And then it happened; a simple text message. “What you doin Thursday brotha?” This simple query represented a monumental turn in my foray into suburban American millennial post-Christianity-ness…and other sociological labels contradictory to any typically applied to me. Maybe I’m just as suburban and American as the next guy, but I digress. At this point I had interviewed about 25 individuals and managed at least one follow-up interview with just four of those unfortunate persons. I was still contemplating what a realistic new year’s resolution would be in regard to continuing this project when the phone beeped. For the first time an interviewee requested to meet with me rather than the other way around.
You have a lot of conversations with a variety of people, some whom you question the sanity of and others whom undoubtedly question your sanity. Then you read a few heavy, thought provoking books with intimidating titles and no illustrations. One particular title, To Change the World by J.D. Hunter (he’s a Virginia guy) keeps you awake at night and interferes even with your daydreams, but not in an unpleasant way. You take lots of notes, wear out your highlighter, stand in front of people and tell them your thoughts, and write some blog posts. Then type up your family Christmas card letter. You pray a lot. One night, after you’ve stayed up too late, indulging in the guilty pleasure of watching grown men wrapped in plastic assault one another while chasing an oddly shaped ball across a manicured lawn, you sit in your living room. There, while everyone else is asleep, in the dim glow of the Christmas tree, listening to the dog snore, you think, “What have I done?”
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.
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.