Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Getting Our Ducks Lined Up

I’m sitting here on the shores of a river in Maryland. It’s 7AM and all is quiet as I’m reading my Bible. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a flock of Canadian geese walking along the road that runs parallel to the riverbank, some distance away from where I’m sitting. Soon I hear their voices and I put down my book and simply watch. There they are, walking along with one out front, 3 abreast, sometimes 4, stretching out for about 50 yards worth of geese. The scene fascinates me because, like sheep, everyone appears to be following the lead goose. I ponder what would happen if some goose tried to take a different path? Would that one be cut off from the flock? Would they even be allowed to leave? Perhaps none of the geese would care, trusting that the stray goose, in its authenticity and individualism would surely arrive at the same place as the rest of the geese.

I don’t need to guess, for the very thing I’m pondering happens right before my eyes. “Autonomous Goose” (AG), about midway down in the line of geese, slowly begins to veer to the left, off the appointed path. He (she?) gets a few feet, “out of line” and then suddenly three geese step out of the march and block the way for AG, herding it back into its appointed spot. There are cackles and feathers, but the whole incident happened so quickly, that had you been reading a book you would have missed it entirely.

I pondered this for a few minutes while I finished my weak coffee. Is this an illustration of the negatively labeled “herd mentality” or of the positively nuanced word, “community”? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not going to study geese for the answer, so forgive my speculations, but theologically, I would need to believe that this is a good thing, that God’s design for geese is that they depend on each other as a community, looking to one another for direction and support. So strong is this instinct built into them that when there’s a deviant among them (like auto goose this morning) they’re also wired to confront it and put an end the independent behavior. Somehow geese without formation, without order, without interdependency is unacceptable.

So what about us? North Americans are the offspring of rugged individualists who carved out new lives precisely because they had the courage to leave the herd. Thus do we value individualism. Our theology, too, has been shaped by this spirit, so that our encounter with Christ is cast in highly individualistic terms (personal savior, personal walk with God). In such a worldview, church can be seen as a sort of filling station where we get some goods to help us continue on our individual journeys, goods that we’ll choose to take or leave as we see fit.

What do you think of this? Many are prepared to vilify it completely, but I’m not in that camp. “Autonomous Goose” has shown up many times on the pages of church history with names like Martin Luther, St. Francis, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Without them we’d be entrenched in colonialism, racism, slavery, and other various forms of oppression that misrepresent the heart of Christ. If we were a herd, and marching to a different drummer were always the wrong thing to do, it would be because we believed that the leader of the pack was always taking us in the right direction. This simply isn’t the case, because every leader is himself, or herself, an individual with feet of clay, in need of the community to hold them accountable.

On the other hand, our lust for autonomy and individualism has created the ultimate in consumer spirituality, whereby most of us are literally accountable to no one except ourselves. We should, at the very least, have enough sense to realize that this mindset is rarely seen in cultures anywhere on the globe, at anytime in history. Our prosperity and mobility, along with the incredible securities provided by democracy, have allowed each of us the chance to leave our families and move, ‘out west’, or ‘back east’, or wherever else it is that we believe we’ll have the best chance. Further, our mobility isn’t limited to leaving geography and family; we abandon faith communities too on a regular basis because ‘we’re not being fed’, or because ‘the worship is killing me’, or because ‘there aren’t enough programs for my kids’, or because…don’t worry, we’ll think of something.

And of course, when we veer off the road, there are no geese there to steer us back. I’m not just talking about when we leave our churches (though it applies there). I’m also talking about when we leave our faith practices, expressing our sexual autonomy, or financial autonomy, or whatever else it is that we express. If anyone even knows us well enough to know about our departure, chances are good that our friends will, in one way or the other, smile and wish us well, as we find our path.

This doesn’t happen in African, Nepalese, or Guatemalan churches. In most places, community is a high priority, and we’re thus held accountable for staying on the path. As long as the path is a good one, this is actually a very good thing. The hyper-individualism of North America has created a culture whereby most of us, at best, have ambivalent feelings about ‘the tribe.’ We’ve seen the cults (some of us have experienced them); we’ve been through the ‘shepherding’ movements, wherein one needed permission from the elders to ask someone out on a date or by a car. Individual judgment was never to be trusted.

Of course, it’s these abuses that have contributed to our fear of accountability. That fear is fuel, thrown on the already raging fires of American individualism, and now the deal is closed. We’ll live this on our own, thank you very much. Oh yes, we’ll listen, and even participate – a small group here, a sermon there, a concert at the coffee shop, a mission trip with the Prebytarians. But when the day is done, we’re nothing more than spiritual consumers, shopping in the mall of American faith for the stuff we need to make it on our own.

There’s little danger, in this model, of us being blind followers, let alone geese. But there’s little danger too, in us being the body of Christ. And that, my friends, is a tragedy.

How can we balance our need for individual responsibility with our call to community and accountability in a way that makes Christ more visible?


At 9/7/08 19:05, Blogger Living-dom said...

I think individual responsibility is an American idol. We hide behind it and proclaim its virtues while it hurts our community. The early church shared in many ways, including time, different skills and financial resources. To focus on individual responsibility is to deny that as a collective group we are more powerful and can do more good for God as the body of Christ. We're not all eyes or feet, and the way we treat the most vulnerable in our community is much more important than how "responsible" I am or how "responsible" you are. We can do our part locally as a community and promote it collectively.

At 9/7/08 23:41, Blogger em said...

i am so torn on this because i am pretty fiercely independent in nature. i love my freedom, my space, etc. i recognize that this is partly due to the culture i grew up in and there are many things i both admire and find fault with in american culture. you would have that in any culture. community, from an american perspective, is a sacrifice. i must admit that on some levels, i hate the reigns it throws onto your life. YET at the same time, speaking from candid experience, the edification and honing accountability contribute undisputably in significant ways to the nuanced depth of our 'personal' relationship with Christ. it is only through the balanced teeter-totter, with individualism on one side and community on the other, that we continue to more thoroughly understand and emulate the character and heart of Christ. i value the personal because its useless to hide behind a collective idea. yet the collective, ironically, is what fuels the personal.

At 10/7/08 09:18, Anonymous thomas said...

Richard, I agree with your sentiment that we most hold the values of individual responsibility and community accountability in tension.

To answer your final question I think one of the ways we can better balance the two in our North American evangelical context is to work on understanding our identity in Christ both as individuals and in community - and how individual responsibility functions in love for the community (I've found Bonhoeffer very helpful along this theme - the "Creation and Fall" lectures with the discussion of "freedom for others" as opposed to "freedom from others" springs to mind). Not love of community as a concept - but love for the actual community we are in.

In practical terms an example might be that we could do a better job of recognizing that the label of "community" applies to those people we know and actually grow and share with - accountability demands more than a handshake and a hi and bye relationship in the church foyer. That seems like a really obvious thing to say, but at our church, for example, there are well over a thousand people there every Sunday at our community gathering where we share in communion and worship. In that sort of context it is easy to hold community at arm's length - you can consider yourself a part of the "community" because you attend the services, contribute financially, take communion together, and I do think there is some community bond there, but it's very easy to melt into the background. Part of the challenge of balancing community with personal responsibility is to recognize those communities we already share in where it is difficult to hold others at arm's length, (families, roommates, workplaces, summer basketball teams), and also work on intentionally building community (through small groups, partnering with others through and for service, throwing a party and inviting some people you don't know very well). In the one we maybe don't recongize the opportunity for true community (the family breakfast table is a Christian community?!) in the other we are frightened by the effort and exposure reaching beyond our natural relationshps demands.

In an urban context that easily breeds anonymity and faceless crowds (even at church!) we sometimes need to be reminded that if Christ is present in others and in our interaction with them ("whatever you do for the least of these...") - we need to be able to recognize their faces in order to recognize His face.

To return to the geese metaphor: if we say that to be part of the "flock" (or gaggle as the case may be) is to be in "community" then we will continue to struggle to value and contribute to community. We modern/post-moderns have a hard time valuing the big mass that "the flock" represents. But if we start to realize that to be in community is to grow with George Goose our coworker, Gracie Goose our wife, all our little goslings, and Gavin Goose who flies along two birds down - and that through them we encounter Christ who engages with every goose in every flock we have more a fighting chance. Because we love Gracie Goose and the goslings and maybe even George and Gavin when we work hard to see them as Christ for us. And that's what community and personal responsibility in the Biblical sense really demands: love. Of course...that's a very hard thing, and I tend to consistently fail miserably at it, but I want to keep trying...

At 27/7/08 11:53, Anonymous Anonymous said...

amen to living-dom. to em, community isn't supposed to be as painful as it sounds, if everyone's being loving & contributing (which, i guess, they don't always, but we should be & push to be better.) there is still room for your own space, i think what's wrong is the balance has been thrown off. instead of it being 50-50 or 60-40 community-independance, i think today it's more like 10-90, and our souls are dying, & our kids are shooting each other just for attention.


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