Why Church Matters: Community, Follow Up

Yesterday I quoted extensively from Eugene England’s article “Why the Church is As True as the Gospel” to explain why community is such an important element of church, the core element. But I think I didn’t do a good enough job to explain what it really means to have a religious community. Religion ultimately is about people. Faith is about community and relationships, more so, in my view, than beliefs.

In that sense our faith communities, if the community is really working, our congregations should be filled with people all along life’s full spectrum: with the elderly and the very young; with Democrats and Republicans; with socialists, an anarchists; with all-in believers and those who struggle with doubt; with both Trump, Bernie and Hillary supporters; with the successful and talented and those struggle to stay afloat; with those who seem like they can do no wrong and with those who struggle with sin and addiction; with the mentally well and the mentally sick; with homeless and those who live in mansions; with those who have been baptized and those who never quite feel ready for it; and even and maybe especially those who have been excommunicated; with both gay couples and straight; with the single and celibate, with those who have been divorced.

That’s the ideal. However, because church organizes by geography and we tend to segregate geographically, our communities become as homogeneous as our cities. We have black congregations and white, poor congregations and rich. This is to our detriment.

Also, I wanted to talk about excommunication, which for good reason can be seen as an expulsion from the community. I think that’s an unfortunate and unnecessary consequence. When someone is excommunicated, it’s because (again lay) church leadership make a judgment that a person has violated baptismal covenants in some way, and need to be released from them. They can and have and do remain an important part of the community. On my mission in one of my areas, on of the most faithful members of the congregation had been excommunicated, though he was working to come back.

I don’t have statistics, but anecdotally I’m assuming most people who have been excommunicated have also left the community either because they no longer felt welcome or perhaps, they left on their own, likely even before the excommunication become official.

Obviously, not everyone wants to be part of a church community generally or a Mormon community in particular. Some who have belonged, through birth or by choice, have chosen to leave. That happens. Nobody should feel forced out, rejected by a community who have made covenants to welcome and support everyone, but some will choose to leave and some will feel like they don’t belong. For those who leave because they feel rejected, it’s sad, the faith community has let them down. I get it. People are people, we all make mistakes. Ideally, this should never happen, but we’re imperfect, we strive for the ideal, but inevitably fall short.

One quick note, I don’t think a faith congregation is for literally everyone. I think there are those who really should not participate or belong. This should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. Church should be a supportive, welcome, nurturing environment. Obviously, we can’t tolerate disruption or contention or those who are trying to tear down rather than build up. I think even those who doubt or disbelieve should belong as long as they aren’t trying to destroy faith. The goal here is faith. In a faith community there will be a common set of shared beliefs. I believe these beliefs should be honored and respected.


Why The Church Matters Reason 3: Community

We all have our people, that community of folks we really connect with because of common interests, perspectives, and goals. I can think of times in my life where I felt like I belonged to a community. It happened when I was trying to get through a rigorous engineering degree. As I progressed into the more advanced courses, class sizes got smaller and I found myself going to the same set of classes with the same basic set of people. We would form study groups and grind away at homework, labs, study sessions together. We bonded over a common struggle to survive and thrive as we worked toward the degree.

After, my first job out of school was with Motorola. They had this program where you spent three months in a study program with other new hires and then were placed in a position after its conclusion. I made really good friends in that program and am still in contact with some who I met. We bonded over our common degree and career and company with similar goals, similar skills and similar educational backgrounds.

And obviously, we see it in our political environment, mostly Democrats hang out with Democrats and Republicans with Republicans. Not always, not completely, but largely it’s true. We see it with income levels, poor people live near and associate with poor people, rich people associate with other rich people. We want to be with people like us.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true, we also tend to cluster around religion affiliation as well. But church forces an engagement with others at a different level than otherwise might occur.  I can’t really recommend this article strongly enough: Why The Church is as True as the Gospel, written by Eugene England, co-founder of Dialogue, an independent journal of Mormon studies. It gets to the essence of this post and in it, England pushes back on the idea that the gospel is perfect and pure, but the institutional, earth bound church is susceptible to the failings of imperfect people.

In fact, he takes that notion and turns it on its head. First of all, the gospel:

But even revelation is, in fact, merely the best understanding the Lord can give us of those things. And, as God himself has clearly insisted, that understanding is far from perfect.

Even after a revelation is received and expressed by a prophet, it has to be understood, taught, translated into other languages, and expressed in programs, manuals, sermons, and essays—in a word, interpreted. And that means that at least one more set of limitations of language and world-view enters in. I always find it perplexing when someone asks a teacher or speaker if what she is saying is the pure gospel or merely her own interpretation. Everything anyone says is essentially an in­terpretation. Even simply reading the scriptures to others in­volves interpretation, in choosing both what to read in a par­ticular circumstance and how to read it (tone and emphasis). Beyond that point, anything we do becomes less and less “au­thoritative” as we move into explication and application of the scriptures, that is, as we teach “the gospel.

So, in terms of understanding doctrine, in terms of really understanding God’s words for us, it’s hopeless, really, if accuracy and fullness is the goal. The mere vastness of what God knows and understands, the entirety of the universe, summarized and filtered into imperfectly rendered earth-bound languages, carried into the heads of limited, imperfect, though called of God prophets, then re-translated through writing or speech as it goes from them to us in a variety of different languages. It’s too much to ask of the gospel to get that right. It’s too much to ask of us. So, when we say, “I know the church is true”, we aren’t saying there are no errors. When we say we have the fulness of the gospel, it doesn’t mean we have it all understand and received.

So, what do these faith statements mean then?

England transitions into a discussion of opposition and paradox:

This problem is compounded by the fundamentally para­doxical nature of the universe itself and thus of the true laws and principles that the gospel uses to describe the universe. Lehi’s law, “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11), is perhaps the most provocative and pro­found statement of abstract theology in the scriptures, because it presumes to describe what is most ultimate in the uni­verse—even beyond God. In context, it clearly suggests that not only is contradiction and opposition a natural pan of human experience, something God uses for his redemptive purposes, but also that opposition is at the very heart of things; it is intrinsic to the two most fundamental realities—intelli­gence and matter, what Lehi calls “things to act and things to be acted upon.” According to Lehi, opposition provides the universe with energy and meaning, even makes possible the existence of God and everything else: Without it, “all things must have vanished away” (2 Ne.2:13

So, if we want to understand God and his gospel, we need to dig right into paradox, contradiction and opposition. We subject ourselves to difficulty, difficulty and fulness.

And that is where the Church comes in. I believe it is the best medium, apart from marriage (which it much resembles in this respect), for grappling constructively with the opposi­tions of existence. I believe that the better any church or organization is at such grappling, the “truer” it is. And I believe we can accurately call the LDS church “the true Church” only if we mean it is the best organized method for doing that and is made and kept so by revelations that have come and continue to come from God, however “darkly” they of necessity emerge.

So, the church is true not because it contains no errors, it’s true because it puts its members into a position to grow through grappling with opposition and paradox. How is the church set up to do this?

It’s because the Mormon church is “radically” lay, meaning, almost every clergical position within the Mormon church is done voluntarily, in one’s spare time, by someone untrained for the position.  And more, no one aspires for the positions they are called to, they are called by others through revelation and inspiration. And everyone who joins the church is asked to serve in some capacity somewhere. We preside over one another, we teach each other, we serve each other in a variety of ways big and small. And literally every member is given an assignment to watch over a few other families in their congregation. We call this home and visiting teaching. I’m called to serve with another member of the ward as companions, and together we’re assigned families to visit regularly, and if done right with the intent to connect with, bond to and serve. W

The church also does this by organizing congregations geographically. With few exceptions, nobody chooses where and with whom they attend church. They attend based on where they live.

And when we convert into Mormonism, we do so through covenants and ordinances.  We promise to “mourn with those who mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” We make this commitment through the baptismal ordinance and that through it we are symbolically adopted into a ward family who covenant to welcome you, to love you and to support you.

Why does church matter? Because, essentially, it turns you out of yourself with the idea that when you lose your life for the sake of others, you’ll find it again. It matters because I can attend each week where I’m given a sermon from a 12 year old boy speaking in public for the first time, or my daughter performing a hymn on the violin, or my neighbor knocking on my door with cookies hoping I’m doing ok.

The church matters because it forces you into community and asks you to serve them.

Why Church Matters Part 2: It Binds Us To Our Past

In my first year of marriage, my wife five months pregnant with our first baby, we took a trip to California, camping inside Yosemite National Park. I love national parks for a lot of reasons, but for one I enjoy the nightly park ranger presentations. I still remember this one in particular. The ranger described how the Native Americans indigenous to the park still return every year to celebrate, remember and perhaps preserve their history, heritage and connection to the park. My memory is vague and the story is complicated but the idea of remembering and preserving stuck with me.

As an American with European ancestry, what does this mean for me, it’s complicated. Our continent’s history was born out of a kind of violence. We wiped out its previous history and re-imagined a new one. Those of us whose ancestry goes back to near the country’s founding, hardly connect with a past that goes back into Europe at all. We are Americans, never-mind the original inhabitants with a far longer claim to this continent than mine.  And it’s a country whose history and identity continues to evolve as we grow more globally integrated, welcoming, in succession and through nature’s accidents and global tragedies, Irish refugees from the potato famine, Chinese immigrants to meet labor demands and as a consequence of war and political strife, from Vietnam as a consequence of the war and its after-affects, and so on.

Barbara Kingsolver discusses this complexity in her novel Pigs in Heaven about a mother who is given a young Cherokee baby that she adopts even though it is illegal to do so.  The novel describes her struggle to preserve her connection to her child as the Cherokee nation tries to reclaim the child they feel was taken from them. It’s story that describes the tension between an America that tries to reinvent and a culture desperately trying to preserve.

The story of heritage is all over literature and art. As a freshman in college taking freshman English, we read a short story about African American heritage and then given the assignment to write a personal essay on it. In my essay I compared my genealogy of slave owners to the narrator’s genealogy of slaves. Ironically, I didn’t believe I actually had a slave owner heritage at the time, I just thought it would make a more provocative interesting essay to discuss it, but I do have direct ancestors from Alabama that owned slaves.

But how is this relevant to religion?  I talked about this before, but I believe personal and family history is important.

I grew up in Yuma, mostly isolated from the rest of my family, hardly venturing out of it, raised by parents who had little means or desire to connect with the broader world. This was all pre-internet, so I was both physically and virtually isolated and as a result I’ve always struggled connecting with my personal history. But my parents were also deeply, viscerally Mormon. Mormon DNA ran in their blood. My parents were 100% home and visiting teachers, never missed a Sunday meeting, arriving, in fact, 30 minutes early, sitting in the same seat every week. They knew their family history pretty well, at least superficially and especially as it was connected to Mormonism. My mom’s great grandfather, Daniel Stark, his wife and children,  endured the longest religious sea voyage in history, heading around South America in a ship rather than walking across the plains.

Or my father’s great-great-grandfather, Theodore Turley an early convert of Parley Pratt whose first wife,  Frances Amelia Kimberly,  buried in Winters Quarters, Nebraska with other Mormons in that early part of church’s history.

My parents were deeply Mormon because of this heritage and this deep connection to the church was passed down to me. Just as I’m deeply American I’m also deeply Mormon. It’s my heritage, those roots from my past are deeply embedded within me. Their sacrifices and commitments have enriched and blessed my life today.

In his book, The Mormon People: Making of an American Faith, Matthew Bowman put it this way:

The story of Mormonism is not merely the story of these believers and their ancestors, but the story of America itself. Mormonism has been called the most American of all religions, and this is true in a deeply paradoxical way. While Mormonism’s struggles with the nation throw into sharp relief what Americans believe about themselves, its aspirations and ideals no less reflect the dreams of the republic itself.

Bowman, Matthew (2012-01-24). The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Kindle Locations 71-74). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is true in the way it was founded, that an obscure, uneducated farm boy in a country where possibilities were endless. Anyone with a good idea and a willingness to work, had the potential to succeed, no matter their circumstances. Within this context, Joseph Smith, a young man, inspired and chosen, brought forth new scripture, declared America the land of promise, its indigenous population chosen, and connecting them and all of us back to Jerusalem and Christ.

But Mormonism has always been more than Joseph Smith. Again Bowman:

“His triumph sprang in part from the force and creativity of his religious imagination, his unswerving faith in his own capacities as a conduit for divine revelation, and his will to see his dreams made reality. But it grew also from the vision and dedication of those who chose to follow him: those who accepted and interpreted his ideas, who built in wood and stone the cities he saw in vision, and who, most of all, embodied in a holy community the divine experiences he craved.

But Mormonism was as much the construction of Joseph Smith’s followers as of Smith himself. It was a sacramental community bound together through ritual, priesthood, and ordinance, and his people became the society of which Joseph had dreamed: a firm rock in an unreliable world, a faithful community that itself became, in a way, the salvation its followers sought.”

Bowman, Matthew (2012-01-24). The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Kindle Locations 270-273). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Mormonism is more than a 14 year old boy’s vision in a grove of trees. It’s more than the Book of Mormon. Mormonism has always been about the hundreds, then thousands and now millions of people worldwide who have felt compelled to join it and felt inspired to build it and then because and through this commitment and sacrifice pass it down to the next generation.

And it’s why Mormonism today means something different than Mormonism meant when it was founded in 1830. And it will mean something different tomorrow than what it’s meant today. It’s different but it’s the same. We are linked through these generations to a common purpose, theology and doctrine, but one that continues to evolve and change.

Adam Miller gets to the heart of this here:

In the second case, the past can teach us tangentially about the molten moment that is the present—the original moment that is ceaselessly irrupting at our feet—but the point of origin is not something that happened back then, it’s something that’s still happening here and now. The origin that irrupted in the past and made it matter is the same origin that is irrupting now.

If this second case holds, then the past matters but it’s not decisive. The past matters, if it matters, because it registers some connection to the point of origin.

But that origin isn’t fixed in the past, it floats along with us in the present. And our fate is not determined by the past but by the present.

I know people who have left the church because of problematic Mormon history. We have had our share of sins, problems and difficulties, from Mountain Meadows Massacrepolygamy, race, our treatment of LGBTQ, etc. We are far from unique in this. America, itself has had our share of sins and difficulties, war, inequality, racism, slavery. In many ways, Mormons have responded to and have been influenced by the broader historical context within America and the world. But I think being Mormon means taking responsibility, to the extent we can, for these problems and mistakes and then going forward resolved to do better, appreciatively standing on the shoulder of giants while repenting for the mistakes and failures of our parents – expecting, as will be inevitable – our children will have to do the same for us.

Religion matters, I think because the rituals, scripture, lessons and institution binds us to the legacy of our past. The institutional history embeds itself into our religious practice. But our past does not have to bind down. It can lift us up as we face our present and prepare for our future.

I’ll let Adam Miller have the last word, from his latest book Future Mormon:

I have three children, a girl and two boys. Our worlds overlap but, already, these worlds are not the same. Their worlds, the worlds that they will grow to fill, are already taking leave of mine. Their futures are already wedged into our present. This is both heartening and frightening. So much of our world deserves to be left. So much of it deserves to be scrapped and recycled. But, too, this scares me. I worry that a lot of what has mattered most to me in this world—Mormonism in particular—may be largely unintelligible to them in theirs. This problem isn’t new, but it is perpetually urgent. Every generation must start again. Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves.

Why Church Matters – Reason 1: We Need to be Challenged

We are all drawn toward faith. It’s part of being human. Martin Fowler in the second chapter of his book, Stages of Faith, summarizes the findings of the comparative religionist Wilfred Cantwell Smith here:

  1. Faith, rather than belief or religion, is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence. Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognizably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief.
  2. Each of the major religious traditions studied speaks about faith in ways that make the same phenomenon visible. In each and all, faith involves an alignment of the will, a resting of the heart, in accordance with a vision of transcendent value and power, one’s ultimate concern.
  3. Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized speciality. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one’s hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions.
  4. The unity and recognizability of faith, despite the myriad variants of religions and beliefs, support the struggle to maintain and develop a theory of religious relativity in which the religions – and the faith they evoke and shape – are seen as relative apprehensions of our relatedness to that which is universal.

Adam Miller in his book, The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace, says something similar in the preface:

What’s to be done? Even if you can’t avoid worship. The impulse to worship is a human problem, not a religious problem. ‘In the day to day trenches of adult life,’ Wallace reminds us, ‘there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.’ Try as you might, there’s no place to hide from your yen for transcendence. And more, there’s no place to hide from the consequence of its failure. Choose your gods wisely but pretty much anything you worship ‘will eat you alive’. Getting eaten alive by your idols is part of what it means to be human.

(Quote taken from “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life)

So, no matter what, we will in our day to day living, seek for transcendent experience, search for something to worship, develop a faith in something. We won’t be able to help it. Something in us will drive our faith somewhere. In my introductory post last weekend , I talked about how institutions are taken a beating. People are losing their faith in their religions and are walking away for all sorts of reasons.

But I believe that belonging to an institutional church has a benefit. Here I want to make the case that it provides us a framework to constrain our impulses, to challenge us and to force us to think and even to wrestle, as we confront the tensions between our inward strivings and the dictates of the religion of which we belong.

But why disagree at all? Why can’t we completely align with our church? The problem is that we have other influences as well. As we attend school, listen to the news and read and seek information from the best books, we will have to wrestle with how to fold in all of these ideas, some of which will inevitably conflict. As a Mormon, I have to reconcile evidence against the Book of Mormon’s historicity with my faith in the book as scripture. As a Christian, I have to reconcile the growing evidence questioning Biblical accuracy and even Jesus as Lord with my faith in both the book and the man.As a believer in God as a creator, I have to figure out how that fits in with evolution. The list goes on.

Some respond to this tension by dumping one or the other. Some leave their faith, others choose to ignore or dispute the science. I don’t believe either of these is ideal nor inevitable. I believe we can have our cake and eat it. Let me propose an alternative way to keep these questions in our head while being a bit more careful and humble about the answers. I’m going to borrow a bit from the book How to Think Like Leonard Da Vinci but quote from a blogpost that leans heavily on the book,

Sfumato,” which translates to “going up in smoke,” is a “willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty,” and is the fourth of the da Vinci habits recommended by author Michael Gelb. He writes, “As you awaken your powers of Curiosità, probe the depths of Dimostrazione (experience), and sharpen your senses, you come face to face with the unknown. Keeping your mind open in the face of uncertainty is the single most powerful secret of unleashing your creative potential.” This ability does not come to those who rely solely on their left-brained, analytical thinking capacities.

Gelb writes that the ceaseless application of these practices led da Vinci to many great insights and discoveries, “but they also led him to confront the vastness of the unknown and ultimately the unknowable. Yet his phenomenal ability to hold the tension of opposites, to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox was a critical characteristic of his genius.” The theme of the tension of opposites grew in his work over the course of his lifetime – we can see this in even a cursory look at the maestro’s Mona Lisa.

I believe churches make a mistake when they make too broad a claim into science or history. We need scientific tools to make scientific claims, we need historical tools to make historical claims. We need religion to develop faith. But as a human being, we need all of this, we need science, history, outlets for creative expression, the ability to engage in relationships, and we need religion. To hold all of this in our heads at the same time requires us to be comfortable with paradox, contradiction and uncertainty. .

In fact, I’ll make the case here, we need this. Being too certain about too many things feels like something we as Mormons have been warned against. The world is too complex, the universe is too vast, eternity is beyond our ability to comprehend. We are small beings trying to make sense of a universe that is beyond all comprehension. But yet we are put here on this earth to try to make the best of it. We need a bit of humility. We need every tool in our toolbox. We need faith and religion.

I don’t believe we can do religion on our own. Where two or three are gathered religion can happen. We do religion with others. But I think we also need theology, doctrine, hierarchy and authority. I don’t believe we need to be in perfect alignment, in fact if we are, than we’re probably doing it wrong. We can and should have our own opinions. But as flawed human beings we need something to check us. We need the rigor and structure and history of doctrine to keep us from wandering too far off into crazy paths. We should not be looking for a religion that is a mirror of ourselves, we should be looking for a religion that helps us become our better selves, that both challenges us when we become too comfortable and comforts us when we feel like giving up.

Ross Douthat in his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, talks about how Christian orthodoxy played a crucial role in American history in providing necessary dissent and binding the conversation:

But now consider orthodox Christianity’s contribution to America as well. From the beginning, the existence of a Christian center— first exclusively Protestant, and then eventually accommodating Catholicism as well— has helped bind together a teeming, diverse, and fissiparous nation. This binding has often been tangible and concrete: The hierarchy, discipline, and institutional continuity of Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism helped build hospitals and schools, orphanages and universities, and assimilated generation upon generation of immigrants. But our religious center has bound us together in a more mysterious fashion as well. In a country without a national church, the kind of “mere Christianity” has frequently provided an invisible mortar for our culture and a common vocabulary for our great debates. As Jody Bottum put it in a 2008 essay, the major Christian churches have operated “as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic— a single source for both national comfort and national unease.” 1

Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (Kindle Locations 251-257). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

We need our philosophers, our theologians, our pastors and our prophets. We need people in the national conversation being our “unhappy conscience”. And we need this individually as well. We need an external conscience to check our own compulsions.

We can easily make the mistake of giving our churches too much power, turning it into an obsession to obedience or a judgmental weapon against others we do not approve of. We can easily go overboard one way or the other. But I think religion can and should play a vital role in our lives.

Why Church Still Matters – An Introduction

Institutions are taking a beating right now. People are either leaving them, wishing they could, and in some cases, being kicked out of them. I’m speaking broadly here. People are leaving our political parties; the ranks of the independents are swelling; and no one trusts politicians or our government. People are also losing their religion. Those who claim no religious affiliation make up 23% of the current American population as of one year ago, a number far larger than in previous years. And no one seems to want to work for a large corporation anymore. While perhaps entrepreneurship is struggling, all the cool kids are bucking the corporate lifestyle trying to come up with the next big thing.

The internet amplifies this. At one time, we all read the same basic newspaper, watched the same television shows, and received our filtered news from the same small collection of sources. No longer. We are all journalists now. We have our own individual voice, our own platform to voice our own opinion. We are our own religion, our own political party, our own business – a nation of individuals.

I’m exaggerating here, but I see these trends.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about why people are leaving, specifically Mormonism. I have only attended Sunstone once and then only when it came to me, a few months ago in Mesa, Arizona. They commonly have a session entitled, “Why I Stay”. There they get a panel of faithful Mormons who present a talk on what keeps them engaged in their faith despite and through the challenges they face. I’m not really going to do exactly that here. I stay for the most basic reasons. I simply cannot imagine leaving. And I could, I suppose, describe all the reasons why I think this is so and perhaps I’ll get to that in this discussion.

Instead, I plan on doing something more ambitious here. I want to lay out all the reasons I still believe institutions matter broadly and why religious institutions matter in particular.  I believe it’s to our detriment when we leave them and perhaps more importantly, to society’s detriment as they diminish. Churches need to have a voice in the conversation.

What I want to do, though, is to respect and honor a person’s decision to leave the faith of their parents. I went on my Mormon mission to a deeply religious part of the country, Alabama, trying to convince people to leave their religious heritage for mine. I rejoiced when they did. I know these decisions were not always easy and many of their friends and family members left behind felt abandoned and betrayed.

A faith journey should not be easy. It is often lonely and difficult. It is also a uniquely individual experience. We are all called in our own way. What may look like abandonment to me may actually be someone called by God on a journey I could not understand or undertake on my own. Everyone’s challenges are unique to them. I honor their struggle and wish them well.

Given that, I plan on painting with a broad brush, speaking in generalities, offering broad principles. Individual application may vary.

I’m not a professional writer or theologian or anything that makes me remotely qualified for this, but I’d like to get better. I write because I want to work through stuff. I want to learn and writing is discovery. Most of my current thoughts on this subject are horribly half-baked, more like vague impressions, shooting out of me in a million different directions. I’m not sure where this project will take me or what I might learn or say a long the way. I have no idea how many posts this will take, but I hope that working through them for the next few weeks, will help me flush the ideas out and end up in a more solid place.

I think this topic is important, for me and for my family. I know people are leaving church. I know there are many in the church who are trying to convince them to stay or to return. I know we are constantly encouraging others to join with us. We are a missionary-minded church. I think most people who leave don’t do so easily. Most struggle over weeks and months. It’s not an easy decision nor should it be. The analogy I like to use for church membership is marriage – it’s not a perfect analogy but I think it applies here. Church membership is a commitment made up devotion and love. But sometimes people, through great pain, leave their marriage. Sometimes they leave their religion.

Someone close to me reminded me that someday my own children my choose to leave the church. This is a possibility. I want them to stay. I want them to be committed. Deep down I love this church and have benefited greatly from it. I want my children to have that same commitment and experience. Maybe these set of blog posts will be for them.

For tonight, I ‘ll leave it at this. I love the song by Hozier, “Take Me To Church”. It has a decidedly anti-church message, but the tune is beautiful and the message resonates. I hope to factor the ideas of this song into my argument, both to counter it and to include it.

Addiction, Food, Sleep, And My Body

Did I mention that sometimes I feel stuck. Stuck in my habits and distractions. I’m writing this on a fast Sunday. It’s 1pm now, I haven’t eaten since yesterday evening. I rarely make it to 24 hours, the time allotted for fasting, in fact I can’t remember the last time I did it – on my mission? I really like eating. Giving up food is difficult.

I have a phone in my pocket and 20 tabs open on my browser, two of them open to Facebook. I’m a member of a few different Facebook groups and I literally just posted something in one of the groups, and I see there’s a notification up. It’s taking all of the will power I have not to interrupt this post to check it.

In my church, we are asked to give up food and drink for a 24 hour period the first Sunday in the month. We give what we would have spent on food to the poor as a fast offering. We are encouraged to give even more generously as we have means to do so. Linking feelings of hunger to donations to the poor is no accident. There are people hungry because they have no food to eat. Once a month, we are asked to voluntarily come to know what that feels like. We are also asked to pray and direct our fast toward a specific purpose. This time around I’m asking for help with my addictions.

Now, I’m not all that interested in the technical definition of addiction. There’s a debate going on in communities I’m not a part of about whether sex addiction even exists, for example. I’m assuming there’s a debate about other types as well. Can I be clinically addicted to food? Exercise? Work? Again, not interested. I’m talking about addiction in the broadest sense of the word, in a way that likely includes most everyone. Because I think we live in the age of addiction and distraction. And I think it’s keeping me, individually, and all of us collectively, from really experiencing life, reaching our potential, and accomplishing what we could otherwise accomplish.

Or maybe the one thing we actually need to accomplish while we have our bodies is to learn how to really live in them.

I’m making my way through a collections of essays written by an author whose ideas have become somewhat of an obsession of mine, Adam Miller’s, The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace. From his chapter, Watching:

The ease and user-friendliness of TV comes with real costs. TV offers an existential loan that is riddled with hidden fees and backloaded with balloon payments. “As a Treat, my escape from the limits of genuine experience is neato. As a steady diet, though, it can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because in it I’m just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all my time pretending I’m not in it) and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasent.” (Quote from “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll never Do Again: Essays and Arguments: New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997.)

Wallace was at his peak writing in the 1990’s, and at the time, the average American was watching on average six hours of TV per day. I’m sure, the number of hours of actually watching our furniture has dropped since then, but only because we’ve replaced it with different virtual experience pouring in at us from the web.

From the chapter, titled “Assassins”:

An addiction moves from benign to malignant when, like a cancer, the addiction starts to spread and repurpose life for its own sake rather than being one part of that life. When the addiction acquires an entrenched, institutional, bureaucratic aspect that displaces the self and cares for little more than its own preservation and extension, then the head has begun to metastasize. The key moment is when the addiction becomes circular, when the addiction starts offering itself as a solution to the very problems it’s causing. If you drink because you’re angry and disappointed and drinking in turn makes you even more angry and disappointed, then the circle has closed. “What looks like the cage’s exit is actually the bars of the cage.” The addiction is ramping up. Your pursuit of transcendence is robbing you of transcendence. “In a case such as this,” Marathe warns, “you become the slave who believes he is free. The most pathetic of bondage.”  (Quotes From Infinite Jest)

So what do we do about our addictions and distractions? How can we learn to live with our bodies. Here are some changes I want to make.

First I want to get enough sleep, at least eight hours. There is so much institutional and societal pressure not to do so. Not only must we succeed, we must succeed at everything and we need to do everything. I have my kids, I want to be a good father. I have my job, I want to do well at that. And to do well at that, I need to be continuously learning on my own time, and of course be working on my own projects outside of work. I have my church. 6:30 AM meetings on Sunday that extend right through the block and beyond. The list continues. Much of this comes at the expense of sleep as activities get pushed into the late hours of night even as my morning obligations stay firmly fixed.

If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not as sharp or engaged. I find myself sleeping during church services rather than really listening to the speaker, with an open heart. I’m not as focused on my job, more prone to distractions. I’m not as smart. My brain is not working through the abstract thought required to program a computer at a high level. Getting enough sleep makes me smarter, less prone to distractions and a better human being. Going through life sleepy is like voluntarily signing up for a handicap.

Second, when I am working, I want to find more time for really focused, distraction-free work. I love the pomodoro technique and I want to do it more consistently. I set the timer for 25 minutes and do nothing but focused work in one area, eliminating distractions as much as possible. After the timer goes off, I take a 3-5 minute break before staring another. After four, I take a 15-30 minute break. Rather than staring at the vast expanse of an entire day,it’s so much easier to really dig in at 25 minute increments with regular breaks. I’ve tried it and it works. I’m more accomplished with less time.

Third, I want to practice listening, to my kids, my wife, other people, even strangers. This can be difficult. I’m in my head all the time. Listening forces you out of your head and into the life of another. Some people are easier to listen to than others. But those hardest to listen to gives me the opportunity to practice really listening. My mom gives me this kind of practice.

There are other things I can do. But here’s my thought. If I really want to “cure” my addictions, the answer is greater engagement with the world. Addiction, I think happens because we want to escape from it. Addiction keeps us in our heads and out of our body. In the chapter, Heads:

Hal’s problem is extreme but not unusual. Heads float free from bodies all the time, especially when they lack focus that connects them. Heads come loose when we get distracted. They come loose when we lose the ability to pay attention. Given the critical importance of such focus, it should be no surprise that for most us, Wallace says, ‘the whole ballgame [is] perspective filtering, the choice of perception’s objects’. Filtered connection is the key. Focused attention is what threads a head back onto a body. (Quote from the Pale King).

The goal is to get out of our heads and into our body. Engaging in the world. This is difficult, because the world is difficult, it’s not user friendly. It’s filled with awkward conversations, difficult encounters with others who may not notice or care about our lives and our difficulties. It’s easier to live in our heads.

I have so many painful experiences in my past where I preferred to stay in my head rather than connect with someone else. I remember, specifically, a church dance, my freshman year in college. Too shy to ask anyone to dance, I stood muted on the sidelines. Someone eventually asked me but I said no. She wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, which was ridiculous really. My expectations were too high, my confidence too low. I soon left the dance room, preferring to spend most of the evening with myself, out of the dance room, and in my head.

Older now, obviously more capable, not as shy, more engaged. But still struggling to get there more consistently, more fully. There are more distractions now than there were back then. More ways to stay away from the world.

The answer is not to kick out every distraction. I shouldn’t have to shun the internet, facebook, and sugar. The internet is an incredibly valuable, essential tool. I love my virtual communities, I love food, movies and television. In their place they can enrich my life, make it better. I just need to not let them be an excuse to avoid the challenges in my actual life.