Monday, January 30, 2012

"Friends With Benefits . . . . So. . . yeah. . . f___ it!"

I'm a stickler for watching a film from start to finish. I can't do the "let's stop it here and pick up on it tomorrow" thing. I did, however, do that with the Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis film, Friends With Benefits. In fact, it took me two weeks to watch the popular-with-the-younger-set romantic comedy. I started in Massachusetts, watching the first 35 minutes. I finished the film a few thousand miles away in Alberta, Canada. . . yesterday. I'm still trying to process what I saw.

When I began the film two weeks ago, I had to shut it down. That rarely happens to me. But I had gotten to the part where the two self-described "damaged" main characters - who had just met, by the way - decided to indulge their bio-chemistry and hormonal urges void of any kind of love, emotional ties, or commitment. What I saw onscreen was happening under the covers. But it was explicit and ugly. Unlike the redemptive sexual scenes in films like Magnolia and American Beauty where sexual indulgence outside of God's intended design is portrayed as it is. . . incredibly empty. . . this scene was bothersome to me in a different way. I'm still trying to figure out how to put it all into words. Perhaps it was a combination of factors. . . . one being its portrayal of a deeply embedded cultural trend (friends with benefits - a kind of ongoing one-night stand), and the other being the fact that their characters - Dylan and Jamie - seemed to be enjoying themselves with absolutely no sense that what they were doing might be wrong.

As always, I look at cultural artifacts as both "maps" and "mirrors." Those vantage points also led to some dismay on my part. As a map, there's enough in this film to draw young viewers in but not enough to make them think about what they are watching. It's a simple and formulaic film. In fact, it's one of those films that effectively gets you rooting for the characters to do wrong. I'm sure most viewers enjoy the movie. . . which means that its ability to define life and set standards is even more powerful. As a mirror, it offers us a peek into how the sexual revolution of the 60s has taken root, grown, and produced fruit. I'm sure most viewers haven't thought twice about the film and its message. Instead, they've mindlessly consumed it as pure entertainment.

After mentioning my difficulty to several friends since first shutting it down, I decided to follow their suggestions and see the film through to the end in the hope that there would be something redemptive. I put my focus on the troubling parts aside and found a few things. Sex isn't seen as a bad thing. Reality is, it's a good thing given to us by God. . . even though the characters don't know that part. The film eventually reminds us that sex void of love and commitment is empty, mechanical, and never fulfilling. It might feel good for a few moments, but in the end, you're right back where you started. . . needing to fill an even bigger void than the one that drove you there in the first place. When we mess with God's order (committed monogamous marital love and then sexual intimacy), we mess things up. Reverse that order, and things don't work. And finally, nurture and environment do shape us. Children of brokenness and divorce - in this case Dylan and Jamie - are not only confused by relationships, marriage, and sexuality, but they are suspicious that any of them can work as they are supposed to. . . a factor that feeds the whole "friends with benefits" phenomenon in today's youth and adult culture.

In the end. . . and I'm going to ruin it for you . . . Dylan and Jamie do decide that the whole "friends with benefits" thing doesn't work. They realize they are falling in love and they need to start over. Dylan expresses his desire to get to know his "best friend," not even caring if they ever have sex again. And so they embark on a date to a cafe. And just as we look through the window at the couple starting over on a "get to know you first date" while sitting across from each other at a small table, it all quickly unravels as Dylan looks at Jamie and says, "So. . . yeah. . . f___ it!" The two jump to their feet, throw everything off the table in a heaping crash, and start to passionately kiss. . . then the screen goes black and the credits start to roll. And so, we're right back where we started. This time, however, we're told it's OK. Perhaps that the most powerful message the film sends.

Yep. . . Friends With Benefits is one of those cultural maps and mirrors. It deserves our attention. My biggest takeaway is this. . . I'm afraid that closing line uttered by Dylan just might be the mantra we say and live in relation to God's life-giving will and way in all aspects of life. It's not really anything new. That's what got humanity in trouble in the first place. I can hear Adam and Eve uttering those same words in the Garden. My life has spoken those words far too often. But there's something different about hearing those words in today's cultural context. Maybe we used to know we shouldn't be saying them. Now they're words of virtue rather than words of vice. . . and it's an ethos that's spreading far and wide.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Youth Workers As Burden-Bearers. . . .

There are some people very near and dear to my heart who have helped me carry the load. I'm going to spend some time with a couple of them this weekend. I'm looking forward to it. Yes, I'm going there to speak about youth culture, to serve, and to minister to youth workers and parents. But I'm selfishly looking forward to spending time with some guys who have served as burden-bearers.

The other morning, I was reminded of how important these guys are as I prayed the day's prayer in Scotty Smith's Everyday Prayers.

"Jesus, here’s what I ask and need from you today. Help me not to be afraid of the emotional messiness that certain burdens bring. Help me know how to rely on your presence more than I rely on my words. I want to be aware of my limits, for sure… but I want to be even more aware of your limitless mercy, grace, power and peace.

For the woman who just got confirmation that the mass in her breast is malignant… for the dad who just lost, yet another job, in this fragile economy… for the couple whose two-year wait to welcome their adoptive child just ended childlessly… for missionary friends serving in Haiti a year after the earthquake who have to deal with a bottomless world of need with limited resources… for the parents who’ve spent all and who are spent from trying to rescue their daughter from the ravages of an eating disorder…

For the friend who preaches a powerful gospel, which bears fruit in everybody’s children but his own… for the friends who are having to pay a great price for a misdiagnosed medical condition… for the couples who are sleeping all alone in the same bed… for the church family that is splintered by graceless pettiness… for those who are telling me, “This is too much, I cannot and will not go on. . .”

What burdens do the kids you know and love carry? What burdens do your friends carry? What burdens can we carry for them?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Art That Moves Me. . . And Maybe You Too. . .

When I was young, there was something in me that wanted to respond. Still, I couldn't. "I don't see it" and "I don't hear it" were words I thought and sometimes uttered. In my college humanities class the professor would excitedly deconstruct a piece of art or music and I would be lost. "OK. . . I believe you. . . but really???" In hindsight I didn't get it because I just didn't feel it.

As I got older, two things happened. One was that my understanding increased. I was reading folks like Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer. They would talk about staring at paintings and letting the paintings "speak" to them on behalf of the artist, culture, and worldview that birthed them. OK. . . that started to help me make some sense out of it all. I also started to pay a little more attention to the music I was drawn to. . . thinking about the lyrics, researching the back story, and realizing that this was all more than just entertaining background noise.

The second thing that began to open my eyes was the fact that life was happening around me. More specifically, life was happening for and to me. The hopes, fears, joys, sorrows, questions, realizations, and disappointments of my life were combining in a mix that increasingly brought certain musical and visual cultural artifacts to life for me. They were saying what I wanted to say. They were mirroring things I knew to be true. They were taking me deeper and deeper into unseen realities that were offering me hope. Like the young middle school kid who introduced me to the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana some twenty years ago, my explanation for what I was drawn to was quite simple: "This guy's singing what I feel." That's the transcendent power of art.

There's lots of music and art that I'm drawn to. Over the years, there have been some pieces that continue to move me whenever I stop to look and listen. Pearl Jam's classic video to their song "Jeremy" continues to hit me in the gut, even after seeing it hundreds of times. Sometimes the truth art tells is pretty doggone ugly.

Recently, an artist who moves my soul with depictions of often-ignored, overlooked, and unseen realities is David Arms. His "God's Story" painting is amazing. I often refer to it in my mind during the course of a day as a reminder of the big picture that I know is swallowing up my own story. It's a painting that never gets old. In fact, like good art should, it reveals new realities about life every time I look at it.

Yesterday I spent some time on David Arms' website looking at his paintings. It was overwhelming actually. It was like being a kid and popping the lid on a trunk full of treasures. I've decided to spend time over the next few months focusing on and listening to one painting every week for the simple reason that this is art that tells the truth. . . and moves me. I don't want to miss the trees for the forest.

Today, I've been locked in on his painting titled "Free." David Arms describes it this way: "The cross frees us from bondage to all those things that weigh us down…guilt…need for approval…fears – weight that God never intended for us to carry. But He freed us and made available to us a peace that passes all understanding."

Wow! I see God and I see myself in this picture. I hope it speaks to you as well.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lessons From JoePa. . . .

Somehow we all sensed that the craziness, confusion, and complexity of the Jerry Sandusky matter would break him down. Sure, Joe Paterno was already aging. But when the announcement came that he had lung cancer, I remember chatting with a friend about the fact that "this might kill him." What we meant by that is that the piling up of multiple burdens would weigh him down and wear him out. Stress is a tricky, powerful, and dangerous thing.

Since the accomplished football coach died on Sunday, the media and Internet have been filled with remembrances, memorials, and debates over what the man's legacy will ultimately be. One thing we're hearing and reading over and over again is the way Joe Paterno sought to instill life lessons and character in his players, his team, and his institution. At heart, I think Paterno evidenced an old-school modesty and thrift that we don't see so much anymore. He made millions, yet continued to live in a simple ranch home in State College. That's refreshing. His present and former players are uniting in a chorus of praise that doesn't seem to be coming from polite respect in the wake of a death, but from genuine heartfelt love for a man who shaped their lives. If one thing is clear, it's that Joe Paterno endeavored to teach more than football. That's a great legacy.

Sadly, there are some other lessons that can be learned that I'm sure nobody expected to be learning from Joe Paterno and the circumstances that overshadowed everything else during his last couple of months.

First, there's the lesson that life is brief and fleeting. I don't know if Joe Paterno coached longer than any previous college coach, but he coached for a long, long time. He coached long enough to win more games and acquire more accolades than any other Division I football coach. But now it all seems like a blink of the eye. On Sunday, we sang these words from Isaac Watt in his hymn "O God, Our Help In Ages Past": "A thousand ages in thy sight, are like an evening gone; short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun." Yes, life is short. If we fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, we might put off the serious business of living each day as we should.

Second, we can never be fully prepared for the unexpected circumstances and situations that life throws us, but they will come. And because they will come, we need to be as ready as we can be to face them. While we don't know the particulars, we know they will be. If you've ever been through the detonation of a circumstantial "bomb" that's been carefully built and detonated by someone you trust, you know just what I'm talking about. In this case, it's family members, friends, and co-workers who saw and heard things they never expected and really didn't want to believe. This is a common-thread in stories of sexual abuse and secret affairs. I sometimes wonder if we don't have some kind of default setting that kicks in during times like these. . . . something that fools us into believing that we didn't see or hear what we just saw or heard, or that tells us that "this person could/would never do that thing." But we need to realize that in a broken and fallen world filled with flawed human beings (everyone of us), stuff happens. And while denial might be our initial reaction, we need to fight it in order to see the truth. When one fills themselves with the truths of God's Word, it's healthy realistic thinking that is more likely to prevail, over and above the positive thinking that we somehow think will push back what's happened in a mind-over-matter way that we think will make good prevail while erasing what happened. In Joe Paterno's case, I really think he was so blown away by something so unbelievable and so unfamiliar, that he didn't initially know what to do.

Which leads to number three. Over the course of the last year or so I've been listening and re-listening to Tim Keller's incredible sermons on Wisdom from Proverbs. Amazing stuff. Keller says that wisdom is "not less than being good or moral. . . but it's a lot more. It's being so in touch with reality that you know the right thing to do in the large majority of life situations that the moral rules don't directly address." In Joe Paterno's case, one could easily argue that there were moral rules that apply. I agree. But the lesson here about wisdom is that it needs to be carefully sought out and cultivated. The source of that wisdom lies in our Creator. The sovereign God of the universe has made it possible for us to cultivate and nurture that kind of wisdom into ourselves. Of course, we've got a culture that pushes back with effective propagation of foolishness. That's all the more reason to develop and understand Godly wisdom.

These are the lessons I'm forced to ponder today. . . lessons sparked by a news event that should have us all thinking and talking.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Make Me Over. . . . Please . . . .

Last night I asked our waitress if she was a student. She used to be. She just graduated after majoring in art and photography. Not sure about the job prospects in those fields, but she's waitressing for now. When asked about her love for photography, she said she was trying to build a darkroom in her basement. A darkroom??? I didn't know we still used those things in the digital age. Interesting.

That got me thinking about how photography has changed during my lifetime. Well, not even my lifetime. How about the last 12 years? I remember pointing, shooting, and waiting. . . to finish a roll of film (which sometimes took months) and for the prints to be ready down at the KMart. You know what else? I don't ever remember complaining, being upset, or demanding the destruction of a photo of me that just didn't look right. You know. . . an unflattering pose, face, or angle. Instead, we'd laugh. Sometimes those were the best candid shots we had!

Welcome to the age of digital photography. It's an age with attitudes regarding what makes a picture good or bad thanks to an image-based culture that's set ridiculous appearance standards, while giving us the ability to "snap" more pictures and even digitally manipulate those images to "tweak" ourselves into "perfection." We even have cameras with lenses and viewfinders on both sides. It's all added up into a world where "DELETE THAT!" might just be the most-used phrase in amateur photography.

This morning I'm teaching on teenagers, technology, and culture. One of the topics I want to cover is the new phenomenon of "fabricating self." We used to do this in our imaginations, or in our correspondence with people we'd never met. Now, we do it with our cameras and computers. In a world where insecurity is epidemic and where adolescents go through an even more pronounced and tumultuous period of identity-formation (starting earlier, going later, more intense from start-to-finish. . . if the finish ever comes), the Internet has become an "identity fitting-room" where we try on multiple selves, make ourselves up, and reinvent ourselves over and over again. There's been a kind of "perfect storm" that's set the table for us to even manufacture multiple selves suited to each of the audiences we want to impress. One study from the Girl Scouts found that 75% of girls ages 14-17 agree that "most girls my age use social networking sites to make themselves look cooler than they are."

Have you seen the satirical Adobe Photoshop video that's gone viral over the last few days. I think it captures aspects of what's happening well.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, says that "the screen becomes not a vein of truth, but a mirror of desire." Quentin Schultze says that "the digital world suffocates virtue by allowing us unbridled freedom to be all things to all people. . . to give ourselves over to the highest bidder or to the most persuasive master" (Habits of the High-Tech Heart).

The obsession with image in our culture is growing. It all reminds me of something a friend said to me almost thirty years ago: "You tell me who or what you daydream about all day, and I'll tell you who or what your God is."

Monday, January 16, 2012

M.L.K. And A Good Word for the Church Today. . . .

Today is Martin Luther King Day and we kicked it off with a great challenge here in our Ministry to Emerging Generations Doctoral cohort at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Virginia Ward - one of our students and a person familiar to many folks from her seminars at The National Youthworkers Convention - challenged us to be "pace-setters." That's our calling if we're followers of Jesus, isn't it? Our approach to matters of Christ and Culture (our subject last week in class) will dictate what kind of "pace-setters" we will be, if in fact we will be pace-setters at all.

Virginia then read an excerpt from Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a document I've read in the past. Today, however, these words to the church that King wrote in April of 1963 seemed so timely almost 50 years later. We are not called to complacency. Give them a read. . .

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

Good, good stuff.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If Tim Tebow Had Asked Me. . . .

Tim Tebow was talked about quite a bit on Sunday night, into Monday, etc. That sure was fun to watch, wasn't it? Doesn't matter who it was taking the snap. That's the kind of great finish that we'll be watching over and over again for years.

Tim Tebow was being talked about today as well. USA Today ran this headline this morning: "Shirtless Tebow is Jockey Sex Symbol." When I read the story, my heart sank - more on that in a bit.

Tim Tebow was also being talked about in our Doctor of Ministry in Ministry to Emerging Generations class this morning. Adonis Vidu, our cohort theologian, led a discussion on H. Richard Niebuhr's classic book, Christ and Culture, and the various approaches we take in terms of the relationship between our faith and culture. In a brilliant move, Adonis asked our students to consider Niebuhr's five options in relation to all the buzz about Tebow and "Tebowing." The discussion was very spirited. I threw the Jockey ad campaign into the mix and the discussion got even more lively. It's a discussion that's sure to be continued when we get together again tomorrow morning.

Now. . . for the "more" on the Jockey ad. . . and why my heart sank. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I spent some time today imagining what I would have said to Tim Tebow if he had come to me for advice. You know, asking something like, "Well, what do you think? Jockey's got an offer on the table. Should I take it?"

Let me begin by saying, I don't think there's anything wrong or unChristian about men without shirts. We see it at the beach all the time. But this is not a simple matter of deciding whether or not Christian men should walk around without a shirt on. It's just not that simple. . . although some people might make it out to be. It's far more complex. We need to think about our culture, the issues people are dealing with, and the message Jockey hoped to send. What would the intent of the sender be. Then, how would people in our culture receive it. With that as background, here are some thoughts I would have verbalized to Tim Tebow. . . if he had asked me. . . .

"Don't do it Tim. . . money, sex, fame, and power corrupt. Doing the ads are going to turn up the volume on the very temptations that could easily take you down."

"Don't do it Tim . . . we live in a culture where we are what we look like. Marketing has both created and perpetuates that idolatrous belief. By doing this, you'll be contributing one more compelling message promoting that belief. . . loud and clear. . . that only takes people deeper into this lie."

"Don't do it Tim . . . we live in a culture that increasingly celebrates pornography and feeds lust. No, the photos Jockey will take are not pornographic in and of themselves. But if anyone uses them to lust - and they will - then maybe it's best for you to keep your shirt on."

"Don't do it Tim. . . you are more than an object. You are a human being. You want people to see Jesus through you. You don't want to get in the way. You are a signpost. It seems that you already understand that. Don't compromise on that. You want to remain a signpost pointing to Jesus. You don't want people to only go so far as to lock their eyes on you."

"Don't do it Tim. . . you are a role model. You have been elevated as a Christian role model. Lots and lots and lots of people are watching. Most of them are young and extremely impressionable."

"Don't do it Tim. . . the eyes of the world are on you. They're looking to find or create chinks in your armor. Don't make it easy for them. Now, more than ever, you need to maintain your integrity."

Maybe it's the headline in the U.K.'s Daily Mail that shows us why Tim Tebow and other Christians need to think through context, implications, intents, and fallout: "Praise Jesus! Man of the moment Tim Tebow appears shirtless in new Jockey ad - and surprise, surprise - underwear sales soar."

The pressure's on for Tim Tebow. If he had asked me, I would have told him to keep his shirt on. . . especially in today's cultural climate. There's just way too much that could go wrong. . . if it hasn't already. Tomorrow morning it's my turn to teach our cohort. We'll be talking about the functions of culture. . . including the power culture has to map out our values, attitudes, and behaviors. That's another big reason why I would have advised Tebow in the way I've described.

We need to pray for him as we would for any brother or sister facing great pressure. Let's pray that he makes good decisions off the field.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Following Jesus. . . or Jersey Shore? . . .

The frustration level is growing. It's prompted by one of the many things so many mature Christians are seeing as marks of the up and coming young adult folks who confess to being followers of Jesus Christ. It's seen anecdotally. Research confirms it. Parents, pastors, and youth workers lament its presence in the lives of young adults. Yes, it's been there in many ways, shapes, forms, and manifestations within every generation of God-fearing/following people since humankind's rebellion in Genesis 3:6. But it's nuanced in some interesting ways in today's world. We need to see it, reckon with it, and address it in urgent and grace-filled ways.

I struggle to find words to adequately describe it. But I continue to try. It seems to be a combination of misunderstanding what it means to live out what Jesus tells his disciples in John 16:24 - "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." . . . and a cavalier "I'll embrace faith on my terms, thank you!" attitude that leads to a life that's dis-integrated and incredibly conflicted. The former is indicative of a lack of compelling example and clear instruction from those of us who inhabit older generations and are thus entrusted with the task of contextualized spiritual nurture. The latter is evidence of how young people have eagerly embraced a postmodern worldview and a lifestyle of narcissism. Together, it's a dangerous mix. . . and perhaps even deadly.

Like the young people I meet who confess faith in Christ and then eagerly shack up while seeing no connect between confessed belief and lived-out behavior. No longer the exception, it's becoming the norm. . . which is even more frightening as that feeds these notions and trends.

Last week, a friend was lamenting this reality and said this: "We need to get our kids to read John 3:16 in the Amplified Bible to understand what it means to believe in and follow Jesus." He then quoted what he himself had memorized as a way to humbly remind himself of who he's been called to be: "For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten ([a]unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life." Trusts in. . . clings to. . . relies on. . . challenging words.

This week I've been finishing up my re-read of Nancy Pearcey's Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning in preparation to teach for the next two weeks in our Doctor of Ministry track in Ministry to Emerging Generations at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. The book's subtitle captures what has happened in our culture and what needs to happen. As one example, I can't tell you how many Christian young adults and teenagers I've talked to who say they love Jesus, and then say they love MTV's Jersey Shore. Instead of recklessly relying on the One who created and defines reality, they thoughtlessly and even unknowingly embrace the "reality" of a television show promoting values, attitudes, and behaviors that should make us grieve. Snooki and The Situation define reality, and then show them how to live in that twisted "reality."

Some words I read in Pearcey's book last night are worth passing on and pondering. . .

"Beliefs have always shaped history. . . . The (Nazi) gas chambers disproved once for all any misguided notion that ideas are neutral. Today ideologies determine how the state governs, how the economy is managed, how the news is framed in the media, and how the education system shapes the next generation. Wrestling with worldview questions is no mere intellectual exercise. It should always be done with an overwhelming sense that we are dealing with questions of life-and-death-importance. . . For young people, learning the skills of worldview awareness can literally mean the difference between spiritual life or death. Ideas exert enormous power when set to music in a YouTube video or translated into glowing images on the theater screen. . . . When you go to the theater, do you simply let the story wash over you? Or do you have the skills to analyze what a film is saying? . . . T.S. Eliot once noted that the serious books we read do not influence us nearly as much as the books we read for fun (or the movies we watch for entertainment). Why? Because when we are relaxing, our guard is down and we engage in the 'suspension of disbelief' that allows us to enter imaginatively into the story. As a result, the assumptions of the author or screenwriter may go unnoticed and seep all the more deeply in our consciousness. When we 'suspend disbelief,' we must take care not to suspend our 'critical faculties.'"

May God in His mercy and grace equip us to faithfully follow Jesus and nothing/nobody else, so that we might equip those who come after us to do the same.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Is It Getting Dark In Here? . . . .

OK. . . this one may seem like a bit of a downer. It has to do with the question we've all been asked more than enough times over the last few days - "Did you have a nice holiday?" I've got no problem with people asking the question. Rather, my problem is with the answer I've had to give. . . or at least think about giving if I'm going to be honest. "No. . . it wasn't what I'd call 'good' in the sentimental way we like to think about Christmas. It was actually quite wearying."

Now, the clarifier. . . I encountered an unusually large amount of brokenness, difficulty, and darkness that hit both close to home and in my circle of friends. There was a great amount of physical suffering. . . among both young and old. We're not talking about stubbed toes, the 24-hour flu, or broken bones. We're talking major disease, sudden onslaught of sickness, people knocking on the door of physical death, and even death itself. There was a great amount of emotional suffering. Some of it was caused by imbalances in the brain. Some of it was caused by choices made, circumstances, or victimization. Some was caused by loving on and dealing with those being beaten down by the trials of life. And there was the relational brokenness so many experience.

Yesterday I contributed a question to a very small circle of folks who have been in an email loop in support of a family that is in desperate need of prayer and support. I commented on the fact that the level of spiritual oppression and darkness seems to be escalating, snowballing, and just running wild. One person immediately commented that they were seeing the same. . . a host of unexplained and sudden illnesses, a cascade of broken and disintegrating marriages, and so on. I've talked to other folks who are seeing the same thing. It's like the volume has been cranked up by the hound of hell.

Yes, it's dark in here. And, it's getting darker. But we must never lose sight of the fact that God is still God. We must cling to Him and His promises. And, we must realize that in the midst of it all, we must gird ourselves up with a growing knowledge of and reliance upon God's Word.

This morning, I began my day by thinking about the amazing words of Psalm 119. The resolve of the Psalmist is amazing. Over, and over, and over again he states his commitment to knowing and living God's Word. The Psalm is both incredibly beautiful and deeply challenging. And then you hit the parts on the gift of suffering: "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word." (v.67) "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes." (v.71) "This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life" (v.50).

I often remind my kids (and myself) that they should fill the well of their hearts up with God's Word. Life is sure to hit points where we will need to draw from what's in there and to draw deep. I've also been blessed to hear from so many sufferers who have been sustained by God's Word.

Today, in the midst of the darkness, may we (me) say with the Psalmist. . .

With my whole heart I seek you;
Let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

Monday, January 2, 2012

So. . . Are You Full? . . . Or, Did Christmas Let You Down Again? . . .

Last week I spotted an article on shopping that classified the different types of shoppers that we are. Appropriate, I guess, in the midst of the busiest shopping time of the year.

The article got me thinking about a shopping phrase I've heard a few times in recent years. . . usually from people who you think would know better than to use it. The phrase? . . . "retail therapy." I got to wondering how entrenched the phrase really is so I googled it and found that there's actually an entry and a definition in Wikipedia. Here it is. . .

Retail therapy is shopping with the primary purpose of improving the buyer's mood or disposition. Often seen in people during periods of depression or transition, it is normally a short-lived habit. Items purchased during periods of retail therapy are sometimes referred to as "comfort buys".

Retail therapy was first used as a term in the 1980s with the first reference being this sentence in the Chicago Tribune of Christmas Eve 1986: "We've become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy."[citation needed]

In 2001, the European Union conducted a study finding that 33% of shoppers surveyed had "high level of addiction to rush or unnecessary consumption".[1] This was causing debt problems for many with the problem being particularly bad in young Scottish people.

Researchers at Melbourne University have advocated its classification as a psychological disorder called oniomania or compulsive shopping disorder.

I find it sad and ironic that at the very time we should be celebrating the coming of the One True Redeemer, we spend our time, money, and effort looking for redemption at the mall. It never works though. Didn't we listen to what John Mayer sang in "Something's Missing"? . . .

I'm dizzy from the shopping mall
I searched for joy but i bought it all
It doesn't help the hunger pain
And a thirst I'd have to drown first to ever satiate

Something's missing
And I don't know how to fix it
Something's missing
And I don't know what it is
At all

As a young child, I thought that all the stuff Christmas morning would bring would fill me up, make me happy, complete my life. But in a few hours, I could see the gauge on my satisfaction level dropping. Then, the next Christmas, the vicious cycle would begin all over again. It's because we look in all the wrong places. Many of us who are Christians complain about the fact that the cashier is not allowed to say "Merry Christmas" anymore. It's "Happy Holiday" only. They took Christ out of Christmas! But so do we when we think that stuff will make us happy.

The late Mother Theresa warned about this empty cycle that so easily entraps: "Once the longing for money comes, the longing also comes for what money can give - superfluities - nice rooms - luxuries at table - more clothes - fans - and so on. Our needs will increase - for one thing brings another - and the result will be endless dissatisfaction."

Are you there yet? It's been a week and a day since you opened your presents. If you're feeling empty, don't be surprised. That's why we have Christmas to celebrate in the first place. He's the "something missing" . . . and He came to fix it.