Monday, November 23, 2009

Giving Up the Quilted Community

Technology's making it easier than ever to build a patchwork Christian community of friends and mentors from the past. But effective faith requires a present context, so in this age of transience, we've got to overcome our fear of new faces.

Sometimes I drive home from work earlier than usual or go in a little late. The latter happens much more often than the former, as my wife can attest, but either way the result is the same when the context changes: The world looks different.

In the thick of winter, I've grown accustomed to darkness on my 6:30 p.m. commute, so darting home during sunlight hours sometimes reveals a food shop or a tire repair center that I've passed each day but never noticed. On those days I feel like a foreigner in my own apartment complex. Everyone who gets off work at 5 is out and about, grabbing mail, walking dogs, taking strolls, even moving in.

Ah, moving. It seems to be the one constant in the life of my apartment complex. Every weekend at least one huge truck blocks the parking lot to drop off a few newcomers who strain to unpack the props they'll need for their next act on life's stage. They'll spend a year or two here finishing a master's or doctorate degree at Emory, working in a local restaurant, pursuing a musical career or climbing a few rungs on the career ladder at a local IT company. And then they'll be gone.

My time here is also limited, I'm pretty sure. In America, apartments, however luxurious, aren't considered the holy grail of housing. You can't exactly put up a picket fence around them, and it would just be plain difficult to squeeze a dog and three kids into this amount of square footage (not to mention that you'd be violating the lease agreement on multiple counts).

No, for most of us, these stacked boxes we call home are temporary storage units we share with our stuff as we hope and scrimp for something better. I've really enjoyed my time in the apartment, but I'd be lying if I said this is where I want to live out my days. Just like the student and the musician, both tied to this community by temporary goals or employment, no matter how long I want to stay here, I'm likely going to be transient.

Though I haven't yet moved, I can see the story repeating itself at the complex. I've had at least three across-the-hall neighbors and four different families living above me in the past two years.

Part of it's the nature of the times, I think. In the age of technology, fewer people are tied to the same employer, same town, same life for 30-50 years, as once was the case. People are going places, switching jobs and uprooting themselves for brand new careers with increasing regularity.

But despite the fact that folks are moving more often, it's not getting easier for folks to fit in when they move. That's especially true for believers looking for a place to live out God's kingdom in a new local context.

At least that's been my experience.

When I graduated college, finding a job was priority No. 1. I briefly considered a move to China but promptly remembered I was marrying a wife whose taste buds hadn't quite warmed to Peking duck.

I also thought about moving to the town where the in-laws live, but the journalism job there paid peanuts, which I really enjoy as a food, not so much as a unit of currency.

Things got crazy enough at one point that I even considered helping a pastor friend plant a church in Montana or joining a magazine start-up that I knew was doomed to failure, obscurity or some combination of the two.

In the end, when dust from all these schemes settled, God put me in Decatur, Ga., at the swirling center of an archipelago of friends, mentors and fathers of the faith spread throughout Georgia. I could reach UGA friends in Athens in an hour. I could see family in Columbus in two. Two of my best friends were in Augusta. I could reach anyone through a quick phone call or instant message, but accessing these lifelines through technology, or even knowing they were so close was different than actually sharing life with them. I could survive off of this patchwork community, this loose web of support, but only for awhile.

My wife and I slowly began easing into a church here in Decatur, but by my laziness, God's hand, or some combination of the two, it never felt like the right fit. We could never settle in, and with regard to Christian community, it just didn't feel right to supplant our faraway but familiar faces with strange new believers just because they were closer.

For me (and I think for Katy as well), moving was the first time we were required to really own our faith. In college I had built-in brothers. Accountability was a cinch: Hiding stuff from the folks sharing your pantry or battling you in 3 a.m. video game wars is pretty much impossible.

But moving into a new home in a new city with a new wife? That was unchartered territory. Working together, we had to find our niche, and I'm glad to say that through two years of searching and God's leading, we have, in a small church that is working to build disciples in a targeted area of the city. It's been a little awkward, and there's a long way to go, but we're slowly learning to live life with people we'd never seen just a few months ago.

It wasn't easy to make the transition, but the journey has led me to a conclusion that I think might be lost on others making a move: In the Facebook world, we can't let the temptation to hang on to past connections hinder our search for current community. Besides, if we start to miss the ones we leave behind, it's not too difficult to turn on a computer. A status update's just a few clicks away.

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