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.

Words Someone Needs To Hear

Michael JacksonCNN continues to report new details surrounding Michael Jackson’s death. They say he asked a nurse practitioner for Diprivan (an anesthetic used in surgery) so he could get some sleep.  And Dr. Deepak Chopra said in an interview he had asked for narcotics to dull his pain.  In the mid-’90s, Jackson apparently even toured with an anesthesiologist who would “take him down” at night so he could get some rest.

My heart breaks when I hear of someone with pain so deep that he needed anesthesia just to get away from this world for a while.  Nurse Practitioner Cherilyn Lee told CNN that she refused his recent requests for Diprivan, saying if he took it, he might never wake up.

The world is filled with people who are hurting so badly that they want to sleep and never wake up. There are people surfing the Web right now, looking for ways to die.  There might even be someone reading this blog right now who’s in the darkest moment of their life.  Like Jackson, you’re looking for someone or something to “take you down” so you can get some rest, even if it means never waking up again.

Don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  You’re worth the fight. Be courageous and seek help.  And as you do, never forget that rest is found ultimately in God.  The Bible says God offers “shalom,” which is completeness, wholeness, well-being, peace and rest for the weary soul.

Hear this “benediction,” literally “good words” spoken over your life — my prayer for you in this moment:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;  the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)

Solving People Problems with Problem People

How do people related to each other at your church?  If it’s like the average church, there’s probably a heaping helping of gossip, slander and general malevolence between people who just can’t get along.  What should the church leadership do about this type of strife?

Very wisely, John Piper’s church has set some expectations for how church members should relate to one another.

For example, check out this section on conflict resolution:

  • Whenever we are faced with conflict, our primary goal will be to glorify God with our
    thoughts, words and actions (1 Cor. 10:31).
  • We will try to get the “logs” out of our own eyes before focusing on what others may
    have done wrong (Matt. 7:3-5).
  • We will seek to overlook minor offenses (Prov. 19:11).
  • We will refrain from all gossip, backbiting and slander (Eph. 4:29-32). If we have a
    problem with others, we will talk to them, not about them.
  • We will make “charitable judgments” toward one another by believing the best about
    each other until we have facts that prove otherwise (1 Cor. 13:7).
  • If an offense is too serious to overlook, or if we think someone may have something
    against us, we will seek reconciliation without delay (Matt. 5:23-24; 18:15).
  • When we offer a word of correction to others, we will do so graciously and gently, with
    the goal of serving and restoring them, rather than beating them down (Prov. 12:18; Eph.
    4:29; Gal. 6:1).
  • When someone tries to correct us, we will ask God to help us resist prideful
    defensiveness and to welcome correction with humility (Ps. 141:5; Prov. 15:32).
    When others repent, we will ask God to give us grace to forgive them as he has forgiven
    us (Eph. 4:32).
  • When we discuss or negotiate substantive issues, we will look out for others’ interests as
    well as our own (Phil. 2:3-4).

Does your church have something like this?  Should it?

I’ve Always Wanted One of These

Bible

I collect Bibles.  There, I said it.  I know, it’s a weird hobby.  But I have some pretty cool ones:

  • A TNIV Bible featuring daily devotions by modern-day authors like Louie Giglio beside historical theologians like C.S. Lewis.
  • A Bible made from olive wood from Jerusalem.
  • A limited edition facsimile of the Geneva Bible, worth more than all the others put together.
  • Two Reformation Study Bibles (NIV & NKJV).
  • The Soul Care Bible (for counselors)
  • Several Spanish Bibles
  • A variety of translations (The Message, The Voice, NLT, ESV, etc.)
  • Many sizes, many bindings, many colors… in short: many, many Bibles!

But I’ve always wanted one of these:

It’s a Rainbow Study Bible, and it’s the first Bible I can remember wanting to buy as a child.  It was at Tolley’s Bible Book store, and it cost almost $50.  I didn’t know exactly why I wanted it, but I knew I did.  I would look so cool (or at least colorful) in Sunday School!

You see, the editors had categorized the verses of the Bible into neat little categories like discipleship, love, faith, sin, salvation, and God.  (I guess “God” was the catch-all they used when they were feeling lazy…  Isn’t all of the Bible about God?)

Recently, someone left a Rainbow Study Bible behind in church.  It had sat beside the sound booth for two months before I decided they had given up and that I would adopt it.  Taking it into my office, I couldn’t believe my eyes… the Bible I had always longed for to complete my collection.  Except for one thing.  Now that it was in front of me — and now that I was a bit older and wiser — I didn’t think I liked the concept so much anymore.

Those who produced this Bible may have meant well, but I sometimes but wonder if the Bible really be divided up this easily.  Why should someone be able to just scan the Bible for the green “love” sections?  Does that method of  highlighting facilitate people taking verses out of context?  The more I read the Bible, the more I see it as a narrative.  For example, the letters Paul wrote don’t make sense unless you read them as letters.  Reading one sentence of the letter apart from the rest doesn’t make much sense.  (I would hope you wouldn’t do that if I sent you a letter.)

And on top of that, this Bible added a second level of questionable “highlight.”  It gave the red-letter treatment to the words of Jesus.  Or to be more precise, it underlined them since red was already used in its other categorizing system.  I’ve never liked “Red Letter Bibles.”  Doesn’t that tempt people to view the red letters as more important, interesting or beneficial than the rest?  I believe that all of the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and so if I produced a Red Letter Bible, they’d all be red.  Besides that, you’re once again facilitating people reading Jesus’ teachings out of context when you isolate them in that way.

I’ve sought after this beautiful Bible for at least 20 years, but now that I’ve got it, I think I’m putting it back in lost-and-found.  (Maybe I’ll add a sticky that reminds whoever takes it next to read the non-green passages and the non-red letters with just as much passion and energy as the rest.)

God Is Great, God Is Good…

As I child, I remember being taught this timeless classic:

God is great.  God is good.
Let us thank Him for our food.

(As if food rhymed with good… but anyway.)

It’s an interesting conundrum.  When should we pray before meals?  The Stuff Christians Like blog has a funny take on it:

If you go to Chick-fil-A or In-n-Out you probably don’t have to pray because those are Christian restaurants and the holiness is applied like barbecue sauce to the food items. You’re covered. Taco Bell, Burger King and other restaurants are questionable. At the bare minimum, turn your back in the car while they use that bean and guacamole gun at Taco Bell and say a prayer. Chances are you’ll need it. (By the way, if you’re partaking in Taco Bell’s “Fourth Meal” or the food they feed you between dinner and breakfast, you better pray. Lots. You’ve just introduced a grilled, toasted, roasted, 17 layer, bean bandalero to your stomach at 2 in the morning.)

This is just actually one of seven guidelines in their humorous “Guide to Food Prayers.”  But is it a laughing matter?  Some Christians religiously pray before every meal.  Others don’t at all. Check out this thought from David Crowder in his book, Praise Habit:

We think that if we pray before a meal, it will set this moment apart and other unbelieving peoples might observe our devoutness, and we will make a statement that will surely cause them to stop in their tracks.  Then, leaving this brief holy event well behind, feeling our obligation to “otherness” consummated, we engross ourselves in the devouring of burgers and French fries.

But it is in the moments that follow our prayers that we are able to follow the trail of our true affections, our hidden motivations.  It is in the gluttonous idolatry or tearful gratefulness that we consume the burger.  It is in our conversations over the meal — the valuing or devaluing of the ones with whom we find ourselves exchanging conversation.  It is found in the gratuity at the end of the meal.

What a revolutionary thought!  How we tip says more about the state of our heart than whether we mouth a prayer before the meal or not.  How we treat people around the dinner table says more of our Christlikeness… or not.  The gratitude we feel in our hearts as we eat… or not.

Maybe we should focus as much attention on really being grateful for God’s blessing as we do on an often-times empty ritual.  “But Billy,” you say, “shouldn’t we pray in public as a testament to our faith?”  Good question.  Simple answer:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Matt. 6:5).

If you’re praying before meals just to be seen in public doing it, you’re missing the point of prayer.  And, by the way, that form of evangelism doesn’t work anyway.  As my pastor jokingly asks, when was the last time you went out to eat and saw a Muslim praying, and you thought to yourself, “Man, I think I want to convert now!”

I’m not dissing prayer before meals.  I just think sometimes we focus too much on the external, and it gets in the way of true spirituality.  Thoughts?

Putting the “Fun” Back in “Funeral”

Recently, I was hired to tape a funeral.  I know, I know.  It’s weird.  But I’m getting that type of request more and more often, as people want to sent the DVD to relatives would could not make it to the memorial service in person.  I’ve also made some remembrance videos that are shown at funerals or given to family members.

This last one was especially interesting.  The person asked specifically that when she died that everyone wear red (her favorite color) and that there be a big dinner in the church’s fellowship hall.  It was wonderful!  There were pictures of her all over the place.  People in red blazers and red bow ties were mingling around, sharing their favorite memories of her… and enjoying the great food the church had prepared.

This was truly a celebration of her life.  And one day, when I go, that’s what I want too.  A party.  A party celebrating a far-from-perfect life — every inch of it covered by God’s grace while on earth — and an eternity of it to be lived in the presence of the King.  Oh, and don’t forget the maple glazed donuts!