Love First

1 John, Christ & Culture, Love No Comments »

We all know what’s happening in our world, in this country. It’s not new. It’s just amped up to eleven on the ten-point scale and it’s louder than normal and it’s all around us all the time. There is division and strife and conflict. You can’t get away from it. Black and white, left and right, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative — it’s splashed across every screen and blaring from every set of speakers. You can’t eat a Twix bar without being forced to choose left or right. And you can’t turn on a football game on Sunday afternoon to escape from it.

And we’re all experiencing this together — all of God’s children, all of Christ’s disciples, all asking the same questions.

How do we handle this? What are we supposed to do? How do Christians engage this volatile culture? What do we say? How do we act?

I think most of us wish there was a third option, a different way, a way to be above all the conflict but still engage what’s happening in ways that matter.

May I suggest love?

Completely love. Love completely. Sharing the immeasurable love of God with others lifts us above the strife.

The world is squeezing us to make a choice between two options and we get in trouble when we don’t recognize that third way, that third and very different option that takes us high above anything else being offered: Love. Committing to love as our guiding principle, as our continuous posture, actually fulfills or completes God’s purposes for the love he’s lavished on us.

The Bible says we love because he first loved us. We love completely because we are so completely loved.



Enslaved by Our Phones

Christ & Culture 4 Comments »

Quick story before we jump into the final installment of this four part look at our phones: There were more than a hundred people downstairs in Sneed Hall last night listening to Aleisha and our Central youth group give a report on their recent mission trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil. About halfway through the report, right in the middle of Aleisha explaining in great detail the marvelous things our God is doing in South America, she was interrupted by the sound of at least 90 smartphones going off at the same time with a flash flood warning for Randall County. It was a loud and obnoxious alarm — you know the sound — that took a full 90-seconds or more to shut off. Some people in the room didn’t know how to turn it off and it took a while. Others received the warning a minute or two later. The alert was still sounding on various phones throughout the room for a full six or seven minutes. Of course, nobody just turned off their phones. Some people went outside to look at the clouds. Others texted their friends, others checked the radar, others sent and received pictures from family members who were not at church. For at least the next ten minutes, most everybody in the room was on their phones, heads down, engaging something or somebody else who was not in the room. These phones are not neutral. They are designed to distract. Mission accomplished.

Wait. One more quick story. After the mission report, I went to my office where our management cluster was meeting. I pulled out my phone — my slider — to text a deacon to make sure he was coming. And all three of the other men in the room — all elders of our Lord’s Holy Church! — made fun of my phone. They expressed disbelief and reacted with laughter at the ridiculousness of anyone owning such a phone. Fascinating, right? Who cares? It’s a phone. Again, this goes back to my question on Tuesday: Why are people so compelled to judge and/or make fun of those who don’t use smartphones? Why all the hate? It’s a phone!

Actually, that leads us pretty well into today’s final topic.

It seems to me we are working on the premise that all people are slaves to their phones. We not only live in a world where everybody is expected to have a smartphone, we also live in a world where it is impossible to even imagine anybody not having one all the time and using it for everything.

I’ll use a line or two from Dr. Keith Stanglin’s essay and a recent experience with Dr. John Weaver, the director of technology for Abilene Christian University, as talking points here. First, Keith:

“Our modern world is in bondage, in a way that no other era has been, to a consumerism that touches rich and poor alike… Keeping up with the Joneses has never been as important as it is now, where your status is determined by the kind of phone you carry and vehicle you drive. This is not the pursuit of the good life, but of the “goods” life. As a society, we are not freer, but more enslaved. Nowhere is this self-imposed slavery more evident than with smartphones.

If this seems like an exaggeration, then call to mind the lines that stretch for city blocks when each new iPhone is released, an event that has taken place every year since 2007. The thing that people couldn’t wait to have eleven months ago is now obsolete. Why, they wouldn’t be caught dead with an iPhone 6! Making us discontent with our present possessions is the fuel that drives this part of the economy. And such lack of contentment is directly opposed to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles.

We have to hand it to the marketing and advertising departments. If the goal is to make people desire today something they had no idea they even wanted yesterday, and, by tomorrow, turn that want into a perceived necessity that they cannot live without, then the marketers have been wildly successful. If you resist this consumerist cycle and don’t drink the Kool-Aid, you will be mocked by the cultured despisers. Trust me.”

John Weaver was one of the speakers at last May’s annual Sermon Seminar at Austin Graduate School of Theology. While sitting in on his sessions — Christian Ministry in a Digital Culture — I was struck by how much he assumes this slavery or addiction to phones. He claims that our phones are doing our work for us, thus making us lazy. He asserts that our phones are doing our thinking for us, thus making us dumb. He affirms that our phones are disabling us spiritually, driving us away from our God and from one another. But then he spent the better part of two days telling us how we should use our phones to be more like Christ.

The guiding question for his sessions was “How do we grow / mature / be faithful in the digital world?” His answer was to not reject the technology and the phones, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Use the technology in a way that’s helpful. His main directive on this point was that we should turn off our devices but, because that’s impossible, try to use them in a responsible way.

The whole thing was very enlightening for me. He cited study after study, all the research, that says reading your Bible on a screen is not the best way to read your Bible. It’s impossible to engage the text on your iPhone — all the sidebars and pop-ups and other apps that are native to the design of the device. He acknowledges that it’s hard to concentrate on a passage of Scripture when he sees out of the corner of his eye that he just received an email from his wife. He knows and preaches that reading the Bible on a phone relegates God’s Word to just another story or tweet or video that is quickly consumed and then discarded and makes it much harder to remember. Yet his great advice is to use a Bible app that will schedule your reading for you and will disable the pop-ups and emails while you read. On your phone.

He never once suggested putting the phone down, picking up a print Bible, walking out of the room, and spending 30-minutes in reading and meditation. It appeared as if the thought never occurs to him.

Weaver talks about the ways our technology and phones distract us from important things, how they keep us from doing what we know we should be doing. We should turn our devices off, he says. We should plan time to be alone with God without the distractions from our phones. The phones are a barrier between us and our relationships with Christ and one another. So, what’s his life-changing suggestion? Program your phone to alert you to turn it off.

If the phones have to tell us when to turn them off, who’s in charge here?

This well-meaning man never once let on that he understood the irony of his presentations. Since we’re on our phones and laptops so much it’s harming our relationships and forming our brains and habits in undesirable ways, you should use a screensaver with a Bible verse. You should use a background to remind you about God’s presence.

It’s outside the realm of possibility and even imagination to suggest not using a smartphone for every single waking and some sleeping moments of the day and night — even as we know the harm we’re doing to ourselves.

That’s the very definition of addiction, right? That’s slavery, yes?

Can you leave your phone in the car to go into a restaurant for an hour-and-a-half and eat dinner with a friend? Are you able to leave your phone in the office while you go down the hall to talk to a co-worker? Can you go 30-minutes without checking your phone to see if you’ve received a text or a Facebook alert? Would you be able to go to Bible class or a worship assembly without your phone? If any of those scenarios cause your heart to beat faster or your forehead to sweat, if the very thought gives you anxiety, is that a problem? That seems like a problem.

When you’re talking to somebody in person, do you take your eyes off of them to check your phone? Do you interrupt a face-to-face conversation to read a text or to answer a call or to fact-check your friend? Do you spend more time on your phone, swiping and clicking and scrolling, than you do in real talking and listening to your family and friends? Or to God? Is that a problem? Seems like a problem.

From Keith:

“The reality is that we are in a new situation that will not soon be reversed. It is a situation analogous to that of Moses, who tried to regulate divorce for the hard-hearted. It is like the challenge facing the apostle Paul, who tried to regulate the conduct of slave-masters in a society that assumed the practice. We must start with and accommodate the premise that almost everyone is already enslaved to their electronic devices.

The question we must ask, then, reflects the challenge faced also by Moses and Paul: how can we infuse into this less than ideal situation a measure of perspective and good sense?

We cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that our justifications or solutions — for instance, ‘I can read my Bible on my phone!’ — are ideal. They are terrible accommodations, and we should rather be clear-eyed about the extent of the enslavement. How can we pull ourselves up a level or two on the continuum of human flourishing that smartphones threaten to drag us down?”

Again, my concern is not that you agree with me. My concern is that we “think” and not just “do.” My concern is that God’s Word and the teachings of Jesus have a prominent place at the table during any conversations about technology and phones. Our beliefs and our behaviors about our phones should be informed by Scripture and by the life and death of our Lord.

Leave it in the car.



Formed by Our Phones

Christ & Culture 5 Comments »

(This is part three of a four part rant / lament / explanation / provocative essay on why I don’t own a smartphone. I’m using Dr. Keith Stanglin’s recent Austin Grad blog post on the same topic as a conversation partner.)

The main reason I don’t own a smartphone is that I don’t want to become like the kind of people who own smartphones. Now, before you get all tuned up, hear me out. Don’t get offended by that; there’s much more offensive stuff coming later. The purpose of today’s post is to consider whether these phones are making us better people or worse people, whether smartphones make us more like Christ or less like Christ.

First, our brains are being formed by our phones and the evidence is mounting. Smartphones change the way we process information. Those who study these kinds of things are concluding that smartphones are making us slower and less capable of knowing the difference between important pieces of information and information that is insignificant. One such study, recently conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, shows that heavy media multitaskers, when faced with making a decision, are less able to distinguish irrelevant information from relevant. The study also concludes that smartphone users show diminished abilities to remember or memorize. They pay more attention to irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted — than non smartphone users. Overall, media multitaskers are “associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.” And it’s not good. This form of technology shuts down memorization, hinders concentration and learning, and hampers comprehension and retention.

I don’t need that. The natural ravages that come with being fifty years old, enhanced by a steady flow of Diet Dr Pepper, are causing me enough troubles already.

Second, our relationships are being formed by our phones. We are more and more connected to fewer and fewer “real” friends and, thus, becoming lonelier and lonelier. Our text and Facebook and Instagram conversations are not real conversations. Experts tell us it takes a full seven minutes to just start a serious conversation. This article in The Atlantic reviews several studies that show smartphones and social media have turned us into the loneliest people in the history of the world. The studies reveal a link between online interactions and loneliness. And it’s getting worse.

Third, well… the list is too long. This post shouldn’t just be a long litany of the bad behaviors and personality shifts influenced by smartphones. Hofstra University’s Kara Alaimo has started a pretty good list in this article, “Seven Ways the iPhone has Made Life Worse.” It seems to me the research is telling us what we have already known for a while.

The main question of today’s post is whether our smartphones make us more like Christ or less like Christ. For this, I turn to the main part of Keith’s article:

“My problems with cellphones, and smartphones in particular, can be boiled down to the fact that, given the way most people use them, there is virtually nothing virtuous about them…

Think of the four cardinal virtues — justice, temperance, courage, prudence. Someone more creative than I can perhaps articulate how smartphones enhance those classic virtues; I don’t see it.

Take the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. I can say with even more confidence that smartphones do nothing to increase those. Conduct the same exercise with the fruit of the Spirit (joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and so on), or the two greatest love commands. Smartphones do not help, but almost always hinder us from cultivating these virtues and disciplines.

And most observant people recognize this. There is a growing consensus that smartphones have altered human behavior. Christians usually acknowledge that the alteration has been for the worse. On at least three separate occasions in the last couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to ask large groups of Christians an open-ended question about what our idols are and what things distract us from what should be the chief goals in life. Invariably, they hold up their phones (yes, they have them in Sunday school).

No one seriously hazards that these phones are helping us be better people. No one thinks that a smartphone in every hand has increased true human flourishing or the imitation of Christ. If becoming like God is the goal of moral life, then — and this really is my main point — the use of smartphones is an ethical issue, but one that is seldom discussed or even considered in this light.”

I don’t want to trade real, personal, face-to-face conversations for brief texts and Facebook posts. I don’t want to interrupt or shut down a stimulating conversation by fact-checking with Google. I don’t want to break eye contact with someone I love in order to check my phone for the 40th time to see if the Rangers have scored or if someone’s commented on my blog. I don’t want to be talking to my wife on the phone and notice in my peripheral vision that I’ve received an email from a church elder. I don’t want to be the kind of person who has his phone with him, in his pocket, on the table, in his hand, on the pew, at the restaurant, in the meeting — during every waking and most sleeping moments.

Much more than that, I know I can be a better person and a better disciple of Jesus and a better minister to you if I don’t have a smartphone.

One of the reasons I got out of the sports radio industry is that the culture of that business was turning me into a negative person. I was becoming more critical, more negative, more “right,” more obnoxious, more cynical. It’s the nature of the industry and it was changing me into something I didn’t like.

Smartphones are not neutral. They are intentionally built and programmed for distraction. By their very nature, smartphones are meant to keep our eyes glued to them, designed to keep our brains preoccupied with unimportant matters that continually scroll through or pop up, keeping us from the people and things in life that mean the most.

It’s a legitimate question, but nobody in the Christian community seems to want to tackle it. Do our smartphones make us better or worse people? Do they make us more like Christ or less like Christ?



Ripping My Phone

Christ & Culture No Comments »

Is there a response to the question, “Why don’t you have a smartphone?” that would satisfy the one asking? Is there an answer that would result in anything other than insult and ridicule? I’m stunned by the ways people react when they find out I don’t have a smart phone. Good friends, family, casual acquaintances — they over react with an odd mix of horror and disbelief and then move straight into overt judgment and shaming. People I barely know are moved to recruit other people to gang up on me: “Have you seen Allan’s phone?!? Allan, show them your phone! Can you believe Allan’s phone!?!” What could I honestly say to avoid the confrontation?

My brother, Dr. Keith Stanglin at Austin Graduate School of Theology, has posted an article on the Austin Grad blog about his own experiences related to his long refusal to own and operate a smartphone. I’m using his observations as a conversation partner to articulate my own feelings in this space. If you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to read his post by clicking here.

Why does my old-style “slider” invite so much ridicule? Why is it such a big deal to people? Is there any other consumer product that opens one so quickly and certainly to public derision? We don’t do this with the brand of TV somebody has in their house. We don’t judge our friends or sisters in Christ according to the kind of car they’ve decided to drive or the size of refrigerator in their kitchen. We applaud fellow Christians when they buy a smaller home or Why is the type of cell phone someone has or doesn’t have such a point of identity and value?

If I say I’m resisting temptation, or I’m fighting my tendency to be distracted, or I’m wanting to avoid the negative impact on my brain and my memory, or I’m trying to save money, or I can be a better disciple of Jesus and a better Christian minister to you with a “slider” than I can with a smartphone — none of those reasons are sufficient. Those statements of conviction either lead to more wonder and insult or to something a little more disturbing: a disbelieving under-the-breath retort about being “holier than thou” and a total shutdown of the conversation. As Keith says:

“Being so ‘behind’ on the latest gadgets, I have found people to be more judgmental about someone’s mobile phone choices than about any other manufactured good. Such reactions are even harder to fathom coming from Christians. If I say that shunning a smartphone is, for me, to shun distraction, temptation, and the world, would it then be an acceptable choice? But why should I have to justify having a simpler phone? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some churches out there that ridicule people who bring a print Bible to the assembly. Christians, of all people, should respect another’s choice of a simpler automobile, house, clothing, life, and, yes, even phone.” 

Yes, I’m afraid there are ministers who preach and teach a simpler lifestyle, avoiding distractions, re-prioritizing, and downsizing in order to better serve Christ and his Church who, in the same breath, ridicule or shame church members who don’t have a smartphone to access that congregation’s app. Maybe it’s OK to own and operate a smartphone. Shouldn’t it be just as OK to not?

Like Keith, I’m not a technophobe or a Luddite, not by any stretch. I use technology every day. I love technology. I’m not sure I could live without air conditioning and indoor plumbing. That 30-second forward button on the DVR is in the top three of the greatest technological innovations in my lifetime and, yeah, I use it unashamedly. I text. I email. I’m into my eleventh year on this blog which you are probably reading on a laptop or a phone. I’m not afraid of technology or change.

But I am careful to discern my personal use of that technology. I don’t just do what everybody else is doing. I don’t think just because we — personally or as a society — can do something that we necessarily should. I’m fifty years old. I have a fairly good idea about what’s good for me and what’s bad for me — spiritually, personally, mentally, relationally. When it comes to my phone, why is that so hard to understand? Or accept?



Concerning My Phone

Christ & Culture 3 Comments »

I have a new phone. Actually, it might not be classified as new by today’s standards — I bought it in April. I’ve had it for a little over three months now and I’m still getting used to its nuanced quirks. There are some subtle differences between this phone and the one I had for four-and-a-half years that quit working on me. Overall, though, I like this new phone. Why does everybody else seem to have such a problem with it?

Yes, my new phone is a “slider.” Yes, they still make the “sliders” and, yes, you can still get one if you’re committed to it — you have to be persistent, you have to be able to withstand a lot of criticism and ridicule, you have to answer a lot of questions, and you have to wait three to five business days for delivery.

As long as it is humanly possible, I refuse to own and operate a smartphone.

For a couple of years now I’ve wanted to use this space to discuss the many reasons I choose to avoid the smartphone. I’ve hesitated until now because most people who question me about my choice don’t really seem interested in a conversation. They seem only concerned with gawking at me and my phone as if they’re staring at a creature from another planet or with brushing off my choice as utterly ridiculous and beyond human understanding and, therefore, not worth their time or energy to engage.

Two things have happened that have energized me to now write about my aversions to the smartphone. One, my experience at the ATT&T store when I ordered my new “slider” and the subsequent disbelief and derision from my friends and family seem like something that should be acknowledged and questioned. It’s constant; it gets worse instead of better; it’s really quite remarkable. Second, my brother, Dr. Keith Stanglin at Austin Graduate School of Theology, after years of avoiding the smartphone due to convictions we share, just recently broke down and bought one — he claims to have been forced into the switch, I call it a lack of integrity. Keith has published a provocative post on the Austin Grad blog regarding his personal concerns about smartphones — again, concerns he and I share. He raises interesting questions about their impact on society and on the Christians living in this society that need to be engaged seriously, if not answered.

I encourage you to please click here to read his article. He argues convincingly for the debate about smartphones to, first, be a debate, not a foregone conclusion; and, second, that the debate be one centered on the use of smartphones as an ethical issue. Check it out— you won’t read a more thoughtful critique on the smartphone from a Christian perspective.

Then, using parts of Keith’s post as a conversation partner, I’ll spend the next three days here outlining my own concerns and questions. Tomorrow, I want to ask why people feel so compelled to judge and/or make fun of those who don’t use smartphones — why all the hate? Wednesday, I want to consider if smartphones make us better people or worse people, if they cause us to be more like Christ or less like Christ. They’re not neutral. Nothing’s neutral. Finally, Thursday, I’ll address the issue of enslavement to our phones. It’s futile to suggest these phones do not own us. They do. So, what do we do about it?

To borrow Keith’s words, I’d like to use this space this week to infuse into our less than ideal phone realities a measure of perspective and good sense. Read his post, maybe even on your phone, and come back here tomorrow.



Chosen and Convicted by God

1 Thessalonians, Christ & Culture No Comments »

“Our Gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.” ~1 Thessalonians 1:5

A group of disciples, a church, is called out by God, chosen, separated from the world by God for God’s purposes. But how did Paul know these Thessalonians were chosen (1:4)? Because he saw a great change in their lives. He witnessed their work produced by faith, their labor prompted by love, and their endurance inspired by hope. Those whom God chooses, he changes.

Scripture tells us we must not be conformed to the pattern of the world; we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We’re changed by the way we see things and process things, by the way we think. And that’s difficult because we are all drinking the same water. We’re all breathing the same polluted air of our Western culture.

Society says we have to assert our independence. We have to emphasize individuality. We have to worry about safety and security. We have to fight for our rights. As Christians, though, we know that living that way leads to broken relationships. It values ideas and positions over people. It forces us to label and exclude those who are different. And it makes me more important than you and our needs more important than theirs. We become increasingly inward-focused. We’re certainly not acting out of faith, love, and hope.

But we’re all called out of the world! Set apart. Chosen and changed by God. If anyone is in Christ — new creation! The old has gone! The new has come! Everything’s brand new! Everything’s changed! The Thessalonians turn away from the idols of the age to serve the true and living God (1:9). Their faith, hope, and love — these three Christian virtues wrapped up in a package that comes only from the Creator — are the evidence of their divine chosenness.