Monday, October 23, 2006

No Trespassing

My friend Erik, my favorite former college football player and pony-tailed doctoral student, is doggedly (woof) pursuing an esoteric career in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame. But when he’s not buried under an avalanche of arcane academic reading or spending time with his wife and daughter, he writes about his life. You should read what he writes. It’s good, and frequently heartbreaking, stuff.

Recently he wrote this:

“What all the nice white churches I’ve been to do (including the one we’re at now) is just get really distant from problems. Pretend they don’t exist. Box them up. If that doesn’t work, talk about that person’s problems with other people, though not with the person who’s in the middle of the problem.”

Ouch. Although Erik’s observation is certainly accurate, I suspect that this is not just an evangelical phenomenon, but a human phenomenon. It’s easier to gloss over (or completely ignore) problems — your own, and those of your neighbors. It’s easier to gossip about (or, in alternative evangelicalspeak, “lift up a prayer request for”) those who are messy, broken, and hard to love, than it is to actively engage them as part of our lives.

But then I remember Jesus, who not only didn’t run from the lepers, and didn’t gossip about them with his cronies, but who sought them out. And still there are many days when I’d rather tune people out, and not engage in messy relationships at all. All I can do is confess it and repent of it and ask God to change me. It’s a slow turning, but I’m heartened by the small changes I see.

I sometimes despair of this happening in the increasingly individualistic, private world in which we live, a world where the garage doors open and close automatically, and where the neighbors are seen only in the ten-second interval between when the door goes up and when the door goes down. If community is still a viable concept, and I’d like to think that it is, it can only happen because people are intentional about it. In that light, I think the church model matters. Community — real, raw, will-you-still-love-me-when-I-show-you-my-big-black-heart community — doesn’t happen accidentally. People have to be purposeful about it, and work at it, hard, and commit themselves to people who are inconvenient and sometimes downright unloveable. It’s the un-American way, and I sometimes think it’s a miracle that it happens at all. But it can, and it does. I’m thankful — really incredibly thankful — to have found it. Not every day, but frequently enough to believe that it’s a vision worth pursuing.

And yet there are days — and yesterday was one of them — when I have to confess that I don’t want to be bothered. Just leave me alone. I’ve got my own problems. Leaving aside the trivial issues of nuclear conflagration and catastrophic terrorist attacks that sometimes keep me up at night, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the litany of dysfunctional parents and dysfunctional children, untimely deaths, addictions, infidelities, twistedness, perversion, and brokenness everywhere I turn. I become numb. I’m sorry, but I don’t have any answers. Hang in there. Be warmed and be filled.

God forgive me.

I also remember this: I spent several nights at the same Harley Motel that Erik describes in his blog posting, under remarkably similar circumstances. The parental roles were reversed – my mom, and not my dad, was the crazy, violent alcoholic – but otherwise it’s like he was reading my most intimate mail. Those were nights when I needed somebody, anybody, to take even a remote interest in my life. And nobody did. It was the loneliest, darkest time of my life, and nobody shared it with me. I was new to Columbus, and I went to see a pastor I didn’t know at a church I’d never attended, and he prayed a perfunctory thirty-second prayer for me and sent me on my way. Be warmed and be filled. So I understand that disappointment as well, and I understand my own culpability. This is not who I want to be.

It’s a phenomenon that singer/songwriter Carolyn Arends understands well, too, and she’s written a wonderful song about it on her latest album Polyanna’s Attic:

They heard his cries in the night from across the lawn
They found him dead at the bottom of the lake at dawn
Nobody’d come running to the rescue and when they were asked
The passersby said that the signs that they read said “Keep Off the Grass”

‘Cause you can’t go near

Anybody else’s private ground
See folks ‘round here
Have got a democratic right to drown
And you’re just a fool
If you care about the faces in the crowd
We’ve got a new edition of the Golden Rule:
No trespassing allowed

Nobody asked her ‘bout the bruises on her face

I guess she was glad that they gave her her personal space
When the bones wouldn’t mend and it came to an end in the dead of the night
The neighbours were sad but at least they had respected her rights

‘Cause you can’t go near

Anybody else’s private ground
See folks ‘round here
Have got a democratic right to drown
And you’re just a fool
If you care about the faces in the crowd
We’ve got a new edition of the Golden Rule:
No trespassing allowed

Can’t you read the signs?

These are enlightened times
Got to be careful not to think too much
You can watch ‘em going under but you just can’t touch

‘Cause you can’t go near

Anybody else’s private ground
See folks ‘round here
Have got a democratic right to drown
And you’re just a fool
If you care about the faces in the crowd
We’ve got a new edition of the Golden Rule
Got a new edition of the Golden Rule:
No trespassing allowed
– Carolyn Arends, “No Trespassing”

Everybody’s hands were clean. No muss, no fuss. And how those clean hands stink to high heaven.

To quote Erik again:

“One of the things I’ve seen in Reformed theology is the notion that dirtiness is in everyone and that, ultimately, we can’t get rid of the dirt. It’s just part of who we are. So the line separating the clean and the dirty is never that distinct. When that’s thought through, it might mean that we can all get in there and bear one another’s burdens without fear of getting twisted up (”slimed” I’ve heard some charis-vangelicals say) with another’s mess. In Reformed theology, there aren’t many eternal reprecussions for trying to help and failing.

Idealistic, you say. Counter to the Gospel, you say. Which Gospel, I wonder? The charis-evang-amental gospel of politeness? I’m not sure I believe in that gospel anymore.”

In spite of my reluctance and numbness, I don’t believe in that gospel either. So I’m praying for Erik, for me, for all of us, and I’m asking God for the grace and the strength to enter fully into the messiness, and that we’ll blithely ignore the signs that our culture (and sadly, the Church) puts up that say “No Trespassing.” Let’s enter the private stomping grounds, where hearts and souls are trampled underfoot, even when we’ve been warned not to trespass.

2 comments:

Fred Kohn said...

I'd like to link what Andy said in this post to something he said in a much earlier post. He said something like "self-sufficiency isn't all it's cracked up to be."

Self-sufficiency is essentially the opposite value of community. To value one is essentially to devalue the other. So to crow "We value community" (as many churches do these days) doesn't mean a whole bunch if what we really value is self-sufficiency.

jasdye said...

amen. and amen.