The Trouble with Offering Religious Goods and Services

I write books about Christianity, prayer, and spiritual practices, so you could say that my books could be considered religious goods in a consumer society.

When I sit down to write these books, I’m always trying to think of ways I can minister to and help my readers. However, drawing a line between helping readers and telling them what they want to hear can prove challenging to authors.

Staying positive, giving a “Rah, rah, you can do it!” message of abundance and prosperity may sell well. Honestly, there is a positive element to the Christian message that can take on a life of its own at times, but there are two big caveats that I’ve found in genuine Christian spirituality:

  1. Abundance and joy is preceded by a surrender or death to certain priorities or ways of living.
  2. Abundance and joy rarely look the way we imagine they will look.

While writing Flee, Be Silent, Pray, I was constantly trying to avoid a consumer-focused sales pitch for contemplation:

  • Cure your anxiety!
  • De-stress!
  • Find inner peace!
  • Find security in God!

These are all results that come over time in contemplative prayer, but they are not necessarily guaranteed, especially in the short term.

Contemplative prayer can offer a deeper, more foundational fix to these issues by addressing them as part of the larger picture of prayer, identity, and surrender.

When Jesus spoke of the life he offered, he certainly used terms that we would associate with abundance–springs gushing with water or trees that are plentiful with fruit. He also warned that our lives must go into the ground and experience a kind of “death” in order to produce fruit.

There really isn’t a program other than surrender and sacrifice to a loving but unseen God. It’s not easy, and oftentimes it’s counterintuitive to wait in silent expectation.

The sales pitch, to use consumer language, for contemplative prayer is summed up more or less in the word surrender. It’s much easier to add something than to give something up! That’s what makes consumerism so powerful.

When Thomas Merton shared the writings of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, both offer a demanding path forward that involves sacrifice, discipline, and purity of heart. Yes, they wrote of the deep love of God for us, but they also oriented their lives around this pursuit.

We need contemplative prayer because it offers a simple yet structured way to become present for God each day. Silence and resistance to distracting or afflicting thoughts through a prayer word can open up a space for God that we didn’t even know we could find.

Arriving at this point is hardly easy going. It’s costly. It’s a leap of faith. It calls for the disciplined pursuit of God through surrender and silence.

Far from providing yet another spiritual good or service to acquire, contemplative prayer in silence before God will challenge us to surrender what we have.

Our hope is that what God gives us in return will far exceed the worth of whatever we can purchase on our own.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Did Thomas Merton Predict the True Impact of Technology?

What do we make of someone productively typing on a sleek Mac computer?

What do we think of someone efficiently swipes left and right, up and down, on a well-cared-for iPhone?

It’s likely that we will think this person is organized, successful, hard-working, and even wealthy. In fact, iPhones are often associated with wealth:

“Economists at the University of Chicago recently published a paper (PDF) with the National Bureau of Economic Research that examined the best indicators of wealth over the last few decades. And it found that in 2016, the last year it analyzed, there was a 69.1% chance of accurately guessing that a person was wealthy if he or she owned an iPhone.” Fortune

Them reality that I have found, as a user of fairly dated but still functioning Apple products is that the source of my efficiency and work can easily become the source of my fragmentation and distraction. I have felt the pressure to be on social media for the sake of my work as a writer, and so technology becomes a highway of sorts into the collective anxiety, rage, and fears of our culture.

What if we stopped imagining that the person on a phone or computer all of the time could actually be in a state of danger? Perhaps the sleek, efficient device at someone’s fingertips is more of a threat to their mental, physical, and spiritual help than a help?

I probably lean more toward a heavier use of technology than the average person since I live far from all of my family, I work remotely, and all of my colleagues are far away. I need a phone and a computer for almost everything I do for my work, and that has prompted me to seek limits and barriers so that I can track my use and prevent myself from slipping into overuse and the fragmentation of disconnecting from reality as a stream of updates flows in front of me.

Thomas Merton’s book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has been deeply formative for me over the past two years, and he was quite prophetic about the impact of technology on humanity.  I’ll leave you with a few quotes to consider, including a passage he quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

*****

It does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration. It is bad form to say such things, to recognize such possibilities… The fact remains that we have created for ourselves a culture which is not yet liveable for mankind as a whole.

Never before has there been such a distance between the abject misery of the poor (still a great majority of mankind) and the absurd affluence of the rich.“ pg. 67-68

*****

“Technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own. Needless to say, the demands of ethics no longer have any meaning if they come in conflict with these autonomous powers. Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way.” pg. 70

*****

“I thoroughly agree with Bonhoeffer when he says:

‘The demand for absolute liberty brings men to the depths of slavery. The master of the machine becomes its slave. The machine becomes the enemy of men. The creature turns against its creator in a strange reenactment of the Fall.’“  pg. 71

What They Don’t Tell You about 30 Pieces of Silver

Here’s the thing about 30 pieces of silver: you can buy a lot of stuff with 30 pieces of silver.

You could buy a pretty big field with that kind of money.

The people who have the power and resources to pay you that kind of money will demand respect and regard. Don’t rock the boat with them.

What can the people in front of you deliver today? Can they beat 30 pieces of silver?

Who knows what could happen next. Is there any guarantee about tomorrow? Doesn’t it sound wise to steward those 30 pieces of silver well?

You could invest those 30 pieces of silver and get yourself some security for the future. You could even donate some of it to charity.

Are you really giving up so much for those 30 pieces of silver?

Doesn’t wisdom say to make alliances with people who can take care of you, give them what they want, and take your 30 pieces of silver to the bank? Wouldn’t that be the respectable thing to do?

Don’t look at the consequences or fall out of your choice. Compromise always has some unsavory aspects. But focus on the prize: those 30 pieces of silver.

You’ll be set up for years to come with 30 pieces of silver. You may not have the higher moral ground, but the higher moral ground isn’t going to protect you, offer security, or take care of the stuff you worry about at night.

They didn’t tell you how great those 30 pieces of silver are.

You can buy a lot with 30 pieces of silver.

The Trouble with Comparing Politics in the Roman Empire to America

I can’t recall how often I’ve heard Christians quote Paul’s approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy.

Then again, I’ve also lost track of how many times I’ve heard Christians quote Jesus’ approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy. The trouble that I have found in both approaches is that both assume too many things when aligning the Roman Empire and America today.

Sure, there are plenty of ways that America has brought benefits to its citizens and to people around the world. However, America has also been a force of colonial power and oppression both to the Native Americans in our land and among certain nations around the world. And having said all of that, there is no American leader who claims to be a deity and demands the worship of its citizens.

Dissent in America is welcome and protected by law. Even in the worst case scenario of a citizen taking up arms against the government, there should be a legal process—although that will play out differently in some cases since a black man holding a cell phone may be shot dead by police, while a group of white extremists can take over federal land and then walk out of court free men. Inconsistencies aside in American justice and policing, no one is going to be tortured for days via crucifixion for leading an opposition political party or for opposing the government. The closest America came to this Roman practice of “justice” was the lynching of black Americans, although David Cone points out that this traumatic act of intimidation and terrorism was intended to suppress the black population and to enforce white supremacy.

Jesus and Paul operated in a time of Roman colonial power and exploitation. There were no elections to determine if Caesar would be in charge. There were no political parties. Any kind of political organizing was viewed with extreme suspicion, and it was the mere perception of Jesus’ political aspirations that drove the Jewish leaders to conclude that they would lose their city to a Roman army if Jesus was allowed to continue walking around when people called him their king and Messiah. Their fear of Roman reprisal was so great that Caiaphas concluded it was better to kill a single man, even if he was innocent, then to risk calling the attention of Rome’s touchy imperial leaders.

Living when and where he did, it’s preposterous to use the example of Jesus to assert that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics at all or that Jesus never would have supported government programs like healthcare or social security. Rome just plundered people, period. Under the circumstances of crushing military rule, extreme taxation, and minimal resources or political friends, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus had no other option than to be generous with each other. If they asked the Roman government to give them better services, they would have likely ended up on a cross. If the government only serves the interests of an imperial power, the best that you can hope for is to stay out of its way and to help others when you can.

In the case of Paul, there were even greater concerns that the Roman government and local officials reporting to them would get in the way of his missionary work. Paul and his companions faced imprisonment, beatings, and death, among many other daily attacks and slanders. We shouldn’t expect Paul to suggest working with this government, and we certainly shouldn’t expect him to rally anyone to lobby for legislation. He knew that his only option was to stay off the radar, to be cooperative as often as possible, and to avoid any kind of agitation that would hinder his missionary work or put the churches in danger.

Today, we can elect our government officials and enact policies that can help or hurt individuals. We can charitably debate which political party or ideology is most in line with the command to love our neighbors, honoring the God-given dignity of individuals, and cares for the sacred creation of God, but I don’t think you can argue against the need to vote on politicians and policies for the sake of our neighbors and creation.

I can’t imagine that Jesus or Paul thought of themselves as setting up a once and for all time policy on government and voting. They were trying to survive under the boot of a powerful Empire, avoiding allegiance to an idolatrous and corrupt regime without raising suspicions unnecessarily.

Can we imagine a Civil Rights movement today without the language of Scripture and the law of love resonating throughout the sermons, speeches, and marches?

Today we have the power to use our votes for the welfare of our neighbors, to set up a government that treats all with justice and equality. We all have a part to play, provided that we are wary of being played by the government when it hopes to exploit religious groups for its own gains.

It’s My Wounds vs Your Wounds: Finding the Path to Mercy

How often are the wounds from my past fighting the wounds from someone else’s past? Would that help me to respond to others with more compassion and mercy?

Seeing my interactions from this perspective drives home the importance of my own soul work. If I don’t make the space for healing and grounding my identity in my true self that is united with God’s love, then there isn’t much of a chance that I’ll show mercy to others. I’ll either react out of defending my false self, which has become a safety mechanism for my pain, or I’ll just react out of the anger that I’m feeling in the moment.

Richard Rohr writes often that we can’t dismiss our pain until it teaches us what we need to know about ourselves. My anger has been an unwelcome but important teacher.

What is feeding this anger? What drives it?  For a while I couldn’t even put my finger on it. It was just present, and when something or someone agitated me, I could feel anger rising up to explode.

The agitations and conflicts of daily life have been too much for me some days, and I’m learning that there is a reason for this.

Yes, anger is the perceived denial of a right, but is there a legitimate reason for the anger in my life? Did its formation come from the denial of something that was an honest to goodness right? I think that is often the case.

That begins to move us away from an unhelpful view where anger is always wrong or sinful. Anger can go horribly wrong, but it may well be the symptom of an issue that can be faced with compassion and mercy.

If my anger is repressed, then it continues to boil and simmer in unseen but very real places in my life. And anger has to be faced because it is a teacher.

Once I’ve faced my anger, I’m able to move toward healing and to recognize that the many times my anger boils, it’s often not because of a particular person or event. If I can ever get beyond the sources of my own anger, then perhaps I can find the capacity to hold the anger of another person with compassion and mercy. Perhaps I can imagine that this person has his/her own pain and wounds that are fueling the anger directed at me.

I confess, I’m not there yet, not by a long shot.

This gives me a deeper awareness and appreciation for the ministry of Jesus. He was a man of sorrows who suffered alongside humanity. He bore our sins, weaknesses, and failures as one of us. He had the capacity to bear the weight of the world’s wounds, and he came as a doctor intent on healing all who trusted themselves with him.

Jesus could see beyond the ambition, power, and evil of his executioners, pleading with God the Father, “They know not what they do!” Even as he bore the wounds of their torture and the excruciating pain of his final moments, he remained compassionate on the people set on destroying him.

There are plenty of barriers that could keep me from showing compassion to others, but perhaps the most limiting are my own wounds that keep me burdened with my false self and my anger over the very real failures of my past.

With the stakes so high over my ability to show compassion and mercy toward others, let alone to bear their burdens alongside them, the soul work of facing my anger takes on even greater urgency and importance.

May God’s presence and healing bring us the healing and wholeness we need in order to love and serve others with the compassion they so badly need.

The Pain from the Past Will Always Come Out

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The other day I wrote down a little list that was more honest than I wanted to admit:

I spent my 20’s angry over my pain.

I spent my 30’s anxiously avoiding my pain.

I hope to spend my 40’s healing from and transforming my pain.

There’s a lot of overlap to this list, but it rings true to me. There was plenty of pain in my childhood, but I think as a kid I tried to rationalize that I needed to get on with things and keep going like my friends.

My anxiety and fear came out in the forms such as rapidly blinking my eyes, chewing on pens, tapping my foot, and stomach aches every morning. My body knew that something wasn’t right in some of my family relationships, but I didn’t have a baseline to hold them up against, so I tried to just ignore it.

Most people know me as a typical 9 on the enneagram chart who seeks to make peace, to hear all sides, and to work toward common goals. That is who I am, but it’s not ALL of who I am. Underneath it all is a simmering anger. Some days the anger doesn’t appear to exist anymore. Some days it feels like a raging storm that I can barely contain. Part of the root of that anger is the pain from my past, and it will not be denied.

The pain will come out, whether through blinking eyes, anxiety attacks, or an angry outburst, I can’t run from my pain forever.

In the process of doing my soul work, I keep bumping into the reality that I need to face this anger from my past. It’s going to come out, and it has been coming out.  I could very well pass on my anger and pain to future generations if I don’t deal with it sooner than later.

The question though is, “What does it look like to confront and heal from the anger of my past?”

For my 20’s, I thought that the core problem of my pain was the church and the betrayal of institutions and individuals who promised certain results if I could only buy in with the program and do what the leaders wanted. My anger at the church was rooted in a sense of abandonment and criticism of a wider Christian culture that has been exposed as power-hungry at all costs.

In my 30’s I tried to stuff the anger down, to move on with my life. I had so many exciting things going on. I published a book before turning 30, and I imagined that I had many exciting ministry opportunities opening up before me. I served in prisons and spoke at churches. I thought that I had the right path to pursue.

And yet… something wasn’t right. The anxiety grew stronger and stronger. The anger never really left me alone, and I became more and more dependent on checking out from life. I began to rely on distractions to deliver me from the anger and anxiety that had become so powerful in my life.

This is where contemplative prayer began to offer an alternative path for my pain. I have been learning through contemplation and related spiritual practices to remain present before God just as I am. In my surrender and sacrifice of self, I am learning that the wounds I had long identified with are not who I am.

My pain has been a part of my identity for so long that I didn’t know who I was without it. It never occurred to me, for instance, that I could look back at my past and rage on behalf of the terrified little boy who faced so much conflict. I could stop running from my anger and sit with it because that anger had a basis, even if it lacked the authority and power to come out during my childhood.

God is present in that anger in its pure original form. If I run from it, then I’m running from the God who wants to bring healing and presence into my life. God wants the anger of my past to come out. The methods of avoidance and distraction are doubly tragic because distraction hardly offers the healing it promises and I miss out on the healing that God could bring to my life.

I don’t dare tell anyone what to do with their own anger, but I do have a thought for folks who meet someone who is angry.

When I expressed my anger against the church, I generally heard some variation of this, “Quit complaining and do something useful.” Anger is denied and stuffed down among good, polite Christians.

While I didn’t always present my valid or constructive criticisms of the church with tact, I did have a lot of pain. Lacking a healthy way to face it and to seek healing meant that I opted for the nearest target for my frustration and anger.

The most helpful conversation I had at that time was with a pastor who said, “I hear your frustration. Can we talk a bit?” The more we talked, the more he gained my trust enough to tell me, “I know that you’re frustrated by the church, but I don’t think this is just about the church.” He knew that my anger and rejection was part of a larger challenge in my life, and so he was free to listen to me without feeling attacked or defensive.

This is a tall order, but if I don’t seek healing for my own wounds, how can I expect to be present to help others process their own wounds?

If I’m still living in defense of some false self that is grounded in my religious identity, how can I respond with grace when those with wounds rage against it?

My anger and pain will come out. that can feel humiliating sometimes, as if I’m not strong enough to resist it, to soldier on, and to put on a happy face.

The instant I encounter some conflict or my BS detector goes off with a compromised religious leader, anger almost overwhelms me.

Other times I run into a stressful situation, and my anxiety overtakes me before I even realized what has happened.

The anger and pain will come out, and so the matter isn’t whether I have the strength to stuff it all away. I need a different kind of strength. I need to be strong enough to face the truth, to be strong enough to look at the sources of my anger and anxiety, and to be strong enough to carry this pain to the God who bears our burdens, letting go of them without a guarantee of what will come next.

Evangelical Men Raised on Braveheart Became Cowards

Imagine you’re standing in a line of soldiers preparing to charge the field in battle.

Your commanders ride back and forth on their massive horses, neighing and rearing up in preparation for the coming battle. They shout about honor and bravery, calling you to fight to your dying breath for the high ideals of your people.

Falling back at this moment is a betrayal to everything you believe.

All of history is pivoting on this battlefield, and your duty is to charge forward in fighting for these ideals that your enemy despises.

You’ve trained yourself for years for this moment. You’ve deprived yourself of things that many others take for granted. You’ve learned how to become a warrior and have surrounded yourself with many others committed to the same ideals and values.

As the enemy slowly advances, you charge the field with your fellow soldiers, willing to give your life for this cause that could turn the tide of history.

Then, you notice something out of the corner of your eye…

There’s only a small group of you who charged forward.

The enemy army on the other side of the field of battle is laughing at you, and their commanders are meeting with your generals. They’re shaking hands and forming an alliance.

As you return to the ranks of soldiers who didn’t charge the field, they’re still praising the commanders and shouting insults at the enemy who threatens them. They’re even more committed to the cause.

Your commander assures you that you’re going to do an even better job defending your values and goals by working with the enemy. They have real power and influence to help you.

“Wait, you shout, our commander just made an alliance with the people opposed to everything we believe in! That’s wrong!”

“Liar! Traitor! You’re not one of us!” they shout. “Don’t you lecture us about what’s right! Who made you our judge?”

And so you walk away, not sure what you just gave your life to, and you ask how much of it all was a lie and complete sham designed to glorify your commanders and generals who had rigged so much of it for their our benefit.

That is what it feels like to be an evangelical Christian these days.

* * *

I was raised in an evangelical subculture of sexual purity, manhood defined by bravery and honor, and benevolent patriarchy that said women had more limits than men, but men were duty-bound to protect and defend women.

Rather than pursuing sex at every turn like the godless masses, we were supposed to open doors for women, defend women the way a knight would defend a princess, and stand up for the truth as people of principle who knew right from wrong.

We were supposed to be honorable and courageous, willing to make sacrifices for the good of others and for our values and morals. If we could make some sort of gain by betraying our values, we were supposed to reply, “No compromise!”

Then Trump and Kavanaugh came along, and the majority of the evangelical culture said, “Compromise is great if the guy can help us!”

It feels like everything I was raised to believe in and value was given a middle finger.

I left the illusion of “benevolent patriarchy” behind a long time ago (and it should be deconstructed in its own time and place), but the evangelical embrace of Trumpism and Kavanaugh is an ultimate act of betrayal against everything we were told our movement stood for. We haven’t even touched on the racism and xenophobia pulsating beneath the surface of the movement. I’m just talking about what the ideals and beliefs that we were told to believe in.

Even the window dressing that masked our many other sins is a sham.

If I had still been immersed in the evangelical subculture and its benevolent patriarchy, I still would have told you that there’s no chance evangelicals would ever support a Supreme Court nominee who had so many credible accusations of abuse and financial impropriety attached to him.

I was naïve. I had thought that our lionizing of courage, bravery, honor, and moral consistency meant something.

The people who criticized Nietzsche based on a Wikipedia skim of his philosophy became the ones to embrace a crass will to power that has destroyed everything they were supposed to believe in.

The people who spent their weekends watching Braveheart and not having premarital sex have fled from honor, morality, and courage in order to support men like Trump and Kavanaugh who have numerous credible accusations of sexual assault and financial mismanagement against them. The promise of power and the protection these men promise is too appealing.

Instead of demanding higher morals, defending the honor of women, and demanding honesty, too many evangelical men have joined the chorus Kavanaugh supporters and doubters of Dr. Ford. They have made themselves fictional victims, imagining an instance of being falsely accused of rape instead of actually addressing the real instances of rape.

They have defended their fragile honor by undermining the God-given dignity of women, thus ensuring the farce of their honor and courage.

The Southern Baptist Convention, whose leadership and leading pastors have been among the most vocal (though not only) supporters of Kavanaugh without reservation or condemnation, are among the most visible of this group of cowards. Even Russell Moore, who entertained that the accusations against Kavanaugh could prove disqualifying, never even once personally tweeted in support of Dr. Ford or the women who have been traumatized (or re-traumatized) by the Kavanaugh hearing.

I can only hope that they recognize right from wrong but are too cowardly to stand up for truth and morality because of what they could lose. I also know that plenty of evangelical leaders have privately expressed their horror at Kavanaugh without publicly standing against him.

When standing up for victims and for their values could cost these men their positions, influence, and power, they have retreated and made compromises that will surely do much to advance their own prestige in their circles of influence but completely undermine what they claim to believe.

Is this not the very embodiment of cowardice?

This is a dramatic fall for men who lionized the warriors of Scotland and who imagined themselves the defenders of women. Reality has shown us that these men are only honorable and courageous in their Braveheart-inspired fantasies.

The Smartphone and Social Media Trap for Christians

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There is no good time to post about the challenges facing the church regarding social media and digital devices. We are living in a time when social media and smartphones can be useful for civic engagement and activism, sharing the knowledge of wise leaders and instant analysis on breaking news events.

However, living in a time when the church could stand to be a place of renewal and spiritual transformation so that we can better engage with the pressing issues of our time, I have seen too many church leaders and Christian media experts who are far too willing to adopt technology without paying sufficient attention to its dark side.

As I offer updates on my research into digital devices and spirituality, I wanted to share a bit about the urgency of this kind of reflection for the church today: 

Growing up evangelical, I learned that sharing the Gospel message matters the most. Any means that I use to share the Gospel is just a “tool.”

So Billy Graham adopting radio was a necessary, if not vitally important “tool” for sharing the Gospel. Of course he should have done that, right? Thousands if not millions heard the Gospel through his radio broadcasts!

Of course there are factors to consider when sharing the Gospel in this manner:

  • What kind of message travels the best over the radio? Are there modifications being made to the message for the sake of the medium?
  • Are the radio messages appropriate for the people listening to them?
  • What becomes of the people who hear these messages on the radio?
  • Can those responding to radio sermons figure out their next steps toward discipleship and Christian community?

That isn’t to say Christians shouldn’t be on the radio. Rather, Christians have generally believed that reaching more people, more efficiently should always be pursued, regardless of the adaptations that must be made or the unintended consequences.

The medium of blogging has tended to reward those who are the most revealing, most sensational, and most combative, so I dare not throw stones from a glass house here. Each medium for sharing the message of Jesus can present particular challenges

If radio and blogging come with such a laundry list of potential concerns, then we should pay particular attention to the movement of most churches to adopt social media in one way or another. More and more denominations and congregations are asking members to bring their smartphones into the service and to USE them.

There are opportunities to tweet questions to sermons, to leave comments on Facebook posts, or to share images from worship on Instagram.

The folks in favor of these innovations use words like engagement, interaction, and community to justify this embrace of smartphones in church.

If we dare to speak about the outreach opportunities on social media, then the barriers between social media marketing executives and church outreach teams start to blur really, really fast.

Social media is where people are spending their time. So, regardless of whether this is good for them, Christians have reasoned that this is the place to have a presence, sharing the Gospel, sending invitations to church, and inviting the “unchurched” to “engage” in the big questions of life.

Once again, writing from my glass house, I share my own writing about Christianity on social media because that is where people are spending their time, whether or not it’s good for them. I am part of the hyperlink game, trying to “capture” the attention of readers with the hope that they may even buy one of my books on Christian topics or sign up for my newsletter.

The only way I can even begin to justify going about the whole social media game like this is whether I can offer a respite, a bit of a refuge in my blog posts, newsletters, and books:

Can I empower people to take more initiative in their daily searches for God?

Can I give them greater awareness of the game being played to suck in their attention?

We’re all compromised to one degree or another, but perhaps we can begin to live with more intention and healthier boundaries by understanding how conflicted the goals of Christianity can be when stacked up against social media and digital devices, such as smartphones.

A smartphone can be useful. It can be a tool. Heck, it even has a flashlight built into it!

But a smartphone exists and the apps on that smartphone exist to collect data about you. The more data they collect, the more profitable they will become.

Yes, Google will help you figure out where to go, but Google is also collecting data.

Yes, YouTube will help you complete a household project, but it also wants you to watch more videos and will continue to suggest another video, then another video, and then another video. The data and ads begin to flow, and it doesn’t really matter what’s good for you as long as the data and ads flow.

Yes, Instagram can be a fun way to share your life with friends and family who are far away, but at a certain point, does it not become a carefully curated presentation of a self and a life that aren’t real? Is this the kind of “curation” we want to invite into church when it’s already challenging enough for folks to be their authentic selves?

I use all of these tools, but having examined the ways they function and the goals behind their designers, I’m not sure about them being neutral tools anymore. They are all designed with an agenda that does not have your well-being or my well-being in mind. Whether or not they “can” be beneficial is beside the point.

The benefits of smartphones and social media are the bait set up in an attractive trap that is designed to maximize user attention and, that word Christians love to use, engagement.

While I don’t think we should necessarily give up on smartphones or social media altogether, we should use them with our eyes wide open. We should know when the goals of these “tools” run counter to the deeper goals of the Gospel to bring us to a greater awareness of God’s love and to love our neighbors more completely.

Engagement and attention on social media or smartphones doesn’t require virtue, love, or community. These industry goals can defy human well-being, let alone flourishing.

If our goal is to draw near to God and to truly become present in love for our neighbors, we should remember that the makers of the smartphones in our pockets (or hands) won’t benefit if we are sitting in silence before God or embracing our neighbors.

An “Outsider” Can Show Us How to Love Our Neighbors

There is a significant benefit to explaining the Bible to our preschool age children: they ask a mountain of questions that help me see the stories with fresh eyes.

For instance, have you ever considered whether the robbers who attacked the man in the good Samaritan story also stole his lunch? What did he eat while he was stuck on the side of the road? Did he have more food at home? Would someone bring his lunch back to him if the robbers stole it?

No doubt the illustrations in our children’s Bible fueled this line of food-related questions, but as I’ve thought of this story over the past few week’s in light of the American government’s increasingly aggressive and cruel immigration policies on the southern border, my children continued to prompt me to look at this story. Outside of their concerns over the man’s lunch, it truly hit home how this story reveals the Samaritan as the hero.

At a time of manufactured crisis and unnecessary cruelty that has been condoned by far too many Christians or simply explained away with “law and order” arguments, many of us have spoken about loving our neighbors.

Are we loving our neighbors if we send asylum seekers back to their violent countries?

Are we loving our neighbors if we separate asylum-seeking parents from their children?

Are we loving our neighbors if our government shrugs its shoulders about reuniting parents and children?

These are all necessary and important discussions about loving our neighbors. There is no doubt that loving our neighbors will have political dimensions because government policies impact real people. Laws and policies aren’t just static givens that must be accepted with resignation.

Immoral or unjust laws and policies that deface the image of God in others should be countered by those who believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” It shouldn’t be a stretch to believe that God cares for the well-being of his creation. However, the Good Samaritan story doesn’t approach love of neighbor from such an angle of advocacy or helping those in need from a majority culture position, let alone privilege.

In this story, the foreign man whose views of the Torah surely offended the listeners in Jesus’ audience was the hero. Jesus brought this outsider front and center, showing that despite his national and religious “barriers”, he had grasped what it meant to love a neighbor well. Love of neighbor extended beyond national and religious boundaries. You could even say that this love eradicates such boundaries.

The man going on the journey in this story is nondescript. His lack of defining features helps us identify with him. He could be all of us.

Any one of us could set out on a journey with certain plans and goals in mind. Any one of us could suffer an unexpected tragedy.

In a moment of need, perhaps I’ll turn to a pastor for help, but he may be on his way to a meeting about electing more conservative political leaders and leave me behind.

Perhaps I’ll turn to the leader of a ministry group, but she has big plans for a revival that she can’t neglect.

Finally, help arrives. It’s not the help I asked for. It’s not the help I expected. The help isn’t from the country or religion that I would have chosen. This is the person who meets me in my moment of crisis and cares for my wounds.

As Jesus sought to pull his listeners out of their national and religious prejudices, he challenged them to consider that the people they tried to avoid at all costs could be the ones who grasped the message of the Gospel best. It could even happen that one day their well-being would depend on the help of one such person.

Politicians seek to inflame hatred and suspicion of immigrants and asylum seekers to ignite the racist, nativist passions of their base for an election.

Jesus asks us to consider that our policies against asylum seekers could keep out the very people who may stop along their journey to help us in our moment of need one day. There’s a good chance that many have already done so on their journey north.

 

 

Do I See Jesus in the People Around Me?

Why don’t I help people who are in need?

The possible reasons are plentiful:

Am I in a hurry? Are financial concerns making me less generous? Do I have other priorities for my time and resources? Do I think someone isn’t worthy of help and needs to be more responsible? Do I believe the other person is just looking for a way to take advantage of me? Do I feel unsafe because the person in need may be high or intoxicated?

Depending on the situation, I’ve been all over the map when it comes to helping others. Sometimes I’ve initiated help, sometimes I’ve responded positively, sometimes I’ve offered limited help, and sometimes I have not offered any help at all. Perhaps money really is tight during that month, but other times I just don’t want to be a sucker. Thoughts of self-preservation can be legitimate at times, but often it’s just a convenient way to sound reasonable in my own selfishness.

When I refuse to help others, the focus is often myself. I’m considering my needs and my personal comfort. I don’t identify with them. That is what makes a passage like Matthew 25 so striking. Jesus identifies with those in need to the point that any generous act toward others is considered a generous act toward Jesus.

Am I able see Jesus in other people?

More importantly, do I see Jesus in the people I am most likely to overlook or to dismiss?

That is the whole crux of how Jesus judged those who helped or neglected to help the sick, immigrant, poorly clothed, imprisoned, and hungry. Those who cared for these people were the ones who, perhaps unexpectedly, served Jesus by serving the overlooked people of this world. Those who neglected them had neglected Jesus himself.

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Matthew 25:40, NRSV

“Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Matthew 25:45, NRSV

It’s as if Jesus is trying to snap us out of our self-centered daily outlooks in order to perceive the God-given worth and dignity of each person.  He wants us to imagine that we are serving Jesus himself so that we don’t get lost in the situation or the worthiness of the other person.

And if imagining such a thing remains a stretch for us when we serve others, perhaps we have a clue to consider the state of our own hearts and our awareness of God’s love for us. If we are even uninclined to serve Jesus himself, then we know we have a focus on self that must be addressed.

The hope is that the generous love of God in our lives transforms us, reminds us daily of how great God’s mercy has been for us, and prompts us to show the same love and mercy to others.