Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Misery of Company Promised and Withheld

Let me apologize to the entire Greater Portland Metropolitan Area’s inhabitants up front: I’m an outsider. An envious outsider at that. There are aspects of Portland, Oregon that remind me of the fondest of my memories of being an adolescent (with no apologies to Mark Driscoll for using that term—maybe we could talk sometime?) in San Francisco during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet there has been a significant passage of time since I last dwelt in an urban area, or even a moderate-density population area (i.e., suburb). Truth be told: the other day I was thrilled with myself that I still remembered how to successfully parallel park.

With that said, I think I may have advantages in anthropological and sociological distance, but severe liabilities when it comes to my few samples of “Life in Portland” over the past few years. Still, I believe my observations have some value, if not actual merit, and they have proven instructive to me for a specific purpose in my life and ministry. Perhaps you’ll be able to plow through the potentially offensive mistaken impressions I’ve gleaned, and recognize that there is some validity to the conclusion I’ve drawn, despite the faulty lenses through which my limited data is viewed. If you find the length too daunting, though, you can skip down to the paragraph that begins: “So, in short….”


 It shows up in a variety of places here: “Keep Portland Weird.” I’m in town studying issues related to diversity, and it’s a perfect place to do so. There appears to be little to which the adjectives common, normal, average, or (especially) ordinary would apply. There’s even concern expressed over another concept, “Portland Cool,” as though that would become a standardizing commodification (branding, packaging, and promoting a static paradigm) of some aspects of Portland Weird. In fact, even if all aspects of Portland Weird as it exists today were included in Portland Cool, it would fail to account for new and stranger developments yet to come, perhaps as early as tomorrow, or even later tonight.

Here’s how I came to be at the intersection of Portland Weird and Portland Cool today.

First, as I drove to the church in which I chose to worship today, I determined not to arrive in the full array of clergy vestments current to my tradition. And so, my shirt had long sleeves, and it was tucked into my pants. I even wore a tie, as I do every Sunday. While this successfully differentiated me from all participants on the worship team, it was also unique among the several hundred who attended that worship hour. This, coupled with my age (I’m significantly outside the 18-34 year old demographic.), may have created a kind of anthropological distance in others, turning them toward either observation or avoidance mode. (Xenophobia is discussed in a previous post.)

Second, however mistaken my perception may be (that I managed to dress outside the range of what is acceptable under “Portland Weird”), I did experience “Portland Cool.” Thankfully, there was ample room within this church’s meeting place. I admit to taking up all of the one seat in which I sit (though the weight loss continues to go well). But the buffer zone of several seats in either direction, extending as it did into the rows before and behind me, might also play a part in seeking to ensure that similar visitors never return. There simply wouldn’t be room to allow the same size boundaries to be drawn around more than a handful of visitors in any given service.

As you read this, I would agree with your reasonable conclusion that I am a nitpicking whiner. My inadequate justification (that, on those very few Sundays when I have respite from my responsibilities, I want the excellent experience offered on the websites of the churches I carefully research) is exactly that: inadequate. The grace I hope God extends me through visitors to the congregation I serve is sometimes in short supply through me when I am the visitor. When my needs to simply participate among a congregation in which I hold no leadership responsibilities—when these are condensed into only three or four Sundays a year, I can tend to expect a great deal more than is possible in any one service. And this service held a great deal of blessing, and some truly extraordinary elements of great importance to me. It should have been a simple matter to overlook the perceptible distancing and the sideways glances. And I believe it would have been, if only…

If only the first words spoken directly to me by another human being were not, “Excuse me,” as they moved past during the communion service. And if only the last words, “Good morning” as I was leaving, hadn’t been followed by an immediate turn to say the same to another. And if only there had been any other words spoken to me at all by anyone, except those spoken to the congregation of which I was, most definitely, not a part. (And, frankly, my perceptions would have been kinder if only I hadn’t been left to research and mapquest a congregation for myself. If only there had been any invitation to any church by any one of the dozens of Christians with whom I had interacted during the prior week…I might have been feeling more gracious.)

So, in short, there appears to be a limit to the range available in Portland Weird, at least within one congregation that is seeking to identify with a more indigenous (and/or younger, and/or untucked) population. And yet there seemed to be a perfectly fulfilled breadth to Portland Cool, at least where it applies to the attitudes of Christians toward…well, not the weird, of course. Maybe just toward me.

And it’s that conclusion that I believe is absolutely untenable.

I was greatly blessed by my experience at this church, despite the issues I raise above. But I say all this as a reminder to myself, for repentance beginning next Sunday, when I return to where it is that I am, still—after ten years—in many ways, weird. (We mostly tuck our shirts in. But there are only two of us who regularly wear ties.) In the other blessings of this morning’s worship service, for the tangible presence of Christ in that body, for the demonstration during the announcements of what some consider the third ordinance (church planting) in addition to the celebration of the Lord’s table, and numerous baptisms…I came away feeling like I had been touched by the very grace of Christ, spoken to by His Spirit, and reminded, and even deepened, in my experience of the Father’s love. But I also came away feeling like my brothers and sisters in Christ were at least indifferent to me, and perhaps even averse to whatever my age and attire represented to them.

But here’s what bothers me most: I know that there are those who have left services in which they have worshiped with the congregation I love like life itself…facing similar experiences, and carrying the same concerns about us.

May God help me, it won’t happen again.

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