Having Everything, Possessing Nothing
Remembering Leigh

The Challenge of Context

signs[W]hat if our preferences in amoral matters have been shaped by cultural habits that are seriously (but not obviously) out of alignment?  What if our standards of practicality, our sense of what constitutes ‘common sense,’ reflect (yet conceal) a set of distorted values deeply embedded in the matrix of everyday life?  What if the conventional assumptions about living well that are embodied in our culture’s institutions and practices are at odds with the divinely established pattern of human well-being?”  (Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio)

If you’re like me (and you are in this respect), you make countless decisions everyday and live and move in a context that you take for granted, that you only occasionally have opportunity to reflect upon.  That’s the challenge of living in the world, but not being of the world, of radically identifying with the place and people among whom you live, and yet living among them, to use scriptural words, as an “alien and stranger.”  That’s the difficulty of context, the tension we feel because we live in a particular place, among particular people, as citizens of a particular country, and yet our true Home is somewhere Other, a place to which our souls aspire but to which, for now at least, our bodies have no access.

Ken Myers has a way of asking just the right questions.  They’re questions I wish I could hold in my mind every day.  Generally, however, I live an unexamined life, making assumptions about what is practical or what is best without any conscious consideration of an objective standard.  Two things can change this.  One is a traumatic or at least serious aberration of our world --- maybe a death, maybe our own brush with mortality, or maybe simply a drought --- something to make us realize that life as we know need not and likely will not always be as it is.  Another is when we voluntarily (as in my recent trip to Uganda) or involuntarily (as in a job relocation or all-expense paid trip to Iraq) are removed from our context, becoming like exiles in a foreign land, among a foreign people.  Lifted from our familiar context, we lose the cultural reference points and are thrown back on a deeper standard, something more implicit.  For Christians, that would be Scripture --- not just the Bible itself but how that Bible has been rooted in our being, been incarnated in the habits of our mind.  We find out who we are.  Maybe we learn that for the first time.

When I was six, I was riding in the car with my mother to visit my grandmother, something I had done many times.  As we turned down a particular road near my grandmother’s house, I looked out the window and saw an African-American woman open the screen door of a small, clapboard mill house and look out.  It was 1964 and the first time in my life I remember reflecting on context, realizing that the familiar world I lived in was not like the one in which this woman and her family lived.  Nothing has been the same since then.

Nor should it be.  That tension that I feel between love of place and people and alienation from place and people is God-sanctioned, His way of reminding us that this world is not our Home, that what I assume is not necessarily what is best.  We live in context.  We love the place and people among whom we find ourselves.  Yet every day I need to ask the question “why?”  I need to consider why I do what I do.