One of our recent Air Bnb guests, a physical trainer, went for a run wearing his CrossFit T-shirt. He met one of my neighbors, who happens to be a celebrity in CrossFit Games. Telling me about this encounter, our guest couldn’t stop grinning. He had found his people.

I have lived in this neighborhood for 16 years and have never met this neighbor. I had no idea she was a CrossFit celebrity. I do workout regularly, but I don’t do CrossFit and knew nothing about that world.

The T-shirt helped my Air Bnb guest connect with the celebrity. I saw the same T-shirt, but to me, the uninitiated, it meant nothing.

Every group has identifiers. When you enter a new group, you learn to notice what matters to that group. Sometimes this new group is one we chose to join, and sometimes it’s thrust upon us. Parenthood can feel like one long course in learning new identifiers.

The most crucial piece of knowledge is always the piece we haven’t noticed yet.

The problem is that there is too much to notice.

My husband once did a Ride-Along with our local Sheriff’s department and learned the basics of gang graffiti. The spray-painted colors and symbols around our neighborhood looked different to him after that.

I think one reason we all enjoy summer vacation is that travel gives us a new set of eyes, at least temporarily. We see new sights or beloved old ones; we visit familiar faces that have changed in the interval, and our eyes take in the changes.

One reason I write on the theme of pilgrimage is that it emphasizes this: Open your eyes. The difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is mainly in what they allow themselves to notice. The tourist is often absorbed in checking someone else’s boxes, following a guidebook. The pilgrim sets aside an agenda and itinerary, trusting that the Spirit has something important to show her/him. Slow down, listen, look.

As someone who cares deeply about the institutional church, I wonder what identifiers we are failing to notice. What T-shirt logo/cultural moment are we oblivious to because we don’t understand that it belongs to us, too? These people of unlike minds are our people.

Perhaps the most radical thing about Jesus is that he didn’t have a people.

But we are not like Jesus. We naturally self-select to be with people most like ourselves. Think of “Orange is the New Black,” with its color-grouped cafeteria tables. (Season 3 really plays with this theme.) But there’s no need to look outside ourselves to observe the phenomenon of self-selection.

I looked at my own Facebook feed objectively and realized that it was full of people of like minds. A few months ago, as an experiment, I “unfollowed” nearly all of my Presbyterian clergy friends. The result is that my FB experience has changed. It is a little less of an echo chamber.

“Church bubble” is nothing new. But as our global world becomes more connected, there are simple ways to break out of church bubble. I would like to take more of these steps. As a follower of Jesus, maybe I need to be less comfortable in the world.

I’d love to hear from you: What steps have you taken in this direction?


7 responses to “Identifiers”

  1. JJ Ashdown Avatar
    JJ Ashdown

    You hit on a good point. The world becomes closer connected yet the church remains more or less unchanged. I myself have been unwilling kicked from my bubble and what I saw was a bad thing is actually a positive! I was relying too much on the “tourist handbook” and got little from my church, now that I’m away from that I have a rekindled love for Christ and the Bible.

    1. JJ, I appreciate your ability to see the positive potential of an unwelcome change. I often mentally compare a tourist to a pilgrim, so I like your playing with those ideas also. Thanks, and best wishes.

  2. Jo 'Ann Staebler Avatar
    Jo ‘Ann Staebler

    Being in limbo-land–a certified candidate who’s waited eleven years for a call, following PCUSA clergy gives me a sense of connection I don’t have otherwise–I can pretend I actually belong somewhere. And otherwise I wouldn’t hear the choir! But I totally get what you’re saying Ruth, although we’re in different places.

    1. Jo Ann, thanks for the comment. It raises the importance of community through social media, which is certainly a main benefit. I think I’m in a place of pushing myself to blast past my adopted community. And I do hope you find an outlet for your pastoral skills and training!

  3. Wow. Great, thought-provoking piece, Ruth. The line “Jesus didn’t have a people” really made me stop and think as well as you unfriending all your clergy friends on Facebook because it felt like an echo chamber. This message is so important for the church to hear because, from my perspective as a college chaplain, there is just too much “inner” dialogue taking place–church folks talking to church folks about churchy stuff. I’ve been breaking out of this bubble by dipping my toe in the literary writers world, attending conferences and workshops full of MFA’s and aspiring writers. It has been SO life giving. I want the church to know this kind of life.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Teri. Just a quick adjustment — I didn’t “unfriend” people, I just “unfollowed” them. Which means I still see updates from them, but far fewer. And I can click on them any time to catch up on their feed if I like. Also, I wanted to play with the concept of “follow” which we talk about with Jesus, in a different sense!

      1. Oh! Yes, that’s an important adjustment / correction. Great use / play with the concept of “following” here.

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