everything is going to be just fine

As another year comes to a close we turn our thoughts to the rush and tumble of Christmas, and I have to confess that I do love it. Amidst the high-paced madness found in buying gifts, meeting friends and consuming food there is so much fun to be had. I mean, Christmas gives us an excuse for parties, presents and feasting, and who amongst us doesn’t enjoy such things?xmas-540x405

That said most people will find the silly-season a little overwhelming (or completely all-consuming) at some point, and if you’re anything like me you may also find yourself asking… ‘why?’

Why am I so stressed?

Why am I so busy?

Why am I so time-poor?

Why am I so debt ridden?

Why am I so preoccupied with everything other than the things that really matter?

Why am I subjecting myself to the chaos of Christmas yet again and when will this madness end?

Whilst I understand that such questions emerge as we are faced with all things Christmas, I do think we are being a little bit hard on ourselves. Make no mistake the very first Christmas was chaotic! A pregnant teenager and a shocked father-to-be homeless and on the road, it doesn’t get more messy than that! One can only imagine what they must have been experiencing. (Check out the short clip below made by my good friends at YesHeIs.com for a modern day spin on Mary & Joseph’s journey).

G O D  W I T H  U S

I’ve often pondered what Mary and Joseph must have felt as they approached that very first Christmas. Perhaps the chaos as we know it today is not that different to those who lived out the very first Christmas? And if this is the case, perhaps we have more in common with those who were expecting the birth of Jesus than we care to admit?

You see, when a child is born (expected or not) EVERYTHING changes. People pause to stare at new-life and they believe for a moment that hope is somehow real. Their hearts soften. They marvel at the beauty before them, a new-creation with the freedom to write a new story through a life unfolding. The blank page of possibility reflects from their blurry big eyes and it’s unlike anything else ever seen. This is true for newborns today, and this was especially true for the Christ child born in Bethlehem.

For many, a baby born in a manger two thousand years ago to a teenage girl and unsuspecting father is completely unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is that this child is claimed to be the Saviour of the universe – the Messiah, Immanuel, God with us. Some were unsure about this at the time of Christ’s birth, and it comes as no surprise that people today would still find this difficult to believe. I mean how could a perfect God be present in such an imperfect situation?

I happen to believe that ALL of Christmas, even the manic crazy and chaotic aspect of it contains something of the subtext of Jesus’ coming into this world. I guess no matter which way you look at it Christmas can only ever be about Jesus. Preparation for His coming, His arrival, and His life-giving presence all point us to the redeeming nature of God in this world. And I believe that God can be found in this time, even in the lives of unlikely, unmarried, expectant teens.

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(c) 2014 The Babes Project, photo taken by Kipindi Photography. Used with permission.

U N L I K E L Y  H E R O E S

There are thousands of young women and men in Australia (and abroad) who enter this season as Joseph and Mary once did – experiencing all of the doubts, fears, and anxiety known at the very first Christmas. They too are about to become parents. For them it’s messy, challenging, unexpected and perhaps we owe it to them to offer an alternative perspective of their situation?

If it was good enough for the God of the universe to enter human history this way, maybe it is possible these struggling parents-to-be also bear the image of the same God in the context of their circumstances? Perhaps we would do well to point that out rather than pointing the finger and adding further condemnation to their already difficult situation?

I have witnessed first hand the work of organisations like Compassion* and The Babes Project* who continue to do exactly that. They offer practical support and care to young people facing crisis pregnancy. Their efforts extend beyond giving them stuff (although they do this too and it is extremely helpful). They offer love, acceptance, care and hope. Their resounding message is ‘you are not alone because we are with you!’

It is their presence alongside these often frightened and vulnerable people that is the reaI gift of hope.

I can only lament that these incredible people and programs did not exist when I was faced with the prospect of becoming a Dad for the first time, for if ever there was a sign of the hope of Christmas they are it!

I T ‘ S  L I F E ,  B U T  N O T  A S  W E  K N O W  I T

Pondering the first Christmas a friend of mine once mused,

“… I was struck by the outrageous way that the reputation of Christ born into a patriarchal society, was tied in with that of a young unwed woman. Why wasn’t someone chosen of more proven moral standing? Anyone wishing to deny Christ only need deny the character of a teenage girl. It’s not the most watertight basis for a claim of divinity. But isn’t this like our God that he throws his lot in with the unproven and stands in solidarity with the unlikely? And when the character of those he stands with is rubbished, his image is tarnished too.” – Laura Florisson

New life is always a gift. This is true today and we can be sure that this is true of Jesus born over two thousand years ago. A baby born is always good news and Jesus birth is the Ultimate good-news story of the day. It was (and is) God screaming to all creation ‘you are not alone – I AM with you!’

In your fears, I AM with you.

In your anxiety, I AM with you.

In your shame, I AM with you.

In your pain, I AM with you.

In your uncertainty, I AM with you.

In your brokenness, I AM with you.

In the chaos of Christmas, I AM with you.

The great I AM comes in the form of new-life and new-life is to be found everywhere. Can you see it, even amidst the chaos? Because paradoxically the joy and peace of Christmas can also be found there. So pause. Remember Him. Examine His life. His words. His actions. Look for the many signs of new life all around you. Oh… and of His birth? Consider what it is His birth represents.

“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”

For when it’s all said and done everything is going to be just fine. A baby has been born.

Merry Christmas.

BK

*Not sponsored. I simply admire their work

Now that you are free…

Many a time I have told the story of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. After serving twenty seven years for daring to stand against apartheid, he was finally released. February 11, 1990. It was a remarkable day. A day where a man walked into freedom and the world was there to greet him. Even more remarkable though was the freedom his nation would inevitably experience as a result of his release. On that day chains were broken, eyes were opened, wrongs were acknowledged and lives were set free. Whilst it would take another four years before apartheid was officially over turned, his release was indeed a catalytic moment in the future redemption of his people. Nelson Mandela walked the path into freedom and he carried the freedom of his country with him.

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He was beaten, but not defeated.

He was muted, but never silenced.

He was isolated, but never alone.

He was abused, but not beyond repair.

He was imprisoned, but has been and will forever be… FREE.

I dreamed of one day meeting him, shaking his hand and thanking him for leading one of the most significant human rights movements of the modern era. Not that my thanks as a white Australian is as warranted as one of his fellow countrymen, but as one committed to the betterment of humanity through the restoration of of the world I have always been inspired by Mandela. I would have given anything to look him in the face, to see the lines on his skin caused by years of faithfulness, to listen to the stories of his life, and to look into the eyes that stared adversity in the face; and won. It just seems right that I would say ‘thank you’. Mandela is a hero of mine, a beacon of light who reminds us that it is possible to make a significant difference in the world even when our enemy has us backed-up against the wall.

As the world mourns the death of Mandela, I’m fascinated by the many articles and media reports that are circulating regarding his extraordinary life. Some are honouring of him and his cause, some are indifferent, and many simply reporting his death as another piece of news because he is a world leader. I have to wonder, does this typify the opinion of the average person and the general population toward Mandela? Is it possible that someone as remarkable as he can become simply another news item to be reported? Surely not. Surely the life of Mandela is worth far more than that.

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Nelson Mandela has taught me many things, but probably the single greatest lesson I have learned from this great leader and spiritual giant is that

Freedom is determined by our state of mind as much as it determined by a physical space…

You see it is possible to be free yet live as one imprisoned, Mandela knew this well. The day he was released from prison he was confronted with this reality. Mandela had every shade of human dignity removed from him over the course of his twenty seven years in prison. It was recorded on his day of release that he emerged an angry and bitter person. There was however a ‘moment’. As history records it, Mandela was informed by thirteen words that would forever change his life, his nation, and the world as we know it. Those words?

‘Nelson… now that you are free, do not let them make you their prisoner!

The life of Mandela serves as a constant reminder that imprisonment is not just about physical restriction and isolation, his life demonstrates the power of a person that is prepared to pursue an alternative future motivated by hope. And this is freedom.

Freedom from a system that would otherwise continue to control him.

Freedom from his own demons that would otherwise continue to torment him.

Freedom from vengeance that would otherwise thwart his cause.

And freedom from evil that will triumph when good people are not free to live different!

It seems our culture is somewhat confused about freedom. Many are afforded freedom yet frequently make choices that cause them to live as though they are imprisoned. Others seem more concerned with their right to be free, than they are concerned for actually living free. Either way, the outcome is the same. A distorted view of freedom that will not breathe life into the lifeless and bring light into the darkness. And then there is Mandela… A man who knew what it meant to live free and to be a giver of light and life in order that others would also be free.

Vale Nelson Mandela. In my mind you were not just a freedom-fighter, you were freedom-giver.  May your dream live strong, and may your legacy be found in our freedom.

BK

White Noise – four steps toward peace

Ok… so it’s been a little while since my last post. Thanks to those who have waited patiently. And thanks more to those that even noticed that I was absent from the blogosphere. One could say that I have been a little too busy for my own good, or as this post suggests, maybe even a little distracted from what I initially set out to do this year.

It seems ironic that I sit with the intention of writing an article on the subject of distraction and within the first hour I am interrupted six times, and every interruption via modern technology. Phone calls, SMS, emails, social media… relentless! Indeed it could be said that our culture’s convenient modes of communication have become the grand platform for distraction and indeed I count myself one of the worst offenders.

Of course the constant contact isn’t limited to personal communication devices. For some time now, advertising analysts estimate that we are exposed to approximately ten thousand advertisements every week. Through digital media, magazines, billboards, product placement (the list goes on) we are bombarded with constant messages demanding of us a choice. The implication is, whether realized or not, we literally make thousands of decisions every week.  It’s exhausting! It is any wonder we are distracted, fatigued, and disconnected.

step7b_white_noiseThis constant clamoring for prime real estate in our minds and lives is having a significant negative effect on individuals and therefore shaping the culture they form. Indeed decision fatigue and personal distraction has become the norm for those living in western civilization. Australian’s are avid tech lovers and BIG smart phone users, but the bad news is that the constant stimulation generated by smart-phones is possibly hurting our brains in ways we don’t really understand.

A study from the University of California in San Francisco has linked lower productivity and lower learning outcomes to lot’s of use of smart phones.

“People think that they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves” says Marc Berman, a University of Michigan Neuroscientist.

It’s a simple hypothesis – downtime lets our brain process and apply learning to our experiences, and when the brain is in constant stimulation it is unable to process the information, therefore we learn less! It seems the constant contact and knowledge accumulation offers little to no personal benefit. Smart phones are not making us any smarter, if anything the distraction they offer is stunting our growth. The constant phone fiddling, usually intended as personal recreation and refreshment, is leaving users more distracted and more fatigued than ever before.

Add to this the personal pressures from our working worlds, the emotional demands of relationships, and rarely are we free to sit with the luxury of one thought at a time. The implications for family, friends or those we love most are also significant. I recently noticed that my daughter started repeating my name three times every time she wanted to talk to me – ‘Dad, Dad, DAD!!!’ Such was her effort to get my attention away from the distractions in my mind and become present to her needs. I had forgotten what it meant to fully offer myself – thoughts and all – to those who matter most.

Whilst living in a constant state of distraction leaves us personally ineffective and relationally disadvantaged, it also seems to affect the quality of our decisions.

A recent article in the New York Times reported the decision-making patterns of a parole board. They discovered that approx 80% of cases heard in the morning resulted in parole being granted to the applicants, with only 30% of cases being granted parole through decisions made in the afternoon. It was noted that as the day progressed decision fatigue set in for individuals and an affirmative decision for applicants was less likely, for fear of making a ‘wrong’ decision. In short, the overload of numerous decisions inhibits our ability to focus well and make good decisions. The effects of this phenomenon are far-reaching for a culture that is already preoccupied beyond reason. Consider the implications for personal spending habits, work life balance, relationship priorities not to mention the pursuit of God.

Retailers and marketers are astutely aware of this, and in fact they bank on it. In a regular viewing day the evening prime-time slot is the most expensive airtime advertisers can purchase. Why? It yields the best return for their advertising dollar. More people are watching, people are more fatigued and therefore more vulnerable to be influenced toward foolish purchasing decisions. It would seem that late night store sales, particularly around peak seasonal times are not purely based on consumer convenience either. The consumer enters the retail temple tired, fatigued and distracted, faced with more choices at a time when they will inevitably struggle to choose well. The result, retailers make more money, consumers experience buyers remorse.So how do we counter this? Is it possible to flee from the inescapable state of distraction and fatigue perpetuated throughout our high-tech methods and insatiable appetite for information? How do we jump off the distraction carousel in order to redeem our fatigued lives? In my humble opinion it is possible, especially if we are committed to the pursuit of peace, by learning to become ‘intentionally present’. Scripture reminds us that it is good to pursue peace (Psalm 34:14) and as we are active in this pursuit we are more likely to notice the alternative and reject it.

To do this well takes a considerable effort and long-term commitment. But we need to start. Here’s a couple of things that I find help me to remain present and pursue peace…

1)    Switch off – I do something that marks my decision to be attentive to myself and others. A physical marker can be really helpful with this. For example, I touch an imaginary switch, turn off my phone, shut down the laptop (don’t just close it)… basically anything out of the ordinary that communicates ‘I am now switching off the white noise and becoming present to the moment.’

2)    Become mindful of my current environment – PAUSE… BREATHE… PRAY… I take time to notice the detail in my surroundings and really look at it. People, places, objects, everything. I feel my heart beat, I thank God for my life, I take it all in and enjoy it!

3)    Give people and circumstances my full attention – I look people in the eye and treat them as if they are the only thing that matters THEN and THERE… I look for the ‘light and life’ within those I’m with. When I notice something of this I try to tell them. Occasionally I am tempted to think about what it is I need to do next. But If my mind wanders, I resist this by admitting it to the person I’m with, apologising, and refocusing my attention to them. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that the future can wait, as can my face-book friends.

4)    Do this regularly – It takes commitment and discipline to turn this into a natural habit, but after a while the benefits follow. This should come as no surprise when we consider that people of faith have followed the ancient discipline of Sabbath keeping for centuries. This regular practice is not only an obedient response to God’s command, it is just plain good for us and an excellent way to develop the behaviour as a priority.

Our culture perpetuates busyness beyond reason, distraction as a default position, and constant fatigue as a result. I am choosing to live differently this year, call it a purging of the soul if you like. That said I could do with some help. This is why I find comfort in the words of Jesus,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives…” – John 14:27 (TNIV)

Are you fatigued? Distracted? Then you are possibly living out of that which ‘the world gives’. May you switch off. May you become present. May you know peace.

Over to you… how is ‘distraction’ an issue for you? How do you feel the effects of ‘fatigue’? How do you become ‘intentionally present’ and find ‘peace’ amongst white noise?

BK

PS – for more great articles, resources and practical responses to distraction check out this quarters edition of YV.Q (it’s the one wit the blue cover).