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!