Back in 2009, I found myself in a seminar with Smith during a Renovare’ conference in San Antonio. Jim told us, “Tonight, when you go to your hotel, I want you to pray the 23rd psalm as you fall asleep. Don’t set an alarm. Sleep until you wake up, even if that results in your being late to our morning session.”
Sleep is a Need, Not a Luxury
When we’re sleep deprived, our lives don’t work right. Sleep deprivation has physical effects. And those physical effects have emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual consequences. The various dimensions of the human person are connected.
At one time or another, you’ve probably thought that if only you could sleep less, you’d get so much more done. Or that you could just borrow time by sleeping one hour less tonight and one more hour tomorrow night. As enticing as these may seem, they’re not borne out by research. Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example going to be late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward. When professional basketball players got ten hours of sleep a night, their performance improved dramatically: Free-throw and three-point shooting each improved by 9%.
p. 189, emphasis mine
Levitin’s book is focused on brain science and how we deal with information overload. A big way we can help our brains keep things straight is by organizing our time, activity, and environment in ways that support cognitive well-being. This includes how we schedule sleep.
Regular Sleep is Good Stewardship
The implications for the spiritual life are plain. Jim Smith is right: sleep is cornerstone exercise for the training of the soul. As human beings we are finite and limited. But God is not. Each time we lay down to rest, we trust God to care for us and watch over us during the night. We also trust, and welcome, that moment when God raises us up for another day to serve, to grow, and to walk in relationship with God and others.
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Jesus, Matthew 16:24-26
Christians believe there is only one person to whom we can surrender, to whom we can cede authority, giving that person everything, and who, in return, offers us gain that cannot be taken away. Jesus is that person. To acknowledge God as God means conceding we are not God.
Formation in Christlikeness depends on surrender; failure to surrender is a sickness unto death; I cannot find rest until I surrender; I am exchanging a lesser for a greater; and giving what I cannot keep in exchange for what I cannot lose is wise, not foolish. Deep reflection on these realities goes a long way toward helping me choose to take up my cross and die to myself.
Some surrender to cultural pressures, social pressures, familial pressures, or fashionable pursuits of money, sex, or power. Surrender to Christ instead. Only in him will you find an eternal, inexhaustible gain, a life that truly is life.
Over the summer months our office revisits our past year of experiences in Truett’s Spiritual Formation courses. We review student feedback and think about our core objectives and overall approach. The courses have different components, and different points of focus within each component. Keeping everything clear is a challenge.
For the coming year, we’ve designated three primary spaces in each course: Teaching, Covenant Group, and Canvas.
The teaching space is led by an instructor, either Professor Angela Reed or myself, and is focused on the application and practice of spiritual formation concepts and ideas in the life of the leader and the life of the community. Not only are we teaching key spiritual disciples and a theology of spiritual formation, we are helping students make connections to their lived experiences as disciples of Jesus as leaders and as part of the body of Christ. The key questions here are: “How does my understanding of spiritual formation and commitment to spiritual practices shape me as a leader?” and “How do these concepts and practices shape the life of the Christian community?”
The covenant group space is led by mentors. Covenant groups are subgroups within each spiritual formation course and consist of five to eight students. These groups focus on the spiritual disciples (or practices) and their experiences with those practices, building relationships in Christian fellowship, and providing accountability for one another.
Canvas is our designated space for written assignments and online community. In the online tool, Canvas, associated with our course, we use discussion prompts and discussion boards to invite student to reflect on their experiences and their reading, and to interact with one another after submitting an initial response. Our mentors and instructors also interact with students in this space.
In an effort to better explain the spiritual formation process, we’ve also created two more visual diagrams that represent differences in approaching the spiritual life from grace-based and guilt-motivated frameworks. First I’ll explain the guilt-motivated framework, and then I’ll say a few words about our grace-based perspective.
In our conversations with students and in our experiences in ministry, we’ve found that many have adopted a guilt-motivated approach to the spiritual life, one that is rooted in misunderstandings of the Christian gospel and subtle (and sometimes overt) shifts toward a works-righteousness way of sanctification. Students are often clear that they are justified by grace, but struggle to see how grace continues to be the dynamism at play in spiritual growth.
Years ago I heard John Ortberg give a talk wherein he talked about a guilt spiral, an approach to the spiritual life where people hear about various ways of connecting with God and, after being compelled, they give it a try. After trying a while, they get tired and fail, and as a result they quit. But then as time passes and they hear more sermons and exhortations to be “doing” certain things, the guilt accrues and becomes too much to bear, and as a result trying begins again, only to repeat the whole cycle over again, spiraling down and down in defeat.
A guilt-motivation approach to spirituality, given enough time, deadens the soul. We need an alternative, a way of approaching the spiritual life that is undergirded, informed, and animated by grace. It is God working in and through us, even as we commit and decide to follow after Jesus Christ.
Professor Reed speaks about this process as a spiral, and our key words recast our understanding of growth.
First, we commit to act. We do the things that Jesus has called us to do. This draws together many streams within the Christian tradition, including the contemplative and activist streams. Our actions are done in response to the calling of Jesus and in line with our tradition.
After taking action, we reflect on what took place. What did we think? How did we feel? What happened? What went right? What went terribly wrong? What was helpful? What was unhelpful? Where was God? Where were the points of resistance? What adjustments are possible? What did I discover about myself?
Then, we learn. We pay attention to our answers and make note of our new knowledge, which includes knowledge of God, self, and our world.
Finally, we refine. We look ahead to our next action–whether it be prayer, fasting, service, sabbath, or some other action taken with God–and prepare to engage from our new point of growth.
This process also spirals, but in a virtuous way. Experience deepens and knowledge deepens.
Our models are in process. We’re constantly listening and discerning and seeking new and better ways to connect truths about the spiritual life to our students as they find themselves today. But these models are a good start, a good foundation, and reflect concepts that we will explore in the year to come.
I believe that we became educators because we know–on our better days–that the lives of each one of our students is an irreplaceable gift. We want our students to grasp this truth, to live into their God-given potential. We know that we might end up being the only person who sees that one young student for who he or she is: a unique person, made in the image of God, loved by Jesus, and placed here to give him glory. Is there a more sacred trust?
Shinrin-yoku literally translates to “forest bathing” or taking in the atmosphere of the forest, and refers to soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health. The term was first coined in 1982 but, today, millions of Japanese walk along forty-eight “forest therapy” trails, to get their dose of what I guess could be labeled “outdoorphins.”
Fans of shinrin-yoku explain that it differs from hiking because it is about taking everything in and stimulating all our senses, and because it focuses on the therapeutic senses.
Professor Qing Li at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo has studied the effect of shinrin-yoku and found that this practice reduces the levels of cortisol in the blood and boosts the immune system. But forest bathing may not be good only for our physical health. Researchers from the University of Essex have explored how being active in a natural setting affects our mood. Looking at ten different UK studies involving more than 1,200 people, the researchers found that taking part in activities like country walks, sailing, and gardening all had a positive effect on the mood and self-esteem of the participants. Overall, evidence is building that time spent in the natural world benefits human health.
I grew up with a forest right on the other side of my back fence, and spent my early adolescence walking the trails. Today I encourage my students to practice creation awareness as a spiritual discipline, to go outside and to look, listen, smell, touch, and taste, to experience that “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, based in Denmark. When we spend time outdoors, “nature has a positive effect on our health and happiness.” To try this out, Wiking suggests:
Find and explore a forest. Take it slowly and forget about what would make a nice Instagram picture. Instead, listen to the wind in the leaves, watch the sun bounce off the branches, take a deep breath, and see what smells you can detect. Try to visit the same spot several times a year, so you can appreciate how it changes over the seasons. Say hi to the first day of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Go alone or invite people to join you.
Leave your earbuds in the car. Put your phone away. Don’t worry about taking pictures. Open your eyes. Glean from Wiking’s wisdom. Then go one step further. I look at the natural world, and then look beyond it. I see the forest as creation, and then reflect on the Creator.
Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
Paul was writing about food and drink. But the same can apply to the forest. Take a walk. Soak it in.
Using your cell phone for longer than initially intended
Spending a great deal of time using and recovering from excess cell phone use
Inability to cut down or control cell phone use despite trying to do so
Urges or “cravings” to be on your cell phone
Using your cell phone in situations that make it physically hazardous, such as texting while driving
Continued cell phone use despite adverse physical or psychological consequences of use
Withdrawal symptoms when not using your cell phones, such as restlessness, anxiety, and anger
Feelings of panic or anxiety about losing your cell phone
Feelings of irritability, anxiety, stress, and other mood changes when unable to respond to or receive messages
Checking your cell phone obsessively for emails, calls, and texts
Using your cell phone in inappropriate places like church or the restroom
Missing out on social opportunities and face-to-face interactions so you can use your cell phone
Loss of interest in favorite or long-held hobbies and activities
Frequent and constant checking of a phone within very brief periods of time
Using your cell phone frequently to achieve satisfaction and relaxation, or to counteract negative moods
Thinking you may have heard your cell phone ring or felt it vibrate when it hasn’t
I carry my phone everywhere, check it too often, use it to cope with boredom, and fall down too many rabbit holes. It’s my camera, my radio, my encyclopedia, my news source, and my direct line to friends (and strangers).
I was reading John Mark Comer’s book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and he mentioned in passing that setting your phone to grayscale could help you break the addictive habit of checking it impulsively, so I’ve given it a run. This Wired article tells you how to do it.
I also deleted Instagram from my phone after installing it shortly after the start of the pandemic, and I’ve kept to my rule of having no more than one screen with which to interact (no swiping). My main application use is for listening to podcasts, tracking nutrition, staying disciplined with fasting, and for phone and text. I haven’t had an email app on my phone in years. I keep notifications off. That decision made me a happier person. Most of the time my phone is in “do not disturb” mode.
So much of life is being present, aware, and focused. Cell phones are energy-takers. Social media applications are designed to consume more and more of your time. And most of what I can do on a phone I can do on my browser, at a computer, when I sit down to work.
Thus far, the change is working. But I still have more paring down to do. The goal is a simpler life. Less stress. More room for the expansiveness of thought, creativity, and soul.
Changes are more often by necessity than by choice. Circumstance, context, or crisis dictates our doing something different. Adjustments and alternate ways of being are adopted according to the needs of the moment, rather than as an extension of a grand design.
Our global pandemic–this moment of humanity’s shared plight–has created just such a circumstance where changes are not so much chosen as they are simply required.
The range of options has narrowed. A recent walk around the neighborhood gave me time to reflect on this reality, on how the past few months have reduced my commitments and have opened up space. I’ve spent less time in the office and much less time in the car. I’ve spent less time involved with youth sports (soccer season was cancelled, as was coach pitch) and more time in the presence of my family. I’ve spent little time at the church building but more time in study and in reflection. There has been less money spent at restaurants and more intention directed toward what I eat (or don’t) while at home. I’ve spent less time in a gym and more time biking, hiking, walking, and exercising with equipment I own.
The pandemic has given me the opportunity to get lighter. Some responsibilities were naturally released or discontinued; others were paused. The lack of mobility has led to deepened presence, and greater awareness, directed toward one place: my life. Energy reserves that were previously consumed by other commitments and interactions have been released for other endeavors. Margin, which I did not actively choose, was opened. I’ve been free to evaluate systems, assess gifts, reflect, and to look forward. Deaccumulation, which I did actively chose, has become a discipline of freedom. Closets and drawers now have more space, piles have disappeared.
A life, like a good story, has arcs and spirals, peaks and valleys, ascents and descents, triumphs and defeats, in-breakings of light and unforeseen moments of enveloping darknesses. The journey metaphor, though overdone, remains useful. The passage of time and the traversing of distance often result in us picking up a thing or two. Some mementos are tangible and physical, others are ephemeral or emotional. All carry weight.
Moments like these allow us to reflect and decide that which we will continue to carry and that which we will choose to lay down. Some of us find that our lives are evenly weighted; we bear exactly those things that are ours to bear. Others find that responsibilities are now before them they must take up, that now is the moment of maturity and growth and expansion. Lastly, and finally, there are those of us who will discover that they are weary, that the load must be lightened, that strength must be gathered, and preparations must be made for the work and the walk that remains ahead.
Getting lighter does not mean seeking after the life that is easiest, but rather seeking the life that is best. Jesus, after all, described his way as the taking up of the easy yoke and his burden as being light, not because it was not a burden, but because in the bearing of it consistently and over time with him, one discovers what it means to be fully human while living in full communion with God.
Molly and I know this. A few years ago we bought pencil boxes to keep them in. We have one for mechanical pencils, one for Sharpies, and our largest one is for ballpoint pens. Assuming they hold their ink, we could live our next couple of lifetimes without ever having to purchase another pens.
We pick up clutter. Mess. Junk. We keep stuff “just in case.” We accumulate.
That’s true of possessions. It is also true of commitments. We make friends, build relationships, and choose to sign up, be present, and to attend. Our lives get full.
There is one more area where this is true: we allow excess in our thoughts. We’re inundated with information. We’re flooded by news. We’re overwhelmed by messages. Notifications: red. Emails: unread.
Our cultural and economic pause has forced me to take notice of the excess. I’ve slowed down enough to see. I’ve been present enough to feel, and aware enough to notice. My pace has blurred my vision, dampened my emotions, and weakened my observational powers.
Where things have been full, where pace has been fast, now there is space, and movements have slowed.
Slowness and margin are two soul training exercises, as James Bryan Smith calls them. These are not well know as Christian spiritual disciplines, but that is what they are.
They are closely related to simplicity. To live simply involves several tensions, or paradoxes. Richard Foster notes that simplicity is both a grace and a discipline, it is easy and difficult, it encompasses the inner and outer life, and affirms the goodness of material things while admitting their limits. Simplicity is not simplistic. It can be a lot of work to adopt a life of simplicity. Boundaries need to be clear. Commitments need to be clear, too.
Arriving at simplicity requires commitment to de-accumulation of possessions, commitments, and a discerned approach to receiving information. We also can commit to plain speech, letting yes be yes, and no be no.
During a walk last week I thought about ways the pandemic has led me to optimize, to refine, to sharpen systems, to eliminate waste and hurry and excess. I didn’t decide to do these things. Circumstances created the opportunity. I’ve responded.
But we don’t need a pandemic to optimize. We need planned stoppages. We need Sabbaths. We need little breaks, time to think, assess, adjust, and plan. We need rests between the beats. Those are habits we can cultivate, rhythms we can adopt. Ancient wisdom points the way.
There are a million Bibles out there. For many years, I’ve been a strong advocate of choosing a scholarly, reliable translation of the Scriptures with simple cross-referencing tools, a few detailed maps, and a helpful index. For study, I’ve been partial to the NIV, NRSV, and NASB translations. Alongside of a reputable Bible, I’ve recommended obtaining a one-volume commentary, an atlas, and a Bible dictionary. I think those are cornerstones in any home library. With all the choices that are out there, it has been my preference to keep things streamlined and simple.
In my experience leading others, however, I’ve come to see how a study Bible can be helpful for a person with limited resources, a deepening interest in biblical study, and a limit on shelf space. It’s nice to be able to pull one book off the shelf that you can read in a coffee shop or carry with you to a worship service, open it on your lap, listen to what you’re hearing, and then use the available tools (commentary notes, book introductions, etc.) to inform and apply the Scriptures to personal circumstances.
Holman Bible Publishers has done something innovative, taking the idea of a study Bible another step forward. They’ve released the Life Essentials Study Bible, which not only features brief commentary on Scripture, but is designed to be read with a tablet or smartphone in hand. Each text note features a QR code, which can be scanned with a tablet or phone camera. LifeWay has paired the Bible with an application that uses the QR codes to gain access to the teaching of Dr. Gene Getz, who comments on the corresponding Scripture text and offers principles that can be directly applied to the life of the learner, not only in the text notes that you’ll find in the Bible, but with video (Need links? I’ve got you: Apple’s App Store or Google Play). Here’s an example of what you’d find as you study the text:
This is a portion from the book of Nehemiah. First, in the image above you’ll see the Scripture text. Several years ago, Holman published the Christian Standard Bible. That’s the translation. You can read about their translation philosophy here. After this Bible translation released, I bought a copy for devotional reading, and used the CSB in my daily meditations on Scripture in 2018. It’s readable, and the translators were committed to maintaining a close correspondence to original meaning of the Greek and Hebrew texts.
Second, you’ll note the portion highlighted in blue. This indicates to the reader a portion upon which they will find a principle and corresponding commentary.
Thirdly, the dark grey heading indicates a principle topic (principles in each book are numbered), and the text in blue below the heading is the principle itself. Then there is commentary, which features cross-referencing.
Fourthly, you’ll notice a reflection and response question, which is designed to help the reader move toward application not only in a general sense, but in the reader’s specific life circumstance.
Finally, you’ll see a QR code, which, if scanned in the app, will lead you to a video teaching from Dr. Getz.
This video is a helpful introduction and overview of the Life Essential Interactive Study Bible:
If you’ve never heard of Gene Getz, he is a pastor, writer, church planter, and college and seminary professor. He’s a Christian educator who hosts a syndicated radio program called “Renewal.” You’ll find that one of the first things listed in his bio is that he is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute. I know Dr. Getz from my time at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he served as adjunct faculty. Though I never had him as an instructor, I knew of him. During my DTS years, several of my friends attended Fellowship Bible Church North, where Dr. Getz still serves as pastor.¹
I know one of the biggest challenges many people face in reading the Bible comes in answering these three questions: “What does it say?”, “What does it mean?”, and “How, then, do I live?” In the Life Essentials Study Bible, these three questions are consistently answered. Dr. Getz helps the reader understand the text, interpret it, and apply it to daily life. Dr. Getz also addresses a fourth question: “How does it fit within the overall Bible?” His answer is simple, straightforward, and life changing. Dr. Getz consistently directs the reader to the ways each text points us to Jesus Christ.²
The Life Essentials Study Bible features a concordance, footnotes, and full color maps. Each book introduction offers a summation of the key principles found therein as well as an outline of the book as a whole. But the main feature that makes this Bible unique is the ease at which reading is paired with access to video teaching. As a bonus, the app has a tab featuring a daily Bible principle, a topical index that one can use to search for specific principles, and the ability to favorite video teachings for later reference.
Two more things to disclose. First, I received a copy of this Bible from the publisher as part of a promotion effort. I was glad to write about it, and very glad to review it. I think Holman is doing good things, and I particularly respect Dr. Trevin Wax.
Second, I did not have time to read every piece of commentary or view all three hundred hours of available video. It is fairly easy for me to say that I wouldn’t agree with Dr. Getz on every point. But we share in the essentials.
Nevertheless, I did find this Bible to be one that I would recommend for those who desire to diligently study the Scriptures, apply the Word to their daily lives, and who are looking for a one-stop, interactive, and unique resource by which to do so.
I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary from 2002 to 2005 in the Masters in Christian Education program (MACE).
Granted, biblical interpretation is a challenging task, and there is more than one informed, scholarly perspective concerning the best understanding of the most difficult texts of the Bible. Dr. Getz offers principles and perspectives that are shaped by his training, experiences, and study of Scripture. Other Christians differ with Dr. Getz.