#struggle - Week Two: "Relationships"

Today we are going to continue the sermon series that we started last week, a sermon series that is going to take us all the way through the month of August. The title of our sermon series is #struggle: Following Jesus in a Selfie-Centered world.  The basic overriding idea that will be moving us forward through this series is a simple one:  technology and social media are shaping our culture in ways that are often less than life-giving. Christians need to learn how to live faithfully and fully for Jesus within a culture that is--as we described it--"selfie-centered."  

So last week we talked about how technology and social media have influenced our culture's ideas about contentment.  Today we're going to be talking about relationships.  

One of the many things that I love about the technology that we use to communicate with is the immediacy that it offers us.  Back in high school when I wanted to talk to my wife when we were dating, I had to use the phone.  So we both had to negotiate with our parents for the use of the phone, and then we had to talk from a centrally located point in the house where everyone could hear.  

When I got older, I  was able to have my own phone in my room, which was amazing.  But even then, if my parents thought I had been on the phone too long, they would simply pick up the other extension and interrupt my conversation to tell me to hang up.  

Last Sunday morning while I was preparing to preach, my wife texted me in the wee hours while I was practicing in the Sanctuary and told me that she loved me, and that she was praying for me.  Periodically throughout the day we will text each other words of encouragement and loving thoughts.  

There have even been some moments when our texts have taken on a--shall we say--more saucy tone, if you know what I mean--and I think you do.  

Connecting through technology can really strengthen your relationship if it's done in warm, open and loving ways.  

Have you ever received a text message or an email from a friend that just brightened your day?  You may be having the worst day imaginable, but that one word of encouragement on your phone can turn it around.  

Or maybe you posted something vulnerable on Facebook.  You were worried about a doctor's appointment, or you lost your job.  Or maybe you just shared with everyone that you were going through some stuff and were feeling blue. When your friends responded to that post how did it make you feel?  Some of us have been on the receiving end of the positive comments and encouragement that we've received from our friends on Facebook or Twitter and it's unbelievably life-giving. 

But as we mentioned last week, for all of the positive aspects of social media and technology there are some negative aspects as well, and particularly as it relates to relationships. 

The term "friend" is evolving in our culture.  It's actually become a verb, believe it or not.  We will say that "I am going to friend that person on Facebook," or "They friend-ed me on Facebook."  Sometimes when someone acts like a jerk, we will "un-friend" them on Facebook.  

Facebook even allows you to categorize your friends.  You can have close friends, family members, college friends, work friends--just about every category that you can think of.  

Did you know that the average Facebook user has 328 friends?  I have 1141, which surprises me, to be honest.  I never dreamed that I would have this many connections on Facebook when I started using it almost ten years ago.  I've got over 400 followers on Twitter, too.  Some of you are scoffing at my numbers because you've doubled or tripled up on that.  Some of you are also surprised that I have that many friends.  When you realize, however, that Grumpy Cat has over 7 million friends on Facebook--it kind of brings you back down to earth, though. 

By contrast--the average American has only 2 close friends. And 25% of Americans have no close friends at all.  These surveys are recent, and they are far different than similar studies from decades gone by.  Things are changing.  

What we are starting to see is that increased online activity results in decreased personal intimacy.  

Technology is also changing our relationships because we are becoming addicted to immediate affirmation.  

When people post ideas, thoughts, photos, commentary, blogs and whatnot online, they almost immediately get responses.  And many of us do our best to post things that will garner positive feedback.  Studies have shown that when most of us receive affirmation, our brain actually releases dopamine in response.  Millions of people are constantly posting things on social media and then constantly looking at the responses to their posts.  Positive feedback releases dopamine, which becomes addictive.  So we go back to the well, over and over again to get buzzed on it. 

We obsess over what people are saying about us, or interactions we have with our friends online--and even people we may not even know that well.  "What did they mean by that comment?" we'll ask ourselves.  "Why didn't they respond? Do they not like me any more?"  

All of this results in a kind of deferred loneliness.  Just like you come crashing off of a high created by drugs or adrenaline--we crash off of the highs we get from constant, immediate affirmation.  And when we crash, we feel the loneliness that was there all along. 

Third, technology shapes our relationships because we now have the power to friendship on our own terms.  We can easily and quickly remove people from our lives online.  We can text rather than have a face to face conversation, and because we are texting we can speak when we want, control the flow of the conversation and maintain power if we feel like it.  We can delete comments on our Facebook feed or blog posts.  We can carve out anyone who pushes us. 

We also have the ability to sanitize our image, selecting just the right photo, posts, images of ourselves so that we always appear as though we are on point. This is selective presentation.  In other words, I have this idea of myself that I am holding on to, and I want to make sure that this image--free from all the warts and blemishes--is the one that I want the world to see. 

Here's the thing.  This endless cycle of seeking affirmation for the sake of affirmation isn't working.  And here's what we need to know as Christians: 

At the end of your life it won't be about the likes you got, but the love you showed.  

Hebrews 10:24-25 talks about this: 

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

What the writer of Hebrews was doing was exhorting the early church to practice the power of presence.  Jesus himself had told his disciples, "Whenever two or more of you are gathered together in my name, I am there."  Jesus was called "Emmanuel" in the Scriptures, a name which means "God with us."  The term that Christians used to describe what God did through Jesus is "Incarnation."  Incarnation is a word that comes from the Latin word for "in the flesh."  So Jesus was the very presence of God in earthly, fleshly form.  God values presence so much that God took the steps to do whatever it took in order to show just how present God wanted to be. 

And in the early church people were starting to forget that.  They lost the power of presence.  They decided, "Hey, we don't really need to go to church in order to experience God--we can experience God right here on the golf course... or the lake fishing... or in the colosseum watching a friendly match between gladiators."  But presence is so important to God that the writer of Hebrews reminds the early church that they need to be practicing it with one another. 

So how does this shake out for you and I in practical terms?

Well first of all we need to learn to be present.  Romans chapter 12 verses 9-10 says this: 9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Love must be sincere.  Love shows its sincerity through the lengths taken in order to show it.  In other words, if you are putting some effort into your acts of love toward others--it shows more fully where your heart truly is. 

So is it acceptable to text a friend a word of encouragement?  Absolutely.  Do those things.  Is it better to call them and talk to them on the phone.  You bet.  A phone call goes a long way.  

But what would be best is to drive to them, meet them somewhere to talk, invite them over for dinner, take them out for coffee and actually spend some time giving your presence, talking face to face, seeing their expressions, hugging their neck as we say in the South...  

I learned about the power of presence when I was studying as a chaplain at Florida Hospital.  There were many times when I was asked to go into a room where someone was unresponsive to pray with them, spend time with them and let them know in whatever way I could that God loved them.  Mostly I did this by sitting by their bed with my hand on theirs.  

I have also done this for people who have died suddenly in the night.  Their family was at home, and I had to call them to tell them their loved one died.  Then I sat alone in the room with the person who had died until their family came.  In Jewish tradition, the idea of sitting in silence with a person who is in grief is known as "sitting shiva."  Shiva comes from the word "seven" which stands for how long the mourning period will be. 

Second, we need to learn to be engaged.  1 Peter 4:8 says this:  8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Peter is teaching the church that deep and engaging love can keep a relationship from running aground.  We are called to love each other deeply--be engaged with one another.  This isn't just physical engagement, the act of touching, hugging or even intimacy between couples.  This is deeper than that.  This is about emotional and spiritual engagement as well.    

So what does this look like?  Well it could mean taking your spouse on a date and both of you agreeing to leave your cell phones in the car.  It could mean having dinner with your family and turning off all of the televisions, ipads, iphones and what not.  Being in a place with someone doesn't mean that you are engaged with them.  You can be sitting at your kids soccer game, or at a family dinner, or gathering and be absolutely somewhere else if you are constantly on your phone or ipad.  

Some of you at this point are saying, "Aha!  See I don't even own any of those things. So this doesn't apply to me."  I was at a restaurant not too long ago, and there was an elderly couple sitting at a booth near me.  They both had sections of the newspaper and were engrossed in what they were reading while they ate.  They literally could not see each other because the paper blocked their view.  I would consider a newspaper "lo-fi" technology.  So it could be newspapers, a TV in the restaurant, other people, a book you are reading... anything that gets in the way of your being fully engaged with the people you care about needs to be put aside.  

I saw an ad recently from Duracell batteries that brought me to tears.  In the ad, a soldier, who is serving in the Middle East, records his voice in a stuffed bear with a recording device inside it.  He says to his daughter, "I love you baby girl."  At first she holds the bear all of the time, squeezing it every night.  Then she grows more and more sad.  She hears her father's voice saying, "I love you baby girl," and rushes into the room to see that he is on a computer screen via Skype.  She puts the bear in a basket, not wanting to touch it.  Late at night her mother hears the father's voice saying "I love you baby girl," as the little girl gives in and squeezes the bear just to hear it.  The last scene of the commercial is a tear-jerker.  She hears her father's voice saying "I love you baby girl," only this time it doesn't come from the bear.  She turns and rushes into her father's arms.  

You can watch it below... 

I love this commercial.  It brings home in just a few seconds everything I have been trying to say for the past twenty-five.  There is power in presence.  Technology is incredible.  It can connect us in ways that we never thought possible in previous generations.  But there is no substitute for real presence and engagement.  

God teaches us this through his Son Jesus, most clearly.  God is not distant, detached and removed from us--content to watch us scurry around, amused by our puny efforts. No, never!  God is near.  God is with us.  God took on human form in Jesus Christ to show us just how much we wanted to be present and fully engaged with the Creation he loves.  

So how will you live after today?  Will you go back to a detached, removed life where you have ultimate control over all of your relationships--holding people at arms length, never showing real love, or able to receive it?

Or will you put aside the things that are keeping you from being fully present, fully engaged, fully human?  Will you live in to the example of Jesus, who loved and gave of himself?  

The choice is yours.  


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