Thursday, January 17, 2019

Are You Ready for Lent?

The Christian season of Lent begins on March 6 with Ash Wednesday. I asked my preacher friends yesterday to explain Lent to me.

"It's a way to get ready for Easter." OK, so, why do we need to get ready for Easter? We ask people all December if they are ready for Christmas. We know what that means. (Have you finished your shopping?) But there is no real shopping to do for Easter, so how do we know if we are ready?

Maybe right now, we should be asking, "Are you ready for Lent?"

What is Lent? 
It is a season of about six weeks, leading up to Easter. Technically, it is a 40-day period, not counting Sundays, beginning on Ash Wednesday, ending on Easter Saturday. In the early church, Lent was a time of preparing new converts for baptism. Today, the faithful are encouraged to change their routines for the purpose of self reflection and spiritual growth. The word "Lent" is related to a German word for springtime.

As my pastor cohort shared with enthusiasm, here are some insights about Lent.

Lent is a time of self-denial.
Many Christians choose to fast during these 40 days. People "fast" from certain foods, habits, or any usual activity, for the purpose of heightened spiritual awareness. You take the time of that activity to turn your heart more to Jesus. When you feel the pinch of the thing you are missing, you try to listen to what God is saying.

Lent reminds us of Jesus' 40-day temptation.
Right after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert. There he was tempted by Satan. Of course the devil hit the Lord with his best shots. During Lent, we should notice where we are tempted the most. The devil hits us with his best shots, too, and not just during Lent. When we see where we are tempted, we allow the Lord to turn our lusts and faults into deeper spiritual maturity.

Lent allows us raw honesty.
The whole point of Lent, and especially Ash Wednesday, is admitting that, yes, we are sinners. We spend a lot of time and effort proving to ourselves and others that we are practically perfect. (And nobody really buys it anyway.) Lent requires us to acknowledge that we are so far from perfect. We need a Savior. We need grace. We need Jesus. It's humbling, maybe humiliating, and we need that.

Lent yields insights into the value of our trials.
We all have sins that we keep returning to. God uses those very struggles to make us more like himself. It is through the struggle with sin that God matures us. As we focus on our own personal struggle with sin, we realize where we would be without the grace of Christ. Ironically, God takes those very things that trip us up, and uses them to build us up--when we confess them, seek his forgiveness, and live through his power.

In Lent, we join with the larger movement of Christ.
All around the world, Christians celebrate the season of Lent. This is something we do together. We share it with our own community of faith and with believers in every continent. We also join in the movement of Christ through the ages. Millions of Christ followers have taken this season to deny themselves and tune in to the Spirit of God.

So I need to get ready for Lent. What will I give up? How will I change my routine so that I tune in to God's voice? I sure need to hear him.

[Special thanks to Leon Morrow, Yvette Morrow, Alan Mears, Ashley Thomas, and Wanda Lancaster for helping to educate me.]

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Kudzu is Like Sin

Kudzu is like sin.
It takes over faster than you expect.
It is difficult to eradicate.
It may appear dead in some seasons.
It must be killed at the root.
It won't start growing in a healthy environment, like the shade of trees.
But it can easily climb up and swallow everything around it.

I was distressed today as I walked through my tree farm to see how severely the vine has taken over.

And I need to watch out for sin, too. The cross of Jesus takes care of my sin, and he eradicates it from my heart. That is painful, but effective.

I need to find that effective way to kill kudzu.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Forgiving Reality for Everything

Forgiveness lifts a burden from us. Maybe you have experienced the freedom of forgiving someone, even someone who didn't deserve it. Many times forgiveness is not deserved, but it can be given anyway. (Richard Rohr's ideas in What the Mystics Know have challenged me.)

Sometimes we are angry, not at a person, but at a situation or a circumstance--a slow driver, a car repair, bad weather, a missed opportunity.

Many have noted that life is not fair.

But have you ever forgiven life for not being fair?

Instead of holding onto bad feelings about whatever it is, you can just forgive everything and everyone. No longer holding reality accountable for being against us can give lots of freedom.

It might even contribute to happiness.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Your Brain is a Puzzle

Puzzles are puzzling. Some puzzles just take lots of time and effort: a jigsaw puzzle when you have to try every remaining piece in that one spot. Other puzzles take a lot of time, time that seems fruitless, until suddenly your make the right move and voilà, the puzzle is solved. It's like that puzzle with two bent nails linked together. It seems like they can't quite come apart. You are tempted to get a vice and a hammer to make them come apart.

But long after you have tried every possible twist and orientation, suddenly, effortlessly, the nails slip easily apart. What could never be done gets done, and you hold the two nails in separate hands. It was that special combination of finesse and gentleness that broke the code. It almost feels magical. You wonder why it ever took you so long to make that obvious move and solve the puzzle.

Your brain is a puzzle. The way you think--your understanding of life and humanity--is missing something. Many somethings. And there is a key to breaking through to real understanding, solving that puzzle of your mind. Logic doesn't help much. Passionate arguments are no good.

The key to solving your brain's puzzle is story. Stories are predictable. I know this from watching my wife watch Hallmark movies. You know who the good guy is. You know what the resolution will be. And you are entertained as the story surprises you on the way to the predictable ending.

But the stories that unlock the puzzle of your brain are different. In these unlocking stories, as the narrative unfolds, you know what is going to happen, you predict the outcome. Only it turns out that you are wrong. It doesn't play out like it's "supposed" to. Your heart is invested in this obvious outcome, and then you are wrong. You have to stop and think, "Wait. Now...what?"

In this off-balance moment, your mind and heart are open to truth. The truth sneaks up on you. It's the gentle move of the nail puzzle that pulls things apart so you can really see. It makes sense of what you knew could not be true. Suddenly you have insights that you never had before, about yourself, about your relationships, about other people, about life. Now you get it.

These stories are called "parables." Jesus tells lots of them. For many of us, our problem is that we know the stories so well that the surprises are all gone. We know how the stories end. We hear them like a Hallmark movie plot. Which means that we probably don't get them at all. If it's just a story to you without a punchline, then you probably are missing the whole point.

Some people say they get the joke, when you know they don't. All too often that's me hearing the parables. I say I get it when I really don't.

Wait. Now...what?

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Cure for the Cluttered Soul

When we get all those Christmas presents, we need time to absorb them. Clothes find a spot in the closet or drawers. Gadgets get plugged in or stored in cabinets. If you don't get those things in their proper place, you can get disorganized.

When we move, we pack everything up in boxes, truck it all to our new home, and find a place for the contents in the new place. Sometimes we live in chaos for months, until we process all that stuff. The clutter makes life feel scattered.

When we fly on airplanes, every person and suitcase goes through a central processing area, the air terminal. It all gets sorted out, people and luggage go where they should. Well, it's supposed to work that way. When it gets fouled up, it causes problems.

We understand the importance of a clearinghouse for stuff. It needs to get processed, organized, put in place.

There are also non-physical kinds of stuff. We all experience stuff: joys, challenges, accomplishments, injuries, insults, hardships, disappointments, improvements, illnesses, betrayals. Sometimes we receive these experiences; sometimes we give them to others.

Where does this stuff go? Into the soul. It just piles up there until we process it. Whatever is not processed contributes to clutter and chaos. Ever felt like there was clutter in your soul?

Catholic thinker Richard Rohr says, "Contemplation is the 'divine therapy' and the clearinghouse for the soul." He further defines contemplation as, "the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of this world." (What the Mystics Know, p. 79)

When my soul is cluttered, I need to process. I need to contemplate. I need the space to put it all in place. Seeking God puts it all into perspective.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Shutdown Collateral Damage

As the U.S. government shutdown extends into record territory, we see more clearly what motivates the politicians who have led us into this impasse. Both sides are digging in, declaring their resolve never to give in.

We now know that Republican leaders have decided that America wants a wall all across its southern border. The security threat is so severe that only a barrier against Mexico can solve the problem. Never mind that many Americans vehemently oppose the wall. Never mind that most terrorists enter the country through airports. This is too important to give an inch on.

We also know that Democrats have never wanted any part of any wall. Except that they did. They are on record calling for improved border security, including some sort of physical barrier with Mexico. But now, this issue is too important to give an inch on.

Meanwhile ordinary citizens are caught in the crossfire. Federal workers have no paychecks. Parks are closed. Those who rely on government assistance may not have enough to eat. I talked to several people today who live on the edge, and they are worried about the shutdown. To them it means more than political points. It means food on the table and a roof over their heads.

So our leaders stand firmly on principle. The principle is stubbornness, inflexibility, or sticking it to the opposition. If a few people have to default on loans, go hungry, or wait for life's necessities, well, that's a price that politicians are willing to pay.

And this is our government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."
May God have mercy.

Friday, January 11, 2019

What New Year's Resolutions Say About Us

We have 10 days of 2019 in the books now. Some of us have already given up on our resolutions. Some of us gave up on resolutions years ago, resolving not to make them anymore.

You can give up on resolutions, and you can just give up.

There's probably a psychological term for those who give up on life. Maybe it's depression. But for most people, giving up is not an option. Even if they give up on New Year's resolutions, they don't give up on pursuing change.

New Year's resolutions tell us so much:
We believe we can do better.
We long for something more.
We are willing to work for a better future.
We can do more with this thing called life.
We can make a difference in the world.
We can put our gifts and abilities to work.
We can contribute to humanity.
There is always room for improvement.
We have not arrived.

Whether you have made, broken, or forsaken resolutions, don't give up hope.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Apple's Core Problem

News of Apple's declining sales sent a shutter through Wall Street recently. It turns out that, at some point, people don't want to buy new cell phones. The cell phone market is saturated. The latest bells and whistles on the pocket devices are not enough to entice consumers to get new phones.

There actually is a limit to business growth. The plan to increase sales volume every year eventually won't work. There are only so many people on this planet. In 2017, 1.5 billion cell phones were purchased. The earth's population is only 7.7 billion, and that includes infants and children. The marketing of cell phones has to be one of history's biggest successes in business. But it can't keep growing.

But sales of any non-consumable product cannot increase forever. Maybe it just surprised everyone that the limit was actually reached. The realm of manufacturing, sales, and distribution has limits. New markets are not infinite.

The systems of this world have natural limits.

For the one whom God has sent [Jesus] speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. --John 3:34

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Solar Panel Freedom

In the 1880s there was a debate, nearly a feud, about the form of electricity to be used in American cities. Thomas Edison advocated the use of direct current (DC), while Nicola Tesla favored alternating current (AC). Obviously the AC team won the debate. This is the form of current that you get from a standard electrical outlet.

If Edison had won, then we would have no "electrical power grid," as we currently have. Because DC cannot be carried over long distances, we would have thousands of community power stations dotting the landscape. Some would be hydroelectric, some would be coal burning, some would use other power sources. Just like a community well provides water to a subdivision, a community generator would produce power for a small locality.

And it would be much more realistic to produce your own electricity at home. If your lights and appliances ran on DC, you could hook up your own solar panels, charge your own batteries, and power your home with complete independence. Even now you could power your AC appliances with a battery and a power inverter.

So why did we opt for AC? It's more dangerous, more difficult to generate, and requires massive infrastructure. (Of course solar power generation was not an option in the 1880s.) I have not researched the details of the 1880s debate, but here's what I think. The alternating current model for an electrified society provided more profit for industry and more control for power brokers (in both senses of the term). Centralized production and distribution of electricity was a golden opportunity for waiting to be seized. 

Politicians could regulate the industry, and industrialists could build the money-making apparatus. 

There would be little profit in small community generating stations. There would be virtually no profit in home-based power generation. And so here we are with a continental power grid, that is so interdependent that we have concerns about national security.

I think I prefer solar panel freedom.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Fun and Football

I watched most of the college football championship last night. I was pulling for the Clemson Tigers, having some friends and relatives who are alumni.

I noticed a considerable contrast between the coaches, Nick Saban of Alabama and Dabo Swinney of Clemson.

For Saban, football looks like all business. You don't take it too lightly or you might lose focus. You take it seriously, drill, work, plan, strategize and win. You win so that you can play in the NFL, make big money, and leave a legacy of success. You can't take your eyes off the prize, or you won't succeed. When Alabama does well, Saban looks just as sour as when they lose. Football is a business.

Swinney, on the other hand, lives his emotions all along the sideline. He cheers at first downs and touch downs. He mourns turnovers and blown coverage. He high-fives, and leaps. For Swinney, football needs to be fun. It's full of emotion and joy, as well as discipline and study. Football is a game.

I expect that there is more joy in losing at Clemson than there is at Alabama with a perfect season. Business is business. Football is serious business. Fun is frivolous.

It seems to me that Swinney keeps football in perspective. It is a game. It can be fun.

I need to keep that in mind when I take myself too seriously. In the midst of even hardship, I can choose to be joyful. Life can be serious, but it doesn't have to be a drag. It's not just about my production, it's about my living.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Policing the World

America has 294 foreign embassies, in all but four countries around the world. By some estimates there are more than 40 armed conflicts globally. And the U.S. has picked winners in virtually all these conflicts. We offer foreign aid, influence government policies, and bring in soldiers. We want to promote freedom, human rights, democracy, and free markets.

We have enough resources to exert huge influence. And we use it.

But that influence might not always be the best. We could actually use our influence to benefit ourselves rather than other countries. ("America first.") We could be mistaken about what would be beneficial to other countries. We might not actually understand all the political, social, cultural or economic dynamics involved in other regions.

While we should help the world to be a better place, we may be overzealous in our desire to shape the world. Being the world's police is a heavy responsibility. Probably more than one country can manage.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Gift of Losing

Thanks, Panthers. I have more discretionary time and emotional bandwidth this January than I might have had. It turns out that I don't really care about any of the teams left in the NFL playoffs. I can catch up on reading and watching Netflix.

I'm actually thinking more carefully about how much of my life I pour into watching sports. It can be entertaining, and it's always fun to talk with folks about the big games. But as I think about the big scheme of life, I realize that sports needs to be like any other form of entertainment. It's just a fun diversion.

And, thanks to all the losing teams, I can casually watch some football, here and there, without really caring about who wins.

By the way, I can't believe that Chicago just binked another field goal off the upright.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Keep it SImple

What do you overcomplicate?
Driving directions?
Gift giving?
Your addictions?
Ordinary purchases?

Access to information can be helpful. But it can also make stuff too complicated.

I routinely read food labels. Mostly I look for the ingredients. When they get too scientific, I get suspicious. I like to eat the chips whose ingredients are corn, vegetable oil, salt. Yep, that's simple. I don't have to worry about chemical properties or side effects.

When things get complicated, there is too much that can go wrong. We get lost in the details and miss the point.

Where have you gotten lost in life? Where do you feel like you have gone wrong? Maybe you are overcomplicating things. Boil it down. What's it really about? 

Keep it simple. Like food, the simple stuff may be better for you.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Facebook Love and Hate

Yes, I've been sucked in to reading just a few more posts on Facebook. It takes willpower to click away. Of course the younger folks have long ago abandoned FB. When old people like me got on board, well, FB became passé. They like Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms that I don't even know about.

But back to Facebook. I have this deep ambivalence about using it. I feel somewhat accomplished when I go a whole day or more without checking my feed. I feel like I'm more hip, like all the young people. (But I almost never check my Instagram account because, frankly, I just don't get it. It seems much more like a waste of time to me than FB.)

I feel like I have conquered the addiction when I close out that FB tab. Ha ha! I escaped!

But then, I like to know what's happening with friends. I like to see if they have kids or grandkids to be proud of. I like to see when young folks graduate or get engaged. I like to keep up with the news, even sad news, and often follow up when I learn something on FB. I do try to scroll on by the cute kitten videos. Way too many of those.

When it comes to my own posts, of COURSE I like to be liked. I like to be noticed. I like for people to make the extraordinary effort of clicking a button below my picture. Talk about affirmation! But I feel guilty for checking up on my likes. Why do I care so much about other people's approval? Shouldn't I be above all that?

And how engaged should I really be here? Do I want to saturate FB with pictures of every bite of every meal? Or do I want to be a stalker who never posts, rarely likes others' posts?

And then there's the threat of FB (and all the other FAANG firms) knowing soooo much about me. They think they know all about my buying habits. Sometimes they actually get it right. But I like to keep them guessing. Take that you vicious algorithm!

So, for me, there is both love and hate of Facebook. I just don't want to be controlled by some computer. My New Year's resolution about Facebook? Don't really have one. I'll just keep on loving and hating.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Eye Contact with God

May the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.

This is from the blessing God commanded Aaron to pronounce upon the people of Israel (Numbers 6:24-26). God wants to bless his people. He shines his face upon us.

Sadly, most of us miss it most of the time. The psalmist speaks of "seeking God's face" (Psalm 27:8). He acknowledges that he needs to tune in to the gaze of God.

If God is looking at me, then I can look at him in return. 

Sometimes eye contact, in human interactions, can be embarrassing or awkward. To look deeply into someone's eyes allows you to get a glimpse into his or her soul. Most often we look away from a person who stares at us. We don't want to be known.

When lovers look into each other's eyes, it brings such a deep connection of knowing. It is a profound expression of love. It fuses vulnerability with joy.

Making eye contact with God is more difficult than I imagined. When I try to return his loving gaze, I am easily distracted. I turn my spirit's gaze away from him. I'm not sure why. Only with effort can I keep my gaze on him, and thereby receive the warmth of his face shining on me.

The radiance of his eyes soothes me, calms me, reassures me, transforms me. I receive his love. He makes me new. He makes me more like himself.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Hip Words

Sometimes I pause to think about all the new words and terms that float around our conversations. I'm sure I'm way behind, but there are tons of phrases that weren't "a thing" just a few years ago.

binge watching
a thing
smart speaker
road rage
active shooter

Will these words stick around, or will they fall out of usage, like "forsooth," or "wherefore"?

Language keeps on changing. Someone once said that language is like a river: you can't stop it, or it stops being a river. I'm getting old enough now to see the flow.

Peace out.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year's Fuel

We are telling everyone, "Happy New Year.". Of course we want the new year to be good for our friends and family.

We have this sense of anticipation and expectation with the turning of the calendar. Why is that? Where does this sense of excitement come from?

  • We like a fresh start.
  • We can put our failures behind us.
  • We look at fresh calendars and sense the opportunities.
  • It's like a reboot.
  • God's mercies are new every morning. Maybe we only give mercy to ourselves once a year.
  • We have a new mindset, inspired by parties and resolutions.
  • Hope fuels the human spirit.

That's it. The new year reminds us that there is hope.

Feel the hope.

Happy New Year.