The last of the seniors from youth group leaves for college tomorrow. She’s going to a school in Washington State that, I suppose, starts late so they don’t cut into anyone’s time in the sun. I’m particularly glad it worked out for her to be here for our Mission Trip dinner because she was the catalyst for our youth group during her time in high school. We went to breakfast this morning to say our farewells. She’s an awesome kid who is well grounded and knows how to dream big – an incredible combination. She’s headed out west because of her interest in environmental and oceanographic things and she has an adventurous spirit. I’m looking forward to hearing about what she finds in the days to come.
As we sat at breakfast, she told me about some of the classes she is taking. One she had to miss out on, because of scheduling, was a seminar that combined art and biology. (That makes me think of a guy from my youth group in Texas who majored in geographic biology. I pictured him saying to someone, “If your body were a map, your spleen would be Spain.”) Since my days in college, more and more schools have moved to a synthetic approach that pulls a variety of disciplines into conversation. When I was teaching, I became acquainted with The Coalition of Essential Schools; part of their emphasis was on learning in context. Each year there was a topic, time period, or area of study that connected all the disciplines – the Great Depression, for example – creating possibilities for students to draw cross-disciplinary conclusions from their learning.
We don’t live in solitary confinement, neither do we deal with life in single issues. Everything is interrelated. We are influenced and shaped by what happens around us, what happened before us, as well as what happens to us – maybe even stuff we don’t know about. My college history professor (my major) taught all his classes using novels as textbooks; he told us the novelists were the ones who captured the essence of the times in which they lived more effectively than those who came later to catalog wars and dates. I learned about the Industrial Revolution from Dickens and Tsarist Russia from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. What Dr. Daniel imprinted most on my mind was the story part of history, and a good story has lots of layers.
In seminary, I read Hans Kung’s Does God Exist? An Answer for Today and was profoundly moved by something that was not his main point. In the book, Kung gives an amazing history of modern Western thought, beginning with Descartes. When he got to Hegel’s dialectic, he talked about how the philosophy played out in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, the economics of Karl Marx, and the theology of Karl Barth. I knew something about all three men, but I had never thought of them as contemporaries. That discovery has never let go of me. I wonder what Einstein would have listened to had he had an iPod; what Jackson Pollock read; who was alive alongside of Gandhi or Genghis Khan or Jesus. For all of the classes I sat through in New Testament and theology, I never heard any professor talk much about what was happening beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. We studied theology in the context of theology. What were the Chinese doing in those days, or the Africans? I know Jesus didn’t talk to them, and I would love to know what was on the wind that blew across cultural and religious lines. What’s to be learned from noticing that Martin Luther King and the Beatles stormed this country at the same time? There are more layers to the story that what we have already been told.
Our stance as Americans is too often like Bette Midler’s character in Beaches: “Enough about me; let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” While I’m at it, I’ll make another cinematic allusion: we’re not listening, Barton. When life is reduced to pragmatism, to looking out for Number One, to focusing on one slice of existence, we lose the layers of life that offer opportunity and hope. We cease to be story tellers: we quit listening and we lose sight of the layers. We have to push ourselves to see more than The View From Here, and I mean more than keeping up with current events on other continents. The same dynamic is true on a relational level. Sunday night, I made up a recipe for our Mission Trip dinner, which I called Barbeque Bonfire Packs. I knew how to make it up because of what I’ve learned from working with Robert, the Head Chef at the Red Lion Inn. He made me look good. I had a better story to tell because I know his story.
This month, Don and I are preaching on different metaphors for church. I chose family because it is a metaphor rich with possibilities and contradictions. Even in a family like my family of origin, which is small enough to have a family reunion in a minivan, there are layers of life that require intentional listening of each of us if we are going to do more than be related to each other. The commonalties we share are a good jumping off place, but it’s in the differences and divergences where we find the real possibilities for relationship. My brother and I are both committed Christians, he in a Southern Baptist mega-church and I in a small church that is part of the United Church of Christ, deemed by some as “the last house on the left” in the Christian neighborhood. We have both grown into learning how to ask good questions of one another, trust one another, disagree with one another, and love one another. (That last sentence, by the way, has taken the better part of our adult lives to write.) I’m better because he’s my brother.
A rabbi, a priest, a physicist, a yoga instructor, an auto mechanic, a bag piper, a farmer, a ballet dancer, a soccer player, and an economist all go into a bar. I’m not sure where that story goes, but it will be better than one that begins, “Six teachers (or accountants, or artists) locked themselves in a room together and said, ‘Good. Now we’re safe.’”
At least the first one will have one hell of a punch line.