Monday, August 25, 2014

Lightbulbs vs. People


(Catch the audio.)

In 1800, Humphrey Davy invented the electric arc. In 1860, Joseph Swan improved the electric arc concept with the addition of carbon filaments. In 1879, Thomas Edison discovered that putting carbon filaments in an oxygen-free bulb guaranteed that they would burn for up to forty hours. In 1882, Lewis Latimer patented a method for manufacturing carbon filaments.

Of all those listed above, you're probably most familiar with Thomas Edison, not because he was necessarily smarter than the others, but because he was a brilliant product marketer and a shrewd businessman, and while those two qualities didn't ensure that he went down in history as the world's nicest guy, they did ensure that he, you know... went down in history.

In fact, when I was growing up, I knew nothing of the other players in the lightbulb drama. But I did know about Edison. The American school system ensured that these two facts were drilled into my skull: that Edison had "invented the lightbulb" (single-handedly, for all I knew) and that he’d believed in hard work. 

To anyone educated in America, Edison's work maxims were inescapable:

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.  
Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.  
Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. 
There is no substitute for hard work.
  
I have little doubt that Edison did work hard and that he expected a similar work ethic from the Menlo Park assistants helping on the light bulb project (Francis Upton, Charles Batchelor, John Kruesi). I also have little doubt that we could learn a little something about persistence from studying the lives of famous inventors involved in bringing us the lightbulb. 

But I submit that these lessons in persistence should not be limited to our tasks. They should also be applied to our relationships, because the sad truth is that we give up on people too soon.

We give up on people, and they give up on us.

Somehow—perhaps because we're such a consumer-based society—we’ve developed the idea that people can be treated like products: when we are dissatisfied with what we've chosen—or if we've broken it—that’s okay: we can always just get a new one. 

Getting a new one is easier and cheaper than bothering with repairs. Right?

Had a falling out with a friend?  
Get a new friend. 
Difficulties with your brothers and sisters at church?  
Find a new church. 
Trouble with the boss or your co-workers?  
Get a new job. 
Strained relationship with a spouse? 
Get a new spouse. 
Family let you down? 
Define family as "anyone you love" and choose a new family. 

This attitude simplifies life. Right?

Not really. 

Although the idea of avoiding conflict resolution may sound attractive in the short-run, in the long-run, it just creates a lifestyle of chaos.

The vast majority of my friends who have gotten divorced and re-married don't necessarily find their lives simpler because they've done so. Perpetual church hopping inhibits the development of Christian community and hinders spiritual growth. People who constantly switch friend groups because of some drama or another are certainly no happier; in fact, each new switch robs them of the rich possibilities of deep friendship and seems to leave them less content than ever. Those who can't settle into a job because of interpersonal problems are rarely better off in their careers because of the constant switching, and those who have given up on their families are often saddest of all. 

As Christians, we're to act as ministers of reconciliation, a task that cannot be accomplished through a consistent pattern of fractured relationships. 

My challenge to you is to take the same diligence that the early inventors applied to improving the light bulb and apply it to nurturing the relationships in your life.

You may have failed in the past, but start where you are and go from there. Don’t worry if the work is hard or if it takes a long time. Edison purportedly tried thousands of different substances as filaments before he hit on something that worked.

And before you are sent reeling over the concept of sticking with someone even after they've let you down a few thousand times, understand that when Jesus told Peter to forgive someone up to "seventy times seven," he was actually using a metaphor for infinity.

That definitely gives us all something to work on.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Dust vs. Spiders

Wolf Spider
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
(Catch the audio.)

Very few situations in my life induce the same level of sheer panic as that of realizing that there’s a spider in the house.

It doesn’t even need to be a real spider. It could just an irregularity in the carpet or an oddly-shaped piece of lint.

That’s all it takes to send my adrenaline into the stratosphere.


Despite the rather common occurrence of spiders getting into the house, I find that I’m never prepared to deal with them. I don’t want to get close enough to them to catch them or squish them—what if they jump on me and latch themselves across my entire face?

Nevertheless, they must be dealt with.

Yes, I understand the importance of spiders to the overall ecosystem. I just don't see their importance to the particular ecosystem of my kitchen.

That's why when spiders come into my house, I use every panic-conceived method available to eliminate them. I’ve sprayed them with Windex and thrown heavy objects at them and trapped them under boxes. I even smothered one with a Snuggie.

The only thing I won’t do is leave them alone.

Why?

Because this is my home. It’s where I come to rest and be refreshed, and I’d never sleep at night without worrying about one of them crawling into my mouth and then out of my nostrils (thank you, Arachnaphobia).

Contrast the hand-flappy panic I feel over spiders with how I feel about household dust.

Despite it being much more pervasive than spiders—as well as infinitely more disgusting (being a toxic blend of animal dander, pollution, soil, pollen, insect excreta, and dead human skin)—and despite the fact that, unlike spiders, I’m actually likely to breathe it in, I’m somehow able to look on its existence in my home with relative equanimity.

If I even register seeing the dust at all, I will just think, I’ll take care of that on Saturday when I clean the rest of the house. Whereas when I see a spider, I think, I MUST BURN IT WITH FIRE.

Believe it or not, there’s actually a spiritual parallel here.

When the Holy Spirit points out sin in our lives, how do we respond? Do we treat it like dust, or do we treat it like a spider?  Do we allow sin to build up with a shrug, putting it out of our minds by thinking, I’ll just deal with that laterOr do we eliminate it as quickly and efficiently as possible, knowing that we won’t be able to rest until it’s been taken care of?

****

One Caveat: This isn’t a perfect illustration. I know for a fact that a few of you actually love household spiders, foster them in your home, and can list their merits. 

That's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm sure we can still be friends.

Unfortunately, some people deal with sin this way as well.

And that is a bad thing. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

I Couldn’t Think of a Good Title, and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next

Photo Credit: random passerby at Islands of Adventure. Bless.

(Catch the audio here.)

Do all of the articles with the phrase “…and you won’t believe what happens next” tagged on at the end of the title drive you to the brink of insanity and make you fear for the future of humanity?

You’re not alone.

Such titles are irritating, stupid, and worse yet, they’re just plain lazy writing (except, of course, in the case of this post, which is ironic, and therefore clever.)

It’s bad writing, yes.

But perhaps it's good theology.

After all, that’s how life works. It doesn’t follow a tidy script, and what happens next is almost always unexpected.

If you think that living the Christian life exempts you from this phenomenon, then you’ve not taken into account the nature of the God we serve.

While it’s true that His nature doesn’t change, it’s also true that His unchanging nature is so infinite that just by the virtue of His sheer otherness, sometimes it’s still impossible to predict what He’ll do next. 

Even when we might know the what, we very rarely suspect the how.

Adam and Eve sinned while angels looked on;
God said, “You won’t believe what happens next."
Sarah laughed at the promise of a child; 
God said, “You won’t believe what happens next.”
The women wept on their way to the tomb;
God said, “You won’t believe what happens next.”
Saul of Tarsus rampaged toward Damascus, determined to slaughter Christians;
God said, “You won’t believe what happens next.”

And on the examples could go, an ever-widening list unspooling throughout Scripture and traceable down through our own lives.

Life is unpredictable, but whatever happens to us—good, bad, unexpected—can become an instrument of God’s grace in our lives.

So make what plans you will, but don’t set them in stone. Open yourself to intervention from Above, because if there’s one thing that’s true about the Christian life, it’s that you usually won’t believe what happens next.

And let's be honest: that’s sort of awesome.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Three People in the Bed


(Blog audio available here.)

When I’m off on road trips, I almost always stay with family and friends. Not only does this provide us with more quality time together, but it also saves me a bit of money as well. Best of all, actually staying with people in their homes ensures a vast array of stories to tell later.

Like the time there were three people in the bed. 

Or so I thought...

Before your curiosity regarding the (intentionally-provocative) title gets the better of you, I’ll go ahead and tell you what happened.

A few weeks ago, I stayed with a friend in upstate Pennsylvania. Worn out from having attended a conference all day long, I climbed up the ladder to the loft bedroom that we were sharing and turned in long before she did. Some time later, I woke to the sound of her scaling the ladder. She crawled into the other side of the bed, rolled over, and went to sleep. Having been thoroughly awakened, I was working hard to doze back off, when to my surprise only moments later, I heard someone else climbing the ladder to the loft. 

To a mind well-nourished on X-files reruns, Snapped marathons, and Ann Rule's true-crime sagas, this didn’t seem to be a good sign. 

Relax, I told myself. You're staying in a town that has more cows than people, and the only reason that anyone carries pepper spray here is because of the bears. So it’s definitely not a psychotic killerI assured myself that it was probably just my friend’s mom coming up to stick her head in the loft and whisper a question about the next day’s plans. 

Only... whoever climbed that ladder didn’t stop at the top to stage whisper any questions across the room. Instead, whoever it was came all the way up into the loft, tiptoed stealthily across the room, and then crawled into bed with us.

Wait, I thought, duly concerned. Are there actually three people in this bed right now? 

And if so…. WHO’S THE THIRD PERSON?!

Then I woke up and it was morning. 

There were only two of us in the bed.

“At some point last night, were there three of us in this bed?” I asked my friend as soon as she woke up. (The fact that she took this question in stride proves that she’s used to me.)

It didn’t take too long to puzzle out what had happened. My friend had come up, gotten into bed, and upon realizing that she was cold, climbed back down the ladder to fetch an extra blanket. Apparently, I had fallen back to sleep at some point during this process only to awaken just as she was coming back up the ladder the second time. I thought I’d been awake the entire time, when I had in fact been asleep.

That half-consciousness between wakefulness and sleep can be a scary time, especially if we can’t tell if what we’re seeing is fact or fiction.

The fact that I had been asleep kept me from correctly interpreting reality.

Unfortunately, something similar sometimes happens spiritually. 

When we’re spiritually asleep, we’re incapable of telling fact from fiction—lie from truth—dream from reality. Our spiritual slumber allows us to put our own spin on what’s going on around us, leading to mistaken assumptions and false perceptions. 

The fact that we’re not spiritually awake keeps us from correctly interpreting reality.

The scariest part is that sometimes (like with me and the three-people-in-the-bed scenario) we’re not even aware that we’ve fallen asleep.

This is why Paul put out a call to the Roman Christians that the time had come to awaken from their sleep:
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:11-12)
Do you get that? He’s not talking to unbelievers. He’s talking to the church, calling them to wake up.

Spiritual wakefulness—much like actual wakefulness—is a conscious decision that must be made. We all know what it is to hear the alarm clock go off in the morning and make the conscious decision either to heed it or ignore it. On good days, we let it actually wake us up. We bring our heads off the pillow, put our feet on the ground, and open our eyes. We peel off our pajamas, take a shower, brew the coffee, and start the day.

Waking up spiritually requires a similarly conscious effort.

Some of us must first be able to acknowledge that we’ve been asleep. Unfortunately, it’s possible to be lulled into such a sense of spiritual complacency that we’re unaware that we’ve dozed off. In that case, a work of the Spirit will be required to bring us to the point of realization. 

Next, we must appropriate the grace of God to take the steps of waking up—of putting off clothes worn in the night (sin) and putting on the armor of light (Christlikeness): 
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:13-14).
Open your eyes. 

Throw off the shades of sleep. 

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and come truly alive. 


Friday, August 1, 2014

How Social Media Has Made Me a Better Writer and a Better Christian (Part 2 of 2)



(Access the audio here.)

Writers have a love-hate relationship with social media. While they know that they need to be active on the internet in order to extend their reach and gain a wider audience, many of them dread the time it takes away from their writing. 

I happen to love social media, and not just because I'm an extrovert. I believe that its use has benefits beyond gaining an audience and establishing a platform. 

I believe that it's made me a better writer and a better Christian. 

How Social Media Has Made Me a Better Writer and a Better Christian:

#2 - Social media reminds me of the reader. 

Literary pursuits are often solitary crafts: writers spend most of their time writing alone, and readers nearly always read by themselves. 

Sitting in my cold kitchen in the dark, listening to the whirr of my dehumidifier, it’s easy to feel as if I’m alone in this—that I’m the primary focus here, and that what I think, know, and feel is all that matters. But the truth is that every time I write, I enter into an unwritten contract with the readers: I expect them to read what I write, and in turn they expect me to provide something worthy of being read. 

It’s okay to admit it! I know the score.

To that end, I stand in constant need of reminder that I don't write as therapy or for pure self-expression. Writing’s too hard and too time-consuming to be just that; and although it often brings catharsis as a by-product, the real goal is to meet the readers where they are and lead them to what they need. 

Whatever that may be. 

I’ve learned that to reach people, it’s not enough just to know how to write—I need to know them. 

What better avenue for learning about my readers than through social media? Not only do my friends’ posts offer a small (albeit fragmented) window into what they’re thinking, but through my own posts, I can also learn what sparks a reaction—and from whom. 

What reaches them in microcosm can later expand into e-mails, blog posts, articles, essays, books. What sparks nothing either gets shelved or carefully analyzed to see why it sparked nothing… and therefore what sort of introduction would be required to lead readers to understand the value of the topic.

Something similar happens when I teach from the Bible. I don’t prepare my lessons as therapy. Although it’s true that the best lessons often do well up out of the conviction of a deep truth the Lord’s just taught me in my own spiritual life, I don’t teach for catharsis or pure spiritual self-expression. Ministering the Word is too hard to be just that.

I’ve learned that to teach people, it’s not enough for me just to know the Scripture—I need to know them. 
And that’s where social media shows its real limitations. 

It’s neither a good avenue for getting to know people nor for letting them know me.

After all, even those of you who follow closely (but know me solely through social media) have no idea what sort of struggles I’ve been facing over the course of the last year. 
And that’s by design! 

I don’t use social media to express that. Instead I express my joys and the unimportant frustrations: the jumping pictures and the family fun and the pranks; the vacations and adventures; the toothy grins and the jokes and the ridiculous hair.

That’s what I’ve chosen to share, because in my estimation, the world could always use a little more of that sort of thing. What the world doesn’t need are more problems: we each have enough of those on our own.
The point here is that social media isn’t enough: it’s an imperfect connection.

That’s why God set us together in groups: families, church families, and communities. When we purposefully break ourselves off from these, we sever vital connections. We block ourselves from reaching and being reached.

It’s time to come off the page and step into people’s lives.

Yes, social media may help us inch our way toward becoming better writers and better Christians, but it can only take us so far. 

The truly big steps—the giant “Mother-may-I” steps—come when each of us take the time to face life and people in real time, as they really are.