Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Everyday Reality
distributed 7/22/05 - ©2005

It has happened to me more often than I care to admit. At the end of a weekend retreat, I'm all excited about launching into creative new endeavors, and living out the wonderful new ideas that I've soaked up. But after a few days back in the office, the everyday routine asserts itself, the daily grind grinds on, and very little changes in my life.

Be honest, now. Has that ever happened to you? Now let's get really honest. Has that ever not happened to you? Have you ever come back from a workshop or a retreat and been able to achieve all of the things that you intended to do?

There's no need to hang your head in shame. It is a common problem, and it probably has very little to do with your willpower and good intentions.

Those special occasions are wonderful experiences, and they can have life-changing effects. The patterns and relationships of our ongoing lives, though, also exert a powerful force on us that often overwhelms our noble intentions to live differently.

Sociologist Peter Berger has written extensively about the power of "everyday reality" in shaping our lives. What he describes is much more than personal inertia, habit or routine. Everyday reality -- in our conversation with friends, the messages we get on TV and in the newspaper, the physical structuring of our neighborhoods and offices -- bombards us all with countless signals about what is "normal" and "expected" and "real."

Everyday reality tells us about the gradations of social status, about the cultural and technological trends that are considered "progress," and about the life achievements that are affirmed as significant. Those subtle but pervasive statements about everyday reality makes it possible for us to live our lives without constantly re-evaluating every decision, and in that sense they are a blessing that delivers us from chaos. But the very same factors of orderliness also make everyday reality a powerful sociological force that hinders dramatic change, whether that change is on an individual or societal level.

Of course, there is not one "everyday reality" that we all share. A corporate executive has a very different reality than an urban gang member, and both of those are different from a stay-at-home parent, or a local church pastor. All of the elements of daily life -- the social interactions, the reward structures of pay and affirmation, specialized languages, the expectations and obligations that we share with others -- reinforce our self-understanding, and shape how we will fit ourselves into the world.

20 years ago, the Reagan administration urged kids to "just say no" to drugs. A TV ad with a more sophisticated perspective showed an urban youth sneaking through back yards to get home without encountering aggressive drug dealers on the street. Breaking out of a pervasive and powerful reality isn't easy, and it isn't a purely personal choice.

In the same vein, it isn't easy for a suburban homeowner to rip up the bluegrass and Xeriscape the lawn, or for affluent youth to turn away from trendy fashions. The values and assumptions of our everyday reality shape our perceptions and our choices.

Note: Xeriscaping is a low-water landscaping approach that is becoming more common in dry areas of the western US.
So if you come back from that spiritual retreat determined to spend more time in prayer, or to work on your marriage, or to get more exercise, be aware that you'll need to do more than address your own habits and routines. You'll also have to contend with the powerful expectations and the social structures that shape how you live your life.

And when we encourage our neighbors and friends to live more justly and sustainably on this earth, we need to be aware that we're asking them to do more than make personal choices. We're asking them to undertake a shift in the very reality of their daily lives.

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I take Dr. Berger's insights very seriously. Indeed, the sociological importance of "everyday reality" is embodied in much of the programming of Eco-Justice Ministries.

For example, I often critique the tradition of an annual Earth Day worship service, if those ecological concerns don't also turn up on a more regular basis in worship. If there is only one extraordinary service that serves as the environmental event for the whole year, then it is disconnected from the everyday reality of church life. Instead, I often challenge pastors to put some small expression of about caring for all of God's creation into three services a month -- in the prayers of the people, a sermon illustration, the call to worship, or a hymn. When church members find those environmental perspectives expressed in 75% of the church services, they'll begin to understand that it really is a central theme of their faith. When ideas of environmental stewardship are an everyday reality in church, then they can start to change beliefs and behaviors.

As we encourage people to change their behaviors, it is essential that we provide settings and communities where those new and different realities are affirmed and nurtured. Eco-Justice Ministries is a church-based project because of our belief that congregations are one of the most important and effective places to define new identities and different values. In our churches, we have the ability to model an alternative reality. Within the ongoing, "everyday" context of church life, we can speak a language of creation care, we can affirm just and sustainable behaviors, we can frame our choices in a global and long-term context, and we can encourage each other to carry those values, perspectives and behaviors into other parts of our lives, and into other communities.

Just as a weekend retreat can be an inspiring event that has little long-term impact, church programs that are disconnected from a congregation's everyday reality probably won't accomplish much, either. May we embed our care for God's creation in the whole reality of the church, and thus open the door to real transformation for ourselves, and the world.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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