“It occurs to me that we allow ourselves to imagine only such messages as we need to survive.” Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking
HH called to me from the front porch – years ago – as I was out front walking to the car. “Mom’s on the phone!” he said, and I yelled back “Which one?” meaning his or mine. And because he knows it would be okay in terms of my own sense of humor, he said, “Oh yours. It wasn’t easy getting a connection, but it’s your mom on the phone.”
My mother had died ten years before. But even ten years later, I would sometimes forget.
There are countless varieties of magical thinking and most of them involve some form of grief:
- If I ignore those bills, they will disappear.
- If we don’t talk about that tumor, everything will be fine.
- If I pretend my spouse and I are getting along, maybe we’ll start to get along.
It’s beyond avoidance. It’s about mourning.
Magical thinking happens in church all the time:
- If we can just call a pastor like _____ our church will grow again.
- If we install a pipe organ, people will come back.
- If we get back to what the Bible teaches, our church will recover from decades of decline.*
* Fun fact: “Biblical Values” include visiting the imprisoned and feeding the poor and crossing boundaries and touching untouchables. If we complain about politics in church but forget that Jesus was crucified for sedition, we need to find a new Bible study.
What will the post-COVID Church look like? Will there be a post-COVID? Will there be a Church? These are the questions I hear every day. People are writing books about it. There are webinars. I’m clearly writing a blog post about it.
Although I don’t have answers, I hope we don’t continue to dwell in the land of magical thinking, believing that if we can just ignore reality or overlook unpleasantness or perk up, everything will magically become what our best memories of church are.
Ted Koppel went to Mt. Airy, NC last fall to report about our American fondness for Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show. Andy was born in Mt. Airy – the ostensible basis for Mayberry – and these days the town welcomes many tourists who visit to experience a taste of “the good old days.”
Remember those days? When everybody went to church and got hair cuts at Floyd’s and met friends at The Snappy Lunch? You can watch the Koppel segment here.
As one interviewee said, “It’s good clean comedy. It has morals, values. You don’t see that much on TV today.” Mayberry was indeed magical. The crime was tame. The town alcoholic was a lovable teddy bear. The sheriff was kind and gentle. Opie’s wild oats were inconsequential. One episode features a casserole disaster.
When Koppel interviewed Black residents of Mt. Airy, they recalled not being allowed to eat at The Snappy Lunch (or whatever the diner was really called) because of the color of their skin. And the crime and domestic issues were a bit more serious in real life.
Absolutely – it’s soothing to spend time watching comfort television. Sometimes it casts a spell.
But God doesn’t do magic tricks. Jesus performed miracles – not magic. Notice how – even in his miracles – he partnered with regular humans to make things happen for good.
From the people who believe that they need to “take America back” to Mayberry, to the church people who miss civil religion, to the faithful who confuse being devoted to tradition with being devoted to God, we need do step away from magical thinking and participate in the real work of being the Church.
The beauty of COVID is that we’ve been forced to make necessary shifts from online giving to technological upgrades. The worry is that too many of us still believe in magic: that all will magically return to normal, that everyone will “come back” and that we won’t have to lift a finger. Nope. That’s magical thinking if I’ve every heard it.
Does this make you tired? (Because it makes me tired.) Keep in mind that Jesus will always have a Church and the Spirit will continue to call us to be that Church. That’s not magical thinking. That’s faith.