Wednesday, June 4, 2008



Visiting Ellis Island last summer with my family provided an opportunity to reflect on what it must have been like to find oneself as a stranger in a strange land, as I walked the halls where so many people had hopefully and fearfully gathered, waiting to be "processed." To be sure, for many, the most immediate issues that outweighed all others were simply those of survival. If you were even allowed into the country, would you be able to get established and "make it"? For those who did, there would be other questions to wrestle with. What were the things that mattered most, that were the core of who you were as a person, that you would cling to, cherish and preserve as you entered this new country? What were the non-negotiables? What would you leave behind as you adapted to your new surroundings and became part of a new community?

Still thinking a bit about the "patriotism" post, I was struck again this week by the way scripture describes the experience of God's people as strangers and aliens (immigrants) in this world with their primary citizenship in another place. In spite of the cultural forces that seek to diminish and suppress other senses of identity (the "become just like us or go home" kind of mentality), Christians, like immigrants, are given the unique task of becoming fully engaged citizens in the world in which they live, while yet preserving, maintaining, and primarily living out of, an identity that is from elsewhere. While Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had arrived and is indeed among us (as the hymn proclaims, "This is My Father's world"), He was also clear that it was not "of" this world -- a paradox that can leave immigrants feeling very much "a part of things" at one moment, and yet somewhat alone and not really understood the next. For children of immigrants who are born in a new country, and who are raised with the interesting mix of values and perspectives that come both from what has been preserved and newly embraced, the task of sorting may feel different on some levels, but is no less complex.

The context in which I was in touch with my "inner immigrant" this week came in the middle of a conversation with other pastors about, of all things, how finances are allocated in the organizational structure of which our church is a part. As people talked about where cuts could be made in order to be sure the things that mattered the most were properly financed, I was struck by the kinds of things that were considered to be peripheral or somewhat optional (or at least not central), and the things that were not (say a 2-3% cost of living increase). Where I most experienced my "immigrant moment" as someone suggested that one those items to consider that could be cut, along with things like excess postage and printing costs, were a series of retreat experiences that have become known as "The Journey." (This was actually more of a passing comment that a direct proposal, and I mention it mainly because of the thought process it initiated in me, rather than because it was in itself a position being advocated)

(By way of explanation, for those who don't know what "The Journey" refers to -- it is a series of retreats which focus on providing time and space for pastors to intentionally attend to their own spiritual life and how that is expressed in ministry. For further comments on the significance of this process, check out this link (you will need to download it to view the PDF file). . . in fact, you will probably not understand why I found this significant without reading the short articles the link will take you to). What struck such an unusually odd chord in me, was that one of the major (and relativley inexpensive ways) that our church structure intentionally provides resources that directly support the essiential core of what ministry is all about was, at least momentarily in the course of conversation, in the same bin with excess postage.

It felt for a moment somewhat like what I imagine it might be like for an immigrant standing on the shores of a strange land. And, aside from (well, maybe also because of) my personal connection with and investment in the Journey process and what it represents, (again with the caveat that no one was speaking against it here), what struck me was how easily various cultural and ecconomic forces can order and direct our thoughts, energy, focus and resources. In varying degrees of contrast, Immigrants sometimes find themselves ordering things in ways that don't seem to be fully congruent with, or understood by, the conventional wisdom of the culture they are immersed in.

Actually my point in all of this really doesn't have much to do with the particulars of the conversation that stimulated my reflections, but rather has more to do with how it reminded me that, even in the midst of religious vocations (pastors are far from immune to this), the way we order things matters, and does in fact have more far reaching implications that we sometimes appreciate. All of which brought to mind this quote from Eugene Peterson's book Under The Unpredictable Plant:

Spiritual leadership vocations in America are badly undercapitalized . . . The conditions in which we must acquire a spirituality for our vocation -- an interior adequate to the exterior -- are, it must be admitted, not friendly. Our vocations are bounded on one side by consumer appetites, on the other by a marketing mind-set. Pastoral vocation is interpreted from the congregational side as the work of meeting people's religious needs on demand at the best possible price and from the clerical side as satisfying those same needs quickly and efficiently. These conditions quickly reduce the pastoral vocation to religious economics, pull it into relentless competitiveness, and deliver it into the hand of public relations and marketing experts.
It is no more difficult to pursue the pastoral vocation than any other. Vocations in homemaking, science, agriculture, education, and business when embraced with bibilically informed commitments are likewise demanding and require an equivalent spirituality. But each requires its own specific attention. What is essential for pastors is that we focus on our particular "pestilence that stalks at noonday." In our eagerness to be sympathetic to others and meet their needs, to equip them with a spirituality adequate to their discipleship, we must not fail to take with full seriousness our [own] . . . page 3-4

It is remarkably easy to not keep what should be central, central . . . to take for granted what needs faithful intentionality . . . to be seduced by our culture into shifting our focus . . . to make room for Baal next to Yahweh . . . and to not even be aware when we do this . .. which should keep us both humble and gracious.

There are also those moments of clarity, even when walking through the structures we have built to house this thing we call church, that I feel like I have arrived on the shores of a strange land . . .where I may indeed have a place and a purpose . . . and where I may enjoy many new and old, rich and meaningful, relationships . . . but still, for lots of reasons (some more positive than others) I can still feel quite out of place. This keeps us yearning for what is yet to come, and helps motivate us to continue to work towards realizing it more fully now.

Strangers, aliens, immigrants . . . Interesting metaphors scripture uses to seek to capture the experience of what it is like, trying to live the life of the Kingdom while still being fully engaged in the life of our world.

1 comment:

Jared Wright said...

This post really got me thinking. In particular, thinking about some of the less uplifting ways in which people have come to understand Scripture's declaration that we are strangers, nomads, immigrants.

It got me thinking so much that I wrote a blog about it (taking off from this blog post and some of my own recent musings from a class on Faith in the modern world focusing on science and theology).

It's an exercise in cognative dissonance, I guess, living in the tension between being fully engaged citizens, while at the same time not fully becoming permanent residents, so to speak. That tricky balance of being in (fully in, not just in until we can get out) and yet not of (refusing to belong to) this world of ours.