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This past week I listened to Pulpit Fiction’s recent interview with Rachel Held Evans, which you can listen to here. (Pulpit Fiction is a lectionary resource that I highly recommend.) As soon as she started talking I thought, “She doesn’t sound like I expected!” It actually threw me for a second, thinking I might have clicked the wrong link.

It’s weird that hearing Rachel’s voice throws me, because she has a Southern accent that I’ve heard all my life. It’s not really about Rachel though; the problem lies somewhere else. I read Rachel’s blog on a regular basis, and like anything else I read on the Internet, I read it in my head. Which means I hear her words with my own voice. Do that enough times and you begin to forget there’s someone else on the other end of the screen. After a while, the words on the screen become all you associate with that person.

Social media is not much better. Although Facebook and Twitter have your name and picture attached to your posts, it’s still easy to forget the person on the other end. You lose the benefit of inflection, tone, expression, and all other important non-verbal communications. Smilies and emojis just don’t cut it.

Of course, talking in person isn’t perfect. There’s lots of ways of disengage or not engage in every conversation. Sometimes we sit without listening, only waiting for our turn to speak. But at least I can’t forget you’re a real person when you’re sitting in front of me.

Here’s my dilemma. Having recognized a problem, I have no idea how to address it. I don’t know how to be better at seeing, or at least remembering, the person on the other end of the screen. The prevalence of social media means this isn’t going away any time soon, so I could use some help. After my blanket apology to Rachel and all other people on the Internet, “I’m sorry I forgot you were real people,” what’s next?

I hope you have an idea. How do you avoid my mistake? How do you remember the person on the other side of the screen?

Wrestling with Modern Art

Modern art exists in an interesting place in our culture. Some people love it. Others struggle to see the artistry, sometimes dismissing it as “not real art.” Of course, the same things they say about Pollack or Warhol (or more recent artists), they said about Van Gogh or Picasso. Art is always evolving, always changing. Different artistic movements rise up to respond to the culture or context.

Art has never been simple. It’s always made statements about our world. However as long as artists focused on realism, it was easier to decipher that statement. When comparing a modern piece to a Rembrandt, it can be harder to see the artistry. Appreciating modern art sometimes feel like Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok. You have to wrestle until it blesses you.

That’s how I felt experiencing On Kawara’s Silence exhibition. Silence incorporates several different series of Kawara’s work. His most well-known is probably Today. Each painting has the date the work was completed in white letters on a solid color canvas. The dates are always centered regardless of the canvas size. The paintings are sometimes displayed with newspaper clippings from the day he painted or following day (so news on the actual day of painting), but Kawara chooses the clippings solely by whatever struck him. He makes no claim that these events were worthy of noting the day.

The one that really struck was a joint collection of I Got Up, I Met and I Went. I Got Up are postcards sent to friends with the time he woke up that morning. I Met is a binder with collections of names of the people he met in a day, a project he began because he was bad with Western names. I Went are maps with highlighted routes of where he went in the day.

The exhibition presents information without context. We see particular days and news stories or places, names, and wake-up times, but nothing about the day’s value. Each day simply is, with no positive or negative statements. I have no idea how Kawara feels about any day, the people he met, or the places he saw. Which also means I don’t know how I feel about those particular days; they are just days.

In our age of extreme information, it’s a bit unsettling to realize that all this information doesn’t actually tell us anything. With everything that gets published, spoken, sung, or tweeted in a day how much information is added to our experience every day? And yet, in a vacuum of perspective, it’s all just words.

How many of my days are filled like this, lots of information but little to no meaning? Places, times, even people, but no life. For me, this is the challenge, the revelation of Kawara’s Silence. These things on their own do not make a life. They are only a tiny drop in the ever-growing sea of information. Their true value requires meaning and perspective to come alongside. The what, where and who needs the why.

How do you stay focused on your why in the midst of the what, where and who? How do you define the value of your day?

Why We Read Again

“What are you doing here? I’ve got nothing for you. You’ve heard it all already.”

These words from Jason Byassee greeted me as I stood up to ask him a question at the NC Preaching Festival. I’ve been blessed to hear Jason speak at several venues in the past few years and I always receive a similar greeting. Today, Jason, allow me to answer your question.

I am here because I hear something new every time. I am here because through the miracle of the Holy Spirit in proclamation and teaching there is fresh inspiration. Simply put, I am here because there is new beauty.

It occurs to me this is how we read Scripture as Christians. The text does not change. The words are the same, the stories familiar, the characters known. And yet we return to read again and again. Why? Because we believe these words matter, these words are life. We return because the Holy Spirit inspires us anew when we read. We return because there is new beauty.

It would be uncharitable of me not to extend a final word of grace to my questioner. Jason, I know, even as the question sounds harsh to the unknowing ear, it is said with a smile and with love. It is said with humility. “I cannot teach you more. Go hear someone else!” It has become our ritual in these spaces of saying, “It is good to see you, friend.”

As I open my Bible tomorrow morning, I will imagine Jesus, the Word, standing over my shoulder. “What are you doing here?” he will say. “You’ve heard it all already.” But I will see the grin and reply, “I am here because there is life. I am here because there is beauty, again and again.”

“It is good to see you, friend.”

Share What You Love

A strange thing happened to me last week. I was home, the Super Bowl was on, and I wasn’t watching. I’ve been a football fan most of my life (hard not to be growing up in SEC country). And while I still prefer the NCAA to the NFL, I follow them both. Like many fans, I wasn’t overjoyed with the prospects of having to root for Seattle or New England as I had pulled for all of their opponents during the playoffs. But it was still the Super Bowl; I was going to be watching. We invited a couple friends over, Kathy made some amazing game food, and we settled in to watch the game.

Partway through the first half, it happened. I mentioned this card game I just backed on Kickstarter, Exploding Kittens. (If you like silly games or the Oatmeal comic, you should definitely check it out!) Our friends’ 8 year-old lit up with excitement so I pulled out my iPhone to show him the game. After he was reading through the cards, I remembered I also had the app on my iPad, which would be much easier to read given the larger screen. Once he finished reading all the cards and rules, he saw my “Games” folder. Almost three years ago I got bit by the board game bug, hard. (It’s honestly the fault of Wil Wheaton and his show Tabletop which you can find on the Geek & Sundry YouTube Channel.) After I found some favorites, I discovered that there were app versions as well. They’re not quite as fun without the physical elements and the screen can interrupt the social element a bit, but they’re handy in a pinch.

V wanted to try all the games I had. A couple he knew, but was unfamiliar with them on iPad. Once he figured those out, I showed him the tutorials for several others and then let him try them. These were longer games, so I checked in every few minutes to see how he was getting on. He even challenged me to a couple games on the iPad plus a round of Zombie Fluxx with the cards.

It wasn’t until the 4th quarter that I realized how much of the game I had missed. I wasn’t that concerned, since I wasn’t too invested in either team. In fact, I didn’t think much of it until the next day. I had been really excited to watch the game with friends. Why didn’t I care about missing it?

I realized it was because I shared a passion. I enjoy football, but I love gaming. Football is a distraction, a diversion but gaming is all about connection and story. I love that. So of course I didn’t mind missing the game; I found something better.

I wonder how often I do that every day? How often do I choose the diversion over my passion? I’m afraid I won’t like the answer but I think it’s worth exploring during this season of my life.

How about you? What’s your passion? How are you sharing it?

I watched Apple’s Keynote address this afternoon. I’ll admit, partly because I wanted to geek out over the new tech, but also because I wanted to see how Apple presented their new stuff. In my opinion, Apple is better than any other company at generating excitement around their products. Plus their products have come to define this current generation. Even if you don’t use Apple products, I bet you use something designed to compete with Apple.

Apple has built a business around convincing people that their products will make their lives better. You can’t do that without exceptional communication. Simply put, when it comes to communication, Apple connects with people. So anyone interested in communicating effectively should pay attention to what Apple is doing.

Here are some things I noticed.

Repetition: Tim Cook had a phrase for each tech that he repeated multiple times. “The iPhone 6 and 6+ are best iPhones we’ve ever made.” “The Apple Watch is most personal and intimate tech we’ve ever made.” “Apple Pay is fast, easy, and secure.” Each time he spoke, he came back to this simple idea. He didn’t want you to leave without hearing and remembering that idea. If you took away nothing else, you were taking away those key ideas.

Multiple speakers: Tim Cook did not dominate the stage. This one surprised me. I assumed that as the CEO he would be the guy. Cook did talk about each of the reveals, but he also invited others on stage to share more, either in person or through video clips. He let those most familiar with the products share the details. This was not a one-man show.

Presentation of Information: Apple was always willing to share the technical specs of the devices. We heard about screen sizes and battery life. We got in-depth looks at camera lenses. But you didn’t have to be an engineer to follow the talks, because after going through the specs, the presenters told you why they mattered. They never got too stuck in megapixels or beveled edges because they could always say “here is what this means for you.”

Length: As someone who talks for a living, I was very curious to see how long the presentations were. I’ve heard a lot about how technology is reducing our collective attention spans and so the days of 20 minute (or longer) sermons are gone because people can’t pay attention. And, sure enough, no one talked for 20 minutes uninterrupted. There were plenty of video clips to keep these moving plus the aforementioned string of speakers. However, the keynote event lasted 2 hours with minimal audience participation and the audience was clearly engaged throughout. So that leaves the question unanswered I think. Certainly technology has changed how we engage information but as to whether it has changed our attention span, I’m less sure. 

So that’s what I noticed from the Keynote. What stood out to you?

Gifts #LukeActs2014

(I’m a week behind posting my reflections reading through Luke and Acts one chapter at a time. This should have gone up last week.)

Gifts. Everyone likes to receive gifts. Whether for a special day, like birthday or anniversary, or out of the blue becomes someone was thinking about you. Gifts are one of the ways we show and receive love.

Jesus talks to his disciples about gifts in Luke 11. Would you ignore a friend in need? As a parent would you give something dangerous to your child? Of course not! So why would you not expect God to give gifts?

Before we get carried away praying for Porches and yachts, however, Jesus names two specific gifts. First, when teaching the disciples to pray, he names one gift: daily bread. That’s a far cry from money, toys, or power. I like how the CEB puts it “Give us the bread we need for today” (Luke 11:3). It’s not even bread for the week, only daily bread.

Jesus names the second gift of the Holy Spirit after his image of parents giving good gifts to their children (Luke 11:13). Here again Jesus is not describing God as some sort of divine slot machine. The Holy Spirit empowers the church and leads her towards the kingdom.

When you pray, do you ask for gifts? Do they match what Jesus tells his disciples to pray for?

Luke 10 raises some interesting questions for a modern reader. Jesus sends out seventy-two followers to do ministry and they return reporting that “even the demons submit themselves to us in your name” (Luke 10:17).

Demons? Can we, as post-Enlightenment people full of scientific knowledge, accept the existence of demons?

I had conversation with a man this week who struggles with the supernatural aspects in Scripture. He doesn’t believe in demons and wondered how we would understand Jesus’ healing miracles if they occurred today today.

I think it is likely that at least some of what 1st century people called demons we would understand in much different terms today. But in trying to explain everything rationally, I think we lose the bigger picture.

Are there literal demons at work in the world? I’m not sure. But I do recognize the presence of evil in the world.

The insidious voice of depression and other mental illnesses that whispers in your ear, “You a less than a child of God. You are worthless.” The forces of poverty, racism, and sexism that not only trap people but also somehow find a way to survive and grow, enslaving future generations. The theft and subjugation of children that fuels the heinous industry of the international sex trade.

These are a few examples of the presence of evil in our world. Whether evil is a supernatural force or not matters less to me than our charge to combat it. Jesus sent out the Twelve in Luke 9. He sent out another 72 in Luke 10. As Christians we are sent out today to challenge and fight these forces of evil in the world.

Where do you see the presence of evil? How do you fight it?

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