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 FACEBOOK PROVERBS

THE FACEBOOK PROVERBS

I can see it now, an ad headline on Yahoo or Youtube: SECRET BIBLE CODE PREDICTS HOW TO ACHIEVE FACEBOOK SUCCESS! We are such suckers for looney lines like this that it would likely get a million clicks. The surprising thing is that the headline is true, from a certain point of view.

I discovered this by doing something else you will no doubt find looney: Reading Proverbs backwards.

Before you call for the guys in white jackets, let me explain. I read the Book of Proverbs through two or three times a year. Every time its accuracy and insight fascinate and instructs. But the phrases and cadences have become so familiar that I found I was just passing through, ignoring the scenery the way you do on an oft-traveled road. So, I decided to read the book in reverse order. That’s when things started to pop, especially regarding Facebook.

I am a daily Facebook visitor. Sometimes it is a time waster. But other times it is, as it was designed to be, a great facilitator of relationships. Given the shredding of our sense of community in the last fifty years social media is increasing our ability to stay connected across the artificial divides created by our suburbanized, isolated, hyper-mobile car-culture. It is the electronic front porch where neighbors stop briefly for a friendly chat, share helpful information, and strengthen the bonds of civilization. That’s a good thing, usually.

Then there’s the dark side of Facebook, the crude comments, political rants, and thoughtless posts and re-posts that with neighbors on one’s own front porch, we wouldn’t normally utter. Facebook can’t recreate the proximity that prevents us from disgracing ourselves and as a result people have lost friends, jobs, opportunities, careers, and reputations, sometimes permanently. As a result, most large employers now have strict social media rules in place and restrict access on their in-house networks.

That’s why The Facebook Proverbs are so important. They were written long ago for a people trying to achieve honorable community in the land of Israel. Their composer and compiler, Solomon, was one of the most wise and successful leaders who ever lived. Using them as a guide to all of our social posts will help us achieve that rarest of cultural commodities: courtesy. They are marked in the margin of my Bible with a large F and now that this post has grown so long, I will only share a few in hopes that they will whet your appetite to look for more. You will be amazed at how relevant they are.

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding

but delights in airing his own opinions. Pr. 18:2

 

A fool’s lips bring him strife,

and his mouth invites a beating.

A fool’s mouth is his undoing,

and his lips are a snare to his soul.

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;

they go down to a man’s inmost parts. Pr. 18:6-8

Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud,

but humility comes before honor.

He who answers before listening—

that is his folly and his shame. Pr. 18:12-13

The first to present his case seems right,

till another comes forward and questions him. Pr. 18:17

From the fruit of his mouth a man’s stomach is filled;

with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied.

The tongue has the power of life and death,

and those who love it will eat its fruit. Pr. 18:20-21

This last is not from The Book of Proverbs but from the late L. R. Barnard, my mentor and professor of Historical Theology: Cultivate courtesy gentlemen; it is the oil that lubricates the fine machinery of civilization.

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.

MEN ARE FORMED, NOT BORN

The news of men has not been good of late. My friend Tommy died last week. The last I heard he was in the Roanoke Rescue Mission. But in the end, he was homeless, doing crack, meth, and heroin. The drugs took him at 52.

There’s the porn epidemic. As Catholic writer, Benjamin Wiker, has said, “Our sexual environment is about as polluted as China’s air, and the harm caused by such pollution is just as scientifically demonstrable.”[1]

Then there’s the swelling cohort of insecure, indecisive, incompetent young men whose directionless energies are squandered in endless pursuits of, well, that’s just it, nothing special. As Auguste Meyrat recently wrote, they are “hapless chumps” who can “make observations, crack jokes, ask questions…but they cannot make theses and support them.” Women may “friend-zone” these guys, but they won’t marry and have children with them.[2]

And its common knowledge that one of the greatest common denominators for mass shooters (not counting jihadis) is that they are young, alienated men, with absent, abusive, or just irrelevant fathers.

Males are born, but men are formed. And our culture is failing to form them.

Cultural trends for the last forty years mitigate against it. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” founding feminist Gloria Steinem said, and a whole generation of women believed her and did without. That movement, along with constant media mockery of men as sleazy sex addicts or buffoonish oafs, removed much of the motivation men had to become something other than overgrown boys.

Healthy masculinity, the kind that gets tough when the going gets rough and tender when it doesn’t, has also been undermined by hypocrites like Bill Cosby and pedophile priests. But they are only the most famous of a multitude of men who hide predatory natures behind a faith and family friendly mask.

What’s to be done? Specifically, what can the church do? The most important thing we can do is buy into my thesis: Men are formed, not born.

There are definite attributes and specific disciplines that separate the men from the boys that can be passed down from one generation to the next. They have nothing to do with physical or sexual prowess and everything to do with character formation. We can work out the details of how to do that later, but we must buy in first. We must believe that positive masculinity can and should be formed in young men by older men.

Too many fathers and too many church men assume that “boys will be boys” and just let them raise themselves or worse, “let their Momma do it.” That’s not meant as a slam on moms who sacrifice endlessly for their children. But the truth is that young men do not respond the same way to women as they do men they respect. As a result, we have a generation of “feral children,” who—wishing they were real men—have mistaken real masculinity with owning powerful weapons and hyped-up pick-up trucks. Or else mistaken it for feminine virtues that, while admirable, aren’t masculine and therefore do not satisfy the innate need of a male to achieve manhood among other men.

My friend Tommy grew up a feral child. His father abandoned him early in life and rarely offered anything other than criticism for his son’s failings. Like all of us, Tommy made choices for which he alone was responsible. He had multiple opportunities to turn his life around. But I can’t help wonder how his life might have turned out if the right set of men had taken him in and committed to train him how to be a man.

[1] https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/08/04/sexual-pollution-is-a-scientific-and-destructive-fact/

[2] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/ts-eliot-poem-describes-modern-males-perfectly

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.

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.

DEALING WITH ANTAGONISTS

One day a farmer, who was a Quaker, was having trouble with his mule. He was trying to plow his field, and the mule was being unusually stubborn. He wouldn’t move. So, the Quaker decided to talk to him ‘reasonably’. “Thou knowest that I am a Quaker. Thou knowest that I canst not curse thee. Thou knowest that I canst not whip thee. What thou dost not know is that I can sell thee to my neighbor down the road. He is no Quaker, and he can beat the living daylights out of thee.”[1]

All of us can identify with that Quaker. We face opposition. There are things we would like to say or do. Then there are things that we can do and still call ourselves Christians.

Nehemiah chapters four thru six are a study in how to deal with opposition. The first six verses of chapter four teach us three things about handling that antagonism.

Antagonism often manifests as ridicule. All of us are vulnerable to it because all of us have glaring weaknesses. Shine the light on them and we get discouraged. Nehemiah’s enemies pointed to five: their competence, their faith, their hope, their resources, and their potential.

All of us feel incompetent at some time or other. Never more than when we’re about to try something new. And we fear the name “fanatic” because it isolates us from our peers. Every task feels bigger when our hope is undermined. We’re easily intimidated when our resources are thin. And our confidence is shaky when we the risks of failure are high.

What to do when we face that kind of antagonism?

Let me give you an encouraging thought here. When someone is ridiculing your work it probably means that they are afraid you might succeed. The best thing that you can do then is…succeed!

Notice Nehemiah’s threefold reaction.

He Does Not Respond in Kind

We can waste a lot of energy trying to right every wrong that is spoken of us. Or we can take the same energy and invest it in doing good work and let the work speak for itself. Keep reminding yourself that people ridicule you because they are afraid of your success.

He Prays

And what a prayer! “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.”[2] But what a problem for Christians! Aren’t we supposed to pray for our enemies, offer blessings instead of curses? Yes. But we live with two realities that Nehemiah did not have: The death of Christ and the life to come.[3] We know that we too are sinners, capable of injustice and slander. And we know for certain, because Jesus promise was validated by his resurrection, that all injustices will be made right by God in the end. So it is not wrong to pray for justice as long as we leave its execution to God.

The final thing Nehemiah did is the most powerful thing anyone can do in the face of ridicule.

He Got on With It

On September 18,1939 the British radio public began hearing a steady stream of ridicule from Lord Haw Haw. He was actually William Joyce, an American born Irishman who as a senior member of the British Union of Fascists, had escaped to Germany before he could be jailed. Every evening Joyce, broadcasting from Hamburg with the voice of an upper-class Englishman, ridiculed Great Britain’s losses to Germany, her lack of preparation, her hopeless situation before Germany’s superior military might. Many British subjects fell under his spell. But most did not. Most believed and followed Churchill.

Lord Haw Haw kept right on broadcasting until April 30, 1945, when British soldiers overran Hamburg.

The British did what Nehemiah and the Israelites did. They ignored the ridicule, went to work, and finished the job.

You know what happened to the Nazis. And William Joyce? They hanged him for treason on January 3, 1946.[4]

What to do in the face of ridicule?

  1. Do not return evil for evil
  2. Pray, allowing God to sort through your emotions and guide your convictions.
  3. Ignore their words and do your work – perseverance pays dividends in the end.

[1] Boice, James Montgomery; Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 50

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ne 4:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] Brown, Raymond; The Message of Nehemiah; The Bible Speaks Today Commentary pg. 74.

[4] Wikipedia.org