On a rainy Saturday morning in February, Judy and I attended a wedding in the city. The bride was a daughter of good friends involved with a mission organization that serves the poor in the city. The Kleinknechts became for us surrogate city parents when we moved back to the New York area in 1992, guiding us on school choices, shopping options and churches to check out. Their daughter, Morgen, and their son, David, both attended public schools. We did, after all, need much help navigating how to raise our kids in New York City. We have had many mentors in our lives, and we are grateful for them all.
The Kleinknechts were involved in a church planting project which became the Redeemer movement and invited us to their activities as well. We visited Redeemer and heard Dr. Tim Keller speak to a crowd of some two hundred folks (it attracts more than 5,000 every Sunday now). Judy and I turned to each other after the sermon and said “That’s like a humanities lecture at Bucknell, except it was about the (Christian) gospel.”
Well, it turned out that Tim did attend our alma mater, Bucknell University, a few years ahead of us. We ended up “commuting” 40 minutes to the city from cozy suburbia each Sunday to worship with them. The Kleinknechts and the Kellers preached a new paradigm for Christians being involved in the cities. “We must love the city,” Tim Keller would tell the leaders. “Many Christians are against the city, or become too much 'of' the city.” In order to truly love the city, all leaders involved were challenged to consider moving into the city and raising our families here.
If their vision consisted of mere idealism, or mere passion, I am not sure that would have convinced both my wife and me to make the move. Every time doubts welled up and tempted us to move our family as far away from the city as humanly possible, we reminded ourselves that our friends had a deep theological grid to work from. They were not saying, “Be a hero, move into the heart of strife.” They were communicating a gospel that we had never heard and understood fully before: If you want to affect the culture, you must plant yourself in the soil of that culture. If the early Christians were willing to move into a plague-infested city, we must be willing to move into a city dealing with the AIDs crisis and many other social ills. Of course, I knew that the city is one of the few places where I had a shot at making a living as an artist. But still, why move our family there?
“The city attracts the best,” Tim told me one day as I drove him in our rusty Toyota station wagon, our last car before we gave up that mobility (renting our parking lot was costing us more than we paid for our first apartment after college) for city subways. “You have to seek the best if you want be the best, you need the city to shape you.” Of course, he was not just speaking about being an artist. His theology would include the idea of shalom, the flourishing of humanity.
In short, he was saying, in order to be the best human you can be, we need the city. That idea of can be extended in a radical principle to raising your family in the city. As counter-intuitive, and most definitely counter-cultural, as it may sound, in order to raise our children well, we need the city. To be a church that desires to be a catalyst for the flourishing of humanity, we need to move in and begin the adventure of trusting God in the midst of strife, even if that means to “exile ourselves” from familiar comfort and conventionality. TriBeCa, in 1992, had few amenities, and local paper still reported occasional gang related murders in our streets.
Jeremiah 29:4-7 states: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Planting trees and seeing our children wed in a city are not what many would consider “spiritual.” But this wedding in midtown Manhattan was a manifestation of a spiritual principle bearing fruit. We were witness to a covenantal commitment between the bride and the bridegroom that transcends time and even the boundaries of this particular city. Glen and Carole, the bride’s parents, have solely and faithfully served the inner city of New York driven by their spiritual principle of loving the city. Morgen and her new husband, a pastor, will carry out this same promise in Los Angeles.
Tim Keller’s wedding message was, as usual, succinct and powerfully resonant. He began with Kierkegaard1, who stated that at the end of history, we will have to take our masks off, as in the midnight hour of the masquerade, and reveal who we really are. “Marriage,” Tim reminded us, “is a radical endeavor. It is radically discomforting and radically comforting at the same time. And the Christian gospel is the only paradigm that can bring these opposites together.” Unlike the Kierkegaard metaphor, Tim continued, a marriage forces us to take our masks off; we are completely vulnerable. Marriage, therefore, can give us strength and confidence to move into the world, or it can devastate us from within.
In his new book, The Reason for God, Tim writes:
“God did not create us to get the cosmic, infinite joy of mutual love and glorification, but to share it. We were made to join in the dance. We were designed, then not just for belief in God in some general way, nor for a vague kind of inspiration or spirituality. We were made to center our lives upon him, to make the purpose and passion of our lives knowing, serving, delighting, and resembling him. This growth in happiness will go on eternally, increasing unimaginably. (1 Corinthians 2:7-10)”
(p. 219, The Reason for God, Dutton)
The cosmic dance is also a nuptial dance. The Church, as the Bride of Christ, is invited to a Feast. But in order to fully respond to this invitation, we have to get beyond the general sense of “faith” and move into God’s banquet hall, a center room of his mansion. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that that mansion is in a city: The City of God. “The Bible begins at a Garden,” Tim noted often, “and ends in a City.”
After serving at Redeemer as an elder for two years with Glen, I jumped at the opportunity to plant their first daughter church, The Village Church. If this theology of the city was to work, I needed to put my efforts into the heart of culture, and create a church home for the creative. The Village Church, now in its 13th year, would become our family’s exilic home. Our children know no other church; our son Ty, now at NYU, and his fiancée, who graduates from The King’s College this June, both attend there.
Glen and I kept in touch, and I asked him to assist me in establishing the New York chapter of the International Arts Movement, an arts advocacy group to carry out this mission to see humanity flourish via the arts. Glen agreed to serve us as a founding board member from 1998 - 2003. He would often joke about the “farmer from Indiana” serving on the board of an arts organization. But I assured him that IAM needs to be able to speak to farmers as well as artists. The boundaries of art need to expand, to see all of life in the creative abundance of God. Besides, Glen was one of organizational gurus behind the Redeemer movement, and he knew instinctively what it meant to take risks that can impact the culture at large. If having him on the board only meant that I could glean from his wisdom on raising teens in the city, or receive occasional fatherly advice for my marriage, that alone would be worth it.
At a gathering soon after 9/11, Glen introduced himself as an “unwitting recruiter responsible for moving the Fujimuras into a loft three blocks from Ground Zero.” I told him then, “If it was just you, then I don't think we would be here. It was Jeremiah 29. We just didn't know that we would be signing up to be Ground Zero residents.”
Of course, I would think later, it WAS Glen and Tim who opened our hearts to the reality behind the scripture passages. They did recruit us, and it was a path that once chosen, we could not turn back from.
As we ate our splendid meal at the wedding banquet, I tried to convince Tim to have a jazz room in the new Redeemer building on the upper west side. Then, I shared my idea for a dedicated jazz space with Tom Jennings, Redeemer’s music director, who was also at the wedding, hoping to enlist him. Tom quipped, “That’s one sure way to make the building not succeed.” The fact that Tom is a noted jazz pianist makes this statement heartfelt and depressing at the same time. Tim sidestepped my ardent advocacy for jazz, and we began to discuss issues surrounding the New Atheism.
Tim has been on a book tour of sorts, speaking at various universities in Veritas Forums and debating atheist professors. I told him that I participated in one at Columbia University, being pitted against feminist artist Coco Fusco.
“So what was that like?” He asked.
“Well, it really never went anywhere,” I said as I licked my sorbet, “because she kept on wanting to go back to the culture war days. I wanted to talk about being stewards of culture and creating a new language for culture, but she wanted to talk about governmental censoring of art. I told the organizers, that these debates may no longer serve us well anymore. We need a tri-alogue, not a dialogue, a mediated conversation that can create a third language to speak about an issue.”
Tim asked me what I meant by a “third language.” I explained that there is a huge gap in culture where the split between rational and emotive, between reason and the intuitive, has caused dialectical opposition. But now, because of the dehumanization this has caused, people are hungering for mediated conversation. “Obama is speaking that type of language, and that’s why he is gaining ground,” I pontificated.
Of course, it was only after I got home and began to read Tim’s book that I saw his section on the “third way.” In the introduction chapter, he notes that the entire book makes the case that authentic Christianity is “a spiritual third way” to mediate the current divides in culture. So at the wedding banquet table, a student was telling the master what the master already knows. I suppose the greatest reward of a teacher is when a student reshapes the thoughts being taught and thinks they are his own. Perhaps this embarrassing reality could be justified by the fact that I have listened to over 500 of Tim’s sermons over the years. That has to somehow sneak into your subconscious.
The father was dancing with the bride now. Glen, my wife and I noted, is quite a dancer. As his feet glided across the floor, his flushed face and relaxed smile told a story: a story of a father truly willing to give away the bride and delighting in her at the same time.
He would understand that in this passage of time, a radical change is welcome, that a wedding in a city is a fulfillment of our exilic promise. Then the enchantment of folks beginning to join the dance made me realize that a wedding is indeed a dance, as the gospel of Christ is a dance, as Tim notes in his book. Jesus did start his ministry at a wedding at Cana. He would dance with those who follow him to the heart of strife. Refracting in the wedding banquet were the echoes of faithful promises kept, and love “increasing unimaginably.” Christ himself did sup with us, filling our hearts with the golden light of promise, even in a dark February day in New York City.
- “Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when every one has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? Or are you not terrified by it? I have seen men in real life who so long deceived others that at last their true nature could not reveal itself;… In every man there is something which to a certain degree prevents him from becoming perfectly transparent to himself; and this may be the case in so high a degree, he may be so inexplicably woven into relationships of life which extend far beyond himself that he almost cannot reveal himself. But he who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all.”