Friday, September 24, 2021

"Online Jesus" Book Review and Reflections

I continue to be amazed by the impact of the internet and its seemingly never-ending march towards taking over the world. It feels like Ready Player One is more prediction than science fiction, especially with the Facebook VR Workspace announcement.

The internet started simply with message boards and email. Then the internet impacted shopping, music, movies, and finance. Then we got social networks, dating apps, and video conferencing. And things I never imagined you could do 100% over the internet are happening: house purchasing and medical care to name two.

It's a self-reinforcing cycle: as more and more activities go 100% digital, people expect more services/groups/connections to go 100% digital.

So, let's talk about something that doesn't seem possible to go 100% digital: What does a 100% digital church look like?

It's often rightly said that a church isn't the building, but it's the people. Angela Craig, in her book "Online Jesus," takes that claim to heart.

"The Early Church didn't have the privilege or freedom to gather in buildings. Instead, people came together wherever they could. Today people are coming together on social media." (p. 16)

This is an intriguing notion! With so many people living life online, why not go where they are?

But what does this look like? For Angela, this comprises three parts: creating community, engaging in discipleship, and caring for people.

Oh hey! I also made a video. Check it out:

Building Community

"There is a huge difference between streaming your sermon online and building an online community. Streaming content is a one-way conversation. Building community online is a two-way dialogue. It's more than posting videos and sermons on Facebook or your website. That is "church TV." Instead, it requires a relationship. Building community online will take time and intention, just as it does in person." (p. 26)

The first goal is to build community. That starts with creating content and then engaging with people who consume that content. For example, if someone comments on a video, you follow up with them in a private message. You ask about who they are, how they're doing, and if there's anything you can pray for. And then you invite them to join a private group that's reading the Bible and sharing through posts.

The important part is that it's a two-way dialog, which leads to my favorite quote from the book:

"Trust is the bridge that can bear the weight of truth. Trust is built when others see and feel your genuine interest in their lives and opinions." (pp. 29-30)

So true and so important! I love the visual of a physical bridge and the idea that trust is weighty because of its importance. Build trust by taking a genuine interest in someone's life and opinions.

Engaging in Discipleship

""A disciple is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do." —Dallas Willard" (p. 42)

The point of church, both in-person and online, is not to entertain. The point is to worship Jesus and encourage fellow members (among other things). Part of that is engaging in personal and corporate spiritual disciplines.

In local churches, this looks like Sunday worship, large group social events, small groups, reading the Bible, and 1:1 discipleship.

On Facebook, this might look like Facebook Live videos, Private Groups, reading a Bible, and Messenger conversations/videos. The content and conversations can be the same, but it's all done online.

By the way, the YouVersion Bible App is pretty cool:

"The YouVersion Bible App is a great tool for helping your church attenders engage every day with God's Word. One feature of the Bible App is called Plans with Friends, which allows people to work through the same plan together and discuss it right inside the app. The Bible App also allows friends to pray for one another." (p. 45)

One big difference between in-person vs. online is the amount of time you get to teach. In general, you don't have very long. So instead of one 1-hour long video, do six 10-minute videos.

"Research has shown teaching in micro-moments to be an effective way for instructors to capture attention and for students to retain information. That is important when we think of online discipleship opportunities. Microlearning comes in bite-sized, easy to digest pieces of information that happen in text, images, videos, audio clips, or polls." (p. 47)

Caring For People

Typically churches ask you to:

  • attend large group events (such as Sunday worship)
  • join a small group (like a Bible Study),
  • and then serve on a team (like a music team).

One way to serve online is by caring for people. Maybe you have a team that helps people through emergencies. Or people who counsel others. Or, and this sounds fun to me, people who encourage others.

"Encouragers are people who naturally speak life into others: they celebrate, they pray, and they help in non-emergency situations." (p. 61)

Often, caring for people means connecting them with on-the-ground organizations in their local communities.

Final Tips For Online Church

Angela finishes with some helpful advice. Here's one I like:

"Time commitment. Building an online community takes time and investment. People need you not a fancy video of you. Choose people over production." (pp. 67-68)

Also, start with Facebook because that's where the majority of people already are and they have a bunch of tools built-in to help you connect in multiple ways.

Is Online Church A Good Thing?

"Church online will never replace in-person community, but it will strengthen the Church as we serve, disciple, and care for people online." (p. 78)

Many church leaders choose to stay off social websites and instead prioritize in-person interactions. I know I spend less time on social media these days. I still have accounts, but I removed all social apps on my phone, which dramatically reduces my usage.

But many people are on social networks. And as more things happen online, the expectation is to do even more things online. Even things that didn't seem likely a few years ago, like going to church.

I'm not sure what this means for church in the future, but it's an intriguing notion and probably worth thinking about and planning for. At the very least, it may be another way to put social networks to good use.

The book is pretty short if you're interested. There's also a 40-minute podcast on ChurchLeaders where you can hear Angela share how her church functions.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Mount Hood's Timberline Trail 40 Mile Hike

Last weekend I hiked the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood. We trekked 40 miles in 48 hours - starting and stopping at the Timberline Lodge.

Five of us set out Friday evening and hiked 10 miles before stopping near a river.

The next day we hiked 18 miles. It was a long day! Part of what made it so long was a 2-mile section of the trail which had fallen trees. It was like an obstacle course! It was hard but was also my favorite part because it was so tricky.

By the way, I was going for a mountain man vibe. I think I pulled it off well.

We also enjoyed some incredible views.

On the last day, we hiked 12 miles. And we felt every. Single. Step. In addition to amazing views, we crossed multiple rivers and saw many waterfalls.

Much of the trip was hiking to a peak, then back down to a river. For example, we crossed this river below and then hiked up the other side.

And sometimes simply getting to the river was tricky. That arrow is pointing to another hiker. She got wet to her knees crossing this river.

It was a great hike. We didn't bring tents and opted to sleep under the stars. The whole trip reminded me of Psalm 19:1-6:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;

no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.

It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,

like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens

and makes its circuit to the other;

nothing is deprived of its warmth.

If you get a chance, I highly recommend hiking the Timberline Trail. Maybe not in 48 hours, but it would be a great 3-night hike.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Not all time in life is equal. Life serves up some moments that count much more than other moments.

I'm re-listening to "Great by Choice" by Jim Collins & Morten Hansen, and there's a quote I love:

"Not all time in life is equal. Life serves up some moments that count much more than other moments."


What a powerful thought!

We all have the same amount of time, and one key to getting something done is prioritizing it. So, if you say, "I don't have time for that," what you're actually saying is that it's not high enough of a priority. It may seem harsh, but recognizing that fact empowers you to change your priorities instead of believing that the issue is external and you have no control. This is also a key finding in "Grit" by Angela Duckworth: people who persevere believe they can control outcomes, so they try harder and keep going.

So yes, we all have the same number of seconds each day, and how we prioritize that time matters, but not all moments in life are equal. There are obvious extremes:

  • The birth of a child vs. brushing your teeth.
  • Deciding to accept Christ's grace vs. deciding what to eat for dinner.

It's the moments where you're making a decision with long-term consequences that count the most:

  • Who to date or marry!
  • Choosing a college and picking a major.
  • Accepting a job offer.

To make the most of those moments, you need first to recognize that it's a big moment, and second ask yourself: "how long do I have before I need to make a decision?" Then, spend the remaining time gathering information. Typically, we believe it's people who quick decisions that win, but a better predictor is how they use their time running up to the moment.

I tend to decide quickly. And one lesson for me is first to ask how much time I have to decide. Then use that time to validate my naturally quick response. If I can do this, it should lead to better decisions and make those meaningful moments turn out the best they can in the long term.

It's a simple statement but an important one to internalize.

Photo of Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission by NASA on Unsplash

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Why I'm Excited About Book Covers on Kindle

Amazon released a new update for Kindle that I've wanted for a while: to show the cover of the book you're reading on the lock screen. The Internet and I sighed a collective FINALLY when it happened.

I needed to restart my Kindle Paperwhite (without ads) to see it in All Settings -> Device Options -> Display Cover.

The reason for my excitement is simple. The benefit of the Kindle is that it can hold thousands of books. And when you turn it on, it takes you right to the page you're reading, along with a percentage indicator of where you are in the book and how much longer you need to read to finish the chapter (or book). I also like highlighting, writing notes, and searching for passages. It's great!

But, I started to notice something concerning: I would sometimes forget the author's name and sometimes even the book's title!

Here's my hypothesis: with a physical book, you look at the cover - with the title and author's name - every time you pick it up. I read in 10-15 minute sessions, which means I see it 25-50 times per book over a couple of months. I couldn't help but memorize the author and title from the repetition. It's the slowest method of memorization, but it works.

But with the Kindle, I never got the repetition because the device opens directly to my current page. If the name didn't stick right away, I never looked at it again.

It's the same for me with Apple Music. I don't remember the album, the artist, and sometimes not even the song's title. Maybe that's a big reason why searching for music now includes song lyrics? That's the only information I remember to find a song. I often keep the Apple Music mini-player open so I can see the cover art and song title.

This is, in my opinion, one of the surprising (to me) consequences of aggregators. Is it any wonder that all of the largest tech companies are aggregators? Google aggregated website content, including news (which used to be a major aggregator of writers and ads) & video. Facebook, your friends. Amazon, your shopping. Apple's iPhone, your phone + email + music + calculator + flashlight + laptop + etc + etc. Airbnb (and other hotel & flight aggregators). Uber & Lyft. Netflix. Zillow. Craigslist & eBay.

You get the idea.

Each of these services separated the content/product from the creator, making it seamless to look at multiple options, compare, and make choices based on the merit of the content/product itself. It saves so much time and allows for better discovery. I think it's a net benefit to society. (I suppose Walmart is the best physical example of an aggregator.)

The big problem is that the aggregator leads to same-ness, making everything a commodity. Do you remember the name of the last movie you watched on Netflix? I don't. It had Paul Rudd. It was funny, but not funny enough to recommend, which is probably a good thing since I don't remember the name!

There are undoubtedly significant economic and social consequences of aggregators. It's a tension that will constantly need managing. Megahits, like Taylor Swift and J.K. Rowling, will be fine. And the long-tail of discovery will allow newcomers a chance to succeed. But it's the middle of the tail, like that movie or decent smartphone apps, that can get stunted by aggregators if the tension isn't well managed.

But for me, the surprising impact is the personal one: forgetting the creator, even in situations like Kindle where I intentionally bought the individual book.

With this Kindle update, I'll get to see my book covers again. I'm delighted to start remembering authors and titles better.

Monday, March 29, 2021

"Reading While Black" Book Review and Reflections

After listening to Esau McCaulley on the Bible Project Podcast, I listened to his audiobook called "Reading While Black."

As a white Christian growing up in a Lutheran church, and today a member of a Baptist-based church, I enjoyed listening to McCaulley's interpretation of Biblical truths and learned a lot about the Black Christian church.

His book is about the Bible written by a Christian for Christians.

"I want to make a case that [an] unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition–its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith–can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope." (page 6)

Here are a few themes that stuck out to me: the influence of our backgrounds on interpreting the Bible, the balance of seeking justice and God's timing, the political drama found in the Bible, and the Bible's stance on slavery. Below I'll share my notes on each of these. There are many more and I recommend reading/listening to Reading While Black if these sound interesting.

For many of these points, the Bible doesn't state its stance as plainly as some would like. Instead, each theme is interwoven into a grand narrative that requires study.

"I propose instead that we adopt the posture of Jacob and refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us. Stated differently, we adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly, it will bring a blessing and not a curse. This means that we do the hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar, and structure." (page 21)

Given that McCaulley's book is written to Christians, my reflections will also be written to someone who spent at least some time reading the Bible. If you read something here you don't get, reach out. I'd love to chat with you.

Our culture, background, education, and experiences influence what we emphasize

For example, I never thought much about the race of the 12 sons of Jacob (the start of the 12 tribes of Israel). Specifically, Jacob adopted and extended God's blessing to Joseph's two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. Both men were born of an Egyptian mother. They're half African. Therefore, Africa is rooted deeply as part of God's promise. This is a detail I never caught before.

"…there was never a biologically "pure" Israel. Israel was always multiethnic and multinational. As a Black man, when I look to the biblical story, I do not see a story of someone else in which I find my place only by some feat of imagination. Instead God's purposes include me as an irreplaceable feature along with my African ancestors. We are the first of those joined to Abraham's family in anticipation of the rest of the nations of the earth." (page 102)

I tend to pay particular attention when the name "James" comes up in the Bible since I share that name. I also key in on warnings around money and time given where I am in life. And Jessi remembers more events around women than I do.

It's not that anyone's interpretation is better or wrong. The only "wrong" way of thinking is to conclude that your interpretation is the best/only option. So, as much as you can, spend time outside your personal echo chamber. Read, listen, and talk to people from different backgrounds about the Bible. This book is a great example.

It is right to call out injustice, but we also need to submit to God's timing and plan.

McCaulley focuses on Moses for this part. Moses rightly identifies that slavery of his people is wrong. But, Moses takes matters into his own hands, murders a guard, and then needs to run away. Moses learns - 40 years later - that God agrees, but that wasn't the right timing or way to free God's people from slavery. God's way was much more comprehensive and glorious!

So, there's an interesting tension here. It is good to call out injustice, to call for change, to try to fix injustices. And at the same time, we can't hold too tightly to the outcome. We should yield to God's timing and way. Again, this is a tension because you also don't want to give up too early! You can seek clarity the way Moses did: talk to God (via prayer) and find out what he wants.

I'd also like to add that injustice comes in all different types of severity. You don't need to find "the biggest cause" to champion. God may put on your heart something that the world thinks "isn't a big deal." Don't be discouraged if someone questions, "why are you focused on X when Y - which is a bigger deal - is still happening?" God can multi-task and focus on all injustice at all times.

The Bible contains politics, so we shouldn't be afraid to think politically.

know that politics interweaves into every fabric of our lives: Values create policies that directly change how we live, and over time, change values leading to new policies... But, for me, it also seems inconsequential to my life. How much does the President really impact my day-to-day life? It felt like zero percent this morning. I know there's an indirect influence (perhaps more so from the cumulative effects from past Presidents), but, at least for me, my daily impacts come from my immediate surroundings: my family, friends, neighbors, customers, and employees.

Said another way: I know that "politics is important," but politics feels more like watching a sporting event than as something that has a bearing on my life.

I'll even go as far as to admit that when I read the Bible I "leave politics out of it." I solely focus on what it means for my personal life and don't recognize the political drama within an event. If there is any political drama (which, I've recently realized, is a lot!) I gloss over that part, often missing out on some of the broader implications.

McCaulley gives an example from the book of 2 Samuel. King David committed adultery and later murdered the husband to cover up his crime. And when Nathan the prophet confronted him, he repented but still had to live with the consequences of his actions.

There's a lot of wonderful personal applications from this event, which we should study, but McCaulley also shows the political side:

David is a king, a great warrior, ordained by God, and known for his heart for God (implying he's given the benefit of the doubt almost all the time). David is a big deal, whereas Nathan is a court prophet. There's a wide power gap! It's like a pastor in Washington D.C. calling out the President for a crime he committed that wasn't publicly known. Even if the two had previously chatted, it wasn't like they were close friends. This is dripping with political drama with real risks! Think about it, David has already proven he's willing to murder to cover up his crime. And is it really a crime for the most powerful person in the nation? Who's going to stop him? What courage and trust Nathan displays as he stepped up to confront David! Can you also imagine the reports going throughout the nation? This is a scandal of massive proportions.

McCaulley continues by showing how much of Jesus's life includes direct political action. First, Herod the Great kills innocent children in an attempt to kill Jesus (whose family flees to Egypt, an African nation, for sanctuary). I can't even imagine how horrific it would be to be one of the families whose son was killed because of a power move.

As an adult, Jesus publically calls another political leader, Herod Antipas, a fox. This isn't just about his moral code; it's also about his political activities of causing the people's suffering.

"Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus. "(page 57)

Side note: Jesus is calling out injustice but still submitted to God's authority and the authority of the rulers. He submitted to the point of dying on a cross. This aligns with Romans 13:1-2, which says:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."

By the way, the following sentence assumes the rulers are just, which is why we submit. But Jesus takes it that next step: Even if they are not just, still submit. Call them out! Don't be passive! But follow the rules unless it directly contradicts God's law.

As I continue to read the Bible, I will pay closer attention to the narrative's political side and seek to let it shape my political opinions and activities.

Paul, an apostle of Jesus, does NOT condone slavery.

It's with some fear and trepidation I reflect on this next theme. I'm white, male, financially stable, a landlord, living in the U.S., happily married with amazing kids, college-educated, right-handed, etc. I'm pretty sure I check most "privileged" boxes. Who am I to comment on slavery? Furthermore, it's highly likely that I benefit today - right now - from systematic injustice and I'm not even aware of it.

So be it. May God use my privilege to bless others. May God put the words of people like McCaulley in front of me to help me better understand other's experiences and stir my heart to want to bless and help others even more. In this case, it starts with learning what the Bible says about slavery. Let's jump in to see what McCaulley and the Bible say on the subject.

McCaulley shared that his grandmother heard this passage preached to her multiple times by their slave masters:

"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him." - Ephesians 6:5-9 (NIV)

Out of context, it indeed seems like Paul is saying slavery is acceptable as long as the masters aren't mean about it. McCaulley:

"On the first read, the Bible does not appear to say all that we want it to say in the way that we want the Bible to say it. And yet this is the crucial part: the Bible says more than enough. The story of Christianity does not on every page legislate slavery out of existence. Nonetheless, the Christian narrative, our core theological principles, and our ethical imperatives create a world in which slavery becomes unimaginable." (page 139)

McCaulley will explain why the Bible doesn't condone slavery, yet addresses it as a reality because of our sin and patiently shepherds people away from it. But first, I want to take a detour towards a bigger question.

If God is all-powerful, why does injustice exist, and why does God allow it?

Let's go back to Moses and the Exodus. There, God demonstrates his hatred of slavery, yet he doesn't instantly wipe it out. Why not? Why allow sin at all? Why put a tree in the garden of Eden that Adam and Eve shouldn't eat? Why not simply create perfect people living in Heaven on day 1? And to pile on a little more, as Christians, we profess four essential truths:

  1. God is fully and continually all-powerful.
  2. God is good, loving, and there is no evil in him.
  3. Evil and sin exist.
  4. Sinners are fully responsible for their sin.

So, if God is all-powerful and loving, why does injustice exist, and why does God allow it?

For a complete answer, I HIGHLY recommend chapter 5 of the book Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Brashears. Here's my summary:

God is indeed all-powerful, and in exercising that power, he gave us the freedom to make our own choices. It started with Satan, who chose to fight God. Then Adam (and Eve) chose to trust Satan instead of God, despite God's clear warnings of the consequences. Now, God could have killed Adam on the spot. He had every right! But instead, because of God's love, he only separated himself from Adam (a type of death, but not completely blotted out). God let him physically live and find a way back to God. You and I inherited that separation and often make it worse.

Because of God's perfect justice and unwillingness to be associated with anything sinful, the only way to make it back to God is by paying the debt of our sin. Now, here's what's cool to me. Romans 5:12-21 explains that we can inherit justification through a righteous act of one person (Jesus) because we all inherited separation from one person (Adam). So, it might seem unfair that we're all called sinners and separated because of what Adam did ("it wasn't me who ate the fruit!"), but it set the precedence that we can also become righteous through one person: Jesus.

Jesus paid our debt of sins through his death on the cross. Thus, restoring our close relationship with God. It's precisely the same way as someone else paying off your mortgage for you. You're now free from that debt! All you need to do is accept the payment.

This begs the question: What's special about Jesus? How come he can pay our debt of sin?

How come Jesus can pay our debt?

If God killed us, we would deserve it, and it would pay off our debt from sin. But that's a sad ending for God and us (remember: God loves us). So, how do you satisfy the demand for justice while making it possible to still have a life with God after it's paid?

I like the mortgage analogy (shocker): how do you pay off a mortgage when you don't have enough money because you keep wasting it with bad choices? One option is to foreclose on the house, but that's no fun for the bank or you.

What if someone else, who didn't have a mortgage, was willing to let the bank foreclose on their house instead? Thus, the debt is satisfied, and you get to keep the house. Now, what if the value from that foreclosure was enough to cover the debts of all mortgages? And all people needed to do was sign a document that says, please include my house in the debt payment.

This is what Jesus did.

Jesus was born of the spirit, not a man. Therefore, he didn't have the same inherited sin and was given a chance to "not eat the proverbial fruit on the tree." Satan tempted Jesus in the same way Satan tempted Adam (and tempts us). It was round two of an epic battle!

And Jesus never gave into temptation, and therefore had no debt to pay for himself. And since he was also God (remember: born of the spirit), he had infinite grace to pay off all existing debt. So, when Jesus died on the cross (the foreclosure), Jesus paid the righteous payment for all sin (debt). But since he didn't have any debt, the payment went towards your and my debt. Thus, God can have a relationship with us again because, through Jesus, we're no longer associated with sin. This isn't just a wiping of the slate; this is entering into a Garden-of-Eden-level of relationship where God's Spirit dwells within us and gives us all the same rights and privileges of Jesus. It's amazingly good news!

And, to draw as many people to himself as possible, God continues to patiently wait for people who don't trust him yet. History is ongoing; we're still in the middle of this grand journey. In the meantime, people chose to put their trust in people/things/ideas other than God. And despite how well-intentioned it might be, it inevitably leads to corruption and injustice. One example is slavery.

Back to McCaulley's thoughts.

The Bible was written in the middle of our history, where sin still exists. Slavery is a part of that sin that Paul addresses. Paul follows God's example of patience: He doesn't say, "End slavery right now because God says so." Instead, it's part of a more extensive logical reasoning that leads people to the conclusion on their own that slavery is wrong.

"I want to contend that the Old Testament and later the New Testament create an imaginative world in which slavery becomes more and more untenable. Stated differently, God created a people who could theologically deconstruct slavery. … The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation." (page 142)

For example, it starts with the Exodus narrative and God's saving his people, including people from Africa, out of slavery. Jesus's ethics focuses on what God intended instead of what the Torah allows (the Torah, in this context, could also be seen as U.S. law). One example is divorce. The law allows for divorce, but Jesus states in Matthew 19:3-8 that it wasn't originally intended: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."

And here we see that tension again: God has perfect justice and wants us to live a life of love for him and everyone around us (Matthew 22:34-40). Yet, the reality is that we're not there yet. And so, God patiently allows for temporary less-than-ideal scenarios, such as slavery.

And at the same time, he nudges us in the direction of righteousness. It's not just allowing slavery; it has conditions: slaves serve honorably to point their masters towards Christ, and masters treat them with respect. To truly do this makes it harder to justify slavery. If you're interested, here's another article on the topic of slavery and the New Testament.

That was the context and intention of Paul's writing.

Ideally, over time, things change. People move in the direction of righteousness, and the bar rises again as they continue to assess how they're doing vs the intention of loving God and everyone around them. Or, they move away from righteousness, and God meets them where they're at and calls them to live a little better. It's a loving, generous act of patience. It's one that God does with you and me.

I fear that today, society has little patience for this type of patient progress. We don't exercise tolerance or extend grace to people who made choices based on a different context. Instead, we look at historical decisions people made and condemn them with the harshest punishments using today's standards. Thanks be to God that he doesn't do that with us.

Instead, through examples like Paul, God shows us how to gently move people towards righteousness and celebrate the progress we're making.

And, here's the best part: God is a God of liberation, not just nudges-in-the-right-direction. In the same way that he freed the enslaved Israelites from Egypt, he frees us. Our freedom isn't based on living perfectly in this generation - or, hopefully, a more righteous future generation - but our freedom is rooted in Jesus dying for us on the cross. All we need to do is accept that we're not perfect, that Christ is God, and that he died on our behalf.

McCaulley finishes his thoughts on slavery with this:

"Black pain and anger rising from [slavery] is not going away. Therefore, the long tradition of Black reflection on our pain will continue. The slave question will be with us until the eschaton [the end of the world]. Therefore we must continue to read, write, interpret, and hope until the advent of the one who will answer all our questions, or render them redundant." (page 167)

But we can say this conclusively:

"This focus on God as liberator stood in stark contrast to the focus of the slave masters who emphasized God’s desire for a social order with white masters at the top and enslaved Black people at the bottom. But the story doesn’t stop there. Alongside the story of the God of the exodus is the God of Leviticus, who calls his people to a holiness of life. The formerly enslaved managed to celebrate both their physical liberation and their spiritual transformation, which came as a result of their encounter with the God of the Old and New Testaments." (page 17)

I know nothing of what it meant to be a slave, or even growing up Black in the U.S.. But I was once a slave to sin and today enjoy spiritual liberation and transformation. McCaulley's book helps me put the amazingness of God's accomplishment in perspective by showing what it means to people who know what it means to be physically enslaved and hated.

Final Thoughts

There's a lot more in Reading While Black. I only scratched the surface. If you're interested in a Biblically-based perspective on justice, politics, slavery, and being a Black Christian in American, I highly recommend it.

Finally, my thanks go to Vialogue for taking excellent notes for me to reference here since I listened to the audiobook version.

Monday, January 18, 2021

"The Minimalist: Less Is Now" Movie Review and How It Relates To Christianity

Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

We watched a new documentary on Netflix called "The minimalist: Less Is Now"

It's a sequel to Minimalism, a documentary also on Netflix.

Like so many things in life, I agree with 90% of the film. Yet, that last 10% - often the why behind the action - is different, and it tends to make all the difference.

The basic premise is that stuff won't make you happy. Yet, tragically, we keep buying more and more stuff in a vain attempt to find happiness.

It's like drinking honey when you're thirsty. There might be a temporary satisfaction from having something wet in your mouth, but it fundamentally won't quench your thirst. In fact, it'll make you more thirsty! And so you try drinking more honey...

And part of the problem comes from advertising and social media. Advertising, especially online targeted ads, are sophisticated enough to meet you where you're at and nudge you ever so slightly closer to wanting their product.

There's also the sheer volume of advertisement exposure. If you're told you need something enough times, you start to believe it. I remember learning that people need 7-12 exposures of a product/brand to move them along the 5-stage buying cycle. It sure feels like companies are aiming for at least 12 exposures.

And then social media makes it impossible to "keep up with the Jones" because it tends to only highlight the best part of people's lives - setting an impossibly high bar. And instead of just comparing to your physical neighbor, we now compare to 500+ "friends" regardless of their income, living expenses, or priorities.

Not pictured: the complete breakdown when we told them it was time for bed

It's not that advertising and social media are inherently bad, it's that they've unintentionally amplified consumerism - the desire to find happiness in stuff.

So far, I agree 100% with the problem. So what's the solution?


Here's what minimalism is, in the words of the two main guys from the documentary:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life's path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

And here's how it's used:

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we've built our lives around. Real freedom.

That doesn't mean there's anything inherently wrong with owning material possessions. Today's problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: we tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves. Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that's wonderful. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.

If I summarized their summary, it would be: minimalism is consciously owning/doing things that are important to you and ruthlessly cutting everything else. This frees you up to pour even more into those things that are important to you.

Again, I 100% agree with this sentiment.

What's Important to You?

The documentary shared stories of people discovering that stuff can't provide lasting happiness. And then ruthlessly cutting things out. Marie Kondo would be proud. I know I was inspired!

[Story telling side note: It would have been fun to watch someone go through the transformation instead of watching people talk about it after the fact and showing generic b-roll. Maybe that's the plan for part three? Call it "Minimal Makeover"! ha!]

Where was I? Oh yeah! You're not happy. You realize more stuff isn't helping. So you remove everything that isn't important to you (or, doesn't bring you joy, as Marie would say).

But then the film skips a step and goes straight to "having real freedom."

The step that was skipped is determining what's important to you. What does bring lasting joy? Lasting happiness? Again, what's important to you? This is critical. The cornerstone. The key element.

I think they skipped that step because they fundamentally believe one of two things:

One: The act of removing things brings inherent happiness. But this too seems fleeting. 
Two: What's important is unique to each individual, so it's better to not comment on it, lest some false limitations are added to minimalism. (Ex: living in a tiny house is not a requirement).

There is a notion that important things revolve around people, and giving to the greater good, but that's about as far as they take it.

This creates the danger of people trying to find lasting happiness, not in stuff, but in equally disappointing endeavors. You're no longer drinking honey, which is good, but you might have switched to Pepsi, which has a whole new set of unintended consequences.

Living Water and Lasting Happiness

There's a fantastic event recorded in the Bible where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman and he asks her for a drink of water. But then he pivots the conversation to offer her true satisfaction and lasting happiness. Here's the event (highlights are mine):

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock." Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." - John 4:7-14

There is only one thing that provides lasting happiness. It's not honey. It's not Pepsi. It's water. Specifically, it's water that Jesus provides with the promise that once you drink it, you will never be thirsty again.

How you drink it might be unique, but unless you seek joy in Jesus, joy and freedom will always be fleeting - even if you minimize the amount of stuff in your life.

Minimalism Fits Perfectly with Christ

Christ answers the why behind what's important in minimalism:

You can only find lasting happiness in Jesus and his gracious gift to live with God after we die. We need to recognize we can't earn our way into Heaven. We can't do enough good deeds to offset our bad ones.

All we can do is trust what Jesus told us - that he is God, that he overcame death so we can have a joy-filled relationship with God today, and continue in eternity in Heaven. Regardless of our good vs bad deeds, all we need to do is humbly accept Jesus' gift.

If you think about it, it's the ultimate form of minimalism. There's nothing you can buy to make you perfect (or happy). So stop trying. Instead, look to Jesus, who said two things are important: love God and love your neighbors.

How you express that love is unique to you. Just like minimalism.

Let's modify the quote about minimalism above to show how perfectly it fits with Christ:

"Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that's wonderful. Minimalism [is a mechanism that] simply allows you to make these decisions [of how Jesus would like you to live your unique life] more consciously, more deliberately."

Remove everything in your life that isn't about Christ. What you'll find is lasting freedom and joy. You'll also find that the remaining items have to do with other people, and giving to the greater good. And this isn't conjecture, Jesus promised it while talking to the Samaritan woman.

Minimalism is a wonderful mechanism for achieving that simplicity and focus of your desire - your important thing - is to find joy in Jesus.

Jacob's Well in 1934, the same one use by Jesus and the Samaritan woman.