Life in Living Color

 

After reading Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, an eye-opening read on how our brain’s are being hard-wired by distraction for shorter attention spans (and what to do about it), I decided to “quit social media” for a while. I went about eight weeks with no Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. At first, it made me fidget every time I had a spare moment. What was I supposed to do at the stoplight?? But in the end I found it very liberating.

Obviously, you probably found this post by clicking a link on social media, so I do still have somewhat of a presence on social media, mostly so I can share blog posts. But my experiment has left quite an impression on me, one which still has me “surviving” without Facebook, Twitter or Instagram apps on my phone. I find that these apps (and sites in general) are real time suckers which add little to no value to my life.

I have found that the absence of Instagram has been especially interesting. First, I don’t have to risk thumb arthritis scrolling the endless tripe of throw-away photos from people I barely know. But I’ve noticed that when I’m not preoccupied looking at scenes through my phone’s screen, I stand out. I took a walk on the beach the other day and saw an incredible contrast between those who were trying to get a picture to post and those who just…walked and enjoyed themselves.

I think, in our obsession with pocket photography we’ve devalued the photograph. It used to be a monumental family event to “get our pictures taken” at holidays. I would hate to be a photographer these days, simply because EVERYONE thinks they know how to take great pictures because they know how to apply a filter on Instagram (not even close).

Here’s what’s tragic: When we make every moment an “Insta-moment,” things that are meaningless are exploited as if they have meaning, leaving us really confused. We start to think that everything is important, which means nothing is. I hate to break it to you, but your burrito isn’t that awesome; Your hair is just as good as it was yesterday; That shirt you are so proud of today will be hated tomorrow. And why should I care that you got a pedicure?

Not only are un-important things deemed important, things that are meaningful are exploited as if they are only useful for getting attention.  We immediately cash out the value of a moment by throwing it onto a self-glorifying web page. How many meaningful moments have you missed by framing the right shot on your camera? Have you just sat and taken in the deliciousness of your steak instead of pausing while it cools to share with the world that you’re “having a great time”? Have we lost the ability to just enjoy things?  What if you just told people what you had for dinner?

I was recently at a conference where some “famous” pastors spoke. After each session, several people lined up to meet and talk to the speaker and to (I hope) share how his message or ministry was especially impactful. I usually avoid these lines because I know that, if I were that guy, I’d probably be exhausted and hoping the line would end so I could go get some dinner.  But because particular speaker has made quite an impact on me, I decided to wait in line to shake his hand and thank him for what God has done through him. Do you know what almost every person in front of me asked to take a picture with him?

Now I’m not trying to assume a bad motivation on their part or a superiority on my part because I didn’t take a picture. But don’t you think it makes that brother feel a little more like an artifact than a person, like a tourist destination or famous building? If I visit the Washington Monument or the Eiffel Tower I may take my picture in front to show that I was there. But don’t you think that meeting a person should be about more than who will be impressed or envious that you shook their hand? Isn’t it more about getting face to face and having a real interaction with another human? A sincere “Thank you” or a thoughtful question seems like a great way to honor that person and get to see a deeper level of who they are. All a picture gets you is a few likes and comments from people who barely care and won’t remember that it happened in ten minutes.

I guess what I’m getting at is that, in addition to sucking away our attention and stealing our enjoyment, our social media obsession can make us forget our humanity. It can make our brains think that connection is about likes and photos and not about words, hugs, listening, smiles and all the things that only us humans can do when we are face to face. You are not a machine, and your life consists of more than the digital inputs and outputs across however many hundreds of wires and servers.

I dare you to take a risk and start to enjoy the steaks, sunsets and smiles on a soul level. Start slow, and see what happens when real light breaks through.

(If you want to watch a Tedx talk from Cal Newport on this subject, click here)

The New Illiteracy

6a00d83451d81c69e2016303b25796970d-400wiIn the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant reformers turned the tide of Christianity.
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others boldly stood up and spoke out to influence change in the way the Christian church operated. One of the complaints of the reformers was that people who attended worship didn’t understand anything happening in the service. At that time the Catholic mass was in Latin, so unless you spoke Latin (and hardly anyone did outside of the clergy), you were there to basically observe the worship events and receive a vaguely understood “blessing” of some kind.

If you know any church history, you know that many of these errors were corrected through the translation of the mass, the Scripture and the songs into the vernacular language of the people. These reformation efforts have resulted in several centuries of people coming to church and at least having the ability to understand (access) what was going on.

Historians please forgive me: I am painting with very broad strokes for the sake of time. But here is my point: I believe that we are once again, like the reformers, living in a time of what I will call a “new illiteracy.” We have some work to do to overcome this obstacle.

 

Many evangelical churches operate on this assumption: people are repulsed by religious language and religious tradition that they do not understand; thus we must formulate our ministry and programs around what they can understand. This of course comes from a wonderful desire to make church accessible, and it is a work that must be done. Christian worship must be contextual to be effective. But, like any good thing, we can go too far. When taken the extreme, this desire to “meet your audience” results in what has been called the “attractional” or “seeker” model of ministry. While there are many denominations that have been formed around this approach, much of the church in America has been affected.

For example, I have attended many churches with services like this: you walk in to a worship space and there are some announcements on screens or music in the room; there is a song set sung about/to a certain “you” and “your love” and how it “never lets go;” more announcements; a forty minute “talk” about how to live a better life as a parent/citizen/worker; prayer and offering; dismissal (“have a great week!”).

I am at risk of sounding overly critical here, but this is not my intent. I do not mean to disrespect or discredit my fellow laborers in the ministry of the gospel. There are many positive traits to this style of ministry and many who have come to faith as a result. My criticism is meant to identify an assumption that is being made in this model.

Perhaps a limited analogy will help: Let’s say ministers are math teachers. If we assume students don’t like math but are still forced to come to math class, our job as math teachers would be to make math more interesting, more applicable to the lives of our students (so far so good). But if we stop talking about addition, subtraction, equations and fractions, hoping our students will pick up math skills by osmosis, we start running into trouble.

Back to ministry now. Should we assume that people know who this “you” is that we are talking about and singing about or that they will eventually figure it out? Can we assume that people understand why this group has gathered in this place, or what it means to follow Christ as a disciple? I’m not sure they do.

I fear that, just as in the time of the reformers,  church-goers do two simple things: they come to observe what is happening (the production) and to receive a blessing of some kind (this blessing may be a piece of advice on how to be better at “x,” or a positive feeling as a result of the experience. This is evident by the common post-church conversation, “what did you get out of it?”).
People need to have the gospel intelligently told to them, the story of God who creates, redeems and recreates the world (and the entire cosmos), in a language they understand (their context). If that’s not happening, we in ministry shouldn’t feel like we are succeeding, no matter how many people show up.

As America becomes an increasingly secular society, it seems clear to me that what is needed is not less of the language and ritual that makes Christian worship distinct, but more of it–a LOT more.

When we gather for worship, people need to understand why we are here – that God has made us a people in Christ and we gather as a response to his call and command. People need to know who this “You” is in the songs that shows us love and accepts us as we are, that it is none other that the Triune God of the Bible – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and that this love that He has shown came through a brutal and tortuous cross that killed God’s only Son. People need to know that they have a part to play in this gathering, in the telling and unfolding of this great story, and that when they leave they aren’t simply scattering to random places to “do their thing,” but are actually sent out by God to do his work in the world. How will they know unless we tell them? We need to say the why, the what and the who, and we need to say it over, and over, and over again.

I am not an advocate for returning to religious abuses or empty tradition. But we are living in a time of rampant and increasing illiteracy to the things of God. Not to mention that as Christians we are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” and need to be reminded of these things just as much as the next person. My prayer is that as ministers we are diligent to KNOW the Story and TELL the Story as we gather to DO the Story in worship.

The Passive Pop-Culture Male

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I’m going to divert briefly from the typical format of theological reflection so I can rant a little bit on something I’ve had in my craw for sometime. Don’t be scared.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy listening to country music now and then. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to anything resembling country, but alas times have changed. I enjoy (some artists’) country music because it tends to be heartfelt, nostalgic, and story based. I like a good story, and I like celebrating the ordinary, everyday things in life that give you joy.

In some of the recent songs I have noticed a trend that’s a little troubling (although not really surprising). There seems to be a rise in songs that celebrate men who want a woman to sweep in and lead them, call all the shots, and basically initiate all aspects of the relationship. I won’t give any examples but maybe you’ve heard one or two of these radio hits. Even though these relationships are typically shallow and superficial, this is a troubling shift because it represents an issue that I see spiraling out of control in the wider culture, something I like to call “baby-man syndrome.”

 

You know you’re getting older when you start looking at the teenagers around you and think “man, they don’t know how good they have it!” This isn’t quite the “back in my day we walked barefoot in the snow” sentiment of yesteryear, but you may be able to relate to your crazy uncle a little better as you age and take a look around. The teens of today are smartphone carrying, new car “owning” wannabe adults, oftentimes with an attitude. All the rights and privileges of adult life are handed to these humans without the mental or emotional capacity to handle them properly. This false sense of maturity is ironic because as a nation we see the age of  “growing up” is getting older and older. Kids staying home with mom and dad well into their thirties, unable (or unwilling?) to get jobs, many expecting to have an upper middle-class lifestyle handed to them without doing the work. This plays right into the man in the songs.

I’m not trying to pick on these artists. As I said, the songs only highlight the underlying problem. See, men who want nothing more than for a woman to come in and take them by the hand and sweep them away into some pseudo-romantic sexual fantasy are doing just that–living in a fantasy. These songs make it sound so magical and romantic, but in reality it sounds a lot like a celebration of laziness. I wonder if women are listening to these messages and thinking, “Mmm, that sounds great! I’d love to do all the work!” If I had to guess, I’d say no way. You can call me old fashioned if you want, but I just don’t think that God designed us that way.

My understanding of how God made men is that we are to be leaders. We carry responsibility to make decisions, set vision, be the protectors and leaders of our families. We do the hard things in order to be servants to the ones we love. My (limited) understanding of women is that they want to be led by the right kind of man, to be treasured, loved, and chased. When women do too much of the chasing you sir are in big trouble. This doesn’t mean that men have license to oppress or take advantage or are somehow better than women. But we have a big responsibility to love like Christ loved, which as we know means to give it everything.

Now I don’t plan to boycott the radio or start listening to only instrumental elevator music. I just think it might be helpful for some of us to be aware of the subtle messages that are coming our way and could affect our worldview. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that waiting around for someone else to do all the work for you is a good idea. It’s not.

It doesn’t matter if you are single or married, take my advice: man up and lead. Take that girl on a journey that assures her that you’ve got her best in mind, that you want her and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to win her heart. Then do that over and over again. And please, somebody out there write some songs about being a godly leader. You can still talk about trucks, beer, fields of corn and all the rest if you want, but there’s a lot of people out there who need to know that it’s still ok for a guy to chase a girl. That might just be a little bit closer to what God intended.