Maybe you saw it.
About a month ago in the New York Times, David Brooks, the political commentator and Op-ed columnist, wrote about two studies on word usage that have been done using Google’s new database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. The first study showed that in the last 50 years words and phrases like self and unique and I come first and I can do it myself have increased in usage. And, words and phrases like share, and united, and common good have decreased in usage. The second study focused on words associated with what the authors of the study categorized as morality and virtue. That study found that words like honesty, and decency and compassion are being used less today than they have been used in the past. The use of words like thankfulness and appreciation has decreased by 49% in the last 50 years, and words like kindness and helpfulness has fallen by 56%. Not knowing anything more about the studies than what I read in David Brook’s column, the trend indicated by the words we use today compared to the words we used 50 years ago seem to match the trends I, and many others, see and experience in culture around us.
It seems to me there is less common ground than before.
And, less interest in the common good.
And, more focus on me and mine and what I want and what’s in it for me.
All of which stand in tension with the words and the language we tend to use when we gather here each week. Drawing on scripture and our understanding of who God is and what God is about in the world and who we are called to be as partners with God, when we are here together we tend to us words like…
Community and kindness.
Compassion and neighbor.
Sharing and gratitude and enough for all.
What do you make of all of that?
Is the shift identified by the studies and the tension it creates just chance?
Or, the particular whim of writers and authors?
Or is all this only an interesting academic study that doesn’t mean very much in the world you and I inhabit each day?
Or, is it a snapshot of something more?
Something that is happening around us and to us?
And maybe happening in such a subtle we often fail to notice?
All of which brings me to today.
And to Bedford Presbyterian Church.
And to thinking about who we are.
And to why we are here.
And to what we value.
And why it may be important we gather as we do.
And, it also brings me, to these questions.
Assuming that words matter…
And, the language we use shapes and/or reflects the reality around us, what words, along with the message and meaning they carry and the implication they have for your life, are important to you? What words do you want your children and grandchildren to grow up hearing? Does it matter or make a difference that in the push and pull of life as it is, at least once a week you have the opportunity to hear words and to be reminded of values like compassion and kindness and community and gratitude? Does it make a difference that our children grow up with regular reminders of sharing in order to help others and of treating others the way they would like to be treated? I happen to think it does.
Yesterday, I was in Philadelphia officiating at the wedding of our son’s college roommate. During the service I reminded the couple to say I love you to each other at least once a day. I encouraged them to say those words to each not only when they felt very much in love, but also to say them when it was hard to speak the words. Because it is in those moments, when it is difficult, that not only the other person needs to hear them, but they and we need to hear ourselves say them and so be reminded of the commitment we have made and the love we share.
Is the same thing true about the best words and the deepest values of our faith? That we need to hear those words and to say those words over and over again, and not just when it is easy, but also when circumstances are challenging? Words like…
Treating others as you would like to be treated.
And, loving God, and your neighbor as yourself.
And your being and our being the light of the world.
And, about seeking justice and loving kindness and walking with God.
I am sure it comes as no surprise to any of you that I spend a significant amount of time thinking about what it means to be the church today because, as I have said before, what it means to be the church today is changing and the church I knew as a child no longer exists. The researcher and author, Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion, describes the change that has and is taking place in “organized religion,” at least organized religion of the Christian variety, as a change in emphasis from believing to behaving. From the question “What do I believe?” to the question “How do I believe?”
The church I grew up in was heavy on what we were to believe.
God as Father and Jesus as God’s only son.
The virgin birth and Jesus dying for my sins.
For many people, maybe most people, that doesn’t work anymore…at least in the way it once did.
Lately I have been thinking more and more about the church as a place to practice.
A place where we can practice meeting and caring for our neighbors.
A place to practice praying and to practice caring for ourselves.
A place to practice grappling with complicated issues without just pointing figures or blaming another.
A place to practice compassion and where we can learn what that means and how it feels and how it fits into our lives.
A place to practice being grateful.
I think here…together…
We listen to and use language that reminds us of the deepest and best values inherent to our faith. Values that are important to be reminded of again and again and again because they are not always easy to hold onto in the world out there.
That kind of church makes sense to me.