Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Are You Being Watched?

Dear Friends,

I cringed when I read that churches are starting to use facial recognition technology to keep track of their congregation members. Surveillance cameras in the church lobby scan all faces to automatically identify them in order to monitor attendance. This new technology has been installed in churches as large as 3,000 and as small as 100 members. Call me old-fashioned but I can’t imagine why a pastor of a church of 100 people would need facial recognition technology to let him/her know if a member has stopped coming to church.

This is the same technology that was developed and is being used to identify criminals and terrorists. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have installed facial recognition software in airports and in most state DMV’s (but not yet in California). Facial recognition technology is used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and many other large law enforcement agencies to identify suspects. Their officers can take a photo of a stranger on the street, identify them and gain access to information about them. Privacy advocates are warning that there will be a time when you may be able to do the same with your own smartphone. 

Facebook has a massive database filled with incredibly personal details on the lives of 1.49 billion people and they have never been good about keeping private details private. When you “tag” a photo with a person’s name, Facebook will automatically match it up with all the previously unidentified photos of that person that are floating around on the internet. The social media site has been accused of violating people’s privacy and now a recent Facebook service called “Moments” is just one more creepy innovation that looks at all the photos on your mobile device and identifies people by name using their facial recognition software. Facebook is now using the photos you take of family and friends to create a database of who you associate with, and the FBI and NSA has already added your photos, personal details and your contact list of friends into their database. 

Thankful you’re not on Facebook? A recent hack of Federal government computers stole detailed personal information on 22 million Americans. If you have health insurance through Anthem or were ever treated at Olive View Hospital your social security number and confidential medical records are now in the hands of computer hackers along with 80 million other people. If you’ve shopped at Home Depot or Target, your credit card information is now for sale on the internet’s black market. 

In today’s technological society we can no longer have an expectation that our personal information will be private, but in the Kingdom of God, our lives have never been “private.” As Jesus said “..there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and nothing hidden that will not be known.” Matthew 10:26 When it comes to God, you can run, but you cannot hide. That’s because you are so important to God, He doesn’t want to let you out of His sight. 

And God has been using His own “recognition technology” since His creation of mankind. Jesus tells us that God knows us so well that He recognizes every hair on our head. Matthew 10:30 Did you know that a blonde woman has an average of 140,000 hairs and a woman with black hair has an average of 110,000 hairs? And God’s “recognition technology” is so sophisticated that He knows every hair and your every thought! The psalmist said, “O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!” Psalm 139:1-6 (NLT)

Our Heavenly Father has us under His constant surveillance. Today’s mothers use wireless baby monitors and even surveillance cameras in the baby’s room to keep an eye on them. Mothers love their babies and want to keep close watch on them so that if something happens, a mom can be at her baby’s side in an instant. God has us under His surveillance for the same reason.

God sees us. He knows us. He immediately recognizes your face out of the billions of people on this planet. We are not doomed to be faceless souls with endless struggles. We are privileged to be the adopted precious children of a loving Father. We are His created. We are His redeemed and we will be sustained in every difficult moment we will ever have in our lifetime. We joke that someone’s got a face that only his mother could love but God never saw a face that he didn’t love. You are His. Created in His image. And God will never leave or forsake you. God loves your face. He’d recognize it anywhere. He will never forget it. Amen?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Soul Friends

Dear Friends,

The ancient Christian Celts sought out the “thin places” where the spiritual realm of heaven was so close it seemed as if it were a footstep away. The Celts were profoundly aware of the presence of God and sought to live their life in the manner that we today call “walking with Jesus.” For the Christian Celts in Ireland and Scotland, (my own family roots) they suffered through famine and disease in an incredibly harsh climate and yet, in their struggles, they managed to live in peace and harmony with each other. In communities of faith, what enabled them to find joy in the gray winters of their life was their anamchara.
The Gaelic word “anamchara” [ah-num-KAH-ra] is translated as “soul friend” and originally referred to those in monastic life. Men who entered the Celtic monastery were assigned an older brother in the community who would shepherd them through their early days in religious life and would often become a lifelong friend. Celtic scholar Edward Sellner says that to be a soul friend is to provide a place of sanctuary to another where, through acceptance, love and hospitality, both individuals can grow in wisdom and in depth. In the sixties, when we found a person of the opposite sex whose soul seemed to be intertwined with ours, we called them our “soul mate.” But the concept of "anamchara" is closely associated with Christianity and flows out of our relationship with God. It’s been said that, “Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. Jesus is the secret Anamchara of every believer.”

A soul friend is the person with whom you can talk about anything. The relationship is safe and trustworthy. You can reveal the secret sins that your lips tremble to name because you know that your anamchara can be trusted. You can remove the masks of pretense, of egotism, of pride and unshutter the window to your soul. Jim was my accountability partner many years ago and we were each other’s anamchara. A couple of years ago, Jim left this temporary home on earth and is now spending eternity with Jesus. I still miss him.

In Celtic Christianity, your anamchara was someone of the same gender. In our Bible, the close friendship between Jonathan and David exemplifies the anamchara between two men. “..the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.” 1 Samuel 18:1 The Hebrew word translated as loved is the same word used to refer to the love that people had for God and the love that God had for His people. In an anamchara friendship, both people grow into a greater love for God and a fuller and more rewarding sense of His presence in their lives.

Too many of us live our lives mired in our secret struggles and we wrestle alone with our finances, job issues, marital problems and with questions and doubts about our faith. But a soul friend provides a sanctuary (a holy place) where the worst parts of us can be acknowledged. And then, through repentance and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, our lives can be transformed and genuine change can occur.

In a loving relationship between two friends, where there is no physical attraction or co-dependencies, what remains is a godly love for one another – an unconditional commitment to the care of another’s soul and to the person’s spiritual growth. To be in an anamchara relationship means being a good listener. Being non-critical, compassionate, trustworthy and safe. It’s being spiritually mature and maintaining a humble spirit – knowing it is the Holy Spirit who is guiding and directing the relationship.

Is God calling you to be the soul friend of someone that He has brought into your life? Is He calling you into relationship with someone with whom you can walk on a mutual journey of faith and share the innermost secrets of your heart? Someone who will speak the truth in love and love you unconditionally as you will love them? Someone who will help you in your pursuit of God? 

A 12th century Celtic monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, in writing about the soul friendship said, “Here we are, you and I, and a third is also present–Christ Himself. Since no one else is here to disturb us, open your heart and let me hear what you have to say.”