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.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

the trees of California (one)…

I like walking through Capitol Park in Sacramento. Not only is it filled with interesting people (which I should address in another post sometime), but it is also inhabited by trees of many different varieties. Though I don’t know the history of the park itself, I imagine that someone years and years ago decided the park would make a great repository for examples of the wide variety of trees and bushes that grace California’s various landscapes. If I named them all (which I cannot), this would be a very long post.

As I was staring toward the Capitol building during my last trip up there, I noticed something I had never noticed before. There is a row of queen or fan palms along L Street, just inside the sidewalk. They are old trees, these palms. I know this because we used to live in a 100 year-old house in Riverdale that had three 80 year-old fan palms in the front yard. Fan palms of that age are big around for palm trees, tall and solid, not graceful and slender like the coconut palms you see in the movies (or in Florida).

Anyway, it was one particular palm tree that drew my attention. All these trees are the same height except this one. It is about 20 feet shorter than the others. Some kind of pine, probably a coastal Monterey pine, has grown up and around it, providing a kind of protective canopy that has stunted the palm’s growth. Funny that I had never noticed it before. Surrounded by that canopy from every direction except on its northern exposure, it would be very easy to see the world in a different way if one lived atop that palm tree.

I am thinking that this is the way most denominations (I first typed the word “sects” here then replaced it, but I’m still thinking that may be the more appropriate term) in Western Christianity have grown up. We have been surrounded by the enveloping canopy of Western culture unable to see beyond our cultural interpretation of our faith. That’s not said the way I would want to say it exactly. Perhaps, “wedded to our culture” or “woven together with our culture” would be better phrases, but they would ruin the metaphor (smile), and I intend to use the metaphor a little more before I put it down.

What’s happening in my opinion, as I look at our culture, is that our culture is losing branches, is undergoing grafts, is experiencing a change of soil. You can say it many ways.

On the way up to Sacramento on this particular trip, I had read a story in the paper about the turmoil going on at Hollywood First Presbyterian Church. The senior pastor has been relieved of his duties – administrative leave with pay – for some financial mismanagement issues. At least that was the overt reason. But the reporter noted that the church is very divided over worship and direction and class. Yes, I said class, and I’m not talking Sunday School here. It seems the pastor, noticing the ever growing decline in the church’s fate decided to start a new worship time catering to the younger set in Hollywood First Pres’ neighborhood. It was very successful to say the least and brought in all kinds of folks that didn't look like the staid and proper denizens of that historic church. It wasn’t a pipe organ and formal crowd. It was guitar and ancient-future. And it concerned some of the board of elders enough that they put the brakes on the pastor’s work pending an investigation. It made the papers, even the AP wire. One of the elders who was quoted in the paper (and from what the reporter wrote, seemingly the one who was the ringleader of the reactionaries) seemed a nice enough fellow. Mild and measured in his words, I couldn't help but think that actions do indeed speak louder than words.

Culture has changed around the church. We bemoan it. We decry it. We do everything but listen to it and understand it. We even try to paste the branches back on the tree in order to preserve our view of “the way things are.” But they are no longer that way and we find ourselves staring at the world through dead branches with green sunglasses on. I have to wonder. What has happened to the people at Hollywood First Presbyterian who were coming to know Jesus and the in-breaking of his kingdom? How many times has that replayed across US America the past 20 years? How many more times? The suture zone is a rough place to live.

It’s not just Hollywood First Presbyterian. It’s all of us.

“This is our church, and if we want organ (or a cappella or guitar or whatever)....”

When I was growing up that phrase would never have been uttered in my denomination, at least not publicly. It was a point of our church doctrine that the church belonged to Christ. While we weren’t always that great at implementing that belief, it was a strong tenet that we tried to honor. I think we got it right as a tenet. I just think we need to let Jesus direct the church in whatever direction he wants since it belongs to him. We need to let him make it relevant to the culture in which we find ourselves.

As McLaren has noted in various places, this doesn’t mean we let go of Jesus or God or the Holy Spirit or the gospel. But it does mean that all of these may be different and much bigger and more serious than we ever imagined.

Finally, a question…. Could it be that God is the one stripping away the branches of our past culture so that the tree can actually have some sunlight and grow as he wants it to?

What do you think?

Grace and peace!



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