Encouragement for the Lonely During Quarantine

Despite the memes reminding us that personal quarantine is not the end of the world, social distancing is going to be rough on some people.*

Yes, we should keep perspective and praise God that we are not fighting another world war (or an infection). But if you’re going to trot out that line every time someone struggles, it gets hard to have a conversation. Loneliness is real. And we are all – accustomed and unaccustomed alike – going to learn new things about it in the coming days.

Scripture acknowledges loneliness. David cries out “Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am alone and afflicted” (Psalm 25:16). Well-known verses like Ecclesiastes 4:10 – “For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up” – reveal that God meant us to need each other and record the pain when it doesn’t happen. We are meant to need God more, but if you were to interpret that as license to run off to a cabin in the woods and commune with God alone for forty years (something my Montana people might know about), theologians would hasten to correct you. We were not meant to live this life alone.

When community is denied, struggle comes. Someone has said “Joy shared is multiplied; sorrow shared is divided.” The mathematics of fellowship, if you will. The church was meant to do good things in the world that few pairs of hands can’t, as the disciples acknowledged in Acts 6. My state and local guidelines still permit me to visit friends (for the moment), but even if we were to mutually agree on it, most of my friends have small children. That makes me hesitant to seek out companionship right now. I think that’s probably right.

Our elderly, currently the most at-risk demographic, are lonely already. We are not a country that honors its elders, unless they’re celebrities. That’s our loss and always has been (and it also happens to make us an exception amongst people groups). But we aren’t doing much about it, and they feel it in their assisted living homes and empty nests. And now, most states have ordered or strongly advised them to self-quarantine regardless of the advice given to younger citizens.

Singles are not the only lonely people, but I have a heart nonetheless for my unmarried brethren. Its not just that the common and usually fair encouragement of “it could happen any day now!” has hit a rare suspension for you. Some of you know what it’s like to spend a weekend alone with a cold. Or spend your days with no family in your immediate area. Or attend a church that doesn’t pay much attention to you. Depending on your personality and circumstances, singleness can be a socially isolating experience.

Or perhaps you’re the type who’s been feeling alone in a room long before pestilences usher everyone else out.

And, most of all, there are those who have actually gotten sick. Or those for whom “watching Netflix for a couple straight weeks” also happens to mean losing a job.

These are the people we can love and serve and pray for.

Right now, quarantine doesn’t seem too bad. This is partially because it’s still novel (any “shelter in place” orders are only days old), partially because everyone else is ignoring them, and partially because many states haven’t gotten there yet.

That will all most likely change. If other states inch closer to stricter measures and quarantine becomes more strongly enforced, Satan will not miss opportunities to oppress people in their homes. I say this sincerely not to scare, but to prepare. The church should be ready to care for people’s emotional health as well as their physical and material health.

I have a few thoughts that I hope will lift you today. They’re honestly kind of random, but I offer anyway.

1. No hole is too deep for God.

As you can tell from the article, I don’t believe in airbrushing or diminishing hardships. If a hole is there, let us admit it. God seems to.

But even as God grants the greater depth of a hole, he shows his reach is still greater. Through any storm, he is able to reach us, calm our turbulent seas, and set our feet on dry ground (or water!).

It will require vigor and intentionality to secure that piece. Don’t cop to self-pity. Believe it and receive it.

2. No permanent solutions to temporary problems.

Sadly, suicide and self-harm hotlines are recession-proof institutions. I pray desperately that those who face these demons will not succumb amidst their isolation. Use the phone and internet lines. Stay connected. Heck, send me an email. I’d rather answer them than see you hurt.

3. Better days are coming.

I’m not talking about the passing of this darkness, when we all emerge from our holes, rediscover each other, and get it on like Endgame. I’m speaking of the next life.

I personally believe that God has configured heaven to cure and renounce every defining hardship. For illness, we get new bodies; for poverty, we shall never want again; for injustice, God will right all wrongs.

It’ll happen for loneliness, too. We shall enjoy perfect communion with God and with each other, never to feel isolated again. We will be known.

For some, the isolation might prove a restful and much-needed pause, a chance to get back on the spiritual disciplines wagon and move closer to God and family. For others, it might be the thing they’ve most dreaded. The two groups should not judge each other. Let’s all just love instead. God has given us incredible tools at our fingertips; let’s be intentional, gracious, and available during this time, and let us hope. We have no shortage of it in Christ.

* Despite the hardships quarantine may cause, this blog does not endorse modifying or disregarding federal, state, or local guidelines regarding public health and safety. We should put others before ourselves, show the Christian witness, and “submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Do this, and God will see to our affairs.

I Opened My Mouth Too Big About God’s Love

“Do you guys know how much God loves you?” asked my fellow youth leader, whose red-on-black vest that day, I might add, happened to make him an unavoidably spitting image of a younger Jean-Luc Picard.

Our teens bounced some answers back and forth, solid as ever. They’ve got great understanding.

I ventured my own. And I should have known God would call me on it.

I said, “I believe it in my head, but not in my heart.”

I went on to describe how we often have another set of beliefs, this one existing subconsciously as something closer to instincts than to something you say out loud. We can believe God’s love consciously, as in process it as intellectual fact, without actually living like it. If we did, we’d take risks when God leads us. We’d avoid traps when God labels them such. We’d turn from sin. Nothing else would be important.

“My life would look a lot different if my heart believed God loves me,” I said. “By his grace, I’d like to think it’s getting there.”

I should have known God would call me on it.

Not an hour later, another youth leader was sidling up to me and enthusiastically volunteering me to lead a sprawling, daunting, risky ministry project on a scale I’ve never tried before. One which would require – well, believing in God’s love. On a heart level.

It’s like he heard me teaching those youth and went, Great words. Pop quiz?

Ay-yay-yay.

I don’t know if it’ll even happen. It just got proposed today. A few stepping stones do appear to have been laid already.

But it forced me to confront ever more starkly the reality of my own words: if we lived as if we believe God loves us, our lives would be extraordinary. We would be living fireworks, as daring as the battered Hollywood stunt double or the suicidal YouTube extreme sportsman, as confident as any politician, and as steel-eyed and determined as the most grizzled solider. More so. And all, perhaps, without ever being seen by the masses.

That’s what happens when we’ve been with Jesus.

When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they marveled and took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

“They” is the Sanhedrin, the religious enforcers of Jesus’ day, far beneath the kingdom of God and not above blows from the fist. Months before, while Jesus stood at his show trial toying with these power players, Peter had been lying about knowing him to mere streetfolk. Now he faced these power players himself – and they could see Jesus’ boldness in him. Jesus’ love transformed him. He didn’t care what the world thought anymore, because he’d found meaning in Someone else.

Maybe you’ve never felt bold. Maybe you’ve trotted out the whole “I can witness to people here in America” line a little too often, knowing you’re not actually doing it that much, while unreached people groups across the globe lack access to a Bible. God has grace for you. He also has boldness.

Go be with Jesus. It makes a difference.

 

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The Value of Knowing Your Value

I ran across the following meme the other day (who says the Internet is useless?):

value

It is an incredible quote, for it brings many of our lives into sharp relief. It went straight onto the Facebook page for my blog, for it was propulsive and illuminating, at least for me. All of a sudden, through this idea, many of the regrettable actions we take (or see taken around us) gain an interpretation they never had before.

Most of what we interpret as immaturity are unhealthy attempts to prove our value.

The office worker who stirs up drama is trying to prove his value by bringing others down.

The family member who deflects or passes the buck when called out on a mistake does not realize that she can be valuable and wrong at the same time.

The one who turns every conversation towards themselves is too busy securing their own value to see that of others.

I’ve just described all of us somewhere. Like a dog chasing its tail, we are all trying to capture something that could not escape us if we tried. We cannot attain what is already ours.

Being made in the image of God carries incredible value. We are shredded and dirtied by sin, lost in a haunted house called the human heart, yet pursued by the Cross’ offer of redemption. God went to great lengths to open a way to salvation, all because he calls us valuable.

His ways not only clear us of sin’s sentence, but free us to live wisely in the practical realm every day by revealing our value. When one understands his value in God, they are protected from having to prove it. They are no longer driven by those compulsions. They no longer seek their identity in sports, hobbies, political causes, or cruel and legalistic religion. They can admit errors, break addictions, set boundaries, forgive, help, lead, and love. Since they’ve had their core questions about themselves answered, they can start focusing on others’ questions instead.

This is impossible with the world. They’re not even trying to hide their self-hatred anymore. More openly each day, they celebrate our supposed insignificance in the cosmos, place higher value on animal species than themselves, and embrace pornography. Suicide and self-centeredness are epidemic. Satan loves to claim you have no value, then propose an endless series of hoops to prove otherwise.

God cures all that. And only he can.

Come to Christ and let him break your chains. Whether you are new to him or part of the old guard, there is always something to be mended. He welcomes all comers with open arms, and writes new stories where there were only scribbles before.

 

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3 Ways to Run an Awesome Worship Ministry (Or Any Other Kind)

Last night, the worship ministry at my church was thrown a party. We were fed heaping mounds of Qdoba’s in appreciation for everything we do for our church.

I say this not to brag of myself, but of our leaders. For such a party being thrown really tells you more about the kind of leadership we operate under, than anything else.

In short, it’s the best. But you’re probably wanting to know why, rather than just read those three words and walk off musing. In a world where so many people dread Mondays because of self-focused and incompetent bosses, good leadership is like water in the desert. It should be shared whenever possible.

Our worship ministry is entirely a volunteer outfit. We’re not paid (and there are many reasons that’s a good thing); it’s a practice-heavy gig, occupying hours of time outside rehearsal; and we’re thin enough at a couple positions that the same two or three people have been manning them for almost the entire decade.

Yet we musicians are happy to take our posts every week. We revolve around schedules around it; we leave our egos in the car; we practice our parts. There’s no drudgery; we look forward to it every week. In fact, as I look back on the 2010’s as they slip past us this month, I consider it one of the highlights and privileges of the decade.

What is it that our leaders do so right?

 

1. They create an environment of trust.

It’s a badge of honor out there, apparently, for managers to be able to strap a man to a plow and make him produce; there’s a sort of awe in the corporate world towards the type who can generate results, “get things done”.

But in the church, intended by God as a sanctuary for the heart, what’s the point in getting things done if you trample hearts in the process?

Our ministry leaders would probably say there is none. That’s certainly how they act. They show genuine kindness and concern for the condition of the hearts working for them. In one sense, that’s really just good leadership, church or no. Treat people well, they stay loyal. But given how rare it remains in the world, it’s worth mentioning.

The leader I play for, in particular, has this winning habit I’ve always appreciated: if he even suspects that he has miscommunicated or that there has been any hurt from the way he’s expressed himself, he circles back later and makes sure things are well. He’s conscientious about this, without coming off as obsequious. 95% of the time, there’s no problem. But even in the 5% (and I don’t even remember the last time), there’s little worry, because you always know he’s going to endeavor to set things right. It creates an atmosphere of trust.

 

2. It’s a collaborative effort.

Our leaders recognize the talent around them and welcome opinions – on new songs (or existing ones), new technology, new directions, and new recruits.

This is actually a really vulnerable thing for a leader, asking for opinions. What do you do when you get opinions you don’t want to hear, or opinions you simply can’t act upon? This is why many managers just don’t bother.

But ours do, and simply put, it makes people feel valued. They still can’t implement every idea they hear, and there’s only so much change they’re willing to have on the plate at any given moment (if they want it done right). But they can still ask, and they do. It means they know they don’t need to be the ones to know or be everything in the ministry (and can’t be anyway).

 

3. They make it a community.

It’s one thing to meet for practice and then bolt off the stage and head home without a word to anyone. Some ministries, apparently, do things that way.

But ours sits down and reads Scripture together. We ponder the tough questions. We consistently challenge and refine our own definitions of worship, seeking to make it as authentic as possible, and our leaders are at the head of that. And some of the most raucous, offbeat, wildly off-topic and hilarious conversations I’ve ever had, took place around our table.

You just can’t replace the value of that. It makes practice an anticipated time, relaxing nerves and cutting out diva mentalities. It ensures a constant striving towards our Savior, instead of a grind or an autopilot ministry. It’s, well, a family.

 

For the sake of avoiding big heads, I’ll probably stop there, but there’s more I could say (like the constant prayer or the intentional individual compliments). In the end, this is a ministry that earns the extra mile. It’s not just about enjoying music. These are people I’ll follow, people for whom I’ll give my best shot at even disliked worship songs, because they seek to be like the Savior I already follow. They aren’t perfect at it. Nobody is. But they strive. And they remind me it’s really God I’m giving my shot for.

And if some burgeoning worship leader out there happens to improbably stumble upon this tiny blog and be improved by this on-the-ground witness of successful ministry, well, it’s been a good day.

 

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Our Social Stratification and Its Role in Reaching the Poor

I attend a fairly well-to-do church. Much of my church family is middle-class with relatively stable incomes – a deft mix of business owners, farmers/ranchers, medical professionals, management types, educators, engineers, code geeks, and experienced tradesmen. That sort of thing. We live in comfortable homes, some of them rented, some of them remodeled by our own hands.

And it’s not just the money. Though we wouldn’t call ourselves filthy rich by any measure, we enjoy an assurance that many lack: we’ve got arrows in our quivers like degrees, certifications, references, and experience. Unexpected unemployment can still be dicey, but generally, we’ve got resources to fight it.

Now, the people I work with in the service sector are often not so blessed. Many have lots of mouths to feed, but without the resources to match. A fellow delivery driver lost the gig because her car got hit by a deer and she lacked the money to fix it. Another was trying to rise above a misdemeanor rap last time I saw him. It’s more common to find such folk living in humbler abodes – run-down apartment complexes, the less desirable trailer parks. Many of them have worked at dead-end jobs their entire life, without much in the way of resumes or references to catapult them to the next level. They also may never have learned where to even look for the button-up-shirt-and-benefits jobs that can widen a cashflow even without a degree, and many of them wouldn’t know the first thing about home renovation, or at least doing it right. (I emphasize that these are all general trends, not hard and fast rules.)

But while I was recently pondering the plight of the “first-world poor” in this country and the countless political solutions being bandied about, it occurred to me that probably the biggest gap between these two groups of people is their community.

The average attendee of my church potentially has an army of a thousand at their back should they ever want. It’s a remarkable position. At my church, you could quickly find a quality babysitter, mechanic, CPA, math tutor (ahem), veterinarian, property manager, plumber, graphics designer, pro bono attorney, or disaster restoration guy all in one congregation – maybe even all in one service, the way we’re going – without breaking a sweat. The overwhelmed mom has tight friends to help babysit (or be fodder for their internet business); the dad has buddies willing to jaunt over and help build the house he’s planning to flip and sell in two years. Basically, it’s much harder to crash and burn. You always have someone who can provide solutions and manpower.

What do the poor outside my church have?

Their community looks very different. Often, they have a few close friends, mostly family, and those folks are often as poor and unconnected as they. I’m not fixing blame; I’m stating a problem. There just haven’t been that many dynamics in their lives that would naturally bring them into contact with richer, more versatile folks. Community college, a big social and vocational enabler, often isn’t an option because of kids and debt. And it isn’t just that they don’t go to church – that’s not where I’m going with this – they’re often introverts, sometimes feeling vaguely unwanted by the world, and really don’t go that many places at all.

It’s a situation robs a family of momentum. Social collateral, of a kind. There just aren’t that many paths out of such a life, not without immense expense that just isn’t practical.

(And yes, alcohol, drugs, and sloth are certainly part of some stories. So are the $3,400 DVD collections in their living rooms. But this isn’t part of the post, because this post is for someone else.)

I almost used the word “castes” to describe this social layering. I decided that was a little strong. It makes it sound intentional when none of us really mean to contribute to any of this.

But when Jesus said to help the poor, I don’t believe he was giving polite advice. He knew what the causes and barriers of poverty would be, in every epoch and culture. That doesn’t surprise him. Yet the command stands. He wanted us to go the distance. He certainly went out of his own way himself.

Could it be that equipping the poor is one of the ways a church was intended to serve as a light to the world?

So I wondered – do we know enough poor people?

Do our professional and personal circles bring us into enough contact with the poor?

Are we sharing experiences with people who might lack the same gear, hobbies, or interests as us because they haven’t had the time or money to pursue them?

Are we spending quality time around people who make us nervous because we never know when they honestly might just baldly ask for money?

Because, sad to say, I don’t know how many of these poor people I would know right now without my pizza gig. Probably not enough.

Most of us know someone like these. But oftentimes, we “allow” the chance for deeper friendship to slip away. We turn to other priorities, often legitimate, or perhaps just choosing friends who are closer to our world. It leads to a form of unintended social caste system, one whose layers can be defied and moved between (more so in this country than any other, in fact) but still requires a helping hand. The two groups just don’t have much in common, and we don’t fight the lack of inertia.

How might these people’s lives instantly be changed if they were invited to church? Regularly invested in? Handed a few life skills we picked up along the way? Or even just smiled at?

Many of my friends do take advantage of these opportunities. They’ve been a huge inspiration to me. But it’s taken an intentionality. Inviting these folks over to the next drywall hanging, using them as a babysitter (assuming trustworthiness) instead of the sister, or just introducing them to friends. It makes a difference in their lives. They pick up skills, connections, confidence, and yes, some money along the way.

I think it’s the sort of thing Jesus wants us to do.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

The Man with a Cord Around His Neck

A couple summers ago, an unsettling moment intruded upon a random delivery.

In a fading summer twilight, I was bringing pizza to the local emergency room (draped up in plastic amidst a remodel at the time). As I was walking in, I’d noticed a young guy sitting on the curb, head down, but thought little of it. As I came back out, I felt compelled to say hello to him – a risky move for an introvert like myself, but doubly so given this guy appeared to be in some distress.

Pay attention to those little urges to connect. They could shape eternity.

I drew near to this young man and hailed him. He didn’t answer, head bowed, face hidden. Upon drawing closer, I registered sniffling. I asked if he was all right; he again didn’t answer. I asked him his name; he gave it.

It was then that I noticed the iPod cord, twisted tight around his neck. He was pulling on it so hard that it was bruising his skin.

Alarmed, I told him that I was concerned and asked him to stop. He didn’t. I told him that if he continued, I’d have no choice but to notify the ER personnel. He said he didn’t care. I ran inside and announced the situation to the front desk, and they sprang into action; a tall, imposing male nurse quickly sprinted out to the guy carrying a pair of scissors. While that happened, I took my leave and returned to my car.

My thoughts were jarred for the rest of my shift, sinking with the sun. The fact that this young man chose to sit right outside an ER as he harmed himself suggested that he did not want to die, that he was really crying out for help. It wasn’t the way I would have chosen to ask. Then again, I have no idea what pain the man was going through, what his story was. Ans the saying goes, “Be kind; everyone you know is grieving.”

I have not heard news of the man since. I hope he got the help he needed.

Many people would have done what I had the opportunity to do. I just happened to be there because someone nearby ordered cheese and sauce.

What I hope is that, if you are struggling today and you just can’t regulate, if it’s searing to burst from your mouth or body, you will seek help. Seek it from God, who sent his son to navigate himself into a position of “not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). And seek it from the people he sends. There are countless people around you – even strangers – who will listen without judging.

May we all be such people.

A Thank-You to Fast Food Managers

If you think about it, store managers play an underappreciated and frankly crucial role in our society.

We all likely have fond memories of our first bosses. Well, perhaps not all so fond. But I do.

At my first job (Taco Johns’, in case you were dying of curiosity), I had a GM named Cyndi. She was hilarious, compassionate, efficient, a great trainer, and on top of her job. Kind of like a mom to us young pups, she listened, understood, encouraged, and kept smiles on our faces. She gave us rides to work when we needed (and may or may not have handed her closing crew a Chaco Taco on the sly every once in a while). It’s so important to have someone like that to guide you over your first steps into the working world.

But their role is far more significant than just herding plebes. During my time in the service industry (or just walking through stores), I’ve seen employees carrying a lot of adversity. I’ve worked alongside people trying to beat theft or substance raps. I’ve taken my lunch from window-workers with obvious speech impediments or severe social impairments. I’ve had my groceries run by folks who couldn’t read or add.

The service sector is peppered with low-skilled, down-on-their luck types who can barely do the jobs they were hired for. If upper-level human resources types had their way, we’d probably see only the bright, brisk, friendly, and fully competent types manning the front counter and layaway desk instead. It’d make sense.

Instead, we see the struggling and under-qualified as well – ecause some store manager somewhere made a different call.

And I am so glad they did.

It can be risky to employ those who struggle with people or competence, especially when safety issues are involved (e.g. food). To be sure, a business has the right to hire the best.

But a manager who invests in people, who believes in second chances and will work to hand their people the tools that need…that’s love. Struggling people are completely reliant on that goodwill to get back into the realm of the employed game. I don’t want to get poisoned as a customet, but if my biggest problem at the checkout line is getting held up because the cashier’s hands are shaking, I can count my blessings.

Store managers are gatekeepers in our society in a very real way. McDonald’s store managers, hold your heads high – your job carries more eternal significance than you may have realized. Given that there seem to be more and more broken folks pounding on these gates with each passing year, you could do more good in the world than a CEO making ten times your salary.

Such managers often lead pretty thankless existences. They have to deal with constant turnover; a competent crew lasting months would be a dream. They often don’t make much. They’ve got families they battle to feed, just like us. They get plenty of abuse from their own bosses and have to bear the weight of firing people (which, hopefully, is a weight for them, no matter how much the fired deserve it). They can’t please everybody, and there are days when it seems they can’t please anybody. And if anything goes epically wrong – the product, an employee, something completely out of anyone’s control – guess who gets blamed?

Of course, not every manager is an angel. As Spiderman often heard, with great power comes great responsibility. You’re not ruler of a henhouse, but a steward of the poor and suffering. You have not gained power and authority by accident; you’ve been given it by God. Treat your employees as more important than yourself. Their livelihoods depend on you. God does not give a person power for his or her own comfort or control, but for the welfare of those beneath you.

And God brings it back around to you. I’d be glad to help out most of my former bosses even today. Remember the saying: we are judged not by how we treat our peers, but by how we treat those beneath us.

To the bosses who have helped salvage lives by bringing in the misfit, recovering, recently released, or marginally skilled, and getting a paycheck to them and their kids, you are part of what keeps the world turning. Thank you.

Just figured you wouldn’t mind hearing such things on a Monday. May your grills be hot and your hands fully washed.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!