WHY CAN’T WE COMMUNICATE?

WHY CAN’T WE COMMUNICATE?

“Are you listening to me at all?” My wife asked gently as we waited for our meal at Applebee’s.

Oops, I thought. You’re so busted! “Uhhh…No, I was trying to see who won the game last night,” I replied, still snatching glances at the wall-mounted screen over her right shoulder. Good thing she likes sports, or she would’ve really been mad.

Have you ever said something to someone and, having listened to their response, realized that they didn’t grasp the tenth part of what you were saying? Or felt like they weren’t listening at all?

Perhaps this is only common to preachers (and football widows). After all, preaching, as they say, “is just talking in someone else’s sleep.” But I have a feeling that you know what I’m talking about, that you’ve experienced communication frustration. Where does it come from? Why is communication, especially communication about spiritual things, so difficult? Well before you take a megaphone to the next person that doesn’t listen consider a few things.

A friend who is an engineer for a large utility company tells me that when he had to hire some new engineers, he required applicants to hand write sample repair instructions to a mechanic. Something like two out of ten could do it with any competence. Our education system is not what it used to be. More and more people are graduating from high school and even from college without the ability to make themselves understood.

We are also in a much denser communication environment than ever before. Commercials are shorter and faster, cell phones, Twitter, and text messages interrupt normal conversation, emails, pop-ups, dual screens – all of these technologies force feed us with hundreds more messages than earlier generations had to process, causing us to erect thicker message filters than we did forty or fifty years ago. We humans can only absorb so much information at a time. As a result, attention spans have shrunk. We are also becoming more reliant on pictures and music and less on words. We are a nation of receivers tuned to the elemental frequencies of image and melody. Language is becoming harder to digest.

But there is a third reason that people often cannot hear what we’re trying to say, especially if our message concerns the kingdom of God. Spiritual forces are at work. Consider Jesus and Paul’s comments on the matter:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Jesus in Mark 4:15 NIV)

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (Paul in 2 Cor 4:3-4 NIV)

The ability to communicate clearly and powerfully is a skill that can be learned. But in the end only God can penetrate the darkness, the spiritual veil that covers the heart of men and women. So, no matter whom you’re talking to or when, before you begin to speak, pray for the Lord of light to open the eyes and ears of the soul in your listeners. He alone has the power to make his light “shine in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6).

THE POUND CAKE HAS LANDED and other thoughts on community

THE POUND CAKE HAS LANDED  and other thoughts on community

The “Smith” boys got arrested last week and I couldn’t help them. My brother is moving this week and I can’t help him either. And the pound cake landed in my office today, but I didn’t bake it.

Those three things percolated in my head this morning as I sat down to write. Though they are unrelated events in a typical week, they share a single thread: Healthy community isn’t optional, and it doesn’t happen by accident. It must be intentionally built.

I’ve been acquainted with the “Smith’s” since they were born. We greeted them as toddlers on our daily walks past their house, one block over from ours. We watched them graduate from training wheels to big boy bikes. I helped them refill their tires once with my air compressor. We waved and said hello every time they passed our house on the way to the basketball court at the park. But we never built a real relationship with them or their parents. Their vandalism—the neighborhood always knew it was them—escalated with age. Now they are under arrest, charged with  murder.

Maybe, just maybe, if I’d hosted that annual 9-11 block party I dreamed of shortly after the terrorist attacks, a relationship could have taken root. Mentoring might have happened. Now I’ll never know.

My brother is moving from the gulf coast to north Georgia this week. He is desperately tired with all the preparations and needs a lot of help to get moved in. I’m too far away, there is no room in my work schedule to go anyway. He doesn’t have a network of friends there yet. I’m hoping and praying the church he visited on one of his house hunting trips will hear of his need and give him a hand.

Healthy community doesn’t happen by accident, it must be intentionally built.

And just in case you were beginning to get depressed, the pound cake has landed, and I didn’t bake it.

We’re not talking just any pound cake here either. We’re talking Ann Chaney’s finest lemon-glazed, melt-in-your-mouth, make you wanna slap your Momma ‘cause she never gave you anything this good! southern Virginia masterpiece of a pound cake. Ann, who has been my administrative assistant for fourteen years, baked it for our upcoming Alpha Course. I’ll never be able to bake anything that good. But I can’t wait to bless our guests with it.

Life is tough and people have free will. We can’t save every wayward boy or help every worn-out brother. But we can, if we are intentional about it, create an environment where relationships can grow, people can hear the gospel, receive the gift of life, and experience the community of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

But it won’t happen by accident. Healthy community must be intentionally built. Sometimes all it takes is a really good piece of pound cake.

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Php 2:4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

THE BILOXI BLESSING

THE BILOXI BLESSING

The woman was working hard, digging in her front yard, planting azaleas and poinsettias, obviously enjoying herself. She called to my wife and me as her little dog skittered and barked his way toward us, “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly!” And sure enough, he was.

We were taking our daily walk in a neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, while our then teen-aged daughter took a voice lesson.

“He is friendly!” I said as she dropped another plant in the dirt and filled in around it.

“He’s a survivor too,” she said. “We both swam under the door frame and out of our house or we would have drowned in Katrina.”

“You’re from the Gulf then?”

“Yes. Biloxi. They said my house would never flood so I never bought flood insurance. You can bet I have it for this house!” She filled us in on how they escaped the hurricane and what it took to rebuild and finally be able to sell out and move to Durham.

“Wow, what a coincidence to meet you. A bunch of guys from our church went down in 2006 to help a Biloxi family rebuild.” I said as we headed off down the street in the quiet neighborhood. “We’ll see you later!”

We returned just in time to be called in to consult with the voice teacher, so we didn’t have time to resume our chat with the neighbor. But as we were backing the car out of the driveway, she dusted off her hands and hurried out to the street. I could tell she felt urgent about something, so I rolled down my window.

“You said your church helped people rebuild in Biloxi?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please tell them how grateful all of us are? I have friends whose insurance took four years to settle. Some still have no home. Had it not been for the Churches and all the Christians that came down to help us we never would have made it. Please tell them how much we appreciate it. And tell them this: A lot of people who had not gone to church in a long time started going again when they experienced the love of the Churches. And a lot of people got saved. Would you tell them that for us? And tell them thank you?”

“I sure will! And thanks for sharing your story!”

We had that conversation in 2009. Many hurricanes have come and gone since then, and the people of God are still helping rebuild. So, to everyone who helped, in whatever way, the people devastated by Katrina, Florence, Harvey, Michael, and others, know for certain that God used your efforts. You blessed others with his love, and you are blessed by the survivors in return.

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

“I can’t be part of something I’m not sure I believe,” said Sam, “but thanks for inviting us.” Sam, his wife Shelley, and his daughter Chelsey were our new neighbors. Our kids were friends and they seemed open, so I had invited them to church.

I appreciated Sam’s honesty and integrity, so we just prayed, built a great relationship, and looked for opportunities to introduce them to Jesus. But then Sam’s career path took them to Memphis. We were sad when they moved, but we kept in touch via email.

A few years went by until one day Sam pulled into my driveway. He was in town for a few hours to check on his house and tenants. We talked for an hour. The sun was setting and the mosquitoes biting when Sam said, “I just thought you’d want to know that we’ve been attending a church in Memphis.”

I said, “That’s great! But I’m curious. You said when we were neighbors that you couldn’t be part of something you weren’t sure you believed. What happened?”

Sam’s reply was instructive. “The first month we were in South Boston we were invited to four different churches. Before people even got to know anything about us, they were inviting us to church. I wasn’t sure about any of it at the time. It felt like a lot of pressure.”

“What was different about the church in Memphis?” I asked.

“It had a lot of things we needed. It’s speaks to people who haven’t been to church in a long time or at all and aren’t certain about anything spiritual. We needed to be anonymous for a while, to have time to process what we were hearing. They let you do that. We needed relevant messages. Their basic theology is conservative, but they speak to issues we face every day. We needed contemporary music and informal style. They are committed to that too.”

“Wow, that’s great!” I said. “Sounds a lot like what we try to do albeit on a smaller scale.” (Sam’s church hosts three thousand on Sundays).

“We still haven’t joined the church,” he continued. “But we understand now the need to take a serious moral inventory of our lives, order our priorities and when it is time, make a 100% commitment. We’re going to do that soon.”

I couldn’t have been happier to hear what the Lord was doing in Sam’s life. I’m convinced He can do that for our neighbors today. After all, it isn’t the first time He has led his church to adapt itself to the needs of people far from God. As the Apostle Paul wrote: Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:19-23 NIV).

Sam’s church ‘became like Sam in order to win Sam.’

Maybe you know someone like Sam. Let me ask you to do three things. First, pray for him and his family all summer. Ask God to heighten his curiosity about spiritual things. Second, love him. Spend the time to get to know him. Third, invite—but don’t pressure him—to attend the Alpha Course with you (www.alphausa.org). The course is designed for people who are seeking but just not sure yet what they believe. It gives people time to process what they’re learning within a supportive, no-pressure, community.

You never can tell what God might do if you’ll be a no-pressure friend to your neighbor.

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

“If it hadn’t been for the Christians—all the churches that showed up—we’d still be mucking out,” said the man, a Casino worker in Biloxi, Mississippi. This was October 2006, a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of Biloxi. A crew of about ten men from our church, partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, were in Mississippi to help a family rebuild. I had taken a break to do some man-on-the street interviews with my new video camera.

“My house didn’t get destroyed like some of my neighbors,” he said, “but it was full of mud and water up to waist high. I’m not a churchgoer, but as soon as the storm stopped this group of kids from a church showed up and asked if they could help me clean it out. I was ready to start the rebuild within a week. No way it would have happened without their help.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we’re taking a team of 13 people to Pearland, Texas, next week, to partner again with Samaritan’s Purse and help another family rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. And the thing is, no one is surprised that a small church group from Virginia is traveling on its own dime to help people in Texas. Americans just assume that is what people do, but it wasn’t always this way. That ethos came from Christianity.

Followers of Christ have, since the beginning of the church, shown up to serve when the rest of the world was headed for the hills. When a pandemic broke out in ancient Rome, Christians, including key leaders, stayed to help the sick and dying. When the plague took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe in the middle ages, Christians stayed to serve while others fled. When the tsunami destroyed Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004, Christian missionaries already in country rushed to help the Muslim population there. When the Ebola epidemic hit Africa, Christian missionary doctors and nurses stayed to fight it. That service ethic, based on the individual’s value as an image-bearer of the living God and Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, changed the world. Now, American’s just expect it.

Some people are wondering out loud these days what it would be like if we could just get rid of Christianity, or somehow limit its cultural impact. Nikolas Kristof, of the New York Times, reported in 2015 that, “In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”[1]

This is especially true when Christians, who are called by God to love their neighbor as themselves and to stand for truth in all things, speak and act on their convictions regarding human sexuality, gender, marriage, abortion, and religious freedom.

But, historian and theologian Jeremiah Johnston, who along with his wife and five kids had to evacuate his home near Houston during Harvey, says, “It was the Christians, the people of faith, who immediately mobilized and invaded this city to help saying, ‘I love Jesus. I believe people are made in the image of God. We’re not going to sit here and let you suffer alone.’ I live in the most diverse county in America … but I never saw an Atheist tent anywhere, or an agnostic society tent, I never saw the ‘Free Thinkers’ helping people whose lives were destroyed. There’s a real world-view reason that is behind that.”[2]

Kristof concurs, it’s “true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work for Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.”[3]

The faith that causes Christians to serve disaster-stricken people is the same faith that causes us to provide free marriage counseling, speak up for the unborn, encourage adoption, help women with unplanned pregnancies, advocate for traditional marriage, fight porn and sex-trafficking, provide free meals, tell the truth about transgenderism, advocate for prison reform, and stand up for freedom of conscience and religion in the market place. The same Lord that calls us to serve tells us to speak truth in love to all who will hear. It’s why we do what we do

[1] nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster

[2] Warren Cole Smith interview of Johnston on the Listening In podcast, December 21, 2018. See also Johnston’s book, UNIMAGINABLE: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.

[3] ibid

THE ELUSIVE JOY OF GIVING by Robert D. Lupton

THE ELUSIVE JOY OF GIVING by Robert D. Lupton

Note: Bob Lupton, a long-time friend of my wife’s family, founded Focused COMMUNITY Strategies over thirty years ago by moving his young family into inner-city Atlanta. He is the author of TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I thought the following, from his monthly URBAN PERSPECTIVES update, would edify you in this giving season. Reprinted by permission.

I can’t remember when Mary Phillips came to live with us. Somewhere along the journey of my father’s itinerant pastorates, Mary had attached to our family. She was like a live-in grandmother to me. I called her MeMe (a name that stuck with her the rest of her life). I remember watching out our front window for her to get off the evening bus. When I saw her coming I would run to the door to meet her, get my big hug, and wait expectantly for my “surprise.” MeMe always brought some little treat home to me. She would reach into her coat pocket and, glancing around to be sure no one else would see, slip me some little trinket or stick of gum or piece of candy, pretending that no one else in the world knew. It was our special secret.

I remember like it was yesterday (though I was only four) the day MeMe stopped giving me those daily surprises. I had run to the door to greet her as I always did, got my hug, and waited expectantly to see what she had brought for me. But for some reason on that particular day she had nothing in her pocket for me. I immediately threw a temper tantrum, creating quite an ugly, tearful scene. MeMe was obviously distressed by my behavior and vowed that she was not going to bring me any more surprises. I assumed, of course, that this was her way warning me to control such outbursts in the future. But the following day when she arrived home from work, her pockets contained no treats. The next day was the same. And the next. Her daily surprises never did resume. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why she had so abruptly stopped her daily treats.

Seven decades later, the painful lesson I learned from MeMe’s decision remains vivid in my mind. It has sensitized me to the ways joyful giving can turn ugly when it becomes an expectation. I saw it happening in our inner-city ministry at Christmas time. We received many offers of food, clothes and toys from caring friends around the city who wanted to share their abundance. I asked Zack, an emerging young community leader, if he would assume responsibility for identifying needy neighbors and distributing the donations to them. He accepted the role with eagerness. The first year was an absolute delight as Zack delivered unexpected blessings to struggling families. He felt like Santa Claus, spreading joy and good cheer. The second year, instead of receiving joyful greetings from families, Zack felt pressure from recipients for specific gifts and special favors. His enthusiasm diminished. By year three, Zack was ready to quit. Recipients grumbled about their lack of choices, made accusations of favoritism and claimed priority rights based on their longevity in the program. What began as a joyful sharing of unexpected gifts had turned into a litany of entitlement.

MeMe and Zack figured out what it takes charities and churches much longer to learn. Giving turns toxic when the recipient comes to expect it. Gratitude turns into presumption. And the benefactor, with all good intentions, ends up creating unhealthy dependency—the very thing benevolence hopes to abate. But there is a corrective to this dilemma. Reciprocal exchange.

We discovered it when we opened the Christmas Store. When a customer and a merchant meet at the bargaining table, each brings something of value to exchange. Both stand to gain in the transaction. Parents find bargains; FCS generates needed revenue. Jobless neighbors are hired; the store gains a workforce. Both enter the exchange with worth; both exit with dignity. That’s why we named our Christmas Store promotion “Pride for Parents.”

Reciprocal exchange. It is a fundamental principle of healthy relationships. It assumes that everyone has something of value to bring to the table. The responsibility, then, of stewards of resources is to develop those systems that create the opportunity for fair and authentic exchange.