The room was packed for the preschool Christmas program. I was sitting near the aisle with my camera in hand. My son Joshua was Joseph that year and his friend Claire was Mary. I was prepared to document the entire event.
The procession commenced. As the kids walked in, I spotted Joseph and Mary, holding hands. Totally precious.
I fumbled with my camera, trying to capture the moment. Unable to get the cap off the lens, I reached for my phone to get some video. I was looking down . . . pushing buttons. By the time I was ready, the kids were already up front. I missed the entire entrance.
But there was Joshua, in his Joseph garb. He picked me out of the sea of faces and waved. “Hi, Dad!” He didn't care about the pictures. He just wanted my attention.
At that moment, I made a vow. "I’m going to stop documenting this event and instead simply be at this event." This applies to much of our life, especially in December.
We are obsessed with doing at the expense of being.
These are the pictures we post and see on our social media feeds.
These are the pictures you won't post:
One outcome of tragedy is that it further polarizes existing opposites. Everyone retreats to their respective corner. We use the tragedy to reinforce our stereotypes and justify our worldview. By this, we are driven further apart.
In the last 30 days we've had multiple national tragedies. Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas are a few. We have retreated to poles such as:
Christian vs. Muslim
Pride vs. Anti-gay
Trump vs. #nevertrump
Black vs. White
A stillbirth. A miscarriage. There is a peculiar pain when you lose a child that you held, but never met.
What do you say? How do you go on?
If you know someone struggling after losing a child, first give them a hug. Sit, be, and cry with them. And after a "ministry of presence," here are some things to say at stillbirth or miscarriage.
Not technology or real estate. Not education or technical skills. Not even time, although it's related. The most valuable commodity in American society today is genuine community.
Economically, the United States is number one in the world (a GDP of more than $17 trillion). But in terms of overall well-being, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found the U.S. rates 15th. Fourteen other countries are generally happier and healthier.
I have been fielding a number of questions and comments from a sermon preached this past Sunday. Are people actually listening? (By the way, I can see you texting in church!). Here's the manuscript. Radical generosity versus reciprocity.
The object of Monopoly is to become the wealthiest player through buying, renting and selling property. Monopoly is a system of reciprocity. You pay money, and you get a property in return. You lease your property, you get rent in return. The goal is to be the monopolist in control of the entire economy.
In many ways, our world is dominated by a system of reciprocity.
If I buy you lunch today, you’ve got next time.
If you give me an assist, I’ll pass the ball to you next time.
If you contribute to my campaign, I’ll advance your cause in the legislature.
And in a negative way:
If you punch me, I’ll punch you back.
If you don’t invite me to your party, I won’t invite you to mine.
If you won’t talk to me, I won’t talk to you.
In Luke 6, Jesus presents a radical alternative to the system of reciprocity. He takes the Monopoly board and turns it upside down.
My friend Ben was listening to a radio program last month about Ferguson. It was analyzing the complex factors of race, education, poverty, and politics. He was certain that this was a local St. Louis radio station. At the end of the segment, he was surprised to hear "this is NPR news." Over a year after the rocky events of Ferguson, it is still a national story.
Ben's radio experience reminded me that we in St. Louis are at the center of the race conversation in our country. This was further pronounced yesterday when the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe resigned over his handling of racist incidents on campus. Again, this story hit the national media.
If my city and state are a forum for conversations about race, what should I do? As the pastor of a predominantly white congregation, I ask, "What is our role? What do we do with this tension in our community?" I often get frustrated by my inability to do something. I have an urge to "fix" things.
Seeking insight, I met with an African-American pastor last week. He lives in the neighborhood of my church. He's planting a church in North County, the general vicinity of Ferguson. I simply said, "Help me understand." I find my own Anglo perspective to be limiting and I wanted the perspective of a black pastor.
We sat across the table from one another at a St. Louis Bread Co. He breathed a deep sigh. And then he said, "We have to do this one person at a time. That's all we can do."
His words were a relief to me. In all of the severity and complexity, could we actually do something so simple?
A white officer playing basketball with a black kid.
Black and white pastors praying together.
White leaders listening to the perspective of black leaders, and vice versa.
Neighbors checking in on one another.
White patrons frequenting a black-owned business, and vice versa.
My black pastor friend reminded me, "Our identity is ultimately not black or white, victim or perpetrator, north or south. Our identity is in Christ. If we focus on that, the conversation changes."
Juan is a pastor in Watsonville, CA. His town is 80% Hispanic. With Halloween approaching, he was telling me about the prevalence of celebrating Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Throughout Mexico, this holiday focuses on praying for and remembering friends and family members who have died. A darker version of the holiday involves actual worship of death itself.
Juan was noting this sinister side when he asked, "Do you know why they worship death?"
"Because if they worship it, they think death won't take them."
He spoke of a superstitious Mexican gang member whose rigorous devotion to death was supposed to keep him alive. Juan chuckled, "But he got shot."
The screens of our phones, TV's, computers, and tablets are keeping us apart. While technology has brought people together, it also has a de-personalizing effect.
Almost 100 million people seek companionship through dating apps like Tinder. A recent article in Vanity Fair chronicles the "dating apocalypse." It describes the impersonal nature of dating and the rise of casual "hook ups." Life behind a screen can devalue intimate human experiences, and turn sex into a transaction.
I was talking to a residential life director at a university who described a freshman at orientation. "He came up to me in a panic because his new roommate hadn't responded to his text," she said. Since the two students had not yet met in person, the director said, "I know what he looks like. I'll introduce you to him." The freshman replied, "But what will I say to him?"
Her point? Students are proficient behind a screen, but they've lost the ability for interpersonal communication.
We all spend too much time behind screens. (I write this in the glow of my computer.) I know so many people longing for real, honest relationships.
How can we break out from behind the screen? Eight ideas. Feel free to add your own.
Longevity and fidelity are harder and harder to come by these days. We glorify the fast-paced instant gratification of an always changing world.
Let's reclaim the patient, long-term, gut-it-out, in-for-the-long-haul persistence that most of life requires.
Anyone can do something for a day.
Try doing something day after day for 60 years.
Last Sunday, I was honored to participate in the renewal of vows for my dear friend and colleague, Ed Dubberke, and his wife Joan. They walked to the front of the chapel, arm in arm, just as they had 60 years ago. They repeated their vows to one another . . . "in sickness and in health . . . until death parts us." And they asked all in attendance to join them in praising God.