VIEW VIDEO One of the things I like most about living in a neighborhood is watching people move in and out. Some people you hate to see move away, and others you don’t. The best moment is when the moving van pulls up, and watching discretely as your new neighbors arrive, perhaps choosing that moment to pull weeds in the flower beds. I like to walk over and greet them immediately, trying to find out what I can about them, while Joan is more thoughtful about boundaries. “For God’s sake,” she tells me, “let them unpack first.” Whenever one of our neighbors moves away, they always send us a letter saying how much they liked Joan.
When our boys were boys, a family moved in who had a son our son’s age. The day they moved in, actually the first hour they arrived, the mother said to me, “We’re so happy to be here. We want a fun, normal life for our children.” Then the oddest thing happened, whenever the neighborhood kids were playing in our yard, she wouldn’t let her son come outside. He would watch, forlorn, from his bedroom window. But one day she relented and her son, Timmy, came out to play baseball in our side yard. A little while passed, then his mother appeared, yelling at her son, ordering him not to sweat. “Timmy, I told you not to sweat. If you keep sweating, you’ll have to come inside.” I don’t know what kind of fun, normal life she had in mind for her children, but their lives never seemed fun and normal to me.
It reminded me of a man I know who talks non-stop about his joy in the Lord, but is one of the most miserable persons I’ve ever met. If I were the Lord, I’d tell him to knock it off with the name-dropping.
We’ve been talking about the virtues and vices of religion, and today I want to talk about how religions love to talk about happiness and joy, while simultaneously fearing it. I recall H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism—”The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” This haunting fear of happiness attaches itself to religion, especially to legalistic religions, which are legalistic precisely because its members believe God is most happy when we are most miserable.
I have a friend who got a bad case of religion, let’s call it misery-base religion, and said to me one day, “I am nothing, so God can be everything.” Friends, this is not a recipe for human happiness. We are not well served by misery-based religions, which, though they speak about joy and freedom, have nothing to offer but gloom and oppression.
You might have a misery-based religion if you have no tolerance for human frailty.
You might have a misery-based religion if you think sex is dirty and bad and should be saved for the person you love.
You might have a misery-based religion if you believe God says No, don’t, and shouldn’t, more than Yes, give it a try, and I bet you can.
You might have a misery-based religion if your idea of a sinner is a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock and not the man who impregnated her.
Misery-based religions are known by the company they keep. They exist wherever ignorance is celebrated as faith, wherever progress is scorned, wherever the past is revered, and the future is feared. They are found wherever self-denigration is mistaken for holiness. Misery-based religions elevate the leaders, disparage the followers, and condemn the outsiders. They attempt daily to destroy the twin liberties of thought and freedom. They condemn common sense as blasphemy and forsake one of religion’s greatest truths, that we rise by lifting others.
I wished the power of misery-based religion was lessened by modernity, but sadly it isn’t. So long as people crave power, so long as religion is used to seize and hold authority, it will be with us. Presuming to speak for God, such religions will happily dictate and control the smallest details of our lives, robbing us of liberty in the name of God. Because misery-based religion is never content to remain within the boundaries of religion, it is determined to control every aspect of human life, from government to education to marriage to medicine. Its joy is deepest when our joy is diminished. It presumes always to know what is best for us, and is quick to tell us our most heartfelt and fervent desires are ungodly and immoral.
I know many of you grew up among people steeped in these confining traditions, and struggle still to break free of the tyranny they’ve imposed. Cede not an inch of your spiritual lives to their cancerous claims. If they persist, wave good-bye. Some people we hate to see move away, and others we don’t. If someone’s function in life is to multiply your misery, it is never wrong to say good-bye. Be careful never to hate or despise them, but be careful also never to let these power-hungry prophets spoil the one precious life God has given you. Of them Jesus said, “They follow the slightest law, but have forsaken the weightier law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Religion can fill our lives with beauty, wholeness, and grace. It can soften hearts, elevate minds, and open doors. But in the wrong hands, religion can just as easily fill our lives with ugliness, ignorance, and hate.
I had a friend who volunteered at a Christian lunch program where he met a man who had been kicked out of the program because the program leaders said he was an old drunk. The man would stand at the door begging for food, so my friend took him food and gave him money for more food and got to know him, then took him home and cleaned him up and took him to the doctor where he was diagnosed not with alcoholism, but with Huntington’s. My friend took him under his care, got him an apartment, and was with him when he died. Misery-based religion sees only fault, sees only sin, sees only reasons not to help and care and love.
Friends, let’s make sure our religion is the religion of my friend, who practiced compassion, who extended a hand, who loved as Jesus loved. If we practice that religion, our lives, and the lives of others will be all the richer.
Our Query for the day: What elements of your Quaker faith enable you to have resilience and hope?