Thursday, September 27, 2007

Jesus has annexed my town

"Nashua belongs to Jesus Christ."

That's the slogan on the bumper sticker of a car in the parking lot of my apartment complex in Nashua, New Hampshire. I've seen it several times over the last few weeks. It's either a campaign of some sort, or else I keep noticing the same two or three cars. I'd ask somebody, but the cars are always either empty or moving.

To me it sounds like a threat, like non-Christians should get out of town or something. Is that paranoid? Maybe the people who drive these cars are just clueless and don't realize that it sounds that way.

What do the rest of you think? Have you run into this in your town? What's it supposed to mean?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Reflections on the Beginning of Another Church Year

It seems like an odd thing to do, when you stop and think about it.

Why give up a weekend morning, make yourself and your family presentable, and go to church? Why join its committees and work on its projects? Don't you have more urgent things to do with your time? Why contribute money that you surely could apply to some other purpose, money that you could put aside towards (say) a nice vacation or use to pay down that worrisome balance on your credit card?

Why church?

The traditional churches have a simple answer: Eternity. It seems like a good deal they offer: a little bit of trouble and expense now in exchange for eternal bliss. Or else take your chances on damnation. What's it going to be? You have fire insurance, don't you? Why not take out a little hellfire insurance?

But our church can't make that pitch. We've trained you (if you needed it) not to be so gullible, not to jump at every threat or promise that someone makes in an authoritative tone, not to jerk like a puppet at every thou-shalt or thou-shalt-not you read in some allegedly ancient text. Why shalt thou? Why shalt thou not? Who is this voice that calls itself God? Is there a man behind that curtain? Is there an all-too-human all-too-earthly church?

Why should we (who know better) make a church? Even a "free" church, as we call it? Would animals, taken back to the plains of Africa and released, build themselves a zoo? Even a "free" zoo, with cages that didn't lock? Would they surround themselves with wire and stay on moated islands just for old times' sake?


So why a church?

You don't need another demand on your attention. Forget eternal life, day-to-day life is already more than enough to think about. Job, health, home, family -- couldn't you use a second 24 hours every day just to keep up with them? Or to get away from them and finally have some time for yourself? Maybe once there were homemakers who needed church as an excuse to get out of the house for a while. Maybe there were workers who were grateful to be told to sit down and do nothing on a Sunday morning.

But those days are over, aren't they?

Or maybe they aren't. You don't work 16 hours a day in the mines or the mills. You don't beat rugs with a stick or haul water from the well or bake your family's bread from scratch (unless you want to). But there's always something, isn't there? Something that a better version of yourself would be doing. Stuff to put in order. Plans to make, letters to write, things that someone is going to expect you to know and understand and deal with. Soon. Maybe already.

Sometimes life is like one of those dreams where you're running from something and don't believe that you're going to get away. You think you need to run faster, but what you really need is to wake up.

Wake up.

Eternity? You could use an excuse to step back and think about next month. Or a year from now. Or five. Where is it all going, this life you've made? Sometimes that question hits you in spite of the clothes in the hamper and the meeting tomorrow morning and the kids who are waiting for someone to pick them up. Where is it all going?

Maybe it hits you on a round-numbered birthday. Or out of the blue, when you spot a white hair or hear the news about that friend you haven't seen since almost forever.

Or maybe it comes after one of those moments when time seems to stop. The last sliver of the red sun peeks out over the ocean. Or the engine hums and the interstate rolls past and you know all the lyrics to the song on the radio. Or the symphony is over, but its last note still stretches out in your mind; you stay in your seat just a little longer so that you don't break it. The moment, for reasons of its own, doesn't run away. It lingers. And when time starts again, that's when it occurs to you to wonder:

Where is it all going?

It's not even about death, not really. If the thread of your life suddenly snapped, well, then it would be over and you probably wouldn't be anywhere where you could think about it. (Or if you were, then that would be a different thread, still holding.) That might even be the best way to die, to be racing through your life and then (suddenly) not.

No, it isn't death that hits you. It's loss. Something slips into the unrecoverable past and you wonder: Was I supposed to do something with that? The tautness of your face, the zip on your fastball, the youthful energy that you seemed to have only a few days ago. Were you supposed to do something with that? The mentor who always seemed to have an answer, the grandmother who knew all the stories -- now they stare at you blankly and you wonder: Was I supposed to learn something from them? Was there some message I was supposed to hear so that I could carry it and pass it on? Did I miss it?

Maybe. Or maybe you can still remember it, if you stop and think.

And it's not just time, it's space. Somewhere, right now, children are dying from diseases that have been curable for half a century. Or just hunger, maybe, which has been curable forever. Wars are being fought, and people are banging the drums to start new ones. Some people are committing crimes, while others are looking at the options society offers them legally and realizing that none of them are acceptable. The natural world is still killing people with floods and earthquakes. Somewhere, right now, a perfectly good and innocent person is helplessly waiting for a hero to come.

Who? You? You can't. The dishes are piled in the sink and the checkbook is unbalanced and a voice on TV is saying that everything would be fine if only you bought this product. The kids' homework isn't done and the yard needs mowing and the in-laws are coming over tomorrow.

It's huge, the world is. It's full of people and they all want something. Something of yours, maybe. Maybe they should even have it, and maybe you'd even be willing to give it to them if only you knew of a path from your door to theirs. But you don't.

Or maybe it's all just another reality TV show. Who will get off that island and win the million dollars? Will that promising young actress ever stop drinking and get her life together? Is that politician really gay? Did that celebrity really murder his wife?

What's real? What isn't? What should you care about and why? Who has the time to sort it all out?


At least, no single person does, if they have to do it all by themselves. Nobody has the time. Nobody has the knowledge. Nobody is smart enough.

Not alone. Not by themselves.

But what if a bunch of us got together? Think about it. We could set aside some time to meet. We could remind each other to take that step back and look at the bigger picture. We could compare notes about what's important and what isn't. Maybe, together, we could sort some things out. Maybe, if we met often enough, we could learn to know each other and trust each other, so that when I get running so fast that I can't remember who I want to be, you can remember for me. And maybe I can remember for you. Maybe once in a while we could give each other a good shake, so that we can stop running and wake up.

We could try it.

We could talk about what's going on in time and space (or even outside of time and space, if it seems important for some reason). And among us all, on any given day, there might be somebody who knows what we need to know and understands what we need to do. Not the same person every time, but somebody. Or maybe we'll all bring a piece of the puzzle, and put a few of them together. Maybe enough to make out a picture.

It might work. It'd be a start, at least. Maybe, while we were doing it, we'd think of something else, something better.

So what would we call it, this bunch of people getting together to remind each other of our best selves, to wake each other up, to pool our attention and try to deal with a world that is too much for each of us alone? We could make up a new word for it. Or we could recycle an old word that (as far as I'm concerned) has been sitting around uselessly for generations now.

We could call it a church.

What do you think? We could try it. It might work.

See you Sunday, maybe? I think I'll be there.