Wide Open Doors: Reflecting on the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” -Amos 5:24

I have been going to church nearly every Sunday for twenty-five and a half years, and I’ve never once passed an armed officer on the way inside. Tomorrow, I plan to attend a service near Columbus Circle. I hope that the doors are wide open.

Speaking of Columbus Circle. On Wednesday, I hurried to Whole Foods on 59th street before my book club and noticed every major news outlet set up outside. I Googled “Columbus Circle” on my way down the escalator and saw “bomb threat,” “pipebomb,” “10 hours ago.” I jolted and looked around me. No one seemed concerned. Phone in hand, I fumbled with the stack of shopping baskets and needed two women to help me pull them apart. I was really hungry, so maybe I was a little raw, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Oh man, New York is a big target, I wasn’t thinking about that when I moved here…”

Little did I know. This morning, I sat on my bed reading the YA novel, The Hate U Give about a white cop killing an innocent black teen, when my sister texted, “Shooter in Pittsburgh.” Based on the book I was reading and this summer’s shooting of Antwon Rose, 17 year-old black boy, unarmed, my mind raced. My heart went out to my former students, and I typed up “shooter Pittsburgh” as quickly as I could.

Squirrel Hill. Squirrel Hill?

Squirrel Hill is Pittsburgh’s haven of havens, home to my favorite movie theater and the peace-loving Jewish community. No way.

I’ve never been a best case scenario kinda gal, but I never anticipated mourning like this. Pittsburgh is the place where everyone knows everyone; the white working class exists in harmony with the African American community and refugees are welcome. On the best of days, I like to think Mr. Rogers left a blessing over the people. Sure, gentrification keeps winning and self-driving Uber vehicles line the streets, but August Wilson’s ghost looms large, shaking his head at the marginalization of any people.

Not today. Today, free citizens exercising their right to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were terrorized in His house. The shooter posted online about how HIAS, a Jewish refugee advocate, brings in “invaders that kill our people.” Wait, who are our people? If he doesn’t mean the 46-year-old white man club, what does he mean? The American people?  What terrifying brand of nationalism is this?

While I lived in Pittsburgh, I prayed we’d stay untainted from the national news scene. I knew there were deeply opposing beliefs in the state of PA when the presidential vote finally flickered to red with a 48.2/47.5% margin around 3:30 AM on election night. In an area where there is division, there is bound to be an extremist form of that division. I am not equating this tragedy with party lines, but I am condemning the alt-right. This is hate.

Right now, many Americans are saying that thoughts & prayers need to be followed by action. I agree that our passivity is not good enough, and I want to entreat everyone to stop and consider God’s activity. Prayer is the opposite of passive. Prayer humbles and forgives, prayer asks for strength beyond human fallibility. God works through us, through systems, and supernaturally.  Yes, I have a fiercer political conviction about gun-control and hate crimes every time this happens. Let us also trust God’s redemptive power and keep our doors wide open.

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” -Amos 5:24


On or Off the Grid

I live in New York City now.  A little corner of my soul always longed for this, but I never expected to slip-slide into it so quickly.  I left Pittsburgh in early April, regrouped in my hometown for a month, and started teaching at Hope Academy of the Bronx on May 7.  Three months into a new way of life, I’ve resurfaced.  Here I am.  Hope it’s good to hear from me again.

Too optimistically, I hoped my time of transition would be a creative boon.  With a new bright outlook, I thought I’d be writing and tracking the journey.  Last time I posted (February), I was hoping to survive two more months of the wrong job and get away from all the hard things.  I was holding onto the ordinary experiences—weekly Bible study around a candlelit dinner table, walks with my co-worker to Rite Aid for fresh air during the school day, long runs around the lake at North Park.  All those ordinary moments made an ending bearable, less sappy and sentimental.

I can’t remember another time when I completely closed the door on one experience when I started the next one.  I could’ve kept up with Facebook groups.  I could’ve texted close friends, asked for prayer, sent e-mail updates.  I didn’t.  Instead, I deleted my Facebook account.* I texted those friends back 24 hours late, prayed for release, and snuck into my new job.  Would you like to read e-mails about my teaching at Hope Academy?  I’d like to think so.  Why haven’t I written to you?

I’m trying to discern the difference between “share” and “self-promote.”  I want people from my past to know my present, but I don’t want to obsess over it.  I can’t be all things to all people at all times—only God can.  If I can’t move on because I’m in an iCloud of connection, I’m not stepping out in faith.  I’m cowering in comfort.

However, if I continue on without personalized communication, I might miss the fruit of friendship.  I have a new role in a start-up school.  If my people, the ones who know my passion for education and why I came to the Bronx, don’t know what’s happening here, they can’t help.  My mysterious disappearance might be self-protecting fear, which isn’t helpful either.

Still far from cool, connected, and comfortable in my new life, I’m humbled in the true sense.  I’ve gone off the grid to avoid self-promotion, but I can’t distance myself too much in self-protection. It’s been too long since I’ve written, and my voice falls somewhere in between the two.  Facebook can’t help me get 100+ views on this post, but I trust my words will go to the right people.  Similarly, I can’t hold all my old & new friends on my computer screen anymore, but I trust we will be there for each other when we need it most.

*When I listened to clips of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, I kept thinking about how little control he has over his creation.  The data is incomprehensible.  My own list of 1,000+ friends was incomprehensible and too long to weed through.  If I couldn’t fathom the reach of my connection, it couldn’t be natural.  This combined with my own fallibility, using social media to fulfill a desire beyond its capacity, led me to delete it.  I zipped up my data into a folder and loaded it onto a flash drive to literally shut away in a drawer.  In other news, I’m wrestling with keeping my Instagram because it has a similar effect on me…but will I have any good pictures if I don’t?

Doing Lent the Right Way?

Lent and the church calendar fascinate me because I grew up without them. My calendar had two major events: Christmas and Easter. Communion every first Sunday of the month. Sparse remembrances. Many reminders to quit striving for God’s love and know what he already did for me though.

In liturgical company last year, I decided to give Lent a try. My Bible study had a homespun Ash Wednesday service where we read from mismatched Common Book of Prayer copies around a warm fire. I baked bread, we broke it. We drank mugs of wine. In preparation, I wrote journal entries, I made goals, I planned to lean into lent for the first time in my life.

From March to April, I had an experiential season. I tried hard to characterize the time with the rhythms and rituals it was due. I gave up social media, prayed for self-control, donated more of my money to missionary friends, and created a Lenten playlist.

During that time, I also led a class trip to Costa Rica for 10 days, spent a week back at work, went on April break, visited family in Connecticut, and scheduled an Easter adventure. My fasting contrasted with bright, beautiful experiences in God’s world, but both made me feel extra connected to him.

On Good Friday, two friends and I backpacked through Colorado mountains. We could barely start a fire, so we talked and read the crucifixion story in between bites of half-baked potato. Bone chilling cold whipped through the tent all night. Daylight brought temps in the 70s and a snowmelt of Narnian proportions. It felt apt and awesome.

Looking back, I know I wanted to escape last year, so I followed the guidelines for a better life. Except when it was over, I sunk back down below low-hanging clouds and 4:15 p.m. summer thunderstorms that hit on my walk home from work. All the ritualistic practices had meaning in their own right, but they didn’t lead to a great awakening or rich spiritual satisfaction. The year brought a deadening of emotions and lack of joy from day to day. I still felt separated from God because I sacrificed all season, but it wasn’t my contrite heart, it was my contrite actions I tried to bring before him.

I gave lent its time last year, and I strove to do it right, but God couldn’t care less about my rightness. So my empty sacrifice means nothing to him.

Now I don’t know how to treat the season. Will giving something up make me feel good about myself? Will I raise myself above others in the process? Will I just get more self-reliant?

How do I submit to God’s will in my ordinary life?

It’s funny how I try to align the little things for him because I know I owe him for the big ones. When will I shut up and give him all the things?

Everything is his. I am his. That’s not a reason to feel inadequate. That’s the reason to feel loved!

I’m in a different mindset this year. One that has me skipping the Ash Wednesday service (and all Valentine’s festivities) to drink red wine, eat pasta, and watch a comedy with my roommate tonight instead. It may not sound holy but there’s something hearty and whole about it.

May I let Christ do the fasting in the wilderness for me, do the dying on the cross for me, and do the rising from the dead for me so that I may join him at the feast on April 1. In the meantime, I’m praying for a right spirit, not a meaningful experience.

Am I In and Of the Virtual World?

It’s Black Friday, and I just bought a new 128 GB iPhone SE.

If you’ve been around me over the past year or so, you know I was threatening to ditch my smartphone and activate a flip phone.  If you’ve been reading my posts, you might think if anyone were to rewind life by 10 years and take the plunge into unplugged darkness, I’m your girl.

If I listened to my philosophical mind and my convicted soul, I would let go of most gadgets.  I’d have a limited number of contacts in a flip phone with texting and calling.  I’d have a personal e-mail address to check a few times a week on a laptop computer.  I would track the people in my life in a physical address book, which would limit me to the number of people I can write down with my own hand.  I’d think more carefully about my online purchases and deactivate my Venmo account.  In one swift motion, I’d snip away the virtual ties on my life.

Am I going to do that now?  I’m not.  Hence the iPhone purchase.  Here’s why:

1. It’s Too Late

I know Google knows where I am, what device I used to post this blog, how many siblings I have, where I went to high school, where I work, all my passwords, and my social security number.  I know Chrome influences my online purchases with targeted ads based on my search history.  I know my search history reveals my gender, age, race, and definitely my religion.  “Off the grid” sounds like a romantic, sheep-filled pasture beside a babbling brook, but my life is gridded, secured on a coordinate, and my battleship sunk a long time ago.  My flip phone fantasy won’t fix it.

2. Net Neutrality or Not, I Need to Learn Limits

Your Facebook friends probably posted one of these nifty infographics or compelling images on your news feed this week:

(Tip:  Don’t believe every infographic you see.  I have high school students create them in class with websites like Piktochart, and anyone can make a cool and horrifyingly inaccurate flowchart.)

Most of us can agree that net neutrality, which you can read about in a NYTimes article here, is necessary in our society.  Information is American currency and to put a price on it would reinforce classism, not equality.  In this time, I can’t help but shake my head at how vulnerable we are.  We rely heavily on free and open Internet access for our work, our play, and our identity.

That applies to all of us.  Whether I want to admit it or not, my access to GPS on my phone, my ability to post pictures, my personal and work Google accounts, my virtual notepad, and social media all weave into the life I call mine.  If I renounced them all, would I automatically be a better person?  Not necessarily.  Would I be an inconvenience to others?  Most likely.  Instead of shutting down smartphone world, I want to take the net neutrality warning seriously and limit my media consumption but not build a reactionary underground bunker.

3. Sharing Other Voices

I hoped to post a blog a week ago, but I didn’t have time to write anything worthwhile.  In between, I’ve had to consider whether perpetuating social media use, caring who likes my status, feeling accomplished when someone comments, and pressuring myself to be a constant presence online is worth it.  As of now, my blog is a way of sharing ideas, so I’ll keep posting.

I hope to keep sharing other voices as well.  I’m reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly, written in 1992, just before I was born.  If you’ve read any Postman, you know he has an eerily prophetic voice on information driven society:

But the genie that came out of the bottle proclaiming that information was the new god of culture was a deceiver.  It solved the problem of information scarcity, the disadvantages of which were obvious.  But it gave no warning about the dangers of information glut, the disadvantages of which were not seen so clearly.  The long-range result—information chaos—has produced a culture somewhat like the shuffled deck of cards I referred to.  And what is strange is that so few have noticed, or if they have noticed fail to recognize the source of their distress.

If you had the mental capacity to read the whole hefty quote, hopefully the phrase “information chaos” jumped out at you.  In a fast-paced, tweet-infested, constant-communication society, we understand the chaos.  We have “fake news” to evaluate and too many unrelated stories to read.  Our information overload exhausts us, but we continue to scroll for answers to the problem in the palm of our hand.  My information reliance doesn’t start and end with my phone.  It affects the projects I assign to students as well as the way I train them to learn.  When I look at this issue, I have to consider a much larger scheme of consequences affecting all areas of my life.

If you feel convicted about information reliance, come up with limits for your own media consumption.  Remember that everything you read is not truth.  Ask yourself what you should and can give up to free yourself from some distress.  If you’re like me, you know you are “in and of” the technological world, so come up with a practical way to distance yourself from it.  Live a life in the midst of the madness, but a life that looks different within it.

Admit the problem, but don’t throw your iPhone in the trash.  I think I’ll be glad I didn’t.

During the month of November, I’ve been posting more frequently.  My hope is my practice will start to reclaim social media, realms in which I take more than I give.  This is the fourth piece on technology use.  The first three were  Scrolling in CirclesSitting Idly By, and Pillar of Salt Moments.  

Pillar of Salt Moments

During the month of November, I plan to post a blog once a week.  My hope is my practice will start to reclaim social media, realms in which I take more than I give.  This is the third piece on technology use.  The first and second were  Scrolling in Circles  and Sitting Idly By.  

I remember my childhood in motion, marked by conquering monkey bars, sledding down the storm pond, flinching from the ball in soccer, buying snacks from the vending machine at the pool, running 5ks for reading, and breaking my arm skating…twice.

I resurrect my memories by feeling them in my body.  I can close my eyes and I’m peeling callouses off my palms, holding tissues to a bloody nose, or tensing up for a plunge into the deep end.  I’m stretching my toes to the end of our blue-stitched love seat with the weight of the newly-released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in my lap, tipping the words up toward my eyes.

I don’t see these moments.  I embody them.  They hold physical weight.  I know they have earthy and earthly existence, which is beautiful and true.

In contrast, whenever I scroll through Facebook memories or even look at old photographs, I lose the feeling of the moment.  Maybe I can see the scene detail by detail except I don’t feel like I’m in it anymore.  When you look at old pictures of yourself, can you remember who took them?  I can’t.

ducksThere’s evidence to show that when we take a picture of a scene, we don’t store it in our long-term memory.  This NPR article goes as far as to call the images we don’t remember “fake memories.”  I vividly recall riding a swan boat in Boston Public Garden with my grandma when I was two.  I can see her next to me and the water beside me, except I’ve always been able to see this memory from outside of myself as well.  In my mind, I approach the Make Way for Duckling statues and jump over them, but I also see myself sitting on them.  This is because this photo of me was in an album I would look through regularly as a kid.  Sure, I remember going to Boston, but my long-term memory has been tainted by the snapshots too.  We are so easily tricked.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve caught myself taking nostalgia to another level.  When I miss a person, a place, or a moment, I can invite the ghost into my life by pulling up a profile, a photo, or a page on my phone.  I can send a rash message.  No context.  No consideration.  The object in my hand is so close, but the actual person is so distant.

This becomes even more disillusioning when we pull up a profile to find unfamiliar faces.  Are these closer friends, happier memories, warmer relationships?  How unhelpful and unkind to find out personal information by impersonal means.

More importantly, the ghosts overtake the memories.  When we invite the ghosts into our lives, we don’t put the dead to death.  We all know that according to Paul, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old is gone; the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17) But here on earth, is the old gone?  How do I put my old self to death with so many ghosts at hand?

These are the moments I call “Pillar of Salt” moments.  When fleeing Sodom, Lot’s wife turned around at looked back over her shoulder at the burning city.  Sure, she mourned her stuff.  When we tell the story in Sunday school, we forget that she also mourned her friends, her lifestyle, and her identity.  Just like us.  Except in her case, she turned around and promptly turned into a pillar of salt.

I have to thank God every day that I’m on this side of his grace because I ought to be salt every time I pick up my phone.  How many of my interactions on social media are necessary and helpful?

More often than I care to admit, it divides my heart.

“Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    unite my heart to fear your name.”

-Psalm 86:11

I worry that I won’t remember the feeling of momentous life events because technology does the work of memory.  Even more, I worry that I will never be able to put my own desires to death for God’s desires because I can’t get away from them.  Am I holding danger?  Does danger sleep next to me each night and stay in my pocket all day?  How can I pray “lead me not into temptation” with a willing heart for Sodom?  My heart longs for my own stuff, friends, lifestyle, and identity.  I believe God can change my heart, but I am actively resisting him when I conjure up ghosts.  With my neck craned over my shoulder, or down at my screen, I have to approach technology with many grains of salt.

Sitting Idly By

During the month of November, I plan to post a blog once a week.  My hope is my practice will start to reclaim social media, realms in which I take more than I give.  This is the second piece in a series on technology use.  The first was Scrolling in Circles.  The post you are reading originally appeared on the Sparks House blog, found here.

Before you scroll too far, I want to warn you not to read this.  It’ll steal your time away from you.  I’m not qualified to write this post, and you might not want to hear what I have to say.  So put the screen down.  Enjoy the crisp fall air, or your children’s earnest cries, or the paper you should be writing.  Be there, not here.

You’re still here.  All right, you’ve been warned.  Call me a solitary voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare Ye the Way,” but I’m here to tell you we have a problem.  Although the church may not talk about it, everyone else is catching on.  You’re staring at it.  You carry it everywhere.  It’s in your pocket, in your purse, or even worse, on your arm.  Our phones are changing our very selves.

Maybe your pastor isn’t preaching this message from the pulpit.  Instead, maybe your pastor is preaching from a phone without a pulpit.  I have no authority to comment on that, so I’m going to credit my discovery to some sociological sources.  Meet Sherry Turkle.  She was a proponent of new technology in the 1990s but has qualified her endorsement after decades of research.  In 2012, she said in her TED Talk entitled, “Connected, but Alone?” (click that link!),

“our little devices, those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do; they change who we are.”

To substantiate a bold claim, she brought up examples of commonplace behavior, like checking e-mail during a meeting, texting at the dinner table, and making eye contact while texting that we would have considered abnormal just a few years before.  In fact, she called our need for connection “The Goldilocks Effect,” meaning not too much of people, not too little affirmation, just the right amount in controllable doses.  People could be the masters of their own social worlds.

That was in 2012.  Instagram was just two years old and Snapchat was celebrating its first birthday.  These days, the interpersonal patterns have taken an intrapersonal turn.  Not only are phones affecting our relationships, they are changing our brains.  In a CBS News report last April called Hooked on Phones, Anderson Cooper reported on phone anxiety, specifically in teens.  He admitted to experiencing low levels of anxiety himself.  When a person hears the ding of a phone, their Cortisol levels go up.  The Cortisol in our brains used to save us from dangerous animals in the wild.  Now, we experience the same sensation with a, “Thanks, that was cool,” or similarly unimportant text.

Along with our brains, phone alter our emotions.  “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, an article in The Atlantic says,

“The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”

Not only are the screen savvy children sadder, teens have reported being more lonely since 2013, and suicide rates are rising:

“Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”

When I say studying this topic has ruined my life, I always circle back to that statistic.  Children are dying for true, human attention.  This aligns with Turkle’s analysis:  our phones aren’t changing our way of life; they are changing us and redefining what it means to be human.

That leaves us with a chilling truth:  the power of an outward object is destroying the inward self.  Sounds like a simple, Biblical concept:

We thought the screen battle was about idle time, but it’s about idol worship.

In Genesis, when Jacob fled his father-in-law Laban, his wife Rachel couldn’t bear to leave the household gods behind.  When her father pursued her husband to take them back, she sat on top of them on her bed and refused to rise.  If we were called to a far country, could we leave behind the phones that we keep beside our pillows?

As Christians, we have to put this in proper context.  Smartphones aren’t “destroying a generation.”  Sin is.  Sin is not new, and our 2017 worldwide problems are not unique.  Generations of people lived godlessly.  We are not any more special in our suffering than they were.

The book of Jeremiah was written in one of those times, at the cusp of destruction in Jerusalem:

“Thus says the LORD:

‘Stand by the roads, and look,

and ask for the ancient paths,

where the good way is, and walk in it,

and find rest for your souls.

But they said, ‘We will not walk in it,’

I set watchmen over you, saying,

‘Pay attention to the sound of the trumpet!’

But they said, ‘We will not pay attention.’” –Jeremiah 6:16-17

The way we use technology is no different from people outside of the faith.  Our time in the word and prayer is solitude, often disturbed by pinging text messages.  Our time together at church is communal study and learning marked by large screens, fun videos, and blaring sound systems.  Our time in fellowship is centered at breweries and coffee shops charging exorbitant amounts of money for fine goods.

Ask for the ancient paths.   Where the good way is.  Walk in it.  Find rest for your souls.

How did monks like Martin Luther meditate?  How did Augustine hear God’s voice saying, “Take up and read?”  How did Paul survive imprisoned solitude?  How did Mary focus at Jesus’s feet?  How did the disciples share meals?  How did Daniel rejoice in the lion’s den?  How did David write Psalms?  How did Abraham trust God enough to willingly sacrifice a son?

How?  I’m convinced the marks of the faith beg for solitude, conversation, and difficult teaching.

In America, in our phone-saturated world, are we paying any attention?

I’m tired of sitting idly by.  I’m ready to commit myself to technological holiness, but I need accountability.  Let’s put down this device, take a walk, greet a friend, read a book, share a meal.  We say they will know we are Christians by our love, but if we constantly honor screens over people and ultimately, over God, how are we any different?

Scrolling in Circles

When I was a junior in high school, I organized an event called “Face-to-Face February” that encouraged my classmates to get off Facebook for the entire month.  It was a valiant effort with about 30 participants.  (The event page still exists right here.)  At the time, I slid the leadership experience into my college essay and moved on with online life.  Looking back, I realize I was a voice in the wilderness.

After I post this, I’m going offline for 48 hours because I know I care too much about who reads it, who likes it, and whether anyone has anything to say about it.  So with a spoonful of irony and a pinch of trepidation, I offer you my thoughts on social media.

During the first eight months of 2017, I spent a considerable amount of time trying different types of social media fasts because I knew I was wasting time scrolling on my phone.  For example:

  • 40 days social media free– During Lent, I logged out of all my social media accounts. When I wanted to Instagram (a verb) a nice view, I stopped reaching for my phone and said, “See that sunset?  God gave me that sunset to appreciate with my own eyes.”  It was freeing, but also eerie because many of my friends never noticed I wasn’t there.  I was gone, but my online image still had power.
  • Darkside Challenge– This is a ministry of Fran Sciacca recommended to me by a friend. It’s a clever and mysterious way to give up different forms of communication and media for a month.  The even bigger challenge is to engage in real life conversations and even send old-fashioned letters.  I’ve always tried to keep the classic letter alive, and these truly renewed old friendships.  There’s nothing sweeter than receiving real mail.

After my cleanse, I came to this conclusion:  time wasted, my initial complaint, was one way to judge social media use, but content should also be considered.  One day, I scrolled through 100 consecutive posts on my News Feed and deemed them “Lovely” or “Worthless.”  The categories are highly subjective.  For example, I would call a beach selfie of a high school acquaintance “Worthless” to me although her close friends would find it “Lovely.”  Using my personal rating system, I came up with 60 worthless posts and 40 lovely.  (40 is a stretch because the final post was a video of the growth of a baby polar bear.  Not anything I needed to see today, but I’ll call it lovely because 60/40 is a nicer ratio than 61/39.  Plus, it was cute.)  Those aren’t great odds.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

-Philippians 4:8

I’m concerned.  I’m concerned with the content colliding with the random, funny, creative, inquisitive, weird, insecure, selfish, kind, and beautiful thoughts bouncing around my head throughout the day.  When I insert a snapshot that is utterly worthless, what does that do to my brain?  I say I’m focused on the lovely in life, but my eyes trail the trite.  If I know the letdown waiting for me inside my phone, why do I sleep with it beside my bed?  I’m reminded of Jacob’s wife Rachel sitting on the gods she stole from her father to hide them.  If we were called to a far country, could we leave our phones behind?

It’s sick to admit what I do with even the lovely things I see online.  I give the side eye to people with beautiful lives.  I make assumptions about friends I haven’t seen in a while.  Summer camp photos trigger memories of simpler days.  Anyone having too much fun causes me to reminisce on times when I was having more fun.  I call these the “Pillar of Salt Moments” when I catch myself looking over my shoulder and wishing for what used to be, just like Lot’s wife, and we all know how that ended.

When I start to spiral down this thought pattern, I hope the holographic understudy I sent center stage is showing off.  Despite what the photos might imply, my summer wasn’t flashy.  It was mostly rainy, very hectic, and sometimes lonely.  That doesn’t make for an intriguing and appealing virtual life.

Virtually everyone indulges the data beast.  Our Google Maps apps sync to our Airbnb searches sync to our Instagram targeted ads.  We follow our own tracks everywhere.  We trip into our own footprints.  I wonder if up in heaven, God is watching human beings walk headlong in tiny private circles.  People are circling their former selves, following their future selves, adding to their image in infinite steps, rounding corners, but always trekking in their own tracks.  We are stomping on the dust of the earth, drawing closer to hell, millimeter by millimeter.  What if we don’t look up until it’s too late?

That’s the problem as I see it.  I don’t think the answer is to give up social media completely.  Although if we’re gonna use it, we’ve gotta reclaim it.  I’m only starting to talk about this–I have so much to say, and even more to hear.  Let’s have a conversation.

In Mercy Gathered

“All these pieces

Broken and scattered

In Mercy Gathered

Mended and whole”

On Saturday night, Sparks House hosted their first event, Worship Together.  It was the most encouraging night of my year.  I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for 18 months now.  When I moved to the city, I expected real life to be a beautiful continuation of the summer I spent here in college.  I came for the community, the friendships, and the church.  Time is elusive, but over the past six or eight or ten months, I learned never to be so self-assured.  My world was…

fractured, confused, frustrated, flipped over, changed, divided, weakened, mixed up, reversed, shaken, rerouted, undone.

Excuse me for being eloquent, but it was a lot of things.

I was affected by the transience and running feet of my fellow brothers and sisters.  I was bewildered by disagreements among those above me.  I felt momentum stagnate at church.  I banged on closed doors.  I prayed for permanence.  I insisted our congregation was solid.  I romanticized the past and future of us.

After a thousand of God’s shifts and the devil’s hidden changes, I essentially went through a break up.  When you don’t recognize one of the most significant parts of your life anymore, it’s time to move on.  At my worst, I handled the hurt with fear, gossip, and resentment.  At my best, I didn’t have anyone to fill the void, so I had to cling to Christ.

“I’m empty handed

But not forsaken

I’ve been set free

I’ve been set free.

“Broken Vessels” by Hillsong United


Photos courtesy of Jon Diaz, XTO Photography.

In the tumultuous turning over and decision to go different directions, in the sorrow of losing Sundays together, in the bittersweet ending of a chapter, I sensed a hint of saving grace.  On the outside, paths diverged.  On the inside, loneliness weighed down our souls.  On God’s side, a plan for good slowly emerged.

Greg & Rebecca Sparks are two radical people, a term I don’t use lightly.  They’ve sacrificed money and acclaim, stability and comfort, normality and rest for the kingdom of God.  The world would call music and ministry their vocation, but despite their roles as professional musicians and worship leaders, they’ve cultivated deep relationships, which are the real measure of their work.

There’s no program.  There’s no formula.  There’s no handbook.

They invite us into their home.  Literally and figuratively.  Their house on the North Side is always open, but the people are home to one another.

The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God…Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.” -In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen

The Sparks refer to In the Name of Jesus as the book that ruined their lives.  Nouwen unapologetically calls Christians to make sacrifices for the gospel.  He says to pour out so much love, so much devotion, so much care, that our limited love points people to God’s unlimited love.  So many times in the Christian world, leaders assert power to send their message, and Nouwen says this is easier than truly loving others.

I trust Greg & Rebecca because they are honest about their limitations, and this mysteriously multiplies my love for them.  They never claim credit or wield power in a worldly sense.  Instead, they love Jesus.  They love us.  They talk to us about loving Jesus.  They ask us to help them create art that reflects Jesus.

When I mourned the changes in our community, I was trusting the jar of clay rather than the treasure.  In the trial, we departed from a common gathering place, which is no excuse for not gathering.

On Saturday, in God’s mercy, a group of people assembled to resurrect the old and ring in the new.  I relaxed into familiarity and restoration’s roots.  I felt home again.

Sparks House is born out of struggle, which adds to its beauty.  We’re piecing together a mosaic.  The pieces have sharp edges.  They’re cracked and misshapen, but when you look at them from a distance, they form a dazzling image.  I had to step back to see it.

For more information about the Pittsburgh nonprofit Sparks House, their next event (“The Things We Share” on March 11!), or how to donate, go to:  www.thesparks.house 

The Finished Work of Ministry

When I started leading Young Life, every leader who came before me said, “There will be times when you’ll want to quit.”  I doubted them because, well, I liked commitments, and Young Life seemed fun and influential.  Sure, I figured it would be uncomfortable at times.  I knew I’d have to muster up every extroverted cell in my body, I’d have to show more excitement and enthusiasm than I was feeling, I’d have to enter back into the middle and high school judgment zone.  Those seemed like pretty trivial obstacles to overcome though, especially for a future teacher.  I fully expected embarrassing moments and awkward encounters, and they were no reason to quit.  In four short years, what could possibly weigh me down?    

After all, I entered college ready to pour myself out.  The benefits of “looking out for the interests of others” and “death to self, life in Christ” stood the test of my practical high school faith, so I made it my mission to apply those principles as soon as I got to college.  I geared myself up for the “we love” part of 1 John 4:19 but skimmed over the “because he first loved us” portion…unless I was giving advice or witnessing to someone else, then I emphatically reminded others of God’s great love in Christ Jesus.  As a natural teacher, leader, and problem solver, I had no trouble focusing on other people’s needs.  I soon realized that my friendships and relationships had tangible benefits–my time, words, and activities helped people.  I felt needed, which was absolutely self-gratifying.

It was also easy to justify.  The more I poured out, the more faithful I felt.  Over the next year, some of my close friends stepped down from ministry for perfectly understandable reasons.  Their struggles and frustrations resonated with me, but I knew I had the stamina, the drive, the calling to keep going.  After two years, when my entire team transitioned around me, I was left in charge.  My closest friends and confidantes were out in the real world or studying abroad.  The exact same demands, previously energizing and rewarding, became ridden with conflict and anxiety.  Suddenly, the circumstances were too big to control.  Tragedy struck our school community.  Club chaos bordered on violence.  Kids’ families fell apart.  The whole time, I was carrying everyone else’s burdens.  I didn’t realize it at first, but secondhand sin clogged my lungs too.  I was burning out with a quiet, persistent lie on my mind:

“I’m the support system.  How dare I ask for help?”

I knew the way I was leading was really messed up, and it was because I was messed up.  For all my pouring out, I didn’t have anyone to encourage me or lift me up.  Most of my relationships lacked mutuality.  In Christian community, I had people around me who were capable and willing to help, but I never revealed my need.  I was drilling a hole in a self-centered spiral and losing mental ground– What am I doing wrong?  Why can’t I handle my feelings?  Why am I running in circles?  How do I center myself?  I spend all my time helping people!  Does anyone know…or care what I need?  

Underneath other people’s burdens, I couldn’t feel any of the benefits of gospel-love.  When I denied myself the grace of being with God because I was doing for God, I denied Jesus.  Living by faith is accepting Christ’s sacrifice, his righteousness, and his perfection.  Conversely, it’s denying our own feeble attempts at all three.  All of a sudden, “death to self, life in Christ” had a whole new meaning.  I was already in Christ.  I was already who I needed to be, and those burdens weren’t mine to bear.  Jesus already overcame them.

Here’s the tricky part of my story, and maybe yours too.  I knew that God’s love was wide and high and deep, but I resisted it.  Instead, I kept at a relentless pace, an exhausting rhythm, always promising to get more sleep next semester.  I didn’t want to give in to rest because God has a way of showing you your sin when you have intimacy with him.  My sin worked against me to convince me that all my striving was faith, and here’s the kicker, the culture I lived in worked against me too.  My rigorously academic Grove City life pushed me to keep performing, work harder under pressure, and arrive at the answers on my own.  That’s individualistic, isolating, and no way to learn.  I came to Young Life ministry with that same persistent, hard-working, industrious attitude, and it failed me.  

There were cracks in our community, and the people who walked closely with me in college also acknowledged the cracks.  We had fervent conversations.  We prayed together.  We unpacked teaching.  We spurred one another on toward love and good deeds.  These were “in between” moments–in between meetings, projects, ministries, studies, and events.  There was so much grace in those simple shared moments, and they taught me how to be a good Young Life leader.  I learned how to have a conversation with a girl on the car ride home, how to listen to a favorite song together over and over, and how to ask relevant questions in Bible study.  My best times in college and Young Life included more being than doing.

I graduated with a good GPA, a wealth of experience, and a banging resume.  So what?  In the adult world, my college successes no longer define me.  My relationships, the ones that reflect Christ’s love, remain.  God’s love for me remains.  Today that’s what matters, and back then that’s what mattered.  I’ll have to remind myself every morning for the rest of my life to stop trying so hard, but every morning God will have the exact same love for me.  The work is finished.

Resources for Reflection

Quotes & Passages

“The man who has faith is the man who is no longer looking at himself, and no longer looking to himself. He no longer looks at anything he once was. He does not look at what he is now. He does not look at what he hopes to be…He looks entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ and his finished work, and he rests on that alone.” -Martyn Lloyd-Jones

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” -Matthew 11:29-30 (The Message)

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” –Ephesians 1:3-10 (ESV)



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  • A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Cure by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch
  • The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller

On Leading Young Life

On Christian College Culture

Why I Love Goodbyes

When friends get ready to move away, they usually say, “I hate goodbyes,” or “I’m terrible at goodbyes.”  I nod and agree as they make awkward attempts to slither away from the finality of it all.  In the last moments, I can complain about change and whine about distance, but if I’m being totally honest, it’s mostly an act.   I love goodbyes.

Before you accuse me of wishing all my friends away, hear me out.  The worst way to deal with losing someone is to preemptively belabor it, “YOU’RE LEAVING!?!?  Here’s a goodbye present called guilt.  It’ll follow you around until you see me again.”  Instead, I’d rather make memories.  I love goodbyes because I get to acknowledge how thankful I am for our friendship.

In the goodbyes, I have permission to show my friends how important they are during our last hangouts in our place, in our time.  It’s an excuse to buy ironically humorous cards (that perfectly suit us) and write detailed letters and voice all of the things I notice in the day to day but would never say.  To speak the depth of friendship into existence at 6:30 on a typical Friday would ruin the magic.  To voice my care when time is ticking and the car is packed with all their worldly possessions is the stuff of fairytales.  Well, it’s the stuff of Toy Story 3, but that’s close enough.

Final moments are an opportunity to step back from relationships full of running forward together, look each other in the eyes and say, “Thanks.  That was really nice.”

Because in that quick gaze, you know your quantity time is on its way to quality time, which isn’t such a bad trade-off.  There’s a mutual understanding that you can hold onto your friendship a little more tightly now that it requires intentionality.  You’re living in the “until next time” knowing full well there will be a next time.

That’s faith, right?  My latest friend to move away, conveniently named Faith, said goodbye to me in my new apartment, that’s really an old apartment because I moved in after another friend (also) moved away.  We reminisced about ringing in the New Year in the very same living room, when it was Dan’s.  The two of us spent the first morning of the year together, our talk marked with anxiety and uncertainty about the future.  At the time, we attacked those feelings with truth in Isaiah 26 and the song “Better Than I” from Joseph King of Dreams.  Our May goodbye in a little third-floor apartment wasn’t sad because her move and my roots are the answers to our restlessness.  When she left, I felt full.

Lately, my circle has been shrinking more than it’s growing.  I can point to empty chairs in my social life that were filled with good friends four or five months ago.  Once in a while, I’ll be at Bible study or a friend’s house and realize that someone’s laugh is missing or the vibe of the room is off.  It’s eerie.  In the bigger picture, I feel like part of me is missing.  I’m not fully myself without my best friends and family around—there’s a Sarah plenty of my current friends haven’t met.

But I can’t let who Sarah is revolve around my dizzying tornado of relationships.  My identity isn’t fluid like my circumstances.  Goodbyes throw me back into thanks for the giver of all good things—including good people.  When I gracefully let go of relationships, I realize how unconditionally I belong to God.  There’s an ache in goodbye, but I love it because it’s the ache of the kingdom of God.  It’s belonging to him but not feeling his presence day to day.  It’s the already, and the not yet.  It’s knowing that “until next time,” just means not yet.

After all, it’s easy to be good at goodbyes when “See ya…” actually means “See ya.”