I’m learning a lot sorting through Fr. Richard Rohr’s latest content surrounding the Universal Christ (the title of his new book that comes out on March 5th — preorder here if you’re into that sort of thing).
It seems that our Western theology has mistakenly made Christ (the anointed one) exclusive to Jesus when it’s actually a universal concept. All of creation (physicality) is anointed as Christ. God deemed ALL of creation GOOD. Jesus was just the one to bring this concept into human form and bring humanity into the fold.
By making Jesus the exclusive Christ, he became an icon to be worshipped. Instead of delivering on the original purpose of uniting humanity, it divided us in a million ways. We got into countless subsects and declared that we are the ones Jesus approves of. We’re in, you’re out.
I’m no expert in this concept, so I won’t even attempt to make this a comprehensive post about it. But my big takeaway so far is that the body of Christ is all of us.
The human collective, our planet, and all of creation make up the body of Christ.
None of us go through this thing alone. We all live interdependent of each other. From the clothes on our bodies to the streets we drive down and the water we drink — all of it comes not from any one of us, and I’m grateful. It is not to be expected, it is to be revered.
Last week, I wrote about how — since returning to the Christian faith after a long stint in secular spirituality — it’s been nice to have Jesus as a name, face, and central character in a narrative about the way the divine functions in our world.
Today, I want to stick to this theme, but shift the focus a bit from the central Jesus character to… you. To we. (You know — us…)
First of all, I need to delineate something…
We’re meaning-making machines by nature. It’s what we do to build our identity. In order to help us make meaning, we naturally construct a grand narrative for which life to revolve around.
Back in the day, for better or worse, our grand narratives — and thusly our identities — were largely written and constructed for us. Though some of us were able to deviate, most of us stuck to the grand narrative we inherited from our folks and the greater community around us. For many of us out West, this grand narrative was based on the Christian Bible. Most everyone in the culture my parents grew up in knew the Biblical story as it was regularly taught and referenced in Sunday school, around their dinner table, in the media (4 channels), by their politicians (broadcasted on the same channels with the same bias), and from their teachers at school.
And then came MTV. Then cell phones. And then the internet. Each technological advance opening us up to more and more grand narratives with which to construct our identities around.
Yes, some of these narratives are religious and faith-based (for example, it’s easier today, more than ever, for a white American to find, learn about, and practice Hinduism in her very own home, for example). But many of these narratives are secular in nature (I can build my life around a narrative of someone who lives in a tiny house, is an ultrarunner, practices mindful meditation, and adopts a plant-based diet).
Human nature hasn’t changed. We’re still meaning-making, identity-crafting machines. We just have more and more grand life narratives available with which to use as fodder.
This is fantastic (even if I didn’t believe it was fantastic, it wouldn’t matter — the internet and our increasingly connected lives aren’t going away).
The pitfall many of us have fallen in is that —
As connected as we are and for as many options we have with which to construct our identities — many of us are doing it in a bubble.
For a large portion of the last four years, I’ve been writing this spiritual blog, making meaning as I go, in the solitude of my home. It’s largely been inspired by blogs, books, videos, and other means of digital content that I’ve curated myself. My spiritual practice — centering prayer (which I found via my online bubble) — has taken place alone on my cushion in front of my fireplace. Even my prior path to ‘ministry’ in the secular/spiritual world was walked individually via an at-home digital distance learning program.
And in a way, I’d be perfectly comfortable continuing in this vein. But somehow, I’ve stumbled into this world where I go every Sunday and sit with other people. I’ve found spiritual mentoring through this community of others who share my journey (but who are also just varied enough from me to keep it interesting). My ministerial path has switched to a mainline seminary — a physical building where I’ll go sit with hundreds of other students (most of whom are far younger than me — kids these days, I swear), all who carry varied individual narratives, as we bump into each other and wrestle with ancient scripture and the meaning we make around it.
I feel like it’s such an old and outmoded way of constructing this grand narrative at the center of my spiritual life, but I feel more alive (albeit uncomfortable at times) than I ever have. Because it’s not just me.
I need you. And them. We need each other.
It’s important to have a community. I used to think I could do this stuff alone (a part of my postmodern, individualistic self still does). But a deeper part of me knows that my roots connect with yours and reach out for others.
We must mind the algorithm, friends. The one that bends to our biases and entrenches us deeper into our own individual narratives. The one that enables us as we curl more and more in on ourselves.
We flourish as humans, not by becoming more comfortable (and self-righteous), but by bumping into others, questioning our nonsense, and opening ourselves to the new.
This is community. I need your face. You need mine. And we need each other’s. (And not just through our screens, either.)
P.S. This is a big reason why I’m taking my solitary work on this blog and turning it outward towards you in a new project (to be announced after the new year— because you and I both have too much going on right now when we should be resting more this time of year). Stay tuned:)
First of all, I like Starbucks. I know it’s not cool to like Starbucks. But I do.
They’re consistent and reliable. They serve the authentic Pumpkin Spice Latte (no, ‘authentic’ is not the same as ‘organic’). I know exactly what I’m going to get and I can conveniently use my phone to pay. As a freelancer, the utility of Starbucks supports my livelihood: I know the wifi will be good, I know there will be ample chargers, and I know the music won’t be the kind that drowns out the writer’s voice in my head.
As much as I try to support my local shops, I can’t rely on having the same seamless experience with them (okay, maybe a couple — a nod to you, Big Shoulders Coffee).
However, this post isn’t about the customer experience of Starbucks. I want to remark on the idea that Starbucks claims to be a ‘third place’ (spaces where people spend time between their first and second places — home and work, respectively).
Now, I’ll give it to Starbucks for providing the space for a ‘third place’ to take root and flourish. And sometimes, I see people looking each other in the eye and talking there about things other than work. But to be honest, what do I mostly see at Starbucks (and this is not me bashing on Starbucks — merely an observation)?…
I see people like me, alone, on a digital device with their face in the internet. Most of us are working. Some of us are just mindlessly scrolling. But hardly any of us are doing anything we couldn’t do at home (the first place) or at work (the second place).
Starbucks is not the ‘third place’. They’re more of an extended second place (the office) for freelancers and remote workers like me.
Again, I can’t blame Starbucks for this. They’ve created the atmosphere. But like a labrador who’s presented with a cat scratching post, we Americans have no idea what to do with it. When you provide us with a nice, warm, aromatic, communal space in which to gather, what do we do?…
We put our AirPods on and work. I mean, what do you expect from the most individualistic country on the planet? You didn’t think we’d actually voluntarily talk to each other, did you?! Ha!
Now, bars, I’d say, could be really good third places. However, the advent of the flat-screen TV has ended that possibility (you’ll have to go to an authentic Irish pub in order to experience a bar that is truly a ‘third place’ — and that’s nearly impossible to find in the states).
Enter, the church as third place
Okay, let me first say that I wouldn’t dare step foot in probably 75% of churches in America (unless I was conducting a social experiment for this blog, of course).
I’m fortunate to live in an area that supports a church that’s progressive in posture and open to any race, creed, sexual/gender identity, enneagram type, skin color, voting preference and that doesn’t even try to negate science. So that gets me in the door.
But this isn’t enough. Remember, the modern American narrative resists the notion of a third place. So how does my church (the only church I can speak for) make for such a good third place amid this urban individualistic American culture?
[Note: No, I’m not trying to get you to come to my church. This is not an advertisement for them. In fact, I won’t even link to them (but if you’re really curious, shoot me an email and I’ll let you know).]
1. Be lovingly forceful with community-building
Our church has a way of intentionally getting the congregation to meet each other. The garden courtyard is very inviting. And our pastor spends his post-service time zooming around and effectively ‘smooshing’ us together. He’s a master introducer. It’s incredible to watch. He remembers people’s names and stories and he finds commonalities, makes introductions and then moves on.
The barista (or even the manager) at Starbucks doesn’t do this (thankfully, because that would just be weird).
Third places serve as community builders. This means that they’re locations where, in the case of churches, people can share their worries, rejoice, and renew together.
This is a human thing to do and we have to be nudged into doing it or else we’ll continue down our algorithmically-induced digital rabbit holes that only separate us and make us feel more alone.
Church provides a tangible and algorithmically-free space where we can engage with other members of our community, and even fight for various causes hand in hand.
It’s a place where we feel safe and able to share our problems and joys with our broader community.
I get it — a lot of churches only seek to divide and exclude. They create an inner circle and an outer inner circle, thus creating status-driven strife even inside the smaller church community. If these are the only types of churches in your area, you’re better off with Starbucks. Seriously.
Churches, as third places, provide a relaxed and “low-stakes” atmosphere, and they foster trust between members of communities — and in the public institutions so fundamental to a strong and resilient democracy. Political science scholars have long bemoaned the consequences weak and declining civic institutions have on the health of a democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the greatest scholars of American democracy, believed that religion, as a political institution and voluntary civic association, was key to the preservation of freedom in a democratic society.
Friends and fellow country people, we need to get together more and hash things out in-person — NOT ON FACEBOOK.
Facebook has made us all afraid to speak our truth (or, at least, those of us who aren’t narcissists or sociopaths). Removing the physical from civil discourse was a horrible move as a culture. We come from a different place when we’re in front of each other. Looking into a human’s eyes and having to speak to them is far different than typing into a text box on a digital screen.
Important conversations carry lower-stakes in smaller, more local community-oriented settings. A couple weeks ago, my church hosted a forum titled ‘The T in LGBTQ’. Presenting was a family who shared their journey supporting each other as they embrace a transgender/gender non-conforming family member.
That small forum, hosted by my church, shifted the way I see that issue and made me a more empathetic human. They weren’t trying to force an agenda on me. They were starting a conversation, not ending it. (I don’t think a forum as politically and culturally charged as this would fly at Starbucks — probably not very stomachable by shareholders.)
This is a huge opportunity that a lot of churches can embrace. They could reclaim their spot in our culture as the third place if they’d surrender their outmoded ways and become relevant again.
But we can’t leave the brunt of the work on their shoulders. We, fellow Americans, have to be open to a third place.
And so with that, I pray — may you find your third place, wherever that is. May you bring human community and open discourse back into your life. It’s something so many of us are longing for. And it’s what our culture and democracy greatly need.
There’s a woman who lives down the street (let’s call her Ida here on the public interwebs, for what it’s worth)…
Every morning (and at several other times throughout the day), she sits meditatively on her porch welcoming everyone who walks by. She’s like royalty on our street, with passers-by paying their respects in small talk (as sweet as she is, sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly introverted, I walk my dog the other way so as to bypass the formalities, I hate to admit).
For this last year that we’ve lived here on this street, she’s had her daughter and 4–5 grandkids living with her. After getting to know them, I learned that Ida had been battling cancer and they were there to provide support and whatnot while her daughter’s husband remained in Ireland working as a computer programmer.
The house was always buzzing with kids as grandma Ida (and grandpa, sometimes) sat on the porch, taking in the fresh outdoor air and bathing in the warm frenzy of their grandkids.
This last week, I learned that Ida’s daughter and the grandkids were moving to LA. Her husband got a job there and apparently, Ida was making a full recovery.
Just today, I walked by to see Ida perched on her rocking chair where she’s usually stationed. I made the mention (I’m really bad at small talk), “Kinda quiet with the kiddos not around, huh?” (see what I mean?) and I noticed she was sobbing (no, I don’t think I made her cry — she seemed to be crying already).
“Yes, it’s horrible… Just struggling through it here.”
I felt that pain, like a dagger in my heart. There was nothing I could say to make it better.
“Well, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to let us know, Ida.” And after a few more words and a nod goodbye, I walked on as she wiped tears away from her weathered cheeks.
This little exchange with Ida made me wonder…
Maybe the doctors said she was ‘well’, but I think, right now, she’d probably rather choose cancer and the grandkids instead of being ‘well’ without them.
Kinda made me realize how subjective ‘wellness’ actually is. Because when your heart hurts, who cares about the rest of the body, right?
Just the other day, I received a note (in the form of a Medium response) from an old friend that was perfect. It was just what I’d been waiting for and I didn’t even know it. But when it came, something… rested. I was affirmed. And it was amazing.
No matter how dialed-in our personal thinking is, it’s so nice getting affirmation from an outside voice that reflects exactly what that internal dialogue is nudging us toward.
As I write this, I see so clearly… We are not separate. We are each other’s reflection. We aren’t designed to live in isolation.
Because without the mirror, we are merely a fuzzy notion.
A guess. A hunch.
Something left with frayed ends.
Until that reflection comes along and reveals to us what’s impossible to see ourselves.