M. Craig Barnes was formerly pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C and is now professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and pastor of the Shady Side Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. Barnes has written several books including When God Interrupts, Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of Our Longings, Yearning, Hustling God, and his latest book Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls.
Barnes is editor-at-large for Christianity Today's sister publication, Leadership journal, where he frequently contributes. He also wrote "Easter in an Age of Terror" two years ago for Christianity Today.
I get the sense that restlessness is something that you've done a lot of thinking about and working through in your own life.
I'd have a hard time telling you where home is for me. Most pastors I know would because we don't tend to spend 40 years in one parish any longer. My family moved from Washington two years ago, and our 23-year-old daughter was just finishing college, so where would she say home is? Her parents aren't in D.C. anymore. We were in D.C. for 10 years, but originally she was born some place else. She certainly doesn't think of Pittsburgh as home. When I was writing the book I interviewed a lot of her friends, her 20-something-year-old friends asking them where home is. I had to spend a lot of time explaining the concept. They didn't even know what I really meant by it.
You talk about Peter Berger's research regarding what happens with these nomadic souls. You talk about the alienation that happens, the loss of self that has occurred. Talk with us about the alienation that is happening with nomadic souls.
Throughout history, home is what tells you who you are and what your mission is. Even if you didn't like that identity necessarily, at least you knew what it was. It was something that you could rebel against. But it was your home—and not just the house you grew up in but the community around you—the familial identity that gave you a sense of identity.
Now we tell our kids you've got to go out and figure out for yourselves who you are. Family is the last place that young people look to for identity. So the sense is you have to leave home to discover who you are. Now identity is something that you have to construct. People try to make this construction through their choices. What college do you choose? What major do you choose? Then you go out and you get a job. You don't like this job because this job is defining you, then you get another job. If you don't like marriage, you get another marriage. If you don't like the life you have, you can get a whole other life just by making different choices, which is a completely different understanding of how a life is constructed than we've ever seen in history until this moment, that you're on your own to put life together. And a lot of people are burning out trying to construct their own lives. I mean, no matter how many choices they make they can't seem to get it right.
You talked about Douglas Coupland's book, Girlfriend in a Coma. And this woman comes out of a coma, having been in a coma since '79. And when she's asked about her impressions of the '90s she says, "A lack. A lack of convictions, of beliefs, of wisdom, or even of good old badness. No sorrow, no nothing. The people I knew when I came back, they only, well, existed. It was so sad." Talk about how that is a reflection of this kind of soul-weariness that comes with the nomadic soul.
A nomad is wandering not just geographically. They're wandering about from identity to identity. They're wandering about from value system to value system in search. And the old term for it is "lost," lost trying to figure out what is a right, what is a wrong, what is bad, what is good. It's even hard to say that something is bad anymore. That starts to shave away at the soul after awhile.
People who are wandering into our parish here, they're just lost. And they're trying one more thing. But every time they try one more thing that doesn't quite work they get all the more confused. And they're bumping into this church that's full of traditions and this old text that we read from. And it's so novel to them that you would allow an old ancient text to read the story of your life. Or even in our church they think it's weird that we say "creed" which is even more bizarre today, that you would allow someone who wrote something 1,700 years ago to tell you what you believe.
We don't believe in creeds today, we believe in vision statements. But that's why people are getting lost out there. Because there is a severing from a tradition that has always given people their identity and their mission. Richard Ford, another typical postmodern novelist has said in one of his novels, "All we want is to get to the place where the past can explain nothing about us and we can get on with life." I think that is very much the typical agenda today.
Spend a minute talking about the importance of the incarnation, and the fact that finding home is not about going back to the past or recapturing something, it really is about understanding who God is and where God dwells.
One of the things which fundamentally shifts from the Old to the New Testament is this loss of the geographic understanding of holiness. In the Old Testament, there was a holy land made holy because it had a holy city in the middle of it. And the city was holy because it had a holy temple in the middle of it. And the temple was holy because it had a holy of holies in the middle of it. With the coming of Christ, that shifts dramatically because he says you can tear this temple down and in three days it will be risen again. Of course he's identifying himself now as the new holy meeting place between humanity and God. At his death, the temple veil was ripped from top to bottom and the holiness runs out of the holy of holies throughout the whole earth.
If it's anything, it's a little bit more like the tabernacle which is being carried on the backs of the people as they go throughout the world. And wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Christ, he says, he'll be there in their midst. The church's ministry these days is not to try to get people nailed down again. I think that the goal of the church is to turn the meandering nomad into a pilgrim. Pilgrims are people who travel with purpose.
What are the blessings of this sort of home? How are they secured? How do we find home?
We recognize what God is doing to us. The real home that we have really is with Father, Son and Spirit. That's what we were created for. I sometimes cringe when I hear people talk about "church home." Well, as someone who spends an unforgivable amount of his time hanging around Christians, let me tell you, if church is the home that we're looking for we're in bigger trouble than we know. Church is not home. Church is the place where the longing for home is rightly directed.
Frequently the church is the problem because the church is just peddling more products in people's efforts to construct themselves, and that's not really the church's role.
I just taught a class last night. And a young guy who wants to be a pastor was vexed about the expectations of the church and its consumeristic orientation. To pursue the path of trying to direct people towards home in God is actually counter-cultural to Christian culture in America today. Is he wrong? What advice would you have for him?
I think that when you know what you are really about, as a pastor, then you know that you don't have to play the church game of ecclesiastical consumerism. When you know that you're really about drawing people back home to God, helping them to find the freedom of that relationship, your ministry takes on a completely different form. It becomes very attractive to people who don't believe that the church is going to have anything that will make them that much happier than the new job or the new boat that they've bought. When they're coming to church they're not really looking for that.
I think the next generation is looking for this kind of authenticity.
That's exactly right. The younger the parishioners are, the more this makes sense to them. They really don't think that the next thing they buy is going to make them happy, like their parents often did.
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Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of Our Longings is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Dick Staub is president of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. Complete transcripts and audio versions of Dick Staub Interviews can be found at dickstaub.com. Recent Dick Staub Interviews for Christianity Today include:
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