The End is Nigh! -or- It Is What It Is

I haven’t really written since my Dad died, and there wasn’t much before that either. Writing is often a way I work things out; so perhaps I’ve been avoiding, or it could be simply a matter of time and discipline, or the lack thereof. In any case, I always aspire to write, and read, and run, and floss daily…and so many other things; so without further ado, here goes.

I was grateful to be able to preach a couple of weeks ago, and I posted that sermon below. As I said in it, all of my sermons are variations on a theme, and this one was no different. Still, it was nice to be able to preach again. Words have power, especially when they’re in some way related to the good news of and about the living Word- Jesus. Having said that, the hope I always hope for remains hard to come by. Even Kirsten has noted the nearly palpable feel of impending doom in the air. Talk of apocalypse reigns in the zeitgeist, from all the negative political ads as election season rolls on to the movies and TV shows about zombies or pandemics or the long term loss of electricity and with it life-as-we-know-it, or potential nuclear war or the planet being obliterated by “another earth” and on and on…to the real life threat of global economic collapse or war with Iran or Syria, and so on. I mean, it is 2012, after all. Maybe the common misconception about the end of the Mayan calendar does portend some kind of doom. Who knows?

I referenced “Another Earth” above, but I realize now that’s a bit misleading. Another Earth was actually a great movie that Kirsten and I really enjoyed. It’s an indie film in which, not surprisingly, another Earth is discovered. The film doesn’t get into the specifics of the science involved, to its credit, but instead focuses on character development. In the movie the copy of Earth is filled with copies of all of us, which raises questions like, “what could my life have been like if I had only done this? Or not done that?” Such questions are central to the lives of the two main characters who have a quite tragic story arc. Nonetheless, the plot isn’t actually apocalyptic, as the other Earth doesn’t appear to be hurtling toward ours so as to destroy it. What I was thinking of above was a somewhat similar movie in which another Earth- or something like it- is hurtling toward ours to destroy it. That movie I’ve consciously chosen not to see just yet, but I’ve read the plot summary. It’s called Melancholia, and part of its premise has to do with the notion that, in some cases perhaps, people who are already depressed or who perhaps expect the worst seem to fare better when the worst comes or when there’s a damn good reason to be depressed. It’s not paranoia if everyone is out to get you, after all. It’s not an anxiety disorder if the world around you is truly full of threats.

I bring all this up because, as noted extensively on this blog, I’ve been “mildly depressed” for many, many years, and more recently have struggled with deep and abiding anxiety. For those like me who suffer in this way, it can be relieving when “the end” finally comes because at least you know that were right after all. The healthy among us- like my wife- are right to encourage me to live in the present and enjoy the many obvious blessings I’m so fortunate to have like my wonderful wife and kids, my privileged status as a middle class white male USAmerican, etc., and of course they are right. Still, the anxiety/depression remain, and those who struggle with them know they aren’t exactly (completely) rooted in rational thought- for anyone. Since the anxiety piece of this really came to a head a few years ago, I’ve taken some steps to mitigate it somewhat. I’ve lost a ton of weight (the yo-yo effect notwithstanding) and have otherwise struggled to adopt some practices that will help. I eat better for the most part and as noted above aspire to write and read and pray daily. The Common Prayer book put out by Shane Claiborne and others has been immensely helpful in this regard.

Ironically, though, that discipline of Common Prayer is meant to be practiced in and by a community, and as always such community seems ever more challenging to find. When we first encountered Circle of Hope in Philly so many years ago and were challenged to actually start “being” the Church, and later as we were part of House of Mercy in Minnesota and I came to the realization that “it” (the Gospel/the life of a Christian) is not in the end about me, finally; as these twin epiphanies occurred over the years and during and after seminary as well my life as a Christ-follower was reoriented dramatically. I came to understand that so many of the “you’s” in the Bible (you- do this, or don’t do that, etc.) were plural; they were addressing the Christian community, not merely the individual. This makes so much sense, not just logically, but deep within. If we really want to BE the Church by loving our neighbors and serving the poor and being an alternative community that strives to live out God’s dream of peace-with-justice, not the individualistic and now consumeristic and imperialistic “American” one, then such a life will be so exceedingly difficult no doubt that living it out will only be possible- if at all- together. We do it in and as a community or we don’t do it all.

Sadly, for many years now I think we haven’t been doing it at all. There were moments of hope when I at least felt like we were living and moving in the right direction, but we squandered those, and that too has been well documented on this blog. So what now? Not too long ago I came across a constructive rejoinder to the self-critique I just leveled. I’ve been talking about a whole lot of striving and yearning and struggling to will into existence the kind of community I so want to be a part of. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a “new monastic” and co-founder of an “intentional community” suggests that all that striving will inexorably be in vain.

A Books and Culture review by Ragan Sutterfield of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability really says it best. I’ve copied below most of the review, because it’s worth it. Sutterfield says of Wilson-Hartgrove’s book:

Instability seems to be the condition of our age. The stock market spikes and dips, currencies waver, real estate signs line the streets. The more education you have, the less likely you are to live where you grew up (if you can even say that is one place).

There is also the instability of soul—a restlessness that drives us to move, to explore, to find some better option. To live in one place, much less one house, for thirty years is an anomaly for the most of us. We can barely stick to our electronics long enough for them to wear out.

“In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” These words from Abba Anthony are shocking to our ears—radically countercultural. This is a call to stay put, to develop deep roots with all of the accompanying limits and with all of the accompanying nourishment and strength of established ground.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, is a call to follow St. Anthony’s advice. It is a call to be incarnate—no Gnostic dreams of cyberspace or of imagined lives lived elsewhere. Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us that as followers of a savior who came to be with a particular people in a particular place, we are called to go and do likewise.

For Wilson-Hartgove, at the root of modern instability is an essential misunderstanding of who we are as people. Our consumer society has tried to convince us, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we are above all individuals and that it is the pursuit of our particular passions and interests that will fulfill us.

In reality, the pursuit of individualism leads to what we might call the market segmentation of the soul: our desires become scattered. We seek to find an anchor in a community, but having insulated ourselves from the limits and sacrifices that real, proximal community requires, we are drawn to quasi-communities clustered around a brand, a hobby, a style. We become hipster or hip-hop, J. Crew or Armani. Our “style” becomes our place.

Against all this, Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “True stability can never be a product for individuals to consume. Rather, it is an invitation to shared life with particular people in a specific place.” Stability is then a result of true community—of the sort Wilson-Hartgrove has worked to establish through the community house his family is a part of in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina.

But community requires a great deal of work and risk. Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “This is at least part of the reason books on spirituality have become more popular in the last generation, even as church attendance has gone down significantly …. The trouble … is that a spirituality that works for me cannot save me.” Spirituality becomes the name of an online store category—a choose-your-own-adventure sort of religion that gives comfort but demands little and therefore results in little transformation. Stability helps protect us against spirituality of this kind by forcing us to be present with our neighbors, whether we really want to or not.

If we want to grow spiritually, Wilson-Hartgrove suggests, “Maybe the single most important thing we can do … is to stay in the place where we are.” Such staying is so important because it forces us to face the real problems in our lives—the problems we can’t mask with new friends, a new job, a new house, or a new car. Staying shows us that what we need isn’t another church or a town where people “get us” or a new adventure. What we need is to face ourselves and stay still long enough for God to change us.

Wilson-Hartgrove quotes the desert mother Amma Theodora, who tells the story of a monk who decided to leave his cell because of a great many temptations. “As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.’ ”

We are not and have never been purely independent beings. To achieve the illusion of “independence,” we must ignore the networks that support us, and we do so to our peril. To have stability in a place we must have humility—”growth in our awareness of our own insufficiency.” As Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “I cannot do anything—not even keep my own faith—alone.” This may seem a bold claim in the age of church shopping, but we must remember that we worship a Trinitarian God who is never alone, who is the essence of community.

In order to live in our insufficiency, we must learn to pay attention—pay attention to where we are and on whom we are dependent. Stability requires us to know our neighbors, and more than that it requires us to participate in the act of neighboring—to recover “neighbor” as a verb.

“To embrace the limits of a place is to learn to look at the people around us with fresh expectation,” writes Wilson Hartgrove. “Whether these people are easy to love is not the question. Stability invites us to ask, ‘How are they gifts from God to help me grow in love?’ ” Throughout the book, Wilson-Hartgrove paints a picture of what genuine neighboring looks like in a community of stability.

I have little to add to the above. This learned instability has been a hallmark of my life, and certainly that of my family. Ironically, of course, all of our moves (especially back to places we’ve lived before) have been in search of stability, in the pursuit of community. We even know- at least intellectually- and have told ourselves that “you can’t go home again,” that our problems and foibles and challenges will chase us wherever we go because we are at the root of them and we will still be there. Nonetheless, the other side’s grass has usually been too tempting to resist.

As a family, we’re certainly confronted with this challenge today. We were so grateful to be able to come back to NE Ohio to a house we still “owned” and a few friends who have been very good to us, and for which we are very grateful. Still, those bonds of friendship in one case were formed intensely a number of years ago over a shared dream for just the type of Christian community I’ve been describing, only to be weakened to the point of near non-existence now as the family in question have continued on their long journey away from faith, away from God, and despite some heartfelt and loving/non-judgmental efforts to keep this from happening, away from us.  In the other case, the friendship is a little more intact, but is challenged by some small distance (we live about 35 minutes or so apart) and the usual scheduling obstacles of our harried lives, among other things.

Otherwise, there are several church communities we’ve been connected to over the years here, but we’ve never managed to fully invest in any of them. Since coming back, though, perhaps taking that notion of being rooted in a local geographic community to heart, we decided to join the Lutheran congregation just down the street. This is arguably a nominal affiliation, however, as this traditional institutional church is mired in the habits of Christendom and has yet to push beyond them to become a “real” community as I understand it, to really “be” the Church. So joining them- even if in name only at first- was thus a hopeful act on our part, a recognition that community exists not as we want it to be but as we find it, and will only become whatever it might insofar as we pitch in to help shape it. As the review above notes in quoting Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “To embrace the limits of a place is to learn to look at the people around us with fresh expectation,” writes Wilson Hartgrove. “Whether these people are easy to love is not the question. Stability invites us to ask, ‘How are they gifts from God to help me grow in love?’ ”

We sure want to grow in love, and we want to see those around us- however hard they are to love, however much we might wish they were more progressive or peace-loving or interested in caring for God’s good earth or tech-savvy or whatever- we want to see them as gifts from God. We know we are dependent beings in so many ways, and we want to rely on those around us in our common struggle to not only be our best true selves but to be the beloved community that we- and the world- so desperately need, whether the end is nigh or not. Lord, let it be so.

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