When Worlds Collide
by Bill Boggs
Foreword by Jon Boggs
The idea that the self is a collision of worlds is a modern one. Nietzsche described the modern artist as essentially hysterical: “The absurd excitability of his system, which makes crises out of all experiences and introduces ‘the dramatic’ into the most insignificant coincidences of life, deprives him of all predictability : he is no longer a person, at most a rendezvous of persons, of which now this one, now that one shoots out with barefaced self-assurance. For this very reason he makes a great actor . . . .”
Philip Rieff’s works on Freud show how the famous doctor, out of disgust for established religion and sympathy for emotionally afflicted people, midwived a new age for the psyche. What Rieff called the “triumph of the therapeutic” meant that moderns have finally been relieved of the yoke of transcendence and taken upon themselves instead the yoke of management. Freud was perceptive and brilliant because, as scary as it is to be a rendezvous of persons, it turns out that people are actually very good at holding it together. Once we had erased the voice in our heads that was saying things like, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” the old platonic anxiety over appearance and reality was drained of all social relevance.
What do you call a group of well-regulated but infinitely non-coincident person complexes? A community?
My dad’s reflections below on “original wholeness,” re-membrance, rehearsal, and community strike me as bleedingly platonic, and it’s no shock that the American evangelical church and its culturally Christian attendants are failing the litmus test he’s been conducting. After all, as congregations, organizations, facilities managers, small groups, families, friends, people—haven’t they actually been doing a very good job of holding it together?
I had the privilege of trading ideas with my dad as he worked through this post and I even edited the final product. He asked me to write this foreword because he wanted our dialogue to continue.
I think I just want to make the observation that in what follows my dad is confessing to a memory of perfection; and he’s wondering if there are other people who are experiencing the same problem.
When Worlds Collide
“If our calculations prove to be correct, this will be the most frightening discovery of all time” (quote from the classic 1951 sci-fi film, “When Worlds Collide”). A little over the top, perhaps, for a look back at my 50th birthday party (November, 2006) but with definite similarities. The movie plot goes something like this: A runaway star with an accompanying planet is on a crash course with Earth, two worlds on a collision course. One internet reviewer said, “The theme of the plot is unusually profound for a sci-fi film, and it is handled with both humor and dignity.”
My birthday party version eight years ago featured a few more than two worlds about to collide, and it was in fact somewhat profound and also pulled off with humor and dignity (granted much more humor than dignity, but then, it was my birthday). No, I don’t normally have parties but my 50th was special because neither of my parents lived to age 50. The invitation list included important people in my life from several very different spheres, or what I will now call communities. What I want to do today is remember that day “when worlds collided” and reflect on the concept of community and its role in my life.
I originally set out to write about a new community I discovered, local theater, and contrast it with a community long a part of my life, faith/church. Yet my scope widened.
Mark Buchanan, author of The Rest of God, an excellent book about restoring a personal Sabbath, had a thought on the word remember. He said, “To remember is, literally, to put broken pieces back together, to re-member. It is to create an original wholeness out of what has become scattered fragments.”
Rich and raw truth there. Pardon me. Let me stop and wallow a moment. I’ve fallen into a hot tub of veracity and I am feeling the pure delight of the water jets as they help bring relaxed order from frenzied chaos. So powerfully enticing to me, especially these days. Buchanan’s words resonate deeply within me. My life has become scattered fragments for sure. And I long for an original wholeness. To learn and embrace who I am today. Me. An original wholeness. This longing is beyond the depths of anything I have felt in my 58 years. So today I want to re-member. No, I must re-member. I’ve gathered and examined the broken pieces and I have a fresh tube of Gorilla Glue. Now let me tell you, glue and I have this thing. No, I never sniffed it. But I do tend to glue my project and whatever else is in the vicinity—fingers, chicken legs, popsicles, crescent wrenches. So it’s good that I’m here and you’re there. Let’s move on.
What’s more, I’ve finally been able to admit I need community—genuine community to help fit the pieces back together, to find that original wholeness. To find who I am. Funny, I have always scoffed at others saying that same thing. “Find myself.” Hooey. But to be one way for most of 40 years, then suddenly be another way, yep. I need to figure out who I am.
I’m postulating that though those worlds or communities collided, the resulting galactic train wreck had nothing to do with my life becoming “scattered fragments,” but on the contrary, now presents me with the path to re-membrance. I believe these worlds or communities hold the key to my finding original wholeness.
The worlds colliding in November 2006 were vastly different in age, ethnicity, educational levels, beliefs, values, and lifestyles with little reason to ever come together for anything. That I was the common denominator was humbling, funny, scary, and perplexing to me. And as I think of all my days, I believe that one caused God to smile.
Okay there, Buffalo Bill, whoa! Park that Deadwood Stage right here for a minute. What do I mean by “community?”
Definitely a term with fresh standing on the “in” list. Cool. The bomb diggity. Hip. Gravy noodles. Bad. Sick. Sweet. Awesome. Off the heezy fosheezy. Donkey dog pow pow (I made that one up; it means really, really relevant. Feel free to use it). “Community” of course used to just mean a locale where a feller lives. Includes all the good stuff, family, friends, a grocery store with superb deli bologna and never-frozen cooked shrimp, cleaners to heavy-starch everything but my socks (the Marines told me right up front the “change is forever”), Portillo’s Hot Dogs, hair salon (remember I gave up barbers about a year ago), gym (which I pay for but hardly use), banjo teacher, Barton’s Pizza, photography studio (to humor my creative urge to morph into the Green Hornet or Buffalo Bill), the auto spa (hand wash only; they also do motorcycles), movie theater with nachos including extra jalapenos, SnoCaps, and free refills, work, and church. You know, all the good stuff.
Then came Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Now the concept of community has been blown wide open. Community is now tied directly to some sort of remote connection, not location, with little or no regard to physical proximity. I can presumably be “in community” with people all over world, sharing deep interest in magnificent Candy Crush high scores. By the way, let me reveal my ignorance here: I have no idea what Candy Crush is and don’t really give a rip. Oh. I do know how to play “Angry Birds.” I prefer the Star Wars version because of Darth and Luke’s father-son relationship. It makes me cry. Really. I’m, as one friend called me, a moosh. Put me in front of a movie with a father/son relationship, good or bad and I cry. Blubber like what Popeye would call an “infink.” Am I sorry? No. I embrace the ability to feel however it comes. Go ahead. Make me cry. Sorry, Clint.
We find real community right smack on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs immediately up after biological, physiological, and safety needs are met. I would strongly argue today we humans are meant to live in community—in authentic connection with other people, not just with Elvis the Buffalo, Speedy the Concrete Donkey, and Herkimer IV and Aloysius II the real surf-bathroom-dwelling Hermit Crabs, as fulfilling as I find those relationships at times, especially lately. Okay. No cause for worry yet. Though I do talk to Elvis and give him a knowing nod and pat of acknowledgement, he has yet to respond. No call for medication yet.
I say “today” because I haven’t always felt this way about my need for community. I spent many years avoiding community, convinced I was better off as the Lone Ranger or Rambo, John J. Wait. The “Lone” Ranger was never that, was he? Never a “lone” ranger at all. Tonto, and not that goofy Johnny Depp version, kept the masked lawman company. So did Silver, his horse. What? That counts. I’all go with Rambo. Definitely a loner. And him doing his own stitch job on his battle wounds? Remember that? Awesome. I love Rambo.
Trust issues stemming from my childhood, I expect, are at the root of my loner bent. Let me re-member here especially. I grew up afraid if I get close I will be abandoned. And after seeing it happen repeatedly all through my life, I dug my own deep foxhole and hunkered down in it, ready to lay down suppressing fire if anyone got close. Here’s where I came to believe in homeopathic medicine, as I was injected over and over with varying doses of abandonment from those closest to me, I stopped fearing it and climbed out of the foxhole. That was only about three years ago. I dusted off the dirt and looked in the mirror. I did’t know the man I saw. I do now. He certainly isn’t perfect, but I like him. I really do. That changes things. Because I am comfortable with me, I am free to be comfortable with others.
“Community” at its simplest is a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs because it has a great deal of importance to a human’s sense of well-being. There are many ways to experience community.
My immediate and my extended family were at my party of course. These are really two very separate worlds. Obviously, my immediate family is a vital and real community for me. I have to be careful not to fall into taking them for granted. Still, my children are my children and I am their father. The community formed is rich and vibrant but limited somehow by our roles. I proudly observe that they have their own lives, their own separate communities. They cannot and should not be the primary source of community for me. Make sense?
Several people from my workplace docked their spaceship at the satellite party station. This one is a distant planet in my life universe to be sure. Of all the worlds I visit in my daily intergalactic journey, it is in this wookie-eat-wookie corporate world of materialism, discrimination, injustice, deceit, and industrial jargon that I feel most alien. Increasingly so. Though that’s true, I still value the people there. I tried for a long time to escape the strong gravitational pull of a little job with a big salary. I no longer can breathe comfortably in this atmosphere, instead now suffering from a widget-induced form of asthma. In the ’51 film, the Earth people build a rocket to escape to a new planet. It’s no secret I have dreamed of escaping this planet. I’m patching up my rocket now with the hope of someday having the courage to start the countdown. We will see.
The World of Cultural Christianity
Church. Also known as organized religion. This world was well represented at my party. It has several continents with a widely varied mix of indigenous species. Some of these can be dangerous. They simply don’t always play well with others. I invited my friend Lee, a Catholic priest, to my party. I’m a Protestant, but I’ve redefined that term. Classic Protestantism objects to the excesses of a deeply entrenched institutional elite, but what I protest is what appears to me to be an epidemic of mindless parroting of graceless Christianity done by many from my evangelical Protestant world. If my friend Lee and I can’t agree, then we must be discussing the wrong things. I wish Lee had worn his collar. That’s just my mischievous side. I would have loved to see the faces of some of my church friends when I embraced a priest.
I’ve seen so much damage done by well-meaning “believers” who feel the need to judge others and/or look for reasons to reject those whose beliefs are different. I have done it myself in years past. It’s so easy to slip into that and even feel like it’s the right thing to do. It is not. My calling is to love others, not judge them.
My spiritually formative years were spent in a para-church or alongside-the-church environment. That was an overall positive experience I will address shortly. I was hurt before, during, and after my para-church role by various local churches. I was going to say here the church failed me. That implies I had some expectations that the church did’t meet (I’m not talking about any specific church). I will simply state the truth. The church hurt me. Hurt me deeply. Hurt me often—beginning when I was just a little boy and continuing to right now today. I remember chuckling to myself when, as an adjunct instructor at Purdue Calumet, the leader of the campus InterVarsity Christian Fellowship asked me to speak to their group on the topic “The Church Burned Me.” I didn’t know this leader very well and had certainly never told him any of my church tales. I guess he just assumed a man my age had surely lived long enough to be burned by the church. Yes. A correct assumption. Burnt toast, I was.
Church in my evangelical background (I consider myself now a recovering evangelical or maybe better, an evangelical refugee, unsure of where I fit and more than a little gun-shy) has the trappings or at least the stated goals of community. Common purpose, mutual support, joy, celebration, teamwork, love, forgiveness, and grace, all cloaked in a spiritual covering adding a sense of superiority to all other attempts at human togetherness. To me, given the backdrop of God’s love and grace, this institution has the possibility of being a true community. Maybe the truest of all. And I have had glimpses of these things in the church context but most often, no. Most often, the opposite. The purpose gets clouded. Mutual support turns into gossip and unresolved conflict. Joy and celebration get relegated to too many minutes of choreographed “praise and worship” from what in many cases is a stage band plugged into a formulaic structure, delivering a performance rather than leading worship. My opinion.
Here’s a fresh example. Just a couple of weeks ago, I went into a church I was visiting for the second time. The musicians assembled up front and began to play a prelude. They played “Green Onions!” Yes, Green 1962 Booker T & the MGs rhythm & blues hit American-Graffiti-soundtrack Onions! “Green Onions” first thought to be a marijuana reference (no, evidently it was the name of a cat). I like the “Green Onions” song a lot. But as a worship prelude? No, I wanted to leave right then, grab my Mustang and go ripping down Route 66. At first, I found the incongruence hilarious. Why was “Green Onions” chosen as a worship prelude for church on November 9, 2014? I’m guessing it had to be a special revelation. No doubt Balaam’s donkey showed up and made it clear, braying out “the Lord wants Green Onions.” C’mon, guys. He was talking about His salad. What was happening here? Maybe no thought at all went into the choice of songs that morning. Or maybe it was a calculated attempt to “be relevant” by merging the secular familiar with the spiritual unfamiliar. The worst case from my perspective is the all too common perception that God’s truth can’t stand on its own any longer. He needs “Green Onions” to cause people to listen. I realize I may be erring on the naïve side, but I believe genuinely demonstrating God’s love and grace is a powerful enough message. No 60’s rhythm & blues organ music required. I want to love the baby boomer demographic with actual acts of service, not try to woo them with “Green Onions” as a prelude to worship.
And the love, forgiveness and grace thing. I wish. Seems I can have it as long as I don’t need it. Why do some insist God’s grace is to be controlled by people? It is free, sovereign, and promiscuous. There is no grace-control spigot located in the “Sin Is South Of God Community Church By The Gas Station” and its other campuses. For more on this, please read my blog post, “Grace. Or Would You Rather Be A Mule?”
And finally, the overarching spiritual nature which is the church’s uniqueness is often shoved right out of the way so the appointed leaders can lapse into where they are comfortable, where they dwell during the day: the business world. And church becomes just another marketing venture, trying to scoop out the Product, Price, Promotion, and Distribution so we can compete with that “New Free Spirit Beloved Gathering of The Real Thing Community Church.” After all, they have a new young pastor with a “contemporary style” (a euphemism for tattoos and body piercings), has studied “relevance” courses in seminary, knows to wear a suit to the first service because the old folks attend that one, and is speedy enough to change into a hip polo shirt and khakis for the other service. He changes his hair up a little, too. Not much, just from flat to a faux-hawk. Sheesh. I know I’m just jealous of that last one. I’d pay money for enough hair to do a faux-hawk. I’d wear it to the first service, too. I’m a rebel.
I know you think I am kidding about the preceding paragraph. That I did a Billy the Kid quickdraw of my always ready poetic license. No. I have personally seen the suit change and hair style change done in a local church near me on a regular basis.
Annie Dillard said a thing or two to fit here. “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”
Yes, Annie! I want to help wake that sleeping God. I want to stand and plead for, accept and share grace. And I already have several crash helmets, one emblazoned with what is arguably God’s favorite animal: the donkey. And I have certainly failed enough to effectively deliver God’s message of promiscuous grace. I’m set.
I think Chicago street gangs do a better job creating a sense of belonging than church. For some fascinating reading, I urge you toward the work of former Northwestern University professor of performance studies Dwight Conquergood. His ethnographical research methods involved actually living with the people he was studying, including Chicago street gangs. If you’re involved in church leadership, this man’s work ought to be required reading as he discovered and presented the what and why of community within the street gangs. It’s no wonder gangs draw and hold members the way they do.
The Marine Corps creates a more authentic community than my church encounters even with threat of punishment and getting shot or blown up hanging overhead. And certainly my recent experiences with theater powerfully demonstrate all aspects of community but the spiritual component (that connection with the Creator, an awareness of His love, a limitless invitation to belong).
Sad? Harsh? Yes. The stakes are high here. Maybe I am looking for perfection, an impossible quest. Yet I simply speak from my own experience, I admit. From when I was ten and saw my little sister sent home from a Saturday church outing because she wore culottes instead of a dress, then as fifteen-year-old being accused of bringing alcohol to my first church function, after that having a youth pastor tell others I was hosting orgies as a seventeen-year-old; to blatant intolerance shown to others who were simply human, to being rejected myself as an adult who made a mistake and cannot be forgiven it by those who claim deep spiritual ties to the concept of grace.
I expect every human, in a quiet, safe moment, would freely confess his or her human flaws and long for genuine forgiveness and restoration. Yet in the very place set up to handle this need, the “safer” thing to do to be accepted is to admit no need. To pretend. To act.
Acting is just the point in theater. At the time of my 50th birthday party, I had just discovered how well it fits me. Theater. Community theater. Theater, community? Let’s offer a new connotative meaning to that fairly familiar term. I am not going to talk here as I have several times before about me playing Dr. Seuss or Dr. William Chumley or Rev. William Miller, all in local theater troupes. No, but I have become very aware of how my involvement in community theater has grown into a very real sense of actual community for me. A genuine belonging. An effective therapy. A place of challenge and comfort, encouragement and celebration, adding a missing sweetness to my life.
For almost the entire previous 18 months, I’ve been on one stage or another involved in a variety of roles as an actor. All different, all fun. As I experienced/studied these events, I saw some interesting things, at least to me. Each production provided those of us involved, no matter our role—actor, prop manager, set builder, publicity person—with a common objective far bigger than anything we could pull off on our own. All of these people are volunteers, none paid. Together because we chose to be for a common goal.
As I let my brain engage this phenomenon, it amazed me to see things start off so weak and become powerful as we worked together as cast and crew. It was compelling to watch each member come to understand and embrace her/his role and experience its value in the overall mission. It could’t have been more obvious how much we needed each other to accomplish our goal. And it was positively dramatic to see synergy so vividly displayed as each single contribution was multiplied into so much more. Not since this Marine taught some Air Force guys Marine Corps fire team tactics in paintball battles have I seen teamwork so unmistakably and so richly demonstrated.
One night recently, I showed up to a rehearsal for “Harvey.” And I find “rehearsal” another incredible notion: that our troupe would gather regularly with our goal in mind and actually practice with hard dedication. Yet that night I arrived having had two migraines that same day along with the news of the death of my cousin, Kim. I was doing well that night just to find our rehearsal venue and remember my name let alone an entire Act III script. And blow it I did. Miserably. Very miserably and downright embarrassing (“downright” is one of my favorite words in case you haven’t noticed; I blame Kentucky roots). Not only did my failure to do my part well hurt me, it impacted the entire cast. I hurt them with my bad contribution. What did they do? Threaten to replace me? Scream at me for a poor job? Shame me for being a brainless piece of rhubarb? No. Instead they rallied to me. Offered help. Encouraged me. Refused to let me be down on myself. Reminded me we were in this together.
I didn’t get much better that night, but I left with a sense that I belonged, that my failure would be overcome by me and by my cast-mates. A couple of cast members offered to sit down with me right then and just quickly run our lines. I had failed them yet they responded to me with compassion and offers to help. I was nearly in tears as I accepted their kindness. Similar experiences in every play. And no, it is not always me causing the train wrecks.
Then, when it’s time for the actual performance, a sense of untethered excitement sweeps over us. We are united, no one more important than the other, all ready for battle as it were. Things are never quite perfect, but as one cast member flubs or forgets a line, the rest of us jump in to cover. To our audience, it is usually seamless. Afterward, the cast meets for refreshments and to joyously celebrate what we accomplished. Each with tales to tell, and we laugh heartily together, embrace each other, and part truly excited about the performance coming the next night. Something so real and right about all this; something that strikes a chord of truth in my soul. Meets a deep, deep need.
As I studied it all, I realized I was experiencing something grand, that a basic need in my heart was being fulfilled: I was “in community” with a group of people in the truest sense of the word. I began to understand why I love acting: it addresses a deep human need for me, the need to belong, to connect with others. It is therapy. Soul balm. A creative unleashing of my mind and body (coming soon…the Legend of the Limber Leaper!) combined with genuine human connection. I get to be me and I’m accepted. Quick! Glue that piece in!
After seeing my performance in last spring’s murder mystery dinner theater show, “Doubtful Abbey,” my son Ben said, “Dad, I see why you love this: you get to walk around being you!” Yes, Ben. That’s it exactly. I get to be me. For so many years, I did’t want to be me. I didn’t like me. I saw myself as defective, unlovable, and yes, abandonable. No more. No more. No more. Still, with all its positives, the theater was lacking as a single community.
And the act of acting itself: I put myself on the line to do something good for others, to entertain, educate, challenge, or provoke. I risk utter humiliation and totally rely on my own brain to not recite dialog rote but add nuances of character and believably interact with the others on stage. I do that in tight community with a group of people. It’s vividly real but also somewhat temporary. A play is cast, rehearsal begins, performances happen, celebrations occur, and the set is struck. Some friendships remain, but the grand undertaking is complete until the next time. It leaves a vacuum. We act. Tell a story. With community members from all walks of life, all ages. Common thread, common cause, common goal. Powerful. Real. Human.
And that last one there. Human. Not perfect. As I became involved in various theater troupes, I got very excited at what initially seemed to be a perfect community for me. Over time, though, I saw it more realistically. There are limits to this as there are to all human communities.
There are other spheres of community I have experienced. The Marine Corps. Very definitely a strong community, carefully and intentionally built from the ground up. Today, some 37 years later, I am still part of that well-defined world. Who hasn’t noticed the Marines’ Eagle, Globe & Anchor emblazoned on everything? Who hasn’t seen Marines of all ages know somehow to greet each other with the traditional “semper fi!”
So much more so than the risk of humiliation, the Marine Corps community has as its backdrop a very real potentially life-threatening risk. It seems the sense of shared risk serves to bolster the reality of a given community and facilitate its growth. The path to real community USMC style began with a leveling of the human playing field. There were 80 of us in Platoon 1108, all unique. Until we lined up on the Marine Corps Recruit Depot yellow footprints. All vestiges of individuality that could be removed from us were. Haircuts, uniforms, food, activities. When one made a mistake, we all paid for it. A force-fed community structure, sure. But powerful in its result. We were broken down together and rebuilt as one. And more than once in recent months, I’ve wished I could go re-enlist. Seriously. If I could I would. Really. I have more to contribute. “Once a Marine, Always a Marine.”
Another piece to glue. Get it in there.
Teaching. Oh yeah, teaching! As a guest lecturer, teaching “Fundamentals of Speech Communication” to freshmen at Purdue Calumet put me in charge of building a very real albeit temporary community. The success I saw was rewarding and disappointing as I saw the semesters end and the communities I’d helped construct dissolved. So much about my teaching experience brought new levels of excitement. Every one of my gifts and abilities were used in that world. I felt totally unleashed to be me. Whether it was lecturing while standing on the top of my desk, illustrating interpersonal relationships using a working rock tumbler, or letting George Carlin bring us up to speed on euphemisms, this instructor and his students had a great time learning some foundational life skills. Wow. How sad I was that I missed that last ship to Planet Professor Prep to get my PhD “union card.” I believe it was my true calling.
Before teaching, while getting my master’s degree in communication, I met a lesbian professor. As you might guess, our first encounter—the lesbian and the straight, male evangelical Christian—was definitely “when worlds collide.” We could’t have been more hostile, skeptical, and distrusting of each other. Until we talked one to one, and I came to realize she was just like me. Same age exactly, similar home background. We both grew up hurting and we simply responded differently. Like me, she needed grace and love. The stereotypes we each held fell like imploding skyscrapers. I offered friendship to her and she returned it. We became friends. I chose her to chair my graduation committee. And I invited her and her partner to my 50th birthday party. They came. There was an “open mic” time for people to share their thoughts about me. Immediately following my very evangelical pastor, my friend went up to the mic and spoke of our friendship. My heart permanently changed that day. I want to love rather than shame others.
I believe God smiled at me and my party that day. Gathered in fellowship were people who would never have even spoken to each other, people with whom I had somehow found common ground. All together. Smiling. In a perfect background slot, my banjo teacher’s band Bigfoot added bluegrass music from my Kentucky roots. Sons Jon and Brad also played, and Jon and I did another crazy guitar-banjo duo.
Seeking the Spiritual Community
The buffalo in the room here (you choose your big animal problem metaphor and I’ll choose mine) is what ought to be an obvious source of community I have not mentioned: my personal Christian faith. This includes my 25 years-long experience with The Navigators, an interdenominational para-local-church organization, and my extended experiences with a number of local churches—often in leadership roles. As I understand it, faith in God was never intended to be experienced alone but in community. No Rambo, John J’s there.
I grew up with no consistent religious input at all. A blank spiritual script, as it were, into my late teens. No lines to learn. In an attempt to feel loved, I adopted another person’s script with my trademark reckless abandon after facing a very real ultimatum. This person happened to be a beautiful young lady who had captured my heart: after dating for several months, just two weeks before I left for Marine boot camp, she told me she could not be with me because “you are not a Christian.” Becoming one of those was a passport into her community. To feel included, loved, wanted; all I had to do was…
My first real encounter with the Christian community was easily the best and richest I have experienced. The Navigators, an international, interdenominational Christian organization. This outfit immediately appealed to me because of its intensity and its clear list of squares to fill to be “successful.” They also were not “church” so I didn’t equate them with the hurt I had already felt from the building-based organized efforts to sculpt me into a junior Jesus. There were clear rules, very clear rules with The Navs, but as long as I kept my prayerful pony tromping around their ring, I could belong, even be a “key man.” The Navigators began with the military back in the 1930’s. Their mission then and now is to reproduce new believers in Jesus through individual and small-group contact, the more mature investing in or teaching the new believers by example. That particular model is exactly what you find in the New Testament, by the way. They also embraced an unwavering commitment to the importance of personal knowledge and application of the Bible, something I personally took to heart. Say what you will about the Bible, but to me, from my troubled-teenager days to the present, it was and is a source of supernatural comfort, guidance, and wisdom. Even though for the last few years I’ve not spent much time with the Bible, the years of Bible study and Scripture memory encouraged by The Navigators have left my tank far from empty. Those words still comfort though I no longer brandish them as a weapon.
None of it was done perfectly with The Navs. I remember reading an assessment of The Navigators’ ministry on U.S. military bases written by the then chief of chaplains. In a mostly positive article, he called The Navs “God’s Gestapo” and “Shock Troops for the Lord.” Those were’t terms of endearment even though us crazy Marines might have thought so (nothing more banana nut than a Marine Nav). And in my experience, those labels fit the organization far too well. The Navs core values left little room for variation. We spent hours studying and memorizing “the Word,” plus hours and hours trying to “win” others to Jesus through personal “witnessing.” This latter task was done often with an attitude of superiority, especially to other “half-hearted Christians” who didn’t do these things. Failure to maintain these standards often brought harsh rebuke. My main struggle was their focus on the tools—Bible study, Scripture memory, witnessing, rather than love and grace actively given others.
I have no ill will toward The Navigators. Actually, today, I am grateful. On the whole, their input into my life was positive then, some 39 years ago and remains positive today. But I also saw and felt the flaws. I filled enough squares during my involvement with Nav military and college ministries to be invited to join the staff. I led a military ministry as my full-time job at a small Air Force base in Michigan for six years. On the good side, there was a closeness and genuine caring amid the 35 to 40 Air Force men and women that were part of our group. Needs were shared and met. Healing happened. Heads lifted up.
I remember the day we got news our fourth child was on the way. This was a huge surprise. Extremely difficult news due to the timing, because the “faith-based” donor income I was receiving was not even enough to feed the five of us. Anxiety swept over me. As I sat weeping over the impossible situation, one of the “key men” in my ministry came into the camping trailer where I was hiding out. A single guy about my age, he couldn’t relate to the pregnancy news but he could sit and cry with me. He did. We cried together. He lifted me up. He sat there and prayed for the new baby and my family for several hours. So simple but so powerful. My head and heart raised. Real community.
Other acts of service were common too. I remember one clearly—I can even still smell it. We didn’t have many military couples involved with us, but there were some. One very young couple had many needs. Somehow we learned that where they were staying was really unlivable. Through some subterfuge, we got their key during a weekend they were away. Have you ever seen that TV show Hoarders? Ugh. Only Jesus could have gotten my little team to step into that home. It wasn’t the home that was unlivable, it was the housekeeping. Stacks and stacks of dirty dishes with glommed-on food, green and stinking. Garbage everywhere, including dirty diapers. Foulness in every corner. We came, we saw, we shook our heads in disbelief, we cleaned. Selflessly serving others happened often.
And another time, after our son Brad was born, our Ford Pinto was no longer suitable. Financially, there was nothing I could do about that. A young officer noticed the situation and without saying a word to me, bought us a late-model station wagon with room for everyone. Along with these serious efforts, there was hilarious fun. Building community with everything from February “Polar Bear” swims to team-building trips to the Rockies in Colorado. And because I brought my own “giftedness,” there were some well-considered and implemented practical jokes. I will mention only The Badger. He will get his own blog soon. I miss him. He and I had so much more work to do. And there was this Uzi squirt gun thing. You’ll have to ask me about that one. Still makes me laugh out loud.
Yes, community. Serving and being served. Seeing a need and meeting it. Laughing together.
Overall, this was the best example of community I have ever seen, before or since. Real love, real joy. I’m grateful for the goodness my four children got to see growing up in that environment, and I’m so deeply thrilled today as I see my grown kids emulate what they learned, each in their own way. Real love, strong friendship, heartfelt forgiveness, never-back-down support for each other. Thanks be to God.
We Navs in Michigan shared joy and heartaches. We also shared the “joy” of inflicting more than a few heartaches. As sweet as our fellowship was, we also embraced a shame- and guilt-driven methodology that we let crash down hard on any who didn’t quite measure up. Grace got left behind far too many times and people were hurt. Hurt at my hand as the leader.
I owe many apologies. One to a young man in particular. I can’t remember his name. We Navs planned events to present the “Gospel” to those outside the flock. One event we pulled off periodically was the “Andrew Dinner,” loosely modeled after the New Testament account of Andrew dragging his brother—you may have heard of him, Simon Peter—to meet Jesus. Same deal. We set up a fancy dinner, brought in an interesting speaker to present the message, and challenged everyone in our ministry to come to the dinner and pay for an extra ticket to bring a “non-Christian.” They weren’t allowed to come unless they brought someone. It wasn’t cheap, but that’s not the point.
We didn’t just set it up and wait. Nope. My “key man” and I went on what could only be called shakedown visits to people in our ministry. Now, the two of us doing these visits were physically intimidating. Both 6-ft. plus and a little husky, and me a Marine veteran, we could be scary. We walked into this 5-ft. 8-in. airman’s room like we were Detectives Mike Logan and Lennie Briscoe from “Law and Order” catching a perp wanted for everything from international terrorism to pet-napping. We literally backed this young guy into a corner, handily dismissed all of his excuses, and highly encouraged him to get out his checkbook. Good thing we didn’t have handcuffs. He wrote the check for two tickets, but he didn’t come to the dinner. God’s gestapo, shock troops for the Lord. That was us. That was me. I have begged God’s forgiveness for not letting His grace and forgiveness be my main message in that particular situation, and all situations, then and now. God’s message is so simple. Love. Just love. And offer grace. Promiscuous grace. We all want that and none I know can resist it.
Do I give up? No. I plan to continue to visit the First Church of the Green Onions. Maybe Sunday they’ll play a little Steppenwolf “Born to be Wild.” I do surrender my expectations and seek to build something new. The problem with all these manifestations of community is they are filled with flawed humans. Academia, the Marines, para-church ministries, theater troupes, and churches–crammed to the brim with those blasted imperfect people (just like me)! I remain open to genuine community. A place I sense belonging. I long for a deep connection with others. Will I, just another flawed human, find it?
C. Hunt, another internet reviewer of “When Worlds Collide” added, “This top notch sci-fi shows humanity at its best and worst.” Yes, in my own experience of when my worlds have collided, I too have seen the best and worst. I’m gluing together the good for an original wholeness as we speak.
Jeff Shannon describes the film: “Despite scientists’ warnings about the star’s destructive potential, government officials refuse to take action that could cause international panic, but a consortium of private industrialists prepare for the worst by building a gigantic spaceship–an ark for humanity to begin life anew on a distant planet. Who will be chosen to go, and who left behind? As earthquakes roar and massive tidal waves devastate entire cities, the huge rocket prepares for take-off from its miles-long launching ramp–ready to abandon the shattered Earth!”
So with new thoughts and a different strategy, I’m ready to abandon what is shattered. I will seek to belong as a contributing member of various communities. I will offer my newly understood self, and assuming I get that far, flaws and also gifts, talents and abilities, to build and support my community. I will bring my need for grace and my willingness to be transparent with my struggles. Maybe God and I will write a new script for me. I’all take the good from what I’ve learned “when worlds collided” to attempt that original wholeness.
Recall the beginning of this post when I talked about remembering? Mark Buchanan said, “Remembering well is essential to an authentic, living faith. Equal to this is the capacity to forget…a holy amnesia. Certain memories clamor for preeminence but must be denied it.”
On target, Mark. Yep. A holy amnesia is my first step back to real community. That’s the hard part. Denying the clamoring memories. Yet the glue is drying. I have re-membered. As usual, I’ve done it imperfectly. I’m no better than anyone. I am no worse than anyone. I’m just a human who longs to belong. Am I religious? No. Am I a man of faith? Yes.
My spaceship isn’t that gigantic. Still flies, but space worthy? I’m not sure but I think so. There are lots of holes with patches of duct tape and twine. There is no autopilot. I have to stay at the controls to fly in a straight line. It’s time to think seriously about a real launch to life anew.
Bill Boggs, Space Ranger, out. Cue “Green Onions.”