Tag Archives: success

5 lies the culture tells us: David Brooks meets our proverbs

Back when I watched the PBS news hour, when David Brooks appeared to provide his punditry,  I regularly said “Ugh!” I could not take the conservative arguments he kept making to justify the wonders of capitalism and empire, and such. Now I tend to take things he writes and repurpose them for you, like I intend to do today! I think he is kind of great. What happened?

Image result for david brooks second mountain

Light from the foothills of faith

I don’t really know what happened, since I only run into Brooks in op-ed land. But his contributions have changed, and they have changed my opinion of him. It looks like he started taking the second half of his life seriously, or he moved into the next phase of his stages of faith. Whatever happened, he began to tell some important stories about the country, morality and faith. In his latest book (which I have not read), he says he has been learning from people who are climbing “The Second Mountain.

What he means by the “second mountain” is the mountain people discover after they have finished climbing the first one society presents to them: achievement, financial stability, and reputation, etc.  In his explorations, Brooks has found joyful people who are done with climbing (often because they’ve made it to the top, unlike Bernie Sanders and other ancients running for president, who won’t stop) and have discovered the more important mountain that follows that first, ultimately unsatisfying climb. They are achieving what is really important: “They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment,” especially “the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.”

As you read that last line, some of you thought, “That book is about the foothills of the mountain, not the actual mountain of faith. Spiritually, Brooks is talking “milk” not solid food!” (See 1 Corinthians 3 and elsewhere). That’s true. But that’s OK, because he is talking to a society which is presently digging itself deeper into the death valley of morality it is in. If the leaders do anything about the Mueller report, maybe that will change. It would be great if society could get to sea level, much more climb a mountain!  We Jesus-followers don’t need to despise society or sink to its level, we’re about loving transformation not helping society get back to normal. I think Brooks is on our side.

In last weeks’ column Brooks cited the evidence that most of us already know. We don’t need statistics to know that “college mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans.” He left out the façade of righteousness based on a military-backed empire, the science-denying environmental policies, the deceptive financial practices left unchallenged, the lack of serious response to racism and horrible policies in Africa and Palestine. It goes on. He says, “At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.”

I absolutely agree. And I’ve tried to channel our dialogue about that. Click some links:

Five lies the culture tells us

David Brooks’ latest column gives me an opportunity to bring the lies up again. I’m glad to do it, since I think the basic job of a Jesus follower might be to avoid believing lies. I keep thinking about Jesus confronting people who called him a liar (fake good news, perhaps).

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. — John 8:43-45

Lord help us! It is hard to stand up against the tsunami of lying the world has unleashed! So Brooks tries to name the big lies. In our case, I would say he names the lies again, since, as you will see, we have proverbs that already present an alternative to all of them.

Here are some of the lies we face, especially the 20somethings trying to take their first steps of adult faith. Our proverbs and David Brooks will help us unbelieve all of them.

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Being successful is faithfully following the teaching of scripture according to one’s ability and one’s role in the body.

From Brooks:

This is the lie society foists on the young. In their tender years the most privileged of them are locked in a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. …The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires.

From Brooks:

This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do that. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! The world does not teach us these skills.

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Our community is based on our ongoing dialogue not law, on mutuality not rights, on self-giving love not mere tolerance.
  • When individualism rules the culture, being the church is countercultural.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.

From Brooks:

This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

 In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • The church’s task is neither to destroy nor to maintain the various labels that divide the world but to offer a new self in Christ that is deeper than the definitions of the dominators.
  • How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
  • It’s better to be reconciled than to be right.
  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.

From Brooks:

This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you! [Here is one of many examples of books that convince us to believe that each of us is the center of our own universe].

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. 

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
  • We admit that we are less of a “safe place” for people who don’t want to take initiative, own their dignity, or make commitments.

From Brooks:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

We knew all this, but it is good to listen again

We did not need Brooks to tell us what the Bible collected centuries ago and what Jesus followers have practiced ever since. But it is great that he used his fame and platform to do it. We are also alarmed at how hard it is to be a young adult today. Although these young radicals were making it look easier the other night at Comcast.

We are also alarmed that society is fragmenting. But we are hardly surprised that making the lies of hyper-individualism the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live would result in destruction. The fact that the powers are so evil keeps making it plainer to people who have been hoping the Empire would not fall that they have been living a lie for a long time. As painful as it is to experience the unraveling of the extravagant U.S. safety net, for a lot of people it is unraveling and sending them off to seek the alternative Jesus offers.

Brooks laments that people keep talking about the political revolution needed in the country. He thinks a cultural revolution should be our focus. For the good of the country, I think he is right. But for the good of the kingdom of God, he is just in the foothills of faith. Politics and culture need to be salted with grace, but they will all pass away, never to rise again. Jesus and his people are forever

Quacks in the White House and egg hunts: Why I am reduced to prayer

Some days it becomes obvious that I don’t get out much – at least out in “church world.” You’d think I would remember that I’ve been part of a boutique denomination connected to a minority movement within Christianity who helped me plant a radical expression of the church in a blue-state city. You’d think I’d remember, but I don’t. I regularly, maybe daily, forget where Jesus has led me. I somehow think most people, much more most Christians, are basically like me. They are and they aren’t, but mostly aren’t, at least when it comes to faith.

Millionaires and egg hunts

For instance, we were mutually amazed last night when we were talking in a small group of our Leadership Team and one of us mentioned how she had just had a conversation with some of the “girls back home” about the megachurch she used to attend. She noted that all the elders were millionaire men. She noted to us that if we had “elders” she would be one of them and she is a broke, brown woman. I honestly did not think we were that odd. I guess we are.

Then one of our pastors was considering whether to have an Easter egg hunt in order to meet some of the neighbors and stir up some fun. This would be unusual for us. We are much more likely to advertise the discussion on the antiracist book we’ve been passing around, than think of having an egg hunt. Come to find out, another church in town has had egg hunts that attract 1000’s of people. I never even heard about it and 1000’s of people were involved — an egg hunt! I remembered Gwen standing in front of our youth group with our meat tenderizer, setting a chocolate bunny up on the table and smashing pagan fertility symbols as a visual aid. I guess not everyone does that. I forget.

These could go together, not sure.

Success would be nice

Some days it also becomes obvious that I don’t want to get out much. One day last week I recalled for my journal that I felt very unsuccessful. My initiatives were resisted; my appointments were cancelled; I felt tired. So I asked the Lord what was going on. Most of my feelings seemed to focus on the challenges. I did not really want to face any. What I really wanted (and expected) was everything to work out, at least not have everything go wrong. I felt like I should be honored, my value appreciated, my work received with thanks, my love understood and received (without any need to prove it), my enthusiasm and hope matched, my personality twinned, my time unwasted; it went on. I realized how demanding I am. But don’t you want all that? I did not fully realize how much I wanted it all until I did not succeed at getting it and was reduced to prayer.

Now this week I find out that millionaire elders put their resources into egg hunts and it works. Churches are full of egg hunters. No wonder  I am not nearly as successful as I’d like. (I know, I am more successful than I deserve). But it would be really great to succeed. I suppose I will have to face some challenges: all those unnecessary, unwarranted, unwelcome challenges, again (and again).

Image result for trump cabinet march 2017
Cabinet meeting

Lack of success reduces me to prayer

Today I was drawn back to my old favorite, Luke 8:1-8.  Jesus reminded me again to pray and not lose heart, not faint. At the end of the day, Jesus is not looking for my success, he is looking for faith that trusts him for life no matter what the circumstances seem to be saying. Hopefully, I will not just be looking for success while He is looking for me! His justice will arrive like an unexpected storm, “and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In 1904 Alexander McClaren wrote about these verses as the era of the “robber barons” was coming to a close (so this may sound familiar):

“An epoch of materialism in philosophic thought has always been followed by violent reaction, in which quacks and fanatics have reaped rich harvests. If the dark is not peopled with one loved Face, our busy imagination will fill it with a crowd of horrible ones.

Just as a sailor, looking out into the night over a solitary, islandless sea, sees shapes; intolerant of the islandless expanse, makes land out of fogbanks; and, sick of silence, hears ‘airy tongues’ in the moanings of the wind and the slow roll of the waves, so [people] shudderingly look into the dark unknown, and if they see not their Father there, will either shut their eyes or strain them in gazing it into shape.”

I did not need to spend much time peering into my fog this morning before I saw the loved Face. But we are still sailing through an islandless sea in an era full of quacks and fanatics. Easter egg hunts work. “Black lives matter” seems like a radical statement rather than a moot point. I lament my relative lack of success.  Maybe we should have an egg hunt. Maybe we should keep saying black lives matter. Maybe I should get over myself.

And maybe we should remember Jesus lamenting his relative lack of success. He taught his followers to keep “bothering” God with their demands for a response to their just requests, like: save me from quacks, Trumps, heartless millionaires, mega-whatever and my own impatience and self-criticism! But Jesus had to wonder whether when he returned,  he would still find anyone faithful, still praying, still hanging in there to receive just what they longed for, or not.