Lies and Myths

Aren’t kids in elementary school, or before, taught lying is wrong? Is that social convention or morality? Is lying always wrong? If you’re lying to protect the Underground Railroad, for example, then I’m going to go with not wrong. And perhaps to that classic question: Do I look fat? – it might be wise to say no, regardless of one’s honest opinion. Socially, we rarely say, ‘No, I’m not busy, but I don’t want to meet you;’ we create a socially acceptable alibi. And what about lying to our parents? I know several of the world’s religions have something to say both about how we treat our parents and about lying.

I have a friend whose 20-something offspring lies to him on a regular basis. It seems like this happens even when it just doesn’t matter, over the simplest questions. Perhaps the lies started when the kid wasLiarLiar younger and trying to craft a conflict-free space between divorced parents. Perhaps lying was easier than working things out honestly. A short-cut. What I have noticed from the outside-looking-in, is it seems that these routine lies present no apparent moral dilemma for my friend’s progeny.  Nonetheless the pattern of willful deceit is as hurtful to my friend as it is habitual for the kid. So maybe, the moral measure of the lie is the impact it has on others. In this case, I believe these lies are wrong because of how they hurt the parent and damage the relationship.

In everyday vernacular, the word myth has come to be interpreted as something that’s not true. I have the 1997 publication of the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (John Bowker, ed.) and in spite of offering numerous thorough and worthy definitions in over two pages, the Oxford also says that the word myth has “become synonymous with falsehood” (p.671). That is an unfortunate use of the word. Myths, some related to religion and some not, are more like fairy tales, by best definition, as I wrote about previously.

“Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales and Religion”

Not too many people read “The Three Pigs” and debate whether the story ever happened. Fairy tales entertain us with a story and offer some moral guidance. No one wants a house that the Big Bad Wolf can blow down in one exhale, so perhaps this story suggests we might prepare for the worst and take more time to build a safer house, literally or metaphorically. Myths can offer social and moral guidance, when the word myth is used in the most accurate sense, and perhaps we shouldn’t use cable TV as an example. I just tried to watch two different shows with myth in the title: “Myth Busters,” and “Myth Hunters.” The first program was just an excuse to crash cars and de-bunk or recreate movie stunts. I couldn’t stand watching more than two minutes.

I watched two episodes of “Myth Hunters” on Netflix with two different men trying to prove two different Biblical myths. One guy tried to locate Noah’s Ark and the other claimed he located the Ark of the Covenant (both of Jewish and Christian legend). What I could not understand is why. They thought that by “proving” these two things existed, they would prove god exists. The thing is that even if someone locates what seems to be Noah’s Ark, there there is no way to actually prove that’s what it is. The other thing is that faith should not come out of proof, but rather inspiration, study, meditation, or life experience, to name a few different paths. Faith is all about believing what can’t be proven. If you need a series of facts to support your religion, then maybe religion is not for you. Stick with science – which is not to say science and religion are mutually exclusive. The complexity and grandeur of the universe is inspiring to me. Mystical in fact. But my inspiration not destroyed by basic scientific principles like gravity, climate change, or evolution.

Our culture needs more myths. I can imagine a modern myth about a greedy stock broker who nearly caused the collapse of the economy while amassing so much personal wealth that he literally exploded and all his wealth was turned into gold coins that rained down on public housing. I can also imagine a kid who lies to a parent so much that every lie sucks her into a hole from which only her parent can provide rescue if there is just one honest request, but the kid no longer remembers how to tell the truth.

Myths offer us the possibility of social subtlety, which I would think would be welcome in our screaming mass media world. An entertaining story with a variety of interpretations and moral lessons can be appreciated or politely ignored. You get to choose. By contrast, there is no need for the arrogance of shallow, accusatory television evangelists spewing simplistic answers to complex issues. That is the dumbing-down of moral lessons, and again, arrogance.

I would cite the popularity of Harry Potter as evidence on how myth serves humanity, especially the young. The book series had a clear value system, primarily social justice and defeating oppressors. Who doesn’t want to hear that story? There was personal sacrifice for the greater good and compassion toward outcasts. These are welcome messages, with the potential for positive social impact. And apparently, I’m not the only one who likes the Potter myth or J.K. Rowling would not have gone from welfare mother to billionaire.

While suffering the fools pursuing a real Noah’s Ark on Netflix, I found myself pondering it as a myth. It is not so hard to imagine a god disgusted with humanity and ready for a do-over. Then I think about Noah and what I take-away from that myth is that maybe, just maybe, one good person can make a difference. You may be mocked, it may mean tremendous sacrifice, but the flooding will come to an end and there will be rebirth, somewhere, somehow. And all that rebirth was made possible because God found one good person. One good person prevented the complete destruction of the world as he knew it; and, also noteworthy, lots of animals were saved.  Finding Noah’s Ark doesn’t prove Noah or God exist, but not finding his boat doesn’t mean the story is a lie, or without value. It doesn’t matter if it happened, it is a myth. It is a story that engages our imagination and gives us something to think about. One good person made a difference in spite of personal sacrifice and that is a myth to live by. – J.B.

The problem of ‘god’s will’

Usually I open one of these columns with some story, some episode that reminds me of something else, etc., etc. Today I’m jumping right in the deep end of the metaphoric pool because my spouse is an occasional Presbyterian and has me thinking about the old school Presbyterian conservatives still embracing predestination. I find this annoying. If you don’t know, the short definition for predestination it is that everything is fate, determined in advance. It is a scripted fate and we are just actors in a play who are only given a few pages at a time, with the ending changing (or occurring) at any moment. In response, allow me to use a weighty theological term: rubbish.

The best friend of predestinationists, like fundamentalists (of any religion), is rationalization. That’s because no human can adapt these simplistic, rigid theologies without rationalizing all the obvious and daily events that make their theology absurd and logic impossible. When something good happens to them, it is god’s will. When something good happens to their enemies then god’s will is a mystery. And have you ever noticed that folks with these narrow theologies always have a long list of enemies? Me, I have secret admirer type enemies. They don’t know who they are, but I remember the last time they crapped on me. Mercifully, it’s a short list. One of those was a boss who bullied me and just got fired. He’s off the list now. Once justice kicks in, I’m cool. I never took it personally; after all, he was just another misogynist. Plenty more out there.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s new book, Small Victories. I do enjoy reading her books and find someSmall Victories amusement and inspiration. Here I am on a holiday week-end, thrilled to not be schlepping off to work where people will be telling me what to do – or at least strongly implying it. I get to sit home in my sweats and read.  Yippee.  Then Lamott slips (I hope) and writes: “…that could not possibly be God’s will for us…” (p.245). Lamott is frequently sarcastic, which I love, so maybe it was that kind of reference. I still found it disturbing. I don’t mean that in a reluctant or funny way either.

The biggest problem I find in touting a god’s will vernacular is that it eliminates human responsibility. Those rationalizing away may suggest that the human experience is about seeking that perfect Will. Again: rubbish. I recognize that as a Westerner, I have probably been infused with too much individualization and not enough community. That said, if my own human experience is not mine to define, then what is the point? I don’t see a cosmic or theological value in stumbling through the fog to figure out a mysterious plan by a seemingly arbitrary, and often capricious but omnipotent deity. No thank you. Of course it’s true that I regularly feel battered by life. But those miserable events were not prescribed by the God of Job allowing the Devil to keep throwing shit at me to prove whether or not I’m faithful.

What I am reluctant to admit, is that I’m a person of faith. That is because, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a role model. It is also because when people talk about faith, it is usually because they really want to talk about their own ideologies. Faith is deeply personal and can’t be imposed by others. We can only figure this out for ourselves, like it or not. That, I believe is a life-long process.

I have been visiting and collecting data on weekly worship for more than a year. When my research is concluded, I will have been to every place of worship within two miles of my house, stretching to 10 miles in order to fully cover most denominations and religions in proximity. Because this country has a Christian majority, I have been to only Christian churches so far. For the most part, I wanted to see for myself if churches are dying and why people go. What I have found, and for this I have sufficient data, is very few churches are welcoming and friendly. I determine this by observing whether I am invited back and if anyone greets me – other than the usher who is assigned to that as a duty. I do my best to blend-in, I smile endlessly (but just short of crazy) and don’t really speak unless spoken to, so it’s not that they read my blog or know what I’m thinking. (Whew.) The majority are neither welcoming nor friendly. Yes, the majority.  (One example follows.)

 “Open Door” – Closed Minds

I have another observation, but it is more anecdotal: the more rigid and ideological the church, the less welcoming and friendly. I have been sitting in a number of these churches where both the subtle and overt message was about god’s will. People seem to climb into this thinking as if it was the lap of a good parent. I observed it to be more of a comfortable indulgence, than the discomfort of being challenged to be a better person or help the suffering. The other observation I’ve made, which is also anecdotal, is that the more the church engaged in service to others outside their own club, the healthier the church seemed. For many churches, I have felt anger or pity. For the churches which are driven to help others, I felt hope and saw vitality.

I have faith that life is about experiences and compassion. It is more about learning from my own mistakes, for which I accept responsibility, than prayer for a divine map. In this Anne Lamott is right in identifying “Small Victories.” Sometimes that’s all we’ve got. Many religions talk about grace, though using different words for it. The Lutherans think they own that word, they do not. If I were to pray for grace, I would imagine it as a way to respond to life’s crap with more compassion than bitterness. And I would further request the grace to notice the suffering around me and work to find ways that I am capable of responding. I do request help from the Universe in this pursuit, not because it’s God’s will or to earn an enviable placement in heaven, but because life gets really difficult. I fail a lot – again, I’m nobody’s role model. But I do not need to be forgiven for not following a plan I don’t know about. I just need a little help to get back up, and to recognize those “Small Victories” along the way. – J.B.

Tiny Houses and Religion

TinyHouse

Tiny Houses by Jay Shafer

When I think about what I most like doing at home, it is reading, writing, watching birds/squirrels/rabbits in the yard, and hanging-out with my cats – no disrespect to my spouse. (He’s just noisier and higher maintenance.) If I have a vice, other than eating chocolate and all forms of sugar, it is that I like entertaining. I’m not great at it, and meals are not gourmet, but I will have cloth napkins, fresh flowers, quality food, and wine. This is what I expect of myself. My entertaining is not extravagant, but I could not do it in a Tiny House.

“We the Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters” By Kirsten Dirksen

Though I envy those Tiny House people, I do have some stuff that I want to have around me; however, I don’t have offspring and what means something to me now, will mean nothing to those who are left to disperse my humble possessions after my demise. Maybe it will fall to my nieces, who I pray I have taught to not just send it all to the landfill, but at least find a thrift shop. So being middle-aged, I’m looking around thinking what a pain in the ass it will be for someone to deal with all this crap. And yet, a Tiny House? Where will I put my table linens? The litter boxes?

There you have it, the minimalist quandary. What do I keep? What do I shed? What do I refuse to take in? It’s no different in religion. The way that the major religions are practiced today is probably not the way they started, or even what used to be good about them. But do not be confused. Minimalism is not fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, as I define it, takes a religion to the fundamentals of days gone by, without a sense of context, e.g. Biblical Literalists. A minimalist view would look at the essence of a religion. In other words, I believe religious minimalism can be found in understanding the context of religious thought without being limited by its history or even modern corruptions. (All religion is interpretive and minimalism is one interpretation.)

Perhaps Buddhism is the Tiny House of religions. For me, it is the first religion that comes to mind in thinking about minimalism because it is both complex and simple. What is the essence of Buddhism? It depends who you ask. You could get answers like: mindfulness, life is suffering, detachment, compassion, noble truths, meditation, and so much more.

Buddhism can be practiced simply, but reconciling compassion with detachment always seemed complex to me. For example, one interpretation of Buddhism had monks sweeping the ants from the walkway in front of them, lest they step on and kill any of them. Yet in another account, I read about a Japanese monastery that drowned unwanted kittens – or worse, loosed their aggressive dog to do the dirty work and kill the kitten violently, (Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, 1973, p.35-6). They must have had some discomfort with this killing because they did it at night. I introduce this story not to accuse those particular monks of hypocrisy, but to identify the difficulty in making choices and reconciling values. Essential Buddhism to me is found in the quote which I thought was the Buddha, though I have been unable to substantiate, it is: “Look at the world through the eyes of compassion.”

We could use more compassion. We now live in a world with rants and deeply disturbing photos posted online with global access. Last week there was a picture of a starving African woman on my Twitter feed. Some American (I think) white male responded by saying, “f-her.” Really? Condemnation for starvation? That makes no sense. I responded with something like, “Why are you so angry? Why does suffering not reach you?” He responded by repeatedly Tweeting a photo of himself (I assume) to jam-up my Twitter feed. I am baffled by his attitude, just as I am confounded by a world with the sophistication of social media and the barbarity of be-headings.

What is the appropriate response to proud, showy brutality, for the civilized and compassionate of the world? (Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly has a good story on this – link below.) I don’t think it is a time for Buddhist detachment in terms of action; but it is definitely time to detach from the vengeful emotions that I believe Buddhists rightly warn us would perpetuate the pain to which we might hope to respond in the first place. Even though it is popular to equate religion with conflict, the essence of most religions is compassion. A minimalist approach to these religions can inform better choices in a complex world.

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on ISIS

I am one of those people who lives paycheck-to-paycheck and spends significant time worrying about money, so I’m not judging – I’m right there with you, but the financial obsession of Americans at all income levels, leaves little energy left to consider or confront difficult and painful social issues, local or global. I believe our consumer-culture and aggressive capitalism has anesthetized us from being all that we can be as human beings. In the grind of getting to work, staying employed, and paying the bills, it is nearly impossible to feel empowered. It’s even difficult to get Americans to vote and that is a simple, civic act that costs us nothing and is usually less than one mile from our homes. Do you know what does feel good? Yes, spending money.

I don’t have the answers, but I am comfortable posing some questions. What choices will I make today that will keep my life more simple, with fewer material distractions? What actions can I take that will not support global aggression? What thoughts and intentions can I nurture in myself that will send healing energy to the hungry and abused? What actions must I take to demonstrate my compassion and take it beyond private intentions? To quote Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Only don’t know.” Begging indulgence from my Buddhist friends, my unenlightened Western interpretation is that I don’t think we should stop asking questions, but rather remain humble in our pursuit of right action and right thought. Life happens in the small choices. Should I buy it? Should I keep it? What does vacation really mean? Does this activity nurture my soul or sedate it? “Only don’t know.” –J.B.

Wet Suits and Suicide

The first time I was breathing underwater with scuba gear it was in a Kansas YMCA swimming pool. Breathing underwater was as amazing as the final test was terrifying, for which a mandatory free-ascent without oxygen was required. It took me three tries. However, my success had the intended result. I learned that in spite of my instincts, I could ascend from 40-feet of very cold, muddy water on a single breath. Since the test was early spring in a huge Arkansas lake, we were wearing wet suits.

Wet suits are another thing that don’t seem logical. When you get in the water, it soaks WetsuitCroppedyour suit. Your body then warms the water, very quickly, which continues to serve as a layer of warmth and protection from the cold water. I would love to walk around life with a social wet suit, protecting me from the cold-shoulders we inevitably bump into.

The thing about a wet suit is that out of water, walking around is exhausting. What was a layer of protection in the cold water becomes untenable on land. I think that clinical depression, for some, is like walking around land in a wet suit, but without it actually keeping you warm. It is like a permanent, cumbersome weight that you can’t figure out how to peel off. And at the risk of extending the metaphor too far, I would say that the wet suit of depression can convince one that taking it off would be worse than the misery of wearing it. Those on the outside might say, “Just take it off,” as in ‘get over it.’ But of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There are probably many groups of experts on suicide, but one of them which keeps statistics is the American Association of Suicidology (which is a word, and is the study of suicide prevention per Webster). They tell us that more women attempt suicide, but more men succeed, for example. A Washington Post story reports that there has been an alarming spike in the rate of suicide in white, middle-age men since 1999.

The Washington Post on Suicide and Robin Williams

While I am very sad about the loss of Robin Williams, I believe he made a choice that was his to make. We’ll never know what he was thinking at the time, but I can see that maybe he was just tired of walking around on dry land in a wetsuit and flat-out couldn’t figure how to get the damn thing off. The Parkinson’s was one more utterly exhausting obstacle – like trying to run track in a wetsuit. In Robin William’s case, he would have been expected to make jokes for everyone else while doing it.  Maybe he just thought,  “Enough is enough.” That he apparently hung himself does creep me out, but there should be some recognition for him in staying clean-and-sober to the end of his days, after what I’ve read was years of struggle.

In the last few days, in casual conversations in various settings and comments online, on radio and television, I’ve heard people say, “What about those he left behind?” “What a shame.” I remember someone telling a suicide story about an acquaintance saying, “Suicide is an angry act. It hurts everyone left behind.” Suicide may have a ripple effect on those left behind, but it is the most deeply personal act possible. It’s just not about you. That is not said to diminish the pain of those left behind. It is just to ask, why can’t people make a choice about their own exit?

HelenNearingBookCover

Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing

Helen and Scott Nearing come to mind. They were the original hippies, leaving a comfortable Manhattan life during the Great Depression and teaching themselves subsistence living in rural Vermont, then Maine. Their story is a good one, but what is relative to this topic is that at age 100, Scott was finished. He accomplished what he intended, he had no life-threatening illness, he simply stopped eating. He did indeed make a graceful exit. And it was his to make.

Goodlife Website on Scott and Helen Nearing

Disclaimer: I realize depression it is a treatable condition, not all people with depression are suicidal, and not all suicides can be linked to depression. Some would say that suicide can only be the result of mental illness. America may be a financially wealthy country but when it comes to mental health this is a primitive, unenlightened society. So, maybe the argument that suicide is linked to a treatable mental illness is often correct, but it is a moot point when mental health treatment is even less available and/or affordable than physical healthcare, for many of the non-wealthy. There’s the added problem that even if you have some insurance to help, you really don’t want mental health problems on your medical record. You know I’m right about that.

In our less-than-enlightened society, medical advances have outpaced ethics and common sense. People are living much longer, but not necessarily doing it well. Human beings are lingering beyond their ability to be productive, or even happy. Many are suffering painful, prolonged illnesses without the opportunity to get off the runaway train of medical science that lengthens life but can’t help us live it.

I was a hospice volunteer for several years. I learned that religion does not always support the dying or the suffering. In fact religion contributes to the shame around suicide. If someone is in so much pain they see suicide as a viable option, shaming them exacerbates the misery. One argument religions have used in condemning suicide is to assert the unerring sacred value of life – at all costs. This position is promoted even while all the major religions venerate martyrs. There are religious martyrs who died at their own hands and those who engaged in behavior that would make their death inevitable – that doesn’t even count religious wars. So a sweeping assertion about the unerring sacred value of life doesn’t hold consistent with how religions have been practiced historically.

As the article linked below says, it is not that long ago that a funeral mass was denied if the deceased committed suicide. While the Roman Catholic Church is now responding to suicide with more compassion, church teachings still make it clear that suicide is morally wrong. I single out the Roman Catholic Church because it is an easy and obvious target, but don’t think it is the only religion with discomfort around suicide.

CatholicDigest.com on Suicide

The thing about shaming suicide is that it makes people less willing to talk. The American Society for Suicide Prevention counts “Positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions such as marriage and religion that foster resilience,” as “protective factors for suicide prevention.” If someone is too ashamed to talk, how can they make those “connections?”

Preventing Suicide

I remind you that when it comes to faith, there are no certainties. That is actually what faith means – believing what can’t be seen or proven. So since it’s all speculation, maRobinWilliamsFBybe we could do the right thing and back off the judgment of the suffering and the tired. Suicide is mysterious. We can’t truly know what was going on. We can only try to pay attention to the people around us. And in any case, every adult deserves the opportunity to make a choice about their exit. To Robin Williams I say: Thank you. I respect your choice. Though we wanted more, you gave us plenty. – J.B.

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Families and Religion

Most of the major religions have stories about families, and often they’re confusing. However, if you are not comfortable with paradox, then you probably won’t be comfortable with religion in general, because many religious messages appear to be contradictory and are at least ambivalent, especially on messages about families.

Before the Buddha became the Buddha he left his family to find enlightenment. He never returned. Buddhism is a religion of compassion but it could be argued that abandoning one’s family is not compassionate.

Gandhi’s (Hindu) family was not so happy, with his parenting approach apparently as ascetic and tenacious as he lived his life. There was a play about Gandhi the man in the late nineties where the character of Gandhi’s wife said, “You have filled the entire sky with your love, like the clouds of a monsoon, but bend a little as you do, and pour a few drops into my son’s mouth.”

New York Times on Gandhi the man

Judaism has a story of God asking Abraham to kill his son. At the last minute God changed his mind and some poor goat was murdered instead. One irony of that story is that Abraham’s only (legitimate) son was supposed to father a nation, and there was Abraham raising a knife to him.

According to legend, three of the dominant religions of our time, came from that one man: Abraham. I’m not asserting that it is literally true, I’m telling you about the mythology of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Abraham was to be the father of the Jewish nation by his second son Isaac. His first son was Ishmael, who had a different mother than Isaac (not Abraham’s wife), and could be considered the father of Islam. Jesus became the catalyst for Christianity, and was himself Jewish.

I’m not going to interpret all these stories, I’m just pointing out that even in our religious mythology, families are not easy. In our routine lives, it can be a stretch just to have a pleasant special occasion. When it comes to hoping for a Hallmark-card kind of holiday, or even more unlikely – expecting a real family to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting – I think it is only for the lucky few or those in denial.

For many people, being around family requires sedation. I admit that I do not like to attend family events if there is no opportunity for a glass of wine. If that’s not possible-short of having a brown bag in the car, I allow myself the option to pre-medicate with my legal prescription of Xanax, the same as when I go to the dentist. I wonder what holidays are like with Bill Maher’s family? I bet they’re more fun than mine.

I love watching Bill Maher. It seems his two favorite drums, on which he beats regularly, are bad religion and good ColoradoSignmarijuana. With limits, I don’t disagree. Most of what Maher identifies as evidence that religion is bad, is evidence that religion is used badly. Most of what is good about marijuana, is not evidence that no one abuses it – or that there are not some very bad things about the infrastructure supporting marijuana use.

Here’s the thing, if marijuana were legalized it could be taxed and regulated. I call that job and revenue creation. And as to corruption and abuse, well there’s just no question that abuse and corruption occur even with legal substances. There’s also that ‘gateway’ argument; when it comes to marijuana as a gateway to worse drugs; well, for some people, beer is a gateway drug. For me, being around relatives is a gateway to drugs.

If we are to believe the mythology of the three Abrahamic religions then their inability to get along could be interpreted as an endless family feud, related as they are. What don’t families fight about? Who has more sheep? Who got a bigger inheritance? Who has a bigger house? Who gets to run the oilfields? Who has more successful kids? Then families turn into clans. Clans turn into tribes. Tribes turn into territories. Territories turn into countries. And all the time, the squabbling doesn’t stop. At some point people get killed.

For those of us who choose to explore religion, it goes with the entire complicated package of families and humanity. I have written this before and I still don’t know the original source, but human beings imagine the God we are capable of imagining – and most often our god resembles ourselves. People who thrive on hate, see an angry god. People who need rules and structure see a rigid, demanding god. And people who believe in love see a God of love.

Because bad people claim their actions are a result of religious imperatives, doesn’t mean it’s true. Bill Maher (on HBO’s “Real Time”) had Bobby Ghosh on his panel June 27th (managing editor of Quartz, qz.com). When it comes to religion and politics in the Middle East, he said it better than I ever have:

“ISIS is the worst, most successful terrorist group in modern times…They hate everybody. They are killing more Muslims than they are killing anyone else…It’s not about religion…It is a power struggle in which religion is a uniform. The Shia are not trying to convert the Sunni, the Sunni are not trying to convert the Shia. They are fighting for power…”

So, my point is that if families can’t get along, why does anyone expect it from tribes and countries? My big disappointment is if these three religions come from the same guy – according to their own mythology, then they ought to cut each other some slack and freaking learn to get along.  I mean, I keep showing up for Thanksgiving.  I’m the vegetarian bringing the damn turkey already.  True religious leaders should lead in promoting the common good, not themselves, and condemning – loudly – violence in the name of anyone’s religion.

Getting rid of religion would not reduce wars, violence, or conflict. These are unfortunate aspects of the human condition that all of us have experienced to some degree in our own flawed families. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better. And I think it’s ok if that takes a little sedation. Maybe they should pass around joints at Middle East peace talks. They could all relax and eat junk food and forget what they were fighting about. Think about the possibility of marijuana as a gateway drug to peace talks. And isn’t it great we have several months before Thanksgiving? – J.B.

Happy Graduation, 20-somethings – and good luck

Every time I hear Tom Brokaw talking about the “Greatest Generation,” I wince.  I understand why he would honor World War II veterans and want to tell their stories, but I’m hoping the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, will be greater.  The reason for this is because things seem a bit of a wreck to me, and I’m hoping they will do some fixing. I’m also hoping those graduating 20-somethings will forgive crap commencement speeches.

A few weeks ago I listened to a white, male, forty-something with this theme: “Be thankful. Be proud. Be great.”  His speech did not get any better than the lame title, worse, in fact.  And just when I was thinking he was too young to say anything interesting, the senior class president redeemed the whole day by saying, “I’m going to be someone who helps other people achieve their goals.” You go, Girl.

When I graduated from Penn we had Denzel. Yes, the Denzel Washington.  I’ll give you the link here because he really was that good.  He told us to “fall forward,” which should be read in the context of Ivy League super achievers unaccustomed to failure – and Denzel was recommending you be willing to fall on your face.  Here’s how he summed it up: “First, you will fail at some point in your life.  Accept it.  You will lose.  You will embarrass yourself.  You will suck at something…If you don’t fail, you aren’t even trying.”  I especially hope the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, embrace his thinking because as Denzel said, “And let me tell you, the world needs your talents.”

Denzel Washington’s graduation speech at Penn

In case you weren’t already depressed about the state of the world, there was a scientist on the Aljazeera network talking about the tons of plastic frozen in arctic ice.  It’s not bad enough we’re making polar bears extinct or that one day Pennsylvania will have beach-front property, now we have to think about the toxic plastic in the melting ice.   But that’s not all that worries me.

On the way to pondering the Millennials fixing the world, I noticed my 20-something relatives seem adverse to advance planning.  Since I am now the generation who shops for, prepares, serves, and cleans-up holiday meals, I have noticed great difficulty in getting a head count.  In fact the only way to know if there will be representation from that generation is if I see them walking through the door – seldom on time.  Not me, I’m a list person.  I might even add something already completed, but not listed, so I can feel the satisfaction of crossing it off.  Sick.  Yes, I know.  Now you can see why not planning ahead is beyond my understanding.  Still, how can they save the world if they never plan ahead or make a damn list?

In my effort to understand those younger, non-planners I read The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by Meg Jay, PhD, who writes on all 20-somethings, not just Millennials.  In Defining Decadewriting about the twenties she said, “Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age thirty-five,” (p.xiv).  The current context for today’s 20-somethings is that they are “more educated than ever before, but a smaller percentage find work after college,” (p.xxiii).  Now I’ll be the first to say that money isn’t everything – but survival is, and for most people that takes having a job.  Dr. Jay tells us that those who do have jobs are making less than their 1970s counter-parts, adjusted for inflation.  Here’s the thing, I don’t think they’re going to save the world if they can’t even find a job – or find one that pays the rent.

With all her case studies, research, and good advice for anyone who is floundering a bit, I was surprised that she didn’t talk about volunteering, or civic involvement.  There was a time civic involvement or church attendance were social obligations that only the most nefarious people ignored.  While it is good that these things are no longer empty obligations, it is sad to me that volunteerism continues to decline.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, volunteerism in this country has been around 26-27 percent for about a decade with a bump-up after 9/11.  In 2013 it fell to 25.4 percent which may seem insignificant, unless you understand that means that about two million fewer people are volunteering (4/7/2014, p.1).  The Corporation for National & Community Service reports that 65.4 million people volunteered in 2012, and if someone had been paying them it would have cost $170 billion.  Volunteering had been trending up with Generation Xers at 30.1 percent; Millennials are below Xers and the national average at 22 percent.

Volunteering in America

The Pew Research folks define Millennials as 18-29, named for “coming of age” at the millennium.  The Pew Forum’s “Religious Landscape Study” reported that only 18 percent of Millennials currently attend religious services weekly/nearly weekly.  When their Baby Boomer parents were young, it was 26 percent.  If you look at the percent of people who do not affiliate with a religion, 25 percent put themselves in this category.  For the generation in their 40s or 50s, it would be 15 or 14 percent respectively.

The Pew Forum

Here’s some good news, fewer Millennials are homophobic. Among Millennials, 65 percent say they should be accepted by society, whereas it is only 35 percent of people of 65 and older think that.  Our Millennials are not afraid of science, at least that is what I conclude from the percent who think evolution makes sense, 55.  And lest you think they are so liberal they have no moral compass, 76 percent believe there are standards of right and wrong, which is within one percent of older age groups.

Dr. Jay agrees that they are not all good at planning ahead, like my 20-something relatives.  But she agrees with the Pew research people that they do care.  They may volunteer less or have less interest in religion than the next demographic older, but they do care about a sense of right and wrong.  Still, they are better educated but more likely to be unemployed or under-employed. I hope they don’t go all French Revolution on us and storm the castle at Wall Street.  No wait, I would love that. I just hope they don’t revive the guillotine.

Reluctantly, I admit I am at an age that there are things I will not do and probably won’t see.  And though I have done my part to reduce my carbon footprint and recycle, I acknowledge we are leaving the next generation a hot mess. Tom Brokaw can have the “Greatest Generation” because we need the Better Yet generation to fix the mess the Greatest and Baby Boomers have left them. It’s time for a change in focus.  How can we help Millennials do what we didn’t do ourselves? Can I show you how to make a list?  And I’m ok if you’re always late or unable to RSVP, if you’re working on global climate change.  I’m sorry we stole Facebook from you, but you still have Instagram and Pinterest. How about using all these amazing resources for solving problems other than finding a ride to the next party?  I promise I will stop nagging about being on time and making lists.  – J. B. Good

Bullies and Religion

“Radiolab” replayed a story this month that mentioned hockey great Wayne Gretzky (NPR 2/9/2014,”Secrets of Success,” original air date 7/26/2010).  At the age of two, Gretzky’s parents put hockey on TV for him and when the game was over he would cry.  It seems at two, he loved the game that much.  My own early memory is so much less, but still similar.  On the first day of fourth grade we were required to write about our summer.  I recall thinking that I could probably survive fourth grade if all I had to do was write, of course, that was before the math began. 

I think that writing is a little different from the obsessive passion of the Wayne Gretzkys and Olympic hopefuls of the world, for example, because the writers I most enjoy have read a lot and lived life.  While it may be true about many passions, vocations, or the arts in general, it seems that there is a need for times of reflection and quiet – passion alone is not enough.  It has been my experience regarding both religion and writing, that periods of solitude and retreat are essential, especially when we are struggling.

Islam is projected to be the fastest-growing religion worldwide according to Pew Research (link follows), rising IMG_0924from 1.6 to 2.2 billion people by 2030.  All that started in a cave, with one person.  Mohammed, before he was the prophet he was to become, needed some solitude and developed a habit of retreating to a cave in the hills of Mount Hira outside Mecca, (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, 1991, p.224).

“The Future of the Global Muslim Population”

The Buddha, before he was the Buddha, was Siddhartha Gautama and born to a wealthy family, offered every comfort and luxury of his culture.  But he left it all behind, including a wife and son, to “live the life of a lonely forest-dweller…to rejoice in solitude,” (Huston, p.83-4).  And so, from solitude, two of the world’s great religions began.

In part, the retreat by Mohammed and the Buddha was a response to the suffering around them. In our post-modern world of runaway capitalism, I ask you to think about a basic and common form of suffering, workplace bullies.

The Philadelphia Business Journal did an unscientific survey of 173 responding readers and 58 percent said they knew of a supervisor at work who was bullying people; another nine percent said there was one who quit or was fired, which makes 67 percent.  PBJ asked the wrong question.  The question should have been: “Have you or any of your coworkers been bullied at work?”  I guarantee the number would have been higher, and 67 percent is not small.  If this number is representative, or as I suggest low, then lots of people are miserable at work.  They fear for their jobs, their health, and have little peace of mind.  Job satisfaction is a ridiculous fantasy when your spirit is crushed on a daily basis.  And even if your passion is outside of work, you drag home too depleted to pursue it.  You become Wayne Gretzky forgetting that there was a hockey game on tonight and just losing interest in the puck.

Bullying at Work in the PBJ

I assert that in a capitalistic society with the ever-widening gap between the disgustingly rich and the working poor, threatening someone’s livelihood is economic violence.  The expertise of the bullies is convincing you they can harm you, they are willing to do it, and enjoying the whole dirty business.  In some cases, they really can hurt you.  If, like most folks, you can’t quit because you need the job, you are stuck.  Has anyone noticed the workplace has gotten meaner?

There are a number of reasons that Mohammed and the Buddha needed solitude, and their response to suffering was, in my opinion, one of these reasons.  I had a shrink once who called it “strategic retreat.”  With enough retreat, meditation, contemplation, and if you are a person of faith – then prayer, I believe you can survive.

This is not my tidiest column.  I have started to write this several times over several months.  I intended to go on a rant about bullies and how I am just sure God doesn’t like them.  What I won’t do is defend them or rationalize their bad behavior because of a difficult childhood, or crap like that.  It doesn’t matter why they are a bully.  It matters who they are bullying and what weapons they are using.  It might be a jealous co-worker starting gossip or a supervisor who thinks you remind him of the sister who regularly called him on his shit.  The bully is not my preoccupation or priority, it is the victim.  If that is you, I want to let you know that you that you do not deserve this and that I recognize that your pain is real.

There are no easy answers for suffering, whatever the cause.  If your religion is not helping you with this, then consider reframing it.  I have read a little something about all of the major religions and some of the minors.  They all have something to say about suffering and some of it is helpful.  Don’t take any of it at first reading or what you were taught by others.  Allow yourself, like Mohammed, some time alone in the cave and see what comes to you.  I don’t have much faith and it is not common or traditional, but I do believe that if you are suffering, eventually there will be some measure of comfort come into your life.  You may not see justice served to the bully, but you might get some for yourself, which is much more important. – J.B.

Hell Hath No Fury: The Pissed-off Passive-aggressive Church Lady

ChurchTrialAt the time of this writing, two weeks have passed since the Methodist church trial in Pennsylvania, and two weeks remain for the final response to the quickie guilty verdict.  It is sad and paradoxical that the church denomination this minister served for 20 years wants him to choose human rules over his own conscience.  Rev. Frank Shaefer said, “Love was my only motivation.  I did what I believe Jesus called me to do and I acted out of love.”

One tension between atheists and people of faith is the response to paradox.  It is difficult to be a religious person if you have an intolerance of paradox.  Atheists interpret it as hypocrisy or evidence that religion is not valid.  I see it as interesting, often frustrating, and certainly sometimes it is hypocrisy.  In this case it is also tragic. 

I attended the first day of the Methodist church trial in rural Pennsylvania (11/18/2013) and read most of the news stories that followed.  It took place at their camp in rural PA about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.  Serving as judge, was a retired Methodist bishop with a pronounced southern accent and perpetually creepy smile.  He frequently reminded everyone that “this is the work of the church,” something about which I thought he should have been embarrassed.

Philadelphia Inquirer on church trial

Usually the secular press is not very good at covering religion.  I asked one of the reporters if he liked doing religion stories.  He said he likes the ones that are less theological and more about crime and religion, then told me that this one is “largely a theological argument.”  He is the same reporter who had the stones (literally and figuratively) to follow Shaefer into the men’s room at one of the breaks.  This guy did write a good story, but I do not agree that the trial represented a theological debate.  It is a story of church politics, which is not really about God or theology.  The trial and what it represents is exactly like current secular politics, with the conservatives waging war on progressives, in this case using obscure Bible passages and an outdated Methodist rule book as their weapons.

Reuters story

Methodists call their rules the Book of Discipline.  The index alone is 75 pages and the two sections of content are 364 and 467 pages.  What do you think are the odds that some Methodist pastor around the country is breaking another one of those rules?  Of course they are.  So the trial of Frank Shaefer and others is selective enforcement of a cultural hot-button issue.  Please don’t pretend that the church is above the prevailing culture.  The no-gay-marriage rule for Methodists is only 38 years old.  It was not carved in stone on the 10 commandment tablets.

The Methodist gym-turned-courtroom had bailiffs, a jury, and clergy serving as lawyers.  The jury was not truly comprised of Shaefer’s peers because the “leadership” of the Methodist church is not only clergy but deacons and elders who are lay leaders and not obligated to have a theological education.  The “counsel for the church” was an Ichabod Crane (pre-Johnny Depp) sort of conservative.  The defendant’s counsel seemed educated, well-intentioned, but weak.  The only two witnesses were first the accuser, Jon Boger, and then the accused, Rev. Frank Shaefer.

Meet the first witness, the accuser Jon Boger, who is active military and clearly fancies himself as a hero in this.  It seems on Facebook that he lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids, though at the trial he said he hasn’t lived with his family for 27 months, while starting to weep slightly – in a manly way, of course.  If you take a look at his Facebook wall you will see guns, dead animals, and the link to a story on why semen is good for women’s health.  Boger has “liked” Pat Robertson, yet on the stand he said he doesn’t go to church.  On the stand he also lumped gay rights, abortion and gun control together and talked about his “interpretation of the Bible,” which of course is more morally correct than Rev. Shaefer’s.  The Pennsylvania church-goer in the family is Boger’s mother Deborah, who is a Century 21 real estate agent in Lebanon, PA.  On her real estate Web site, she lists being a “senior choir director” at Shaefer’s church for 33 years.  Do you see where this is headed? 

Deborah Boger was at Shaefer’s church before he was, and she clearly expects to be there after he’s gone.  I maintain that hell hath no fury like a pissed-off passive-aggressive church lady.  No one reported, at the trial or otherwise, what that disagreement was about.  The “defense counsel” barely questioned son Jon about it.  The accuser, young Boger, described the disagreement as “Pastor Frank requested my mom’s termination.”  Termination means fired, though other accounts are that the pastor suggested she resign, which she didn’t do.

Within 30 days of the disagreement between the choir director and the pastor, the non-church-going out-of-state son, did some online research.  He located a document for a legal gay marriage in Massachusetts.  By the way, why didn’t Deborah Boger do her own dirty work?  And why did the Methodist church accept the accusation of a non-church-goer?

Nearly seven years ago, Shaefer presided at a restaurant wedding of his son and gay partner.  He reported this to his Methodist supervisor at the time.  Shaefer did not disclose it to his Pennsylvania church – probably because there are lots of homophobes there, but also because it was a private family function.  He was not making a political statement at that wedding.  He has not presided at any other gay weddings.  The gay community has not been a ministry for him, either expressed or covert.  He did not lie to his congregation; he kept family business private.  He was acting as a father who loves his son and believes God also loves and accepts his son.

When testifying, one of the quirky things Jon Boger said, which was picked-up by a few of the reporters, “When I see him, I see a clerical collar that is shattered.”  That is a nice sound bite; however, it was odd because every single clergyman (of course they were all white men) at the trial wore a suit and tie, not the collar of clergy, which many Methodist ministers do not wear.  Further, take a look at the church’s Web site and you will not see even a necktie on Pastor Frank.  So who coached Jon Boger on that sound bite?

Zion United Methodist Church of Iona

Methodist Web site version of the first day of the trial

A huge blow to Christian compassion was delivered in the closing comments by Ichabod.  Here’s how the Washington Post reported: ‘“You’ll give an account for that [verdict] at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.’  Prior to that threat, Ichabod had implied that the reason Shaefer’s son is gay is because of parents who don’t “have their children in proper submission.”  He raged against “sexual immorality and perversion.”  Again, this is why people don’t go to church.

Washington Post story

Even with seedy church politics, vengeance of the church lady, and the redneck military son, there was an inspiring paradox.  In the gallery during the trial there were about 100 people, with another 30-ish outside.  Among the spectators, inside and out, about 90 percent were there supporting Shaefer.  When Ichabod was on his final tirade, appointing himself to speak for an angry judgmental god, something happened in the gallery with the spectators.  Slowly, without prior collusion, the people started to stand silently in an unspoken protest of his homophobic Biblical interpretation.  It was not pre-planned because most of the people there came from different geographic areas and didn’t know each other.  It was silent, one-by-one, and powerful.  It gave me chills.  As the jury was being dismissed the same people started spontaneously singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

In everything I write on this blog, now nearly 10,000 views, it is my intention to tell you a story that is worthy of your consideration, whether you are a person of faith, an atheist, or someone in between.  It is my hope that as a reader, in the story of Rev. Frank Shaffer, you see something of humanity at our best, in a father risking his career for his son and his conscience.  For every good and decent Frank Shaffer in this world, there will be a pissed of church lady, an avenging son, and a host of those in hierarchy who want to put someone in their place, simply to prove they can.  This is not only in religion, but neither is religion above it.  It is a human dynamic, sadly.  So when someone is out there trying to do good stuff, stay tuned, because there will be someone trying to undermine them, fire them, or worse.  I encourage you to look for your opportunity to stand silently – or not so silently – supporting the Frank Shaefers of the world. – J.B.

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“Open Door” – Closed Minds

If I was younger and had a lot of money, I would go back to school and become a shrink for people who are messed-up by religion.  For now, I am writing a blog while trying to work some things out with you.  To that end, I have written about news stories that are perceived as religion but aren’t.  Well, not today because there are some truly dreadful clergy out there.  (Here’s a link to an all-time awful list posted in 2008 by Foreign Policy.)  My new favorite worst clergy are the type that are up front nearly every Sunday spewing bad theology, usually accompanied by bad psychology, and frequently laced with acidic politics.

 “The Worlds Worst Religious Leaders”

Initially I started visiting churches because I came to wonder why people went at all.  If you are atheist or agnostic and patient enough to read this blog (thank you), then you may still be wondering why and I’m not sure this column will help.  Regardless, here are links to the two prior columns on the weekly worship visit project.

 All Things Religious: “Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship”

All Things Religious: “The Dying Church

To accompany these visits I’ve been reading the Diana Butler Bass (2007) book ButlerBassChristianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  She did her own research, far more in depth (and better financed) than mine.  She looked for and found successful mainline Protestant churches and took a close look at what made them vital.  I decided to drive to one of the churches she wrote about, to which I will return later.

I have biked past another church many times and when I was a server, waited on a couple that went there.  (As I recall they said something homophobic and tipped 15 percent.)  Since I intend to visit every church, mosque, or synagogue within two miles of my house, I went.

A word about context, if you are inexperienced with Christian churches.  What used to be called the “Old Testament” is now referred to as the Hebrew Bible, though there are variations in content.  The “New Testament” has the Jesus stuff, as well as writings from early Christianity.  The “Gospels” tell about Jesus life and allegedly quote him.  In my recent visits to Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and UCC churches, it was common to have multiple readings from different parts of the Christian Bible (as with Roman Catholics).  So when the independent “Open Door” church had only one reading from the Hebrew Bible, it was odd.  That is was the book of Ezra, was especially unusual.

One other word of context, this time regarding “independent” churches; “independent” meaning they are unaffiliated with any larger church group or denomination, though you should not assume they are independent thinking.  In fact they are a theological island without ecclesiastical oversight.  In other words, the guy at the pulpit (and it usually is a guy) can say anything he likes.

The primary message that this pastor extracted from Ezra, for which he had PowerPoint slides, was threefold and I think might be used by the CIA to teach agents not to trust anyone.  He warned church goers about the “mask of support, the menace of temptation, and the misery of advice.”  In his 50-minute performance he repeatedly talked about spiritual battles and “Satan’s bag of tricks.”  In other words, just because people appear to be supportive, doesn’t mean they aren’t being used by the Devil.  I interpreted this as don’t trust anyone.  I sat there wondering why any of them chose to trust him for advice.  To me, he seemed to have a lot of issues.  He was nurturing fear and distrust.  If they took him at his word, every human interaction is suspect.  This kind of paranoia is no way to live, and neither is it a Christian way to live.

In the sermon that seemed to never end and the pastoral prayer that was also long and meandering, there were four sarcastic political comments.  Yet in all this time, not one mention of Jesus or reference to the Gospels.  There was no talk about the love of God or Jesus’ ministry of social justice.  There were snide remarks about the NAACP and Palestinians.  Though I doubt that there was much political or economic diversity in the congregation of nearly 200, I estimated racial diversity at three percent.

With this guy, I kept wondering, why is he so angry?  Not his delivery, exactly, but worse, the content.  I do understand that feeling angry and self-righteous attracts a lot of people to religion.  But that clergy should nurture fear and anger is egotistical and irresponsible.  In fact, this is exactly how terrorists are cultivated.

Fortunately, I had taken my Kindle.  I’m sure the locals thought I was following along in my Bible.  Actually I was reading Butler Bass because I desperately needed to remember there are some normal compassionate folks out there.  But I do have 50 Shades of Gray loaded on the same Kindle and could have just as easily been reading that – and it did amuse me to think I might.

Not surprisingly, other than the formal hand-shaking in the service, not one person spoke to me or invited me back.  I thought I saw someone I knew so I even hung around in the lobby for an extra five minutes, and still not a word from anyone.  (Did they know I wasn’t one of them?)

The Church of the Open Door and Closed Minds experience was unlike my field trip to Virginia.  It was 11 hours travel (round-trip, same day) for about a one-and-one-quarter hour service.  I was greeted by several people and invited back.  Even though St. Mark’s was about the same size as “Open Door,” the atmosphere inside was different, even before the service.  Folks were really mixing it up in the large, open interior courtyard.  There were several displays for service projects and they have a “café” that serves full meals twice a week.

In the St. Mark’s sermon, which was about 15 minutes, what I took away was hope and “You are the presence of heaven in this world.”  I think they take this seriously because they listed over 30 areas of service in their weekly bulletin.  (There were none unrelated to proselytizing in the Open Door’s bulletin.) The children’s story at St. Mark’s was about helping kids across the globe.  It was goofy, but sweet with an old guy acting the part of a kid from Ecuador.

I could go on, but I want to emphasize the contrast in these two experiences.  At St. Mark’s there was an atmosphere of welcoming outsiders, a theology of hope and love, and the action of serving the needs of the community – locally and globally.  It is hard for me to understand how these two churches could even be the same religion.  Though really, they are not.  The Open Door-Closed Mind “Church” is the religion of Rev. What’s-His-Name, building distrust, validating judgement and encouraging petty politics.  St. Mark’s participates in a religion of compassion.  I wish it could be said that for every Open Door-Closed Minds church there’s a service oriented community of faith like St. Mark’s.  Not likely, but I’m glad I found one.  – J.B.

Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship

My neighborhood is what planners would call ‘older ring suburbs.’  We are close to the city limits (five miles), we have mixed-design housing, and there are actually large, mature trees.  While our house is probably the oldest and most modest in the neighborhood, you can be sure that the majority of our neighbors have granite counter-tops in their kitchens, unlike our c. 1940 pre-Formica.  One close neighbor tore down a 1960-ish two-story colonial and built a mini-mansion on top of it, well beyond the original footprint.  They have an uncharacteristically large yard in which their children seldom play and the hired help grooms.  This house appears to meet the needs of their ego, but I am unconvinced it is truly necessary for their family.  Not surprisingly, this same family needs two trash toters every week, unlike the one everyone else is allotted.

This neighborhood is in a school district where the public school is considered good.  I’m not sure if that perception refers to the quality of the education, the absence of violence, or the real estate.  The highly-paid administrators decided that the condition of the local high school was not becoming of their ego and launched a major expansion.  (The vote for this increase in property taxes took place during an off-peak primary when many retirees were wintering in Florida.)  A friend of mine who is a PhD went to one of the hearings and asked how new buildings would impact the student-teacher ratio and how the property enhancements would improve education.  There was no answer.  Before the final landscaping was completed, the same school claimed budget distress and started laying-off teachers.  Seriously, the grass had not grown next to the newly expanded parking lot when teachers lost their jobs, you know, the people who really do impact the quality of education.

With my local school and with churches, I would question how organizational mission and core activities correspond to theOpenHouseChurchSign real estate.  I have been taking a look at churches and places of weekly worship.  I first announced this research in a previous blog, “The Dying Church,” last March.

“The Dying Church”

According to ChurchPick.com there are about 15 churches or synagogues within two miles of our home.  I have been collecting data and taking notes on these visits.  (I haven’t been to mosques or synagogues yet, but I will begin those visits this fall.)  On my way to visiting 30 churches in 50 weeks, I am about halfway.  I have been to Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker services.  I have nearly finished my Baptist visits which included a small church in a suburban town, a mega-church in the city, a large suburban church (near a strip mall, but not a neighborhood), and an urban, family congregation.

I am collecting measurable specifics in my data, and I am making observations whether these houses of worship are welcoming and/or friendly.  I define this by: 1) Friendly = was I greeted by anyone other than the usher (it’s their job); 2) Welcoming = was I invited to return? 

Most often I go alone, but sometimes my spouse joins.  Now he makes friends wherever he goes, so his presence tends to skew my data slightly.  Still, with or without him, I have been shocked to see how few churches invite me back.  Also, my experience has been that the larger churches didn’t have anyone greet me, beyond an usher handing out programs.  Every place I visited had some ritual toward visitors as part of their service, and many had a structured greeting of each other in the service.  Well, that doesn’t count folks.  If I were sincerely church shopping and not one person talked to me except at the required time, I would not return.  Period.  Once and done.

If I expand my ChurchPick.com search to five miles, I have more than 50 possibilities.  Naturally, folks would narrow their selection to the brand name of their liking, Methodist, Roman Catholic, etc. but there are still there are a lot of choices.  If you just need a brand name and a place to go, it’s a buyer’s market.  (I once told someone I didn’t like the town in which I worked because there were too many churches and not enough bars, which inevitably means long on judgment and short on fun.)

The former Episcopal bishop in Philadelphia said it takes 200 people for most churches to be financially self-supporting, but the average attendance of churches is under 100.  This simple math takes me back to real estate.  One church I visited has capacity of 200 and has an average attendance of 60.  There is another church I visited a couple years ago that has dealt with their declining participation by renting to the Christian Scientists on Saturday, the Korean Presbyterians early Sunday morning, then enjoying their own service late Sunday morning, with a part-time priest who participates little in the life of the church during the week and whom they share with another parish.  Kudos for welcoming the Koreans and Christian Scientists, but why do you continue to strap that real estate to your back?

All this finally takes me to Happy Hour.  My spouse and I have a favorite dive bar where you can get a half-pitcher of Yuengling Lager (America’s oldest brewery and a nice beer, thank you) for about $4, and it’s usually more than half-full.  We can either socialize, or sit in a booth and mind our own business.  It is a familiar and comforting setting.  Whether we go there with old friends or by ourselves and we feel welcome.  We are always greeted.  We are always invited back.

I have spent time with more than one seasoned member of the clergy who has reminded church committees that church is not entertainment.  Well, in its ideal state, perhaps not.  I remain unconvinced that church is different from Happy Hour for most people, if they are painfully honest with themselves.  It is an affordable place to go where they expect to meet like-minded people. 

Whether or not church is more than a Happy Hour experience, what kind of worship space do you really need?  How much of the group’s collective ego is attached to the real estate?  Is the building an expression of the church you wish you were?  In the absence of a building, how would you define church?  What I am finding in my visits as a barometer of church vitality is what John Dilulio (former faith czar for two presidents in two different parties) calls “non-member services.”  What are you doing for people other than yourselves?

Whether the Christians like it or not (and lots don’t) this is a pluralistic society.  Religious diversity is not just about denominations, but other religions.  When I think about real estate and religion, I have a dream of one building housing three Abrahamic religions (to start).  The Muslims can pray on Friday, the Jews can pray on Saturday and the Christians can pray on Sunday.  They can each have shared worship space and shared community space.  During the week their young people can use the community space for after-school programs where interfaith community is not just talked about, but lived.  The real estate becomes the metaphor for what each of them could tell you their God expects from them.  And perhaps they could work together to tackle social justice, because there is no end to the possibilities for service there

Let go of the building and redefine what weekly worship and church mean to you.  Find a way to distinguish yourself from Happy Hour.  By the way, Happy Hour is crowded – church, not so much. – J. B. Good

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