Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The winds of change, they are, uh...

Christians In Context has never been about a name. Try as we may, nobody famous writes for us and nobody that writes for us has become famous. I can probably guarantee that will continue to be the trend. Nor has it been about the money which, to date, totals exactly zero point zero in the profit column.

And yet, in the past couple of months, we've hit a number of exciting milestones:
  1. In October, we reached100,000 total page views on the blog.
  2. In November, we had tweet number 1,000 (I know, that's probably a miniscule number. We're working on that).
  3. In December, we also hit 1,000 blog posts.
The Changes

As we hit these milestones, however, there are changes on the personal front that have implications for the blog yet to be determined. Beginning February 1st, my part time position at my church (Redeemer Church in Omaha, NE) is becoming a full time position. I will be overseeing the expansion of the Worship Arts department, managing and increasing our internet presence, writing (more), teaching (more), in addition to the worship leading responsibilities I already have. So this may mean I have even more content that I can roll over to Christians In Context . . . or it may mean you'll see even less of me (please, the applause isn't necessary).

Another Open Casting Call

So in anticipation of the unpredictability of my new position, we're looking for a few good men (or women) to pick up some of the slack around here. Specifically, I've got three positions in mind:
  1. Original content creator -We need a few people who are writing original content that is either unique to Christians in Context or is a cross-post from a personal blog (you don't have to give up your own blog if you've got one). Click here for more details on that position and here for the general direction we want to go with our content.
  2. Popular links collector - If you troll all the popular Christian blogs, or if you have a knack for finding stuff that everybody just must know about, this might be the role for you. We've never been very regular about doing any sort of "Links We Like" posts but we're not opposed to them in principle. 
  3. Tweeter -  If you spend a lot of time on Twitter, if you're already an avid reader, or if you find yourself retweeting Driscoll, Piper, Keller, and the like, then you've probably got what it takes here.
As I've laid out before, the best application/resume' will be one that demonstrates that you're already doing the job you're applying for. So regular tweeting, blogging, and link collecting will go a long way to showing your future reliability. And if you're already doing the work, you could think of this as an opportunity to expand your platform.

Any interested parties can direct all inquiries in the form of a reply to this post or email directly to jared_at_christiansincontext_dot_com

Don't Panic

For the rest of you, never fear. We've no plans to let this blog go down in flames. Many of the past contributors are in various stages of fulfilling obligations and have expressed interest of continued participation in the blog.

And, as soon as I decide the best way to handle it, I've got more books than I can read and review and I'm pretty sure there's another giveaway coming soon.

Stay tuned....

Monday, January 28, 2013

This is what incarnation looks like

Nate and Tara Ariel left Antioch 14 months ago with their seven children and moved to the island of Bocachica, off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. Cindy and I just returned from spending a week with the Ariels, seeing firsthand how they live and the difference they are making in this impoverished community of 9,000 people. Here is part of an email that Cindy wrote about Tara’s life there:

“It was amazing beyond words to see how God has knit them together with the Bocachicans and given them the understanding that those people are their neighbors and friends. Without that, I don’t see how they could be content there. Jesus is truly all we need, but in our relationship with Him, He gives us love for those around us and a desire to give ourselves to them and to receive from them. He has taken what the Ariels were to people here (in Burlington) and just planted that same thing there. It felt surreal to watch and try to process it in my mind and heart. I could see the community between them and others, and it made us see the people as ‘real’ and as friends, too. The best way I can describe it is that it is a true ‘incarnation,’ just as Jesus was incarnated on earth for us. He came to be one of us, so He could show us God’s love and hope. The Ariels are becoming one with the Bocachicans.

“I can hardly describe to you the hardships Tara has to endure just to live there. There’s the dirt, heat, animal dung tracked into her house, the flies and bugs, the fungal skin irritations, carrying water up a dirt hill a quarter mile to her house along a rutted and trash strewn path, and the constant visits from neighbors. She spends one whole day a week taking a boat into Cartagena to grocery shop at a market in a dangerous part of town because it’s the cheapest place to shop. She said it smells terribly of urine and rotten food, but she has made friends with some of the sellers and they watch out for her. Then she has to carry her groceries back to the dock and take the boat back to the island and to her house...all by herself. And when she takes her children on the boat, there are no life jackets for children provided, so she sits with her boys around her, so that if the boat capsizes they will be near her in the water and she can try to save them. The miracle is that she has accepted these things as part of normal life, and she is content and happy. She holds cooking classes for the children and women once a week, and she teaches children English on Saturdays. I’m just scratching the surface of what she does, and I haven’t even told you of the ministry Nate has with the men, and the children have with their banana bread making and befriending the children. I can’t wrap my mind around it yet, but I am so proud of them and so humbled.”

The Bible says that Jesus “emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant,” and that he “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Those who follow him will do the same. The Ariels certainly have. Nate and Tara are opening their hearts and their home to the Bocachicans, becoming one with them, for the sake of Christ. This is what incarnation looks like.

J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man” and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can Tweet him @jmarkfox and can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why did Jesus tell people not to tell others who he was?

My church is currently reading through Mark, and I think the most frequent question that has arisen so far is this: "Why did Jesus try to squash the buzz about him? Why did he tell people (and demons) not to reveal his identity?"

Mark seems to be chock full of this very thing. In just the first 8 chapters in our 5x5x5 reading it has happened numerous times (1:34, 1:43-45, 3:11-12, 5:42-43, 7:35-36, 8:30). Jesus not only commanded the demons to be silent when they were revealing his true identity, but he also commanded the same thing of those he had healed, and even his own disciples! That last point is perhaps the most shocking, but there's a clue to why in the very next verses, so let's look at them in context:
And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?"

Peter answered him, "You are the Christ."

And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:29-33 ESV)
In some of your Bibles, Mark 8:30 and 8:31 are broken up by a new paragraph and perhaps even a new paragraph heading. In my Bible it reads "Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection". This breaks your flow of thought and you kind of look at it as a new train of thought. But these paragraph headings were not in the original manuscripts, and when you take it out and read it as we did above, the answer begins to emerge.

Jesus did not want his identity revealed on a large scale because this would inevitably draw a large, faithful, and powerful crowd (both in political and military terms). This would have made it almost impossible for Jesus to "be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed". This explains, at least in part, why Jesus didn't want the demons saying who he was (and why they would want to). This explains why Jesus ran when the crowds tried to make him king by force (John 6:15). This explains why Jesus at times delivered such crowd-thinning messages as "Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53).

Jesus had to die because the biggest problem for the Jews wasn't the oppressive Roman rule, it was their own sin. The Jews' greatest need wasn't a king, wasn't a military leader, wasn't someone to win freedom from big, bad Rome. The Jews' greatest need was an innocent sacrificial lamb to pay the debt of sin for them and the rest of humanity. And that wouldn't come about if Jesus' popularity grew to the point that he became untouchable.

For further reflection see: The Balancing Act of Jesus

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Avoiding pain can be the main cause of it

The Bible clearly teaches that more and more people will grow less and less enamored with the preaching of the Word of God. They will not put up with it. Instead, they will “accumulate for themselves teachers who will suit their own passions.”

As a result, they will turn away from truth and wander off into myths. They prefer pecan pie to Brussels sprouts. And who doesn’t? If the question is which is more fun to eat, then the pie wins hands down every time. But if the question is, which will make you stronger and maybe help you live longer, then there is no contest. Brussels win. Which is more fun? An episode of your favorite sitcom? Or listening to a sermon? Well, probably the sitcom. Which will help you more to grow in your faith?

Hopefully, there is no contest. Now the point is not that we should never eat pecan pie or watch TV shows. But if we find our hearts longing for more and more sweets and more and more mindless entertainment, there is a problem. If we find ourselves reacting to anyone who preaches the Word to us with authority, there is a problem. Imagine waking up one morning, looking in the mirror, only to be horrified to see a huge growth in the center of your forehead. That would be a problem, right?

But imagine that you then start asking everyone you can find to tell you what they think about your protuberance, and the first 10 say you should get medical help immediately. Imagine that you just ignore the first 10 and keep asking people what they think until you finally find a woman who says, “What growth? I don’t see a problem. In fact, I think you are wonderful just the way you are. And, hey, mind if I hang my purse there?” And imagine that you, unicorn-boy, smile and nod and think to yourself, “I finally found someone who understands me and will tell me what I want to hear.” That’s a grotesque illustration of what Paul is talking about in 2 Timothy 4.

There are growing numbers of people who reject truth-tellers and look for teachers who will tickle their ears and tell them what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear has deadly consequences. Paul then connects this teaching with a few commands, one of which is, “endure suffering.” That made me wonder if perhaps one of the main reasons people reject the truth and run headlong into lies and myths is because they don’t want to suffer. The end result, however, is even more suffering.

It occurred to me last week as I was meditating on this Scripture, and I believe this is from the Lord, that the one who does not endure suffering will most likely be the source of suffering for others. Think of John Mark as an example, a young man who bailed out on Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey, presumably because the suffering was more than he was willing to endure. He left and went home to Mama, leaving the other two to soldier on without his help.

As a result, Paul and Barnabas had a falling out when they disagreed later about whether John Mark should be taken with them on their second journey. Their relationship suffered because John Mark had refused to endure suffering himself. Run to the truth of biblical preaching and avoid the myth-traps. Endure suffering and spare yourself and those whom you love much pain.

J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man” and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can Tweet him @jmarkfox and can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A year with my Kindle (Bonus: my suggestion to publishers)

Last week I re-posted a reflection I wrote last year on "How the Kindle killed my reading plan". While that post took a largely grim outlook on owning a Kindle, I found that the majority of my bad habits (book hoarding, surfing, and infidelity) were due to having a "new toy" more so than the liabilities that the Kindle presented.

Once the newness of the Kindle wore off, I found it much easier to pick up my print books at home and just grab my Kindle when it was convenient (e.g. leaving the house). So in the past year, I and my Kindle have developed a working relationship, and my reading habits haven't changed as much as I thought they might.

The Kindle takes a back seat when picking a new book. When I finished one book and it was time to start a new one, I always found myself drawn to my bookshelf first. There's something far more appealing about the spines of real books, various fonts and colors, and a quick peek at each front and back cover to pick a book versus a sterile list of book titles or a digital bookshelf on a screen. While I consider myself a reader, I cannot deny the superior aesthetic appeal that a well-done print book offers.

As a side note: I'm sure this means that, all other things being equal, I will usually buy and read books that have a bigger budget and better layout. That sort of rankles the reading purist in me (You know, the whole "don't judge a book by its cover" thing), but I can't deny this seems to be the case. 

The Kindle makes reading a book more of a social event. Because you can connect to Twitter and Facebook through your Kindle, it is much easier to share what you're reading. I especially like being able to share an extended quote through my Kindle rather than having to sit down with a book open in front of me and typing it all out.

Similarly, because so many deals (and even free ebooks) can be found, it's much easier to turn friends with Kindles onto the same deals and read those books at the same time. This is rarely the case with my print books and, at best, I usually end up loaning out my favorite print books to my friends one at a time after I've read them.

The Kindle has a clear advantage in searching you book collection. Have you ever spend half an hour searching your book collection trying to find "that quote"? I have. With the Kindle, this process is a breeze. It also collects all your highlighted texts in one place so you can go back and read everything you noted in all your books together. Very nice.

Bonus - My suggestion to publishers: If I have one gripe about the ebook revolution, it's that I'm often forced to choose whether I will buy a book in print or ebook form. On more than one occasion, I've bought an ebook on a deal, and then liked it enough that I ended up buying it in print as well. Sure, the publishers win twice in this instance, but not as often as they would if they would do this:

Offer Print + eBook bundles. If I could read, mark up, and loan a print book, and get the option of having my entire book collection portable and searchable at all times on my Kindle, I would be one happy reader. I would happily pay a little more to buy a print book with the ebook thrown in, and I imagine I'm not the only one.

The movie industry has already set precedent here offering "Blu-Ray + Digital Copy", and I think "Print + eBook" offers even more advantages for the buyer. Now I haven't figured out all the practical difficulties (like keeping download codes secure on the print books) but I think it'd be great way for publishers to adapt to the rise of the ebook rather than be threatened by it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sustainable Alamance is doing a good work

I had the opportunity to sit down this week with Phil Bowers, the director of Sustainable Alamance, a nonprofit that works with men and women who seek to re-enter the community after being incarcerated. I love their name: what better resource to ‘sustain’ than people! That is exactly what Sustainable Alamance is doing. Last year they were able to place thirty men and women into full-time employment, which will represent nearly a half million dollars in wages and thousands in taxes. Not to mention thirty people who will not be among the fifteen percent in Alamance County who live in poverty. Thirty people who will receive the dignity that comes with earning their own way. Thirty people who will be able to provide for their children and will almost certainly not go back to prison, which will save the state of North Carolina more than one million dollars in 2013. Here are just a few examples of how Sustainable Alamance is making a difference in our community.

Joseph is a man that has been given new life. Literally. Joseph was standing on a table with a chain around his neck about to jump off when he remembered someone telling him about a group that is willing to stand by men and women to help them out of their most desperate situations. Joseph took off the chain and went to his first Sustainable Alamance meeting. There he found a group that truly cared about him and believed in him. Joseph is now married, working full time and is taking a leadership role in Sustainable Alamance.

Maltese was a "federal level" cocaine dealer in the community with an income of about $300,000 per year. He realized that this was not going to be an ongoing enterprise when he began to notice the "same pair of sunglasses" in his rear view mirror every day. He was given a chance for reform through the US Dept. of Justice “Safe Neighborhoods” program and he came to Sustainable Alamance. After a series of temporary jobs, he is now enrolled in culinary school at the local community college, scheduled to graduate this year.

Tommy is a truly transformed man. He was a drug and alcohol abuser for 30 years, with countless nights spent in the Alamance County jail. Since joining Sustainable Alamance, he has come to know that his hope lies with Jesus, is working full time, has had his NC driving privileges restored, has restored his relationship with two daughters and walked his oldest down the aisle at her wedding. Tommy has now confidently accepted his role as mentor and father to his two children and continues to pledge his love for them day after day. (stories from sustainablealamance.org)

Phil has a vision to expand what the organization is able to offer. He sees a way to provide more low-cost health care for those in the community who need it. He has a desire to provide more urban farming opportunities where ex-offenders can grow and sell their own produce. He has a vision for helping many more who face difficulties even getting an interview with a prospective employer, much less a job offer.

Paul wrote that the church should “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” I appreciate Phil Bowers and Sustainable Alamance for coming alongside the church in this community to do those very things. I encourage you to go to their website, read about the ministry, and invite Phil to speak to your church. You may contact him at phil@sustainablealamance.org

J. Mark Fox is the author of A Faithful Man, and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Rd. in Elon. You can tweet him @jmarkfox and can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Huge Bestseller Book Sale at WTSBooks

For just a week (until 1/15) WTSBooks is offering all of their 2012 bestsellers at 50% off retail. While I'm certain that every title it excellent, the following would certainly be my highlights of the list:
 Here's the complete list:


Monday, January 7, 2013

Strong fathers needed for serious task

I like to go through my journal at the end of the year and see what I learned. I offer four of the top 10 for your consideration.

“The last four miles of a marathon are a lot harder than I expected.” I wrote that two days after the race. I also wrote, “It was basically a situation of mind over matter, me telling my legs (which were screaming for me to stop) that they would make it, that we had gone this far together and we weren’t going to quit now.” There was great relief and an even greater sense of accomplishment as I crossed the finish line. The experience proved to me again that God has endowed his creation with endurance beyond what we often see because we don’t put ourselves in a place where it can be pushed to the limit. We hear Christians say, “Well, you know God will not put you in a situation that you cannot handle.” Nonsense. God specializes in that very thing because when we are pushed to the limit of what we can do, his strength is on display.

“Good news, you don’t have cancer.” That may be the sweetest combination of six words in the English language that I heard all year. The biopsy came back negative and I felt like the second half of my life was just beginning. A friend of mine heard me talking about this and he is a cancer survivor. He said it is even sweeter to hear these six words: “Good news, you are cancer-free.”

There is a powerful ministry of presence. Twelve of us went to Kenya this past July to work and to teach, and though the labors of our hands and the words of instruction we gave were presents, the greatest gift was our presence. I wrote this in my email-journal on our last night in Nairobi: “I was reminded this week of what Paul said, that one sows, another waters, but it is God who makes things (and people) grow. And that everything we did this week, from the feeding programs, to the schools, to the VBS, to the pastors’ conference, to the church services, to the time spent with our guides on safari … we were watering. The children were thirsty for our love and our touch. Everywhere we went they wanted to hold our hands or crawl in our laps. The pastors were thirsty for teaching. These men who water others needed to be watered themselves. The schoolteachers we met were thirsty for encouragement, for someone to tell them they were doing a good job. Even the guides on safari said at least three times, ‘We love this group!’ They were watered by us as we loved on them, asked them about their faith and their families.”

Strong fathers needed: Only the serious need apply. This “word” was spoken to me over and over this year, but two times in particular this fall. First, Roche van Wyk was with us from South Africa in October. He said to me after observing the men in this fellowship who are leading their families: “That is one of the greatest needs in South Africa. Fathers who will take their responsibility seriously.” Two weeks later, Richard Sanders joined nearly 50 of us men and young men at the beach for the annual men’s retreat. He said the same thing to me about Moldova, where he serves as a missionary: One of the greatest needs in that country is fathers who will take their responsibility seriously.

I could not agree more.

J. Mark Fox is the author of “A Faithful Man”and the pastor of Antioch Community Church on Power Line Road in Elon. You can tweet him @jmarkfox and can find all of Mark’s books on Amazon or other online sellers. Email Mark at markfox@antiochchurch.cc

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How the Kindle killed my reading plan (redux)

About a year ago I wrote a post reflecting on how the Kindle had changed my reading habits in just a matter of months. I thought I would write a follow-up article with a whole year under my Kindle belt now, but first I thought it couldn't hurt to repost the original piece that stirred up a lot of chatter (and even a phone call from a writer from the Washington Post, though it went no farther than that).

Every new year I set a goal for myself regarding how many books I want to read in the following year. 2011's goal was the first I failed to meet and I blame my new Kindle for that. Yes, you heard me right. I only read 42 of my target 52 books (one a week) and I hold my Kindle responsible.

You see, I was at 42 books partway through November when something momentous occurred. I got a Kindle for my birthday. And just like that, my reading screeched to a halt. More specifically, my reading productivity ended.

All technology is created to solve a problem (or at least that which the manufacturers and advertisers can convince you is a problem). In the case of the Kindle, it was created to make the transportation and navigation of large quantities of books easier. I'm sure there are more reasons, but those were the two most appealing to me. The thought that I could carry one device with me and have at my disposal my entire book collection was too much to resist. Now, as John Dyer pointed out in From the Garden to the City (One of CIC's Top 10 of '11), "Sometimes, the effects of a medium are more important than any of the content transmitted through that medium...the transformative effect of a technology is so powerful that it often overshadows what we say or do with that medium."

To put it another way, the Kindle was designed to make reading easier, but (in my case) it made three other things easier as well:

Book hoarding - With the Kindle, I felt like a teenage girl with her dad's credit card (please, don't read too much into that). What I mean is, due to the fact that there is so much free or dirt cheap content out there for eReaders, there is a smaller financial restraint to keep your book collection in check. So I probably spent more time hunting for and downloading eBooks after my birthday than I did reading them.

Book surfing - Much like channel surfing on the TV, the Kindle makes it easier to browse your collection. This is because, even as you hold and read one book in your hands, you are at the same moment holding every other book in your collection. While this is sometimes good, I found that at other times it made it much easier to drift away from one book to another. Which brings me to my last negative effect.

Book infidelity - I am by no means a "read one until you're done" kind of guy. I always have at least five books going at any given moment. But the Kindle requires even less investment into any given book. When you read a print book, you must "give yourself" to it as you bend covers and pages, underline, and make notes. The Kindle makes it easier to juggle reading ridiculous numbers of books at one time without giving yourself to any one book. The Kindle also removes any sort of anticipation and delayed gratification as you wait for a printed book to arrive.

So what's the real problem? The problem, of course, is me. The problem is my self-control, or lack thereof. And this is true with humanity and virtually every advance in technology. Each new technological advance (in my case, the Kindle) makes all sorts of things easier, and while some of those are good (book reading), others are bad (book hoarding and surfing). There are a few things I'd like to see the publishing industry do in the wake of the ebook revolution that I think would help, but that is another post. If I may close with one more quote from John Dyer's From the Garden to the City, "When we are aware of the tendencies and values inherent in our technology, we have the best chance of avoiding the negative trade-offs it brings and instead using the technology to serve God".

What about you? If you have an eReader, have you noticed these (or other) negative effects? Have you noticed more positive effects (e.g. my wife says she could barely finish a book before she got a tablet)? If you don't have an eReader yet, is your resistance motivated by such concerns?