Tree Growth and Spiritual Formation: An Illustration

Photo by Angie Muldowney on Unsplash

An acquaintance and former associate of mine, Matt Johnson, helpfully made a connection for me between spiritual growth and the life cycle of trees. And here is Mandy Brown, deepening that connection:

In the spring, when the weather is (hopefully) warm and wet, a tree will grow rapidly, forming large, porous cells known as “earlywood.” Later, as the weather cools, it will grow in smaller, more tightly packed cells known as “latewood.” You can spot the difference when looking at a tree’s rings: earlywood appears as light-colored, usually thick, bands, while latewood shows up thinner and darker. What doesn’t show up in the rings is the dormant period—the winter season, when the tree doesn’t grow at all, but waits patiently for spring.

I think this is a useful metaphor for thinking about how we grow, too. There are times and seasons when the conditions are right for earlywood—for big, galloping growth, where you learn a lot in short order. This is often the case when you first step into a new role, or take on a new and challenging project, or start at a new organization. But those periods of rapid growth are often (and ideally) followed by periods when the growth is slower, more focused, moving in short and careful steps instead of giant leaps. These latewood periods are when the novelty of a new situation has worn off, and the time for reflection and deep-skill building arrives.

In the Christian spiritual life, growth doesn’t happen all at once, nor does it take place at a steady, constant pace. There are times when it seems like nothing is happening at all, but that isn’t necessarily true. Rest, or patient waiting, is preparatory for the growth ahead, big leaps and the small steps. Smith is again helpful: “[W]e must remind ourselves that growth occurs in intervals: there are times of growth, and there are times of non-growth. The latter isn’t a failure so much as a necessary period of rest. Dormancy isn’t stagnant; it’s potentiating. It’s patient.”

If you’re growing, great! Celebrate. If you’re steadying and solidifying, great! Stand firm. If you’re “potentiating,” wait! Be still, and know that God is God.

2022: My Year in Reading

Another year, another list.

My media log from 2010 and every year since is found here.

Please note: all links to Amazon are affiliate links. Clicks and purchases kickback to me. Support the blog and my reading habit. If a book in this post interests you and you plan to make a purchase, follow the hyperlink from this page. All the fun people do. As someone once told me, and as my best friend Ryan still does, “Be fun.”

How Many Books Did I Read This Year?

This year’s goal, once again was to read 60 books. Last year I fell short at 59. This year I exceeded my goal and read 63. The first book I finished was an edited volume by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen called God in the Modern Wing: Viewing Art with Eyes of Faith. The last book I read was Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith. Both books were published by InterVarsity Press. I cancelled my comic book subscriptions at mid-year, but I had enjoyed following Tom King and Greg Smallwood’s run in The Human Target. That series isn’t quite over, and I’ve stopped by Bankston’s to pick up single issues as they’ve hit the shelves.

I watched 64 movies and viewed 4 complete television series. That’s down from last year, when I watched 93 movies and 11 television series. It looks like this year we moved out of the pandemic and my viewing habits adjusted accordingly. My favorite movies this year included Zach Snyder’s Justice League, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Wrath of Man, Top Gun: Maverick, The Death of Stalin, Hard Eight, Nope, and Love Actually.

I didn’t really like Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, The Sweeney, Grown Ups, Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning, Pixels, The Courier, or Nemesis (1992). I didn’t care for Thor: Love and Thunder. I’ve begun to sour on the Marvel offerings.

In television, I did not enjoy The Book of Boba Fett: Season One. But I did like watching Bosch: Legacy and Cowboy Bebop: The Complete Series.

What Were My Favorite Books This Year?

I’m very glad I read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

But Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man stands at the top of my list of favorites from this year. It is a classic work of pastoral Christian theology. It is brief, insightful, and clear. Scougal explains reasons why so many fail to grow and mature in faith and how these obstacles can be overcome. He names mistaken ideas about religion (specifically Christianity). Many of those mistaken ideas are still present today. He then charts the way beyond them. While he does write of the importance of certain observances, virtues, and adherence to spiritual disciplines, he returns again and again to our understanding of God and what has been accomplished in, through, and by Jesus in his incarnation, death, and resurrection. This book is available on the web (such as here), though a newer edition, which is the one I read this year, was issued by Crossway. I linked Crossway’s offering above.

Other books I enjoyed and/or appreciated are John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful You: Discovering the Person Jesus Created You to Be, Matthew Continetti’s The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism, Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, Michelle Ule’s Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional, Henri J. M. Nouwen’s Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life, Timothy Keller’s, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?, and Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith.

This last one won’t be for everyone, but I deeply appreciated R. Robert Creech’s Pastoral Theology in the Baptist Tradition: Distinctives and Directions for the Contemporary Church.

Did You Hate Anything?

I really did not like Susan L. Maros’s Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation, Elmore Leonard’s Raylan, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

What Are You Reading Right Now?

I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Washington, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. I’ve also been carrying a copy of Plato’s Symposium in my bag. I will read it! I have several Christian spiritual formation works on my desk at the office, mostly on prayer, that I plan to get to early in the new year.

What Did I Learn from My Experience Reading This Year?

This year I read a lot of books that I had either requested for review of that I had been asked to read, and as a result I did not always enjoy what I was reading, even if I always enjoy that I am reading.

I also feel as though this year did not contain as much quiet and rest, and that I did not always have the opportunity to sit with and simply enjoy the process of moving through a work, immersing myself in a story or an argument, and allowing myself to ruminate on what I encountered on the page. In surveying my book selections this year, I am disappointed that my choices were not often concerned with my primary area of research and study. I read Christian living books, works of theology, and practical ministry resources. But I’m sensing a need to dive deeply into classic works in the area of Christian spirituality and Christian spiritual formation, or to spend more time in the writings of the Church Fathers, better familiarizing myself with the concerns present in early Christianity, or even chasing down some of the spiritual writings of leaders (men and women) in the monastic traditions.

I read several books this year that address contemporary concerns within American public life, or which sought to explore historical aspects of the United States. I think the United States is like all nations and cultures throughout history. Being comprised of human beings, it evidences the fallenness of human nature. But as an idea, the United States is a brilliant place, with an imperfect but effective system of government. My sense is that America does not suffer from an abundance of pride (though that can certainly be found), but rather an overwhelming amount of self-loathing, on both poles of the ideological spectrum. But I also sense the majority of citizens here, as well as a large proportion of immigrants, appreciate the place and wouldn’t trade living here not only for any other place in the world, but across all of human history.

I’m also glad to notice within myself a deepened love for the Bible. I read four chapters each day. The Bible is my daily companion. I do not find my time in Scripture to be tedious or boring. Rather, I am expectant. I am warmed. I am thankful for the Scriptures and the ways God meets me in and through these ancient writings. My recommendation to all Christians is to spend time daily in the Scriptures, whether with a verse, chapter, book, or an even longer portion. Read, and meditate. Then, be a doer of the Word, and not a hearer (reader) only!

What are you reading, and what should I add to my list?

Nostalgia’s Deliberate Forgetting

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I’m reading James K. A. Smith’s latest book, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now. It is a meditation intended to clarify what was, what is, and what is to come, and how we can better understand our existence as temporal creatures.

I’m only partway through the book. I’m enjoying it so far. One of my favorite passages concerns nostalgia. Smith writes:

The question isn’t just whether we have a history and a future, or even whether we recognize this; the question is how we relate to our past and history.

There is a sort of fascination with the past that is an act of deliberate forgetting: it’s called “nostalgia.” Religious communities are particularly prone to this. Faith is “handed down,” a matter of traditio, and hence faithfulness can be confused with preserving the past rather than having gratitude for a legacy meant to propel us forward. The most significant problem with nostalgia is not that it remembers but what it forgets.

James K. A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time, p. 38

This is precisely correct. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” This is a very different question than, “What were the old days like?” When we search for why the old days were better, we’ll paint an incomplete picture. We’ll remember in part. We’ll forget in part, too, and often by design. We are glad to put aside the ugly stuff. The result is a distortion. What we’ve laid aside ends up causing us more trouble than the supposed benefits we gain from what we take up, because nostalgia hides from us the complexities of our past.

Nostalgia differs from an accurate historical memory. I take issue with Smith’s either/or regarding the preservation of tradition, his assertion that faithfulness can “be confused with preserving the past rather than having gratitude for a legacy meant to propel us forward.” Can’t faithfulness be a commitment to preserving the past while having gratitude for a legacy that does propel us forward? Furthermore, religious traditions aren’t more prone to nostalgia than are traditions of all kinds, national, political, or otherwise.

I don’t think it has to be either/or. Smith states that it isn’t of question of if we have a past and a future, but how we relate to our past and our future. There is a difference between preservation of the past and attempting to return to a golden age. The former is the work of those stewarding a living tradition. The latter is a fool’s errand.

Church “Home”

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A few weeks ago our family visited a nearby church on a Sunday morning. Following the service of worship, we were delayed long enough in the foyer/lobby/narthex area to catch the eye of one of the ministers serving on the staff. This person approached us, smiled, and introduced themselves. This is a very large congregation, and, as such, the greeting was hedged softly by an acknowledgement that we might have been around the church for a very long time and had not yet met, or maybe even that we had met, but the meeting was not recollected. But if we were new, this person would help us get connected, and by connected, this person meant involvement in a Sunday school or a small group.

At this time, our family had only recently entered a change in circumstance where we are no longer tethered to a local congregation. Molly nor I are on a church staff. We’re now free to visit congregations as we decide, and so far, we’ve chosen to visit friends serving in various places throughout our community (we enjoy encouraging pastor friends) or attend a service of worship where our children will see their friends. Molly is an elder in the United Methodist Church, and though she is not appointed to a pastorate, she is a member of the Central Texas Annual Conference, and soon she will join the membership of a local Methodist church.

Back to our Sunday morning visit. The minister greeting us asked us, repeatedly, if we had a “church home.” We evaded. We dodged. We dipped and sidestepped and deflected and qualified. It was only later we realized we didn’t have an answer, and that our lack of an answer yielded a lot of confusion.

We do have a “church.” But we do not have a “church home.” We are not members of a local fellowship. Not at present. We have not been in this position in twenty years, where we were actively discerning with whom to join in ministry apart from a designated or assigned or appointed pastoral leadership position.

I think church membership is important, even if the meaning of church membership is seldom explained or considered in depth. Anyone who professes Christ, who is a Christian, is a member of the body of Christ, and is, therefore, joined to his body. Membership formalizes what we believe to be true through faith.

Membership carries with it not only certain rights, such as the ability to vote on congregational decisions, but responsibilities, such as demonstrating maturity in Christ, evidenced by humility, servitude, gathering with the fellowship for worship, giving generously of one’s resources, practicing hospitality, knowledge of the Scriptures, engaged discipleship, fervency in prayer, passion for evangelism, fruitfulness in ministry, and more. Formally joining a local body is aligning oneself with a theological reality. When I have met a Christian person who is a consistent visitor in any congregation where I’ve served, I have encouraged them to join, not only as an encouragement to the existing membership, but as a means of accountability and edification for the person yet to join. Strengthen the tie, and you up the stakes.

As we look ahead, I am resolved to be prayerfully discerning, seeking, and focused regarding church membership. We are not looking for a “church,” or even a “church home,” even though I know what is meant when we are asked such things. Rather, I am looking to join a membership. I am looking to be a participant in congregational life, not a resident, or, worse, a consumer. What am I looking for?

Christlike character displayed by those in leadership.

An inner confirmation from the Spirit of God.

A commitment to discipleship among congregants and pastoral leaders.

Humble sharing of the gospel, and a desire to see others come to faith.

Preaching of the Word.

A love for children, and a respect for the aged.

A worship leader wearing trendy sneakers, a tastefully untucked flannel shirt, and a ball cap with appropriately worshipful tilt. Very low on the list of priorities. So low as to be nearly imperceptible. (I jest. I jest. About which part? I’ll leave you to wonder.)

Other things. Many other things.

Finding a church is easy. There are many churches.

Belonging to a church isn’t hard. There are many degrees of belonging. You can visit and be welcomed. You can become a longtime attendee and feel you belong.

But committing to a church, and serving in a way that builds up the body, that’s a challenge.

Our family longs for stability. We seek consistency. We want to be rooted. We even want a faith community that feels like home, even while we’re contented with having a church.

Wherever we land, if that church is to become a home, it will need ministers (and members) like the one I described in my opening paragraph, people who are courageous enough to walk up to a stranger, extend a hand, share a smile, offer a greeting, and serve as a shepherd. Churches cannot become homes, for anyone, without hosts, without those who in small ways image forth the Christian conviction that God came in Jesus Christ to expand the household of faith, and that Jesus went to his death, and was resurrected, to go and prepare a place for us, to claim and welcome us, to embrace us as God’s beloved, members of an eternal family, companions on the road leading to the New Jerusalem, and citizens, now, in the kingdom of heaven.

How Do You Make Your Workplace Better Each Day?

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash

I was part of a conversation recently where a person in our circle asked, “How do you make Truett better each day?” I thought it was a superb question. And I took my time before answering, listening to others as they made their offerings, wondering if I would have anything of value to add, and ordering my impressions as they emerged. I arrived on three ways I think I make my workplace better each day.

First, I pray for those I work with and alongside. I pray for the institution. I pray for needs of which I am aware. I pray for people I encounter as I walk the halls, and those who pass my window I see and wave at. As I see students, faculty, staff, and guests, I consciously will the good of everyone in prayer to God. In other words, I bless them. In doing so, I apply an insight I gleaned from Dallas Willard. I concede that I do not know how or in what way my prayers make the seminary I serve better, that the answers and the workings of God are hidden behind the veil, but I trust God works in and through the prayers of Christian people.

Second, I learn names and demonstrate a genuine interest in the lives of those I work with and alongside. I do not learn the name of every student, though I do try to match names with faces and call each individual by name when we meet. I come to know some students better than others. Coming to know faculty and staff colleagues differs, slightly, in that the overlapping spheres of my work and the work of others varies. I do make an effort, however, to be friendly and to strengthen relationships, as I am able. Passing through the COVID-19 pandemic slowed my effort to know others better, and for others to know me, in obvious ways. I’m still learning about my colleagues, and as personnel changes, there are new people to come to know.

Third, I keep the church in mind. I think beyond Truett, and even beyond Baylor, and consider people in congregations large and small and in-between. I want what we do to make a difference in Christian communities and the broader communities within which those churches live and move and have their being. I think that makes us “better” because it keeps in view who we serve: Christ and the church.

Truett Seminary “exists to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Not everyone that we educate serves a church in a leadership position after completion of a degree. But I hope that everyone who receives an education at Truett is part of a church somewhere, and I hope these individuals strengthen a local body through service, making good use of their gifts, graces, talents, and abilities. I also pray they would offer sound biblical and theological knowledge to those with whom they share fellowship so that the church might be built up.

For those outside a seminary and friendly to Christianity, you likely hope those within it would pray, care for individuals, and keep the church in view! Pray for us; Lord, have mercy.

Not everyone works in a seminary, like I do. The word “seminary” originated in the fifteen century; “from Latin seminarium ‘plant nursery, seed plot,’ figuratively, ‘breeding ground.'” The seminary is a place where the Word of God is cultivated, where a person comes who, having received the Word, is nourished so that they might mature spiritually and then proclaim the Word more faithfully. It is plausible that a student could receive the Word for the first time while in seminary, moving from a knowledge about God to a knowledge of God. Heaven forbid that we, as a seminary, would hinder the Word, though that, too, sadly, is plausible. Jesus, in the New Testament, often spoke of the Word as seed. It is my desire that the Word would go forth, find good soil, and grow, yielding thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold. We plant and water. God gives the growth.

Workplaces other than the seminary, however, can prove to be fertile ground for ministry and Christian witness, a place within which you can take actions that make the working environment “better.” Prayer, collegiality and care, and keeping in view the constituency you serve can be commitments of any Christian in any place of work. In addition to these, doing your work with excellence, so long as the work you render is moral and good, can be valuable and worthwhile, not only for the organization you serve but for the prosperity and flourishing of others.

How do you make your workplace better each day?

Unstopped Ears

Photo by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Luke 2:15, New International Version

I offer a weekly devotional to a small group of fellow staff members, and this Monday we turned our attention to the passage quoted above, Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. And while I have more often placed the stress on the shepherds’ exhortation to one another to “go” and “see” the sign of the baby born and laid in a manger announced to them as “the Messiah, the Lord,” I have less often contemplated the assertion that it was the Lord who had told “this thing” to them, directly. Luke tells us that the messenger is “an angel of the Lord,” and that “a great company of the heavenly host” appeared with and alongside the angel. But they considered these angelic messengers as acting at God’s behest. They claim divine revelation.

There is a distinction between having ears and hearing with understanding, as Isaiah 6:9 makes plain. Not every person who hears news about Jesus and his birth receives that message with a sense that it is the Lord who has told them, directly. But I am among those who, over time, have come to that conviction, that God communicates with us through the Word, people, and the heart-stirrings of the Holy Spirit.

To claim that one has received communication from God is a sign of the movement of God’s grace. Anyone who shares in understanding that Jesus is the Messiah can make this claim. That is worth marveling at. After seeing the child, the shepherds returned to their sheepfolds “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

For any who have seen Jesus, who have truly beheld him and contemplated what his birth, life, death, and reign meant and mean, they can do the same.

It’s the Little Things

We think it is the big things.

It is far more often the little things.

In the Christian spiritual life, think about the disciplines and practices that are foremost in your tradition. Prayer. Attending worship. Serving others. Reading or studying a Scripture portion. Fasting. Generosity and giving.

Don’t think about what doing these things might render in a day, or a week. Consider what might happen if you did these things routinely over years, even decades.

Choose a few seemingly small commitments. Keep them.

You won’t know where keeping those commitments will take you, what it will render.

But years from now, you may be very glad to have found out.