You Can’t Hear Jesus For The Shouting

Ours is a world of distractions built upon diversions.  Each new aberration is sold to us as a life affirming addiction distilling reality’s most vexatious qualities through filters, screens, and digitized emotions.  The moment we connect, log in, sign on, and open our eyes, we are detached from those things we are hoping to find.  The signal is lost in the noise.  From deep within the brain’s dopamine receptors, we hear these words:  keep scrolling, if you go a little further you might laugh, cry, or be enraged by something vitally important to an ongoing political issue.

Yet, no matter how many comment threads we read, filtered photographs we see, the world, our world looks the same.  Regardless of the social media platform you visit most; suggestions are made on who you should follow.  Those invitations are invitations to follow people or organizations that look, think, believe, vote, complain, and buy clothes like you.  We were looking for a nameless something, found nothing, saw everything, and still feel empty.  Nothing has changed.

We cannot log out as we forgot our passwords years ago.  The filter and its window onto the chimera of nothingness can never be closed.  Filters demand effortless access, long battery life, and easy to read screens.  Personalized tones, a choice we made to make our filter reflect the unique nature of our tastes, summon us like test mice preparing to dine on cancer laced cheese.  The filter is opened, the cycle resumes, and what we read is never what we expected.

Hope is never delivered in 140 characters or less.  Our dopamine receptors remain empty and starving.  The words we might have shared with loved ones remain unsaid.  When we do speak, we shout.  It’s the only way we feel we can be heard.  The background noise engendered by the restlessness in our souls and the rambling search for meaning in life by looking through artificial filters pushes the volume to deafening levels.   If we wanted to hear God, whether as individuals or as a denomination, how would the message get through or be noticed?

Filters provide humanity with the illusion of control. With our filters, we can make life more livable.  With more control over our lives, life will be better.  Something’s gone wrong.  We’re being inhibited by the very filters which should give us freedom.  Instead of giving life, we search for a better life, as defined by the filters; a life we’ll never find.

*Lord, we think we are in control of our own lives.  We truly believe our decisions will impact your choices in eternity.  Help us to see that we are powerless over so many things.  We ask for the grace to be able to hand over our lives to you, so that we may see the world, and you, without a filter.  Amen.

The signal does get lost in the noise, until it doesn’t.   If the power of the filter is broken; what comes next?  With the background noise diminished (or removed) how do we listen to God?  How do we talk to God and each other without shouting?

In the 10th Chapter of John, Jesus speaks about his “sheep” and how they hear his voice.  “They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the strangers voice.”  Then John adds, “Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.”

Jesus acknowledges the existence of competing and confusing voices.  In this cacophony of sound, it’s hard for Jesus’ message of hope, encouragement, and growth to be heard.  It is also difficult to know whom to trust.  Filters, the social media platforms, and the presence of so many competing voices make confusion and distrust a reality in modern United Methodism.  We are far more concerned about our identity as Methodists, who speaks for the denomination than hearing an authentic voice from Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus knows where we are at this moment.  It is hard to hear over the shouting and firmly established cultural filters.

John says that Jesus is speaking from the gate.  That’s how we know this is Jesus talking.  Jesus is speaking from the gate, knows all of his sheep by name so that each sheep may live their life to the fullest. This sounds like the Jesus I know.  Jesus wants to let everyone in and allow them to be who God created them to be, whether they be straight, gay, black, white, bald, skinny, fat, or whatever.  You cannot live life to the fullest if you check part of yourself at the door.

However, if you’re looking at the world through Snapchat filters, Facebook memes, and 140 characters of Twitter snark; that’s the first and easiest thing to do.  In that world, there is no room for Jesus.  You can’t hear a word he says.  But that’s ok.  You don’t have to listen to Jesus.  You listen to people talk about Jesus.  The world you want to see looks just like the one you’ve created.  Pull their ill informed opinions around you like a warm blanket and keep scrolling down.

*May I listen and speak to Jesus.
 May I learn to be still and listen.
 May I hear and know His words.
 May I mark my days in gratitude.
 May I abandon myself to our God.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

Good Thoughts versus Prayers

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Facebook is once again reminding me that today it is a friend’s birthday.  I’m told by the machine, “Send Him Good Thoughts”.  Recently, a community member went through a difficult brain surgery.  On the day of the operation, people sent “good thoughts” to the family and doctors via social media.  What does it mean to send someone good thoughts?  I’m a spiritual person, called and even paid to lead a religious community.  I have a graduate degree in theology from a well-known university.  I’ve studied religion with people from all over the world.  I’ve prayed on holy mountains and in sacred valleys.  I’m telling you:  I have no idea what it means to send someone good thoughts.  It’s a meaningless phrase of vapid nonsense which accomplishes nothing whatsoever.

Let’s break this down.  The sender sends good thoughts.  Don’t put yourself out, sender of benign greetings!  It’s nice of you to remember my birthday with your thoughts.  I appreciate your thinking.  I didn’t want a card or a phone call.  Thoughts, good ones, sent throughout the vast soulless medium of the internet will suffice.  Yes, good thoughts, that’s what I wanted in this age dripping with hate, negativity, and rage.  My day is infinitely better because you thought toward me.

Do you remember when you were a kid and your mom and dad’s birthday rolled around?  You might ask, “Mom, what do you want for your birthday?”  She might pause for a second and say something like this, “I don’t really want anything at all.  You know the best gift you could give me would be for you to go and clean your room or do the dishes after supper tonight.”  That’s not what you wanted to hear.  Because in your mind, you know best, you know that Mom doesn’t really want what she’s just said.  She wants something spectacular.  So what do you do?  You go outside.  Maybe you learn a new trick on your bike.  You practice all afternoon jumping off the end of the driveway and landing in the grass.  This trick was for her!  Or you go back to the kitchen table with crayons and draw a picture which you believe shows how much you love her.  In the end, you do some really cool things, but they are the things you wanted to give her and they bear no resemblance to what she really wanted.

At the end of the day, you take mom outside to the front yard and say, “Look, mom, let me show you this trick I learned for you.”  Perhaps you rush inside and hand her your drawing in hopes it will go up on the refrigerator.  What does mom say?  Of course she says thank you, she loves it, but is it what she hoped for?  No, it’s not.  Is she a little disappointed because no one listened to her?  Yes, she is. She wanted a clean kitchen or you to clean your room.   You did what you wanted to do.  It was ok, but it didn’t really meet mom’s need.

To me, this is the difference between “good thoughts” and “prayers”.  Sending “good thoughts” enables us to forget the real needs at hand.  If all you’re sending is good thoughts, you give people what you want to give them (which may indeed be nothing) instead of stepping back and allowing God to do God’s thing.  No one ever gave their life over ambiguous good thoughts.  Good thoughts are worthless because they are rarely matched with good actions.

Good thought people are rarely disappointed because they never take the risk of praying and having those prayers not answered.  They live in their well-protected good thought bubbles; where everything seemingly balances out in 140 characters, with the right recycled memes, and an endless supply of others addicted to sharing nothing.

 

Food for Thought-7 Habits of Highly Annoying United Methodists on Social Media

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We all do these to some degree (regardless of faith tradition).  However, some seem to pop up worse than others.

1. Anne Lamott is like Marmite. You either love her or dislike her. Stop forcing her “wisdom” on everyone. Most of us have made up our minds by now.

2. We’ve all been on mission trips. We all have the same photographs of smiling United Methodists holding shovels or serving soup. I don’t need to see your pictures. I have my own.  I’m sure they are virtually identical.

3. Twitter debates about the minutiae in the Book of Discipline attract seekers to the United Methodist Church like tax cheats to IRS offices.

4. Don’t call yourself a monk unless you’re in a religious tradition that has monks and you take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

5. The joy, joy, joy I’ve got down in my heart today comes from a Vacation Bible School I attended 30 years ago, not the recycled quote from John Wesley (George Whitfield, CS Lewis, Charles Wesley, Mike Slaughter, or Leonard Sweet) you just shared.

6. Tweets and Facebook posts which mock our brothers and sisters in Christ (other mainline denominations) and act as if we’re the first denomination to ever face monumental social issues show how out of touch some of us really are.

7. The holiday season is approaching.  Advent is busy, Christmas is crazy, and life can get out of control. We know this. Find theologically appropriate ways to deal with it beyond acknowledging this shared and understood reality.

Food for Thought-How Often Would Jesus Have…

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1. Checked his email…he didn’t have email. If so, maybe once or twice a day.  I can’t see him chained to his desktop, laptop, or mobile device.  Can you?
2. Prioritized his day…Jesus didn’t know the meaning of triage; he removed obvious distractions and met with everyone.
3. Checked his Facebook page…again no Facebook in first century Galilee. Maybe of a couple of times of day at most. Jesus liked to rely on word of mouth information. His core audience wouldn’t be likely to be able to check their phones or computers for updates on a regular basis.
4. Spent time alone…at least once or twice a day. Jesus knew when he needed to step back, be alone, recharge, and regroup.
5. Eaten with other people…Jesus never ate alone. Community wasn’t a buzz word. It was a reality. Meals were events, people sharing, preparing, eating, and being together. There is spiritual value in the act of eating a meal together.
6. Have taken pictures…all the time. I can see Jesus with a small digital camera taking pictures of everyone he meets. Would these go on Facebook or Instagram, I don’t know?  I think they’re more likely on the divine hard drive we call creation.

Food for Thought-What Are The Theological Questions This Picture Implies?

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Pictures like this are supposed to imply what? There is no more outside? I see plenty of outside from where I sit. Where has the outside gone? People no longer go outside?  I see people everywhere I go.  Many of them are outside.  When school ends, many will be children playing outside.  Has someone taken nature away? No, I don’t think this is the message. So what’s the point of the crotchety, old man expression superimposed over a big tree?  Is there some old man meme factory where groups of mean old men type these things out all day long?  A mean old man sweat shop, where a cabal of the elderly, convinced no one understands how it “used to be”,  is determined to guilt the world into change, one meme at a time?  Perhaps.

There is a subtle and more sinister theme at work: “I’m better than you because I had some idealized version of a rural childhood”. Notice the tree and lush green grass.  It’s not a city park.  Outside doesn’t count if it’s on a pick up basketball court on the south side of Chicago.  Outside means the country.  It also seeks to imply that people who play outdoors are morally superior, ethically more aware, and posses greater virtue than those who play indoors.   The outdoor people experience  valuable life lessons no one else has ever learned anywhere else at any time in human history.  Completely unique to wherever they live, no one else shares their insights, wisdom, and homespun humor. They learned these lessons because they walked barefoot under trees in hot weather.  Or so it would seem.  The meme implies a black and white, all or nothing world. Summer time is dominated by the strong Tom Sawyers , not the allergy laden children addicted to the X-boxes in their playrooms. There’s no room for balance. It’s all as it was or not at all. People who play indoors are weak, sheltered, and missing out on some intangible something; most likely religious.

Does this meme wish to imply that nit wit, God denying, prayer stopping liberals keep their kids indoors and hover over their children in an overprotective manner to prevent them from enjoying their joys of an unfettered youth climbing big trees and running through green grass as Jesus intended?  Maybe.  For the record, I’m an occasional nit wit, sometime liberal, and a full time follower of Jesus who likes the tress and air conditioning.  It seems a pointless thing to imply. Since no one has taken the outside away from anyone.

Food for Thought-It Doesn’t Work This Way

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1. God doesn’t work this way. Never has, never will.  How do they know what God will do?  A “favor”?  You’ve got to be kidding me!
2. Blessings aren’t a quid pro quo arrangement. We don’t receive something from God in return for doing something inane like forwarding a picture. God blesses us because God loves us.
3. Take this concept. What if you don’t have a phone, access to the internet, or a computer? How can you be expected to share this image within 120 seconds? As a result, you’re denied God’s blessings because of your limited access to technology. Does this sound like the God you’ve been taught to love and worship in church? A God who would punish or bless people on a whim because they didn’t share an image on a computer or phone doesn’t deserve to be worshiped. No. It’s utterly ridiculous.
4. Do you honestly think God cares whether or not you’re sharing pictures, is keeping track of who is sharing what, and planning who to grant a “favor” to at any one time? This is God we’re talking about. Do you honestly believe that the God of all creation works in such a petty way, like the popular kid at a junior high school?  “Forward this to prove your love for me…” If this is how your think, you have a warped view of Christianity. Get help now.

Food for Thought-Meanness Among Christians

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The killing of three innocent people in Chapel Hill reminds me of something I’d rather forget: people are mean. Not all people but enough to make you think twice when making sweeping generalizations on a Sunday morning about the inherent goodness of the human race. Equally tragic is the reality that this meanness isn’t unique to one group of people. There are mean Muslims, atheists, and Christians. Mean people (who we’re often told “suck”- according a bumper sticker I keep seeing) who identify themselves as Muslims or atheists aren’t in my remit. Yes, we often live with the results of their “meanness” but I’m a Christian and a pastor. I have the opportunity to address Christian meanness before someone is forced to live with its tragic results. So I’ll say it, I’m frustrated by the meanness, nastiness, and ugliness running through my own tradition. To paraphrase Vladimir Lenin, “What is to be done?”

I seem to be running into mean Christians on an increasingly regular basis. Often this meanness is cloaked in the guise of something called, “tough love”. At other times, it’s on open display for the world to see. We’ve lost touch with the ability to hear how we sound. The sheer shrillness and meanness underlying our words are lost on us. This means we have no idea how we sound to the very world we’re trying to reach. We forget others are listening to what we say. The idea that others could be forming blanket (and often wrong) impressions about Christianity because of our actions is a foreign notion to many Christians. It seems with many Christians, they enjoy justifying their meanness with selective interpretations of the Bible. How can one best respond in such situations?

1. Don’t meet meanness with meanness. Two means do not make a nice.

2. Remember love isn’t love if it’s not Christ-like. Love that doesn’t affirm the humanity of another person isn’t tough love; it’s a form of condescension. Christian love recognizes Jesus Christ present in all people. All sorts of names and possibilities can be applied and turned into Christian sounding words. True love is Christ centered. For instance, show that same love you embody in Bible study or Sunday School to the waiter who messes up your lunch order. Show that love to your Muslim neighbor, Hindu physician, or person who cuts you off in traffic.

3. Remember that scripture is best understood in context. Memory verses sound impressive to the untrained ear. What’s more important is to filter all scripture through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It’s impossible to understand God presence in our world without understanding the priorities of Jesus. Scripture used to justify meanness isn’t being examined through a “Jesus” lens.

4. Resist the urge to comment online about every post you read, even if it’s to correct inaccuracies. The seeming anonymity afforded by the internet allows meanness to flow in ways as never before. Mean people aren’t prepared to dialogue. These are arguments which are impossible to win. Embrace the desire to pray for everyone and how we may better respond to controversies in a Christ-like manner.