Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Lost Art of Reverence

Last week in my post about Pokemon Go, I mentioned that some places that had been designated as PokeStops really didn’t want to be PokeStops. Memorials and museums like the National Holocaust Museum had to ask users to refrain from playing the game at their location, especially after screenshots started showing up online. And based on the feedback that news articles about the controversy received, the majority of people agreed that it was inappropriate to play games in that setting. Some even expressed disgust that players were brazen enough to post their screenshots.

This story struck a chord with me because lately, I’ve been thinking about how little reverence there seems to be... for just about anything! It’s apparent when we look at the news. It’s blatant in popular entertainment. I see it every day on social media. And unfortunately, it’s also true in the Church as a whole. I believe we’ve lost touch with what reverence is all about.

When I hear the word reverence, I think about a sense of awe, a deep respect and appreciation for something significant. In the context of the Church, I think about a “holy hush,” a quietness, a humble recognition of the sacred. Definitely it’s an internal quietness, but it is often expressed outwardly as well.

The imagery that reverence evokes for me is somewhat somber and perhaps even old-fashioned. I see the soldiers standing watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I think of heads bowed in prayer before a meal. I think of the crowd standing, and men taking off their hats, during the national anthem or the pledge.

In contrast, sometimes it seems like our society is in a competition to see who can be the most irreverent. We live in world that seems to take pride in treating nothing as sacred, to downplay or discredit what others consider sacred. We’ve grown so accustomed to name calling and other forms of incivility that we routinely excuse (if not expect it) from our public figures and hardly even notice it anymore in everyday dialogue. We used to be a society where individuals were considered equals based their significance as being created in God’s image, equally deserving of respect. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) But it appears we’re becoming a society where individuals are equal on the basis of their insignificance, equally deserving of disrespect.

This trend toward downplaying the sacred can be seen in churches as well. Many contemporary churches have distanced themselves as much as possible from their more formal liturgical counterparts. Modern church buildings have more in common structurally with an office building or a theatre than with a cathedral. And modern church services can seem more like concerts or conventions rather than the structured worship times of the past. I'm not knocking contemporary churches - I pastor one! But while it's true that the church is the people, not the building, I can’t help but wonder if we’re missing something by downplaying the consecration of the space itself. What would change if we believed we were standing on holy ground?

And that’s what I set out to discuss this week. I wanted to share a lamentation of sorts for the Lost Art of Reverence. I wanted to tell you how important it is, especially in a climate where rudeness and disrespect seem to be the norm, to be respectful and treat each other with dignity as fellow human beings created in the image of God. I wanted to re-awaken and re-kindle an appreciation of the sacred - both the sacred times (like Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings) that we’ve set aside for corporate worship, and the sacred places (like our sanctuary) that have been set aside for that purpose. And I wanted to package it neatly under few major points with a call to action at the end! :)

But as I began to organize my thoughts, I quickly realized that this was not going to be such an easy subject to tackle. We may agree on the abstracts, such as the importance of reverence and even the basic meaning of reverence, but see things differently when it comes to the specifics. We may disagree on exactly what is worthy of reverence. And even when we agree on what deserves our reverence, how we express it is greatly influenced by our culture and traditions.

Funerals are a good example of this. Everyone can agree that it is proper to respect the deceased at their funeral. When we attend a visitation or funeral, we even call it “paying our respects!” But sometimes, we pay those respects with very different currency. In some Eastern traditions, professional mourners are hired to weep and wail at a funeral. In some circles, it is expected that visitations and funerals will be conducted in hushed tones, with only quiet tears and stifled crying - and everyone will be dressed up in dark colors. In some parts of Louisiana, especially New Orleans, a band is hired and the somber procession to the graveyard turns into an upbeat celebration after the burial. These seemingly contradictory practices are just different cultural expressions of the same desire to show respect at a funeral.

The problem comes when these different expressions of reverence are in conflict with each other, and we make judgments based solely on that outward expression. Someone whose behavior doesn’t meet our expectations may simply be showing their respect in a different way. And someone whose behavior conforms to our expectations may not have a good heart about it.

Reverence isn’t legalism. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules. It would be easier if I could just say “this is how it has to be” and lay out MY set of expectations as if it were Gospel truth. The problem with rules is that you can follow them without involving your heart. You can follow them resentfully, and ultimately break them without any objection from your conscience because they never actually meant anything to you.

But on the flipside, human nature is such that rules and guidelines can be helpful. Sometimes we need to do things that we don’t want to do. As anyone who has ever committed to an exercise plan could attest to, it’s difficult to get started. But when you begin to see results, it gets a lot easier to stay committed.

So I want to challenge you to commit to some spiritual “exercises.” I want to challenge you to practice the lost art of reverence. Why? I’ll let Paul answer that: "Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come." (1 Tim 4:8 NLT) Here are a couple of suggestions, starting points, valuable practices that I believe can help you in your relationship with God. They’re not meant to be taken legalistically… or exclusively. But they could be a good starting point.

PRACTICE reverence towards EACH OTHER. Treat one another with respect. When you’re with someone, be present. (Note to self: "Practice what you preach!") Put down the phone. Watch your words. Don’t gossip. Pray for each other. Remember that even the people you disagree with - even the people who have done you wrong - are made in God’s image.

PRACTICE reverence towards GOD. This includes personal devotions, but I believe it also has to include a reverence for things that are consecrated to God - including the times and places where we gather corporately to worship Him. It includes showing up, even if you don’t really feel like being there. But it's also about being present. Engage in the worship time (even if you don’t like the music style), focus on the message being presented, examine your own heart in light of God's word.

And while the above suggestions may sound like rules, I’d encourage you to treat them like exercise. It might be hard at first. Do as much as you can, and soon you’ll find that you can do even more. And if you’re tempted to use these guidelines to judge others, remember that just like in exercise, critiquing someone else’s push up won’t develop a single fiber of muscle on you! You have to put in the work yourself.

It seems like in church-life we experience pendulum swings from one over-emphasis to another. I’m not trying to get us to swing back to an earlier era of outward conformity. But I do think there’s an inner reverence that can be cultivated which will reflect in our outward behavior.

We live in a hustle-bustle word and people often lament the loss of “the simple life.” Perhaps rediscovering the lost art of reverence, from the inside out, could be a key to regaining the sense of peace many feel has been lost. I believe there’s something within us that longs to connect with the divine. Practicing reverence causes us to slow down, pay attention, listen - and connect. With God and with each other.

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.