Saturday, June 27, 2009

Come, Follow, Abide--Day Seven

My friends on service projects in Iowa and Kentucky are almost done. Today is my last post in solidarity with them on these trips. You may be amused to learn that while posting this I realized that the Kentucky folks reading this entry this morning will read my misprint: "Jesus told his followers to be afraid." That sentence is missing a really important "not".


I was sitting in my office, listening to a local mainstream radio station, when singer Mindy Smith struck a chorus: “Worry not my daughters; worry not my sons. Child, when life don’t seem worth living, come to Jesus—let him hold you in his arms.” I turned up the volume in disbelief. This was what some Christians refer to as an “altar call”—right there on the radio, on a station not prone to altar calls. My coworker called me from his car: “Dude, turn on WXRT right now.” “Dude,” I responded, “I know.”

“Come to Jesus” is the simple sort of thing a young parent might sing to small children at bedtime, but it still shocks adults. “How bold!” “How awkward!” “How dare she?!?” Polite, civil conversation is meant to be ordinary: Should we talk about the weather? Should we talk about the government? But talk about Jesus can’t be ordinary, because Jesus and his claims on the world are undeniably extraordinary. Jesus regularly—almost predictably—takes people into turbulent waters of uncertainty and discomfort.

This week you’ve chosen to take the uncomfortable step of being publicly associated with Jesus. For a week you’ve been known as “the church group from Illinois.” You’ve worn shirts with references to Jesus on them. Everything you’ve done—from the public projects to the private group interactions at your home base—has been filtered through your association with Jesus. That can get intimidating; you can start to feel just a little bit like a freak.

You chose this life for a week, I’d like to suggest, in part because Jesus was beckoning you with one simple command that has directed the steps of his followers for millennia: “Come.” Sometimes that command comes from a need Jesus wants you to address: the extreme poverty of strangers, the desperate loneliness of acquaintances. But sometimes the command is for you alone, a challenge between you and Jesus to test the boundaries of your faithfulness—and his.

“Come,” Jesus once said to one of his earliest followers. They were both on a lake—Peter on a boat, Jesus on the water. Peter and his shipmates had more than one reason to be filled with fear: they were being tossed about by the waves and the wind, so that they weren’t confident they’d stay afloat; it was nighttime, with all the unidentifiable sounds and fill-in-the-blank anxieties that surface in the dark; and Jesus looked less like a Savior and more like a ghost.

Jesus told his followers not to be afraid, but sometimes you need a little assurance. So Peter gave him a dare: “Lord, if it’s you . . . tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus complied and said to him, “Come.”

“If you want to walk on water,” author John Ortberg writes, “you have to get out of the boat.” Sometimes—in order to remind ourselves that life with Jesus is not only good but extraordinary—we need to do some daring, outlandish things with our faith. Like spending a week in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable environment. Like inviting our friends into a conversation about God and eternity. Like befriending people who are embarrassing or difficult to befriend. Like walking on water during a nighttime storm.

If that’s what we want—a slightly more daring life—Jesus will take our dare. If that’s what we need—a faith more extraordinary than we’ve settled for to date—that’s where Jesus will dare us to come. So not just this week but whenever you’re willing, dare Jesus to dare you. You won’t believe where you’ll wind up.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Come, Follow, Abide--Day Six

My friends in Iowa and Kentucky, doing good work on weeklong service projects, are nearing the end of their trips. I wrote this for the Kentucky folks; I'm posting it here as an act of solidarity.


Not everybody follows Jesus. Maybe that goes without saying, but it’s worth an occasional reminder. We inhabit a world that thinks that by and large it’s getting along just fine, thank you very much. All these Christian busybodies who can’t tie their shoes without asking God’s permission, who prefer to feel bad about things that make people feel good—these people are killing the world’s buzz, slowing down the world’s progress.

Not everybody follows Jesus, it’s true, but nearly everybody admires Jesus. It’s hard to find any unkind words said about him—apart from the occasional offhand comments that he didn’t actually exist. The overwhelming evidence is of course that he did exist, and that only good things can be said of him. Don’t blame Jesus for his followers, the saying goes; despite the various faults of his students, Jesus is still widely considered a Good Teacher.

Beyond that, a survey of the Gospels shows that Jesus wasn’t just admired but sought after as good company. People who threw parties wanted him there; students of the Bible sought private conversations with him about what the Bible meant. People who heard he was coming lined up to catch a look, and pressed in on him to shake his hand or make eye contact. People, it’s fair to say, wanted to be known by Jesus.

That’s not what Jesus wanted, however. Oh, he liked shaking hands and making eye contact and knowing people, and he did so almost constantly for three years. But what he really wanted was for people to move beyond mere acquaintance to true connection. He wanted people to see where he was headed and imagine themselves heading that same way. He wanted people to follow him, because he wanted them to arrive where he was going.

But not everybody follows Jesus, and Jesus is not afraid to confront their unspoken reasons.

To the man who made overtures of following him but who loved his beautiful house, Jesus suggested that to follow him necessarily meant leaving home.

To the man who loved being noticed by Jesus but who feared his own father’s jealous judgment, Jesus suggested that to follow him meant making hard decisions with difficult consequences.

To the man who wanted to leave his family for Jesus and leave Jesus for his family at the same time, Jesus suggested that following him—or anyone or anything for that matter—costs you something.

Following Jesus—even for a week—costs you something. Convenience, comfort, money, sweat, maybe blood, maybe health. But following Jesus gives you something in return as well. Elsewhere Jesus tells his followers “No one who has left”—and then he lists all sorts of things his followers have left behind—“for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29).

Jesus isn’t a sadist: he asks you to follow him because he has good things in store for you. But following Jesus costs; you know that firsthand. That’s why not everybody follows Jesus—because the cost is there, and the benefit comes only by faith.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Come, Follow, Abide--Day Five

My friends are in Kentucky and Iowa braving the heat and doing good things for people. I wrote the following as a morning meditation for my friends in Kentucky. I post it here as an act of solidarity.


A common feeling by this point in any trip is that coming when Jesus says “Come,” following wherever Jesus leads you, and sticking with Jesus as though your life depended on it, gets a little old.

We don’t feel like coming to Jesus with our anxieties and frustrations; we’d much rather sit with them a while, indulge them.

We’re tired of following Jesus into uncomfortable experiences and conversations; we’d rather be by ourselves, quite frankly, and we’d at least rather feel free to drop the “I’m so religious” fa├žade that we’ve been lugging around with us.

And all this sticking with Jesus as though nothing else satisfies? Our minds fill with things we’ve had to live without for days now; our eyes wander toward things Jesus wouldn’t want us wandering toward.

Jesus is, quite frankly, wearing us out.

Yesterday Jesus freaked us out a little bit by inviting us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Today is different: Today Jesus employs a different metaphor, one from the garden. Jesus, he tells us, is like a vine; we, he tells us, are like that vine’s branches.

Christianity has always been an active faith. For twenty-one centuries Christians have run all over the world, talked to everyone they met, taken care of the sick, fed the hungry, all that stuff. Abiding with Jesus has tended to be understood in the context of coming to him and following him: we abide with Jesus while we’re on the move. But here’s Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, on the eve of his death, telling his followers that they are rooted, that they ought to rest in the reality of that rootedness.

Vines are not static; they keep growing and growing. Jesus is not suggesting to his disciples that they’ve gone as far as they’re going to go, that they’re finished coming where he bids them or following where he leads them. He is suggesting, however, that there is a sustaining, nurturing Source feeding continually into them. Whether we realize it or not, Jesus is continually nourishing us with nothing less than the love of God.

Vine branches do occasionally wither, but a good gardener recognizes the difference between an unhealthy branch and a healthy vine. In our case, the vine is fine; if we’re feeling burned out or used up, our first, best response is probably to remember to be loved.

So today, in the midst of your work, your conversations, your homesickness, your whatever, remember to be loved by God. Remember that, while it’s true we live in a world that too often neglects its own, too often turns a deaf ear to the real, desperate needs of people, too often uses one another up and then leaves them to fend for themselves—it’s also true that the God who created us loves us and abides in us. Rest in that when you need to, and draw on that when you remember to: we live and move and have our being—we abide—in the love of God.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Come, Follow, Abide--Day Four

This week several of my friends are away on service trips. I wrote the following reflection on chapter six in the Gospel of John for some of them, to guide their devotional times for the day. I'm posting it here as an act of solidarity.


Abide is not as common a word as come or follow. As a verb we hardly ever hear it; the closest we come is the noun abode, which describes where we live, where we move—where we have our being, so to speak. But even old-fashioned words can be handled without too much inconvenience. We Google it or we phone a friend, and we figure it out and move on. It’s what tags alongside abide in Jesus’ words that starts to get a little freaky.

Christianity has occasionally been accused of cannibalism, for the most part due to a misunderstanding of communion: when we “eat his flesh and drink his blood” during a church service, we’re really eating bread and drinking juice, no matter what the eavesdroppers might think. But then we find Jesus saying these words and pointing not to bread and juice but to himself. If we want to be with Jesus—and that’s the only goal of coming and following him—then, he tells us, we’re going to have to consume him.

Jesus says these shocking things because he wants people to get what it means to have him among them. It’s not like having a dinner guest, who we make idle conversation with and treat politely before eventually dismissing them into the night and reclaiming sovereignty over our lives. It’s not even like having a family member who eventually grows up and moves out or who watches you grow up and move out or who eventually is parted from you by death. Jesus is, he’s saying here, more than all that. He’s our sustenance; he’s all we can truly, finally count on. Jesus is life. Jesus is it.

“What is it?” That’s what the Israelites said when they first found manna in the desert. That is, in fact, what manna is said to mean. God dropped manna on the Israelites—just enough every day—to sustain their years of wandering in the desert. Manna was God’s response to the Israelites’ paralyzing fear that they would die and disappear and be forgotten forever. That wasn’t what God wanted for them, and so every day they would wake up and find manna on the ground—just enough to get them through that day. Each night’s anxiety was replaced with each morning’s manna.

We are to consume Jesus in the way the Israelites consumed manna—in desperate faith that without Jesus we will come to nothing. We learn later in the Gospels that Jesus’ body is in fact broken like bread at a table—casually, almost unconsciously by people who don’t even know what they’ve got. His blood will be poured out like juice from a bottle by children who don’t even notice the mess they’ve made of things. And we find out later in the Gospels that no sooner has the world consumed Jesus, dispensed with him, than he shows up again, ready to sustain us for another day of our journey.

When we abide in Jesus, he also abides in us. We consume Jesus—he becomes the totality of our living, our moving, our being—but in a sense he consumes us as well, so that we become other than what we once were. It’s a little freaky, if you think about it, but it’s how—and where—we were meant to live. So when Jesus tells us to abide in him, he’s really saying what the God of the Israelites, who sustained them in the desert, said to them: “Choose life!” That’s it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Come, Follow, Abide--Day Three

I have friends on two different service projects at the same time: in impoverished Appalachia, and in flood-devastated Iowa. I wrote some devotional readings for the Appalachia trip, and I'm posting them here as an act of solidarity for them. Here's day three.


Christianity has always been ambitious. From the first public sermon of Jesus’ first disciple, Peter, to the televised campaigns of people like Billy Graham, Christians have stepped in front of crowds and made bold claims: Jesus is God, Jesus died for your sins, Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus is coming back, Jesus wants you in his kingdom. Christianity—at its best—has never hid from the world; rather, Christians have—at their best—demanded that the world notice and respond to the bold claims of Jesus.

This tradition of going out into the world, of inviting people into the family of God, begins with Jesus himself. Having just endured forty days of testing by the devil in the desert, having just learned of the death of his cousin and forerunner John the Baptist, Jesus went out into the world to invite people into his family. And he began with a couple of fishermen by the Sea of Galilee.

Now, in the days of Jesus, going around talking about God was not all that unusual. Rabbis were often itinerant—many would travel from town to town, teaching the people theology, debating other religious scholars and living off the hospitality of the townspeople. They would recruit disciples as they traveled; to follow a rabbi was a privilege reserved for the best and brightest.

What following a rabbi didn’t entail was fishing—for fish or for men. Rabbis were building schools; they wanted good students who would eventually graduate and become rabbis themselves. Jesus approached discipleship differently. He wasn’t populating a school but a kingdom, with God the Father as king and himself as prince. No wonder the best and the brightest weren’t lining up to follow him.

“Follow me,” the lonely rabbi with no school said to modest fishermen with nothing to commend them to discipleship, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And they dropped their nets and went fishing.

The world was meant to be Jesus’ kingdom. Until Jesus is set at the center of creation and God sits on the throne of the world—until his kingdom is established—the world will continue to suffer its kingless, uncentered existence. Jesus didn’t say as much, but those two fishermen somehow figured it out. And instead of chasing an ambitious dream of becoming rabbis themselves, they followed Jesus to the ends of the earth, inviting everyone they met to drop their nets.

The place you find yourself today is likely beautiful in its own way, but like other beautiful places, it also shows evidence of a world that isn’t working right. That’s why Jesus invited you to follow him here: The people you meet, like the people of every culture and every age, need to hear the good news that Jesus is God, that Jesus died for their sins, that Jesus rose from the dead, that Jesus is coming back, that Jesus wants them in his kingdom. If you really follow Jesus, you’ll hear that very good news coming out of your own mouth.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Come, Follow, Abide--Day Two

It's the second day of our church's service trip to Appalachia, and of my friend's youth trip to flood-ravaged eastern Iowa, which got hit with two major storms this weekend, including one just last night. I wrote devotions for the Appalachia trip, and as I look at them it strikes me that they have application to those of us who stay at home, as well. I'm posting them here, if nothing else, as an act of solidarity. Almost literally the least I can do.


“Come see the amazing bearded lady!” “Come see the unbelievable wolf-boy!” They holler as you walk past, with all the urgency they can usher up. The carnival barker is concerned for your soul: your life will never be complete without seeing a person contort herself into a three-foot-by-three-foot box.

I find it hard to imagine Jesus hollering. For whatever reason—maybe because he looks so serene in all the pictures—Jesus strikes me as generally quiet. And yet here he is in John 1, whispering a phrase that sounds suspiciously like the loud appeal of the huckster at the circus: "Come . . . and you will see." Why should we believe this Jesus?

John 1 is one of the Bible’s busiest chapters. In it the author links Jesus’ life to the original act of creation: “In the beginning . . .” Jesus is, according to this Gospel, that important. And yet as soon as the author sets up this portrait of Jesus as God himself, he switches camera angles to focus on John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and predecessor in the role of religious upstart. Not knowing what to make of his wild ways and dire predictions, onlookers wonder out loud if John is the promised Savior of God’s people. He quickly tells them no and instead points them to Jesus.

John’s disciples can take a hint, so they start following Jesus around. To this point, Jesus has been seemingly minding his own business, but now he asks them what they want.

How do you react when someone you admire, someone you’re intrigued by, asks what you want? You don’t necessarily know; you just want to hang around, to see what will happen, to get inside their head. You don’t know what you want; you just know you don’t want to give up this obsession too quickly.

So these awkward would-be disciples ask Jesus their own question, one that doesn’t really matter. “Where are you staying?” To which Jesus responds, “Come . . . and you will see.”

Jesus, it turns out, isn’t staying anywhere. He’s on the move, and to come to him is actually to go with him on what turns out to be an amazing adventure. Before these disciples know it, they’re issuing the same command to their friends and acquaintances that Jesus just whispered to them: “Come and see.”

Coming on a trip to serve people far from your home is an act of discipleship. You may not even know exactly why you came, but here you are, and Jesus, it turns out, is your guide. As you make your way through this week, keep your eyes open, because Jesus brought you here to show you something: about yourself, about him, about the world we find ourselves staying in. For this week at least, this is where you belong, because Jesus, we believe, is God, and this is what God wants you to see.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Come, Follow, Abide--Day One

Several of my friends are away on service projects this week--some to Appalachia, others to flood-devastated parts of eastern Iowa. I wrote some devotional pieces for the Kentucky trip, but I thought I'd post them here as a sort of act of solidarity. We're not with them in fact, but we can with them in spirit, I suppose.


A lot of people these days think of Christianity as a giant buzzkill, an endless to-do list. Consequently, a lot of people these days have decided that they have better things to do with their time than to get involved in any kind of organized religion.

They’re right about one thing, at least. Christianity has its share of rules—commandments, some might say. But Jesus, from whom Christianity takes its cues, famously contrasted his own requirements of those who called him Lord with those of the religions of his day:

“Do not do what they [other religious authorities] do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:3)
“I have come that they [people like you and me] may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30).

The thing that often gets lost amid all the complaints about Christianity’s rigidness is that the commands that come from Jesus’ lips, as radical as they are, are not orders against particular things but rather instructions to live in a particular way.

Jesus calls us to come to him, a command that on its surface is not difficult but once obeyed involves all sorts of life-changes.

Jesus calls us to follow him, a reminder that he himself is not cemented into the ground, living a static, lifeless life; but rather is on the move, taking us somewhere.

Jesus calls us to abide in him, a suggestion that whatever lies out in front of us, he intends to share it with us.

All these commands are directive: none requires a subject to the sentence. “Come to me.” “Follow me.” “Abide in me.” Read in isolation they sound so sterile, so formal, so rigid. They almost sound like dares. And yet each such command is filled with life because Jesus himself is alive—more alive than perhaps we can imagine—and he intends for us life, and life to the full.

So as you leave the comfort of your home and your friends and your normal patterns of life, take the dares that Jesus presents you with—real, live dares that come in the form of the people with you and the people you’ll meet and serve—and dare to live the life that Jesus intends for you. You may find it easier—and fuller—than you expected.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reconciliation & Regret

One of the lessons I have learned as I have grown older is that we should be a great deal more modest in claims we make about our prowess and our various capacities. Even more importantly, we should be generous in our judgments of others, for we can never really know all there is to know about another.

Desmond Tutu wrote this in his No Future Without Forgiveness while describing Winnie Mandela's testimony before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela, a powerful, charismatic yet controversial leader in the movement to overthrow a self-evidently violent and racist governmental system, had come to exonerate and justify herself before a committee more interested in chronicling and reconciling the sins of the past. "We were," Tutu writes, "not a court seeking to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We were seeking to establish as much of the truth as possible. . . . It would be left to the commission later to announce in its main report just where it believed responsibility resided in the violation of human rights."

Other witnesses before the committee had reported acts of terrible violence organized and directed by Winnie Mandela. She sat in defiance of the committee and the witnesses, before finally offering a brief, understated apology for one act of violence connected to her. She did so in response to an appeal from Tutu: "You don't know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say, 'Sorry, things went wrong, forgive me.'"

I can't say enough how fascinating and wildly impressive South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to me. Hearing these stories of horrible violence laid bare and then laid to rest, seeing once-defiant agents of violence take ownership of their wrongdoing, reading the reflections of the bishop who presided over these public sacraments of confession, I'm continually amazed that an entire country could experience such a dramatic conversion together. At the center of it was the will of all sides to own the truth and to confess it.

Tutu later reflected on what a small step expressions of regret like Mandela's can seem to the outer world, but what a giant leap it is to the private soul: "It is never easy to say, 'I am sorry'; they are the hardest words to articulate in any language." They're hard to say because they grate against our pride, our instinct to protect and even elevate ourselves, our biased instincts that whatever wrong we've done is at least in in some sense justified by the wrongs done to us. To say "I'm sorry" is to leap by faith into a raging river of contrition, and we won't find out till we've leapt whether God will deliver us safely to the other side.

Nevertheless, "I'm sorry" sounds to the outside world like such a small thing to say, sometimes even too small a thing to say given the wrongs it's meant to redress. It seems like such a token of regret, but it may be that even the slightest regret can begin what will ultimately become a remarkable reconciliation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why I Like David Letterman, and Why Sarah Palin Fans Should Take a Chill Pill

I don't think underage sex jokes are funny. I think they're sad. There, I said it. Having said it, I will now move on to say why I am a fan of David Letterman, whose inadvertent underage sex joke last week wasn't terribly funny and made a lot of people mad.

And so, here now are the top three reasons I'm a fan of David Letterman:

3. He's a great broadcaster. Better across the board than Jay Leno, more at ease than Conan O'Brien, more consistently conscious of his place in broadcasting history and his role in the cultural conversation than just about everyone in talk and variety, Letterman brings the funny consistently in fresh, original ways--even when he's repeating jokes over the course of days and even weeks. Late Show staffers put their energy in creating funny bits and crafting pranks; for every elaborate set manufactured on the Tonight Show during the Leno era there were two blue-collar Late Show staffers smoking together. I've argued here before that the rise of Barack Obama has a lot to do with not the politics of David Letterman but his ability to get the whole country to laugh at the same thing. It's worth noting that Conan O'Brien, among countless other broadcasters, has acknowledged a debt to Letterman's craftsmanship.

2. He's an underdog. It's significantly harder to line up guests with massive star power when you're based in New York rather than L.A. Musicians and actors head west to build their brand; they head east to hone their craft--or to visit Letterman. He stays in New York because he thinks it's "the greatest city in the world," and he does his own thing consistently, without regard to the pressure of competition from the more strategically situated Tonight Show. He even makes jokes about it from time to time, which takes moxie, and I respect moxie.

1. He's a Midwesterner in the big city. You can take the boy out of Indiana, but as Letterman has shown consistently, you can't take the Indiana out of the boy. His interview style, his sardonic commentary on current events, his interactions with his mom, his no-nonsense interviews on serious matters--even his ability to make a fully developed, serious statement about a joke gone wrong or an attack on his city without letting that comment hijack the humor of the show, or vice versa--I think reflect Letterman's upbringing in the Midwest, which is a helpful corrective to the snobbery of both coasts and the wide-eyed assimilation of other Midwesterners who've made it big. Beyond his own show, the sit-coms and dramedies he's produced over time reflect well the sensibilities he was nurtured in back home in flyover country.

So I'm a fan of David Letterman, and I remain so despite a joke that some say went beyond the pale. I'd like to suggest that people who think so give the matter some further thought.

1. It was an A-Rod joke. The joke that's raised the hackles of so many is a classic type for Letterman, which begins with a focus on one newsworthy item (in this case Palin's visit to New York) but ends with an abrupt, surprising focus on another (here, Alex Rodriguez's notorious promiscuity). Really, try the joke without A-Rod in it and it doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

2. The outrage didn't match the joke. Letterman makes jokes about A-Rod's sex life all the time, and likewise celebrity mashup humor (where two unrelated stars are absurdly brought together) is also a hallmark. People concerned for the hypersexualizing of contemporary culture or for the privacy of public figures have ammunition lobbed at them every night by Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and, weeknights this fall at 10pm Eastern, Jay Leno. Analyzing the phenomenon that followed this ill-conceived joke on the Late Show quickly reveals it to be not actual concern for women's rights but a contrivance: conservatives grabbing the spotlight from the liberal majority and flexing their cultural muscles. I don't begrudge public figures their efforts to stay in the public eye, but I will--in true Midwestern style--call them out when they're manufacturing offense and manipulating public outrage. There are far more urgent and upsetting things for people to be outraged by. Besides, it was a joke, for Pete's sake.

The whole scandal is probably over by now; Governor Palin has accepted Letterman's apology, deftly turning her comments from the joke to a jingoistic salute to the U.S. military. Maybe she took lessons from the Late Show in crafting that little switcheroo. As for me and my house? As long as I hold the remote, Letterman will be on my TV.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

State of the Ego

Dave Coverly: Cartoonist of the Year! |

Shared via AddThis

This panel by cartoonist of the year Dave Coverly made me laugh out loud. Me-Ville is, apparently, in Maine.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Better Than Here

Thanks a lot, Time magazine. Thanks to the recent cover story on Twitter, all the naysayers and cultured despisers of social networking think they're experts. I find myself in arguments every other day about the relative merits and dangers (remember, I hang out with a lot of evangelicals) of Facebook, Twitter and other manifestations of "virtual community."

For the record, it's become cliche to accuse me of being narcissistic--and, consequently, hypocritical--because I participate in such heathen activities as tweeting and updating my status. Yes, I wrote a book about narcissism. Yes, I'm active on Facebook and Twitter. Yes, I maintain two blogs. Yes, all these activities can attract and even indulge narcissistic personalities; they can even facilitate a person's descent into more narcissistic tendencies than they came with.

I'd like to submit two contrary opinions to the handwringing groupthink that has led to associating social networking with vice:

1. Your meatspaces are just as vulnerable to vainglory as my online forums. (Never heard of "meatspace"? Ask one of your hellbound virtual community addicts.)

2. Maybe--just maybe--there's more going on online than mere exhibitionism.

For all the whining about the way Facebook degrades the concept of friendship, the first friendship tier at least of the vast majority of profile-keepers is made up of real, live friendships. Same with Twitter. Some such friendships may have gone dormant over time, while others are resorting to online interactions because the franticness of life is making it increasingly difficult for them to see one another face to face. That's right: at least part of what motivates at least some people to seek one another out online is that they want to but, due to larger social forces, can't sync up their schedules to look one another in the eye.

In addition, the fact that a Facebook profile or a Twitter feed functions as a sort of archive, an album of verbal snapshots, means that users can build on one another's comments and links and status updates and everything else. I've been soliciting jokes to share at church every week on both Facebook and Twitter, and more often than not the initial solicitation generates wildly creative riffing on themes and ideas from people who wouldn't otherwise get to play together. That's not shameful; that's delightful and immensely gratifying.

Meanwhile, the collapse of intimacy is no great secret. Countless relationships among people who see each other even daily are notoriously underdeveloped--whether at work, at church or in the home. The proper accusation to make against Facebook and Twitter et al. is perhaps not exhibitionism or narcissism but escapism, because as much as anything, these social networks indicate that people, by and large, would rather be somewhere other than where they are.

So I think my counterarguments against these cultured despisers are interrelated. Instead of lamenting the decline of western civilization as evidenced by its broad-based willingness to resort to 140-character descriptions of its favorite breakfast food, perhaps we should be asking, "Why doesn't anyone want to be where they are?" Or--more to the point, pastors, employers, teachers and family members--"Why don't they want to be here with me?"

Let me quickly add that escapism is not good. We are meant to be where we are; that should be self-evident. But equally evident is that more and more we aren't; and that's as much an effect as it is a cause.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Emotional Disciplines

This was my second post at Strangely Dim, back in September 2003. Thought I'd give it more air.


“The heart is devious above all else; . . . who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 records the word of the Lord, no less, about the hazards of human emotions. Woody Allen offers us the flip side of God’s lament: “The heart wants what it wants.” You can imagine why God would be upset about the untamed human heart, which has led to, among other things, Allen’s betrayal of his wife in favor of her daughter, and a chosen people’s betrayal of their God for gods of wood and stone.

The heart—the seat of emotional life—certainly seems uncontrollable. When I’m angry to the point of rage, appealing to reason just irritates me. When I’m depressed, I withdraw from attempts to bring me out of my depression. Whether I’m happy, sad or mad, I’m generally not interested in feeling any different. The heart wants what it wants.

Our emotions affect others more than our intellect, our physique or our spirituality. People can tell with one look what emotions I’m processing from moment to moment, and my feelings have immediate impact on them. Happy people steer clear of sullen people, and misery loves only miserable company. We make judgments about people based on their emotions, sometimes temporary (“I wonder why she’s so upset”) but sometimes permanent (“She’s so crabby”).

Unchecked emotions can rule over us, no question. And yet, emotions are part of the human package—we are never emotionless, and suppressing emotions can lead ultimately to bad health and broken relationships. We have mental, physical and spiritual disciplines, but what we’re missing, and what we really need, are emotional disciplines.

Often we can’t recognize what we’re feeling. The first emotional discipline is thus to engage our feelings—to learn what prompts them and sustains them: “Search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4 NIV).

But emotions are politically potent, affecting not only how we perceive reality but how we engage it. To discipline our emotions we must strike a balance between emotional honesty and emotional tyranny. Psalm 4:4 speaks to this balance as well: “In your anger do not sin.”

Some situations call for anger (or a host of other emotions), but no situation calls for sin. When I’m so happy I avoid unhappy people, I allow my emotions to reign in the place of God, who may be asking me to minister to their suffering. Or when you give full vent to your anger without thought of the consequences, you betray your calling to live at peace with everyone “as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).

Indulgence is not the only unhealthy engagement of emotions, of course. There’s a reason emotions are political: to stifle emotions in the interest of a superficial peace is to avoid a confrontation God may want you to make. Once we recognize what has triggered our emotions, we must consider their purpose and respond adequately. God created us to exist in community with him and each other, and emotions are a tool for building that community.

Once we get in the habit of disciplining our emotions, we will be better prepared to engage the world around us in the manner God has prescribed for us. And instead of betraying God in our deceitful hearts, we can respond to the calling of every Christian heart: to want what God wants.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...