This past weekend, I drove up to Portland for a Christian conference of sorts. I went to the Northwest Ekklesia Project Meeting. Chris Smith and John Pattison, authors of Slow Church were the speakers (I heard about this gathering via Chris, and I’ve interacted with both authors online, though we had never officially met them until this weekend). In three sessions, Chris and John described our age as being characterized by profound fragmentation, and they offered three biblical metaphors of church (Church as family, as body, as light) as a counter vision and way of being in the world. John and Chris drew on their book, Slow Church, their current personal projects, and stories from church communities they’ve been privileged to interact with as a result of their book.
This was not one of those huge church conferences, but an intimate gathering, tucked into a small church in northwest Portland. Nobody made me wear a name tag, so I wasn’t subjected to institutionalized intimacy. There was only about 20-30 people there. I learned pretty quick that everyone else was in a thicker sort of community than I am in. The other folks who were gathered were committed to neighborhood and place, and they didn’t just do church together. Most were part of intentional Christian communities (co-housing, shared life, etc.). Nobody made me feel out-of-place for my thin, anemic communal life, or like I didn’t belong there. I felt enfolded in the hospitality of the group, but it made me aware of ways my experience of church was far less robust.
In the first session, John noted that fragmentation is a characterization of every age—in the very warp and weft of the universe. However, he identified three forces of fragmentation peculiar to our day: radical individualism, hypermobility, and materialism.
Traditionally the season of Lent is a time for preparing. We fast, and we examine our lives, we repent, and we strive to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly. And yet, I am not whole. I recognize the forces of fragmentation in my own life but also the longing for wholeness.
I am individualistic
John Pattison noted in his Friday night talk that the Apostle Paul uses the phrase ‘Our Lord’ something like 53 times, but only once says “my Lord” (cf. Phil 3:8). Similarly, 22(?) times the New Testament speaks of Jesus as “our Savior” and only once does an individual refer to Jesus as ‘my Savior’ (Mary, in her Magnificat, Luke 1:46). Our post-Enlightenment age emphasizes the private individual. We are the self-made men. And faith and spirituality has become privatized. Evangelical Christians preach the need to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and deemphasize the fact that Jesus came to overturn the social order and establish a new people.
And yet so much of my Spiritual journey is all about me, following my bliss, me on my journey toward my self actualization. But Jesus calls us to something fuller, deeper and more involved than my personal relationship with him. God is community (Trinity) and the community the Godhead establishes images God’s unity in diversity, God’s justice and God’s love for all.
I hunger for deeper community, even as my own woundedness and suspicion keeps me from others. Part of my journey this season is to experience more of God with others because spiritual experience is so much more than the internal experience of my own human brain.
I am rootless
Sitting in a room full of people with a deeper, thicker experience of community life, I was struck with how hypermobile my life is. In conversation with Chris and John, before the conference began, I revealed my circuitous journey, and how I came to be in Medford. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, raised in Hawaii, two short years in urban mission in Atlanta and Miami, Vancouver BC for seminary, North Washington for several years, my pastorate in Florida and now, my neighborhood in South Medford. And then John went to talk about hypermobility as led to further fragmentation and rootlessness
Theologically, I prefer stability. I’ve read my Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson. I went to a Parish Collective thing a few years ago and cried through the whole thing feeling like these were my people— those who commit to place and neighborhood and strive to feel the rhythm of what God was already do there. As much as I’ve moved, I believe wholeheartedly in tending the soil where you are, and committing to place. Jesus was God with human skin come to dwell among his people. Incarnation happens in place, and there is reality we won’t enter into if we keep on moving. I feel the rootlessness, but wherever I moved, I’ve hoped it would be for the long haul.
I am a materialist.
Materialism means valuing the material more than the spiritual. It creates within us both a consumer mindset, where people and things are commodified, and a scarcity mindset, where we are most conscious of our material lack (e.g. resources, programs, technology, etc).
Certainly I feel both the forces of commodification and scarcity in my soul. Too often, my individualist impulse has subsumed even spiritual practices into commodities— techniques to achieve my personal satisfaction. And the weight of scarcity also weighs on my soul. Everything is a commodity and none of it is enough.
But of course, as in Browning’s phrase, my reach exceeds my grasp (or ‘what’s a heaven for?’). I long for a greater sense of God’s Presence to invade my reality, alerting me to where the real world of the senses doesn’t comprise all of reality, and that there is always more of God around than I realize. I feel too much the weight of scarcity, but the promise of Jesus is abundant life.
I am an individual, isolated from the Other. I am rootless, longing for connection. I am a materialist and a consumer, longing to taste and see the goodness of God. These forces of fragmentation are useful to me as a self-diagnostic, describing how fragmented I feel most of the time, but they also help me see the things I long to see in my life, in my journey with Christ. Fragmentation is not the end of the story.