One of the seductions that bedevils Christian formation is the construction of utopias, ideal places where we can live totally and without inhibition or interference the good and blessed and righteous life. The imagining and then attempted construction of such utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Utopia is, literally, “no-place.” But we can live our lives only in actual place, not in an imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned place.
-- Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 73.
I am no stranger to utopias. Version 1.0 crumbled when I was an adolescent, when my happy, secure home morphed into Hell’s Half Acre, thanks to marital infidelity and alcoholism and mental illness. I didn’t realize I was living in utopia at the time. I just took it for granted that it was home. Then the butcher knives came out and the suicide attempts started and the ambulances started pulling in the driveway at 3:00 a.m. Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” And she was right. But I was determined to find utopia again.
I found Version 2.0 a few years later in an unlikely place – what passes for a ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. I was a new Christian, I was deeply (for better and worse) influenced by the counterculture, and I wanted nothing to do with stained glass windows and hardwood pews. But a Jesus Freak commune/community in the middle of the city sounded just fine. It was home for eight years. I met my wife there. Before that I lived with a married couple with kids, and watched them work through their conflicts, and learned something about what it was like to live in the midst of a normal, healthy marriage. I lived with single guys. I lived with dogs and cats. I lived with goats. I lived with homeless people who got picked up off the street, brought home, given a place to sleep and a warm meal the next morning. I lived with a church full of people who were committed to trying to live like Jesus in what sometimes passed for a war zone. Women got raped. Houses got robbed. And in the midst of that incredible turmoil, I found a group of people I grew to deeply love.
And then it fell apart. The Jesus Freaks got married, started having kids, and figured that they didn’t want little Joshua and Sarah to be exposed to the crack dealer on the corner. And unlike their poor, downtrodden, and frequently violent, crazy neighbors, they moved because they could. I understood it. I didn’t blame them. But utopia started looking like suburbia in less than a decade. And part of me – the cynical, resigned part of me – smirked at the injustice of it all. It was either that or cry. So much for the lofty vision of ministering to the least of these. Now people were ministering to their lawns.
But idealism is a tenacious little virus in me, and a few years later it came back with a vengeance. Version 3.0 involved a move to Norman Rockwell’s America – specifically, Mount Vernon, Ohio. Mount Vernon was a picturesque little burg with coblestoned streets and lovely Victorian homes and a real downtown shopping district and churches within easy walking distance and a quaint little park with a Civil War statue smack dab in the middle of everything. And I convinced myself that that’s what was missing from my life. You couldn’t manufacture community, the way we had tried in the ghetto. You had to move to a real community. So we packed up the kids and headed to Smalltown, USA, where all the men would doff their caps and say “Mornin’, Andy” as I strolled the cobblestoned streets, and where all the apple-cheeked children would smile and wave.
Somebody should have warned me that Norman Rockwell was a sentimental schmuck. Or somebody should have at least warned me that I was a sentimental schmuck. In any case, it didn’t work. Nobody told us about the insular world of small town America, where four generations of a family all live within a couple blocks of each other, and where, if you’re lucky, you might lose the “outsider” tag if you stick it out for twenty years. We stuck it out for seven. And then we headed to the wilds of suburbia, where everybody’s an outsider, and where, if you’re lucky, you might be able to have a conversation with your neighbor before he pulls into his garage and presses the button on the automatic garage door contraption that shuts him in for the night.
Version 4.0 has been progressing nicely for a little more than seven years now. It’s a smaller, more circumscribed world where I don’t expect too much. Maybe Mount Vernon cured me of that. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a pleasant life. I love being able to walk outside my door and see sailboats on a lake. Bruce Cockburn once sang “All the diamonds in this world that mean anything to me/Are conjured up by wind and sunlight sparkling on the sea.” That sounds about right. But for the rest of my days, I’m going to stop counting utopias. I have a wonderful wife, and great kids, and a bunch of friends, a church full of courageous and generous human beings whom I love and admire and am challenged by and amazed by. I would be a fool not to be thankful for these things, and at least in this area I am not a fool.
But I walk around with a hole in my soul, just as everybody does, just as it must be for all those who stumble around on a planet that is not utopia. There are places that even those closest to me cannot touch. There are aches I cannot even articulate. There are losses I cannot name. What is the word for the disconnect that makes me indifferent to the sufferings of others, that makes others indifferent to my deepest longings, that imprisons us all in our garages of insecurity and anger and unforgiveness? I long to go someplace else. I long for a country I’ve never visited.
And so I limit myself to a dream, a hope, a prayer. I can’t wait for version 5.0.