Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cross-Post: I Shot a Man in Reno...

...not really, but I did read a fascinating book recently by a man whose surname is Reno. In fact, his name is Rusty Reno (savor the alliterative goodness). Mr. Reno's work is entitled "In the Ruins of the Church," a dense piece on the state of the church as he sees it and how one ought to respond to it. Sound original? I didn't think so either, that is, until I flipped through the first few pages of Mr. Reno's remarkable little book. What did I expect to find? The usual, angry (sometimes rightfully so) commentary on how messed up the church has become and why we need a scorched earth policy of diverse forms in order to salvage her image and purpose. With regards to these books, my mind had become a veritable burned-over district, a calloused surface that refused to absorb any more rants.

All that to say, I did not have the most receptive mind when going into Reno's text, and that it moved me is a credit to its affective power. Whilst sparing you of a mere synopsis, Reno manipulates two ideas in particular that I feel are just what we need right now (by "we," I mean anyone who has ever at any time felt the church let them down; otherwise, most of us). First, Reno discusses the "sin of distance." While it has an eerie ring, the truth behind this idea is something so common that we may not immediately recognize it for what it is. The sin of distance, according to Reno, is the inclination of church-goers to "be in but not of" their churches due to personal grievance, discord, etc. This perverse parody of how the Christian sub-culture normally views the world around them turns inward, and breeds an invisible segregation within her own ranks. I bet you have noticed it, I bet you have done it yourself a time or two or more. Example: you are sitting in your seat and church begins with the first songs of the worship set coming from the band or choir. You recall with the first notes that this is a 'new' style that you feel has no place in church. You do not want to be obvious about your discontent and so you sing along, but you know full well that you have no part, and largely want no part, in what is going on around you. And that is the sin of distance. It is that invisible self-alienation that pervades the heart and mind of the church-goer. This immediately requires a few qualifiers. First, this does not mean excommunication. I have seen churches (mostly youth groups) through uncharitable ostracism make it quite unbearable for a person to partake in the service. Second, this does not mean that feelings of discontent in themselves are wrong, indeed they can often be the whispers of discernment. Third, this does not mean that one should not distance oneself from sin (just not the sinner). Essentially, the sin of distance is self-imposed spiritual isolation based on dissatisfaction. This bears some more fleshing out, though.

There is a particular example I feel qualified to examine, mainly because it comes from my own testimony. Two periods in my life have been marked by severe angst and grief concerning the church I attended. These illustrate the difference between good and bad distance well, I think, because whereas the first period was an evil sort of cynicism, the second was due to a profound woundedness that I fervently tried to heal, and failed to do so. In my first dark period, I committed the sin of distance grievously. Not content to merely remain aloof from my fellow congregants, I am ashamed to say that I was subversive in the church as well. I was cynical, and bitterly sarcastic toward the well-meaning leaders and fellow students because of what I called the "blunt simplicity and elementary nature" of the teaching, worship, and discipleship. Here's the tricky part: deep down, I craved intimacy and deep discipleship, to go further up and further in, so to speak. I failed to do so by alienating myself from the entity I needed the most: community. In my second dark period, I craved intimacy in the church community, and sought to serve as well as I could, knowing how much I needed them and how good it was to be needed. Then, due to some very unfortunate events, I found myself ostracized from the community as I had seen done to others in the past. This is not meant to condemn them, but rather to point out that in those times, I made an anguished decision. I committed something akin to the sin of distance again, differentiated sheer grief. Grief is the product of a wounded love, and that is exactly what happened. Not to contradict myself from earlier, when I said that the sin of distance does not apply in cases like this, what I know to be true here is what Reno himself seems to know in his text. My distance was not self-alienation, but the beleaguered final move of a tired soul. I know what happened to me, but I would not presume to make a standard of it for others.

This then, is Reno's concept of the sin of distance. And yet, how does one avoid it or recover from it? The cure may be found in his sister-idea of the "love of our ruins," in which Reno draws on the imagery of Nehemiah (who does that?) to demonstrate how Scripture leads us in a path of 1) return, 2)reflection, 3)resolve, and 4)rebuilding when confronting the reality of our ecclesial ruins. I will save this, however, for my next post.