by Andre Resner
July - August, 1998
Recently, I heard Barbara Brown Taylor tell the story of a place halfway around the world. In a pot between modern day Turkey and Russia, east of the Black Sea, numerous medieval churches are n ruins. A thousand years ago this place was a thriving center of Christendom. The best of the world's goods, people, and art went into the construction of magnificent buildings which honored God, which held and sheltered the people of God. Ther architecture pointed up to a kingdom which was not of this world.
Today one can still see them, at least the parts which remain. They are shadows of their former selves, but here and there one can see a fragment sticking up through the tops of trees. All the best carvings and stonework have been long since carried away to decorate some other building or to sit as an exhibition in a museum. The old wrecked churches now function as soccer fields, or sheep pens, or sometimes even as garbage dumps.
Some walls remain almost completely intact and every now and then one can see, if one is really looking for it, the remains of a fresco up in a fragmented apse which has somehow survived the centuries. The remains of a face with one wide eye looking right at you or one arm raise in that distinct constellation with his hand blessing those who gather in his name.
It's a striking image to me, because I can't help but see the dilemma that the current church is in, and wonder whether one who was seeking could still find any remnant of Christ's presence, Christ's piercing eye, or Christ's overt blessing amid the remains that are the 20th century Christian church, Christian community, and its fragmented attempts to be his prophetic presence for justice and mercy in this world.
Many are seeking. I would say that the North American urban church sits quietly at the doostep of thousands of seekers. Of course, not all are seeking for truth, for meaning, for love and justice. Some are just trying their best to pave a highway toward the American dream of material possessions and an eventual condo in Florida. But there are thousands whose nerve endings are alive and tingling. They are the seekers.
Just who is "the seeker"? Well, different people are seeking for different things and for different reasons.
There are the "spiritual orphans": those who witnessed the death of their childhood faith, a faith that was never really their own, but one of their parents. Since abandoning that, they've never experienced anything that adequately took its place. But now, here they are seeking again - giving it one last good shot.
A slightly different bunch are "the prodigals." These are the ones who out and out rejected the faith they once received. They went off and lived as they wished; tasted the forbidden fruits; and have hit the wall. They want back. But they don't know if they can come back. They don't know if their Father will take them back; they have a hunch that the Father still loves them and would, in fact, receive them with tears and even forgiveness. But they are perhaps most afraid to come home because of the elder brother (read, "the church"), that the Father might not be around the day they come back, leaving the welcoming party to the discretion of a disgruntled sibling who has been faithfully (read, joylessly, resentfully) shouldering the load all these years.
And then, there's another kind of seeker altogether than these. The spiritual orphan and the prodigal have some connection to church in their past. When they start to seek they naturally turn, as one option, to the church, to give it at least another shot. I would guess that the seekers that are coming to "seeker sensitiv" services that churches put on are of the spiritual orphan or prodigal category. The seeker that I want to consider here, however, would be unlikely to darken the door of a church building in her search.
This seeker is the one who isn't satisfied with the way things are. He is the one who knows there must be more. Whose heart yearns for fulfillment. For love that isn't conditional. For a people, for even one person, whose words and actions are consistent. The seeker is the one who wants justice so badly that it drives her to anger, to cursing, to tears; she sometimes borders on cynicism, yet hasn't shut down and given up because of some inner fire that won't go out no matter how cold the wind blows from hardened pessimists on the on side or simplistic Bible thumpers on the other.
The seeker is often alone, is usually misunderstood, is a threat to those who have settld for the way things are. The seeker is a pioneer; all others look like settlers. The seeker is the nomad, the revolutionary, the one for whom the tent flaps of the universe are fluttering in the wind, yet even with the crisp sound of the flapping sometimes drowning out everything else, he resists the quick and easy attempts by the self-appointed orthodox, or the political, to staple things down prematurely, to slap quick-fix Band-Aids on what looks like cancer. The seeker cares about the systemic reasons for the current ills. Instinct says that things cannot stay the way they are without serious compromise. The seeker sees the bumper sticker on the '73 Chevy pickup that says "Stuff Happens," and says, "It sure does!" but then asks, yearningly, "Can redemption happen too?"
Because of this, the seeker knows that there are things which must be judged and overthrown. There are things which must ease in order for true peace, shalom, to be experienced in community, the seeker realizes that there are some things that are worse than death. Such things as phony life. Life that is anaesthetized by material possesions, by sexual obsession, by any new placebo which promises to take away the pain of the search not satisfied. The true seeker amens the psychologist Ernest Becker's claim that "Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness altogether or spends his time shopping, which is essentially the same thing."
The seeker operates with a keen hermeneutics of suspicion. She is distrustful of institutions and long-standing organizations, even - maybe especially - when they bear the names of former seekers martyred. She distrusts those who decorate the graves of the prophets. The seeker is leery of people who appear to have sold out to institutions for rewards financial, rewards of security for the future. He is suspicious of those who stand to gain in goods, power, or prestige and fame if their solutions to life's ills are embraced. Thi is why seekers are leery - and rightly so - of preachers.
The seeker questions all rewards and promises of "security" especially at the cost of justice and equity in the present. The seeker envisions a time when, if there is a God, there will be some serious role reversal going on. The rich man will get his judgment for hoarding and for shutting his eyes and ears to the cries for scraps. And the poor man will get a name, and a place of comfort, and will know that even though the wealthiest of this world would not love him that the god of the universe does. And that God sees, knows, and will ultimately make the world's imbalanced scales of judgment right.
The seekers I am describing generally don't trust the church because their experience of church is that it won't allow the big questions, that Christians get proportionately more nervous as the questions get larger. That Christians feel threatened and beceome reactionary when pressed hard by doubt or by pain or by frustration. Seekers' experiences with conservative American Christianity are not good. They see people unwilling to acknowledge the enormity of evil in the world and the way in which a God who is all-loving and all powerful is necessarily implicated in this evil, at least for allowing it to happen right under his nose, all apparently without lifting a finger to solve it. They see people with outdated words, ways, and rituals that seem unwilling to engage the difficulties in society right now, preferring to wear what seem like blinders so that they can have a kind of compartmentalized religion, clean, convenient, and relegated to the weekend. They have a sense that true faith and true religion ought to have a seamless quality to it from Sunday to Monday to Friday. That one's convictions about God and about God's vision for the community of shalom - true peace, justice, and equality for all - ought to impact the way one acts as an employer, as a justice of the pece, as a manager of a corporate office. They are suspicious of a Christianity that seems merely to rubber-stamp greed, prejudice, and exclusivism.
The seeker has seen the movie Simon Burch and identifies with the character of little Simon, the diminutive prophet in the church who asks during announcement time what coffee and donuts have to do with God. Who disrupts Bible class with theological questions when the teacher is trying to moralistically cookie-cutter the children into zombies who can sit for a long time in uncomfortable clothes on hard oak furniture. Simon is right. What does that have to do with God? Apparently, Jesus has left the building, and his disciples, those who were trying to keep the children from Jesus in the first place, have turned church into a systematic attempt to drive the children away. The minister finally tells Simon, "Simon, the church, worship services, and Sunday School all need a break from you. Will you please go away?"
So, can the seeker find a place at church? We know that some can. The spiritual orphan and the prodigal often do. Of course, they often find their eway back home under a different roof, one that speaks a language they can understand. But what about the seeker that I've described here? Can this seeker find a place at church? Are there churches that would not be threatened by a Simon Burch in their midst? Yes, I believe there are.
The church that can become a haven for seekers is a church which has not given upon on the search itself. It is a church which doesn't merely offer itself as The Answer man to the seekers' questions. That's simplistic. The seeker knows it's not that easy and distrusts the big brother with all the answers to all the hard questions. The seeker needs to find a church which has not reduced everything down to bite size, a place where, no matter what the question, the answer is always, "Jesus!" This was the case in one Wednesday night fourth grade Bible class. Mrs. Cunningham told the students she was going to take them all out for dinner after church. She asked the class what they'd like to eat. Little Billy heard the question and wanted to say "pizza," but given the time and the place and the person who asked, he couldn't help but think he ought to say "Jesus."
The seeker of the most important things in life needs to find a church which seeks just as intensely as she does. The seeker needs to find in a church a group of people who are willing to knock on doors that are shut until they are opened to those previously prevented entrance. A church willing to genuinely keep Asking, Seeking, and Knocking. A church that will not stop praying to God "Thy kingdom come," because the true justice and peace and love that God imagines for people is not fully here on this earth yet.
Jesus was looking for seekers. His model disciple was one who was a lifelong learner, a lifelong seeker. One who refusd to settle for anything that this world could offer. In the story that a man named Mark tells about Jesus we see two stories virtually back to back which illustrate a future church in ruins, and a future church which never gives up on seeking. In the first story two of Jesus' longtime followers, James and John, come to him with a request: "We want you to grant us one wish." Jesus responded, "What is it that you want me to do for you?" Now you need to know that at this point in mark's story it appears that james and John have finally figured out who Jesus is and what that would mean for all those who were on the inside of this Jesus community. They figured he was going to take over power in Israel - political, religious, all of it. He would be number one in charge. And that meant that they would be in control, too. Visions of power, dominion, prestige, position, material possession all danced in their heads. By following Jesus, they had unwittingly hit the lottery and they came to jesus to see if he could improve their position even more. "We want to be the vice-president and secretary of state for you when you set up your rule." And Jesus, in his typically understated manner, told them, "You have no idea what you're asking." The other disciples heard about what James and John did and they were very upset about it, probably because they hadn't thought of doing it first. It must have been one of the most disappointing times Jesus had with his followers, though as Mark tells the story Jesus had plenty of other times to choose from.
The other story comes right on the heels of this one. Jesus is leaving Jericho where there has been lots of commotion about his presence. One of Jericho's more embarrassing residents, one of its Simon Birches, heard that the commotion was because Jesus was passing through, so the blind beggar Bartimaeus started to shout out from his begging perch on the city limits: Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!" Those around the man were trying to shut him up. They didn't want Jesus to see Bart. They were embarrassed by him and didn't want to bother Jesus with their eyesores. Jesus heard him and stood still. He told them to bring Bartimaeus near. They called over to Blind Bart: "Well, isn't this your lucky day! Jesus is calling you." Bart sprang up and left behind in a pile what were probably his only earthly possessions and in an instant stood before Jesus himself. And Jesus asked him, "What is it that you want me to do for you?" Do you recognize the question? Yes, it's the same question that Jesus had just asked James and John. But Bart answers it differently. He said to Jesus, "I just want to see again." I just want to see. It's probably the one thing that Jesus wished his followers, those who were closest to him, would want. Those who had left all, like Bart, to be with jesus. Those who had risked embarrassment, like Bart, to be with jesus. But there was one big difference now that Jesus was on the cusp of entering into Jerusalemn for his final days on earth: the disciples were looking past Jesus for their own payoff and Bart was still looking to Jesus with a simple request to just see again. It is maybe the one thing that God wants even today, a church so humble and so dependent on God that its primary prayer is
"Lord, we just want to see. We just want to get it, just once. We just want to be give the courage not to give up, not to settle down, not to turn your community, what is intendend to be your very precense, the body of Christ himself on earth, into a soccer field or a sheep pen, or a museum or worse. Give us the hearts of seekers who know that it is only you who can give sight. Give us the renewed desire to just see again. Give us the courage to join others who have not even named you as God, creator, and redeemer, in a search for the Christ who still stands over a church partially in ruins, one eye looking intently at us, his hand raised in a blessing of those who meet in his name, who refuse to give up the search, to see embodied on earth a kingdom that is not of this world. To see through the ruins that it is still Christ the Lord who hasn't given up on us. Amen."