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February 09, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about my desire to be a doer when it comes to the convergence of technology and theology, media and Christian living. I do not want to write a book full of prescriptions that I choose to ignore. And so, as I’ve dedicated increasing amounts of time to research, I’ve begun to examine my own life, my own use of technology and ultimately, its use of me.

Today I’d like to give three quick examples of the ways I’ve had to change my own life as I’ve thought about what it means for me to live in a distinctly Christian way in this media-saturated world. Maybe in the book I’ll write about some of these in greater detail. For now, I will be brief. Each of these is simply a way I’ve found that I can step just a little bit outside the torrent of media and information that always seems so close to overwhelming me.

I recently came to the realization that email owns me. A good technology that should be at my disposal has instead taken over and put me at its disposal. And if you’ve read Postman you’ll know that technology is very good at this. No sooner do we put a technology in our service than we find that it has so changed our lives that suddenly we have become enslaved to it.

When I find myself compulsively glancing at my screen every time I walk by, hoping to see an icon telling me I’ve got a new message, when I unthinkingly pull out my iPhone to check to see if I’ve got any new email, I realize I’ve got a problem. When I sit in meetings with email open, glancing as often to the screen as to the person speaking, I understand that something has gone wrong. Somehow I’ve given email more than it deserves. In my mind I’ve made it into something it is not and something it should never be. Email was never meant to be the first thing I look at in the morning or the last thing I look at before bed.

Hear me when I say that email is not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing either, really; it’s just a thing. I wouldn’t want to say that email is somehow innately destructive. It is an excellent medium for communication and one that serves many purposes very well. It is exceptionally efficient, at least when at its best, and gives us amazing levels of instantaneous access to one another. I wouldn’t want to cut it out of my life and certainly do not intend to.

But email is demanding, especially when given the reins. Recent scientific studies show that there may well be some kind of a correlation between the psychology of email and the psychology of slot machines. A variable interval schedule, as psychologists might know it, draws us back time and again, hoping for the occasional payout. Though most of the time there is no payout when checking email, just like there is usually all cost and no payout when playing slots, there is always the promise of something great. Occasionally we may win a jackpot and occasionally we may get a bit of very good news by email. But most of the time there is no payout at all. Yet our brains seem hard-wired to keep searching, to keep driving us back to the inbox, hoping against hope.

So what have I done? I’ve made email something that I’ve scheduled into my life. Let me back up just a little bit. Thinking about the nature of email and the kind of messages I receive via email, I realized that my mind had been tricking me. Really there was only very, very rarely any exceptional good that could come to me via email—the news that my book proposal had been accepted, the news that a friend had safely delivered her child. Far more often than not my email varies between junk and normal—spam and interesting yet ultimately non-urgent and non-life-changing communiques from friends and family. Such emails are easy to schedule into certain times of day; there is no reason to monitor them on a constant basis. And so I now check email only occasionally—two or three times a day seems to be sufficient. So far I don’t see that it’s had even the smallest amount of negative impact. I do not access email at all in the evenings and have cut far back on the weekends (by way of example, I checked once this past Saturday and not at all on Sunday).

It has shocked me to see that the world keeps turning even when I don’t constantly monitor email. Who would have thought it could be possible? Life goes on.

So much for email. I’ve also stopped gratifying my urge to instantly search for anything that interests me. Very often I find my mind wandering to a person or a topic and before I know it, I’m sitting at a computer and typing the search into Google. Just this evening I had the urge to search for information on Elizabeth Edwards, a book titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and feedback on the new Facebook upgrade. I would then have blown fifteen minutes satisfying these impulses. I have seen that in this wired world knowledge about has become far more important than knowledge of, that the great virtue is in instant access to information. I’m going to try to stop catering to that desire. Instead, I’ll scratch things down in a notebook and look them up later. Or, more often than not, I’ll forget to look them up at all and be no worse off for it. I want to spend far less time searching out new information and more time reflecting on the information I’ve already got.

And this feeds into the third change I am making. Yesterday I went looking for books dealing with distraction. As I did so, I had a video clip playing in a different window and found that I was constantly flipping back and forth between them. The irony was not lost on me. For a long time I’ve been conflicted about A La Carte. It is a feature of this blog that has become quite popular—when people talk to me about what they like about the blog, it is probably second from the top of the list (immediately after book reviews). When I began it, some 1050 posts ago (the first one was in the summer of 2005 and I’ve been quite regularly updating it five times a week since then) I saw it as an opportunity to share a few of the things that had caught my attention the day before. To be honest, it did not evolve much beyond that. It continues to be a bit of a brain dump, or a link dump, if you prefer.

Two things have come to bother me about it. The first is the regular juxtaposition of information. Here I’ll have a story about a terrible natural tragedy that brought about massive loss of life, and right below it I’ll have a link to a silly video parody of something completely unrelated. Somehow that doesn’t seem right to me. The second thing that bothers me is the way it has become a force for distraction. I don’t think any of us really need most of the information we can find through A La Carte. It’s mostly just mindless entertainment, even the best of it. The messages implicit in A La Carte are that we can skim lots of things, but really read nothing; that all news is really just a form of entertainment. It downplays thought and reflection at the expense of immediacy and variety. The messages get lost in the medium.

So here is the plan for A La Carte. It is not going away; it is just changing. What I want to try is to post a single link every day through A La Carte. Rather than posting a list of links that caught my eye, I’ll post a link to a single story along with an assessment of why it is important. If I haven’t found anything particularly important, I won’t post at all. I do not want to be another force of distraction. I want you to know that if I link to something, it is worth your time and attention. Stay tuned tomorrow for the first iteration of the new A La Carte. We’ll see how it goes.

So those are the three changes I’ve already made. They are small things, I’m sure, but they are not without significance. Like so many people, I feel as if technology owns me as much as I own technology. More so, even. I’ve got amazing gadgets and gizmos available to me and each of them plays its own role in my life. I just need to make sure that they are in my control, rather than handing them the reins and following blindly behind them. I think I’ve done far too much of that already.

February 08, 2010

I graduated from college in 1997 (Or so. To be honest, I don’t even remember exactly what year it was and didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremony or picking up my diploma which undoubtedly recorded the date). My history degree did not open up the world of possibilities I had obviously thought it might when I first chose history as my major three years before. With few options available to me, and suffering from a lack of motivation, I decided I had better find some kind of employment, even if it did not incorporate my training. I learned that a new Starbucks was opening nearby and quickly made my way through the interview process. The day the store opened I was there, and I stayed at that job, putting in my forty hours a week, for what must have been a year—possibly more.

I’m not sure if this is still the case, but back then every store was required to select one “Coffee Expert,” the one person on staff who would receive a bit of extra training in the world of coffee and who was required to know more about the various flavors of coffee than anyone else. This person had to be able to identify the differences between the types and to teach others how to do the same. He was responsible for brewing different kinds of coffees in order to educate both the employees and the customers. Through some strange twist of fate I was appointed to this position by the manager.

There was just one small problem. I hated coffee. I still do. I am convinced that it is a vile, evil concoction and one that has cruelly enslaved much of the human race. I despise the stuff, even in what I am assured is its finest form by the hoards of brainwashed Starbucks robots. I can barely stand even the smallest taste of it. It curdles my tongue, makes my eyes water, and leaves me gagging. I find it utterly revolting.

And yet I was the coffee expert. When customers wanted to know about the different kinds of coffee we offered, it was my job to lead them through the various options available to them and to help them select the coffee that was suited to their tastes. A customer would choose a package from the counter and I would say, “Oh, now that’s a great choice. It’s a delicious, full-bodied roast that you can taste all over your tongue. Look for the flavors of oak and a subtle hint of the spring flowers that grow in the mountains of Peru.” I had the routine down pat and helped sell a lot of coffee—more than anyone else in the store, I’m sure. The facts were all true; it’s not like I was some kind of used car dealer covering up a vehicle’s flaws and hoping to make a sell to some poor sap who would be stuck with a useless hulk. I simply relayed information I knew was true. But I hated the product. Had I been entirely forthcoming I would have said this: “It mostly tastes like cigarettes. When I drink it I detect mostly the flavor of charcoal mixed with dirt—and not the nice dirt I used to eat as a kid, either. It tastes like burned, charred, nasty, ugly hot dirt. It’s loaded with caffeine and I’m sure it’s going to shorten your life. If you enjoy the smell or taste of manure, I’m sure you’ll love it. Would you like me to grind it for you?” It always struck me as just a little bit odd that I would champion something I disliked so much.

Since I wrote my first book I had quite a few people ask when I would begin a second one. My response was that I’d write another book when I had lived another book. When it comes to writing it is always a temptation to relay information I know is true, even if I have not incorporated it into my life. I’ve had to confess that I’ve done this in the past right here on this blog. I can sometimes content myself with knowing that something I am writing is true and biblical, even if it has little resonance in my life.

When I worked at Starbucks I had absolutely no passion for coffee. Though I could talk a good line, I always felt a bit like I was lying. Customers would ask, “What’s your favorite?” and I would just blurt out a flavor based on my favorite packaging. I had no favorite coffee anymore than I had a favorite flavor of cough syrup or a favorite kind of kick in the teeth. I don’t want my life to be like this. I want what I say and what I write to be a reflection of who I really am—or who I really want to be through the power of the Spirit.

I want to be a Christian who doesn’t just do a smooth job of selling the Christian life. I could probably sit down and write a book that would say all the right things and make me feel very happy when I had typed out the last word. But it wouldn’t satisfy because it wouldn’t be genuine.

Recently I read through a part of Michael Emlet’s book Cross Talk and came across these words. Though targeted specifically at ministers, I think they are applicable to any of us.

A temptation in ministry is to think that just because we prepared a Bible study, a sermon, or a discipleship appointment (or wrote a book like this!), we are deeply engaging with the God of the universe. But that’s not necessarily true. It’s easy in ministry to live more as a ‘pipe’ than a ‘reservoir.’ That is, it’s easy to live merely as a conduit to others of the transforming truths of God’s Word, rather than as a changed and transformed reservoir who overflows with lived-out gospel truth. You wouldn’t imagine cooking meal after meal for your family without sitting down to enjoy that nourishment, would you? To paraphrase James 1:22, let’s not merely be hearers or speakers or counselors of the Word, but doers, first and foremost.

I know that in writing a book I could easily be a hearer and speaker but not a doer. But that isn’t who and what I want to be. As you know, I’ve begun work on The Next Story. And already I’m seeing how I have to make changes to my life based on what I am learning. Some of these will be experimental, trying to live out different ideas on a trial basis. Though totally unrelated to the book, I did this with vegetarianism recently, going two weeks without meat just to try it out and to see what life is like with a whole new set of tastes and flavors. There are things I will try out just for the sake of the book, with no intention of maintaining them long-term. But other changes are going to be permanent, coming on the heels of necessity or conviction. I will introduce you to a couple of these in the days to come. (Hint: you may have noticed I didn’t post an A La Carte today…)

January 28, 2010

Yesterday I sat and watched liveblog coverage of the long-awaited announcement from Apple. To no one’s great surprise, they unveiled their newest device, the iPad. While everyone knew this tablet device was coming, everyone had wondered exactly what it would be. Apple has high standards when it comes to devices like this one and I, for one, was prepared to be amazed. Alas, I was disappointed. iDisappointed, even. I’m ready to declare that the iPad is the greatest disappointment in all of human history (at least since The Phantom Menace).

January 27, 2010

Yesterday I was in Orlando, today I’m in Savannah. Throughout this year I will be consulting with Ligonier Ministries, working with them on developing content for their web sites and other digital platforms. We had planned this two-day series of meetings and they needed to include two groups of people. The halfway point between these groups was Savannah, Georgia. And it just so happens that someone in Savannah loaned us a beautiful beach house to meet in. So here we are, overlooking the water and enjoying the beauty of it all. But mostly we’re having day-long meetings.

Here’s the view from my room just after sunrise.


January 26, 2010

Let me give you a brief update as to what I’ve been up to the past couple of days.

On Sunday night I hopped aboard a plane and jetted down to Orlando, Florida for some meetings with the good folks at Ligonier Ministries.

Flying from Toronto to Orlando is, obviously, an international flight and, hence, all kinds of draconian new TSA-mandated rules apply to it. It used to be that a flight from Canada was little different than a domestic flight but for having to pre-clear US Customs—something that took only a few brief minutes. But over the past month things have changed.

I have to assume that the heads of the TSA sat down one day and said, “Flying is miserable, but not quite miserable enough. Let’s talk about things we can do to make it even worse.” And then they mandated those rules to countries like Canada who fly to the US. On Sunday night my time in the airport involved standing sequentially in eight(!) different lineups and having my passport and boarding pass checked eight different times (not necessarily corresponding to each of the lineups). The entire process took fully two hours, even though there were less than half a dozen flights to be screened, and left me sprinting down the concourse in a full-out run to make my plane (which, thankfully, I did).

I know that the security people are tasked with the rather thankless job of keeping us safe in the air and I am truly grateful for what they do. In fact, I always stop to thank at least one of them for keeping us safe up there. But anyone can see that the current system is woefully inefficient and unsustainable. If Sunday night, a slow time for travel, is so problematic, I cannot imagine what things must have looked like on Monday morning. This is going to make people just give up travel, figuring that it is just not worth the frustration. They are going to have to fix the system.

Once we left the ground we immediately hit pretty significant turbulence which meant that they were not able to serve drinks, though the flight attendants did walk up and down the aisle to hand out extra air sickness bags. All these factors led to two different medical emergencies with passengers lying passed out in the aisles, a call for doctors to identify themselves, and so on. It was truly a bizarre experience.

For all that it was still a good enough flight (better than I deserve, right?) that allowed me a few hours of reading, disturbed only by the giggling of the guy in the next seat who was very much enjoying some Sandra Bullock movie. We arrived in Orlando safe and sound and only thirty minutes behind schedule.

Yesterday I met up with the people of Ligonier Ministries and spent the day with them. Highlights of the day included a tour of the new St. Andrew’s Chapel which really is stunning (as I know you can tell from this grainy iPhone picture of it). They have done an amazing job of constructing a new church that maintains a classical feel. In a day when so many new churches are constructed with a utilitarian feel it was nice to see one that has been constructed with an eye to beauty.

St Andrews

Though the same property will soon house the offices for Ligonier Ministries and the Ligonier Academy, those buildings are still being renovated. So we headed over to the current offices just in time to see Dr. Sproul tape an interview with Dr. Stephen Myer, one of the founders of the Intelligent Design movement. It was fascinating to watch the exchange between the two of them; it was the kind of discussion that left the rest of us feeling a little bit dumb, I think. I’ll let you know when it airs on Renewing Your Mind. Here’s an ultra-grainy shot which brings my horrible photography skills into full collision with the iPhone’s low-light limitations.

I love to get little behind-the-scenes glimpses at different ministries and it was a real joy to meet many of the godly men and women who serve at Ligonier. I’m looking forward to spending another day with them today.

Here’s one last thing I just had to grab a shot of. As we were driving from one place to another we went pass a bear-crossing sign. I had no idea that bears were a problem in Florida. So here is evidence of that fact. Sadly, there were no bears crossing yesterday.

For those wondering, A La Carte may make an appearance this week. But when I travel I find it very difficult to spend the time necessary to collect and assess the links. So I’ll do what I can, but make no promises.

January 01, 2010

I am feeling unusually pensive this morning. Sometimes a new year dawns with barely a whisper. Sometimes it arrives with a shout. This year I sit here on January 1 with more than a little apprehension, feeling like the new year is screaming at me. There is little doubt that this is going to be a busy year. That’s the way I like it, really, as I am easily bored, so I am not complaining. When I’ve contemplated taking something major off my schedule Aileen has always counseled me, “You need to do a lot or you will get bored.” She is probably right. Yet as I look at 2010 I see all sorts of tasks—each of which I am both looking forward to and intimidated by—staring back at me.

I have a book manuscript due in six months and at this point I have barely begun (more than preliminary research, that is). I have taken on a project to read all of the New York Times non-fiction bestsellers for a year and, while I am very much looking forward to doing all that reading, I do worry occasionally that it will prove burdensome. I want to continue reviewing a Christian book per week and also want to dedicate some time to reading substantial theological volumes. And of course I do not want to neglect or de-emphasize those things that are central to my life—time with my children, time with my wife, investing in my church family, producing good work for my clients, spending time reading the Bible and praying, and so on. I want to be busy enough to keep me interested and motivated but not so busy that I burn out. I so badly want to use this year in such a way that I use every moment, bringing glory to God in each day given to me.

To that end, here is a prayer I am praying today. It is drawn from The Valley of Vision.

O Lord,
Length of days does not profit me
except the days are passed in Thy presence,
in Thy service, to Thy glory.
Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides,
sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour,
that I may not be one moment apart from Thee,
but may rely on Thy Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire
to show forth Thy praise;
testify Thy love,
advance Thy kingdom.

I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year,
with Thee, O Father as my harbour,
Thee, O Son, at my helm,
Thee O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.
Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
my lamp burning,
my ear open to Thy calls,
my heart full of love,
my soul free.

Give me Thy grace to sanctify me,
Thy comforts to cheer,
Thy wisdom to teach,
Thy right hand to guide,
Thy counsel to instruct,
Thy law to judge,
Thy presence to stabilize.
May Thy fear by my awe,
Thy triumphs my joy.

And having prayed that prayer, I will also be turning to Don Whitney’s Ten Questions for the New Year to attempt to give me some context for what I do and attempt to do this year.

I believe 2010 is going to be an amazing year and I’m eager (and a little scared) to get it started.

And to you, on this day, I wish a safe and happy new year. May you know God’s richest blessings in 2010.

December 30, 2009

If you’ve read this blog for a while, I guess you know that I’m a fan of The Lord of the Rings. I’m not one of those Tolkien fanboys who is going to react with offense when you get a fact wrong. Rather, I’m a fan of a good story and it’s beyond dispute, I think, that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has crafted an epic story. I mentioned recently that I’ve been reading the book with my family and that as I’ve been doing so, certain components of the story have been jumping out at me. Today I want to point to one more of these.

One thing that sets The Lord of the Rings apart from just about every other fantasy series I’ve ever tried reading is that it does not confuse good with evil. It never glamorizes evil. Tolkien carefully separates the good from the evil and avoids blurring distinctions between the two. It is always fascinating to keep an eye on Tolkien’s portrayal of these the two opposing forces.

One aspect of this that has stood out to me recently is the inability of evil to understand good and, conversely, good’s ability to understand evil. Here Tolkien has tapped into a crucial reality about good and evil.

As I’m sure you know, the whole book is based on a long and dangerous quest to destroy the Ring of Power. Many years before the commencement of the story, Sauron had created a ring and into this ring he had invested much of his strength and will. This ring was his greatest strength and potentially his greatest weakness. With it he was nearly unapproachable in his power; without it he was weakened; if it were to be destroyed, he too would be destroyed. Through a series of unlikely events the ring has ended up in the hands of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, who has now been given the task of venturing to Mount Doom to destroy this ring. All the forces of evil are arrayed against him as he does this. And yet, somehow, he succeeds (sorry to give away the ending, but I’m sure you already know all of this). How then does Frodo succeed in so unlikely a quest?

He succeeds because Sauron, powerful though he may be, never understands what Frodo plans to do. Sauron sees good through the lens of evil. He cannot conceive of anyone actually destroying something as powerful as his ring. He assumes that everyone would do what he would do—use the ring to rule over others. Had he understood good, he would have known that the forces of good would destroy the ring and, in so doing, destroy him. He could simply then have surrounded Mount Doom with his armies and intercepted anyone who approached. But instead he projected his evil thoughts onto the forces of good and determined that they must be doing what he would do—using the ring as a means of power. And thus his actions, his attempts to find and retrieve the ring, were all wrong. In his evil he completely misunderstood good. And really, this is the way it had to be. How can evil understand good?

Here Tolkien has displayed in fictional form an important reality. Evil cannot understand good. When I communicate with an unbeliever, as I’ve been doing in my letters to Luke (another of which is coming soon) I can have confidence that I understand him better than he understands me. Why? Because I have been brought from darkness into light, from evil into good. I’ve known evil and now know good. Through the Bible I am given God’s eyes to see evil as he sees it and to understand it as he understands it. This gives me a whole new clarity. But one who has never turned to Christ has known only evil. He can see what is good but can understand it only through that lens of evil. I know what it is to be lost in a way that he cannot know what it is to be saved. Tolkien got this one right.

December 29, 2009

Do you remember learning to do long division back when you were in grade school? It was probably fourth or fifth grade when we learned to do it. It was a long and laborious process and one that, even in my day, seemed irrelevant. After all, we all had calculators and we knew that they could do it quickly and easily. With the tapping of a few buttons we could get our solution and it would be correct every time. Kids today can probably make an even better argument that division is best handled by computers or calculators. I’ve little doubt that once most of them are out of school they never do long division again.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a good step-by-step example of long division in operation (drawn from Wikipedia).

950 divided by 4:

1. The dividend and divisor are written in the long division tableau:

Now instead of dividing the whole dividend (950) by the divisor (4) we will simply divide each digit of the dividend by the divisor, one at a time, starting from the most significant (leftmost) digit:

2.The first number to be divided by the divisor (4) is the leftmost digit (9) of the dividend. Ignoring any remainder, we write the integer part of the result (2) above the division bar over the leftmost digit of the dividend.

Since we ignored the remainder, though, we have not accounted for the leftmost place entirely. That is to say: 4 × 2 is merely 8, and the relevant digit of the dividend was 9. Thus we subtract 8 from 9, yielding the remainder 1, to tell us how much of the leftmost place remains unaccounted for.

3. We “bring down” this unaccounted-for remainder from the leftmost place (1) then bring down the next digit of the dividend (5) and place it to the right of the remainder to create a new bottom number (15).

4. Next we repeat steps 2 and 3, using the newly created bottom number (15) as the active part of the dividend, dividing it by the divisor (4) and writing the results as before above and under the next digit of the dividend.

5. We repeat step 4 until there are no digits remaining in the dividend. The number written above the bar (237) is the quotient, and the result of the last subtraction is the remainder for the entire problem (2).

The answer to the above example is expressed as 237 with remainder 2. Alternatively, one can continue the above procedure to produce a decimal answer. We continue the process by adding a decimal and zeroes as necessary to the right of the dividend, treating each zero as another digit of the dividend. Thus the next step in such a calculation would give the following:

I’m sure you remember this kind of problem and solution. You probably remember hating having to go through all the bother. You probably remember, as I do, trying to get out of it. The argument my teachers made, and the argument I’m sure teachers continue to make today, is that doing the onerous task of long division not only teaches us how to do it on our own for those rare occasions that a computer or calculator or cell phone isn’t handy, but it also teaches how division works. By going through each step we see how it works—we learn not only the solution, but we also learn the process of solving it. It isn’t fun, but neither is it meant to be. It’s an educational process.

Since the release of my book I’ve done all kinds of written and radio interviews and I’ve spoken to many people about the book face-to-face. A question that gets asked often is what I hope people will take from the book—what are one or two things that I really want people to learn. And this is where the parallel to long division comes in. If there is just one thing I want people to take away from the book it’s the categories of discernment. If Christians can read the book and begin to think in the black and white terms of discernment, I’ll be well pleased. Just knowing that discernment is an expectation for all of us is valuable knowledge and something many Christians really do not understand.

And second to that, I want people to realize that discernment is something we are responsible for as individuals. We cannot simply leave discernment to the experts. Rather, we each need to learn to discern and we each need to grow in the skill of discernment. Like using a calculator for division, we can rely on others to give us the bottom line. But like doing long division, it is far better to do the work ourselves and to ensure we understand how to discern. The theological equivalent of using a calculator may be just Googling what John Piper or John MacArthur says about a certain topic and taking that word as law. It may be asking a parent or pastor and accepting what they say without further thought. We are all prone to want to get to the final tally without going through the intervening steps.

But like the kid who cheats by using a calculator, we cheat ourselves if we do not do the difficult work of discernment. As we discern what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, we train ourselves to think as Christians and we train ourselves to really understand what discernment is. We make sure that we understand the difficult business of discernment—not only the end result but the process of getting there.