Saying goodbye to the church I’ve grown to love

Eight and a half years ago I moved to Louisville KY as a bright eyed college student ready to find the church of my own choosing. I hadn’t thought about the specifics, but I knew I wanted something fresh. I was leery of what I thought “traditional” meant: stale and cold and rote. To put it plainly and honestly, I set out to find a really “cool” church. But as God would have it, I walked in the doors of Third Avenue Baptist Church.

At the time the carpet was red and the baptistery had matching curtains. There were pews and suits and lots of ESV Bibles. There was standing up and sitting down. There were hymns. There was somberness. There were 4 singers lined up off to the side of the stage and hidden behind them was instruments and their players. Everyone, including those singers up front, were looking down at the words of their bulletins as they sang. The pastor wore a suit and a tie. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly the rockin’ church I expected. I wasn’t blown away. I wasn’t immediately wowed. It wasn’t love at first sight. But for some reason, I kept going back. And at the time I couldn’t even tell you why; especially when my 3am Saturday night paper writing self kept nodding off during the longest sermons I had ever sat through in my life.

But now I see it more clearly. It wasn’t about stylistic preferences or aesthetics or the fuzzy feelings I left with. I think ever so slowly and subtly it was the people. They are what kept bringing me back. The people who saw the invisible line I was drawing between me and the exit door and who stood in the middle of it. The people who held out a hand and introduced themselves. The people who invited me to Sunday lunch down the road. The people whose lives were so clearly intertwined with one another already, yet still welcomed me, a mere stranger. They were like a family. But not the closed off kind. So as cliche as it sounds, their love won me over. And I wanted in on it. So I kept going back.

And now, hundreds of introductions and invites and (wakeful) sermons later, I am saying goodbye as my family and I move out of state. And in the bittersweet process of leaving I’m reflecting on what this place, no really these people, have forever impressed upon my understanding of what a healthy church is.

Intentionality doesn’t have to mean originality

While the family like feel of this church slowly started to warm my heart, the evident intentionality behind why they did what they did quickly eased my mind. It also corrected it. It exposed the equation my mind had made that repetition and liturgy meant disingenuous. I quickly saw that nothing at Third Avenue was done a certain way just because “it’s the way it’s always been.” Everything, from the singers on the side of the stage to the timing of each pause between transitions, was done with a purpose. Actions that were born out of purposes and purposes that were born out core values and commitments and covenants. Overall, it was all done in order to lift up feeble and weary and longing eyes to the reigning King of Kings.

The body is broken and beautiful

It didn’t take long for me to become proud to call this church my own. The intentionality, the solid teaching, the intellectual depth, the out-working of love for each other and for neighbors and for the nations. But it took many years for me to see that I was still referring to this church in terms of “they” and not so much in terms of “we.” I felt a little more like an admirer from afar and not a family member from within. But then. It was then that I decided to dig in deep. To be close enough to really find out and really be found out. To know and be known. Turns out, this really extraordinary place was made up of pretty ordinary people. Flawed and quirky and struggling and sinful human beings all fumbling to the cross, together. But it was more beautiful than I ever could have seen from staying on the outside. The exterior was polished and pretty but the interior was full of a kind of beauty and wonder that was other-worldly. It was rich and messy and hard, and so very glorious.

Worship isn’t only personal

Something seemingly very strange that stood out to me from the beginning was that if people were not looking down at their bulletins while singing, they were looking around at one another. I came to find out that these people weren’t looking around because they were distracted or because they were trying to find the person who they were saving a seat for or because they were just plain strange. They were looking around as if to say “come on church, sing it with me.” As if to declare that we are in the waiting and working and worshipping, together. As if to scan the room and catch a glorious glimpse and tiny taste of the kind of diversity that will all be gathered around the throne some day with unhindered voices. I’ve grown in understanding that while the Christian life is intimately personal it is also intensely corporate. Whether on a Sunday morning gathered or a weekday evening scattered, we sing songs loudly and we fight sin seriously and we pursue spiritual disciplines gladly, both with one another and for one another. Because one single ligament affects the whole body.

The Word speaks for itself

Matt Smethurst says “I don’t remember 99% of the meals I’ve eaten, but they’ve kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to beautify his bride.” While so many of pastor Greg’s abrupt motions and rich realities and simple sub points will not be easily forgotten, this statement by Matt expresses so well what I believe has happened inside of me as I’ve sat under the preached Word of God. What may have been momentarily forgettable in my mind has made an eternal impact in my soul. In my most unbiased opinion, Greg Gilbert is an exceptionally gifted preacher. But my time at Third hasn’t left me more reliant on him. It’s left me more reliant on Gods Word. Because that’s all he’s done time and time and time again: open up ancient and active Words and let them do their job. The job of convicting and comforting and saving and sustaining. I’ve witnessed how the gospel being preached from the pulpit brings a dead heart to life. My pastors haven’t done anything fancy but they’ve done something that is faithful. And by the grace of God, I have once again been a recipient of this powerful and precious thing called faithful preaching. And I will never be the same because of it.

Unity is a gift that is graciously given and fiercely fought for

I will not quickly forget the picture my pastor once laid out about the enemy planting grumbling and gossiping bombs all around us and among us. All it takes is a slanderous whisper, a biting comeback, an unchecked assumption, or an intentionally exclusive invite for little explosions to lie in wait. Slowly cracking and corroding and corrupting Jesus’ blood bought unity. So we pray for God to grant it and we work hard to protect it. I’ve witnessed firsthand how unity doesn’t mean we check all the same political or theological or life station boxes but it means that we all set aside our preferences and differences to bow down before the cross of Christ. And it is there, at the foot of the cross, that our unity is created and found and kept.

Serving is not for me

My once needed-and-noticed pastors daughter self sat in a Third Avenue members interview being asked if I, along with all other men and women in the church, would volunteer in the nursery and join a home group. Uhh. That’s it? That’s your serving opportunities? Yet it was through this process I learned the valuable distinction between being important and being indispensable. I learned that I could freely love those in my circle while also knowing that the whole of my church would carry on without a slight hinge when I left it. I became painfully aware that far too often I wanted to give with the subtle desire to gain. Be it public recognition or personal satisfaction. This drove me to see the beauty in serving quietly and averagely and ordinarily in a church that didn’t really “need” me. At least not in all the ways I wanted to be needed. Because the reality is that where there are people, there are needs. There are kids to be watched and meals to be delivered and houses to practice hospitality in and sufferers to sit with. It was so very good for me to learn how to serve in the shadows by simply showing up.

Love welcomes in and sends out

When I joined Third Avenue eight years ago I had no intention of sticking around for so long. Yet many years later when we settled in and started raising a family I had no idea we would leave so quickly. So much has happened in these eight years yet it feels like we’ve just barely gotten started. We never thought we’d stay, but once we stayed, we never really thought we’d leave. And now here we are. Along with so many others in this uniquely transient church. In a church where people are stayers longer than planned and goers more quickly than expected. Along with missionaries and pastors and planters being flung out all around the globe. Along with those moving back to be closer to family. Along with those joining up with other churches. It can be hard to love by letting people in. It can be even harder to love by letting them leave. This church, my church, has taught me how to embrace the coming and the going. How to latch on and how to let go.

And now, the hands that brought us in gently are the same hands that send us out gladly. So we go. With this piece of Third Avenue DNA that we will always carry with us. That we will always seek to insert and implant where we can.

Not because she is a flawless bride but because she clings to a faithful Christ.

Year 29: mottos and mantras

For my birthday this year I decided to jot down some mottos and mantras that I want to mark, at least in part, year 29. This is not intended to be a list of the deepest or truest things about me. Rather it is a small sampling of go-to phrases that I have or do seek to speak into existence in my own life. Some are old, some are new, some are borrowed… and none are really blue. But maybe they will resonate with you too. Or spur you on to come up with your own.

Thanks, friends, for another year of journeying with me and for counting the words I write as valuable of your time and brain space. There are so many voices.. thank you for listening to mine. It’s a humbling gift so many of you have chosen to give me through the years. And I don’t take it lightly.

YEAR 29 HERE WE GOOO.

I do not have to bow down to my feelings nor kick them to the side

It’s true that sometimes emotions need a reset. A walk, a talk, or simply a really good night of sleep. It’s a wonder how emotions can look so different on the other side of them. Often, momentary emotion does not have the best depth perception or offer the most accurate vantage point. But, on the flip side, I’ve realized the harmful mentality of I am/you are “just being emotional.” As if emotions are categorically irrational or misguided. Sure they can result in irrationality or misguidance, but they themselves, are not. Therefore they are not to be discarded as inferiority or weakness.

29 year old Natalie wants to do better about saying things to myself and to others like “yes I’m feeling really emotional about this, but it doesn’t mean what I’m saying isn’t accurate or valid or necessary.” Boiling blood can lead to battle. Sorrow can lead to empathy. Grief can lead to depth. Exuberant happiness can lead to lifting and lightening spirits.

My emotions aren’t “too much.” They are dreadful masters, but they are powerful guides. And they should know their place, and then take it.

I am a joyful wife and mom

I heard this mantra recently and it resonated with me immediately. Not because I always am, but because I want to be. Because I want to change some deeply rooted projections and perceptions of myself as a sort of “kill joy” mom or wife. And rewrite them. I all too often see myself as an uptight and impatient mom. Or a nagging and neglectful wife. I want to be a wife and a mom who spreads smiles. Who is playful. Who laughs without fear of the future. Who enjoys. Who embraces. Who is simply a pleasant presence. Who is grateful. Who is deeply rooted in peace which finds its expression in joy. I am these things, and want to become them more.

My 29 year old self will continue to speak into who I want to be “Nat, you are a joyful wife and mom.” To write it in my journal every morning. To pep talk it to myself in the mirror. To sticky note it above my sink. To ask the presence of Jesus and his unshakable joy to permeate all I am and all I do. Won’t He do it.

Good for her, not for me

I also heard this one a while ago and am claiming it as my own. This isn’t a snarky “good for her” or an ashamed “not for me.” It is a realization that some things work for others that don’t work the same for us. It is a reckoning with the reality that their good isn’t always the same as my good. It is being able to genuinely cheer others on while simultaneously having security in the way we ourselves choose to do something. It’s a claim that declares that self worth is not decreased or elevated by comparison to another person.

29 year old me is striving to look at another woman’s life, choices, successes and set up and humbly yet confidently say “good for her, not for me.”

Jesus cares about them, or that, more than I do

Although I would never flat out say that I’m “better” than God at anything, I sure can live like it and think like it. I can let myself believe that I am somehow filling in the gaps of His own lack. Maybe I proclaim that holistically he is “more than” me, but in the day to day I can live like justice will not prevail, mercy will not win, and compassion will not be extended, if I myself do not do it. But I’ve been humbly reminded again and again this past year that His heart is the pure original and mine is but a pale reflection. He is all good things in their fullest form. He made good things have their form and he himself is their form.

My 29 year old self will fight to remember that I am called to carry out the heart of God. To be hands and feet. But by no means do I myself make up the heart of God. His heart, in pale and part, is made up in me. And I will preach the gospel to myself that the very heart of God is what sent his innocent son and the savior king to be crucified on a cross as a criminal. I can never weep more longingly, exact justice more perfectly, be moved more sacrificially, or love more fully, than the one who died for me. And for the whole world.

No matter what happens today, a tall frosted glass of milk and a beautiful piece of chocolate will congratulate you on the other side of it

Milk and chocolate do not talk back. They change not. They fail not. They judge not. Most beautifully put, “chocolate is comfort without words.” And dang it sometimes we’re worded out. But never comforted-out.

So me as a 29 year old will wisely listen to the words of Tom and Donna on Parks and Rec to TREAT YO SELF. And for every single day that makes up another year of this life that I have been given- before my head hits the pillow to pray or to plan or to cry or to crash- I will indeed TREAT MYSELF. Because the days are too long, and our life is too short, not to. My heart needs unshakable truth and my soul needs unchanging chocolate.

Do we hold these truths to be self-evident?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

 

These words were declared long ago, and they have been declared many times since.

As “declare” implies, these words have been uttered with much heart and passion and vigor and through the years. They have been proclaimed as undeniable truth written on the consciences of all. They are rooted in conviction, covered in morality, and said with great American pride. The words grip us as well as ground us. They feel powerful as well as pure.

Yet we simply cannot go on ignoring the irony. During this time, while human rights were being defined on paper, they were very literally being taken away in real life. The exact same hands shackling a man in slavery wrote that all were created equally. Life was beaten. Liberty was obstructed. Happiness was withheld. Safety was not sought. While these famous words were printed into our future as a fact they were simultaneously being re-defined in the present by reality. They were engraved by human hands but ignored in human hearts. Its beauty has hung as a loud banner above us yet its blasphemy has been laid as a silent foundation below us.

As I’ve been thinking a lot about our current state of civil unrest, rooted in the past and twisted up into our present, a word keeps coming to mind. This word or idea is not an attempt to give a one-size-fits-all approach to issues varying in complexity and severity. I hope I am not oversimplifying or under-emphasizing. Yet I think this category with its differing reasons and ranks inside of it (including racial injustice) are worth taking a step back to recognize on the whole. To see as a broader theme. We might not even notice it but I’ve become convinced that this broader theme shows up in our own day to day interactions. It manifests itself in everything from belittling comments, to abusive behaviors, all the way to murderous acts. It is ranging from daily pornography to deadly prejudices. It has been trickled down all around us and rooted itself deeply inside of us.

Dehumanization.

Webster defines this as “depriving someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity: such as a: to subject someone to conditions or treatment that are inhumane or degrading b: to address or portray someone in a way that obscures or demeans that person’s humanity or individuality c: to remove or reduce human involvement or interaction in something, such as process or place.”

We, too, can be guilty of soulfully pouring over the Declaration of Independence for all peoples while blindly practicing its contradictions right around us. How then, along with fighting for liberty and justice on local and national levels, do we also bring it down to our neighborhoods? Our schools? Our work places? Our very own houses?

I think we need to do the raw and dark and deep and good work of re-humanization.

 

Re-establish what gives human dignity

The annoyingly obvious question we should never cease to ask ourselves is “why?” I think this is especially true when we see that our lived realities are not mirroring our proposed reasoning. Consenting to the truth of a definition is not the same as acting out of its implications. Maybe during this specific time in history we are being given a chance to stop and examine. To ask, in the face of pandemics and protests, if our definition of human value is lining up with our response to black lives begging to breathe or vulnerable populations asking to be protected?

Ekemini Uwan says, “once we accept, and grieve, that our old way of life is gone, we can build a better future.” If we want to move away from our old normal and towards a better normal we have to be really really honest. Painfully so. And we begin at the beginning again. We ask ourselves to define human dignity. To re-establish what is every person’s worth.

For me, the unshakable barometer of all living being’s value starts with a Creator. A Maker. One who crafted all human beings in His very image. Not apportioning himself in varying degrees of whom he favors. But to all. Completely equal image bearers. Given a mind and heart and even a soul. As David Closson says “Man is like a statue erected by an ancient king—as the statue bore the image of the king and signified rulership, man bears God’s image in the cosmic temple of the world, representing his authority and dominion. Man is the visible representation of the invisible God. If one wants to know what God looks like, simply look at man, the crowning jewel of creation and the only creature made in God’s image and likeness.”

Without some source of a foundational definition we have no starting point. And without a starting point we cannot convince anyone else, let alone ourselves, of what true liberty and justice will look like for all. Or why it even matters. It shapes the lenses through which we see the most bloody times in our history and the most horrific happenings in our present day. Without it, what moral leg do we have to stand on against slave trade and school shootings? What basis do we start with when talking about the horror of the holocaust and the devastation of massacres? What do we make of genocides and plagues and terrorist attacks and different kinds of wars? How do we speak out against human trafficking or domestic violence or child pornography or sexual assault? It is not enough for any of us to say that something simply is. Dignity and equality do not define themselves. That’s why entire people groups have been abused in the name of superiority, used as means of punishment, and written off as primitive animals without a soul.

Once we have established, or re-established, our unwavering definition of human dignity we have to begin the hard work of realigning the every day ways we think and interact and respond, back to it. If in the end our words and our actions continue to be impossibly ill-aligned and unrecognizable from one another we have to be willing to ask do I really, thoroughly, honestly, believe this to be true about all humanity?

Re-prioritize people to their place

Sometimes we realize that we have begun to subtly assign and apportion human dignity based off of underlying beliefs that are different than what we claim out loud for them to be. For some these beliefs have been silently shaped over time and we do not like them when they are exposed to us. While for others they have been consciously chosen and we do not want to change them. They may stem from our belief in divine design or natural designation. We may think they come from evolutionary make up, societal shaping, generational history, or personal choices. We may end up recoiling over our deep down barometer for human dignity or we may, in fact, revel in it.

Wherever we land, though, I think we must land there consciously. We cannot move on into any sort of action, or really even awareness, until we have gotten really honest with ourselves. Until we have meticulously thought through, for ourselves, what qualifies human dignity. Until we have concluded if there are ever any exclusions or exceptions to this qualification. Until we have critically assessed our definitions and called out the parts that have begun to be bent away from its original form. From there, where we spot inaccuracies and inconsistencies in our rawest form and from our deepest places, can we identify what is bubbling over on the outside. Can we see its out workings and implications.

One of these gauges and indications is where our priorities lie. Naturally, we desire things such as power, pleasure, possessions, and praise… even over people. When this happens we begin to see a person as a mere object standing between where we are and what we want. We then make the choice to either remove them as an obstacle or use them as a stepping stone. But that’s not our only option. We don’t actually have to land there. Instead, we can see what the layout of our placement and prioritization is becoming and we can do the continual work of putting people back in their proper places. Realigning them with our truest definition of who we have already established that they are.

So we take them out of the middle. Again and again and again. The middle is where they are reduced to merely a means of our own end. But when they are placed on the other side, they become a person again. They are repositioned to become the end itself. The focus. The priority. The point of value. It is here, directly in line with us, that we can actually exercise power, experience pleasure, enjoy possessions, and give/receive praise in mutually healthy and beneficial ways. We can function as one. Not as objects of helps or hindrances to where we’re headed but as human beings with equal worth and irrevocable dignity.

Re-define how it plays itself out in society

When the choice we are handed lies between people and possessions the answer seems fairly obvious. Unnatural to choose, perhaps, but hard to actually argue against. But what would it be like if instead of just dethroning power and praise over people, we had to choose between actual personhood? If we were somehow faced with the choice between which two people could live. What then, would rise to the surface in us? Would our definition of equal dignity and worth for all human beings quickly become met with a barometer full of assessments and questions? Maybe our instinct would be to consider their ages, or factor in their accomplishments, or weigh their contributions, or compare their records.

While we ourselves will likely never be faced with such a choice, what happens in us when we hear about a gang related shooting? An elderly lady passing peacefully in a nursing home? A firefighter not making it out of a burning building in time? A person of color begging for breath? A child’s heart monitor no longer beeping? A prisoner being beat to death?

In the midst of everyday headlines filled with tragedy and trauma we are left with the choice to listen to our own visceral reactions and mental responses. To be mindful of our internal questions about the person. To pay attention to our assumptions based off of where they were and who they were with and what they were wearing. When we sit with our own honest responses they will answer the question for us of who we deem more deserving of death and who we see as less worthy of life. When we are present with ourselves in this way we can actually catch our minds going to the places we do not want them to and then we can do the repetitive work of realigning and reminding ourselves why none of those things matter. It is in these small and crucial moments we can convince ourselves once again that all human life is equally dignified. And then we are conscious of where we allow our conclusion to go. About them. About humanity. About life. And even about death.

Dehumanization, though, is not just about dying at the hand of injustice. It is also about living from a place of inequality. Those we deem most tragic in death, we will also see as most worthy in life. We may not ever say that a person is not actually worthy to live. But, to what do we assign their quality of life? Is it one of equal opportunity for education and position? Is it one that is given a strong voice and sought after as a needed presence? Is their mind just as smart, their body just as capable, and their being just as strong?

Our degradation and objectification of others comes out in the every day ways we respond and relate to them. In the manner we address them in and the time we give to them. It seeps through in the ways we esteem certain jobs, praise specific positions, and place power with select people. This shows up in the way we smile at the CEO behind a desk and ignore the homeless person behind a sign. In the way we greet the guest at our front door and mumble a hurried hello to the server at our table. In the way we engage or dismiss children. In the way we talk tenderly or mockingly about the elderly. In the way we clap for those who wear uniforms and yell at those who answer our phone calls. In the way we keep together those who are the same and cast off those who are different. In the way we classify intelligence and dismiss disability. In the way we label foster kids as troubled instead of laboring with them as traumatized.

Being worthy to stay alive is not the same as being worthy to really live. To live in a way that we all long for: without being treated as inherently inferior or locked in as innately less than.

 

Re-build what has been lost

“When we see people without recognizing that they have a story, we become pornographers. Pornography almost by definition lacks a story.” I think Ragan Sutterfield was on to something far more than only poses and pixels. The same effortless reduction of a person into a prize for our own self pleasure does not just stay on our screens. It manifests itself into the people we pass by quickly, the newcomers we get to know slowly, and the classmates and coworkers and church members we interact with daily.

They could be young or old or rich or poor. They could have thousands of followers on Instagram. They could have dropped out of high school. They could have graduated with the highest degree. They could live in the suburbs or the city. They could be a white person walking down our street or a brown person grazing our shoulder in a grocery store or a black person pulling up next to us in a parking lot. An immigrant or an international student. One who is pushed in wheelchair or relies on a walker. They could be wearing a suit or sagging shorts. Someone who is bilingual, reads brail, or communicates with sign language. They could have eyes that are stone cold or ones filled up with tears.

But what do we see?

Do we see a service or a statistic or a social status? Or do we see a story? A lived experience. A survived trauma. A family they come home to. A job they lost. A generational cycle they were born into. An addiction they are overcoming. A disorder they are functioning with. Do we hear their voice behind their language, see their skin beneath their clothes, and remember their blood beneath their bodies?

As Lore Wilbert powerfully puts it, “when we enter a room, we often forget the blood—the story—pulsing beneath the skin. When we divorce a body from the story—the humanity and the life—that God has given it, it becomes a mere object to us. We can no more separate our blood from our bodies than we can separate our story from the bodies who have lived through it.”

It doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from, or how long they’ve been in our life; we can simply forget what it means for someone to be wholly human. There is a lot inside there, living inside of them, that we forget to see. To look for. To ask about.

We are all too quick to forget that people are dignified- with bruised skin, with broken bones, with beating hearts- fully and fiercely, dignified.

Why I want to do foster care

Because God has put it in my heart

Because it is one way to reflect his own heart

Because filling in for parents for a period of time and temporarily doing a job they cannot, gives them the space and time to make what is broken more whole. Kids need whole families. Hopefully they will find health and wholeness with us in the meantime. And ultimately, hopefully they go back to find it with their own families

Because I am for kids

Because parents love their kids and kids love their parents, and they should be together in a way that will best show and share that love

Because kids desperately need safety and stability and trustworthy touch and kind words; they need what has been tainted and twisted to begin to be untainted and untwisted

Because these aren’t “bad kids” …they are traumatized kids

Because I want to see my kids recognizing the needs of others and being willing to give of themselves, even down to their very own hearts, in order to let someone else in

Because foster homes are often worse than the very homes these kids are being pulled from

Because I want Christ in us to be a bright spot of someone’s story they retell someday

Because God chose to enter into my brokenness and not to stay out

Because I can’t unread the statistics

Because I look around and see so much space, space these kids are supposed to fill. Space that already has love and safety and laughter that isn’t being used up

Because being pro life means finding ways to care for that same life we fought for being born

Because God says our religion is worthless to Him if we do not care about widows and orphans. I think this includes those needing a temporary home

Because I care about the flourishing of human beings. The flourishing of both parents and children, and ultimately the flourishing of them together as one family if at all possible

Because these families might have a total of zero Christians who know them. Zero Christians who have walked into their story. Zero Christians who have joined them in their pain. Zero Christians who know what it feels like to love and to lose the same kids they do. Zero Christians who are praying for them

Because these kids need to know someone is fighting for them

Because these families need the same Jesus that I needed. The same Jesus I now have because someone else took the time to take me to Him

Because if I don’t, they will still be there. In need. Turning a blind eye in my own life does not change the dark reality in someone else’s life

Because I have been given too much grace to waste it on hoarding

Because abundance causes overflow

Because no time is really ever convenient

Because Christians are called to build longer tables not higher fences

Because I did not choose the environment I grew up in, nor can they

Because me getting too attached is worth the cost of a kid never getting to attach at all

Because the culture cycles of adult poverty and homelessness often start with a once-little boy or girl who never attached to another human being in healthy ways

Because I see in these kids the next generation and I want to help raise them up in any ways I am given the opportunity

Because I’m afraid I can only care as deep as something touches me personally

Because empathy grows when we know their names and look into their eyes. Especially when their innocent little faces sleep peacefully on our own pillows at night

Because compassion doesn’t stay put, it acts

Because I’ve seen my foster-parent friends and family with tear filled eyes and broken hearts say “it’s all worth it” and then do it again and again and again

Because our losses are worth their wins

Because I want to be involved in people’s messy lives. And that is always going to get complicated and it is always going to hurt. No matter the avenue we take to do so

Because I would want someone else to do the same for my own kids

Because I think the world needs Christ followers who simply say “I’m here” and then prove it

3 social media illusions I discovered while taking a break from it

As some of you know, I decided to take a month long social media break in January. While I missed some things about this place and mostly the people within it, this time away was enlightening, timely, reorienting, and refreshing.

Stepping away gave me room to more clearly see some things, both inside of my screen and inside of me, that had become blurry from being up close. On a much more surface (but still important) level, this break pushed me to rediscover some of my simple joys and gave me more time for hobbies. It allowed me to be more creative in how I stayed up to date on all sorts of news. It also helped me to be generally more focused and engaged with who or what was in front of me. On a bit of a deeper level, it exposed some of my heart and health. It revealed some surprising parts that live inside of me that somehow circle back to social media. It also caused a sense of retaliation to rise up in me against those “nerd gods” who calculatedly play on our insecurities and desires, to make a profit off of our handheld devices. It made me more convinced of what Bill Maher said about Phillip Morris just wanting our lungs and the App Store wanting our soul. It enabled me to reevaluate and revise my own relationship with my phone, and more specifically, the world of social media that lives inside it.

Yet I’m back. Cautiously but not reluctantly. Just like that, I’m back in the middle of this social media tension of “it’s obtrusive and draining and can be a time suck” and “it’s useful and beneficial and good can come from it.” But I’m hoping to tread this tension a little more diligently with the starting point that Cal Newport suggests: my values. This stepping away has also allowed me to better pinpoint my values and then ask, not the question of, “does this or that forum/app/platform have the potential to support my values?” But rather “is this thing, or the way I am using it, the very best way to enhance and promote my values?” And then striving to make digital and life choices that are answers to that fundamental question. Values can be anything from humor and beauty to faith and friendship. They don’t always have to be deep; they just have to be worthy of our time. They are the very things that we want our lives to be marked by.

If in the end you have decided to still be here too, in at least some capacity, I’m glad that you are. I hope that sharing some of these illusions that have become more evident to me after this past month will help inform, expose, diagnose, and encourage you as you seek to tread in this tension, too:

1. The illusion of urgency

I have found that for myself there is a strange phenomenon behind the very concept of “being on” social media. It brings about this sense of urgency in me. It’s like we, or at least I know I, feel this automatic pressure and draw to be constantly checking and responding and getting back. I hear the nagging voice on repeat “everyone is waiting on you!”

As soon as I made the declaration to myself and to others that I would be off social media, it was as if the nagging voice was silenced. As if I could take a deep breath. As if suddenly no one was waiting on me because they just knew I was away. And there was something instantaneously freeing in that.

Yet the most surprising part that I have begun to see is that this “urgency illusion” mostly comes from my own addicted brain and not actual people. The voice doesn’t come from friends saying, or indicating, or even feeling a sense of “where were you on social media today? Did you see what I posted?” It more comes from the voice inside my head looping through the vague yet enticing words “you’re missing out.” The idea of FOMO doesn’t just apply to real life experiences we know we’re not a part of. It’s more sneaky and deceptive than just that. It can also apply to this mystical idea that if we’re not refreshing our social media feeds every hour (or 20 minutes) then we might miss something. Something that is, in fact, not even there.

Here’s the reality whether social media is actively a part of my life or not: it will wait. It doesn’t need me. Every little red circle with a white number inside of it does not actually require an instant click. It will still be there. Even an hour or day or week later.

So in order to defraud this perception of urgency, can we not apply the same sort of space and freedom and patience to ourselves that we would if we were taking an announced social media break? Can we find ways to bridge the gap between social media addiction and quitting social media cold turkey?

Possibly for you this gap will be bridged simply by your mental consent that the urgency is actually just an illusion. You will not give in as quickly knowing that the pressure is not actually there, regardless of if you tell people you’re away from your phone or just decide to be. Yet I have become convinced, in large part due to the money making psychological schemes that are intentionally used to keep us coming back for more, it is going to require doing something more drastic than conjuring up the will power. It could look like app limits or app deletions. Or silencing or disabling notifications. Or carving out regular and routine times away from our phones. Or even something more extreme. For me personally, this will mean some pretty significant changes including things like designated scroll days/times and a husband with my pass code. My “rules” might continue to change down the road  in this ever-revisionary relationship with my phone. But, one thing I now know for myself is that it will always require more embarrassing measures than I would like for it to. Like buying a good old alarm clock to sleep by instead.

Whatever it takes, though, the bridge being built will require us remembering and then stubbornly proving to ourselves again and again that our phones will non-tauntingly, without pressure, void of compulsion, unfailing…. wait. This battery powered device’s mere existence, even with its instant availability, does not automatically require that we be on it. It is there. But we do not always have to be there with it.

2. The illusion of connection

I’m starting to see that changing our relationship with social media is not just about changing how we use it, but diagnosing why we do. It’s about discerning not just what our phone is saying to us, but what our phone is saying about us. Exposing not just what we want to accomplish inside of a screen, but what we are hoping to accomplish through that screen, inside of ourselves.

This accomplishing something inside of us might look like approval or affirmation, boredom or laziness, insecurity or escapism, fear or pride. Our desires to be on social media certainly are not all bad. Some may be simple and silly, but not negative. Some are even deeply good and beneficial. However, the infectious ones are well worth the hard work of self examination. Whatever shape our void or desire or motive takes, it is actively and aggressively looking to be filled. So it resorts to the quick fix of habitually grabbing the phone and then dismissing it as harmless. In an effort to connect quickly and easily to whatever is in our phone, we may be forfeiting all kinds of other real life connections; starting with the connection to our very own selves. Our minds might scroll aimlessly, but our hearts do so longingly. Running away by scrolling has a way of drowning out the voices inside of us. We may be simultaneously expressing ourselves online but losing ourselves in real life. 

In his book How Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinker pegs one of these voids that we may actually be after when we reach for our phone as, loneliness. “Smartphones and social media were supposed to cure the epidemic of loneliness. We would all be connected—all together, all the time—and none of us would ever feel alone. But the harsh truth is that we can always be lonely, even in a crowd—and now, even more so, in a digital crowd.”

Why? Why is it that technology can lessen the gap between oceans yet simultaneously widen the one between room furniture that our friends and family are sitting on across from us? Ultimately I believe it’s because humans were made to live in real life community and not just screen level connectivity.

I think when our deepest connections are being met in the world outside of us we can stop trying to force them into the screens beside us. When we initiate friendships that we can stop counting followers. When we let others get close enough to see our flaws that we can stop fooling people with our filters. When we take the time to get to know our raw real-life-selves that we can stop rushing to present our best online-selves. When we stop spending the majority of our relational energy watching stories from those we will likely never meet that we can sit down and hear the stories of our neighbors who just moved in down the street.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that our screens (including the social media that is inside of them) have the unique ability to start and strengthen and shift friendship. I have grown in my respect for, understanding of, and camaraderie with many others solely through social media forums.  Whether it is thought out or thrown together words, immaculate or mundane pictures, sweet or silly comments; I’ve been challenged, picked up, inspired, humbled, emboldened, and educated. I’ve waited in anticipation for the happy announcements. I’ve cried at the sad ones. I’ve laughed at the funny ones. And I knew some of my own would be met with the same cheers and tears and laughter. Perhaps most significantly, I’ve been able to keep up with some of my very favorite human beings who live cities and states and countries away, in an almost day-to-day way.

Yet even with all of this, I have found that social media simply does not have the ability to ultimately and primarily sustain the truest of friendships. It can be an incredible source for all sorts of connection, but it will fail us every time if we hold it out to be our sole hope for deep and lasting community.

True community consists of people who show up in what Andy Crouch calls “the vulnerable moments of life.” They show up, fully present and fully human. Both of which can only take place outside the digital world and inside of the real one. This real world is where face-to-face we see eyes that empathize, lips that tremble, and hands that cheer. It’s where hugs are embraced, smiles are exchanged, and laughs are shared. It’s a flesh and blood, beating heart, all in it together, kind of place. The internet can enhance our experience in the world, it just cannot come close to replacing it or completing it.

I think the catch is that the more wholly connected we are in physical life, the more healthily connected we can become online.

3. The illusion of control

Illusions are the distorted version of what is, at least likely in part, true. It takes an ounce of what is and morphs it into what is not. Therefore I think exposing illusions for what they are calls for stepping back and sifting out the points of truth and then seeing where they have been twisted.

The truth is that our phones are exactly what they say they are, smart. Extremely, almost eerily, smart. The truth is that the distance between the person holding their device and what is inside of it is oceans deep and miles long and informational books stacked high. The truth is that one single device brings dozens of time zones, thousands of languages, and billions of people all to the same exact place all at the same exact time. The truth is that there really is so much potential and power cooped up in one glowing rectangle that can slip inside a single pant pocket. There’s no denying that it’s simply astounding what our phones are capable of.

The subtle shift happens, however, when we go from thinking that these devices are a source of knowledge to believing that they are a wellspring of endless wisdom. We then become controlled by the very thing that we were seeking after for control. Enslaved by the very thing we were running to for freedom. Conquered by the very devices we subtly thought we ourselves could conquer with.

The unchangeable reality that I’m learning is that the relationship we are to have with the preexisting material world can never be found or accomplished in our modern day man-made devices. There is a world outside of our phones that is too big, too beautiful, too raw, too scary, too complex, too brilliant, to ever fit behind a glass. Even the most impressive technology could never reproduce fresh air, soothing scents, and breathtaking sights. Human beings are too whole to trade our interactions with what is already breathing and blossoming in the world for our interactions with what requires chargers and batteries from a store.

We were created with too much capacity to reduce our selves down to phone-size. Our relational space was meant to keep expanding us into the world not shrinking us down into our phone. We’re gaining technological access while forfeiting God given autonomy. We’re exchanging consuming for creating. We’re seeking domination over cultivation. The world that we now think is in the palm of our hand is actually busy slipping right through our finger tips.

Therefore, the antidote to rightly relating to our phones must be rightly relating to the world around us, first. A physical world made up of time and people and nature. A world that our phones will never have the ability to replicate and therefore should never- and in the truest senses could never- replace. I want to jump in the water, taste the food, climb the mountain, feel the sun rays, smell the flowers (and the coffee) … and not just capture and caption them all. I want to intake what God is teaching me in the quiet spaces and not just turn around and output it into the loudest places. I want to let the experiences happening around me simmer and settle inside of me without plotting how to put them in a box on Facebook and rushing to tie them together with a bow on Instagram. I think when we take our little worlds- filled with their own kind of beauty and grace and mess- and delicately and intentionally translate them into a screen, we can stop asking our screens to instead translate the world for us.

Maybe when we choose to release the grip of urgency, defraud the promise for community, and let go of the quest for control, we can start the journey of using our phones instead of being used by them. And maybe, just maybe, the ultimate irony is actually that when we stop trying to make our phones be a means of mastery, they will instead – in a beautifully freeing way- become an avenue for enjoyment.

A mere expression, not an intrusive robbery, of what we value and care about, most.