Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What the City Can Learn from the Country

About 80 percent of Canadians are city-dwellers. Despite the expanse of our nation, slightly more than a third of us dwell in only three metropolitan areas: Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. I live in one of them.

I grew up, however, in Hicksville. My backyard was an open field that provided the seasoned aroma of freshly spread manure. There was no cable TV, only bunny ears and Saturday night hockey games in a snowstorm. There was no Tim Horton’s or Starbucks within a 30-minute drive. Without such luxuries we just went to each other’s homes for Sunday dinner and coffee. Strange, I know.

Am I waxing nostalgic? Not really. Having lived and served in rural and urban Canada, I would propose that those who follow Jesus in cities could learn a few things from their rural cousins. Not only do much of the Scriptures require an agricultural lens to bring clarity, but there is an earthy wisdom found in the “sticks” that could teach us a lot about living the Word and being the church in this ever-changing world that sends ripples through all our ponds.

So, what could the city could learn from the country?

• First, seasons happen.

The push of urbanization is to never let anything rest. Produce, produce, produce is the anxiety-inducing drive of the city. I wonder how this has caused us to misread the rhythms of life in the church?

But the country teaches that there is no production without a time of fallowness. The pace of life changes with the seasons. There are full-on times to make hay when the sun shines and necessary down times to be embraced.

• Second, it takes fertilizer to grow things.

No “lilac spring” aroma therapy could adequately deal with the smell wafting from the field behind the home of my childhood. It was awful. Still, we never wrote a letter to the township asking for the establishment of a poop-patrol. Rurally, you accept that it takes fertilizer to grow things. Organic is as organic does.

Have we forgotten that the church is an organism and organisms actually require and produce fertilizer? The urban myth is that we should—without inconvenience or any bad smells—access what we need, even spiritually. When there is manure, the assumption is this church stinks and many run to the next place where the grass appears greener. I wonder how many Christians and churches have missed amazing growth opportunities through an inability to accept the gift of fertilizer?

• Third, the world is a collection of villages.

One rural area I served in had these towns near each other: Dublin, Zurich and Exeter. In this small area there is a collision of Irish, Swiss and English histories. Of course, time bleeds out some differences, but in a rural context these differences are not so quickly blended or forgotten. That can become nasty or, from a missiological perspective, be a great tutor.

If we are going to reach people for Jesus, then we have to realize the cultural DNA that shapes histories and locales. People really are not metropolitan at the end of the day. Our relational spheres and sense of place are more village-like than often assumed. Urban areas champion the “towns” within the city.

What might change if we’d see the opportunities of a little small-town thinking—rather than big-box marketing—in how we live out our mission with Jesus?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The End of Nice

I had a nice house: the wide front porch my wife always hoped for, a great backyard the kids could frolic in, a garden, a master suite with fireplace and claw-foot tub. It was all so, well, nice.
Then God called.

I wasn’t expecting to hear from him as clearly as I did. At least not in an Abrahamic “Go west, young man!” kind of way. But, with a myriad of subtleties, this is what the Lord did. He came with his still, too-quiet voice, and disturbed my nice.

Had I not known of Abraham and his strange propensity to heed the speaking silence, I may have concluded I had lost my marbles. Instead, there was an unquenchable rightness and drive to pack up and hit the trail. My wife and I both felt it. Our kids recognized something holy in the wind. We said, “Yes, Lord.”

Risky speech

“Yes, Lord” has always been risky speech. If you want safe and nice, avoid this “yes.” Of course, that will be like throwing wet sand on the campfire of your soul, but, let’s be honest: “Yes, Lord” changes everything.

“Yes, Lord” will disturb everything you hold as nice. It will be the most right and wrong thing you ever say. You will know you know you want to say it, and then – much to your chagrin – you discover the Lord is up to more than merely satisfying your itch for adventure and self-fulfillment.

I should have known something was up when our house wouldn’t sell. The weeks passed and not a hint of interest. We prayed, oh, we prayed. We spruced it up. Not a whiff. Days dropped off the calendar, a sinister countdown to a nomadic life with nowhere to lay our heads. This is not nice.

Then, an email. A generous family in our new city, 4,000 kilometres away, would open up their basement apartment for us. All seven of us. In a two-bedroom basement suite? “Yes, Lord.” We packed up to head in an occidental direction wondering if this was an accident waiting to happen.

I should have known something was up at the airport. Our earthly possessions boxed and shipped, we arrived as a clan to wing our way west. Our youngest, still bearing signs of the chicken pox, was spotted by an anal – I mean diligent – attendant. The threatening 10-month-old would not be permitted to fly. The plane was boarding as we stood rejected and dejected at security. Five of us would go ahead. My wife and red-spotted, blonde-topped son would stay behind. Nice. “Yes, Lord?”

Reunited in a land far, far away, we awaited the sale of our home so we could settle in the land of call. Nothing. Nada. Zip. As the months passed, it seemed we were destined to raise our kids in someone else’s basement while our perfectly nice house sat empty an inaccessible distance away. So many signs of the Spirit’s leading; so many logical arguments to run in the opposite direction. I wrestled with everything. I wrestled with God. Like Abraham’s grandson, I asked for blessing.

A perilous adventure

“Yes, Lord” is perilously adventurous. “Yes, Lord” gives verbal consent to holy refining. I should have known better. In this year at the end of nice, I have been thoroughly tested.

Am I God’s man or the man of my own making? Do I love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her or am I just a selfish bundle of all-too-adolescent testosterone? Will I live bound in a self-concocted and self-controlled world of nice or free as a bondservant of Christ? Is my parenting based upon what others perceive or on what God requires of me? Is my sense of worth built upon a comfortable, middle-class house of sticks? Am I fickle, shallow, and so self-absorbed that I have equated God’s call with God’s obligation to make me happy? Will I only love and serve God if he’s nice to me? Do I really believe mission, true Missio Dei, can come cheap?

These are the angels I wrestle with. They are not demons. These are divine messengers that confront my world of nice and help me accept the call with joy, trust the leading hand, and learn contentment. These angels are not nice. They rarely answer direct questions with direct answers. They beat around the bush. They beat upon my weary soul. They leave me with a limp. It is not nice.

But, “yes, Lord,” it is good, and I know by now that something is up.