Not that Kind of Baptist

Is it time yet?

         The marking of a new year on our calendar exerts a power on our imaginations.  Suddenly, the lethargy and cynicism of the dwindling days is wiped away.  We begin to think of new habits and practices, new disciplines and stories.  Every year I come up with a series of overly ambitious resolutions.  Get in shape is always on the list.  One year it was learning a foreign language.  Another year it was reading specific books each month.  

        I find that my plans are almost always overturned a few days into their execution.  I have no idea how these statistics were determined, but according to one article, 40% of Americans make New Year's resolutions, and only 8% keep them.   The passage of time as a marker of hope is literally perennial.  In the time it takes for the Earth to make one orbit around the Sun, we have made plans, failed, and then made them again--perhaps dozens of times.

         The Bible has its own language of time.  In the beginning, are the first words.  We are left to imagine if there was time before the beginning.  Jesus' first words in the Gospel of Mark are "the time is fulfilled..."  When Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection in Acts they wanted to know "is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"  There is God's time--known as kairos--and ordinary chronological time--known as chronos time. 

           The human need to control and manage chronos time gets us into all kinds of dilemmas.  We feel the need to forecast the end with apocalyptic schedules.  We wonder if this is the right moment to act or to be silent?  We become experts at procrastination and delay.  

        The poet known as Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes writes that "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. "   Jesus was born "when the fullness of time had come" according to Paul (Galatians 4:4).  And he died for the "ungodly" at just "the right time" (Romans 5:6).

         Hardly anybody knew that the time was full at Jesus' birth.  Seemingly nobody knew that it was the right time for Jesus to die.  God apparently is working on a different timetable than we are.  I'll still make my resolutions, and perhaps I'll follow a few this coming year.  But I will take solace this coming year in the hope that God might just do something surprising and new in God's kairos time.  

in Advent

Slow Down

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As you read this on your electronic device, know too that I write it on mine.  We are both complicit in our acquiescence to the seductive allure of technology.  According to the Pew Research Center, an astounding 77% of Americans own a smartphone compared to 37% worldwide.  It is not hard to imagine that those numbers will increase over time.

I grew up in a home without a television--a fact of which I am grateful--but the TV's absence  resulted in being made fun of in grade school.  Why?  Because, everybody has a TV, or so I imagined.  Now, seemingly everyone has a smartphone.  And it has only taken ten years for this device to take over our lives.  

I recall the advent (a different sort of advent) of the iPhone in 2007.  Think about how much the world has changed since then.  The ways in which information is processed and disseminated have changed immeasurably in ten years.  We cannot keep up with those changes.  Our ability to process change is outflanked by an ever-evolving technological power.  It outwits us at every turn.  We can't appreciate the impact it has on our minds and souls.  

A recent piece in The Atlantic by psychologist Jean Twenge, the author of the book iGen, contains a devastating survey of what we now know technology can do to young people.  Twenge persuasively demonstrates that increased use of smart phones by teens is correlated to higher levels of depression.   Her thesis is simple and devastating: "All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness."  Put simply, our use of smart phones is literally making us depressed, at least according to this author.  Bundled with this dismal forecast is the decline of thoughtful and civil discourse.  

Instead of carefully studying and articulating reasonable positions on matters of public concern, we have the shoot-from-the-hip mentality of social media where instantaneous analysis is meant to supplant judicious thought.  The central conceit of Twitter was that all communication would be limited to 140 characters.  Complexity was thereby reduced to pithy epigrams; acronyms and screen language became our postmodern "essays."  LOL is now ubiquitous, so too is FOMO ("fear of missing out", as in, fear of missing out on something heralded via social media).   Our use of acronyms in lieu of complete sentences has resulted in much merriment and clever locutions, but I fear it has come at the  expense of  the annihilation of our attention spans.  No doubt this blog will be archived for review by some lone cultural historian as one more artifact of a time in which people wrote in complete sentences. 

I laugh (and simultaneously wince) when I see the word "long-form" on the Internet.  It is meant to denote content that is presumably, well, long.  The default assumption is that all which is necessary to communicate can be said in 140 characters (now magnanimously upgraded by Twitter to 280 characters).  

The Bible is famously "long-form."  It does have its Twitter moments though.  When "Jesus wept," the Gospel of John says laconically what other authors would take an entire book to communicate.  Of course, the larger context of "Jesus wept" is the story of Lazarus' death and resurrection, embedded further in a complex series of theological moves by John.  Abstracted from its original narrative and cultural world, the words might be subject to abuse through an internet meme, perhaps accompanied by an amusing or ironic GIF.  Perhaps that's what ails us, we have lost our larger context.  We simply bounce from one errant thought to another.   

I told a friend this week that I now know one way in which I'll nostalgically talk to my children about my own childhood.  This is a trope of growing older: the wistful way in which we romanticize the past for our children.  In my day, we walked to school in the snow a previous generation might have said, adding barefoot for good effect.  We'll say, in my day, we didn't have smartphones.  Our children will stare at us with wonder.  I keep an old fashioned landline telephone in a storage space, a gift from a friend to memorialize the notion that he could always be reached just by picking up the phone.  What is that?  our children ask.  Can any of us really argue we were worse off before the advent of smartphones?   

I dropped Twitter for Lent a couple of years ago.  40 days without Twitter is about what it sounds like: wondrous.  And yet, after Lent there I was, back to my old habits.  

What has had a more profound impact on your life this year: the advent of the iPhone, or Advent?  The coming of the indium tin oxide and lithium ion battery operated smartphone which hums and alerts incessantly? Or the coming of the One who appeared in weakness and vulnerability? 

The One who came to Earth as a helpless child, unaided by Twitter announcements and social media celebrations. The One who is the "image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation."  The One who "by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities..." (Colossians 1:15-16).   That the question may be posed without sounding insane is a sign of the times. 

Advent is an invitation to slow down.  Purify your mind of the ceaseless distractions of our age.  Steep yourself in the richness of scripture and prayer.  Spend time in Sabbath reflection with family and friends.  Await the coming of the One who came to serve.  The One who has already come as a human, the One who comes daily to our heart, and the One who will come again in glory.   

in Advent

Rejoice Always

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As we approach the third week of Advent, we light the candle of joy.  Each week, we do something counter-cultural and from the perspective of those outside the church, perhaps absurd.  We light candles week by week.  One for hope, one for peace, next week for joy, then for love...and then the center candle: the Christ candle.  Hope, peace, joy, love...these are increasingly in rare supply.  

At our house we watched the Muppets' version of Dickens' Christmas Carol this past weekend and had a lot of good laughs.  There is a deep seriousness to Dickens' tale, namely that the cynicism and greed which tighten their grip on our hearts can eclipse the meaning of Christmas.  Christ is not exactly center stage, but human avarice and ill-motive are in steady supply.  As Ebenezer Scrooge is shown the smallness of his vision through his past and present, he sees how his obsession with money and self has done damage to his neighbor, his community, and his own self.  

He had forgotten how to hope and to rejoice.  He had no peace or love in his heart.  The years of counting money had left no time for counting his blessings.  

Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians writes Rejoice always...for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess. 5:16-18).  This is a tall order, doing God's will.  We are used to turning on the news and seeing that a terrorist has claimed that it was God's will to blow up a mosque or a church or a synagogue.  But the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ apparently wills us to rejoice always.  

Cast a glance back at 2017 before it fades into oblivion.  There were plenty of moments that brought tears to our eyes.  There were 406 mass shootings so far in America.  A record number of hurricanes wreaked billions of dollars in property damage and resulted in the death of many human beings.  The Syrian civil war, which has displaced over 5 million Syrians and killed over 220,000 people continued to rage.  The Rohingya people of Myanmar--Muslims in a Buddhist majority country--are facing genocide.   The pain wrought by sexual abuse and harassment was made vividly real by the "silence breakers," those brave women who told the stories of their abuse and broke their silence, often facing threats of civil litigation and outright denials from their abusers. 

You can add several things to this list of woes.  Our increasing global awareness brings the plight of human sorrow to our doorsteps and smartphone screens.  So what do we have to rejoice in?  Paul, despite his multiple incarcerations, shipwrecks, beatings and travails always rejoiced in the work that God was doing in the ekklesia, the body of believers we call the Church.  He told the church at Philippi "I thank my God every time I remember you."  To the church at Corinth he wrote, "Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you."  He always found a way to rejoice in other people.  

The local ekklesia  is just one of the places where we can rejoice in what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do.  We rejoice, too, when we meet the stranger.  Outside the walls of the ekklesia, after the hymns have faded, the scents of Advent candles dissipated, we meet the stranger.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has taught me in his marvelous book The Dignity of Difference, the "Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself', but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to 'love the stranger'" (p. 58).  Let us rejoice in the church, and let us rejoice in the love God gives us which overflows to the stranger.  

Lately as we pray with the children at bedtime, I ask them for whom shall we pray?  As of late, the prayer is for "the refugees."  Mary and Joseph and little baby Jesus were once refugees, once strangers.  They had much of which they could have been fearful.  But one day Mary burst out into song “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46-47).  There is much in which we can rejoice.  There is One who invites us to rejoice always.  May we hear the words of Scripture this Advent first as permission, then as command, to rejoice always.  For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  

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