Monday, March 28, 2011

Simple, simple, focus!

This morning while I was reading a journal article on post-modern youth ministry, I read this statement:

“It is not unusual to have inspiration come from a rather mundane moment in life.”

How, true. How true! I’m constantly trying to see / hear / experience God in the everyday. I can’t imagine how many times I must miss God! But, this week-end was one such example for me of being challenged by the everyday! About 6 months ago, my husband’s children moved with their mom to Ohio from South Carolina. This week-end, I traveled with my hubby to Smithville, Ohio to pick up his children and bring them back to South Carolina for their spring break! We left Thursday night around 8:00pm and traveled about half of the 9 and ½ hour trip! On Friday, we made our way through Ohio …. the heart of Amish country, actually. Out of the 11.5 million residents of Ohio, about 58,500 of them are Amish (according to one website I saw). And, we were traveling through the heart of Amish country (the almost triangle shaped area between I-77, I-70, and I-71). Check out this google map of the area:

I was enamored by several things from the experience of making our way down Route 250through Wilmot and Mt. Eaton and over to Wooster. First of all, it was snowing (not sticking) for some of the trip which was exciting because I LOVE snow! Second, the amount of horse poop on the side of the road caught me off guard. I’m not being flip, it really did! The reason it was overwhelming was because, at first, I couldn’t figure out what it was. We were in the middle of now where …. literally – farm houses from time to time but no businesses or people! Then, out of nowhere, we passed a horse pulling a cart with a sweet Amish man inside. He was heading in the direction of the town we had just passed through. It turns out that on either side of the road, in this area, there is a special lane just for the horse and buggies. Hence the copious amounts of horse poop. I even read an article online that said there are more horses than people who live in Amish country … stunning!

And then we began to see these signs … you know like the deer crossing or warning signs we see here in South Carolina?! It seemed comical at the time. But looking on it now, I am impressed with how inclusive the local government is of the Amish people.

The deeper into Amish country we got, the more I was caught off guard. The next thing I knew there were tourist attraction signs … they looked similar to like a rest stop or Interstate exit kinds of signs. The sign would say at the top: “Tourist Attraction” and then below would list the miles and direction to everything Amish in the area - restaurant, gifts shops, cheese stores, or furniture businesses. I struggled with # 1 - why these people and their businesses are a tourist attraction and # 2 - with wondering how much money the Amish make from attracting tourists.

Finally, I feel like I was nudged by God at the simplicity of the Amish life in today’s society. Until I did some further reading online, I guess I didn’t realize their rich history. I do think that the boundaries they draw are a lesson for us all! Of course, most of us know the Amish for their simple living, plain dress, and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology. I’ve, naturally, been thinking more about simplicity in my life because of the practice of silence I’ve included for my Lenten practices! So to learn the prohibitions or limitations on the use of power-line electricity, telephones and automobiles, as well as regulations on clothing of the Amish intrigues me! How less complicated this way of life seems!

As I think through this topic of simplicity, I think about Paul and his writing in 2 Corinthians 11:3 about the simplicity of our love for God … and how easily we are lured away from it (just as the serpent did with Eve). And, I challenge you to think about the Old Testament King – Jotham. In one sermon I heard, he was portrayed as the king of simplicity. In fact, in 2 Chronicles 27 - we read that his one, constant, uncomplicated focus was to please his God. It’s a VERY short chapter; I would encourage you to read it here.

Notice .... everything written about King Jotham in that 27th chapter is positive. The challenge from this Biblical example and from my example of the simplicity of Amish people becomes to consider our focus! Especially, this becomes important, I think, when we feel bogged down by life or stressed. Of course, the temptations of life lure us away, including stress and busy-ness!

So, just what is your focus? Only you can answer that! As teenagers, I’m guessing our youth would answer that their focus is school, friends, family. And I pray that God and serving others would fit in there somewhere for the teens I encounter in youth ministry weekly (after all, that is what I am trying to teach)! So the challenge then becomes our focus on God …. is it constant, like Jotham? If not, can it be? Your focus on your friends, your popularity status/struggles, your self-image, your athletic ability, your study habits, what others think of you – those are all constants in our lives! Remember, our lives bear the evidence of our focus!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Television Tradition!

Television Tradition!
I've been thinking a lot about television lately. Mostly, it's because it has been more tough for me than I thought it would be to practice silence on Thursdays! Of course, we're only two Thursdays into Lent, but both of those days, I've caught myself reaching for the television. Not turning on the television (or radio) is harder than you may think .... try it sometime. For me, television watching is a moment to escape reality .... not that my reality is bad or anything! It is a chance for my mind to essentially, turn off. I don't get the chance to slow down or turn my mind off much during the day so (as an introvert) having this time in the evening is a must!

Some statistics might help us understand this whole television phenom. better!

*According to Wikipedia 99% of American households have at least one television (and the majority have more than one).
*What's more than that, 49%of Americans say they watch too much television (I'm certainly one of that 49%!).
*According to the A.C. Nielsen Co. the average American watches 3 hours and 46 minutes of TVeach day (that's more than 52 days of nonstop TV-watching per year).
*By the age of 65 the average American will have spent nearly nine years glued to the tube.
*Now think about this! On average, a parent spends 38.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their children.

But there's more to it than television being my "me" time! Bad or good, this obsession we Americans have with television - I'm convinced it's a learned habit, for sure! I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing because it is part of our accepted norm and we can't escape it. I am saying we really ought to give this some thought. As a pre-teen and teenager, I spent many a weekend over at my grandparent's house. My Nanny and Pa had this tremendous and meaningful tradition that EVERY Friday night they ate dinner out and EVERY Saturday night my Pa grilled steaks. Anyone in the family was invited as long as you let them know ahead of time that you were coming. So many weekends, I would pop over for dinner and then spend the night! Two things I remember about those evenings - a timer on the den lamp and Atlanta Braves baseball!

Every evening around dusk, my Nanny had the lamp in the den ,programmed on an automatic timer, set to turn on. And every evening after dinner was cleaned up and digested, there you could find my grandparent’s sitting in their respective recliner watching baseball (or movies when it wasn't baseball season). Period, the end. That was their tradition. Many of those evenings, I would watch with them or I would sit in the kitchen and watch a different TV.

I think there are some lessons - relevant to our spiritual journey - through this example! In a way, I think the fact that my grandmother programmed the light to come on speaks to her sense of hospitality. She was intentionally making the den warm and welcoming for she and my Pa (and us family guests). And, because their house sat up on a hill in a caul-de-sac, the neighbors and cars passing by could also see the light coming from the room or the family gathered there, together. There's also something to the tradition of spending a set aside time together as family, daily. Every single evening, my Nanny and Pa shared that time together. That speaks volumes! But, even if they never spoke to each other during the time, there's still something to be said for the level of commitment they shared in spending that set time together.

These two facts are much like our relationship with our God! If we really sat down and thought about it, how many ways and times does God prepare the "den" of our lives? In other words, how often does God make things a little more comfortable for us? I bet 9 times out of 10, most of us miss that expressed hospitality or take it for granted!

And, what about our commitment to spending time with God? As long as I've been teaching youth about God and God's relevance in our lives, I've tried to help youth understand how personal their relationship with the Living God can be! For me, the great thing about my relationship with God is that it is just like any other person I would have a relationship with .... it requires work and intentional effort to get to know them, to keep in touch, to express my devotion/love to, for example. Of course, it is also different, but the point is it takes commitment and effort!

I am convinced that it is the commitment that is the key. Our commitment is more than just going to worship .... it's honestly worshipping God and not expecting what we need out of it. It's more than just calling out or praying to God in the times that we need help ... it's about prayers of thanksgiving and intercession (for others) and adoration of God! It's more than sleeping in on Sunday morning and promising we'll go next week .... it's about getting up despite your tiredness and coming to coffee and fellowship to share fellowship with all aged church members and then go to Sunday school and learn more about God! It's more than us just doing the fun kickball games at youth group .... it's participating in youth group and Sunday school or setting up for the yard sale fundraiser. It's more than us just giving $5 to the poor or hungry ... it's taking 6 days of your summer vacation and going on the mission trip and physically working to improve living conditions, even though you hate doing it and being in the summer heat! After all, God doesn't pick and choose when God is going to show up in our lives, why should our commitment to God be any less? Now, does that commitment mean you have be at everything and do everything? Absolutely not. That's probably not even possible. Bottom line - sometimes commitment does require a little uncomfortableness and sometimes it offers great fun! It is a tremendous opportunity for the "den" light to automatically be on and permeate our "neighborhoods!"

Monday, March 14, 2011

Silence, Social Media, and Relationships!

You may have heard that for Lent this year, I gave up talking on Thursdays in an effort to reduce negativity and to just slow down a little. I'm adding the spiritual discipline of of silence / meditation / reflection, especially on those days. Last Thursday, honestly, was a little challenging for my first try at this Lenten experience. I knew going in to the experience that I only wanted to participate in "essential" conversations on Thursday and I knew that I would have to talk some for work and family reasons. Evaluation: I don't think I was realistic about how much that would be and I could not seem to whole-heartedly stick to my plan! And I knew I was going to be intentional not to turn on the television or radio. Evaluation: I don't think I was realistic about how hard that would be for me! I do, however, feel better prepped for this Thursday and am actually excited to try again!

Last Thursday, I did great with not turning the television on at the beginning of the morning. Admittedly, I felt a little out of sorts at not hearing the news or weather for the day. And, it was very surprising to hear about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan the next morning. This got me reflecting on how much we use social media and media to share news. What ever happened to good, old fashioned word of mouth and the relationships that were strengthened because of it? So this is where my thoughts went on and off for the rest of the day. I tried reading some of Bonheoffer’s "Life Together" but found my thoughts going back to the impact of social media on relationships.

As a youth minister, I realize that this generation of youth is all about instant connection. I like the ability to instantly connect. In recent years, it seems the more instant connection had been e-mail. I remember being so excited to get an email address for the first time, when I went to college (in 1995) and having to go to the computer lab at Erskine College to check my email! Now, probably ten e-mail addresses later, they come right to my cell phone (and I don't know what I would do without it).

But, even email seems to be fading out among this emerging generation! I have to say, even though it is a convenient form of communication, I am sort of glad about this for three reasons.

Number one: in my past 18 months at Zion, I have managed to collect only about 25 student email addresses. I send and track a weekly email newsletter to the students and their parents. I use this great program called Mail Chimp!! Google it. On a good week, 3 of those 25 students open the e-mail. And, weekly I get bounces from student emails that have become invalid e-mail addresses. Parents are a little more user friendly to emails! About 10-20 of the 50 or so parent e-mails I send get opened each week! But I know myself this may not be the only indicator of interest in a program or relationship! Even though my emails come directly to my phone, rarely do I open everything or I don't open it because I already know what is going on. I find this trend to be consistent with other churches I have served!

Number two: another issue with email and relationships [for me] is that you can't tell tones or attitudes in someone's words on a screen. This has caused trouble for me many times in the past. I even find myself writing an intro to recipient to the effect of: "I'm not mad or anything .... but ....” But, even when writing my devotions for my weekly student e-mails, I find myself having to pick my words carefully because misinterpretation is so easy. I just really think it can create more tension than necessary. When I write, especially my devotions, I hope that it is prophetic, insightful, or moves others. But, sometimes, I think, people may walk away from having read my e-mail or devotion and have concerns or compliments. That person may never address their concern or insight with me and they harbor it within. Further, I really think constructive criticism and debate are good! In my experience, not to have either of these is unhealthy and damages relationships.

Number three: social media, specifically e-mail, can inadvertently damage relationships because we use e-mail as a cop-out. Right? Honestly, isn't is just sometimes easier to email (or text or facebook chat) with someone? Then there's no hassle of having to talk face to face or voice to voice to someone to whom you don't want to speak (especially when it is a hot topic). Or using email, text, or virtual chat can be seen as much more convenient, taking less time from your day that you could be doing something else.

Don’t get me wrong, I love e-mail AND texting, and virtual chatting are great! I will continue to use them all and I do believe there is benefit and convenience to using it. So I am torn in my writing of this post! With all of that said, I certainly see the benefit of using email, texting, or virtual chatting. For example, I have found that youth will tend to open up with me using facebook chat! I find out more about what is happening in their lives and what issues they are dealing with in their lives. These forms of communication certainly can be a relationship builder with today’s youth.

I know I have gone all around the topic here .... so what is the bottom line for me? - I just think our society will really be missing out on something if we don’t begin to focus more on relationships, as Jesus did, face to face. We have to model that for our children. In other words, we should use these more instant forms of communication to “meet youth where they are” but also not make it our only or primary form of communication and relationship building with the emerging generation.

On alternative that I think can be very useful .... SKYPE! I don’t know that much about it and I haven’t researched statistics but I am here to tell you that I wouldn’t be surprised to see a shift in use of texting and facebook as the preferred form of communication to the use of video chatting being on the increase among teens. It certainly is for some of my students. Not only is it available for free using their webcam on their computer, but the technology is even available on their cell phones / iPads now. In fact, they can even conference in several friends or family members at a time. Good! In fact, great!

I think this type of communication has amazing potential. This could be a tremendous relationship builder in our families, youth ministries, friendships, and in mentoring! Bottom line – today’s generation is the busiest ever. Taking time to use video chat - are you sitting face to face talking, laughing, or crying with someone? Yes .... who cares if it is over the Internet? You are taking the time to be face to face! Think about the possibilities...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I'm Giving Up Talking for Lent!

When it came to trying to decide what to give up for Lent this year, I was trying to think of something very meaningful. Upon reflection, of past Lenten seasons, I felt like I have been on a downward spiral over the past two or so years with regard to focusing on my own piety. During Lent's past, I've always thought about how much pain and suffering Jesus endured on my behalf .... so it seemed logical that during Lent, the least I could do was to give up something I love. Several years ago, I gave up Mexican food. If you know me, you know that was killer for me because I am pretty much addicted to it (and iced coffee) and my family generally eats Mexican pretty much every Sunday after church.

It seemed to me that I was on a roll with Lent several years ago, as far as having meaningful and memorable experiences went. I think it all started many years ago when the congregation I was serving at the time was challenged to not only give something up for Lent but to add something in the place of what you were giving up. But, for the life of me, I can't remember what I gave up / added last year.

So for the past several weeks, I've been contemplating what to do this year that would mean something. I had basically decided on the Mexican food thing again for this year and then it hit me. A self assessment: I've gotten into this routine of finding it very easy to complain and be negative. Life in general has been very stressful and busy and I feel tired. I've been to the doctor because my Vitamin D levels are low and my blood pressure is high. Don't get me wrong, I'm not making excuses for this inappropriate behavior because there is none. But I am saying that when I am stressed and busy I sometimes get grumpy and more emotional than usual (ha!) and it is easier to be negative and plea my case to EVERYONE around me. Sorry if you've been in my path on those days. I even tend to take the smallest of complications and turn them in to "end of the world" problems. This is not healthy!

I've also been thinking a lot about a class that I took in my Master's degree work called "Spiritual Disciplines." Perhaps this was a nudge from the Holy Spirit for this Lenten season? In the class we studied Richard Foster's spiritual disciplines. As I view it, Foster's premise is that these spritual disciplines are ways to enhance and grow in our relationship with God. It's kind of like an excercise routine for your soul! There's a lot of thought on this in contemporary theology. Foster's disciplines include: meditation, worship, prayer, fasting, confession, silence/solitude, and others!

I've always had a great interest in the discipline of solitude/silence and even did a project on it my Master's work. Combated with my recent negative attitude and the thought of my mother's great teaching: "If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all," I decided that I was going to give up being negative for Lent. But I knew it had to be more ... there had to be something radical ... because not being negative would honestly, probably only have lasted a week or so for me.

Then at the Ash Wednesday worship service last night it hit me like a ton of bricks; made my stomach drop and all! I couldn't beleive the thought popped in to my head! Pastor Tim was preaching on piety and I decided I was not going to talk at all for the next 40 days. I was going to be silent and look for God and positives instead of getting all wrapped up in my stress and busy-ness. This too, was not practical; it really would have not worked ... after all, I have a 5year old son. Further, I am recquired to communicate in my job.

So I debated with myself and came to the conclusion that I would be silent for the better part of one day a week. Since I work at home on Thursdays, I've decided that this is probably the best day to try that will enable potential success in this. Of course, I'll have to answer the phone for work related items and I'll generally have to be on the computer for work. And, I'll have to give direction, affirmation, and instructions to my son and husband. But other than that, Thursdays will be my silent / solitude day. No television, no radio, no non-essential verbal communication.

It sounds a little radical but it's more than just not talking. I'm also adding in trying to be alert to the presence of God and feel the best way I can do that is through this silence and reflection of what I experience in the silence. I really pray that this can be a season of responding more positively to God and the blessings in my life instead of being consumed by the stress and busy-ness and negative-ness in my life.

The thing is, from my original thought of being silent all throughout Lent, this really is not that much. It's only six different times in the next 40 days or 144 hours of silence. That is really nothing in the grand scheme of things! (Yes, folks, that was a personal pep talk.) I think, however, that the personal reflection will be the key. In the times where I would have normally watched television or partaken in gossip and venting with friends or my husband, I'll be adding the reading of "The Ethics of Martin Luther" and "The Confessions of Saint Augustine" and other books to help in some reflection.

It's amazing that even in the past 12 hours of today's initial try at silence and solitude what I have noticed that I wouldn't normally notice .... the dripping of the faucet that urges me toward the fact that I'm being a poor steward of the environment (no that's not me being negative, that's me challenging myself to do better) .... the rain drops falling on the roof that made me look at the window and notice how green my grass has become (overnight it seems) and how new life is springing forth all around ... the chirping of birds out my home office window that normally would have annoyed me, today, seem refreshing and calming; I close my eyes as I sit at my desk and realize how worn out I am! This is something I would have unhealthily just pushed through and ignored before; at least I can admit it today.

It's a start. I will say, I've had to be intentional already today to not turn on the television or some music. I know tonight at bedtime I'm really going to miss the television noise in the background. But, I am committed to this act of piety and whatever God can teach me through it.