c. 2000 Religion News Service

Three generations of family sit on the deck, as nightfalls and heat lightning flashes in the west, and we play "20Questions."

The game produces much laughter, much teasing. We feel the sheer joyof being together. It's a rare occurrence for a family that is scatteredacross the country. For that reason, being together is all the moredelicious.

And yet even as we form a circle on a balmy May evening, I see theinevitable signs of separation. My middle son's word in his turn at "20Questions" is "beach"--his destination the next day. My oldest sonchooses a word from his separate world of work, college, and new friends.Grown-ups talk of upcoming trips to Europe.

Union bears the seeds of separation. Family helps to nurture a zestfor life, and that zest propels us outward. Curiosity and knowledge makeus want to look around the next corner. Capability leads to opportunity,and opportunity leads to change. So many possibilities swirl around ourlives that I can barely imagine this moment of togetherness happeningagain. Who knows what we would bring to that circling?

"Live in the present," they say. And yet the present is transformingeven as we experience it. In a sense, there is no such thing as"present" but only flashes of lightning that come about because energy,temperature, and other conditions not entirely suitable for the "people,place, or thing" categories of "20 Questions" happen to coalesce for aninstant.

Some find the falling-apart nature of reality to be immensely sad.They try desperately to cling to moments that seemed to work. They lashout at whoever can be blamed when those moments fall like sand betweentheir fingers. Maybe this is the human tragedy--not that we wereborn into sin, but that we were born into change, restlessness, anddreaming.

Jesus talked boldly of oneness. In a world that had never knownoneness, where humanity was profoundly divided into nation, tribe,family, and gender, he urged his followers to "be one," even as he andthe Father were one. He gathered them into a circle and urged them torespect and replicate that circle. He talked of "one flock, oneshepherd."

Was he delusional? His own small band was fragmented. An in-crowdwas developing within the in-crowd even as he spoke. Some resented thepresence of women in his inner circle, and within one generation of hisdeath the women were evicted. Some resented the mingling of Jew andGentile in his flock, and within days of his death Jew and Gentile werefighting. Some wanted special privilege and used fights over doctrineand heresy to promote their self-interest.

Despite the intensity of Jesus' presence, most disciples never letgo of the very expectations he labored to dislodge. They were shown newlife but didn't have the courage to embrace it. The institution theycreated bore little resemblance to what Jesus had shown them, but lookedbackward and replicated the power structures that killed him.

Our divisions are as ugly today as ever. Rather than stand againstevil and work for justice, we do the much easier work of stealing sheepfrom one another's folds--and call it "mission." Rather than marvel atGod's infinite capacity to create and to love what he has created, wereject diversity and punish those who are different from ourselves--and call it "orthodoxy." Rather than allow our churches to be as dynamicas life itself, we fight against change, reward rigidity, and engage inthe utterly futile endeavor of embalming yesterday--and call it"tradition."

We want to enjoy the fruits of modernity, but we demand thateveryone in the "God circle" remain seated.

Maybe Jesus was flashing a bit of lightning, brilliant but fleeting,never capable of being controlled. Maybe the vision of "one flock" is areminder--sobering, frustrating--that the best we have producedstill falls short of what God desires.

Maybe Jesus was saying our best days are always onward, because theyare the only days in which we can make better choices about thisinevitably dynamic reality called life.