June 9: “The Opposite of Connection” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Back in the day, they tell me, people used to join churches defensively. I guess there remain communities where this still happens, though not so much in urban centers any more. But time was when the second or third question folks would ask upon meeting someone new was, “Where do you go to church?” This inquiry served several purposes. One, it helped sort unfamiliar people into categories; it flushed out Catholics, and Jews, and unbelievers. Two, if the answer was, “We haven’t found a church home yet,” it offered the opportunity for evangelism on behalf of the virtues of one’s own congregation. To answer, “We don’t go to church” was to identify one’s self – and family – as non-conformists, at best to be held slightly suspect, and at worst to be ostracized. If you wanted to “have” a church and be left alone about the subject, you could say “We are Unitarian Universalists” and then most folks would say “Oh!” with a blank look, and drop the subject. Once in a while they might take the opening by replying, “What’s that?” but usually they didn’t really care much, and assumed it was some sort of obscure brand of Protestant, which meant you were more or less okay.
These days, it seems like the shoe is on the other foot. The default social assumption in educated white circles – it’s a whole different matter in communities of color, for some very good reasons, but that’s a subject for another day – the default assumption is that nobody goes to church, except maybe under duress to attend weddings and funerals. And if people who know you not to be a reactionary fundamentalist happen to discover that you do have a church habit, they often wonder – sometimes out loud – why in the world you would do such a thing. You don’t have to have a church to defend yourself from rude inquiries; having a church is more likely generate rude inquiries.
If that has been your experience, this sermon is for you. Because this morning I want to propose that having a church community, complete with theology, community ritual, and personal spiritual practice, is a lot like having a dentist, or a financial manager, or a chiropractor, or a lawyer, or an insurance agent. It’s good for you. It contributes to your peace of mind, and makes your life better. Not necessarily any and every church, certainly, but this is what makes it worthwhile to sort out the good from the bad. Because a good church is a resource, that provides some of the basic building blocks for our human well being and satisfaction with our lives.
Journalist and editor Emily Esfahani Smith did not set out to create an argument about religion, either for or against, in her 2017 book The Power of Meaning. Rather, she intended to revisit and update the work of Victor Frankl, in his 1946 memoir of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, Man’s Search for Meaning. Esfahani’s subtitle, “Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness,” suggests her modern journalistic premise. While Frankl’s interest was in what psychological qualities enabled some people to survive the atrocities and intense suffering of the camps, Esfahani seeks to explore how the modern secular quest for happiness is generally unsuccessful, and how the quest for meaning may offer better odds. And yet it seems to me that every line of her investigations is in effect about the purpose and function of church, properly understood.
As in her much-viewed TED talk, Esfahani cites cross cultural statistics which suggest that developed and developing nations see increasing rates of suicide – perhaps as many as a million people each year now around the globe end their own lives. A few of these may be motivated by intractable suffering from fatal organic diseases, including undiagnosed or mistreated mental illness, but many more fall into the category of what are now being called the diseases of despair, which also include drug overdoses and chronic fatal alcoholism. Ironically, diseases of despair increase with a culture’s economic and technological development, despite that society’s rising comforts, opportunities, and resources. The more that the obvious causes of suffering for ordinary people are relieved, the less sense it makes to anyone that they should find themselves unhappy. But the more we expect to be happy, and exert ourselves to achieve that elusive state, the easier it is to become despondent, and fall into a feeling of hopelessness.
According to Esfahani’s observation, the people who report the highest levels of happiness and satisfaction in their lives are not those who have ever set out to seek happiness itself. Rather, the people who are the most happy the most often are those who are pursuing a sense of meaning in their lives, and the author unpacks that experience as having four main pillars. The first of these is a sense of belonging, and I’ll come back to that in a moment, in the light of some other research I want to tell you about. The second pillar is purpose; the third is transcendence, and the fourth is story-telling, or what I would call narrative coherence. Each one of these four pillars is at the heart of what any competent church is meant to do; these are the functions that religious community ought to be providing for its members, regardless of what theology it represents. This is why church is good for you, because it is helpful to have a committed purpose, a practice of transcendence, a framing narrative, and a sense of belonging in community. None of these is the exclusive province of religion, and none of them is tradition-specific – you can find them in Buddhism or in Judaism, just as readily as in more familiar forms of Christianity, and in Humanism and other non-theistic communities too.
Neither are they complex or esoteric ideas. While I do believe that each of them can be explored more and more deeply, they can all be understood simply in the beginning. Purpose is just about having something you want to accomplish; a conviction that there is something for you to do that is continually worthy of your time and energy and commitment. Maybe that is being a good and loving parent to your children; maybe it is feeding hungry people; maybe it is creating inspirational art, or music; maybe it is leading a soccer team, or discovering a new medicine; maybe it is protecting endangered animals, or growing exotic orchids, or advocating for better laws. There are infinitely many purposes, but a purpose is different from a goal. A goal can be achieved, and if it is not connected to a larger, on-going purpose, the achievement itself can leave us feeling empty and disoriented, because now what? If your goal is to write and publish a book, and you accomplish that, it may feel as if purpose has now evaporated. But if the purpose is, for instance, to educate others about organic farming, then there can always be a new project or goal.
Most religious communities have ways of acknowledging that different individuals are good at different things, and interested in different things. In his poem titled “Church going,” Phillip Larkin says that a church is a place where “all our compulsions meet, are recognized, and robed as destinies.” Some traditions speak of our “vocations;” not just as a matter of religious leadership, but for any purpose that becomes a source of meaning. We go to church, I think, in part to be reminded to take our lives seriously; to reflect about our purposes, and ask both whether they indeed merit our most profound loyalty, and to consider whether we indeed give them the investment to which we are called. The best churches, in my view, are not those which try to assign us purpose, based on the accidents of our outward identities, but rather those which insistently invite us to name the purpose that calls to us, that gives us joy in its service, and that is worthy of our life’s devotion. They summon us to bless the world with that which is unique in us to bestow, and affirm us as we give our energy to that endeavor.
The third pillar of meaning is transcendence. This is does not have to be about angels, or spirit realms, or gods, although some people do experience it that way. But at its essence it is really nothing more than the realization that there is a world beyond the constraints of your own finite personal experience. There are stars millions of light years away; every solid object we see is composed of a billion dancing atoms. The redwood trees are centuries old; the oceans are a thousand fathoms deep. Tiny seeds grow into fruit laden apple trees; somewhere in the world, a laughing baby has just taken her first steps; on the other side of the globe, a beloved teacher has just crossed the threshold of death. The way we live together could be kinder, safer, more just, more peaceful, more free. All that we know is only the shoreline of all that we might yet learn. The interdependent web connects us to everyone and everything, known and unknown. Our bodies have been shaped by evolution to move to music, to cuddle fuzzy kittens, to delight in the sweetness of a peach, to be awed by the view from a mountaintop. The universe is larger and stranger than we know; larger and stranger than we ever can know. Life is a mystery, to which the only fitting response is gratitude; death is a mystery, the token of all that we do not control.
This perspective, this level of perception beyond the utilitarian pursuits of every day and self interest, is essential to our mental and physical health, to our sense of meaning. Some people find it in nature, others in art, others in the practice of inner quietness, or the poetry of ancient wisdom or timeless ritual; others in the moral equations of kinship and justice. The bottom line is that something, somewhere is larger than you; beyond your understanding; more enduring than your brief life; that you can neither exploit nor control. Without that encounter from time to time, our days become impoverished, and captive to littleness. When we are not able to see beyond our own petty dissatisfactions, it will be impossible to live centered in a larger meaning. Part of the purpose of church is to help us remember the scale of things, and our place in it; the grandeur of a universe that both transcends and informs our unique individuality. As I said, for some people, this takes form as the thought of god, but that is only one of its many representations.
The fourth pillar that Emily Esfahani mentions is what she calls story telling. Each of our lives is an accumulation of events and choices. The more random they seem to us, the less of a story we have, and the less meaningful our life appears. On the other hand, the more we fit those incidents into a coherent narrative frame – a story, with an arc of causation from beginning to middle to now – the more meaning we will find in it. Each of us is the narrator and editor of our own life story, and we can create meaning by taking time to reflect on how the pieces connect together and carry themes from one chapter to the next. At the same time, our individual story is also embedded in the larger sweep of history, and that too can have narrative coherence. It might be the Christian story of salvation, or the Enlightenment story of progress, or the Marxist story of the triumph of the proletariat, or the Nazi story of the victory of the superior race. Not all collective stories are good news, but they all serve to give meaning to those who embrace them.
Churches are story-telling bodies. Whether it is the story of Jesus, or the followers of Moses, or the awakening of the Buddha, or the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, we all have narrative to offer. Personal narratives, about sin and redemption, or achieving enlightenment, or struggling free from oppressive superstition, as well as collective narratives about the human condition, and the beginning and end of the world. We get together to remember those stories, and to consider what they mean for our present struggles. An-amnesis, the theologians call it; the intentional act of not forgetting, of keeping the stories alive.
Narrative, transcendence, purpose, and of course, belonging – belonging perhaps most of all. Esfahani says,
The first pillar is belonging. Belonging comes from being in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. But some groups and relationships deliver a cheap form of belonging; you’re valued for what you believe, or for who you hate, not for who you are. True belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals, and it’s a choice — you can choose to cultivate belonging with others.
Belonging – the most intuitively obvious purpose of a church. A group we choose, where we commit to the practice of valuing others who also choose to belong. Now as Esfahani notes, some groups will value people for what they agree to believe, or for rejecting those who do not choose that group, and we certainly understand that there are churches like that. But we don’t have to be; we can practice the true belonging that arises from the choice to love.
This belonging pillar of the meaning that is foundational to a good life is affirmed in the work of Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream; the first and last days of the war on drugs. Trying to understand the forces that drive both drug addiction, and the social and legal responses to it, Hari concludes that addiction is neither a simple moral failure on the part of individuals, nor a simple medical phenomenon of brain chemistry. Rather, people – and indeed other creatures, as we shall see – become addicted in response to particular kinds of impoverished environments. The opposite of addiction, he proposes, is not sobriety, but connection, or, as we might say, belonging.
As part of Hari’s investigation into the science of addiction, he encountered research performed by a team of biologists at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, led by Bruce Alexander. This team challenged the traditional studies which supposedly showed that drugs such as heroin and cocaine were so physically addictive that laboratory rats, given a choice between plain water and water laced with drugs, would consume the drugged water almost exclusively, to the point where they died of overdoses. What Alexander and his team noticed was that these rats were confined to typical lab cages, where they had no social interaction with other rats, no mental or physical stimulation, and no opportunity to engage in any normal rat behaviors. So the researchers constructed what they called Rat Park – a large, comfortable enclosure where a community of rats could engage in nesting, play, sex, and all natural, social rat behaviors. These rats were also offered supplies of normal water and drugged water, and after sampling the drugged water a time or two, they almost always preferred normal water. None of them consumed enough of the drugs to qualify as addicted, and none of them overdosed. Johann Hari concludes that rats, like people, will bond with addictive substances – drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, and so on – when healthier forms of bonding are not readily available. But if normal social connections are to be had, addiction is rare.
Hari cites many other studies and data concerning the human experience of addiction, all of which point to the same bottom line; the most effective antidote is the experience of relational bonding – of belonging. And Esfanhani, in her description of this first pillar of meaning, specifies that such belonging happens most reliably when you as an individual reach out for it – we can’t bestow it on someone else if we are not seeking it, and taking risks for it, ourselves. Which is exactly what a church community asks from its members.
If you want a fulfilling life, don’t spend a lot of time pursuing whatever it is that you think makes you happy. Those fleeting moments of happiness are lovely, but they won’t sustain you over the long haul. Instead, build meaning. Find your purpose; tell the story you are part of. Cultivate an awareness of that transcendence which is larger than yourself, and has the power to lift you out of yourself from time to time. Belong to a community that both honors and loves you as you are, and believes in your greater potential. All that is precisely what a church is supposed to be for, although no actual human institution ever gets it perfectly right. There is no other place that is so specifically for this; that calls us back, over and over, to the making of meaning in a life well lived. The place that calls us together, again and again, to remind us that we are not, and never have been, and never could be, in this project alone. So let us proclaim that invitation in song together.