life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

in between... more about the suture zone

Well, I couldn't go to sleep just leaving a rant hanging out there. So there are two posts for today. Maybe this one will bless you more....

The San Andreas earthquake fault pretty much runs the length of California, more or less on a northwest-southeast line. It’s famous. Many are scared of it, and would rather live in Tornado Alley or brave hurricanes on the gulf coast or southeastern seaboard than to live in California, the land of earthquakes and the looming Big One (right, Tony?). Which is why the San Andreas is so famous. It is the meeting place of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. And all up and down its length we find what is called the suture zone.

I was born and grew up in California. I’ve been through several major quakes. Sylmar in 1971. Coalinga. Loma Prieta. Northridge. Baker. Sometimes I’ve been closer to the epicenter. Sometimes farther away. But always knowing when I feel a gentle rolling motion of the earth that someone somewhere is frightened out of their wits and in some cases scrambling for their lives.

Sometimes it hasn’t been gentle. During the Coalinga quake I thought my entire religious library was going to come down on me. The ultimate irony for a preacher, I think. Killed by his books. Earthquakes aren’t tame. But they happen. You don’t get used to the big ones. But there are hundreds of small earthquakes that people never even feel that happen deep underground every day. And the San Andreas fault and all of the others of greater or lesser significance are part of what it means to live in California.

Most people don’t even think about it. In fact, the San Andreas is obvious in several places if you know what to look for. Driving Interstate 5 south from the San Joaquin Valley (say, from Bakersfield or Fresno or San Francisco) across the mountains to Los Angeles, you are driving for a number of miles atop the San Andreas suture zone itself. Fifteen or so miles of scrambled hills evidence the fault’s ancient presence and bear witness to the turmoil of these two plates colliding, one slowly but surely being driven under to the magma below while the other encroaches fraction of inch by fraction of inch over the millennia in constant change. Sometimes change takes place more rapidly than that. The Big One earthquakes happen and the land above the fault turns to soup and completely re-forms into scattered hill fractals in an area called the suture zone. Funny thing is, thousands and thousands of people drive atop the San Andreas every day and most of them don’t even know.

If you’ve gotten this far in my post, you may be wondering what earthquakes and suture zones and the San Andreas fault have to do with our world, the church and the in-breaking kingdom of God. Let me suggest – as the title of this blog indicates – that you and I are living through a time when we are experiencing life on the suture zone. A life between paradigms. A life in between ways of looking at, knowing and experiencing the world. A life where change is so rapid that it strains our ability to keep our footing. The ground keeps shifting. We live in between. In the suture zone.

I spent Saturday of Passion Week this year driving to and from Santa Paula.. The day before was Good Friday, remembering the execution of Jesus. (The world must wonder at our terminology – the Roman instrument of torture and death was anything but good.) Easter was the day after and celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But that particular day was Holy Saturday. I heard it called Holy Saturday this year for the first time. It’s probably been called that for a thousand years, but, hey, I grew up in a denomination that didn’t follow the church calendar. So, it’s new to me. But it must have been one hell of a day for the disciples Jesus left behind. Literally.

That’s how in between times can be sometimes. Hellish. Solid ground turning to soup under your feet. Hundreds of random hills caught in a slow moving fractal, waiting to resolve and as yet showing no pattern. Reference points appearing and disappearing like mirages. In between.

When my wife and I traveled from Bakersfield to Santa Paula, I looked at where the suture zone starts. I thought about things as we drove over it for probably fifteen miles. We made it without incident as usual. The next day was Easter, so we stopped in Santa Paula at a Rite Aide to buy some chocolate for my mother-in-law who lives in a skilled nursing facility waiting to die. She’s 91 years old, wracked by tremendous pain, the loss of her independence, hours upon hours of little reason to live and questioning God as to why she’s still living. Seemingly trapped in between life and life.

On the way into the store I noticed a young woman, probably 15 or 16, maybe older, sitting on the sidewalk with an old dog. She had a bad case of freckles, and I could imagine other kids making fun of her at school. Her clothes were dirty and the hems of her jeans were tattered. But she sat on the sidewalk and calmly watched people as they went in and came out of the store. On our way out she asked if we could help her out with any money. I told her I would buy her some food at a nearby fast food restaurant, but she said she was collecting money for groceries. She needed dinner for three other people. I politely declined. I have made it a point not to give cash away for fear of supporting someone’s addiction – for which I should probably repent. But that’s another story. Anyway, I didn’t help. She wished us “Happy Easter” as we walked to our car. But it gnawed at me as we visited my wife’s mother.

Since I was also in between the old way of eating and the new way – one of those low carb diet induction times – not long into our visit I had to leave and get something that I could eat. I had resolved to stop and ask this young woman for her shopping list. But daylight had begun to fade and she wasn’t there. The coffee shop I was going to was in the same area as the market she had pointed to. Didn’t see her at the market as I drove by either. Saw her later in a gas station with her boyfriend, who was comparing the price of malt liquor to what they might find at a liquor store. “Are you from around here,” he asked me. “Do you know where there’s a liquor store?” “No,” I answered. “This is a pretty good deal,” he told his girlfriend. They seemed to be in between, too.

On our way home, we traveled the highway through Fillmore, and took a moment to drive along the main street of this small agricultural town. By the time we got there, the normally bright “Welcome to Fillmore” sign across its main street had turned dark, an obvious victim of small town rhythms and the soaring cost of energy. As we drove up the street the only storefronts still open and lighted were the bars and other nighttime venues. At the top of the street, all of the churches were completely blacked out. No lights at all. Appropriate, I thought, for Holy Saturday. Descriptive also, perhaps, of what the world sees on the few occasions it does look our direction. Just darkness.

Suture zones. Holy Saturday. Induction phases of low carb diets. The chasm between a 91 year-old woman and a 16 year-old runaway in between whatever it is she is running away from and whatever it is that she is running to. A town in between daylight and daylight, caught in a time when it seems nothing is happening and everything is changing and there is little or no light shining.

Sometimes the metaphors just slam me in the face. I was (and am) literally overwhelmed by what I experienced that day. As if God were making it very obvious that my world has changed. And that the context with which I as his follower approached the world when I was growing up is no longer valid. Dark. Nearly nonsensical to people who have grown up and live on the suture zone.

The tendency of course for those of faith is just not to live there. We like certainty. We like routine. We like predictability. We like comfortable sermons about how God is in control. And we repeat that to ourselves, almost as a mantra when times grow hard and unexplainable. We pull into our exclusive enclaves, cloistering ourselves so that we might maintain some sense of Christian nation or some other comfortable fiction with which we can hold back bleak reality. Our worship focuses on praise and denies lament. (You may not know this, but about two-thirds of the Psalms are lament, nearly two-to-one lament versus praise.)

There are no permanent landmarks in a suture zone. What is there today to give your world definition may not be there tomorrow. True, some of us demand to live on one side of the fault or the other. But in active times, as folks in Sumatra are discovering right now, sometimes it doesn’t matter how far away you live, you still get hit by the effects of a moving world.

Now I ‘m not saying all of this to depress you (though I may have succeeded in doing just that). Rather, I’m trying to say that God’s people have often found themselves in between. When the Israelites left Egypt their ongoing whine all the time in the desert (roughly paraphrased) was, “Moses, why did you lead us out into this God-forsaken place just to die? Didn’t we have enough to eat back there? Work wasn’t so bad back there, was it? Come to think of it, I liked it back there. Brick-making was a pretty decent job. And now look at where we are!” David spent years after being anointed as God’s chosen king before he ever ascended to the throne. And his boss, King Saul, did everything he could to prevent it. David turned out to be pretty good at the ancient game of dodge spear. Abraham never even got to possess the promised land. He lived in it all of the last half of his life as a foreigner. Christians have been living in between the first and second incarnations for 2,000 years. I would think we would be used to it by now. Behold, the old is gone, the in between has come. Again.

“So, what do we do?” you may be asking me.

I don’t know. Just hold onto God as he reveals himself and learn to live in between. Trust in the power and presence of God in his Holy Spirit. Allow Jesus to break into our in between world through you and your faith community. And recognize God’s hand by the fruit that results rather than anything else. Beyond that, I don’t know what else to say except, “Buck up, Bucko!”

Not a lot of help, I know. But neither is going back to Egypt. You think?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very interesting post... I know I told you I probably wouldn't be posting (and that I would be getting some sleep tonight, hehe) but after reading it, I’m intrigued. I think “So, what do we do?” is correct. When everything is changing in our world, what can be certain? Not speaking of God (as a solid foundation) but rather speaking of our world… the perception of our world, and it’s perception. As a church, the best thing we can do is to ask “So, what do we do?” In fact, it’s a must in my opinion.

I think all too often we, as a church, fail to even remember this question. Either our focus is inward or we have tunnel vision. We are disconnected from one another and begin to think ourselves the proper way, or after having spent so much effort in one field, such as missions (not trying to point the finger at missionaries just giving an example), we forget that anything else matters.

I guess my one thought is that “So, what do we do?” is a mass of questions all in one… One of which is; how do we continually keep ourselves open and accessible to the world?

The answer is different for each of us.

-Steven Burgess

4:16 AM  
Blogger miller said...

please hear my voice subdued and sometimes confused in this post... not ranting.

i am soooo confused. it sounds like you really believe we should get out of the boat but the minute someone does and yells back to everyone else how great it is and how enthusiastically they recommend it... well then they are hateful and judgemental???????

maybe i'm missing it, in fact i'm sure i am... please help me understand.

i don't believe you can have it both ways - "okay everybody, out of the boat... just don't report back anything that might challenge us... we don't want to feel guilty or judged."

please, please, please don't read judgement in this post! i am only expressing the frustration i feel with what appears to be that kind of thinking.

Jesus lived on the suture zone of reality. he encouraged us to live there also. he did not say we should try to set up camp there and retreat within the confines of our cozy edifices. he said we should burrow into the suture filling the region of upheaval with himself. riding out an earthquake is one thing, still another is rescueing people from falling buildings before the ground stops shaking... what good are the church buildings you describe if the members aren't invading the darkness in their town?

i am involved in a faith community that is being expressed in a way that i thought was a lot more like what Jesus wants... but i realize that doing church in a house doesn't make my community any different from any other expression of faith. what must make us different is incarnation! any rebuke someone might hear from me has nothing to do with whether they do house church, tradchurch, e-church, or EO church... it has to do with whether they are living Isiah 61:1-3! if we aren't binding up the wounded, feeding the hungry, releasing the captive, and healing the sick... what are we doing??? isn't that what Jesus came to do???

i will continue to challenge and coaxe believers away from a ship that every statistic shows is sinking and contributing to the demise of Christianity in north america. (please don't judge me as being judgemental. don't fall into the same trap you warn others away from.)

Peace, grace, mercy (please lots of mercy) and love.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Miller said...

"okay everybody, out of the boat... just don't report back anything that might challenge us... we don't want to feel guilty or judged."

First of all, Miller, I understand your confusion.

And no, I don't see what you are saying as judgmental at all (nor is your spirit judgmental in saying it). What I'm trying to say is yes, indeed, we can have it both ways. Actually, many ways. For instance, I am very impressed with the missional outlook that Highland Church of Christ has come to in the last several years. What they are doing in their neighborhood is what I hope we are beginning to do in our neighborhood. They first spent time "in the neighborhood" listening, being there for people, ministering and not judging. And I think they've made a difference by engaging people in their community that are in the margins. The Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville is similar but more involved with other local churches and state and county agencies on behalf of people in need -- all kinds of need. They are known for being Jesus to the community.

This in no way negates the effectiveness of the expression of God's in-breaking kingdom that you are part of in the same city as Highland. God gets the glory, the kingdom breaks in. Do we "report back"? Sure! And some will jump in the particular eddy we're involved in and others will jump in elsewhere all to God's glory. God is big enough for this. And he works in enough varied ways for this.

Then there are those who are judgmental towards all of us who are ministering on the the edge or in the margins or in another denomination or in an unusual way or whatever because it makes no sense to them. What makes sense to them is the modern way of looking at things, the rational way. There are still people who think like that that have no relationship with God. Does one have to become post-modern (or post-colonial or Republican or Democrat or "Born Again" or whatever) in order to come to know Jesus? I think not.

Just as God is able to use you... and the Highland church... and Woodmont Hills... and Central... and All Saints Episcopal Church here in Bakersfield... and a thousand other expressions of his presence in the world... God is able to use those, or at least show mercy to those, who are still in tradchurch. (I'm actually more optimistic than my "show mercy" statement.) Expressions of the character of God and the mercy and love of Jesus still happen in a million small ways in those places. And some will never understand anything other than that.

That's what I mean.

Sure, your "Come on in, the water's fine!" is something you should say. Some will hear what you are saying and jump in, others will jump in another place, and some won't jump in at all and will recoil. But understand that God can use all of us with our warts included to bring about his kingdom in this world. He's been doing it for 2000 years.

(Admittedly, sometimes the warts take over and I think we leave it up to him and speak prophetically only when called upon by God to do so, and that out of brokeness and great humility.)

Personally, I think the expressions of faith community similar to yours, and others like Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz and Imagio Deo in Portland and many others are the vanguards of what will be in currency in the future. But at any time in history, especially now when change is so rapid and drastic, let's not shoot each other. If someone shoots at us, let's leave it to God to deal with and not shoot back, confident that just as God can work in and through us, as imperfect as we are, God can certainly work through them, too.

That's what I'm trying to say.

Righteous anger may have a place. Jesus turned over the tables of those whose lust for profit kept the nations from encountering God. Anger because someone did church a certain way or didn't tell me this or didn't lead me closer to Jesus or whatever, really has no place in the kingdom in my opinion. It merely carries on one of the worst "warts" of the worst of tradchurch.

Hope this helps! But if not, let's keep the conversation going. You don't have to agree either. That's okay. I promise not to shoot!

Grace and peace (and a very warm smile)!


2:58 PM  
Blogger miller said...

Thanks Owen,

believe it or not you have, between tones blog and here, really helped me slack up on tradchurch... you and some distance.

i agree with you about shooting each other though... there is no place for it in the body!

i also agree that there is room for as many expressions of Jesus as there are collectives to express! i just don't believe that everything called church is an expression of Jesus... if it is why are so many walking away???

i think there are a few tradchurches that are making strides toward incarnational living, very slow strides but strides nontheless. but i don't think those strides necessarily reflect a true comittment to the inbreaking of Jesus in the world.

the same is true for any "model" of "church"... even the one to which i currently ascribe.

what i think i hear you saying is that we can't really claim to be the incarnation of Jesus if we're sniping each other.

as far as God getting the credit, some of the churches you've listed sure get a lot of the credit... i seldom if ever hear anyone offer to testify to what GOD is doing through this church or that... including the community i participate in.

i guess i'm having a hard time seeing all the expressions now available in ways different from the sects that existed among the jews of Jesus' day... i just hope my community and i can learn to be a true expression of God.


6:14 PM  
Blogger Tones said...

Miller and Owen

While I appreciate your conversation and want you to continue it, I want to adderess Steven's comments, and maybe it will be pertinent to your discussion (maybe not)

You right on in saying that asking "What do we do to remain accessable to the world?" is a question that we all should ask on a repeated basis. You are also right in noticing that the answer is different for each of us. There are, however, a couple of guiding principles that are non-negotionables. They are: (1) what you are dong must be an expression of your love for God, and (2) what you are doing must be an expressoin of love toward people. I know that this seems simplistic, but it is something that is much easier mastered in thought than in practice. What ever model or strategies or programs, if our primary purpose is to love God and our secondary purpose is to love people, our efforts will bring him glory and be attractive to others (because we are being genuine).

It's good to hear from you Steven!


8:49 AM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Steven --

Very well said!

I agree with Tones, that the greatest commandments are the lenses through which we answer those questions. I know that was implied in what you were saying.

Perhaps in order to answer the question as you posed it, we need occasionally (or quite often) to stop, open our eyes wide and glance around us. Perhaps a surgical separation from church life would be a good thing? Perhaps we should find opportunities to participate in things that others not associated with any church participate in. Otherwise, when we answer the question, it will be from our speculations about the world rather than our experience of the world.

You never know people, until you get to know people. You don't get to know them until you spend time with them.

Good thoughts, Steven!

1:58 PM  

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