For reasons known and unknown to me I am haunted by the desert southwest. I love this high desert of rock and sand and sky and animals well suited to scarce water and both the extreme heat of day and the shocking cold of night. And there is always more rock still in shapes and colors and combinations beyond imagination and beyond comprehension. This landscape of the four-corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah thrills and enchants me.
And so I pour myself into maps and guidebooks and photographs. But it is the literature of that vast region that most captivates me. Kent Frost writes of his youth in Monticello and Moab, UT back in the days of the Great Depression. Wallace Stegner writes broadly about the American West and how it is aridity that defines it more than all else. David Roberts opens one’s eyes to the ancient and artistic people who lived in those parts long before any Europeans passed through and settled in– a people whose artwork and dwellings are still on display on thousands of remote cliffs. In both fiction and glorious non-fiction, Edward Abbey burns with red-hot anger at what he views as a cruel and godless dominion of modern industrialism upon this, one of the last hold-outs of American wilderness.
And Jesus loves His church. He cleans her up. He takes her as His own. And He leads her.
And now to this chorus comes another voice, a softer voice, the voice of Ellen Malloy in her book Eating Stone. In it she reports on a year in the life of the ‘Blue Door Band’ of Big Horn Sheep (Latin: Ovis Canadensis Nelsoni) in Canyonlands National Park.
From the rut of fall, to the spring full of calves and and its tender shoots of fresh grass, to the mind-melting and death-dealing heat of summer she stalks, and sits, and watches, and records, and reflects. She guides us through the whole cycle from birth and life to death. Through her descriptions one marvels at the particularity with which these creatures are designed for, and belong to, these cliffs and mountains of stone. One learns to grieve how delicate and fragile their present existence is upon the land. Once their populations and varying subspecies lived in robust corridors from Mexico to Canada. Today their numbers have drastically dwindled and they consist of island populations few and far between.
The reasons for their decline are many, but they can all be traced back to human origins. Yet sadly and ironically, their hope for preservation now also appears to be in human hands. Malloy writes:
“This plodding work of wildlife recovery, this repairing of Eden, why is it so difficult?”
And she continues:
“Under the aegis of wildlife management—the oxymoron that is now a fact of life for most North American creatures—spins unbounded tinkering, with further tinkering made necessary by past tinkering, effects of causes, effects of effects—a ‘cascade of consequences’ precipitated by human intervention, well intended though it be.”
That is some confession. Those who did the thing now set about to undo it. Yet even their tinkering—meant to be helpful—often only causes more harm demanding more tinkering still.
This is true in wildlife management. This is true in civilizations. Yet at its most basic level, this is true of wherever there are people in community. And so this is also true in our homes. And this is true of the church.
In fact, maybe it is especially true of the church that under the umbrella of ‘church-management’—the oxymoron that is now a fact of life for most North American churches—spins unbounded tinkering, with further tinkering made necessary by past tinkering, effects of causes, effects of effects—a ‘cascade of consequences’ precipitated by human intervention…’
And these tinkerings and their effects are very often ugly. And so one can despair of ‘church-life.’ Pastors can despair. People can despair. Outsiders and visitors can despair. And all of these for any number of legitimate reasons. In fact, we should despair if it were not for the fact that into our cascade of consequences, flowing forth to each generation from a broken Eden, comes One who interrupts our rhythm.
He is Jesus (Latin: Jesus Hominum Salvator).
Our rhythm is life unto death, but His rhythm is death unto new life.
Our tinkering leads to endless more, but the cascade of His blood puts an end to the guilt of our sin.
Our interventions lead to death, but His resurrection puts even death to death in new life!
And Jesus loves His church.
He cleans her up. He takes her as His own. And He leads her—He leads us and loves us despite our incessant tinkering. And He frees us from the scandal of incorrectly loving the church, or not loving, by turning and loving us, His church of His making. For it is Jesus and His gifts that gather us, and it is Jesus and His gifts that bind us, and it is Jesus and His gifts that strengthen us!
And those gifts from the Savior include the following:
Your desperate tinkering is ended.
I forgive you in my blood.
In Baptism I give you my name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and make you my own.
In the supper I strengthen you and bind you together.
Yes, I bind you my saints, my bride, my church, together in own flesh and blood.
Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus our Lord!