Saturday, December 18, 2021

Deep satisfactions

Lately I have been experiencing some long-awaited joys. 

Tuesday my first grandchild arrived, a little girl, who bears as her middle name the name of my mother. The very existence of this tiny human being marks the passing and legacy of the generations. She is a word of my own finitude and mortality, and in that I am set free and overjoyed. I have not yet met her, but there will be time for that. 

Last night a small group of us shared a worship service in my barn. In my deepest heart and in a few quiet conversations, this has been envisioned over and over for the past year. Last night it finally came to be. We sat in the cold barn around a propane heater. We talked of Herod the Great and his architecture, and how in the face of those grandiose projects Jesus chose to be born in a place much like this. He came, as Peterson has it in The Message, for everyone. Nothing could symbolize that better than that first night's lodgings. So we shared communion with a bold red wine and homemade whole wheat bread. 

Outside the barn, one of those lovely December snows was beginning. The flakes wafted downward past the longhorn steer skull above the door on the barn, through the rarely-lit yardlight's illuminated cone, settling on the ground and obscuring the tracks of whitetails and cottontails that crisscross my yard. 

Then we adjourned up the hill to my house (remember the $350 trailer house I've been working on with the help of many of these same friends?) and shared chili and cornbread and lefsa and mulled wine and the joy and conversation that comes with shared life and deep trust. 

I find myself living out a manifesto of simplicity and contentment here. I've mentioned Wendell Berry before and his articulate advocacy for this kind of a life. Here is a piece in which he recommends some concrete steps that lead one into this kind of living. Enjoy. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Turning the corner into winter

 It's almost December as I write this. I'm sitting in that trailer house I bought last spring. A few friends and I spent a ton of energy making it livable. So though it's twenty degrees outside, I'm sitting comfortably in my living room listening to the furnace run. My coffee pot is happily keeping me happy on the kitchen counter. Shoes and bookshelves and TV and car keys each have their places. This has become home, though (like most homes) there is still a great deal of work to be done. I am hesitant to say so out loud, but I think I'm ready to face the Minnesota winter in this place. 

I've been working lately in the barn. There's a solid prospect of a horse or two coming to live here in the spring, and it's been fun to turn from cleaning junk out of the barn. Now I'm focusing on building a couple box stalls and planning for water, fence repair, and the like. I'm very excited about all that. The pasture fence will need a little work, but a few days of labor will probably have the place ready for equine occupancy. Then there will be more complicated things that need to be accomplished next spring or summer, like getting a source of water in the barn itself. But that's manageable. And I am so enjoying the deep connection to my farming roots and those kinds of projects. I don't know what I was thinking a few years ago when I figured I could live in the Twin Cities. 

Also tremendously exciting is that in the next few weeks I am becoming a grandpa. That is a deep joy waiting to come to full flower, and I'm patient. 

I'm thinking a lot these days about the chaotic times in which we live. As I write, the new omicron variant of the corona virus has captured everyone's attention. We continue to live in the midst of this global pandemic with great fear and conflict. We continue to be polarized around everything from politics to medicine to sexuality to ... well, to everything, it seems like. 

I think often about Wendell Berry (if you don't know him, look him up) and some of his philosophy around land and spirituality. Boiled down, I think it applies like this. In times of chaos and division, the responsible thing to do is build three things. First, land. Make sure you have space. If at all possible, own it. That provides a firm economic footing. Maybe this means owning a home. Berry in one interview said that it's incredibly important to find a few square feet of scrub land, if nothing else, that you can manage. I agree. 

Second, skills. As much as possible, know how to take care of yourself. This means everything from basic first aid to cooking. Learn how to do the necessary things to make your life work. Can you plant a garden? Butcher a deer? Fix your plumbing? Change your oil? If not, learn how. 

Third and by far most important, community. Build a network of friends who can do life together. Any shortcomings under #1 and #2 are covered if you build a strong community. Eat together. Worship together. Talk about important things together. Care for each other's needs and work on projects together. We too often fail to realize that community needs to be intentionally built. This is so important. 

Obviously we could dive deep into each of these three, but not right now. Suffice it to say that when you experience fear in the daily headlines, these three are a solid place to invest the energy that grows out of that fear. 

I'm not advocating being a "prepper" or having stockpiles of weapons or non-perishable food. Too often that just feeds the fear and division. Instead I'm saying as much as possible, build a stable life. When you have made some progress in that direction, the headlines can fly over your head like birds, without making nests in your hair. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Redemption: What is it?

 At its worst, it's a Christianese word. It gets thrown around in theological circles and church services. More likely you'd hear its cousin, "Redeemer." As in, "Jesus is my Redeemer." That may be true and correct, but what does it mean? In common usage the statement "Jesus is my Redeemer" doesn't seem to mean anything different than "Jesus is my Savior." It's just a comforting way for me to think that I'm important enough that Jesus died on the cross for me. 

And that is good and true. But what does the word "redeem" actually mean?

Last fall I bought 40 acres of land. I remember the first time I saw this plot, about three years ago. I thought, "Why would anyone want that patch of scrub?" In late March I moved onto this piece of land, and I have slept nearly every night since here, mostly in a big-enough-for-me camper. I've come to love this land, though I recognize its shortcomings. It is covered with weeds, including some really nasty ones like thistles and cockleburs. The soil is so sandy it needs rain about every three days or things don't grow well. (This summer has been miserable that way.) The one building on the property is a decrepit metal barn that needs a lot of attention. When I moved in, there was no accessible source of water. There was a ton (literally) of garbage scattered between the barn and the tree rows. There was no functional electricity on the property. 

Lots of people had looked at the property and turned up their noses. The listing realtor is a dear friend of mine, and he told me. His authority as listing agent had also expired when I came to buy this land, because nobody wanted it. 

That's a lot of what the word "redeem" is about. If something is going to be redeemed, it begins without value. 

The only way we use the word "redeem" these days is in regard to coupons. I remember Mom clipping coupons when I was young. We didn't have a lot of money, and coupons stretched the grocery budget considerably. I was amazed that a piece of newsprint, cut (sometimes torn) out of the advertisements, somehow got us a dollar off that box of Cheerios. How was that possible? 

When you turn in a coupon, you "redeem" it. You and the grocer make an agreement that the piece of newsprint is valuable. It is not valuable in terms of cash. There is a long, complicated reason why most coupons include a line about "cash value 1/20th of one cent" in the fine print. It's not very interesting. But beyond that, there's no real value to that coupon. 

No value, that is, until you redeem it. You take what is of no value, and between you and the grocer you agree that it has value. 

In the Old Testament, there is a complicated system around something called a "kinsman redeemer." You see it in the story of Ruth, for example. The idea was that any property (a field, maybe, or a woman) that was unwanted could be redeemed by a close relative. In other words, if that piece of property was considered valueless, the kinsman-redeemer could give it value by claiming it as his own. So Boaz has to jump through some hoops when he wants to marry Ruth (read it, it's a great story) because there's a closer relative that has the right to redeem both Ruth and a certain field. But that relative doesn't want to take on the responsibility, so Boaz and Ruth get married. Ruth was a foreigner, dependent on a widow of no means, unwanted among the Israelites. Boaz redeemed her and declared her valuable. 

When I moved into this property, some fantastic friends pitched in and helped me along the way. We cleaned out the barn, dug up rotten posts, hauled a ton of garbage to the dump, replaced a decrepit overhead door on one end of the old metal barn. I invested in a well and a septic system. (You know thing are pretty valueless when an outhouse is a great improvement! The septic system seemed light years ahead.) Bit by bit, it became obvious that some people loved this place. The weeds got sprayed and cut down. We planted a garden. Recently I had the waterhole in the pasture re-dug and expanded, hoping that someday horses may use it. In the meantime, the deer and birds are grateful. 

What seemed valueless and unloved has become greatly loved. I've had people ask if I'm interested in selling, because suddenly the property looks valuable. It's being redeemed. 

And so we come to the heart of what the word means. At the heart, saying that Jesus is your Redeemer means that once you were without value. You were cast aside, rejected, unwanted. But Jesus declared you valuable. Just like this land, just like that Cheerios coupon, he "deemed" (an old English word meaning to decide, to evaluate) that you were infinitely valuable. You are so valuable that he spent himself, his own authority and his very life, to show how valuable you are. 

It's one of the best things about knowing Jesus personally and hanging out with others who know him in that way: You experience, day by day, the reality that you have been redeemed. 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Updating on the fly

This is at best a random update. What I wrote here in April is largely still true: I am working the same job, and enjoying it immensely. Our Home Church is an amazing tiny group that has become more than family. We gather weekly, more or less. A few times now we've all gathered for a weekend at my farm, and those dear ones have done so much to transform this place, on the surface and in my heart. 

I have a trailer house now that I bought for a pittance and we are renovating it. I'm still working on things like propane and septic and such. I have a well dug, though the water is not drinking quality. It's good for pretty much everything else, and I'll add a reverse osmosis system once we get to that point. 

Ten hour work days followed by a couple hours of tearing up subfloor and reframing windows are the rule  these days. My daughter asked the other day if I'm getting any breaks. Answer? Yes. Fishing a little, a movie now and then, an amazing meal at times. Lots of friends. It's good. 

I'm still pondering deeply about the church and what God is up to in that arena. I'm working on a book manuscript that is part Bible study and part contextual commentary / critique about how the institutional church (including the ones I have led) miss the mark so badly. They serve a purpose, without a doubt, but the institutional church is far from what the Bible describes as church. 

I have a garden these days that is becoming more and more fruitful. I have friendships that also are tremendously fruitful. God is faithful and continues to speak, continues to work, continues to use us to touch the lives of others in profound ways. It's such a privilege, and frankly (speaking only for myself) at times a bit of a surprise. 

And maybe that is what it comes down to: In the midst of brokenness, betrayal, craziness, bitterness, sin and shame, God is not deterred. He is close to you, and he is doing stuff. That's something like what Jesus meant when he said, "The kingdom of God is near you." 

For now, it's enough. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Did you fall off the face of the earth??

 It's been a full year since I posted anything new on this blog. That wasn't something I planned. During the past year it's been hard to know what to say in so many areas, and maybe I've just kept my silence. Was it Lincoln that said it's better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, rather than to open it and remove all doubt?

Things change. We've experienced wave after wave of Covid, racial and social unrest, and massive societal challenges. I haven't quite known what to say about those things. Just recently, with the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd almost a year ago, there are so many voices speaking into the chaos. I applaud them. It is necessary for people to speak into the face of the challenges we've faced as a society.

I've had my own challenges these past months. Almost a year ago as I was in prayer one spring morning, I heard God say, "Get ready to get out of the boat." Beyond the allusion to Peter stepping out on the water to meet Jesus in Matthew's gospel I wasn't sure what that meant. It was such a clear word, and I pondered it for weeks and months. In spite of all the unrest in the world, my own life seemed pretty solid at that time. I had a large social network and a position in which I was able to preach and teach in what seemed like a thriving church setting. In my teaching, I was able to develop themes I'd taught in the past and lead people more deeply into God's Word and the life of following Jesus through the power of his Spirit. It was good work, and it was bearing good fruit.

Because so much in my life seemed so good and stable, I wanted to invest more deeply in the local community where I lived, so I bought 40 acres of land a few miles away. It included an old farmstead with an aging metal barn, a little pasture, and some cropland. I explained to my friends that it was a way to double down in this specific part of the world. I wasn't going anywhere. I expected that the land would provide a place to reconnect to the land and my roots. Last November I bought a small tractor, and I started spending some of my spare time playing with projects out on "the farm." Far in the back of my mind, I toyed with someday putting a home on the property, though it was far from livable. 

Over a period of a few months, God's word to me about stepping out of the boat began to be fulfilled. My position in the church (and with it my living situation, since I was living on church property as a site manager and security presence) became unstable. Over my objections God spoke clearly through my circumstances that it was time to move on. During the winter I resigned my position and made arrangements to move to my land. At the end of March I purchased a good-sized camper. I felt like something between a pioneer and a refugee.

I'm sitting in that camper as I write this. Most of my belongings are packed away in the barn a few feet away. Little by little, investment by investment, I'm figuring out how to make my life here. With a lot of help, the barn is being transformed into usable space. What looked like a sea of weeds when I first saw this property has been mowed and might someday become a garden, an orchard, a pasture, a front yard. The buckthorn and burdock is giving way to miraculous amounts of green grass and beauty. I'm working on things like a well and electricity and a septic system. My views these days are of the sunrises and the sunsets, of the deer and pheasants that inhabit my few trees and lowland pasture. 

Work and church have both changed. I'm very much enjoying my job these days, which is in a light manufacturing company that supplies taxidermists with fish replicas. I've learned a ton about so many things, from fish to leadership to shipping to economics to my own strengths and weaknesses. And while it is odd not to be employed by the church, to be honest it's a joy not to draw my salary from people's donations. It has been a crazy adjustment to have discretion over my evenings and weekends, and to be paid overtime wages when I work more than 40 hours in a week. 

At the same time I'm rediscovering what church means. A few of us meet together weekly to share food and worship and scripture and prayer. "Home church" as we've taken to calling it might last anywhere from a couple hours to most of a day. Each of us who participates brings something of value into the gatherings, and it is such a joy to be together. I have better relationships surrounding me than I have ever known. 

There are deep wells of meaning in this life, along with challenges that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. In the coming days I'd like to write about redemption: how God takes things of no value and gives them great worth. I'd like to write about this land, and how in the specific details of loving it, it is coming back to life, and so am I. I'd like to write about where I see God moving these days in his church and what that means. By God's grace, I will do so. Like so much in my life it will no doubt be sporadic, so I apologize in advance. But any of you who are still in touch with this blog have endured seasons when it's disappeared altogether, so I trust you'll be patient. 

I'll close this one up with thanks to Stephen who reached out via email a while back to check in, and who told me in no uncertain terms that I should be writing my blog again. The Spirit used that nudge. Thanks!

Friday, April 17, 2020

When panic gives way to drudgery

You're tired of the pandemic. Your habitual ways of dulling pain–Netflix binges, a second glass (bottle?) of wine, constant snacking–have stopped feeling like an escape and are starting to feel like a problem. It no longer feels urgent to check the news multiple times a day, though some of us still do it. I see (and feel) it happening like you do.

I heard an interview recently with a man who had been at the center of the SARS epidemic in China a few years ago. When asked what that lockdown experience was like, he said it was six weeks of intense fear followed by months of drudgery. He expressed a concern that we are moving these days from panic into drudgery.

What do we do now?

Most of life is lived in the face of drudgery. The adrenaline-laced moments are few and far between. We live most days putting one foot in front of the other.

Here are four tactics you can use to navigate the mind-numbing drudgery of these days:

1. Don't forget there's a monster under your bed. The pandemic is still a real thing, in spite of the fact that we all collectively want to move on. The challenges are still real. Your fears for your loved ones may not feel as urgent, but they're still hiding deep in your gut. Remind yourself that you're still in this struggle, and how you deal with it is important.

2. Clean the kitchen. Pick one chore, or a short list, to accomplish today. Don't plan to redecorate your entire house, but pick a few manageable things to finish. When you finish the dishes, mentally pat yourself on the back and take a minute to appreciate the cleanliness. It won't last, but seeing that you've accomplished something is its own reward.

3. Put the ice cream back in the freezer. You don't have to give up all your painkilling behaviors, but remember: When you numb pain, you also numb joy. Limit how much you indulge. A day a week, consider "fasting" from your favorite painkiller. It will hurt, but you might also find that you can feel joy and excitement in a new way as well.

4. Learn to play the ukulele. Choose one small skill and learn it. Decide that when this pandemic fades to memory, you are going to be better, faster, stronger, in one concrete way. Then, a little bit at a time, pursue that strength. If you are slightly familiar with another language, decide you're going to get a little more fluent. If you've always wanted to know the Bible better, read a chapter a day.

Finally, and this is important, give yourself a break. Be gracious when the frustration and panic rise to the surface again. Be gentle with yourself when you need it. Talk to a friend, watch a clip of your favorite comedian, go for a walk. Life is still very good. We're just settling in for the long haul, and it's still challenging.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday

I have been struggling this week with the fact that it is Holy Week, and this morning more sharply than ever that it is Good Friday.

My deepest experience of these markers, these holy days, is corporate. I am used, as the psalmist says, to being in the grand procession into the house of God.

Make no mistake: the great heresy of American Christianity is its individualism. We make salvation all about me and my solo standing before God. Jesus died for me, we say, and we rejoice in that. Rightly so. Posters and memes proclaim that if you were the only person ever to have existed, Jesus would still have died for you. There is a sort of theological truth in that.

But biblically speaking, Jesus died for the sins of the world. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and that's a big group. And in our collective need, in our communal brokenness, in our shared sinful state, Jesus redeems not just a gaggle of individuals but a community. A church.

Our redemption is corporate. I have returned many times in the last few months to the word "redeem." The only non-theological use we have for that these days is for coupons. Does anyone clip coupons anymore? Cut out that piece of paper and turn it in at the grocery counter, and voila! 75 cents off on your Cheerios. Have you ever read the fine print on a coupon? Usually there's a statement somewhere in that four-point font that says something like "cash value 1/20th of one cent." Let's be realistic: most of us don't get excited to pick up a penny off the ground. And this coupon is worth one-twentieth of that. In other words, this is just a worthless scrap of paper. But when I turn it in, the grocery clerk and I agree that it has value. I get a discount on my cereal.

That's what redeeming means. It means to give value to something that was formerly valueless.

So when Jesus redeems us at the cross, it means that he takes what was valueless and declares it to be valuable. Us. Jesus' death confers new value on you and me.

I've been embarrassed lately watching our corporate antics in the headlines. Donald Trump flip-flops in his daily press briefings. Bernie Sanders pulls out of the Democratic primary race (why did that take so long??) and immediately his followers get militant about how much they don't like Joe Biden. News agencies unabashedly use the current pandemic as a foil to sway public opinion toward one political pole or other. Otherwise intelligent people keep insisting that if their political party was in power, life would be so much better. Hordes of hoarders are collecting, of all things, toilet paper. We are a sad bunch, all told.

Jesus' death redeems us. It takes what was of little or no value and confers on us great value. We are precious because the death of Jesus says we are precious.

Good Friday is at the very least a call to raise our sights. It is a call to begin to live as though we are precious to the Lord of the universe. It is a call to fix our eyes on him, to let his love, joy, peace, and patience move us to that which is excellent and praiseworthy. It is a call to go beyond our self-focused individualism and learn to live as a church, loving one another and reaching across the divides of social distancing to pay attention to the least, lost, and lonely. Only this kind of corporate love, this kind of community, helps us to live in the consequences of what Jesus has done for us.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Seeking God vs. seeking his blessings

Oswald Chambers is one of my favorite conversation partners. I don't always agree with his reflections on following Jesus, but he's always forceful and always makes me think.

There was a lot in this morning's reading from My Utmost for His Highest and I won't recap the whole thing. One of the many phrases that made me pause (and reread) was this:

Darkness comes by the sovereignty of God.

Think about that in the midst of this current pandemic. In the midst of social distancing. Quarantine.

What does it mean that darkness comes by the sovereignty of God?

Well, start with what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean God is punishing you. It doesn't mean God is angry. Truth is, we tend to gravitate toward the most pleasant option rather than the most needful option. So we have to consider the possibility that God is allowing hardship (or at least challenge... few of us are really experiencing hardship) for a greater good.

What greater good might that be?

Let's start here: Begin with the assumption that God's agenda might not align with your current self-interest. Be honest. Self-interest is notoriously fickle and well, self-centered. I want a pony. I want a million dollars. I want to eat whatever I want and still be trim and fit. I want...

What if God's agenda is for you to have exactly what Jesus said: Life. Abundant life, not by your definition but by his. Then we need to ask the question, how does Jesus define abundant life? Here's the closest he gets in the gospels, and it's not a bad definition:

This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

(That's John 17:3, by the way.) Knowing God, and knowing him in his fullness through Jesus, is life. Notice that it doesn't say "leads to life." Jesus says knowing God IS life. A=B. The two are one and the same.

Let's be honest. Most of our Christian agenda is built around self-interest. We preach family values because we want to have strong families. We subconsciously (or consciously) craft our churches to fit what's most comfortable for us. Even our theological definition of the gospel (accept Jesus' death on the cross so you can go to heaven when you die) is based on self-interest.

What if life really means knowing God?

That would mean instead of viewing our circumstances through what's best (i.e. most comfortable) for me, I need to ask in each moment how I can know God better.

If we try this point of view on, we find the Bible pops open in a new way. Suddenly we start reading all over the place that this is exactly what God desires. God wants us to know him. God wants us to seek him, not our own salvation. In fact, we'd understand salvation better if we focused on knowing God.

So what's going on in your world today? Are you frustrated with quarantine? Are you anxious about an uncertain future? Are you freaked out by exponential rates of infection? Are you lonely? Bored?

What would it mean for you to turn to God and ask, "How can I know you better in this moment?"

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dealing with loneliness

Months ago I read an article about how loneliness was an epidemic in our society. I needed no convincing. I'd seen it and experienced it. In spite of the crazy mix of social media that promises to facilitate all our relationships, we as a society were feeling more isolated, more alienated.

These days things have changed (how's that for an understatement?), but loneliness is still an incredible challenge for us. In the midst of social distancing, I'm in conversation with dozens of people. I hear over and over again how they're coping with the challenges of quarantine. Often the conversation comes back to some version of loneliness.

For almost three years now, I've been living alone in my cozy cabin. My nearest neighbors are relatively far away, a quarter-mile or more. My days and nights are pretty isolated. While I'm privileged to live in tremendous natural beauty among the oaks and the whitetails on the shore of this little lake, I've wrestled many times over the last few years with loneliness.

Out of that time, here are a few reflections on the benefits of enduring loneliness and how to cope with solitude.

1. Name it for what it is. You may not realize how lonely you are. It's a vulnerable thing to admit, even to ourselves, even during this crisis. You might experience loneliness as a deep sense of hurt, or fear, frantic energy, or even panic. Maybe you're focused on one idealized solution for your loneliness: You just want to go to a ball game, eat out at your favorite restaurant, or embrace that particular loved one. That longing is overpowering. Don't let that fixation cloud the real issue. That preferred solution might not be possible right now, especially in a time of pandemic. If you can name the fact that you're lonely, you can start dealing with the real need in a healthy way.

2. Recognize that your loneliness is the symptom of something good. Even before sin entered this world, according to Genesis, God looked at the man he had made and diagnosed isolation as a dangerous problem. "It is not good for the man to be alone," God said. (See Genesis 2:18.) The fact that you are longing for connection to others says that you are functioning as God intended. You need other people. You need conversation. At some level you need intimacy. This discomfort means your heart is healthy. Think of a teething baby. The baby's discomfort might lead to crabbiness and tears, but it's a symptom of a good thing happening. Your longing for connection means your heart is what God has created it to be. We need relationships.

3. Don't try to be holier than God. I hear so many people say that they just need to be more focused on a relationship with God when they're lonely. It sounds pretty holy, right? But it's not the way God created us. Yes, even in times of loneliness God is there for us. Yes, there's great benefit to spending time with God when you're lonely. But as noted above, God designed us to need other flesh-and-blood people. The Bible makes clear over and over again that a spiritualized connection with God is not enough. We need human community. Take advantage of the church right now. If you have church connections, use them. If you don't have a church yet, this is a fantastic time to discover new connections. Thousands of churches are expanding their online presence in many creative ways. Let those churches speak a word of hope and encouragement into your loneliness. I'm so privileged to be part of The Open Door Christian Church, and we're finding new ways to get online and connect with others. Take advantage. And if you are looking for a way to be connected at a deeper level, please email me. We have lots of new computer-based groups starting up specifically to help people stay connected.

4. That said, be smart about how you connect with God. One of the advantages to times of solitude is that we can pour out our hearts to God. We can be honest about the ache. If you're alone where you are, or if you have car time, don't be afraid to talk out loud to God about how you're feeling. (People used to think you are crazy if you did this, but these days people just think you're on the phone. It's great.) Two places in the Bible I'd suggest you spend time: First, the book of Psalms. It's full of all kinds of authentic, difficult emotions, and alongside those difficult emotions, there is a lot about what it means to have a relationship with God. Second, read the gospels––Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When you are feeling far from God, it's helpful to connect with God-in-human-flesh in Jesus. Notice how often Jesus retreats into lonely places. Notice how often he intentionally builds relationship with those around him. When you're lonely, bring that loneliness to God and know that Jesus experienced what you're going through. It won't fix the hurt, but it's still a comfort.

5. Reach out to someone. When you're lonely, it might feel like you just need to hunker down and fight through it. Okay, but the best way to fight through it is to reach out to someone else. Phone a friend. While texts and emails are good, there's something about hearing the sound of the voice of a person you care about that is balm for the soul. Rediscover the lost art of phone conversations. Call an at-risk person and check in on them. Take time just to chat. Because you are hurting, and this conversation may not be your first choice, it's tempting just to get morose and stare out the window or stare at the TV screen or stare at the news feed. Roust yourself and initiate a conversation. It won't fix everything, but it will give you a human connection. One of the best ways to deal with the pain of loneliness is to care for someone else.

6. Don't be afraid to stare into the abyss. Loneliness is deep and painful. In the midst of that pain, you might find yourself facing some realities about who you are. It can be really uncomfortable. But it can also be a tremendous time of learning and growing. Let God shine his light on things that you don't want to acknowledge. Face your fears and your weaknesses. If you keep a journal, write about some of these difficult things you're learning. But––and this is important––limit the amount of time you focus on the dark stuff. A half-hour a day is plenty. Force yourself to STOP contemplating the difficult stuff after a while. Depression is a real danger in times of isolation. Consciously turn away from that trajectory when you need to.

7. Let music help you. Music is one of God's greatest gifts at all times, but especially now. The right music can help you in every step of dealing with loneliness. Don't be afraid to have a happy playlist that is just lighthearted and fun. Because of my sense of humor, one song on this playlist for me during this pandemic is the Georgia Satellites, "Keep Your Hands To Yourself." It makes me laugh every time as I think about all of us struggling with social distancing. (When you're lonely, laughter is like Popeye's spinach.) You can have another playlist that helps you with staring into the abyss (#6 above). Not long ago I invested time listening to Bach's B Minor Mass. I guarantee if you have any openness to classical music, that one will move you and call you into the depths. Another musical friend that will help you through the loneliness is a focused worship playlist. One of the songs on my worship playlist lately is "New Wine" by Hillsong. This was recommended to me by a friend not long ago, and it's a powerful word in these challenging times. I've noticed lately that live versions like this one carry a comforting sense of being together with a crowd right now. Take advantage of that.

Loneliness is hard, but it's not insurmountable. If you're wrestling with loneliness in these days, I guarantee you God is using this time for good in your life. Don't be afraid to need people and to reach out. Don't be afraid to ask God what he's doing in all this. Don't be afraid to laugh. We need each other.

Friday, March 20, 2020

It's not unprecedented. There are lessons to learn.

I keep hearing the word "unprecedented" these days. Usually, it's someone who is reporting on the COVID-19 situation. I hear it most often from people (think government officials) in some position of responsibility who are floundering a bit with how, exactly, they should be responding. Often they use the word "unprecedented" to prevent or respond to criticism.

I get it. We all feel like the script just got thrown out and we are making things up as we go along. Improvising. It's uncomfortable.

But this situation is far from unprecedented. It's just unprecedented in our lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of the last few generations. A few examples of precedents:

1. The Spanish Flu. The flu epidemic of 1918 had significant differences from this pandemic. However, there were huge similarities as well. Trouble is, very few people today can speak from personal experience to that outbreak and the social consequences we experienced. Fear, social distancing, and radical changes in the way society operated were part of that epidemic as well.

A lesson to learn: Most of what we are hearing about social distancing, hygiene, and sheltering in place comes from hard lessons we didn't seem to learn quickly enough in 1918. The Biggest Lesson to Learn seems to be that we should take these measures very, very seriously.

2. In the 1400s, the Bubonic Plague devastated Europe. Estimates are that a third of the population of Europe died. Social structures, economic structures, political structures, religious structures... all were severely impacted. This pandemic is NOT the same as the plague, thank God, and I'm not saying we should jump to a place of despair or fear. Still, we can learn from what people endured at that time.

A lesson to learn: Much of what we now know about disease transmission grew out of the Black Death of the 1400s. This crisis will increase our knowledge base, without a doubt. Of course, the dark underside of this lesson is that we will feel the discomfort that comes with new learning. For what it's worth, this is why so many people are criticizing the government, CDC, hospitals, big pharma, or whatever for being under-prepared. We hate being uncomfortable. However, it's the necessary companion to expanding our knowledge base.

3. In the early centuries of Christianity's development, one action that set Christians apart from their neighbors is highly significant: When disease struck a city, most people fled (if they could) to the country. It was their version of social distancing. Christians, on the other hand, stayed in the city and cared for the sick. True, some of those Christians became sick and even died. But most survived, in large part because they had networks of people caring for one another. And a much higher percentage of those they cared for survived because they received even the most basic nursing care. (Michael Green did a great job documenting this in his excellent book The Rise of Christianity.)

A lesson to learn: This is perhaps the most important lesson for today. Here it is: Within the realms of wisdom and medical necessity, care for people. How? Well, you could start by calling people who might be in need of help. Then expand that to people who are likely lonely or afraid. Be a voice of compassion and reassurance. Call a teacher who had the end of their school year yanked out from under them and ask how they're doing. Call someone who is wheelchair-bound and worries about their respiratory system being compromised in the best of winters. Chat with them. Pray over the phone with them. The simple rule of thumb: When someone crosses your mind, call/text/email them.