I had the second best meal of my life yesterday.
It was the highly unexpected end to an arduous quest for Melissa (my wife) and I, as we attempted to go on our first date in eighteen months and also belatedly celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary, which had been rudely curtailed by a household stomach flu; which led to us trading our plans for Glorious Piles of Small Plates At Fancy Restaurants for Cleaning Up Vomit and Stress Eating Mozzarella Sticks At 8 PM at Night.
Two weeks later, we set out again, sponsored this time by vacation and the generosity of an island friend (thank you Jenny!) who graciously agreed to pick up our children, feed them, and put them to bed so that we could go out and adult together.
We went into the city in the early afternoon (Portland, Maine. Population, 75,000, which boasts both the highest level of hipster-pretension and amazing small restaurants per capita in the country), had a couple drinks, and wandered around blissfully until suddenly discovering that the restaurant we had based our dinner plans around was closed unexpectedly. This necessitated some frantic googling, a very quick text exchange with my incredibly knowledgeable foodie sister-in-law (thank you Patsy!), and a lot of rapid COVID risk evaluation of our short list of alternate candidates. This process ended us up at Little Giant, a small bistro in the West End of Portland, a good mile’s walk from where we were, and one of the few places in town that unapologetically requires vaccines for its diners.
[Quick review: Go to this restaurant before they become famous. They have a short menu of small plates and main courses that changes frequently. Their food is sourced seasonally and locally, which they use to great effect, and if you’ve ever wondered “Why fine dining?”, you’ll see why here, where their careful attention turns good ingredients into glorious masterpieces. The highlights: buratta with pickled watermelon rind, scallop ceviche in chive oil, hangar steak with bok choy, and crab with black rice and horseradish. Their waitstaff clearly cares about their food and is also sneaky good at pairing wine from their well-curated list with whatever amazing food they’re bringing to you next. One good step down in $ from the most famous places in town, with small plates at $8-$17 and main courses at $25-$30.]
My wife and I are foodies and have a running list of of the best meals we’ve ever had since we’ve been married [Our top five, in ascending order: dinner at the Samoset in Rockport during our honeymoon, our first meal at Keon’s Bistro in Haverhill, a five course wine dinner at Michael and Gretchen Arntz’s house with great company, our meal at Little Giants, and at the very top, the chef’s tasting menu at Evo in Portland five years ago, where they brought us piles of delicious things until we had to get the boat home.] Making this list is not just about the food, although good food (and drink) is essential. It’s also about the moment, about the company, the conversation, the weather even. I’ve had great meals on otherwise forgettable nights that have already faded from memory. I’ve had meals that were less-than-perfect that will stay with me forever because of the moment when they happened. A Best Meal is an ineffable alchemy; and when all those ingredients come together, the whole experience will feed your soul for months.
We sat and we drank and we ate. I successfully fought off the urge to say grace at every new course and unsuccessfully tried to stop making slightly-embarrassing guttural exclamations of delight with each new dish. We talked about our last year, about our dreams for our future and our family, about our hopes for our new house and the shapes of the next season of our lives, which we are are so close to entering into. We counted moments in bites rather than seconds and slipped gently out of the stream of time; only to return, with the check, nearly three hours later, wondering where all the time had passed.
We tipped our way back to our car, the rain falling lightly on us, feeling like we had compressed a week’s worth of rest into one glorious evening. As we headed back exhausted, on the last ferry, ready to thank our sitter and fall into bed; I reflected that this, I’m pretty sure, is what we’re supposed to mean when we say Holy: not the fussy dustiness of dead words and stained glass windows, not the defensively mathematical precision of doctrine or morals, not the intimidating contemptuous grandeur of a Being that has somehow deigned to put up with us because it didn’t have any better choices; but rather the promiscuously overflowing exuberance that makes souls out of dust, grows hope out of cold concrete, and which turns even the plainest encounter into communion with the love that birthed the cosmos.
We tend to think of the life of the Spirit as a reward for assiduous practice, or as something done on our behalf by religious professionals, or that thing that’s supposed to happen when we gather with others at long-proscribed times and places. However, it is in fact a gift; one that comes often unasked-for and unexpected, and turns words and silence into wisdom; turns food into sacrament, and turns time into eternity. I’ve encountered those moments more than once in explicitly spiritual settings; but often I’ve found that the most memorable ones tend to ambush me when I’m hardly looking for them.
Frederick Buechner says
Some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. waking up to the first snow. being in bed with somebody you love… whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. if you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.
These moments are invitations:
Life is far more wild than you dream.
Do not spend all your time splashing in the shallows.
Swim to the Deep, whose waves lap up on your shore, and dive into the arms of Love instead.
Days on Injured Reserve: About Fifty
Carpenter Ants Discovered: One Teeming Horde
Carpenter Ants Murdered with Sociopathic Glee: One Teeming Horde (I hope)
Timeline Changes for Mandatory Roof Work: Next Year to Next Month to Right Now to Yesterday to Many Yesterdays Ago
Moldy Sheetrock Exported: Three Truckloads Full
Rafters Raised: Seventeen
Roofs Successfully Tarped: One Half
Roof Tarpers Injured In the Process: None
Long Weekends Spent in Demi-Drudgerous Labor: Four and Counting Ad Infinitum
No home renovation process is complete without a few surprises.
By surprises, I don’t mean the inevitable discovery of, say, a stash of stamped gold bars behind the mantelpiece or a nondescript wooden table which is in fact an Antique of Great Rarity which avaricious collectors will pay you obscene amounts of money for; but rather the sort of surprise that takes your carefully prepared timeline, shreds it into a million tiny pieces, and then gleefully dances in the resultant confetti.
We have hit the Season of Surprises at the house, which has left this amateur renovator more than a little haggard.
Please permit me to enumerate:
1) I had an extremely unexpected trip to the Injured Reserve, when my body had a violent disagreement with Pfizer Vaccine Shot #1. Considering my medical history, this shouldn’t have come as entire shock; but it sent me into what was my worst flare up in over two years. As it turns out, if I can barely manage to wrench myself into sitting position for a day to write emails, then swinging a hammer was about as feasible as flying to the moon. Thanks to a barrage of supplements recommended to me by my doctor, I got back on my feet and sailed through shot #2 without a problem; but I lost about fifty days in the process, all of which turned the summer from Busy But Quite Doable to Utter Batshit Insanity.
[“But Ben!” a few of you may ask, “Don’t you regret getting that horrible vaccine now?” The answer, of course, is no; for three reasons. First, because while my illness does tend to interact poorly with vaccines, it also makes me a prime candidate for Long COVID, which would have put me on my back likely for a year or more. Secondly, because it’s my duty as a citizen and a decent human being to help our country beat back the virus which has claimed so many lives (including several people I knew.) And third, because when so many other people have decided to treat vaccines as a personal or political choice rather than as their civic duty, not getting vaccinated and trusting your community is just not an option.]
2) On the Fourth of July weekend, I discovered a sizable puddle of water on the first floor of our house; which provided incontrovertible evidence that the roof we needed to get replaced in the next year or so needed to be replaced now, in fact, probably needed to be replaced many yesterdays ago. This necessitated ten or so phone calls to local area roofers, as I went from “I want a standing seam roof at a decent price” to “I will take any mostly non-drunk handyperson who can put up shingles in a straight line.”
While the most-failed part of the roof has now been tarped up, thanks to My Amazing Father, who, now that he is vaccinated, has put on his cape and swooped in to do an incredible amount of work over the last month; the leaky roof means that I cannot finish the room under said leaky roof where one heat pump is supposed to be installed, nor the room under the room of said leaky roof, leading to the equivalent of a seventeen car pileup on the Highway to Ben’s Family Moving Into His House; involving almost an equivalent amount of bad feelings and profanity.
3) One weekend ago, I discovered the corollary to a leaky roof, which is the particular sort of creature which finds damp wood a delicious delectation: namely, a happy tribe of carpenter ants, who were cheerfully excavating quite a happy village when I rudely horned in on their domestic bliss while removing sheet rock. I was perhaps more surprised than they were and ended up flailing at them passionately and ineffectively with my crowbar while turning the air blue, before rushing out on the next boat to buy bait and poison; after which I bombarded them with malicious glee; feeling in the darkest part of my soul a profound satisfaction every time I saw one wither up and die.
They appear to be mostly gone; but then again, so is a good three foot section of the back part of my house, which now needs dried out and rebuilt so that they do not think to take up residence again.
All of this is part of the game. You’re not a home renovator until you’ve been punched in the face multiple times, only sometimes metaphorically. Through the dint of some very long weekends; I’m starting to make up ground, while anxious waiting for a contractor to come do his work, the code inspector to call about wiring, and for Someone/Anyone to give me a decently reasonable bid on the roof.
All of this is to say: if you need me to find me quickly this summer, don’t come to my front porch or search for me at the nearest beach, just come to the house; where I will probably be grumpily swinging a hammer trying to convince myself that, after all, all this extra work is just good cardio.
Successfully Burned: Multitudes of Waste
Contractor Trash Bags Purchased (And Used): 250
Contractor Trash Bags Needed (In Total) To Complete House: 253
Saints Who Deliver Three Needed Trash Bags: One, Named Kathy. Thank You.
The other day we set off the Pyre of the Ages down at the house: a burn pile of almost-epic proportions which had accumulated over the course of a year and a half of work. It was a cool-ish morning, the snow was on the ground, and we had gathered, with almost liturgical reverence, around the ominous hulk.
“Did you bring the diesel?” I was asked. “Yes,” I said, until it became clear that, in fact, I had brought the propane, which would most likely have incinerated the burn pile, house, and fire-setter together. Diesel retrieved and applied, I was asked, “Did you bring matches?” When I shamefacedly shook my head in the negative, my overly patient mentor grinned widely and threw me a box from his coat. After a year, apparently he knows me.
You would think that for someone smart enough to write in multiple complete sentences, this sort of dumb mistake might be a rather uncommon occurrence: the unfortunate byproduct of under-caffeination and over-scheduling. In fact, this level of “You Forgot the What?” stupidity has been perhaps the second-most reliable feature of this last year, running close second to my increasing tolerance for huge piles of reeking garbage. In the past year, I’ve forgotten my tool belt more times than I can count, destroyed pieces of flashing, de-shingled a roof in the precisely opposite-to-optimum way, resulting in a full extra day of work, installed sheet rock with similar efficiency and expertise, and so on.
More than once in the past few months, I’ve stopped, generally while covered in dust and humiliation, and thought, I’m not good at this.”
To be clear, I’m certainly better at this than I was a year ago. Just this last weekend, I walked into my Tenant/Best Friend Ever’s/Island Wizard’s cabin and successfully repaired THREE electrical outlets in the course of 90 minutes, after which I verbally high fived myself to the point of obnoxiousness.
I can now look at physical objects and see them as part of interacting systems that I too am capable of interacting with, rather than as Vast Unreachable Mysteries That Make Me Panic. I actually enjoy settling into the grind of a day’s worth of work, able to pace myself so I’m not utterly spent after ninety overenthusiastic minutes. When it comes to electrical work and some forms of extremely basic carpentry, I now know how to learn what I don’t know (although the inner mysteries of framing, leveling, and other such topics still lie utterly beyond my grasp.)
That’s certainly progress, but none of it comes easy to me. I’ll never be the person you look to for top-grade finish work or to ingeniously troubleshoot a knotty problem. I simply don’t possess the genius of so many of my neighbors on the island, who can read a book about boat building, for instance, and then go build a boat; or can read a book on installing a septic system and then go out to confidently rent an excavator. My road up this hill is far steeper, filled with a thousand genuinely dumb mistakes and precious few leaps of insights, as I struggle to get my brain to think in a way that it hasn’t had to do before. In short, I’m not pushing my way to the front of the class anytime soon.
This is not exactly a common experience for me. I was one of those “gifted” kids; able to get good grades without having to develop a lot of discipline (lots of energy, yes; but always with the scattered enthusiasm of a person who has not quite learned how to keep up with his brain yet) and I learned to stay in that lane as much as possible. I knew what I was good at (writing, reading, ideating, for instance) and what I wasn’t good at (athletics, where I was exceptionally competitive and exceptionally average) and social situations (which I viewed with the same excitement as a gopher who’s been invited as a special guest to the Annual Hawk Convention) and most certainly the Trades, where I viewed anything more than changing a tire or mowing the lawn with reverent terror.
When my health and my career fell apart simultaneously (hyperlink); my sense of narrowly cultivated competence collapsed with it. After spending a fair amount of time stuck in the muck of my failure, I realized that I was going to have start doing things that I wasn’t good at (or at least not practiced at) if my life was going to get better. It meant exploring alternative medical treatments for my illness so I could get better rather than just sucking it up. It meant getting into therapy and spiritual direction (both of which one must approach as a beginner if one is to accomplish anything.) It meant laboriously reworking my career down different lines: as a choral director, as a worship leader, and as a consultant, always at higher degrees of pressure and complexity than I ever had before. It also meant buying this house, both for the opportunity and from a sense of calling, but where I really lacked the basic competencies to do the work without significant help.
Being a beginner is an exhausting blessing. It the vulnerability of shedding one’s illusions of competence and trusting on others to guide you. It is an almost daily exercise in discovering why the words “humility” and “humiliation” share the same roots. It is the regular experience of reaching the ends of your understanding and having to keep at it anyway, trusting that your comprehension will grow in due time. It is learning the necessity of applying steady effort even when it’s not fun and never comes easy.
There is a definite energy cost to spending much of your time as a novice. I have a pile of small curiosities that I have had to set back on the shelf for the indefinite future. In my leisure time, I find myself settling back in the same un-adventuresome activities that made me happy when I was twelve, namely reading books and playing video games. After all, we are limited creatures, with only so much time and emotional fortitude to spend, and I’m already more than a little bit over-drawn.
You too can find something to learn that you’re bad at. It’ll be good for you; it’ll probably even be fun at times. Learn a musical instrument or a new language, even if you’ll never play in a concert or be able to do much more than say “Where is the bathroom?” without embarrassment. Maybe you don’t possess the necessary insanity to renovate a house, but perhaps building a chicken coop would be a good exercise in personal growth and profanity. Maybe you don’t need to rebuild your life from scratch as I did, but perhaps scheduling a session with a therapist or spiritual director could help you examine the unexamined assumptions about your life and start the journey towards personal and spiritual growth.
The house is now nearly clean (stay tuned for another post on the joys of emptying out a 450 square foot storage room!) which means that the renovation portion of our project is about to begin. This means I’ll be spending the year being really bad at carpentry. Who knows? Maybe next by March, I’ll know how to remove a load-bearing wall and frame out a room. One way or another, I’ll have another year of practice at not being good at what I do.
Once upon a time, there was a young monk renowned for his holiness who was living in the wilderness. It was said that the cause of this monk’s holiness was that everything could be his teacher: that he could learn as well from the moon at night or rocks on the ground as from prayer and the holy scriptures, that he could sit for days being taught by a speck of dust twirling lazily around him.
And so the demons got together and concocted a clever plan. They said, “If this monk has agreed to let a speck of dust teach him, then certainly he will let one of us teach him as well.”
They sent their wiliest demon to the young monk. And the demon appeared before him and said, “I have heard that you are renowned for your ability to let everything be your teacher, will you not let me teach you as well?”
The young monk, seeing who the demon was, stopped and considered. He said, “Yes, I will allow you to teach me.”
And so, for forty days and forty eights, he sat at the foot of this demon, who expounded, in its most seductive fashion, a diabolically clever discourse filled with evil and lies. And as the days wore on, much to the demon’s delight, its teaching seemed to be working. It noticed the monk gazing in rapt attention at its face while it spoke. It noticed the long periods of silence after its lessons, where the monk seemed to be pondering its words deeply. It noticed the monk called it “Rabbi” respectfully before every question he asked.
At the end of forty days, the demon knew that its work had been completed; it was time for the monk to become its disciple. It said, “Now you know the truth of this world, come with me and I will ensure that there is no more powerful person on all this planet than you.”
But the monk sadly shook his head, “Teacher, you know that I cannot do that.”
The demon was very confused and said, “But why not? Have you not listened to my lessons? Did I not expound to you in the most convincing and convicting ways about the true nature of this life?”
The monk said, “Yes, and I thank you for that. You see, when you came, I knew that every word out of your mouth would be a lie.
So, whenever I heard your teaching and thought, ‘This Demon speaks sense’, I had to learn the foolishness in your apparent wisdom
Whenever I received your words and thought ‘That is indeed good!’, I had to discern where your advice spoke evil.
Whenever I sat at your feet and my heart sang ‘Yes!’, I had to learn how my heart was still a liar.
My rabbi, you have advanced me further in holiness than all of these others ever have. So no, I will not go with you; but will you stay with me? For you are the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
And so, the demon, realizing that it had failed, vanished, never to return again.
Recordkeeping: Largely Unkept
Frantic Days Spent Cleaning To Impress House Assessor: 5
Complete Assessor’s Reports Given: 0
Number of Criteria For Rejection of Loan That Bank Knew Multiple Months Before Said Assessment: All of them
Number of Cranky Bank Customers Who Will Soon Be Looking For Other Banks: 2
Alternate Financing Options Thankfully Found: Yes
Estimated Days to Sheetrock and Insulate Cabin Eaves: 1.5
Actual Days to Sheetrock and Insulate Cabin Eaves: 12
Amount of Shockingly Obscene Cursing Performed During Installation: I’m Not Telling
Earbuds Lost or Destroyed:2
% of Days With Functional Truck Battery: Approximately 47%
Pipes Frozen in December: Multiple
Heat Cables Installed: Four
Particularly Long Pipes Previously Drunkenly Installed Like the Rolling Hills: 33 Feet worth
Septic Tank Installation Process: 75%
Square Feet of Bowen Possessions to Sort: 425
Progress After One Year: Undeniable
I would apologize for not writing more frequently this past fall, but I was too busy putting out fires. Not the literal kind (although those type were recommended to me as a means of renovation when we bought the property), but the sort of metaphorical type which cheerfully immolate one’s best laid plans and one’s schedule.
In the interests of not wasting my word-count (and your time) with all my trials, of which I would gladly share with you in obnoxious detail if you gave me a tumbler of bourbon and a couple hours; here are a couple highlights, (or rather, lowlights) from this past fall, in a couple paragraphs.
The beginning of the fall was dominated by the House Asssesor’s Visit, so that our bank, which was already moving at the speed of a tranquilized slug, would give us a small loan to install such essential things as a septic system and kitchen cabinets. I spent the better part of August and September frantically cleaning the rest of the house and property for the assessor’s visit, which was always Coming Really Soon But We Don’t Know Exactly When. The assessor came; he seemed reasonably comfortable; he didn’t discover any surprises that weren’t on our initial disclosures to our bank, and so I naturally expected a positive result on the loan going into the fall. You can imagine my almost blind fury when the bank manager emailed apologetically to say that our loan had been denied, based on information which we had given the bank a full TWO months before the assessor visited. After a couple polite, but very pointed conversations, the manager, after some attempted prevarication, did admit that we had disclosed said information, that the loan office’s decision did not make sense, and refunded the not-inconsiderable assessor’s fee, but not until a full three and a half months and countless hours of sleep had been sacrificed to the cause. [Thankfully, we had a happy ending to this story so the project can move forward, but hell hath no fury like a completely exhausted home renovator who has had the carpet pulled out underneath him.]
The rest of the year was dominated by insulating and sheet rocking the eaves of the cabin, a process which was delayed twice due to illness, and once started, transformed from a project that was supposed to be one and a half days into one that took a full twelve, and turned my fall into a nightmarish slog that involved (1) developing an uncomfortably intimate relationship with bays in the roof that, in full “good enough” New England carpentry style, varied from 19.5 to 22.5 inches, (2) custom cuts of every piece of anything that was stuck up there, in a space just high enough to ensure that I would hit my heat accidentally at least four times a day, and (3) navigating pernicious rashes up and down my arms and neck that made it nearly impossible to sleep at night (insulation is the most evil stuff known to humanity); all under a very hard deadline which gave everything a shiny veneer of frantic anxiety. I finished in mid-December, got a solid D+ on that job, and am headed into the spring with the hope that tape and mud will cover all my sins.
Other than a day and a half surprise excitement when the basement pipes froze, necessitating a quick trip to the mainland, and several hours in a cold dark basement attaching heat cables to pipes with store brand electrical tape of questionable quality, I have spent the last six or so weeks more or less recovering, as my body informs me, with annoying repetition, that I am Too Old To Be Doing that Shit Anymore.
In what was undeniably a challenging, too-busy fall, it was all of my fellow islanders who leavened my sagging spirits. My garage is steadily filling up with offers of much-needed leftover material, including the perfectly-sized stove that happily sits in the cabin right now. (Thanks Eliza Jane!) Every time I was just about ready to just stop, someone would stop by while I was working to tell me how much better the place looked or what a difference this was making for the community.
I’ve come to realize again, much as I wrote over a year ago, that this isn’t just about renovating an old house, it’s about resurrecting a dead story and giving it new life; so that this place, which was such the site of grief for people on the island: a long-dilapidated memory of better times gone by, is instead a forebear for another beautiful, if different chapter ahead.
On the days when I’m dragging myself back to Hey-Bitty after yet another day of work that I really didn’t have in me, this reminder has only a limited effect; but I’m finding that when the dust settles, I’m again reminded that pounding nails and hanging sheet rock can be holy work as well.
Here’s to another year in this adventure, and to telling more tales like this to all of you.
Here’s also, I pray, to a lot less time dealing with frantically-installed insulation and incompetent financial institutions.
2021: here we come.
[And to catch up on any chapters you may have missed, click here]
Join us for our final episode, as Beth Estock interviews Ben about his experience over five years of hosting Reports From the Spiritual Frontier.
Episode Highlights Include:
- What changes and patterns Ben has seen over his five years hosting Reports
- Why American Christendom is done
- COVID-19 as a moment of reckoning for the country and the church
- What Ben would have told the person who began this podcast five years ago
Thanks to our all of our listeners and supporters, especially our 2020 sponsors:
Keep In Touch: To check out Ben’s continued writing and to access the archives for the podcast!
Join us for a recording of Ben’s conversation with Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org and Rev. Lennox Yearwood, founder of the Hip Hop Caucus as part of the BTS Center’s series, “Unlocking Possibility: Catalyzing Spiritual Imagination in Uncertain Times”.
Episode Highlights Include
- The connection between racial justice and climate justice
- How climate change is a failure of imagination
- The unique role that people of faith can play in addressing the climate crisis
- The role of young people in the climate movement
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Stay tuned next for: Our final conversation, where Beth Estock interviews Ben (our host!) about what he’s learned over five years of hosting this podcast.
I think it’s safe to say that my last post generated a lot of feedback. While most of the comments I received were either affirming (thank you, it’s good to know that there are others that feel as I do), or thoughtlessly denouncing (more on this below); I did receive a third set of comments which I feel deserve greater engagement.
I received a few (and, I’m sure that there are a few silent folks out there who felt similarly) thoughtful pieces of pushback, from people who were hurt by my words or took issue with the tone of my analysis. Since my last post appears to have set a bull loose in a theological china shop, I’d like to take a couple minutes to sweep up a few broken pieces and explain some of the choices I made in how I framed the last piece.
First, to answer a couple pieces of criticism with the seriousness that they deserve:
Am I a worker of Satan? Not so far as I know; but I suppose if you go back to the very original Hebrew definition of “ha Satan” which meant tester or accuser, those might in fact describe the tone of my piece very well; so…maybe?
Would I have stoned Paul if I had been in Damascus two thousand years ago? Answer is a definite no. First, I’m more or less a pacifist and secondly my aim is pretty horrible without my glasses, which most likely means that I’d be more of a danger to the crowd than to Paul in any case.
And now, to some of the more serious concerns:
Do I believe that every Christian who belongs to a church is an asshole?
This deserved a little more clarity in my original piece. I don’t believe this (and it would be very awkward if I did, since my wife is a pastor and I work as music director at a church filled with lovely people.) I might have better said, “It is the near-universal experience of people under the age of 35 that American Christendom has become a church of assholes.”
Lest you think that this is some form of intentionally provocative exaggeration, this is actually backed up by empirical evidence, including a study done about 10+ years ago (pre-Trump, nonetheless!) that states that three adjectives that young adults would most use to describe Christians are: anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical (which doesn’t sound like a bad definition of asshole if you ask me.)
This is not simply a problem of perception: we actually have no empirical evidence that being involved in American Christendom makes you more like Jesus on a behavioral level. If anything, the studies suggest that being an American Christian may have a negative effect on your Christ-likeness when the rubber hits the road (e.g. generosity, being accepting of others, not lying, not stealing, etc.)
Does this mean that I believe that your particular church or you individually are assholes? No. This is about people’s perception and about entire systems, not about specific contexts. But, before you let yourself off the hook and decide that this is a Problem for Other Churches Because Mine is Great, I’d invite you to do some serious thinking about whether your church operates in a more loving fashion or is more aligned with God’s purposes for the world at an enacted level than your local YMCA or *insert preferred non-profit or business organization here*.
Do you really think that the Church, Christ’s body, is dying?
No, I absolutely don’t, and this points to a place where I feel like we need to create a lot more daylight in our conversations about American Christianity between “church” and “Church”. If we conflate church (e.g. every faith community that has the word “church” in their name or worships with Jesus-language on Sunday or every denomination that organizes said faith communities and claims spiritual authority) with Church (Christ’s very body at work in the world through us), we end up in situations where Jesus ends up doing some very odd, oftentimes downright offensive sort of things (see previous question) and seems pretty much under the control of hierarchs and demographic forces.
Rather, I believe that the destruction of the American church is proof of the irresistible vitality of the Church. God does not need to wait on old, death-dealing forms of institutional religion to get their act together when God can make “the rocks cry out.” And so, God is burning down the institutional deadwood so that something new can grow in the sunlight. This is unbelievably painful for those of us who love those old, dead trees; but it’s also tremendously exciting. The Church is the power of the resurrection life made manifest, and that life is more powerful than death, even the death of our dead-but-walking religious institutions.
Your post sounds gleeful at times about the destruction of American Christendom. Where’s your grief?
If you haven’t engaged with a lot of my other work, I could see how you felt this way. I myself am a child of the American Christendom. I grew up in a beautiful, faith, traditionally structured church that gave me the hymnody I sing, my deepest convictions about the Christian life, and a living image of what Christian community is supposed to look like. It was that church which kept me together when I became horribly sick when I was nine and wasn’t able to return to school until I was thirteen. There are many ways that I owe my health and sanity to the group of people and that indeed deserves a lifetime of grief and gratitude.
There were many gifts, held by imperfect hands in the time of American Christendom; and some of those gifts will be lost or their memory forgotten. And for that, I grieve.
I grieve that the hymns that have formed my life will not shape the lives of my children.
I grieve that it’s unlikely that my children will experience a sanctuary full of people enthusiastically worshipping God, easily accessible opportunities to form spiritual community with people their own age, or know a connection to a wider church that is not completely consumed with anxiety.
I grieve that building a ministry is now so damn hard in this environment and every gain is so painfully fragile.
I grieve for the pastors, crushed under the weight of expectations, unprepared by their training, and utterly burnt out; many of whom would much better serve Christ out of the clergy than inside it; but who feel utterly trapped and unable to leave until retirement age.
I grieve for all those wonderful, well-intentioned people connected with old, dying congregations who feel inadequate, terrified, and helpless.
But, there is much more that I grieve for:
I grieve for all the people who will have nothing to do with church because they encountered a clergyperson who *everyone* knew had no business being a pastor, but whose destructiveness and sometimes outright abuse was enabled by a conspiracy of silence and bureaucratic inertia that often lasted for decades.
I grieve all the partnerships with non-profits and other organizations left dead before birthing, because of churches that worshipped their buildings and their money more.
I grieve all the children I know who were bright-eyed about God until they methodically and decisively shut out of the life of the congregation because they didn’t act like little 80-year old’s in worship or because people just didn’t care. (And I grieve even more for every time I wasn’t able to do anything about it.)
Grief and lament are absolutely an important part of the prophetic process, and it would be correct to notice that my piece didn’t contain grief. In part, this is because I’ve noticed that grief in church circles frequently becomes a denial of responsibility, a sort of myopic narcissism where we believe that our sadness means that we should saint what is passing. If we grieve for the passing of the American Church, then we should grieve even more for the victims of its many sins.
We need to hold both forms of grief together if we’re going to say goodbye to American Christianity with integrity.
Your writing seems pretty hopeless.
I could push back about that (after all, I think that the conviction that God is at work to liberate the oppressed and set the spiritual captives free is *very* hopeful news), but I understand what you’re getting at. It’s true that I didn’t nod at the new spiritual communities and new prophets that are springing up out of the Christian tradition and suggest God’s resurrection power already at work. (Check out my podcast if you want about one hundred instances of me engaging in this.)
I’ll be honest. I didn’t mention any of this quite on purpose.
In American Christendom, hope often appears to be a synonym for denial. I can’t count the number of times at a conference or judicatory meeting, that I’ve heard, at the end of a recitation of the statistics of our apparently irreversible institutional decline, the assurance “But Sunday’s coming!” or “But we believe in a God of resurrection!” or “God’s doing a new thing among us!” And while these things are all true, they serve to short-circuit the very necessary process that leads us to hope: the acknowledgment of our reality.
The reality is that American Christendom is done. We’re not at Easter Sunday, we’re headed into Good Friday, with a Holy Saturday laying in the tomb after that; and because we are unable to acknowledge the unavoidable reality that death comes before resurrection, what we think of as resurrection is merely life support. I have yet to hear a group of Christian leaders deal seriously with the fact that American Christendom is dead and cannot be revived. And until that fact is publicly acknowledged, lamented, and grieved; true hope will not be able to find a purchase among us.
After having interviewed about a hundred spiritual pioneers over the last five years; I have also become cautious about citing new faith communities or faith leaders as a reason why the American Church can have hope. Frequently, when this connection is made, anxious organizations and leaders will place the responsibility for their institutional survival upon the backs of these small, frequently under-resourced ministries. I mean this literally. I remember one church planter who told me, “My Bishop said, ‘I’m letting you plant this church so you can grow and make sure that our conference doesn’t financially go under.’” That expectation, stated or implied, is an almost-universal experience of spiritual pioneers in mainline denominations. These communities (and their leaders) neither need or deserve to be our Messiahs; and when they fail to live up to these impossibly high expectations, they are often crucified and discarded.
I do have a great deal of hope. In fact, I believe that the judgment of the American Church is absolutely the best thing that could happen to it. But no, I don’t believe that I should encourage people to hope for a miracle resurrection when what they should do is acknowledge that the patient is dead.
This piece still seems really harsh.
That’s fair. And if it offended or hurt you, I’ll take responsibility for that. After all, intentions are different than impact; and that’s truer on the internet than perhaps in any other social space, especially in the scope of one blog post.
I hope you hear that genuine regret and that, if you’ve made your way to the end of these two-thousandish words, you’ll also better understand why I wrote it the way that I did. I’ve written this exact same post at least four times before over the last five years, and have either not hit publish, or nuanced it with precisely these critiques about grief and hope in mind until it no longer meant what it was supposed to mean. And sure enough, when I watch the responses to those carefully nuanced pieces, I hear people blaming demographic shifts, leadership development, or incorrect theology or political positions (e.g. Those damn evangelicals! Those godless liberals!) rather than taking responsibility for their own spiritual work.
Since my latter years as a church planter, I’ve struggled to find my voice; one that speaks from within that is not forever over-regulated by relational or professional calculus. Most of the time, my words are highly engineered, and almost always tempered to assuage my own anxiety.
As I’ve suffered during the collapse of my health and career, done my work with therapists and spiritual directors and in community; and begun to grow in my own sense of self, I’ve realized how damaging this calculus is to my spiritual health; and I’ve tried, as mindfully as possible, to start speaking out of my own inner integrity, and let the chips fall where they may.
What you had here was the purest example of my rage at the hurt that I and so many people have suffered at the hands of American Christendom and my seething frustration at American Christendom’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its sins (and no, I’m not just talking about evangelicals, in case I haven’t been clear.) It’s unlikely you’ll ever see me post something this angry ever again, and I hope you realize by now (if you didn’t before) that my anger is not the sum of my theology or my work.
That’s where I’ll leave it by now. If you’re one of those people who was hurt by my writing, I hope you feel a little more heard now; and I also hope you can also hear why I wrote what I did in the way that I did. [And I’m always happy to continue the conversation via email as well.)
Onwards into the mess together.
Join us for a recording of Ben’s conversation with Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III of The Black Church Food Security Network and Pastor Emily Scott of Dream and Visions to imagine a new church, as part of the BTS Center’s series, “Unlocking Possibility: Catalyzing Spiritual Imagination in Uncertain Times”.
Episode Highlights Include:
- Stories of possibilities unlocked for both Heber and Emily
- How reimagining our tradition can unlock innovation
- What it looks like to untangle capitalism and Christianity
- What it means to take seriously that “all that we need is here”
- The way that church is like improv dancing around a steady bass line
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Stay tuned next for: A conversation with Bill McKibben and Rev. Lennox Yearwood about imagining a new planet.