Many of you know that I was a Quality Assurance Manager in the seafood industry before I entered the ministry. I was a “fisher of fish” before I was a “fisher of people,” so to speak. Looking back on that time, I learned a lot of important lessons about life – including life with God – that I never picked up in seminary. One of those lessons pertains to our Pneuma Divina passage this week at Darkwood Brew from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.
In the spring of 1988, four months before Melanie’s and my wedding in Seattle, I was in Valdez, Alaska, helping to oversee the construction of a brand new salmon cannery for Peter Pan Seafoods. The shell for the building had been completed the previous summer. Now we were outfitting the plant with fish bins, an “H & G line” (“heading and gutting”), a Quality Assurance lab, and the canning line itself.
A salmon canning line is rather complicated. You start with a cutting machine that cuts the headed-and-gutted salmon into chunks that can fit in a salmon can. Next is the filling machine that places these chucks into cans, along with a salt tablet. That process is never as precise as you’d like. Some cans are filled to full. Others aren’t filled enough. So the cans pass through a weighing machine where heavy and light cans are kicked out for crew members to add or take out a little salmon and set them back on the line. From there, the cans pass through a machine that places a lid on the top, and then into a seaming machine that precisely rolls the edges of the lid around the can, producing an airtight seal, and sucks the air out of the can before it does so to create a vacuum so the cans don’t blow up like balloons when they’re cooked. Then the cans are passed through a “dud detector” that senses whether or not the cans have successfully retained that vacuum, and kicks out the non-vacuum or low-vacuum cans to be re-canned. Finally, the cans pass down a slanted table where they are scooped by workers into large metal “buggies” several layers deep and wheeled over to the giant pressure cookers. All this happens at the rate of 225 cans per minute. Needless to say, the canning line has to work with a high degree of precision or you can have a massive jam and mess on your hands!
To build the canning line, we brought in the Continental Can Company from Chicago. They were the experts. They had engineers who had designed canning lines all over Alaska, not to mention countless canning lines for various fruits and vegetables across the U.S. Continental not only made the canning lines, but the cans themselves, so everything worked together “seamlessly.”
I watched the Continental Can folks assembling the line with eager interest. They worked hard and fast, as the beginning of the salmon season was swiftly approaching. When everything was assembled, checked, and double-checked, they ran a test run of cans through the process. And ka-bam! There was a major jam-up, with cans flying in all directions. Adjustments were made, the line was re-started and ka-bam! There was another jam in the exact same spot. I needn’t bore you with everything that transpired, but that canning line didn’t actually get a can of salmon to the end of the line without a jam of some kind for over a week. And even when the first cans did finally make it to the end, they were all dented. Finally, after working night and day, with numerous calls to the Chicago office, the line worked as it was designed.
I learned an important lesson watching this canning line come together. We didn’t have all these problems because the Continental Can engineers and machinists were stupid. They were all highly trained and seasoned experts in the field. Our problems came from the fact that it is impossible to design on paper something as complex as a salmon-canning line. You can’t know how it’s going to work until you’ve got actual salmon to put in the can. The lesson I learned was that sometimes the process that moves us forward in life is not “Ready. Aim. Fire!” but “Ready. Fire! Aim.” It is easier to steer something when it’s in motion. Sometimes you’ve got to get a process going before you can refine it enough to work smoothly. You start, you observe what happens, you make adjustments, you observe some more, make more adjustments, and so on until you’ve got it right.
In our series thus far, we have explored the processes of Dreaming, Hovering, Risking, and Listening. This week, we’re looking at the fifth stage: Reintegrating. Applying this process to the canning line experience, you could say that the Dream was to build a canning line. Hovering was the process of actually designing it in Chicago. Risking was assembling the line and flipping the switch. Listening was the process of receiving information based on what actually happened. (Ka-bam!) Reintegration is the process of taking the information you have received from your actual experience and making adjustments until the Dream becomes reality. Ready. Fire! Aim.
I was able to apply the process I learned from the Alaska canning line right away when I returned home to Seattle. There I was reunited with Melanie, and a week later we were married. We had Dreamed about being married. We had Hovered over many possible life partners.
We had taken the Risk of making marriage vows to the one we felt called to marry. Now began the process of Listening and Reintegration. Two days after our wedding, we were on the road to Princeton, New Jersey, where I would attend seminary.
In our new home in Princeton, I learned that making a marriage work is a lot like putting together a salmon canning line. There’s the theory of marriage, and then there’s the actual practice, which is a lot messier than it appears. “Ready. Fire! Aim.” Melanie and I had not lived together before marriage, and neither of us had ever lived in New Jersey. Neither of us had ever experienced seminary life, and Melanie had to find work in a completely different field than she’d been trained in. (She had also been a seafood Quality Assurance Manager in Seattle and Alaska.) There were a lot of unexpected kinks to work out! A lot of tears were shed. A lot of adjustments had to be made. One adjustment would often provoke the need for other adjustments. It took six long months of constant adjustment before we began to feel like our lives were finally meshing together as a harmonious flow.
One of the great lessons I learned during that period of life – and have needed to re-learn again and again over the course of 25 years of marriage – is that jam-ups are a lot easier to clear when you set your ego aside and realize your partner’s sole purpose in life is not necessarily to serve your every need and desire. Nor is your sole purpose to serve your partner’s every need and desire. Rather, your purpose is to serve the needs and desires of the marriage as a whole. It’s like, before you’ve even had children, you have already given birth to something that is just as fragile and vulnerable as a baby. It’s the marriage itself.
So I learned that when you and your partner have a disagreement, finding your way through that disagreement has little to do with simply trying to convince your partner that you are right and she is wrong. Often, adjustments have to be made by both partners. Even when one partner is clearly in the wrong, no one “wins” a fight unless the marriage itself wins. Unless the marriage wins, neither partner wins.
I quickly learned once I was married that faith plays an incredibly helpful – and often overlooked – role in building a strong relationship. If Melanie and I have a disagreement, we tend to resolve our issues a lot more quickly and painlessly if we both remember that we are answerable to God before we are answerable to each other. We surrender our egos to God, pledge to serve God through serving the marriage, and ask God, “What is the way forward that best honors You?” When I’m serving God through the marriage, then I lose my desire to be hurtful to Melanie just because I’ve been hurt. And when I’m in the wrong, I find myself admitting it much more quickly. God sees everything. You may be able to fool your partner, insisting that you are right or have acted appropriately, but you can’t fool God. The more we seek to serve God, therefore, the more rapidly our conversation becomes real, and the more willing we are to make sure that we are loving our neighbor – our marriage neighbor – as we love ourselves.
Over the years, serving our marriage over serving ourselves has had one other benefit. We’ve learned that each of us truly makes better decisions than the other one in certain situations. We each have a “sweet spot” in the relationship – a number of them, actually. So when it comes to managing family finances, I take the lead. When it comes to making decisions about what we purchase with those finances, Melanie takes the lead. When it comes to helping our daughters make decisions about highly emotional matters, Melanie takes the lead. When they need to make strategic decisions, I take the lead. In other words, neither of us feels the need any longer to be “in charge” of everything. By surrendering to the higher calling of our marriage, which we consider a Calling of God, we have found our way forward in a way that makes both of us better human beings.
Churches work a lot like marriages – and canning lines. A church is little more than a community of people who have come together to live God’s Dream for themselves and for God’s world. We spend a lot of time Hovering – discerning God’s specific call for our lives as individuals and as a community of faith. (Yes, churches have Callings just as people do.) Then in community we take risks to follow the path we find ourselves on. As with marriages and canning lines, however, we soon find that there is a major difference between theory and reality once we have Risked ourselves in following a call.
Despite the best laid plans and the most careful discernment, church jam-ups are inevitable. Things don’t go as planned. Feelings get hurt. Hopes get crushed. Egos get bruised. Factions form. And people start looking for where to assign blame. Gone unchecked, a church will start balkanizing. Gossip flows freely among the factions. And because the factions are only talking to each other, everyone begins to claim, “Everyone I talk to says X, Y, or Z.” The factions become surer and surer that they are right and others are wrong. Pretty soon, no one is listening to each other. They’re just trying to ram through whatever agenda their group feels is “right” so that their side can “win.” And if their agenda isn’t followed to the letter, they feel like they’ve “lost” and others have “won.”
This is exactly the state of affairs in Corinth when Paul wrote to the church he had founded there. Paul had founded the Corinthian church during his Second Missionary Journey – the journey we talked about last week. During the two years he spent there, the new community thrived and grew strong. Paul had helped them dream God’s Dream for themselves and for the world. He had helped them discern God’s specific Calling for their church – the specific ways that they could help heal the hurts of the world. And he had set them moving down their path. Then he left.
And all hell broke loose. Literally!
Theory didn’t match lived experience. (It never does.) Jams happened. Factions began growing. Before long, some were proclaiming themselves to be “followers of Paul.” Others were “followers of Apollos” (another Christian missionary). Others were “followers of Peter.”
In the midst of this mess, Paul asks, “Isn’t anyone a follower of Jesus?”
Paul reminds his Corinthian community that being a follower of Jesus is a lot like being part of a body. A head doesn’t serve the head. It serves the body. A foot doesn’t serve the foot, or even the leg. It serves the body. Each part of the body is important. Each has a unique role to play. And each is going to experience the life of the body a little differently.
This analogy may get a little nod of understanding when a church is operating smoothly. But it becomes critical when a church actually takes risks to follow God’s Dream and then discovers that the theory doesn’t match their reality. Inevitably, the church will stumble around a bit, like the Corinthians did. And inevitably, people will interpret that stumbling as a sign that the church is failing in its mission. But exactly the opposite is happening. Any church that takes its calling to live God’s Dream in the world will inevitably stumble around because it is following God’s Dream. Ready. Fire! Aim.
If, as an individual, I were to literally take a step forward to follow on a particular path and discover that I have set my foot down on a slippery slope rather than solid ground, I need to use my whole body – not just part of it – to correct my course. My eyes need to go into action scouting where the next step should go. My arms go into action to correct my balance. My leg and foot need to move in response to where my eyes and my brain determine is a safe landing spot. It all needs to work together. You do nothing but fall on your backside if each part of the body is only working for itself and not working for the good of the whole.
Paul encourages the Corinthian congregation to remember the whole. Remember that the body you are a part of isn’t just any body. It’s the body of Christ. So, he effectively says, as you stumble around your path, it does not matter who is right and who is wrong. You are now living for a relationship, not merely yourselves. Therefore there can be no winners and losers. There can be no “my way or the highway.” There can be no, “I don’t care about the youth of the church, or I don’t care about the elderly.” No “Let’s do away with the jazz service because I don’t like jazz, or the classical service because I don’t like classical.” No, “Tell me what has the church done for me lately or I won’t give anything to it.”
There is only, “I care about the youth because Christ cares about the youth, and the elderly because Christ cares for them as well. While I don’t care for jazz (or classical), I care that we all find a way to worship God the in most whole-hearted and full-blooded way we can.” And we give to a church not merely based on what it is doing for us, but what it is doing for Christ and God’s Dream for the community and world. We don’t base our assessment of how well the church is living God’s Dream on the fact that it stumbles around fairly regularly. We base our assessment on how well we act – and react – as a Body when the going gets tough, as it always does when we are taking risks in response to God’s Dream.
Of Bodies and Cathedrals
Last week, I was admiring some photographs of some of the famous cathedrals of Europe. Most of the great cathedrals have been there for centuries. That’s impressive. More impressive is the fact that most of them took the better part of a century or more to build. This reminded me of something a friend of mine observed recently. He noted that most of the people who gave their time, their talent, and their treasure to the building of these cathedrals never actually lived to see the day when they could worship there. When they were asked to give of themselves to make the construction possible, they never asked, “What’s in it for me?” Rather, they asked, “What’s in it for my grandchildren?” They built a place where their grandchildren could come before God, catch wind of God’s Dream for themselves and their world, and begin stumbling around together as they sought to follow the call of the Holy Spirit.
When those early cathedral builders gave of themselves in this way, they became connected not only to each other as one Body in Christ, but to all the generations who would come after them in this same Body. They turned God’s Dream into God’s Reality, becoming part not of a canned faith, but a living one.