Five books you should read this summer

Our schedules often loosen during the summer. We get to travel, spend time at the beach or the mountains, or just take a slow week of “stay-cation.” Because of this summer is a wonderful time to invest in yourself. 

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In view of that, here are five books that I think it would be worth your while to read this summer:

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Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ.

This book is a complete guide to becoming an increasingly faithful follower of Jesus. It contains all the resources you need to understand and practice the disciplines of the Christian life and to place them in their context as tools rather than as ends in themselves.

 

 

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Michael Hyatt, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

This is a book about communication. The immediate context is building a tribe as a writer or blogger, but the principles carryover to influence leadership and career. Great read.

 

 

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Tim Keller,
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Keller excels in communicating the simplicity that is beyond complexity. He’s also adept at holding things in tension that are often envisioned a disparate. In this book he explains how churches can engage in ministry in their context that is centered upon the message of Jesus.

 

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Alistair McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.

McGrath, like Lewis, is a product both of Ulster and of Oxford. He writes with affection that avoids hagiography and with more than the usual sense of Lewis’s Irish roots–a reality often overlooked by other biographers.

 

 

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Jon Acuff, Quitter: Closing the Gap Between your Day Job and your Dream Job.

Jon provides the reader with a roadmap that takes her from her current reality into her dream reality. Thoroughly realistic, the book argues that our current reality provides the platform and the security necessary to allow us to practice and hone our craft before launching.

 

Who is my neighbor?

‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’

And then the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

On Saturday I experienced a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. After spending the morning doing various things to serve our downtown community, members of our church went out and invited everyone they met to have lunch with us. Many came.

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It was a powerful experience that taught me several lessons about myself, humanity, the gospel, and the church:

  1. Myself: My fear of being patronizing often causes me to hold back. I deeply desire to encounter those with  fewer resources, less cultural power, and (perhaps) greater physical need as equals. This can be difficult to do, and so the fear of perceiving myself as a savior often causes me to miss out on deeper relationships with those who are different than myself.
  2. Humanity: All of us are united both in our dignity and our degradation. The photo above is linked to a collection of portraits of homeless people. As I clicked through the gallery, I was struck by the juxtaposition of dignity and degradation. Stare into the piercing gazes of these people and you will see their dignity. Eyeball don’t age, do they? Yet, those same eyes are set in a deteriorating and unwashed body. It’s no different for me. The form may be different, but I too combine dignity and degradation.
  3. The Gospel: The invitation to the banquet only deeply resonates with those who recognize their need. Those who respond to the message of the gospel are those who see their need. Those who joined us for a simply lunch of sloppy joe’s and potato salad where those who recognized and admitted their need for a free meal.
  4. The Church: The church is a parable of Jesus and so together our story has to mirror Jesus’ story in the gospels. It’s quite difficult for anyone to encounter Jesus in abstraction. Most of us will encounter Jesus through a message-bearer. As the church, we are the bearers of the message that there is free grace offered to us by God through Christ.

Let’s be clear, I’m no Mother Theresa. I am, at best, an apprentice at loving my neighbor. However, God met even me in the simple act of sharing a meal with those in our downtown neighborhood.

 

How our American way wars against the Christian way

I’ve been thinking about what it means to follow Jesus in twenty-first century American culture. The more I think about it, the more I’m forced to the conclusion that there’s a lot about our American way of life that wars against the Christian way of life.

Perhaps it’s peculiar that I used the phrase “Christian way of life.” Being a Christian means being converted–a conversion that begins inside us and works its way out into the texture of our life–our way of life.

Somehow we’ve reached the conclusion that the Gospel can reach into our hearts and change how we relate to God and to a lesser extent we agree that the Gospel can change what and how we think. We’ve got a long way to go in terms of allowing the Gospel to really saturate and alter the ways in which we choose to live. Our way of life is more influenced by the American story than by the Gospel story:

“If you live in North America, you are a prime candidate for a slow death by overstimulation. Your environment is busy depleting you with noise, distractions, and the compulsion to always be in a hurry. If I had set out to destroy my identity as a beloved child of God, I couldn’t have done better than by living in America at the start of the twenty-first century. The greatest threats I’ve encountered are not the arguments of skeptics or the lure of drink, drugs, or sex. The greatest threats are the constant busyness and frantic hurry that demand my allegiance. Author Robert Benson says, ‘We take our place in the race and watch our lives disappear in the daily grind.’ We are rarely grounded in the present moment (where God is to be encountered) because we’re always rushing out beyond it or replaying in our minds our disappointing past. Shame and sadness over our dark past drives us to strive for a brighter future, which generally winds up being busier rather than better.”

Fil Anderson, Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers

In order to be effective outposts of the Kingdom, churches need to spend energy helping to guide followers of Christ into a more kingdom-centered, missional ways of life. We don’t need more bedraggled followers of Jesus who limp through life exhausted and overspent. We need joyful disciples who are committed to keeping important things central to their life and who eliminate distractions ruthlessly.

Exploring the what and the how of such a way of life is at the heart of my sabbatical and I hope to write more as my leave progresses.

Todd Aiken and the challenge of secularism

I haven’t followed the implosion of Covenant Seminary alumnus and Republican representative Todd Aiken’s political flame out. About the only thing I can say about it is that Aiken said something stupid. Of course, he’s a politician. Most politicians are better at the art of getting elected than they are at the art of thinking. They pay other people to think on their behalf and other people pay them to vote on their behalf. Okay, that was snarky–forgive me.

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It is interesting to read the responses to Aiken’s gaffe because they expose the real religion of American society–a secular, liberal faith in the autonomy of the individual and the bracketing of religious claims to knowledge outside of the public square. When I say religious, theological is closer to the point. Secular society has effectively come to understand religious or theological knowledge as something other than what it is–that is, knowledge. It is opinion or, worse, some manifestation of a Nietzschean will to power.

L. Z. Granderson writes,

Some social conservatives talk of protecting religious freedom, but what they are really seeking is a theocracy that places limits on freedom based on a version of Judeo-Christianity that fits their liking. That language is also being considered for the GOP’s national platform. Some speak of fighting abortion because of their religious convictions and then belittle the trauma caused by rape.

Granderson here describes in a via negativa the fundamental tenets of the secular society–which is an alternate gospel, an a-gospel as it were.

So what does Granderson’s society look like:

It is free of religious or theological knowledge. Such knowledge can only produce a “theocracy.”

It places no limits on the autonomy of the individual. The limitation of the rights of the individual to pursue what pleases him is oppression–any form of restriction to self-definition or self-actualization is a form of violence fit to done away with.

This is a profound challenge to Christian people. Why? Because the view that Granderson is espousing is a rival gospel and a rival religion. As Christians we’re told that we are to have no other God than God. And yet, the dominant social theory of today and our dominant self-understanding in the political sphere enthrones each of us as god–a profound idolatry.

There is no knowledge that is not first theological knowledge–grounded in an embrace of or a rejection of the God in whom all that is consists. The issue for Christians is how to live faithfully in a post-Christian world where each of us is seen as the sum of our appetites rather than a being made in the image and likeness of God.

How the Bearenstain Bears ruined my day

The Bearenstain Bears changed the course of my day today. They made me miss a phone date with (my wife) Anna who is at Campus by the Sea this week–a place only slightly more difficult to reach by phone than a federal penitentiary.

I was running in our neighborhood this morning, both kids in the jogging stroller, when I heard the most alarming sound–the throaty crunch of metal on metal that accompanies a car accident. I looked up, pushing 6 pounds of children tends to make me look down, and caught the immediate aftermath of the collision. A pirouetting Oldsmobile span 180 degrees pushing a VW sedan into the curb.

I ran the next block and offered assistance. Thanks be to God, no one was visibly injured. I have my suspicions about the driver of the car which was hit–she had hit her head on the steering wheel with enough force that the mark was present several minutes after the accident. Thankfully, I believe that she was taken to a local hospital with her young son.

Observation and reflection are a natural part of my make up. It’s impossible for me to experience something like this with taking note of things that strike me as odd or ways in which it connects with the rest of my life. So here goes.

  1. “I’m okay.” Running up to the scene of the accident my first question was: “Is everyone okay?” It’s a perfectly natural question, but it’s meaning is limited by it’s context. I think I meant, “Does anyone have a life threatening injury?” The drivers were in the process of standing and walking and replied: “I’m okay.” I assume they meant something similar me since in the direct aftermath of a trauma like that, it’s impossible to do anything other than take stock of anything that feels like a life threatening injury.
  2. Body language. Body language can derive from one’s moral sense. The driver who struck the other car immediately went over to her and inquired after her. Is that a moral action? Did he do it as a result of feeling responsible for the accident?
  3. Tunnel vision. In the aftermath of the accident tunnel vision sometimes exposes victims to other dangers, which they are unaware of because they’re focusing on what just happened. In this instance, one of the engines was still running. There was some oil on the ground, but I didn’t smell gas. I asked the driver to turn his car off–it took me two requests before he complied. I suppose it’s a natural response, but had the car been leaking gas we could all have been in danger.
  4. The bystander effect. I was one of several people in or near the intersection who witnesses either the accident or its aftermath. In the end only a very few of us stepped in to make sure everything was okay. Interestingly, the majority of the people who intervened were either on walking on foot or emerged from houses or the church next to the scene. In a split second, more like a nanosecond, I asked and answered the question: should I intervene? In that nanosecond, I appealed to an inscrutable authority–The Bearenstain Bears. Specifically, The Bearenstain Bears and the Golden Rule. The golden rule is, of course, do to others as you would have them do to you. I simply asked myself: would I want someone to check on me and call 911 after an accident? Do I want to live in the sort of neighborhood where people do this? I would and I do.

There are lessons to be gleaned from even the most mundane or most terrifying happenings of daily life. I’m glad that I learned to do to others as I’d want them to do to me.

 

Why you need margin

On friday I returned from a week-long trip work trip. A week before that I returned from ten days of vacation in Alabama. In all, my family and I have been out of town quite a bit–almost twenty days.

While I was gone I wondered about my vegetable garden. During those time temperatures here in North Carolina have been in the nineties most days. There have been thunder storms and rain. What would be the state of my garden on our return?

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Where there is no gardener there is no garden. And so I was fully expecting to return and need to spend countless miserable hours weeding the garden. To be sure, there are weeds–plenty of them. However, because the soil in which they are growing had been well-tilled, they came out relatively easily. 

Margin allows us to have a life that is well-tilled. When life gets tough, a well-tilled life can recover well. If our life is planted to the margins and leaves no time for cultivating the disciplines and practices we need to live well and with intention, then when difficulty strikes (when weeds grow) we’ll find that the unturned soil of our life has become hardened and the weeds will come out only with much effort and time.

That’s why it’s critical to make time to develop our relationship with God, our spouses, our children, and our friends. For more on this, I recommend Michael Hyatt’s Life Planning process, which enables you to think through each element of your life and consider who you wish to be and what you wish to give yourself to. It’s available here.

What moves you?

“You can be religious in your use of Christian terminology: you can be religious inside of a Christian church. But one of the vital aspects of Christianity is that our activities are always the result of His [God’s] activity. It is the ‘well of water,’ it is the life within that stimulates. ‘God worketh in you both to will and to do’ before you have done anything. Why did you desire it? Why did you will it? That is the question. We move because we are moved; we act because of the stimulus that has come apart from us.”

-D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Why you need a sacred space

Is there a place in your life that is holy–a sacred space to which you retreat? A place where you get away and are able to really think through and wrestle with the things that are most important in your life? The sort of place that when you arrive there, you feel the stress fall off of your shoulders and are able to breathe more deeply. It could be a chapel. It could be your study or studio. It could be a garden. Wherever it is, it needs to be place where you’re free to withdraw from the incessant stream of information and demands that our world makes of us. 

Todd Henry at the Accidental Creative blog writes about the power of “sacred space,” a place where each of us is free to be with ourselves and engage in our life’s work. He gets the idea from Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) who writes:

[A sacred place] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

While I’m not familiar enough with the work of Campbell to fully understand the context in which this comment is made, but it makes an awful lot of sense to me. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me, but I often feel quite overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information I am asked to deal with on a daily basis. In some senses, processing information has become a big part of almost everyone’s work–even ministers. Here’s the thing: to my mind, processing information is not terribly life giving or exciting. In the absence of the sacred space of which Campbell writes, life can arguably be reduced to the frenetic attempt to discharge obligations and check things off your to do list.

Campbell continues:

Our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the music that you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects.

At first glance, Campbell could be interpreted as profoundly egoistical. Perhaps he is. However, it is profoundly the case that the ability to take care of yourself is detrimental to all of those to whom God has given you. Take care of yourself so that you can care for your spouse, your children, your brothers and sisters in the faith, and engage in the work that God has given you.

Where is your sacred space? Where do you go to wrestle with life’s deepest issues?

[Repost] Parenting–best and worst of times

It’s been about a year since I read Jennifer Senior’s New York Times article, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.” The piece floated into my conscious mind this morning as I’m nursing (again) what I call a parental hangover. It’s 5:21am and I have been awake, off and on, since 3:00am.

I find myself wondering how it is possible for two little people (one is 4 and the other 2) to so thoroughly exhaust me. In short, why is parenting simultaneously the one of the best things that I have ever experienced and yet something that sometimes makes me want to run for the hills. Senior frames the tension like this:

As I shuffled back to the living room, I thought of something a friend once said about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan—“a nice place, but what it really needs is a bar”—and rued how, at that moment, the same thing could be said of my apartment. Two hundred and 40 seconds earlier, I’d been in a state of pair-bonded bliss; now I was guided by nerves, trawling the cabinets for alcohol. My emotional life looks a lot like this these days. I suspect it does for many parents—a high-amplitude, high-frequency sine curve along which we get the privilege of doing hourly surfs. Yet it’s something most of us choose. Indeed, it’s something most of us would say we’d be miserable without.

So true — a high-amplitude, high-frequency sine curve along which we get the privilege of doing hourly surfs. That’s my life and I’m pretty sure, if you’re a parent, it’s yours too.

In general, behavioral scientists have found that having children tends to increase feelings of depression. From the article, “Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances—whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.” That’s encouraging.

I loved the erratum that ran in The Journal of Happiness Studies after a coding error was found in data that suggested that parenting corresponds to happiness and that happiness increased with the number of children: “the main results of the paper no longer hold. The effect of children on the life satisfaction of married individuals is small, often negative, and never statistically significant.

There are, of course, all sorts of explanations as to why we still have children regardless of the fact that it’s a lot of hard work and doesn’t seem to make us markedly happier.

  • Is the desire a creative delusion inspired by evolutionary necessity?
  • Do the moments of transcendence obscure the long hours of tedium or the overall negative impact on happiness?

The least depressing response is probably that parents enjoy parenting, but that our society is shaping the lived experience of parents in such a way as to contribute to our dissatisfaction.

The nature of parenthood is changing. We’re a long way from the family farm where children were primarily assets, incipient means of production who were brought into the world by young parents. By contrast, “[today’s] Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.” We’re also having children later in life after we’ve sampled at least something of the freedom of being income-earning adults.

We also have a society isn’t particularly favorable to parenting, especially active fathering. The norms of our society encourage men to spend long hours at work earning in order to provide for their families. Society also encourages women to work and simultaneously to provide everything their children need in terms of nurture. This is crazy. Children need father and mothers. They need more than incidental fathers who are present at the margins of their life.

As a society we need more support for families. Studies have shown that nations with strong welfare systems have happier families. Pro-welfare = pro-familiy. Take note Republicans.

Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.”

Parenting is a complicated issue, especially since there are social forces that exert influence on the way we shape and live our lives as parents (that are sort of beyond our control).

But it certainly seems that working toward greater social support for families and a lessening of angst about parenting would go a long way to making parenting more enjoyable.

Of course, at the end of the day much of parenting will still fit into the apt description given above. Namely, a high-amplitude, high-frequency sine curve along which we get the privilege of doing hourly surfs. Love it.

It’s now 6:15am. Time to refill my coffee because I hear Nathan talking to himself in his room. Before long, he’ll emerge.

Fulfillment through forgoing

One of the presuppositions of our culture is that more is, well, more–that with greater material affluence comes greater happiness or fulfillment, a better life. This runs counter to the principle of askesis (Gk, “exercise” or “training”). The word is the root of our word asceticism–the forgoing of material comfort for the purpose of focus or spiritual benefit.

It turns out that in limiting ourselves (or in embracing our human limitations) we actually open ourselves up to the thing that ultimately make us happy–shared experience with people we love:

We are familiar with the frequently beneficial consequences of involuntary askesis. How many times have we heard as we have visited a parishioner in the days following a heart attack, ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me–I’ll never be the same again. It woke me up to the reality of my life, to God, to what is important.’ Suddenly instead of of mindlessly and compulsively pursuing an abstraction–success, or money, or happiness–the person is reduced to what is actually there, to the immediately personal–family, geography, body–and begins to live freshly in love and appreciation. The change is a direct consequence of a force realization of human limits. Pulled out of the fantasy of a god condition and confined to the reality of the human condition, the person is surprised to be living not a diminished life but a deepened life, not a crippled life but a zestful life. -Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant