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. There are entire generations that cannot remember getting tangled up in phone cords while trying to make dinner or reach for the passing toddler, while finishing that conversation with the loquacious relative. The thought of dashing home from work in order to make that important phone call now seems ridiculous. 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 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 is the tether.
It is worth considering that 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 or the same problem in a new form. 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 the walls of religious institutions, people of faith, too, are continually responding to what we perceive needs correction. When the need to get away from dead, religious worship initiated certain shifts, it was an observation wisely discerned. But what this meant for many was unfortunately a shifting away from history, shared liturgies, and our own past—in many cases contributing to a different set of problems. While breaking away from the “religiosity” of religious history, many now find themselves tethered in a sense to all things contemporary and individual, unable to draw on the riches of the very history from which we have isolated ourselves. While the intent may have been good, and in the case of the church, 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 counterculture 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 swing more quickly than we often have time to process, Christ bids followers not to live not in fear of the future or disdain of the past. Instead he teaches his disciples to pray for daily sustenance “on earth as it is in heaven” and leaves them with signs and seals of his presence yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In the midst of a culture consumed with the new, the contemporary, and the progressive, the church roots its very identity in this man who lived 2000 years ago, one who so valued this creation that he joined us within it, even now as he works expectantly to make it new.
Beside human hunger for the next up and coming thing as a path to meaning, Jesus leaves us with instruction to eat and drink and remember him. 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 was his body which would be broken; the cup they shared, his own blood poured out and offered to all, moving them into the world in shared hope. 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 Jesus in an event that would inform all past, present, and future. As Lesslie Newbigin explains, the disciples thus themselves become participants in the “revealed secret” of the presence of the kingdom through Christ. And we, too, are invited to participate in this revealed secret, ancient and available today.
Jesus upholds a means of resisting both the pendulum and the tether. The one who nourishes body, soul, identity, and purpose can be received again and again, inviting followers to participate in the life, death, and resurrection in the history of Jesus Christ—in the present. Though the pendulum swings, we can live both here and now, and with an understanding of all that is impending and at hand. We can live as those who proclaim the kindness of this present Son. We can live as those who mysteriously participate in the revealed secret of his kingdom. We can live expectantly, untethered to whims or eras, inhabiting the faith we have been given. 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 into the world within a culture ever-restless for the newness that will finally make a difference.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 45.