A bit of a grab-bag of unfinished thoughts, provocations, and observations collected over the past week…
I spent my morning commute listening to the first few minutes of this week’s episode of On Being. The episode was an interview with Jonathan Haidt and Melvin Konner and had the delightfully breezy title: “Capitalism and Moral Evolution: A Civil Provocation.” I’ve not yet finished the episode, but I was struck by one line that I heard this morning:
As people become richer and safer, their values change.
Now, this probably wouldn’t apply like a wooden template across every story and every community in the same way, but very generally this seems to be true, doesn’t it? Haidt used the example of how the children of immigrant populations tend to have much more of a focus on the cocktail of “rights” that so animate present-day ethical discourse (animal rights, human rights, rights of every conceivable special interest group) than their parents did (many of whom were just trying to keep bread on the table and provide opportunities for their kids). Thinking even of my own story, I occupy a much more privileged position (socially, economically, with respect to educational opportunities, etc) than, say, my grandparents’ generation. And my values and priorities consequently, look a bit different. Or at least are expressed a bit differently.
I think that we are often very pleased to imagine that our own moral views are the product of education and rational reflection and compassion and sensitivity and our generally laudable moral character. What people like Haidt seem to be saying is, “um, well maybe a little… but probably not as much as you think… your views are also profoundly a product of things like your social location and economic status.” Hmm.
I was speaking this morning with a gentleman in our church who is north of ninety. We were discussing the future of the institutional church and the gradual decline of many of the institutions that his generation played a massive role in forming. He lamented the fact that his children and grandchildren no longer part of Mennonite churches. I think they’re just too rich, he said.
Again, not a rigid template for every story or community… And there are obvious exceptions… But, still. Interesting.
I came across another interesting article this morning about the state of “worship” these days in the land of evangelical mega-church-dom. It’s pretty grim reading. The author excoriates the disease of “perfomancism” that has taken root in so many churches. Here’s one modest, understated paragraph:
Congregations built on entertainment, provided by a combination of rock musicians and celebrity pastors, to be blunt, are more orgasmic than organic. The slavish, masturbatory pursuit of the feeling itself inevitably leads to the worship of something other than Christ. It rejects the Christian story in favor of our own. It rejects true human connection in God’s church and replaces it with introspective preoccupation. It ends with the narcissistic worship of self. It can deliver a spark, yes, and it may get butts in the seats, but in the end, it leaves us wanting. The excitement over the bright shiny objects that attract masses today will eventually wane, and the church will have to offer something brighter and shinier to hold out hope for the future.
As a member of a small church that doesn’t really have these temptations, it’s easy to read a piece like this and cheer along. Yeah, you tell those big bad mega-churches! And I find myself largely in agreement with the theological critique offered by the author. I do think that many churches substitute performance for worship and that there are a whole host of theological assumptions embedded in the language we use (worship = music? really?… “Auditorium” vs. “sanctuary?” “Audience” vs. “congregation?”) that are worth pulling apart and holding up to the light.
But it’s not just big churches who suffer this affliction. They might be the most obvious expression of it, but smaller churches can slide into these kinds of patterns just as easily. I can quite easily find myself anxiously glancing at my watch throughout a service where a song is going on too long or grumbling inwardly when a speaker isn’t as “polished” as I might prefer (especially when said speaker is myself) or if there are a few hiccups in communion or any number of other ways that the “show” isn’t proceeding as I expected or planned. It’s very easy for me to agonize about whether or not the “customers” are satisfied with the “product.”
Worship is not easy. There’s probably something significant about the fact that the word “liturgy” literally means “work of the people.” It takes a great deal of effort to recalibrate ourselves, our communities, our habits and practices. It takes time and patience and energy to wean ourselves from personal preferences and info-tainment and performancism and reorient our desires toward God, God’s story, and the words, songs, practices, and expressions of grace and love that have guided and sustained God’s people across time and space.
No matter what the size of the church, true and proper worship is hard (and important!) work. And it probably should be.
I spend a good deal of time with people whose bodies are betraying them, whether through age or sickness or whatever. It’s impossible to be a pastor (or to be alive and alert, really) and not at least occasionally come to the realization that one day, this will be me. Bodies are strange and glorious things. Sources of inexplicable pleasure and possibility, and yet also painful reminders of the transience of life and the suffering that comes to us all.
Last night, this forty year old body dragged itself out on to the soccer pitch. Not a terribly remarkable thing, in any way. But to be honest, also not near the top of my list of ways to spend a Thursday evening. I coach my kids’ U16 team and it has been, shall we say, a challenging season. We have lost every game we’ve played, most by five or more goals. We are the Bad News Bears (minus the eventual winning). Last night, our scheduled game was canceled because the other team couldn’t make it. This didn’t hurt my feelings, terribly. I am, I have been told, a ridiculously competitive person and I despise losing. Which, as I said, we have been doing rather a lot of this season. So I was kinda looking forward to a night off.
But my wife, wise soul that she is, gently prodded me toward being perhaps a bit less selfish and thinking about the kids. “Why don’t you just have a practice game or something?” she said. “The kids want to play. Their parents have paid. It’s a nice night.” Being unable to come up with a response that rose beyond some variation of, “But I don’t wanna!!!” I yielded to her impenetrable wisdom and logic.
And you know what? It was awesome. A few of my players brought siblings. I invited a few of the dads and a friend of mine to play. Before long we had enough for 11 v 11. There were no refs or whistles or cheap fouls or bad language—just a bunch of people running and laughing and kicking a ball around for an hour and a half on a spring evening. The kids probably had more fun than any game we’ve played all year. Their coach certainly did.
And not just because we didn’t lose 9-0 (although I won’t lie, that was a nice bonus…). It was a reminder that bodies are really great things and that it’s a lot of fun to run around and kick a ball with other bodies. It was a reminder to celebrate the moment that stands before us. I might not be able to do this at some point down the road. But I can do it now. And that’s a pretty cool thing.