Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When the devil hijacks your hashtag

Show of hands: How many of you know what a hashtag is? Need a hint? A little bird told me it looks like this: #

For those of you who don't use Twitter (I don't either), a message sent through Twitter is called a tweet.

Basically, tweets are short messages about what's on your mind. They're limited to 140 characters, and so you can't ramble on about a topic. (The last two sentences were exactly 140 characters, to give you an idea of how short that is.)

A hashtag helps you identify keywords in tweets, and hashtags can help you find communities discussing the same topic. For instance, you'll often see Webcast producers provide a hashtag so viewers can tweet live with each other and submit questions to the speaker during the event. If I were to present a webcast based on my blog, I might create this hashtag for my blog readers to use: #flourishingtree.

There -- now you know what I know about Twitter.

A hijacked hashtag
The whole topic of hashtags came up Monday night at the first meeting of a small study group I'm a part of. One of my friends in the group is involved with Elevation Church and was telling us about Elevation's recent 12-day Code Orange Revival. The revival was webcast live each night, and participants were encouraged to tweet their thoughts in real time.

What concerned my friend -- and lots of others -- was the explosion of criticism and negative comments that showed up using the hashtag during the revival. And that led to our conversation about the devil hijacking hashtags.

You see, my friends, spiritual warfare is real. And you'll encounter it most clearly at a time of intense spiritual transformation, such as Elevation's revival. The devil never wants to lose any souls to the other side and will therefore battle with whatever tools are available, even the twitter feed on a church's revival webcast screen. Perhaps especially there, because that's where lives were being transformed. That's where new Christians were giving their lives to Christ -- the devil's worst-case scenario as he lost the souls gained for God's kingdom.

Protecting the hashtags in your head
Whether or not you tweet, I bet your mind is a lot like a twitter feed. Short thoughts one right after another, sometimes transitioning from one to the next but often jumping around among lots of different, unrelated topics. Mine is. I joke with my husband that it's like a pinball game in my brain, with thoughts bouncing around everywhere, rarely stopping in any one spot for very long.

And sometimes, whether I like it or not, the devil tries to hijack the hashtags in my head. These can be tiny little moments I might miss: a whisper of doubt, a choice to be lazy for a couple of hours when I should be working, a friend's behavior that makes room for distance to creep in between us. Other times, the attempts can be louder.

Take Elijah, who went from the confidence of triumphing over the false prophets of Baal in a fiery demonstration of God's existence and power to immediately running in fear from a queen -- a human -- because she had threatened to kill him. It took more than 40 days in the desert and another encounter with God before Elijah would clear his mind and return to work (1 Kings 18, 19).

Remember Judas. He was a disciple of Christ, witnessing the miracles and lives transformed in Christ's presence. At the last supper -- a most holy moment -- the devil enters Judas and convinces him to betray Jesus (John 13:2, 27). Judas went mad after the betrayal.

Let's not forget about Peter, either. The rock of the early Christian church, Peter had sworn unbreakable loyalty to Jesus, but then some men recognized him and questioned him. Fear gripped him. He lied. The rooster crowed three times. And Peter wept (Matthew 26, Mark 14, John 18). He had to wait until after Jesus' resurrection to be reinstated to his earlier call.

Perhaps that is why Peter is so quick to remind us of the danger we all face:

     Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a
     roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing
     that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren
     who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace,
     who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen
     and establish you.

     -- 1 Peter 5:8-10 (NASB)

It's understandable that we don't want to think about the devil. Some of you may have even been reluctant to read this post because of its title. But we do better to be on guard, as Peter admonishes us, than to ignore the threat lurking. As Peter promises, God rewards our resistance and struggle.

C.S. Lewis' novel The Screwtape Letters is an enduring account of how the devil weaves his way into our thoughts (thanks to Enuma Okoro for reminding me of this wonderful book just this past weekend). Told in letters from a senior demon instructing a junior one just learning the ropes of winning souls, the book will make you laugh, but in the laughter, may also indict your heart in places where you need to be especially vigilant.

If you have read The Screwtape Letters, I'd love to hear your reactions and your favorite lines from the book and hear how they may have helped you in navigating your own path in life.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Two lives imitating trees

In last week's post Two trees imitating life?, I wrote about two tree sculptures imitating life, or death, or maybe even tennis balls, depending on how you view the art. I promised to follow up this week with more about the blessed life being like a tree planted by water, and here's a picture of some pretty cool tree roots to get you thinking of what the tree planted by water may look like:

Trees and their roots growing by a creek
The passage I shared with you last week actually describes two lives that are like trees, just very different kinds. One life is blessed, but the other is cursed.

     Thus says the Lord,
     "Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
     And makes flesh his strength,
     And whose heart turns away from the Lord.
     For he will be like a bush in the desert
     And will not see when prosperity comes,
     But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
     A land of salt without inhabitant.
     Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord
     And whose trust is the Lord.
     For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
     That extends its roots by a stream
     And will not fear when the heat comes;
     But its leaves will be green,
     And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
     Nor cease to yield fruit."

     -- Jeremiah 17:5-8 (NASB)

The cursed life imitates a bush in the desert -- relying on entirely wrong things to keep it alive. While the desert bush may fight and scrap and somehow stay alive, it's unlikely to ever thrive. Likewise, when we trust only in our own strength, or the strength of our family, friends, posse or gang, we're going to struggle instead of thriving. And our lives will ultimately become desolate.

The second life Jeremiah mentions is the blessed life, the one compared to a tree living by the water. In the photo, you can see how large the roots have grown as they reach out over and down into the creek. It may be hard in this winter season to imagine drought and heat, but these trees have sent down their roots so that even in the heat of summer, they can continue getting the water they need to thrive.

When the heat comes
Just as roots save a tree and keep it alive, we can cultivate faithful, obedient practices in our walk with God that will prepare us for times of distress and keep us from setting up camp in the desert places we sometimes find ourselves.

Notice that Jeremiah doesn't say the tree planted by the stream will not fear if the heat comes. He says the tree "will not fear when the heat comes" (v. 8, emphasis mine). When.

No one wants that word, "when." When a man comes home and tells his family he has lost his job. When the doctor speaks the word "cancer." When a car accident changes lives. When a spouse of several decades walks out. When a young son dies. When, when, when.

Droughts come into our lives in varied ways -- even to those of us who are Christians. Our faith does not provide a genie in a bottle, ready to grant our every wish and give us perfect lives.

No, instead of waiting for a genie to show up, we Christians have a greater gift, a greater promise to cling to: God is with us and sustains us when the heat comes, and our faith means that we will continue to grow and bear fruit, even after the droughts have done their worst. He has planted us where we will grow best and will always provide for our needs.

Let that truth of God's protection seep into your heart and mind: You have been planted by the water. Be confident that your roots are strong and that He will sustain you and help you bear fruit.

What are some of the ways you feel sustained? For me, it's writing and sharing a weekly message with you, but it's also spending time with family and friends, going for a challenging run, listening to music, or going to a museum.

I'd love to hear your stories of how your life is imitating the green tree and what God has put into your life to sustain you. Or maybe you'd like to share about a time that your life was more like that desert bush and God rescued from that desolate, desperate place. Either way, I'd love to hear your stories. So please share them in the comments below.

A small soap-box moment
Now, I hope you'll forgive me a sudden topic shift and a brief moment on the soap box. But I'd like to tell you about an issue that's important to me as a writer of a blog and as someone who relies on the internet for research, social networking and so much more.

You may have noticed that Google has a black swath across its logo today on its home page. If you click on the black swath, you'll go to this story about proposed legislation that would limit freedom of expression on the Internet.

We hear all the time about oppressive regimes that shut down Google and other sites, but I've always thought I lived in a country that was not one of those regimes. However, there's a vote next Tuesday -- January 24 -- that could considerably weaken our country's ability to get information from sites many of us frequent (Wikipedia, Google, Wordpress, Facebook, Twitter, ...). Who's behind this bill? Big media and the entertainment industry. Here's a video that gives a better summary than I've given.

I was really frustrated this weekend that NBC was able to have a stranglehold on Olympic trials marathon coverage -- reducing those of us who didn't travel to Houston for the event to getting text updates from sites other than NBC. NBC didn't broadcast the event live (I guess Babar cartoons are sacrosanct for them). And they refused to allow video coverage on other sites. It wasn't the most fun way to follow an exceptionally exciting set of races, but for most of us who cared, it was the only way.

This small example points to a greater problem with the monopoly big media would like to have on content. And it simply doesn't sit well with me. If it doesn't sit well with you either, please consider signing the petition against SOPA/PIPA legislation.

Thanks. I'll just go put my box away now.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Two trees imitating life?

I've been working on a book chapter about Jeremiah 17:5-8, in which Jeremiah compares a cursed man to a bush in the desert who will live "in a land of salt without inhabitant" (v. 6).

Well, I had never heard of a land of salt and really couldn't picture what that might look like, and so I googled the phrase just to see what would come up. The Bonneville Salt Flats just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, showed up in the list of hits.

If you read through the Google hits for the Bonneville Salt Flats, you'll see words like "nothing for miles," "desolate," and "barren." Famous races happen there, by car and on foot, but -- and this is mainly for my sweet husband -- please don't feel like you have to go run the 100-mile race there ... ever. (Even if you could leave your salt tablets at home and still be okay.) Despite the attraction for speed junkies, there's a whole lot of nothing to this desert land.

Now, even if you have never been to such a desolate place, you probably know or can guess how the human mind reacts to nothingness, to vast desert stretches, to a land of salt with no inhabitants.

As artist Karl Momen drove through the salt flats, his mind filled with a vision of a tree -- perhaps out of a desperate need to see something, anything, growing and green out in the salt flats. Momen created an 87' tall sculpture along Highway 80, called "The Tree of Utah (Metaphor)." (Here's a fun blog with photos of the sculpture, and the blogger has been so inspired by it that she's knitting socks to resemble the sculpture.) Other bloggers have less kind things to say about the sculpture.

Yep -- you know me. I can stumble across a tree anywhere, even in the middle of research about miles of nothingness.

As I looked through the images for this sculpture, I thought about art imitating life. I don't particularly like Momen's sculpture, though I do understand the urge to fill up nothingness with something. But his sculpture definitely attempts to suggest flourishing life in the most unlikely of terrains. Near the main sculpture, Momen added pods of concrete, as if the tree has flowered and shed seed pods or leaves.

There's another tree sculpture that I prefer by comparison, though I wouldn't say it suggests flourishing life:

This "tree" greets visitors to the NC Museum of Art: "Askew," by Roxy Paine
I've seen actual birds perch on this stainless steel sculpture of a tree, and so it's a real enough imitation of life for them to accept as a good place to rest, but there's nothing about it to suggest thriving, growing life. And I doubt birds would choose to nest there (certainly not in summer, anyway, when the eggs would be hard-boiled by noon.)

Like them or hate them, both sculptures are art and, in their own ways, attempt to imitate some aspect of living or dying. I guess I simply prefer a different sort of art imitating life.

So tell me, which of the two sculptures do you prefer?

The tree planted by water
By the way, you may be curious about why I'm writing about that passage in Jeremiah. While the cursed man is like the desert bush living in an uninhabited land, there's a blessed man who trusts in the Lord. And I absolutely love and cling to Jeremiah's description of this man:

     For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
     That extends its roots by a stream
     And will not fear when the heat comes;
     But its leaves will be green,
     And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
     Nor cease to yield fruit.
     -- Jeremiah 17:8 (NASB)

It's pouring a cold rain where I am today, and so it's hard to consider heat and drought, but fear and anxiety can be with us in any season of the year. So join me here next week, as I talk about this tree planted by the water ... and how we can cling to the promise of its yield.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The power of hope

Will you bear with me for one last post this season about Christmas trees? I promise it's about more than just the tree that's sitting out on our lawn waiting for the yard pickup tomorrow. It's about the power of hope.

I had a hard time undecorating from Christmas this past weekend. I mean a pouting, near tears, really surprisingly difficult time. Only reluctantly did I take off the ornaments and pack them away, knowing that the tree couldn't stay up much longer without starting to shed its needles. But for some reason, I didn't want to let go.

There were actually several reasons. One -- this tree was the quite simply the best tree we've ever had. We picked it out at a Christmas tree farm in the North Carolina mountains, where signs were plastered everywhere thanking us for participating in NC's agritourism business. That was a new term for us, but we embraced it as a suitable description for marching around a hillside full of trees trying to pick the perfect one. Once we picked this one and the guys brought it down the hill for us, they called it a "fat boy." It was really, really fat. I worried it would swallow up the room we were putting it in.

When we finally got it in the stand (mostly through sheer will and ingenuity on my husband's part), we knew we'd have to put more lights and more ornaments on than usual:

In all its glory
The second reason I had a hard time taking down the tree was the pang of guilt I felt about having it cut in the first place. It's one thing to go to a farmer's market or roadside stand selling trees that have already been cut, but another entirely different matter to go have one cut from the spot where it has stood growing for years. This is only the second year we have picked a tree from a tree farm, and I'm not sure whether I'll be able to participate in this sort of agritourism again. I really think our tree had plans to grow up to grace the governor's mansion or maybe even the White House. But it gave its life to cheer our house instead.

The guilt only intensified when we dragged it out to the curb Monday night, where I cannot ignore it:

Cast away
My desire to keep the tree couldn't trump the practicality of needing to get it out of the house, though, and thinking through the struggle made me realize the third reason I was struggling with letting it go: it had symbolized my hopes for the season.

This was the first year we hosted my brother and his family for Christmas, instead of us driving over to visit with them while they stayed at my parents' house. I wanted everything about this Christmas and their stay with us to be wonderful, including the tree. Its fragrance inviting family into Christmas celebrations, its lights twinkling a warm welcome and its decorations helping to recall fond memories of Christmases past.

Once I recognized that it was about hope, I could let the tree itself go more easily. . . because hope is a thing with feathers, and it cannot be tamed. It cannot be kept tied to a dying Christmas tree. It does not look back at the past. It faces the future with an uncageable freedom, and perches on any ready branch and sings to those who will hear it.

That's what many of us celebrate most about the coming of a new year: an uncageable hope. Hope that -- no matter how fabulous or miserable our past year has been -- our year ahead is filled with promise and wonderful moments and goals achieved. Even my tree sitting on the curb offered a small bit of hope today, as I noticed that nature was already redecorating it:

Nature decorates with sweetgum ornaments
I met hope in two other, especially beautiful places today that I want to leave you with:

  • My friend Jerel Law writes of the power of hope after a year of grieving his wife's death.
  • I heard this podcast of author Andrew Solomon describing his journey to find artists in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. (It's long, but I hope you'll take the time to listen.) One of the men he met there said he was glad Solomon would bring this story back to share, because of "the moment of hope when ... we were all so joyful and had such belief in what we thought was going to come" (Andrew Solomon, The Moth podcast).

I think that statement perfectly captures the power of hope: the moment when we're joyful and have such a belief about what is coming. What do you hope is coming for you in the year ahead?