Sooooooo…..since blogs are supposed to be places where people express their own authentic views on any number of subjects ranging from very personal struggles to big-scale stuff like the cost of tea in China, I guess I should comment on a massive life change in my life (and, because my wife made one of those “lifetime covenants” with me, her life too).
I resigned as pastor of Middle River Church last month, effective May 1st, 2009. The following is an attempt to put into words the reasons why.
I’m 28, young enough to be incredibly naive, but old enough to know life isn’t a bowl of cherries. I’m young enough to have dreams for the world, and old enough to know that most older people have given up on dreams as foolishness. I have chosen to dream, and while I’m sure this dream will run head-on into the harsh reality of the present, that doesn’t negate the power of the dream.
Bethany and I have decided to move intentionally to Cincinnati to live in community with our friends Dustin and Tiffany and Josh. We will be making a covenant together that involves significant financial sharing, commitment to daily communal worship, commitment to the simple aspects of life together (common meals, working together), and a commitment to being neighborhood-minded in the pursuit of our shared dream.
People around here try to talk to me about this, and I’ve run into a strong number of blank faces and quizzical faces.
The blank ones don’t seem to have room in their heads for something like this; I would chalk this up to their being so intimately shaped and molded by our social message of individualism, privatism, and seeking of comfort that the strong desire for community is all but extinguished in them. Sure, it might express itself from time to time, but is quickly quelched by the person’s fear of the unknown and society’s powerful message of selfishness.
The quizzical faces also don’t seem to have room in their heads for something like this, but for different reasons. “Community” sounds too much like “communism” to them; it’s not a coincidence that these folks are often my parents generation with Joe McCarthy’s rants and anti-Soviet propaganda ringing in their ears. So that’s a barrier. Plus, living together with others who aren’t your “natural” family sounds too much like David Koresh to them (remember Waco, TX in 1993 and Janet Reno?). Some have had the courage to warn me about this, which is a wise caution, I’d say, of how community is easily corrupted by power and personality.
There’s maybe two other big reasons that people are confused by our decision. There’s a strong current of American conservatism running through the Shenandoah Valley, where churches feed the desire for traditional values; work hard, save, take care of your family, “go to” church (and those aren’t necessarily negative values). But with those values has always been a latent racism, stereotyping of those who are poor, and an elevating of the values of family, tradition, and a middle-class state of mind to a place of idolatry. It is the only way of life folks know, and they cling to it even as they make decisions that shred that sense of shared values over time. Those decisions (the embracing of spending ourselves into debt, buying bigger and more expensive transportation and houses, escaping life through movies, television, and entertainment rather than working consistently and hard towards real-life goals) come in the name of “change” and “progressive” thinking. That’s the second strong current in our area, a “progressivism” that is, from an eternal perspective, really “regressivism.” As Os Guinness says,
“We insist on choice, we expect change, we prize relevance, we are unthinking believers in the-newer-the-truer, the latest-is-greatest, and what’s in and what’s out…the result of our casual nihilism is a careless demolition of tradition and the creation of a spiritual, moral, and aesthetic wasteland in its place.”
The Shenandoah Valley is quickly becoming a toxic wasteland of confused conservative/progressives who espouse family values yet get out of marriages because they don’t serve their selfish ends, who claim a Christian faith yet reject the life of discipleship because it gets in the way of watching American Idol or their dream of their child becoming a professional athlete (so they put them on travel teams that pull them away from investing in relationship with others around them). We don’t know who we are, but we know that the television feeds our short-term wants; to feel significance through reality shows with “normal” people “making it,” to make us think we’re helping make our world a better place through watching (and crying through) Extreme Make-over Home Edition, and to feel athletic by altering our schedules to fit our commitment to watching various sports events. You could add any number of examples onto those.
It’s a rat race. Slowly but surely, as I’ve tried to carve out some time to listen to God in the midst of the competing messages and voices (by turning off the radio, but choosing not to have cable or satellite television in our house, by seeking to value relationship over entertainment), I’ve heard God beginning to whisper to me. The more I’ve paid attention to that whisper, the louder it has grown and the more it has gripped me. At times the voice thunders in my head, stopping me dead in my tracks and making me quake in fear (the healthy kind, mostly). The voice says something like this, “There is more to life than this. Listen to me, obey me, and you can be a part of something greater.” God has been shaping me, and this shaping has sped up the more I’ve worked to listen and act accordingly. I’m choosing to dream more these days, and to follow the pathways of the dreams to figure out where they might lead. T.E. Lawrence wrote something that has gripped me, saying,
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”
Bethany and I have chosen to be “dreamers of the day” with friends; working to line up our dreams with God’s dream. We know that changing the world begins with us, is always focused on the daily life of neighborhoods and communities surrounding us, and includes my brothers and sisters across the globe. There are already church families in Cincinnati who have been doing this for a while like Vineyard Central in the Norwood neighborhood. There are already disciples of Jesus who have moved intentionally to economically depressed areas for years like Dorothy Day (and Catholic Worker folks), Tom Sine (and Mustard Seed House folks) and Shane Claiborne (and Potter Street Community folks) Mark Scandrette (and ReImagine folks) and John Perkins (and CCDA folks). I know these persons would be frustrated with me singling them out, because they’re good, humble people who are a part of communities, not celebrities or Christians unto themselves. But for the sake of examples, I isolated them. We will be submitting to them and listening as a community to how their wisdom tempers our idealism; how their struggles temper our vision. We are naive, yet we want more. This will be hard, but our common commitment will share the burden. We are not alone in this.
Malcolm Muggeridge wrote his own (joking) epitaph while in college to a friend,
“Here lieth one whose soul sometimes burned with great longings. To whom sometimes the curtain of the Infinite was opened just a little, but who lacked the guts to make any use of it.”
Hearing that warning (Muggeridge was a famous killjoy of grand dreams for a long time in his life), I have a couple commitments;
I want to walk the uncomfortable balance of great longings and the ordinariness of daily living.
I want to have the guts to risk for God while rejecting some twisted sort of heroic quest.
I want to be perpetually restless for redemption without allowing that restlessness to cause me to wander constantly in search of something that is only found in choosing to stay and work somewhere, somewhere to invest in, that has people to love.
I want to walk in God’s pathways, and I’m grateful to join others in conspiring to lead our world back to Genesis 1 and God saying, “This is VERY good.”
I love paying attention to these things and knowing that God is smiling, fighting for me and urging me to keep walking and keep striving.
I get to join God’s story of redemption in our world, to play a role in this drama unfolding for millennia, and to work joyfully in God’s kingdom whether we see “results” or not. God is making a “new heavens and a new earth,” and my faithfulness to the global scope and the common, daily path of it helps to bring that world to pass.