In a Row of Graves

Check out this picture …

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Eran and I took our daughters last weekend to visit all of the headstones of those in our family who have passed away. This row of markers is the row of my grandfather’s family. The headstone, in the bottom left corner, is my grandfather’s. Trace the row to the top right corner, and you’ll see the headstones of his brothers and sisters, and his parents.

This is their family. Once upon a time, my grandfather was a kid, in a house full of kids. His parents were in the middle of parenting. There was once a lot of noise in their house; memories were being made, and exhaustion was being fought. But the kids grew up. They left their house, fought a war, had a family, and had their own grandchildren. And now, he and his family are together again, next to each other in their graves.

The time we have with our children is precious. And it’s fleeting. Don’t waste a minute with them. Don’t emphasize petty things like sports and movies. Emphasize, instead, God’s love and grace and mercy, and how God wants to use them to heal a broken world.

Read the gospels together.

Pray together.

Speak to them of how God is testing you, and how he is blessing you.

Remind them that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are just illusions of community.

Teach them how God wants his church to be a kingdom — the kingdom — on earth, and not an organization with great things to do, and with fantastic personalities to hear.

All of this has been especially heightened for me, though, in my two experiences in the past month serving the families of children with cancer. To say that I was humbled, and overwhelmed, at the serious tests these families endure is a vast understatement. These parents truly know the value of family, and they embrace it to its fullest experience, every day — in ways I cannot.

So again, I say, the time we have with our children is precious.

Because one day, regardless of our health and wealth right now, each of our families will only be known by the words etched in the stones at our graves.

The Social Network

Welcome to my 37th straight post in 37 straight days, while reading the New Testament. I must say, every morning so far has been met with eager anticipation over the readings for that particular day, and how God will move my heart and spirit and thoughts. God speaks something to me, and I can’t wait to hear it.

Today’s reading is Acts 16 through Acts 18, and it is probably my favorite passage in the book of Acts.

Paul, now, becomes a world traveler, and becomes part of an amazing social network.

And, as you read this, I want you to ask yourself this question:

What if I used my Facebook and Twitter account to exclusively expand the kingdom of God?

Before we get to that, though, I want to show you a map of Paul’s travels during these three chapters, and what ultimately led him to his very own social network.

He began his second expedition from Antioch.

Yet this entire trip is the result of a detour.

A Detour

Paul did have some sort of plan. When you look at the map above, and read Acts 16, you get the idea that after he and Silas traveled through Tarsus, Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, he wanted to continue due east, to the city of Ephesus.

Here are the famous passages, though, which show how Paul was pushed into a completely different direction.

6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16)

Paul wanted to go further into Asia, to travel a route that would have carried him all the way to Ephesus. But the spirit of God refused to allow him to travel into Asia. That was detour number one.

So they moved northwest, into the territory of Mysia, but couldn’t enter the city of Bithynia, because the spirit of Jesus would not allow it. That was detour number two.

Because of these two detours, then, Paul was pushed into to the city of Troas.

While there, Paul received a vision of a man, beckoning him to come to Macedonia. Paul and his companions left at once, crossed the Aegean Sea, and headed to the city of Philippi. And that was detour number three.

Wow. God moved Paul in this direction.

Yet God didn’t give Paul a full revelation of this trip before he began.

He didn’t lay out the plan to Paul, but instead gave Paul the only thing that would’ve gotten him moving immediately. Specifically, anger. Paul believed zealous Jews had traveled to the cities of Galatia, and were undoing all of his previous work there. He bore the scars on his back from his time in that region. That was certainly more than enough to get him moving.

Paul was a smart man, too. He was a Jewish man, and probably wouldn’t have traveled as far as he did. Because in the Roman Empire, of its population of 100 million people, there were only about 7 million Jews.

He would’ve been in a visible ethnic minority everywhere but Judea. There was a significant Jewish presence in Galatia, because of historical reasons, but once he entered the region of Macedonia and Greece, Paul was outnumbered. He even looked different.

As a matter of fact, he didn’t even find a Jewish synagogue in Philippi. And his visit to Greece freaked him out a little.

I don’t think Paul would’ve opted to go this far. He didn’t really want to leave Asia. Yet God took him to a different continent.

Which allowed God to give Paul an incredible social network.

The Social Network

I want to list for us some of the people Paul met on this journey. I hope it shocks you a little.

  • Timothy (in Lystra) – a young man who was the product of an interracial marriage, who eventually ministered to the church in Ephesus, was the recipient of two of Paul’s letters, and was imprisoned for the cause of Christ.
  • Luke (in Troas) – a doctor probably from Philippi who traveled with Paul for a time. Had Paul never met Luke, we wouldn’t have the gospel of Luke, or Acts of the Apostles.
  • Lydia (in Philippi) – a woman, and the first convert in the continent of Europe. She was probably connected to the Caesars in Rome because she sold purple clothing. Purple was the exclusive color of the Caesars. Because she dealt with the Caesars, she probably first lived in Rome, but was expelled by the emperor Claudius probably because of her belief in Jesus.
  • Acquila and Priscila (in Corinth) – a powerhouse couple from Rome, expelled, too, by Claudius, probably because of their belief in Jesus as well. They, too, were tentmakers, like Paul, and Paul lived with them for 18 months. They taught Apollos, and later in their life, returned to Rome.

Understand this: Paul would’ve never met these people had it not been for the detour God forced him to take.

And, if that is the case, you and I would have never known these people, or their story, if not for this journey. These meetings were not accidental.

This tells me something.

Our relationships are not accidental. Every decision we have made in our lives is the result of God moving us to this very moment. Everyone around us is a part of a vast social network in the kingdom, and God has us at the center of a hub designed to further the message of Jesus.

Wealth, status, and experience are all relative things to God. Paul, along this detour, met an interracial man, a doctor, a wealthy refugee, and a married couple with a mobile profession. Again, there is no rhyme or reason here.

Because the kingdom is the only social network worth our time. It’s urgent that we open our eyes to see everyone in our lives as people living in, or living in the shadow of, the kingdom. Our web of connections is only useful for the expansion of God’s kingdom.

So imagine this: what if we lived in this reality?

Or, to be a bit more relevant to our own social networks, what would it look like if all believers used their own participation in various social networks to further the kingdom?

Or, what if we used our participation in social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, to write our own epistles among our own social connections?

What would happen in the world if we stopped posting petty, snarky comments, and instead focused every status update on building the kingdom of God?

Maybe that will give us something to think about today.

Social

I redesigned our student ministry and children’s ministry website, at kidswiththemost.com. Here’s why.

Social media and networking are beginning to make me dizzy.

I received an invite, this summer, to join Google+. I joined. And then I just stared at my profile.

I still open it, occasionally, and have no idea what to do with it. I have enough difficulty keeping my Facebook page, my Twitter page, and my LinkedIn account in sync with each other.

In the previous few years, I have used Facebook extensively as a means of communication, and have used it often to send messages and updates on events. And though both Facebook and Twitter have their functions in sharing personal lives with a vast network, I shy from exposing my personal life on either site, simply because my life is public enough. I doubt very seriously people really want to know when I am out of milk.

Communicating with students, and members, has been made much easier because of social media. But those means of communication have evolved. Facebook was incredibly useful — for a while, at least for student ministry, but the preference of social media has evolved, and some students have gravitated away from Facebook to Twitter, making Twitter very useful — but that, too, will only last for a while. Google+ has yet to prove its usability.

With the average age of a new Facebook user being around 40, and with the most common usage of Facebook from women older than 55, Facebook’s communication ability for broad age groups has seen it’s time. While it is still useful for sharing your life with your network … to communicate, it is fading. The new group feature on Facebook is a notable exception, and communication, through that feature, has briefly resurrected Facebook’s communication features.

Twitter has its advantages, too. With tagging features for those who follow ministry accounts, I can guarantee a direct message to anyone. And the brevity Twitter requires short messages, and those can be read quickly. But how long will that guarantee last?

Communication through social media, then, I think, has almost reached its end. Within one year, and certainly within 18 months, to communicate through social media will be laughable, because, like most everything else in our culture, we will gravitate toward the site that best fits our personality, and our needs, and there is no guarantee that we will all be on the same site.

The only way to continue to communicate online is through a central location, not really attached to any social media site, and I am finding, now, that bringing people to that central location is absolutely critical. So I updated our student website to mirror all of this information.

It is a simple site, no longer heavy with graphics and words and info. Using social media places to fulfill the greatest amount of information, I’ve designed a four page site, with a welcome screen, one page for information on our student ministry, one page for our children’s ministry, and one page for the newest feature of our site — a blog.

By keeping a blog, on the site, I’m beginning to see really great changes in communication. I can update it as often as I like, and, by making it as brief as possible, I’ve allowed everyone, on every available social media site, to find their way to our central site location, and then read the information quickly, and even have time to visit the archives. By transferring the responsibility of communication to the site, I’ve then allowed other social networks to complement what can be found at the site. In essence, all of these outlets, together, form a fairly comprehensive composite picture.

Traffic has increased to the site, and I now have the ability to communicate within, and without, social media.

Now, using only social media sites to inform followers of the site update, it no longer matters which site anyone prefers.

Which, really, is the essence of church. Lots of people, outside of a specific location, being a part of several different groups, but being connected by the one thing that binds each person together, regardless of preferences and pursuits.

In

I thought this morning, and of the past few days, of the meaning of the Christ-follower’s tenant to be “in the world and not of the world.”  Today, I thought of the church, and how that becomes reality with the church.

Here’s what I think:  It is obvious that if the church shows no interest in the world, then the world will show no interest in the church.

Now, to you, that could mean several different things, so even saying something that general is open to the vaguest of interpretations.  And the longer I’ve been in ministry, the less I believe that the church should look like the world.  The flash and bling, great stages and cool graphics are nice, and allow great and fluid communication, but that doesn’t really give us a presence in the world.  If we are honest, it just makes us look more like the world from which we are calling people.  So I’m not so sure a statement like that one above means the way we “look.”

(And for an interesting comment on this, exegete Hosea 4:6 and following, about how God views worship leaders and religious leaders who lead worship that “looks” like a world with a disdainful and sinful culture.  That should shock any minister or pastor.)

But I think the world offers tools of communication that we should use.  After all, if God has given us great abilities to communicate, then shouldn’t we use those?

I am fascinated by marketing.  I am fascinated by the way the world receives messages, and the way smart companies communicate those messages.  I am often frustrated by demure ideals of communication, especially if they are offered as “the way we’ve always done it.”  The world is quicker and faster and more skeptical than ever.  We have a timeless message, but we have to condense it in a world that only allows for about 140 characters of space.

So take a look at this graphic.  It’s an interesting look into the world of marketers, and how they access and utilize social media.  Cool stuff, and great learning for those of us trying to convince others to follow Jesus.

OMG

It was a moment of inspiration, really.

During a moment on Twitter, one of our students wrote this as her status:  “OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG.”

As it was, at the very same time, I was reading through the book of Jeremiah, and really, really struggling with the significance of this part of my journey into the Word of God.   It is, after all, a difficult venture into any of the prophetic books if your heart isn’t ready to receive the Word from God in whatever format.  I am so very, very thankful that my journey into the Word of God had prepared me for all I would read in the prophecies of some of those guys.

Here were the questions that I would ask myself: How was Jeremiah relevant?  How is this relevant to me?  How many names of people do I really need to read here?  (In several of these books, there are lists of names which, really, are a bit redundant to me.)  How is this relevant to my ministry?

And then I noticed that the word relevant appeared all over those thoughts.

Relevancy, it seems, is the savvy word of modern churches and modern ministries.  It is found in several questions, including the ones I asked, but even in more general questions:  How can the Word be relevant?  How can church be relevant?  How can any ministry be relevant?  Relevant, relevant, relevant.

Let me be frank for a moment.  The Word of God is always relevant.  It always will be relevant.  It will continue to surpass any culture in terms of its relevance.  It was relevant before the word relevant was relevant.

So, we need to clarify.  Relevant is best descriptive of how we communicate, not what we communicate.

My summer memories of reading the Word of God, and specifically, the books of the prophets, will forever be of a hot, back porch in one of the warmest summers in memory, reading through line after line after line of the precious Word of God, and wondering why these stories are here.

For awhile I thought that, as a minister, maybe I was a modern prophet.  Maybe.  I saw similarities, and still do.  I, like the prophets, preach the Word to people who are wrestling with deep moral lapses.  I, like the prophets, feel alone at times.  I, like the prophets, believe I see a vision for God’s people no one else sees, or even wants to see.  Those themes are teachable.

Until, that is, I discovered Amos 3:7, which says that God does nothing until He reveals His plan to His prophets.  So these guys are unique.

But I was still filled with questions.  These books, and their context, require a great amount of understanding to be completely … well … understood.  Discovering their culture environment takes a bit of time to really grasp.  Their cultural environment, also,  gives you understanding as to why they were saying the specific things they shared.

You know all of this.

But I felt a yearning, a calling, a deepening to bring these stories to our students in our student ministry.  These books tell great stories of God’s love and redemption, but also of His intolerance for destructive behaviors.  They are, of all the books in the bible, a lens into what God sees when He looks at humanity.

And then I discovered the status of one of our students, and it hit me.

These prophets constantly said, “O my God.”

It was their constant prayer.

And then God’s plan for my venture in the prophets during this long, hot summer made complete sense.  I believed, and still do, that through my time of prayer, God wanted me to tell these stories.

We have a really great time of worship for our students, every Sunday night.  We call it Fortress.  It is a media-rich environment, which is very, very cool for the American teenager, and the way we communicate to them is very, very relevant.  We have also introduced, just this semester, a student worship team, with very talented students who can not only sing, but can also lead.  And the potential is great.

Our meeting space has been renovated, and repainted.  The acoustics are great, and the sound is awesome.  And all of this is to teach.

I began this fall by beginning this new teaching series for our students, which I call OMG.  These are the prayers of the prophets.  These are their lives and their stories.

My teaching series is evolving.  The first week we opened the book of Haggai, and discovered that the success of our relationships and our lives are determined by the importance we give to God.  In Haggai, the temple — the very house and presence of God — was in ruins, and that, in turn, bled into the private lives of God’s people.  As God begins His word to His people, He asks in Haggai 1:5 one of the questions that may be the hardest to hear come from the mouth of God:  “Think carefully about your ways.”

If you want success, you must make God the only priority in your life.  Maybe we should all give careful thought to our ways.

Just last night we opened the book of Hosea, and discovered some really great truths from a difficult marriage.  The first act of ministry Hosea was given, by God, was to marry a prostitute.  Read it for yourself in Hosea 1:2.  And if that is not an OMG moment …

But there is so much more there.  If you are a Jesus-follower, you, like Hosea, must be prepared to go places you wouldn’t go otherwise.  You must touch and minister and be with people you may now consider to be untouchable.  And, if you are a Jesus-follower, you, like Hosea’s wife, must also understand that any moment of betrayal you offer God is considered adultery to God.  You betray trust, and you break a sacred covenant.

But, God loves you.  Hosea 3 is filled with the story of Hosea’s continued love, and that is an even better OMG moment.  God loves you.  And you can’t outrun that.

I love Fortress, and I love what it offers our students.  I love the ambiance, the time, and the growing devotion our students have to the Word of God.  I love the time I spend with the prophets, and I love how God speaks to me through ancient voices, and how that story continues to a growing group of teenagers who seem to understand the need to hear from prophets long gone.