Place God Between Us and Our Circumstances

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It is narrated of Diogenes, that when Alexander the Great asked him to request a favour, the only thing that poor man wished of the conqueror of the world was, not to stand between him and the sun, whose genial light and warmth he was enjoying. If Diogenes stands for the Christian, Alexander for the world, and the sun for Him who is the light and joy of His people, we may look upon this story as an allegory: all that the Christian really wishes is, that the world should not obstruct and intercept the rays of happiness which come to him from the heavenly sanctuary.

If we are anxious always look first to God, and to place Him between us and our circumstances, and the people we have to deal with, then we shall be able to exercise love and patience, and to be calm and peaceful at all times. We have to deal with God on the one hand, and with our fellow-men and circumstances on the other. Now the great point is, how we place ourselves. If we allow people and circumstances to become between us and God, then the smallest provocation, disappointment, and difficulty obstruct to us the light of heaven, and intercept the supply of grace and strength. But if we place between us and the men we have to deal with, and the work we have to do, we shall walk in light and in love; for God is light and love, a translucent and strengthening medium. Look first at Him, and then at men and things. Have you met trial? Do not look first at the trial, and then at God, with the question: Does God, who allows this sorrow, love me? Look first at God, and with the renewed assurance of God’s love, look at the trial, and say, God chastens whom He loves.

Adolph Saphir, The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God

1 John 1:5-7 says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

Place yourself in the light. Allow no darkness to obscure your vision of God. Walk in the light. Draw your strength from Christ, for in him there is no darkness at all.

When Do You Read?

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A friend of mine recently asked, “When do you read?”

Years ago I read Stephen King’s On Writing. King argued that writers should be readers. He described his practice of carrying a book wherever he went. When he was waiting in a line to get into an event, in the reception area at the doctor’s office, or sitting at a coffee shop waiting for a friend to arrive, he cracked open what he was carrying and covered what ground he could. King observed that there are windows of time each day that could be spent reading. So he did. I have followed his example. I carry books with me, and I read whenever I can.

I also read at the beginning of every day. My rule of life includes reading four chapters from the Bible each day followed by an entry from a devotional work (for the past four years this has been Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest). I usually do this before everyone else in the household is awake. If not then, it is the first thing I do when I arrive in the office. It takes about a year for me to complete a reading of the Bible. After I finish Revelation 22, the next day I turn back to Genesis 1. I read a selection from Psalms with Molly as a daily habit, mostly in the mornings before we both walk out the door. If time allows while I am at home, I also read a chapter from Psalms during my time of devotion.

During the work day I read as my schedule and energy levels will allow. Each day I have administrative responsibilities in addition to meetings and time one-with-one building relationships with students, faculty, and staff colleagues. When I’m at my desk, my job requires a lot of reading. I read assignments and emails, articles and memos. I read on computer monitors and tablets. But I prefer print. And I prefer book length treatments of topics as opposed to articles. When I read professionally and for pleasure, I prefer paper, bound, the more beautiful the book jacket, the better. But a paperback suits me just fine.

I use a modified approach to Cal Newport’s time block planning system, and occasionally I’ll schedule myself for reading. What I’m reading at any given moment will vary. I often have more than one book going at a time. I maintain a stack of three to five books I’m actively reading on my desk at home, and another stack of one to three books on my desk at the office. At the office, what I’m reading is always professionally related. At home, the line is more blurry. I read history, creative nonfiction, novels, and poetry. But I read theology, practical ministry, and biblical studies stuff at home, too. The mix of books is a combination of professional interests, aspirational reading, personal enrichment, curiosity and wanderings, and trend chasing.

I also read in the evenings, at least for a few minutes, as I wind down for the day. This is most often a selection from the books residing on my desk in my study at home.

Most of the gains I make each year toward my reading goal is due to the fact that reading is my primary default leisure activity, and because I find reading pleasurable. I read whenever I have the opportunity. Books have become my constant companion. The result: I read a lot.

How I Choose What to Watch

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I started logging the books I read in 2010. I added movies and television shows to my list in 2018. I keep a Media Log.

The book list began as a way to chronicle my intellectual journey. It was also a way for me to review what I’d been up to each year, like a time capsule. I’ve found it useful when someone asks for a book recommendation. I review my list and pluck titles that match the inquirer’s interest. I propose books based on my evaluation of the author, their work, and knowledge of my friend’s loves and distastes. Furthermore, if someone reviews my list, it is possible for a connection based on shared interest to result, or at least a conversation. Finally, the list helps me to be aware of how, with whom, and toward what ends I am spending my time.

The movie and television lists, once added, have served the same purposes.

A friend recently asked how I choose what to watch. My viewing choices are made in light of:

  1. What’s available. It has been several years since our family has subscribed to a cable service. We have antenna for our television, a collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, and streaming services. Right now, I have access to Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Kanopy. In the past, I’ve subscribed to Sling TV, Netflix, Hulu+, ESPN+, and Disney+. As streaming has become more mainstream, properties (movies and shows) are diffused across multiple sources. We can’t subscribe to them all, or I can’t. One result: I watch a variety of things, even movies and shows I don’t find interesting. I’m passing time. The scarcity of my choices is a factor. Not everything available to me is great.
  2. What my friends and acquaintances are watching. I ask around. We no longer live in the monoculture. Everyone watches different stuff. But if I can watch what friends and acquaintances are watching I’ll see if it is available to me for the possible conversation points. Chances are it won’t be if it is exclusive to a streaming service. If so, I’ll let that one go, or I’ll file it on a list (properties are dropped and picked up by other services). Movies and shows are reference points for connection. I never know when I’ll pick up a line, reference, or illustration that will help me communicate with those in my circle.
  3. When something is popular. I’m not always interested in Academy Award nominated films because after watching a lot of those films I’ve decided many of those films (in recent years), while beautifully shot and artfully crafted, aren’t any good. These days, they are made for critics. If you want to be in conversation with critics, watch those films. I’m not a critic in any formal or technical sense. But I am interested in people. People, generally, are not the audience for the movies that win the top awards. When the general public is interested in a movie (Top Gun: Maverick), I’m interested in why. So I see it.
  4. What’s considered an important, notable, or classic film. In the past, I’ve consulted a list of top films and then seen what is available to me. I enjoy culture and culture making. I have also learned filmmakers are in dialogue with other filmmakers. This took me a long time to pick up on. But if you read about movies and shows, if you pay attention to what you’re watching, you’ll begin to see what the filmmakers are doing. These movies may be available on a streaming service, or they may be…
  5. What I can get my hands on through the public library. If it is an old, classic film, it is usually available. If it is a new DVD release, I check a list like this one and scan back over the last few months, seeing what has come to home video. Libraries usually add new DVDs to their holdings, and you can place a hold request before the DVD arrives at the local branch. A simple search reveals if your local library is planning to obtain a copy. They create the record before adding it to the shelves. One you request it, you’re in the queue.
  6. What I’ve recorded on a list. I write down movies and shows to check out. I have a list titled “Movies to Watch.” This connects to the next one…
  7. When I hear about a movie or television show in a book, sermon, or podcast, and the way it is talked about compels me. Sometimes this is when a part of a movie, or a theme, is offered as an illustration of something. A scene is depicted, dialogue is quoted, or a description is offered that makes me think, “I need to see that. I want to see that.” Then I chase. If I have the time and energy to get my hands on it quickly and watch it soon, I do it. If not, I file it (see #6).
  8. When I’ve spent energy on more meaningful pursuits. I watch movies and television late in the day, usually in the evenings, with the energy I have leftover from a day at work, helping around the house, spending time with family, volunteering, or some other escapade.
  9. When it is a genre I enjoy. I’m a caveman: I like action films. If it stars Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Tom Cruise, Jet Li, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Kurt Russell, Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’m in. Especially Arnold. I like science fiction and fantasy films, too. In my second genre tier, I like animation, detective stories, thrillers, and drama. On the third tier is comedy and documentary films. I stay away from horror, with a few exceptions. I’ve been interested in the Jordan Peele movies. I’ve dipped in and out of Hitchcock films.

From the above it is easy to tell that most of the movies and shows I watch are viewed on my television set, computer monitor, or tablet screen. But I enjoy watching movies on the big screen. I’ll go to the theater on occasion. What do I see? Summer blockbusters, particularly action films or select super hero movies, stuff that is better viewed in a room made for visual spectacle and earth-shaking “boom boom.”

My primary interest in movies and shows is entertainment. My rating system is straightforward: “I loved it,” “I hated it,” or “It was okay.” My conversation around movies and shows can be more layered. I’m happy to talk about the themes, or if I pick up on something the filmmaker is doing I offer analysis. I do think movies and shows capture, relay, or move ideas forward, some good, many bad. They are reflections of the zeitgeist. I do like it when I sense the filmmaker attempting to do something, even if they fail spectacularly. And I do give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Making art is hard. I’ve liked shows (labeling something “okay”) that other people didn’t enjoy at all. I accept the derision that comes my way as a result. It might even be deserved.

My secondary interest is for the references. I want to be conversant with friends, neighbors, and the culture; I want to understand the times. I want to be an effective communicator. Movies and shows have helped me convey ideas, teach, preach, and coach. I watch animated movies because I volunteer with kids. On a number of occasions my knowledge of movies and shows has helped me generate a laugh. Movies and shows provide shorthand that have helped me make connections.

It is thought that the first movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878: The Horse in Motion. You’ve probably seen it. Movies have been around about 150 years. We’ve come a long way. Tons of stuff has been made; more bad than good. Even with that being the case, it would require a serious investment of time, energy, and resources to become fluent in the good stuff.

I’m content with my bricolage, my bizarre mix of what I’ve found at hand. I’m open to recommendations. I may like your suggestion. I may hate it. I may think it is okay. I hope I’ll be entertained. But even if not, we’ll share one thing: the reference.

Was Pumped to Find This One

I’ve seen a few Jesus memes down through the years. Came across this one this week, which was brand new to me. Filled me with holy laughter.

And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the whey, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.

Isaiah 30:21

Stick with Gold Standard. This is the whey.

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the whey of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.

Acts 18:24-25

Undoubtedly Apollos was also quite buff.

And asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Whey, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Acts 9:2

Paul had absolutely no hope of bringing those men and women in bound.

But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Whey before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.

Acts 19:9

Paul left those puny naysayers to their own devices.

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Whey.

Acts 19:23

Demetrius, a silversmith in Ephesus, was insanely jealous of the gains being made by the apostles, and thus stirred up a riot against them.

Commit your whey to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Psalm 37:5

The Lord is my strength and my shield.

They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”

But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”

Nehemiah 6:9

Didn’t change that one.

Lord, hear my prayer.

Sail On By

We may know from the following whether we are the Lord’s anointed or not. The world loves its own. If then it hates Christ in us, it is an infallible sign that we are good soldiers of the Lord, and not servants of the world. The way to heaven is to sail by hell. If you will embrace Christ in his robes, you must not scorn him in his rags; if you will sit at his table in the kingdom, you must first abide with him in his temptations; if you will drink from his cup of glory, you must not forsake his cup of ignominy. Can the chief cornerstone be rejected, and the other more base stones in God’s building be set by? You are one of God’s living stones, and therefore be content to be hewn and snagged, so that you might be made more suitable to be joined to your fellows, suffering the snatches of Satan and the wounds of the world.

John Boys (1571-1625), Exposition of Psalm 2, as quoted in Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII, Psalms 1-72

What’s tough to distinguish:

  • If you are being loved because you are of the world,
  • if you are being loved by some because Christ-in-you is compelling them away from the world and toward the loving embrace of God,
  • if you are being hated because of Christ-in-you,
  • or if you are being hated because you are a jerk.

But what I love about Boys’ commentary on Psalm 2 is the recognition that if we are identified with the Messiah, we will share in his experiences. We will sail on by hell on the way to our eternal home. We will be regarded as he was, we will experience temptation as he did, and we may be counted as infamous. But that is just how we are made fit for his building, shaped as a living stone, made fit to be joined to him and alongside those who make up the household of faith.

Only a Weight

Remember that man’s life does not consist in what he has, but in what he is. Serve Jesus and the Church. Oh, let not the best years of your life be years in which you have little communion with God, and in which you do little for Christ! “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Let not your biography be summed up: “He turned to God in his youth, he then became lukewarm, being engrossed in the cares and the business and the social demands of the world, and a short time before his death he saw his mistake, and felt that one thing be needful. For years his spiritual life was barely sustained by the prayers of friends and the weekly services of the sanctuary. He might have been a pillar for the Church, but he was only a weight.” This be far from you. Oh, serve the Lord with gladness, be strong, quit yourselves like men, and abound in the work of the Lord!

Adolph Saphir, The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God

Adolph Saphir lived from 1831-1891. He was a Hungarian Jew who converted to Christianity and became a Presbyterian minister. If the quote above feels antiquated, those feelings are warranted. The book containing it was published in 1877.

My views on the spiritual life lead me to push back against Saphir, or to at least ask for further nuance, on certain aspects of the above. But my disagreements do not keep me from laughing at what I’ve highlighted in bold, or from cheering when he exhorts, “This be far from you.” It is far better to be a blessing than a burden, especially when you consider the blessings we have received in and through Christ. If you serve the Lord with gladness, do not do so because you desire a more favorable biographical summary. Do so because you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and that as a result you desire nothing more than to live a life pleasing in God’s sight.

Good Days and Bad Days

If you created this image, contact me so I can add attribution.

We have good days and bad days.

But one bad day might not capture the bigger story. Growth and progress is seldom linear.

There are good reasons to zoom in and examine a bad day. Maybe there are lessons to learn. In the Christian journey, there are sins of which to repent, confession to offer, behavior to change, justice to seek, mending and reconciliation that needs to be done.

And some days, life goes sideways and there is not much we can do other than to endure it and press on, to turn the page and start the next day fresh.

That one is over. On to the next one.

After a miss in basketball, I say to myself, “The next one is going in.” After a loss, I tell myself, “Back to work.”

There are also good reasons to zoom out and consider where you are today in comparison to where you were a month ago, six months ago, a year ago, a decade ago. You might discover you are further along than you thought.

The graph above could be misleading, since the measure of progress is “up and to the right.” Maybe all you need is plot points between A and B. One line. A is where you begin. B is where you want to be. There may be ups and downs. There might even be reversals: one step forward and two steps back. But are you closer today to B than the day you began? Can you see it? Or can trusted friends see it? Are you grateful for the change? Do you celebrate the growth you have seen? Do you live in the joy of renewal? Or do you get bogged down, zooming in on the bad days, bad moments, and become discouraged? Are you spiraling in the wrong direction? Do you need a reset?

When you have one bad moment, don’t allow it to become two. When you have one bad day, don’t allow it to become two. Instead, return to formational habits, reorient yourself toward the goal (however far on the horizon), and do the daily, small things leading to success. Be disciplined. Keep going.

In Colossians 1:28, Paul writes:

He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.

The principles above apply to anyone with a goal, anyone desiring growth and working toward it. Paul had a goal in mind: to lead others to maturity in Christ. Growth is part of the Christian life. If you want to become “fully mature in Christ,” conformity to Jesus is the target. Romans 13:14 exhorts us to “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

How do we do it? By keeping a constellation of commitments while moving toward our true North Star. Prayer is a key commitment, as is worship, fellowship, study. There are other disciplines, too, any virtues to be sought, developed, and instilled, including faith, hope, and love.

Whatever the means and whatever the virtues, above them all, we seek Jesus. He will supply what we need at the time we need it. We say, “I want to know you.” We say, “I want to learn from you.” We say, “My life is in your hands. Teach me.” We say, “Open my ears, my eyes, my heart.” We say, “Whatever is wrong in me, point it out, and heal me.” We say, “Whatever it takes for me to become like you, I trust you to lead me.”

His nail-scarred hand is extended to you. You take it. You grip it tight. You say, “I will not let you go.” You go where he goes and where he sends. In his earthly ministry, he worked alongside his disciples, but he also sent them out and remained at a distance, allowing them to experience a few things. You trust he is true to the promise to always be with those who are his. Just because he may not feel near does not mean that he is not with. Growth and progress in the Christian life is relational, communal, and personal. It occurs “with God.”

Change is possible. Growth is possible. Progress can be made. The process isn’t easy, nor is it always “up and to the right.” It is seldom quick and it takes work to sustain.

Get clear on the vision. Make your commitments. And then take up the actions and assume the attitudes that move you toward the goal, not away from it. There may be bad days. I’ll go a step further. There will be bad days. But keep the bigger picture in view. Take on a broader perspective. Keep moving in the right direction.

Jump Start Your Day with a Dose of Reverence

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We should always hold fast to the fear of God. It is the root of all spiritual knowledge and all right action. When the fear of God rules in the soul everything goes well both within and without. Try to kindle this sense of fear in your heart every morning before you do anything else. Then it will go on working by itself as a kind of pendulum.

Theophan the Recluse, “The Fruits of Prayer” in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology

Sounds good, Theophan. But what would this look like?

  • Consider the first thing you do each day. Where do you walk as soon as you are out of bed? What is the first action you take? Do you pick up your phone? Check your iPad? Turn on a computer? Brush your teeth? Start the coffee maker?
  • Put a sign in the place you go first or on top of the first item you look upon or pick up saying, “First, God.”
  • Think about God. Don’t ask God for anything. Don’t lay out your agenda for the day. Think about God. Then keep your thoughts there. If your thoughts try to lead you elsewhere, let those thoughts run on their merry way and bring yourself back to God and thoughts of God. Tell those other thoughts, “I’m staying right here.”
  • If it helps you to remain with the thought of God, create a list for reference. Write down what you know to be true of God. This could be: good, just, merciful, kind, long-suffering, patience, steadfast, wise, joyful, righteous, concerned for widows and orphans, excellent, praiseworthy, holy, Redeemer, Savior, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, counselor, advocate, friend, etc. No need to read the entire list each day. Dwell on one, or two, or three. Whatever you choose, think about how that thought represents the person of God.
  • After a few moments or minutes of thinking about who God is, say to yourself, “If God is really like this, and if I live in relationship to this God, and if this is a person I desire to honor, how will I live today?”
  • Carry that answer with you. Keep God before you. Seek God in all you do.

That might generate a few sparks.

Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” When we keep God before us, as God truly is, much good follows.

The Incentive to Be a Generalist

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I serve in higher education, where most of the people around me know a whole lot about a few things within a narrow field. They are specialists. It is very good to have specialists. It is even better when specialists talk to other specialists across specialities. Occasionally these conversations yield fresh insight that breaks new ground, all because of a profound connection.

Yet, generalists can be helpful, too.

Last week I heard someone bemoan the lack of generalists in the academy, people publishing in multiple fields across multiple disciplines, offering grand theories of everything in the study of politics, economics, and social science. This same pundit said scholars who were generalists did exist in a previous age (a few decades ago), but cannot exist in today’s academy.

I’m skeptical about that claim. I think someone who is intellectually curious and prolific enough can roam wherever they would like, though I do agree that the incentives run in the other direction. It is good to have generalists, so long as they talk to specialists and glean enough deep knowledge to then put pieces together in a way that hangs together, that makes sense.

(An aside: I don’t know how much better off we’d be, if at all, if generalists talked to other generalists about generalities, because if that’s all they did, their theories would never become comprehensive nor coherent or deep and detailed enough to ultimately do anyone any good.)

The remark about specialists and generalists did lead me to think about wisdom and where it comes from. Wisdom is not less than abiding by a designated set of moral rules, but certainly it is much more. Wisdom is taking the right course of action in the vast majority of life’s situations where the moral rules do not clearly apply. A wise person may have some specialized knowledge. But the sage goes beyond specialized knowledge, arriving at a general set of principles and practices encompassing a number of different fields of endeavor, even all of life.

I thought of examples of a wise person. This then led me to think of the office of pastor. Then, thinking beyond the pastor, I thought of the congregation, and congregants. A Christian minister, or a Christian congregant, has some specialized knowledge, each according to the areas of mastery. Pastors, hopefully, bring forth wisdom from the Scriptures, and plumbers, hopefully, can correctly install pipe.

But Christians in any field will also possess general knowledge about how the world works, not just specialized knowledge applicable to their profession. The Bible contains a great deal of information about politics, social dynamics, morality and ethics, and more. The Scriptures tell a story that touches on various aspects of what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be in relationship to the divine. If you read the Bible, or regularly hear it preached and taught, you’ll glean a great deal of generalized wisdom about how the world works. And if you are part of a community of wisdom, you’ll talk across specialities and gain a greater overall picture of how human beings can best move forward in view of a comprehensive approach to reality.

As a Christian person, there are incentives to being a generalist. A generalist can connect with a broader range of people and address a broad range of human problems. You don’t let go of your specialities while doing so. You also don’t hoard all of your treasures and keep them to yourself. You share them, not to increase your status, but to serve the community. You build everyone else up in knowledge. You love your neighbor as yourself. You give witness to God, who is the source of all knowledge.

We live in a day and age in which people chafe against grand claims and sweeping narratives. But even the claim that there is no big story, no all-encompassing truth, is itself a story. We may be more comfortable with specialists, because first, few of us are equipped to argue with them. We can live and let live. And second, they have a narrowly defined lane which we may seldom enter.

Generalists are more dangerous. Their ideas challenge us all. It’s why Christian people who tell their story boldly yet humbly have often found themselves getting into trouble.

We need generalists. In some respects, generalists will be shown to be wrong, usually by specialists. But generalists also shift the ground, change the frame, help us to see things we may have missed, help us to arrive at new conceptions that can move us forward.

Let’s continue to equip and encourage specialists. But let’s have more generalists.