Friday, August 26, 2016

Examples

During the summer before I graduated college, I worked in fire protection. One of my tasks was to college fire extinguishers from the various locations in the factory where I worked, empty them, replace any damaged parts, refill them, and place them back where they belonged. Occasionally, we would find one that was clogged up, so it wouldn’t discharge. That was the whole point of the exercise. We needed to find the ones that wouldn’t work, so that people would have access to a working extinguisher. Shortly after we began that task, we discovered one of these and one of the guys we were working for helped us with it. He removed the nozzle while it was still under pressure hurriedly positioned it so that it would dump into the container we were supposed to empty these things into. Sometime later, I was working alone and ran into the same situation. Rather than releasing the air pressure, like I should have, I tried doing what he had done. Instead of the result he had, I ended up with a more predictable result. I had dry chemical all over me, all over the room, and everywhere. And then I had to clean up the mess.

There were things to learn from that experience, but one of the things I find interesting is why I did what I did. Had I not been following the example of someone more experienced, I would’ve thought it through, released the pressure and then removed the nozzle, so I could work on it. We learn bad methods by watching bad examples. In that situation, I should’ve been able to recognize that it was a bad example, but I didn’t. We have many situations where we learn from bad examples.

When I was a kid, we would go to Fifth Sunday Meetings. The churches we would go to would put out a feast that would put what we have at church to shame. Rural churches put out better meals than city churches because there’s no restaurant or store to buy the food from. And some of it is fresh from the garden. In any case, I remember loading my plate with food and then going back for more. At one such meeting, I remember telling someone, “I had two dinners and three desserts.” And I remember people saying, “You’d better go back and get you some more.” Then there was the statement, “he needs to eat a lot; he’s a growing boy.” People were praised for their ability to eat a lot of food and people would brag about how much they ate. It never occurred to me that piling my plate with food and going back for seconds was a bad thing. Why would it? The adults were doing that can bragging about it.

I wonder if we wouldn’t have so many overweight people if there weren’t so many people bragging about going back for second. What if people bragged about taking only what they needed? But it’s not just eating. I’ve noticed that people brag about their ailments as well. “These old knees just can’t handle that anymore.” “My back can’t take sitting in those pews anymore. Would someone hand me one of those pillows?”

While it is true that some people have problems as they age, I wonder if some people don’t begin using age related excuses sooner than they should, because the culture encourages it. Many of the problems that people blame on age aren’t age related but are a result of eating too much and not exercising. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are older people who maintain a healthy weight and continue to exercise. They have problems, but you don’t hear them talking about their problems as much. Why don’t we celebrate them as our examples, instead of treating them like they are some kind of exception to the rule?

Every generation has people of which it says, “They worked hard all their lives.” These people reach their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and beyond and they are still going strong. I think people forget that these people were also going strong in their 50’s, 40’s, and 30’s. These people didn’t plop themselves down in front of a television with a soda in one hand and a bag of chips in the other when they got out of college. Or if they did, they put those things aside. Perhaps they too had bad examples, but they realized it and changed the pattern.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Community

Thom Rainer posted an article on Four Types of Churches That Will Soon Die. He includes in that list the “ex-community church.” It reminded me of some of these farm churches that began within riding distance of four or five farms. Since families were large, it was easy for them to reach fifty in attendance from just those few families and then there may have been others who came from a little farther out. Now, communities are in towns that may be five to ten miles away from the church building and there may be ten people meeting in the building. It isn’t just that the church doesn’t look like the community, the church isn’t even in the community.


But I’m a member of a church in a large city. There is no shortage of people who are living around the church building. 50,000 people are within easy walking distance. The irony is that with that many people right around the church, there is no sense of community. In a small town, you go to the grocery store and you may know the teenager at the checkout counter by name. You may know who his parents are. You stop to buy gas and you see your neighbor, or your cousin, or someone you went to high school with, and you don’t think anything about it. But in Fort Worth, it is rare for me to see someone I know. It does happen, but it is rare. When you look at those people right around our church, there’s little to tie them together, other than the fact that they live near each other. They sleep there at night, but during the day, they drive off in different directions to go to work. The people they work with are more of a community than the people who live on their street.


We might need to say that this is the way it is and focus our attention on the world as it is. I know it sounds better for preachers to talk about people not being willing to walk across the street to share the gospel, but the people across the street aren’t our community. It is easier for us to share the gospel with people at our place of employment than it is with the people across the street, and that even if we stay within our employer’s limitations on such things.


On the other hand, maybe this doesn’t have to be the way it is. Having communities that have no sense of community isn’t a good thing. People need community. Instead of trying to figure out how to reach a community that isn’t a real community, maybe churches should be working to create these communities. When you think about it, there are only a couple of places in urban communities where people who live near each other spend time together, the local schools, and the local churches. Everything else takes place outside of the community.


Pie in the Sky


If I had unlimited resources, what I would want to do in a community is to build a church building right in the middle of it. Also in the center, I would stores and restaurants and green space. Moving out from there, I would want housing. Outside of that would be employers of some kind. But everything would be in walking distance. Parking on the street would require people to pay a fee, encouraging people to either walk or ride a bicycle to get where they are going. Because this community spends more time outside walking or cycling, rather than in cars and houses, people will have more opportunities to speak to each other and the sense of community develops.


Back to Reality


Even though some churches build buildings that look more like a shopping mall than a church building, no church has the ability to completely restructure a community. Even if we could, there’s no guarantee that people would choose to live there. But maybe we can take that concept and work within the situation we have. To begin with, the location of the building is important. If people don’t have easy access to the building, move. But it isn’t the location of the building that creates community.


Become the Community Center


Community is created when people spend time with the same people, frequently. It may seem like sacrilege to say this, but maybe churches need to hold some events that have nothing to do with sharing the gospel or inviting people to church. Easter Egg hunts and Trunk-a-Treat is a good place to start, but that’s only two things a year and they require people to have children. There’s no reason a church couldn’t offer more community events, with the main goal of building community. If someone happened to get saved, that would be great too.


Become the Well


There are churches that are named “The Well” but I wonder how many actually are. In the Bible, we have a story of Jesus stopping to rest at a well, while his disciples went to buy food. As you recall, this was where he encountered the Samaritan woman. One of the things about the Pie in the Sky community I described is that people walk and ride bicycles, giving them more opportunities to talk to their neighbors. You don’t give it much thought when you’re in a car, but when you’re walking or on a bicycle, there are some things you would like to find along your route. You want to find a water fountain, just in case your water bottle runs low, or you forgot to bring it. You want to find a restroom, even if it is nothing but a port-a-potty. Where you find one, you want to find a bike rack, because you don’t want someone messing with your bike while your pants are down. A little shade is nice. And if a bike pump is available and some tools you can use to work on your bike, you’ve found a place where you will stop. If a church would provide these things, even if all they provided is an outdoor water fountain, they would become a well to the people riding or walking past their building.


Encourage Cycling and Walking


When you think of people visiting a church, you normally think about them arriving by car. Visitor parking is allocated. Signs are placed to point from the visitor parking to the main entrance. But do we stop to think about the people who live near the building? If you live on the same block as a church, are you going to get in your car, drive a few yards, just so you can park near the building? But how easy is it to walk? Do you have to walk through the grass? Is there a way to take a shortcut through the building, rather than walking around to the front? If you ride a bicycle, is there a place to lock your bike? Is it covered, to protect it if it rains?


But don’t just make it easy to walk or cycle to church. Encourage your members to walk or cycle to church. When I ride my bicycle to church, I don’t ride the busy six-lane road our building is on. Instead, I cut through the neighborhood. Alone the way, I see kids playing in the street. I see people out walking the dog. I see people mowing their yards. Do you realize what we could do with that? “Come, go to church with me,” you say as you meet someone in the street. And even if we didn’t, people are going to take notice if they see someone dressed for church riding a bicycle.


It isn’t just that churches need to take part in the community. Churches need to develop the sense of community.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Review - Tactics

As a student in high school I learned that it isn’t good to tell a teacher that she is wrong, even when you know the subject better than she does. It is better to ask a question and to shape that question in such a way that the teacher will realize her mistake while attempting to answer the question. I never formalized that method, but Gregory Koukl does in his book Tactics. But rather than addressing how not to offend someone who has the ability to influence your grade, Koukl approaches this from the standpoint of how to share your faith. These days, we encounter many people who are offended by Christian beliefs. The tactics Koukl outlines in his book can help us to reduce the conflict and help them discover the truth of what we are saying for themselves. And even if they don’t, perhaps the people listening will.

The meat of the book is three questions that we can ask that will cause people to consider what they are saying. Often, people are just repeating things that other people have said, without giving any thought to the validity of the argument. These three questions may cause the person to see the weakness in their argument.

  • What do you mean by that?
  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • Have you ever considered?

The great thing about these questions is that they aren’t limited to a adversarial situation. You might be talking to a close friend and hear them say something that doesn’t sound quite right. “What do you mean by that?” Your child might say something like, “I don’t think I should play with Jane anymore.” You might ask, “How did you come to that conclusion?” or simply, “Why?”

One of the things that Koukl brings out about asking questions is that you can direct the conversation without taking sides on an issue. You don’t even have to be certain of what the right answer is. Perhaps, once you discover what the other person is saying and why they are saying it, you will agree with them. But when they are wrong, those questions may help them to see where they went wrong.

This is the best book on sharing your faith that I’ve read. Unlike other books that tell you what to say about the gospel, this book focuses more on the practical ways we can improve communication. While there are a few things I’m not sure I agree with him on, this is a book that every Christian who wishes to improve communication with non-believers should read. But the people who will benefit the most are the people in leadership positions who must deal with people who disagree with them. I can see where a teacher of a small group might put this to use if there is a student who insists on pushing strange doctrine during class. Rather than getting into an argument that disturbs the other class members, one could ask questions of the person and bring them around, or at least, make the other students aware that the person’s ideas are not correct.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Prayer Problems

Do you ever wonder if the Lord answers prayer? I’m not asking you to answer at church, where the answer is always, “Of course, the Lord answers prayer.” I’m asking you to answer from that place where the silence is deafening, where your heart is broken, where you are out of breath from a punch in the gut, where the floor is wet with your tears. In that place, do you ever wonder if the Lord answers prayer?

At church, we have these prayer lists. Every once in a while, someone will mention “a praise” because someone is out of the hospital. Someone might mention “a praise” because someone found a job or found a house to buy. But those things may have happened whether we prayed or not. What I’ve noticed is that people tend to praise the Lord for answered prayer when they receive their petition in a predictable way. In other situations, people seem to pass it off as happenstance, or “I just wasted a good worry.” I wonder if we aren’t looking at answered prayer wrong.

Several months ago, I set my goals for the year. One of those goals was to write a book. At the time, I thought I would get started right away and have one knocked out by midyear. Midyear came and I realized I hadn’t even started. I worded a prayer. It’s not the type of thing someone would put on the church prayer list. It’s not like I make much money from writing books. It’s not like I expect it will impact many people’s lives. It’s just a personal goal for the year. I could just hear Jerry on Wednesday night, “And pray for Timothy to write a book.” I don’t see that getting anywhere. But it was between me and the Lord. I had a pretty good idea of what the Lord would do. I was certain that if he answered my prayer it would be by persuading me to spend less time watching television and playing games, and he would focus my attention on the task at hand. But that’s not what happened. Does that mean he didn’t answer my prayer? If he didn’t, then why am over fifty pages into writing a book that I hadn’t even started a little over a week ago?

The answer came in the form of a mess. It adds no value to try to explain that mess, even if I knew how, but it was a mess involving people and emotions and opinions and church work, of all things. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to see things like this as the Lord’s answer to prayer. In this case, I felt it best to remove myself from the mess rather than risk of exacerbating the situation. I stepped away from Christian service that has been consuming between ten and twenty hours of my time each week for the past decade. Is that really the answer to my prayer? Would the Lord really put me in a situation where I felt it best to step away from a form of Christian service, so that I could write a book that won’t be read by many people? Really? This is really the Lord’s answer?

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t other higher priority tasks that can receive more of my attention now. It’s extra time I can spend preparing for Sunday school. I actually automated the local association letterform, which I’ve wanted to do for several years. There are some committees I’m on that require some attention right now. But mostly, I’m using the time to write a book. I’m sure I would’ve managed with the other stuff, but the one thing I can do now that I couldn’t do before is turn my focus to writing a book. And out of all this stuff, that is the one thing I prayed for.

We might have an easier time believing that the Lord answers prayers for things other than healing if we would stop expecting him to answer in the way we predict and look for the answer to come in ways we don’t. We might also do well to remember that God doesn’t need to prioritize or optimize anything. We prioritize ministries and look for the most efficient ways to do things because our resources are limited. That’s good stewardship on our part, but God’s resources aren’t limited. We shouldn’t expect God to answer prayer in the most efficient way possible and we shouldn’t be surprised if God turns our attention from a ministry that we gage to be high priority in order to answer a prayer that seems less important. Remember that Jesus rebuked the disciples who murmured when a woman anointed Jesus before his crucifixion rather than feeding the poor. It is a small thing for the Lord to tear down and build again.

But more importantly, we should stop praying and expecting the Lord to answer without changing anything. How many people have asked to see souls saved, and then they got upset when lost people came to church? We tend to be like the church praying for Peter’s release who were then surprised when he came knocking on the door. We say, “Prayer changes things,” but then we think something’s wrong when it changes things we weren’t expecting. If things the way they are aren’t giving us what we’re praying for, we’d better expect to see change when we pray.

That’s the problem I see with praying for sick folk. It’s not that we shouldn’t pray for the sick and afflicted, but many of them would get better, even if we didn’t pray. No change is required. Maybe someone gets a different doctor or they change their medicine, but that’s about it. It’s easy to pray for the sick because it requires nothing of us. But start praying for something that requires change and we have to do something. We might have to take on a new task. We might have to let a task go. We might have to meet some new people. We might have to change some habits. We might have to go answer a knock at the door. But we’ll be better for it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

I Love You

Not a big fan of the words “I love you.” Words are so easily said, but that doesn’t mean they mean anything. Me being a guy, I tend to equate love and respect. One doesn’t often say, “I respect you.” If people respect you, you’ll know it without them saying it. Here’s how:

1. Their Handshake

There’s more to a handshake than just clasping hands. If people respect you, their grasp will be firm. Also, they will make eye contact as they are shaking your hand. If people grasp your hand weakly and they are already looking for the next person to talk to, they don’t respect you.

2. Remember Your Name

People who respect you will remember your name. They will not only know your name, but they will make every effort to call you by your preferred name. And if they aren’t calling you by name, they’ll use “Sir” or “Ma’am”.

3. Nod or Wave

To nod or wave is a sign of respect. This is usually done at a distance. Also, people will nod or wave to people they don’t know as well as those they do. Even so, by acknowledging you, when they don’t have to, they are showing respect.

4. Ask for Advice

Nothing shows more respect than for a person to ask the advice of another. On the opposite side of it, if you are knowledgeable about a subject and someone bypasses you to ask advice from someone else, who knows less than you do, that’s a sure sign that they don’t respect you. As is the case if you offer advice and they choose to ignore it.

5. Repeat Something You Said

If you say something and sometime later you hear someone repeating what you said, that’s a sign that they respect you, or at least they respect what you said.

Monday, August 8, 2016

I've Been Hacked!

Hacked! It’s not something that you want to happen, but it happened to me. It’s a little embarrassing, actually. I’m supposed to know about these things. I’m supposed to be able to prevent this. Yeah, and so is Microsoft. I’ll get over it. Once I get past the feeling of being violated, it’s actually pretty cool. I was able to look at the look at the code they inserted, and I want to talk about that, but first, I’m not exactly sure how they got a foothold. It’s possible that they managed to get my password or maybe the password of the hosting company. I’ve seen situations in which the hackers were able to add get requests to a URL that were then translated into links to other places. But in this case, the index file itself was modified and a large number of files were uploaded to the server. Needless to say, I’ve changed my password and deleted the files.

I discovered the problem while working on moving my website to a new server. I haven’t been happy with the previous hosting company recently, so I felt it was time to move on. But to be honest, I’ve let my website languish for a few years. I haven’t written any books recently and I haven’t been pushing the old ones. As long as the links in my books were still valid, I wasn’t too concerned. But a recent change in responsibilities has allowed me to turn my attention back to writing and promoting books. So, I’m actually writing a new book and it seems like a good time for a reboot. I’m returning to the things I should’ve been doing before, but didn’t have time due to higher priorities. It’s easy to let things slip, and if you don’t watch it, someone will mess with your website. Unfortunately, while I was asleep at the wheel, it killed my search engine rankings for my targeted key terms. I’m choosing to take that as an opportunity to see what it takes to rebuild.

The way the hack works is that you won’t see it if you are looking at the website. If you were to type http://www.timothyfish.net into a browser, you would see the website and it wouldn’t be obvious that anything was wrong. You could probably even do a “view source” and not spot anything out of the ordinary. Where you would see a problem is when you see the site show up in the search results on Google or one of the other search engines. There, you will be redirected to a site selling shoes or jewelry or cheap drugs of some kind. It’s a neat trick, but it’s kind of irritating.

In this case, the hacker edited the index.asp file. I’m not sure if he did it manually or whether he had a tool that would do it automatically, but he added a few lines of ASP code to the file. He checked specifically for whether the request was coming from a search engine crawler or from somewhere else. If it was coming from a crawler, he would display a page that included a bunch of links to his stuff. If it came from somewhere else, he would display the real page. He actually called it the “real” page in his code. He also included some foul language in his code and the names of files he uploaded. He wasn’t trying to make friends, that’s for sure.

As it turned out, the fact that I haven’t been updating the site helped me remove the extra code. I sorted the files by date modified and deleted anything that was newer than about two years ago. I consider that a temporary fix. I’m in the process of updating my website, along with moving to the new server. Instead of everything being at http://www.timothyfish.net, everything will be at http://www.timothyfish.com. The other will redirect to it. I already have the http://www.timothyfish.com/Articles/ directory functioning, though the design isn’t there yet. This will teach me not to ignore my own website. If I’d been paying closer attention, I would’ve spotted it and fixed it already.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Minimalism

If you haven’t noticed, the current fad is minimalism. People are opting for small houses rather than big mansions. Some people are opting out of housing completely, and living with just what they can carry on their backs, not by necessity, but by choice. Instead of having several devices, people want just one that does what they need. Designers are embracing the concept, focusing on the basic needs and trimming out the extra. I saw an ad for a “minimalist watch” that does nothing but tell time. There’s something refreshing about the whole thing.

How different this is from what I remember from years past. I used to have a watch with a calculator on it. I remember buying watches with an alarm, an hourly beep, water resistance to 200 meters, a clock, a calendar, a way to tell direction, and who knows what else. What do I need with a watch that I can dive with? What do I need with the rest of that stuff? But I wanted it because it was available. So what changed?

People are, generally, overwhelmed. When you look at a big house and all you can think about is how difficult it will be to keep the thing clean, it loses its appeal. When you look at a bunch of devices and you know you have to mess with keeping the batteries charged, understanding how they operate, and keeping up with them, they aren’t as exciting. Minimalism makes a promise of making life simple. It offers freedom.

I don’t know that minimalism will be able to deliver on that promise. There are, however, some things about minimalism that are intriguing. I have things in my house that I haven’t used in a long time and I may never use again. I am hanging on to things that I know I will never use, but I like having them. If I were to eliminate everything but those things I actually use, my house would seem empty. I could put it all in a movable house and I would choose a different location at the drop of a hat. But does that make life simpler, or better?

Probably not. It’s never been stuff that makes life difficult. It is people who make life difficult. When I think about the stuff I have in my house that I can’t seem to give up, it all goes back to people. It may be memories. It may be that I’d rather not have them discover I threw out their gift. The heart of minimalism probably has more to do with getting rid of the need to please people. It’s all about getting rid of the white elephant. If you don’t have a guest room, you don’t have to house guests. If you don’t have a car, you don’t have anyone asking you to come pick them up. If your dining room is small, you won’t be the one hosting family dinners.

When I look at it that way, minimalism makes me sad.