To Go or Not to Go: the future of the Church?

People usually go somewhere for one of two reasons: they want to because it is pleasurable or they are required to go..  There’s a not so subtle difference between deciding on one’s own initiative to go where one doesn’t want to go and going where one desires to go.  My wife, for instance, detests going to the grocery store but she goes anyway.  I dislike my regular eye injections but I keep my appointments.  On the other hand when we travel to new destinations and experience new things it’s delightful.  We want and make plans to go even if it involves some discomfort.  Those are two simple examples of an unlimited variety of deciding to go somewhere for quite different reasons: one because it’s required, the other because it brings happiness.

There was a time when going to church was a social and family obligation, a required badge of acceptability.  One went to church because one was supposed to go not out of religious conviction.  The choice of church was dictated by family, the denomination acceptable for one’s ethnicity and class, or perhaps one’s aspirations for right connections and better social status.  They were motivations not unlike the ones that get my wife into the grocery store or me to the eye doc.  There was no great pleasure in church per se but at least the sermon might be entertaining, the music good, and the service not too long.  A check could be made in one more box of things one had to do that were not in and of themselves worth doing. It has something to do with today’s wide spread disinterest in attending worship services.

 Denomination leaders fret over the continuing decline in attendance and recorded membership.  Plans are made for how to get people into church, especially young people.  You should go to church, it’s good for you, is the echoing lecture of well meaning elders.   That admonition isn’t working and why should it?  A child being told “you should eat your vegetables, they’re good for you” has no effect on a kid who has no idea what that means is not motivated to eat anything that isn’t  pleasurably tasty.  I’ve been in unfamiliar places where eager locals urge visitors to go there and taste that. Why should I?  I’m happy as I am, what’s the payoff for me?  I need more than “you should” to taste something vile smelling and odious looking, no matter it’s a local delicacy.  Before I visit an unknown place where I’ll be expected to participate in some way, I want to know details about what it is, what’s done there, why it’s done, what might be expected of me and if there are any risks involved.  “You should, everybody does” is not a persuasive encouragement.  With that in mind why should anyone go to church?  That disinterested mindset has not always been universal of course, but it’s wide spread enough that families have become less concerned about whether their children are well educated in the fundamentals of a faith. It seems attendance is the primary measure of church success.  Attendance says nothing about the value of religious faith or “customer” satisfaction with it. Also, in my not so humble opinion, the Sunday school curricula of the post war years were dumbed down to a low level and taught by untrained persons – nothing at all like the more demanding studies kids get in school.  Sunday school was of little interest to children or teens.

The domestic turmoil of the Johnson, Carter, Nixon and Reagan years challenged every established social and political norm. Activists promoted new norms freeing many, unacceptable to many more, and uncomfortable for all. One thing led to another and the usual institutions, such as church, that bequeathed status and useful networking on their members, were among the victims.  Why go if church was no longer needed as a way to fit in or climb the ladder of success?  Weekends were free time: get household chores out of the way, then. Do what you want to do. It wasn’t true jor everyone in every place, but it was in enough places for enough people.

That’s my simplified version of what happened and and one reason why the church continues to see declines in attendance.  My standard response is we are not called to count bodies in pews or dollars pledged.  We are to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus through which we are called to the only better way of life there is, and not for us only but for the whole world. With that consistent proclamation, I believe we can restore our churches to a more robust future.  Parenthetically, it’s also true that declines in an aging church are cause by death., an irreversible factor.

Proclaiming the gospel is not a marketing ploy,  pop psychology, or feel good preaching.  It’s the Lord God Almighty calling humanity to turn to the only source of life there is, and to follow Jesus Christ in the way of love.  All other paths can promise whatever they like.  They cannot deliver. It’s not a promise of perfection, ease, paradise on earth or anything else in an Amazon Prime website. It’s God imploring God’s beloved humanity to care for themselves and creation according to God’s commandments as sealed by Jesus Christ.

It’s not easy to convince others of its truth.  The earth is saturated with alternatives promising less trouble, more pleasure, and greater immediate rewards.  Anecdotal examples testify to their  occasional and temporary efficacy.  People hungry for something that can be relied on demand to know what makes God, as Christians understand God, any better.   What’s better is that God, and only God, is the source of all that is good and in whom the whole of creation is held in love.  There is no other source to whom one can turn. In the words of an old hymn, all other ground is shifting sand. In Jesus is revealed the fullness of God that can be comprehended by human minds.  He is the Word of God made flesh. Does that mean non-Christians have no hope?  Absolutely not. God so loved the world, not just Christians.  Christians are to bear the light of Christ by word and deed, inviting all to join with them and not damning those who don’t: it is God alone that saves, not church membership. Christian baptism is not a confirmation of exclusive membership in the family of. God, but a seal of ordination as a bearer of God’s love to others. Doing the best they can with all their limitations they are to show by example what the way of love looks like, and to advocate for godly justice wherever they are. Success is Christian ministry that brings healing, reconciliation and godly justice that help make conditions of life better than they were, or at least not as bad. 

The institutional church and we as individualChristians might learn from the past.  All the spiritual and material gods that exist today existed in the Greco/Roman world of the early church.  They had different names but made the same promises: a better, more successful life, just a few easy payments and you will reap what you desire, if things go wrong it’s your fault for angering the gods, the oracle will tell your future, and all the rest. It’s not so different from what today’s religious and easy riches hucksters pedal.

The early apostles knew that.  They also new none of it ever delivered as promised.  Everyone was left wanting.  In Athens Paul acknowledged the many gods, and boldly proclaimed the unspoken truth: none of them worked, except maybe to make shrine keepers wealthy.  Paul proclaimed the living God through whom all things “live and move and have their being” (Acts 17). This life is important and to follow Jesus in the way of life will so fulfill one’s deepest desire no amount of threats or tragedy can take it away, and a yet greater, more abundant life awaits in eternity with God for those who will accept is.  I suppose other apostles said much the same because the Christian faith had spread throughout the Roman world and well beyond within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.  It is this basic simple message proclaimed boldly in word and deed that will renew the church.  The church, as the institutional vehicle for the faith, will never be the universal norm.  Not here nor anywhere.  It will always be something of a voice calling from the perimeter.  Never mind.  The Lord God Almighty’s voice will be proclaimed through it, and that’s all we are required to do.

Past, Present, Future: problems, opportunities & Christian Faith

I’ve been listening to conversations and articles about how many people are trapped in their past, preventing them from living into the present or anticipating a future of new possibilities. There are others who appear to be consumed with the idea that one can live so fully in the present that past and future are of no consequence. There are yet others who live in the world of a desired future seemingly expecting it to come to them from a source of total fantasy. The past does not exist. The present is an inconvenient obstacle delaying the fantasy future from arriving.

In some measure, I suppose we’re all guilty but not to the degree that we allow the past or fantasy future to control our lives. It seems to me that a healthy life must be distributed in an appropriate way while anchored in tradition handed down through generations.  The present cannot be fully known and appreciated unless we know how we got to where we are.  A little nostalgia is not a bad thing but historical reality must always have the upper hand. It’s needed to challenge our prejudices and to point a better way.  Living fully in the present is needed to pause from mere busyness to appreciate grace, abundance, gratitude, and time for reflection. It’s needed to take new bearings, make course corrections, and check old habits interfering with new and improved direction. No one can know for certain what tomorrow will bring but it’s reasonable to anticipate, plan, and act in pursuit of one’s goals. The future is always an adventure. Well made plans take detours, go down dead ends, discover surprising opportunities, but the adventure comes to little without some planning.

As these thoughts rumbled about in my head I wondered how all of that fit into the Christian faith. From where has Christ led us, where are we now, and where are we to go?  It’s a difficult question because to live into its answer we must subordinate self interest to following Jesus.  Self interest is here now, tangible.  We have real matters to deal with in real time. Living into past, present and future by following where Jesus leads is not tangible, it lacks hard reality, and eternity is  farther beyond the demand of today than winning the billion dollar lotto – at least someone actually gets that now and then. It’s more difficult to grasp the concrete reality of living now into eternal life with God not fully realized until the gates of death are behind us.

Jesus commended the ancient words of prophets, instructing his followers to preserve what is old for its wisdom but to not be defined by it or by misleading interpretations and made up rules claiming to have biblical authority (Matt. 9).  You cannot understand the new if you don’t know the history of the old but it must be understood through the lens of the laws of love Jesus commanded us to observe.

No one, as far as I know, exemplified living in the presence better than Jesus.  He was fully present to each person he encountered, listening, understanding and responding with God’s grace, which, in some cases, involved appropriate chastisement.  He had only three years to complete his earthly ministry but took his time with frequent hours alone to commune with The Father. With divine authority he instructed us to trust God and not worry so much about material things. Material things are needed of course and God knows that, but look at the abundance and beauty of creation and we are of more value than that.  So trust God, follow in the way of love and what you have will be what you need (Matt. 6).  It’s a hard lesson. All of us know about the desperate needs of others and some have personal experience of extraordinary needs.  Failure and lack of security in the basics of life are real. Yet those who trust in God seem to have the resources needed to get through when others do not.

With trust in God and following Jesus in the way of love, the future will always be an adventure.  Like any adventure, it will come with risks, even danger, but it will also come with rewards of satisfaction and gratitude in spite of self doubt and the knowledge that good enough is as close as we can get to getting it right.  Planning with great expectations is not excluded.  Jesus made plans and was disciplined in pursuing them.  So did Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and every other generation of Christian disciples. Life always intervenes through chance, unforeseen conditions, and unintended consequences.  Mistakes are made, dead ends encountered, rabbit holes dived into. Life is always filled with the need to recalculate, and recalculating to keep things the way they are without change is the deadest dead end of all. 

The Christian life is a life of balance. It learns from and treasures tradition. It is as fully present as possible in the events of each day. It lays ordinary human plans for the future and works toward them but its ultimate end is a new and fuller life in God’s eternal presence.  It doesn’t deceive itself with magical thinking, unwarranted skepticism, naive trust in human goodness, or pride in self.  It trusts in God’s grace made known to us through Jesus Christ and it faces the unknown with courage.  It’s an ideal we fail to live up to yet it remains our certain hope that with God’s help we will make it. We are already walking into our eternal life, unsteadily, not yet there, but guided by its light.  Our obligation is to let that light shine into the lives of others in whatever way we can.

The Establishment: What is it? Why does it Matter? – a few provisional reflections

The Guardian reported recently on studies saying that so called working classes tend to vote Republican because they distrust and dislike “the establishment” and the GOP takes an anti establishment position.  It raises a question.  What is “the establishment?”

It could be big corporations, big banks, and the industrial-military complex.  It’s an establishment of wealthy elite who have little interest in the well-being of the “working class” as long as they continue producing bottom line profits.  At the same time, it’s an establishment that bankrolls America’s prosperity, or lack of it.  It’s capitalism at work, but it isn’t democratic capitalism unless regulated by democratic government to work as much as possible on behalf of the common good. It is an essential establishment, but dangerous, even untrustworthy. Under the moniker “free enterprise” it seeks to minimize government oversight regardless of effect on the public interest.  Like all things in a democracy, it’s a matter of balance  – enough regulation but not too much.

It could be the coastal, intellectual elite, the liberal snobs who think they are better and smarter than everyone else, and know little of the  life of real people in the real America.  It seems they feel entitled to tell others how they should live their lives, what’s best for them, and why the working class can’t be relied on to care for themselves and the nation in the right way.  It’s an establishment that exists more in the imagination than reality, although there are outspoken examples of it that give the appearance of size and power.  Demographic maps show that about sixty percent of America’s population lives east of the 100th meridian (a hundred miles or so west of the Mississippi).  The majority of those live close to the east coast or Great Lakes.  Of the roughly forty percent living in the west, most live between the Pacific and Cascade/Sierra mountains.  There are a few exceptions such as Phoenix and Denver.  This enormous coastal population is a stew of every sort dominated by the poor and working classes.  As fully engaged in getting through life and facing problems just like everyone else. They may not be all that aware of life on the other side of coastal mountain ranges.  Equally true, those in the midlands face the same conditions of life and pay scant attention to what’s gong on in the lives of real Americans living in coastal regions 

The much reviled intellectual elite are few, literate, curious, college educated, well traveled, aware of how we are all connected.  They are a source of creative, new ideas to make life better for all. They too are an essential establishment for any democratic society. They generate ideas and movements that push society toward greater justice and opportunity but are prone to over estimating benefits and underestimating costs while misjudging the nation’s willingness to go along.  Nevertheless, without them democracies stumble toward autocracy, not by revolution but through complacency that places security over everything else.

The establishment could be the federal bureaucracy, what some call “the deep state.” They are the career government employees who staff departments, formulate regulations required by law.  Unelected, in place from administration to administration, they are believed by many to be the true rulers of the nation who create little kingdoms for themselves.  The British comedy series “Yes Minister” made the image into a farce, but many see it as a dangerous threat to citizens and their freedom.  It’s a product of frustration and imagination, but not without a bit of truth.   Career civil servants acquire status by the amount of resources they control and the size of staff supervised.  Little fiefdoms exist. Managers are accountable for how federal laws are implemented, incentivized to see that every i is dotted and every t crossed.  Lacking efficient interrelated data systems, duplication is built in.  With accountability directed upward, there is little motivation to make consumer satisfaction a priority. In my opinion, making the bureaucracy accountable for consumer satisfaction would go far to improve public trust.  Nevertheless, the bureaucracy is an establishment essential to any enduring society, and critical to a democracy such as ours. From ancient times, nations with a professional bureaucracy endured.  Those without did not.

I believe these three are the primary manifestations of “The Establishment.”  Are they the enemies of the people, a threat to the nation?  No. They are essential to our ability to endure and prosper as a democratic republic with liberal ideals.  But each must be monitored to see that they work effectively and efficiently for the good of the nation.  The need to regulate business and industry is obvious.  Their impact on consumers, workers, the environment, and each other is enormous, easily manipulated for selfish purposes.  They are amoral institutions under no obligation to benefit anyone but themselves.

The intellectual elite require freedom of speech, academic freedom, and access to study, R&D, and the ability to implement new ideas and technology.  Because of their outsized ability to influence others, they must be kept open to challenges in the public arena and their tendency to isolation in “ivory towers”checked through conversation with their intellectual equals living in “the real world.”

Perhaps the most important is the bureaucracy.  For all their dedication and hard work, don’t laugh, they are dedicated and work hard.  Nevertheless, the culture of the entire apparatus must be reoriented to customer service.  That will require stern guidance from the top.  No secretary or administrator should be considered until they commit to said guidance.  Senior civil servants likewise must understand their own performance will be judged on the measure of customer satisfaction.  It’s not impossible. It is the only way to reverse the government if the enemy mentality that grips public opinion.   Are there any examples of it being done right?  Consider the  Department of Agriculture County agents as a place to start.

Addendum: I am ignoring the Trumpian fantasy that the DOJ and FBI are puppets of the Biden administration. Trump tried to weaponize them, and came close.  I guess Trumpians think that’s what every president does.

Spectators, Participants & Education

Not long ago I listened to an old address by author, David McCullough.  He talked about what it means to be a spectator vs. a participant.   He was concerned that the American public was becoming so dependent on smart phones, tablets and social media that they had removed themselves from participating in the real world of in person relationships without which life becomes flat and the fabric of society weakened.  They had become mere spectators uninvolved in the necessary work of active citizenship.   Active citizenship means more than reasonably well informed engagement with important public issues of the day.  It also means engaging with others to listen, learn, develop and maintain friendships, to participate in social events ranging from coffee gossip to clubs, worship, shared spots and hobbies, and the like.

Last week I heard a brilliant H.S. graduation speech on lessons learned during COVID.  Although Zoom made continuing learning possible, it could not make up for the loss of in person community that normally energized student life while practicing social skills and values in the give and take of human interaction.  I doubt she had listened to McCullough’s address, but the message was similar: be a participant, not just a spectator. Personally I would not want to repeat my awkward, sometimes painful teenage experiences, but admit it was also a time of exciting growth, learning and discovery.

Even after the isolation of COVID, I now sometimes wonder if McCullough was right. We live a block from the campus of a medium size university.  Students walking from here to there appear glued to their phones, oblivious to anything around them – people, birds singing, weather, traffic, even friends trying to talk with them.  It isn’t just students; many adults seem to think a text ding is more important than talking with the person they’re next to or that failure to catch a breaking news alert or email is a venial sin.  How many live their lives through tablets, computers and phones, rarely experiencing personal engagement with nature and people?  The Internet and social media are useful tools but can never be substitutes for personal engagement, what McCullough called ‘participation.’ 

Is our collective disassociation from the real world as serious as it sometimes appears?  I’m also aware of how actively our local students engage in issues discussions, community volunteer work, student religious groups, etc. We’re a historic town with lthousands of tourists. There’s a high demand for summer hospitality jobs and internships that soak up teens and young adults involving some kind of social interaction with co-workers and the public.  You earn a lot about the real world when working in Hospitality. 

At the age of 80, I’m part of two weekly and two monthly discussion groups, and have a circle of friends who enjoy visiting in person or email about matters of interest and importance.  We take long walks, explore nature and delight in what we experience in daily life.  University was a long time ago, but life long learning is our passion, as it is with neighbors and friends. The same is true of our extended family of adult children, spouses, grandchildren, in laws, and so on.  Most are progressive, a few are conservative, but all are engaged in the real world beyond careers. Perhaps that’s closer to the norm than polls suggest.

What is the real world?  It’s far more than public policy issues of one sort or another.  It means being aware of one’s surroundings, the needs and interests of others, nature  with all its creatures, and the needs of every day life. In an age of increasing specialization in  almost every career and occupation, it means having interest unrelated to “work” that brings  more fullness into life. With that in mind, it also means that participation in life must include a significant measure of spectatorship.  If there is a time for everything under heaven, there is a time when one must be a silent spectator, waiting, listening, seeking understanding, reflecting and judging.  It’s a matter of balance.  Being a spectator is not wrong in itself, it’s wrong when spectatorship defines one’s way of life.  Long before smart phones and the internet, it was possible to be little more than a spectator and too many were.  Grocery store tabloids, idle gossip, couch potato t.v., and living in isolated bubbles of town, neighborhood or club created opportunities to be willfully ignorant of “the real world”, uninvolved in it, except for angry criticism of things one knew little about.  I don’t know, maybe it’s too difficult for many people to envision a a wider horizon and better future, to be curious about lives of people unlike themselves.  My wife is taking a class in which the instructor alleged that too many lives are dictated by the past, unaware of the present, and unwilling or unable to envision the future beyond the next month or year.  They lack curiosity and imagination.  Writers of the 1920-30 era called them stupid.  It means something a little different now, but that’s what it meant then. 

Is it just a quirk of human nature? I hope not. Creating the conditions for more people to be intellectually curious, courageous, and engaged in a healthy mix of spectatorship and participation is what public schools, universities, community colleges, and tech schools are about.  A well funded vibrant, challenging public education system is, I suspect, what makes broad engagement in citizenship possible.  John Adams thought so almost 300 years ago, and so do I.  Angry adults attacking school boards appear to prefer intellectual passivity over courage, stupidity over curiosity, and spectatorship over participation.  In plain English they seek to abort the next generation of well informed citizens.

Six Glorious Months to Practice a New Way of Life

Every year at this time I write about the importance of the six months of ordinary time.  Having gone through the six month cycle of holy seasons, holy days, and special liturgies, we settle down to a six month study of one Gospel and the rest of scripture that helps us understand it.

From Christmas through Easter we have heard much of God’s love, and have been given a new commandment to love one another  as Jesus Christ loves us.  We have been told the way of love is the only way and we must strive to follow it as best we can.  But the most important question has been left unresolved.  If the way of love is to love others as Jesus loves, how did he demonstrate it so we can try to do the same/?  This is the year of Matthew.  For six months we will learn through study, and hear in sermons how Matthew reported Jesus’ words and deeds of love.  They are to be our teachers, guiding us to ways of love for others more like Jesus.  It’s six months to practice what we’ve learned.  It’s a life long work.  We’re never done.  Let’s face it, our progress, ore at least my progress, is slow, halting and well short of the goal.  So what.  I’m still commanded to try, and so are you.  Matthew is a particularly good teacher. In spite of his tendency. To exaggerate, he collected and condensed Jesus’ most. Important words into the Sermon non the Mount.  Matthew does more than other gospel writers to connect Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew Scriptures, and that’s important because one cannot really grasp the meaning of the New Testament if one does not have a solid grounding in the Old.  The New does not annul the Old, it fulfills it.

Use these six months to full advantage.  No hurry, take you’re time to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the way of love as Jesus has taught us. Practice making it your way of life.