There’s no particular precipitating event that explains the present well. The closest I can come is when I was ready to quit my job. I sat down with my boss, Brandon, for lunch, and told him plainly that I was quitting and it was time to talk about my exit strategy. Several conversations over months, a few more lunches and coffee meetings, before I resolved to stay for the foreseeable future. My black and white thinking had served me well for most of my life, and it continues to so much of the time. When it came to my job performance, my right standing in the community and in the organization for which I worked, and all of the subtleties that trickled down to the daily aspects of the job, I couldn’t find a “gray” area. Where I could switch between “I have to quit” and “I have to stay,” there was a painful turning over of every thought and every consideration — I could hold a thousand scenarios in my head all at once, predicting very accurately the responses of hundreds of people to either decision. And then, in each scenario, there was a black and white, right and wrong decision making that was informing my doubt. Where I ended up, in God’s grace, was comfort in ambiguity. A better understanding of my world, I found, is to reconcile two, sometimes more, ways of thinking. As an example, a political conservative will look at a troubled school and prescribe a rebuilding of the family. A liberal, on the other hand, will advise an emphasis on the education system — more resources, more support, and everything that goes on in the school day will need to be improved. Imagining, then, that the polarities could be brought together. A more confusing example is my life. It is both true that I can do this job, and also that I cannot do this job. Both are true, simultaneously, and there are mountains of evidence for both conclusions.
My boss, Brandon, strangely enough, managed a smile when I opened my mouth and said the words “I’m quitting.” And it wasn’t a bluff or some other weird strategy. I had applied for other jobs, gotten serious interest from different agencies and companies, interviews and such. In my mind, it was only a matter of time. My fear, too, assumed that he would react to my fear with fear. It was driving much of the decision, although I would add that it was a very rational fear, and one that I had earned through some hard years of ministry. Brandon responded with grace. We talked it through, eye to eye, without any pressure or leveraging or jockeying for me to stay — or to go. I was afraid that I would hear “good riddance,” or that I would hear some kind of guilt trip. Either of those would have driven me further down the road I was on. This was a slow-motion event in that it took months for the decision to leave, and then months to come away from that. I was fortunate to be in a place where I could openly express my dissatisfaction and fear, still do my job well, and have the margin to continue.
In the grand scheme of my life, this decision — towards a continued commitment, or a decision to indecision as it seemed to be — doesn’t rank very high. My testimony is this reverse-Michael Jordan epic, where I fail and run and get beat up. Looking up through a curtain of spiritual blood, I see Jesus standing there in the same place where he has always been. The encounter with my boss — yes, I keep going back to that — was heavenly. I can’t put it any other way. It was this picture of my standing on an icy lake, looking at him, saying to myself and him, “You know we’re about to fall into this icy water and die, Brandon.” And he’s looking at my feet, smiling, and talking it through with me. How did you get so far out there? Nevermind where I’m standing, Brandon said, let’s talk about where you want to be — you can put your feet anywhere you want. There was this strange realization over the course of all these conversations, counseling and prayer all intermingled with business chatter and politics, that Brandon was standing on something totally different than me. Brandon had this spiritual technology that I hadn’t discovered yet. He was able to walk on ice and not fall through. Or somehow walk on ice, fall through, and be okay — and certainly not be afraid. Brandon was able to do some kind of spiritual magic in listening to me that I couldn’t contrive, I couldn’t fake, that I didn’t predict would happen. But there we were.
I suppose that many people have had the experience of finding a friend in a crowded place. Both on cell phones, the sounds of the mall, the church, the football game echo through the other end of the line until both people spot each other. There’s that “ah hah” moment when the phones get put away and the two people start talking face to face. I read the Gospels and I wonder what the disciples prayed to God, while still trying to figure out who Jesus was in that equation, and then I wonder what their reaction was when Jesus answered their prayers. The spiritual echo wasn’t coming through a cell phone, but through a person. I consider that Peter, for instance, laid his head down at night, praying as he fell asleep, only to have Jesus react and respond to his prayer in the following days. Yes, Peter, you can be reinstated, even for this betrayal. Yes, Peter, I still love you. And Jesus wasn’t this misplaced technology, where God installed a modern loudspeaker in an ancient human body. This Jesus was the friend these people were looking for among the crowd. It was the grocery store experience. What aisle are you on? Okay, stay there. I thought I told you to stay there. What aisle are you on now? Okay, I’m coming to you. Okay, I can hear you, stay there. I’m serious. Okay, I found you. And there’s Jesus, standing there, but the voice of God, for a time, is coming out of fleshy, mortal human. People talked to him, and he was talking back. So when the Pharisees were challenging Jesus’s identity, asking him about the laws and this kind of thing, they were praying. The Samaritan woman at the well prayed, with her eyes locked on the eyes of God. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was talking to God when she laid him down to sleep at night. Then, our God was responding to their prayer through his physical manifestation, through the sights and sounds of the veiled presence of God.
God having a voice, still, is hard to believe. When I think about prayer, I get stuck on the idea that there’s air blowing through my vocal cords, causing vibrations that bounce off of other people’s ears. God’s ears, somehow omnipresently, physically in the room, “hear” the vibrations in the air that are what make up the sound of my voice. But prayer is not strictly a physical act, as I am a physical and spiritual being, so there’s something spiritual that happens when I pray. The pagan construct being, for lack of a better term, “telepathy” of some kind taking place — this is the intermediate step. There are stop-gap, quantum views of science that allow for this kind of thing — that would be another step, I suppose, towards an understanding of prayer. The total understanding of this, the “string theory” of the spiritual realm, is not something I can conceive. I don’t get how my physical voice, a phenomenon which can be mechanically explained, is heard by a non-physical being. Even with the ongoing development of my prayer concept, my conception of God the person and his speaking was generally relegated to Biblical history. Hearing God through other people, at best, was when someone had memorized enough Bible verses to seamlessly integrate these quotations into casual conversation. I would think, “wow that sounded just like the Bible.” Forget about God actually, in some magical way, speaking through a person. My boss, talking me down off the ledge, would have been explained away as a great listener. The circumstances can be assuaged, encouragement rationed out, and the systemic issues can be resolved in some way — that’s the corporate, human solution, with the spiritual wringed out. Don’t misunderstand that Brandon is some kind of saint, the next in line for the trinity or something, he’s a human being with all that comes along with that. But I don’t throw out God’s presence. I can believe both the fallenness and frailty of humanity and also hold fast to the working of God in people. I insist that God is “in” people by the Holy Spirit, and people’s words, regardless of intent or knowledge, can be God’s words.
For so long the idea of God responding to my prayer was this awkward dance of incompatibility. I had ears that were used to hearing externally. Sound waves vibrating off of my ear drums. My heart wasn’t tuned to other people’s feelings. My sister Sarah and her boyfriend talked about the significance of how she never dating anyone “officially” in college, and how her boyfriend, Jason, realized that it was a big deal that she would consider dating him. They reflected on my wife and I, where I was the first boyfriend Jana had ever had — high school, college, or otherwise. “Did you think it was a big deal?” they asked me. “No,” I said honestly. “I didn’t really consider her feelings when I started dating her, or how big of a deal it was to her.” So when God responds to my feelings, swaying me this way or that through his Holy Spirit, I am this toddler learning to walk. I’m a deaf person reading Beethoven on some sheet music. My emotional sensitivity is single-digit years in training. This stunted my spiritual growth for so long — I could only talk to God in equations and systems. “Show me how this is going to work” was the kind of prayer I would pray, looking at a ministry or a social interaction. I could visualize the spiritual lines between the people, with corresponding colors and frequencies to indicate their depth of relationship and status. This is a gift from God, I think. But there was always a blind-siding, confusing, wild card that kept me from seeing what God was showing me. I couldn’t internalize the feelings of others, I couldn’t process it, and so there was always a missing “shade” of these God moments, the God visions. I was blind to what God was showing me, walking around in the dark, trying to hear out of the wrong hole. I would basically pick up the set of headphones that Jesus laid in front of me and fix these earsets to my nose and eye. “It doesn’t work,” I would say, insistently. Stubbornly, too. Maybe if I take a bit of these things, then the right thing would happen. No, that doesn’t work either. These headphones don’t taste right. Finally, after trying every orifice in my head, I would apply them to my ears and then — music. The song was playing, and it was beautiful.
God in me, by his Holy Spirit, or some such thing, was a mind bending experience. I considered that the scriptures must be perfect, and perfectly accessible, for it to guide me. But on the other side of that, I rationalized, a manual such as this would rot my brain. I wouldn’t need to think to understand these words, what with their perfection and all. So there was the frustration of God’s inaccessibility in the Bible — I could bend and flex, do all kinds of academic acrobatics in order to wrap the Bible around my world, but it didn’t work. God’s voice was always so old, so anachronistic, so historical, and never here and now. I was a mathematician trying to make sense of a Van Gogh. I am a dancer trying to find the beauty in a drag race. I will always be the physical being trying to grab onto this immaterial being — this Yahweh God who is both so completely personal and accessible, yet impossible to know. My knowledge of him is always so much less than him. God is so frustratingly other, and I can barely cobble together a few experiences to make some kind of outline of him.
The way that he leads me is along this fuzzy line in the sand, wind blowing at all sides. I feel myself teetering over a cliff on one side, only to find that this “cliff” is really a baby step upwards, it’s the place that God wanted me to go all along. My poor spiritual vision, vertigo, whatever it was, lied to me, instilled fear in the uncertainty of God’s lead. This cliff, the emotional embrace of God was always no man’s land for me. I couldn’t tempt gravity in the loss of control that would come from a feeling-based God-moment. Crying? No thanks. Laughing? That sounds better, but still, no thanks. And on the side opposite my fear of emotional heights was fire. All consuming, spiritual fire. The material world was scary enough, I didn’t want to put my hands in this invisible fire of unimaginable power. Ghost stories are fun, because they aren’t true. But stories of spiritual power, true as they are, that’s the boiling pot of water my mother told me not to touch as a child. That’s the campfire I wasn’t supposed to “play” around for fear of landing face first in some flame. I didn’t want to mess with the spiritual world, but God kept tripping me into it. This path seemed to be a suicide mission, with every step a leap of faith followed by a near-fatal fall. Teetering from one side to the other, finding myself in flames — why would you let me stumble into this pain? — God brought me to all things spiritual. I didn’t get, in foresight, that I was supposed to plunge into spiritual fire. I was supposed to test the edge, to trust that God would catch me when he said he would. There is this paradoxical leading by God. This person was always taking me places that didn’t make sense, that I didn’t want to go, that looked like pain, death, or loss. I don’t know that I ever found a system to follow God. I couldn’t retrace my steps for someone else and take them “here,” for a thousand reasons, one of which is that God is a person and not a figurative place. If only to visualize my journey into mysticism, esoterica, spirituality, I point to a “path.” It’s a mystery, it’s supposed to be a mystery, there are not all of these certainties and other such nonsense. I am both body and spirit, and as such, I interact with the Spirit, and it is terrifying. Hes beautiful. It’s impossible. He’s amazing.
On both the non-profit and for-profit side of my job, I have had many a conversation about the problems in the world. There are some problems in the world. Leaders in my community are working on various projects, some of which are truly amazing, God-breathed missions. One that jumps to mind is Steve, who is working to instill a spirit of generosity among business leaders around the world. This, a mission of generosity for the sake of generosity, is beautiful. No caveats, no disclaimers, no arguments here, or from anyone. Certainly, giving is downstream from understanding grace, forgiveness, and the love of God. Even in the practical sense, one could see the value of giving. My humble addition to this is that anyone, on any side of the fundraising, non-profit, or business world, must acknowledge the spiritual need. What ends up happening, depending on the demographic served, is an often unrecognized relational deficit goes on while the material deficits are met. Think about, for instance, the week of camp that gets its cost covered by donation, and the necessity of relational follow through. And, the reality that there is as much if not more isolation or relational deficits in wealthy communities as there are in poor communities — this cannot be monetized, or solved through material means. This goes back to the value of structural change, but more importantly, the spiritual component of life. Less a “component” and more “the entirety” of life. To preach the Gospel to someone on an empty stomach is wrong, of course. In my limited experience, it is hundreds, probably thousands of times easier to get someone to donate money for food in lieu of their time. Physical presence, to those where time has become a commodity, is more difficult to give than a million dollars. But it’s the physical presence, the gathering, where spirits fill up and move and dance. There is a relational, spiritual need that cuts through every demographic, socio-economic strata, and race. What ends up happening, even in the face of increased generosity, is a greater relational gap. “I have given a lot” can become an obstacle to breaking down the walls of isolation. On the other side, I see an equal amount of pride among the poor. More important than letting someone else come in, see and identify one’s problems, and collectively “own” those problems, is preserving one’s pride. Certainly this isn’t unique in American poverty, it’s a legacy of damaging charity, but worse than the pride itself is the separation it causes.
What ends up happening in such a system is the depth of generosity is limited to finances. Cutting through the flesh — in this metaphor one must imagine a bloody mess — and slicing through fat, muscle, bones, one eventually arrives at the spiritual need. I find myself guilty of this, not cutting deep enough to get to the heart of it. There’s all this talking, and talking, going around in circles, and there’s this frustrating conclusion about our present state. The state of things is usually limited to the practical, logistical, the nuts and bolts. Although, it certainly depends on one’s frame of reference. In the academic world, there are plenty of people at the other end of the spectrum who talk endlessly about lofty, pseudo-intellectual ideas for which there is no potential or desire for execution. Politics is an easy target to hit. There is a huge difference between what is good for this country, or any, and what someone can actually say and do to get a position of power and keep it. The same can be found in any menial job, corporate board, church, or whatever. There are these human efforts to redeem an otherwise broken system. Universities, for instance, are but a small brick in a pillar of society — what are “colleges” in the grand, historical scheme of education? But there’s a good-hearted effort to make higher education accessible, which is decidedly counter to the very foundation and purpose of higher education. They are, by their nature, elite and exclusive. But then, with the best of intentions, the competition is opened up to weaker competitors and the club’s membership is watered down by adding individuals or groups that are counter to the traditional formula. I say “watered down” only as a cynical observer to the cogs in this, and many other machines in our society. No, diversity does not help college campuses, because their success as an institution is not based on the social experience and preparedness of the student body. My point is that the problem is not something we can touch, it’s not a policy change, or an incremental series of decisions that can make “this” or “that” be more fair, equitable, good, loving, and so on. The problem is spiritual. To do otherwise is putting makeup on a corpse. It’s adding a second liver to an alcoholic — yes, it will extend their life. And what of the original problem?
It’s not a “what” or a “where” issue but a “when” problem. I’m blind to this reality; I can’t see eternally, like a prophet or some modern day Jesus. But I know this. There’s nowhen but now, my flesh tells me — what heaven, hell, or ever after is there when all we know is now? And I consult the past at times, but the past leads me back to the present. If I race ahead of the crowd, with the endless debates about the nature of our societal issues, I end up back at the present. These spiritual conversations look like these bearded, robed men sitting around a campfire in the woods, chanting and singing in bygone languages. Meanwhile, my more rational friends and I run around the woods, scoffing at their time-wasting foolishness. I duck and dodge through the trees, scraping myself against failed ideas, the best intentions, even prayed-through corporate endeavors. The few that hold out hope end their journey, after days and sometimes a whole lifetime, back at the campfire with the old men, singing and chanting about spiritual things. My spirit joins the spiritual conversation, rarely out of hope, but so often out of sheer frustration. I’ve tried everything else. How can I see what they see? What tool, what nutritional change, what idea opened their eyes to eternity?
I look around and I see, and I know from the Bible that eternal life comes from the spirit — what material substance will survive? What ends up happening in these debates are material solutions, resource reallocation or leadership paradigms or restructuring the political hierarchy, for what amounts to a spiritual problem. This is all, everything I’ve ever seen and done, spiritual. There are no problems but spiritual problems. It strikes fear in my flesh, it terrifies the pride in me that every aspect of my ministry will be a memory at some point, until everyone that has ever heard of what I’ve done has died. This is a certainty. Rather than idolize our material efforts — and the “idol” word is no accident in this statement — there is hope on the other side of eternal, Kingdom thinking. The spiritual legacy, the Kingdom of God, the spiritual events in which I have participated, will last forever. Or rather, these spiritual relationships are everlasting. There are no solutions but spiritual solutions. Nobody should be surprised that contrived, human efforts fall so short. What I’m suggesting isn’t an abandonment of human effort, but a promotion of spiritual efforts to its proper status. We can combine rational, logical thinking with the misperceived nonsense of spiritual thinking. These two ways, understood only as a dichotomy of thought, are one and the same. Regarding human effort, I participate in a church power system that seeks to preserve it’s own dwindling power in our society. The Bible calls this kind of “selfish ambition” evil in Paul’s letter to the Galatians — that’s both spiritual and logical. It is disheartening, to say the least, to see a renewed push for improved marketing in the non-profit sector. The result is the monetization and profitization of charity, under the brand “love your neighbor.” This is not spiritually benign but evil. A lack of corruption, totally removed and not hidden, has become the exceptional status of institutions and organizations. This should not be the way things are.
I am catching up to these young people, those in Portland that follow conspiracy theories and the Illuminati like it’s a sport. who see the spiritual realm as the common thread through all of these present issues. They don’t know it, but they talk about theistic satanism on a high level. There are “beings,” they explain with hushed voices, that sell power and such to people who then exchange something of themselves over to these spirits. It is, in so many ways, a post-Christian understanding of “worship,” with these young people correctly noting that spiritual devotion to any person — even a non-physical consciousness — gives power to that person. This is what Christians call “idolatry.” I get messages online with links to videos where they demonstrate the rituals, “how to sell your soul” and such, or links to various interviews with celebrities. Mixed into the nonsense are real spiritual technologies, dangerous as they are, that end up leading many young people further astray. These curious young people have too much information and too much time on their hands, and they stumble onto occult phenomenon, and then explore even further that spiritual playground. “These beings,” these young people say, quoting videos and articles they read, will give you a few years’ worth of success in exchange for your soul. A soul, their heart, their identity. It’s Biblical, but it has mostly been relegated to mythology and superstition in the Western world. What these young people have discovered, and what aligns with their day to day spiritual experience with demons, ghosts and all of this, is that the Bible is true. There really is a spiritual battle going on, with powers and authorities that we cannot see or fully understand. But we all know it, we feel it, we sense it. Often, people, myself included, hear about the kinds of things that God says and the way that he speaks into people, and the response is, “That kind of thing has always happened to me. That’s God? That just seems like, normal, and not … you know, like a big, booming, bass drum voice from heaven.” I found that I had been hearing from God on a regular basis, it just blended into the inner monologue in my own head, the tugging on my spirit at times, the unease and the pull of my heart. God is so involved, so there, so actively speaking to me and everyone, it’s just a matter of recognition. The counter argument, that God doesn’t speak that often to people, is usually aligned with individual experience as opposed to a reading of the Bible. The problem becomes this: there are a lot of voices, and there are a lot of people that hear these voices. In the world at large, it isn’t just that there is a singular systemic problem in our education, medical, political, or other societal systems — and I am saying, yes, there are systemic problems — it’s that there are spirits at work in all of these systems that are keeping people divided and suppressed. That people are so profoundly exploited in a first world country can only point away from the material resolution and towards the spiritual. My God has been leading me down this path, with fire on one side and a cliff on the other, so often goes against the rules and the reason of the world. What if there was better access to services? What about a Christian mafia type of thing? We could organize better, we could connect people, unite different pillars of our society, even secularists and humanists could work towards a common goal. What if we just all tried a little harder? And I end up, on the other side of endless spiritual showdowns between God and I, much closer to God’s intended life for me than I ever thought possible. The spiritual engagement, scary and uncontrollable as it is, must be the answer before anything else. I see Jesus showing up and using the spirit to move the natural.
What scares me, like Peter looking at the waves instead of at Jesus, is when friends young and old have spiritual experiences that pull them away from God. The movie, Man of Steel, has a scene where Superman’s father explains his entire calling, the story of his existence, and the meaning of his life all in one day. Lacking this, and really any rite of passage to denote manhood, let alone individual or community identity, everyone is left to their own devices. The closest thing I got to a rite of passage was the tattoo I got for myself when I turned eighteen. People exploring the spiritual realm of their faith are apt to find just about anything they are willing to open themselves up to — Jesus, and plenty of other imitators. What ends up happening are dreams and visions that wreck people, hauntings, or the selling of one’s birthright for a cheap price. One of our brightest stars to come out of our high school ministry has become a Christian but also dabbled in the occult for years. As smart as she is, she is equally duplicitous in her relationships, both with humans and with spirits. Jesus isn’t her only savior, it seems. The problem has become, one, that she has had terrible nightmares spurred on by a spirit in the house claiming to be a relative. What has ended up happening, and this is the second problem, was her brother has gotten attacked by the same spirit. Her timid relationship with Jesus has let to a limited understanding of his authority — or, more likely, she wants that spirit to stay in her house but “play nice.” Basically the conversation with the spirit has led nowhere. Ten years ago I would have reminded all of the players involved that this is impossible, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Science says so. Living now in this syncretistic culture, I’ve experienced spirits for myself. The lesson, from a relational angle, is that Jesus is as real as these other spirits but, more importantly, he has all of the authority and power over these. From an identity and calling standpoint, as much as one can find their identity in other spirits or persons, Jesus will always overcome this. That’s just what he does. Where a young person might desire a shortcut to their identity and call, Jesus offers the truer, permanent identity.
I am still trying to figure out what identity I started out with before I entered into this “Christ identity.” I’ve inherited a Western world that is hyper-individualistic, and proudly so. The myth of the self-made man has permeated the theology of American churches. There is a vast surplus of young men and women desperate for someone to tell them who they are. But they’ll fight against that very thing, every step of the way. The lengths people of all ages will go to “rebel” against someone — there’s nothing to rebel against — is laughable. The neck and hand tattoos, the massive piercings, the cross-gender clothes, carrying around snakes as pets, the counter-culture that vaporizes and remakes itself every few months. It’s all a big joke. It would stabilize, I think, if there was a commonly held community identity into which everyone could draw. Community spiritual identity is all but lost today. “High church” theologians, for lack of a better term, at best point to a reality that has been relegated to a medieval construct. That whole “community” thing is a relic of a time when small communities had an actual physical need for each other. Those days are over.
It wasn’t until my twenties that I noticed how much the Bible talks about a national identity, inter-connected with the individual tribes, and all of that enmeshed with the family. The types who went out on their own were the exception, the extreme case, the crazy men like John the Baptist and Elijah. Every other examples is one of families making decisions together, whole communities discussing financial or marital plans, and the patriarch being the focal point of so many of these discussions. I find that the claim of “calling” is often shorthand for “you can’t argue with what I’ve decided to do with my life because… God.” Where before, one might inherit a calling from their family, priests and blacksmiths alike, people get to pick and choose their vocation from a whole menu of options. And yet, people seem to be profoundly miserable, apparently in a way that people weren’t when they had less options. The self-made man, at least in the sense of freedom of choice, is mostly an unfulfilled and self-doubting man. It’s that, for my generation, everyone is on the outside looking in. Wouldn’t it be shameful, embarrassing, pitiable, for a grown man to be told by his father what he was going to do for the rest of his life? Even looking into immigrant families where the young people are pressured into white collar jobs, it’s seen as a tragedy. “That poor Japanese woman had no choice but to be a doctor or a lawyer.” The ideal, more than loyalty or even success in itself, is to do whatever the hell I want to do.
As we each, individually, make ourselves, it’s equally important to separate from the ever-changing cultural trends. Nobody can “like” what is popular or what’s mainstream because of some odd counter-everything ideal. It’s the logical result of endless self-importance that people would avoid aligning their opinions with others. Everyone wants to be heard as a voice shouting in the wilderness, but the message is less about preparing the way and more about “me” — individualists, whether they’re a hipster twenty-something or a sixty year old libertarian, the goal is always to extract as much value from the world as possible. This plays out in reputation, but more obviously in finances and resources. The relational problem, where there are easier to define but less important issues that stem from this, is that value extraction is destructive to communities. Young people base their opinions on what other people like, but so often in the contrary, motivated by one-upmanship and competition. “We” can’t just enjoy something together, openly and lovingly, because it’s all about me, what I like, and protecting what tiny differentiation of self that I have left. And I grant that there are tons of young people concerned with social justice and the movements that have spawned out of the compassions of young people. What I’m saying undermines this is the same problem that limited any previous generation’s attempts at change. It is the relational separation of old and even now, in recent times, among the young people attempting to lift up their neighborhoods, this is what’s keeping people down. “I’ve decided that we are going to stop rebelling” is something no one has ever said. A twenty something trying to find themselves in contrast to everyone else is always going to push further and further away from everyone else. Unfortunately for us, there’s no great struggle, no Vietnam, no Civil Rights movement, no particular mark of this generation, so what’s left to fill the void is all of this other stuff. Extreme indulgence, with the tiniest of differentiation making up one’s identity. What’s true, as there are young and old exceptions to all of these generalities, is that the relational connectedness is the true measure of a generation’s spiritual quality.
For the young believers, there is a vein of hyper-intellectualism in the popular, up-and-coming churches that is turning people away. There’s an elitism in everything — clothes, coffee, beer, cars, neighborhoods, even environmental concerns — that is further driving people apart. My generation, people like me as it were, are fish in so much water of individuality. If you disagree, do this quick experiment: Try to authoritatively tell a young person who they are. If the “authoritative” component doesn’t work, try another angle of defining their identity. Any angle. Sarcastic, passive aggressive, the Socratic method, an intervention-style meeting, even slowly over time. People raised in this culture will fight for that right to define the truth in their world, and they will end a relationship before someone imposes on their sense of self. After the deconstruction of community, all that’s left are individuals — and those without identities. As I said before, proudly so. There’s no “together” on the outside of society, no conformity in non-conformity because our collective identity is strictly based on what we’re not. And God forbid I let you decide for me who I am. So the conversion process for a young person in this culture has added the step of joining a community. A couple thousand years ago, this was automatic. Leave one religious or spiritual community and join another. Today, there are no default gatherings, no commonalities in geography or affinity that hold people together. Family, among white Americans, is no longer the primary source of relationships. Now, separation is normal. For new followers of Christ, there’s this new step. As I speak to both myself and my people, I am telling you that you have to engage with society on a level you will hate. The spiritual and immaterial well-being of everyone around you is wholly connected with yours. Those people are you now, and they’re going to tell you who you are. If “we” decide we care about something, then you care, too. You worship when we worship, and we worship when you worship. We mourn, celebrate, laugh, eat, all of this, together. You want to make a big life decision? We’re all going to be a part of it, and you’re going to learn to love that, too. You’re dating? You’ll need the approval of all of us, because you’ll need our support before, during, and after the wedding to do this well.
I am suggesting a new way that reflects that of Jesus. It isn’t so much an invention as a rediscovery, but the term “technology” fits just as well. Combining multiple ways of thinking is possible — because it has been done. It sounds like a science fiction, speculative fantasy to suggest that a “person” or a number of persons are using spiritual tools to separate people from each other and from their creator. That it’s true is terrifying. Jesus offered the means to be one with each other. It is some huge, pure, total, other-worldly magic that brings together rich and poor, classically educated and not, the slave and the slave owner, and so on. Though I don’t advocate for destruction of systems altogether, the identity formation process among us is worthy of being abandoned. We can pick up the tools that Jesus offered us to claim our identities, even in the face of worldly and natural impossibility. Thousands of TED talks and university discussions, think tanks, conversations in bars, and so on, are all worthy and valuable in their own right, and when they are good will arrive at the way Jesus offered us. We have the ability and the means to bring together mutually opposed communities, rebuild both relational structures and state-run systems, and more. I am saying, prophetically I am sure, that human efforts to fix these broad, community-level issues will fall short, along with the individual efforts, until the Jesus way combines all of these things. What would it look like? We know what it will take, and all we can do is guess how that kind of spiritual unity would take root. A snapshot, as close as I can describe, would be a social worker, a homosexual teacher, the rich governor, a corner-store owner, a grandma, the addict prisoner, and you, working together on all levels. In a way that should be impossible, but, for no other explanation, Jesus. It’s not a Star Trek-like, borg “hive mind,” but the same type of collective intentionality, with everything that falls from there. Jesus working all things together — all people together, too.