Brain Hacking

So “brain hacking” is apparently a real thing, at least according to Anderson Cooper on a recent episode of 60 Minutes.  Programmers and App developers are utilizing our brain chemistry and their algorithms to create more and more addictive uses of our phones and other devices.  It turns out that a chemical called dopamine in our brain is activated every time we scroll or swipe looking for new information or to see how many people have liked a post we put on Facebook.  It is no different than the feeling that a gambling addict gets when they pull the handle on a slot machine and wait to see if they have won anything.

At the same time, our addiction to technology, especially our smart phones is creating more anxiety in our lives.  Here is an excerpt from Anderson’s interview with Dr. Larry Rosen about this:

Larry Rosen: We’re looking at the impact of technology through the brain.

Rosen told us when you put your phone down – your brain signals your adrenal gland to produce a burst of a hormone called, cortisol, which has an evolutionary purpose. Cortisol triggers a fight-or-flight response to danger.

Anderson Cooper: How does cortisol relate to a mobile device, a phone?

Larry Rosen: What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.

So the same hormone that made primitive man anxious and hyperaware of his surroundings to keep him from being eaten by lions is today compelling Rosen’s students and all of us to continually peek at our phones to relieve our anxiety.

Larry Rosen: When you put the phone down you don’t shut off your brain, you just put the phone down.

Anderson Cooper: Can I be honest with you right now? I haven’t paid attention to what you’re saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot and I haven’t checked it in, like 10 minutes.

Larry Rosen: And it makes you anxious.

Anderson Cooper: I’m a little anxious.

Wow was I ever convicted when I watched this segment of 60 Minutes and realized how creative our enemy is and how susceptible I am to his tactics.  So, what is one to do when our world is creating technology to entrap and devour us?  One possible answer is to put down the technology and pick up a good book.  Just last week, Baker Books published a new book called The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch who is one on my favorite authors and an important Christian voice.  I for one need this book as much as anyone else in my family and am looking forward to applying the advice he has to share.  How important it is that we recognize the what our enemy is doing and choose to follow Paul’s important advice in Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will”

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An Unexpected Journey

My Aunt Jan, my mother and me

I was on a train to Dundee.  As the countryside sped by, I couldn’t help but wonder how this was happening.  I was supposed to be flying back to the USA and instead I was headed to a memorial service for my Aunt.  Only ten months earlier, I had been in England and seen her at a celebration for our ministry and she had seemed fine.  Now, she was with her heavenly father and she was only seventy years old.  As my Uncle would say, cancer is a monster.  Despite that reality, our family was gathering in Dundee and we were going to celebrate her life.

As I arrived at the church, I was greeted by the early arrivers as I had gotten there an hour early because of the train schedule.  The little ensemble orchestra was getting ready to practice and the audio engineer was working on the sound system.  Soon the pastor saw me and welcomed me expressing his condolences to our family.  Though my Aunt and Uncle had only attended this little Scottish church for two years, it was clear that they had made a difference in many people’s lives.  People began to stream in and take their seats and there were many tears shed even before the rest of my family arrived.

My Aunt Jan was a remarkable person.  As a teenager, she had helped to lead a Bible study for her peers and as a young adult she was actively involved in The Bible Club Movement that made biblical teaching available to public high school students.  It was through that ministry that she met her husband Tom.  While my Aunt was a very busy person raising three children, ministering alongside her husband as a missionary in three different countries and learning a new language, she always had time for individual people.  She cared deeply about what was going on in our lives and constantly prayed for all of us.  I was often amazed at the small facts she remembered when we would see each other again and that she had been praying for me and my family so diligently.

As my family arrived at the church, we embraced and cried some more.  This was not what we had expected to be doing on this Saturday afternoon.  The young pastor opened the service with a personal greeting and made it clear that Jan had touched his life too. As I sang along to the songs that had been chosen for this occasion, I put my arm around my mother who had lost her only sister and prayed that she would have the strength to give her remarks.  Right on cue, God answered that prayer and many others.  With a sudden resilience, my mother spoke of the special relationship she and Jan had enjoyed from the day she was born until the moment that God took her home.  Each of Jan’s children shared heartfelt remarks and my Uncle got up to speak.  I could hardly imagine how he could be able to do this without breaking down.

Before he gave his remarks, Tom thanked several people for coming to the service and as he did so he turned to a person playing in the little orchestra.  Surprising to most of us, Jan’s Oncologist was playing an instrument and participating in this celebration of her life.  What a special gift she was that day.  It seemed that no matter where Jan was, she had touched people deeply and they wanted to say so publicly.   Tributes to the impact of her life poured in over Facebook and via e-mail and phone calls.  Her son Jeff summed it up best when he said that she had the gift of “paying attention”.  She could focus on you and your needs like you were the only person in the world.

In leaving us so early, Jan left a hole in our hearts and a legacy of faithfulness.  She always pointed us to her savior and was constantly looking for ways to introduce Jesus to people that did not know Him.  Even in her later years, she joined a ministry called seeJesus and was excited about the prospect of using their materials to introduce more people to the one who had so radically impacted her life.  The truth is that none of us knows the time we have on this earth.  Our life’s journey is unpredictable and many times unexpected events intrude.  In the words of the famous missionary pioneer, C.T. Studd, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”  My Aunt Jan made every day count for her Lord and Savior and left us a compelling example to follow.

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A Fateful Question

It was a Friday morning in 1985 and it was time for class.  I walked into the familiar room like I had every day for the last two weeks and yet something was different this time.  Even though the teacher had not assigned seats, all of us had quickly chosen our spots on the first day of class and acted like they had been assigned anyway.  I walked to the front of the class with my books when I noticed her.  She was leaning across my seat and chatting with the guy who normally sat next to me.  This was awkward.  I didn’t even know her name and now she was occupying my space.  With a slight hesitation, I walked up behind the chair and asked a question that changed my life, “Is this seat taken?”  Looking into my eyes she quickly said, “No, it’s for you” or at least that’s how I remember it.  With that remark, she had my attention and we began to chat.  How had I not noticed this girl sitting next to me for two weeks?

That remark started a conversation that has continued for the last thirty two years.  The girl was Debra Chapman and she is now my wife.  Something happened that weekend that has shaped who I am today in more ways that I will probably ever fully understand.  A simple comment led to a chat that led to a relationship that turned into a lifetime commitment.  Looking back, I am amazed how quickly it all happened and how young we were when we met.  Deb was eighteen and I was still seventeen.  How could we possibly have known where things would end up when we simply started talking.  The truth is, we didn’t have a clue, we just found each other too interesting to ignore and the rest is history.

Life is like that sometimes.  Seemingly random events that don’t seem so random in hindsight.  Two kids from very different backgrounds and yet remarkably suited for each other.  I loved to talk and she loved to listen.  She played field hockey and I played soccer.  We both were interested in learning and fortunately, we both loved to read.  Her mom had been a missionary in Iran and her dad was a missionary kid.  My parents were missionaries and I grew up on the mission field.  Yet with all these things in common, there was still one thing that mattered more.  We both loved God and were serious about our faith.  Just going to a Christian college did not guarantee that.  It was so encouraging to me to discover that she not only wanted to go to a local church every Sunday, but that the type of church mattered too.  We had a lot of fun finding a church together.  Years later she told me that she had actually noticed me before that fateful Friday.  She had seen me in a campus chapel service and was excited that some of the guys at the school were voluntarily attending worship events so early in the semester.

Even for our era, we married pretty young – only a few weeks after we graduated from college.  Little did we know what God had in store for us.  Life would throw us a few curve balls early in our marriage with job changes and our first son getting so sick that he nearly died eight weeks into his life.  More often than not, we felt like we had no idea what we were doing and wished we had a play book.  In moments like that, it was deeply gratifying to know that we had someone to rely on in those times of doubt and distress.  While everything around us seemed to be so uncertain, we had a God who was faithful and never changing.  He provided us a faith community that helped to keep us grounded and started to smooth out some of our rough edges as we learned to serve others.  His word became our source of strength and provided many of the answers that alluded us as parents and partners.

While I wish I could say that the lessons we learned in those early days and our unique compatibility made our marriage and parenting journey smooth sailing, that would be a lie.  Like every relationship, we have had our ups and downs and boy would we do some things over if we could go back in time.  As we enter these middle years of life with our boys growing into young men, I am more and more aware of my need for a savior.  No amount of will power is strong enough to conquer a sin nature that we are born with when we enter this world.  Only the finished work of the God/ Man – Jesus Christ – is powerful enough to loose the chains that bind and the sins that so easily entangle us.  Living the “Christlife” is a daily surrender to His will and not mine.  I praise God that He was the one who orchestrated that “random” event so many years when that young woman was blocking my seat.  Who knows what He will orchestrate next.

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The Soundtrack of the Mind

I was on a train again this weekend headed into Center City Philadelphia and noticed it.  For some reason the train car I entered was really full even on a Saturday morning and I discovered the only seat available was right in the front.  I had never been in the front of a train before and certainly not close enough to see the train engineer at work.  He had a window shade pulled down on his side window so all I could see were his hands.  That was enough though.  His strong hands would wait until the signal from the conductor and he would put the train in gear and we would get moving.  It was fascinating.  So fascinating that I almost missed seeing the young man beside me.  He was clearly a teenager, but seemed like he had an important task.  He was wearing an official SEPTA (South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) cap and jacket and was holding a clipboard.  At each stop, it seemed like he was recording our time of arrival and when we stopped suddenly, he made a note on the sheet of paper.  I presumed he had been hired to monitor the activity of this relatively new train that had recently been put back into service after having been repaired when cracks had been discovered by some inspectors and it became big news in our city.

Watching him work, I couldn’t help admiring how methodical he was and how much he seemed to enjoy it.  Then I saw something else.  Just like many other young people I knew, he was wearing earbuds and listening to something that held his attention as well.  Somehow, he could multi-task.  He recorded what he needed to, waved at passing trains, kept an eye on the conductor and even said “Bless You” when I sneezed.  Yet, the entire time, he was listening to something else.  It got me thinking.  I wonder what his soundtrack was.  Must have been something he enjoyed, because he seemed to be quite content and even focused.  Music can do that and so can the right words.  As I looked around the train, I realized that lots of people had headphones on or were reading books.  They were creating their own soundtracks – those patterns of words and sounds that come back to us over and over again when we least expect it and often need them the most.

Our minds are a lot like our stomachs.  What goes in shapes us in ways that we don’t expect, even though we are warned about it from childhood.  Eat junk food and you are going to be overweight.  Listen to lies and juicy gossip and we become suspicious and skeptical adults as the world continues to disappoint us.  My parents knew this and decided that my spiritual health was as important as my physical health and served up a healthy dose of biblical wisdom each day right alongside the casserole we were going to eat.  They shaped my mental soundtrack one verse at a time with a rigorous commitment to scripture memorization that was so natural, it was like eating the delicious rolls my mother used to cook.  Mom was really creative and relied on our unique personalities to make this process as normal as possible.  In my, case she knew that I had a competitive streak and decided to incorporate Bible drills into our weekly kid’s club.  It was never enough just to find the verse quickly, she wanted to see if we could quote it from memory and if so, you got an extra prize.  On our table for several years, we had a plastic box shaped like a small loaf of bread that held Bible Verses.  It was a big deal among us siblings to see who got to read the verse for the day.

I am so grateful for that spiritual nurturing of my mind.  When I am tempted to question God’s love, I remember that “he sent His only son…so that I might have eternal life”.  When I am tempted to give up, I remember that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.  When I get anxious and afraid, I remember that “I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind”.  As things look bleak, I am reminded “all things God works for the good of those who love him”.  These are not just nice sayings or spiritual platitudes; they are soundtrack of my life.  Yet, just like the food I eat, I must keep eating good things or my body will show it.  Resting in the truth of scripture should be a daily practice or my soundtrack begins to get warped or even worse, I start listening to other voices than the still small voice of my heavenly father.

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Why Does the Rooster Crow

It happened every morning for the last five days.  Just as the sun was beginning to rise a rooster began to crow nearby.  At first, I was annoyed, then I got used to it and eventually I looked forward to it.  Visiting the West Indies again, I was reminded how this sound is a part of the everyday life of anyone living in proximity to roosters and that seems to be most people on these islands.  Why use an alarm clock when God provided one in his own creation?  As I began each day with this familiar sound, I became curious about why roosters crow in the first place.  Why don’t cats, dogs or other animals get up first thing in the morning and create a cacophony of their own.  In doing some basic research, it turns out that there is a simple answer – God made them that way.  Their circadian rhythms are so attuned to nature that they can’t help but anticipate the dawn and announce it to everyone.

Each and every day roosters do this one thing and do it very well.  They may be busy doing other things during the rest of the day and night as they prance around the yard with their tail feathers in the air, but without fail, they will crow every morning.   It is almost like God is reminding us of that verse that says if we don’t praise him the rocks and stones will cry out.  It’s not quite like hearing a rock sing, but listening to a rooster crow is a startling experience nearly every time.  Built into nature, God has a chorus of roosters all over the world reminding us that the day is coming, God is faithful and the sun will shine again.  No matter the weather, these roosters keep crowing.  It can be raining or nasty outside and they remind us that it is still daytime and we need to be about our father’s business.  They are ultimately faithful to one of the key purposes for which God made them.

Visiting our team this week, I needed a reminder of God’s faithfulness.  After sixty years of dedicated service, our local bookstore team on this bustling Caribbean island is facing major headwinds, some might even say hurricane force winds.  Yet, as I met with them, I kept hearing the rooster crowing.  Despite a lack of resources and with declining economic conditions all around, our dedicated team is listening to the still small voice of their heavenly father and not the lies of the devil.  Just like Moses, they looked at what was in their hand and decided to do something with it.  Even though there is very limited parking around our downtown store, a bus stop had recently been put in place several hundred yards from our front door.  Dozens and dozens of people stream by on their way to and from work each day.  With that in mind, the team set up a folding table out front and put some books and Bibles out for display.  Not surprisingly, people who had never noticed the store as they hurried by now stop to look at what might be available.  A few even go inside to see an even better selection.

As I get older, I am becoming more and more aware that God does not really care what we can accomplish for him.  The truth is that He will accomplish His purposes with or without us.  Just like He made the rooster to do one thing and to do it well, He cares about that in us first and foremost.  We were made to worship Him and He desires our worship above everything else.  My primary purpose on earth is to glorify Him and point people to His son, our savior.  What I am learning these days is that my worship is in my work.  They are not separate and distinct.  As I do my work with excellence and integrity, I bring glory to the one who made me.  What a joy to wake up every day and join the rooster in praising God as I and my CLC brothers and sisters open the doors to our stores one more time.  Congrats to my CLC Barbados colleagues for 60 years of faithful service and may there be many more.

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The Power of Reading Parent

I woke up to a familiar noise recently, one that I had not heard in a long time.  It was a mother reading to her children and the joyous sounds of learning and laughing.  Deb and I were staying in the home of a family with four small children over a weekend as we attended a mission’s conference in Lancaster.  It has been quite a few years since our children were that age, but I still remember the sound very well.  Typically, reading to children under the age of five requires a book with lots of pictures and a parent who can bring the text to life.  It can be slow going as kids point to the pictures, ask lots of questions and often want you to read the story again.  At some point in time, a small miracle happens as the child continues to grow.  There is that magical day when they begin to read for themselves and want to show mom and dad that they know the words.  What a delight it is when your child brings a book to you, curls up in your lap and demonstrates that they now know what the book is saying.

Reading to a child requires patience and persistence that can be in short supply these days.  Even when I was growing up, some of my friends had the television as their constant companion and quasi “baby sitter”.  The go to solution for many parents and children these days is some type of screen, often an IPad or other tablet.  In some families, every child has their own devise by the age of five and the addiction has begun.  While it is true that these devices can have books on them and interactive games, it is also true that parents are often leaving their kids alone to learn for themselves.  Taking time to sit with fidgety children who want you to read the same thing over and over again can be challenging, but it is worth it.  It may even be life changing.

Walt Mueller, the President and Founder of the Center for Parent Youth Understanding, recently reported on survey data that shows that teenagers aged 13-18 now spend nine hours a day on some type of devise and tweens ages 8-12 spend on average 6 hours a day on one.  Lest we adults think we are immune from this reality, the same research showed that the typical adult in the USA now spends nine hours a day looking at a screen – the same amount as a teenager.  The devise of choice for almost every age group is the smart phone, with laptops and tablets filling in the gap.  We are now more addicted to screens than at any time in history and while social media is intended to be interactive, it often reinforces isolation and despair.  Children at very young ages are comparing themselves to completely fake images on screen of the “perfect” lives of others and many are experiencing cyber bullying as early as middle school or before.

Occasionally, I find myself helping in the toddler nursery at our local church and I love it.  Our nursery is filled with picture books and there is no screen in sight.  More often than not, I am able to grab one of the books and begin reading to a child.  Almost every time, the same thing happens.  Children that were fussy stop crying and more than one child crowds around me to see what the book has to say.   Then they start pulling books off the shelf and bringing it to me to read.  It is amazing how quickly an hour goes by as we all get lost in a Bible story and imagine what it must have been like to be David, Noah or Samuel.   It is hard to believe that simply reading a physical book to a child is becoming counter-cultural these days.  I for one plan on being part of this counter revolution and instigating the curiosity of children one book at a time.

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Independents Day

jubilee-bookstoreI turned the corner and saw it and it nearly took my breath away.  There were books everywhere and on so many different topics.  It looked like someone had taken an entire Christian bookstore and transported it to the Pittsburgh Convention Center.  As a bookseller myself, I could only imagine how much work it must have taken to transport these books and to display them for sale.  No matter, I had found it and like a kid in a candy store I began browsing the merchandise.  Who needs Disneyland anyway when I had found this.

This wonderful bookstore had been curated, transported and set up by a friend and fellow book lover, Byron Borger.  His bookstore, Hearts and Minds, located in Dallastown, PA is nearly legend in my world and I have been meaning to visit for a long time.  Now I got to experience it first hand at the Jubilee Conference.  His reputation had proceeded him and I was not disappointed.  In fact, I was overwhelmed with the variety and selection he made available.  Like many of the students at the conference, I was not even aware that there were Christian books available on some of the topics he featured.  He must have had over 100 different topical options including books on faith and the arts, faith and vocation, faith and the sciences and on and on.  It was simply amazing.

The Jubilee Conference is sponsored by the Coalition for Christian Outreach (The CCO) which is a large campus ministry organization that began in Pittsburgh in 1971 and now has 261 staff members on 116 campuses in the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West.  Byron served with the CCO doing campus ministry prior to starting his bookstore and had been integrally involved with the Jubilee Conference for many years.  The conference brings together students from these campuses and their campus ministers for a weekend of training, worship, and fellowship – and some book buying.  As I discovered, Byron made book buying such an important part of the conference you couldn’t help but buy books as he clearly made the point that reading Christian books is a vital part of Christian maturing and discipleship.

Before each main session during the weekend, the host on the main stage invited Byron up to discuss books.  You could feel the passion for reading oozing out of him as he talked and you could also sense a buzz in the room as thousands of students listened to what he had to say and considered what books they were going to buy.  His talk always included a slide with the book covers for people to see and he typically mentioned at least five books per session.  In all, he must have promoted over twenty to twenty-five separate books in just two days.  I have never seen anything like it and I realized I had a lot to learn about effective book promotion.

So what was the result of all this.  Throughout the weekend, hundreds of students visited the bookstore, browsed and bought books.  In talking with some of them, I quickly came to understand that they saw this a spiritual investment, not a commercial transaction.  Even though the books were only discounted 10%, I hardly heard anyone complaining about prices.  Instead, I heard many people exclaiming that they could not get over the vast selection and wished they had a bookstore like this in their town.  For many that will mean taking a trek to Dallastown as there are not too many stores quite like Hearts and Minds.

With the news breaking this week of the liquidation of the Family Christian Store Chain and 240 Christian bookstores closing around the country, I could not help but wonder if this is the time when that just might be possible.  Could Christians entrepreneurs around the country rise up and consider opening new Christian bookstores just like Hearts and Minds?  Could the Christian bookselling industry follow in the footsteps of the secular bookstore industry when the Borders chain closed?  Will this be our Independents Day?

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