Monday, August 29, 2011

Church: Stepping Stone or Stumbling Block?

Peter Rollins wrote a book of parables called The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. I think it's exceptional. My favorite parable is called Finding Faith; a story in which a preacher has the unusual gift of causing people to lose all their religious convictions when he prays for them. The preacher doesn't see much use for this gift until he meets a man who, despite declaring his love for Christ and being very involved in his church, engaged in ruthless business practices. He explained to the preacher that the business world was a cold one and he simply did what he had to do, but he went to church every Sunday to remember who he really was. The preacher finally understood the value of his unusual gift. He prayed for the businessman, causing him to lose all his faith in God. Without his prayer groups and Bible studies to put a glossy finish on the lens through which he perceived himself, the businessman had to face the reality of how he was actually living. He started to despise his business practices, had a breakdown and left his job. Eventually he put his skills to work challenging the corrupt system he once participated in.

In the commentary that follows Pete asks if perhaps our religious convictions and church activities have become safety valves, allowing us to blow off a little steam, inoculating us against a deeper change that would permeate every aspect of our lives. I remember watching a video a few months ago in which Pete was lecturing at a university and he explained how it's actually in an employers best interest to have their employees sit around the staff room complaining about management, because if they weren't allowed that release the pressure would build to a breaking point and people would be forced to take steps toward actually changing the situation.

Does going to church inoculate (that links to a great talk our church pastor shared on a related subject) us against more meaningful spiritual practices? I think it's a big risk for some and completely true for many. I mean, if I couldn't talk about Jesus with my church family who would I be having conversations with? If I wasn't giving my time and resources to the church who would I be giving it to? If I couldn't worship on Sundays or be inspired by a good sermon where would I go to worship and be inspired? Without church to help us let off a little religious steam we'd really have to live by our beliefs because there would be nobody else to do it for us.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think the answer is to join the ranks of the de-churched but I am becoming aware of the huge potential for complacency and compartmentalization inherent in church life. When we are a part of a large institution, like a church, it's easy to lose our sense of personal responsibility. For example, I may not go out and feed the poor but if there is a group within our church who does this I probably feel that I am in some way contributing; especially if I throw a few cans of soup their way. We probably use the collective term "we" in church way too much; usually it's only a handful of people actually contributing. The next time our pastor says "We did this!" I'm going to reflect on who was actually involved and scratch my name off the list!

So that's what I've been reflecting on tonight. Any thoughts?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Better Together: The Spiritual Practice of Community

Western culture places enormous value on the individual, independence and personal achievements. We often live completely removed not only from our neighbours but also from our own family. Gone are the days of the multi-generational home and a true sense of community. There was once a time, not so long ago, when a family would (literally) not survive without their neighbours. Nowadays those who work, eat and play with their actual neighbours are probably Amish or living on a commune. Even those of us who start out in a nuclear family and grow to have children of our own usually end up alone. We break away from our parents, our children fly the coop and our spouses die. If we are lucky enough to grow old we will find ourselves among the loneliest, most depressed demographic in the world; either living alone or dying with strangers in a nursing home.

I know many people, mostly introverts, who are quite comfortable in their own company; but even introverts need to be intimately involved with others. Living in community challenges us in ways that no other spiritual practice comes close to: we learn to work together, make sacrifices, forgive, share and cooperate. We also learn that we can't always get what we want, that we aren't the centre of the universe and that other people matter. We share in their joy and suffering. When we know people well they become real people, with histories and dreams of their own; not just two-dimensional characters in our own story.

It seems to me that stronger communities, not communities of like-minded individuals but actual side-by-side neighbours helping one another, just might be the most important step backwards the world could hope to make. A few months ago I heard a popular feminist on talk radio. I can't remember her name but she's been around for decades and the interviewer asked her what change would most help improve the lives of women. I expected her to say something like more women in politics or equal pay but she surprised me by saying (I'm paraphrasing here) that women need to start working together again. That every day in every neighbourhood women are in their homes doing the exact same chores: cooking and cleaning and raising their children. We are all exhausted and lonely. Imagine how much more efficient it would be if the women worked in groups, some minding the children, a few prepping evening meals, others spending the afternoon folding laundry or running errands for the group. By the end of the day all the work would be accomplished with much less effort and in the company of others.

I know I am an idealist but there is a realist in me too. I know this would never work and I think I know why: we have forgotten how to live with others. We want it our way, right away. We have preferences for how the socks are folded, how much cumin is in the curry and which route to take through town. We live in the kind of society where if we don't like the way someone looks or how they spend their time we never have to talk to them -even if there is only one wall separating their home from our own. And we won't even look like snobs if we ignore them; they expect us to! In fact, we'd be going out on a limb if we walked next door to introduce ourselves. We'd probably be received apprehensively if not suspiciously. Who can blame them? We ourselves don't want to be inconvenienced or imposed on. Sure, we'll help out at church on Sunday but heaven forbid someone knock on our door after supper when we've put our feet up in front of the television after a long, hard day. We want to give on our terms. We guard our time jealously, as if it actually belongs to us.

I want to live and work side-by-side with other women and their families. If I spend a whole day inside this little apartment with my husband and two children I start to go a little crazy. I get mean, impatient, bored and discouraged. I need other women to talk to, to teach me how to be a good mother, to help me stay on course, to show me how to make a good casserole. I want my children to grow up with friends who live next door and not spend my days driving to play groups or activities across town. I want to be in relationship with people simply because they are people who live close by not because they meet a certain criteria to be considered my friends. It seems we no longer need to enter into any relationship that really challenges us. Real life neighbours make for complicated relationships: they are alcoholic, elderly, wealthy, cancer survivors, immigrants, drug dealers, prom queens and assholes. We choose our friends because they are like us. They like the same movies, share our religious beliefs and sense of humor. We are usually close in age, have similar incomes and dress pretty much the same. Boy, we must really love ourselves! Every relationship we choose reinforces our choices and affirms our worth.

But it ain't so with neighbours. We don't choose them. They are kind of like family in that respect. We must learn to work through our differences, to tear down walls and build healthy boundaries, to let go, to be useful, to be valued and to be vulnerable, to give and receive. It's very difficult to be spiritually well on our own. We grow together or we stay sick alone (in our little oasis of a home where the laundry is folded properly and the curry always has just the right amount of spice!).