Roots and Pendulums
The average cell phone user would likely now claim that life without one would be more than inconvenient. Upon its invention, in more ways than one, we became untethered. We no longer get tangled up in phone cords while trying to make dinner, set the table, and finish that conversation with the garrulous friend. Nor do we need to dash home from work in order to make that important phone call. We make it on the way, sitting in traffic, driving to the next appointment, making a stop at the grocery store or all three. For those who even remember that phones used to have cords, it is with great appreciation that we are no longer operating with a five-foot radius. Yet, this is not to say that we don’t feel a tethering of a different sort. Owning a cell phone can foster the attitude that its owner is always available, always working, always obtainable. While there is no cord to which we are confined, the phone itself can be ironically confining.
But these kinds of shifting dilemmas are not all that uncommon. Just as the pendulum swings in one direction offering some kind of correction, so we often find that the other side introduces a new set of problems. Major and minor movements of history possess a similar, corrective rhythm, swinging from one extreme to another and finding trouble with both. The pendulum swings from one direction, often to an opposite error, or at best, to a new set of challenges.
Within and without its walls, the church, too, is continually responding to what we perceive needs correction. When the need to get away from dead, religious worship initiated certain shifts within the church, it was an observation wisely discerned. But what this meant for many churches was unfortunately a shifting away from history, common liturgy, and its own past—in some cases contributing to a different set of problems. While breaking away from the “religiosity” of history, perhaps some now find themselves tethered in a sense to all things contemporary and individual, unable to draw on the riches of the history from which we have isolated ourselves. While the intent may have been good, and the shifts did separate us from certain problems within church history, it also seems to have separated us from all of history. As a result, many Christians now seem more divorced from history than ever, having swung so far in one direction that we can no longer see from whence we have come. Coupled with our culture’s general devaluing of anything that is “outdated,” the risk of seeing the church’s identity more in terms of today’s form than its enduring essence seems both high and hazardous.
Something in the image of the ever-oscillating pendulum reminds me of the countercultural professions and practices that are meant to root the church in an identity beyond the one that might exist at any given time or changing mood. In this ever-moving world, where technological improvements and ideological corrections come more quickly than we often have time to process, the Christian lives not in fear of the future or disdain of the past. Instead he prays for daily sustenance “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We profess a community “upon whom the end of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). And in the midst of a culture consumed with the new, the contemporary, and the progressive, the church roots its very identity in a man who lived 2,000 years ago, one who proclaimed the reign of God on earth here and now, but whose future return he also asked we look to expectantly.
Moreover, beside this spirit of awe for the next up and coming thing as a path to meaning, the church professes something Christ left behind as a means to understanding our identity and mission today. Before going to the cross, Jesus imparted that the disciples were to continue breaking bread together, as they had done so often before, but that now these common meals would also hold new meaning. They could not go where Jesus was going, but they were to be partners in what was about to be done. The bread broken was to be his body which would be broken; the cup they share was to be his own blood shared—and their repeated sharing in this common meal was to continually move them to participation in his dying, rising, and victorious life. In this, the disciples were to be united with Christ in an event that would inform all past, present and future. As Lesslie Newbigin explains, “[W]hen they are still far from beginning to understand what ‘the reign of God’ means, Jesus does a deed and gives a command that will bind them to him in a continually renewed and deepened participation in the mystery of his own being… . The disciples will thus themselves become part of the revealed secret of the presence of the kingdom.”(1) So, too, Christians participate in this revealed secret today.
Counterculturally, the church has a natural gift in this participating, in this communion, a sacrament given for our good, in which we can discover again and again our identity and purpose. Though the pendulum swings, we live both here and now, and also with an understanding of all that is impending and at hand. And we can live as those who mysteriously participate in the death and life of Christ. We can live as those who proclaim the reign of God presently. We can live expectantly, preparing for the fullness of the coming kingdom. Such partaking and participating unites us with Jesus in history, roots us into a tradition beyond the swing of any pendulum, and sends us out with good news into a world ever-restless for the change that will finally make a difference.
(1) Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 45.
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