As we waited for our children to get off of the bus, I was talking to a neighbor of mine. He comes from Eastern Europe. The bus stop is in front of our church. As we were talking, he looked at our church and then at the Congregational Church that sits perpendicular to it across the street. His eyes danced back and forth between them. He turned to look at me.
“Don’t churches all face the same way?” he asked.
“That used to be the idea,” I replied, “Traditionally speaking; churches in Europe face East, toward Jerusalem.”
“I thought so,” he continued. “How come they don’t face that way in America?”
I grinned slightly. “Here we want them to look good. Whichever way looks best, or fits with the piece of property they sit on, the road, and the parking lot, is how they get built. We call it ‘curb appeal.’”
He smiled. “I see. But how are you supposed to find your way if you get lost?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“When I was growing up in school, we had drills and training in case we got invaded from either Western or Soviet powers. One of the things we were told would happen is that all the road signs would be taken down, changed or destroyed by our people in order to confuse our occupiers. But if we ever were outside and got lost or needed to get away, we were told that when we came to a town, the church would face East. We could use that reference point to reorient ourselves. There is no way to do this in America is there?”
“No,” I smiled. “Maybe that is why I get lost so easy.”
We laughed, and then chatted about for several more minutes before our kids got home.
I have been thinking about this conversation for a while. I hope our relationship grows and continues to develop. But right now I am left with a few questions concerning the insight I gleaned from this casual chat.
Which way are we pointed?
Is it the past? The future? Inward? Outward? To ourselves? To God? To others? Whichever direction we point, our trajectory will lead…right?
Where do we go when we get disoriented?
Is there a place in 21st century America that reorients us when we get lost? I’m not sure if there is a single unifying norm – other than our own individuality, a popular culture that is about as solid as shifting sand, and a glorified past that looks a lot more unified than it probably ever was. Sometimes I think the direction we face most often is chasing our own tails in circles.
Are we living in occupied territory?
I came across an article this week that suggested Americans see somewhere between 247-3000 marketing messages a day (David Lamoureux, “Advertising: How many Messages Do we See in a Day?” Fluid Drive Media. Online Available:
Even if these numbers are not even remotely true, the influence of constant messages over us to consume and keep consuming is beyond subtle. To contrast this, how many messages a day do we see, read, share, about helping people, utilizing our gifts and talents for the sake of others, or grounding ourselves in the story of God we claim to be foundational to our lives as people of faith? As one example – I publish this midweek message once a week, and preach on Sundays…that’s two. I’m part of two Bible studies a week; add two more. Devotions in the morning and reading blogs and articles, daily prayers, time spent with groups or chatting with colleagues, and conversations with individuals, like my new friend I see at the bus stop that happen in the moment fill good chunks of my days. For the sake of easy math – let’s say that is fifty or so direct encounters with faith in a given week. Lamaroueux suggests that even on the low-end (247) we see at least five times as many things advertised to us a day; suggesting life would be better if we bought that toothpaste, drove that car, or went on that particular vacation. (And those are not even directly harmful things.) No wonder we feel so overwhelmed.
So which direction should we go?
A proactive approach would be to try to engage the opposition. This sounds great – but I’m not sure I could take in 3000 advertisements a day and 3001 inspirational notes at the same time and not come out feeling any less overrun from the outside. We could try to counter just as many activities we chase around town to keep ourselves busy with by making our churches just as active. Yes we need activities to build up our community and keep us connected, but over the years I’ve wondered if at times we only add to the noise and tail-chasing, rather than draw others deeper into a relationship with God. We could try to subvert the wider culture and its activities but throw the name “church” or “Christian” in front of it, so we don’t just play in a softball league we play in a “church” or “Christian” softball league. There is nothing wrong with that of course, and such an activity could bring to us new friendships that are worth having; but it still doesn’t solve the problem – we are inundated by messages, activities, and values of a culture that seeks only to keep us consuming rather than giving ourselves away. We are living in occupied territory. And ad for ad, activity to activity, moment to moment, we can never quite compete. I think if this is the game we are going to play, we are going to lose.
Another approach is to try to keep the world at bay. In doing so we believe that if we build enough insulation around ourselves, the barbarians can never quite breach the walls. However, any student of history can tell you that any wall can eventually crumble and be rendered irrelevant; either by direct assault or technological advance. It is no secret that communities of faith often play catch-up in the world of technology and innovation; so if we think we can be one step ahead of the outside world to keep it at bay; then we really have been inside too long.
A third approach is about as counter-cultural as our media driven, technologically savvy, consumerist culture can provide: What if we just simplified? Instead of three activities we chase around to participate in, what if we chose just one? What if we took a night off from running around and claimed it as sacred space? What if we…wait for it…turned the TV off, logged off the internet, and put our smart devices away – for at least an hour, together with our loved ones every day? What if we took a whole evening off or an entire day off together? What might happen if we thought we had to be part of something or life might pass us by, and instead we just said, ‘no’ to it? What if we chose to take a day or an afternoon to do something for somebody, rather than try to get something from somebody? What if we actually listened to someone tell a story about where the churches point, rather than having a three-point plan to reply as a stock answer to their query?
What might happen?
What if we simply lingered in one message or maybe two, rather than hundreds or thousands – mediating on those verses or stories of scripture the entire week, trying to reflect on them in every other interaction we had?
What if we stopped seeing the church as but one more activity among many, one more thing competing for attention on the calendar, one more interruption keeping us from catching our breath, and actually saw our lives as opportunities to share the breath of God with others, and the church served as our network, our resource, our springboard to help facilitate living our faith wherever we were?
What if we remembered we accomplish nothing, but God accomplishes it all, and we, though weary and incomplete, are the vessels God uses to bring life to death, hope to despair, comfort to uncertainty, peace to turmoil, forgiveness to conflict; and light into darkness?
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)