I Miss Talking To Strangers

I remember the first time our family got a touchscreen. It was an early GPS model (the kind you had to buy map updates for), but I was too young to drive, so what stood out to me was the touchscreen. I’d seen Star Trek, so I knew what to do. I just never guessed that I would live to see the day when McDonalds had more touchscreens than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Screens for ordering, screens for keeping children entertained at the tables, screens for displaying menus, and don’t forget the personal communication devices everyone carries everywhere. Captain Kirk would be impressed.

But where are the employees? I can’t see them anymore because they were put behind walls and the counter is a tiny short thing, basically just a collection point. All this technological progress means that I can order, eat, and leave without having to talk to anyone. It’s the same at the bank. I used to make a regular trip to the bank, and got to the point that I looked forward to seeing the tellers who became my friends. Then they introduced an app, and I started doing most of my banking from home. These days even when I do go in person I wait in the queue just to push buttons on a row of screens and, just like McDonald’s, I can come and go without saying a word. I could go on about the self-service tills at the grocery store, or how we can order our food from a screen at home and have it delivered, but you already know about that. All this convenience is nice, and has it’s obvious advantages, but I can’t help feeling like it’s robbed me of something.

I miss talking to strangers.

Even if it was just about burgers or bank notes or the weather (it was always about the weather), there’s a warmth and goodness in the simple act of conversation that I never noticed until it was gone. The machines are efficient, yes, but they’re cold. You can’t look them in the eye, or commiserate together about the rain, or wish them a good weekend. You can’t get to know them over months and weeks and years, and end up friends like I did with the bank tellers. I miss the bank tellers. I miss talking with them about holidays and how shocking the weather is. For that matter, I just miss talking. I miss being forced to communicate with other humans. If you don’t have to talk, it becomes impolite to break the silence. So we sit on the train, stand in the queue at the bank, wait for our orders at McD’s, and look at our personal communication devices instead of communicating with the living, breathing humans all around us.

I like my phone. I use it for banking.

But I really do miss talking to strangers.

For Hannah Grace

This week twelve years ago, we should have been welcoming our firstborn child, but she wasn’t here. I’ve written about the day we found out about Hannah’s death in this post. This week, in honour of the daughter we haven’t met (yet), I’m sharing a poem I wrote shortly afterwards to process my thoughts about God and the death of a child.

For Hannah Grace

I never thought I’d hear the words that I have heard today
I never thought that God, in love, would dare take you away
And now my world is upside-down, I scarce can take it in…
Is this some kind of training, or a punishment for sin?

If punishment, why take it out on someone who’s so innocent?
If training, I am straining for the lesson that was meant
Oh God above, how could Your love ever cause such pain?
And how can I, with blinded eye, see this great loss as gain?

I never thought I’d read the words like I’ve read them today
I never counted up the cost that God has made You pay
How all the sin of all the world, I scarce can take it in…
Could rest upon the shoulders of the one Man without sin!

This punishment, why take it out on Someone who’s so innocent?
Yet all along He knew it was the reason He was sent
Oh God above, how could Your love ever cause such pain?
Eyes open wide, He didn’t hide, but saw His loss as gain

I may never see the impact of the things You do today
But I trust the hand that hurts me is the hand that leads the way
To where all losses turn to gain and ugliness turns fair
Where sinners turn to saints clothed in glory beyond compare

Oh God above, how could Your love ever cause such pain?
Upon Your throne, You must have known You’d turn losses into gain

No Mo’ FOMO

These days, the world is literally at our fingertips, connected like never before. We can get instant updates on just about everything – live sports scores from New Zealand, political manoeuvring in Washington or Brussels, and what our holiday-making friends are eating or drinking – right now.

There’s a gateway to all this excitement sitting in my pocket, and it’s vibrating…

Just someone posting to a group I’m in. Oh well. Since I got the phone out, I might as well check the news feed and see what else is going on. You never know, there could be something exciting a little further down… Or not. But we still like to check, don’t we?

They’ve even made a name for it: the Fear Of Missing Out (or FOMO). It’s no joke. It’s built in to the foundational design of every social media platform there is, because it’s built in to people. Now that we have access to a virtual world in our pockets, we’re always subconsciously sizing up the real one and wondering if something more exciting is happening in the land of constant connection. Let’s face it: things can move fairly slowly in the real world, and there’s always a new fight forming on Twitter right now!

We want to get the most out of our short time on planet earth, and that’s why our FOMO is so strong: how do I know that what I’m getting out of this moment is “the most”? What if there’s something better on the other end of a screen? What if there’s someone better on the other end of a swipe? Ultimately, we can never know, and unlimited access to a world of options only serves to make the feeling worse.

Push pause.

Rewind to our big assumption, and ask: Is getting the most out of our time on earth really what it’s all about? What does that even mean? The most…

Fun?

Friends?

Money?

Achievements?

Love?

You can choose your prize and go for it, but then again, could you be missing something better by emphasising that one over the other options? FOMO strikes again.

We thought the point was to get the most out of life – we forgot all that our Creator has already given us: Not only our brains and sunsets and jazz, but also a love strong enough to break our shame and restore us to the place where we belong – in His family, forever. Everything we need most was bought and paid for on the cross, and is offered freely from the nail-scarred hand of our Saviour.

And when we’re full with all that He freely gives, the purpose of our lives begins to shift. We no longer feel the need to get all we can out of life, because we already feel full. Little by little, life becomes less about ourselves at all, and more about the One who loves us, and more about how we can share His gifts with everyone around us. Little by little, FOMO wilts, and in its place grows JOG – the Joy Of Giving.

How Ireland Has Changed Me

Ten years ago today, I got on an airplane in Washington DC with my pregnant wife and one year old son, and we all left the only country we’d ever lived in. The airport was busy with people heading the other direction: it was Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day, 2009. A couple of meals and movies later, we landed in Ireland. We were met at the airport by coworkers, and on the way home we stopped at Pizza Hut. During the meal, my wife noticed that we had left the diaper bag in the trunk. No problem, our coworker was happy to get the nappy bag out of the boot. We looked at each other and knew: it might be Pizza Hut, but it was definitely not America!

Ten years later we’re still struggling to find the right words. The difference is that now the struggle is worst when we’re visiting the States. We say the food is lovely, and people make odd faces. We ask where the lift is, or if this is the proper queue, and people don’t know. We try to prepare our children (three of them, now), but we still miss things. One of our sons got in the car in Atlanta and anxiously informed me that his head was getting wet: Sweating might have been a constant in my own childhood, but it was a foreign experience for my son. On the other hand, climbing castle ruins is normal for him.

So yes, we’re different. Of course we are. We’ve gotten used to this place, and now we’re more comfortable in SuperValu or Tesco than the overwhelming magnitude of Wal-Mart. We now know tea, chocolate, cheese, and butter at their best. But there are deeper changes, too. Ireland is getting under our skin, re-arranging assumptions, and re-colouring our view of the world. In fact, I’m sure I can’t tell you all the ways Ireland has shaped me, because I’m sure I’m not even aware of half of them. But here’s a taste of a few ways Ireland has changed me:

My View Of Time

I grew up in a country where time is often treated as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded. For the last decade, I’ve lived on an island where time is a sea to sail on, with room to stretch out. The schedule is not nearly as important as the person next to you. I’ve grown to like this system, even though sometimes (okay, often) it means that getting things done can be frustratingly slow. Still, I’ve come to believe that cups of tea should never be rushed and that visits with friends should be able to last for 3, 4, or 8 hours without the compelling need to move on to something else. And the prayer meetings! There’s nothing in the world like unhurried prayer with a group.

The Art Of Conversation

The Irish have done something no one would have guessed was possible: turned English into a beautifully musical spoken language. I’m not only referring to the accent, although that’s a significant part of it – it’s also the way Ireland turns phrases. Why say “Thanks” when you could say “Thanks a million”? Why say “it’s okay” when you could say “Ah, sure you’re grand”? Why speak simply of “rain” when you could use a dozen words to describe its many varieties? And with so many great phrases to choose from, you can talk for as long as you like and still say only as much as you like. In Ireland, conversation is a well-developed and subtle form of art. Jokes can be told without cracking a smile to let on, intense confrontations can burn hot in polite dialogue, and negotiation can look more like friendly banter than the argument that it is. Over the last decade, I’ve grown in my ability to read the clues that others are sending (I don’t miss as many jokes now), and I hope I’ve also grown in my ability to use words with care.

Building Consensus

When I first attended a committee meeting in Ireland, I came away wondering if any decisions had been made. No votes were taken (like I was used to); we simply talked over each point for a while, and moved on. Yet (I found out later) everyone else in the room had left with perfect clarity! I’m reading the clues better now, and on a deeper level, Ireland has taught me what it means to value consensus more than efficiency, agreement over speed. I’m still no great fan of meetings (who is?), but I appreciate the emphasis on people and relationships – even more so because it also translates into cups of tea and biscuits every time people get together. When my son mistakenly said “Daddy is going to an eating”, he wasn’t wrong.

Sunshine Is Gold

When we moved to Ireland, I was surprised by the lack of sunshine. Living this far north, the days get quite short in the winter, but often even when the sun is supposed to be here, it just isn’t. Sure, you get a bit of its leftovers through the clouds, but the actual golden orb we all love and depend on can sometimes go missing for days on end. When we first came, I struggled with this, and with the feeling of the sky being right on top of me. But the last ten years have taught me to appreciate grey skies. There’s actually something comfortable and cozy about these close cloudy skies, especially if you have a cup of tea and a fire. And I love the way everyone goes outside with a big smile when the sun finally decides to show up. We may not have it as often, but when it comes, we don’t take it for granted.

My View Of The World

Ireland has given me another set of eyes, but that doesn’t mean that my way of seeing is exactly the same as those who grew up on this lovely green gem. Instead, I’ve become something of a hybrid – a four-eyed creature who sees in new ways, but looks a bit odd anywhere I go. I don’t mind. I’m thankful that I can call two very different places “home” and mean it for both with all my heart. I’m thankful for the heritage I have from growing up in America, and I’m thankful for the decade I’ve had on this beautiful little island, breathing the fresh cloudy air. I’m thankful for the things this place has taught me about people, myself, and the world. I’m glad Ireland is under my skin.

Good Discrimination, Bad Diversity, and Pneumonia

There was a time last year when my lungs started going on strike. Every breath became a rattling effort, and time only seemed to make it worse. So, like any sane person who can’t breath, I went to the doctor. She told me I had pneumonia, but was quick to add that she was very accepting of my unique breathing style and would support me in my new lifestyle. Then she sent me home.

Actually, that’s not what happened. The doctor (thankfully) did not tolerate the difference in my breathing. She gave me powerful medicine that effectively cleared my lungs and brought me back to non-rattly breathing just like everyone else.

Should I press charges against her? Was it discrimination for her to assume automatically that diversity in breathing is bad, and that we should all breath the same way? It was: She did, in fact, discriminate against my differences, and her discrimination may well have saved my life.

In these days when every idea has to fit into a sound-bite, it sounds wrong to say that her discrimination was good, or that a kind of diversity was killing me. Our discomfort comes from the fact that as a culture, we’ve collected a shorthand set of descriptive words and endowed them with the power to end debate. Discrimination is bad. Always. Who would ever argue for it? Diversity is good. Always. Who can say a word against it?

But what about the times when they aren’t?

Discriminating between what politicians and papers say and what is actually true is a skill we ought to encourage. We could even use that skill to discriminate between the times when diversity is helping us expand our horizons and the times when it is pushing us away from each other in ever-increasing individualistic isolation.

Diversity is not a good thing in itself any more than unity is a good thing in itself. When unity means people are working together towards a shared goal, it can be beautiful – but that doesn’t mean that the Act Of Union in 1800 was positive for most people in Ireland. Similarly, there are times when diversity is a benefit to everyone, but this assumes that we have at least some unity of common ground and shared goals; otherwise, diversity is just divisive. We meet with a group of local people each week to study the Bible, and these friends have come together from every continent on earth except Australia. The diversity of perspectives and experiences enriches our discussions greatly, and I wouldn’t trade it for any amount of comfortable sameness. I’m all for diversity. But I’m not only for diversity. A headlong pursuit of diversity for its own sake could end up leaving us with nothing to be unified about. There are forms of unity that are harmful, but the same can be true of diversity. It shouldn’t raise eyebrows to say that not every diverse choice and lifestyle and difference and belief is equally good or produces equally beneficial results for the people who have chosen them or the people around them – and yet the eyebrows do raise: Am I saying this because I’m some kind of [fill in the blank]-phobic? Once again, debate ends with the introduction of all-powerful describing words. I am not afraid of diversity. I am, however, afraid of a culture that can only speak in one-word arguments crafted to kill debate before it begins.

As Ireland pursues sweeping social change at an ever-quickening pace and rushes to redefine longstanding ideas about the fundamental nature of humans, rights, families, identities, and morality, do we really want to end discussion on these foundational realities with simple appeals to power words? Would it not be worth our time to have a thoughtful discussion and honest debate on the possible consequences of the diversity we are pursuing?

A Girl And Her Balloon

When you have three children under ten, there’s no point taking a vote on where to go out to eat. You’ll be outnumbered, and there’s only one option in this area that offers the triple crown of childhood meals: nuggets, toy, and balloon – it’s going to be McDonald’s. This was our reality at the beginning of 2016, so after an event in the city one weekend, we made tracks for the Golden Arches. I don’t remember the toy that day (most of those things are forgotten by everyone a few nanoseconds after we get home, only to be rediscovered later inside the couch or under a seat in the car), but I’ll never forget Rebekah’s balloon. She picked it out before the meal, carefully selecting the pink one for herself, distinct from the blue and green of her brothers. She ate next to it happily, and played with her toy. Then we got up to leave, walked out the door, and when she spotted the sky, her eyes lit up. She held her balloon as high as she could and stood up on her toes… but something was wrong. A cloud of disappointment moved over her sunny smile:

“I thought it would make me go up”

When Rebekah stepped outside, she fully expected the McDonald’s balloon to make her fly. Her disappointment at discovering the reality of gravity was profound. And when I think about it from her perspective, there is a certain logic to it: Winnie the Pooh could do it, so why not Rebekah?

Sometimes reality really does hold us down. The girl believed, but the balloon still couldn’t fly. You could say that her belief in the balloon was childish, but it seems to me that it was actually rather adultish: Isn’t it us adults who love to put our trust in politicians to save us, medicine to cure us, and systems to improve us? Yes, some politicians could (conceivably) keep their promises, some medicines could heal, and some systems could help, at least for a while. But all are limited, and no amount of extra belief on our part will compensate for their inadequacy. These balloons won’t be strong enough to lift us for long, even if we give them our complete confidence.

Still, we’re all small like the girl, and we’re all looking for something to lift us above the brokenness we see in and around us. We’re all putting our faith in some kind of system, movement, or person (even if it’s just ourselves) to help us rise above this mess of a planet we call home. But as we look for a balloon to lift us, the question should not be: “How much faith do I have in my balloon?” But rather: “Can this balloon actually get me off the ground?” Is what I’m believing really true? Does it have enough power to change broken realities? Belief alone won’t do the job, but I believe there’s Someone that can: Someone who entered our mess of a world, bore our pain, and broke the power of death itself. You may not agree with me, but the question remains:

What are you putting your faith in, and why?

How We Saved Ourselves From Fitness

A new year is upon us, and along with it the usual deluge of gym membership deals, diet programs, and wellness resolutions. Of course, many of these good intentions won’t last to the end of January, but that’s beside the point. The question is: how did we get to the place where most of us genuinely need a yearly re-focus on our own fitness? In the long history of the world, this is an anomaly. If we worked all day labouring in fields or factories, we wouldn’t need extra fitness goals. If we didn’t have a cozy car to ferry us around, we’d get more steps on the pedometer. If we did all the dishes and laundry by hand, chopped our own wood for heat, and got up early to milk the cows, we’d probably never think of making a special trip to the gym. Sure, we wouldn’t have time for it anyway!

Time. That was the whole point of all these labour-saving machines, wasn’t it? They promised us more time to do as we please. What they didn’t tell us is that all our labour-saving inventions would save us more than time – they would also save us from fitness. Many of us are now free from the really tough physical work at home and our jobs, and we live our daily lives in a level of comfort that the kings of old couldn’t have even imagined. So now we spend our extra free time (gifted to us by the machines) driving to special buildings where we pay good money for the privilege of working hard against weights and treadmills, because our bodies still need the physical labour that our machines have saved us from.

I’m not saying that I have something against taking time for exercise. I know I need to make more space for it in my own life. I just need to find the time, like everyone else, because somehow, even with all our labour and time-saving inventions, our lives are still stressful and our to-do lists are still long. Even with all our technology, all our helpful inventions, and all our labour-saving devices, we still haven’t been able to save ourselves from the realities of living as broken people in a broken world. Our bodies are still fragile, and our time is still limited. So this year, I’ll be thankful for the helpful machines around me and (hopefully) make more time to replace the exercise they’ve saved me from, but I won’t expect any of this to save me from the deeper problems that persist both in and around me. When it comes to those things, I’ll be looking up with Moses, asking for true perspective from our Maker:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 91v12)