The Problem with Purging

These last few days / couple of weeks, my life has been occupied with caring for my wife and newly born son.  It has been a tremendous shift in many ways, but the full impact of the reality of my status of FATHER has yet to occur.  The dynamics and feelings that are engendered by this change are subjects for another day.

Today however, I’ve been working on the ongoing project of consolidating my and my wife’s life.  Our marriage and subsequent merging of households means that we have an abundance of … stuff, and not enough room for all of it.  Of course since we’re both “full-time Christian workers,” we travel a bit lighter than some in the “stuff” department, but there is still quite a lot of accumulated goodies from the nearly four-score years of our combined lifespan.  Now we have a baby, and baby has his own “stuff” which also takes up room; room that we don’t have.

The commonest solution for this curse of accumulation is to buy more storage bins, find more places to cram things, and inevitably to move to larger quarters.  That’s the American way!  However we both are convinced that our modestly sized home in the inner city has more than enough room for 3 people and their “stuff” to live comfortably, and neither of us wishes to get into the habit of “building bigger barns” so to speak, which leaves us with but one option:

We purge.

That is we have to make choices about what will stay and what will go and just how many copies of Leading Across Cultures by Dr. James Plueddemann is enough for one household (if you think that’s odd, don’t ask about her book on Burmese culture, my Western Civ textbooks or the multiple copies of Too Busy Not to Pray that I’ve always been too busy to read).

The problem with purging though is not just in weighing the relative utility of whatever stuff we’ve happened to acquire over our years of life and ministry.  It is that so many of the decisions are fraught with emotional content.  Why have I waited so long to get rid of the set of Chinaware I found for $12 in the back corner of some musty Salvation Army store and have only used two or three times?  What is it about the long disused winter coat or formal gown that travels from home to home growing ever more out of fashion and yet ever less dispensable as the years wear on?

It would be easy to attribute such acquisition to a materialistic approach to life, but in reality each of these items, marginally useful though they might be, touch keenly on what have been termed the mystic chords of memory.  Dining from those dishes, gazing at that gown, touching the spine of that book which never quite makes it to the bedside reading pile all transport us back to moments in time, seasons in life, that were and are precious to us.  They may not perhaps be profoundly significant, nor even memorable moments, but it is the succession of such moments that make up our lives.  Washing that particular set of dishes reminds me not only of their purchase, but of the visit to staff colleague in Florida and the dishes they had which I liked, and the struggles of their young marriage with wanting children but being unable at the time to conceive.  Seeing that book takes me back to seemingly endless conversations with my campus minister about the importance of prayer and the devotional life.  To rid myself of these simple objects seems to be more than just making room for the NEW and IMPROVED.

Besides all this, that we have so much is itself a striking reminder of the impermanence with which our modern / post-modern lives have become infused.  There was a time when choosing the china pattern for ones dishes was of great importance, for those dishes would travel with you throughout life — through Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, weddings, and funerals.  They would be the never fail companions to every moment of significance in ones life until in old age or at death they would be passed down, broken gravy dish and all, to whatever child or grandchild had need or sentiment enough to want them.

Now of course dishes are just dishes — made, bought and sold, used up and discarded, like so much of life and so many of its people.  Grandma’s china ends up gracing the back aisle of a dusty second hand store while the local BIG BOX retailer sells antiquity in a box, made in China and shipped without sentiment straight to your door where it waits in boxes for the necessary purge of the old to make room for the new.

What dreams may come….?

So this will be a bit more personal post than I customarily write, if for no other reason than the subject matter itself, that is, my dream life.

Last night, for some reason entirely beyond my cognitive ability to discern, I had a dream about meeting Eugene Cho, the two fisted blogging pastor from somewhere out west where I suspect it rains a lot. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cho (Cho moksanim) except through the blogosphere. So here it is, as best I can recount it.

In the dream, I and Eugene are walking through what appears to be conference center of some kind, but which really looks like a student center on a college campus. As we walk I am explaining to him something about this “event” that we are apparently both a part of and which I am evidently in charge of coordinating. While walking through we pass by a number of rooms in which various student gospel choirs are preparing themselves for a concert. We also passed by one of my current student who I recognized only from the back of his head, as he was busy studying. Then (this is really weird) we passed by Wayne Park, who I have also never met, but who is sitting with his laptop typing something. Eugene greets him, and I am surprised they know each other, but say nothing as I remember that they do indeed know one another. All the time we’re walking, I keep thinking to myself, “Eugene is a lot shorter than I thought he would be,” and “wow, his hair is really interesting.”

We finally arrive at “the room” where Eugene’s presentation is to take place. It is a very nice room set up amphitheater style with large red very modern sofa type seating arranged in a semi-circle. Eugene comments that it is just like his church, but I am confused because I thought his church met in some other kind of space, but again I say nothing. Of course I’ve never seen his church either. He leaves the room to go get some “equipment,” and I again wonder why he isn’t taller than I thought he would be. My last thought before waking? I really like this room.

Questions that arise from this weirdness:
Why the heck am I dreaming about Eugene Cho? I’ve never even met the man… what the heck?
Why is Wayne Park in my dream? Again… never met him… no idea what’s going on here…
What is the significance of red sofas (come to think of it, there was lots of red in my dream)?
Why is Cho-mksnm hair so interesting?
Is it really interesting, or did I just make that up?
Is there some hidden gospel message in this dream?

Any dream interpreters out there wanna take a shot at this?

There Goes the Neighborhood

Today I saw something that confirmed what I’ve been suspecting for a while… my neighborhood is changing.

I’ve been seeing the signs here and there, but bravely have tried to ignore them in hopes that perhaps I was wrong. You know how it is; just little things: A white woman walking her dog, a young Asian guy driving a late model Honda down the street, a Volvo parked inconspicuously in a driveway while the young, vaguely hippie looking homeowners enjoyed a drink on the front porch. All of these things were signs that I’ve been trying valiantly to ignore.

But what I saw today was something I could not ignore nor misinterpret, despite all my efforts. There he was in all his trendy splendor – a young white guy, casually dressed in the kind of clothes that look like they’re from Wal-Mart but you know are really from Banana Republic… sitting at the edge of his walkway, innocently, unobtrusively, and completely naturally – playing a guitar. There he sat, in front of an appropriately trendy Craftsman style home, barefoot, and playing his guitar in the calm of a late afternoon as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

My neighborhood is officially trendy.

White folks drinking wine on the front porch I could ignore; the White woman walking her dog was harder to rationalize, but still I made the effort. But this, this cannot be denied or explained away. It is only in trendy urban neighborhoods that White guys play guitars while sitting out in front of their houses I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it so quickly.

Before I know it, there will be coffee shops with bearded baristas and black rimmed glasses wearing Mac users. The ubiquitous loud young Black girls with too much saunter and not quite enough jeans to cover their shape will be replaced by svelte looking people who ::gasp:: jog!!

I’m not quite sure what to make of it all. There goes the neighborhood.

A Cool Church?

Yesterday I had the chance to meet with a local pastor in my community. He leads a PCA church plant in what is arguably one of the “hipper” parts of what is, I think, a fairly “hip” city, Nashville. We drank coffee, we chatted sophisticatedly in the coffee house in the heart of this hip neighborhood whilst all around us other “hip” looking people surfed the internet and drank decaf mocha’s.

His church is “hip.” They are an eclectic bunch, and meet on Sunday afternoon rather than Sunday night, all the better for those “hip” types who sleep in. They have community groups (not cell groups) and are doing their level best to be a part of the diverse, economic mish-mash, and culturally relevant place that is East Nashville. I told him that I grew up in East Nashville, long before it was considered a “hip” place to be and that even now I live in the “pre-trendy” part, i.e. the part where there are no corner cafes or cool looking White people with black rimmed glasses ordering scones while surfing the internet on their Mac. People in my part of East Nashville are more likely to be running from police than out for a morning jog.

We talked about the pros and cons of gentrification, that delightfully complex process whereby a community goes from being a “hood” to actually having a name and a Starbucks.

He informed me that he doesn’t want his church to be “cool” and that that is not the point of church or ministry anyway.

I agree.

As much as I admire and appreciate the way folks are trying to present the gospel in a relevant way, I can’t help but notice that many of the folks paying attention, like the clientèle at my pastor friend’s church, are “hip.” I don’t mean to suggest that they aren’t sincere, or that they don’t need the gospel or anything else detrimental. It’s just that, well… I’m not sure what I mean. It just seems to me that we put a lot of effort into being relevant, and in practice it turns out that we’re just trying to be “cool.” And if you didn’t know, Blessed are the Uncool (great book by the way; the author is a personal friend).

I just don’t know if the church is supposed to be relevant in that sense of the word. Are we really supposed to be cool, hip, or trendy?

As a missionary on the front lines of “cool” i.e. the college campus, I find that most non-believers really aren’t drawn to or repelled by Christianity on the basis of the “cool factor” of our groups. To be honest, many of our groups are thoroughly “un-cool.” We play cheesy games, go to cheesy conferences, and do all kinds of things that aren’t especially appealing to those aspiring to “hipness.” Ironically, the couple of weeks we showed cool videos to talk about the gospel (including a Nooma video) the non Christians complained about it. What draws people to our groups is the same things that always have: the power of the Spirit.

Of course we should speak with intelligibility and relevance to the culture around us. I cannot but be in favor of contextualization and relevance in the articulation of the gospel. People still need to hear, “in (their) own language” the “declaration of the wondrous works of God.”

But I think we also should remember that the church is really not meant to relevant. Church is, to me, like a big slightly dysfunctional family. And families aren’t relevant; they are decidedly “un-cool.” In fact, families are somewhat embarrassing, and all the more so when you invite friends over. There are the relatives that say too much, or are too critical; the nosy aunt, the overbearing uncle. There are kids who always wait until company comes to act out, and then embarrass their parents and everyone else by having to be punished. There’s just the general weirdness that each family has that you don’t really know how to explain to an outsider, but you want to anyway, lest they think you’re too strange.

But what makes family “family” is just that strangeness. It isn’t cool, it isn’t hip and it isn’t relevant. Its home: the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in. I suspect that people are looking for a relief from being “cool.” They want a place where they can come from behind the trendy eye wear, disaffection and cynicism; a place where laughter is untainted with sarcasm, and emotions don’t have to be explored, but can simply be felt.

Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up being the church in exchange for being cool.