Just a nice, uplifting piece. Via GetReligion
… pretty soon after I was born, my doctor detected a heart murmur, and when I was about three months old, I had to have open-heart surgery. I think this was a pretty crappy time for my parents. They thought I might die, and I could have died. My mom says the night before my heart operation was one of the worst nights of her life. She wasn’t allowed to nurse me. She could barely even hold me. When they took me into the operating room the next day, she basically fainted.
… She’s a very powerful woman. She’s like a bulldog, or a lioness. You don’t want to mess with her. She has controlled a lot of my life. Sometimes I’m angry about that, because I feel I’m in the passenger seat of the car and I have to ride wherever the driver wants me to go. Sometimes I feel as if I have no freedom.
But there is a flip side to everything. And there is truth in everything that we say. I couldn’t have lived without my mom. She’s saved my ass a million times. She has been like an archangel to me. She had the wings that I didn’t. And she’s basically carried me everywhere I’ve been.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
For Western Christians Holy Week is upon us. It begins this Sunday with Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem followed by a week of drama that culminates in his betrayal, arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection on Easter Sunday. Even as a progressive Christian who doesn't take literally the details of the story, I look forward each year to retelling and re-imagining the Holy Week narrative.
Over the years my thinking about this week and the specifics of Jesus' last days has been in flux? Did he really ride a donkey into the city, replaying the story from the prophetic book Zechariah? Was he making a messianic claim? Did he provoke a "fight" in the Temple? Was he trying to get himself killed in the hopes that God would intervene? Was there really a Judas who betrayed him? Was there anyone there at the foot of the cross? Was there anyone to bury him after he died? Three days in the tomb is symbolic, but how long was it really before some of his followers began to proclaim his resurrection?
So many questions that I don't know the answer to. And so many different opinions and theories from the bible itself as well as biblical scholars and everyday Christians. I don't know what I believe about the details of Jesus' last days. But I do have a pretty good idea why he ended up on a cross. First let me say that I don't buy the traditional explanation. The traditional explanation is that his death was part of God's plan. To pay the price for our sin, or to be lifted up in glory fully revealed as the Son of God. There are actually more than a few biblical and theological explanations of how his death was a necessary part of God's plan for the world.
I don't think it was part of God's plan. I don't think his death was necessary, for him or for us. I do think it was almost inevitable and not at all surprising, given the times he lived in and the way the Romans had little tolerance for dissent of any kind and the way they made frequent use of crucifixion to punish trouble-makers and set a public example.
I also think there was something about Jesus himself that made his untimely death almost inevitable and not at all surprising. Christian theology says that Jesus was fully God and fully human. What I think this means is that Jesus was more fully human than most of us and therefore he looked more God-like in the eyes of some of those who saw him.
I don't think that Jesus was born divine. Or more precisely, I think we are all born divine. We are all born with the spark of the divine in us. I think that Jesus may well have been born gifted (or haunted) with a spiritual restlessness. I suspect that he became a serious spiritual seeker. He didn't suddenly emerge on the scene inspired at 30. He spent his young life "in the wilderness" metaphorically, learning to know himself and digging deeper into the spiritual traditions of his day. It seems almost certain that he also spent some time in the wilderness literally as a disciple of John the Baptist. This would have been part of his vision quest.
However it happened - and we really don't know any details of his young life - he emerged publicly on the scene as a deeply spiritual person, more fully human. In one sense, of course, you are either human or you are not. But when we grow spiritually and emotionally we become more fully human, we tap more deeply into our capacity to be spiritually awake, emotionally intelligent. It is always in there in all of us, but we don't all grow at the same rate. And to be honest some of us are so scarred and beaten down and cynical that we become less human as time goes on.
Jesus became more fully human. He likely knew himself deeply; he faced his demons. He knew his spiritual tradition more deeply, remembering always that he was always fully Jewish. He was full of compassion for the suffering of his people; he wanted them to be liberated from their bondage the way he was liberated. He had found a way of navigating his spiritually hungry, poverty-stricken, sometimes brutal world; it was a way that offered healing and hope. It was a spiritual path, and he began to share it with family, friends, and strangers.
What could be dangerous about that? How could that possibly get you killed? When the system is sick, there is nothing more dangerous than a healthy person. While some will be attracted to the "light" and want to learn and feed off of it's warmth, those who profit emotionally or financially or politically off of the way things are now will be threatened. They will want to fix or remove the "problem." By definition, any people occupied by a foreign power is a "sick" system.
The Bible says that even his own family thought he was crazy, at least for a time. As his traveling entourage moved from town to town he attracted curiosity, followers, and opposition. His open table and public acts of healing threatened the boundaries and rules of the cultural and religious establishment. His peaceful non-resistance to the violence of Roman rule threatened the political powers. If, as the scriptures tell us, his journeying took him to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover he was being watched carefully. It wouldn't have taken much provocation during the already highly charged Passover celebration (a celebration, after all, all about liberation from oppressive political rule) to get him arrested, quickly tried, and hung on a cross. If he engaged in a symbolic act of protest at the Temple as scripture reports, that would have been enough to seal his death warrant.
It might have been the end of the Jesus story, too. It wasn't, but that is a subject for another post. Let me end this one by reiterating that I believe the path that Jesus found for himself and shared with others was a path of healing and hope. It was both an inward journey that led to a deeper, more fully human person. And it was an outward journey that led to more fully human and just communities. It was personal and it was political. It was liberating and it was dangerous. It was then, and it is now.
Friday, March 27, 2009
While it would initially appear that this specific patient population is "clinging to life" or are afraid of death, we do not believe that this is the best interpretation. In fact, patients who were positive religious copers were far more likely to recognize that they were terminally ill cancer patients! So they are pursuing aggressive measures despite the fact that they knew they were dying! So what gives?
We believe that part of the answer lies in a forthcoming research study from our group that finds that their is a direct connection between patients who receive spiritual care from the medical system (particularly doctors and nurses) and their decision to enter hospice care (which is a choice leading to non-aggressive care). When you put these two studies together, we believe that the problem is that religious people who are dying (and remember that this patient population was almost entirely Christian - 95%+) along with their families are not receiving spiritual counsel IN THEIR MEDICAL DECISION MAKING. The patients are not clinging to life but are instead not being counseled in how to die. Patients who received spiritual care from the medical system did vastly better in measures of quality of life at the end of life and choosing hospice over cure.
Based on this, we hypothesize that there is a gap about formation of death for religious communities. It would appear that Christians as a pattern do not talk about death, model a good death, or articulate the characteristics of faithful dying. Terminal patients and their families are left alone in making these decisions -- and there is a significant minority (we are guessing between 10-30%) who are receiving aggressive care at the end of life because they do not know how to navigate the spiritual intersection involved in the complexities of medical decision making.
We believe that this is a place where religious communities have a major role to play in educating their congregations on the intersection of faith and medicine. We also believe that religious physicians and nurses have the potential role of helping those who are sick and dying in understanding how to navigate the spiritual complexities of dying because they are much more familiar with the world of medicine.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
I had always heard that people go off to the scary public universities and fall away from faith. The blame was always left at the feet of the Universities. I wonder if maybe we should be looking closer to home. Our catechism classes and Bible study’s need to be able to account for the advances in Scholarship and we need to openly discuss critiques of the Christian faith so that our kids can have a bit of preparation for life beyond the quaint Pizza and Soda parties of Youth Group.The most spiritually liberating courses I took at Penn State were the religious studies classes I took my junior and senior year. Here were professors raising the faith questions I had been struggling with for 10 years. Studying the Bible through the lens of critical scholarship - I didn't even know there was such a thing until I went to college. Reading Bultmann and Tillich, and taking my first class in world religions. Then there was Rienhold Niebuhr, whose writings just blew me away. My spiritual quest was reborn in college.
Why didn't they teach us any of that in church? I am not making the same mistake.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
As a child of parents who each have histories of anxiety and depression both personally and on both sides of their families, I have spent many hours during my formative years brooding over my genetic fate. I had put it all aside for a decade or so...until I had children of my own!
What is troubling about this is the way this is happening without warning and transparency, and with no apparent connection to ministry priorities. While everyone has known the budget was facing a shortfall there was no emergency appeal, no message that stuff cuts might be necessary, no communication apart from posting on the website that the cuts had happened - and some of these staff cuts are not even on the website yet, and no explanation at all about how these cuts fit in with ministry priorities. If there are any ministry priorities anymore.
We appear to be in total survival-mode.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Not that it's anything we think the New York Times Company should do, but we thought it was worth pointing out that it costs the Times about twice as much money to print and deliver the newspaper over a year as it would cost to send each of its subscribers a brand new Amazon Kindle instead.This would seem to me to be a smart move for local papers. A Kindle costs $359. The 2-year cost of my subscription to the Minneapolis Star Tribune is $338. I have been getting the print edition for all the years we have lived in Minnesota, but we have been talking for two years now about ending our subscription since we get most of our news online. It's going to happen eventually.
But what if the newspaper sent me a new Kindle and in exchange I signed a 2 year contract for the price of a print edition. I get the paper delivered on the Kindle; they save the cost of printing and delivering the paper. I would bet that papers could get a better deal from Amazon if they can help sell lots of Kindles.
Something like this is going to have to happen if local papers are going to survive.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
It's amazing to me how adding that last sentence changes the way I read this passage. Her testimony about the discipline required to practice compassion and its capacity to change a person is powerful. There is really no more important spiritual practice than learning to be compassionate.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: ... I used, you know, to be a really spiteful human being.
BILL MOYERS: No.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors. and also, from my teachers at Oxford. You know? And people used to say to me, "I would really hate to be your enemy," because I have this very sharp tongue that I knew how to use it. And I get in first before someone put me down. That kind of thing.
I found that, in my studies I had to practice, what I found called in a footnote the "science of compassion." There was a phrase coined by great Islamist, Louis Massignon. Science, not in the sense of physics or chemistry but in the sense of knowledge, scientia, the Latin word for knowledge.
And Latin--the knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other. Putting yourself in the position of the other. And this footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post enlightenment rationalism. You mustn't look on this in a superior way and look at the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing," a 14th century text as, poor soul. You know?
And you had to recreate in a scholarly fashion, all the circumstances which had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself putting yourself in that position. Imagine yourself feeling the same. So when I wrote about Muhammad, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of seventh century Arabia, who sincerely believed he had been touched by God.
And unless I did that, I would miss Muhammad. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford educated Karen on the back burner. And go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn't any longer be quite as vicious as I was or dismissive as I was in the kind of clever conversations-
BILL MOYERS: Why? This is the first time I've heard of a born again experience beginning with a footnote. Was it your imagination that said, "I have to see this world the way Muhammad saw it and experienced it?"
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I said that this footnote is right. If I go on writing, as I had been doing up to this point for saying, "This is all rubbish." You know, I know it all. These poor benighted souls in the past didn't know what they were talking about. I was not fulfilling my job as a historian.
It was my job to go in and recreate it, enter into that spirit. Leave myself behind and enter into the mind and society and outlook of the other. It's a form of what the Greeks called ekstasis. Ecstasy. That doesn't mean you go into a trance or have a vision. It means-- ekstasis means standing outside yourself. Putting yourself behind. And it is self, it's ego that hold us back from what we call God.
BILL MOYERS: You speak of the change in you. You're talking about a personal transformation. But take the next step. What would bring about the kind of real change in society and in politics that would be an extrapolation of or a continuation in community of what you're talking about?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Okay. Not to treat other nations or other... in a way that we would not wish to be treated ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: Unless they've attacked you.KAREN ARMSTRONG: Even so, I mean, there was a chance after 9/11, you know, when something different would have been done....
Then I read that last sentence and I think about the opportunity squandered by Bush after 9/11 to really unite the country and the world and begin to address some of our deep problems, and I must confess that I find it difficult to feel compassion for him. He made such a mess of the world and he was so arrogant about it right up to the end. The best I can do at this point is to say that in terms of both intellectual and emotional intelligence he was in way over his head. I can't imagine being him and being President.
I have some more work to do.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Americans spend $2.4 trillion a year on health care. The Business Roundtable report says Americans in 2006 spent $1,928 per capita on health care, at least two-and-a-half times more per person than any other advanced country.This is what has needed to happen. Business leaders, mostly conservative, are being killed by health care costs. When they say "enough is enough" there is hope for change.
In a different twist, the report took those costs and factored benefits into the equation.
It compares statistics on life expectancy, death rates and even cholesterol readings and blood pressures. The health measures are factored together with costs into a 100-point "value" scale. That hasn't been done before, the authors said.
The results are not encouraging.
The United States is 23 points behind five leading economic competitors: Canada, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. The five nations cover all their citizens, and though their systems differ, in each country the government plays a much larger role than in the U.S.
The cost-benefit disparity is even wider — 46 points — when the U.S. is compared with emerging competitors: China, Brazil and India.
But what made me laugh was this paragraph by Myers about progressive Christian music:
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that our more progressive contemporary churches have actually invented a brand new way of writing bad hymns: these are the hymns that sound not so much like worship as the recitation of an official policy document. All the fashionable leftist causes are celebrated and affirmed with solemn sincerity; everything is carefully included, so that the entire song unfolds with all the humourless deliberation of a meeting of the committee of management. As I said, there are several kinds of bad hymns; but these ones are probably the worst of all (even though it is a genuine achievement to have invented an entirely new way of writing badly).We sing those songs at Open Circle and it is so true, for some of them.
That girl was Jordan Wilson. Her mom Jennifer died yesterday from colon cancer. She was only 42. Prayers for the family.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, "the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion," the report concludes.In many ways here at Open Circle we are living on the front-lines of this phenomenon. There is very little denominational loyalty. We have a handful of folks who maintain strong denominational ties but the majority are post-denominational. They support the progressive vision of our congregation and are largely uninterested in what is happening in our denomination, or any other denomination.
Baptists, 15.8% of those surveyed, are down from 19.3% in 1990. Mainline Protestant denominations, once socially dominant, have seen sharp declines: The percentage of Methodists, for example, dropped from 8% to 5%.
The percentage of those who choose a generic label, calling themselves simply Christian, Protestant, non-denominational, evangelical or "born again," was 14.2%, about the same as in 1990.
Meanwhile, nearly 2.8 million people now identify with dozens of new religious movements, calling themselves Wiccan, pagan or "Spiritualist," which the survey does not define.
Among those who are active participants at OC there is what I would call a continuing left-ward drift on the religious spectrum. Most who come to OC are coming in from more traditional or more conservative churches. Church is still important to them but they want to be in a church where scripture isn't read literally, where other religions are respected, and where "spirituality" is more important than "religion." Perhaps most importantly, many of these folks have young children. They want their children to have a religious upbringing and they want it to be in a more liberal environment.
But as their children grow and move on to college they continue their left-ward spiritual drift. (To say this is not to say that they are spiritually adrift, but that the direction of their spiritual exploration, which they take seriously, is left-ward.) Some stay connected to church but experiment with alternative spiritualities: wicca, men's spirituality groups, new age, Buddhism, etc. A few drift further left into Unitarianism, but stay within the organized religion circle. Some drift out of church altogether and join the ranks of the formerly religious.
This is the niche market of a church like ours. We are "capturing" those, many with children, who have left behind traditional and denominational and Christian identities and are moving left-ward on the religious spectrum. It is a challenging and interesting place to be.
Friday, March 06, 2009
I too talk in exclaimation points and I seek a community of friends who will talk to me mindfully--and honestly--about their feelings and emotions! Judy, thank you for being there when I need you!
Being and Mindfulness
The other night at a dinner party, a friend described how she tried to practice mindfulness meditation to keep herself from losing it during an utterly wretched seven-hour layover in an airport while she was exhausted, ill and desperate to get home to her children.
“I kept trying to be all ‘Be Here Now,’” she said, “but I just wanted to be anywhere but here.”
We all laughed.
Then she described how, on another day, she’d managed not to bite off the head of a woman who’d been gratuitously mean to her 8-year-old daughter, but instead had stayed in the moment and had connected and been able to join with the woman in an experience of their common, sadly limited, humanity.
At which point, full of congratulations (and suppressing my own story of having lost my temper with a woman in an airport bathroom who, I felt, had addressed my daughter Julia with an unforgivable tone of officiousness and disdain), I was beginning to wonder what body snatcher had taken my cranky friend away and left this kindly, calm, pod person in her place.
Where was the woman I always seek out at school events to laugh with? Where was the black humor, the sense of absurdity?
I felt strangely abandoned.
It was, I realized, my first experience of being on the receiving end of someone sharing their journey on the road to mindfulness, the meditation and life practice that’s all the rage now in psychotherapy, women’s magazines, even business journals, as a way to stay calm, manage anger and live sanely. (David Foster Wallace, too, was writing a novel all about “being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter,” this week’s New Yorker revealed.)
In the past, I’d been only on the other side of the divide. I had, it was true, sensed a certain sadness, even feelings of betrayal, in my husband Max’s reaction to my proselytizing about my Pema Chödrön “Getting Unstuck” CD: “I never thought that you, of all people, would get into that New Age stuff,” he’d said wistfully. But I hadn’t realized that, when a person gets unstuck, the people around her can feel a bit left behind.
It has dawned on me lately, meditating on the Metro, thoughts silenced so completely that I can hear every page being turned by passengers up and down the car (I am above reading — I am present to myself) that being fully in the moment, all senses turned on, feeling your hands in your lap and the ground under your feet, is a very good way of not being there at all.
For me, this is a big part of the charm of the whole thing. I mean, it’s a lot easier to feel a loving connection to others — to the madding crowd, that is — when you’re entirely checked out. But it’s not supposed to be that way.
Mindfulness is supposed to bring people together. By embracing your essential humanness, getting in touch with and accepting your body, sensations, emotions and thoughts, you are supposed to join with, and empathetically connect to, all humanity.
“It helps to realize we are not alone,” the psychologist Mary Pipher writes in her new book, “Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World,” an account of how mindfulness meditation helped her recover from the depression and self-depletion that followed the surprise success of her huge 1994 hit, “Reviving Ophelia” and subsequent bestsellers. “One thing I like to do is send my silent good wishes to people all over the world who have problems exactly like my own. Contexts may change, but emotions are universal.”
I have no doubt that this meta-connectedness feels real, and indeed is real, in the abstract at least. But in real-life encounters, I’ve come lately to wonder whether meaningful bonds are well forged by the extreme solipsism that mindfulness practice often turns out to be.
For one thing, there’s the seemingly unavoidable problem that people who are embarked on this particular “journey of self-exploration,” as Pipher has called it, tend to want to talk, or write, about it. A lot. But what they don’t realize — because they’re so in the moment, caught in the wonder and fascination and totality of their self-experience — is that their stories are like dream sequences in movies, or college students’ journal entries, or the excited accounts your children bring you of absolutely hilarious moments in cartoons — you really do have to be the one who’s been there to tolerate it.
For the truth is, however admirable mindfulness may be, however much peace, grounding, stability and self-acceptance it can bring, as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring.
I’ve also come to wonder if something desirably human is being lost in all this new and improved selfhood. That is to say: an edge. That little bit of raggedness that for some of us is really the heart of what makes us human.
Shave that piece off, soften it too mindfully, and I wonder if we don’t leave others out in the cold.
I saw this very clearly the other day, in a chance email exchange with my friend D.
She had written me to share some anxieties about the recession. They were very real and very pressing, and in the past, I would have responded with very pertinent examples of how things were much worse for me.
This time, however, tapping into great human reserves of calm and centeredness, I tried instead to lead her into staying with her feelings.
“Hang in there. Things will be O.K.,” I wrote.
D., my oldest friend, has not in the past been shy about implying that there’s something inward-looking and self-indulgent about my professed attempts at being-present-in-the-world. Now she wrote back in outrage, “What did you do with the real Judy? Did you just tell me to hang in there, things will be O.K????”
“It is comforting to me when people say things like that, sorry. SORRY!” I screamed back. “There, is that O.K.?”
And it was O.K. The connection — 43 years of happy shouting — was restored.
Some of us experience our emotions always in capital letters and exclamation points. This isn’t always pleasant but, to go all mindful for a moment, it is what it is, and if you are one of these people then probably one of the great pleasures of your life is finding others like you and settling in with them for a good rant. A world devoid of such souls can be cold and forbidding, and above all terribly, terribly dull.
It is selfish, undoubtedly, to want to hold onto the ragged edges that make me feel genuinely connected, not perhaps to humanity, but to the people I love. But then, the fact is, I can probably beat Mary Pipher hands down at being the worst Buddhist in the world.
Truth is, I just don’t want to let go.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
The stock market is tanking because the ponzi scheme being run by our country's financial sector is finally being fully exposed. The market is actually reacting correctly to the financial truth about AIG and Citicorp and GM, among others. They are worthless and there is no hiding it anymore. They may be too big to fail and we may have to bail them out, but their management and boards of directors and investors should not be bailed out. The market can see this coming too. It's their pals and it's them and it isn't going to be pretty.
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
I'm sorta hip. I don't like Hauerwas and Willimon anymore. Never did like Wright. I don't love the Pope and I'd rather have a good cigar than a pipe.
Things they like:
Christian hipsters like music, movies, and books that are well-respected by their respective artistic communities—Christian or not. They love books like Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. They tend to be fans of any number of the following authors: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, John Howard Yoder, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, Soren Kierkegaard, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robison, Chuck Klosterman, David Sedaris, or anything ancient and/or philosophically important.
Christian hipsters love thinking and acting Catholic, even if they are thoroughly Protestant. They love the Pope, liturgy, incense, lectio divina, Lent, and timeless phrases like “Thanks be to God” or “Peace of Christ be with you.” They enjoy Eastern Orthodox churches and mysterious iconography, and they love the elaborate cathedrals of Europe (even if they are too museum-like for hipster tastes). Christian hipsters also love taking communion with real Port, and they don’t mind common cups. They love poetry readings, worshipping with candles, and smoking pipes while talking about God. Some of them like smoking a lot of different things.
I wouldn't wish this recession with its job losses and suffering on anyone. There is nothing good about it. I have heard a few pastoral colleagues essentially welcoming it because it brings people into the church. But it is a weak and insecure church that welcomes suffering because it fills the pews. We want people to have jobs and homes and healthcare.
Here we are, though. The economy is contracting and everyone, rich and poor, is being affected. President Obama has recently talked about the need to "reset" diplomatic relations with a variety of countries. Perhaps it is also time to revisit our values and reset our priorities.
Recently I have been reading a book called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben. McKibben addresses what he calls the "single-minded focus on increasing wealth" that has "driven the planet's ecological systems to the brink of failure, without making us happier."
How we got to this point is pretty obvious, he says:
We kept doing something past the point where it worked. Since happiness has increased with income in the past, we assumed it would do so in the future. We make these kinds of mistakes regularly: two beers make me feel good, so ten beers will make me feel five times better. But this case was particularly extreme and easy to understand, because human beings have spent so much of their history trying to satisfy basic needs... Consider, say, America in 1820, two generations after Adam Smith. The average American earned, in current dollars, less than $1,500, which is somewhere near the current African average. As the economist Deirdre McCloskey explains, "Your great-great-great grandmother had one dress for church and one for the week, if she were not in rags. Her children did not attend school, and probably could not read. She and her husband worked eighty hours a week for a diet of bread and milk-they were four inches shorter than you." Even in 1900, the average American lived in a house the size of today's typical garage. Is it any wonder, then, that we built up a considerable velocity trying to escape the gravitational pull of that kind of poverty?But then, thanks to the genius of the free market wedded with the wonders of technology, we suddenly blew past a way of life that had marked our ancestors' lot for centuries. Good riddance. Life was better. People were happier. We don't want to go back to those days.
But we never slowed down. Everything kept getting bigger and bigger: our homes, cars, meals, our pile of toys, and our environmental footprint. We supersized everything. And we long ago passed the point where making more and having more could make us more happy. We know, too, that there is no way the mothership Earth can take the rest of the world living the way we have lived.
Now we are being forced to slow down. As I said at the beginning it isn't "good for us." People are suffering; they don't know how they are going to feed their families. We want the economy to recover and soon.
But as we recover we have an opportunity here to make choices about how we live our lives and where and how much we spend our money. Community, friendship, spiritual well-being don't take much money but they do take time and effort that can actually bring us happiness. Building a sustainable world with a healthy environment, making the world more just and peaceful take both time and money. But it is time and money well-spent. We don't want "no" economic growth. We want smart, sustainable, and slower economic growth that lifts all boats and takes care of the planet.
Over the next year you are going to be hearing much more about sustainability at the church. We are going to be studying sustainability in adult ed, actually working to make our own piece of land on Highland Drive more sustainable (and beautiful), hearing me and some guest speakers talk about it. It is a teachable moment. I hope and trust we will all use it well.
Not surprisingly, the historical and sociological record suggests that when the state addresses most of the physical and financial needs of people, or when individuals are wealthy enough to care for those needs entirely on their own, that people are less likely to turn to God, their local church, charities, or their families for help, direction, and consolation.
This is why in some important respects the Church is healthier in Nairobi than it is in New York, or in Lagos than it is Los Angeles. In these African cities, the Church—and faith—is more likely to take, by force of necessity, a wholistic approach to ministering to the human person. In stable, affluent societies the Church is often reduced to a therapeutic role in people’s lives. Any my worry is that a successful Obama revolution would only deepen that pattern in the United States, and reduce the size and vitality of the Christian faith in the process.
What is being suggested here is that the church needs a little (or a lot of) suffering in order to thrive. While it is certainly true that the church (or mosque) does well in parts of the world where human suffering is greater, and it does better in this country when the economy tanks, it is a weak and insecure church that depends on and perhaps quietly welcomes trouble so the pews will be filled.
Jesus said "blessed are the poor." He did not say blessed is poverty. I imagine that Jesus would endorse whatever system best alleviates poverty and human suffering. When there was no welfare state churches stepped into the void and cared for widows and orphans, created hospitals, and fed the poor. But today there is a welfare state and it has the potential to feed, protect, and care for our physical needs in a manner far more efficient than churches. We should welcome a robust state that sees it as an essential part of its mission to take the rough edges off of capitalism and make sure that no one lives in poverty, everyone has adequate healthcare.
If the church needs suffering to thrive, then the church deserves to die. Ditto for the notion that without fear of eternal punishment there will be no one left in the pews. There is plenty of heart, mind, and spirit left to speak to without relying on suffering, fear, or guilt.