Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

A number of years ago I was riding around the country roads of rural South Dakota near my in-laws’ farm on a four wheeler with my two young kids. We were exploring the countryside, stopping to throw rocks off of low bridges into muddy brown creeks, tracing the arc of a soaring hawk and occasionally, pulling into abandoned farm yards to poke around. There are always surprises to find, history to discover and a story to be told in a leaning barn or crumbling house.  Up one such driveway we found an abandoned home that was still standing, albeit open to the elements from every broken window and dangling door. Like so many of its kind, after the residents moved out, the house became a sort of storage shed, a place to put the things someone didn’t really want around but couldn’t bring themself to throw away. And like so many makeshift storage units, the contents were soon forgotten, overrun by rats and raccoons and the decay of time.  

As we climbed the broken down steps onto the front porch and gazed through the doorway with its screen door clinging crookedly by a single remaining hinge, we wondered about the family that had lived here. How long had they been gone?  Why did they leave? And who dumped the enormous pile of clothes and pots and pans and other household items in the middle of the floor of the kitchen. It looked like a bomb had gone off on moving day.  We stepped inside tentatively, aware that at any moment we might disturb a sleeping raccoon or some other animal that we might not really want to meet. The place was a moldy mess and yet the story of the family that had once lived there still hung in bits and pieces around us. A calendar on the wall, brittle with age, carried in its days the happenings of their weeks. A shelf with a few books destroyed by the rain that poured through a hole in the roof gave hints of their interests – gardening, faith, western novels. The colors of the carpet and curtains – had we been from an older generation – would have inevitably told of the decade they were installed.

It was mostly the tale of the decay and the kids were keen to leave before we stumbled onto something that might bite us. One last look around though revealed something worth exploring several feet from the open doorway. On top of an old heater unit in the living room sat a small, white diary. The cover was embossed with the year, 1969, and inside were page after page of the weekly doings of this family, recorded religiously in the small space for each day of the week. Sundays were nearly always spent at church in the “forenoon”, winter days were regularly accompanied by a note about the temperature – February 3rd hit a low of 12 below and was cloudy – and there were matter of fact notes about the farm chores that were completed on the particular day – January 28th – “Butchered drake (duck)”.  

It all seemed rather normal except for one thing: every week this family would either visit or receive visits from neighbors. Sometimes two and three times a week – almost always in the evenings – there were social visits being made. Community was an ever present part of this family’s life. To my modern experience this seemed odd. Not odd in the crazy uncle sort of way but rather, odd in that we just don’t live like that anymore. We text our friends a few times a week at best but we don’t spend time together, not like they did.  

Something has changed. Something drastic really.  I can find pictures and stories in the archives of any small town newspaper of Saturday nights where hundreds of neighbors showed up on Main street to visit and dance and share life together.  Boys gathered over bottles of Coca Cola to talk about the Yankees and school and girls. Ladies shared recipes and stories and prayers for their children. Men complained about the weather, argued about politics and discussed last week’s sermon. We talk of our small towns as “communities” because they truly used to be communities, places where people regularly “communed”.  We ought perhaps to find a new word to use to describe our communities.  

So what happened?  What changed that the average evening for the average American now looks like a face in front of a screen rather than a face to face? Social anthropologists could probably explain what happened with studies and stats but I think the main thing that happened was the screen itself. It started perhaps with the television but has evolved so that our innate narcissistic tendencies are now fed wall to wall entertainment. Who needs community when there is Netflix?  

A few things should be noted in this. First, we accepted this reality without a moment’s hesitation or reflection on what it might actually do to us. We were like the proverbial frog in the pot of water set to boil. We swallowed the television whole hog and then the Internet in our homes and then in our pockets and on our wrists. We occasionally lament the content – violence in the video games and porn on the smartphone in the average teen’s pocket – but we do very little about it. Second, the content is not nearly as destructive as the medium itself.  Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, warned us before the Internet had even hit the screen. 

No one listened. 

Every medium used to communicate information, every system used to accomplish a desired goal has both intended and unintended consequences. They create behaviors. They shape our lives in ways we rarely expect. By the time we recognize the problems, it’s often too late.

And so television brought entertainment into our living rooms.  It brought the news of the world into our homes. We could know about almost any topic with television and even more with the advent of the cable networks and virtually everything with Google. But while we are solving problems in our world faster than ever (a positive outcome) we are also creating problems at an alarming rate and we are increasingly, all alone.  We have traded the birthright of community for a bowl of entertainment.  We get to see every move (or Tweet) our politicians make and yet it’s all sound bites and entertainment.  Our compassion for the downtrodden refugees of war is replaced with outrage over a politician’s missteps which is forgotten with a football player’s improprieties.  And this all happens in the course of any given day.  The next day we start all over.

Television and now the Internet has changed the way we interact with our world.  We can argue over the scale of the benefits and problems that have come with that, but we must all agree that it has changed our society.  The way we communicate, the way we interact, the way we learn and grow and disagree have all been changed.  The medium, not the content, is responsible for that change.  

The system is creating us anew.

I write all of this, not to merely warn against the unintended consequences of television and the Internet. You can read Postman for that and I’d encourage you to do so soon. I certainly need to reread it for I too often find myself endlessly scrolling Facebook rather than gathering with friends and family.

I also ask these questions because if it is true that the mediums of communication and the systems of life we have adapted shape the ways in which we interact, learn, and live, then we would do well to pause and reflect on all the ways this plays into the forming of our lives in other areas.

What about the systems we’ve adopted for education at schools, and religious formation at churches has created unintended consequences?  Why do we produce so few lifelong learners through our educational systems?  Why do so many churches create consumer driven Christians?  What about the mediums and systems we’ve adapted for school and church lead to these outcomes?

These are questions that I hope our next generations will do better at reflecting on than my generation has? 

Our future probably depends on it.

Photo Credit

Waiting in the Terminal

Waiting in the Terminal

For the second time in three weeks, my late night flight home has been delayed. I’m not sure if it’s me or Delta, but tonight’s already late flight – 10:35 pm – has been delayed until 12:45 am. I’ll pull into the house around 3:00 am if I’m lucky.

G.K. Chesterton said that, “An inconvenience is just an adventure wrongly considered. An adventure is just an inconvenience rightly considered.” I’m looking for the adventure in the evening. They’re giving away free snacks and water and I’ve grazed liberally. I’ve cued up Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight” to play as I walk down the jetway to the plane.

Jesus encourages us to not worry about tomorrow, that tomorrow has enough worries for itself. It seems the older I get and the more life experience I gain and the more I learn to live with a radical trust that God has my best interest in mind in all things – even delays at the airport – the easier it becomes to live in tune with Jesus’ teaching on worry.

It will all work out. God is for me. He’s for us.

Wandering Through the Sea of Fog

Wandering Through the Sea of Fog

The wind howls through the trees outside our living room window and the thermometer has dropped to negative two degrees and it’s not done yet. It is winter proper here in South Dakota and we’re experiencing one of our first true snow storms of a fairly mild winter. We watched a movie tonight as a family and now, the girls write letters as I type out a few thoughts bouncing around in my head.

I wonder sometimes what it must have been like to endure winter before electricity, before all the modern conveniences that tempt us to disregard the rhythms of nature. When the sun went down early, the work day came to a close as families headed inside to be together – there were no other options. It was a forced pause that lasted months. Nature forced sabbath rest upon us whether we wanted it or not. Now we rush through winter like the rest of the year, wall to wall busyness with hardly a moment to rest. It seems we have perhaps allowed something important, essential even, to be stolen and we’ve not put up much of a fight. Tonight at least, I’m enjoying the pause.

Casper David Friedrich’s painting, “The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” has captured my attention these last few months. I first saw it in book I finished in December, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. The book was interesting and quite good, but the painting seemed to capture something of how I’ve felt in this particular stage of my life. I’m 48 and I’m in between. My oldest is in his last year of high school. and preparing to launch. I’m at the age where we begin transitioning on from those we love – those both older and younger are moving into new homes – some to heaven where life is as full and good as it can possibly be, and some to new beginnings, to new lives and new dreams and new adventures. It is a time that is filled with joy and sadness, excitement and fear. The mountain climber is both the center of the painting at the top of the world and also utterly insignificant amidst the landscape rolling away in every direction as far as the eye can see. Some aspects of the landscape are clear and distinct; others shrouded in fog. Is it analogous to life? Filled with hope and yet shrouded in mystery. Important and insignificant. What will the next years hold? Where will we be three years from now when both kids have moved out of the house? For them and for us there is the potential and excitement of the next thing and yet that thing is floating just beneath the fog.

How will we live into this unknown future?

In Jonathan Roger’s book, The Bark of the Bog Owl, a mythological retelling of the story of King David, the main character Aiden Errolson, who has just been anointed as the future wilderking, asks the wisened old prophet Bayard the Truthspeaker, “What if I am destined to be the wilderking? How should I live?

The same way you should live your life if you weren’t the wilderking. Live the life that unfolds before you. Love goodness more than you fear evil.

What should we do when the fog comes up around us shrouding the way forward in mystery?

Live the life that unfolds before us. Love life more than we fear evil.

The Screwtape Letters: A Reflection

The Screwtape Letters: A Reflection

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, is a collection of letters between two fictitious devils, “Uncle Screwtape” and his nephew “Wormwood”. This insightful little book follows the letters of advice from Screwtape, higher up in the satanic ranks, to Wormwood, a tempter on earth, on the methods and tricks to steer his patient away from the enemy “God and his kingdom”. This book, like no other, lays out all our tendencies and failings as human beings, while at the same time giving you, as a reader, incentive to rise above them. It opens your mind so vividly to the exponential power and light of Christ, that it can not help but bring you into the ever so real struggle between the kingdoms of Good and Evil, even if only in little ways. As a review in the New York Times put it, “Somewhere in the inferno there must be a considerable annoyance.” 

One of the biggest reasons I think The Screwtape Letters is such an effective and powerful book is because it is written from the devil’s perspective. In this form the book captivated me in an entirely original way. It gave me the powerful feeling of understanding, it was like a breeze in the fog, temporarily forcing me to face the distance. I really believe it is one of the most brilliant books written. The whole idea of Screwtape writing letters on the finer points of temptation to his nephew Wormwood, combined with an opportunity of sitting down with the edited thoughts of one of the greatest Christian thinkers, had an amazing effect on me. The result was, an opportunity for me to clearly face my faults and to see my potential.  By having the stereotypical perspective on Christianity reversed, I had the wholehearted satisfaction of feeling I was in some way outwitting the devil. This in particular had such an effect on me, that in recent weeks when had I found myself frustrated and about to lose my temper or discontent and snappy I would suddenly realize the benefit this would be to Screwtape, which would instantly cause me to check my behavior, and than to smugly feel I had outmaneuvered his trap, muttering under my breath a gleeful cry of “Not today Uncle Screwtape.” 

There were so many sections of this book that either introduced me to a completely new thought or concept, or phrased in clear English a foggy picture I might have otherwise never clearly understood. For example one of the points which hit me as a literal prescription to one of my biggest problems, which is me constantly over analyzing of the past, is the part where Screwtape says of God that, “His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.” Too often I completely miss out on the present by indulging myself in a degrading self critique of every instance where I messed up in the day. I don’t commit these instances of failure, that I was probably the only one to notice, to heaven, then wash myself of them like God wisely says to do. Instead I dig through them all and let them define me. I dont give myself the love or grace God offers me. I unfairly give the past the power to cheat the present. 

Another passage that stuck out to me is where Screwtape says God, (the enemy in the book’s context) “wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.” This passage is by far my favorite. Everytime I read it, it creates wonder in me, adding glorious details to my painting of what hope looks like. It speaks to me of a wonderful invitation, to begin a journey, a journey towards a kingdom that is full, but always has room for one more. Where people build cathedrals and know they are just right. As the passage goes on, it adds that, “The enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbors talents or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man to recognize all creatures ( even himself) as glorious and excellent things.” I love the fact that we were created to create and to someday have the kind of perfect love for our neighbors and ourselves, that we can say of what we have done, that, “It is good.” 

I think The Screwtape Letters is an important book to read. It has equipped me with answers to so many questions I have had and given me no choice but to confront myself honestly and begin to intentionally seek out my problems. It has opened my eyes to so many temptations I fall into daily but at the same time I see the incredible grace and love God has for me more than ever before, so rather than being discouraged I feel grace. Being reminded that if I fall I will be caught has filled me with the courage to keep on leaping forward. As C.S.Lewis says so well in his book,“He wants them to learn how to walk . . . and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.


Today’s article is a guest post written by Sonora Myers. She is my daughter and quite the writer – among many things – in her own right.

The Ministry of Availability

Availability.  It’s not often mentioned in the list of important qualities of disciples of Jesus but in our strung out western world, it may well be the most important gift followers of Jesus have to offer a broken and hurting world.

Availability.  It is what Moses had when God called him to lead the people of Israel out of captivity.  He was not a gifted speaker.  He made bad decisions.  He wasn’t very brave.  But he was available and in his going back to Egypt he allowed God to work through him to rescue slaves unto freedom and to move God’s redemptive story forward.

Availability is what Gideon had when God called him to lead an army.  Granted, Gideon was hiding in a winepress when God found him, and he wasn’t exactly excited to jump on God’s bandwagon.  Once Gideon’s fleece was wet however, he obeyed even as God reduced his regiment to a hilariously small number that gave all the glory to God in victory.

And Rahab was available too.  She was a woman of ill repute, a foreigner and a prostitute who at the time we can assume knew nothing of the God of the Israelites except what she has overheard; that He had been victorious in recent skirmishes and miraculously parted the Red Sea.  She steps into God’s redemptive story when two of Israel’s spies step into her room and she risks her life to hide them.

If we survey the prominent characters of the Biblical narrative, few are chosen because they are highly qualified leaders.  A few were of course – King Saul, Judas, Saul of Tarsus, but most of these didn’t work out so well.  It seems the highly qualified often lean a little to deeply into self reliance and self reliance usually leads to trusting in man rather than trusting in God.

Relying on his own gifts and abilities and education, Saul of Tarsus was hunting down followers of Jesus to have them arrested and thrown in prison.  It was only when he left his highly qualified self behind that Saul became available to become Paul and the man whom God could use to build his church.

When we look through the hall of fame that is Hebrews eleven, the number one thing each of the faithful had to give to God was themselves.

They said yes.  They were available.

And while Jesus is highly qualified in every way, he models the radical availability that allowed him to say, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.”

And that is why Jesus’ ministry looks so vastly different than the successful ministries of today.  His is the ministry of availability, of responding to the interruptions of the masses, of walking miles out of his way to heal a leader’s son, of inviting the children to come to him.

Jesus’ model is not that of the best leadership style but of availability.

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First and foremost, He models an availability to abide.   Despite an incredibly full ministry, Jesus routinely makes time to be with the Father.    He is part of the triune forever relationship of God and Son and Holy Spirit and this carries on into His 33 years on earth.

He is a master of scripture, a mastery that most certainly came from years of immersion in those same scriptures.  He is a master as well of prayer, of interceding on behalf of the sick and the demon possessed and the lost.  There is authority in his prayers.  And Jesus is the master at communing with God, of walking in a living relationship with the Father.  He is the master at abiding and he invites us first and foremost to do the same.  And so while the immediate needs of the masses continually pressed in around him during his ministry on earth, we see the clear model that, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

When Peter and John were before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, the characteristic recorded for all posterity is not that of highly qualified leadership skills or a refined speaking ability.  It was that they had been with Jesus.  The Sanhedrin note that while they were “ordinary unschooled men”, they had been with Jesus.  Peter and John had become masters of abiding with God because it is the model that Jesus gave them.

And so at the forefront of the discipleship journey, we as followers of Jesus must learn to be available to abide with him.  Despite the chaos of our frenzied western existence, we must learn to set aside time to be with Jesus.   It is our first act of availability.

It was from this first lifestyle of abiding availability that Jesus’ ministry flowed.  And in his three years of ministry as recorded in the Gospel, He models again and again the servant heart that makes him available to engage hurting, lost people – even when they interrupt him.

It seems an almost regular occurrence that Jesus responds to a pleading father, a frightened and sick woman or a shouting blind man.  He is regularly going one way and then – in response to a need – heads another way.  It seems at times haphazard and yet it’s not.  His ministry is focused. He went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  There was purpose in his journeys.  He trained up twelve men who would go on to launch His movement.  He gave his followers what they needed – himself – to spread the good news of His kingdom.

Like Jesus we must live strategic lives of engagement with a clear goal in mind.  But the way to do that – as modeled by Jesus – is first and foremost to be with God.  To make knowing God our first priority.  We must set aside regular time to go away and sit at the feet of the Father.  We must practice listening prayer. Immersion in the scriptures needs to be a central part of our daily routines.

 

Repeating The Past

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The original Red Dawn, circa 1984.

It was the mid 1980s when I first saw the American movie classic, Red Dawn.  Set in a small Colorado foothills town, the movie is a classic good guys verses bad guys movie pitting the blood thirsty red army of the Soviet Union against an all American, self-relient cast of characters fighting a guerrilla war of a second independence.

I had grown up on a steady litany of stories of the propaganda machine that was the Soviet Union, of their brainwashed populace; of their inability to know the truth.

We had Hollywood.  And I wonder if Hollywood didn’t do a better job of brainwashing our populace than the Russian KGB did theirs.

They certainly had me.

I spent many a day throughout my elementary years planning the defense of my town from the inevitable invasion of those ‘red devils’, those commies who had plans to blow us off the face of the earth.  I had an active imagination but it had plenty of source material.

Ask anyone over 40 and they’ll tell you that there was deep distrust of the Soviet empire.

And no one knew a single Russian person.

We lived off of myth.  

And then the myth fell down.  It was the Berlin Wall actually, but it is hard to imagine now the fear that so gripped the west for so many years.

So afraid of the communist threat was our nation that we entered bloody wars, we propped up cruel and tyrannical dictators over those who were democratically elected, we pumped millions of dollars in support to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan and we allowed our daily rhetoric to be that of vitriol, hostility, culture assassination, exaggeration and hysteria.

This is not to say that there was not actually a threat.  I’m quite certain there was – competing ideologies by the world’s standards most always lead to confrontation.  And when the two groups holding the ideologies also have a lot of nuclear bombs, then the threats escalate.

I was sitting in a book store under an Istanbul mosque several years ago talking with my friend Serdar about politics and faith and we began talking about the tension between the east and the west.  I was trying to see a way forward, to see a way to better relations, to see some hope but Serdar stopped me.

“People always need an enemy.  If one goes away, they find another.  They need an enemy.”

He said it so matter a factly, as if it were true; gospel fact.

Is it true?  Do we need an enemy?  Do we look for a bad guy in order to make ourselves feel better?

I am not sure that we “need” an enemy but I am sure that we do have one.

Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”  So yes, we do have an enemy.

But too often we mistake him for someone else.  Depending on your persuasion it could be the communist or the catholic, the Muslim or the Jew or the evangelical Christian, the right wing conservative or the left wing liberal.

We end up creating gross over generalizations of entire groups based on their very worst examples.  We vilify them as the enemy and neglect any real conversations that could lead to understanding and honoring relationships.

And we keep doing it over and over again.  We keep repeating the past.

 

Understanding Well: Reading From A Broad Range Of Perspectives

I have been reading Mustafa Aykol’s book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty and it has been enlightening to hear the scope of Islamic history told from the point of view of a Turkish, Muslim scholar and journalist.  Aykol’s perspective serves to reinforce the value and importance of reading widely and from a broad range of perspectives, of reading patiently while waiting for a more nuanced, deeper understanding to emerge before casting judgment.

By way of example, Aykol’s handling of what we in the west call the Armenian genocide – for indeed it was a genocide – is framed in the historic backdrop of the rising tide of nationalism which was sweeping through Europe at that time.  What happened in Germany to the Jews because of this rabid nationalism had happened in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Crimea twenty years prior as countries there waged wars of independence from the Ottoman Empire and in a victorious wave of nationalism, drove out or slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims and Jews.  These atrocities fueled the Ottoman people’s own nationalistic impulses which led to the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the second decade of the 20th century.  What happened in the Balkans in no way justifies their actions toward Armenians in Anatolia, but it does frame these terrible events in the complex context of the tension of those times.

Gaining a deeper understanding of the complexity of the historical and cultural context  helps us to have more meaningful and respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree.  Remaining outside of this place of deeper understanding leads to intolerant and insular positions bound up in the darkness of falsehood, slander, hypocrisy and injustice.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout that, “You never really understand a person until you consider his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  He might well have added historical events, people groups and even religions to his statement for unless we are willing to climb into the complexity of the historical and cultural context of those, we will never truly understand them.

Click here to find Islam Without Extremes at Amazon.

I Preached Today

I preached today.

Pastor Aaron left early to head down south for a class he is taking and he asked me a month or so ago if I could fill in.

I said yes and I am still processing the experience.

The process of prayer and study and writing the sermon was quite a good one.   It allowed me to come to new insights, to grow, to be stretched as I thought about the text – Luke 9 : 23 – 26 – and about how to share what I felt I was hearing and learning to a congregation who is not me.

And yet, I don’t know if I would  preach again.  I am just not sure it is worth the time investment.  I am not sure that my preaching affected any change, not sure if it drew anyone closer to the Lord, not sure if preaching in general is worth the effort.

This is something I am wrestling with so I am not writing off preaching.  I just don’t know that placing the Sunday morning sermon as the cornerstone of church discipleship is wise or helpful.

Again, I am processing aloud here so don’t take offense if you regularly deliver the message Sunday mornings.

But as I read the Bible I see Peter preaching to large crowds but then those crowds gathering in homes (presumably in small groups) to discuss and pray and worship and hold one another accountable, and to confess to one another and to meet one another’s needs.

I can envision discipleship taking place in that setting.

I am having a hard time envisioning discipleship taking place through a weekly sermon.

The best way to grow in Christ is not in a classroom and it’s not by listening to another sermon.  The best way is as Jesus taught, to follow him, and friends, we must surely know that Jesus is on the move.

But again, I am working through this thought process and because of that would love to hear what others are thinking, are observing in their own church setting or finding in scripture.

Oh, and if you’d like to see it,  here is a link for you to take a look at my sermon.

Sermon September 29 2013