It’s easy to preach against the “American dream” in the abstract, to proclaim on theological principle the ways we conflate civic religion with Christian faith, or the ways marketing and entertainment-media shape our false notions of the “good life.” As preachers, theologians and church leaders, we’ve mounted that soap box quite well. It’s a new (post)modern theological pastime.
And then someone’s “American dream” actually dies. A thirty-year marriage ends. A young teenager finds herself alone and pregnant. Parents who worked hard to raise a “Christian family” can’t understand why their kids won’t go to church.
Even if the “ideal life” someone buys into is a false idol, the pain and grief from its destruction are real. They may have trusted in a false image, but now they need to trust in the real God.
How do we shape communities of trust, when hope -- even the false kind -- has died?
We first need to be mindful of the ways people eat away at themselves from the inside. They may believe they are “less blessed” or less deserving than others because of their past decisions and behaviors. We should find ways to help them resist the temptation to forever look at their lives through regret-tinged glasses. Yes, sin is real, and through confession, they need to acknowledge it. But there is freedom in the forgiveness found in Christ. A life’s worth of guilt is too heavy a burden for the light yoke Jesus promises.
We also should resist the desire to fix people and instead proclaim to them the promises of God. The desire to fix can cause us to focus on correcting past choices. This too often suggest to people that they can dodge devastation and control their life -- that in a sense the “good life” is still theirs to have provided they make good choices. We imply they can still have the keys to their individual kingdoms, instead of proclaiming the kingdom of the God who works in the undesirable messiness to make fruitful things emerge, even when all we see and feel is failure. We’re called as ministers of a Word that is more than sufficient, not as correctors of problems we cannot control.
The “American dream” may be a false image, but it brings real pain, sin and suffering. Let’s offer less principled rhetoric about its failures and more real reminders of the promises of the God who neither leaves nor forsakes.