Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Showdown in Kishon Valley

You thought there’d be a lull in the action? You were wrong . . . Baal may have lost the battle, but his priests are just getting started.

Click the image below to read Chapter 8 of 42 Months Dry: A Tale of Gods and Gunplay.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Daylight Savings and Zero Sum

It was one of the most troubling e-mails I’ve gotten in weeks.

It came from my secretary, under the guise of a helpful reminder. “Don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour this Saturday,” it read. And while I know it was sent with nothing but the most helpful of intentions, I got the distinct impression that somehow the e-mail itself had become sentient and taken on a smug, gloating kind of tone along the way, so that its true intent came though clear as day: “You’re going to lose an hour of sleep this Saturday night. Ha-ha!” Or, in my case, I’ll have one less hour to go over my message for Sunday morning, which is an incredibly important part of the process for me.

In the back of my mind, though, I know it will be well worth it later on, when I “gain” an extra hour in the Fall. I certainly won’t be complaining then, as I receive those sixty precious minutes right out of thin air for free! Isn’t that an awesome feeling? Free hour, no strings attached! 

Except it’s not free. And it’s not an extra hour. It’s exactly the same hour we set aside in the Spring. We know it works that way, but we're still stupid about it. I remember some mornings in high school and college, as my alarm started blaring and I lay there in that mostly-unconscious state, trying to scheme a way to create another fifteen minutes to sleep without running fifteen minutes late. There were times I thought I was on to something, but when I woke up for real, it became all too clear that time is and always will be a fixed commodity.

It’s like with taxes. I’m just about at the point in the year where I stop putting off the task of gathering together all of our tax documents and actually just do it.  It’s such a hassle that I often wait until the deadline starts to loom. But that didn’t used to be the case years ago. I used to love tax time ten or fifteen years ago.  Why? Because I got a big check from Uncle Sam. Free money! I mean, I knew it was my money anyway and I just had too much coming out of my check each week, but it felt awesome to suddenly have a big sum in hand. Then one year, all at once, it dawned on me that I was giving the government a large, interest-free loan every year, instead of earning interest on that money myself—just to feel that little rush of getting something for nothing (when really, it was mine all along).

This zero-sum idea (i.e., to have a bigger piece of the pie over here, you must have a smaller piece over there) really permeates our culture. Back when I used to see television commercials (before Netflix and Amazon mercifully removed them from my world), I remember the big feuds between mega-corporations: MCI and AT&T taking shots at each other, Coke and Pepsi, McDonalds and Burger King, all fighting for a limited number of potential customers. Just like an extra hour in November means an hour lost in March, so one new Big Mac devotee means one fewer Whopper enthusiast—or so the thinking goes.

But we need to be careful with that in the church. The very same day I got that horrible e-mail about that horrible thing with the clocks, I went to a pastors’ gathering, where about twenty of us prayed together for each other, for each other’s churches, and for the spread of the Gospel in our community.  Pastor Kevin DeYoung specifically prayed, “Lord, save us from the kind of thinking that assumes one church must shrink for another to grow. Help us to be Kingdom-minded and remind us that there are so many people in our communities who don’t know You that all of our churches could never fit them all.” 

In my mind, I immediately connected this with the chapter I’d been reading, re-reading, and translating for the past few weeks: I Corinthians 1.  In that chapter we realize that, while Paul addresses his letter to “The Church in Corinth,” there were actually a number of different gatherings taking place each week (after all, most houses wouldn’t accommodate more than about fifty people, and the church was meeting in people’s homes). Add to that the fact that some believers had been baptized by prominent Christians and multiply by our human desire to divide and do battle with each other and “The Church” in Corinth had become a rather fragmented body. And, as Jesus reminded us, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Today, I met with another group of ministers—this time to plan our inter-denominational community services for Holy Week. As such gatherings always do, it reminded me anew that, when we put aside our natural and cultural compulsion to grow our market share by shrinking someone else’s, we (the Church) are truly at our best in showing the love of Christ to a world that is broken and lost and in desperate need of the Gospel.

So often, we try to use the cold hard math of human limitation when dealing with the Infinite God of the universe—the One who stepped out onto nothing with a handful of nothing and threw it at nothing and called forth everything. We forget that, with no effort at all, he can make an extra hour (Joshua 10) or extra money (I Kings 17) or anything without taking away from someone/somewhere else. He’s the only one who can do this and he happens to be the one who has promised to meet all of our needs. 

As followers of Jesus, let us not try and confine him with our human limitations and our zero-sum mentality. Instead, let us glorify his name and proclaim his Gospel and show the world his love and know that he is limited by nothing at all and all of his promises in Christ are Yes and Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Rock and Roll

I've been lax in the blogging department for a few weeks, which is funny because I've been writing a ton. My wife and I took a weekend at a friend's cottage sans 4-year-old and sat by the fire two and a half days of pretty much non-stop clickety-clacking.  I worked on the non-fiction book on consumerism in the church that I'm writing with Ted Kluck. I worked a ton on my next novel, which I'm now tentatively calling The Outside Man.  I re-read my book proposal a couple times, even though it's already worming its way through the workings of a major publishing house (my agent hopes we'll hear back in a few weeks).

But no blogging. Soooo... let me riff a little on time management, which is actually a topic I love to read/write/think/strategize about, but am less than stellar at actually mastering in real life.

It was looking to be one of my busiest weeks in at least three months—one of those perfect storm things where an already-tight schedule is complicated by the seemingly un-providential/coincidental convergence of multiple meetings, projects, and appointments (both personal and professional), leaving you to wonder how/if you can possibly deal with everything on your plate.

In the midst of this, a friend of mine from overseas, whom I haven’t seen in over a year and who is currently stateside for a very short time, called to see if we might get together this week. “I’d love to,” I told him, “but it’s not possible. If we can’t work it out for early next week, then I’ll have to catch you next time.” There was just no space in the schedule.

I was already falling a good deal behind by mid-morning on Tuesday when my son’s daycare called. He had a fever and was acting lethargic and clingy and they wondered if I wanted to come get him. My wife was out of town on official publishing business and so, suddenly, my schedule cleared itself. I sped over and picked him up, scored some chocolate milk and cookies on the way home (mostly for the boy), and settled in on the couch with him, where he alternately played with toy trains and soaked up TLC for the balance of the day.

Just after lunch, in a doomed-from-the-word-go attempt to salvage the work day, I lugged my PC (laptop was in Texas allegedly being fixed, but that's a whole other story) and 2-ton monitor down to the basement and fired it up while my son indulged in a couple episodes of Bob the Builder (spoiler alert: yes, we can fix it). But before I had so much as answered an e-mail or parsed a Hebrew verb, my little son was climbing up onto my lap, where he summarily fell asleep against my shoulder, snoring and drooling as I gently rocked him.

It was the best Tuesday I’ve had in a long time.

As I sat there, afraid to make any large movements lest I wake my sick child, I pondered how tricky priorities are. I’d just preached a message on the topic two days earlier, but right here on my lap was a living reminder of how we truly do have control over our own priorities and the way they play out in our lives (even though we might tell ourselves otherwise).

For instance, I had told my friend that I don’t have a spare hour this week, but with a single call about my son, I suddenly found more than six. We might tell a church or charity that we don’t have another dollar to spare, but if the car breaks down, we’re suddenly able to scare up a few hundred, simply by a forced shift in priorities. We might tell a co-worker that we lack the emotional energy needed to care for a pet at this point in our life (so please stop trying to give me one of your kittens), but if a spouse, child, or parent falls ill, emotional energy will suddenly be in record supply, at least for a time. The issue with the kitten is that it’s just not a priority.

The variables here seem to be willingness and intentionality. When I’m protecting my life’s status quo from a new element that is vying for a chunk of my time, money, or energy, I tell myself how impossible it would be to displace something else (anything else!) from its current rank in my life in order to accommodate these new items. Nine times out of ten, I don’t go to the trouble of evaluating each and every time-, energy-, and money-zapper in my life to see how each compares to the new prospect. And yet, when something significant happens, it becomes very easy to overturn old priorities. Compared with a basement filling with water or the chance to finally meet Eric Estrada, my formerly top priorities find themselves downgraded. And the only thing that has changed in such situations is my willingness to make the comparison and act on it.

I think this (our lack of willingness and intentionality) is why Christians often fall drastically short of our own expectations in the areas of prayer, Bible study, evangelism, tithing, and the like. We wish that we “had the time” or “had the money” to follow through in these things, but alas, our resources are all tied up. We don’t analyze what’s got them tied up and then compare the importance of these things with different elements of discipleship. Rather than being governed by our values, we usually just follow the inertia of the status quo. It might be laziness that keeps us from making needed changes or it might be workoholism. Either way, being intentional about our priorities (not just knowing what they are, or should be) is essential to being an effective disciple of Jesus Christ.

There’s a rather corny old illustration about time management (which also applies to most areas of stewardship) that I’ve come across about twenty times, and yet it always strikes a chord of truth with me:

An old professor was once addressing a group of top executives on the subject of time management. Rather than just give a lecture, he provided an object lesson by way of an experiment. Pulling out a large empty jar, he proceeded to place tennis ball-sized rocks into it until no more would fit. Turning to his audience, he asked, “Is the jar full?”

“Yes,” they replied.

Without a word, he reached under the podium and pulled out a box of pebbles, which he slowly poured into the jar. The pebbles fell into the cracks between the large rocks and, before long, almost the entire box of pebbles was in the jar, such that not one more would fit. Again he asked, “Is the jar full?”

Having caught on, the executives answered, “No!”

The professor smiled and produced a box of sand, which he very slowly poured into the jar, allowing it to fill in all the space between the large and small stones. He then surveyed the crowd and asked, “Now, what is the point of all this?”

One man in the audience raised his hand and suggested, “You’re telling us that, no matter how full our schedules may seem, we can always fit in more client meetings, more phone calls, more staff training, etc. if we fill in the cracks.”

“Wrong,” said the old professor. “The point is that, if we don’t put the big stones in first, we will never be able to fit them in later.”

We all have our “big stones” in our lives—those things that we would identify as top priorities if asked to list them out. Family, health, maybe time with friends. For the Christian, these should include time in prayer, time in the Word, service in the Kingdom, financially supporting missions and ministry. And yet, because we are not intentional about putting them in the jar first, we find that the pebbles and sand of life too often crowd them out.

Television or mindless Internet screen-sucking can steal an evening and give you nothing back in return, and yet we might tell ourselves that we don’t “have time” for personal devotions or exercise or a Bible study group or whatever the big rock is. “I’m only giving 2% to the local church and missions, but I’m stretched as far as I can go,” one might say, even while the sand of satellite TV and web-enabled smart phone payments, along with the pebbles of payments on two brand new cars and countless meals out are poured in first, leaving no room for the rocks that we wish marked our lives.

Although God’s resources are infinite, he’s entrusted each of us with only so much time, so much energy, so much material wealth. Stewardship means looking at that finite jar and putting in the big rocks first. I find that I’m continually working on this, re-building my schedule and priorities from the ground up. This sometimes frustrates me, but I suppose it’s better than the alternative. I pray that I’m getting closer and closer to a life that seeks first the Kingdom of Heaven and trusts God to provide the rest—a life where the big stones are placed in the jar before the sands of life fill in every little crack.

And while nobody is perfect, I’d love to reach the level of Martin Luther who used to (unironically) say, “I have so very many things to do today that I can’t afford to spend less than three hours in prayer this morning.” May the priorities of the Kingdom be the biggest rocks in our lives, and may we place them firmly and firstly on the Rock of Jesus Christ.