Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Overland Park, Longview, and Theophilus: Why Am I So Obsessed With Obscurity?

(A few days ago, I (in good fun) posted on the Facebook wall of Russ, my senior pastor whom I served for two years as a part time student associate in seminary before coming here to Longview.  Russ had put a note in his weekly newsletter that I get by email soliciting any input for his sermon writing process for the following year, and in the name of sweet wounded Jesus, how could you not have fun with that?  I did, and these are among the suggestions I proffered to him:

Bear Claws: How Elisha Teaches You Not to Mock Your Bald Pastor
Coffee Is a Sacrament: What I'd Really Serve As Communion If I Could
Masochism's Colors are Black and Orange: The Holy Pain of Being a Giants Fan
An Ode to Charles Wesley: Why Any Worship Music Written After 1800 Sucks
God's Noble Steeds: The Theology of Unicorns in the Bay Area's Spiritual Life

Scott, who does keyboards and vocals for their worship band, subsequently commented, "After that *excellent* list, I think we should all pitch in and offer blog suggestions for Eric!"  One said suggestion was "Overland Park, Longview, and Theophilus: Why Am I So Obsessed With Obscurity?"  Not only was I thrilled to see someone else coming up with blog material for me for free, but I also really do think there is something here for me to write about.  Challenge accepted, Scott.  This post is for you! E.A.)

The beauty of obscurity is entirely in the ability to set your own expectations.

After nearly three years of full time ministry in a town (well, the towns of Longview and Kelso) of roughly 48,000 people, there is much about smaller town life that I have come to appreciate after three years in the San Francisco Bay Area for seminary, and one of those things is, for the most part, not triggering anyone else's latent stereotypes about your environs.  Because my politics were (are) generally left of center and I lived in Berkeley, I had people who assumed I was some sort of hippie even though, by Berkeley standards, I was probably well right of center.  I think Carrie experienced similar expectations having lived in New York City for three years during her medical residency, nevermind the fact that she is all North Carolina, born and raised, and that her Southern sentiments (regarding things like manners and actually having them) chaffed a more brusque New Yorker every now and again.

I don't get any of that ministering here in Longview...nobody from the outside rolls their eyes at a particular stereotype of us because our town is too small to be stereotyped.

In other words, I minister in a place where expectations of what we are or are not, or should be and should not be, is entirely inward generated.  And that gift means everything.

I'm a proud Kansan, born and raised (emphasis on proud: whenever Carrie reminds me that UNC reclaimed the men's basketball coach who was rightfully theirs to start with, I have a four word reply: "2008 NCAA Tournament Champions").  Overland Park might be known to some folks as the world headquarters of Sprint, or as the setting for the TV series "The United States of Tara," but mostly, I stick to saying that I was raised in the Kansas City area because that is a lot easier for people not from Kansas or Missouri to easily grasp.

And I can offer no defense of my choice of Overland Park because, well, I didn't choose it.  My parents moved there when I was two, and I lived there until I graduated from high school and subsequently lit out for the West Coast, where I have remained ever since.

But Longview?  Like I said...it's a place (and a church) that is utterly free to generate its own identity.  On a church level, that is a godsend because it has allowed me and my parishioners to work side by side in implementing a vision of a neighborhood church that is welcoming, active, Bible driven, and mission oriented.  While many of those values and identities have filtered down to us from our denominational affiliation with the Disciples of Christ, they are also very much our own, as we have tailored them to our local community in our mission, our teachings, and our fellowship.

And so when someone, say, relocates to Longview and is looking for a church and finds us, they are often left being pleasantly surprised, because there were no stereotypes for us to buck or fight against, and people were left to freely form their own impressions of us.  Those impressions, I am proud and grateful to report, have largely been positive, leading us to a doubling in our average worship attendance of three years ago, and the creation and growth of many other ministries.

And to be honest, I simply don't think implementing this exact vision would necessarily have been as effective in another setting.  It's like real estate: location, location, location.

As for Theophilus?  Well...part of that is my innate and otherwise completely unexplainable affinity for supporting cast characters in books and movies.  Theophilus, the original recipient of Luke's Gospel and its sequel, Acts of the Apostles, is the most marginal of such support characters, being mentioned nowhere else beyond the introduction to both books of Scripture.

On a more profound level, though, Theophilus should not be so obscure to us.  His name literally means God (theo) Lover (philo), or "lover of God."  Anyone who loves God is, by definition, also Theophilus.  The name of Luke's recipient allows us to place ourselves into the Biblical text.  It gives us a proxy, a stand in, to hear the story being told.

It is why I named my blog the Theophilus Project.  Just as Luke endeavored to write, in his words, "an orderly account" of Jesus Christ to one lover of God, so too am I endeavoring (with varying degrees of success) to write, as I call it, a semi orderly account of my ministry on behalf of and in the name of Jesus Christ to anyone else who would call themselves Theophilus...a lover of God.

This blog, this project, is therefore also your project.  It is named after you.

And I do not say that to pander or vomit sunshine.  My love of God and faith in God only get me so far in my life if I am unable to share it with all of you.  To be able to do so is a privilege and a blessing, no matter how obscure I am in the world of Christian bloggers (very), or how obscure my church is in the world of well known churches (also very).

And there remains a beauty in having that obscurity.  Even if obscurity is, like fame, ultimately fleeting.

Yours in Christ,

1 comment:

  1. Eric, I love your descriptive words about community of Longview and the congregation of First Christian. Together you and they are shaping a strong identity and your three years together have been a great match. And there is much more to come! And that will not be obscure at all! (smile).