Friday, June 29, 2012

The Bible Doesn't Say That

Did you know that the Bible never said you must obey the speed limit? But I think it’s safe to say that most Christians would agree that God wants us to obey the traffic laws. We might not like obeying the speed limit, but we all agree that God wants us to obey the law of the land. I would say that most non-Christians would agree that God wants us to obey the traffic laws.

If it is so obvious that God wants us to do something that isn’t specifically spelled out in his word, why then are people so anxious to find ways to dismiss those things that are? If a person ran a red light—something many people do—and we asked them if what they had done is wrong, they would say that it was. But what about something like fornication? It seems that the writers of television shows think it is the most normal thing in the world for unmarried people to sleep together. Going by what they show, if you aren’t sleeping with one of your co-workers, you are practically Amish. The way they tell it, fornication isn’t wrong, but it is wrong not to be involved in fornication. The same goes for adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, divorce, and any other sin that God has said we ought not to be involved in.

I’m afraid this attitude isn’t likely to turn around without people seeing the consequences of their sin. People know it is wrong to speed and run red lights, but many of them will keep right on doing it until they run a red light one day and get hit in the side by a semi. If they survive, they might think twice about what might happen the next time they come to a light that is changing. Sin is fun, so as long as there are no consequences, people will keep doing what they are doing.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Is the American Dream Dead?

Joseph Stiglitz says the American dream is a myth. Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel prize-winning economist. He states, “the U.S. used to think of itself as a middle-class country – but this is no longer true. Today, a child’s life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than in Europe, or any other of the advanced industrial countries for which there are data.” It would seem that Stiglitz’s solution to this “problem” is to vote Democrat.

I don’t agree that the gap between the rich and the middle class constitutes a breakdown in the American dream. Put simply, the American dream is that anyone from any social class has the opportunity to achieve prosperity through hard work. At an extreme, a person born to a crack addict could, through hard work, become the wealthy owner of a company. Granted, some people have fewer difficulties to overcome and having parents who will pay for college helps, but that doesn’t mean the American dream is a myth.

There are a couple of things we should consider. First, what is prosperity? Second, what is opportunity? The fact is, most Americans are already wealthy, if we compare ourselves to the world population. Many of us have multiple cars sitting in our driveways and boats at the lake, while people in many parts of the world are doing good if they have a bicycle with patched tires. We eat at restaurants when we like, while many families are thanking God for a bowl of rice. So no matter how wealthy the richest Americans may be, or how much of a gap there is between them and the average American, the fact is that all most Americans have to do to achieve prosperity is to go find a job. That sure sounds like a dream to me.

Opportunity is another issue. The question isn’t whether people are pulling themselves up by the bootstraps to achieve wealth, but is it possible if they put in the effort? I believe that many people are not putting in the effort to have more wealth than they currently have because they like the position they are in. I believe that if I really wanted to put in the effort, I could make more money than I am making now. I believe that I could start a business and eventually expand that business to something even larger. Eventually, I could have a big fancy house. But do I want that? I live in a house that is smaller than what I can afford. I will probably live there for quite a while. It is as much house as I need. Though I have the opportunity to become more wealthy, I have no great desire to take that opportunity.

I believe the American dream is alive and well. There may be a few things we can do to help it along, but those who are willing to work can still achieve prosperity.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When Should We Brag?

I hate to brag. I mean, I really hate to brag. I have this idea that my work should speak for itself. And I also find that bragging tends to shut down a conversation. I would rather come across as knowing less than I know than to miss the opportunity to learn from someone else’s perspective.

Still, there might be something to be said for raising people’s awareness of one’s abilities. I have been responsible for one website for eight years. Recently, a man expressed interest in helping with the website. But this isn’t the offer for help that begins with “What can I do to help?” but rather, “I can show you how to do things better.”

I’m willing to admit that there are people who know more than I do. I would be an idiot if I didn’t. At the company where I work, I’m surrounded by people who are brilliant at the jobs they do. At church, I see people with abilities that amaze me. So, when someone comes to me and says they know how to improve something, I’m inclined to listen. And when it comes to the website in question, I’m sure there are areas where it needs improvement. But I got the impression that this offer of help came with idea that we didn’t know what we were doing.

When it is clear that people don’t realize the extent of our abilities by looking at the work we’ve done, I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to be more proactive in telling them of our abilities. It does little good for people to spend time trying to teach us things we already know. But telling people of our abilities comes at a risk. I’m sure we all know of people who think more highly of themselves than they ought to think. If they have accomplished something, they assure people that they can accomplish ten times as much even more quickly. If someone helps them overcome a problem, they forget about the help they received and they say, “I figured out how to solve this problem.”

I don’t know where to draw the line, but I find it uncomfortable to have someone offer to teach me to do things that I can do in my sleep. (How’s that for bragging?)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Helping the Poor

Don Burke recently had an article in the Baptist Trumpet titled ‘Remember the Poor’: Are We Doing It Right? [June 13, 2012 issue] If you have time, I highly recommend you read his original article, but I’ll summarize what he said. He gave the example of stranger showing up at a church and asking for help to pay the rent. He went on to say that though it is common for people like this to show up at churches and we often help them, these are probably not the poor that Paul was talking about in Galatians 2:10 when he wrote, “Remember (to help) the poor.” Don suggests that this raises two questions: Who, exactly, are “the poor” and in what ways should we help them?

Based on his study of the Bible, Don identifies four categories of poor: Those who want to be poor, those who are poor due to their choices, those who are poor due to short-term circumstances, and those who are poor due to long-term circumstances. As for how we should help the poor, he looked at what the Bible says about that as well and found that we have no responsibility to help those who either want to remain poor and those who continually make bad choices that will cause them to be poor. If a person is unwilling to work, for example, we have no obligation to provide for them.

As for the other two categories, which are those who are willing but unable to provide for themselves, either for a short time (sudden loss of investment) or a long time (physical diability), our obligation is to help provide for the most basic needs of life. But is that for everyone who rings the church doorbell? Apparently not. The first responsibility for caring for a poor person belongs to that person’s family. You recall that Paul mentioned that the widows with families to take care of them should not be included in the number of those needing care from the church. If the family is unable or refuses, then the poor person’s care falls to that person’s home church. If they aren’t working in that church to the best of their ability, they have no right to expect the church to give them anything.

I don’t think that means we have to turn people away if we see they have a need and we know we can help them. Jesus healed many people who were strangers. But our resources are not unlimited. So often, we see people come asking for money when it is clear that they have the ability to work, but they would rather put effort into asking for a handout.

How different things would be if we limited our charity to our church members. Or maybe, instead of just giving strangers money, we could offer to let them do some work in exchange for money. They could plants some flowers in flowerbeds. They could clean the building. They fold church bulletins. We might could take them over to the houses of some of our invalid church members let them do some work for them. And when they were done, we could pay them a fair wage. I imagine that some of them would quit showing up if we did that.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Called by God

Imagine you are a manager. But unlike most managers, you know your employees very well. You know them well enough that when it comes time to assign them a task, you know who will do the best job at each assignment. They’re all clamoring for the best assignments, the ones with the greatest responsibility, the ones that pay the most. You’re unmoved by that because you know that some of your employees can’t handle great responsibility. You know that for some the best thing they can do is play a supporting role. But ask yourself this: is there a time you might move one of those employees into a role of greater responsibility and move one of the others into lesser responsibility?

Managers are people and people make mistakes. But God doesn’t . It is within God’s ability to not only know what abilities his servants have, but to know what situations they will face over a period of time. It isn’t likely that a manager would put someone they don’t think can handle a bad situation in a role of responsibility if they believe one of the other employees can. I’m beginning to realize that God does.

A few years ago, I was the chairman of a committee during the time when that committee was more active than it had been in the previous ten years. There were things that needed to be done, recommendations to be made. And we got it done. Just when I was getting comfortable in that role, the time to elect the committee came up and I was not elected to serve on the committee. I was disappointed. I knew better than to make an issue of it, but I didn’t understand why.

Years have passed and I find myself as the chairman of another committee. In the few short weeks since I have been placed in that position, I can already see that we are on track to have more meetings and make more recommendations than we did in all of the two or three years prior to this. Some of the problems we face aren’t easy issues. I wonder how the previous chairman was able to go for as long as he did without calling a meeting.

I believe that what I’m seeing is the hand of God. I have done nothing to cause the issues we face, but God knew they were coming. We know that God is ultimately responsible for deciding who gets various positions. What we might not stop to realize is that he knows who will handle the situation best before the situation occurs. When things are going smoothly, he knows who is best suited for that situation. Maybe he puts people in that he wants to give a taste of responsibility. Maybe he wants them to see the importance he places on them. Maybe he wants to train them for even more responsibility. But when things start getting more difficult, he may have other people in mind for the job.

We might wonder why God would give us responsibility for a while and then take it away. That is the wrong way to look at things. Look instead at the situations you face when God does give you responsibility for something. You may begin to see some similarities. Are you the person he calls upon during a time of action? Are you the person he calls upon when difficult situations arise? Are you the person he calls upon when the people around you need encouragement? Embrace the responsibility you are given because God knows you are the best person for that job. And when the time comes that someone else is the best person for the job, step aside graciously, knowing that God will call on you again when there is a task that demands your talents.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Weather and Setting

As a writer, I suppose I should place more importance on first pages than I do. I very rarely read a first page before I decide I want to read a book, so I don’t imagine other people do either. So, I hate this idea that the first page has to be the hook. I think that concept has ruined many a first page. Too many authors get the idea that they have to being with something exciting or people won’t continue reading.

As in any form of writing, the first page of a novel is an introduction to things to come. Often, that means talking about weather and setting. Some people think it is bad form to talk about weather and setting on the first page, but how else are you going to let people know what is going on around the characters. Some of the best stories ever written begin by talking about the weather.

These days, weather may not be quite as important as it used to be because so many of us spend our days inside. But interior environments have their own kind of “weather”. Have you ever walked into a building and a foul odor wrapped around you? A conversation carried on in that environment would feel very different from one in a perfume factory. A conversation in a dark alley is far different from one in a well lit board room.

We simply can’t drop a reader into a situation without giving the reader some idea of where it is taking place and what is going on around them. Think of how television shows provide setting. They show an exterior shot and then an interior shot. They always move from wide to tight, never the other way around. If they want to show that the actors are in a plane at 50,000 feet, they show a plane in the air. If they want to show they are waiting to take off, they show it at the gate. The stage they were on during filming was in neither place, but we get the idea.

We don’t have to spend a lot of time talking about weather and setting, but we do need to say enough that readers know where the story is taking place. And if we are smart, we will use the weather and setting to give the reader a hint as to what is threatening to take place.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why do we bother planning?

Plans often fall apart. Last night, I had a committee meeting at church. I’m the chairman of the committee, so I tried to have all my ducks in row. I sent out an agenda before the meeting. I printed out copies of the biggest thing we were going to discuss. I thought I was ready. We had three items of business—or so I thought. We made it through the first two and someone brought up something that I didn’t know anything about. It was appropriate to handle it, but it took me by surprise. Then we got to the “big” item. I had been thinking about the best way to handle it, but the strangest thing happened. The need to handle that piece of business vanished. The meeting went much differently than I expected.

So why do we bother making plans when they fall apart on us anyway? While it may feel like we never accomplish what we planned, we almost never have a situation in which nothing we planned is accomplished. Plans give us a place to start. Plans give us a goal to reach. It’s like planning a trip using a paper map. You might draw a line from point A to point B and then find the roads that follow that line most closely. The line is your plan, but the roads don’t follow the plan. They go off one way and then the other. You may go several miles from the plan line, but you follow roads that keep bringing you back. Eventually, you’ll get where you wanted to go.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How to Build a Platform

a place or opportunity for public discussion

Platform is one of those terms in publishing that we spend a lot of time talking about, but many people don’t get. Some people hate the term because they know it is something they are expected to have, but they don’t know how to get it. Others spend a lot of time doing all the things they think they need to do to build a platform (blogging, etc.), but they don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Instead of thinking of platform in terms of having a blog, being on Facebook, Twitter and whatever else, ask yourself what it would take to get people to notice you and listen to your message. A few years ago, there were some guys going around putting signs on bridges in a guerrilla marketing campaign to promote an animated television show. It created a bomb scare and far more people heard about the show than the number of people who saw the signs in person.

Doing something illegal may get you noticed, but I don’t recommend it. Still, the concept is valid. Do something that no one else is doing and people will pay attention. If you can hold their attention long enough, you can build a platform. Blogs and Facebook and Twitter may be tools you can use to communicate with the people whose attention you grab, but they are not the way to get their attention. Everyone and his brother is blogging or on Facebook and Twitter. They may become the “place for public discussion” but they are not the “opportunity for public discussion.” To create the opportunity, you have to do something that no one else is doing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Write Now

There’s no better time to write about something than when you’re in the trenches doing it. I used to didn’t think that. I had the idea that it would be better to write about it after having had the experience and at a time when you could look back at all you mistakes with 20/20 vision. But now, I’ve decided that isn’t the case.

A few years ago, I was the chairman of a committee at church. It was the first time I had been the chairman on a committee and I had all these ideas of how I should handle it. Overall, I was successful at it. After two years, I went off the committee and I forgot about. During the time that I thought would be the ideal time to write about something like that, it wasn’t important to me. I’ve served on other committees, but I didn’t have to be concerned with the job of a chairman—until this year. This year, I was elected to the position of chairman on another committee. All those ideas about how a chairman should handle the job have come rushing back to me. If I were to write a book on the subject, now would be the time to do it. That’s not to say I’ve got it all figured out or that I won’t make mistakes while I hold that position, only that things are never so clear as when you are right in the middle of it.

As authors, we may choose to write about many things. We may be tempted to wait until we have all the answers. No one has all the answers. The time to write is now. Then, when you’ve learned from your mistakes, write again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Moreover it is required...

Have you ever told someone you would do something, but you didn’t do it? I imagine we all have at some point. We aren’t perfect. But have you stopped to think about how that person must have felt? Suppose it happened like this: The teacher of an adult Sunday school class calls a student in the class and says, “I need someone to pick up some booklets a printer is printing for us. Would you do it?” The student says yes, but then gets busy doing other things and doesn’t make it to the printer to pick up the order. The teacher gets to class on Sunday, expecting the student to bring the booklets, but they aren’t there. His plans for the lesson are shot.

Moreover it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.

I remember seeing a statement to the affect that a leader must first know how to follow. We see so many people writing about how to lead people these days. They talk about “casting a vision” and lots of other things. But if there’s one thing that is more important than all the rest, a man must be found faithful. He must do what he says he will do. People will follow a man they know they can trust. But you don’t build trust by what you say as a leader. You build trust by how faithfully you carry out tasks for others.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Not Free Giving

We often draw a distinction between a gift and a purchase. If we say that someone gave us something, we often mean that they didn’t charge us for it. If we paid for it, we say they sold it to us. This can lead to confusion when we talk about giving readers something. We’ve heard that if we want to sell books, we have to give our readers something. With the concept of a gift in mind, some writers begin giving away free books on their websites, hold contests for free items, and hand out bookmarks. I won’t say those things won’t help, but we need to look at “giving” differently.

What is it that a reader wants you to give them? For a non-fiction writer, what the reader may need a solution to a problem. For example, if the reader is a mother, she may want to know how she can better raise her children. So, she buys a book about raising children. The reader of a novelist’s work may be looking for a few hours of escape, so he buys a novel that he can get lost in for a while. But notice that I said “buy.” Just because you are selling something doesn’t mean you aren’t giving it to people. If you give readers what they want, they are more than willing to pay for it.

The free gifts, the low cost Kindle books, and all the rest are just gimmicks. They may create more brand recognition and thereby increase sales, but mostly they miss the point. People buy books when the book gives them what they need.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Quoting a verse from scripture is a good thing to do, don’t you think? It never hurts for someone to read God’s word. But it isn’t quite that simple.

Open a Christian non-fiction book and you are likely to find many references to Bible verses. Sometimes, those verses are just references to tell you were to look to find supporting evidence for what the author is saying. Other times, it may be a quote taken from the Bible. Open a Christian novel and you may find that the author has put a few of their favorite verses at the beginning of each chapter. Or maybe one of the characters recites a verse to another character. I have a love for God’s word and yet I find that I often skip over some of the verses authors include in their work. I figure there are a couple of ways I can look at that. I can take a self-deprecating attitude and say that I don’t love the scriptures as much as I should. Or I can look for another reason.

The thing we need to ask ourselves is why devout Christians who love to study the word of God ignore verses when they are quoted in novels and other books. I believe it has a lot to do with context and flow. Consider Proverbs 29:18. This verse is taken out of context probably more than any other verse in the Bible. When it is quoted in a book, it is often quoted as “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The author is usually talking about leadership and in the context around the verse talks about the need for a leader to “cast a vision”, etc. As readers, we don’t take the time to understand what the verse is actually saying because the author of the book is explaining why they think the verse is important in the context they have placed it. It takes us out of the flow of the author’s writing to consider the verse in its original context. We could spend hours looking at the meaning of that one verse, when what we really want to do is understand what the author of the book is saying.

But suppose we were to open our Bible to look at Proverbs 29:18. What it actually says is “Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” All of the Proverbs are often written in two parts. The second part will either reinforce the statement made in the first part or it will contrast the statement in the first part. Look at Proverbs 19:15, “[a]The rod and reproof give wisdom, [b]but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.” This verse is one that contrasts the benefits of spanking a child with the harm caused by not doing so. But look at Proverbs 19:17, “[a]Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; [b]yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” Here, the second part emphasizing the benefit of correcting one’s son. Proverbs 29:18 is a verse in which contrast is used. The contrast is between “no vision” and “keepeth the law.”

We might wonder what “casting a vision” has to do with keeping the law. If we take a look at the verses around Proverb 29:18, we see that they deal with correcting children and servants. Assuming that Solomon wrote this as a single train of thought, it makes sense to say that he was thinking about what it would take to bring children and servants back to the law. So our focus here should be on the law, not on “vision”. If keeping the law is the contrast with no vision, then that means that having a vision is somehow similar to keeping the law. Vision here isn’t the John Maxwell kind of vision. Here, vision is referring to the visions like what the prophets of the Old Testament had. Or the visions like Peter had when he was sent to the gentiles. Vision refers to a word from God. What if we translated it as “Where there is not word from the Lord, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Now we understand it.

But what does that have to do with our writing? If our readers are reading about “casting a vision” and we quote Proverbs 29:18a and then go back to talking about “casting a vision,” the verse is out of context. The reader may have trouble understanding why the verse is included in our writing because it doesn’t make sense. Have you ever seen people perish because a leader failed to “cast a vision?” The fact is that in every group there is someone who will stand out as the leader. That person isn’t always the person who is authorized to lead. If the pastor of a church, for example, isn’t leading, someone else will naturally assume the role of leader and “cast a vision.” The people may perish because of a bad vision, but there is never a lack of that kind of vision. So Proverbs 29:18 just doesn’t fit with the concept of “casting a vision,” and readers are likely to skip it. But when we bring it back to the meaning God intended, it is much easier for readers to see why the verse is important to the subject.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

That's All There Is?

It’s been several years since our church website has been updated, so I decided to look at some other church websites. No two churches are alike, but it is always good to have an idea of what seems to be working for other people. On one website, I found a link to a volunteer page. I have visited the church in question and it is several times the size of our church. The size of their church necessitates activities that our church doesn’t have. So, I was expecting to find an extensive list of volunteer opportunities. Here is what I found:
  • Sunday Morning Greeters
  • Sunday Morning Information Desk
  • Sunday Morning Parking Team
  • Children’s Area: Welcome Desk
  • Children’s Area: Sunday School Teacher
  • Preschool: Preschool Junction Greeters
  • Preschool: Junction Classroom Teachers
This was on a form on which a person could provide his name, e-mail address, and phone number. He could then submit the form after checking one or more of the items.

It would seem that a volunteer at the church in question has the opportunity to serve on the Welcome Team or to work with children. If I were in a position to fill out that form, I don’t know that there is a checkbox that I would want to click. That’s not to say these are not important ministries. If anything, they are among some of the most important ministries. The first three are the face of the church to newcomers. The last four deal with children. What we teach children early in life is the foundation for what they learn later.

Ironically, on the Ministries menu, their website lists 30 separate ministries. 25 of those are listed on the contact page. But only three appear on the volunteer opportunities page. I consider that to be a mistake. I believe that the reason some people are not involved in their church is because the service opportunities that see don’t fit their skill set. Not everyone is cut out to be a greeter. Not everyone is cut out to work with children. Not everyone should teach. Not everyone can sing in the choir or play an instrument. But if you look at what people see taking place on Sunday morning, that’s pretty much what there is.

We need to open people’s eyes to the opportunities that aren’t part of the Sunday morning worship service and Sunday School hour. We also need to make it easy for them to volunteer. Some people find it hard to approach a ministry leader to volunteer. Once they are on the team, they will be faithful. It is that first step that is difficult. So we should make it easy for them to take the first step and difficult for them to back away.