As Through The Lens

Spring Flowers

I love this time of year. More specifically, I love being a photographer in the spring.  God is painting in his brightest hues right now, and his masterpieces are all around us.  But you have to be quick before the bright buds fade away.

At the first sign of spring, I grab my camera and drive around, looking for the perfect shot. As I drove my family back from Pipestem State Park last weekend, the journey took twice as long as usual because I was constantly pulling over to take a picture.  I’m sure it drove them crazy, but it was almost a healing experience for me.  Having barely survived a crazy, crazy week, it was a 180-degree flip to take things slowly on purpose.

What a great mindset this is — searching for beauty! Would you try it this week?  If the speed limit is 35, go 25.  Look left.  Look right.  Peer up ahead.  Search out the sky for beauty!  And then capture it, even if it’s just with a mental picture.  Capture that moment, and enjoy God in it.

Spring FlowersMaybe we should take this mindset with us the rest of the year too. What would it look like if we looked for the good all around us?  In the office?  In the airport?  In the checkout line?  What if every mundane minute of our lives could be turned into a search for beauty?  God’s hidden it all around us, tucked away in the personalities of our co-workers and the faces of strangers on the sidewalk.

It feels like many of us do the exact opposite — searching for what’s wrong. We nitpick everything and everyone, scrutinizing every last detail, looking for something to complain about.  At least I do.  I’m paid to do that.  Whether it’s pointing out a “jump cut” in a video or a violation of the “rule of thirds” in a photo or even reminding a guitar player that he needs to tune, I’m constantly critiquing and criticizing.

This weekend reminded me that, while there is much to point out that is wrong, there is also so much to appreciate that is right. I wish I could capture the feeling of my trip back from Pipestem and spread it out across all my days… living my life as through the lens of a camera that’s constantly seeking beauty to capture.

To see more pictures from my weekend, check out Whitt Media’s Flickr page.

Sirius XM is making my ears dumber

Car Radio

I blogged about my wreck well over a month ago, and unfortunately, my Jeep is still in the shop. I’ve been driving a rental car (a ballin’ Dodge Charger) all this time, and it’s been pretty cool.

One of the “benefits” of the rental car is Sirius XM satellite radio. You can’t beat the selection of music — my favorite is Hits 1.  And everybody is raving about the digital quality… that is, everybody but me.

Call me an audio purist, but I can’t stand the compression artifacts of satellite radio. I read on Wikipedia that their bitrates vary between 4 kbps and 64 kbps (compare that to iTunes or downloads of music with bitrates of 256 kbps).  That level of compression just completely trashes the high-end (cymbals, the presence in vocals, synths, guitars, etc.).

I realize that not everyone is an audiophile, but I don’t know how people can stand this level of compression… and even pay for it month after month.  The sad thing is that many people don’t even notice the compression artifacts anymore because all music is so compressed.  (Some younger people even prefer compressed music.)  But as for me, it literally gives me a headache and makes me feel like my ears are becoming more stupid by the moment.

People of Sirius XM:  If you are reading this, please change your ways! How can you charge as much as you do and only offer 64 kbps music?  Maybe we could cut the number of channels in half so you could offer 128 kbps?  Or, better yet, I read that you have quadruple redundancy?  Why don’t we just reduce that to double redundancy so I can enjoy music that hasn’t been thrashed beyond belief by compression?  I, for one, will never subscribe to your service until you at least rise to the 128 kbps standard!

Even Super Stars Forget The Lyrics

I’m my own worst critic. I always have been.  It’s part of being a perfectionist… and being obsessive and compulsive about attaining that perfection.

Like many other ministry leaders, I could make a checklist of at least 20 things that weren’t perfect at any given Sunday service. In fact, that’s often what consumes my thoughts on Sunday afternoons — what could have been better.

Luckily, we video our services and make Pro Tools recordings. Many pastors say they can’t stand to hear themselves recorded.  (I wonder if they realize that’s how everyone else hears them!)  I, on the other hand, am usually encouraged by our recordings.  Yes, the band missed a cue here and there.  Yes, I flubbed a transition.  Yes, the video fired a little late.  But, all in all, the recording allows me to step back and appreciate all the things that went right!

I think that we, in the church world, hold ourselves to an almost impossibly high standard. I want my band to sing on key and never forget a lyric, but even Christina Aguilera forgot the words to the National Anthem in front of a live audience of 100 million fans.  I want whoever is speaking at our service to never lose his place in his notes or to have an illustration that falls flat.  But even Steve Jobs has technical difficulties sometimes.  I want our sound guys to make us sound like a perfectly mastered commercial CD week after week.  But even the audio guys at the Superbowl made the Black Eyed Peas sound horrible.

Black Eyed Peas

The fact is that super stars mess up too, and they have much more preparation time and a larger staff of supporters. Steve Jobs only does a few keynote addresses a year, and Christina only sings the National Anthem a few times.  But we do what we do week after week after week, utilizing volunteer teams with much less experience and many fewer practice sessions.  Maybe it’s time to give ourselves a break!  If Christina can mess up, surely I can afford myself that same luxury once and a while!

A wise man once said that you can’t achieve perfection, but if you aim for it, you can achieve excellence.  I think that’s our ultimate goal.

If Steve Jobs Were a Preacher…

Presentation SecretsI just read one of the most interesting and helpful books I’ve seen yet — The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. It was a wonderful way to peak behind the curtain at what makes Apple’s keynote addresses rise head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd.

I decided to put Steve Jobs’ presentation secrets into action during a recent sermon. I am usually a one-point preacher (following Andy Stanley’s model), but on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, I felt I needed to present a lot more material so that the congregation could get a sense of just how many arguments can be made against abortion.

I categorized the evidence against abortion into legal, medical and logical arguments and presented biblical perspectives in each category too. That’s a lot to present in 30 minutes. That’s a lot of facts for a crowd to navigate through without getting lost. But that’s where Steve Job’s presentation secrets came in handy! I used slides and verbal cues to give clear signposts that we were leaving one category of evidence and entering another.

I designed creative slides that supplemented what I said and helped the audience stay focused. (For example, instead reading a bullet point saying a baby is aborted every 26 seconds in America, the audience watched sand slip through an animated hourglass behind me as it illustrated how quickly 26 seconds pass by.)

Check out the video below, and let me know what you think of using Steve Jobs’ presentation style to help illustrate a sermon.

LIFE: It’s Not A Game from Bill Whitt on Vimeo.

We Made the Police Blotter!

Snow Day

I guess I made fun of the “snowpocalypse” one too many times.  It finally got me.  Here’s how the police blotter reported my wreck:

MOTOR VEHICLE ACCIDENT: Mercer County 911 received reports of a car going airborne and hitting a few buildings on Bluefield and Maple Avenue at 6:28 p.m. Patrolman J.W. Murray, Jr. filed a vehicle complaint report, but said there was no building damage done.

The winter conditions finally got the best of me. I’ve been driving now for 18 years, and this is my first wreck.  I’ve never been on roads as slick as this!

It all started on a snowy Wednesday night when we were heading to a Bible study. I left my Bible at the church where I work, so we decided to swing by and pick it up.  As we were going down a snowy hill, we hit solid ice.  My Jeep Commander’s anti-lock brake system didn’t slow us down one bit, and we kept picking up speed as we neared the bottom of the hill.  We hit a snow bank and caught some air, so the witness who called 911 was correct — we did go airborne — but we didn’t hit a few buildings!  I don’t know why they said that.  That sounds like something out of a Jackie Chan movie…

I was able to maintain directional control of our path and keep us away from telephone poles, cars, houses, etc. But we did eventually hit a the edge of a concrete wall, ironically, at the church where I work.  Seeing that coming, I fully expected the air bags to go off, but instead of coming to an abrupt stop, our forward motion was translated into a sideways spin because of the slick snow.  As a result, we walked away completely unharmed, but our Jeep did sustain over $5,000 of damage.  (Ironically, if we had missed that concrete wall, we would have made it to the next street and could have kept right on driving to the Bible study!  Wouldn’t that have been a funny sight for the onlookers to see?)

We were slightly shaken up after all that, but, as many people have pointed out, all you can do is learn from events like this.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Never go over a snowy hill, even if you’ve done it for 18 years and never had a problem yet. You never know if this will be the one time that there’s solid ice hidden underneath the snow.  Go the long way, if necessary.  Saving two minutes isn’t worth it.
  • A Jeep Commander is an awesome vehicle to wreck in. All the safety features worked just as they were supposed to and kept us free from injury and in control of the vehicle as much as possible the whole time.
  • Encompass Insurance rocks!!! With one call, they took care of directly paying the body shop, directly paying for my rental car, and even arranging for Enterprise to pick me up!  All this from a “cheap” insurance policy with low premiums and a low deductible (compared to the big dawgs like Nationwide and Allstate).
  • Thank God for prayer warriors. Several people had told me that they felt God laying me on their heart that day to pray for.  Without a doubt, their intercession made a difference!

I also have to give big props to Body Works in Princeton. It only took a few minutes to drop off my Jeep for repair.  The process moved much more quickly than I had thought it would.  Everyone involved, from the police to the insurance company to the body shop to the car rental company has been excellent to deal with in all of this!

Most of all, I thank God that he saw fit to allow me to leave the scene unscathed. I still can walk and talk and breathe, and that is a tremendous blessing.  Life is a blessing, and we should never take it for granted because it can end in the blink of an eye.

I May Be Wrong, But…

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt… -Col. 4:6

During my master’s education, I learned to use a lot of tentative statements when talking to clients in a counseling setting. It wasn’t hard, but it was an important skill to learn.  It involves using statements such as, “I may be wrong, but it sounds like your work environment is difficult” or “It seems like you are tense.”  These open the client up to further exploration of the topic and generally come across a lot better than more definitive statements.  It also conveys a respect for the other person and makes it clear that you desire to understand them correctly.

What’s so hard about speaking politely and with humility? I don’t believe you have to be a master’s-level student to speak with civility.  However, our political culture has become poisoned with toxic, hateful language.  The recent shooting in Tucson highlighted the need to dial back the rhetoric a few notches.  I hope that we, as Christians, will lead the way, whether we are Democrats or Republicans.  Here’s what Jim Wallis and Chuck Colson had to say in a recent article in Christianity Today:

The obligation to show respect for others does not come from a soft sentimentalism but is rooted in the theological truth that we are all created in the image of God. How we speak to each other should reflect the honor and respect we owe each other as fellow human beings.

That means that when we disagree, especially when we strongly disagree, we should have robust debate but not resort to personal attack, falsely impugning others’ motives, assaulting their character, questioning their faith, or doubting their patriotism. It also means recognizing in humility that “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, when it comes to policies and politics, we could be wrong.

Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard, both in politics and in everyday discourse. The words we use are very important!!!  The Bible says that they are the overflow of our hearts.  I pray that what’s in our hearts is grace toward one another — even those with whom we disagree!

Looking Back on the iDecade

It’s a new year — and not only that, it’s a new decade. I wonder what people will say about the 2000s thirty years from now.  For Andy Crouch, one image comes to mind:

When movie directors in the 2030s are trying to convey in a single glance that their scene is set in the 2000s, they will use the self shot—the self-portrait shot from a digital camera or cell phone held by one hand extended away from the subject. We look out at our own hand, perhaps squeezing another friend into the frame, composing our face in a smile or a laugh. We are shooting ourselves.

I used to know a girl whose Facebook page was littered with these self-shots. In fact, she had some 900 of them before she de-friended me.  (That’s another story for another day.)  Every shot was the same, just as Andy described above.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she forgot what she looked like.  Maybe she needed to prove her face could really contort into all those crazy expressions.  Maybe she needed others to know she had friends willing to squeeze themselves into her frame… and into her life.

Whatever the case, she’s anything but atypical; the self-centeredness of the 2000’s is what I’ll remember most about the previous ten years. It truly was the iDecade.  Facebook, although a “social” network, is very me-centric.  And just look at the consumer products that characterized these years.  First, iPods locked us all in our own little audio worlds.  We could listen to our favorite style of music all the time, no longer forced to endure other people’s tunes or, worse yet, conversations.  Then, the iPhone became our personal portal to the Internet.  Now, not only our ears, but our eyes, became captive to personal entertainment 24/7. Once, we thought it was bad when children watched two hours of television or played on the computer for an hour.  Now, the computer is in their pocket and follows them wherever they go.  Can that be a good thing?

There is a glimmer of hope, though. Social networking thrives on these devices, and virtual connections can facilitate real relationships.  Maybe the self-centeredness of this past decade will soon give way to interconnectedness, precisely because of the technology that first drew us apart from one another.

How Not To Find God’s Will

Just Do SomethingI just finished reading an excellent book by Kevin DeYoung named Just Do Something. The subtitle explains the content of the book pretty clealry: How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc.

If you’re like me, you’ve tried one or more of these methods for trying to pry open the heavens and discover God’s plan for your life. And if you’re like me, you’ve often been misled by gut feelings and “open doors,” which are both very subjective and easily misread.  The author says: “How do you know when an open door is the Lord’s open door or the Devil tempting you?  How do you know when a closed door is the Lord’s answer to your prayer or the Lord testing your steadfastness and resolve?”

It turns out that the way we view “finding God’s will” today is very different than the way it was viewed throughout the rest of Christian history. The author makes a good case that being in God’s will is more about following His moral directives than discovering what specific place, relationship or job He has for you.  While most of us are so caught up in praying about whether to move to Nashville or Atlanta, that we totally miss God’s will for our lives, which is our sanctification (our Christ-likeness) no matter where we live (1 Thes. 4:3).  DeYoung puts it this way:

My point is that we should spend more time trying to figure out how to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (as instructed in Micah 6:8) as a doctor or lawyer and less time worry about whether God wants us to be a doctor or lawyer.

In the providence of God, yes, it is His will that we live in a certain place with a certain person and have a certain job. But should we expect Him to reveal all that to us in advance?  The Scriptures do record supernatural communication, after all.  But it never prescribes it.  For example, the story of Gideon’s fleece is recorded in Judges, a portion of Scripture where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).  Gideon’s request may actually be an example of cowardice rather than wisdom.  Regardless, these special communications from God were… well, special.  They didn’t happen at every single fork in the road.  The author quotes Bible scolar Bruce Waltke as saying, “The special revelation of God was a rare and unique experience, even for [the apostle] Paul. . . . We cannot take special circumstances and make them the norm by which we live our lives.”  And why are we so obsessed with knowing, anyway?

We often want to know the details of our future so that we can maximize happiness and minimize trouble. Isn’t that what most of our prayers boil down to?  When I ask God about moving to Atlanta or Nashville, at the heart of that prayer is often that I would be able to maintain my standard of living, that my family would be safe, that I would have a stable job, etc.  How often do you see that type of prayer in the Bible?  You don’t.  Safety was the last concern of first-century Christians.  Their bold prayer was to glorify God, even if it meant their death.

Another reason we cast lots and throw out fleeces is to avoid taking responsibility for our own decisions. DeYoung points out that the Latin word for decision is decidere, which means “to cut off.” We often hate making decisions because anytime we make a decision for one thing, we’re deciding against a hundred others.  We’re cutting off other possibilities.  And that’s scary.  What if we end up choosing a second-best option?

What if God’s will really wasn’t as complicated and confusing as we’ve made it out to be?  What if we all started seeking God’s will as it were laid out in Scripture? It would certainly affect the criteria we use in considering options.  We would know that God would want us to buy a house if that house will make us more Christ-like.  God would want us to be married if the spouse would bring us closer to God.  God would want us to take a different job if that job would help sanctify us and make us holy.  God’s will is always our sanctification.  Knowing that really chances our prayer lives.  For example, instead of praying, “God, show me which job I should take,” a more biblical prayer might be:”God, help me find wisdom in Your Word that will aid me in making a decision that glorifies you.   Help me see the situation clearly.   Help me not make a decision based on fear or pride.   Help me not be enslaved to pleasing other people but only pleasing you in this decision.  Help me be humble and trust You.  Make my motives pure, and increase my faith!”

It turns out that there are no shortcuts to finding God’s will. It comes through prayer.  It comes through wise council.  But most of all, it comes when we gain wisdom from the Scripture and renew our minds with His truth.  So, read your Bible!  Don’t open to a random verse.  Study it!  The author says, “Sadly, some Christians put greater stock in the Word of God when it is randomly selected than when it is read chapter by chapter, day after day.”  Sad, indeed.  And lazy.

God’s will is there for us to discover, and it turns out it’s been right in front of our eyes the whole time:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thes. 5:16-18).

Thermometer or Thermostat?

In Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes, he writes:

A thermostat is far more valuable than a thermometer… The thermometer is an indicator… The thermostat, on the other hand, manages to change the environment…

Which are you?

ThermometerThermometers know when something is wrong. Thermometers known when it’s too cold in church.  Thermometers can see your house’s paint is chipping and lights are burning out.  Thermometers can tell you that your Internet service is down… again.  Thermometers watch and complain.  But they do nothing.

Thermostats take action. When it’s too cold, thermostats turn the heat on.  When home repair needs to be done, thermostats grab a paint brush and a ladder.  When computer problems happen, thermostats try solutions until something works.  Thermostats don’t complain.  They do something.

The world has plenty of human thermometers.

What we need are more thermostats.

How Not To Go Hiking

Almost a decade ago, I hiked in the Rockies, and I was a lot better prepared then, compared to this weekend's ill-fated date night adventure!

Almost a decade ago, I hiked in the Rockies, and I was a lot better prepared then, compared to this weekend’s ill-fated date night adventure!

Anytime your date night ends with a desperate call to 911, you know you will have an interesting story to tell in the morning! My wife’s already shared a few recollections of our misadventures on her blog in an entry titled, “Surviving Date Night.”

I think that any date you have to “survive” doesn’t sound like much fun.  But Jessica said it was the best night of her life.  I wouldn’t go that far, but I will admit that getting lost in the woods at dark is an experience that taught us a lot!

You see, this story starts with me having a completely terrible weekend.  Our main computer in the auditorium gave me the Blue Screen of Death Saturday morning.  (For you non-computer-people out there, the Blue Screen of Death is Windows’ way of giving you the finger right before your computer gives up the ghost.)  I had worked extra hard Monday through Friday so that Saturday could be a fun day, but it quickly became evident that, that scenario would have to wait for another day.  This particular day would be spent first resuscitating this poor Dell workstation and then re-doing all the work I had done during the week so that our worship service could happen the next day as planned.

By the time that unpleasant and frustrating task was finished, I was ready to let off some steam. A good workout or run would do.  Jessica suggested we go hiking instead.  My ears perked up.  That would be perfect!

We headed out to the city park with our trusty sidekick, Marley.  I expected to find the simple trail I had hiked many times as a child.  To my surprise, though, the park no longer hosted just this single trail that made a simple loop.  The government had added three or four new trails of varying degrees of difficulty.  The excitement grew!  A challenge was just what I needed.

We chose the steepest one we could find — the blue path! I started with gusto, running uphill at a good pace.  Jessica lagged behind, but I told her that this was our P90X for the evening and that she should take it to the extreme!  When we finally made it to the peak, she said that we should turn around and go back, but I was still in explorer mode.  Computer problems seemed so far away up there.  I felt like a real man, bravely leading my family off into uncharted territory!

We pressed on, heading downhill. But soon the trail ended.  Simply ended.  We had two choices — turn around or pick one of the other trails that intersected with our blue path.  Still in an adventurous mode, I chose another trail, and we set off.  That same scenario happened four or five more times, and before long we had no idea how we would backtrack even if we had wanted to do so.

We were truly lost. But it was OK.  This was the city park, after all.  How badly could we be lost?  I pulled out my iPhone, but it was unable to triangulate our location very well.  It just showed our location as a big circle in the middle of a forest.  Very helpful.

Before long, it became painfully evident that it was getting dark. Not wanting to alarm Jessica, I just picked up the pace.  I ran to the end of each trail, hoping that just around the corner would be a familiar landmark.  Nope.  Just more choices to be made.  Another four or five times, we picked a random trail and hoped for the best.  Several times, we heard wind rustling the trees or a plane flying by or the, mistaking these sounds for traffic on a nearby road.  Our hopes were dashed each time, as we realized just how far away we were from the real world.  Only eerie silence and the sound of our own steps.

Soon, it was hard to see where we were going. Once dusk falls in the forest, it falls hard.  Still walking very briskly, I pulled out my phone once again and tried to place a call this time.  No one answered.  I tried another number.  Jessica asked what I was doing.  “Calling Mom,” I whimpered.  I finally got her on the phone and shared our situation.

“We’re lost in the woods, and it’s getting dark,” I told Mom.

Her response?  “What do you want me to do about it?”

Good question.  I replied, “I don’t know.  I just though you should know.”

Mom’s advice was to call 911, so that’s what I did. I was hoping they could triangulate our location via my phone’s GPS and place us on a map.  Then, they could lead us out.  It would be as if they were in a helicopter overhead, shouting down directions for how we could get out of the giant tree maze.  Maybe that was expecting too much of my county’s 911 system.  I’ll never know because about two minutes into my emergency call, our path started to widen.  We saw the parking lot’s light through the trees and heard the sweet sound of rap music coming from some guy’s car stereo.

With only a few minutes of daylight remaining, our path finally intersected with a gravel trail, which led us back to our car. I thanked the nice 911 lady, apologized for wasting her time, and hung up.

Suddenly, I felt so foolish.  In reality, I had been just a few more steps away from the parking lot. If I had been able to see myself from a helicopter, I would have never called 911.  There would have been no fear of the unknown because nothing is unknown from up there.  The path would have been clear.  But from a hiker’s point of view, we had no idea which direction we were  headed.  We could have been going in circles on different trails through the woods.  We could have been walking farther and father away from the park, never circling back.  Or, we could have looped back and walked so far that we had passed our original starting point on another trail.  There was no telling where we were because we didn’t even have a map.

We were so lost that, even at the very end of our adventure, only a few more steps from safety, I considered turning back. What a terrible decision that would have been — trading two minutes of easy walking to the trail’s end for for two hours of crawling up steep hills in the dark.  If someone had been able to see us from a helicopter, they would have shouted down, “Just keep going!  You’ve almost made it.  You’re almost there!”  But, without that perspective, we could have been five miles away, for all we knew.

If we had only brought along some basic supplies, this would have been a different story. A map and compass could have kept us from going in circles.  A flashlight could have crushed darkness’ chokehold on our emotions.  Even without someone yelling down to us from a helicopter, we could have known that we were almost back to safety.

All this got me thinking:  Most of us are lost in the woods on life’s journey. Right now, you and I may be just two minutes from our paths intersecting with greatness.  But, not knowing that, we let our fear of the unknown prevent us from taking those last few steps forward.  There’s no helicopter shouting down to us, so we better remember to pack our maps for the journey.  What’s the map?

In Psalm 119:105, we read that the psalmist says God’s Word is a “lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Although Scripture won’t directly tell us which job to take or who to marry, it can guide our decision-making.  If we say, with the psalmist, that we will not depart from the law (Psalm 119:102), that makes our choices a lot easier.  And even if it feels like dusk is falling, God will still light our paths so that we can take the next baby step without fear of falling.

I know I’ll never go on another hike again without a map.  And that was the last time I will ever step into the woods without a flashlight! Lessons learned.  I just hope to remember the lesson in the rest of my life too.  Step out with me in faith… one step at a time.