One of the things about Jesus is that he’s not very impressive.
Now please don’t get me wrong—I (almost) never fail to marvel at Jesus’s stunning insights into our nature as human beings. Because of course Christ the Word became flesh, became human.
Somehow that brings me to the consultation on technology and faith I just took part in at beautiful Laity Lodge in the Hill Country of Texas. In truth, the speakers were a little bit disappointing. Or maybe better simply human. And the element of humanity is always a bit disappointing in light of the dazzle of technology. Like the new iPod--it's better than the first generation… the one I own. It’s faster, thinner, and doesn’t require any of that irritating boot-up time (like 2 seconds). That’s cool and exciting.
So, yes, it was in some ways disappointing. Borgmann was really nice and quite thoughtful. But I didn’t feel my heart pump faster when he lectured. Peterson’s voice is gravelly and a little underwhelming. I reported on Facebook that I received the Lord’s Supper from him. But I’ve had better celebrants. I’ve definitely heard more impressive speakers. In fact, one of his major themes is the unimpressive in the quotidian.
I learned that we need to be careful of technology because it so often promises immediacy and thrill and obscures the ordinary and the human. Borgmann rightly calls us back to “focal practices” based on the Latin word focus or “hearth” where we gather together for warm, for meals, and for human companionship. Peterson brought us back to Jesus’s language of “friends” in his last night on earth—an entirely relational language, where ordinary human beings relate to one another. He reminded us that Jesus took significant time in the last week of his life—as recorded in Luke’s Gospel—to spend hours and days with the Samaritans, those “bastards” of faith (to use Peterson’s language), those half-siblings of the Jews. He closed with the parable where the farmer doesn’t give up on the plant that doesn’t grow, but decides to add more manure. Manure—something that doesn’t impress. Or even attracts. But in this parable, manure offers the possibility of growth and new life. I heard a testimony from another participant who, in a time of deep personal crisis was riding a horse and saw a pile of manure with a tomato plant growing in it. (I’m not kidding.) At that moment, God spoke: “I can do much more through a pile of manure than I can do through you all your best efforts.” I hope I can capture how powerful a testimony that was.
And what was most significant at the conference? The human interactions with some people who subtly impressed me. People who listened. People who cared about God’s mission in this world. Some liked technology (the technophiles); others were more restrained, or even fearful (techophobes). But above all, they cared about people.
Do you know what was best? The musicians. It all began with singing the hymns—those great collections of faith that have sustained Christians in worship for decades. And then I heard from Andy (and later, his wife Jill) Gullahorn. The latter opened with a song that seemed to open a place in my heart, “Someone to You.” He sang, “I can be nobody as long as I’m someone to You.” Tears came to my eyes. There it was—in the end, we can be human (and, so often, unimpressive) to one another because we belong to God. That’s when we become someone. I can only paraphrase at the moment, but one of my great mentors of faith, Karl Barth, started the Barmen Declaration with something like this: Jesus Christ, as he is attested in the Scripture, is the one Word of God we have to hear and obey.
I wonder if all this is actually quite significant. Was Jesus’s voice unimpressive as Eugene Peterson’s? Might the center of life be as mundane as having the focal practice as sharing a meal together? Might technology bring us nice toys, which at their best enhance our work and life as we respond to God, but nonetheless represent some things—because they dazzles and impress—that we might tempted to worship as idols?
I close with this: I’m in the process of completing my forties, and I’m getting less and less willing to waste time in things that aren’t important and life-giving. May I be ready to find the truly significant. May I find something growing right in the midst of what is entirely unimpressive.