Thursday, September 28, 2017

Destruction of Disconnection

I'm weary. I'm on overload from the current news cycle. Just when I thought it was safe to log onto "the Facebook" I get bombarded with stuff. I get sucked in and suddenly I'm irritated, unsettled and empty. I was just hoping to connect with my "friends."

An issue that is underneath so much of the mess that is filling up your news feed: Disconnection

Technology, which ironically provides the platform for this article, has "connected" us in some fascinating ways. At the same time, it has destroyed genuine, personal, face-to-face life. Various forms of media draw us into a world that is not actually ours.

We don't look into the faces of our friends in the same way we once did. We stare at screens and buy the illusion that we are truly engaging with others. We talk at one another electronically, instead of talking with one another empathetically. These devices are holding our relationships hostage and robbing us of joy.

What can we do? Rant more frequently on social media OR risk authentic connection with other human beings? I know what I need. I know what feeds my soul.

So here here are a few very simple suggestions:

1. Instead of texting someone, actually dial the phone and speak. I realize its still electronic, but you will hear the voice of a live person. Baby steps, right?!

2. When you go to the bank, post office or fast food place, avoid the drive through. Forsake convenience in favor of personal interaction. Take a moment to inquire about the individual on the other side of the counter, really listen to them and smile. Smiles are free!

3. Turn off the TV, walk across the street and visit with your neighbors. Check in to see how they are getting along. Sit on the porch. Ask about the kids or the grand kids. Make a plan to have them over for dinner or take in a local event together. Connect with the people who actually live closest to you. If you go with cookies or a cake, even better. Do this regularly.

4. Eat at least one meal each day with family or friends, around an actual table. While you are eating, talk about real life, your life, not the lives of people on TV you will never even meet. (But don't talk with your mouth full.) Share your stories, your joys and struggles. Laugh. Cry. Hug. Hugs are free too!

5. Make it a point to meet with others face to face weekly. Lunch or coffee, at the park or in your home. Be intentional about scheduling these in-person visits. It won't happen by accident. Don't talk about sports or the weather. Get underneath, to the important things that are driving the ebb and flow of life. Share the things that are behind your sadness, joy and struggle. Pledge to hold your friend's story in confidence. Pray together. These are the things that foster friendships.

6. Move beyond your current circle of friends and engage with people who are not like you - at all. Pick out that person in the neighborhood, at work or at church that you have literally nothing in common with, and befriend them. Spend time listening to their ideas. Learn about their journey and learn from their journey. Don't try to convince them to see everything exactly like you see it. This can be risky. It will likely push you to the edge, which is where growth can happen.

Your presence, as an image bearer of God, carries weight. God has made us for connection. As Christians we want to bring the issues of life into the light with trusted friends, bearing each other's burdens, pointing one another to the cross where we find hope, healing and ultimate relationship.

I would commend to you the book, Befriend: Create Belonging in an age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear.

Living in isolation, disconnected from others, often brings the illusion of peace. But disconnection is destructive and leaves us hollow. So, turn off your device and go develop some authentic connections. It may not change the latest news cycle, but it will change you.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Gentle on My Mind

Musician and singer Glen Campbell died this week. He had been living with Alzheimer's disease for the last several years. I watched with great interest, and sorrow, the Netflix documentary about his farewell tour. Campbell spent about a year on the road doing concerts after he announced his diagnosis. Although his mind was fading, his musical talent still showed flashes of brilliance. The human brain is an amazing creation of God.

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are perhaps the most heart wrenching ailments that I have witnessed.  Nearly everyone I know has been touched by dementia in some form. It is this sort of pain that remind us of the frailty of this life. There is often a tremendous sense of powerlessness that grips the family members of those struggling with Alzheimer's and dementia.

As we witness this level of suffering and brokenness, in the depths of the human heart there is something that cries out, "This is not the way it is supposed to be!" Indeed, this is not how thing were in the garden of Eden. However, it was the sin and rebellion of mankind that started the mess. We have been going our own way ever since. What we experience today, the pain and struggle, is the fallout. Thankfully, God has graciously provided a way for the brokenness to be restored through Jesus. This is the good news of the gospel.

Still, even for the followers of Jesus, there is heartache and turmoil. Watching someone deal with dementia is a vivid reminder. One of the last recordings that Glen Campbell made, I'm Not Gonna Miss You, seems like a haunting and honest statement about this struggle. Take a few minutes to enjoy his musical gift, here.

Thankfully, because of Christ, there is eternal hope and peace that transcends this brief and broken life.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Working on the Broken Things

Several months ago the side view mirror on our car got broken. I didn't jump right in and get it fixed. The shattered mirror, and shoddy attempt to patch it up, was a constant reminder that the problem needed to be addressed.

Eventually my faithful wife ordered the replacement part online. But even after the part arrived, it stayed in the box for several weeks. I knew the broken mirror needed to be fixed but I put it off, hesitant to tackle the work. Was it going to be complicated? Did I have all the tools? It would require setting aside time. So for weeks (actually months and months) we drove around with a broken mirror. Honestly, it wasn't very safe. I needed to take action. Finally, last night I did. It did require effort and the proper tools. But it turns out, I had the tools I needed and was able to get it done in short order.

How is this like my life?

I am aware at times there are broken things, deeper or more subtle, that I chose to ignore, avoid or hide. They might have to do with relationships or wounds in my heart. Instead of taking action I brush them aside, sometimes imagining it will be hard, painful or messy to address the situation. Or believing a resolution is impossible. Sometimes, rather than engaging the issue I attempt to patch the brokenness. This usually creates more brokenness. The truth is these broken things, which can be messy, don't fix themselves and they don't just go away. They frequently get worse with time and contribute to a lack of safety in my life and the lives of those around me.

There is another truth: In Christ, I have all that I need to press into the broken things and work to repair them. It takes awareness, intentionality and willingness to risk. There is a hurtful impact for me and others if I leave things broken, if relationships are not reconciled. But there is great reward in stepping into the hard things, trusting God and His gracious provision. He can repair the brokenness and will meet me in the struggle.

Through the gospel of Jesus Christ I have been reconciled to God. He has fixed my spiritual brokenness, given me His righteousness and the power to live in freedom. However, this is still a broken world. I still make a mess of things at times. Which means there is always work to do, messes to be cleaned up, wounds to be healed. And by God's grace I hope to continue bringing these things into the light and working on the broken things.

[If you are looking for a resource on this topic, consider Relationships: A Mess Worth Making.]

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fixer Upper

My wife and I enjoy watching those TV programs about home renovations. I'm always amazed by the big reveal in the end. The before and after scenes depict wonderful transformations. By far our favorite show is Fixer Upper. Chip Gaines strikes me as the sort of guy I would hang out with. His wife Joanna is often flustered by his goofiness. Much like my lovely wife, who also has wonderful design skills and shares the same birthday as "Jo Jo." If I had a dollar for every time I heard, "don't make that goofy face" I could buy one of those amazing houses!

I'm currently reading The Magnolia Story, written by this house-flipping couple. Embedded in this account of how the Gaines' met and grew their business is another story of growth. Chip and Joanna share several incidents about growing awareness as they work through life together. The awareness of unhelpful perfectionism. The Recognition of how early life events shaped future actions and perceptions. The realization that God is often working in small ways amid difficulty even though it is unseen in the moment.

I lived much of my life unaware. Even after I came to faith in Christ, I was unaware of what was really in my heart and why I was often struggling to connect with my wife, my kids, and others. The work I've done with Men At The Cross has been incredibly significant in my spiritual and emotional growth.

You see, I'm a bit of a fixer upper. Sometimes I feel like every day is "demo day" (fans of Fixer Upper will get that!). God is at work renovating my life. I could show you before and after photos, evidence of God's grace in my life. Even though the big reveal is still a ways off, I am thankful for growing awareness and the lessons along the way. I'm even grateful for the messiness of the process.

Yesterday was my birthday - 52 years of ups and downs, good and not-so-great, as well as very difficult. I wouldn't change anything. Its all part of my story. Its not flawless, but it is perfectly me.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Adversity and Grace

One of my favorite Christian authors is Jerry Bridges. His book The Discipline of Grace has been so helpful in my life. The crux of the book is an exhortation to rest in God's unfailing grace, rather than our daily performance. It is here that Bridges introduces the oft repeated insight that a Christian must, "Preach the gospel to himself every day." Through this we remind ourselves that our standing before God is all of grace from start to finish, and every moment in between.

The final chapter is entitled "The Discipline of Adversity." I can only assume the author put this last because adversity and trials are so dreadful. Passages like James 1:2-4 are easy to understand but hard to apply when the tidal wave of hardship has crushed me.

Here are a few of the closing lines from the chapter:

"Learning to live by grace instead of by performance helps us to accept the discipline of adversity. For one thing, we realize that God is not disciplining us because of our bad performance but, on the contrary, because of His love for us. We also learn to accept that whatever our situation is, it is far better than we deserve."

Keep this in mind when you are experiencing suffering or hardship. Wade out into God's "river of grace" and stand there. Let the current wash away your self judgements as it pushes you further into the loving arms of your Heavenly Father. Preach the gospel to yourself and receive this truth: Nothing "will be able separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:39b)


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Lessons From the Broken Road

I started along a broken and bumpy road on January 28. Frankly, I knew this road was on the horizon but never wanted to travel there. It came with a phone call. The voice was calm but the words came like an avalanche, throwing me into a state of shock and despair. My oldest daughter was dead. Her struggle with drug addiction, that had robbed her of so much, had taken her life.The news took my breath away.

There is not enough space here to share everything. But this will be an attempt to share a few things that have been prominent, things I have become aware of, lessons I am learning about myself, about life and loss.

Not Words, but Presence
It has been interesting to talk with friends and family and to hear how we express ourselves when death comes. Words fail. Some try to force words, attempting to manufacture something that will fix the mess or aid the one hurting. Sometimes there are religious platitudes. These words are well intended I know. They rarely help. What is helpful is simply being present. The strength and embrace of another individual, made in the image of God, reflecting His power and love. Talking is fine and I've done much of that too. But the strongest support has come from presence.  I'm a pastor and so I've been on the other side of death. I realize more than ever that being willing to just be with others in their pain is enough. God can use this greatly.

Love is Active and Varied
What our family experienced from dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, was nothing short of remarkable. I lost track of the number of texts, calls, emails, Facebook messages and hugs...big, wonderful hugs joined with tears.  There was food, from unexpected places. Cards filled with heartfelt words of kindness. We received beautiful flowers and plants that will continue to remind us of this outpouring of human compassion. Jesus explained that the "greatest commandment" is to love God completely and to love others selflessly. I've seen that kind of love in action. Honestly, it is that sort of others-centered love that is missing from many parts of the American experience, even in churches. If Christians hope to see our world transformed it will begin with an active, purposeful love. It is the gospel in action and it is has power. I'm not saying the gospel itself is not vitally important. However, authentic love provides the foundation for the gospel to be received. Moreover, it is through loving one another that we demonstrate that we truly are followers of Jesus. At least, that's what He said.

God Works in the Mess
Space on this page limits my ability to fully explain how we have witnessed God at work. Pieces fell into place so that we could travel unhindered to be with family at just the right time. Resources came together from a variety of people to provide for unexpected expenses. Hundreds of people came to the visitation and many stayed 2 hours until the memorial service started. Many who stayed would not likely be compelled to attend a regular church service. They heard the hope-filled message of forgiveness and grace found in Christ. Dozens more who could not attend have watched the service on video. I was enabled by God to stand and preach, from a place of strength and love, to share my heart as well as the gospel. Only eternity will tell of the impact of these events. It was clear to me that God was indeed guiding every aspect of these events.

Addiction is All Around Us
I've seen the ugly face of drug and alcohol addiction. Many of us have. Its sad and often painfully obvious. We can not be silent about these things. Bringing them into the light and under the influence of the gospel is where healing and transformation will take place. Christians must be willing to embrace those who are struggling with addiction with compassion and not condemnation. However, we must also recognize that addiction is all around us and within each and every one of us. Addiction is the desire of our hearts to cling to, rely on, flee to, find satisfaction in anything other than God. Sadly many of us have addictions that are not viewed as ugly and are even encouraged. Addiction can take the form of approval seeking, perfectionism, people pleasing, peace making, achievement and the list goes on. When we embrace these things as a means to satisfaction, affirmation and ultimate joy, they are just like drugs. We are a broken people, all of us. Some are unaware, while others are fighting to keep these things in the dark. It is in the light of God's grace, within safe and loving community, that we will find freedom from all of our addictions. [You can find good and helpful insights about this here.]

Grief is Odd and Unpredictable
In the back of my mind I realize that grief is a process that takes time.  I will not get past this in two weeks. However, I want it to be over and done, neat and tidy. That's not how it works. Even though we all know about it, death takes us by surprise when it comes to our door. There is no "right way" to navigate this road. My experience is unique to me. But I am not alone. There is great comfort and strength in having others supporting me on this journey. I don't know exactly where this road will lead me. But I am confident that God doesn't waste anything. He is with me and He is for me. He is using this hard and painful experience to shape me.

If it were up to me, I would choose a different way. But I'm not God. I'm not in control. So I will trust Him to guide my steps as He continues to teach me.

UPDATE: An expanded version of this post appeared on The Gospel Coalition, here.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Relationships, the Illusion of Connection and Christmas

God has made us for relationship. Humans thrive in good and healthy relationships.  The problem is, because we are all broken, these relationships are often messy - not so good, not so healthy. Therefore, relationships are work.  But its worth the work to cultivate authentic connections with others. This has always been true.

However, with modern technology comes modern challenges.  I spend more time "connecting" through electronic devices than via personal, face to face contact with others.  I send text messages, instead of speaking voice to voice over the telephone. I write emails with a computer, rather than personal letters that have my unique scribbles that those close to me recognize.  I have hundreds of friends that I observe and "connect" with over social media instead of over a cup of coffee.  All of this fosters isolation rather than connection. Have you experienced this illusion of connection that modern technology has created and we have fully embraced?

All of this electronic communication has given us the illusion of connection, when actually it has dulled and stifled genuine relationships.  Even as I am reading the posts of others, commenting on photos and "likeing" articles, I often come away with a growing emptiness.  Since all of these devices save us so much time we should have plenty of opportunity for a cup of coffee, a phone call or dinner around that table with our family.  It takes intentional effort to unplug the electronics and move toward others. I suspect those others in your life are longing for connection with you too.

What's more, when I spend time utilizing electronic devices I am drawn away from the deepest and most meaningful connection of all - the one with God.  (Its even possible for me to read the Word of God on an electronic device. I suppose that's better than not reading it at all.) Somehow all of this media, technology and progress has created an environment buzzing with activity. So much noise!  I think it would be wise for the people of God, the followers of Christ, to set aside the electronics and simply "be still!"  At least I think that would be wise for me. It is in the strengthening of this ultimate relationship with my Heavenly Father that I am enabled to better connect with those around me.

God could have communicated and connected with mankind through a multitude of ways. But He came to us in person.  Jesus came so that we can have a relationship with Him.  God is not a distant, unconcerned force.  He is a personal, loving God - engaged with His creation.  This is the story of Christmas. So in a very real sense, Christmas is about connection.

[I realize the irony of this post given it is communication via a blog and that I'm using an electronic devise and so are you. Shut your device down and go have a real conversation.]