A Need to Disconnect

This is part two of a two-part essay. The first part, which you can read HERE, focused on the problem. This week, I do my best to offer a solution.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Even if someone could have foreseen the dangers that lay far ahead, what other choice was there. They could not concern themselves with future generations. If they didn’t do something now, there would be no future generations.

So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. …  Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground. But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.” 

“You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 47:20-21, 23-25)

This is how the Bible records the origin of Hebrew enslavement to Egypt. It starts in the midst of a terrible famine. It’s the socioeconomic backdrop that we don’t often notice raging behind the drama of Joseph and his brothers. Year by year, the peoples of Canaan and the other surrounding regions find themselves unable to grow crops, unable to raise animals, unable to hunt or forage. And Joseph, who has ascended all the way to Pharaoh’s cabinet, responds to the suffering of a lot more people than his remorseful siblings.

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Joseph’s family are the Skywalkers within a Universe full of other compelling stories.

Of course, by establishing a system of civil servitude and taxation based on the productivity of Egypt’s subjects, Joseph has also opened the door to oppression. Though he is essentially the first taskmaster the Israelites will know, at least he is kind. He understands their plight. He strives to create a system that maintains balance.

But Joseph cannot live forever.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.”…

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.  (Exodus 1:8, 11-14)

More often than not, oppression is the go-to tool of an empire. To keep a heavy hand upon the common rabble is not simply a way to exert power. It is a way to prevent the people from considering any other power but yours.

Still, in the story of the Israelites’ toil in Egypt, we see more than just a picture of oppression. We see the ingeniously cruel amalgamation of oppression and productivity, of enslavement and efficiency. Despite such persecutory suffering, Pharaoh’s demand for endless toil somehow still breeds blind allegiance! Consider what the Israelite elders say to Moses and Aaron after their royal court disruptions, which only serve to enrage Pharaoh who turns around and accuses the Israelites of laziness – laziness! – and ups the ante on their brick-and-mortar production quotas.

…they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them,  and they said, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”  (Exodus 5:20-21)

Today, when we read this story, we shake our heads at the infamous Israelite stubbornness, how they lash out at the very people working for their deliverance! We fail to recognize that systems of endless productivity and efficiency make us oblivious to what real freedom looks like when it actually presents itself.

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This sermon is a little long for our taste. Glad we brought something to pass the time.

In my previous post, I ranted about addressed this same oppressive reality in our society today. We may not struggle under the thumb of a tyrannical Pharaoh, but we are fools to deny that numerous, present-day taskmasters aren’t woven into our own cultural fabric. They hide behind so much of what we have come to accept as modern-day realities, often whispering even behind simple phrases like “normal society,” “status quo,” “tech-savvy,” “bonus check,” or “Sorry but I’ve got to take this call.”

I also wrote about a new law that took effect in France this year, which places restrictions on large companies regarding their employee’s connectivity to work e-mails and messages; it is a small yet significant step in trying to give people back some semblance of rest, a portion of their existence not wholly defined by occupational pursuits. And it is the very thing that so frightened and enraged Pharaoh.

Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments is an iconic piece of cinema, but it doesn’t get everything right about the Exodus story. The most memorable of all its lines – “Let my people go!” – is deceptively inaccurate. Moses and Aaron did not swagger into the royal court as tenacious liberators, brazenly offering Pharaoh a lose-lose deal. No, their request was much tamer. “Let my people take a break” would be a more accurate line. All they asked for, at least at first, was a spiritual retreat – essentially a three-day weekend – in which the Israelites could pilgrimage into the wilderness and offer sacrifices to their God.

Ten Commandments

Also, Ridley Scott wasn’t the only one to envision Egyptian and Semitic peoples as slightly tanned Caucasians.

Pharaoh refuses not because a three-day retreat would mean three days of limited brick and mortar production. Remember, the productivity quotas imposed on the Israelites were designed to oppress, to weary, to strip away every defining aspect of who they were, except hopeless slaves. This almost impossible workload was instituted so they would have no time whatsoever to indulge in their own sociocultural identity. After all, awakening to the reality of who you truly are – and what you were made for – poses the greatest threat to the powers of oppression.

Why? Because you start to realize you may not actually need them anymore. That there might be another way of life. One that liberates rather than subjugates. One that frees rather than abuses.

This, by the way, is the Rosetta Stone of interpretation we should apply to the Law, which is given to the Israelites on the other side of the Sea of Reeds after the waters effectively annul Joseph’s citizen-slave system. Consider how the Book of Exodus introduces the Ten Commandments:

And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…”  (Exodus 20:1)

Every single law and ordinance and regulation flows from this foundational identity, and should be understood as pointing back to the principles of the Lawgiver, rather than arbitrary codes of conduct for a fledgling nation. God is the Deliverer. He is the breaker of chains. He is the new taskmaster that, in stark contrast to Pharaoh, desires his servants to live in peace and prosperity, to live free from the wearying, life-sapping bonds of endless productivity and efficiency.

Game of Thrones Season 3 Review

Copycat.

For any who may not be convinced by this, consider what the fourth commandment is, and the way both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 describe it. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” If the greatest Ruler/Creator/Designer/Builder dedicated a day to complete rest (the Hebrew word, menuha, literally means “to cease”), and, what is more, if out of every single piece of creation it was this day of complete rest that He chose to call “holy” (qadash), you can be certain He wants His subjects to do far more than honor it. He wants them to experience it.

Let’s consider that fact for an additional moment. In the Creation poem that opens our Bibles, only one thing is explicitly deemed “holy.” It’s not the vast Pacific. It’s not the majestic Rockies. It’s not even the man and the woman, made in God’s own image. Sure, they’re called “good,” but only the seventh day – the Sabbath – is actually called holy. This day in which God ceases from extraordinary, glorious productivity – this is what must be declared most excellent, set apart, and preserved.

The French legislation is known as the “right to disconnect law.” But God’s law already has one. It is a “need to disconnect law.”

Sabbath, at its core, is about disconnecting from the cultural obligations and expectations to produce, to want, to crave, to be stimulated and insubstantially satisfied by the world’s systems. As Jesus corrected the Pharisees, the Sabbath was made for man. It should never be defined by deprivation or a list of don’t-do-and-can’t-do’s; instead, we should see it as a happy return to the freedom and peace we have already been given by our Great Deliverer. It is a day we devote to face-to-face connection with our families, cultivating deeper relationships with friends, celebrating the extraordinary beauty of this short life, and worshipping the One who made the world and called it very, very good.

France’s passing of a “disconnect” law should give us pause. It should remind us that insatiable productivity is an ever-present threat, and the assumption that everyone should always be connected – dialed in to the Matrix – is not a passing fad. Even in a society that prides itself on individualism and personal freedom, Pharaoh’s identity-sapping edicts are alive and well.

And just like in Egypt, it thrives off our wearied acquiescence to the system. It feeds off a culture that spinelessly shrugs its shoulders and says, “I can’t afford not to check my e-mails, answer my phone, come in on a Saturday. I can’t afford not to check my Facebook feed, respond to these texts, be one of the 300,000,000 people who viewed this video…”

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What are you talking about? I’m quietly sitting still in a mostly dark room. How is this not restful?”

What would it look like if not just a negligible minority of us but rather a whole country full of Christians (not to mention Jews) decided to truly observe the Sabbath for what it was always intended to be? What would happen if, for a single day each week, we turned our backs on all the professional obligations and nagging responsibilities that incessantly demand our time and energy, and also set aside all the tools and gadgets that sneakily tether us to unquenchable compulsions? What would happen if, instead, we pursued the things that gave us true rest? The things that restored our awareness of freedom, intimacy, joy, and celebration.

While the stresses of daily life and work would remain, I suspect our weariness of them would lessen. I don’t think we would so often lament how busy we are. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to consult our phone screens when we’re in the company of other people. Maybe we’d even become a little kinder. A little more patient. A little more peaceful.

Because that’s what deliverance does. It changes your life.

When They Just Don’t Get It

This week’s post is a rerun, originally published on June 24, 2013. Next week, look for Part 2 of “A Right to Disconnect.” 

Yesterday, I received an unwelcome glimpse into the future of my vocation.

While the interim senior pastor at my church has been traveling, I’ve had the privilege to deliver the sermons in the morning and evening worship services. I don’t take these invitations lightly.

I love preaching. I love the preparation – choosing the text, meticulous researching, jotting down good lines turned in captivating ways. I enjoy writing the manuscript. And, despite the unavoidable pain that comes from revising and cutting it down to size, I relish the way slashing paragraphs and removing unnecessary repetition seems to grant freedom to the whole enterprise.

I even enjoy practicing the manuscript out loud, contending with it until I’m able to leave it behind without losing point or pace.

cheater

Cheater.

Preaching is an art form. It is as much a specialist’s craft as poetry, painting, playing an instrument or writing a short story. I know I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself an accomplished craftsman, but each opportunity afforded me is practice I need and practice I crave.

But yesterday, following the worship service, I came face-to-face with one of the biggest drawbacks to making this art form part of a ministerial career.

It wasn’t criticism. By now, I’ve preached enough sermons and taught enough Bible studies to receive my fair share of negative responses. A few disparagements have been called for. A few have not. And a few of the “have nots” remain, without a doubt, the most selfish, insensitive and tactless attacks I’ve ever heard leveled against another human being. (That last group usually comes by way of e-mail, one of the many ways the Internet allows us to wage bloody trench wars against people we disagree with.)

It’s true that criticism can be acutely discouraging. I have had my sense of accomplishment and my confidence behind the pulpit sapped more than once by the homiletic equivalent of “haters.” Ultimately, though, negative criticism only makes the preacher work harder and pay more attention to the words and illustrations he chooses.

writing-sermon

Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like “the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained, liberal jackass with all the common sense of a monkey throwing its feces?”

No, what left me so disconcerted with the preaching life yesterday was not criticism. Rather, it was some of the conversations I had with parishioners at the close of the service (no more than ten minutes after I’d finished delivering my sermon). I should say that most of the people who greeted me had only kind and encouraging things to say. However, there was a small minority of people who expressed their enjoyment of the sermon, but then lingered to tell me why. The reasons they gave flowed directly from a point-of-view I had spent the last half hour arguing against!

In a nutshell, yesterday’s sermon intimated that the gospel of Jesus Christ erases all manner of distinction between a person and others. Orbiting the life-altering words of Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”), my main premise was that the truth of the gospel abolishes all lines of contrast we humans so often draw around ourselves or our communities, be they cultural, political, racial, or socioeconomic. I insisted that if followers of Jesus want to live as authentic Christians rather than by the weak and maligned societal definition of the word “Christian,” then we must submit to this radical new way of thinking and speaking and doing. There can be no argument. The gospel of Jesus robs us of the permission to figure our identity by worldly standards.

Somehow, despite so carefully preparing this message and painstakingly practicing its delivery, it seems that a few people nevertheless heard the exact opposite message than I intended. When they praised the sermon, they did so based on a particular cultural, political, or social perspective, and seemed brazenly unaware that bad-mouthing or lamenting people whom they considered different from them was the very thing I had spoken against.

What bothered me most, though, was the presumptuousness. Each of these point-missers simply assumed I shared their point-of-view, when, in reality, all I could think was, “Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” and “Did you even listen to the part where I said ________?”

plugging-ears

Aah! He’s saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Look, I’m no fool. I understand it is unrealistic to expect one sermon to completely change every heart and mind, no matter how much preparation I give to it. And I also realize that God is patient, and that he calls his children to be patient as well. Changing minds takes time. As a matter of fact, that happened to be one of the main points of the sermon – that sanctification is a struggle because we are constantly pulled backwards into our old ways of life, into cold legalism and the convenience of social distinctions.

And yet, there is something deeply disconcerting when the words you speak are not only heard incorrectly, but the people who most need to hear a message of deliverance interpret what you say as encouragement to keep on living the way they’ve been living. It made me wonder if this is always going to be an unwelcome aspect of the preaching life. Will anything ever break through to such people? Will the Spirit ever be able to convict them?

Furthermore, how exactly do I respond to such misinterpreted praise? Granted, I was a substitute – a guest preacher. Communicating the truth of God’s Word comes as one-shot opportunities right now. I’m not sure it’s my place to stop the well-meaning commenters in the middle of what they’re telling me and say, “Wow, you just didn’t get it at all, did you?”

Spiritual Life Week

“C’mon, be honest. You were just doodling in the bulletin the whole time, weren’t you?”

As I ponder the next step and whether or not I’m really up for this kind of life, I realize that maybe there is no significant difference between receiving negative criticism and receiving misinterpreted praise. It still just makes me want to work harder – to meticulously pour over that next message (whenever the opportunity to preach comes my way again), and consider even more deliberately the audience to whom I speak.

I realize something else, too. It occurs to me that it’s one thing to stand up on a stage or behind a pulpit and preach a good sermon. It’s a whole other thing, in the midst of post-sermon conversations, to live as that very model of grace and Christ-filled patience.

God have mercy! There’s no greater art form than that.

A Right to Disconnect

This week’s post is the first of a two-part essay. First, I’ll identify and examine the problem. Next week, I’ll do my best to offer the solution…

Did you hear about the “right to disconnect” law that went into effect earlier this year in France?

Essentially, it requires companies with more than fifty employees to establish certain hours – normally evenings and weekends – in which employees are discouraged from making phone calls and sending or responding to work e-mails. In other words, the law makes it much more acceptable for a person to “leave work at work.” Imagine that.

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Those crazy French with their ridiculous berets, baguettes, and perceptive approaches to employee health.

I don’t know if you are as stunned as I am that France passed this legislation. Honestly, I’m surprised its proponents were able to get enough people on board in the first place. At the heart of this new law is the sober recognition that unchecked pressure in our occupations can lead to a wide variety of health problems, including, according to one article, impaired sleep, depression, alcohol abuse, and heart disease. However, I have no doubt that when this legislation was proposed, many people feared potential negative effects – for one, placing limits on employee connectivity would reduce workplace productivity and efficiency. Maybe its the cynic in me, but I’m blown away that enough French lawmakers could agree that the value of a human person is not defined by the stuff he or she makes.

When I first learned about this law, I couldn’t help but wallow within my own cultural discontent. I continue to doubt the U.S. would pass similar legislation, and not simply because of complications due to bureaucratic rigmarole (which, over the last decade, has surpassed baseball as America’s greatest national pastime). I don’t know how popular the law’s passage was in France, but I think it is an exceedingly safe bet that quite a few U.S. politicians and lobbyists would be up-in-arms about it here; this, as they so often shout with fists held high, “is a free country.” Granted, what people actually mean when they use that line is, “This is a country steeped in opportunistic individualism, and therefore, by definition, any suggestion of a better way to do, well, anything, is immediately and forever suspect.”

Let’s face it, any law that even suggests limitations on our level of connectivity would certainly be met with adamant opposition. After all, look how convenient technology has made it to stay dialed in to our voicemails, e-mails, text messages, and social media profiles? We can literally carry all of that around in a single pants pocket. Even if they somehow miraculously reached a consensus on the benefits of such a law, can you see our government succeeding in the same way France’s did? For the sake of comparison, after the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Pulse shootings, multiple congressional representatives sought to regulate background checks for the purchase of assault rifles – assault rifles! – and hardly made a dent. How do you think people would react to regulations on items we can’t even bring ourselves to set aside when we we’re using the toilet?

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“How dare you tell me I can’t overstimulate myself? I earned this stress-induced Irritable Bowel Syndrome!”

So, kudos to the French for acknowledging something most perpetually stressed-out people don’t like to think about. There but for the grace of God go us not.

But whether we choose to acknowledge the dangers of ceaseless productivity or not, we also know there are other perils just as significant as physical health, and workplace pressure is not the only phenomenon in which they surface. The technological advances of the past few decades have been extraordinary, even mind-boggling. They have increased to an incredible degree humanity’s ability to produce, and to produce more efficiently. At the same time, we are awaking to the truth that increased automation and connectivity does indeed come with a downside. And it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the negative effects birthed by these new advances, whether in our occupational spheres, our local communities, or even our most intimate relationships.

My wife and I often talk of what we percieve as a pervasive, willing bondage to connectivity and endless productivity. While we do not have a “right to disconnect” law in our country (yet?), there are other laws intended to protect basic human health in the workplace. Even so, due to our society’s incessant striving to do more and do it faster, these laws are not always enforced very… forcefully. For instance, it is not uncommon anymore for Leigh to come home both exhausted and ravenous after her twelve-hour hospital shift, and this is because she did not get so much as a lunch break during that entire amount of time. I used to get so indignant about this injustice; because I care so much for her, I would fume about the blatant squelching of her occupational rights. Didn’t the hospital ever worry that fatigued nurses who hardly even have the opportunity to sit down over the span of twelve hours, let alone get time to consume a single meal, might become a liability rather than an asset? However, after ten years with little change in the culture of hospital staffing, now we simply shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and I do my very best to make sure dinner is ready and waiting when she staggers through the door.

The hard reality is that our jobs are perpetually frenetic, and one of the main reasons for this is our culture’s habitual obsession with productivity and efficiency. But instead of viewing this as a hazardous or unsafe reality, we’re encouraged to think of our stress-saturated jobs as “challenging,” “fast-paced,” or “highly rewarding.” Thus, staggering through the door like zombies and collapsing onto the living room sofa at the end of the day is now our norm. No wonder a once negative word like “bingeing” has become the popular and acceptable way to consume entertainment; it takes far less energy to just watch another episode of something than to go for a walk, or actually carry on a meaningful conversation with another person.

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“This isn’t even good, but I’m too tired to have standards.”

And that’s the other side of this cruel coin. Even if your drive to produce stays in the office parking lot, still the ever-expanding human appetite for connectivity is not satiated. The cravings for instant and perpetual stimulation follow us no matter where we go. We have become a people less and less comfortable with quiet and stillness, with morning commutes not infused by drive-time radio or Spotify playlists, with evenings not spent sitting in front of the electronically-enhanced binge boxes we still quaintly refer to as “TVs.” Quiet, meandering, agenda-less conversation is fast becoming a lost art.

Every time my family has the opportunity to eat out for dinner, my wife and I cannot help but subtly draw each other’s attentions to how many couples, families, or groups of friends are all staring down at smartphone screens rather than actually talking with the flesh-and-blood humans sitting mere inches away. It’s become a kind of game, like when you would play “Slugbug” on car rides. Except the pain you feel isn’t from your brother socking you in the shoulder, but rather a gradually swelling sense of melancholy at the state of the American social circle. Is this really the picture of our future? Is this the relational landscape my children will inherit?

It turns out that having our eyes glued to smartphone screens for hours on end, whether we’re checking e-mails, texting “friends,” or allowing our brain cells to gorge on YouTube videos, can be detrimental to both our mental and social health. We marvel at how cutting-edge technologies have ushered us into a brand new epic of human existence. And yet, hidden beneath every utopia is a dystopia. Yes, we can celebrate that humanity has become deeply connected across the entire globe. But we should also acknowledge that an increasing number of face-to-face relationships between family members and proximal friends are quietly suffering in the aftermath of such an extraordinary societal shift.

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Pictured: suffering.

I realize the French law doesn’t address personal overuse of smartphones, or how many hours we wile away staring at Netflix and Facebook, or that our knee-jerk response when our children get rowdy is to shove an iPad in front of their faces. But all these issues orbit the same evolving nucleus of human behavior. How we interact with one another (or how much we neglect interacting with one another) is changing. Whether it’s the job pressures or a personal addiction to Twitter that’s causing this distancing, something needs to change. And soon!

Now, please understand the purpose of this essay is not to make you feel rotten for indulging technology. That would be highly duplicitous of me. I own a smartphone that I’m constantly stuffing full of frivolous apps. I’m entrenched in a half-dozen different television series on Netflix and HBONow (because, I mean, c’mon, it’s not like I’m going to just pass on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones). And I’m definitely aware that, at this very moment, I’m using an online word processing program on my laptop to write this post, all while iTunes ticks through song after song in an 80’s/90’s Rock playlist.

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And to answer your inevitable question, yes, “More Than a Feeling” is currently up to bat… again.

So, no, I’m not advocating we rid ourselves of technology – that we actually go “off the grid” like that family in the Domino’s commercials. I realize doing so would, among other things, mean the death of my blog and its humble little audience. After all, you’re also accessing this article on a smartphone, or a tablet, or a laptop (or, if you’re reading it sometime in the future, on the fully integrated nanobot sensory chip imbedded behind your left cornea, which we all know AmaGoogleSoft recommends as the most proficient of the implant’s locations).

But there is a distinct difference between indulging the benefits of our technological advances, and allowing these advances to infiltrate every aspect of human existence. Especially those moments that once provided us with stark, unbounded, freewheeling contact with others. Last week, after a three-year abstention, I decided to rejoin Facebook. I was tired of finding out secondhand, and months too late, about the significant events in so many people’s lives. However, if you were to tell me I had to choose between the 950 Facebook friends (yep, still there after three years) and a single, face-to-face friendship with another person, I would not hesitate to choose the flesh-and-blood friend. Wouldn’t you?

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Now there’s a good TV show pitch! Next week on The Bachelor: Facebook Edition, find out which one of Skyler’s 1000 friends will receive the final red rose emoji!

My intention with this essay was not merely to lament the harmful side-effects of our increasingly connected culture. But I do think it would be a very healthy choice for us to tred carefully through such societal advances. To not be so quick to trade human interactions for the artificial succor provided by our various devices and other online compulsions.

Even if setting aside or turning off our gadgets results in awkward silences or off-putting stillness, let’s not be so quick to flee the emptiness we have momentarily established. There is something hidden within it – something deep and eternally true. Someting that, if you are patient, will gradually begin to make itself known to you, and, in so doing, reveal a treasure that all the sleekest gadgets and fastest connection speeds in the world cannot replace.

But more on that next week…

Playing Jesus

I spent hours last week pretending to be Jesus.

If you grew up in an evangelical tradition of the Church like I did, particularly one that unfolded in or around the so-called “Bible Belt,” you probably remember a little thing called Vacation Bible School. Granted, it is an understatement to call this old standard of summer children’s ministry a little thing; anyone who has worked the VBS of even a small-to-moderate-sized church knows it often commands the attention of dozens, if not hundreds, of church members. Even before the actual event arrives, it’s all-hands-on-deck. There are materials to organize, rosters to assemble, costumes to distribute, sets to build, and a plethora of decorations to plaster in every nook and cranny of the church campus.

I was volunteering with Vacation Bible Schools  – whether willingly or compulsorily – well before I ever chose to enter the ministry. Over the years, I’ve contributed in a variety of areas: registration clerk, recreation leader, classroom helper, recreation leader, drama team member, recreation leader, and storyteller. Oh, and recreation leader. If you work in VBS long enough, you will find yourself donning a variety of hats. I mean that literally. You will end up sporting some of the most ridiculous and unnecessary headgear you’ve ever seen, all in service of the event’s exuberant, almost manic atmosphere.

jester's hat

VBS: the only week of the year a senior pastor can wear shorts, sandals, and a jester’s hat and nobody complains.

This year, though, it was determined my headgear should emulate none other than Jesus of Nazareth, or as stereotyped a version of our risen Savior one might expect to find within a suburban Baptist church’s Vacation Bible School. Now, having spent years in silly period costumes – playing everybody from Noah to St. Peter to a Roman centurion to a wise, old Bedouin shepherd I ignorantly named Apu Nihasapiddananajada – I wasn’t immediately phased by the thought of putting on a fake beard and long-haired wig and, four times each day, portraying Jesus to an auditorium full of elementary-aged children. After all, I hammed my way through countless Bible dramas throughout high school and college, and, as a twenty-something youth pastor, directed just as many groan-worthy yet well-intentioned productions. So, I was no stranger to playing the Son of God.

bedouin

Seriously, guys, I really do apologize for that name. I was 25, lazy, and I’d never traveled anywhere farther than southern Québec.

It wasn’t until I’d struggled through the first day of VBS that I realized I may have finally taken on a role that was over my head. I had never portrayed Jesus to children, let alone in such a wide-eyed, jovial, and interactive manner. I’d never had to go sans script and improvise my way through an entire performance, all the while happily acknowledging eagerly raised hands and the astonishingly perceptive questions that followed.

Why do your sandals look like my daddy’s flip-flops?

How did you get here from heaven? Did you fly?

If you were nailed to a cross, why aren’t there holes in your hands?

Do you know my grandmother? She lives in heaven, too.

I never thought I would envy the people who wrap themselves in long underwear and furry red and white coats every December to play Santa Claus. At least the people portraying Kris Kringle are working with an easily malleable mythology; when your backstory includes a fabled home at the North Pole and a perpetually efficient labor force of elves, what harm is there in adding the occasional fabrication?

Elf_039Pyxurz

Like the fact that, for some reason, the guy who knows every address in the world doesn’t even attempt to find baby Will Ferrell’s correct residence…

But when you’re playing Jesus to children (and you also hold a masters degree in biblical theology), the last thing you want to do is stretch the truth about God’s Son, or satiate them with a spurious answer. I didn’t want some unbiblical exagerration imbedding itself in their brains for years to come. By the same token, I didn’t want to be dismissive of their questions, either. I knew these kids weren’t asking merely to humor me. They weren’t simply playing along. Each concern was genuine; each child expected an answer.

I remember having several conversations during my years in seminary regarding the alleged “age of accountability.” The essential question went like this: At what age is it appropriate to encourage a personal response to the gospel message? Few of my fellow grad students debated whether it was all right to teach kids the story of Jesus, even the grisly and mysterious details of his death, burial, and resurrection. After all, most of them had heard the story themselves since before they were even out of diapers. However, plenty of them differed on what age children must reach before they can genuinely respond to the inherent truth of that story – when they can be expected to actually understand what it really means to “admit, believe, and confess.” Five years old? Seven? Ten? How about a wise-beyond-their-years six? How about an eight-year-old who always makes the Honor Roll?

I had my own opinions. When I became a father, those ideas didn’t change all at once, but the older my children get, the more sheepish I feel about how uncompromising I used to be. I used to answer decisively to the age of accountability question.

Lately? Not so much.

Plenty of people who reject the teachings of Christianity are quick to label things like Vacation Bible School nothing more than manipulative indoctrination of the young. And I will abashedly acknowledge there is plenty of misguided and even damaging manipulation alive and well in our churches today (and not just with the young). However, as I struggled through four days of Good Shepherd performances, inundated each day with questions upon questions, one thing became clear to me. It is a fool’s errand to definitively apply, across the board, an age of accountability for children hearing, and reacting to, the gospel.

While Christians may disagree on what exact moment in a person’s salvation experience the Holy Spirit spurs his insight, even more mysterious is the vast array of ages that receive his prodding. It can take a lifetime for the truth part of The Way and The Truth and The Life to resonate in some folk’s minds. And yet, sometimes the Spirit will choose to illumine the path of salvation to a child who hasn’t yet mastered the “loop-it-swoop-it-pull” method on their sneakers.

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Who’s got time for laces when you could be reading the collected works of Kierkegaard?

Throughout this past week, I was regularly reminded of the moment I awkwardly stepped onto the trailhead of my own spiritual journey. I was only eight years old when, one dark night beneath the bed covers, I whispered the Sinner’s Prayer. My sister had died less than a year earlier, in a freak accident on a church youth group outing. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t given much thought to death – the how or the why of it – or what exactly the afterlife might be, if there even was such a thing. I was just a kid who liked marshmallow cereal, Saturday morning cartoons, and Voltron. My acquaintance with Jesus was through the handsome, white-robed depictions on Sunday School room posters and storybook Bible covers. I knew he was the guy all that Sunday morning stuff revolved around, and that he somehow related to the Sandy Patti and Amy Grant songs my mother listened to on our car’s cassette player, but I couldn’t have articulated that connection in any coherent way. Still, I believed in God because I was told he was real, and because we bowed our heads before every meal, and because there were at least a dozen churches in my tiny, bucolic town and how could every single one of them be wrong? It just made sense to believe in God.

But after Katy died, it stopped being enough for me that God’s existence made sense, that Jesus was a nice guy who wanted you and me to be nice, too. In the void left by the passing of my only sibling, I was curious for more than logic. I didn’t realize it until much later, but what I was really interested in was hope. So, I responded to the gospel because, alone in the dark beneath the dubiously protective shroud of my covers, I decided there must be more to Jesus than niceness. Something about the combination of his cross and his empty tomb offered possibility, a semblance of hope beyond the dark finality of death. I didn’t have the whole equation worked out yet, but what I did have was the memory of a simple prayer our pastor had taught a sanctuary full of wiggling grade-schoolers a few weeks earlier at the annual Vacation Bible School.

That patchwork prayer was the first meager offering I brought before the God of the Universe.

There are some who could no doubt point to that moment as yet another example of indoctrination – the actions of a child who had been subtly brainwashed to interpret a recent tragedy, and his own connection to that tragedy, all according to something that amounted, ultimately, to little more than a fairy tale. If I consider things from their perspective, I can understand where they’re coming from.

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I don’t blame you, Bernie. If I were you, I’d probably think it sounded crazy, too.

And, of course, there is much more to salvation than the articulation of a prayer. More than human cognition and abstract thinking. Because just like the kids at last week’s VBS who prayed such a prayer to God for the first time, eight-year-old me didn’t understand everything about what I was praying. I couldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of what I was saying to God. But, oftentimes, understanding comes later. If we Christians are honest, and we certainly should be, we will admit that genuine understanding takes longer than even a lifetime allows. As Rich Mullins once said, “We never understand what we’re praying, but God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding of them, but according to his wisdom.”

All I know is what I have become. All I know is that from time to time I have found another couple of crumbs scattered along this path. Not every day, of course, but every season. If I keep my eyes peeled, eventually I spy yet another modest clue that leads me onward. Perhaps one day I’ll discover that they were all incidental, and this path I have chosen has lead me only to a dead-end. Or, perhaps I’ll come to the termination point, push back the undergrowth of weeds, and behold a wide and magnificent river.

Several times during their handful of years spent together, Jesus’ disciples would ask him what it really took to be considered “great” in the heavenly kingdom. On one of those occasions, Scripture says Jesus called a little child over and had him stand in front of the disciples. “Unless you become like this little guy,” he told them, “you’ll never even get a look at the kingdom. And whomever makes room in his life for children just like this one is the one who makes room for me.”

I don’t know if the children who encountered this freckled, fake-bearded Caucasian Jesus last week received from him any great truth. Then again, maybe they weren’t the only ones the Spirit was interested in teaching.

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I know, I know. Look, it was a sports theme, OK. So, yes, I was “Coach” Jesus, and, yes, I wore a whistle and I had … oh, never mind.

On Rest (Lenten Reflections, Week 7)

I write this early in the morning on Good Friday, at the welcome desk in the lobby of the chapel. To my left is a simple, black and white sign indicating the starting point for my church’s Stations of the Cross prayer exercise. A little c.d. player spills gentle, acoustic ballads into the solemn atmosphere. In each of eight classrooms behind me, there is a small table bearing the name of each station, a corresponding Scripture text, and an artistic, black and white photograph imagining eight individual seconds of an event that unfolded in the early morning hours of the first Good Friday 1,990 years ago, give or take a couple of years.

My mind is not in this… yet. I am still imbibing my first cup of coffee, still going over in my head the setup for today’s prayer exercise to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, still wondering if the air conditioning is going to cut on. (Oh, there it goes. That’s good.)

But my mind is also toeing the high-cliff edges above a reservoir of doubt. In the past couple of days, my soul has been bombarded by troubling news and dark truths. News stories have flashed across my little smartphone screen, informing me of chemical warfare and subsequent retaliation; of a massive bomb dropped in Afghanistan (Oh, not a nuclear bomb. That’s… good?); of North Korea threatening to test an actual nuclear bomb; of the president of Turkey actively pursuing despotism. To top it off, I just finished a podcast all about super volcanoes. Did you know that when the super volcano residing beneath Yellowstone Park finally explodes, it will release 580 cubic miles of molten rock and dust up to 16 miles into the atmosphere, inevitably triggering a nuclear winter that will almost certainly bring human life to screeching halt?

Well, now you do.

I behold a world of chaos, of natural and man-made disasters roiling just beneath the surface of quotidian life. Then I step into the pre-dawn dark of this chapel lobby, and I click on the little spotlights that illuminate eight simple images of a first-century Jewish peasant scalded to death by a brief steam vent of that chaos. And I am reminded that a Christian is one who is supposed to believe this betrayed and beaten and brutally assassinated Jewish peasant is, somehow, in control of everything else. That there is no measure of chaos, momentary or catastrophic, to which he cannot speak a pacifying word – that he cannot, if he would choose, remove entirely from reality itself.

No wonder so few people in this world truly believe, let alone truly follow, this Savior. It does not merely seem as if the scales are tipped in the other direction; it seems like a joke to believe some massacred miracle-worker from an utterly insignificant blip of a town within a long-lost empire could possibly hold power over a gentle spring breeze, let alone all the world and all its contentious inhabitants.

It is a difficult thing to apply ourselves to the disciplines of which I wrote in my last post. But it is a far more difficult thing to rest in the Master who guides us in his discipline. To accept that what I am doing with my life – these commitments I am making and striving to keep – holds any consequence, makes any difference. Because, in the scheme of things…

But things don’t have schemes, it turns out. World powers serve a lie that one violent act can end violence, rather than naturally necessitate another. World leaders falsely believe that the pinnacle of achievement is asserting their authority, even though millennia have proved all authority is fleeting. And the world itself simply spins and shifts and rumbles along, a slave to chemistry and physics. There is no scheme – no rhyme, no reason – to what it does.

The only scheme belongs to God alone. The only efficacious plan is the one of a Heavenly Father who sends his Son to model true humanity to misguided humans, and to surrender to that misguidedness to the extreme point of blood and nails and death.

It makes no sense… to me. To us. But, then again, I’m a misguided human. When false schemes frustratedly vent their steam, I quake in my boots. I cannot comprehend the mind of the Lord; I cannot fathom his divine logic.

All I can do is rest.

Rest in his power. In his authority. In his order.

If this season of Lent has taught me anything, it is that discipline without rest is just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Repentance without reassurance is pointless. Purgation without peace is worthless. Confession without joy, meditation without stillness… it is all for naught if we cannot lay our myriad fears and doubts and disbelief at the feet of our Savior and say, “Please cast these shackles so far away they cannot be remembered. And defend me, because this world loves to jangle about in its carefully fashioned chains. It loves to rattle sabres and hear the cruel and pretty sounds they make. Guard my eyes. Preserve my ears. Still the anxious beating of my heart. Help me, glorious God, holy Other, to rest in you.”

On Discipline (Lenten Reflections, Week 6)

My father is a disciplinarian. Or, at least, he was when I was under his care. Corporeal punishment was commonplace in our home growing up. Not overly so. I do not believe in any way this was abuse. On the contrary, it was well-earned punishment. If a spanking was deserved, a spanking would be given. End of story.

Growing up, when I heard the word “discipline,” I thought of pre-adolescent spankings. I thought of sitting in my room waiting for what I knew was coming. I thought of mouthing off and getting a quick, sharp swat of medicine. Discipline was something that was doled out by a disciplinarian, an authority figure.

Then I began working in churches, and pursuing a call to ministry, and soon perceived discipline in an entirely different light. First of all, I recognized that the root of the word is “disciple,” which I had always equated with a student or a learner of some kind. Next, I became acquainted with sets of practices known as “spiritual disciplines,” and absent from every single one I learned about was an objective to punish. The further I studied, and the more I sought experiences in these so-called “disciplines,” the more I realized that they had one thing in common with my childish understanding of the word. That is, discipline is intended for correction, and no one ever really explained that to me.

When I was younger, discipline meant a spanking, and spanking was punishment, and punishment was what you got when you got caught doing something wrong. Later, I learned that spiritual discipline is not about retribution. It’s about remedy. To engage in discipline is to submit oneself for correction in order to put away false narratives and destructive habits that lead to “bad behavior.” But it is also the practice of good behaviors that turn into positive habits that eventually imbed true, healthy narratives deep in our souls. Discipline is the method by which God transforms his children.

As a child and a teenager in church, I learned a lot about the Bible. There were several very good and generous people who sacrificed their personal time in order that I would learn the truth about God and his plan of redemption. But one thing I was rarely taught was how I was supposed to live based on my belief in him. What specific actions – besides the standard “you should pray and read your Bible” – would help firmly establish this truth in me? What were the corrections that needed to be made in my life, and the remedies in which I could partake so that I would not just believe in Jesus, but actually, tangibly follow him? And so, like my false understanding that spankings were just retributive punishment, my grasp of Christianity devolved into a white-knuckled resistance of as much temptation as possible. It was a hold-on-for-dear-life, try-not-to-piss-God-off kind of faith.

And it was exhausting.

Undisciplined faith is like that.

When we avoid engaging in specific spiritual disciplines like fasting, solitude, stewardship, retreat, hospitality, or simplicity, our normal excuses is that they all seem too hard. But it turns out it is a lot harder to live the undisciplined life of faith than the disciplined one. Those who truly desire intimacy with God will submit to his correction, knowing we do not serve the stereotypical God the world makes its ignorant assumptions about – the capricious disciplinarian in the clouds. Rather, we serve a God who uses discipline to repair us, renovate us – to return us to his glorious image.

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
    as a father the son he delights in.

Proverbs 3:11-12, NIV

So, may you not be afraid to take your medicine. May you submit to the discipline of our holy God, knowing he has put away your misdeeds long before you put them away yourself. May you allow his gentle and gracious Spirit to show you the well trod ways of obedience, and may you experience the same delight in him that he has in you.

On Meditation (Lenten Reflections, Week 5)

Meditation has fallen out of fashion in Christianity these days. Sure, there are segments of Christendom that still practice this ages-old discipline, but when it comes to the evangelical tradition of the Church in America, practicing meditation makes Christians uncomfortable. To a lot of well-intentioned disciples, meditation has become synonymous with Eastern mysticism, New Age spirituality, and other religious traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. A lot of evangelicals would be at a loss to understand its place within the Christian faith.

That is not merely disappointing. It is profoundly tragic.

If you have been following along with these “reflections” throughout the season of Lent, you know that what I have been endeavoring to describe is the internal metamorphosis that a follower of Jesus experiences when he or she submits to the soul-restoring work of the Holy Spirit. The metaphor I have been using to loosely explain this process of transformation is that of renovating an old, rundown house. Taking something that has fallen into disrepair from both seasons of suffering interior neglect and weathering exterior storms, and returning it to something even more beautiful than it was in its earliest, most innocent years.

So, imagine you began all the dirty work of ths renovation: evaluating the broken places, cleaning out the junk, and tearing out the shabby, damaged remnants of old construction, and then, before you set to work restoring and rebuilding this old house, you blacked over all the windows and sealed up all the doorways, never to uncover them again. It’s absurd, not only because any beautification of a home demands the influence of natural light from repaired and cleaned windows, but because you would essentially be going about your renovation work in a cave.

This is what spiritual formation looks like devoid of meditation. Or, to put it simpler, when we remove the practice of meditation from our prayers for transformation, we end up stumbling around in the dark. We fail to see the extent of decrepitude in our souls because we have shut out the Light that illumines these dark places, that reveals them to us so that we might either tear them away or restore them. And we fail to find joy and freedom in the removal of our selfish narratives because we are not considering them according to God’s redeeming wisdom.

In my previous post, I wrote about the process of katharsis, the willingness to delve into the dusty corners and shadowy spaces of our souls in order to get to the root of the problem, to address not simply our sinful acts, but rather the sinful conditions, or habits, that cause these behaviors. To find and treat the deep-seated wounds that influence our self-destructive narratives. But katharsis done with our backs turned to God’s searchlight will never be effective in transforming us, and will only be a miserable experience of identifying the many core failures and doubts that have burrowed too deep for us to reach.

Many Christians fear the concept of meditation because its fundamental aspect is shutting up and being still. It is willingly opening up our dark, dilapidated houses to the Spirit’s sweeping, comprehensive evaluation of our condition, and He doesn’t miss anything – any cracks in the drywall, any warping of the floor, any unswept chimneys. As the Apostle Paul writes about the perfect wisdom of God’s Spirit:

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God… The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things…

1 Corinthians 2:10-11, 14-15, NIV

While meditation in other traditions of spirituality may be more concerned with emptying one’s mind and contemplating some innocuous, external concept of truth, Christian meditation is about looking inward, following the Spirit of God as he advances through the corridors of your soul, shining God’s steadfast light of wisdom and truth – the truth of His unconditional love and desire for you to be made whole – into every space.

“Be still and know that I am God,” insists Psalm 46; “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in all the earth.” This is a call for meditation not on some innocuous, external truth, but on an intimately powerful truth that doesn’t empty us of our personalities and individual passions, but refines them according to God’s perfect purposes. But we will never experience this refinement, or comprehend His purposes, if we don’t allow the Spirit in – if we don’t cease our own strivings and allow the home inspector into our spaces to further illuminate what must be done.

In meditation, we momentarily stop praying about what we think our problems are and how they should be fixed. We fall silent. We breathe deeply. We remain still, and with inwardly turned eyes we consider what lies at the root of these issues. We wait on the Spirit to stimulate our minds, revealing just how deep our rebellion goes. We do not fear this revelation because it is done in the light of a great love. And in the strength of His mercy, we begin to address these deeper blights on our souls. We do not wallow or mope in guilt; instead, we celebrate that God’s light is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of who we are. Through it all, we remember the Great Truth:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

John 3:16-21, NIV

So, may you not misunderstand meditation, and may you not neglect it. May you experience the excitement and abiding peace that comes when you allow God’s Spirit to walk through the many rooms of your life, loving each one, seeing in them a beauty you have never permitted yourself to see before. May you bid farewell to the roots of selfishness and celebrate the planting of holiness, and may you bask in the golden light that fills a soul made new.