Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Psalm for "Nones"

Recently I spoke with some friends about the destiny of disillusioned, church-raised twenty-somethings. A few of us were visiting with a college friend who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the conversation started something like this, “So I heard you don’t go to church anymore either.” I found it particularly telling of the Generation Y experience.

Though I am a member of the local church where I was raised, I feel that I best fit into this allegedly growing demographic that some culture monitors call the “nones.” These are people who claim no official ties to a denomination or congregation yet consider themselves people of active Christian faith.

I get lost in the terminology—postmodern, emergent, neo-monastic, anarcho-primitivist, house church, intentional community, missional community, ect. The books, websites, and seminars where this language is born serve as both public representations and facilitators of cultural movements. At the most basic level, the jargon reflects different limbs of the Church asking the same questions about how to practice life in Christ.

My own study, prayer, and practice have certainly taken shape under the influence of larger thought patterns. After all, we are all individual actors living within complex systems of influence that shift with the ages. It is precisely for this reason, in fact, that we must wed ourselves to the treasure and truth of the Scriptures, allowing the story of God’s saving action in the world to form our identity and guide our lives. To this end, I have found myself reflecting often on Psalm 131, which is a fitting prayer for a generation of restless skeptics. Here it is:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
My eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
Too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

Like a weaned child with its mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever more.

Hebrew scholar Robert Alter describes the first four lines of this psalm as “images of reaching beyond.” How fittingly this describes the striving and stirring of many believing young adults. We move from place to place and group to group, looking for a sense of belonging. We promote our ideas and ministries hoping to gain a feeling of satisfaction. We debate with others and perpetually question ourselves, waiting for validation or peace of mind. Much of this behavior flows from our legitimate effort, as individuals and as a body, to understand the faith we have inherited and how it relates to our experiences.

Often in these efforts, however, we do not realize that we are reaching beyond the source. This is where the psalmist introduces the image of a weaned baby. A weaned child no longer receives the nourishment she craves. Milk no longer flows at her desire, so she fusses and cries. She does not understand. But eventually she learns to rest against the source itself. Calmed and quite, she knows the presence, goodness, and love of her mother, even if her belly still hungers.The psalm’s closing line admonishes Israel to hope in (or wait for) the Lord with contentment, trust, and intimate familiarity with Yahweh.

My prayer for myself and my generation is the same. We are skeptical that our questions can be answered, but hopefully this attitude will lead us deeper into the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge. Like babies, we fuss and squirm and start smoking and quit going to church, but hopefully older generations will bear with us and be for us the patient presence of the One who is truth and provides rest. Because of injustice and systemic evils, we pout with God and try to recreate him to our liking; but hopefully we will find the humble clarity to see our blunders and trust his goodness.

Hopefully we will learn not to lift our eyes to lofty doctrines or new philosophies for comfort. Instead may we lean against our Father. From beneath the verbiage of our age, he invites to know him and hope in him even when he withholds from us the answers and direction we desire.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scripture as Story

Do we best approach the Scriptures as a directive for holy living or as a true story to which we belong? Recently I have been thinking about all the reasons that the latter is more appropriate. Here are a few words of explanation.

We have to recognize, first of all, that there are always strong societal forces telling us who we are, what is true, and how to act. For example, the modern economy to which are all bound ascribes value to people based on how they contribute to it; thus, the resulting American tendency to let our work identify us and justify our existence.* We are also told over and over again that we need to be able to buy certain things in order to live respectably. The default path to achieve this (these days) is to go into debt for a degree, then find a full-time job so that you can pay off the degree and earn what you need to pay for everything else. Also, our culture continually impresses upon us the concept of individual rights, the importance of self-sufficiency, and the prerogative of well-being ensured by man-made powers. These are some of the gods of our age.

I recognize that it is foolish to descend into fruitless critiques of society. As a twenty something reared in postmodernism, I am careful to avoid being infected with the disease of thankless cynicism in this regard. However, it is important to assess the value system into which we are born, understand how it effects the way we practice our faith, and make adjustments accordingly.

Certainly, we are no less bombarded by the untruth of idols than the ancient Israelites were in their day. Warning and punishment for idolatry permeates the Old Testament. To exist among the pagans often brought Israel into very practical situations that boiled down to a simple decision.**

For example, when drought threatened their crops, they had a choice: call on Yahweh or call on Baal. In picking one or the other, they proclaimed who gave them truth. Yahweh reminded them through the Law, the Feasts, the Psalms, and the Prophets that He chose them, created them as his people, and therefore merits their obedience. But they believed that they belonged to the false stories of the pagan gods and found their identity there. Through the same means of grace, Yahweh also assured them that his covenant and his promises are true, but they embraced instead the truth handed to them by their environment.

Accordingly, their practice flowed from their beliefs. As the story of the Old Testament goes, over and over the Israelites’ feet carried them not to the tabernacle but to pagan shrines. Their routines brought them not to the reminding rituals of Sabbath, Jubilee, and the reading of the Law, but to pagan fertility cults.

The point of God’s revelation to humankind has never been to tell us what to do and what not to do. After all, Paul describes the Law as something given by God to lead his people to himself, incarnated in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).

In a day where our society’s forces speak to us just as powerfully as the pagan powers beckoned the Israelites, we need to be reminded who we belong to. This is ultimately the point of Christian rituals like teaching from the Scriptures, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, celebrating communion, baptizing, gathering for fellowship, and using certain greetings. Even in the daily routines of the home, such practices should serve to remind us that we are not a people of the world. Our behavior is not guided by the gods of self-sufficiency and individual rights; rather, it flows from our knowledge of the One to whom we belong. His call, to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ and follow him in suffering, will lead us to places quite different than the call of our culture.

* Sherwood Anderson sheds light on the role of work in the modern American psyche in his novel Poor White. Set in the late 1800s, the story follows the life of a lonely Missourian who moves to Ohio. Longing for a sense of belonging, he starts inventing farm machinery and views his work as a portal of entry into the small town’s community. Though he becomes a successful and famous inventor, his inner-person remains unknown as he searches for companionship.

**In The Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggemann describes the Exodus as an event where God redefined truth and the source of knowledge for his people by showing that the Egyptian gods and their dogmas were false.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Journaling, May 2010

What will Salina township be like in 20 years? How many more people will live in these 36 square miles? How many of the gravel roads will be paved? How many of the fields will have been sold off and turned into housing developments? Will Warner Bridge road be an interstate bypass lined with gas stations, shopping centers, and fast food restaurants?

If so, all those things will only be the continuation of the prairie's “development,” a process that started in this area in the 1830s. More layers of laws and ordinances. The expansion of habitation onto new ground, creating new pockets of producers and consumers that further link the land itself to a complex economy.

For example, the place where I'm trespassing (I mean sitting) right now—some acreage with woods, field, and old farm buildings whose owner lives in the Chicago suburbs. Part of this land is farmed, the produce sold to the food industry and the profits split between the farmers and the owner. The wooded grove where the farmhouse used to be, all this land does is sit here. The owner pays property taxes on it. Grass and trees and flowers grow on it. Deer and squirrels and raccoons and birds live on it. A farmer stores some equipment in the old shed. That's it.

If someday they turn it into another wooded rural subdivision, like Timberline a mile to the southeast, there will be x number of lots on which people will build homes. The homes will be connected to Exelon through power lines. They will have gas tanks filled by Kinder Morgan or Nicor or whoever. They will be filled with people whose income comes from some professional field or industry and who live off of commodities purchased from giant companies. They will use fossil fuels to work and go to school and go to church and mow their yards. They will form a home-owners association that says the grass cannot be over a certain length. They will expand the duties of their educational and postal district. And so on, and so on.

All of those things are true of my own home and family, more or less. We settled down on the corner of 4000 and 8000 roads in 1987 and starting doing all of those things. And we were only following my great great grandparents, Abraham and Amelia, who brought their own share of progress to Kankakee County from Pennsylvania in the 1850s. The place, and the forces which guide the patterns of life for those living here, have changed loads since the days when they passed Sunday afternoons sitting on the porch, like my folks and I did today. And it will change, I think, with frightening rapidity in the coming generation.

The sights and sounds and smells that I have enjoyed growing up here are changing and will continue to change. Another bridge will span the river. Bourbonnais, Limestone, Manteno, and Kankakee will expand and join together (Just like Kanakakee, Bourbonnais, and Bradley, first called North Kankakee, used to be geographically separate.) The sound of cars will come closer, drowning out the birdsongs. Aging farmers and property owners will die and their children will sell the land to developers. None of that is new; it's been happening my whole lifetime and my parent's whole lifetimes, at least.

All of this is not necessarily bad, either. To a degree, it's just that: necessary. Population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. But with the coming of new things, old things are lost. That's the story of the Midwest, and it is of course how history in general works. One tribe makes war on another and then occupies their land. Indians are removed, and the land that once was hunted is cultivated by new animals and new people planting new crops. Those people die or sell their land because they cannot keep up with the demands of the changing market, and it is farmed by new people with new machines and new methods. Next it passes to the hands of developers and then is lived upon by people whose means of living lies elsewhere—commuters.

The hope should be that people move this whole process forward in a way that somehow recognizes and values the things that are lost. In so doing, we can ensure that those things are not completely lost. And this is important because it reminds us that creation (including people themselves) has value beyond the monetary value ascribed to it by the modern economy. It has value because people and creatures have lived upon it and called it home. People call this nostalgia, but hopefully I've made a case that there is more to it than that.