(Written on Sunday January 24th 2016)
Like most of the East Coast, much of the New River Valley shut down in the midst of Winter Storm Jonas. Since I grew up in Ohio, 14" of snow isn't all that rare, but Ohio also has plows and salt trucks to quickly clear roads. Here in Southwest Virginia, however, we just don't have the infrastructure to handle such a quick deposit of fluffy frozen water.
As a pastor, one of the calculations I must make when I think about cancelling church isn't just about whether I can get there, but about the safety of our parishioners as well. With our 4x4 and thirty years experience of travel in these conditions, I'm pretty confident that I can make it most anywhere I need to be without too much risk. Yet, not everyone has the kind of car that we do, nor do they have the driving history of someone who took drivers education with feet of snow on the ground (hand raised). Most importantly, though, if church is open, we have so many faithful people who feel like they should be there, even if the driving conditions in their neighborhoods indicate that the best thing is to stay home. Simply by having worship, we risk turning others' faithful desire for community into unnecessary risks that endanger lives.
So what happens with this kind of snow day? We ended up having lunch with some congregants who have even more snow experience than myself (New England and Alaskan snow stands head and shoulders above Ohio snow). I spent some time with one of our college students who needed a reprieve from campus life. I rode my exercise bike fourteen miles this morning, and fifteen miles tonight. I read some of the Maze Runner series (I'm a sucker of dystopian science fiction).
I also shoveled. A lot. And again. I say again because, starting Friday, I'd been shoveling our path to our driveway at least twice a day. On Saturday, I also dug our Outlander Sport out from over a foot of snow, as well as shoveled a path to the salted, plowed, but nowhere near clear Carter Street. I also went to our church with Billy to shovel and snow blow paths out, just in case we had worship on Sunday.
I discovered something in the midst of this process. It seems that, every time you shovel, more snow falls from the sky. When the clouds move on, though, you're still not safe, because the winds just drift the snow directly into the spots that you've already cleared. There's nothing more frustrating than staring at bare grass in your yard and a huge drift where a brick walkway had been only hours before, at least not while you're standing in the cold with as the bricks beckon to see the sunlight yet again.
There's something deep inside me that would like nothing more than to spend snow days bingeing Netflix, playing video games, or lost in a mindless book. Yet, there's a simultaneous pull, somewhere beyond the selfishness that I feel, that says even when the church is closed, we Christians have a vocation to live out. Much like shoveling the same spot over and again, this vocation requires constant attention. If we wait until the very end, the accumulation may be so great that we can't life it. If we put in the preparatory work, we'll have to work more often, but we'll see more immediate results. Things in our lives tend to drift and cover up the good work that we've done, but it's easier to clear a few inches of snow than to pull up feet at the end of the storm.
We can use snow days not only to clear our walks, but to care for some of those drifts accumulating in our own lives. Have we been left lacking in our prayer lives or devotional practices? Have we been too quick to anger or too slow to forgive? Have we failed to care for our bodies or hone our minds? The lack of scheduled responsibilities open us to the opportunity for redeveloping these areas in ways that help clear the clutter from our lives and reopen pathways to becoming more Christlike in word and deed. This includes resting, if we've not taken the opportunity to experience the blessing of God's Sabbath in our lives.
So, as I dug out the paths once more today, I tried my best to give thanks that I was working muscles that didn't usually get stretched. I thanked God that we own a place, and asked for the strength to care for it better. I gave thanks for sisters and brothers in Christ who stayed at home in the midst of snow, and who braved it to have meals with one another. I tried to uncover a few paths in my ow life in terms of prayer, patience, and planning for the future. I hope that, going forward, I continue to take advantage of these opportunities to grow in the image of God.
Yet, I know that the snow will drift. At times, I will fail. I'll need you, sisters and brothers, to shovel me out. I hope that's okay, because if I've learned anything in this journey so far, it's this: we can't do this alone. Not well. Not always. Shoveling with Billy, I learned that two shovels clear the path twice as fast, and when one of you has a snow blower, the job goes even quicker! To the point, though, this is a call to myself to get better at this process of discipline, of making my habits reflect God more and more. At times, this means admitting I need help, and accepting that help too. At times, it means shoveling for others who can't seem to find the strength or commitment to shovel themselves out. At all times, it means not giving in to despair, not letting the drifts come over our heads, but finding strength in Christ's grace to move forward, to clear the path toward faithfulness. As we do this, as I do it, we just might become faithful on the way.
Though Finding Nemo hit theaters long after my childhood, I'm a sucker for cartoons, especially those with adventurous characters, compelling story lines, and goofy comedy. Though many phrases still stick with me from the film - Nemo touched the butt! may be the goofiest - the most profound comes from Dory's lips. Just keep swimming.
I see this on social media often. As friends find themselves overwhelmed with life's responsibilities, with work's demands, with family's needs, they type these few words. Just keep swimming seems to remind them that there's a direction and a purpose in the midst of their hectic lives.
As of today, I'm officially there. Just keep swimming, I tell myself. Here at CLC, we've got a bunch of projects underway and some new dreams that we're dreaming, all as a sign of God's work here among us. Just keep swimming. For Christians, though, this isn't just a pithy tagline for pushing through the requirements of life.
Scripture reveals the vitality of perseverance in the Christian life. At times, this refers to perseverance in faith, like we see in James 1. At other times, though, perseverance refers to more active, practical matters. For instance, 2 Thessalonians reminds us that we ought to grow weary of doing good. Just keep swimming toward the good, and living the good we want to see.
This is a virtue, something we receive from God as a gift and something we tend, like a gardener, that it might grow strong and bear fruit. If we just keep swimming, we also learn how to swim better. If we dive in to the actions of the Christian life and explore new ways to love God and serve others, then we learn even more about the kind of good life God intends for us.
Rather than burning yourself out, if you find the virtue in perseverance - if you just keep swimming - this can refuel the fire of life. So press on toward the goal and do good along the way. If we're lucky, like Dory, we'll find some friends and have an adventure as we swim along.
See what I did there? Giggle away.
Seriously, though. Across the internet, there's lists explaining just about anything. There's the click bait garbage like, "You'll Never Believe These 37 Celebrities Who Went to Jail!" There's the oversimplified advice, like "8 Foods That Kill Your Metabolism."
In the church realm, there's also a sense of sensationalism, even as people offer actual help. One revealing example comes from Cary Nieuhof, who recently released, "5 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2016."
Here's the thing about that article. There's lots of good content. The trends Nieuhof lifts up already exist in many of our contexts. What he points to, it seems, is that these trends are likely to arise as dominant trends in 2016. The sensational language, that somehow these trends now rule the year of 2016, just point to a marketing trend of creating urgency for the content we publish.
So, what should you remember when you read these lists, especially in the church realm?
1) Judge on content more than on form. In other words, despite the strategy used by media outlets, the content may not in fact be that urgent. Or, in the case of Nieuhof, the content may be quite good, so if you're turned off by the marketing, you'll need to jump that hurdle in order to appreciate what's in the list.
This also means you need to discern whether things are actually as urgent as the piece seems to indicate. Will my life change drastically if I don't read about these metabolically destructive foods? Probably not, because I already know that simple carbs and sugars wreck go right to my waistline. But if I find myself out of work, the advice offered on "5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Resume" might make an immediate impact.
Nieuhof's list offers an interesting middle ground. Much of it offers us knowledge that we must appropriate, and there's an urgency for knowing these things. Rather than immediate, tangible benefits, this kind of information helps us to prepare better for how to live life as a church. It's about preparation and formation, long term matters. There's no immediate payoff like that found in the self indulgence of celebrity mugshots, but comprehension of this information offers a foundational stability that allows us to shape ministry in helpful ways for 2016.
In short, when you read lists like this, focus on the actual information so that your reactions fit the content.
2) Form communicates something. In a fundamental way, form shapes meaning to a certain extent. It also tries to shape you as a reader, listener, or watcher of media.
For instance, Axe Body Spray commercials want (particularly young) men to feel inadequate without the (painfully overpowering) scent of their products. Once the apparently pathetic boys smell like Phoenix or Instinct or Kilo - seriously, these are the names - the commercials show young women ravenously chasing after these now desirable persons. Yeesh.
Marketing of articles, while not as overt, still try to shape you in a certain way. Every time an article tells you that you're incomplete without the information hidden behind the clickbait, it's not letting the information speak. It's a pretty simple formula: X (numbers) of Y (things) that will ambiguously change your life. Notice that there's some important information missing here. Why should I care? Any information shaped like this generally treats consumers as statistics and revenue sources first, because it's meant to inspire clicks that lead to advertising dollars.
Why's this important? Two reasons. The first is that I genuinely don't believe that Cary Nieuhof or most of the other countless Christian bloggers and media view people in this way. Yet, they use these advertising methods because, and here's the second point, we're conditioned to respond to things like this on the internet. Despite my best efforts, and despite knowing all that I've shared, I'm still drawn to these articles that create a false sense of urgency. I'll find myself a few points in when I realize I care nothing about the content, but I've been duped by the presentation. Nieuhof and others utilize this method, it seems, because it works so well.
What's the point, then? We can't avoid all data that's presented as a list. You're reading something presented that way right now. More fundamentally, it's not the list that is the problem, but it's the false sense of urgency so often evoked by the list, and what that tells us about who we are as creatures. We're not meant to be minions shaped by marketing ploys, so take the extra moment before you click on these things and decide whether it truly makes a difference in your life. If it won't build up the image of God, then it's not worth your time. So remember the third point.
3) You're not a robot on the other end of the internet. You're a living, breathing person who is valuable and worthwhile because of God's image within you, and no marketing ploy need have power to tell you otherwise. Before you dive in to any of these things, remember that you're beloved by God and that means you don't need to be drawn in to every ploy and plea for your attention. Instead, discern if it's worth your time to explore, then dissect the form from the content. Take what's valuable and leave the rest behind.
Today, I waited outside the SmartStyle haircut place in WalMart as the woman before me finished with her new 'do. I once got my haircut here just out of sheer convenience and a need for a quick option. I found myself not only impressed with the quality of the cut for the price, but I also struck up a great conversation with the stylist. I learned that the transient nature of that job in locations like these make it pretty fleeting and less than compelling for many who are there, so I often choose to go back, have a genuine conversation with them about real life stuff, and actually tip them (which apparently a bunch of customers don't do) as a small way of bringing a bit more humanity into an otherwise volume-driven day.
But this isn't a story about my haircut.
As I waited my turn and leafed through George Hunsberger's "The Story that Chooses Us," I noticed one of the cashiers in the WalMart portion of the store. Like many employees in our area, she's a college student who works her way through school at Radford University. She'd helped me before and in so doing left a distinct impression with her smile. She looks each customer right in the eye, smiles brightly, and speaks directly to them. I remembered how refreshing that was to me before, and sure enough, each time I glanced up from my book, that grin beamed from her face into the person across the belt from her. Both black and white, young and old, dirty from work and dressed to the nines, each person received this same compelling welcome to Register 4. The fluorescent lights seemed dim compared to her brightness.
Later this day, during our yoga class at CLC, our instructor reminded us to smile in the midst of one of our poses, not just a faux grin, but an attempt to find the joy in the practice of yoga, even and perhaps especially through the portions that were difficult for us. To smile while you do enter poses, even difficult ones, may help to inspire joy in places that you didn't think possible. Though I never felt happy in downward dog, the next time we entered that pose, I smiled, then giggled, then realized a joy had entered that I'd not found before in that pose.
Almost immediately, my mind flew back to the WalMart, just a few miles away, where this young woman likely still stood, checking out customers and sending them away with more than just groceries, but with the radiance of a smile. The first time I checked out in her aisle, months ago, I mentioned something about how nice it was to see such a smile in the midst of a hectic day. She grinned even wider - who knew that was possible? - and said, "Smile like you mean it, right?" There were a gaggle of impatient shoppers behind me, so we didn't have time time to explore the conversation any more. Because of that, I'd forgotten about the exchange until I stood there in WalMart. But it didn't make sense to me until yoga that night.
Smile like you mean it, with the melody from The Killers running through my brain, and you just might mean it. I don't know if this cashier means it every time she smiles through the good and the grind of the day, but I know she smiles like she means it. I hope, at least sometimes, it seeps into her core, that she does find joy at Register 4, because her attempt to bring joy to others surely brightened the WalMart experience. The next time I see her, I'm going to thank her for smiling like she means it, because even if she didn't find the joy she exuded, she gives it away in an inspiring fashion.
I hope we can all be a bit more like her, not just grinning like fools through the pain, but smiling in the difficult yoga poses of life, brightening the mundane WalMart aisles we enter, seeing every stranger through the lens of a smile. This is something like what Martin Luther called looking charitably upon your neighbor, or putting the best possible spin on the people that you meet. In other words, don't assume the worst, but assume the best of those that we encounter. This applies not only to our neighbors, but to all the normalcy we face day in and day out. If we smile we smile like we mean it, and see the world through that Christ-shaped smile, we just might see the world become a bit more like the Kingdom of God.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.