Monday, September 29, 2014

We Need an Oasis

The Little House on the Prairie books and television series capture everyday life in the 1800s on the American frontier.  Laura Ingalls Wilder recorded a lot of the mundane aspects of life--how food was prepared, how clothes were made, how people travelled, how children played.  Few people thought to record such ordinary aspects of life, because they were so obvious.  Everyone knew what toys kids played with.  Why bother to write it down?

We actually have a snapshot of history, thanks to her careful records.  Otherwise forgotten details were preserved.  And it also made for a great TV show.

Today, change happens much faster; we barely remember life without constant access to communication.  Only 20 years ago my family did not even have a cordless phone.  We did have a computer, but no connection to the "information superhighway," this new network that Vice President Gore kept touting.  News reports claimed that some day everyone's home computers could be connected.  Yeah, right.

Back then, traveling meant being out of communication.  Only through letters, phone calls and visits could anyone communicate.  Ever.  People had one phone number for home, one phone number for work.

Now I look back and wonder how I lived without Google accessible every second.  I wonder how I could be so out of touch--no texting, Facebook, Twitter, cell calls.  But somehow I did it.

Even my millennial kids, now 18 and 20, listen with a sense of vicarious nostalgia when I describe the world at the time of their births.  So much has changed in their lifetimes.  People in my generation--I'm 52--seem to have forgotten what life used to be like.  Do we need another Laura Ingalls Wilder to recall life in the late 20th century?

We are so connected now, I wonder if it may be driving us crazy.  Yes, it's annoying at times, but it may really be changing our mental wiring.  Probably not for the better.  Do we ever really unplug?  A nice, long vacation comes with the promise of an overflowing email in-box upon return.  We can prevent that by checking our email throughout vacation; i.e. we can not be on vacation while on vacation.  Is it really worth it?

I heard recently about a company which deactivates its employees' email accounts while they are on vacation.  All the incoming emails just bounce right back to the sender.  After vacation, the employees come back to a clean work slate.  That almost sounds too good to be true.

We need time to think.  We need time to be inaccessible.  We need uninterrupted chunks of time so that we can step back and see what really matters in life.  Twenty years ago we could achieve this solitude with a day trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Now we never experience it, unless our phone battery dies.  Then we rush back to connect at the earliest conceivable moment.  Somehow that seems pitiful to me.

We can be so connected to the moment that we are disconnected from real life.  Somehow we, society, must create significant oases of quiet and stillness, without having a growing pile of stuff waiting to bury us.

The need is real.  We need to capture this before we forget what it was like.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How funny were you?

Yesterday I heard a radio DJ talking about a creative kind of "concert."  There is a troup of daring folks who tour the country hosting events in which they present on stage readings of poetry.  In these events, the performers read their own poetry, written when they were teenagers.  They read their own poetry, or prose, and sing the songs they wrote, and they invite the audience to join them in laughing at themselves.  It sounds like a riot.

To make it more engaging, they invite the audience to bring their own teenage creative works and share them  from the stage.  Every evening presents fresh, raw insights into human nature and the angst of teenage-hood.

I wish I could remember more of my teenage thoughts.  I will have to look through my old journals, dating back to probably age 17; before that, I don't think I wrote down anything but school assignments.  (And some of those make me laugh, too.)  If I did write anything, I'm sure it's a hoot.

In the teen years, everything seems so intense; every turn of events feels like life or death (OK, especially for the girls).  In a few years, those turns of fate look like the turning of the leaves--no big deal, bound to happen.  And we can laugh at ourselves.

So, at the end of our lives, or even in heaven, I wonder what we will look back on and laugh.

I cared about that job?  I wanted to buy that car?  I fretted over that bill?  I let that criticism bother me?  I thought that mistake would wreck my life?  I worried over that tragedy that never happened? I stayed up all night to prepare for that meeting?

I want to go ahead and laugh now.

Monday, September 15, 2014

NFL and Video Truth

The NFL had a tough week last week.  Video was released of Ray Rice cold-cocking his then fiancee in an elevator in February of 2014.  Suddenly, Rice was cut from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the league.

Columnist Leonard Pitts shared some insights about the team's and league's actions.  He notes that the recent video release provided no new information.  Days after the assault, video was released of Rice dragging his woman out of the elevator.  Rice acknowledged that she was unconscious because he had hit her.  The recently released video only gave pictures to Rice's account of the events before the elevator door opened.

The league should have acted earlier, the team should have fired him sooner, etc., etc.  But notice what this chronology of events says about our society.

  • We believe it when we see it.
  • We don't care about evil unless we see it.
  • Words and admission of guilt do not move us to action.
  • Emotions from pictures stir us more than knowledge of wrong.
  • Authorities stand against evil only when they are covering their reputations.

All this suggests that our society does not stand against evil unless it moves us emotionally.  If we can sterilize evil, so that it no longer stirs our emotions, we can easily live with it.

Video cameras are everywhere we go now.  This may be good for justice.  But I wish we did not need a picture to stir our hearts against evil.

Friday, September 12, 2014

ISIS vs. Nazis

Militant Islamists want to take over the world, and they brutally slaughter any who stand in the way.  In the 1930s and 1940s Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan joined ranks to take over the world.  Reluctantly, the U.S. entered WWII after Japan bombed the U.S. military base in Pearl Harbor.  The U.S. rightly stood against the powers of evil sweeping the world.

There are some similarities between ISIS and the Nazis:  brutality, totalitarianism, quest for world domination, indoctrination of young children.  Many believe that we should fight ISIS just as we fought the Nazis.

But ISIS is not exactly like Nazi Germany.  The Germans worked through their existing national government, which Hitler cleverly took charge of.  They conscripted young men to serve in the armed forces and used the power of the government to spread propaganda.  Religion was used by the Nazis only as a tool for the nationalist agenda.  Many religious voices were silenced.  The Nazi quest was a top-down approach, as Der Fuhrer worked his plan.

ISIS is different because it has no single charismatic leader.  A quick Google search of ISIS leaders pulls up no names familiar to me.  There are leaders, but there are many leaders.  The ISIS movement has no formal means of conscription.  This means that their forces are chiefly volunteers.  Which means that their soldiers are true believers.  Unlike Nazi soldiers who merely followed orders, ISIS militants put into action what they truly believe.  ISIS grows from the grassroots.  Pockets of believers may be found in any nation around the globe.  They can be called upon in a moment's notice to work along with the larger evil agenda.  The Nazis had nothing like this.

Militant Islam is much more insidious, and consequently much more dangerous.  Bombs and bullets can stop massive military movements like the current surge in Iraq.  But a more important battle is the the battle for the hearts of people.  So many believe the lie that non-Muslims must be slaughtered, in the name of Allah.  They serve their god by murdering entire villages.

It will take more than the sword to win this growing global conflict.  It will take truth.  It will take bold proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus.  It will take the power of the Spirit of God changing hearts.  It will
take the gospel.  It will take a movement of people who are sold out to the truth, reconciled to God through the cross, and ready to love in the face of hate.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Crooked Sticks and Straight Lines

Some tools are not perfect.  Anyone who works with computers knows this.  Experience has led me to this conclusion:  Technology is great, except for when it is not.  Printers mysteriously go offline; no one knows why.  Browsers and word processors flow like molasses and sometimes reach the solid state, freezing entirely.  One learns to restart the program, then restart the computer.  Our old wireless router became decrepit late in its life.  It had good days and bad days.  It might function perfectly for several consecutive days, then suddenly need rebooting every 10 minutes.  When I replaced it a few weeks ago, I immediately wondered why I waited so long.  Surfing the ’net is now a seamless journey through cyberspace, with no worries about video buffering or interrupted downloads.

Technology is a fickle servant.  I have often wondered how many hours I have spent waiting for my mouse pointer to stop spinning, or for programs to open, or for websites to display.  In those moments, I produce nothing, become frustrated, and further reduce my production capacity.  I could get so much more done if I were not working with such sluggish tools.  I bought a new computer in April, because my laptop became unbearably slow.  It was over four years old, well past middle age in the computer life-cycle.  Work is much more productive when my tools function efficiently.

This same lesson applies in woodworking.  Sharp saws actually cut through boards rather than burning through them.  Healthy batteries make cordless drilling effortless.  Conversely, breaking drill bits can mar the wood and slow the process.  I can work with imperfect tools when necessary—dull blades, weak batteries and breaking drill bits—but nothing beats breezing through a project with good tools.

I pity the person who shows up for work, wondering if the tools will cooperate that day.  When my daughter was ready to get her driver’s license last year, we drove 30 minutes to the DMV.  The clerk there informed us that her computers were down, and she could not help us; she had no idea when the system in Raleigh would be back on line.  All she could do was apologize to everyone who walked in.  We had to drive another hour to get to another DMV office.

Sometimes tools behave as if they have minds of their own.  Not only computers but cars, appliances and audio equipment may seem to choose if they will function.  We use those tools routinely, and work around whatever problems they cause.  We curse them, call them temperamental and may eventually replace them.

Consider that this is the kind of tool that God has to work with.  He chooses to use his people to bring his kingdom.  But we have good days and bad days.  We sometimes choose not to work.  We become dull and run down.  Unlike our tools, God’s tools actually choose whether or not to cooperate.  Amazingly, God uses us imperfect, temperamental, rebellious tools to share his good news through the ages.  Patiently, with us, he builds his kingdom, day by day, person by person.  Though we may be stubborn, hardheaded and defiant, he loves us and advances his kingdom in us and through us.  He accomplishes his purposes, and somehow uses our mistakes and sins in the process.

God can take a crooked stick and draw a straight line.  He knows that we are crooked sticks, and he loves us anyway.  In fact, he cares much more about us than our production.

So, however God is using you, he recognizes your imperfections.  He knows that sometimes you refuse to cooperate.  Sometimes you are more awake than others.  Some motives are more pure than others.  And he fashions the kingdom of God with all us imperfect, fickle tools.  Sometimes he needs to reboot us.  Sometimes he manages around our slowness.  And we are more than tools to him.  We are his dearly loved people, for whom he died.  We are his bride, being made holy, being perfected.  He loves you not for your work, but for who you are. 

If we can accomplish work with our frustrating tools, God can surely use us for his purposes, the work to which he has called us.  He is bringing his kingdom, using us in the process.  Only God could do that.  He doesn’t even get frustrated.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What about ISIS?

The wave of  militant Islam seems to be washing over many parts of the Middle East.  In Iraq, cities are being captured and Christians slaughtered.  Pleas have gone out to Christians in the West to pray and support the persecuted church.

The Arabic letter nun
To call attention to the crisis, many Christ followers on social media have changed their profile pictures to the Arabic letter nun.  According to Wikipedia, militant Islamists spray paint this letter on the houses of Christians who have fled the massacre.

The ISIS surge appears to be the culmination of jihadists' work over many decades to set up a Caliphate, or Muslim empire.  They are seizing the opportune moment.  Thanks to the U.S. military, much of their opposition has been wiped out, and Iraq looks ripe for the picking.

What should be done about ISIS?  The world looks on in horror as the jihadists slaughter all who will not convert.  Naturally Americans look to our government to step in and fix things.  Unfortunately, our past efforts to fix things have contributed significantly to the current mess.  Western interference in the Middle East since World War II has systematically alienated governments in virtually every country.

American foreign policy is such a mess that I don't advocate any military action.  But politicians love wars, and I see no reason they would steer clear of this one.

I am wondering how Christians should respond.  Of course we need to pray.  We need to trust that God can use even horrific events for good.  But we can't hide behind faith to avoid stepping up to help those in need.  After all, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the religious people apparently used their religion to justify their failure to help.

Samaritan's Purse now provides humanitarian aid for refugees, fleeing the atrocities.  The Orthodox Christian Network offers eight suggested ways to help the victims of ISIS, some of which I would endorse.

We can't ignore this historic turn of events in the Middle East.  May God lead his people around the world to stand firm for Christ and step up for one another.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.