Saturday, February 25, 2017

Confronting Modern Day Slavery—closer than you think

The music was loud enough that I could feel the bass pulsing through the floor. The vocalists were captivated, joy flooding their faces. The musicians were in sync. The environment was perfect. A young worship leader, flown in from Germany, stood at the microphone with his guitar. He meant business. The room was full—college students crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, faculty, guest missionaries. It was a recipe for revival. We were standing, singing our hearts out. Some hands were raised. Tastefully-designed slides gave us the lyrics. He who the son has set free is free indeed. 

This was not where I expected to confront modern day slavery. Not here in the Pacific Northwest. Not at a Christian University. But there he was—a real slave—at the end of the row directly in front of me. He was standing along with everyone else . . . but his eyes were captive to his phone. If he had been texting, I could have understood. Relationships are important to him. Maybe he's dealing with a family crisis. But that was not the case. He was playing a game. I cringe just typing those words. I could see the handcuffs cutting into his flesh.

A few times he turned off the screen and slipped the phone into his pocket. But within 60 seconds it was out again, and he was back into his game.

I was baffled. He wasn't sitting in the back row, wasn't making any effort to hide his addiction. He was sitting on the inside aisle in full view of everyone, including this professor.

And he was not alone. At one point everyone in my row and all 8 guys in the row in front of me were on their phones. At the same time the guys behind me were snickering. I looked out across the auditorium. Those in my row seemed to be especially distracted, but I could see phones out all over the room.

During the skit.
During announcements.
During worship.
During the main message.

I wanted to stand up and cry out. I wanted to interrupt our speaker and ask for the microphone. I wanted to say Here, let me hold that for you so you don't miss out. Don't you see you are enslaved? Don't you see that you have lost the art of being human? Lost the ability to be truly present? You are going to need these skills as an employee, as a husband, as a father, as a leader, as a friend.

How did we get here? How did this tiny computer manage to become the only thing that matters? The only thing alluring enough to capture our attention? Why have we let it fragment our focus into smaller and smaller pieces until we can no longer remember what it means to sit in silence and listen? When is the last time we have sat across from someone and looked into their eyes?

From time to time students come to see me. They sit in my office and bring their toughest questions and doubts out into the light—How could a good God allow this? Why doesn't God answer when I pray? How can I be sure what I'm supposed to do with my life? The Bible makes me angry, too angry to pray. I'm having an existential crisis. I'm struggling to keep up. This is all really new to me, so I might need some extra help. These are not the students who scare me. These students are my treasure—the ones who fill my heart with hope for this generation. These students are engaging life with eyes wide open. Their yearning for answers is their sure path to success.

It's the numb ones who scare me. Those who cross campus with faces illuminated by the eerie light of their screens. It's blinding them to the chains that entangle and weigh them down. They are tired. They feel pulled in so many directions. They never have enough sleep. Never enough time to get everything done. And they don't realize that they have willingly surrendered to this life of bondage. They don't even remember what it's like to be free.

Photo credit: John Blanding for the Boston Globe
Do you remember?
Do you remember family dinners filled with conversation?
Do you remember drives in the country soaking in the view?
Do you remember watching something incredible live, without trying to capture it so you could update your status?
Do you remember feeling challenged by a live speaker?
Do you remember meeting someone in line?

Don't misunderstand me. I have a smartphone, too, and I love social media. But at some point it ceases to be a tool and becomes a slave master.

Ironically, the speaker earlier this week, AJ Swoboda, had given us a powerful challenge. We need to care for creation, he said, because creation is the most effective argument for the existence of God. To look up and see the stars far from the city lights inspires awe. To hike above the treeline puts everything in perspective. If we fail to care for this planet, we will lose the most powerful evangelistic witness we have.

And if we don't look up, we'll miss it, too.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Adventures in Prayer . . . and the Barriers that Hold Us Back

It's a special joy to walk with students as they wrestle with how to relate to God. Sometimes questions come up in class discussion. Other times its a conversation with a student in my office. This semester I get to "look over their shoulders" by reading student reflections on their small group meetings. Students are responding eagerly to these meetings, where they meet to talk about their spiritual lives with one another, using A Spiritual Formation Workbook.

Why is God not answering me when I cry out to him?
This week I tried praying 5 minutes a day. I'm embarrassed about how hard this was for me!
What is the point of fasting?
I'm so angry at God right now. How can I pray?
How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?
If God is good, why wouldn't he make it easier to communicate with him?

I'm realizing that one of the biggest barriers to prayer is the idea that we need to pray a certain way or with a certain attitude. We so easily lose sight of the invitation we have to come into God's presence just as we are. This week I encouraged one student to go for a hike in the woods and rant at God, telling him how angry he is. There's no way to get past the anger until it's expressed. I told another student that she doesn't need to swallow her disappointments so that she can come to God cheerfully. God wants us to voice those disappointments in his presence. I had the privilege of praying with another student for physical healing.

The other major barrier to prayer is busyness. We don't pray because every moment is filled with sensory input of other kinds – music, headlines, newsfeeds, conversation, podcasts, Netflix, homework. We've lost the art of sitting in stillness. One student plans to try a social media fast. Another practiced sitting quietly for 5 minutes each day this week. Inspired by the story of Frank Laubach, others are intrigued by the idea of inviting God into every moment of their day. Is that even possible? And if so, what would be the benefit?

A third barrier is unfamiliarity. We can't expect to become spiritual giants overnight. Spiritual growth takes time, and spiritual disciplines take practice. I'm praying that God would reward each student's efforts to connect with him and would stir their hunger for more.

Prayer is like the old game "Othello" — it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than a conversation with God. That seems simple enough. But creating space for prayer, learning to truly open up in prayer, exploring new ways of praying, discerning God's voice, coming to love prayer . . . these things take time. It's the adventure of a lifetime!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leaning In: One Year Later

Just over one year ago, I decided to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Now I'm looking back and taking stock of what I've learned. I reworked last year's blog post into an updated article for The Well, published today on InterVarsity's blog for Women in the Academy and Professions. 
. . . By the time I got my dissertation back, dripping with red ink, I was already a month into teaching. I had less than two weeks to cut dozens of pages and tighten my arguments. During those two weeks I didn’t use impressive PowerPoints in class, didn’t grade anything, and didn’t meet with students outside of class or attend any special events on campus. But then my defense draft was submitted, and my teaching rhythm returned to normal.
And I learned that Sheryl Sandberg was right. I had almost said no because it didn’t seem convenient or practical, because I might end up too busy. But saying yes worked out fine. My students survived, even though they weren’t the center of my universe for a couple of weeks in February. Most importantly, I finished my degree and finished out the spring semester, gaining a wealth of practical experience in the process.
You can find the whole article here.  I hope my journey inspires you to lean in, too!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hidden Figures: America's Pathway to Greatness

Imagine if your best work went unnoticed.
Imagine if you wrote a report but someone else's name went on the cover.
Imagine if that same someone else was paid a great deal more than you were.
Imagine if they resented your presence in the office.
Imagine if everyone else in the office shared that opinion and made it obvious.
Imagine if you couldn't speak up about it because this was normal.

If you were an African American woman working at NASA in the early 1960s, you would not need any imagination. This would be your life.

Hidden Figures is a movie that will take you into the world of three women who walked in these shoes. Given the segregated times during which these brilliant women lived, I suspect that their experience was widely shared by people of color.

A lot of progress has been made since the 60s, but friends of color tell me that we still have a long ways to go. Assumptions and stereotypes about aptitude, motivation, or immigration status plague these brothers and sisters. Guarded suspicion is more readily extended than friendship.

We are much closer now than we were then to equity and equality, but let's not imagine there is no work left to be done. 2016 made that painfully obvious. Perhaps President Trump's most lasting legacy will be bringing the blatantly racist attitudes that persist in America into the light of public discourse. As troubling as this was, we might as well know the truth about where we are as a nation. Maybe this truth will compel us to seek justice.

The flurry of executive actions in Donald Trump's first week as President underscores the urgent need for private citizens, churches, and non-profit organizations to champion the cause of justice. If in the past we have relied on governmental agencies to ensure a just society, we know now that such an approach is inadequate. This has always been true. But now it's undeniable.

In Soong-Chan Rah's Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah urges his readers to cultivate "a personal connection to the corporate sin that has entered our culture." He says, "We must move from 'let's just get over it' to 'how do I personally continue to perpetuate systems of privilege?' Justice must move from the third person to the first person, from the abstract to the personal" (125–26). This is such timely advice.

Just this morning I heard about an African American PhD student in Chicago who was pulled over in 2015 and accosted harshly by police for suspected auto theft in spite of his respectful compliance with law enforcement officers. Friends, the man was beaten for driving his own car. Examples like these can be readily multiplied. As long as we live in a world where this can happen, we cannot rest.

The only great America will be the America where every human being — no matter their race or gender — is treated with dignity, compensated fairly, given credit for their work, and given a voice and a place at the table. If this is the America we want, we need to create it. Let's get to work!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

a prayer companion for the next four years

Evangelicals have found ourselves in an awkward place this election season — heavily courted and yet publicly disdained. One day wooed, the next betrayed. There has been no easy way to navigate political conversations with friends and neighbors as emotions run deep and issues flare. Choosing how to vote created a conundrum for many people. Which policies are most compatible with Christian faith? Which issues should be highest priority—the economy? immigration? the unborn? race relations? How much should a candidate's personal beliefs (or lack thereof) and character (or lack thereof) play into our decision?

Some Evangelicals concluded that the only Christian vote was a Republican vote because it had the best chance of overturning Roe vs. Wade or was most likely to preserve the freedoms enjoyed by Christian institutions. Other Evangelicals felt passionately that the Democratic candidate best embodied the biblical ideals of caring for the poor and the oppressed. Still others felt that neither candidate had the personal character necessary to occupy the oval office. Some of us voted for a third party candidate. Others abstained in protest.

Wherever you find yourself on that spectrum, if you consider yourself an Evangelical, like it or not the polls have securely linked the president-elect with your vote. That means the world is watching, and you will be blamed for whatever happens next. A change in leadership always brings opportunities and risks. Whether you are concerned about what these next four years may hold or you are celebrating regime change, I've got a book to recommend just for you.

In a world full of pressing needs and deep divisions, this book is a call to prayer and fuel for action. For those whose hearts are heavy, this is one way to transform your burden to focused prayer. For those who are optimistic about the incoming administration, this book will augment your prayers for our new president in ways that consistently reflect God's kingdom priorities.

Offering a quote each week and a Scripture verse for each day of this four-year administration, Praying for Justice functions like a lectionary. As the authors describe it,

The title of this book contains an invitation to pray for justice, but this book contains no overt prayers. Many of the more than fourteen hundred Bible passages contained here are prayers or portions of prayers. To read these texts is to be invited to join them in prayer.  
This book invites us to use each day's verse as a meditation or reflection for that day and each week's quotation as an examination of the ways in which your life images God's redemptive justice in the world. 
This book is also a call to action. Now is not a time for Christians to sit and trust that others will take care of people on the margins of our society. Christians must not content themselves with mere social media activism or personal piety. Christians must act often. Christians must act publicly. Christians must act sacrificially. Christians must act with courage and compassion. Christians must act as if it matters - because it does.
This book was a labor of love by three of my colleagues at George Fox University. Anderson, Steve, and Paula worked like the wind for four weeks straight after election day so that you could have this resource in your hands in time for the inauguration. All the proceeds will be donated to Church World Service, to aid them in their work resettling refugees.  You can order your copy on Amazon.