Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Go Play!!!

In the days following the Dallas shootings, tensions were high. There were a lot of rumors making the rounds on social media that were meant to spread fear. Local law enforcement officers were doing their best to reassure the public, posting that things were quiet and they were on the job.

That weekend, I had an opportunity to ask some of our local leaders in person about how things were going. Was it still all calm and quiet? They smiled and confirmed that there had been no incidents... and that the only people out on the streets in downtown, where it had been rumored there was going to be a protest, were Pokemon Go players.

Pokemon… what?

I thought it was some kind of joke that I just didn’t get. I had never heard of Pokemon Go. The game had just been released a few days earlier, but was growing, both in popularity and notoriety.

I quickly learned that Pokemon Go is an “augmented reality, GPS-enabled” game. Unlike Candy Crush Saga and other popular Facebook games, Pokemon Go can only be played on an Android or iOS device. “Augmented reality” may sound intimidating, but it just means that the game combines computer generated animations with images from your device’s camera. When you play the game, you see game characters superimposed over the video from your camera.

“GPS-enabled” means that it’s not designed to be played while sitting on the couch. To play the game to the fullest, Pokemon Go players need to… well… Go! Go outside. Walk around their neighborhoods. Go to parks. Go to historic sites and landmarks. Players are encouraged to move around, and some functions even require that you walk certain distances. There are also physical locations identified on Google Maps as “Poke Stops” and “Poke Gyms,” and certain aspects of the game are only available when you are present at one of these special locations.

In the days that followed, I heard even more about this game. Some of my Facebook friends were posting about it. Churches were talking about the pros and cons of being “Poke Stops.” News stories about the game’s overwhelming success and accompanying technical issues were hitting the mainstream media, along with a couple of news stories to pointed to the necessity of maintaining awareness of your surroundings while out playing.

If you know me, you know that I love technology, so of course I had to check it out for myself! And it didn’t take long for me to see why it was so popular. It’s easy to play. There aren’t many augmented reality games out there yet, so the novelty of it makes it attractive. And while I understand that there are issues with the game, I can also see some positive things coming out of Pokemon Go.

The “mobile” aspect of this game is definitely one of its positive features. We’ve all seen enough articles about the obesity epidemic in America and the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle to know that it’s a good idea to get up and move around more. The game actions that require players to walk certain distances make it somewhat similar to activity trackers, except that in addition to tracking your steps, it also provides a virtual motivation for you to reach a goal. So if, like me, you’ve made a commitment to make fitness a higher priority in your life, why not have some fun while you’re at it?

But I’ve also been impressed by how Pokemon Go seems to be crossing generational lines. There are families playing this game together - kids, moms and dads, even grandparents! They’re talking to each other about it, helping each other play. Groups of friends are getting together to go Pokemon hunting. They’re going to the Poke Stops and Poke Gyms together - and when they see other players there, they’re talking to them as well!

But Pokemon Go is not without its problems. The special locations in this game were grandfathered in from its predecessor, and at present, there is no way for property owners to add or remove their site from the list of special locations. This means that the managers of some locations where it’s inappropriate to play the game are unable to opt out of it. This has led to some awkward situations, like private security officers chasing Pokemon Go players off of private property and officials from the National Holocaust Museum asking visitors to refrain from catching Pokemon on their property.

The game has also been criticized in part because the word “Pokemon” is a contraction of the Japanese words for “Pocket Monster,” and if you look in the right dictionary, the definition of monster can include demons. While this alone may be something of a semantic overreaction, the ultimate goal of the game is to capture, nurture, and use these monsters with magical powers to fight against other monsters captured by players on other teams. And even though these Pokemon characters begin as colorful, cartoonish animations that run the gamut from kinda cute to rather creepy, some of these Pokemon take on a decidedly more evil appearance as they mature, or “evolve” in the lingo of the game.

Some Christian leaders have expressed their opposition to the game because of these elements. They believe that it’s inherently dangerous. While I respect their convictions and understand why they feel that way, and have my own concerns, I’m not completely in that camp. There are definitely games and entertainment options that I do not allow my young children to participate in. But Pokemon Go was primarily intended for teenagers and young adults, individuals who are old enough to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Like many other things in this world, computer based games, played responsibly and in moderation, are neither inherently evil nor holy. To quote the apostle Paul from a couple of different passages, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor 6:12). Therefore, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5).

The most successful games and the most compelling fantasies always have elements that are rooted in reality. We are living in a world where real, unpredictable, seemingly unstoppable human monsters are causing a lot of hurt and a lot of fear. Fear that threatens to paralyze and control us. So it shouldn’t really surprise us that a game focused on capturing “monsters” - and controlling them instead - would be so popular.

And like most games, this is probably just a passing fad. We’ll be talking about something else by winter. But honestly, for many right now, it’s been a welcome diversion. It’s been an outlet, something else to focus on instead of all the bad news in the world.

Last week, I shared that fear and hurt can distort things in our minds and cloud our judgment. Our fear can lead us to withdraw and isolate ourselves. If we’re not careful, we can become so hyper-focused on the fear that we can forget that there are also a lot good people in this world. And when we do something together, even if it’s not for some grand and wonderful purpose, even if (gasp!) it doesn’t lead directly to a Bible study or deep spiritual discussion - there is value in that.

I’m not telling you to stop what you’re doing and download Pokemon Go. It’s not about the game, it’s about the act of playing, interacting with people. I’ve had similar “accidental community” experiences when I take my kids to the Splash Pad in Pineville or the Zoo in Alexandria. My kids make friends with the other children, and I always wind up striking up a conversation with other parents. There is value in reminding ourselves that the majority of us are not out to get each other, and that we’re not really that much different from each other.

So go outside. Not just outside of your house, but go a little out of your comfort zone.

Go out and play. And make some friends. :)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Whose Life Matters?

Like many of you, I am shocked and saddened by events unfolding around the country (and here in Louisiana) over the last couple of weeks. Baton Rouge is only 2 hours from me. Dallas is only 5 hours away. I’ve spent a lot of time in both of those cities and know a lot of people in both places, so this hits close to home for me. Maybe too close.

I’m blessed to have many friends in the African American community as well as friends who are Law Enforcement Officers. These are both tight-knit communities that have a strong bond of brotherhood. An injury against one member is felt deeply and personally by the whole group. This bond is very a positive thing when it unites people to comfort and support each other. But it can also be a negative thing if it leads people to see others as “the enemy” and unites them around hatred rather than love. It’s like in a close family where we’re allowed to criticize each other but we won’t stand for it if someone outside of our family criticizes one of us… even if that criticism is warranted. That’s where family feuds come from. And they never end well. (Hatfields and McCoys, anyone?)

There are a lot of people saying a lot of things right now - and not all of those things are helpful. There will always be opportunists who will try to capitalize on high-profile tragedies for their own purposes. I do not condone their messages. And it’s unfortunate, but there will always be some corrupt leaders and law enforcement officers. There will always be some bad actors and criminals and people who embody the worst of humanity from all walks of life. I do not condone their actions. These are the exceptions, not the rule, and I refuse to judge entire races, movements, or professions on the basis of the exceptions.

My heart goes out to all who have been left to pick up the pieces in the wake of these tragedies. They walk a difficult path, and my prayer is that they walk it with grace, wisdom and compassion. I’ve had the opportunity to talk and pray with members of my congregation as well as other pastors and leaders over the last week, people from many different walks of life. There’s a lot of pain, fear, and tension… but there’s also a desire to come together, to pray, to support each other, and to bring healing. That’s encouraging.

However, when I watch the news or look at social media, often what I see discourages me. I see anger and polarization. I see some prominent personalities pitting “Black Lives Matter” against “All Lives Matter” as if these were mutually exclusive ideas. As a pastor, of course I believe that all lives matter. Yet I also see some individuals lifting the “All Lives Matter” banner, not as a rallying point of unity, but as a weapon to beat down and dismiss other points of view. But most of all, I see a lot of hurting people who feel like they’re not being heard. And I see people who are so intent on being heard themselves that they’re no longer listening to anyone else.

In my pastoral role I’m often called to serve at funerals. When there has been a tragic, untimely loss of life, one of the things that brings much comfort to the family and friends is the thought that their loved one’s life meant something. At a time like that, you just don’t walk into a funeral and tell the mourners that there’s a bigger, better, more inclusive funeral next door. Yet that’s what happens when someone responds to “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter.” That’s like saying “Your life isn’t worth celebrating” or “Your story isn’t worth hearing.” The correct response to mourning is to mourn with them…

Here’s the situation - people are hurting. And unfortunately, as the saying goes, “hurting people hurt people.” Those who have been hurt can react out of their pain (or fear of being hurt again) and hurt others. That breeds more fear. Fear clouds judgment. Bad judgment hurts others. It’s a vicious cycle. Fear causes irrational responses resulting in hurt, and hurt distorts reality and creates fear.

This is a complex situation. Per capita it is true that an African American male is more likely to be shot by a police officer than any other demographic group. That doesn’t mean that all police officers are out to get black men. It is also statistically true that police officers are more likely to be shot by an African American male than any other group (again, on a per capita basis). That doesn’t mean that all black men are on a mission to hurt police officers. But it does mean that when a black man and a white officer interact there’s going to be fear and tension on both sides since both parties could believe that their lives are in danger. It doesn't matter if your life really isn’t in danger - if you believe it, it's real to you, and you will act (and react) accordingly.

I believe that listening to another person’s hurt and fear is more important than quoting statistics, because hearing another’s heart is the only way to start the healing process.

When some people hear “Black Lives Matter,” what they think they hear is “Black Lives Matter MORE.” But that’s not what I hear. When I hear someone say “Black Lives Matter,” what my heart hears is “Our lives matter TOO!” What I hear is mourning. I hear loss. I hear frustration, a sense of helplessness, maybe even hopelessness. I hear the pain of those who feel betrayed and abandoned, disenfranchised and ignored.

When some people hear “Blue Lives Matter,” they feel like one group is being elevated to a privileged status. But I don’t hear them saying that blue lives matter more than other lives. Again, I hear the mourning, the loss, the frustration, the sense of betrayal when a guardian’s life is taken by someone they were sworn to protect and serve.

So when people say “Black Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter,” what they’re expressing is their frustration that these lives don’t seem to matter to everyone. They are calling attention to an injustice that they feel deeply. They want others to care.

We might not want to admit it, but there is an uncomfortable grain of truth here. The people we don’t know don’t matter to us as much the people we know and love. We can say with all sincerity that all lives matter, but we’re not going to mourn someone we don’t know as deeply as we will mourn a friend or family member. It comes down to relationship. If we knew each other better, we would care more. “They” would matter more.

These are difficult matters, but it’s not exclusively a policing issue. It’s not exclusively a racial issue. Like I shared last week, it’s a heart issue. I know that  there is no easy solution. But there are some steps that we can take to start bridging the gap.

We can start with prayer. Not a cliche, stock prayer that we pray because we think we’re supposed to but don’t really mean. And not a self-promoting prayer like the Pharisee in Luke 18 prayed. We can pray for the safety and wellbeing of all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of skin tone or choice of profession. And remember that prayer isn’t just talking to God, it’s listening - letting Him direct your prayers.

Prayer helps us see others as fellow human beings created in God’s image, worthy of compassion… it keeps their needs in front of us, so we’re not just focused on ourselves. We’re praying for understanding of those with different views. We’re also praying for those that I mentioned earlier - the corrupt, the bad actors, the exceptions, because God told us to pray, even for our enemies! When we pray sincerely for people, God also works in us. And it may be that in praying God will help you see things in you that need to change.

Once you’ve been praying over a situation, you’ll probably start to feel like doing something tangible about it. The next step could be acts of service. If your service is motivated by compassion and not a desire to earn points (or even worse, to make a point), it can be a bridge builder. Sometimes there are obvious needs that we can help meet (like the Holly Oak Cemetery cleanup), and sometimes you have do a little research - a little listening.

Do you want to show someone that their life matters? If you serve them with humility, they will know that they matter to you. Which leads me to my final point.

In order to see real change in the long term, we need to build real relationships. I believe this is ultimately the answer to the problem of us not understanding each other. And this is not something that you can do overnight. Real relationships require real work and commitment. But if you’ve been praying, you’re going to recognize the value in those individuals, which will make you value a relationship with them. And if you’ve been serving with the right heart, doors will open for conversations that can lead to real relationships.

By the way, the perception of inequality based on racial prejudice is not new, nor is the church immune to it. In Acts 6 certain members of the early church felt they were unjustly deprived of a benefit because of their race. There was the perception that the Jewish widows were being favored over the Hellenistic widows in the distribution of food. Whether it was true or not, when the apostles heard the concern they did several key things. First, they listened to the people who felt the offense. Because they were constantly in prayer, they were guided by God to have the people select 7 trusted people who would both hear the concerns and serve with integrity. And thus they ensured that the relationship was strong, that no one felt like their lives didn’t matter!

Over the last 25+ years I’ve had the opportunity to build many friendships across cultural lines. As we’ve built relationships of trust and respect, we’ve shared our hearts and our hurts with each other. We’ve gotten glimpses into each other’s worlds and it has helped us see things from each other’s perspective. We’ve truly come to care for each other. And matter to each other. We don’t always agree on everything. But we listen to each other and that’s what good relationships are built on!

I’m convinced that if we will intentionally listen, pray, serve and build relationships with each other we will no longer have to ask whose life matters. We will matter to each other.

So let us listen to each other. And hear each other. And heal each other.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Heart Problems

A little over a month ago, one of my first posts when I relaunched my blog was called “A Confession, An Apology, and A Challenge.”  I was truly touched by the number of responses (public and private) that post generated!

And, true to my word, I did start taking some tentative steps towards a healthier lifestyle. But, as is often the case, life happens… and good intentions fall to the wayside. At the beginning of June, I led the largest team I’ve ever taken to Reynosa, Mexico. (And when you’re a missionary… you eat what’s put before you, right?) When we returned, I had a very full week of meetings & projects, which leads to eating out and late nights. Then on the following Saturday morning, I spent hours working in the summer heat and humidity to help make some progress on the long-postponed cemetery cleanup.

All that to say… I was pushing myself too hard and was genuinely worn out! I wasn’t making the best meal choices, and I certainly wasn’t getting the rest I needed.

So when I started feeling sick that weekend, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. I rested, and of course I prayed, but when I wasn’t feeling better by Sunday evening, I actually broke down and went to Urgent Care where I received a shot and a prescription for more meds. And usually, for me, this is where the story ends. The prescription does its job, I feel better, and life goes on.

But this time, I began to notice a new symptom: tightness in my chest. Not overwhelming, not debilitating, but persistent… and troubling. I couldn’t ignore it.

Some of you may remember that several years ago, I spent a couple of days in the hospital after experiencing chest pain. The doctors put me on a medication and advised me to lose weight, exercise, and reduce stress. And I did! I lost a significant amount of weight, I felt much better, I actually enjoyed my exercises, and I had energy to spare! I did so well that my cardiologist told me I didn’t need the prescription anymore! But as I confessed back in May, I had since gained all that weight back, and then some.

So I made an appointment with my cardiologist. A big part of me hoped that he’d just tell me to lose the weight, exercise, and reduce my stress again. But another part of me was also a little afraid that he’d find something else, something more serious.

When you’re worried about something, the waiting is the worst part. First, you have to wait for that initial appointment. Then you have to wait for scheduled tests. Then you have to wait for the results. It gives you a lot of time to think. And I did think about a lot of things. Why did I gain so much weight back? I had a million and one excuses. There was the international adoption and the weeks spent traveling. Then coming home and adjusting to our new normal of life with young children again. There was so much going on in my life. Besides, I deserved a little comfort food, right? ;)

And despite my weight gain, up until this point, I had felt pretty good. So maybe I was a little overweight. Nobody’s perfect! But look at all of these other things I was accomplishing! Didn’t all the good I was doing elsewhere kind of, erm, outweigh my weight? It wasn’t that I was making bad choices on purpose. I still wanted to make healthy choices, I knew that was the right thing to do, but there was no sense of urgency about it. It wasn’t that important.

Until I started to feel that discomfort in my chest.

Fear can be a pretty powerful motivator, and I realized that regardless of the outcome of my doctor’s visits, something in my heart would need to change if I didn’t want my current weight loss journey to end the way my previous one did. And that’s when I finally took my own challenge seriously, started eating healthier, and now I’ve lost 8 pounds so far!

(BTW, the good news is that my tests came back showing nothing serious, and by the time I got my answers, the symptoms had already subsided. It turns out that my chest tightness was apparently just a less common side effect of the prescription medicine for my earlier flu-like symptoms.)

One of the things Bro. Buddy (aka, my dad) likes to say is that people will make time for what’s important to them. Often, he shares this in the context of relationships or participation in church activities, but it really goes beyond that. If we choose not to do something that is within our power to do, it’s because we’re giving something else priority instead. It’s a heart issue.

When we don’t feel like doing something, we’ll often say that our heart isn’t in it. But despite what our culture tells us, as believers, we are not to “follow our hearts.” (Jer 17:9) We’re supposed to tell our hearts what to do! (“Love the Lord your God with all our heart” is a command, not a suggestion!)

So how do we make our hearts follow our lead?

First, I think we have to realize that God-things aren’t necessarily easy things - sometimes it takes work. We love it when something just falls into place beautifully, when circumstances and seemingly chance encounters align and almost effortlessly bring about the desired outcome. We call them divine appointments or God-ordained situations. And yes, there are times when God does work that way. But there equally divine, equally God-ordained things in our lives that require work. Things we have to fight for, that don’t come easy.

We need to make a choice. (Josh 24:15) Sometimes we wait until we “feel led” to do something, but many of the important issues in our lives don’t require special guidance or a personalized invitation. Back in 1986 David Stellwagon and I felt the Lord might be leading us to do some door-to-door evangelism in a certain part of town. We went to my dad and shared that we were going to pray and fast about it. He laughed at us and asked incredulously, “You’re going to pray and fast about sharing the Gospel?” That opened our eyes to simply obey something we already knew to do - and to an amazing summer of door-to-door witnessing that prepared each of us for future ministry. Later that year I moved to Mexico as a missionary and David ended up serving 12 years as a missionary in Japan. Sometimes we just have to step out and do what we know to be right, with or without the warm fuzzies.

Second, I think we need to radically de-compartmentalize our lives. Maybe we fail to reach our goals because we refuse to see the bigger picture. Mark 12:30 says “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” “ALL” leaves no room for holding back the parts we don’t want to let go of. We cannot possibly fulfill this command, and we will not experience true wholeness, unless we’re willing to leave everything on the altar. “Wholeness” includes every part of our life, and like a bowl of spaghetti, everything is connected to everything.

For example, I struggle not just with eating well and exercising, but with rest, or lack thereof! As anyone who has ever tried to catch up with me at the office knows, I like to stay busy. And often with that busy-ness comes stress. And when we’re stressed, we tend to make food and scheduling choices because they’re convenient, not necessarily because they’re the best choice. Which leads to illness. Which leads to more stress. And more bad choices. Can I honestly say that I’m focused on walking towards wholeness if I address my bad eating habits but not my bad sleeping habits or my oversquozen schedule?

Thirdly, after we choose to walk towards wholeness, we need to continue making smaller choices that lead in the same direction. We need to stay the course. Isaiah 2:3 tells us that God teaches us his ways so that WE can WALK in His paths. This means that we have work to do! It’s not enough to simply know where the right paths are, we have to continue to walk in them. This is probably where we all struggle the most. We make progress for a while, and then we mess up. So we give up. No one likes to fail. But failure doesn’t have to be final unless we quit and never start again. So accept God’s new mercy for today (Lam 3:22-23) and start over … again!

And finally, don’t go it alone. (Pr 27:17) When we feel like giving up, having the encouragement (and accountability) of others can make all the difference. Many people find that they’ll stick to an exercise routine better if they’re doing that routine with a friend. But that doesn’t mean that we all have to do the same thing. There is no one-size-fits-all program. Did you notice that in Isaiah 2:3 the word “paths” is plural? It’s also plural in Psalm 23:3, “He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.” God will guide you along the path towards wholeness that He designed for you. But it’s good to journey with others who are traveling parallel on the path God designed for them. And it’s good to encourage one another on our individual paths.

When I wrote my initial “Confessions” blog I had several folks ask me about starting a group for mutual encouragement and accountability. I thought that was a great idea to keep the conversation going, so I started a Facebook group called Walking Towards Wholeness and I’d love for you to join me there, if you’re interested in this journey. But in keeping with my goal of not cluttering up my schedule, I held off announcing the group until I found someone to lead it. But who?

I’m excited that Rich Carlisle has agreed to take the lead in this group! One of the reasons I asked Rich to be the group “coach” is because I’ve seen him in action as an encourager and he is one of the best. Besides doing his own work to lose weight and get in shape, he has the heart of a coach, of a discipler, of an encourager, and I know he’ll find ways to motivate us to stay on our paths. We may not be shooting for the same target - some are wanting to lose weight, others are wanting to gain muscle, others may simply want to get some light exercise incorporated into their daily routine (or stop using their stationary bike as a clothes rack :) ). But if we’re committed to walking towards wholeness and health, we can all celebrate each other’s victories and encourage one another when things aren’t going as well. Rich is going to be a wonderful coach and I’m excited he’s accepted the challenge.

Now it’s your turn to accept the challenge. If you’re interested in being part of a group where we share our journey towards health and wholeness while not all doing exactly the same thing, but receiving the same encouragement, just click on and share your story! I hope to see you there!