220: You heard it here 1st: We’re going to be talking about “Worship Miles”

“Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”

   Remember Gahan Wilson’s eerie cartoon on this mirror theme? Instead of showing a pickup truck and a church’s cross in the mirror, like we’re showing you in the photo at left — Wilson drew the mirror of his vehicle so that it was entirely filled with one giant, angry eyeball.
    Let’s be honest. Sometimes, our world-famous American love affair with autos is more of an escape than a mindful means to an end, right? And, the truth is that as far and fast as we drive — we can’t always escape the realities of modern life. God only knows what monstrosity was breathing down the neck of Gahan Wilson’s hapless driver.

    For months, everyone has been talking about sky-rocketing gas prices, which are reaching levels in the U.S. that sound more like a 1960s science fiction novel than the good life we expected in this new millennium. Then, more than a month ago, major institutions that depend on volunteers — hospitals, nursing homes, elderly feeding programs — began reporting that their ranks of volunteers were shrinking due to the high cost of driving.
    In the last week or so, I’ve been hearing clergy talk about this problem, too — which means the economic crisis is hitting some Americans so close to the bread basket that they’re even cutting back on something as close to the heart as their religious communities.

On Sunday, the New York Times published the illustration by Steve Brown and the headline (at right)  arguing that a lot of Americans are trying to bury their automotive dreams. (The Times showed this photo-illustration horizontally as if the cars were buried like cemetery monuments. I like the alternative perspective of flipping Steve Brown’s work on its side — so the cars look more like big flies that rammed their heads into global tar paper.)
    Whatever metaphor you choose to capture the magnitude of this spiritual milestone, Times writer Mireya Navarro explains: “Americans’ longtime romance with the automobile is being severely tested, and in some cases, dashed entirely, now that every trip gives rise to worries about how much a fill-up costs, guilt over how much damage the exhaust is contributing to the destruction of the planet, and self-consciousness about the image a full-size behemoth conveys today about its driver.”
    “Tiny” already has become the new “Big” in trendy communities, Mireya tells us. The wait for itty bitty Smart cars is about 12 months in Beverly Hills, California — a town that once was a showcase of luxury sedans.
    What’s more, if you’re stuck with a once-stylish SUV, you’re feeling now like the last guy left standing in a white leisure suit and stacked-heeled dancing shoes as discos locked their doors in the early 1980s.

    Here at ReadTheSpirit, we’re not going to solve the global fuel crisis — but I have been talking to a number of clergy in recent weeks who are realizing that their congregations are handing them a moment of spiritual reflection that they couldn’t have sparked with months of silver-tongued preaching.
    As I listened to several clergymen and women talking about this, I began saying, “You know, we should seize this golden opportunity for spiritual reflection and start talking to people about their Worship Miles.”
    You know, like “Food Miles”? That phrase already is a couple of years old now and, heck, already has it’s own elaborate page on Wikipedia. That’s a very useful term.
    So, now, we’re giving you “Worship Miles” as a way to turn the high anxiety of gas prices into a spiritual tool for reflection.

    One pastor I was talking with over breakfast recently is the Rev. Doug Paterson, shepherd of the big United Methodist church on campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which my family and I have been attending for many years. Doug already was facing a different kind of life-and-death problem involving cars. The Ann Arbor church has a location so “prime” that it’s left with a postage-stamp of a parking lot and a worship center that comfortably seats hundreds — if they can reach the church.
    Months ago, Doug began talking about prophetically trying to rethink the mission of this problematic parish as a “pedestrian congregation” — focusing heavily on recruiting the people within walking distance of the church. In other words, he already was talking about turning back the clock a century on the meaning of religious community. (And, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s not that far from what many “emergent churches” are preaching these days.)
    Then, the gas crisis took hold in recent weeks like a wicked vice squeezing big regional churches like this one — and far-flung rural congregations as well.

As I worked on this story for today, I also found myself swapping Emails with a
friend, the Rev. Amy Mayo-Moyle, a United Methodist pastor in a rural
area of Michigan. We were talking about the tough choices people are
making this summer due to the high cost of driving and I told her I was
wrestling with this new phrase, “Worship Miles.”
    This caught her
attention. She Emailed back, “I like the phrase, ‘Worship Miles.’ You
know, our attendance has been lower this summer and there are people
who’ve had to choose to go to baseball or church because they couldn’t
afford the gas for both. Baseball wins, of course, doesn’t it always?
That’s a pet peeve –- but it really is a problem for us because our
church is in the middle of nowhere with stretches of farmland between
houses. People have to drive from neighboring towns.
    “In the contest of gas vs. church –- gas is winning.”

    I think the answer — and it may prove to be a painfully prophetic answer for many — is to start talking about Worship Miles like we’re talking about Food Miles.
    Among the questions that begin to flow: What’s the spiritual value in the miles I drive each week to connect with my spiritual community? Why do I spend those precious resources? How should this investment count as a value in my life? Should I think about worshiping closer to home?
    What would it look like if, like a century ago, more people actually worshiped with their neighbors?
    This isn’t an idle intellectual observation. The truth is that millions of American men and women already are struggling with these deep head-heart-and-pocketbook issues. It’s a golden opportunity to connect this internal conversation they’re already having — with the larger spiritual values we collectively profess.

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