might this new way of being church look like? where have you seen its shape poking through the graveclothes of the present model?

changing of the guard

March 27, 2008

i spent this morning cleaning out a retired jesuit’s office. i packed books into boxes–theological dictionaries, encyclopedias of the church, overviews of the development of christology, treatises on the sacramentality of marriage. and stranger things: a book on english pronunciation, 1960s art deco bookends, and a miniature pietas. the office was in the jesuit residence, an edifice on campus where a female receptionist must buzz you in and tranquil chapel is the first thing to meet you when you pass through the reinforced double doors. the interior was silent as a trappist monastery (which is more fitting than i intend). the office itself was spare–white walls bare except for a landscape portrait of the chicago waterfront, simple bookshelves topped with rustic religious art. a chair, an ashtray, a large desk, a reading chair and a lamp. a sink and mirror occupied a corner behind the door.

basically, the room was both what i expected and what i would never have imagined as the office of the emeritus chair of theology at my university. and as i used brown packing tape to reconstruct boxes, i realized that i could do that. i could sit in a simple room and read theology and pray and correspond with others doing the same thing, collecting complimentary books to review and journals that have published articles i wrote, occasionally leaving to teach a class or for mass. and i hear they eat very well. i think i would have to take up smoking a pipe, though.

but i don’t think that’s where we’re going. theology is not a thing for religious and button-shirted professors. it’s debatable if it’s something even for pastors, at least in the old sense of the word. now it needs to come up from the streets, from living rooms and cheap places where you can get a coffee or a beer. it’s growing up in shantytowns and the projects. if our feet aren’t cold and wet, if our stomachs aren’t a little hungry, if we’re too clean cut and too recently showered, we’re not doing theology.

this isn’t to say that we need to give up smoking pipes or being on familiar terms with dead theologians. by all means, we need to read augustine (heck, even athanasius, not to mention irenaeus) and thomas and luther and barth and rahner more than ever. and we need to know our bibles to the extent that we actually don’t need the leatherbound pages anymore because the live in our hearts and on our tongues. and we need to grapple with what they all mean. but if we’re not doing that in a place that makes us uncomfortable, at least frequently, then we’re might as well be reading science fiction (not the good stuff, the cheap stuff that are actually just thinly disguised romance novels that happen on mars).