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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Scripture Menu on your Home Screen

Hopefully if you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that it's actually part of a Web site called, and that we've actually provided a mobile version of the site to make it easier to access using your cell phone. Here's something you might not know: although we haven't technically built a formal "app" to install on your phone, it is very possible to put a link to the mobile site on your iPhone or Android phone's home screen, and that link will look like an app and behave like an app. When you touch it, you will be opening a browser to the mobile site. Scripture lists at your fingertips! Here are instructions on how to do it (thanks in large part to this post on Phil Wilson's blog; I'm copying the instructions from there to here not to steal Phil's content, but so the instructions will still be here if for some reason one day his blog is not):

  1. Open in Safari
  2. Click the icon at the bottom center of the browser. It may look like a square with an arrow in it, or it may simply look like a plus sign.
  3. Select "Add to Home Screen."
  4. If necessary, give your link a name (I recommend "Scripture Menu").
  1. Open in the Android browser.
  2. Bookmark the page.
  3. Open the browser bookmarks screen.
  4. Long-press the bookmark you just created.
  5. Select "Add to Home Screen."
Alternately on Android, when you get to step 3, instead just go to the home screen where you want to see the bookmark, long-press the space where you want to see it, then select "Shortcuts" and "Bookmark" and select the bookmark you created. Note that this may not work the same way if you use an alternate browser such as Dolphin or Firefox.

Either way, the result is that you've created a link that feels like a Scripture Menu "app" on your phone, but you haven't had to purchase, download or install a thing. The only thing you need is a data connection, and you've got instant access to the Scripture Menu wherever you are!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011!

From, the New Living Translation, and a bunch of Christian artists!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Perspective

My office Christmas tree
The Christmas tree I set up
every year in my office at work
I've been doing some thinking about Christmas.

I know that seems like a kind of weird thing to say... hasn't everybody been thinking about Christmas? This time of year it's all around us. There are trees and carols about Jesus and songs about Santa and gift shopping and cartoons about Charlie Brown and people angry about the word "Xmas" and the phrase "Happy Holidays," and church Christmas programs and missions offerings, and people generously paying off other people's layaway accounts and buying gifts for children from poor families, and traveling and Christmas parties and white elephant exchanges and who knows what all else. And always, always, always there is someone telling us about the "true meaning of Christmas." In fact, that phrase has started sounding a bit ludicrous to me this year, like something people just say. Like when I say, "How are you?" as a greeting, and you say "Fine," even when you're not really fine. It's just what you say. And I'm starting to think that this time of year, people talk a lot about the "meaning of Christmas" without really putting much thought into what they're talking about.

This week I listened to some podcast sermons from a local church where the pastor started out from the premise that society is "trying to take Christ out of Christmas." He mentioned the recent debates over the use of "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," and the notion that was popular several years ago that using the word "Xmas" is the same as "X-ing God out of Christmas." He acknowledged that the "X" represents the Greek letter "Chi" which is an abbreviation for "Christos" which is Greek for "Christ," but then paradoxically proceeded as though he thinks people are using the X to remove Christ from the picture anyway. After that confusing start, he talked about what it would be like in the world if Jesus hadn't been born. He mentioned some of the charitable organizations started by Christians (the Salvation Army, for example, and the YMCA) and people who have done great things because of their faith in Christ (Mother Theresa, monks and scribes who preserved ancient manuscripts, missionaries who helped and still help non-literate people groups develop written language). His message was stirring, but it leaves you with the idea that unless Jesus had come, the world would be totally devoid of any of those things.

I just don't buy that. It's not like God had no hand in the world at all before He sent His Son down so God could finally have a say in what was going on down here. God has always been active in His creation; all through the Old Testament you see God intervening, and if you read it carefully, you'll realize that the descendants of Abraham were intended to be God's instrument of doing good in the world all along (God even refers to Israel as His "firstborn son" in a place or two!) I agree with Pastor that Jesus' coming and the rise of Christianity has had a huge impact on mankind, but the picture you wind up with is one of a world devoid of anything holy or good, with no philanthropy or kindness or Cyrillic alphabet or orphanages or anything. Based on my reading of the Old Testament, I believe that if God's plan had not included sending His Son into the World, God would have instead used the Jewish nation to do all of those things. The job would not likely have been done in exactly the same way, but I believe God would have made it happen somehow. Because God loves people.

And if you're going to hang the "meaning of Christmas" on the nice things people have done in the name of Christ, what are you going to do with the evil things people have done in Christ's name? What about "holy wars" and Crusades? What about priests raping children and parents browbeating their families with the Bible? What about Protestant/Catholic wars in Ireland? What about alleged witches being burned at the stake? What about weird stories like the tale of William Tyndale, who was executed by the religious authorities (in God's name) for translating the Bible into English (in God's name)? If Jesus hadn't come into the world, those things might not have happened, either. I don't think Christmas is a time for patting ourselves on the back, talking about how nice we are to people because Jesus made us act nice. I don't belittle the transforming power of Jesus Christ in the life of someone who follows Him; in fact, I depend on it. Without it, I would be a mess. But I don't think the "meaning of Christmas" is that Jesus makes us nicer.

Then I read this terrific blog post by a pastor who has become fed up with the consumerism of the Christmas season, seeing it as something that brings harm to us rather than good. I mean, when you come out of Christmas with debt you wouldn't have had otherwise, that's a bad thing. When you spend the whole month of December selfishly thinking about what you hope people will give you for Christmas, that's a questionable use of your time, especially if the end result is going to be disappointment or even anger if you didn't get what you wanted. Pastor Sammy makes some very important points about the attitude we should have about Christmas, but he seems to have reached a point where he's almost ready to throw out the baby with the bath water (not the Baby... I didn't mean Jesus. Stay with me on this, now!) Although I do agree with him that when we buy expensive things we can't really afford and then say it's because of Jesus, we do the essence of the story about Jesus' birth a disservice. And I want to make it clear that I understand (and you should understand, too) that when Pastor Sammy said "I hate Christmas" he didn't mean it in the sense that he thinks it should be eliminated; he was stating his case in a shocking way to get people's attention. Make sure you read his followup blog post (link at the bottom of the original) so you understand clearly where he's coming from. I agree with him particularly about doing consumer-y things in the name of Christ; I have a relative who was so turned off by that sort of thing that he essentially abandoned Christmas (and God) altogether. But I think there's a balance to the season that we need to strike.

Mariah Carey's Christmas album "Merry Christmas" is one of my all-time favorite Christmas albums. And listen, I have TONS of Christmas albums. I have a collection of maybe a couple hundred, both religious and non-religious. I like Mariah's in large part because it is actually far more reverent and Christ-centered than most of the "Gospel" Christmas albums I've heard. Who would have thought you'd hear a song called "Jesus, What A Wonderful Child" on a pop Christmas album? That song alone has the word "Jesus" in it more times than most entire Gospel albums. Her "O Holy Night" has got to be one of the most amazing arrangements/performances of that song ever. And when I hear a song on a pop singer's Christmas album end by repeating three times the phrase "He is light, He is love, He is grace, born on Christmas day," I can't help but be astounded at the guts it must have taken to record something with that amount of religious significance. That line alone could be the basis of a pastor's entire Christmas sermon! But you know what? Mariah wasn't afraid to follow up "Silent Night" with the love song "All I Want For Christmas Is You," and then to follow up "O Holy Night" with "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". And she also wasn't afraid to include her fun take on "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" right after that whole thing about light, love, and grace. So the real question is: has Mariah devalued the significance of the religious content of her album by including things about missing someone you love, wanting to be with them, or a Jolly Old Elf?


I don't think there is a "meaning of Christmas." I mean, I think it means different things to different people, and it means different things to the same person at different times. I imagine it means something different to Mariah when she's singing "I miss you most at Christmas time, and I can't get you off my mind" than it does when she's singing "Jesus, born on this day, He is our Lord and our Savior." It means something different to me when I'm listening to Linus talk about the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night than it does when I'm watching my kids open their presents. The Christmas season, with all of our traditions and habits and history, is a complex thing, and you can't wrap it up in a pretty box and slip it under the tree. It's just not that small of a thing.

But I will tell you my favorite thing about Christmas, and yes... it's a "Jesus thing." The thing I love most about Christmas is that at Christmastime, people are more likely to act like Jesus intended for them to act. People are nicer to each other. People wish each other well - I don't care if they're wishing you well just on Christmas, or on the many holidays that occur in and around the month of December. And at Christmastime, it "feels" more "okay" to talk about Jesus. It's a time when it's easier to share your faith - don't browbeat with it, but share it, like a Christmas present that can be accepted or rejected by the recipient. But don't self-righteously deny people their gift-giving and their Jingle Bell Rock and the other trappings of the season. It's not an affront to God that you have a tree in your living room, whether or not the history has something to do with pagans in the woods. Jesus was not born on December 25th; probably not even in the month of December. If you're looking for a "meaning of Christmas," then Christmas essentially means that we have a few days off from work, give each other presents, sing traditional songs, that sort of thing. It's a festival. But I think we can adopt a new question: what is the opportunity of Christmas? Everybody knows the story of the sweet little baby who was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn, and if they don't, there are a billion shows on TV to tell that story. The opportunity we have at Christmas is to experience that story one more time, and maybe start a dialog about it with someone who doesn't understand that the real gift was not the baby, but the redemption He provided when He died on a cross thirty some-odd years later.

Have fun this Christmas! Sing carols, visit with family, enjoy your candlelight service, open your presents. I hope you have great stuff in your stocking Christmas morning. But you don't have to search for a "meaning" to Christmas, because it means whatever it means to you at any given moment. But remember the opportunity of Christmas... which is essentially the same opportunity Christians have all year long. The opportunity of Christmas is to remember that the baby whose birth we are celebrating grew up to love people, help the poor and sick, share God's message of hope, and ultimately give Himself for us... and then the opportunity is to allow Him to transform us so that we live more like He did every day of the year.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Night of the Living Dead Christian

Every Halloween, I'm reminded of a theory of mine. My theory is that every kind of monster that you see in a scary movie, or read about in a horror novel, or imagine is hiding under your bed, actually is a symbol of a fear common to human beings, and that's actually what makes them scary. For example: why would a ghost be scary? They go right through walls! A ghost, in theory, couldn't even pick up a knife to stab you or a club to hit you. I think the reason people are afraid of ghosts is that ghosts represent something else people are already afraid of: death. I think people are scared of skeletons because we fear not having enough food... starvation. I think we fear mummies because we fear embarrassing or dangerous things that may come back from our past to ruin our present. I think we fear werewolves because we fear wild animals; I think we fear zombies because we fear strangers (what's stranger than someone you used to know who is now only an animated corpse?) It's easy enough to come up with a basic fear of mankind that matches up with just about any creature from any B movie you can think of.

In his new book, verbosely titled Night of the Living Dead Christian: one man's ferociously funny quest to discover what it means to be truly transformed, Matt Mikalatos, who must have had a heck of a time in Kindergarten learning how to spell his own name, takes a different approach. He matches up different approaches to living as a human being to different monsters. Then, in a whimsical twist, he writes a story starring himself as both narrator and one of the main characters. Apparently, some of the other characters in the story resemble some of his own real-life friends as well, and the neighborhood suspiciously resembles his own. However, the next-door neighbor in the book, a man named Luther, is (reportedly) not based on a real neighbor of his. Luther, who when he becomes angry transforms not into the Incredible Hulk but into an incredibly dangerous werewolf, soon also becomes the focal point of the story, because although it is a book that contains zombies, mad scientists, vampires, and one very large android, the book is actually about the transforming power of surrendering your life to Jesus Christ.

I almost hate to synopsize the story itself, because I feel like I'm giving away too many spoilers and it's much more fun to read it for yourself, but I'll fill you in on a few things to give you an idea of what the book is like. Luther, early on in the story, becomes estranged from his wife. In fact, the first time we see him (in human form, anyway), his wife has just loaded their baby in the minivan, and told Luther they are leaving him. After determining, based partly on Luther's wife's assertion that "He's a monster. Do you understand what I'm saying to you? A monster," that Luther is indeed a werewolf, Matt and his friends, who were unable to locate any silver bullets with which to shoot the wolf, instead attempt to kill him by pelting him with coins with a high silver content shot from slingshots. This attempt meets with limited success; the werewolf is not killed, but instead is befriended, and the crew sets off on a quest to figure out how to cure him of his werewolfiness. On the way they escape from a horde of Study Bible-toting zombies, get advice from a recovering vampire, and face off several times with a very persistent monster hunter. If you took Pilgrim's Progress, threw it in a cooking pot with a little bit of C.S. Lewis and a pinch of Monty Python, and then stirred in a season or two of Scooby Doo reruns, this book is what you would get. It's wacky and unusual. The line between metaphor and "real" is pretty blurry: Luther is a man who loses his temper and that transforms him into an angry person, and we might say he "became a monster," but he also actually transforms physically into a furry monster. So the book is a true monster story, although since it is not actually very scary, you might have to classify it as, I don't know, a "monster comedy" or something like that. But under the surface humor is a strong, important message about the way we non-monster human beings lead our lives.

That message is this: each of us has problems that we cannot solve without the transforming power of Jesus. Sometimes we can't use sheer willpower to keep from becoming angry. Sometimes we can't keep from selfishly, vampirically using others by making up our mind to be nice. It takes the power of God to change us. The scene where Luther is finally freed from his lupine tendencies, reminiscent in many ways of a similarly vivid scene from the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, illustrates a kind of change which is painful, horrible, and necessary. It's the story of all of us, after all. The final chapter is bittersweet; bitter because as in real life, not everything is resolved as we wanted it to be, but also sweet because there is a ray of hope which mirrors the hope that shines in each of our hearts when Jesus becomes our life focus.

I enjoyed this book very much, but didn't laugh out loud at it. (Then again, I don't laugh out loud at Scooby Doo and Monty Python, either.) I enjoyed it in the way that I enjoy a good fast-paced satire: I don't want to break out and laugh, because if I do, I might miss the next funny bit! It does take time to sort of acclimate yourself to the world that is unfolding in the story... particularly since the "Introduction" is written by the fictional Luther, whom we will not meet until chapter 3, and the "Prologue" is actually located in chapter 2. After that, you spend a lot of time trying to guess which characters are also monsters, and what the heroes are going to try next to cure Luther. For me, one of the funniest mental images in the book is when Luther, at the advice of a psychologist who asserts that he must accept that he is a werewolf and learn to control himself, dresses in a suit and spectacles while in wolf form and strikes up a chat with Matt. On the flip side, there are insight-loaded details there that might be missed by a too-casual reader, like the brief speculation that some of the partially-transformed zombies are zombies made up to look more like humans, and some are humans made up to look more like zombies, and the two are virtually indistinguishable. (Which might you be?) The silliness runs throughout; there is no shortage of light moments to balance out the seriousness of the primary theme. But the theme is always there, just beneath the surface.

When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about ways that I might sometimes transform into a manipulative mad scientist, or a brainless zombie, or a codependent, selfish vampire, or an angry werewolf. The "Are You A Monster?" section at the very back will either make you laugh, think, or scratch your head in confusion... hopefully it, and the rest of the book, inspires more "think" than "head scratch," but I suspect it was designed for a little of both. I know the book gave me pause to reexamine my reliance on Christ in my daily life; it's so easy, like Luther, to fall back into looking like a wolf but trying to behave like a human. I'm planning to spend some time with Mikalatos' other wacky novel, Imaginary Jesus, very soon. If it inspires change like this one does, I know I'll be glad I did.

Even if you don't like monster movies, I recommend that you give Night of the Living Dead Christian a chance. It won't give you nightmares about monsters... except, maybe, the monster inside of you. But if it does, it also will show you the way to eliminate that dangerous creature once and for all.

Read more about Matt Mikalatos at
Read more about Night of the Living Dead Christian at
Read more about Tyndale House Publishers at

Don't miss the details about the free book giveaway after the video!

We have a winner for the contest! Congratulations, Terry!

We have a copy of the book to give away! To enter the contest, simply leave a comment on this blog post (use an actual identity or at least click "Name/URL" and put in your name, so I'll know who you are) and then immediately send an email to me at so I'll have your email address. Make sure your comment and email reach me before December 22, 2011. On December 22 I will randomly choose the winner, who will receive a free book certificate, redeemable at Christian bookstores or direct from Tyndale.

I was provided with a review copy of this book by Tyndale House Publishers. The opinions expressed in this review are mine alone.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

All Night

'Moses parting the Red Sea' photo (c) 2005, Bjørn Bulthuis - license:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. (Exodus 14:21-22 ESV)
The children of Israel were in a bad spot. They were just a bunch of slaves who had been released by their captors, only to be accused of escaping and pursued by the mighty army of the nation of Egypt. Behind them was that army, camping out, presumably to either recapture or slaughter them in the morning. In front of them, sure, was the supernatural cloud from God which they had been following, but there was also an impassable expanse of water. The proverbial "rock and a hard place" scenario. The people were caving in with fear; the only thing holding them together was the reassuring voice of Moses saying that God was going to save them. Then God told Moses to do something. Moses was to hold up his arms over the water, and divide it so they could cross. God reassuringly and protectively moved his cloud between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and Moses held up his hands, and the wind began to blow.

The wind began to blow? What about parting the sea? All we get is a moving cloud and wind?

Look back at the Scripture passage I quoted above. The wind blew all night. It doesn't even say if Moses held up his hands all night; maybe he held up his hands, felt the wind, and then went to bed. But maybe not... it might have been quite a rough night for the Israelites. I found a news item about a researcher who, using computers, estimated that it would have taken something like a 63 mile-per-hour wind to do this. A gale-force wind, blowing all night. I wonder if that seemed like an improvement to the Israelites?

The wind is strong and the water's deep
But I'm not alone here in these open seas
Cause Your love never fails

The chasm is far too wide
I never thought I'd reach the other side
But Your love never fails

This year my family has been going through some difficult challenges... we've moved to a new town and have been trying to repair and sell our old house. Just moving from one place to another is a big job, but then contracting out the repairs and putting the house on the market brought another whole set of challenges and responsibilities. On top of that, last summer I had an unusually intense period of high-profile projects that needed completing at work. It's been difficult, and frankly, it's still difficult; although things have wound down a little bit, the house is still not sold, and some of those workplace projects are still ongoing. There's a lot to be anxious about, a lot to be stressed about. In the wake of all that, a few days ago I was running on the treadmill and listening to the new Newsboys CD, God's Not Dead, which contains the song I've quoted in this post (it's called "Your Love Never Fails"). And that particular morning something occurred to me.

Just because the seas don't part immediately doesn't mean that God isn't working a miracle.

Take yourself back to that story about Moses. Imagine you are a frightened ex-slave. A ferocious army is within attack distance; you can't see them because of a cloud, but you know they're there. If you don't get across the Red Sea, they're going to re-enslave or kill you. You can't swim it; you don't have a boat. You want God to create a bridge! You want him to send you dry land! And what does He send? A windstorm. All night you suffer through a steady 63 MPH wind. Is this what you asked for? Is this what Moses was crying out for? We need a boat, not a cloud and a hurricane!

What God was giving them became one of the most spectacular, famous miracles of God in history. But it must not have felt like a very good miracle at the time. It may have even felt like God had left them, or was actively punishing them. But God was working in their behalf, parting the sea so that the land they walked on would be nice and dry. God was rolling out the red carpet for His people, and when they had partaken of His salvation, He was going to use the same miracle to completely eliminate the threat to their safety by drowning the Egyptian army.

You stay the same through the ages
Your love never changes
There may be pain in the night but joy comes in the morning
And when the oceans rage
I don't have to be afraid
Because I know that You love me
Your love never fails

The next time it feels like you're trapped between an impassable see and an undefeatable army in a 63 MPH windstorm all night, remember: God may be parting the Red Sea for you!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

NLT Life Application Study Bible (and more!) Giveaway

Tyndale is running a great contest on the New Living Translation Facebook page. You'll need to like their page (and there's a lot to like about the NLT - my pastor preaches from it every week, and I use it to read devotionals to my kids every night!) and you can enter the contest. What are they giving away? Well, they're giving away a TON of hardcover Life Application Study Bibles. They're giving away a "family pack" of them to one random entrant every day - five Life Application Study Bibles of slightly different "flavors" (the "Guys" edition, the "Girls" edition, the "Student" edition, the regular unleaded edition, and the Large Print edition). And once a week, someone wins an iPad 2! Obviously, since there are daily prizes, there is no time to lose... you'll want to enter right away to have a chance at the good stuff. If you enter and win because you saw the contest here, please come back and let me know in the comments! I'd love it if someone fell deeper in love with the Word because of a contest they won because they saw it on my blog!

Here's the link again: NLT Giveaway on Facebook

I appreciate how many times Tyndale is willing to run these little contests and give away copies of their translation. They don't have to... currently the NLT is the fourth best-selling translation (after the NIV, the KJV, and the NKJV, beating my beloved ESV which is at #5 - see the CBA list here) so obviously they are doing pretty well even without running contests to drum up publicity. They've been known to give away digital copies to all takers, as well. I appreciate a company that, although they obviously need to sell their translation in order to continue to be in business, is also willing to share free copies from time to time.

By the way... I've been a little bit quiet lately, but I do have some good things coming up - a review of a new book called Night of the Living Dead Christian next week, for one thing. There is also something I haven't mentioned here yet, but I should have: for the next few days, you can download an "offline" copy of the NIV to your mobile YouVersion for free! (Normally the NIV is only available if you have a data connection.) This means that you can have the NIV available to read without using your mobile phone's data allowance or being in reach of a WiFi hotspot. Just open up your YouVersion (or download the app, which is always free and which is available on pretty much every mobile platform), find the NIV in the list of translations, and click the "download" icon - there are instructions in the blog post about it if you need them.

Whatever you use to read the Bible... a NLT Study Bible you won from a contest, the NIV you downloaded from YouVersion, some other software or Web site, a dedicated device or an audio Bible... whatever you use, get the Bible into you. Get it rolling around in your mind. It will change your life for the better.