Over the past tumultuous year, I have become more and more skeptical of the idea that Christians are supposed to “flourish.” It seems a very basic assumption that many of us have, that we’re supposed to do well and be able to use our gifts in the church. When I first heard the term I thought, ‘Oh, of course.’ No one wants anyone to do badly, whatever that might mean. And when you join the question of Flourishing to that of Discipleship, which is about helping people to conform their lives to Jesus, it seems an obvious and worthy goal.
In a true and good sense, no one in a local congregation should be set back, stuck in a corner, not allowed to participate in the life of the church. Everyone should be educated, as we say in ours, and have some useful work to do, and participate in worship. Everyone has some kind of gift to use for the building up of the whole body. A little help to figure out what it is and the whole congregation of God’s faithful people feels better and happier and is able to go out into the world with the good news of the gospel.
And, it is also true that many people do find their “growth stunted” in one way or another. Life knocks them over, and they find themselves unable to participate or join in the way they would like. They want to do work, but they can’t. Overwhelmed by grief, they wander into church feeling crippled and beleaguered and can only sit there, not flourishing, just sitting, anxious and sad.
From the point of view of the local church, it is imperative that Christians “flourish.” In fact, a lot of my own week is trying to push roadblocks out of people’s way (especially for other women, and actually a lot of children now that I think about it) instead of strewing hindrances all over the place. In order to do this, I have to maintain my own disciplines of prayer and study diligently, which is not the same as “self-care,” but that is for another day. If I can’t cope, I can’t help anyone else do it. Often I fail, as it turns out, and so I don’t feel like I am flourishing, and I certainly can’t help anyone else do it either. Then it feels like everything is breaking apart and is terrible and sad.
In this way, I think that the idea of “flourishing” isn’t completely terrible. Christians are likened to branches on the Vine. They are meant to grow strong and good. The threat of being cut off and flung into the fire, though seemingly dire, perhaps even cruel, is a warning against complacency and pride. We’re supposed to “stay” on the vine, which means not wandering away. It feels like a lot of work to stay put, because it is. Even as a person is held in place by Christ, the command to stay, to abide, can be painful to obey.
But in the intersection of Self-Care as a religious exercise, and the claims made by Revoice that certain kinds of identity have to be recognized in order for people who experience attractions to the same sex to be ok…and the word that is so often used, to “flourish” …it seems to me that the whole conversation takes a dark and troubling turn.
Implied in that claim is the assumption that people who do not think that Christians should call themselves “Gay Christian” or “Gay Anglican,” and do not think the organizational suppositions in something like Revoice or Valk’s Brotherhood of the Naïve, don’t want those people to “flourish.” If I don’t want to use those terms, and don’t want people to adopt that way of thinking about themselves, it must be because I don’t want them to be ok. I don’t want them to “Fully Participate” or “Use their gifts,” or even, to use that old TEC word that is so worn out, “be included.” “We welcome everyone,” cried so many signs in front of so many small, dying Episcopal churches, so that everyone would know that they were not like those “other” kinds of Christians who don’t anyone to flourish.
Flourishing in this sense becomes a way of insulating oneself from the theological objections of others. Everything can be measured by whether or not it will allow a person to flourish. It rings a tinkling dulcet note of prosperity preaching. The measure for the prosperity person is “okayness.” It’s why Rachel Hollis and Jen Hatmaker are so popular, because they bolster their followers. They pep them up. They tell them that they’re lovely and everything is going to be fine. If they just do a little more work they can be rich and happy, but even so, they need to embrace themselves and affirm themselves, and love themselves. There’s nothing deeply wrong inside the human person. Poverty and sadness, for example, are not the consequence of being wicked or anything, or selfish. They are a trick of fate. If once you realize your true potential and your true worth you will be rich and happy as the Rachels and Jens of the world are.
This is not a Christian idea. Flourishing, in that sense, takes the place of Holiness, which is the greater and more terrible call. The Christian isn’t really called to flourish, or even to be ok on his or her own terms and by his or her own power. The Christian is called to remain, to stay on the vine, no matter what happens—which often feels like a kind of death, ironically—so that the life of Christ will flow through unimpeded. The vine makes the branches what they are. Eventually, they become well and whole, and worse—holy. Holiness is not to be pitted against happiness, but is to be so transformative that the branch doesn’t have to be cut off and thrown into the fire.
The metaphor breaks down, after a while, which is too bad. Though I don’t think the emotional sense of what Jesus says ever does. Either you’re joined to him or you’re not. Either you have his life keeping you alive or you don’t. The external measures of happiness or wealth do not actually indicate the truth of what is real. It really goes back to that other metaphor that is pretty useful—the fruit-checking one.
Jen Hatmaker rethought her stance on homosexuality because she saw so much “fruit” in the lives of gay people that she couldn’t keep on thinking that anything that they were doing was wrong. Of course, this “Rethink” came at a cultural moment when she would only be lauded by those with cultural ascendancy. Her “martyrdom” rocketed her to frame and increased her platform exponentially. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Now, newly divorced, she sits rocking on her front porch swing chatting with her Facebook followers live about her book club and the t-shirt they can all get free if they sign up for the club. It’s only xx amount of dollars a month to belong, and you get a whole community of people who are likewise learning to be “okay,” to love themselves more, to love the world—to flourish.
Flourishing, if it is the progressive prosperity gospel fruit test, and more and more it feels like it is, is not the call of the Christian. As I said last week, the call is to die “to yourself,” to take up your cross and follow Christ. The True Vine staggers under a hard piece of wood, against which he is hung, the splinters and the nails turning the sap of the vine into blood and then into wine. If you don’t go to him no matter your state, you can’t live.
And when you do, he will not care very much about all the things that you care about. He will not be interested in you being rich, nor even being that happy. He will afflict you, and hurt you, and take things away from you that you love. Gradually, he will make you holy. A good tree always produces good fruit and so if you are growing off of him and his life, you will gradually come to embody the stark goodness of his love.
I think it’s time to retire the word “flourish.” It has too much baggage. You can’t know if it’s true about someone or not. The most downcast and poor person is sometimes the holiest, the closest to Jesus, hanging onto him for dear life. The rich are often sent away empty. And the happy? The well? The whole? They all wander away because they were never so poor in their spirits that they could see God.