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Why The Hell Go To Church?

Last Sunday, rather than attend church, I opted to stay home, drink three cups of bold, Starbucks Verona coffee, and take a walk in spring-like sunshine with my wife.

My truancy was motivation for reflection and response to Joan Chittester’s question in her memoir Called To Question“Would Jesus stay in the church today? In any of them? And, if not, who would follow him out of it? Would I?,” as well as Steve McSwain’s Huffington Post thought piece, “Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore.”

If you missed it, one motivation for going to church (or any religious place of worship) is embedded in my title–as a means to avoiding hell (or damnation).

Although many still believe in a literal hell (a “furnace of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth”) and profess to know “the way” to avoid going there, self-preoccupation arising from a foreboding perception of a capricious and punitive God is minimal today compared to times past.

For instance, nineteenth century North American worldview was largely influenced by the thought life of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, and then his student Samuel Hopkins, of whom and among his writings was a 1793 piece entitled A Treatise On The Millennium (derived from a larger work, A System of Doctrines Contained in Divine Revelation, Explained and Defended).

It warned of an imminent End Time and reign of God, in which millions of sinners and saints would be judged, punished, and destroyed.

Like a thief in the night, God would “rise out of his place to do his work, his strange work, to punish the world for its wickedness, reduce and destroy mankind so that comparatively few will be left.”

This widespread and wholesale destruction of humanity would serve the purpose of an unforgettable object lesson for those “true believers” (elect) still remaining. It would demonstrate to them “the propensity of man to the greatest degree of wickedness, and of the great and desperate evil that is in the heart of man.”

The apostasy and destruction of so many, including those who professed or feigned Christianity, would serve as both reminder and motivator for the obedience and love of the remaining “true believers.” Ultimately reminding them of this one constant reality:

With God, there is an ever-present and unpredictable possibility of judgment and destruction, therefore, every person must live hyper self-consciously pure.

Sunday fidelity came to be viewed as an objective sign of authentic piety and true conversion.

Whereas conversion was thought to be arbitrary and prone to false verification, faithful sabbath observance was seen as an unambiguous and visible delineating marker between sinner and saint and between the sacred and the profane.

Accordingly, one of the first priorities of American missionaries abroad was to teach “heathens” the concept of time, especially the “sacred hours” of the Christian Sabbath. The instruction of time served two purposes: enabling the “heathen” to identify days of the week, yet also to impress upon their minds the brevity of life and the urgent need to repent.

As one missionary journaled a chance encounter with an elderly Zulu man, “Saw an old man of 90, I should judge, & told him of the fewness of his days, & his need of preparation for death.” Accordingly, flag staffs were a first priority construction on mission stations, so as to announce to the “heathen” the arrival of the Christian Sabbath.

Sunday, therefore, was more than a day of the week. It was the linchpin of an emerging North American (Christian) consciousness.

It’s little wonder that the Christian Sabbath became one of the first exports of the new Republic, and sadly, an identifying mark of “American Christianity” on people, who were so-called “Christianized” and “civilized.”

In southeast Africa, Sunday church observance became synonymous in African thought with the heart, soul and essence of Christianity (note the absence of Christian “essence” in speaking out against apartheid, much as it was absent in America for Native Americans) as stated by South African, Lawrence Zulu, “The Christianity that has come down to our own day seems to be too bound up with the Church Building and Sunday.”

Although today going to church (mosque, temple, etc) for the purpose of avoiding a one-way trip to eternal damnation/hell isn’t a compelling motivation for people like myself, there are several notable reasons why someone might choose to attend, including:

-Fellowship of friends

-Forum for candid, different-from-the-ordinary-perspective life discussions, and

-Fraternity of broken/wounded people, where life lessons learned in the thick and thin of living can be shared with one another, and where nurturing can be experienced.

Although these are more good than bad motivations, in my opinion they aren’t “good enough” to sustain my family’s loyalty, nor good enough to distinguish the church from “Sunday competitors.”

Why these “notable reasons” for attending church are simply “not good enough,” is that they all require little of the mostly socioeconomic privileged people (myself included), who make up weekly faith communities across the United States.

They require little in terms of:

-Lifestyle change

-Significant sacrifice or sharing of economic or skills assets

-Vulnerability–e.g., of belief

-Time, energy or reason for developing and nurturing relationships with atypical “others,” and

-Active participation in redressing entrenched social systemic indignities, inequalities and injustices.

I admit I struggle to comprehend early church and present day church incongruities. That is to say, what imaginative and creative energy present day professional clergy and elected lay leadership must expend to rationalize annual multi-multi-million dollar church property, buildings and operational budgets in order to read without blushing about the earliest and mostly powerless community of Jesus followers, “They were together, breaking bread (sharing meals), having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

As one who grew up Baptist, I agree with McSwain’s assessment that the church is dying, although and obviously, this is not to suggest churches will cease to exist.

Although McSwain doesn’t note how many new churches are begun each year (to counter those closing their doors for the last time), he does cite Hartford Institute of Religion Research indicating:

-Between 4,000 and 7,000 churches die annually–one person put the number as high as 8,000 to 10,000/year

-On any given Sunday less than 20-percent of Americans attend church

-Every day for the next sixteen years, 10,000 baby boomers will enter retirement, thereby exacerbating an already graying of the church, but also depleting it of its financial base, and

-Between 2010 and 2012 more than half of U.S. churches didn’t add a single new member.

McSwain lists seven trends affecting negative church attendance, including:

-Demographic changes/remapping

-Technology under utilization

-Leadership crisis

-Competition for people’s time and resources

-Religious pluralism

-“Contemporary” worship experience, and

-Phony, BS advertising by churches–professing “All People Welcome” when in actuality it’s not true.

most identify with McSwain’s initial statement, in which he informs readers that the title of his thought piece–Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore–is a question individuals who are leaving the church to join the ranks of the “religiously unaffiliated” are more than ready to respond to and answer, yet . . . . a question “few insiders are listening to.” 

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The Power of One . . . of Madiba . . . of You

I’m seldom a willing, let alone enthusiastic viewer of animated children/family movies. This, in contrast to a former South African friend of mine, who not only has a special tolerance for watching the latest kids’ movies, but also a knack as a minister of a small faith congregation for crafting clever, individualized marriage messages using themes and characters from the movies for soon-to-be married couples.

I have one exception, however. Madagascar. I laugh every viewing at the wit and humor of its colorful and animated characters, especially, of course, narcissistic King Julien, whose self-admiration is equal to Phoebe and Monica’s old friend and fake Brit, Amanda Buffamonteezi, in the 2003 Friends’ episode, “The One With Ross’s Tan,” in which, reuniting after years of having not seen each other, she tells her two friends to, “Look at me! Look how young I look.”

madagascar

Flipping channels two nights ago, as men stereotypically do, I hit on a rerun of Madagascar, in particular, the section where Alex (Ben Stiller, aka the lion) is alienated from his friends on the beach. It’s night, and feeling a desperation to escape the confining “wilds” of the island for the bright lights and accustomed comforts of mainland New York City, Alex erects a huge HELP beacon from the trunks of coconut trees.  He intended to set it alight immediately upon sighting of a rescue ship on the horizon.

Unfortunately for Alex, a storm brews, and lighting strikes, incinerating his help beacon, but not before the camera captures his emotional state of mind and life predicament.  That is, the in-flame “HELP” transforms by videography editing into a flaming message of “HELL.”

If my sense of observation is even in the ballpark of proximity, then there are more people than is comfortable to be aware of, whose lives right this moment are teetering on a paper’s edge between desperate unvoiced pleas for help, and life or work circumstances and relationships typified as hellish versus happy.

A case and area in point: My wife’s an advanced practice nurse, specializing in palliative care. Palliative implies “relieving pain” or “relieving symptoms,” and while it isn’t synonymous with death and dying, it frequently manages patients who are nearing the end of life’s journey.

This past week she learned the potency (defined as: “the power of something to affect the mind or body”) of touch combined with words as a “tool” of compassion and healing.

It’s a given that every palliative patient’s family has, is and will journey through an excruciatingly difficult period of life struggle. Emotional struggle, certainly (as in a spouse or child grieving the gradual yet persistent decline of their loved one’s physical health), but for many patients, the emotional is exacerbated by distracting lesser–but by no means little–stressors such as interfamily conflict (i.e., current spouse contending with former spouse, children and relatives over estate or end of life directives), creditors, impending repossessors, anxieties over the impending loss of a family’s primary income earner, et cetera.

Each family member affected by the chronic illness of a loved one struggles, no, agonizes over making the best life and death decisions she or he can under stressful circumstances, and obviously less than best choices are frequently made.

What my wife learned last week is how meaningful a touch on a shoulder, and a few acknowledging and affirming words to a struggling family member can be–“You’re doing a great job!” or “You’re doing so well given your family’s difficult circumstances!” or “I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you.”

Struggle is not the apropos time to offer personal opinion/counsel or critique, unless, of course, the one struggling point-blank asks for your input, which, even then, is seldom a request for you to solve their problems as it is a plea for you to recognize and acknowledge their situation, their struggle, their pain.

Eyes fill and shimmer with a rapid onset of tears, which until your kind gestures lie just below the surface of emotional struggle. Glistening eyes are voiceless expressions of gratitude that you bothered to take notice of their life and situation–“You can’t imagine how difficult it has been! But thank you for acknowledging and affirming my personal struggle and that of my family.”

From my perspective there exists an alarming incidence of walking wounded, at least in the United States, and I’m not even referring to the hundreds of thousands of war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. People’s deep and “multiple woundedness” becomes horrifically evident for the entire world to see during moments of crazed acts of mass violence, but is no less present on “average days,” and in quieter, less visible ways and places.

As Harvard’s Diana Eck instructed her fellow Americans to “Open your eyes and look around you,” this, regarding the changed and rapidly changing cultural and religious landscape of the United States, so too, all of us need to open our eyes and look at the telltale signs of the many who share our life and work spaces, and who are living yet struggling on the brink of Help and Hell.

The immensity of social, mental health and emotional need often evokes donor or benevolent fatigue and a mindset of “What can I possibly do that will make any positive, let alone lasting difference?”

I say–

This week the world is commemorating and eulogizing one ordinary at birth, yet extraordinary human becoming and African man in the person of Nelson Mandela. Let our lives be his continued legacy. Don’t minimize or discount the potency and power of one! One kind word, one sacrificial act, one compassionate touch, one shared tear, one hour of shared conversation . . .

AP photos at WPRI.com

AP photos at WPRI.com

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