Friday, September 24, 2010

How Deep Are You?

My class schedule for the year got changed and I am going to be taking some classes that I had not planned on taking this year. This fall should be fairly interesting as I couple an evangelism/discipleship class with an emotion health/spiritual leadership class. One thing that I generally am is introspective, so I figured that I would get a jump on my thought process and start running right out of the gate.

In a lot of my reading and conversations in the past few weeks, I have been led to discussions that in some way have related to the idea of knowledge. I posted something on my Facebook page the other day regarding the difference between knowledge and understanding.

I was reminded of the Apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 8 when he says, "Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God." Maybe you have encountered people in your lives who have a tendency to talk down to others, using their knowledge and intellectualism as a weapon rather than a tool. If knowledge is power, which many people rightly think, then, as Aunt May said to Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility." The more knowledge that we have, the more we are responsible for what we do with it.

But my thoughts this past week have gone beyond knowledge and the gaining of it. I really began to think about the fact that I can have a tendency to gain lots of knowledge and I don't always have anywhere to put it. Also, what good is knowledge that is gained if it never moves from knowledge to understanding. Someone suggested to me that understanding comes when you can describe something in your own words. I have personally found that my knowledge of something moves to understanding when I have to teach it to someone else.

As I continued my thought process and conversations throughout I also stumbled upon this idea that we dig down on a variety of different places in our spiritual formation and yet we never have a real concentrated focus on just one thing. We might dig five different holes that are one foot deep rather than digging one hole that's five feet deep. In many ways, we touch the tip of the iceberg and gain some knowledge, but do we ever really get to a place of understanding?

I think about the typical Sunday morning worship services that we take part in. I would venture to guess that the average person leaves the message/sermon/homily there and doesn't necessarily unpack it more throughout the rest of the week. But how else are we going to apply it unless we are taking what we heard, processing it, and converting our knowledge into understanding as we make application of it?

It's simple to wait for whoever is delivering a message/sermon/homily to give us the application. If we do that, we run the risk of allowing ourselves to be spoon fed rather than feeding ourselves. What are our takeaway points though? Do we think about them throughout the week? To be honest, that's not something that I have done before, but I am beginning to see the value of it. The other element of examination is to ensure that we are not taking someone else's word for something always but rather that we are processing through to make sure that what we hear is true and consistent with what we read in Scripture.

I grew up in the church, encouraged to be involved with Sunday morning worship, Sunday school, youth group, quiet time, and a whole assortment of other things within the church. Yet in the midst of that, no one ever encouraged me to stay focused on one area at a time, instead, I spread myself wide and it was not until later in life that I really began to take the faith that I had been brought up with and make it my own as I applied the knowledge that I had gained to create understanding.

Of course, I have not "arrived" at a place where I do this perfectly, nor do I expect to anytime soon. But, to be challenged (by myself or others) to stay focused and process one thing well rather than multiple things moderately, is a challenge that I need to embrace and pursue.

As you engage in spiritual formation and begin to understand more and more about God, don't leave it there. Let your knowledge become understanding. In one of his letters, Peter challenges us to allow our relationship with God to have a transformative effect in our lives. I end with these words as a challenge to myself and all of us to dig deeper.

"His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins." 2 Peter 1:3-9

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flickering Pixels

Shane Hipps had been on my radar screen for a while as his name had come up in conversations with friends who are also in ministry. I had picked up a copy of his book “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture” a while back but never had the opportunity to read it. I few months ago, I picked up a copy of his second book “Flickering Pixels” after hearing comments about it from a trusted friend. Having just gone through a Movie Theology course, the idea of media as a medium is still fairly fresh in my mind. The very nature of what I do every day in my job also connects me with the visual and aural.

“Flickering Pixels” was a fairly quick read for me. At 198 pages, it’s fairly short and the language that is used is far from some of the deep theological and ethical readings that I recently had to process through. Hipps’ subtitle for the book is “How technology shapes your faith.” His premise in the book is fairly simple: the medium is the message. Regardless of the fact that many of us view certain mediums as amoral, Hipps argues that the medium becomes the message that it conveys. He bases some of his ideas to Marshall McLuhan whom he refers to within the book as the “oracle of the electronic age.”

Hipps opines that the things that we create are extensions of ourselves. We communicate through symbols and while the English language is restricted to letters with specific phonetic values and words with specific meanings, some of the languages of the Eastern world are more symbolic in nature. Any student of the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek quickly understands the shortcomings of the English language.

Hipps says, “Images initially make us feel rather than think.” Advertisers discovered this and if you pay attention to advertisements, this is fairly apparent. Whoever coined the phrase “a picture’s worth a thousand words” was not far off. In many ways, a picture is also worth a thousand emotions. Our culture has quickly moved from a “reading” culture to a “watching” culture. Hipps suggests that reading requires patience while watching encourages a catatonic and unengaged state. He even suggest that our image culture is eroding creativity and imagination.

Hipps unpacks the medium of email as a means of communication. In its genesis, email was meant to be efficient. While it may be a fairly efficient means of communication, the lack of intonation, body language, context, and other clarifying elements of communication are absent. If most of us were to stop and think, we would probably be able to recall at least one instance where an email was misinterpreted, either by us or by the recipient of one of our own emails.

Hipps suggests that as we continue in the electronic age, we are seeing a growing biblical illiteracy. In much the same way that we see the marketing of “10 Minute Abs” we also see the same marketing within Christian circles with people trying to sell their condensed version of spiritual formation. But whether we like it or not, reading, learning, and listening to the Bible takes time. It is not the simplest of books to ingest and understand.

One of my disagreements with Hipps in the book is more an issue of semantics than anything else. When I first started in vocational ministry, I would constantly hear the phrase “ever changing method, unchanging message.” Hipps suggests that both the method and the message change. While I don’t know him personally, so I can only speculate, it seems that he is saying not necessarily that the message changes so much as different aspects of it are highlighted or focused upon depending upon the context. The Gospel message does not change, but there are definitely aspects of it that stand out more depending upon a variety of factors that I bring with me when I interact with it.

As Hipps concludes his book, he writes, “Instead of simply resisting or caving in to cultural forces, we are invited to study and understand them. Only then will we learn to use them rather than be used by them.” His point is important as we, who are the church, should not blindly use certain mediums to communicate without thinking about the potential impact of said medium.

Of course, all of this coming on a blog may seem a little ironic. I do get the irony, and with that in mind, I certainly approach what I do with caution, being aware of the potential for misinterpretation and miscommunication. When I finally discovered the importance of clear electronic communication, I learned a valuable lesson and saved myself from numerous headaches. Unfortunately, as long as fallible creatures communicate, we will misunderstand and misinterpret one another, but that does not eliminate the need to continue trying to improve.

If you are actively engaged in our electronic culture, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of “Flickering Pixels.” It’s a quick read, but one that will make you think, and hopefully will make you analyze the ways that you communicate and the ways that you are communicated to as well.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

At the heart of who I am, I am knit together like an engineer. That's why I hold two engineering degrees, a license, and nearly ten years of experience within the field of engineering. That analytical side of who I am can sometimes make it difficult to roll with the curveballs that life inevitably tosses at me. I develop a plan and then hold to that plan as unswervingly as I possibly can. Until, of course, that plan is no longer feasible or workable.

I had one of those days today when I got one of those curveballs at the beginning of the day and struggled to gain back my stride from that point forward. My carefully concocted and thought out plans had been developing for the last few months only to be dashed in the matter of a few minutes.

As I tried to dig my way out of the shattered plans, I turned to my constant comfort in the book of Psalms. As a worship leader, David is near and dear to my heart. When I find myself struggling with what portion of God's word that I should be reading, my natural fall-back is the book of Psalms. There is wisdom and comfort and constant reminders of the character and nature of the God whom I serve.

I turned to Psalm 40, made famous by U2 in the 80's. The first four verses read:

"I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods."

What an incredible reminder to me (and all of us) about what God has done for us. He has rescued us, saved us, put us in a safe place, and given us a new song to sing. While it's easy to focus on all the things that might not have worked out the way that I had planned, my focus needs to be on how God has not left my side nor has He abandoned me. He has just chosen to lead me down a different path.

Elsewhere in the Psalms, we read, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." God gives us enough light to see the few steps on the path ahead of us, but not so much that we no longer need to depend on Him for guidance, strength, wisdom, and direction. Next time that you feel like your best laid plans have been dashed against the rocks of life, just remember that your ways are not God's ways. His ways are higher and greater than any ways that we could ever imagine and we need to place our trust firmly in His character and His history of faithfulness to His people.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Setting Up A Tent

I hate to admit it, but sometimes the direction of my quiet time feels more like an exercise with the Magic 8 Ball. Anyone know what I am talking about? That children's toy that is filled with liquid and a triangular die that contains answers to "all" of life's questions. I feel fairly random a lot of times as to where it is that I end up in my Bible reading as if I were casting lots. The great thing about it is, through prayer and intent listening to God, I am pretty confident that I end up exactly where I am supposed to be. My latest excursion has been into the Gospel of Mark.

I was reading through Mark 9 the other day and I came upon the section which is labeled in my Bible "The Transfiguration." Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a mountain and during their time there, Elijah and Moses appear. Peter, generally being the "Activator" of the group, tells Jesus that they need to put up three "shelters" for him, Elijah, and Moses. Before Jesus responds, a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" After that, they look around and Elijah and Moses are gone.

As I read through the passage, I wondered what drove Peter to want to set up tents for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. Living in the Ancient Near East in the first century, the idea of the tabernacle, though somewhat far removed temporally, was still fresh in Scripture to Peter and other Jews. Essentially, it seems that Peter wanted to set up a holy place for each of them to dwell, just as God had dwelled among his people in the tabernacle during their 40 years in the desert.

As I continued to ponder, I thought that Peter might fit all-too-well into the 21st century church. Peter had experienced an incredible act of God and he wanted to stay there, enjoy it, and even have the opportunity to continue enjoying it. He wanted to set up a sacred space around it so that nothing could hinder or harm it. How like the modern day church does that seem? When we find something that "works" we tend to set up tents around it, making it sacred, and protecting it from the influence of anyone or anything else.

I'm not suggesting that we never duplicate things that work. What I am suggesting is that sometimes, we experience God in a new and fresh way and that experience is for a specific time and a specific place, not to be encapsulated in order to duplicate in the future. By attempting to encapsulate the experience, I think that we miss the point of what the experience is all about. If our experience doesn't lead us to transformation and Christ-likeness, then no amount of repetition will matter. If our experience becomes more about making the experience sacred rather than worshipping the One who has allowed us the experience, we are guilty of idolatry.

What kinds of things do you find yourself wanting to put "tents" around? What things have become so sacred to you that if anyone suggested touching or changing them, they would be at risk of getting a finger or limb chewed off? Are you attempting to make sacred the means of worship or the One who is to be worshipped?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

You May Say I'm a Dreamer

As I look back over my day, there are two things that stand out to me. The first is a question that was posed to me regarding the church where I work. The question was (and this is a wicked paraphrase, as we say in New England), "How would you rate your daily approach to ministry, 10 being you are trying to change the world and 1 being you are just trying to maintain and survive? Always the introspective thinker, I have rolled the question over in my head since it was asked. The second thing that happened was that I received some encouraging words about something that I recently wrote from someone who I respect, even encouraging me to pursue publication of the work.

The question and the comment are related in my mind because they both point towards dreams. For the most part, I approach life from a cautious and cynical perspective. Some of my experiences have tainted me enough to cause me to have knee-jerk reactions. The ironic thing about this is that at the very core of who I am, I am a hopeless romantic dreamer. These two elements of who I am are fairly conflicting, which probably seems obvious. Which one wins out? I guess it depends on the day.

It depends on the day...that was the answer to the question about whether I approach every day trying to change the world. There are some days when I feel that I can scale tall buildings in a single leap, and other days when I feel like I'll be lucky if I make it to my car. That's probably fairly overdramatic, but I think you get the point. There are some days that dreams seem to be stifled and extinguished by responsibilities and "to do" lists. More accurately, the potentially great things in life can easily be overshadowed by all of the good things that seem more necessary to accomplish.

Each and every one of us can probably list the things that we need to accomplish on a daily basis that are required in order for us to maintain families and jobs. I wonder if there are ways that we can jettison some of the extraneous activities in order to accomplish great things. I am reminded of Jesus' words to his disciples when he first called them, "Come and follow me." According to the Scripture narrative, there was no hesitation on the part of these early followers, they just dropped what they were doing, even at the expense of ticking off their dad by abandoning the family business, and followed Jesus. I wonder how willing we would be to do that if Jesus came to our places of employment.

Would we be willing to drop what we were doing or would we pull out our book of excuses and pick the best one? Would we abandon the great things that God has for us in order to accomplish the good things that someone else has given us? Are we currently abandoning the great for something that's only good?

A wise musician friend of mine always used to tell me, "Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life." Those are words that I think about often, but is it really possible to pursue your dreams and still survive without being such a hopeless romantic? I think so.

Yes, we are always going to have to do certain things in our lives, but what do we do with the rest of our time? Are we making good use of it? People make time for the things that they value and that they see as important. There are certain life stages where we may not have as many opportunities for extra activities, but we can always make some amount of sacrifice. When we come face-to-face with our dreams, we need to ask ourselves the question, "What I am willing to sacrifice to make these dreams come true?" Sometimes, the sacrifices are too great. We should never sacrifice our convictions or our families for our dreams, but if they are really attainable dreams, I wonder if those kind of sacrifices would even be necessary.

I had a conversation with a young man from my church in the past few weeks who is aspiring to do what I do in the future as his career. He has a few more years in high school, but he is looking ahead to the future and wondered to me if it was too early to start thinking about this. Here is a kid who is a phenomenal musician, intelligent, and to top it all off, he was born with no arms. In some ways, I think that I should be asking him the questions and taking some cues from him. Chances are, nobody is going to tell him what he is or isn't capable of doing, and because of that, the sky is the limit in his pursuit of his dreams. Here's a guy who knows who God has created him to be, has embraced that, and is ready to pursue his calling. So why are the rest of us so afraid?

In some ways, I think it's the sense of responsibility that we all inevitably face that saps our dreams and creativity. It's almost as if we think that we can't be responsible dreamers. Sure, it seems like a paradox, but I think it's possible. In the move "Up in the Air," there was a powerful scene when George Clooney's character was firing someone while at the same time trying to encourage the guy he was firing to look to the future. Ryan (Clooney's character) knew this employee's background and the fact that he had abandoned a passion that he had for this job. He asked the employee how much he had sold his dreams for, implying that he sold out his dreams for the job that he was currently being fired from. I wonder how many of us have sold our dreams for a price.

Have you abandoned your dreams or are you still pursuing them? In the immortal words of John Lennon, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." Don't let your dreams die, and if you sell them out, make sure that the price that you're being paid for them is really fair compensation for a life that is lived with "good" things rather than "great" things.