Hungry for a Tribe – musings on isolation and consumerism

A recent New York Times article (you can find the link over on my twitter account @raincitypastor) describes the gnawing hunger our culture has for belonging to a tribe, and how those longings are fulfilled in a tribe.   This longing has led to an explosion in self-help podcasts on all manner of subjects ranging from the development of morning rituals, to cold showers, meditation, and coffee made of mushrooms.

What’s going on?  Why does Joe Rogan have 30 million podcasts downloads each month?  And, more cogent to this blog and my own musings: “What needs are being met in the plethora of self-help broadcasts that the church is failing to meet?  Should the church be meeting these needs?  How?”

My observation:  In contrast to our longings for community, our consumer culture isolates and leads to paralyzing confusion.

C.S. Lewis postulates in “The Great Divorce” that hell is that place where we get whatever we want, but the result of having our particular consumerist desires met is that we become isolated.  In our zeal to build a customized life, we find ourselves increasingly isolated.   Rituals that once bound people together, such as church attendance, prayer groups, or whatever have fallen on hard times (for reasons I’ll address next).  The result is isolation and confusion.  I’m alone, and I don’t know what to do in order to live better.

Along come podcasts which call people to what are offered as life giving rituals.  Whether it’s morning meditation, fasting until lunch, or a daily cold shower, purveyors of ‘primal wisdom’ are calling people to rituals.   The value of rituals are that I now “know what to do” because someone has offered a prescription of practices that lead to life.

Second, I now have a community, if only  virtual, who share my values.   These podcasters have, in other words, tapped into a need that the church, long ago, stopped meeting.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

My Proposals

#1 – Elevate the Value Of Rituals – in past eras of the church, the pervasiveness of  consumerism, individualism, wealth disparity, and nationalism, gave rise to a counter response called “monasticism”.  They became “The Desert Father’s” or “The Benedictines” or “The Celtic Church” which thrived beyond the structures of the Roman Empire, or the “Confessing Church” in Germany during the rise of the Reich.  All these communities called people to various rituals of prayer, fasting, Bible Reading, service, and more.

I will continue to work at this in the church I lead.  I’ve written a book  in order to help people develope “Rule of Life” rituals.   I wrote this because the hyper-individualism and consumerism that is American Evangelical Christianity is horribly ineffective.   Perhaps, in our desire to make faith accessible, we’ve lowered the bar so close to the ground that self-denial, rituals, or challenges regarding the use of our time, money, or bodies never happen.  The result of this is that we end up with nothing to offer or nothing to say.   As a result, the church has been relegated to the dust bin of irrelevance for an increasing percent of the population.

Here’s how The NY Times article suggests that these podcasts are filling the gap:

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

To the extent that the church can once again elevate and create a culture where faith has particular practices, and to the exten that the practices offer a real path to wholeness and transformation, the church’s light might once again begin to shine.

#2 –  Stop behaving like Gnostics; Recover the Body – These podcasts, for all their flaws, are seeking to speak to the whole person.  Meditation.  Cold Showers.  Mushroom Coffee.  Finding your tribe.  Serving others.

Wow.  It’s clear to me that an appeal of podcasts is their capacity to address the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.  It’s not that I agree with everything offered (“Mushroom coffee?  Really?”).   The reality though, is that God cares about the whole person, and too often the church doesn’t.  The church’s failure to address the whole person is central to why so many are leaving the church.   Paul prayed that we’d be “set apart” and “made whole” in every way: spirit, soul, body.

I’m presently working on developing a discipleship pathway that addresses the whole person.  Such a pathway must include not only practices of prayer and generosity for the spirit, but doing soul work related to our brokenness so that our time use, money use and relationships all move toward wholeness.  Finally, we must also address the body work related to sleep, exercise, and making wise food choices.

What would it look like if God’s people were functionally tribes of people (called churches) committed to life transforming practices that will empower people to serve and bless the world out from a place of ongoing movement toward wholeness?  Such a church would shine as light in the midst of darkness, would become food in the midst of people hungry for meaning, belonging, wholeness, and ritual.  We hunger for these things because God has placed ‘eternity in the hearts’ of all people!  Thanks be to God that our world is hungry.  It’s high time we begin building cultures that become the food we’re meant to be.

I welcome your thoughts…

 

Addressing Poverty – one by one by one by one

In the wake of the recent head tax hysteria in Seattle, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mother Teresa’s famous quote about poverty. Answering the question “Which is the poorest nation on earth?” in a very Mother Teresa-like manner, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because,”,she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

This relates to the head tax, and to the liberal dream that money and programs can eventually solve homelessness.  Money, the increasing divide between the rich and poor, the disappearing middle class, and cost of health care are all, as the left  points out, contributing factors to the present and increasing crisis. I, for one, agree.

But the left often seems blind the fact that a strong social network and strong family ties are even more foundational.  When these are in place, individuals in crisis are offered a web into which they might fall, giving their lives a resiliency, emotional strength, and confidence that they are loved. These things, believe me, go a long way in mitigating a myriad of social problems, including homelessness. To believe that addressing all the real problems in the above paragraph without naming the demise of family networks as a scourge is pure folly. The elephant in the room is that we suffer from a depth of relational poverty that isolates, leaving people without the safety net that first and foremost should is the purvue of healthy family systems.

Normalize divorce, encourage endless consumerism in the name of economic growth, steal childhood from young lives by hiring phones and iPads as babysitters, substitute “staying married” for “intimacy,” allow political divides to make family members enemies, toss in a good dose of hypermobility, stay too busy to visit family, raise your children with manipulation to fulfill your unmet ambitions, and presto – you have the recipe for isolation. Isolation is a factor in addictive behavior, which itself becomes an employment factor, and a factor in domestic violence. Can you see the storm arising? The results are people living on the streets who are cut off from family, victims of domestic violence, or opioids, or foreclosure.

You could buy a house for everyone on the streets, but until you address the all the factors that elevate hyper-individualism to the status of an idol, homelessness will continue to mature into an economic pandemic.

The good news is that there’s plenty each of us can do to shine as light in the midst of this dark problem.

1. Recognize the value of family ties. I just returned from speaking at a camp in the coastal redwoods where my grandma was a cook. Every time I’m there, I need to tell the guests to whom I’m speaking that this place is holy ground for me, because when I was a child it was literally the safest place on earth for my young soul. I still have memories of gramdma’s delight as she picked me up, hugged my little four-year-old body and delightedly cried, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.” The ensuing days as a child where filled with the scent of redwoods and cinnamon rolls, coastal air and bacon. There was laughter, storytelling, rock skipping at the creek, sand castle building in Santa Cruz, and a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Last week, I went and sat outside her still-standing house and could nearly see the ghosts of my whole family, laughing, reading, resting. Heaven on earth.

Her legacy is why I’m so delighted that my oldest daughter, her husband, and my granddaughter are living with us.  I hope and pray that when little Luci is 60, she’ll look back on her time in the fir forest east of Seattle as a safe place, a little heaven on earth. We’ll watch World Cup together, toss a ball, roast hot dogs on a campfire, wade in Coal Creek across the street, maybe even sleep under the stars a night or two.  Hopefully she’ll learn, not by preaching, that people who love God also love people, laugh a lot, are curious, and love the world God has made.

The notion that any program will ever be able to create that is rubbish. Yes, by all means we need to care for the current generation living on the streets and provide both food and compassion. But if we take the long view, we’d be wise to also elevate the value of healthy marriages, of enough time for hugs and freshly cooked food, of family systems where truth and grace and prevail. These, though, are moral issues, solvable only by saying there are things we can value that increase the odds of making families healthier.

2. Name values – and the greatest of these is love. I’ll forever declare that healthy marriages aren’t made by people “staying together” because “the Bible says so.”. Rather, healthy marriages require love, and love requires vulnerability and truth-telling, confession and forgiveness, mutual servanthood, and time, and energy.  I’ll forever declare that sexual intimacy belongs in covenant relationships, that sex isn’t just a form of recreation, that “serial monogamy” is destroying the possibilities of real intimacy, even as evangelical shaming does the same.

This brings me to the next important observation which is that, when our values differ among family members regarding sexuality, money, politics, or any other divisive thing, love needs to win.  You don’t disown your children because they don’t share your view. You don’t spend your meals together endlessly trying to convince the other party. You have the conversation once, or once in a while; never proportionally more than spice to the omellete. Life’s too short for that kind of hostility, and it’s not the way of Jesus.

3. Practice hospitality. The couple in this picture came up to me at the camp where I spoke and told me that they were the “young kids” on staff when my grandma was the cook in the early 60’s.  “We loved your grandma,” he said. “They were hospitable!”  Another old man at the conference told me he was single when he arrived at Mount Hermon and that my grandma had the only TV in the area in the early 60s.  “She invited all the single people over on New Year’s Day for pancakes, the Rose Parade, and the Rose Bowl.” Yes. Food. Sport. And a welcoming home.

We can and must address acute social problems. But we cannot, and must not, kid ourselves into thinking that money solves the most glaring poverty on the planet – the relational poverty that comes from thinking individualism and more stuff can solve all problems.  One of the best things you and I can do in the wake of our multiple national crises is embody the values that make for strong social networks and strong families.

Silence, Suicide and the folly of our “left vs right” polarization

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life!  – Jesus the Christ

Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there.  Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team.  But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.

Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically.  45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide.  It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic.  As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.

We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well.  When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.

It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days.  I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian.  When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left.   The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world.   We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.

But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide.  A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide.  Another young gay man commits suicideTo the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer:  yes.  

In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him.  This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it.  There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something.  A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.

On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change.  Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity.  Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story.  It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now.  Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…”  Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something:  Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.

So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.

Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere.  There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.

We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.  

Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843.  Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain.  Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.

 

 

Facebook, Nazis, and Fake News – History shows our ongoing need for Discernment

I recently watched Come Before Winter, a short documentary about two foes of Hitler.  Sefton Delmer was a propagandist who broadcast fake news into Germany as a means of changing hearts and minds.  Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was the other protaganist in the film.  I’ve written extensively about Bonhoeffer in other places, so I’ll leave him alone for now, other than to note that this documentary is perhaps the best articulation of his last days before execution you’ll find, and for that reason alone, is worth watching.  I say that because dying well, especially as a martyr (he was hanged for his part in the resistance movement in the final weeks of the war), can only happen as the fruit of living well.  Now, on to Delmer and the subject at hand.

Born in Germany and educated both there and at Oxford, Delmer was uniquely qualified to have a foot in both German and British culture, a trait which, during the 30’s caused both nations to accuse him of being “in service of the enemy”.   By 1940, however, he was recruited by the British Government to organize ‘black propoganda.’  He created several fake German radio stations broadcast by short-wave from England into Germany.  They were a mixture of truth and lies – enough truth to make the lies credible.  The intent was to demoralize, confuse, and divide the German people.  So if you think fake news is something new, think again.

Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent version of what’s been happening since the Garden of Eden.  Two things, though, make todays environment  more challenging than the past:

Everything is called “Fake” by someone.  Trump calls CNN and (“the failing”) New York Times fake.  Fox News is considered fake by most who read the Times and watch CNN.   As a result, we who digest the news increasingly ‘consider the source’, but not in a healthy way.  Instead we’re pre-emptively dismissive of a report precisely because of the source.  As a result, thoughtful people speaking important truths aren’t heard.  We’re both tribal (gathering in groups that only think like us) and post-modern (skeptical that truth is knowable) at the same time.  These two conditions, taken together, are a deadly combo.  They’re the soil in which fear, cynicism, isolation, and skepticism grow.  Sound familiar?

Here’s the deal though.  Everyone spins their news, at least a little.  CNN fact checks their stories.  So does FOX.  The problem isn’t the facts (at least in major news sources).  It’s the spin on the facts – which facts are elevated, which are hidden, and how they’re interpreted.

Our response primarily blames the source.   Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was grilled this week by congress, and the goal of the grilling seemed to be this:  “We want you to prevent liars from selling lies on your website” (along with other privacy concerns).  The notion, however, that we’ll be able to prevent lies from proliferating on the internet is, to be polite, rubbish.   Just today I learned, on the internet, that the world is ending on April 23rd, in fulfillment of hidden Biblical prophecy.  That shark cartilage will prevent and heal all forms of cancer, and that James Comey, former head of the FBI is a “leaker”, a “liar”, and an “untruthful slimball”.   Why even bother eating the cartilage, or reading Comey’s new book, if the world’s ending on April 23rd anyway? 

The Real Need:  Discernment 

Jesus said that Satan is a liar, the father of lies.  Paul said that lies come wrapped in truth sometimes.  Jeremiah said that there’d always be false prophets around.  Paul said that its in us to listen only to voices that reinforce what we already believe, and that we need to fight this tendency.

It’s as if God has gone to great lengths to shout at us in all capital letters:  YOU NEED TO LISTEN CAREFULLY AND WISELY SO THAT YOU CAN DISCERN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND LIES – BECAUSE LIES WILL ALWAYS BE RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU TO BELIEVE.

They’ll be on the sidebar of your Facebook feed.  They’re present as “slants” in the news.  Two examples: 1) The NY Times only offered criticism this morning for Trump’s role in a united allied response to Syria’s ‘crossing the line in the sand’ with chemical weapons, a response Obama promised to deliver, but never did.  2) FOX news remains remarkably silent about hush money paid to prostitutes, nepotism in the Oval Office, and the president’s inability to work with people who view the world differently than him.

These biases shouldn’t surprise us.  They should, however, remind us that there’s no cave into which we can crawl, where pure truth will be spoon fed to us.  In fact, Hebrews 6 says that maturity is defined precisely as our capacity to discern between good and evil, lies and truth, because both are coming at us 24/7 – not just in our newsfeed, but even the voices inside our heads.

Jesus taught us, outlandishly, that an obsession with him would enable us to know truth, and the truth would set us free.  Truth doesn’t mean easy, prepackaged answers that we learn when we’re children, and then spend the rest of our lives defending.  Truth means the answer to the question (as Bonhoeffer taught us when he wrestled with the question of whether to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler), “what is God asking of me in this exact moment?” – as a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, a voting citizen in a fearful and polarized society, a neighbor?

The right answer won’t be found in The NY Times or on Fox News.  But it also won’t be found in cultural withdrawal or disengagement.  It will be found by those living fully IN the world, enjoying its gifts, celebrating its beauty, mourning it’s ugliness, and fighting against its systems of oppression.  And who should be able to do that better than anyone else?

Disciples of Christ.  They don’t hide.  The engage.  They don’t call for censorship.  They call for discernment.

Here’s how Bonhoeffer said it: To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom

Such wisdom is needed; now more than ever.