Monday, August 27, 2012

New Stuff: A Back to School Devotion for Youth

Well, it's back to school time again!  I know!  Stinks, doesn't it?  I mean, can you believe that Summer is already over?  As always, it went by fast!  A new school year can mean different things for different people. Some of us are ready to get back into the school routine and some of us are bummed out. Some of us might be feeling excited to see old friends and make new ones, and some of us might just be sad that summer is over. You might even be a little scared about going back to school because of all the “new” things that you are going to face. You will have to deal with “new” teachers, try and make “new” friends, and some of you might even be going to a “new” school. School is not always easy, is it? And when there are “new” things to experience, it can be even                                                                more challenging for all of us.

Starting a new school year is also a time when we see that many people around us seem to have “new stuff". Some people have new clothes, new phones, new ipods, new backpacks and maybe even a new car. And if we let it get to us, it can bring us down because other people have new” things that we don’t have. When we see a lot of “new stuff" it can even make us a little angry because we want those things for ourselves.  We’re only human, right? I mean, who doesn’t want “new stuff”

The big companies want us to feel envy for what other people have and how they look.  They spend tons of money on commercials and adverting in hopes that you’ll feel envious enough to spend as much effort and money as you can to buy what they’re selling.  And what happens next?  We start comparing ourselves to others, right? When we do this, we get jealous, angry and feel like we’re not as good as other people. This kind of thinking is messed up, and not the way the world is supposed to be!

But let’s face it. We all feel like this sometime. I know I do. The problem with envy is that it leads us feeling unhappy, empty and lonely. Like a cancer, it gets inside us, and starts to eat away at our soul. It's a sickness!  But the great thing is; we don’t have to feel this way! God wants us to know that “new stuff” is not always the things that we can see or touch. By trusting in Him, He gives us a “new” way of seeing life and the world around us! Instead of feeling envy, God can help us to feel love for others and love them because of who they are, not what they have or don’t have!

By trusting in God, he gives us a new way of life that is not based on the stuff we have or don’t have. The “new stuff” that God wants for all of us is on the inside. Let it out! He wants us to love instead of hate! He wants us to share what we have, even when we only have a little! He wants us to not be alone, but live together in families, schools, churches and all kinds of communities! God wants all of us to have “new stuff”, but most importantly, he wants us to have a “new life”! We can have “new life” through Him and by loving each other! Trust in God this school year, and make this a year of “New Stuff”!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lonley Day

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to feel completely alone, even while in the presence of hundreds of people?  You walk through bustling crowds, all the while feeling like you are surrounded by some kind of invisible cocoon.  Everyone seems to have purpose, direction, importance; none of which seem to be connected to you in any way.  Inwardly, we can feel utterly alone, even though our external surroundings reveal anything but.  Henri Nouwen says in his book, The Wounded Healer:

"We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds. The growing competition and rivalry which pervade our lives from birth have created in us an acute awareness of our isolation. This awareness has in turn left many with a heightened anxiety and an intense search for the experience of unity and community. It has also led people to ask anew how love, friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood can free them from isolation and offer them a sense of intimacy and belonging. All around us we see the many ways by which the people of the western world are trying to escape this loneliness….

But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain… We easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know… that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence."  

Loneliness can be both a blessing and a curse.  And this is possibly why so many of us avoid community.  For it is when we are thrust into community that we are confronted by the fact that isolation can no longer coexist with healthy and loving community.  We are drawn to explore what has caused us to embrace isolation in the first place, and this usually means having to face some demons that we've avoided for a long time.  In many ways, community is the antithesis of isolation; still promising troubles and even pain, but also with the promise of unity.  

The above video by System of a Down seems to really seems to capture the feeling of isolation that exists in so many pockets of our culture today.  Only when we decide to come out of our self-made cocoons, will we begin to see that real community is possible.  But we have to take the chance together.  Community cannot be accomplished within the vacuum of self, but can only be found when we join others in mutual isolation.  Then we begin to realize that we not only share some of the same sort of feelings, but also begin to see our feelings of isolation diminish.  Community is a picture of life in it's fullness.  Isolation is a shadow of death. 

Although the world around us can encourage isolation, especially as technology seems to draw us further inward, I don't believe that this is what God created us for.  I believe that God created us to live in healthy communities together, sharing our life journeys.  Especially for those that follow Christ, community holds a special place of importance because we are part of something larger:  the Body of Christ.  Rather than figurative, this is a living breathing organism that only functions at full capacity if all members are fully connected.  This is why isolation can be so debilitating.  When we are removed from the living Body that we are naturally supposed to be part of, we feel the pain of separation, just as one would with the loss of a limb or an internal organ.  When isolated, we feel sick, irritated, angry, frustrated, sapped of energy and less than human.          

In the Gospel of John, Jesus paints one of the most beautiful pictures of community found anywhere.  When Jesus says,"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”, it is not simply a sentiment that the disciples were to carry in their hearts for one another.  But this command comes after Jesus humbles Himself to wash His friends' feet.  He calls His friends to "love one another" only after He has physically shown them what love really means.  And that kind of love cannot exist in isolation, but only within the presence of loving community that is willing to put others first.     

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Best Day Ever

Yesterday was a good day.  In fact, it just might have been the best day ever.  That is, unless you were to consider today, which consequently was the best day ever.  And if we happen to meet somewhere tomorrow, I will declare with certainty, "Today is the best day ever!"  Let me explain.  In order to keep two nine year old boys occupied for the afternoon, and also keep my sanity, I decided to take my youngest son Lucas, and his best buddy Braden, to Putt Putt Fun House; our local Arcade/Miniature Golf/Laser Tag/Bumper Boats/Bowling/Pizza Eating/Rock Climbing/Over-Stimulating/Sugar High Inducing....well....Fun House. It originally only offered miniature golf, back in the 80s; hence the name Putt Putt Fun House. They had go carts at one time, and it was a great place for dates in high school, but I digress.

Putt Putt is the only place in town where you can spend $10 worth of game tokens in order to proudly redeem your winnings for $1 worth of prizes and feel like a champion and millionaire, all at the same time. Yesterday was no exception. Since I only allocated them a few bucks each, both boys decided early on that it would be more efficient to combine their prize tickets in order to redeem a higher quantity and quality junk, and since they are practically inseparable these days, I agreed that it would be a safe transaction. After about 20 minutes of Las Vegas style junior gambling, they made their way to the ticket calculating machine to see how much Lady Luck had graciously bestowed upon them. Their excitement increased as they fed stacks of orange tickets into the hungry mechanical cage cashier. When they began to realize that they were going to end up with an excess of well over 2000 tickets, they high-fived each other, agreeing that sharing in the glory was much better than individual acclaim. So far, it was a pretty good day!

 As the ticket feeder produced a grand total of 2289 points with much pomp and circumstance, Lucas suddenly declared, "This is the best day of my life!" The best day of his life? Really? Have I done so badly a job as a dad that this is his best day so far? I mean, we just got back from a week long vacation, two days of which were spent at one of the biggest water parks in the country, and this is your best day? Are my son's expectations of life really that low? What will his worst day look like? Do I suck as a dad? "This is the best day of my life!" Wow! "Lucas, my son. I love you! But you really need to get a life! Please! Before you get too old and the best day of your life ends up being......"
There I was, watching my son have the best day of his life, when as always, when I let my guard down,   some deep theological truths hit me between the eyes through the simplicity of life. As always, I realize that the complexity of life does not always make us more efficient, more profitable, better or happier for that matter. When you get right down to it, contentment in life comes in the brief moments when we simply breath in and out and realize that this is all we have, all we need.  In reality, this was the best day. Through the eyes of my son, I was transported into a radically different view of life, and it was the best day of our lives. Right there. Right then. Why? Because it was the only day we had access too, right at that very moment. How could it not be the best day?

This is how kids look at life; from day to day, hour to hour, second to second. Their minds don't jump ahead at how things could be better, because they usually see what is before them as the best. They don't lament and ponder why yesterday wasn't as good, because yesterday was the best up until now. And if it wasn't the best, they've already moved on because that's just how their minds work. They see life at it's best and I think this is exactly what Jesus was getting at when He said, "I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God's kingdom. What's more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it's the same as receiving me." (Matthew 18:3-4 MSG)  According to Jesus, the best is the Kingdom of God. Kids see the best. They see the Kingdom, and through their eyes exists a doorway to God's Kingdom that comes to as close to fruition as we can get. The Kingdom of God is here. It's the best day ever.

Living in the moment is not an easy concept for us to grasp, especially as we grow older.  Our lives continue to accelerate as we tirelessly strive to find the best.  Tomorrow will always be better than today, and today does not ever seem to be quite as good as yesterday.  How often do we contently rest in the realization that the best is here and now, realizing that the moment is literally all we have.  As much as we would like to, we can't exist one second in the past or one second into the future.  We exist moment by moment.  Why are those moments not considered to be the best, regardless of circumstances?

As I reflect on the simplicity of my son's words yesterday, I'm reminded that God expects no more from us than this.  After all, He taught us to pray for our "daily bread".  Not complain about the dry bread from yesterday, or anxiously fret because we may not have bread tomorrow.  And as He stands by, watching us count up our winning tickets and redeeming them for junk, I think He simply longs to hear us declare, "This is the best day of my life!"

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Right" and "Left" are Just Directions

Just in case you haven't noticed, we are right in the middle of an election year. If you haven't been inundated by political views and election rhetoric, you either live in seclusion, or you may just not care. I must admit, I find myself falling into the second category as of late. Now before you accuse me of being un-American, please don't get me wrong.  It's not that I don't realize the importance of our political system. I believe that the US has the best system of electing government leaders in the world, and for the most part, it works:  For the most part.  However, It seems that I am becoming just a tad more disenchanted, and growing more apathetic as we hurtle toward November. And with the addition of the gay vs. straight issue, chicken vs. Oreos, or any other debate-fueled flavors of the month, I'm getting a little angry as well.  Not angry because of disagreement, but more angry at the divisions that inevitable evolve.  Divisions in our culture and divisions within the Church.
So as I sipped on my third cup of coffee this morning, I asked myself: "Why?" Why is this Presidential campaign beginning to raise more division and frustration than excitement?  It's funny, almost comical, but when you look at our current political situation from God's point of view, it doesn't seem quite as important as we make it out to be.  I often imagine God looking down upon His creation, shaking His head and thinking to Himself with a sigh, "Really?"  And regardless of political affiliations, wherever you decide to enjoy your fast food or find romance and intimacy, within the Kingdom of God there is essentially no "right" or "left".  No "We're right!" or "You're wrong"  No gay or straight.  No douche bags or hate mongers.  No homophobes and no Fundies.  To be honest, I'm sick of the whole "us" and "them" debate, and I'm beginning to see that most of us are proceeding in the "wrong" direction anyway.   Back and forth we go on a swing of insanity, desperately striving to "win" at whatever the cost.  But do we really ever win?

Despite our arrogance, scripture tells us that we tend to screw things up even when we know what's good for us.    In Proverbs 14:12, it tells us "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." Just when we think we have it ALL figured out, BAM! We fall on our proverbial asses.  Sure, God picks us up, dusts us off and gives us chance after chance after chance.  Oh, sure.  We promise to do better.  Remember the members of Congress gathering on the steps of the US Capital singing God Bless American in unity?  They claimed that we were united and there existed no Republicans and no Democrats: only Americans.  How quickly we forget, right?

Well, I'm afraid that we are finding ourselves in the midst of more disunity than ever before; within our culture and the Body of Christ as well.  In fact, many older friends of mine have claimed that such disunity has not existed in their lifetimes; not even in the late 60s.  As humans, we find it difficult to find consistency, don't we?  We swing from one extreme to the other, finding it almost impossible to locate middle ground.  We don't like the hiking trails in the park as much as we do the swings. We seem to find the straight and narrow path that God has specifically designed for man to follow, but our selfishness gets in the way and we drift off in our own directions.  We run to the swings and lull ourselves into a pattern of back and forth mentality that numbs us from the true unity that Christ calls us to.  We react rather than interact.

When I think about it, I'm not really conservative and I'm not really liberal.  I hate labels.  I try not to classify myself as either, just because a particular leader, teacher or pastor tells me which way I should lean. And I surely don't think God leans one way or the other. I don't think that God considers Himself to be "American" and I don't think God endorses a particular presidential candidate. I don't think God is a member of any particular church and I don't think any one pastor or teacher is His favorite. God is neither "right" nor "left". He is.

God tells Israel through the prophet Isaiah, "Whether you turn to the right or the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." Pretty simple. Pretty straight forward. So at least for today, I'm going to walk His path for a while and just be. I'm not going left and and not going right.  I'll choose to jump off the swing, take a deep breath and walk down His path for a while.  And if I decide to go back and sit in the swing, I'm just going rest on it.  Feel the wind against my face and listen to His creation around me; creation that exists in complete unity around us.  And I just might enjoy a Chick fil A sandwich and an Oreo for desert.  Sounds pretty good when you think about it.