Beyond Distraction

My usual response to people who want to get a hold of me is simple – call me on my phone, it’s always on my hip. That answer has started to change, however, because what I’ve learned is that one of the keys to actually living life is to leave my phone in another room.

I know better than I would like to admit the addictive power of my phone. There are few forces better at demanding our attention than the mini-computers we carry in our hands. Whether it is calling or texting friends, posting on our platform of choice, or encountering the world through the lens of our camera, our phones demand our attention.

And that demand comes with a high price. Being locked into the world of our phones leads us to miss the gift of God’s glory in the world in which we actually live. Giving our families the view of the top of our head teaches them that they aren’t as important as whatever we are experiencing in our news feeds. The connectedness our devices make possible often serves to disconnect us from what we most want and need.

Sin and Distraction

I used to think that distractions were neutral, things that might pull us away from productivity but weren’t filled with malice. The more I’ve learned about the spiritual life and how distractions prevent us from paying attention – to God and the people who matter to us – I have come to the realization there isn’t much difference between the negative influence of distractions and the insidious destruction we call sin.

The classic evangelical definition of sin calls it anything that separates us from God. That separation from God leads to division and alienation from other people. When our mutual separation is brought to bear the tragic result are systems and structures that menace people by denying the presence of God within them. This is what leads the Apostle Paul to name the fundamental work of the Cross as reconciliation – both between God and humanity and between groups of people.

Regardless of its source, our inability to remain focused on who and what truly matters leads us away from God and summons us to build walls between one another. Transformation, the kind that leads us back to God and inspires us to build bridges, doesn’t happen by paying attention for a fleeting moment in between the experiences that vie for our attention. Growing in our relationship with God and experiencing the reconciled life requires sustained attention these distractions serve to undermine.

We are changed as we grow in the ability to notice the signs of God’s activity in the world. We grow in grace as we respond in gratitude to the gifts God is giving us. We experience the joy of new creation as we learn to pay attention to the things God wants to show us.

Greater Things

In the opening of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael that if he stays close he will see greater things than he has seen before. In short, Jesus is telling Nathanael that if he can learn to pay attention he will experience life in a way he never has before.

But Nathanael will learn what I know pretty well, and I bet you do too – wanting to focus on what matters and finding a way to do it are two different things.

One of the most important questions to ask, then, is how we are going to reorder our life so we can actually see these greater things Jesus wants to show us. How do we structure our days so we don’t miss the glory of God when it walks right in front of us? How do we learn to spot the signs of reconciliation and new birth that break through when people who once hated each other sit down together as friends? How can we remove the blinders and begin to see the Kingdom vision that starts with the choice you make as Jesus invites you to “Come and see”? How can we say no to the temptations of the distractions and yes to the one thing we know we need?

One of the answers I’ve come up with is to remember that it is possible to live without my phone attached to my hip. The phone – and all the things that come with it – isn’t the devil. I don’t long for us to go to back to a world without them – we’d just replace them with some other way to avoid what really matters.

But I do know that I’ve discovered a whole lot of time that I couldn’t seem to find before. I’ve noticed I spent way too much time on that phone and not enough spotting and celebrating real life. I’ve also made room for other things that help me see – listening in silence instead of insisting on my own way,  reading my Bible for myself and not just as fodder for a sermon, and paying attention to people instead of racing past them in a rush to get things done.

What is keeping you from seeing and experiencing greater things? My prayer for you is that you can find one thing to push aside and begin to receive the gift that comes from paying attention to what truly matters.

 

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We Will

On Sunday morning our family walked up and stood in front of the church I have been called to help lead. Me, I’m used to that. In fact, it’s expected. It is, despite my serious introversion, a job requirement.

My wife doesn’t enjoy being up front; she avoids it at almost all costs. My daughter, at least so far, is happy as long as there is somewhere to sleep and a pacifier nearby. And yet, there Erin and I were, standing with our daughter and our parents while everyone else stared at us as we prepared to answer some questions from a preacher.

They weren’t just any questions either, but questions about our faith. We were asked what we believe is most fundamentally true – about God and the world that God loves. We were asked about life – particularly the kind of life we believe is worth living, the life we want for ourselves and the one we want for our daughter. We were asked about our commitments – what we were willing to do and what we weren’t willing to do.

Question 1: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?

We do.

Question 2: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

We do.

Question 3: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?

We do.

Question 4: Will you nurture your daughter in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly and to lead a Christian life?

We will.

Serious questions these are, questions that require serious answers. There’s nothing that forces you to come to grips with what you really believe is important quite like trying to raise a child.

My wife and I were raised in two different church traditions, particularly when it comes to baptism. She grew up in a tradition that prefers adult baptism and infant dedication. I grew up in one that practices infant baptism and mostly teenage confirmation.

Before our daughter was born we had plenty of conversations about the sacrament– when and how it would be offered if we had a child, why each tradition made sense and what it all meant to receive the waters and blessing of being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And so we made the walk from our seats to the front of the church Sunday not in respect to tradition or out of some ecclesial obligation, but because of what we have come to believe is true about the way God works in our lives and in the world.

We looked at each other and smiled as we heard a friend pronounce the words over our daughter:

I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Because this we believe – these questions are impossible to truthfully answer yes to on our own.

Sin and evil lurk around every corner and find their way into our lives when we are looking and when we aren’t. How could we possibly reject them by ourselves?

Rejecting evil, injustice and oppression is a supersized task, even if the freedom does come from God. There isn’t a day that goes by when we aren’t aware – even as privileged and relatively comfortable people – of the injustices and evils and oppression that friends and neighbors face on a near constant basis. Rejecting these is God-sized work.

The very nature of faith is trust and yet we are keenly aware of how easy it is to place trust in other things – reputation, money, popularity, and comfort just to name a few. And while the Gospel breaks down every barrier, many of which we don’t name in the liturgy, I admit that I’m still pretty good at clinging to the old identities and ways of being.

And then there’s the real tough one – that our lives are to be examples to our daughter that will lead her to Christ. We’re supposed to live in such a way that she will reject the idolatries of the world and find freedom from the sins that bind us and might bind her. It isn’t our intellect or powers of persuasion that we are being asked to affirm, but the integrity of how we try to follow Jesus.

How could anyone say yes to these questions?

And yet there we were, declaring with boldness and confidence that we will resist evil and oppression, that we will  live in the freedom of God, that we will put our whole trust in God’s grace and that our lives will bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We did it because we know that the same grace our daughter was receiving in the water – the power to resist sin and grow in grace – was at work in our lives. The same grace that was drawing her to God before she is even aware of it is the same grace that is sustaining and pulling us forward in our life with God as well. Our own strength and faith commitments announce a dreary No. But with God’s grace, working in our lives and the lives of our faithful friends and community we can shout a joy-filled Yes.

Christ is alive. Grace is ever-present. God is at work.

Will you follow Jesus and show your daughter how to do the same?

Without reservation – We Will!

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Deep Roots That Bear Fruit

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group of young adults.

They were mostly recent college graduates who had committed to giving the next year of their lives as urban missionaries. They had gathered on a farm for their orientation, where most of them were both excited and terrified about the year ahead of them. Only a few of them had ever spent time in America’s cities and so they knew that while the upcoming year was going to bring beautiful experiences it would also bring problems and challenges with the potential to overwhelm them.

I was the opening act, so sometime in the morning, with one extra large coffee finished, I began the talk that I, if no one else, was convinced might have been the most important they would hear all day – on spirituality as a fuel for mission. I shared the lessons countless world changers before them had learned, that bearing long-lasting fruit in mission was impossible apart from the spiritual resources God has given them – including but not limited to prayer, Scripture, and maybe most importantly, one another.

I was reminded of that talk the other night.  Because to survive 2017 and its Attention Whiplash we are going to need some help.

Every hour of every day seems to bring with it another issue to become educated about, another protest to participate in or ignore, another call to speak or be silent, another petition to sign or let go by. Each minute brings another article or post about who has it figured out and the requirements of earning residence on the right side of history.

The early days of 2017 feel like a continuation of the chaotic air we breathed in 2016. And if January has anything to tell us about the rest of our year, the chaos isn’t going away any time soon.

To live an engaged and informed life in 2017 requires dodging plenty of pitfalls. Many of us are tempted to dive into every event of every day while others want to bury our heads and let someone figure it out.

It seems clear that to do the right thing – to live the kind of life that we want to live, one that both values our friends and family as well as those whose names we don’t know yet – we’re going to need some help. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and find the perspective to live the engaged and constructive life that feels both holy and necessary, we’re going to need wisdom and power that’s deeper than the latest post on Facebook and more enduring than the breaking news alert on our screen.

Roots and Fruit

The term Jesus used for living an engaged and committed life that flows from what you believe was bearing fruit. That sounds churchy, but bearing fruit really is just another way to talk about loving one another. Scripture, as well as our experience, confirm that we can’t do that on our own. We get too mad. We become defensive. We find our worth in the idolatry of being right.

In a message to his disciples recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus said that with his help, by staying close to him and doing the things to receive his gifts and power, we can bear much fruit. Put another way, with his help, even in 2017, we can love one another well. But without it, when we rush to do things in our wisdom and power, to stand on our own opinions and understanding, love goes by the wayside.

The only way we can effectively love one another well, in good times much less hectic times like these, is to root ourselves in something that will last. And so for me, it means that before I dive into the latest analysis I need to dive into the story of God, the story that tells me who I am and how I should live. It means that before I commit to another email list I need to commit to spending time in silence to let God work in and on me. It means that before I rage against the machine I need to spend time in confession to understand the ways I am complicit in the same machine.

Our charge hasn’t changed. It might feel more urgent today but the work and the call is the same – love one another. Love can be controversial. Love can be uncomfortable. Love can cause divisions. But it is the response and requirement of faith.

Love one another. Apart from me you can do nothing. But with me, you can bear fruit that lasts.

I’m taking Jesus at his word. So let’s root and ground ourselves in love. Let’s trust the Psalm and believe that rooting ourselves in a deep reading of Scripture is what we need to remain anchored and live with wisdom in the storms of our day. Let’s ground ourselves in the spiritual practices and ways of life that have nurtured so many.

Let’s take the help God wants to give us to love well. Because we know we need it.

 

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The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office

I hate this place.

They do their best to make it nice. They know you are nervous when you come here. They know you are doing everything you can to hold yourself together. They know your family hangs in the balance while you wait to hear your name called.

So they smile. They put you in nice, comfortable chairs – as nice as you can have in a doctor’s office. They invite you to look at the pictures, big black and white pictures – of moms and dads, grandparents and grandchildren. Smiling. Enjoying. Living.

This could be you – that’s what they want you to think. The pictures are supposed to put you at ease, to make you feel better about being here. They are here to help you believe.

But the pictures and the faces also confront you. They are of other people. They are of other families. These are not pictures of you.

The nurse calls our names and we look at each other, hearts racing, blood pressure skyrocketing. She walks back and I sit, waiting for another person in white to walk out and call her name.

Why is it always white? Everything here is black and white. It’s all celebration or despair, nothing in between. Everybody comes here to walk the tightrope of joy and tragedy, heartbreak and relief, praying against death and desperately hoping for new life.

We hear her name and look at each other again. Can’t avoid it any longer. We walk into the room – we’ve been here before. A familiar room and a familiar face.

She doesn’t remember us. We’ll never forget her.  She was the one who delivered the news that broke our hearts. Her words brought the grief that wouldn’t go away.

No heartbeat. 

This might not happen for you they told us. You might need to consider other options. And we have.

We’re as surprised as anybody to be back here for this, back in this room waiting, back here sitting and staring at a screen, back here trying to make sense of it, back here waiting for a verdict that will change everything, one way or the other.

She talks to us, asks us the usual questions, and then she gets a big smile on her face. We can’t go there yet.

We don’t smile when we come here.

“Your baby has a good, strong heartbeat.”

Our shoulders drop. We finally smile. We hug and we laugh and we cry, different tears than we’ve ever cried before.

“There’s your tax break, Ogle”, my wife says almost immediately with a wry, Chicago smile.

“Will this be your first?” the nurse asks us. Yes, we smile.

We tell her our story, about how this room is the last place we expected to be, about how we were learning about “other options”, about how pretty much is a really important metaphor when placed before impossible.

For nothing is impossible with God.

It turns out this office is full of preachers.

“I’ve worked here a long time and I’ll tell you that sometimes God knows more than the doctors. When God wants you to have a baby you are going to have a baby!”

I can’t help but think about our friends – women who would be great mothers and are still waiting. Has God decided something different for them? I hold it down, there are some days for theodicy and some days for celebration.

They take us into another room and we sit for about three minutes before another staff member – one who gave us our options and cared for us so well the last time we were here – comes bounding in with a huge smile on her face. “I’m so happy. I’ve got to call your doctor – she will be so excited.”

We tell her our story and she can’t help it either. “Sometimes God knows things that the tests don’t – you all are going to be great parents.”

For nothing is impossible with God. 

We look at each other again, eyes bright with hope and relief. We know there will be more trips here and more things to worry about. Every trip to this place, a friend will tell me later, is a chance for them to tell you what might be wrong with your baby. But not today.

Today we hope and dream for the life that is just starting to grow. Today we laugh about changing diapers and early morning feedings.  Today we know we’ll be spending a whole lot less time and money at Barnes & Noble and a whole lot more at Buy Buy Baby.

And we remember. As scary as this place is, God is here. Of course God is always here, has always been here. God is here with us today and didn’t leave the last time we were here.

God weeps with the ugly cry weepers and rejoices with the new parents celebrating life and dreaming dreams.

A few months later we sit in our living room. It’s a wreck now, nothing compared to the chaos it will become in a few weeks. Our house is littered with stuff, contraptions and must-haves only an entrepreneur could dream up. We’ve painted a room purple and jammed more pink into it than we ever imagined possible.

We smile and we wait, full of nerves and anxiety, wondering what we haven’t done yet and certain of all the ways we aren’t up to this.

We look at each other again and we remember – that even here, in this mess, we aren’t alone. God is here too. And that is enough.

That’s what we learned at The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office and from the preachers in scrubs.

God is up to something and new life is on the way.

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The Power of Boring Faith

I’m going to begin with a hot take: faith, when it comes right down to it, is boring.

Before you turn away, convinced this is another one of those 800 reasons millennials won’t go to your church or 200 reasons the church is dying posts – let me assure you, this isn’t that.

I used to believe that real faith meant doing something crazy or big for God. Real Christians, I thought, were the ones who moved into the inner city to try to bless a neighborhood (did that) or who were building their lives in intentional ways that let everyone know that faith was important to them (tried that too).

But what I’ve come to believe is that faith and transformation most often happen not in wild and audacious experiments for Jesus but instead in the middle of the ordinary and quite boring lives most of us lead every day.

For every story we know of meeting God in a shrub on fire we know hundreds more of people who were simply going about their regular lives – going to school, putting in the 9 to 5 at work – when God decided to show up in their cubicle or at the lunch table.

Faith isn’t about chasing the big thing so much as it is doing the ordinary things that might not seem like much at the time but tend to be the vehicles through which God chooses to work.

I was reminded of that last week, when along with some friends I went to learn for two days from Rowan Williams lecturing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

There was plenty to take away from the lectures, but the most significant was a reminder of something most of us already know.

A critical piece of Bonhoeffer’s wisdom, Williams reminded us, is that ethics, how we decide to live in light of the Gospel, is rarely about the big, monumental decisions we obsess over. Instead, according to Bonhoeffer, we prepare ourselves for the decisions that will define our lives by choosing to be faithful again and again in the moments that don’t seem all that significant.

Put another way, the boring stuff prepares us for the big moment.

And so when you take time in the morning to read and pray when everything in your head is telling you there are so many other things you could be doing, you are doing something significant.

When you decide to stick it out at that church that you don’t fully understand with those people who make you crazy because these are the people God is working on you through, you are doing something that matters.

When you hustle to get to your Wednesday Night Bible Study and Prayer Group at church because you remember that Jesus has promised to be there, you are being reminded about something really important – that your life is about more than what you make.

When you find a way to power through a tough relationship and stick it out instead of running away when the conversation gets difficult, you are learning the patterns of forgiveness and reconciliation that define the Christ-Shaped life.

When you make your way to church on Sunday morning to pray that prayer of confession and receive the grace at the table even when it feels boring and maybe routine, you are receiving God’s power and are being prepared for a moment you can’t even fathom.

Most days what you do may not feel all that monumental. You go to work, go to school, shuttle your kids from one place to the next.

But don’t overlook what you are doing. These are the places that God tends to show up. These are the things God is using to grow your faith, to transform your patterns and to prepare you for the moment that will seem larger than life.

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