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The illusion of control…

March 3, 2008

 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people….for he himself knew what was in everyone.

John 2:24-25

Emergents find the biblical call to community more compelling than the democratic call to individual rights.  The challenge lies in being faithful to both ideals.                   -Tony Jones, The New Christians

A first person confessional story and then some reflections on community and control.

It is amazing how effective a quick run to Wal-mart can be at bringing ugly attitudes to the surface.  I believe the vocabulary and grammar of Christian tradition would call it sin.  It is the endemic tendency of the human condition–the need to be in control. 

It was to be a simple exercise.  I grab a cart, gather the items on my list and make my way to the check out area.  The express line seems like the best choice.  I choose my line with a foreboding unease.  Past experience muted the miniscule sense of hope I had for a quick and painless exit.  My internal gauge projected 10 minutes…tops. 

Three people are in front of me.  Two do not have any grocery items–just a check to cash.  In my calculus of the check-out line options this appears to be a good sign.  As I park my cart in line it becomes evident that the cashier is new to the job.  He is uncertain of the procedure for cashing checks.  He calls for assistance.  Five minutes. 

As I wait, the tension in my body starts to rise.  I try to take a slow breath.  I am aware of unholy judgements and sentiments beginning to form toward those who must cash their check at Wal-Mart.  I sigh and prepare myself for the long haul.  

The manager quickly talks the cashier through the procedure for cashing a check.  She asks if he’s got it.  He nods.  I hope that she stays until he completes the drill on his own.  She does not.  I anticipate the worst.  I look at the customer in front of me who is shaking his head as he looks my way.  10 minutes.  One customer is through. 

The next person in line also has no groceries–just a check.  The same procedure as the last customer.  This should go smoothly.  It does not.  I take a deep breath.  I exhale.  The manager has flown back to her post.  The cashier is unable to complete the transaction.  Incredulous and frustrated he calls for help again.  He seemingly has performed all the steps the manager has just shown him.  She quickly points to one button on the keyboard that has not been hit.  Exasperated and a bit embarassed he retorts that she had not told him he needed to do that.  15 minutes.   

Finally the person in front of me is up.  The case of soda rings up at $4.50.  Surprised, the customer asks the cashier if the price is correct.  That he thought it was on sale for $2.50.  He says he doesn’t want it and proceeds to move around the check out area to go and return the soda.  The cashier needs to undo the four cases he has scanned.  He doesn’t know how to do this.  He calls for assistance.  The manager indicates the proper procedure.  He must enter the barcode numbers manually and hit a key.  This takes off the price of one case.  20 minutes.  He does this three more times. 

Later, after I have escaped the excruciating express line experience, I am reflecting on the event.  It occurs to me that the central frustration is that Others (for various reasons) inhibited the expectations I had for my shopping experience.  Others uncovered the reality that even when I make reasonable choices–things may not go the way I hope.  I am not in control.  (Of course, I did choose the line.  It was the wrong choice.  Salt in the wounds was provided by the girl in the Millersville soccer sweats who shows up at minute 18, chooses the line next to me and is on her way out as I am loading my cart.)

This experience (among others like parenting) reminds me that control is an illusion.  We often fool ourselves into thinking we are in control of life.  Don’t get me wrong.  We do have choices.  However, we often have a hard time coming to terms with situations where we are not in control.  It is often hard for us to accept that we cannot control other people.  Other people make choices.  Their choices sometimes infringe on our experience in life.  We disagree with their views and choices.  Relationship is tested.  Where is the center?  How will the communal narrative unfold?  What will transform dissonant perspectives into a common identity and mission?  How do we discern the leading of the Spirit?

In community we inevitably bump into the reality that the Other is different in some way from ourselves.  Depending on the culture of our communities, we will handle these differences in a variety of ways.  We may engage in conversation, talk about ideas, share differences of perspective.  In the Church, we seek to uncover the reality of true community.  At the core of the Christian faith is a sacred community–a dance of relationship that expresses perfect love and acceptance.   

True Christian community would even aspire to make room for the stranger, the outsider.  This is not easy.  It takes hard work.  It requires getting outside of ourselves–making an effort to enter the world of the Other.  It requires us to face the ways in which our place in community is pretty cozy without making room for the Other.  The Gospel calls us to more.  It requires an ongoing conversion into a community that truly makes visible the hospitality of Jesus.

We often fall short of this depth of community–this unfathomable unity of knowing and being.  Our sin messes up our experience of community–even in Christian communities, even in family.  Community always exposes our true selves.  If a Community is centered around Gospel–there will be an ongoing transformation that will call individuals to deeper and deeper encounter with God and each other.  This is not an easy journey.  Many things stand in the way of this kind of community.  Rather than humble, servant-love expressed in honoring and making room for the Other–we sometimes see domination and exclusion. 

I am contemplating the kind of Community reflected in the Trinity and expressions of human community–in particular the Church.  How is the depth of community present in the Trinity uncovered within the Church?  If mutual submission is the context of community in the Trinity–what does mutual submission look like in the Church?

Some random thoughts about CONTROL:

How do we try to exercise control?  Control of others is sometimes overt, involving direct confrontation…words.  Control can be exercised coercively, manipulatively–through brute force and abusive actions.  Sometimes control is exercised in passive-aggresive ways.  We consciously and subconsiously close people out.  We gather with those who are like us.  When we are around those who look like us, dress like us, think like us we are in control–our hidden assumptions go unchallenged.  In the cross-cultural experience in the check-out line at Wal-Mart, my ugly hidden prejudice is exposed. 

We are often blind to our assumptions.  We are often blind to the cultural-social narratives which guide our behavior.  Even in Christian community there is much that is not Gospel.  The social patterns uncover cultural norms and assumptions that favor sources other than the biblical story.  There is the catering to the great value of unalienable, individual rights.  This is not a biblical-theological virture.  This is not Gospel.  In the Gospel script, we do not justify self, coddle self–but rather to sacrifice the self.  The supremacy of individual rights makes true community very difficult. 

How can we be honest about our assumptions. Hold them lightly…with grace. It takes the humility of acknowledging we need the broader Community in order to encounter the word of Scripture.

True community involves vulnerability as we interact with the Other.  The Trinity uncovers this reality.  Even as we encounter the Other, there is mystery. We do not know the fullness of the Other, we only see in part. Marriage is a mystery. Relationship with God requires a healthy appreciation of mystery. Our assumptions make relationship possible, but there is death and resurrection, a pressing through false assumptions to deeper reality. The religious leaders who interacted with Jesus had certain assumptions about Messiah. Most of them were unable to let go of those assumptions, to let the living Word deconstruct the false constructs. We too have assumptions. How can we avoid missing Jesus?

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2008 9:52 pm

    “The social patterns uncover cultural norms and assumptions that favor sources other than the biblical story. . .We too have assumptions. How can we avoid missing Jesus?”

    You talk about values and assumptions that we knowingly or unknowingly hold that might not be found in the Gospel. This is very good for us to contemplate! I appreciated the examples you gave here and hope you can give more specifics as you see them . . . please, enlighten us — yes for the sake of the Gospel!

    It seems odd that we need to label attempts to address these values/assumptions as living counter-culturally instead of a culture that is living the Gospel. But unfortunately, it is true that cultural norms and social patterns even within the church do not represent the Gospel message.

    Tonight my professor relayed a conversation with a well-known local school leader who basically chastised Millersville University for including social justice issues and values/moral-based leadership aspects in the education department’s curricula. This local leader said this approach makes MU look too liberal when, instead, MU should be considering the context of the local community, which is mostly conservative and not so diverse. Basically she was saying, don’t push an agenda or values that the local community does not share as a whole.

    I can’t help but wonder, “so when do students ever get exposed to the possibility that our cultural norms, even conservative ones, may not really support the message of the Gospel?” Is the Church giving the message? If not the Church, why not our schools? Or does culture blind us too much? Or is it our refusal to look beyond our culture what really blinds us . . . maybe we, too, need the spit and mud, crude realities of life, to lift the scales from our eyes! :-)

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    March 4, 2008 12:33 pm

    Thanks for this word. I believe there will be more posts growing out of the themes touched on in this post–Church, Community, Authority, Gospel, Conversion, Mutual Submission. Several ideas are perculating.

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