Lifeless Christmas Lights Symbolic of Relational Shallowness in Middle Class Suburbia

Have you ever thought about the three bedroom house, the literal cornerstone of modern civilization? … Today a housing tract of 3,000 houses is planned and built, then 10,000 people come out for the grand opening, buy up the houses and, almost like programmed robots, move in with their matching furniture, draw the drapes, turn on the t.v. set and sit quietly in front of it for the next forty years. You can actually drive through a modern suburb and think it is a ghost town: you hardly ever see a living thing! ~ Gene Edwards, 1974

Christmas Lights on MansionDo you enjoy driving around this time of year admiring Christmas lights people put up on their homes? 

I did that last night, by myself: through middle class neighborhoods, then ritzy ones.  In neither case did I see a single human being.  An hour of driving, and not one soul.  Sure, I passed lots of cars, and I imagine people were driving them, but I couldn’t talk to them or even see their faces though the windows, because it was dark.  Nobody was out in their front yards, nobody standing around talking, nobody even taking their trash out, nothing. 

I did see a lot of Christmas lights though, their vacant bulbs staring back at me.  One yard had a giant blow-up inflatable with clear walls: inside was a carousel of lifeless elves riding lifeless horses, circling ‘round and ‘round eternally, all powered by an orange extension cord snaking back to the garage.  “Where’s the real?” I wondered.  I want to see real elves, real horses, not caged plastic knock-offs. 

Christmas lights.  So many houses have them, and I love the decorations.  It makes neighborhoods look so inviting, don’t you think?  But what if I were in need of a place to stay, could I go up to any of those doors, knock, and be given a bed for the night?  Based on my door to door experiences, I would guess no.  The American suburbs seem very cold, to me. 

Who even knows their neighbors, beyond immediate ones?  I remember for many years talking about inviting one of our neighbors (a single guy) over for dinner.  We did once.  Then he moved.  But we always referred to him as, “that great single guy next door, he’s a Christian, you know.” 

When I drove through Reflection Ridge, an upscale community, I was struck by the nativities placed in front of massive mansions.  Is there irony in the fact those homes are probably larger than the Inn where there was no room for Mary and Joseph?  And to me, the lighted statuettes seemed lonely out in the cold front lawn by themselves… also lifeless like the elves and horses.  Jesus is forever being neatly memorialized and sent outside, it seems.  Is there room in our hearts for Him, like the well known carol asks?

One property had done up a slew of lights with the theme of candy canes and Santa.  The house next door had done up an equally spectacular display with a Christian theme, featuring a giant Cross and the words, “Joy.”  Besides the differences in decorations, the houses looked identical.  I wondered if those superficial variations in decorative taste were representative of the depth of other differences between the occupants.  I hoped not.

Hope Mendola finished a year long missions trip this past August.  She’s written about how living in close proximity to her teammates nearly drove her nuts.  At least, during the time, but now that she’s back to a “normal” life here in the US, the superficiality of the relationships with those in her weekly small group (the American church’s limp noodle, lifeless version of community) is also driving her nuts.  I suppose there is some happy balance.  And Hope wasn’t implying her friends here in the US were shallow, I believe she was merely sad the form here for being involved in each others lives is so shallow. Read her reflections here.

Regarding community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this to say:

The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.

That quote hits close to home with me.

So what do you think?  Are the suburbs really as relationally shallow as I’m implying?  And what can we do to fix it?  Is Bonhoeffer’s quote right on, or do we need a change of form as much as a change of heart?

I’ll leave off with this verse to keep things in perspective, it’s been rattling in my brain recently:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:18)

Christians Can’t DO Anything? Wrong!

Was talking with an older man recently who was bemoaning the fact there is nothing for Christians to do. "It’s a problem now, it was a problem when I was a kid, it’s always been a problem. If you can’t watch movies, can’t dance, can’t do anything bad, what can you do?" There was a hint of tongue-in-cheek in his tone, but candor as well. He added that at least we have board games to save us from boredom.  No pun intended.

I see this as a common theme among Christian circles. I call it, “The No Syndrome.” No, we can’t listen to this or watch that; and shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal; nor cuss, smoke, or drink; nor chew, yell, or go to the show; nor get mad, visit the bad part of town, associate with non-believers or even eat too many sweets. Sometimes Christians scratch their heads wondering, “What was it again we CAN do?”

Seems like the local church often comes up short on vision here… Because there is so much we can do!! And no, it’s not sitting in a white room eating vegetables trying not to think bad thoughts.  The work we get to do is among the most exciting a human ever has the opportunity to participate in: being apart of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

We never need to stoop to worldliness (which we all know) but we also never need to stoop to copycatting worldliness (the tactic mainstream American Christianity has unfortunately swallowed, hook, line, and sinker).

Regarding this whole issue, I recently heard a Christian man use an analogy from sports. He said, "We need both a good defense and a strong offense." His point was we can at times be all defense (fighting the world, flesh, and the devil in our lives) with no offense (fighting the world, flesh, and the devil in our culture).  Not that bending to an extreme in offense is the answer either: balance is key.

This sports analogy begs the question, “What does an offense look like?” As I observe those who appear to be playing offense, I see among the more radical people a tendency to get carried away fighting injustices to the exclusion of making disciples (Shane Claiborne comes to mind, I’m planning to review his book Friday). Seems to me when we help people physically without sharing the gospel we’re merely making them comfortable on their way to hell, where they’ll get plenty uncomfortable again.

Others lean towards gospel work (tract distribution) as the answer. Surely this is the perfect activity for our youth? And not to say street evangelism isn’t valuable and has its place, but it’s also the type of seed the devil frequently snatches away because they don’t understand (Matthew 13:19).  This is especially true with Internationals. I hate being pessimistic, but am speaking from my own experience.

Others think offense means starting programs, recruiting people into programs, and propping up programs. Programs are wonderful so long as everyone realizes they’re the structure for relationships. Programs are the bones; relationships are the meat. They both need heart (love).

So if it’s not all about fighting injustice, handing out tracts, or plugging bodies into programs (as important as all these are), “Where then should we start?”

After much thought, here’s my suggestion… well, maybe I’ll save it for my next post!

Texting Beyond our Limits

Imagine it’s Saturday, 2,000 years ago.  Jesus is sitting in the synagogue.  His cell phone is laying out on the pew beside him, flipped open.  He is following along with the Rabbi, but frequently glancing down at the phone, checking incoming messages.  Multi-tasking is no bigee for Him. 

A coalition of blind beggars are texting Jesus regarding their plight.  Martha is frantically texting him to hurry come heal Lazarus who’s on the verge of death.  Peter wants to know if they really have to stay for the whole message.  Mary, his mother, wants to know what He would like for lunch.  A lonely suicidal friend just wants to chat. 

This picture is ludicrous because Jesus never operated that way.  Jesus ministered only to those within his sphere of physical proximity. 

I realize the technology of Jesus’ time precluded anything different.  Face-to-face contact was his only option, but that didn’t hinder His ministry or prevent Him from turning the world upside down.  All without cell phone, e-mail or the internet.  This capability we have to remotely stay in touch is perhaps stretching us further emotionally than we were designed to be stretched. 

Hold on, I’m not saying everyone who wants to be a true follower of Jesus should throw their phone out the window or that text messaging is evil.  Far from it.  Nevertheless, it’s interesting to me that us humans have, in the name of progress, devised systems which destroy community (like insulated suburban neighborhoods, houses so private fortress would be a better term, productivity to the extreme we don’t have time to breathe, and of course the never ending advertisements to guarantee we’lll never exit the treadmill rat race) then, on the flip side, also devised systems, in the name of progress, that fill the voids with artificial community like Cell Phones, Facebook, IM, and Text messaging.

In recent years, our amazing technology has removed all obstacles of physical proximity.  We are no longer limited by space.  I have tele-meetings at work with guys from Canada and France.  We all login and see the same computer screen.  In our daily lives, this gadgetry opens incredible opportunities, but also takes a high toll because we are finite creatures.  I was talking with a friend recently about how we keep running into this whole 24 hour thing.  Technology oft gives us more opportunities than we can handle.

Communication isn’t the only technology that removes physical limits.  Think about transportation for a minute:  This past Tuesday after work I spent an hour and a half reading a book at my apartment, then an hour and a half at one of my Indian friend’s apartments visiting and doing laundry together, then an hour and a half at my parents eating supper and catching up, then an hour and a half at another friends house hanging out and helping him get ready for a fire demonstration he was giving the next day at school (don’t ask).  These locations were miles apart.  If I tried to go all those places walking I’d still be walking.

With transportation comes options.  Options make us feel we should take them.  Taking them stretches us thin.  Again, not bad, just the reality of our society. 

Conscientious people get hit particularly hard by all these relational options.  They end up trying to be three (or ten) places at once, and end up being no-where well.  The person texting them is in a crisis so it makes sense to give them priority.  But the distance barrier inhibits a fully compassionate response (like maybe a hug or tender expression).  In the meantime, those they’re actually with may need a hug too, or a listening ear, but instead get a split mess, the dregs, a physical body and preoccupied mind.

In some cases we need to be some place physically (with family, at work) but feel like we’re needed elsewhere mentally.  Technology allows us to do so, but at a cost.  Getting caught in the cross-fire is difficult.  There are no easy answers. 

My advice to myself is to consider living in the here and now, like Jesus did.  No matter which way I cut the pie, even in the best scenario I’m only giving pieces of myself to others.  I am a finite creature!  So perhaps it’s best to at least give full pieces.  Maybe those I’m with physically deserve the full piece of me for those moments, within reason. 

Hypocritically, I write this at a Laundromat where there are others around me.  To my credit, I did discuss this whole “technology stretching us too thin” deal with the lady I’m sitting next to waiting for our clothes to finish.  She’s been on her iPhone texting most the time.  Her take on things was we’re better off now than the old days when we had to interact face-to-face only.  She said now that relationships are digital, it’s easier to say “no.”   She thought of one friend in particular though who really struggles with all the relational options.  She said her friend is not strong enough to say “no” and so tries keeping up with everyone.  Consequently, her friend is seriously stressed out.  Wisdom from a Laundromat stranger.

When is Texting Rude?

Two relevant facts:

    1) My actions always speak louder than my words
    2) What I spend time on communicates what I find important

Regarding text messaging, here are 10 observations:

  1. Nearly everyone texts, including my Grandpa (there are around 5 billion cell phone subscriptions out of 6.8 billion humans and more than 2/3 have a text messaging service)
  2. Texting is amoral and not rude in and of itself
  3. Texting works great for conveying information
  4. I personally text quite a bit
  5. Texting can be used as a neat tool to encourage others
  6. Texters probably don’t mean to be rude but sometimes are (including myself)
  7. In certain contexts, texting can be very rude and even hurt peoples’ feelings
  8. Therefore, for conscientious folk, it’s important to think through this issue
  9. Whenever I text, I am communicating by my actions that texting  is – for the brief moments I’m engaged in that activity – more important than anything or anyone else (see fact 2 above)
  10. Jesus never sent a single text message (nor did any human before 1992).  Therefore, instantaneous telepathic communication must not be that important.

Breaking it down, I see two types of texting:

  1. Texting for information (mentally engaged)
  2. Texting for conversation (emotionally engaged)

It’s easier for people to forgive us ignoring them when we’re texting for information.

Regarding the second category though, ever been in a group where everyone was conversing except one loner who’s texting?  I’ll admit, I’ve been that one loner before.  You know, the guy who looks up every now and then to convey the impression he’s still engaged?  The sad thing is I’m only really engaged the few times I throw in my two cents to the group, then I put the phone down.  But as soon as someone else starts talking I look back down to my phone.  I’m multi-tasking people.

What does this communicate to others in the group? They do notice.  My actions are telling them I don’t care what they think or say, even though that’s not true.

The moral of this post is to warn myself (and in turn, perhaps others) to realize my actions convey messages. 

Just because my mouth isn’t saying anything doesn’t mean I’m not saying anything.  In fact, I might be saying something I would never utter audibly.

frog_sadWhen I text around others, my actions shout loud and clear, "I’m with you physically because I have to be, but I’m with them mentally because I want to be." 

It’s crazy, I may die a thousand deaths before verbalizing something like that in real life (knowing it would be hurtful), but not hesitate in the least to say it over and over again through my actions.  And peoples’ feelings are often hurt.  By me.

Here are problematic facts:

  1. When texting, I’m not fully engaged with the people in my presence

  2. When texting, I’m communicating to people in my presence they’re temporarily not as important as the invisible ones I’m texting with (this is true by definition. people around me may be understanding, cut slack, not get upset, realize the texts are “necessary,” but that doesn’t change the fact I’m still communicating this message)

  3. When texting, I’m (probably) distracting others and raising curiosity about who I’m texting with and what I’m texting about

  4. When texting, if I don’t bring those in my presence into the loop, my actions (probably) are communicating distrust and secrecy

All this begs the question, how should I change? 

  • Text when alone. I can’t be rude then (I don’t think…?)  

  • Ignore texts when with others or excuse myself to a private location.  Kids do this all the time in school:  "I need to go to the bathroom" is code for, "There’s an important text I need to send or read."

  • Let others know who I’m texting with and why, allow them into my life.  I was in a group recently and received a text that read, “Tired?”  I punched back, “No.”  Everyone stopped to look at me when I pulled my phone out.  It got quiet in the room.  In this situation I felt forced to explain myself (usually not the case). So I did. I told everyone, “Hey, I just got this one word text message that read, ‘Tired’ so I sent them a one word message back, ‘No.’”  Everyone laughed and we went on.  By not explaining I would have left people in the dark; they would have been curious (at best) and felt excluded or hurt (at worst).  The great thing about this tack is it strengthens the ties of those in our presence.  

  • Re-evaluate who I’m spending time with and why.  Perhaps we need to think again about why we feel such a need to interact with those outside our physical proximity.  This will be the subject of my next post.  Stay tuned!

    So, when is texting rude?  When should I not text? 

    In the state of Kansas, where I live, restrictions have been placed on texting while driving.  Why?  Because it could result in physical injury to others.  Etiquette-wise, perhaps I should come down on the same side of the fence: refraining from texting when it could result in emotional injury to others.  Of course, that’s a value judgment…

    Silly?  Too harsh?  What do you think? I’m just realizing when I text, signals are being received closer than the tower.

    For a more secular rule of thumb on when texting is appropriate, check out The Bathroom Rule.