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.

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.

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?

The Gospel According To Santa

The coming of Santa is good news, as we all know. Homes with alarm systems and bolted doors still welcome a visit from the jolly old man who lets himself in through the chimney. He’s not taking anything (except milk and cookies), he’s leaving gifts behind. This is good news!

It so happens that “good news” is the definition on the word “gospel”. And though Santa is good news for children everywhere, his gospel does come with a few conditions:

“You’d better watch out,

You’d better not cry

You’d better not pout

I’m telling you why:

Santa Claus is coming to town!

He’s making a list

And checking it twice

Gonna find out who’s

Naughty and nice

Santa Clause is coming to town!

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake!”

The gospel according to Santa is that nice boys and girls get good gifts, and naughty boys and girls don’t. Never mind that in actual practice, it looks a lot more like rich boys and girls get the good gifts, no matter how naughty they are, and poor children don’t get much, no matter how nice they’ve been. There’s a good case to be made that Santa’s economic theory and sense of equality and justice are skewed, but that’s an issue for another day. The point for now is that we all know Santa’s rules: be nice, get presents. Be naughty, pay the price. This is how Santa’s gospel works. Bring your list to the nice man with the beard, and he’ll do his best to give you what you want, just so long as you’re nice. This, for many, is the essence of Christmas.

And Christmas certainly is about good news. But the gospel of the baby in the manger (the “Christ” before the “mas”) is quite different from the big man in red:

“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.”

– The Bible, Romans 5:6-11

The gospel of Jesus is that even though we’ve all made it firmly on the naughty list (who among us can deny that we’ve quite often done, thought, and said what is wrong?), God was not willing to leave us there, but came among us on the first Christmas and put on our flesh so that he could take our evil on himself, kill it with his own death, then rise again in victory over it. The man in red says “Be nice, and I’ll give you the stuff you want” but the man on the cross says, “Give me your sin, and I’ll give you the life you need and the love you long for”.

The gospel of Santa might be fun, but the gospel of Jesus is the one we desperately need.

Baby, it IS cold outside

Full confession: I’ve never really liked the song “Baby, it’s cold outside”. I always have found it a bit creepy, and I’d certainly like to keep my children from hearing it enough to start singing along with it on the radio. In other words, I won’t miss it if it goes to the cultural guillotine, as many are calling for.

Still, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised: When did we start caring about song lyrics?

We didn’t seem to worry about them much this April, when Lil Dicky got a number 1 hit for musing about what it would be like to have other people’s genitals, their lists of hoes, and their freedom to throw the n-word around. Where was this outrage when Robin Thicke was making non-consensual assumptions about a “good girl” in “Blurred Lines”, or Ben Harper was crossing State lines to follow (also known as stalk) a girl who apparently didn’t want to see him, so that he could “Steal My Kisses”? And these guys are just normal. I recently noticed that more than half of the top ten songs on iTunes were marked as explicit. Once, on State-sponsored RTÉ radio, I heard a news report about Ireland’s deepening drug problem, followed immediately by a song called “My Happy Little Pill”. Seriously.

And we’re outraged by “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”?

Maybe it’s just a song I don’t like. Maybe I won’t miss it. But I do think this cultural moment marks something much bigger than any song in itself. There’s a corner being turned in the western world, and around the bend is a road we’ve been on before: censorship.

But this new censorship is different from the old variety. The old censorship was based on a logical moral system, and whether you agreed with it or not, it had a kind of consistency to it. Obviously, many of its proponents were hypocrites, and the system in Ireland was corrupt, but what of the new censorship? What is its logical foundation? Now that we are beginning to allow speech to be censored again, how will we judge what kinds of speech make the cut? I’m asking because so far, it seems fairly inconsistent. The outrage falls unexpectedly, destroying one song and leaving other (obviously worse) songs unscathed. What is our standard? What kind of new conformity are we aiming for, and how strictly are we willing to enforce it?

Without any universal standard to go by, the only foundation left for the new censorship is the shifting sand of popular opinion, shaped in large part by those powerful enough to make their voices heard. If this is how we’re going to do things now, there will certainly be a chill in the air over free speech. I’m beginning to think maybe it is cold outside.

The Pilgrims At The First Black Friday

When the Pilgrims landed in the New World after fleeing religious persecution in the Old, they faced incredible hardships straightaway. Learning to survive in a wilderness with a different climate was difficult, and the addition of more settlers who arrived without provisions brought them to the point one winter when the daily ration was a mere five kernels of corn. Somehow they made it through, and with help from Squanto and the Wampanoags, learned to live in a new context. After a bountiful harvest the next year, they declared a day of Thanksgiving, and celebrated it with a joyful feast and games (apparently not American football, but it’s hard to say for sure) shared with their Wampanoag neighbours.

On the very next day, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags realised that true happiness and contentment could not be achieved through mere gratefulness. What they really needed was wagonloads of new things, purchased at mind-blowing discount prices. So they came together and declared another holiday; a day dedicated to knocking one another down in a quest to gather as many deals as possible so that they could fill their houses and teepees to overflowing with comfortable and impressive things that would prove their worth and make their neighbours drool with envy. They called this second holiday “Black Friday”, and although the origins of the term are cloudy, some historians believe it came from the fact that many of them ended up black and blue in the mad rush to be the first to get a good deal on the latest convenient oil lamp model, stylish hat, or diamond-studded saddle.

This, of course, didn’t happen. Apparently, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags were actually content with their joyful feast and the provision God had supplied. In fact, it took us 400 years to achieve the cognitive dissonance necessary to turn the day after Thanksgiving into a National Day Of Unbridled Consumerism. Could two consecutive days contrast each other any more? We spend one day in thankfulness for all the gifts we have received from God, then wake up early the next to trample each other in our quest for more!

Some think the world of the Pilgrims was dour and cold, even though history shows them to us singing, feasting, and playing games. We can think what we like about the Pilgrims and their flaws. I wonder, though, if the Pilgrims could see our celebrations this week, what would they think of us?

The Noisiest Headlines Are Not The Most Important

KAVANAUGH IS CONFIRMED TO UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT, AFTER CONTENTIOUS CONFIRMATION…

What’s the most important news in that headline? Certainly, a spot on the US Supreme Court is influential in the extreme – far beyond what it was intended to be by America’s founders. Kavanaugh will have out-sized influence over American life for decades to come. And yet, I submit to you that Kavanaugh himself is not the most important part of the news cycle these last few weeks.

We are.

The only thing everyone on both sides seems to agree on is this: the entire process was broken. From that common acknowledgment, we go on to explain whose fault it is, and how corrupt the other side is. Which is fair enough. A free country ought to encourage free exchange and debate. The problem is that we don’t actually debate anymore.

In order to have a fruitful debate, two things are necessary:

1) A shared goal

2) A shared respect

Can’t we debate about our goals? Yes, but until we come to some sort of consensus on our purpose, we will never be able to debate productively about anything else. As long as we disagree on where we are going, we’ll never be able to agree on how to get there. The only way we’ll move at all is by leveraging raw power. This is the state of current “debate” in America: it is primarily rhetoric for the purpose of solidifying bases from which power plays can be made at opportune moments. The Kavanaugh “debate” stank of this. We have come to the point when even accusations of sexual abuse are political weapons to be timed and deployed and shot down with cynical regularity, each side taking turns at each role as the specific situations change. The exact same phrases, moral condemnations and righteous defences are taken up in turn by opposite sides, only to be conveniently forgotten as soon as the tables turn. The game is dirty. Everyone knows it. We justify anything from our side and believe anything against the other with one ultimate purpose: victory at all costs. But what if the cost turns out to be the very foundation of our society? What if, in fighting the monsters against us, we find that we have become monsters ourselves?

The second requirement for productive debate is a recognition that other people are actually people. Even if their perspective is different, their value remains. This is less common than it sounds. In fact, very few societies in history have intentionally valued dissent or dissenters. America has been an exception to this rule, but the revolutionary idea of honouring those we strongly disagree with seems to be falling on hard times. In our zeal to see our vision for the future established, we have begun to allow ourselves the comfortable view that our cultural and political enemies are sub-human animals worthy only of insult and abuse. We call this new reality “Twitter”.

Is there a solution? I believe there is. I believe it is possible to disagree productively. But it won’t happen as long as we define our ultimate problem as the people against us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the horrors of the Gulag, saw with clarity that the problem is bigger than the other side:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed. While the headlines re-direct us to the corrupt political manoeuvring and power plays in the halls of government, they allow us to conveniently ignore the ways our own hearts are manoeuvring and playing for self-justification and control over others and even over God himself, if that were possible. This is why, no matter how good the headlines are, our favourite politicians can’t save us from the problems around us. Those problems have put their roots into our own chests. The corruption is in our own hearts. This is why righteous causes throughout history have all eventually fallen apart under their own weight, why the saviours of one generation have always somehow become the oppressors of the next, why every revolution leads only to the need for another. No, a better headline won’t save us. We need a better saviour. We need Jesus.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21