Can I Ask You a Few Questions?

 

What do your past experiences tell you about your life today?

I received a mysterious call the other day. People that know me would be baffled that I even answered it. I probably talk on the phone less than two times a week. I don’t know what possessed me to say hello. This was a survey measuring the health of Texas citizens. Well, a sociologist can’t hardly say no to a survey. It was about health, so of course that was a hot topic right now. She didn’t tell me how long it would take, but it was an extensive experience.

I answered the usual demographic questions to determine which categories I fit into – age, sex, income, and family composition. Whoever put this together (those paying for it) seemed to have been a wide range of groups. There were questions about:

  • prostate health
  • childhood corporal punishment
  • alcohol consumption
  • hours of sleep
  • doctor visits
  • relations with neighbors
  • trips to the grocery story
  • anxiety and depression

The questions took me back over my adult life thus far. Afterwards I thought about chapters that had been brought up in my mind during the interview. There’s just not much else on Netflix anymore is there?

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”― Søren Kierkegaard

 

I had my carpet and floor cleaned the other day. The young guy doing the work was asking me what I did, professor is a good answer. If I say “sociologist” I typically get a smile and a nod, but know that there’s confusion. I explained to him that what interested me was the context that helped explain why people do what they do. I told him at a party I’d probably ask him questions about his family, neighborhood, school to try and figure him out a little better. I could tell by his follow up questions that I didn’t do a good sales job. He was still thoroughly encumbered with the psychological mindset, as most Americans are.

“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events.” ― Robert Penn Warren

That health survey reminded me of so many life experiences; where was I living when I was in the hospital for that surgery, childhood misbehavior, becoming a parent, taking care of each other once we got married. The experience with that lady over the phone got me thinking while I was talking and for days after.

There are friends of mine right now who are in the middle of terrible health crises. I can only imagine how they are getting through each day. I think about how they will live their lives in the coming years, never the same, always shaped by this terrible turn. What will they remember about these days and how will matter to them?

What do you think has shaped your life the most, so far? Can you find a theme, a theme song? I got desperate the other day and watched that Judy Garland movie. Did you ever see the film Cold Mountain? That Renee Zellweger is an incredible actress. Anyway, to get back to poor Judy Garland. What a mess! I hope your life has better chapters and a better song.

As I thought about my own chapters I realized again some important truths:

  • Stop letting the “Ghosts of Christmas Past” haunt the life you’re building today – it’s over with, there’s nothing you can do about it, laugh off that tragedy and move on! Leave these behind you and keep your eyes on the road ahead.

“He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.” ― Gabriel García Márquez

  • Remember all those essential memories – the ones that really helped make a difference in your life (the people too) and find ways to pass them on to someone else in your life. Tell the next generation some of the important stories before it’s too late.
  • Talk to people from your past, catch up, do some hunting. Renew those connections in your life and tell people why they mattered – having friends is nothing to take for granted – have you been out there lately?

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Maybe the health of Texas (or wherever you are) depends on your reflection?

 

Someone That I Used to Know

Do You Ever Wonder Who You Were Meant To Be?

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” ― Ernest Hemingway

When we experience hard times in our life, it gets difficult to imagine that we are truly becoming who we are meant to be. I often think with regret about bad decisions I’ve made. Don’t we all? I have friends who can’t seem to move on from terrible events that have struck them off course. Moving on and becoming our real self is a steep mountain to climb at times.

“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I’m a sociologist who studies religion. One of the significant areas of American religion is our booming self-help industry. This ties in to religion because so many of these groups approach self improvement using religious language and spiritualistic methodologies.

Many point to America as the birth place of self improvement. Our early history is filled with stories of people who came here to start over again. As our economy cranked up we got even better at “selling” not just new and innovative products, but even ourselves – selves that were constantly improving.

Since America is a nation of religious choices – it’s not surprising to see a wide variety of religious beliefs lining the shelves like boxes of cereal at the grocery store. There’s almost everything you could imagine when it comes to religion here in our country.

When obstacles or difficulties arise, the positive thinker takes them as creative opportunities. He welcomes the challenge of a tough problem and looks for ways to turn it to advantage. – Norman Vincent Peale

Peale himself is one of the “fathers” of American religious self-improvement with his positive thinking theology. Maybe you’re familiar with his most famous successor, Robert Schuller who arrived just in time to use the television for his Hour of Power weekly worship service filled with positive inspiration from sunny California.

Here in Houston where I live we are home to the largest church in America, Lakewood Church. Its pastor, Joel Osteen, is a world famous speaker and author who is thought of by most as a proponent of the prosperity gospel – another American invention. In a nutshell this very popular Christian belief promotes the idea that if one has enough faith (usually demonstrated in giving donations), one can experience God’s earthly blessings (healing and wealth).

These two phenomenon: (1) a wide variety of religious choice and (2) the eager desire for self-improvement, have created a special slice of culture that is unique but sometimes harmful to genuine, meaningful and lasting growth.

  • Americans are trained to be pragmatic – we tend to want self-improvement now
  • As we work hard at building our own redemption, sometimes we can accidently leave God out of the picture
  • When we don’t find what we are looking for at one religious “shop” it’s often too convenient to move on to the next one, and never really address our real problems
  • As we try and fail on the latest self-improvement fad, we can grow cynical about those aimed at helping us with our spiritual identity

Eternal self improvement, is it something to accomplish, working hard at spirituality or is it someone to know, someone to know even more each day?

Christianity doesn’t teach self-improvement, instead it teaches becoming more like the one we follow, Jesus. It sounds more like a relationship than a list of accomplishments (to earn God’s love).

For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing. (Ephesians 2:8-9, The Voice)

The person you were meant to be was a person who is friends with God.

  • It’s difficult to keep a relationship going if you never talk
  • Friendships work best when you’re open and honest, right?
  • Our best of friends make us want to sacrifice and be better people – they challenge us
  • Friendship is a process not an event, it takes time
  • It’s always worth it to keep working at relationships that matter, they do bear fruit if you’ll stick with it and maybe pull some weeds

You were meant to be friends with God who never leaves you, never forgets you, no matter what you do, say or think.

You were meant to walk with God in this kind of personal relationship each day.

You were meant to be a person who reflects to others the transformation that’s taking place in your own life.

 

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” 

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

Ready to Listen

There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. (John 16:12)

Jesus said this to His disciples as He was preparing them for the end. His arrest, crucifixion and resurrection were coming next. Events they were completely unprepared for.

When I read this short sentence this past week I stopped in my tracks.

When I am reading my Bible, especially the words of Jesus (in red), I am looking for a message, something I need to hear right now. I always want to be careful and not end up talking to myself, hearing what I want to hear. I want to learn more and more to trust in the Holy Spirit to guide me as I read, be still, and listen (John 16:13).

So, when I read this sentence I stopped and had to think and pray about what it meant. I had read this larger story many, many times before. This time, the sentence jumped out for several reasons.

There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.

  1. What if this is still true about the way God relates to his followers today? Does He still want to communicate and tell me things? Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice…” (John 10:27). He is like a shepherd guiding, guarding and caring for his flock (us).
  2. What if God’s message to me is waiting for me to get caught up? What if I’m not ready? What if He’s waiting on me, not the other way around? “The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust” (Psalm 103:13-14).
  3. What if God is preparing me in so many ways as I follow Him (stumbling and bumbling), to be able to hear even more from Him? What if He has a message like this one Jesus gave to His disciples for me? What if my Heavenly Father has much more that He wants to tell me? “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). God isn’t holding back his love, grace and knowledge from me, he’s caring for me and telling me exactly what I’m ready to hear.

What I learned this week from this single sentence is that God has heavenly things to share with me but that his revelation is always measured by his care for me.

So many wonderful things to hear and learn as I walk every day in friendship with Jesus. That relationship is the source of revelation for me and all of us.

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”  ― Henri Nouwen

Does Church Attendance Matter?

“The church is like Noah’s ark. It stinks, but if you get out of it, you’ll drown.” ― Shane Claiborne

Church attendance among younger adults is on the decline

Attendance typically dips at this time but has historically increased once people marry and start families. But today, that number – the return to church – is also on the decline. People are waiting later to have children and more people in America today are living together, not married. Most Americans believe in cohabitation.

This means church attendance is declining in young adulthood and doesn’t seem to be bouncing back.  Add to this an increase in the number of young people in our society who claim to have no religious belief at all. This means that church attendance is on a general decline.

“When introverts go to church, we crave sanctuary in every sense of the word, as we flee from the disorienting distractions of twenty-first-century life. We desire to escape from superficial relationships, trivial communications and the constant noise that pervade our world, and find rest in the probing depths of God’s love.” ― Adam S. McHugh

But every indicator we have has always demonstrated that church attendance has tremendous benefits for both individuals and society. In an effort to spread the word, here are some of the personal benefits of attending church.  These aren’t religious or spiritual reasons – just physical, emotional and social benefits that help to explain why attending church is still a good idea.

  1. People who are a part of a church report that they experience better marriages in all kinds of ways
  2. Longer life (here on earth, even longer in heaven!)
  3. Lower blood pressure – religious practices and beliefs reduce stress and have a measurable effect on overall health
  4. Managing your daily time and overall life is easier for people who are a part of a church community. The routine and the commitment help with life management.
  5. Less susceptible to depression and suicide – especially when you get involved in helping other people through the ministry of your church
  6. Better sleep (not during the sermon!)
  7. Drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous
  8. More friends and a larger support network – wait long enough on this earth and you’re going to desperately need this!
  9. Teenagers who attend with their family (or even on their own) do better in school both  academically and socially
  10. Getting up and going to a worship service and/or a Small Group each week provides a routine in your life, something that helps you to manage all of the unexpected chaos that comes your way.

“Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.” ― Anne Lamott

What’s on your list of why attending church is good idea?

Sources:

Aleteia

Tyler VanderWeele and John Siniff

Peter Haas

T. M. Luhrmann

The Health and Fitness Revolution