I'm pleased to feature this piece from good friend (and real-life neighbor) Tony Kriz. For more from Tony, read one of his many pieces for Leadership Journal. For more on this topic, be sure to catch "Planting the New Parish," and "Mary, Martha, and Slow Church." - Paul
I miss my university years.
It has been twenty-two years since I graduated from college. I went to a state school in a medium-sized Oregon farm town. For me, it was a fantastic experience and my four years there were among the most meaningful of my life.
I cannot deny the fondness I feel. Is it just nostalgia? Maybe … in part. But when I sit now and reflect back more than two decades there are several formative realities of my university years that seem hard to come by in my modern urban world. And I am not alone. I have heard many others express similar feelings, though it is often hard to put language to this sense of lack.
Here is an attempt to define what made my college days feel significant and formative:
I was connected.
My state-school's world was only about fifteen-blocks by fifteen-blocks in size, if you took into consideration all the school facilities, living quarters, basic businesses, recreation, employment opportunities, and locations of leisure.
In such a bounded world, it was an amazing feeling (I didn't even know how good I had it) to get up in the morning and walk down the sidewalks and paths and almost constantly have someone to greet. Chance conversations were the norm. Unexpected encounters were simply a part of walking out my door.
If only life could be like that today.
My school was decent sized. There were over fifteen thousand undergrads, and on top of that there were graduate students, faculty, staff, and "normal" neighbors, but still, there seemed to be connectedness everywhere. If you pointed at a dormitory or a fraternity house, odds were that I considered one or more people inside to be friends. Like I said, I didn't know everybody but odds are that I knew somebody who knew almost anybody… and that is something pretty magical.
I believe this came from a few factors. One was simply the fact that my world was small. I didn't spend much time in my car, transporting from one isolated place to the next. It was also because my world was simple (boy oh boy, do I miss simple) so simple that abrupt transitions were all but unnecessary.
I was known.
It wasn't just that I knew people's names; relationships seemed fairly intentional back then (I don't want to be overly idyllic, since we were immature nineteen-year-olds, but still.) Not only did we strive to know each other's stories, we were also fairly interconnected through overlapping communities. If I was hurting, successful, stressed, sad, inspired or exhausted, you could bet that a web of people knew about it.
Pain was shared.
I can remember that a young man committed suicide my sophomore year. I didn't know him personally. A few of my friends knew him. Know him or not though, everyone was talking about it. Sitting in class there was a mournful buzz.
I also remember the day that Congress was voting whether or not to enter the first Gulf War (Desert Storm). We were all pretty upset about it. A spontaneous prayer vigil was convened that evening in the Student Center to beg God for wisdom and mercy. It was just a word-of-mouth thing. Hundreds showed up: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists. Most of us wanted to pray. All of us wanted to be together.
Celebration was shared.
There was a sense that we were for one another. It didn't matter if you played for the basketball team or the Tiddilywink club, if there was an important game, we showed up, clothed in our obnoxious collegiate enthusiasm. If you were defending your graduate thesis, we tried to come. If you were performing a three-song set at the local coffee shop on a Monday evening we filled the place. If you were displaying your architecture final, we wanted to cheer you on.
That was the way we lived. Maybe it was the product of post-adolescent camaraderie, but as I feel back across the years, I believe it is more than that. It feels like we had found something particularly… human.
If only life could be like that again.
People and place
I miss the fifteen-block by fifteen-block universe that my university provided me. It was one of my most formative times. It was one of my most integrated times. It was one of my most activist times. I find a growing number of people who miss similar seasons. As a result, I think many of us feel adrift.
It is therefore not surprising to find some great thinking today around a return to a bounded locality, the sort of locality that a university experience can represent, admittedly in a quasi-manufactured and only seasonal way.
On this theme, the first works that come to mind are two books released this last month: The New Parish (Dwight Friesen, Tim Soerens, and Paul Sparks) and Slow Church (John Pattison and Chris Smith), both from IVP. Both illustrate, inspire, and instruct on the power of a world made smaller. I am squinting to believe their claims that such a life is possible, even now, despite being in my forties, with a family of five, three jobs, and a comet-storm of expectations.
"The life of worship … encompasses the whole of your collective lives together… as a way of being faithfully present to the relationships in your context. The holistic life of worship is an everyday posture … in the parish." - The New Parish, p. 85.
"We are bound one to another, but a culture built on speed wants to fling us out from the center like a centrifuge. Thus, to commit ourselves to cultivating goodness through practices of nearness and stability, and to conversationally develop shared traditions, is to take a stand against alienation. It is a way of crafting a new, shared story for the community…" - Slow Church, p. 43.
In light of these thoughts, I went to the Portland Public Schools website and looked at the district boundaries for my sons' elementary school. Guess what I found? It is about fifteen-blocks by eighteen-blocks in size, only slightly larger than my state university world. Then, as I traced my finger along the roads and byways of that district, I found all sorts of living spaces, education spaces, employment spaces, recreation spaces, business spaces, leisure spaces, and dozens of opportunities to volunteer.
So my family and some of our neighbors are trying to think more in terms of a bounded locality. We are starting to check our integration-quotient: Are we connected in our particular place? Do we know and are we known? Are we sharing in the pain and celebration of our uniquely rooted time and location?
The main difference between our life now and life in university may simply be a loss of bounded intentionality.
As a result, this week we are going to the going-out-of-business party of a long-standing local café, owned by our neighbor only two blocks away. We are also looking forward to helping with the opening of a new wine bar located three-blocks away and owned by neighbors just around the corner. Last week, a family we don't know well had a hospice van parked out front, and since we knew the couple across the street, we were able learn what happened and offer help. And finally, a young girl was murdered this week and silently and tearfully we are standing with our neighbors in sorrow.
These things are not necessarily easy, but they are important and they are meaningful. Our bounded locality is connecting us and giving context to our faith.
It reminds me of a quote by St. Anthony who was asked: "What must one do in order to please God?"
The old man replied, "Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved."
Tony Kriz is a writer and church leader from Portland, Oregon, and Author in Residence at Warner Pacific College.
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