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.

My Photo
Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

skiing from an anchored boat...

My last post focused on treading water in a quickly moving tide. I want to suggest another way to use the same metaphor. (I know, these first few weeks are going to be heavy on the metaphors -- Tones told me last night he was about to crown me king of the metaphors or something like that. Brace yourself! There are more coming!)

Two summers ago as my son and I fished in the waters of Katchemak Bay, Alaska, a crew that we fished with anchored the boat at slack tide. That particular day had a relatively short slack tide, and before long the tide began to turn. Yet the boat stayed anchored. Too long. As the speed of the tide increased water began flowing quickly past the boat as if we were moving. Faster and faster. Fishing lines with two and three-pound weights stretched out at oblique angles from the back of the boat. A wake appeared. We seemed to be under way. But if you looked at the shore it was obvious we were not. We were staying in exactly the same place relative to the shore.

This was when I made the comment to the captain about being able to water ski behind this anchored boat. (see last post)

I remember hooking a halibut. I knew it had to be a monster. I had visions of a 100 lb. plus fish, one that we would have to tow behind the boat to get it in. (Just so this won't seem quite so selfish, I also had visions of the wonderful halibut bake I would be able to put on at the church.)

It took all of my strength to bring the fish close to the boat. In fact, it just wouldn't come close. This halibut surfaced a good 50 feet out. I was shocked at what I saw -- a five-pound baby (compared to the minimum 20 pounders we had been landing). It skimmed easily now across the water's surface as I brought it in so the deck hand could unhook and release it.

I thought it was amazing that such a small fish could fight harder than the 40+ pounder I was to land later that day. But it wasn't just the fish I was fighting. It was the current, too. The tide.

Some of us as communities of faith operate from anchored boats. When we as God's people recognize the massive changes taking place in society, we sometimes react by digging the anchor deeper and resisting the flow of the cultural current. This is true whether we come from a liberal or conservative bent. I don't know that that is such a bad thing at times. The church, after all, should be countercultural. But I have to wonder if there isn't another way. And if perhaps our focus is on things that are not quite as important to God as other things may be.

We have three choices when going through massive cultural change (something that I am assuming you agree with; if not, maybe we need to discuss). One choice is to simply go with the flow uncritically and accept the philosophies and mores and values of the world. We could become the Church of the Areopogas, the famous hill in Athens, where people spent their days in arguing new philosophies and beliefs, driven by every wind of philosophical speculation. We could float with the tide. This is an attractive alternative for some, especially among those who are cognizant of the church's modernity affliction. It is perhaps the course that takes the least energy. But this leaves us at the mercy of the tides and is not true engagement.

Mind you, I am not recommending that we avoid the environment (see option two below). But the hyper-relativism of our day, especially the prejudice against overarching stories that tie humanity together, is, in my opinion, just an over-reaction to modern thought by some post-modern people. Many post-moderns have thrown out the baby with the bath water. (Perhaps in their defense we should note that for many the bath water was so filthy that they couldn't see the baby.) Most are pretty reasonable (there's that word again!) when confronted with the absurdity of absolute relativism. It's just that they don't buy the equal absurdity of some of the conclusions reached by religious people in the grip of modernity.

There is a second obvious alternative that most conservative churches have chosen. The church must refuse to accept cultural precepts. It must refuse to swim in the cultural milieu around it. Instead, the church buries the anchor deeper and sails in place against the rushing tide of post-modernity. (Hence, the title... skiing behind an anchored boat....) There is something to be said for this approach. The church is to be countercultural in its kingdom life. But I think Jesus' way was not to simply anchor in the past either, drawing a line in the sand across which he would not go. Rather, that seems to have been the reaction of the religious leaders of his day. The ones who had it right. Instead, Jesus seemed to go wherever he wanted, talk to whomever he wanted and have parties with people that the religious establishment of the day found scandalous. Today’s Evangelical establishment, as an example, has not only taken an oppose position against the tides of our world, but has created insular communities to stand against the pagan flow of the tide. It has worked hard to politically influence the tides in an opposite direction. It has argued for strict enforcement of selected moral precepts as part of society. Unfortunately, in its pursuit of “righteousness” the church has run roughshod over moral issues of a global nature, such as the environment and the recognition of the basic humanity of every soul, and often has been absolutely hateful to anyone who disagrees with it. (I could use examples from a liberal Christian bent as well.) In short, Jesus hung out with the lepers of society. We largely don’t. Or if we do, we want to change them into people just like us. (Shudder.)

Perhaps, though, there is a third alternative.

For all of our warts as communities of faith, it seems that more than 3,000 years of combined Judeo-Christian values has had some positive effect in our world. The fact that people seem to care about curing injustice, demonstrated in such efforts as the abolition of slavery and apartheid and the championing of civil rights, seems to indicate that some of the message of the prophets and of Jesus got through. There's a shadow, an echo of godliness, a heartening hint of pre-dawn kingdom glow. Of course, it hasn't helped that the church in some venues supported slavery, created apartheid and fought against civil rights. We do have mixed reviews. But at least someone in the world was listening to something the synagogue or church said or did. At least it lit a small spark of humanity that calls for these injustices to be corrected. Astonishingly, this has often come from the hearts of all kinds of people who would be offended if we called them Christians. Could it be that in some ways the kingdom of God is breaking into the world, but not through the church as we know it? Do you think there might be conversations we could have centered around something other than doctrine, that could be other than judgmental or manipulative? Do you think we might even gain some perspective by listening in that conversation mode?

I am more than ever convinced that Jesus didn't send us into the world to convince people of some set of doctrinal facts, whether of salvation or atonement, heaven or hell, or any of the other systematic doctrines which are so precious to us Protestants. Instead he broke into the world to make it different, to make us different. People who would love God... and each other. Who would stand up against injustice and lovingly affirm anyone simply because God loves them too. Sometimes (not always) I find more of that in the world than I find in the church. Why is that?

I decided long ago that I was a poor judge of people's motives and actions. (Why do I seem to be making a judgment now? Sometimes I forget what I decided! Yikes! I know I've been somewhat judgmental of some of my Christian peers in this post. The critique is offered humbly and with full recognition that I may be wrong.) I am a poor evaluator of my own behavior, much less theirs. But I can engage people with respect and a sense of common humanity and a listening ear. I can establish relationship bridges. I can recognize commonalities between their goals and actions and the in-breaking kingdom of God, not for purposes of manipulating them, but for awe at God's work in and through people. I don't have to agree with them. They don't have to agree with me. But collectively we might be able to join forces to right injustice and to find value in those whom the rest of the world (and sadly sometimes the church) has given up on. In the process, who knows? Maybe they'll get to know the more authentic Jesus.

My advice for boats sailing in place against the tide? If you stay anchored as the tide rushes in or out, at least get out your water skis. Even better, cut the anchor rope but leave the motors running. In fact, abandon ship and dive in. Swim with and against the tide. Learn to navigate in it and to authentically engage those you find there. That is where Jesus would be, I suspect.

Brace yourself! The water is cold!

Grace and peace!



Blogger miller said...


great post! sorry i had took so long to comment.

couple of things... JMO! eat the meat and spit out the bones.

don't worry about hurting feelings as you speak prophecy. when you say we you aren't talking about individuals but the collective. at least thats what i hear. the church is guilty of corporate sin that i cannot place at the feet of individual. we aren't that diff from israel of old.

next, i like the image of the boat in tidal current, i got to see how amazing it was when we were on the ferry from vancouver to victoria. very powerful. you are correct in your analysis of the church and also correct in your prescription to the people. just remember, only one in twelve get out of the boat... and for a while they walk on water. if the hands of Jesus aren't there to reach them, they will perish. that means you and i have to get out ahead of them!

another thing, no one should ever get out of the boat alone... everyone needs a diving buddy! two by two dude.

the last thing i will say tonight is...

come on in, the water's fine!


10:16 PM  
Blogger miller said...

by the way, Jesus walked by a while ago and told me to keep up the good work, don't get too focused on doing church, i just left that problem and i shouldn't recreate it... focus on the harvest... thats where we really worship!


10:19 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Miller --

I'm glad you've jumped in! The older you get, the harder it is to endure the bracing change that the water causes even when the temperature differential isn't all that great (especially in older bodies and minds). What I hope is that I will never fail to jump in when I see someone younger like you swimming around and having a grand time.

I have obviously spoken in metaphor again, for which you are free to chastise me. ;^)


9:47 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Hi, Owen,

Great stuff! I'm running behind, of course, responding to a posting waaay back here after you've posted many others. You're prolific!

You cause me to reflect upon why so many seem to need to make others "like us" before opening our hearts to affirm them. One could posit that the problem is pride, but I would hypothesize that, more often, the problem is simply a lack of faith - a fear of God, but not a healthy fear, not respect.

Do we really believe that all who seek find? So often, we "believers" say we do, but behave as though we don't. Do we believe Psalm 51:17?: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Our God is a living Person who has expressed love for all, yet we sometimes behave as though our God is a rulebook. We need to give God credit!

A friend of mine was raised in a Catholic household, and, throughout his childhood, was sexually molested by his priest. Later, as an adult, having somehow retained a faith in God to that point, he studied for the Catholic priesthood. But nagging doubts about "the problem of pain" persisted and grew. Eventually, through an agonizing and sincere process, he left the church, and today, in his sixties, proclaims himself an agnostic. The Christian conception of God seems to him too limiting and "pie in the sky" to be true. This fellow has his appetites - especially for "titty bars" and crass jokes. But he is universally acknowledged as the kindest, most sweet-hearted man. Were he to die today, would he be lost?

Personally, I would be concerned for anyone giving a pat answer. According to the modernist tradition of the Church of Christ, the answer is absolutely. Furthermore, my friend was never saved in the first place. But I confess I can easily envision him dying and meeting Christ and bowing humbly in reverence and awe and shame, quick to repent his errors of thought and action.

I do not believe that at such moments, the mind of the God of the cross would consult the rules...

9:24 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home