Category Archives: Understanding Culture

Facing the Flood

Last week I drove past a farm that was an arresting sight. A stately old red barn stood at the forefront of the property, two doors wide open to the world, completely flooded by water. I don’t know why, but I found it fascinating. I wanted to stop and stare at it; I wanted a picture. It was sad and beautiful and seemed to silently speak volumes—if only I could figure out exactly what it was saying.

Today, half-way through another three week stint between days off, I got home and spent a couple of hours doing little more than staring at the floor, my eyes like vacant doors, my thoughts muddy and scattered, like murky waters that weren’t going anywhere fast. And I remembered that old barn. If only the owners of that barn had been prepared. If only they had seen what was coming and put up protective walls to keep the dangerous flood waters at bay. If only I had done the same.

Burn-out is a strange thing, making a wreck of lives once purposeful and beautiful. Like flood-waters, it is a danger that often encroaches by inches. A person may think they are safe from its hazards, but who in our culture is not in some danger of being swamped by the myriad pressures all around us? How easy for life expectations to get out of whack, especially in the areas of work, relationships, school, finances and ministry—things that feel so crucial. The pressures come from without and within, from the demands of others and our expectations of ourselves. The dangers without are like that flood—beyond our control, only escapable by sand-bagging our lives with firm boundaries. The dangers within are often subtle, easily overlooked or ignored. Two years ago in my family home one tiny leak in an inconsequential pipe flooded the bottom levels of the house. The damage was ghastly, and even though a year and thousands of dollars in repairs later it could be called relatively “normal” again, it will never be exactly like it was. So it is with burn-out. It can be very costly, and there’s no saying how long it will take to come back to “normal.” Some optimistic psychologists say it’s likely you’ll never be back like you were again. It’s all very haunting, especially when you realize the pipes have burst, the river is overflowing, and you’re up to your glazed eyeballs in a flood problem.

It’s at times like this that I’m glad God has the final word in life, not the psychologists. They don’t give me much hope, but God is a worker of miracles and reversals. One of my favorite scripture passages in Isaiah 61 is full of ugly realities God intends to turn inside out, comfort in place of mourning, beauty in place of ashes, gladness instead of despair. And one verse which seems to pertain particularly to my current mucky situation: “They [His grieving people] will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations” (Is. 61:4). If God can restore whole cities that have been demolished for ages, certainly He has the ability to restore the mess I’ve made of my own house, which He built and which is now His. The waters of burn-out may be strong, but God is stronger. He can push back the flood waters or give me the strength to swim through. One thing is certain—He will never leave me to struggle alone.

“But now, this is what the LORD says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:1-2


The (Hair) Tie That Binds

I wanted to pull my hair back today, so I checked my wrist for a hair binder. Sure enough, I had one stored away just in case. It made me think of a time earlier this year when I was with a group of Norwegian girls and someone requested a hair tie. Half a dozen young women from different countries all looked at their wrists simultaneously. It made me smile. We speak different languages and wear a different style of clothes, but we all do the same thing when it comes to hair binders. How did this happen? Is it a tradition handed down one woman to another, or were we born with an innate understanding that this is the proper thing to do? It’s kind of a funny idea, really, to store something on your wrist. But apparently it is one of those truths and practices that tends to transcend cultures.

I’ve heard it’s common to fear people from other cultures, to fear those who are different from yourself. People feel uncomfortable when they don’t understand what’s being said. It feels threatening. How easy to miss the universal things we have in common, the things that “tie” us together, like love of conversation, need for significance, the beauty of humanity–and hair ties.

I was reading in Ephesians today, where Paul shares a beautiful truth, that Christ “is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:14,19). Despite all differences, the love and death of Christ is the unifying “tie that binds” all of us to each other.

One of the reasons I love hanging out with people from other cultures is precisely because they are different from me. I like to learn how they do things, be introduced to their pleasures and foibles, gain a broader picture of life. But I enjoy even more the moments that reveal our similitude, our soul connection as members of humanity and even stronger bonds as followers of Christ. That bond is incredibly beautiful, and it links me with many beautiful souls from one side of this planet to another. What a gift Christ has given us–potential soul friends from every nation, tribe and tongue! Wherever I go, family will follow. And never being caught without a hair tie is an added perk.

Friends Beyond Facebook

In life's journey we need not walk alone...

In the thirty-plus days since I began my facebook fast, I have gotten three or four emails kindly informing me that I “have 11 friends with birthdays in the next week,” as well as the occasional note to let me know that I “have 105 new notifications” or some such rot. All this just to break my resolve, or simply trick me into forgetting myself and logging on; after all, what will my acquaintances do without my happy birthday wishes on their wall among fifty others? Facebook appears desperate in its attempts to get me back. It is the quintessential needy friend or ex who needs to get a life and move on.

I have been reading today about the nature of friendship in a book called Sacred Companions (David G. Benner). He says that “the ancients viewed friendship as the crown of life, the fulfillment of all that is most distinctively human.” In our day relationships of romantic love have been put on this pedestal, and Benner suggests that this is because so few individuals have really experienced a “significant, enduring” friendship. He argues that real friendship has been lost in the quagmire of lesser relationships that we call by the same name, and it is infinitely more rare. As he went on to paint a picture of the ideals of friendship—involving the intimacy of shared experience, sacrificial love, mutual giving, seeing each other realistically and truly, calling each other towards growth, and in so many respects becoming part of each other in a profound way—it left me wondering how many true friends I really have. And it made me hunger for what he described. What good is it to have 100, 200, 300 or more friends on facebook, if you lack a true friend who is deeply connected to your life and who you are becoming?

Friendship, of course, can never be forced. It is always a gift. If I desire deeper levels of friendship all I can do is evaluate to what extent I am willing to go there myself and then extend the invitation to others to journey with me. There is one friend who has already offered that invitation to us. Jesus said, “I have called you friends,” and I’m pretty sure He didn’t mean the facebook kind. He meant He wanted to be intimately, passionately, sacrificially involved in a mutually beneficial relationship. If we’re willing to go there with Him, this relationship can change our very souls. But we have to be willing to give God more than a facebook friends level of relationship, and it takes sacrifice to get there.

I gave up facebook for a season to spend less time in superficial relationships and more time cultivating my friendship with God. It has not been the easiest thing I’ve ever done; sometimes it has been downright inconvenient. And I’ve found that there is always another distraction to keep me from time with God. I have reason to be disappointed in myself, disappointed in the low level of friendship I tend to be capable of myself. But I guess that’s where the final “ideal” of friendship comes into play—the ability to love the other in the space between ideals and reality, to not walk out in spite of imperfections and failures. I have many reasons to thank God that He does not give up on me, that He still calls me a friend, however imperfect, including my somewhat failed attempt to focus more on Him during this Lenten season. And isn’t that what Lent is about? Contemplating the depth of God’s love for us in the face of our failure, and our unworthiness to receive such a gift? As Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for His friends.” This is a good week to be thankful for such a friend.

30 Pieces of Silver

There's a new church in town...

Traveling and learning about major spiritual battles around the world can give you new awareness of your own. One of the major battles facing people in my country is the hold of materialism. I’ve known this was true in my head, but have been able to observe it much more closely since becoming a cog in the materialistic wheel, whether cashiering and hearing one person after another saying, “Well, I just came in to get a couple of things, but…,” or sitting in the break room and hearing of coworkers taking on a second job to buy their truck. Many people have let materialism occupy a central role in their lives; their life goals are wrapped around stuff, and studies show that people consistently think having just “a little more” money would make them happier.

Because I work nearly all the time these days, my life doesn’t have much of a rhythm, but there is one weekly event that sets apart one day from the others—Sunday morning ad. There is a weekly phenomenon in stores I never noticed until it was my job. You know those little signs all over the place that tell you if you buy two of this, you’ll save thirty cents on both, or if you buy three it’s only ten dollars (and if you buy one, it’s exactly 1/3 of ten dollars, by the way)—those signs don’t get there by themselves, and they change every single week. This transformation takes place on Sunday mornings, requiring many workers to forsake the Sunday morning worship of God and replace it with a materialistic religious ceremony. I often shake my head as I put up yet another sign for something that is only a few cents off, considering how much money and paper we would save if we dispensed with these silly signs and simply let people buy what they needed when they needed it instead of persuading them to get more because it’s “on sale.” (Don’t get me wrong, I am a consistent sale shopper who waits to buy until things are marked down. It’s a great way to save some money. I’m just against the way sales master people, rather than people mastering sales.)

It’s ironic that we get set up for another week of worshiping the god of materialism on Sunday mornings, but I think it is no accident. Have you ever watched “The Story of Stuff?” It has some pretty strong things to say about our consumeristic culture. One piece of information it divulges is that after World War II when Eisenhower was president (1953-1961), the government decided that the the american economy had to produce more stuff and Americans had to be convinced to buy more stuff. In a sense, our salvation as a country would be in materialism. This idea has infiltrated our culture to an amazing extent—we don’t even realize the ways we are duped into buying more and more things we don’t really need. Terms like obsolescence and perceived obsolescence are foreign to us but impact our lives every day. We bought into the shop-more strategy to such an extent that stores had to extend their hours to keep up with demand. By the 70’s states were repealing laws that kept stores closed on Sundays, and today if there’s something in the weekly ad that you don’t want to miss you show up on Sunday before it’s sold out. Christmas has become a materialistic nightmare (I have yet to meet someone who works for my store who enjoys Christmas; they can’t wait for it to be over so they can get their lives back). If anything should clue us in to this being a spiritual issue, the fact that these days once sacred to gathering and celebrating God’s provision for us have become a battleground for our time and attention ought to do the trick. And just like archaic idols of the past, with materialism we find that something claiming to serve us has made us its slave.

Jesus spoke on the deadliness of materialism in many instances and many parables, and encouraged His followers to store up treasures that last, not to live for wealth which is “here today and gone tomorrow” (And according to the Story of Stuff, 99% of the things we buy have been trashed within 6 months of purchase). Jesus gives us the stern warning that we “cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). We have to choose. One of the best descriptions of spiritual warfare I’ve ever heard placed it squarely in the area of choices. We live every day in the midst of a spiritual battle and every choice you make is stating your allegiance, either your allegiance to God and His kingdom or to something else. Working in a store, I have to constantly be on my guard. Will I let the voice of materialism, with all its false promises of happiness, dictate my choices? Or will I stand against the pull of culture and put my hope in God? What about you? In this very real battle, whose side are you on? Are you choosing God as your treasure? Or have you betrayed Him with a kiss—and thirty pieces of silver in your pocket?