Category Archives: Religion in America

March on, Democracy. March on.

When you look up at the sky, what do you see? Meteorologists must see the presence or absence of clouds and the likelihood of precipitation. Astrologers probably think, “When are we finally going to rotate away from that sun so I can 16142735_10211738442004652_2931030917139632431_nsee stars?” Religious people often look up there and imagine God in Her heaven, wistfully, blissfully, earnestly, or desperately. I’m not sure what atheists see. Maybe they just say, ‘I’m glad I’m alive to look up at this sky.’ That’s close to what I was thinking on Saturday, January 21st when I was in our nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington. I looked up to the sky and said, “I am glad I am here.” And just in case Mother God was listening, I said, “Thank you.”

When I first decided to march, it was to protest the election of a wannabe Emperor who has boasted about assaulting women and inspired millions to freely come out to express their inner bully and wide-spread bigotry. His character flaws and shocking mental health issues are too numerous to waste words here. As we got closer to the March day, I just wanted to make myself a better citizen. I traveled with three acquaintances whom I barely knew before the March and I now consider good friends. They stayed overnight at my house so we could make a 5:15 a.m. bus with as little pain as possible. The night before we all admitted to both hope and skepticism that the March would make a difference.

The March program opened with one of the most deeply spiritual expressions I’ve ever experienced  – and please note here I’m a religion writer who has been in quite of few religious gatherings in my life. The program started with what the organizers called a “song” but I would call a chant or a musical prayer. If YouTube is correct, it was the Native American Norine Hill from #IndigenousWomenRise. I hope you will find a quiet place and click on this link. Please imagine yourself outdoors under an overcast sky with people in every direction, and even in the trees. Then listen. I don’t know if there were words, or what her intention was, but I heard a call to all of our souls, to rise to the greater good.

Native American opening song

I don’t really like crowds. I like to be home where it’s quiet with my dog and cat at my side. It takes something to get me out, other than working for a living, of course. But the experience started much before daylight when three buses left from my small suburban community and joined 1,900 of them in the stadium parking lot. Then a very diverse river of people climbed stairs, walked to the Metro station, got in and out of subway cars, then inched out onto the street. All the while in the metro station there were sweeps of chants and a sort of woo-hoo kind of high musical sigh that was to your ears what the wave at a sports stadium would be for your eyes.

The YouTube video was shot close to where I was standing, which was blocks from the stage. You can see people actually climbed the tree to get a better look. This img_20170121_100727street was intended to be a route for the walking part of the March, but it was too crowded. After a couple hours of standing with a crowd pressing in, I got a little claustrophobic, so we inched our way from where the crowd was packed to an area where it was only slightly less packed behind the Smithsonian and toward the Mall.  All the while, people were pouring in from every direction. We walked about 10 or 15 blocks to find something to eat. The whole time we were walking away from the stage, people from every direction were streaming in. While we ate lunch we watched the March on a muted CNN in the restaurant and realized that it so much bigger than we could comprehend at street level. When we went to return to the marching part of the March, it was everywhere. It was not just one street, but many streets, all filled with people marching. There were spontaneous chants to fun rhythms (picture Bill Murray in “Stripes”). The one I’m still chanting while I walk my dog is: “This is how democracy works!” Oh, yes it is.

It was difficult to hear all the speeches while we were there, so I’ve been listening online. (Thank you New York Times; link follows.) I was able to hear most of Gloria Steinem and some Michael Moore live, and they remain my favorites.

New York Times online speeches

What was clear on Saturday, and is even more vivid listening online, is that the speakers were embracing multiple issues, not just their own agenda. The over-arching theme was democracy, tolerance, equity. These values were more powerful than the crowd’s clear disdain of the newly elected  “Groper-in-chief,” (quoting Jane Fonda on Bill Maher’s show). In fact, much more potent than the mass dissatisfaction with the incoming president was the urgent need to put common values in place that assure people are treated fairly and have more equal opportunity.

It’s important to ask: What started all this? One idea, from one woman in Hawaii on Facebook. Her what-if/what-can-we-do moment launched an important action for millions that was not just an expression but a movement to a more engaged populace willing to work to keep democracy vital. One woman’s idea started this. As Steinem told us, “…370 marches in every state and on six continents…” Check out the New York Times article with photos from around the globe and highlights of signs and chants.

New York Times global photos

The United States is a secular democracy with a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state. I remind you that it matters because while all religions are protected, it assures you can practice the one of your choosing, or none at all, without fear of imprisonment. The new president is threatening to require Muslims to register. With no exaggeration at all, this is not unlike what Hitler did to Jews before he started the genocide. It’s also a short walk from registry to rounding people up for camps like the Japanese in this country after Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake that the current governance threatens to take us into very dark times. Are you going quietly?

In spite of the efforts of the White House to make shameless bigotry and greed the new policy, Steinem tried to give us perspective and said, “I have been thinking about the use of a long life and one of them is that you remember when things were worse…This, [she waved her hand across the crowd] this is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Right with you on that, Gloria.

Saturday’s global March proved that we don’t need laws or religion to guide us into a secular morality that can be embraced by diverse masses. Click on the link below and scan the list of speakers, most of whom mentioned other issues in their own speeches. And when is the last time you heard someone running for office even talk about the common good? Well, of course, we can thank Hillary for: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

List of speakers

Rhea Suh, NRDC president said, “Each one of you is an individual that made a powerful decision – a choice to be here…because you believe in the fundamental principles that we matter…We are not helpless. We are still a democracy.” The March was a call to remember that democracy only thrives with engaged citizens, who are watching to assure the balance of power. Democracy also needs a free press to recognize and publicize corruption. Some work needs to be done there since they largely failed us in this last election cycle. But we need to do our part by buying newspapers and turning off fake news and reality TV. We need to demonstrate that as media consumers and citizens, we want more than unsubstantiated or un-investigated sound bites.

And, since this is a religion column, I am compelled to remind you that freedom of religion means you get to make your own choice and practice it as you want. If you want the government to impose your religion on others, then prepare yourself for the day when what they impose is not your religion. That said, if they really do impose a Muslim registry, I’m with Madeleine Albright and I’m signing-up as Muslim. -J.B.

New York Times photo: Chang W. Lee

 

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“It’s Not About You”

I would like to be paid $5 for every time a friend, acquaintance, or co-worker gives me pop-psychology advice that has in it, “It’s their problem. It’s not about you.” I would prefer the money, because it would add-up to a very nice amount and I findits-not-about-you money useful. Recognizing the possibility of good intentions in those employing these presumed aphorisms, as opposed to the idea of just getting me to shut-up about my problems, I still say this advice is crap. The title statement is often followed by a close second, let’s say it’s only worth $2.50, that one is: “You aren’t the only one.” Then there’s the other classic: “Everything happens for a reason.” Please abandon these worthless comments. Better to be silent and pretend to listen.

Most often, using these clichés is a Western way of trying to sound Zen, you know, getting us to ‘own’ our problems. It may be an attempt to get us to recognize the crazy in others and try and duck. Good luck with that. In my experience, crazy needs interaction and finds the absence of such intolerable. No one is more driven than crazy people looking for a target.

Here’s the thing, if what’s troubling you is racist, misogynistic, workplace bullying, familial disrespect and manipulation, or any of the other miseries for which many of us are an unfair target – of course it’s about you. By that I mean, it is not your fault, you do not deserve it, but with no one to abuse, there is an absence of abuse.

I took a witchcraft class at Penn where we studied the historic torture and murder of women accused of witchcraft by the Roman Catholic Church. My conclusion was that the accused witches and the church had a symbiotic relationship. Without the churches accusations, the women were just practicing the old arts in relative obscurity. Ironically, the witch accusation elevated them, but then they started getting killed. The fabricated witch threat elevated the church to an assumed higher level of protection of the ignorant masses and wrestled away power from the women the community relied on for healing. You can say that old Wally Lamb quote that oppression ultimately oppresses the oppressor, but when it comes to alleging witchcraft to justify torture and murder, the male priests weren’t dying – just the women (and a scant few men who associated with them).

It’s almost always about power. Not necessarily overt power, but often interpersonal power, social power, or a sick psychological power, like the dark side of The Force. Though I write about religion here and I do believe there is actual evil, I think most of our miseries are caused by other people. I’m not dismissing the stupid stuff we do to ourselves, that’s just not my point right now. The fact is that there are a whole lot of people who have to put other people down to lift themselves up. I am willing to allow them compassion to recognize that they were most likely abused themselves, but what I’m complaining about here is bad behavior and part of me doesn’t really care why. I’m tired of trying to understand and get all centered and Zen about it. I don’t have a magic answer, I just want to remind all you cliché-bearers that it sucks and your pithy comments don’t really help.

The Starbucks barista offered me real wisdom this week when she said the best music comes from heartbreak. I will grant that for every time there was a situation in my life causing me angst, it produced some unexpected benefit. That is not to say it was worth it – it is just that it wasn’t without any value at all. You know, lessons learned and all that.

I do not want to lean on rescue fantasies, but I do think we could help each other out a little more. How about defending that co-worker you know the boss is bullying for entertainment? I mean out loud. Yes, it will be at your own peril. But if more of us did this, I would like to believe there would be less bullying. If you’re not up to that, how about at least taking the poor sap to lunch?

I read an online article on one of those career websites that recommended something I figured out only a few years ago for myself: passive-aggressive work slow-down. First, reasonably assess the situation and determine how closely you are being watched. There will be gaps in that surveillance, because there always are. Study the slackers in the office. Every office has them and they are rarely called on it. Once you have determined the gap, then use your best passive-aggressive skills to engage in a work slow-down. This is how you will protect yourself. Take your mind to another place and do something that enriches you but is not so task-oriented. In this moment, you take back your personal power. Now if your workload is unreasonable and you are relentlessly monitored by people who disrespect you, then you must find a way to leave. No job is worth giving-up your dignity. Take it from someone with gaps in her rèsumè, peace of mind is much more critical.

Then there’s racism, classism, and misogyny. No matter your age, can you picture the “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? That was a powerful speechmlk at a critical juncture of the Civil Rights movement. People took action, they came together, and they made sure their voice was heard. But the oppressed were not alone. Some would say that the turning point in the Civil Rights movement came when white civil rights workers started getting murdered.

If you are hoping for support from religious people on this, you may be disappointed. Religious expression in this country has de-evolved to ideology and condemnation. However, the doctrines of the major religions, and especially the Abrahamic traditions, have a lot to say about social justice. They expect their followers to work toward it, in case you are wondering. Religious leaders should be the voice for the oppressed, but in this country many prominent figures are joining the chorus of the oppressors, e.g. Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson.

When I think of the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, as we approach his holiday, I think about the Lincoln Memorial. It is a different place to me now because they will not allow women there on January 21st. Truthfully, I don’t know who the “they” is but I think it was a request by the president-elect’s transition team to the National Parks Service. In spite of that, I will go to Washington and I will march lincolnmemorialfor social justice with thousands of others – especially women. But we will not be allowed to do so in the proximity of the Lincoln Memorial. There just aren’t enough of the non-oppressed standing beside the oppressed on this one. So yes, this IS about me. I am not the only one, but I will not be allowed at a national monument because I am part of the Women’s March on Washington. Not personal you say? This is as damn personal as it gets, just on a very grand scale. It is about me. -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.

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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The Dying Church

George Carlin has a great rant about golf, paraphrasing and skipping the enjoyable expletives, he said golf is an arrogant game taking up too much prime real estate for one little ball.

George Carlin on golf

I promise that I won’t extend the metaphor too far, but I want to ask folks to consider how much real estate they really need to do whatever it is they think they need to do in churches.  Most church property sits idle for most of the week.  I’m just asking: does that make sense?

This has led me to another thought, and that is to consider why people go to church.  It may seem obvious to some people, but it isStainedGlass_edited-1 no longer obvious to me.  For Christianity, this is Holy Week, the most significant week of the church year.  Many Christians believe in making some sacrifice for the Lenten season which precedes Easter Sunday.  I gave up church committees for Lent.  It has been my best Lent ever.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study October 9, 2012 called, “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-five Adults have no religious affiliation.”  (The online link follows.)  “Nones” is the category used by Pew and others to describe those with no affiliation to organized religion.  The category includes atheists, agnostics, those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and just ‘none’ in general.  While most organized religions in America have been in decline, this is one category that has been “on the rise.”  The Pew study reported an increase from 15 percent to 20 percent in just five years, with a current total of 46 million adults.

Pew Forum report

Duke religion scholar Mark Chaves has provided a great deal more depth and analysis in his new book American Religion: Contemporary Trends (2011 Princeton University Press).  If you want to read just one book about what’s really going on with religious trends in this country read this one.  Chaves showed that the trends in American religion are more generational than year-to-year (p.50).  In this context and citing two surveys, Chaves said that the changes in religious organizations reflect the changing demographics of society.  Demographics are their own story and I’m not going to tackle that here, except to share Chaves’ observation that the decline in religious involvement is the same as the overall decline in civic involvement and volunteerism in America (Chaves, Congregations in America, p.29).

Chaves’ primary measure for religious participation was attending services at any religious organization.  In 1965 it was 40 percent of Americans (not adjusted for people saying they go more than they do) and in 1993 it was 27 percent (p.44).  The current rate is 25 percent, which is still “high by world standards.”  The median number of Christians at worship weekly is less than 100 (p.61).

This takes me back to George Carlin and real estate.  How much building do you need for 75 people a week?  I have a friend who is a New Englander who told me that the two small, struggling Lutheran churches in his home town can’t combine because one is German and one is Swedish.  They have no difference in doctrine or practice, they just come from a different heritage.  This is no disrespect to Lutherans because I have all confidence I can find you a similar example with no difficulty whatsoever in any (using Chaves’ description p.52) “conventional mainstream American religion.”  Yet while religious practice and participation has been declining, the belief in God has not declined at the same rate.  It was 99 percent in the 1950s and 92 percent in 2008 (p.11).

I participate in a Christian service with some regularity.  I find myself looking around and wondering why folks are there.  What is it that keeps them coming?  There are those who would tell you that God expects or even requires them to participate regularly in some religious service or ritual.  Well, good for them.  First of all, I am skeptical of anyone who says God has spoken to them.  Very many weird and bad things have happened by people spouting that line.  Even so, the question remains: why is it that so many people who believe in God are not inclined to act on that belief by going to a service?

I want to suggest several issues for which I don’t have statistical evidence.  First of all, it doesn’t seem churches have clarity of mission.  (By mission, I mean organizational priority, not as in “missionary’ or proselytizing.)  Second, churches are greedy with their real estate.  I don’t see how they need all those buildings.  I do like a pretty church and I love stained glass, but it takes a lot of resources to support that property.  Third, many churches function as social clubs and carry with them the same dysfunction of any group of human beings, as well as the inevitability of committees.

It could be that the church is dying, certainly that is true for some congregations.  Maybe it’s not on life support, but in some cases, groups are struggling for survival and their real estate hasn’t adjusted to their reality.  Maybe it’s like the post-dot-com stock market changes.  It’s painful at first, but it’s just a correction and now we just have realign our attitude and assets accordingly.

Here’s my mission: 30 churches in 50 weeks.  I’m going to start with an ever-expanding circle from my home in suburban Philadelphia and just be the visitor to see if I can figure out why people are there.  Feel free to write me – here or at my e-mail address on the contact page.  Why do you go to church?  Why don’t you go to church?  It’s Easter this week for Christians, so I’ll start with my home church, and I’m going to count last week when I checked out the Presbyterians.

Before I go, let me add that I really miss George Carlin.  Maybe the world needs more George Carlins and fewer churches.  -J.B.

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