Tuesday, April 09, 2013

On being church in suburbia

I recently finished the novel Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, and my first reaction to it was that I wanted to go visit an old-growth forest as quickly as possible. These treasures are hard to find. Those who have read the book will understand why; one particular plot of virgin forest known as the Nest Egg plays a crucial role in the plot of the story, and it a place that is described beautifully. In fact, Berry uses the Nest Egg as a type of metaphor for several ideas in the book. This rare patch of woods that has never felt the saw of a lumberjack turns out to serve as a microcosm of the entire countryside. The gift and fate of the Nest Egg mirrors the bonds that characters throughout the book have with their whole community.  The Nest Egg is also a true utopia that, in the course of the storyline, provides the area for human relationship to deepen and flourish. Certain characters treasure their walks beneath the towering canopy. Anyway, Berry’s description of this Eden-like preserve is so rich and enchanting that I immediately wanted to lose myself among a vast stand of trees so thick two or three people couldn’t reach their arms around them together. It’s sad that there are so few of these old-growth forests left in the United States, and the closest ones we do have are located several hours’ drive from my house.


My second reaction to the book was that I realized it was helping me think a little deeper about of some things I’d been contemplating for a while before I ever read the book; namely, the challenges in doing parish ministry in the suburbs and the growing disconnect between the language of the Bible—which is largely agrarian in metaphor and imagery—and the reality of most of today’s Christians, at least in the West. Among many things, Jayber Crow is a statement about the importance of place to human identity and to the bonding of human relationships.  I don’t know many details about Wendell Berry’s opinions and viewpoints, but what little I have managed to gather is explained in narrative form through Jayber Crow and his other novels about life in the fictitious Port William. Berry’s noted environmentalist views come through in the book, but more through characters and the choices they make than through outright exposition of ideals.


As a farmer himself, Berry knows something about the ways that geography and human community are deeply connected. In the novel, we see how the welfare of the people in Port William is intimately, inextricably woven together with the welfare of their town and land, woven even more tightly than even the residents themselves seem to realize. Farmers, merchants, tradesmen, housekeepers, even local schoolchildren—each of them is an important strand of a delicate fabric and each is affected by the overall function of the town. The title character is the most aware of this vital connection, but there is little he can do to change its destiny other than listen to the stories of the people (which is easy to do because he is the town barber) and participate as much as he can in the town’s economy. Through the plot it becomes clear that Berry laments the arrivals of agribusiness, industrial farming, and human settlement of the land in the entire country. People are slowly and disastrously becoming less linked to the land they must live on and, more importantly, live from. As people move into larger cities and away from towns like Port William, the nature of human community inevitably changes. Berry does not think it changes for the better.


This brings me to my position as one who, too, primarily spends a good amount of time listening to people tell their stories. I am embedded in a community, of sorts. But for some time now I have begun to notice that ministry in a suburban context lacks that intimate tie to land and space that rural parishes typically have, that the residents of Port William have. At some point over the last ten years of ordained ministry I started to notice that I spend another good portion of my time trying to build and foster community; that is, I try to get people to make connections with one another…essentially trying to forge a small town where there really isn’t one. Unlike Port William in Jayber Crow, and unlike almost every small town and rural setting still out there, none of the people in the parishes I’ve served is in the business of providing any direct economy to anyone else in the parish. By day, they work in different office buildings. They earn bread for their families almost completely independently from one another. By night, they rest in neighborhoods and subdivisions scattered throughout a wide geographic area. How are we tied together then? How does our care for each other feel important? These are the questions I have been drawn to ponder. One of the most effective metaphors Paul uses for the church is a body, a la Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians. I imagine that metaphor gets a lot more mileage in communities where everyone, day in and day out, fully realizes the myriad ways they are tied together.


I must confess, then, that the endeavor of creating and facilitating a sense of community is sometimes exhausting. And I doubt pastors in rural settings—and, add to that, most parish workers over the past 2000 years—have really had to do much of the same type of community-building. Sometimes I feel I have to devote a good bit of time convincing members of the parishes we serve that they are a body, when in earlier times that probably would have been intuitive for most of them.  I presume that these are challenges fairly new to pastors and their parishioners. How do you get people deeply connected to each other, especially over the long haul? How do you get people invested in the place where the parish is naturally rooted when the people who make up the parish are not terribly rooted there, themselves? One writer on this subject has noted that people in suburbia are presented with a new situation that most people over the course of time have never had to deal with: suburbanites can choose to meet and interact with only the people they want to know.


Add to that the fact that Scripture itself ninety-five percent of the time speaks right from the farming and herding communities of a time long gone by. Both Old and New Testament give us agrarian metaphors galore. They mention place names and etymologies as if they mean they are more than just a simple landmark. By contrast, most people in the suburbs and in the inner cities, myself included, are not physically tied to land other than the occasional lawn-mowing and vegetable gardening. The nature of suburban life for many who live there is that they may be uprooted at any minute because they could be transferred to another location. People may feel sentimental ties to a childhood tramping ground, perhaps, but few people actually live off the land…or from it.


This all amounts, in my opinion, to a considerable mission challenge. It takes time and energy to embody the cohesive community that Scripture imagines us to be. It takes concerted effort to be creative in reminding the whole assembly that they are, in fact, a body…that they are each other’s primary community, especially when those pre-existing connections of economy and shared story are not automatically there. And especially when Scripture is laden with language and phrases that people like Berry might enjoy and appreciate, but which seem ever more foreign to a city-dwelling world.


I am thankful to be reminded that the accomplishment of this challenge is not left solely up to the pastor and his or her parishioners to weave that community and preach that reality. Whether we recognize it or not, the Holy Spirit is actually there leading the way in this regard, constantly bringing new, landless people into their midst and weaving a new tapestry for God’s glory out of their gifts and unique stories.  Come to think of it, it’s been happening in spite of my worry all along. Much of the early church took root in ancient urban areas (although it could be argued that urban centers back then were still more physically tied to land and place than modern suburbs are).  Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed playing a part in this weaving, despite the energy and creativity it demands. Furthermore, there is some truth to the fact, I bet, that the transient lives we lead in the suburbs can help us remember that disciples are, in in fact, called to a nomadic life. We are, in many ways, not to be too tied to this present form of the earth because it is passing away—not too unlike those majestic old-growth forests—and giving away to something even more utopian and, thank God, permanent:  a brand new heaven and brand new earth. There we will fully realize just how deep and nourishing our relationships with each other are created to be.


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