Happiness and community

We are a country of rugged individuals. We raise our sons and daughters to be independent. Self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal of parenting, and we would like for them to achieve it at age eighteen. As young adults, we won’t think of getting married until we are financially independent, even though we often need two incomes to sustain one household. And when we do get married, even in our own families, we are seeking a secluded life.

The Wall Street Journal observed this as it reported new trends in architecture. We are designing homes to make sure that people stay to themselves. “Major builders and top architects are walling off space. They’re touting one-person ‘Internet alcoves,’ locked-door ‘away rooms,’ and his-and her-offices on opposite ends of the house. In fact, the showcase of the Ultimate Family Home hardly had a family room. The boy’s personal playroom had its own forty-two-inch plasma TV, and the girl’s bedroom had a secret mirrored door leading to a ‘hideaway karaoke room.’”

We live in a society where ultimate happiness is portrayed by a man, in an expensive car, with leather seats, with a blasting stereo, driving as fast as he can, making smooth corners on a road somewhere, completely isolated, completely alone.

Of course, after driving in traffic gridlock of D.C., I do understand this fantasy a bit more… but the problem with this advertising fairytale is that the isolation, even in with great wealth, is not making us any happier. This era of independence, of self, does not bring us contentment.

Bill McKibben writes about all of this in his book, Deep Economy. As wealth has grown in the last couple of decades in our country, happiness has declined. Americans who said they visited with their neighbors fell from one-third to one-fifth, and it keeps falling. We’ve been working too hard. We’ve been entertaining ourselves in our own personal playrooms.

Our sense of independence has affected American religion, where a personal, privatized faith in Jesus Christ has become much more important than the faith community. I know of some churches have difficulty maintaining their budgets because people give so much to televangelists. What they receive in the privacy of their own homes is more important than being a part of a body of believers.

We have based so much of our economy on individual gain, even though our communities suffer. Wal-Mart is a good example of this. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law work for Sam’s, so I know a lot about Wal-Mart and their employment practices. People shop there because the prices are so low for the individual customer. And yet, as the superstores have multiplied, we know that they are bad for our communities.

In the few years that Wal-Mart was expanding in Iowa, “the state lost 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety shops, 158 women’s clothing stores, and 116 pharmacies.” A new Wal-Mart eliminates a job and a half for every job it creates. Comprehensive studies have shown that counties with Wal-Marts have grown poorer than surrounding counties, and the more Wal-Marts stores in the county, the faster they grew poorer. Communities suffered but the individual benefits, from lower prices.

The other problem with putting individual gain over the community is that humans seem to be genetically wired for community. People who have good friends or who are close to their families are happier than those who are not. People who participate in religious communities are happier than those who are not. Joining a club, a society, a church of some kind cuts in half the risk that you will die in the next year.

And the activity that makes Americans happy, that produced all kinds of joy? Volunteer work. People make friends through it. They see results. It broadens their experience of life. It gets people out of themselves.

(Speaking of volunteering, here is the latest news on Miriam’s Kitchen, the homeless program in our church. The photo is also of our happy volunteers.)

Now, how do we convince our culture? How do we let people who have grown up in an onslaught of “buy this and you’ll be happy and independent” messages know that it doesn’t actually work that way?


Note to self

The bulletin has to be done on Tuesday. And, of course, my sermon’s never done by then. But, I typically use the lectionary passages. It’s not until after the Order of Worship is constructed that I look back, shake my head and wonder, “What was I thinking? No… wait… what was Jesus thinking?”

Last Sunday was one of those weeks. The lectionary passage was a nightmare. It was crammed pack full of stuff that I should have engaged in more deeply: Jesus did not come to bring peace, but the sword. Jesus came to set man against his father. Daughter against her mother… whoever does not take up the cross and follow him is not worthy of him.

But, for some reason, I got the feeling that the people who showed up would rather go home with unanswered questions than to spend the rest of the day there, picking apart the passages.

And then this week? The gospel’s is only a couple of sentences. Is this because the Presbyterian lectionary is aberrant at the moment? Or are they all that way?

I preached the last bit, about denying self, but I had such a hard time doing it.

Growing up in a conservative Christian home, when I felt a call into ministry, I went to a fundamentalist Bible school. There were many, many things that led me away from evangelicalism, but I can pinpoint one of the moments that was crucial in my journey.

I was sitting in a class entitled Christian Life and Ethics. And the teacher, Dr. Hart, was droning on and on. I always struggled to stay awake in the class, trying to keep my eyes open, trying to focus on Dr. Hart.

He was a short, young man, with an overgrown black mustache. Somehow his monotone voice would say the most inflammatory things, and I would hardly get upset. He was considered too conservative, even for his colleagues at the school. And so no one ever took his class unless it was required.

I was in the required class, listening to him lecture with his hands to his side, saying absurd things like overpopulation was a myth. There was no environmental crisis. Women should never work outside of the home. Parents should only home school their children. Divorce was never allowed in a Christian home. Even though almost everything he said angered me, his voice and affect were so bland that I hardly even heard him. Honestly, the buzz of the fluorescent light bulbs above me were more interesting than this class.

But, for some strange reason, on that particular day, a woman, an international student from Italy was paying attention. She held up her hand and asked, “You said that divorce was never allowed in the Christian home, but what about abuse? What if a wife is being abused by her husband?”

“Divorce is never permitted for Christians,” the professor repeated with an impassioned resolve.

And she reframed her question, “What if there are children?”

“Divorce is never permitted for Christians.”

The woman didn’t give up. “But doesn’t a woman have responsibility to the kids? Shouldn’t she protect them?”

And he answered again that divorce is not permitted for Christians, under any circumstances. They went back and forth, and I watched the argument unfold. It was like a tennis match of horror. And the last swing came when Hart emphasized his point, as the final word, he said, “If a woman is being abused by her spouse, then that is simply her cross to bear. She needs to deny herself, and take up that cross.”

That did it. He twisted the words of Jesus, and with no emotion, no hand gestures, he ended the argument. The woman was horrified by the end of it, but he just stood, no anger, no sadness. He just finished his lecture.

I sat in my chair, with my head in my hands. I had a sudden, pulsing migraine.

I knew better than to argue with him in the classroom. I would end up all freaked out, and it wouldn’t phase him a bit. But I did argue with him in my mind. Why should the wife have to give up herself in that situation? What about the husband? Wouldn’t Jesus want him to give up his rage? But that never entered the argument. It was the wife. It was the children who had to take up their cross for the sake of the marriage.

It is no wonder that I’ve had a struggle trying to figure out a healthy notion of “the self,” and I’ve had a terrible time with the wisdom of Jesus when he says to give up our selves. I don’t like hearing it.

It’s not that I’m narcissistic; it’s just that growing up as a conservative Southern Baptist, a Christian fundamentalist, I was immersed in a home and culture where women were always subject to men. Wives were encouraged to graciously submit to their husbands. Women were told that we could not discipline our children, or control our household finances, or teach men. We certainly could not preach to them, and when I protested, I was often told that I needed to deny myself.

It was a long journey for me to the pulpit, the place where God wants me to be. And much of it did not have to do with denying myself, but hearing myself. It was about gaining the knowledge and perspective that I am made in the image of God.

photo by Saltatembo

Leaving church

We all know that American religion is quite fluid right now. Many people aren’t sticking with the church that they were baptized in, if they were baptized at all. There’s no real denominational loyalty. And people will drive a long way to find a church that they’re comfortable in.

It doesn’t bother me too much. I guess it’s because I wandered far, far away from my church of origin, and I’m so happy that I was able to do it. Our college students are made up of every conceivable spectrum of belief, non-belief, and denomination.

Since this is a trend, I thought we should put some thought into how to leave church.

First, make sure you do it. I don’t mean that people should change churches every time a pastor preaches something that they don’t agree with, or rips the bread the wrong way, or spends money on one thing instead of the other. No. Let me explain.

I was someone who grew up in churches with no polity and a pedophile pastor (the combination of the two was as devastating as it sounds). On top of that, I had this strong call to become a minister, and a church that taught that women must always submit to men. Needless to say, the church did a lot of damage in my life.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, at home every Sunday morning, bandaging your old wounds, going over the hurts again and again. If you find yourself avoiding church like a plague because you’ve heard serious bigotry preached from the pulpit. If you’ve been mistreated, abused, or discriminated against. If you think that all pastors are pedophiles and that church governments are solely in existence to hide the misconduct, or that pastors can do whatever they want with their flock and no one is in a position to stop them. Not all churches are like that. Please give up on the particular church before you give up on the faith.

Because, you see, those wounds are real. And they aren’t going to heal without some significant care and attention. And you won’t get that from watching Meet the Press or even Oprah.

Some people seem to get relief from rejecting Christianity altogether, by becoming an atheist or agnostic, or by picking up another religion. But that wasn’t my experience. I needed the church, just not my church. For me, and for many people, we received healing from living in a spiritual community, from talking to wise people, from being surrounded by care and love.

No church is perfect, of course. But there are a lot of healthy churches out there. And if there are serious flaws with yours, and you don’t think there’s any way to work through them, then it’s okay to look around. Church is not there for our convenience or to suit our particular needs, but there are times when churches do significant damage in our mental and spiritual lives.

When we’re in a place where that’s occurring, then we need to move on.

If you have moved on, realize that not everyone’s ready to move on, or that they might not have the same issues as you do. (Oops. Elephant just entered the blogosphere. See yesterday’s post and conversation. Even as a postmodern pastor, I’ll put up with some bureaucracy in order to have some checks and balances, and some space to do my job as a woman pastor).

For me, when moving from conservative evangelicalism to progressive denominationalism, at first I looked at all my friends who didn’t make the same shift as defective in some way. Like, maybe they weren’t smart enough (that’s the mainline’s party line).

Especially the women. I wondered why they would stay in an environment where they were repressed.

But as the years go by, and my gaping wounds heal a bit more, I realize they just need something else out of church than I do. Plus, the bitterness and resentment that I was carrying around wasn’t helping me grow.

You know when I changed faith traditions? It was when the pedophile died. Strange.

Alright, so what advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about leaving church?

the photo’s by Gregory Pleau


So, our General Assembly’s meeting this week in San Jose. My husband’s there, and I stayed home so that my daughter could live out her final days of being a first-grader. I’m in D.C., keeping track via the blogosphere, twitter updates, emails, and facebook status updates.

From what I can tell of the one-line testimonials, it’s been a fun GA, so far. Bruce Reyes-Chow was elected moderator. There’s a presbymergent booth and activities set up. A lot of people who have been talking a lot over the Internets are meeting each other face-to-face. As Shawn Coons twittered, “I met two of my imaginary friends so far.”

Most people who go to GA know what it’s about. We make statements as a denomination, and then we try to act on them, lobby for them, live them out. Sometimes we make big mistakes, and other times, great minds come out with some pretty amazing positions.

We’re doing what Christians have done since the first council of Nicea. Gathering to think about who we are, what we believe. Asking how we can best live out our faith in our current context. Praying and worshiping together. Asking for God’s guidance. It is often too political. It’s often frustrating. We are well aware that our statements have very little legislative muscle nationally. We often ask, “Why even bother?”

But I tell you, there is a warm and wonderful feeling when the assembly comes up with a masterpiece statement of social justice…. Words matter. And sometimes it’s important to say things, even when you know that nobody’s listening. I don’t expect anyone outside of our denomination to understand this. I’m just letting you know what it’s like.

Anyways, one of the main Presbymergent activities was the Church Basement Roadshow, a book promotion for Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Mark Scandrette. The promo was located at a Presbyterian Church about a mile away from where the GA met, so the good folks at the Presbymergent booth publicized the books, passed out hundreds of flyers, blogged positively. They bought the books, recommended the books. They put Jones’ book on display. All-in-all, they worked tirelessly getting the word out for the event.

In response to the love, Tony Jones blogged about the GA, briefly, on beliefnet:

We’ll have lunch over here before we head down to San Jose for tonight’s show. I’m looking forward to seeing how many PC(USA) pastors show up from their nearby General Assembly debacle meeting.

Now. That’s…awkward.

I’m not sure how to respond. Is this the vestigial tail of evangelicalism? Evangelicals have spent a couple of decades putting down the mainlines, saying that we’re an irrelevant social club. But I thought we were getting beyond all that with the whole emergent movement.

I just gave it a good, old-fashioned eye rolling and moved on.

But then I went back. Perhaps it’s my sense of humor that has not evolved enough. But… you know… I do a lot of book signings. I know how much goes into them on both ends. After all the work the Presbyterians put into promoting Jones, hosting him, hyping his work… I don’t know… is it too much to ask for a little respect?

The whole world in God’s hands

So, as I write, I always like to bite off a little bit more than I can chew. And while working on my next book, I’m thinking a bit about globalization. Definitely a bigger subject than I can digest, but interesting nonetheless.

To get a handle on it, I’m sharpening the focus. I’m wondering how globalization affects church leaders in a new generation. (Generation here is not referring to a person’s age, but a time frame.)

There is an idea of global discontent that influences us. For example, as technology becomes available, people around the world see how we live in the West. Not only does resentment fester with these images of wealth, but it also triggers different economic models in other countries.

China is seeing a mass migration from the farming lands to the city, a place of industry. It’s because people are learning how much more money they can make by leaving their farms.

Of course, the problem with this is if all the people of China begin to live like we do in the United States, then we will need the resources of more than one planet to sustain us. Globally, tensions are rising around our natural resources: oil, water, lumber, soil, food. And as China and India change economic models, the tensions will get worse. The earth simply cannot sustain if everyone has two cars and a suburban home. (Interesting aside: my father, with this concern in mind, invented the way to grow plants in space. All due respect to my dad, I doubt that will be the answer….)

I wonder how all of this affects the church. The church has always been very global. We typically think about things “unto the ends of the earth.” And in the last couple of decades, with short-term mission trips, our faith has been formed as we ditch ditches, run sewer lines, and try to help people all over the world.

And so I wonder if the reverse is happening as well. I mean, we know there is discontentment among developing nations as they see our wealth, but do we also have discontentment as we go back to our wealth? We know that we have so much. And we have been face-to-face with people who have so little. How does this affect us? Spiritually, emotionally, ethically, how do we deal with it?

I spoke to Don Richter about this. And he said that we’re suffering from a gluttony hang-over. “Gluttony. One of the seven deadly sins. It’s not just about what we eat. It’s about everything we consume.” He explained when we see the global inequities, we cannot help but realize how gluttonous we are.

So what do you think? Certainly the recent food crisis and the spike in petroleum prices is causing us to rethink our place in the world. How does all of this affect you, as a church leader? How does it affect your spiritual community? Have you spent time overseas? What impact has that had on your faith formation? Do you sense gluttony? Or is it something else?

the photo’s by thiagokunz