Tempering Your Faith in World Systems

“What he trusts in is fragile; what he relies on is a spider’s web.” (Job 8:14)

I was eating lunch at a restaurant in Orlando one summer day a few years back when a thunderstorm knocked out the electricity. Power outages from lightning aren’t uncommon in the Southeast in the summer – thunderstorms come with the season and lightning comes with the storms. Power is usually restored in a minute or two; sometimes an hour or two – but eventually the lights come back on.

This particular power-out lasted longer than a minute or two. The restaurant was a fairly big place; I’m guessing there were over a hundred diners inside – including me, Elaine and our granddaughter, Chelsey. Enough light came in from the outside windows that we weren’t in the dark, but it was Orlando in the summer and after twenty minutes without the a/c running the air inside was getting a bit dense.

Our problem – everyone’s problem – was that we were all in a bit of a stalemate. The cooks in the kitchen couldn’t see to work (no windows in the kitchen), but that wasn’t an issue because the waiters couldn’t enter orders on the restaurant’s computerized system. The folks who hadn’t ordered yet had it easiest; they could simply walk out of the restaurant.

Those of us who had already eaten were in a fix. Our meals were finished – or half finished, but we couldn’t pay the check and leave because we didn’t have a check to pay. That was part of the restaurant’s computer system too. But if we did have a check to pay, we couldn’t – unless we paid cash and didn’t need change. Most of us were planning on paying by credit card. We couldn’t do that; the transaction had to be run on the same system as the orders and the checks. The restaurant’s nervous system was shut down.

All we could do was look at each other and wait for the power to come back on.

Oh, we could have just left without paying the bill, and become food service criminals by default. We might have even gotten away with it. It wasn’t our fault the power went out; what did the court system expect us to do? Wait until power is restored? My guess is that’s exactly what the court system would expect us to do. Walking out of a restaurant without paying because they can’t print you a bill or process your transaction can lead to anarchy. And courts just hate anarchy.

As I was sitting there in the semi-dark, breathing used air, fantasizing about our getaway, the only thing that held me back was the fear that we’d get just to the door when the power was suddenly restored. The lights on, the computerized ordering system buzzing to life, the receipt printer spitting out tickets – and the three of us, my hand on the door … busted; trying to leave the scene of the crime, under the guilty stare of all those patient citizens who stayed in their seats until power and order was restored. I’d better just stay put.

Then the power came back on, the lights lit, the computerized LCD screens blinked to life and the receipt printers started spitting out tickets. Whew! That was a close one.


These days we’re connected – more than ever before. Paychecks (if you’ve got one) go in direct deposit. The power, phone and cable companies draft their fees out of your account automatically. When was the last time you bought gas for the car by actually giving cash to a human being standing behind the counter inside a building? Swipe and go. It works for gas and parking; last week I ordered breakfast in a hotel by pressing the picture of an egg burrito on a touch screen and swiping my room key. Yup – we’re connected. Not to each other, of course – but to the System.

Almost fifteen years ago Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame, wrote a revolutionary book titled The Road Ahead. In it he laid out his vision of a future where people and systems were connected to make life easier – what he called ‘friction free’. His book featured futuristic tools that would speed us along the ‘information highway.’ Page 70 pictured a ‘personal computer based interactive media center.’ It came complete with a 14” CRT (the bulky computer monitor that used to take up two-thirds of our desks before we all switched over to flat screens) and pullout keyboard drawer; the ‘interactive media center’ looked to take up most of a living room wall. But what this machine of the future would do was really quite fantastic. It would store all of your music and allow you to listen to new music, transmitted over the ‘information highway.’ The ‘personal computer based interactive media center’ could even be connected to control your home television! Imagine that – integrated audio and video from a single device that could easily fit into a largish living room!

Bill Gates dream came true, ironically by the hand of his rival Steve Jobs at Apple. Today we call Gates’ ‘personal computer based interactive media center’ an IPod – and it doesn’t take up as much wall space as Gates imagined.

Gates dreamed of a future tool he called a ‘wallet PC’. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, this space age device would take the place of your car keys, credit cards, cash and identification; it would send and receive e-mails and faxes (?), remind you of appointment times and even guide you through traffic using something the army called a ‘Global Positioning System.’ Of all the great things Gates imagined his ‘wallet PC’ could do, it never occurred to him that it might be used as a telephone too. Gate’s ‘wallet PC’ is today’s IPhone – Steve Jobs got him again. I think that’s why Bill quit writing books.

Well, the future is here and we’re living in it. We’ve succeeded so well in connecting ourselves to the System that, looking back on The Road Ahead, Gates’ revolutionary ideas in 1995, seem as quaint as the antique soft-drink signs at the local Cracker Barrel.

It’s not just our day to day that’s connected either. Our future is connected. Retirement savings and 401K money go (without us ever seeing it) into mutual funds and money markets that we don’t really understand but are supposed to earn interest and provide for the day when we’ll be too old or too tired to go into work and we’ll have to live off of the money we’ve socked away but never seen because it’s never existed outside the System we’re connected to.

The System makes our life easier to the degree that we’re connected to it. That is, assuming it works. We’ve found out lately that the System we’re so connected to fails occasionally. And because each part is inextricably connected to every other part of the System, when one part fails, it tends to drag other parts down with it. Of course, we’re connected to the System – where do you think that puts us? Millions of people have put their faith in the System only to have their life savings go down in the same big flush with the failed parts.

And the System includes all those connected folks who have forgotten how to live outside of it for five minutes at a time. Think I’m exaggerating? Shut down all the ATM’s and credit card terminals for twenty-four hours. We’d blow a hundred years worth of civilization in a day.

Don’t get me wrong. I like electricity. I like my Blackberry. I like paying at the pump. I even liked the breakfast burrito I ‘swiped’ last week. As much as I use the System I temper how much faith I put in it.

I’m not advocating going back to barter – trading home grown chicken eggs for a Starbuck’s Mocha Latte. I am advocating having a small plan in case parts of the system go haywire for a while. Cash still works as a financial transaction medium in most establishments. Got any? Bottled water is an excellent substitute for tap water in an emergency; but don’t count on picking up a case at Wal-Mart after the faucet stops working. A flashlight can be used as a temporary source of artificial illumination if, God forbid, the power grid shuts down for thirty minutes – assuming you have a flashlight … oh yeah, and batteries.

That we have such a term as ‘tough times’ indicates that the System doesn’t always work as planned. Thriving in tough times means having a clue what to do in the event the system doesn’t work as planned. Right now we’re experiencing the System not working as planned.

Even though I’m connected to the System, I temper how much faith I put in it. Firstly because I know it doesn’t always work and I like to have contingencies available should a part fall off. Secondly because I know, long term, the system is going to fail and not come back. That’s because it’s broken at its core. There’s a new system coming one day that I do put my faith in.

Until then I’ll keep swiping at the pump. When that fails, I’ll pay cash. When that fails, I guess I’ll walk. But what I won’t do is blindly put my faith in a doomed system. My faith rests in the new system; I can see it coming, even though it’s not quite here.

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (I John 2:15-17)