c. 2000 Religion News Service

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

The game produces much laughter, much teasing. We feel the sheer joy of being together. It's a rare occurrence for a family that is scattered across the country. For that reason, being together is all the more delicious.

And yet even as we form a circle on a balmy May evening, I see the inevitable signs of separation. My middle son's word in his turn at "20 Questions" is "beach"--his destination the next day. My oldest son chooses 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 zest for life, and that zest propels us outward. Curiosity and knowledge make us want to look around the next corner. Capability leads to opportunity, and opportunity leads to change. So many possibilities swirl around our lives that I can barely imagine this moment of togetherness happening again. Who knows what we would bring to that circling?

"Live in the present," they say. And yet the present is transforming even 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 an instant.

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

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

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

Despite the intensity of Jesus' presence, most disciples never let go of the very expectations he labored to dislodge. They were shown new life but didn't have the courage to embrace it. The institution they created bore little resemblance to what Jesus had shown them, but looked backward and replicated the power structures that killed him.

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

We want to enjoy the fruits of modernity, but we demand that everyone 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 a reminder--sobering, frustrating--that the best we have produced still falls short of what God desires.

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

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