Living in Our Disrupted World

One of my favorite sermons was delivered by Pastor Rob Bell on his Podcast aptly named The Robcast. The sermon is called The River, The Mountain, and You. It’s the second episode of his podcast and it’s worth checking out if you like podcasts.

The gyst of the sermon is this: a river is a river, and a mountain is a mountain. Until, the river is no longer a river and the mountain is no longer a mountain. Then, a river becomes a river again, and the mountain becomes a mountain again.

What the hell? When I first heard Pastor Bell say this I was struck dumb. What the hell did that mean? Okay dude where are you going with this one? Hang in there and I’ll explain.

We all start out in life viewing the world through a fixed lens that is shaped by our family, our teachers, our religious leaders, our friends, our society and the culture we grew up in. All of these influences shape how we see the world. It’s through this lens that we form our values, ideals, and beliefs. Up is up. Down is down. We see things as right or wrong. A river is a river.

Then, something happens to change our view. Something disrupts the lens through which we navigate life. It might be something as simple as reading a book, or it could be more complex like a life experience. But in that disrupted moment, up is no longer up. Down isn’t down anymore. What we thought was right may be wrong and what we thought was wrong may be right. The river is no longer a river.

When our world is disrupted we become confused. We look for the familiar. The more things change the harder it becomes to navigate through the world with our old lens. We become angry and defensive. We feel overwhelmed and then frightened. We yearn for the days when the mountain was a mountain.

Eventually, we adjust to the changes. As we adapt to the changes in our world the lens through which we view the world adapts. Finally, the river becomes a river again, and the mountain becomes a mountain.

I reflect on that sermon nearly every day. The first time I heard it was nearly a year ago. Here’s what I’ve been thinking.

Right now, we are living through one of the biggest technology disruptions in history. The internet is changing the way we live, the way we work, the way we communicate, and the way we connect with others. Our homes and our cars are becoming ‘smart.’ We can do our grocery shopping online and have it all delivered to our front door in less than two hours. Shopping malls are struggling to survive because of the convenience of online shopping.

Technology is changing how we work. The traditional office setting is becoming obsolete as more professionals utilize the internet and video conferencing to work from home. Blue collar jobs are being automated displacing thousands of workers. Walmart is adding 3,900 robots to their stores across the United States. The robots will clean the floors, scan products, sort shipments, and ready online purchases for pickup. Our future has never looked so uncertain. Adding to that stress and fear is the steady stream of live distressing and violent news coming to us 24 hours a day. Technology has advanced so quickly in the last 15 years. We have gone from relying on desktop computers to more portable laptop computers to much smaller tablets and smartphones. Smartphones are computers in the palm of our hands. Through our phones we are bombarded with information faster than our minds can process and evaluate. The internet connects us and brings us closer together. That’s great for bringing family and friends closer. But, it also brings us closer to the uglier parts of life. The violence in places far away now feels close to home. Sure, we’ve always known that the world had dark places and violence but that was delivered to us once a day through the evening news after the event when journalists had time to edit. They told us about the boogey man but they told us gently. Today, terrorists live stream beheadings. We watch helplessly on our TVs and phones as children die in school shootings. We think our neighborhood and community is a nice safe place to raise our kids until we download the app to our phone that shows where all the registered sex offenders live. The internet has also provided us with a more powerful tool to share messages than we have ever had in human history. Through social media we are talking about issues and topics once thought too taboo to discuss. We are challenging our society’s long held views on religion, race, politics, sexual orientation, and civil rights. Where is the river? Where is the mountain?

Life seems to be louder, faster, and lonelier in this disrupted world. We have thousands of friends and followers online but how many people do we connect with face to face every day? When you have your groceries delivered to your door you don’t have to talk to the cashier or the person putting your stuff in bags. Technology is beginning to have a dramatic change to the way we receive medical care. Feel like you have a sinus infection? Got an earache? You don’t need to leave your home and go to an Urgent Care or doctor’s office. Apps like Amwell allow you to be treated by a physician through your phone or tablet. Robots are being used to diagnose conditions like stroke in emergency rooms and even perform some surgeries. Technology is changing how we connect with each other. Online churches are beginning to grow. Teens don’t get together at the mall. They use FaceTime and WhatsApp. The river is not a river and the mountain is not a mountain, and this time we can’t simply adjust our lens. Life has changed so dramatically, so quickly, that we need to build a new lens.

All this change is overwhelming. We’re still trying to figure out how to use the technology we have when newer, faster, better technology is released. We can’t possibly process all the new information coming at us every day all day. It’s frightening. It’s exhausting. We reminisce about the good old days when things were simpler, easier, safer, better. But, were they really? It’s easy to romanticize the past especially when the present is so hard and the future uncertain. We just want to go back to a time when a river was a river and a mountain was a mountain.

The good news is that we are not the first ones to live through technological disruption. The printing press was first developed in 1439. When it was perfected Martin Luther used this technology to print copies of the Bible he had translated to German from Latin and Greek. This led to the Protestant Reformation. In 1908 Henry Ford redesigned the horseless carriage into the Model T and created the assembly line. This created the automobile industry which transformed where we lived, worked, and played. These disruptive technologies gave us great things but even Henry Ford found himself living with regret for the amount of change his Model T had created. He longed for the good old days of his childhood so much so that he created a museum dedicated to preserving different moments of American Life. There, at Greenfield Village, he moved his childhood home where it was preserved just as it was when he was growing up. A time when, for Henry, a river was a river and a mountain was a mountain. Eventually, everyone adjusted to all the changes and as they adapted the lens through which they viewed the world it became hard to imagine there was ever a time when books were so rare only the very wealthy and churches had them. What was it like before automobiles when you couldn’t travel farther than a day’s walk? We’ve never lived through those experiences. Society had adapted to the changes. The rivers had become rivers again, and the mountains had become mountains.

It will be no in this disrupted age. There is an entire generation that has never known a world without the internet. They and the younger generations will be the ones who make the new rules and social norms and transform our disrupted world into their world.

This brings it all around to the title of the sermon – The River, The Mountain, and You. How do we live in this age of disruption? We are trying to cope with the anxiety and fear by using meditation apps, gratitude journals, therapy, and antidepressant medication. Fear-based religious teaching in mega churches are drawing ever larger crowds. Trump was elected because he promised to “Make America great again!” One of the leading Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential election is Pete Buttigieg, a millennial who doesn’t wax poetic about the way things used to be but rather focuses on what the future could be. As we try to find the rivers and mountains we are divided into those who look back and long for the way things were and those who look forward for what could be. I think that one of the most important things we must all do to bridge this gap is to remember that no matter how different we think we are we are really much more alike than we realize. Most importantly, when we feel really overwhelmed and the change seems terrifying, remember that just like all the times before, the river will become a river again, and the mountain will become a mountain again.

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