Creating Space

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On College Hill streets are designated exclusively for vehicles bearing resident permits despite the fact many homes have driveways. In order to use a lot one is required to have a student or faculty permit. The top flight of the multi-story garage was once reserved entirely for visitors. Now it offers a mere row, while dozens of empty spaces beckon from behind orange cones bedecked with warnings about what will happen should the uninitiated cross their path. Wandering onto the campus of the local university, hoping to probe into the spirituality of blossoming post-Christians would have been difficult enough without having to overcome latent hostility just to find a parking spot. So I brought a friend with me.

Our plan was simple. First we prayed. Then we strategized. We were two guys, one significantly older than the traditional college student. Approaching individuals, particularly females, would be awkward and was ruled out; a severe limitation given the student body’s nearly 4 to 1 ratio of female to male students. Stopping anyone who was walking was also out of the question. They were undoubtedly headed to class or some other appointment. Wearing Younglife or Fellowship of Christian Athletes gear? We’re happy about that…but not interested right now. We needed a group; one sitting and actually communicating rather than isolating themselves with ear buds and laptops. Outside a popular campus coffee shop that is exactly, perhaps miraculously what we found. There were two dudes and one chica; two neuroscience and one business major; two seniors and a sophomore. And a whole lot of post-Christian perspective.

We covered a lot over the next 15 minutes or so, ranging from the “happy accident” of the world’s existence, to Ouija boards, to bad experiences at Catholic high school. It had been, I don’t know, maybe 20 years since I last heard anyone talk seriously about an Ouija board. Having purposely neglected to reveal my ministerial identity we received a refreshingly honest, colorful, and profane evaluation of Christian orthodoxy and its alleged thought control. Two devoted atheists and a non-committal agnostic in turn asked if we knew about DMT or hypnotic past-life regression. We did not.

It took my sidekick and me the next 20 minutes in the library just to debrief this one experience. It’s not as if anyone was mean to us. In fact it was a surprisingly pleasant experience; but it was a lot to absorb. We had noticed certain themes throughout our conversation and wondered aloud, “Is someone teaching this here on campus?” Take energy for example. When it came to the matter of life after death it is energy, not heaven and certainly not hell that seems to dominate the thoughts of the post-Christian. “Since we can neither create nor destroy matter, it’s not like we cease to exist when we die…our energy just returns to the universe in a different form.” Nearly every not Christian person I have talked to since has given their assent to some nebulous version of energy transfer theory. While admitting they may not have thoroughly formulated or even be able to articulate their opinion, it certainly appears to them more plausible than believing in hell even if less hopeful than believing in heaven. “Heaven and hell…that’s a bunch of malarkey invented to control people.”

Then there was this one student. She believed there was a God, but otherwise appeared thoroughly flummoxed by my inquiries. It was as if she had literally never thought about where the world came from, who God is, or whether Jesus deserved any amount of attention at all; indeed many people haven’t. But when I asked what, if anything, she believed about life after death… “Oh, I have an answer for that! Reincarnation. Definitely.” This was curious so I asked why she was so sure about that particular aspect. She began by telling me that her grandmother had died last year. It was very sad, but a few weeks later her family adopted this cat. Suddenly she stopped speaking and stole a sideways glance at her Catholic friend across the table. “I’m not saying that my grandma was the cat…we just…the cat just sort of…my family felt…”

“Energy?” I suggested. Compassion compelled me to try to help her out of the bind I had put her in. Yes, she confirmed it was indeed Grandma’s energy that she believed she felt. Someone asked if it was difficult not to laugh as the college student began explaining Grandma’s reincarnation as a tiger-striped tabby. I confess it took a concerted effort to conceal the smile that wanted to creep across my face. Reincarnation…isn’t that a bunch of malarkey invented just to control people? In retrospect I am confronted with the seriousness of that moment as an individual wrestled with the fact, when forced to follow it to its logical conclusion, that she found no security in a belief she initially felt so sure of. That is no laughing matter. It might keep her up at night.

Figuratively speaking, the church is a place post-Christians regard as designated exclusively for residents who bear all the necessary permits, know the language, and behave and dress accordingly. There may be space reserved for visitors, but the uninitiated are keenly aware of their vulnerability. Wandering onto the campus of the local church and probing into the spirituality of blossoming Christians is difficult enough without having to overcome latent hostility just to find a spot. Unless there is a friend, someone willing to “park” far away and walk patiently with her as she circles “the block,” seemingly investigating every possible alternative so as to avoid the imminent confrontation of the gospel, the post-Christian is likely to just give up and keep driving.

Tension

My tendency to romanticize, even glamorize the so-called “wild,” whether literal or spiritual is apparent. In most cases I prefer outdoors to indoors. There is no bad weather; only poor clothing choices. My current office has no windows thus I prop open the door. My desk is positioned in such a manner as to be able to peer across the hall and check the weather through the glass of an exterior door. There’s a picnic table out there where I’ve been known to complete reading assignments, conduct lengthy phone conversations, and force interns to meet despite uncomfortable dew points. Most of all, I enjoy long walks, uphill, on unpaved surfaces surrounded by trees and beady-eyed forest creatures that I feel watching my every move. Once, as I extolled such virtues of the mountains and reveled in the glory of communing with nature a friend quickly snapped me back to reality simply by asking, “If it’s so great then why don’t we all live there?”

Lately the goal has been and continues to be to spend more time beyond the bounds of traditional church life and ministry. Less time fretting over the intricacies of supra and infralapsarianism; more time devoted to understanding the difference between ambivalence and outright hostility toward Christianity. Lately fulfillment of this desire has been waylaid by the unavoidable obligations of professional ministry. That makes me grumpy and raises a rather profound version of the question, “if it’s so great out there” beyond the safe boundaries of my mostly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestantism, “why don’t I live there?” This vexing quandary has a way of rearing its ugly head in the most inconvenient of circumstances.

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Perhaps the greatest evidence of a dearth of wisdom is to embark on apparently contradictory and conflicting endeavors simultaneously. Take me for example. Last spring I graduated from seminary and began my pilgrimage to reconnect in some nebulous manner with the secular frontier. At the same time I willingly, eagerly in fact, began a race in a completely opposite direction known as the ordination process. You may not be familiar with the latter. Honestly, why would you be? But the process involves a fairly good-sized tree’s worth of paperwork, a series of exams, three of which are written and two more live and in person interviews, and some minor invasions of personal privacy. Nonetheless, after a personal calling, 18 years of ministry, and 7 years of seminary that put my wife through purgatory (which unlike hell by the way, I don’t even believe exists!), as unpleasant an experience as it may be becoming an ordained minister seems like the right thing to do.

Nonetheless, the last month has led to my feeling like the iconic pair of Levi’s jeans, suspended between two mules headed in opposite directions. One mule is pointed to the wild while the other faces deeper and further down the rabbit hole of church bureaucracy. I wonder. On the one hand, will all this time spent in unfamiliar places attempting to initiate awkward conversations actually result in anyone’s life changing in a significant way? On the other hand, once ordination is in the rearview mirror will anyone ever again ask me to name the 12 tribes of Israel from memory? Do you for instance care that in regard to American church history I am able to explain the difference between the Old Side and the New Side without confusing either with the Old School and the New School? Of course you don’t! Honestly, again, why would you? The “wild,” secular world, a.k.a. the world in contrast to the church, is so much more relevant. It is exciting and breathtaking.

But if it’s so great, why don’t I live there?

The wilderness is great. But after a few days and nights I’m ready for there to be more than nylon between me and the beady-eyed forest creatures. I want walls. Gore-tex can do wonders, but at some point there is simply no substitute for dry socks and underwear. If you stay out there too long with no help or support eventually the wild is going to kill you. Either someone has to drop off more trail mix and a new water filter, or you are going to need to come inside. Just ask those 12 tribes of Israel…I can name them if you like.

Likewise, I can’t just go out there into the spiritual wild and live. I had better be prepared. Better yet, I had better have a place to come back to; a place where I can come for support, prayer, God’s word, the sacraments, and reassurance. No missionaries set off into the jungle without knowing that they leave behind a church that supports them and to which they hope to return.

I really am looking forward to the completion of the ordination process for a variety of reasons; only one more exam to go now. It will be nice to have more time to pursue and build relationships with people who do not think like me and couldn’t care less about old and new sides, schools, or tribes. But through the process of the last month it has occurred to me that the tension is just about right. We should feel that pull between the church and the rest of the world. That is where we are asked to live as believers; in the world but not of it, as the church but not in hiding in the church.

Leaving the Secure

                I strode boldly into the wilderness once. Having just finished college and as close to an idealist as I’ve ever been, I figured on doing something significant in a place where many had tried ministry and failed. The Appalachian backcountry was my destination and I made my grand entrance one sultry May into a place where men do indeed scrape up fresh roadkill and make it into stew. It’s easy to see how that is a more convenient and cheaper avenue to a high protein diet than climbing into a tree stand with a loaded weapon and shivering for hours on end in wait of an opportunity which may never come. Still I’ve never tried the stew; only seen it. Culinary issues notwithstanding, the culture shock was real. Six months later lacking direction, out of funding, and tail firmly implanted between legs I slinked back to suburbia seeking the relative security of ministry in a local church. Years later, I’m discovering that to many the idea of security within a local church seems as foreign as roadkill stew.

                For some it is simply too easy. “Anything that you do wrong will just be forgiven if you believe in God? That can’t be true.” Nonetheless there are those who desperately hope “God doesn’t pay back for past sins,” but lack any assurances. Others weigh apparent contradictions and conclude “we have to give science some credit too.” But one unanswered question seems most prevalent in the post-Christian worldview: “Why?”

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                Thus far those I have asked about their beliefs in regard to where the world came from, God, Jesus, and life after death have been “soft targets.” I told them as much. Their individual histories all include, in part, the local church. In some cases they include my local church. These people seem to believe me when I tell them I’m not interested in arguing or outing them…though I may anonymously quote them in a blog. I don’t presume to know where my post-Christian friends are looking for answers to their own questions, let alone mine. I’m not even sure some are looking at all. But it seems apparent they don’t consider the local church a wealth of helpful insight. After all, one said, “I believe you can be a good and helpful person without organized religion…or even being very spiritual.”

                Yet there is still the nagging question, why be a good and helpful person? Why be anything at all? Why are we here? In fact, why did I feel compelled to drive off into the mountains years ago only to emerge prematurely, licking spiritual wounds still not completely healed years later? “What is the point?” Thus I am confronted, yet again, by a lamentable fact. Even in ministry my utmost pursuit is often indistinguishable from that of anyone else. In many respects I am less about the Kingdom of God and more about remedying my own personal insecurity.

An unfortunate side effect of insecurity is its tendency to make us talk louder and faster. If you believe like I do, in fact even if you don’t, do you suppose Adam and Eve calmly collected the choicest of fig leaves and carefully wove them together, all while peacefully discussing recipe ideas for forbidden fruit after realizing they were naked? Did Adam speak to God in even, measured tones as he blamed it all on his wife? I doubt it. Instead I imagine a flurry of breathless activity and shouting, not unlike the day in Appalachia when I stepped out of the shower and heard my neighbor’s kids knocking on my door…my bathroom door. Loud and fast conversation ensued in order to convince said urchins of the virtues of personal space, henceforth providing me with a greater sense of…security.

Conversations in the post-Christian wilderness, as opposed to in the hallway of my former double-wide, require a markedly different, less efficient approach. Thus as I sit across the table taking notes I have an image of myself strapped into a tree stand, shivering, with all my insecurities wanting to engage in “fast and loud” lectures about cheap grace, faith and science, or various other quandaries. After all if I could convince this poor person that I held the answers to his questions, then maybe I myself would be provided some greater measure of self-worth as well; some greater measure of…security.

But obviously I don’t really believe my security is the goal here. Otherwise I never would have left the office in the first place. So I sit, in my proverbial tree stand, carefully listening to and observing the rustling in the brush below. After all, I’m not actually trying to kill anything, nor am I in any danger of being killed myself…and no one is even remotely interested in scraping anything off the pavement. An adversarial frame of mind is what gets our insecure selves in trouble in the first place. Instead we’re just two guys talking. My hope is that if I sit patiently long enough the brush will eventually part and a target of opportunity will reveal itself when my friend is simply bothered by my questions enough that the Holy Spirit prompts him to ask, “What do you think?” I don’t know where post-Christians are looking for answers; only where they’re not. Presumably I could shout louder and faster from the relative security of the church, but that only seems to be frightening them further away. Thus I venture out, sit quietly in my tree stand, ask some questions, watch the leaves rustle, and pray for the opportunity to answer some questions as well.