How Much Worse Could It Get?

“Groans that words cannot express are often prayers that God cannot refuse.” ― Charles Spurgeon

In my young adult life and during the early years of my marriage I used to pray very specifically and ask for help with real problems I was facing. As I look back on that time, it seems I got in God’s face in some very bold ways.

Later as I experienced more and more control over my life, my prayers became more generalized and less focused on real problems. Maybe I didn’t need to have any answers right away or at least anything that I could count on?

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I’m now noticing, as I travel through a year of grieving and am spending most of my time alone (thanks to the quarantine too), that I’m getting back to being more daring with my prayers. I noticed it the other day as I said to God very deliberately that I needed to hear some specific directions that would guide me into the next chapter of my life.

After spending too much time by myself, perhaps I was getting forthright in my conversational style with God. Or maybe just desperate. I secretly think that God hears desperate prayers first.

“The sea is endless when you are in a rowboat.” ― Adolfo Bioy Casares

In my opinion, when we pray we should be specific and speak aloud, straight from our heart. None of this reciting beautiful prose (save that for public prayers). When you pray alone in your closet, be yourself!

But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. – Matthew 6:6

Sometimes, trying to solve problems on our own can make the mess even worse. Praying ought to be a first step before venturing out into the storm of life. Praying often brings about waiting. Waiting on God can be the best step in any plan.

If you’ve never prayed very much, there’s nothing wrong with that. Get started now. No better time than a pandemic! The way to start talking with God is “hello.” Why not start each day by saying hello to God and telling him what you’re planning. Don’t forget to wait, listen and move when the Spirit nudges.

Jesus was asked by his followers to teach them how to pray. They must have seen and heard him. That’s where we get what we call The Lord’s Prayer. There’s a part to it that I’ve always thought very earthshaking.

May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  – Matthew 6:10

Well, by asking us to pray for this, it means that God’s plans are not necessarily happening all around us every day. He’s not practicing his ability to control everything. He want’s us to get involved in his great work here in the lives of others. When you and I don’t pray, we’re keeping heavenly work from happening, as it is in heaven.

One of the big lessons you can see that I’m learning is to be more bold and specific when I do pray. Every time I talk with God like this – he responds in some way. He doesn’t do a Santa Clause, but he does let me know in all sorts of ways, that he hears me and he hasn’t left me alone.

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it.  – Hebrews 2:1

Why don’t you start praying something specific today?

Why don’t you start asking to get involved in God’s will on earth? Why don’t you think of something specific and bold that will give your faith something to stand on?

“Grandpa had made the Lord seem so real, I wouldn’t of been surprised if he’d said good night to Him. But after a long pause he just said a-men.”  ― Olive Ann Burns

 

The World is Too Much With Us

“I could no longer discern what was real and what was fake. Everything, including the present, seemed to be both too much and nothing at all.” ― Clemantine Wamariya

I have been feeling overwhelmed the past weeks. Maybe it’s been a month now.  Most of us are having the same kinds of experiences all at once and all together. I think if I made a list it would look very similar to yours. So many of our feelings right now are driven by a lack of control, the feeling that so much of life in general is off balance.

“Don’t despair: despair suggests you are in total control and know what is coming. You don’t – surrender to events with hope.” ― Alain de Botton

One of the ways for me to get a better handle on things is to try and figure out what’s really going on. I’m a sociologist. That means that what I’ve been trained to do is to dissect the world of people, like I did with that frog back in middle school science class, and see how it all works (or doesn’t).

Right now, a global pandemic has left us all feeling like life is veering in and out of control. It’s an even more powerless experience because we can’t hit back at a virus. There’s no visible enemy, like a terrible boss or a marriage falling apart. So, what we end up wrestling with is the state of information being transmitted to us from leaders and healthcare experts. How well do we believe what we are being told? The issue becomes not the actual state of our health but what we believe.

“The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.” ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

As I’ve written before, the tremendous social movements now taking place are actually the result of months living under quarantine. The video of police kneeling on the neck of George Floyd and his subsequent death was a match that lit a population already kindled for catastrophe.

Social movements fall into two broad categories:

(1) Top Down (Resource Mobilization) or

(2) Bottom Up (Collective Behavior)

I was reading an article the other day about the making of the We Are The World song and video. It was a 1985 project to raise global awareness about suffering and starvation in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. It would fall under the category of a Top Down Movement. These tend to be organized around ideas and actions that need to be communicated to the population or groups so that action can be organized and problems solved.

What we are now experiencing with protests, marches, riots, vandalism and public displays by political and pop leaders would fall into the Bottom Up category. In response to the video of the police arrest and later death of George Floyd, people who felt tremendous anger and bottled up grievances exploded in protest. Political and pop leaders tried to catch up – but mostly looked silly and out of step.

In a Mass Society like ours, the media plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion about the “how’s” and “why’s” of social movements. Our media landscape is unique:

  • We have hundreds of media sources of information and opinion pouring into our lives each minute.
  • The distinction between information and opinion is typically blurred to the receiver.
  • We have media monopolies controlling a wide variety of content, from news, entertainment, social media, sports and publishing. All interwoven to produce a profit for shareholders. Go back and watch the film Network.

The goal of the media is no longer to provide information to the public. That is a secondary objective. The primary objective is to gain viewers – profit. This has happened because there is too much media, too many channels and apps. It’s not some evil plot, just basic market dynamics.

What’s happened in history right now? Viewers were tired of the endless Corona-virus narrative that seemed to never have a happy ending. A mass protest for social change regarding race relations was exactly what the doctor ordered. Each media source jumped on the events and shaped the telling to fit into their narratives.

History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.  – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NLT)

Now, as you click around on your television or phone you will see that the information from the media is not the same. Remember, they are not reporting just facts but telling stories to gain and maintain audiences. So, you will hear one source emphasize the “A” part of the narrative and downplay the “B” part. Another source will do the opposite. This is normal marketing activity. We are not citizens in need of truth, we are consumers shopping for a narrative that fits.

“If you believe that your thoughts originate inside your brain, do you also believe that television shows are made inside your television set?” ― Warren Ellis

Remember, this social movement aimed at addressing injustices regarding race relations is happening now because the atmosphere was stoked by the quarantine. People were laid off, lost insurance, had no childcare, were trapped at home with family, experienced the hospitalization/death of family/friends. Who were we to express our frustration and anger at in the midst of all this? A mysterious virus floating around in the air?

Marching in protest about racial injustice and examples of police violence makes perfect sense in light of our collective circumstances. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be happening, just an explanation of why now. Of course there are a lot of actions taking place that don’t make sense – there always are. Welcome to the drama of living in a free society with a camera always on.

So, despite an explanation, I’m still as overwhelmed. I’m doing a few things different so that I can at least tread water and not feel too waterboarded by history. To counter this feeling, here’s what the doctor recommends:

  1. Talk less, listen more
  2. Stop watching TV news
  3. Read fiction (with happy endings)
  4. Read magazine articles that stoke your curiosity
  5. Take a drive in the country
  6. Watch an interesting documentary
  7. Write a note of encouragement to someone who needs it
  8. Tell your kids what life was like back in the Dark Ages, when you were their age

If you do get into a current event discussion or debate why not talk about something specific that you can do to help make it better? Talk about hope not anger or frustration or fear – there’s already plenty of that to last a lifetime.

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.  – 1 Peter 3:15 (NLT)

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

What’s Your New Normal?

Have you heard about what the “New Normal” is going to look like once the current quarantine is lifted? Mostly it seems that our collective focus is on the strategic rearrangements that will have to take place so that we can get back to work, school and leisure as soon as possible. The media is streaming into our homes constantly with information and opinions about how all of this will or won’t work.

  • More online learning and working
  • No more crowded restaurants
  • Empty sports stadiums
  • Temperature checks
  • Less travel

At least for the immediate and unknown future, things will surely be different. Who really knows how permanent some of the changes will be. What about changes that you have decided to make in your own life?

What’s starting to interest me is how this intense period of social isolation has effected all of us, has changed each one of us in subtle ways that we may not have consciously thought enough about.

Certainly we all know that changes in these areas of our life are coming:

Family – you probably know each other at a new level now. Did you make music videos together or find places to hide for each other? Of course, for many, there are the concerns related to extended family members who needed extra help. That’s not going to go away. What’s your plan for the days ahead?

Friendships – who did you keep in contact with during the quarantine and who was too much trouble? Who kept up with you?

Work – we all now know that all those meetings are going to have to change, but what else? The economic hardships are going to cause painful changes and reorganizations for many. What’s going to change about the way you do business with the people you work with?

What’s your normal going to look like when it comes to some of these other pieces of your life?

  1. Your big goals in life – and all the little ones getting you there
  2. What you choose to get mad about – and complain to others about
  3. How you spend your free time (when you had too much!)
  4. What you took for granted about other people – and your relationships
  5. Your every day conversation with God – who’s talking, who’s listening?

This plague that spread across the globe and our response to it stole so much control from our lives. But as we re-establish ourselves in a post-pandemic life we can make choices and be less driven about by circumstances. Raising your self-awareness puts you on the road to higher levels of self-control.

“In a very tragic kind of way, sometimes things have to be gone before I fully realize that they were ever there.” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough

I was pulling out of the driveway the other day, watching my daughter holding my grandson in her arms. For a minute I thought to myself, hang on to him as long as you can. What I wouldn’t give to have one more day to hold you in my arms like that again – and to not take it for granted.

Your new normal ought to be something that you stop taking for granted.

So do not worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow worry about itself. Living faithfully is a large enough task for today.  – Jesus, Matthew 6:34 (The Voice)

 

 

Caught in the Middle

This quarantine has left me feeling caught somewhere in the middle.

We all had a life, carefully built “out there.”

We would come home and engage in our other life – here.

Some people are at home all day, but in this day and age (no longer confined to that little house on the prairie) people have all sorts of adventures out and about. Not to mention all the connections through social media that enable us to venture past the fence and share with neighbors all over the place. I don’t think the term “stay-at-home” works anymore.

“Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” ― Anton Chekhov

Now, during the pandemic quarantine, like you, I am trapped at home (one of my lives) while trying to manage my other life remotely. This is like living in a vast empty space somewhere between. I’m not sure what the rules are while occupying this new territory?  Remember, I live alone.

  • Do I have to wear pants all day long?
  • What time are meals served?
  • When do I have to go to bed or get up?
  • Can I leave the front door open all day? The sounds of the neighbor children are delightful!
  • What kind of value does a daily To Do List provide? Where did I leave my list?
  • I’m paying how much a month for all this crap on TV?
  • I’m paying how much a month for an internet connection that goes on and off all day long?
  • What kind of strategy is best when venturing out of the house, being friendly but keeping my distance?

“We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn’t obey the rules.” ― Alan Bennett

When you’re stuck in the middle like this it’s an opportunity to take a gander at what life was really like, back before the crisis that put you here in the first place.

Now, why was I holding all those meetings? To read through a list of items that could have been emailed to everyone? Or was it to create an opportunity for social contact and community? Realize that opportunities are often missed.

Why was I spending so much time here at home in front of the TV or computer screen during my former life? Do I really have a cell phone addiction? I thought that was only teenagers? Sure the weather doesn’t always cooperate and the traffic is going to soon get awful again, but there is a different kind of liberation out there. There’s also a kind of incarceration in here.

What was so important that I stayed up all night thinking about over and over again? What did I rehearse in those email drafts? Who was I talking about behind their backs? What parts of my day in and day out did I take for granted, parts of living that I can’t imagine being gone – like my children, my friends, my trips to Starbucks and even getting my haircut?

Trying to live in the middle with all the confusing rules – for just a month, or two or three is nothing compared to, say the Siege of Leningrad (872 days, 1941-1944!). But, maybe it’s enough time to help us all reflect a little and approach the reopening of life differently in some ways:

  • Maybe we can talk to each other less automatically and pay more care to what we say and don’t say. That paperwork is always going to be there.
  • What about leaving the house more (those screens!) and moving about?
  • All those taken-for-granted people in our lives – service industry, healthcare, public safety, grocery store employees, etc. What about saying thank you more often and treating people differently?
  • How about those connections to your extended family wherever they are – what about doing something more often to reinforce those bonds? A phone call, text, video chat, letter, card, something regular that keeps hearts pumping.

No, we aren’t going to be the same people, neighbors, cities, nations or world that we were before. But what if you and I made some intentional choices about who we were going to be once the crisis ended?

“The beginning is always today.” ― Mary Shelley

What’s Happening During Your Confinement?

“God’s absence in the carnage is due to one single rather unnerving fact; that at some time past He honored our request that He leave. And if we are not brutally honest with ourselves regarding that choice, it is we ourselves who have set the stage for the next tragedy.” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough

Never before in the history of humanity we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s causing a universal reaction – social isolation and fear. Here in the United States there is hysteria about buying up all the toilet paper and hoarding spaghetti noodles.

How are you handling this new life? We live so fast and immediate that having to adjust to a quarantine without an end seems beyond belief. We cannot imagine it. There are no words for what we are experiencing now. It’s just not in our vocabulary.

What are you doing with your life in this new orbit? Sure, there are things you must do. But there is also so much else that’s going on during your quarantine.  Your life is being rolled up with all these experiences that you would never have chosen. They are now a part of your history, every day that follows. Your children have this inserted into their journey.

This is an un-American experience. We have lost freedom, so few of us are pursuing happiness, control is out of our hands. No one likes to be told where and when to go to church, grocery shopping or running in the park.

This is also a great American experience. Each generation needs a common enemy to draw us together and help us to see what “we” truly are. Sometimes in our past that enemy was the brutal frontier. Then it became wars with foreign enemies. We may not remember our medical battles against dark foes like influenza, polio, bird flu, mad cow disease, and SARS. These brought us together to do battle and save our people (especially children).

What are you doing with your life right now while under confinement? I know you’ve been bombarded with suggestions and even some good ideas. I’ve collected a few and am trying some to see how well they help.

“Solitude is a chosen separation for refining your soul. Isolation is what you crave when you neglect the first.” ― Wayne Cordeiro

While you are stuck in your house, you start to pay attention to the place. Maybe it’s time to make some changes?

  • How about moving some of the pictures on your walls around?
  • Don’t you have a closet that desperately needs to be cleaned out?
  • You really are never going to wear those clothes again, why not bag them and donate them?
  • You may need to ask permission, but what about rearranging your furniture?
  • Most Americans have a number of items in the refrigerator that have really gone past their expiration date.

There are probably some bigger projects that you have time to tackle right now:

  • Make some connections with people who need to hear from you (and haven’t in a long time)
  • Aren’t there some books you’ve been meaning to read? Pull them out and hide your TV remote
  • Tax deadlines really will arrive, why not start putting the pieces together? You could develop a system.
  • Anything big out in the yard that needs your attention? It’s only going to get hotter (down here in Houston)
  • Organize your photos, music, contacts, socks?

While you are living a new kind of life pay attention to the quicksand that can happen every day if you’re not careful:

  • Try to set up a routine for each day
  • Come up with some reasonable goals for the week (write them down and post them)
  • Connect with other people during each week, make a list and start to work your way through it
  • Schedule breaks and do something with the people that you love, even it’s on Face-time
  • Don’t let the TV determine your daily routine
  • When you are out, socially distant, smile more often

“An intelligent person, looking out of his eyes and hearkening in his ears, with a smile on his face all the time, will get more true education than many another in a life of heroic vigils”.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson

What about some of the larger and more meaningful projects in your life that deserve special attention now that things are so disoriented?

  • Get in contact with people more often than you would normally
  • Tell people that they matter – when we’re isolated we have fewer experiences that affirm this truth
  • Make a prayer list of people who are especially effected by this disaster
  • Send a meal to someone else
  • Figure out a way to use technology to communicate with others using live images of yourself – let others SEE how well you’re doing
  • Comb your hair, shave your face, make your bed, put on some perfume, act like the real you, not the “shelter in place” you – do who you really are not the who you’ve been forced into

 

Acquainted with the Night
Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.