Faith Works 1-9-16
Less to come in the new year
At the congregation I'm part of, over the New Year's "bridge" of Sundays from the one after Christmas Day to the first one of 2016, we shared some thoughts together on "How do we want to grow in 2016?"
As the preacher and pastor there, I took the themes noted and input offered up the first Sunday to build a sermon last week on some of the particularities of our community's "growth" plans. Now I'd like to open that discussion up more widely, to people of faith and the many other seekers I know who read this column locally, and start a conversation about spiritual and personal growth in the year ahead, and I'd like to center that discussion on something I've already started to notice in my own church.
We need less.
I have a suspicion that it's the pressures of our culture that pushes people to think the right, the correct answer to a question like "how do you want to grow" is in "more."
More Bible reading, more prayer, more service.
How can a minister argue with that? Well, keep reading, I'll give it a shot.
Now, are there folks whom I think need a bit more time with scripture in their lives, who should be praying more than at red lights, entire families who should get off the sofa and out into the world putting their hands and hearts to the work of God? Sure.
In general, though, there's a social drive to hunt for "more," an urge that arises out of what the author and teacher Brené Brown calls "scarcity." She says in her book "Daring Greatly" that "We get scarcity because we live it…Scarcity is the "never enough" problem…Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don't have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants."
One could ask "and where does this come from?" with the obvious answer being advertising and consumer culture, and I'll leave that as sufficient for the time and a subject for later discussion. But I think the reality of "scarcity culture" is obvious, and insidious inside of our church buildings. One form of it that I'm acutely aware of is how no event, activity, or worship service is complete until at least three people say something about how either the same program had much bigger attendance in [name a date decades ago] or asking why this turnout isn't as big as [name another congregation in the vicinity]. Really? Isn't there something to celebrate and cherish in this particular gathering of God's people in this place at this time? No, we compare, and fret, and feed anxieties about the future.
But on a personal level, it comes out more quietly but I feel, pastorally, is always there. People ask "am I praying enough? Reading enough? Doing enough?"
The Church of Christ psychology professor, thinker, and maverick elder Richard Beck, from whose excellent blog "Experimental Theology" I got the Brown quote above, answered a critic in his comment by saying "One thing I'd push back on here, as a psychologist, is the notion that "people make time for what they care about." That's way too simplistic a model for human motivation, cognition and emotion. The fact is we care about many, many things, things that often come into conflict. Also, we care about things with different parts of the brain--cognitively and affectively--which also creates conflicts (e.g., why it's hard to keep New Years Resolutions)."
And as a Christian parson, I'd add the gospel observation that this all starts with understanding that you literally can't do "enough." You can't serve or pray or read your way into the heart of God's love, into the kingdom of heaven. You can't earn it, so stop trying. Jesus opened that door because God's grace, God's free gift, is to make that possible through faith alone. Quit working for something that's already been given, just accept it.
Which is why I'd like to talk a bit more about less. About growing in 2016 through doing, having, worrying, trying, and yes, even working . . . less.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has less in mind than you might think. Tell him where growth and "less" might take you this year at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.