Saturday, June 30, 2012

Two pictures

Had the distinct pleasure of spending four days in the Boundary Waters with these three lovely ladies.  They fought rapids, slapped mosquitos, ate my cooking, and lugged incredibly heavy packs over portages without complaining.  Much.  Kacie, Kim, and Teya, it was an honor to enjoy the wilderness with you!  The picture, of course, is not from the Boundary Waters but rather from Artists Point in Grand Marais while we waited for Sven & Ole's Pizza to open after the trip.

My brother has taken in two foster children.  Sam and Ella are probably about six weeks old and are being rehabilitated so they can go back into the wild.  They are appropriately suspicious of humans, hate the sound of the washing machine, and have an amazing ability to ride on people's shoulders once they get over being shy.  

For regular readers, my apologies for not posting much lately.  Hopefully these two pictures give a little bit of an idea of why that's been the case.  Plus my mind seems to have been taking a break from thinking deep thoughts the last few weeks.  Though I watched a documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer today and that got me thinking.  He'll do that.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day

For me, Father's Day gets all tied up with a lot of other things.  Landscapes and church and fishing and grandparents and memories and the farm and lots of other things get tied together, sort of like the time Dad let me use his reel and I didn't understand how to slow the feed of the line with my thumb, and created the mother of all fishing line tangles.  So this piece isn't really about Father's Day, per se, or even mostly about my dad.  But he's tied up in all these ideas, and it seems a fitting way to remember him.  It's long, just to warn you, and it comes from a trip I made one spring to the farm where I grew up.

May 7, 2009
I am home.
Not the home where I live, that I share with Julie, Erica, Teya, the dogs, the ducks, and the neighbors.  
I am home, in the house where I grew up.  It is silent here, except for the teapot suffering its last gasps as it cools down (I’ve been making coffee -- apparently my brother’s automatic drip machine bit the dust).  And the severe wind rumbles out of the northwest, throwing tree branches and sparrows around.
I just arrived, and I haven’t turned any lights on yet.  I wonder about that.  I’ve been wandering around the old house, remembering.  This is -- and will always be -- Mom’s kitchen.  It is still very much the way she decorated it in the late 70’s.  Her clock and her old colored glass bottles sit high atop the cupboards.  The radio -- it was always tuned to 1260 KROX, Crookston in the mornings -- still rests on top of the stove.  Mom died nearly fifteen years ago, and since that time the kitchen has been occupied by men who do not redecorate.  No, that’s not true.  My brother has done some cool things with other parts of the house, but the kitchen still belongs to Mom.
I spent a few minutes rereading the titles of books on the shelf in the living room.  Dad’s books, mostly, except for my sister’s copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Many of the titles have either the word “wilderness” or “Old West” in the titles.  Evenings Dad would settle into his recliner and pore through a book, or sometimes a newspaper.  He loved to read.  The date on his tombstone reads “2000” -- nine years ago.  I stopped there on the way here.  Drove the track off the road, out behind Faaberg Lutheran Church, and crouched for a few minutes at their graves.  Their bodies rest at the southeast corner of the cemetery.  I set my face into the wind, crouching there, and looked left across my uncle’s sandy field, across the creek, up the hill a mile away to the home place.  I love the fact that you can see there from here and here from there.  Those two invested so much of their lives in this house, on this soil, here on this hill, and it just seems right that their final earthly resting place should have a view of home.
I remember when we buried Dad.  I walked out in the cemetery -- cold, it was Thanksgiving week -- to check out the grave site.  We buried Mom there six years before.  They had broken through the first inch or so of frost to dig in the sandy soil, down six feet, but they had not yet put Dad’s concrete vault in the hole.  So I could look down into the sand and see where the soil had sloughed away, see the side of Mom’s vault down there in the earth.  Just a few square inches of concrete showing through, you understand, nothing morbid.  But it gave me great comfort that cold day to think that they would lie just a few inches apart -- not quite touching, as I had seen them not quite touching most of my life, but close.  Close like I had seen them all my years at home, within reach but never needing the reassurance of actually reaching out.  Knowing where the other stood.  
As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on ghosts.  Who knows what goes on for troubled spirits after death?  I’d figure the matter was pretty well settled except for the strange story in the Old Testament of Saul and the witch of Endor calling up Samuel’s ghost.  So I’m not sure.  I figure the Bible teachers who claim they have all of that figured out need to go back and read their Bibles more carefully -- read for the silent places, the places where the Bible is frustratingly mute.  I think the silences are inspired by God, too.
I don’t know what to think about ghosts.  But for me, this landscape is packed with them.  Maybe that’s just memory run amok.  But I wander the cemetery and read their names on the stones, and they leap out of the ground and I listen to them speak at church meetings, or I overhear them laughing at the table during the Memorial Day dinner.  People I barely knew, or knew only by face, climb out of the ground to populate the memories of my childhood.  I remember the apocryphal stories about people and farms.  I remember their clothes, their expressions, their children and grandchildren.
I have forgotten so much.  It is because I don’t live here any more, and visit so rarely.  My life is in another place now, far to the south.  The boxelder and aspen trees in my yard have tiny leaves opening to the wind today, but the trees here are still trapped in buds.  
Five hours in the car.  I left the radio off nearly the whole trip.  Lots of time to think.  Lots of time to remember.  Lots of time to let my mind and my heart open for the all-too-brief visit I have here.
There are so many things I want to do.  I’d like to stop over at my oldest friend Kevin’s place, catch him in the middle of switching the milking machine from one cow to the next.  We were like brothers from different families, and I haven’t talked to him in months.  His parents are getting older -- the second set of parents I neglected, after my own -- and I would like to say hello.  
I want to do something stupid -- I want to haul this laptop up a tree into a deer stand.  I want to sit up in the tree for a while and write what I think while I’m on stand.  It’s too windy for the deer to be moving; wind to a whitetail is like sandpaper on their already-abraded nerves.  
I want to wander.  Just walk like I used to do day after day.  Down to the creek, to see if the spring flooding has changed the crossing places.  Only now I would be looking for changes that come from -- what -- ten years of floods?  When was the last time I walked that creek?  I used to know every foot of the banks, every pool and puddle.  I’d like to see if there’s still a deep pool north of the fallen log down in the pasture, the pool I walked through in the dark one night, mistaking the crossing -- and ended up neck-deep.  I’d like to walk through the north pasture, through the woods.  I was there last fall, hunting, but only for a couple hours and only on one tree stand.
There are other possibilities that scare me.  I toy with the idea of going into town and getting supper someplace tonight -- today is my brother’s birthday -- but the idea of seeing people I should know bothers me.  I feel guilty.  Then there are middle aged guys who come up to me -- they have crow’s feet around their eyes and their skin is going patchy and rough. They call me by my elementary school nicknames.  “Clenchy!  What are you doing here?  Haven’t seen you for years!  What are you doing these days?”  How to answer that?  I can launch into the story -- “I’m happily married to a woman you’ve never met, and she’s so patient and she has stuck with me through twenty years of marriage now.  My daughters are 17 and 14, they’re really smart.  Erica plays a mean piano and Teya keeps ducks and I love them both like crazy.  They’re more talented and more well adjusted than I ever dreamed of being.  I’ve got a great job as a pastor in a big church.  Yeah, really big -- over a thousand in worship services each Sunday.  No, I’m not the senior pastor, and I don’t want to be.  I mostly teach classes, and I love it.  I still bowhunt, though I’m not very good at it, and I love mountain biking, and I’ve got a book coming out this summer.  My first.  I’m pretty proud, but it didn’t turn out quite like I wanted.  So I’m thinking about what to write next.”
After the first three words, they’d tune out.  They’d be happy for me, and they’d spread the word around town that they’d seen me, and that encounter would become part of the “Have you been in touch with anyone else from our class?” that gets exchanged like nickels and dimes when we brush up against each other’s lives.
It scares me a little bit, because I don’t live here anymore.  I don’t know these people.  I have become an outsider in my own home.  If I think about that too long, I start to have trouble breathing.  
I spent years leaving this place.  The first time I really left I was seventeen.  Got on a Greyhound in Grand Forks and got off in Seattle.  The homesickness that autumn nearly killed me.  I remember leaving this farm once when I was twenty-four.  I was living in Washington then, married and making payments on a house ten miles west of Seattle.  Julie and I had been here for a brief visit.  I knew, driving away, that I wouldn’t be back for a long time.  A year at least, maybe a couple years.  As we drove out the driveway, I watched it roll past me, roll behind me, roll into my past.  And driving along the alfalfa field next to the oaks, great wrenching sobs tore out of my throat and I tried but failed to explain to Julie that it wasn’t missing the people, though I love them, it was the place.  You can pick up a phone and reconnect with a person.  You can read their handwriting (we still exchanged paper letters in those days.)  But you can’t telephone the smell of the alfalfa on a July morning as the dew is coming off, or the texture of the bark on the oaks in Gene’s woods, or the clammy feel of earth as you’re digging around the roots of a poplar.  Just the shape of the hills.  The swell of earth under the crops.  I come back here now and I see trees, old trees, fallen and decaying.  I remember them on that drive out of the driveway, sobs catching in my throat, and those trees were no taller than I was.  Now they are old and dead and going back to the soil.
I suppose in a sense it’s the Gerard Manley Hopkins thing -- “It is Margaret you mourn for.”  I sob for myself, for my own death and decay.  That’s today.  But in another sense it’s really not about death, it’s about relationship.  Is it possible to have a relationship with a landscape?  Oh, yes.  It would be interesting to know how many hours I spent between zero and seventeen playing in this landscape.  The summer I was twelve, when I spent twenty or thirty hours over a couple weeks observing a pair of blue-winged teal in the swamp just south of the mailbox.  Just sitting in the tall grass, watching.  Or the next spring I spent up to my knees in water, catching fairy shrimp in the meltwater over in MacMahan’s woods.  The moonlit nights on cross-country skis crossing the pastures, sitting on the hilltops and just taking it all in.  How many hours?  
One rainy day when I was a child my older brothers and I spent four or five hours wandering our old house -- the present structure was built in two stages, part in 1907 and part in 1914 -- looking for what we called “irregularities.”  A wall that bowed out a bit, a piece of trim that was crooked, plaster that dried without the proper texture.  These were not imperfections, but rather the beautiful unique things that represented the hours of work of the real people who made this house.  I realize now that I spent most of my childhood doing exactly that with the landscape around here.  Getting to know the enormous rock that for years worked its way farther into the world from the depths of the earth in the field south of the driveway.  It was like watching a very slow resurrection as that rock came out of the soil a quarter inch at a time.  Learning about the hidden grassy glades in the south woods, the places the deer like to bed on warm days.  Memorizing the twists and turns of tree trunks, or absorbing the way the setting sun gleamed through the holes in the west wall of the old wooden barn, long since fallen.
The summer I was eighteen after my first year away at college I lived with my parents.  It was terrible for them and for me.  I chafed under their legitimate desire to know where I would be and what I’d be up to.  They never tried to limit my comings and goings, they just wanted to know when I’d be around the house.  They had missed me, too, and hoped I’d spend some time at home.  In spite of my desperate homesickness I hated home and resented them.  So to bleed off tension that summer I developed the habit of wandering at night -- going out in the middle of the night and wandering the landscape.  Walking through the pastures and the woods.  One  moonless night I navigated the north pasture totally by feel.  I knew every tree, every trail.  Those nights I would return to my bed about two or three in the morning and sleep contented.  I was reconnected with my roots, and life flowed from the hard bones of the land into my body, into my soul.  Many times I have longed to repeat that summer -- to dig deep into this place again.  To have enough time here that I can reconnect with some of the people I have missed.  To visit in more than teaspoonfuls.  
In his poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins -- who was thoroughly manic depressive -- used a technique that a critic somewhere along the way labeled “inscape.”  He described the state of his heart by describing an outer landscape.  This “inscape” became a way for Hopkins to tell some of the things that were either too beautiful or too painful to describe directly.  His “inscapes” draw me in and help me see.
I think part of what I’m trying to do by going home is to get a look at my own inner landscape.  I want to understand my heart better.  I find myself mystified by the drives and fears that shape my days.  Seems like I should know myself by my 40’s but that’s just not the case.  I know more than I did in my 20’s -- thank goodness -- but I’m still shocked by my behavior sometimes.  
So I drive these roads, communing with the ghosts.  I sit in this house and hear their voices, remember the silent mealtimes, the long adult conversations while we children listened at the vent in the floor upstairs.  I remember cool rain on the hot roof of the attic.  Summer days I remember climbing so high in the pine on the lower driveway that the branches barely held my weight, or swinging on the rope in the woods below the shop.  I lie back in the warm waters of my father’s love-hate relationship with this farm.  I hear again the fragments of stories, stories of people I loved but never met.  Uncle Earl, home on a brief leave before his unit shipped out for Normandy, where he would die in the water.  Grandpa Richard, who died before I was born, holding the plat measurements of the “town” of Rindal in his head, pacing them off and reciting them to Palmer, who told me the story the morning after a storm took down most of the trees between his house and ours.  Gulbrand, my great grandfather, his legendary strength faded with age, bitter and mean in his dotage trying to pinch my mother and her sister, little girls who played too close to his long fingers.  They all lie in the cemetery now, and the rising sun casts the long shadow of the steeple over their graves, so when the saints march in to worship at Faaberg Evangelical Norwegian Lutheran Church on a Sunday morning they are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, row on row like corn, hearing from their place in the ground the echoes of the organ, the pipes vibrant with the strain, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and bring me home, what joy shall fill my heart; then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great Thou art!’”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The good of the city

It's graduation season, so we're trotting out Jeremiah 29:11 again.  Over and over, people will give cards to graduates including this verse:

"For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope."

It's a good verse, and probably worthwhile for a graduate to hear.  But if they look it up, and do the context work to figure out what it's really saying, they'll probably be a lot less grateful.

In Jeremiah 29, the people of Judah are in exile.  They've been hauled off to Babylon in droves, imprisoned in a foreign land.  Well, they're not really imprisoned, but by royal decree of the king they're forbidden from returning to their homeland.  So they're trapped in exile in a foreign land.  Naturally, these exiles are wondering how long they'll live in Babylon.  Some of them are struggling with bitterness (check out Psalm 137).  Others are listening to prophets who stand up and say, "Don't even unpack your suitcases, because the Lord says you will be going back to Jerusalem any day now!"

In this context, Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles.  In the letter he confronts these false prophets and says that the Lord hasn't spoken through them.  Instead of telling the people not to unpack, Jeremiah gives them the real word of the Lord:

"Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease" (Jeremiah 29:5-6).

A little later, God goes on through Jeremiah's pen: "Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying in my name; I did not send them" (29:8-9).  Then we get the really bad news.  "Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place."  Wow -- talk about a let-down.  Talk about a disappointment!  We're stuck here seventy years.  I will never see my homeland again.  If I'm lucky, my grandkids will go back when they're adults.  Seventy years.  Ouch!

It is only at this point -- in the middle of the really bad news -- that God speaks the word of hope we love to put on coffee mugs: "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."  Then he goes on:  "Then when you call on me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile" (29:11-14).

The New Testament picks up on this image of God's people being in exile.  Peter starts his first letter by addressing it "to the exiles" (see 1 Peter 1:1).  Paul talks about our citizenship being elsewhere (Philippians 3).  In John, Jesus prays that God would keep his followers safe in this world even though they don't belong to the world (John 17).

How do we live in exile?  If you were paying careful attention above, you noticed that I skipped one verse in Jeremiah 29.  In the middle of the bad news about this Babylonian exile lasting seventy years longer than we'd like, verse 7 says, "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."  Jesus' followers are exiles in this world, but we are sent by God into specific countries, cities, even neighborhoods (see Acts 17:24-27).  We are called to work for the good of the places God sends us.  We are called to "work for the good of the city."

So as salt and light, scattered in the world, Jesus' followers work for the good of this world.  We pray for its inhabitants and we work for justice and mercy.  We act with love toward our neighbors.  We watch out for and lift up the needs of the least of these, whether they be the poor, the refugees, the homeless, the handicapped, the immigrants ... We can never allow ourselves to become arrogant, or to give in to our desires for self-protection at the expense of others.  We are exiles here, and we work for the good of this place.

The twist on the story is that after seventy years -- however long that is in terms of this world's chronology -- we will not be called to go back to our homeland.  Instead, we wait for Jesus to come and claim his rightful place as Lord of this city, King of this land.  Part of the miracle is that in that day when all things are made new, the work you have done here to benefit this place will be incorporated into the new heavens and new earth that God will create in fulfillment of all things.

So what task is in front of you?  What small thing can you do today to work for the good of this place?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Mission Culture

One of the things I'm most excited about at Central Lutheran Church these days is what some people call a "mission culture."  More and more we see people who are passionate about reaching beyond their own context to help their neighbors who live on the other side of the world.  We have had teams travel to Tanzania, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Jamaica, Haiti, and more.  Last night my family had the privilege of meeting with the Honduras team.  We're anticipating a January trip to that country to work with the Manuelito Project, a residential program for street kids who have been rescued from homelessness and worse on the streets of Tegucigalpa.  This will be the third time a team from Central has gone to Honduras.

Ten years ago Central had just one mission team that traveled to Mazatlan, Mexico.  In the decade since, mission trips have exploded.  Dozens of people have experienced the adventure and excitement and discomfort and heartbreak and joy of short term missions.  I thought, looking around the room last night, how exciting it is to see people who are established in their lives here -- they have houses, children, mortgages, car payments, jobs, lawns, soccer practice, and all kinds of other obligations -- and they make it a priority to save or raise money and cordon off time so they can give a week or two to a mission.  

One of the exciting dimensions of this transformation is that I see people starting to understand the Bible in new ways.  When Jesus says, "Go make disciples ..." these people have a deeper understanding of what he's talking about.  When Paul writes, "I became all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some," veterans of mission trips have an inkling what he meant.

At the same time, I wonder (as I often do), "What is the next step deeper?"  One of the reasons I wonder about this is that my daughter Erica is in Honduras right now.  She'll be coming home late in July.  She'll have been away from home at that point almost six months.  Her first four months away, she was part of a study abroad program for college.  Now she is spending two months at the Manuelito Project as a volunteer.  People who have gone on a one or two week mission trip deal with lots of issues.  What I see Erica dealing with is a whole lot deeper.  I think over the next couple months she will begin to understand passages like this one, from Mark 10: 

"23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See,we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Where does this mission culture grow from here?  One of the realities for us to grapple with is that people my age are often too rooted, too established, to respond to a call to go deeper.  Certainly there are people who have deep roots who sense God's call to uproot, sell the house and the minivan and go into missions long-term, and I affirm and applaud that.  They are a challenge and an inspiration to the rest of the church.  I am meeting more and more people who anticipate doing some kind of mission work in the next decade or two, as they pay off debts, get kids out of the house, and come to a place where they can do the stewardship work in order to become free.  "Free" in this case probably has more to do with getting rid of stuff rather than being financially independent.  But the reality is that relatively few established people will divest themselves and jump in the deep end of Jesus' call to go into all the world.

Another possibility is that the next generation will see new opportunities, and before they are up to their necks in time payments, they will seize the opportunity to leave home to follow Jesus cross-culturally.  These children have watched their parents go overseas for a week or two, and they in turn will think about going for a year.  They have seen their role models go without a new car or a vacation home or a vanilla latte in order to pay for a mission, or to fund someone else's mission -- and they will choose to keep their needs simple and do without many things in order to live among the poor long term.  They have watched adults transformed in a life-changing encounter with Jesus, and they will go to the ends of the earth to help people know Jesus in his life-changing fullness.

As they go, they will learn the hard lessons.  They will learn what it means to leave everything behind to follow Jesus.  They will experience the wrenching holiness of homesickness and the spiritual purification that comes with chronic diarrhea.  They will learn firsthand that when God's Spirit uses your body to do his life-transforming work, it is rough on your body.  They will know exhaustion, and fear, and loss.

At the same time they will experience a fullness, an utter dependence on Jesus, that shatters their thirst for every shiny object this world has to offer.  When they come "home" -- and that word will change for them, because home is where the heart is and it will not be purely in the landscapes of Minnesota any longer -- they will be uncomfortable and restless.  When they give their lives away at this level, they will begin to know what it means to have their "citizenship in heaven" as Paul writes in Philippians, and they will understand passages like this one from Hebrews 11:

"14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them."

We do not work and plan and change purely for our own sakes; rather, the work God's Spirit does in our lives carries his impact down into the generations.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Reading history

I've been reading Justo Gonzalez' two-volume work, The Story of Christianity.  Gonzalez does a wonderful job of making history personal, as he focuses mostly on stories of individuals who help the reader understand a specific time in history and the issues that were important at that time.  Volume One starts with the New Testament era and I'm about halfway through, moving into the early middle ages now.

It's been amazing to me reading this book just how much it helps me understand my own time and the struggles I see in the church today.  Over and over I shake my head and say (usually under my breath) "So THAT'S why!"

One example out of many: I have spoken and written (including on this blog) about the massive shift that occurred within Christianity in the 300's AD when Christianity became a legal religion, then became the only legal religion within the Roman Empire.  If we want to understand the seismic shifts that have been happening in the church during the last generation, we would do well to go back and study some of these things from 1700 or so years ago.

Here's an example of one of those shifts.  To offer some background, I have often pondered, looking at the church across the western world, why we all seem to be getting interested in social causes and social ministry about the same time, and why we are simultaneously getting so interested in the communal life of the church (like, for example, pastorates) and why we are simultaneously recovering an interest in the content of Jesus' teaching, namely the "kingdom of God."  (I'm resisting the temptation to launch into a massive series of posts about each of these topics right now.  It's tough, because they're each so timely and important and these three topics, together, are sweeping across the western church these days.)  Don't get me wrong, I love these three elements that are growing in prominence in the church today, and I thank God that his Spirit is moving in these directions and creating a buzz around these three things.  But why now?

Gonzalez points out that in the 300's AD, when the church went from being an illegal, marginal movement to being an established religion that dominated the Roman Empire in alliance with the ruling powers, these three things -- focus on the kingdom of God, tightly-woven faith-based community living, and social ministry -- all disappeared or were transformed in the midst of that change.

This quote from Gonzalez will illustrate at least a little of what I'm talking about.  Gonzalez is explaining the views of Eusebius, who was a great historian of the early church and also an enthusiastic supporter of the new Christian establishment under Constantine.  He is typical of those who greeted Christianity's new alliance with the Empire with glad and optimistic hearts:

Eusebius described with great joy and pride the ornate churches that were being built.  But the net result of those buildings, and of the liturgy that evolved to fit them, was the development of a clerical aristocracy, similar to the imperial aristocracy, and often as far from the common people as were the great officers of the Empire.  The church imitated the uses of the Empire, not only in its liturgy, but also in its social structure.
... the scheme of history that Eusebius developed led him to set aside a fundamental theme of early Christian preaching: the coming Kingdom of God.  Although Eusebius does not go as far as to say so explicitly, in reading his works one receives the impression that now, with Constantine and his successors, the plan of God has been fulfilled.  Beyond the present political order, all that Christians are to hope for is their own personal transference into the heavenly kingdom.  Since the time of Constantine, and due in part to the work of Eusebius and of many others of similar theological orientation, there was a tendency to set aside or postpone the hope of the early church, that the Lord would return in the clouds to establish a Kingdom of peace and justice.  At later times, many groups that rekindled that hope were branded as heretics and subversives, and condemned as such.
(Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, p. 135)

In our day, as the assumptions of Christendom (the system in which Christianity is allied with the ruling powers) are dismantled, we are rediscovering the kingdom of God, that stands in tension with the agendas and aristocracy of the Empire.  Two aspects (among many) of that kingdom are the radical community life of Jesus' followers, and radical commitment to the poor.  Not to say that there hasn't been community in the last seventeen centuries, or that believers haven't helped the poor.  But both of these have been understood as secondary priorities, subordinate to the more important matter of personal salvation that gives individuals hope for a kingdom that exists only beyond death.

Biblical Christianity includes a severe tension with the ruling powers, because one cannot simultaneously claim Jesus as Lord and also burn incense to Caesar.