Disconnected

“He was one of the most supremely stupid men I have ever met. He taught me a great deal.” ― John Fowles

I’m walking across my college campus. From my office to the classroom today takes me from one end of the university grounds to the other. All along the way I get to watch our student population move. Some are moving from class to class, others are meeting with friends, a few are heading off to a part-time job. Lots of movement between class times. Every other person has their head bent down, intently focusing their gaze on that ever present cell phone.

Today it’s raining.

What consistently amazes me semester after semester is the number of students who appear completely unprepared for the weather. The predicted rain happens all week and barely an umbrella or jacket to be seen. We don’t have much in the way of winters down here in Houston, but there are times when a cold, wet freeze will blow through. I will bundle up and walk to class and pass up students wearing their current “uniform” of gym shorts and flip flops. (I sometimes wonder if the males on my campus even own a pair of long pants?)

There were a few art students today making their way through the drizzle with very large charcoal drawings – waving about in the wind and wet. Nothing covered up from the elements – all that work running off in puddles.

Here’s the irony of it all. As connected as these college students are to their cell phones and the gateway to information that these provide, they remain ever in the dark about the most basic information available to everyone. The most connected generation in the history of mankind – connected to information at a the swipe of a finger – remains as disconnected as ever when it comes to some of the basics; weather, directions, history, news, popular culture, etc.

Ease of access does not always guarantee better use of resources. My students are walking across campus with their noses inches from the cell phone, yet they have no idea about the weather forecast. Their dress gives them away.

Is there a larger lesson here?

What about me? I have access to God instantly. I can find help at a moments notice. I don’t need to waste another day worrying.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews :16)

I wonder if I’m living out an ironic sort of Christian life?

Knowledge, relationship, understanding, peace, are all right there as I turn and approach the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Instead, I typically muddle through each day carrying around a bag full of fear, worry, stress and pride. These leave me completely unprepared for any normal day of weather that usually occurs.

By weather I mean; failures at simple things, angry people, uncertainties about the future, boldface lies, arguments with loved ones, and bad habits that never go away. To name only a few examples of social meteorology that can rain down.

“A forecast can be wrong, but not the weather.”  ― Marty Rubin

It’s not necessary to trudge through the weather unprepared, with wet feet, windblown hair and a chill that stays all day. Yet I have spent weeks in “bad weather” just because I never approached that throne of grace. Maybe I was too busy filling up sandbags? Or was I over-involved in the crisis of the day, windblown out of my spiritual senses?

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)

It looks like rain. It’s always right over the horizon. Don’t you need to stay dry? How about coming in and finding some shelter? I think I hear your phone buzzing…

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The Loneliest Moment

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”  ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

But there is something else that the believer can do…

  1. Realize that this earthly world is supposed to fall apart – nothing, including frail relationships can last.
  2. Put faith in your Heavenly Father who has promised to take you through these kinds of disasters, giving you more courage, hope and love in the process.
  3. Open your eyes to the disasters all around you – be present in the lonely moments of even strangers who are watching their own worlds fall apart. Provide an end to loneliness. Be a part of the rescue effort of others.

So when the troubles begin, don’t be afraid. Look up—raise your head high, because the truth is that your liberation is fast approaching. – Luke 21:28 (The Voice)

This kind of liberation is the eternal kind. What we get so distraught about are all the little things that weigh us down and eat us alive again and again. Raise your gaze above all of these kinds of problems and look for what’s surely come – your certain hope.

Remember what hope really means for the Christian, it’s not wishful thinking. It means a confident assurance about what has been promised. Hope in our future draws us through the deep valleys and dark forests of our lives. We know that we never travel alone and what awaits us – a certain deliverance from every tribulation and trial.

Paul prays for the Christians in Rome like this, “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

What’s it like when you overflow? According to this prayer request, it’s a supernatural effect, not something we can generate with the right amount of positive thinking, mindfulness and extra yoga… The presence of God in your life gives you hope, confident hope. So much that it flows out of you and touches the lives of everyone else in your life. What’s the evidence? Joy and peace are the fruits of hope. It doesn’t matter how close the fire comes, there’s a song of joy and an unexplainable peace of heart and mind.

Do you feel alone sometimes? Look up. Even if it’s only to notice that bird singing on the fence.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.     
– Emily Dickinson

I Am Willing

A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed.   (Mark 1:40-42 NLT)

Is that the way you imagine God responding to your pleas for help? Has that been your experience so far? Reaching out to God and hearing Him say to you,

“I am willing”

What about becoming a child of that same God and responding to the pleas that you surely hear all around you in this same way?

What if instead of saying…

…I’m not sure I have time

…I can’t solve that particular problem

…I shouldn’t get into your business like that

…I don’t really know you that well

What if instead of saying what comes to mind first, what makes sense, what is safest, we let God’s Spirit within us speak. What if we listened first to that still, small voice. What if the Spirit desired to say through you to someone else, “I am willing”?

Who knows where the time, resources or emotional courage will come from, but I’m going to follow the Spirit here – and have faith that whatever is needed, He will supply.

In this story of Jesus healing a leper (the type of social outcast who probably suffered more than any other) He not only declares His willingness to change the man’s life forever, he demonstrated to everyone looking how willing He really was. Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was illegal and would make Jesus unclean as well. But Jesus was willing…to break the rules.

Jesus touches the man first. Who knows when this outcast had ever been touched before. Now, in front of everyone who normally looked away, Jesus reached out and touched him. What do you imagine he must have felt? What must the gathered crowd have thought? Jesus was willing…to demonstrate how deeply God loved His children. 

There were several works of healing that took place that day. The leper was made physically well. His place in society was restored (Jesus commanded him to follow the rules about being declared healed). As important as anything else, he was healed as a person – his worth was acknowledge by the Son of God in front of everyone. Jesus was willing…to reach out and heal the inner wounds that mattered as much. 

These days I keep going back to that command from Paul to the church in Galatia…

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”  (Galatians 6:2)

Over the past several years, I’ve had so many people demonstrate “I am willing” as they’ve helped me carry burdens right and left. For me, all these loved one’s have demonstrated the law of Christ – they have loved God and loved me, not with words but with their actions. Not an idea, but a certainty.

That kind of love makes it easy to say over and over again, “I am willing.”

Walking in Favor

“The Return of the Prodigal Son,” unknown artist, at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City Jan.. 17, 2008. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us about the great joy that filled the house when a son who had run away returned to be reunited with his father and brother.  “For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” (Luke 15:32).

This son that had run out on his true life and was living another life – one he he believed to be right. Sooner or later, he came to his senses and realized he was living in a nightmare. For him, it was never too late to come home. The story also teaches us something important about our status as Children of God. No matter what we do, or don’t do, we are always his.

I hesitate to use the term “favor” here. It’s also used by some Christians to designate those who have sent in their check, gotten their names on the list and are paid up members in the health and wealth club. These Christians have been taught that “favor” is a status that must be constantly earned and can subsequently be lost. The Christian life is one of losing and finding favor with God. A glorious treasure hunt, chasing after a mysterious Santa Claus.

This isn’t what I mean when I write about “favor” and I don’t think it’s what Jesus taught when he described the way that God wanted to relate to us who believed in Him.

  1. Favor with God is a state that we enter into when first we believe. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
  2. Walking in God’s favor means to remain in His love. We obey Him and follow Him as disciples because we love him (because He first loved us).  “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”  (John 15:9-10)
  3. As God’s creation, we always have our free will. We choose each day to follow as disciples, deny ourselves and carry our cross. Or, like the Prodigal Son, we makes choices that lead us away into our own pits of disaster. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. (Galatians 5:24-25)

When I am walking in God’s favor, that means that I am no longer living a prodigal life but am instead back home at His side, right where I belong.

Walking in God’s favor means that I am decreasing and He is increasing (John 3:30). This is exactly the opposite advice that the self-help culture we now live in is teaching us. Work harder, find the next trick, manage yourself better.

I experience God’s favor when I am near to Him, not away on my own. His favor makes me more like Him, not a better version of myself.

Each day that I walk in God’s favor is another day closer to His great purpose for me and everyone else.  Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.  (Ephesians 4:21-24)

Slopping pigs doesn’t always seem like a bad thing. I understand they have a great retirement package. There are friends to text and nowhere else to go but up. It is your own journey after all. You make all your own decisions, except when you get hungry or need somewhere to live. Pig keeping may not be where you started out, but it’s where you end up.  It’s where all our own fears one day take us.

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”  ― William Faulkner

The story of the Prodigal Son reminds us that the only way to walk in favor is to go back home.

Is Going to Church Out of Style?

Church membership and attendance is on the decline.

It has been for several decades. Is attending church out of fashion for the online generations? Have we overbooked and overworked everyone, with no clear 9-5 boundary anymore? Weekends (including Sundays) have turned into safety zones for family and retreat?

Our world will never cease to change as technology evolves, social life fractures and capitalism dominates more of our choices. So, is the future of the church in jeopardy?

The church, the Body of Christ, is not going to become a fashion victim. The ways that we carry out its functions probably will. As people and the way we live change, so too will our methods of ministry. But church isn’t going out of business because it has an eternal purpose.

Here’s what Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright believes about the church:

“The church exists primarily for two closely correlated purposes: to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world … The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform. This is all part of what is known loosely as fellowship.” ― N.T. Wright

There aren’t any other social organizations fulfilling these essential tasks. Here’s my list I’d like to add to answer the question, Why Do We Need The Church?

  1. It is a place to become yourself
    We become more and more real as we experience transformation. The church is the one place where we can see who we really are and be changed. It’s a gathering of those who are living out a brand new life because of following Christ – as disciples. Our true self is emerging when we are a part of God’s church. Your local church is a place that challenges you and allows you to experience transformation in all areas of your new life.
  2. It is a place to suffer
    When we do suffer, and all of us surely will, we need others with us as we navigate those treacherous waters. Christians find eternal meaning in the suffering they experience. A large part of this meaning is experienced together as the Church when others help to share our burdens of fear, worry and pain. God cares for our every need through the actions of the church.  We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.” – 2 Corinthians 1:7
  3. It is a place to make sacrifices
    Once you’re a part of a church you quickly learn that it’s not really about you anymore. A church is a place where people come together and make sacrifices of their resources, time, efforts and even their will. It’s not what I want or what I think is best, but what others need. The sacrifice of your will is going to be the most difficult you will make. It takes much practice.“Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
  4. It is a place to grow up
    Literally and figuratively we mature in this body of faith. The church has a schedule filled with activities for every age group. It is an essential “agent of socialization” into the Christian faith. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
  5. It is a place to become more and more like Christ
    This is the direction we head as we die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to his own followers he said, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). The church is the gathering of people who will love us in our successes and failures as we journey toward Christlikeness. This is where we come to learn, to grow and to see firsthand the great mission we are called to follow.
  6. It is a place to worship, pray, serve and give, together
    When we come to church we do something different. We are challenged to act, think and to imagine a different way of living. The world outside we’ve made for ourselves is increasingly oriented toward the individual, helping to make us successful and less obligated to others. Our life within the church contradicts this alien culture with practices and beliefs that bind us together and challenges our selfish inclinations.
  7. It is a place that’s not really a place
    Usually the word “church” makes us think about a building, a location or even the distant memory of place. On my way home each day I drive past churches in traditional looking buildings with steeples, with big signs in strip shopping centers and even one located in an industrial workshop. In America, churches are located in all sorts of places.But we all know that the church isn’t really a location, it’s really a group of Christ followers. The church is bigger than a building, it’s all those people who love you no matter what. The church takes care of family, friends and strangers. It embodies love as it shares an eternal message of hope. It’s a group of people who try as hard as they can to pull away from this world and live as if there’s something bigger and better that’s eternal and means more than this life can give.

“The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.” ― Dallas Willard

 

How Connected Are You, Really?

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” ― Edward R. Murrow

Not another rant from a Boomer about too much cell phoning!? (sorry)

Who would have ever predicted the speed of our technological invention in the area of communication? We are all carrying a Star Trek communicator in our pocket. Platforms like email, Facebook, and Twitter to name a few, allow almost unlimited connections with friends, families, strangers (and foes).

We are now sharing photos of our new grandson within our family everyday. I can teach college classes to students who reside in different cities and states. My students can send me an email with questions late at night while they are working on homework or studying for exams. Cell phone calls make keeping in touch with family all over the state at any time of day.

There is an illusion that can easily take place. Our technology now allows us to communicate all of the time and with almost anyone. But all this easy “talking” doesn’t necessarily mean that much is really being said.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ― George Bernard Shaw

How many times have you created a misunderstanding with an email? Do you fully understand every text and tweet, even from people you know so well?

THREE REASONS WHY DIGITAL COMMUNICATION OFTEN FAILS

ONE: Volumes of meaning are typically communicated through our body language. Your facial expressions and gestures are important, even essential tools that you use when you communicate. You spend years of your younger years learning how to “read” the body language of others. Skyping during meetings is so popular because it allows people to feel like they can “read” the room better.

  • Where are your eyes wandering while you are listening?
  • How about the way your legs are positioned when you sit?
  • What about how you are standing or sitting when speaking?

Scientists today predict that our young people are launching into adulthood with poor social skills because they haven’t had the practice with enough real time mastering how to interpret body language. They’ve spent so much time on their phones and not enough time with real people.

TWO: When you are in the physical company of others there is a power of presence that can’t be replaced by digital means. Aren’t you guilty of saying things in a text that you might not ever say face-to-face?  Maybe it’s too quick, impersonal or mean. Remember the rule about counting ten before pushing the send button? When someone is right in front of you, the tendency is to take greater care about how, what and why you speak the way you do. There is some physical force that shapes the style of communicating.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” ― Albert Camus

THREE: When you communicate in person you can’t just refuse to click “open” and leave the dialogue in limbo. There is a strong inability to ignore that occurs when you are in the physical presence of others. When you’re with someone you just have to talk it through or make it up or fight it out or reach a conclusion. Being with someone adds something irreplaceable to the interaction, you just can’t turn off the phone.

Volume doesn’t make up for depth. You already knew this to be true. But the truth isn’t always at the heart of what any of us does. Being connected is still essential. Being connected in the right ways matters most. At the end of your day, think about how many real people you’ve actually interacted with, in person.

“Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.” ― Charlie Kaufman

Learning to Walk Again

“I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24

I’ve got some sort of problem with my back these days. Very difficult to get about. Sitting around is okay. Getting into a vehicle, stooping to pick something up, even jumping out of bed all really hurt. I’ve also had “frozen shoulders” for months. So many daily activities are no longer possible or only so with pain:

  • Putting on a shirt
  • Tying shoes
  • Getting a pair of socks on
  • Bending to pull something out of the cabinet
  • How about a back scratch?

I need one of those valets from Downton Abbey!

The good news here is that my shoulders are thawing and I’ve gotten some very effective medicine for my back.  I’m going to live.

This all brings up the memories of the time my wife had to spend months in rehabilitation learning how to do so many simple things all over again. She was recovering from a successful brain surgery and the necessary medication left her physically powerless to move much. It was a hard struggle that she met valiantly.

In much of our lives, it can be painful to go back and learn again how to do what is essential (and often taken-for-granted). Our spiritual self needs to be in command of the ship. When it’s crippled, the rest of our being is off balance. We’ve got to learn how to walk in the Spirit again so that all the rest of our life can line up, stand straight and move freely.

Sometimes God removes our crutches so that we can learn to depend upon him with all our strength, all of our attention, all of our devotion.

Not everything is a crutch, preventing us from walking in faith. But often, people write about these aspects of their life as being a blessing and then, because of over dependence, they become crutches and impede our transformation;

  • Our careers
  • Wealth and income
  • Possessions
  • Friendships
  • Even family

Learning to walk again in the Spirit often means that we have to turn loose of things we’ve hung on to for support – in place of God.

Sometimes it means we have to just loosen our grip – be ready to take His hand when offered or to pass on to someone else that treasure we once held so dear.

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”
Matthew 6:31-33

Doesn’t that sound crazy? Don’t worry about the basic necessities of life? I’ve discovered (usually the hard way) that God knows what I need better than I do. He is also ahead, in my future, arranging the journey so that my basics are always covered. When I learn how to walk in the Spirit, I can stop paying attention to my own growling stomach and pay more attention to everyone else I meet along the way.

“The greatest lesson a soul has to learn is that God, and God alone, is enough for all its needs. This is the lesson that all God’s dealings with us are meant to teach, and this is the crowning discovery of our entire Christian life. GOD IS ENOUGH!”  – Hannah Whitall Smith