Friday, December 10, 2010
The Search for Depth and Meaning
There is a hunger in western society today for a sense of purpose and belonging that goes deeper than the daily grind. We live in a world that is overwhelmingly focused on profit and appearance rather than service and substance. While some of us are fortunate to have paid work that to some degree satisfies our need for meaningful labor and community, there are many others for whom their professional life is mostly a burden to be endured - a transaction of time and energy for a paycheck.
Even for many of those with a satisfying professional life, something is still missing. Despite financial success and career advancement, there remains a subtle emptiness in our lives that we cannot shake. We attempt to address this void in a variety of ways: Volunteering at charitable organizations; taking up hobbies; or numbing out with television, music, internet, shopping, alcohol and drugs. In a world where we are consistently told that we are responsible for our own happiness, we find that we are incapable of producing purpose. The depth of life that our hearts desire remains out of reach.
The Myth of the Rugged Individual
The myth many of us have been raised with is: "If you are smart and hard-working, you can have anything you want. It's up to you." Despite the optimism of this creed, many of us have found that our new national myth is false on multiple counts. To begin with, no matter how much we have educated ourselves and no matter how hard we have worked, real depth of purpose eludes us. The Western dream of endless prosperity and opportunity is revealed to be shallow and selfish; we are spiritual orphans listening to ipods in air-conditioned offices. We can have anything we want, perhaps, if all we want is soul-numbing entertainment.
Furthermore, we discover that we as individuals are not capable of accomplishing anything. We depend upon a web of interconnected relationships and social conditions, many of which are harmful and hold us back from growing to our fullest potential. Though we were brought up to believe that our destiny depended primarily on our own personal decisions, we come to see that our decisions are only a small piece of the overall picture. We cannot exist - much less achieve our goals - except in the context of community.
And some communities are more conducive to peace and fulfillment than others. Most of the subcultures in our society focus on goals other than serving God and neighbor. In many of our offices and barracks, schools and nonprofits, competition and self-interest are valued above compassion and self-sacrifice. Nation-states demand loyalty and support even as they routinely harm others in the pursuit of greater wealth and power - developing horrible weapons and dominating neighbors. We abuse the earth, hideously disfiguring God's creation, all in the name of "growth and development." Clearly, there are many human communities today whose ends and means are starkly at odds with the Reign of Christ.
But there is an alternative. There is a community in which each person can find the deepest wholeness and purpose, in which the human family as a whole can experience love and peace, showing respect for God's creation in all its grandeur and beauty. The Church - the community of those who follow Jesus and participate in his life, death and resurrection - is this community. When we live in Christ, we find that our entire worldview shifts; instead of having our character and destiny dictated by the prevailing human culture, we are transformed by the living presence of Christ in the community of his friends. We participate in him, and his life becomes the setting for our own. In him alone we find true freedom, experiencing the depth and purpose that we have longed for all our lives.
Emigrating to the Kingdom of God
Think about it this way: If a person relocates to a foreign country, they are not simply changing locations - they are fundamentally altering their entire frame of reference. This change may not be clear at first, and the emigrant may cling for a long time to the way of life left behind in their home country; they may continue to eat their country's food, speak their native language, and relate to others as they would in their home environment. However, over time, the emigrant slowly but surely absorbs the local culture of the country to which they have relocated.
Over the course of months and years, the emigrant's life is reoriented around the language, assumptions and way of life of their adopted country. Eventually, when the emigrant returns to their country of origin for a visit, they feel out of place in the land they used to call home. Their transition into a new frame of reference is complete - they are now more adapted to their new country than they are to their homeland.
When we commit to following the guidance of Christ's Spirit over all else, we have effectively emigrated. We were once members of the dominant society, but when we began to follow Jesus we forfeited citizenship in our earthly nations. Our process of growth in Christ is one of naturalization into the Church. As we are reoriented to the language, assumptions and way of life of our new community in Christ, we are transformed - not merely by our conscious, personal choice, but by our ongoing participation in the Church.
Making it Through Customs: Membership, Covenant and Engagement
In the essays that follow, we will explore what it looks like for us to change our spiritual nationality. We will consider the role of the individual, the Church, and the wider society as we transition away from being primarily participants in the dominant culture, becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God. We will examine the concepts of membership, covenant and engagement, looking at the ways in which individuals are nurtured and sustained by the community of disciples. Then, we will consider the role of communal decision-making, and how discernment takes place at all levels of the Church. Finally, we will look at the fruits of corporate discernment: the shared work that we as the Church undertake to make the love of Jesus visible to everyone.
As we explore the meaning of membership, covenant and engagement, we discover the way that Jesus is alive and active, showing love and mercy to the individual, the community of faith, and the world as a whole.