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Getting at the real thing

Today, we woke to a chilly spring morning, but it is spring nonetheless. The kids wanted to walk to school instead of drive, as we’ve been doing all winter. And as I was walking back home alone, I remembered how nice it is be outside. I’ve been spending a lot of time inside this winter, and I missed the feel of the sun, the cool air in the morning, the smell of damp grass and wood.

As I contemplated the nature around me, a familiar thought surfaced: Suburban nature is only a taste of the real thing. Patches of grass hemmed in by sidewalks, clusters of trees islanded by rivers of lifeless asphalt—these are but zoo-like exhibits of the rolling meadows of Montana or the teeming forests of the Sierras. We humans have a need to reclaim the world around us. Not that that is a bad thing in and of itself. We were, afterall, created to "subdue" the earth, to be caretakers of it. Our need to dig in the soil, tend the land and feel the sun and air—even in the ways we do it in suburbia—are, I think, simply echoes of that part of our creation. But they are only echoes, and left uncontemplated, perhaps also do us some harm in how we approach the natural world around us as well. It is easy to give into the temptation to see nature as a resource or something to be controlled or used simply only for our pleasure rather than with the more holistic and caretaking approach of our Creator (something worth considering on this Earth Day).

And the thought that nature can be controlled—this idea that we’ve tamed and hemmed in the natural world—is an illusion. As my feet hit the sidewalk, it dawned on me that the natural world prowls deep beneath us just as it hovers in the thick miles above. Our houses, rivers of asphalt and paths of concrete are like thin sheets of paper atop a leviathon, often undulating beneath us or rippled and torn in the storms and winds above.

As I contemplated this, it dawned on me that this is how I’ve come to see God, too.

When I was in my early 20s, I remember thinking about Jesus and realizing that he—in his birth into this world, his time of flesh and blood, his execution and breathtaking resurrection—was the crux of history. That was the moment all things led up to and from which all comes afterwards. In my mind, I saw his time here suddenly surge from the earth like an Everest that dwarfs all around it.

That image not only affected how I viewed human history, but over the years it also saturated my concept of God’s presence. Like most folks out there, I’d seen God as reaching down from heaven. But over the years, I began to see him as not only the air I breathe but the ground I walk on as well. He is constantly pushing up through the world around us. His wild and teeming kingdom is sprouting from the earth beneath our feet as well as raining from the heavens above. He permeates the world around us. We are saturated in his presence. He is everywhere, all places, like the wind above and the molten waters below.

This probably has a great deal to do with why I am so fascinated by God-talk in the arts and culture around us. I take it for granted that he will reveal himself, that the world around us is a place teeming with God’s presence and work—we only need to learn to see it.

This all also probably helps to explain why I lament the way we have come to express what it means to be the people of God—to be “the church.” We tend to associate “church” with a structured system of paid ministers and organized ministries that are connected with a building. We tend to “go” to church rather than “be” the church. In some ways, I suppose I’ve come to see this way of expressing church like the suburban illusion of tamed nature. One of my favorite scriptural illustrations of this (which I owe to Wayne Jacobsen) is Peter’s response to seeing Jesus transformed beside Elijah and Moses that day on the mountain. Peter’s first response is to build a building—to hem it all in, to try and capture or contain the moment. But God and his kingdom are wild and teeming; they cannot be contained. Institutional structures—the most common way we tend to express church—are by their very nature not flexible or organic enough to handle the power and ever changing nature of the Kingdom as it flows to restore and heal and redeem the world around us. When we begin to believe these structures are the church or kingdom itself, I think we lose something. It is only a taste of the real thing. And left uncontemplated, it tempts us to become a shadow of what we are called and enabled to be.

Once, a couple of years ago, our family was driving to church one Sunday morning. As we passed other churches on the way, I watched people walk in and out of buildings and through parking lots. Suddenly, I saw those parking lots empty. I envisioned what it might be like if all those buildings were vacant and being used for something else because God’s people—his church—were outside those walls. They were teeming and thriving and growing in the neighborhoods and houses around those buildings. That they were loving, healing, working for justice and right-ness, gathering as the family we are called and enabled to be. They were like the presence of God, permeating the world around them, saturating it in his presence. They were making tangible his presence—expressing what already is. It was a breathtaking moment for me because I was envisioning a day when the church’s presence would no longer be measured by the size or amount of our buildings but truly by our love.

Please hear me on this: I believe we need structures and organizations to help us as we express the kingdom and God’s work. I agree with folks like Donald Kraybill, who gets at this in The Upside Down Kingdom:
The church [ie, the people of God] creates social vehicles and servant structures to accomplish its mission. Servant structures include the whole gamut of organized church bodies and programs. . . . These are social skins, the servant structures the church creates to do its work. They are not however, the church or the kingdom.
I am among those who believe that we, in many ways, have allowed these structures and organizations rather than God and his kingdom to define us. How do we fix that? I’ve thought about that before, and I’m still thinking about it. A lot. And there are far more intelligent and gifted folks than myself contemplating these issues. But for me, right now, it boils down to a couple of things:

Love God and those with whom I cross paths. It is the Jesus Creed: Love God and love others. Life comes through Jesus and we experience that life by knowing, walking with, trusting and being in relationship with him. And I’m learning to intentionally live out of that relationship with God, walking with Jesus and the Spirit that resides within me. And I’ve gained a lot of direction from folks like Wayne Jacobsen and Jim Henderson to pay attention to and walk with those with whom our paths cross—if only for a season—in encouragement to draw closer to the Father, walk with Jesus and love those around us. I’ve become more intentional in being open and attentive to the relationships around me, to live without expectation and to listen to and move with the love God pours into my life. I am working with Jesus to be faithful with what’s been given me.

Reframe the questions. Even as I participate in conversations regarding institutional church issues like how we grow, keep people who visit and make better worship services, I’m finding my focus keeps drifting to other questions. How do we better love God and love others? How do we better walk with and relate to God and each other? These two things—relating with God and each other—are inspearable. They must come together. This is discipleship, but not in the narrow confines with which we tend to define the word (which is why I am encouraged when I run across sites like this).

Keep the vision of the kingdom before me. Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of images that seem to reflect the kingdom life: bubbles and molecules, a collection, new wine skins, upside-down, a man looking with love at his wife, a cultivated inner life, a father’s love for a wayward-but-returning son, violence overcome with love, knowing Life will out”, severed ropes, more like an embrace than a bridge, a better and far country, learning to see right, learning to live unbroken, the love between a father and son, opening a vein, sharing a meal, seeing in green, a dance, present to grief and pain without shelter or reserve, seeing and hearing like Jesus, collecting fall leaves, a brother’s love, true friendships, New York city life, and even cul-de-sacs. It helps me to review these now and then and also to pay attention to new ones I run across. It helps me to remember who we are called and capable of being—and that helps me to express that vision to others as I go.

Maybe I am naïve (or maybe it’s simply part of being a pragmatic optimist), but I really believe we can be the people God calls and enables us to be. Some days, I must admit, I am near despair in wrestling with how it will ever be; it seems so impossible and daunting. But some days, like today, I feel as if it is inevitable. On days like today, I remember who God is. On days like today, when I can almost feel kingdom grass beneath my feet and the power and love of God in the air, I wonder why I ever doubted.

(Images: the earth, NASA; the rest are mine)