A Sacred Trust

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?

Christina Bieber Lake, The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession, p. 206

The semester begins in twenty three days.

This captures well how I’ve seen every student, either while in service to the local church and now in service to the seminary. Teaching is a responsibility. People are a gift.

Forest Bathing

Photo by Gustav Gullstrand on Unsplash

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.

Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest People, p. 150.

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.

We have Cameron Park and nearby Mother Neff State Park. My attempted visit to the Sam Houston National Forest was rained out, but I’ll go back. There is a trail there I want to walk.

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.

iPhone Addiction

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I’d rather be addicted to this than addicted to a phone. But sadly I’m showing the signs.

What are the symptoms of phone addiction? Read:

  • 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).

Here’s a few fun stats:

– The typical cell phone user touches his or her phone 2,617 times every day. 2,617 times!

– Most people, on average, spend 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones each day.

– Half of all phone pickups happen within 3 minutes of a previous one.

Joshua Becker, Seven Proven Ways to Break Your Cell Phone Addiction

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.

Get Lighter

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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.

Optimize

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We have too many pens.

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.

Holman’s Life Essentials Interactive Study Bible

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:

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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.


  1. I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary from 2002 to 2005 in the Masters in Christian Education program (MACE).
  2. 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.

Merton’s Life and Holiness

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In 1963, Thomas Merton published Life and Holiness. The book is a brilliant, succinct encapsulation of the Christian vision with five major sections: 1) Christian Ideals, 2) The Testing of Ideals, 3) Christ, the Way, 4) The Life of Faith, and 5) Growth in Christ. There are passages which address matters of relevance in the 1960s which could have just as well been written today. Such is the timelessness of truth.

From the outset, Merton makes clear that the primary emphasis of the book is grace, “the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory.” Merton also stresses “the nature of work and its place in the Christian life” and how “one’s  daily work is an important element in the spiritual life.” Merton well understood that a life of holiness is one that encompasses human activity in every sphere, not only what which we traditionally associate with the sacred.

I appreciate the ways in which Merton exhorts the reader to strive after holiness, or growth in grace. But he balances that exhortation with a reminder that God is the catalyst, the carrier, and the one who grants completion to that work. Merton writes, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness of life is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift.”

This notion of sainthood is one which Merton addresses directly. It is a common temptation to elevate our exemplars to heights which we believe are beyond our reach. Merton says it well:

The popular idea of a ‘saint’ is, of course, quite naturally based on the sanctity which is presented for our veneration, in heroic men and women, by the Church. There is nothing surprising in the fact that saints quickly become stereotyped in the mind of the average Christian, and everyone, on reflection, will easily admit that the stereotype tends to be unreal. The conventions of hagiography have usually accentuated the unreality of the picture, and pious art has, in most cases, successfully completed the work. In this way, the Christian who devotes himself to the pursuit of holiness unconsciously tends to reproduce in himself some features of the popular stereotyped image. Or rather, since it is fortunately difficult to succeed in this enterprise, he imagines himself in some sense obliged to follow the pattern, as if it were really a model proposed for his imitation by the Church herself, instead of a purely conventional and popular caricature of a mysterious reality–the Christlikeness of the saints.

Merton sees that our efforts to imitate these “plaster” saints is ultimately silly. Rather, God is calling us to become most deeply ourselves in Christ. He writes, “It is the strict truth, and until we realize that before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word ‘saint.'” Merton points to Jesus, who “was himself the most deeply and perfectly human being who ever lived on the face of the earth. We must remember that human nature was, in him, quite perfect, and at the same time completely like our own frail and suffering nature in all things except sin. Now what is ‘supernatural’ if not the economy of salvation in and through the Incarnate Word?”

By grace God not only conforms us to the image and likeness of Christ, but while doing so mends and remakes us in the divine image, as God intended for us to be, free from sin, and freed to live for the glory of God.

One of the matters that keeps us from pursuing this kind of life is distraction. In a paragraph that has held up, Merton writes, “We must reflect more deeply than we do on the effect of modern technological life upon the emotional and instinctual development of man. It is quite possible that the person whose life is divided between tending a machine and watching TV is sooner or later going to suffer a radical deprivation in his nature and humanity.” Hello, Twitter. This observation still rings true.

What, ultimately then, is a saint? Merton states:

The true saint is not one who has become convinced that he himself is holy, but one who is overwhelmed by the realization that God, and God alone, is holy. He is so awestruck with the reality of the divine holiness that he begins to see it everywhere. Eventually, he may be able to see it in himself too: but he will see it there last of all, because in himself he will continue to experience the nothingness, the pseudo reality of egoism and sin. Yet even in the darkness of our disposition to evil shines the presence and the mercy of the Saviour.

In my pastoral experience, those furthest down the road to sanctification are the least able to perceive it. They are too busy living a life of holiness, living a life that is focused upon God’s will and work. It is others in the fellowship who note those who shine like stars in the darkness (Philippians 2:15), who most evidence they have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). They whisper, maybe with awe, “That person is a saint.”

Any person who has believed on and in Jesus Christ, who has placed their faith in him, is counted among the company of the saints. A saint is not someone who has arrived, but someone who is on the way. The further they have traveled, the more brightly they shine. Sainthood is the calling of every Christian, not as a static reality, but as a dynamic relationship with the Savior who sanctifies.

What is our next step? Where do we begin? The answer remains, as Jesus said so long ago, “Come, follow me.”

The Pastor as Architect

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F&L: How should Christian leaders think about formation and desire?

JS: I think people who have leadership responsibilities should first of all shift their self-understanding so that leadership doesn’t just mean that they are the articulators-in-chief. They’re not just the ones responsible for the message, so to speak.

In some ways, leadership is really about being an architect of the ethos of a community, which means that some of the most significant influence that leaders exercise is their ability to shape the rhythms, rituals, routines and practices of a community or an institution.

As the curators of the repertoire of practices of a community, leaders need to do a sort of liturgical audit of our institutions and ask ourselves not just, “What does our mission statement say we believe?” but, “What story about being human and human flourishing is being rehearsed in the rhythms and practices of our institution?” That informs how we think about how reform and renewal have to happen as well.

The “JS” is James K. A. Smith. The “F&L” is Faith & Leadership (Duke Divinity). Professor Smith was interviewed by Faith & Leadership about his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, which I have read. I found the book to be very good. And I found this snippet from the interview to be very interesting.

Too many Christian leaders assume their primary task is to provide people with the right information. They talk, talk, talk, teach, teach, teach, and tell, tell, tell. That is very important. But the most significant leadership task facing Christian leaders is addressing “what lies beneath.” Moderns might call it “culture-making.” The ancients called it “the cure of souls.” And you can’t just preach your way there. There is a great deal of prayer involved. There is also discipleship, or apprenticeship to Jesus, which, as Dallas Willard observed, will address any and all human problems, and to great effect.

I guess I’d say culture, as it is understood today, is the reflected sum of the overall spiritual health in a place. Culture always has a spiritual dimension, even when it is “secular.” In Christian contexts, culture includes “right belief,” or proper information about God, reality, etc. But it goes deeper, to the level of desire, want, and love. There is a difference between loving right information about God and loving God. There is a difference between adhering to right religious practices and living a life that is lived in accordance with mercy, not sacrifice. In a church, something unique takes place when law and love merge together to constitute a language, a unique expression of God’s activity, grammar, and gospel (that’s a nod to Herbert McCabe). A culture is established where people discover the life that is really life: knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one who was sent (John 17:3).

Look at how people live. That will tell much of what you need to know about what people really believe. Then, get creative. How do you romance people away from error, and instead turn their gaze toward the greater beauty that has been revealed in Jesus Christ? It won’t just be a matter of what you say. It will have to be woven in to how you live.

Show, then tell. Tell, then show. Show while you tell. Tell while you show. Trust yourself, and your people, to God, the master craftsman. Trust formation to the divine hand. Offer yourself as an instrument. And a vessel.

Daily Checklist

How do you stay on track? Here is a list that helps me see how I’m doing. It’s like an examen.

  • I maintain loving, firm, and consistent
    boundaries in my relationships each day.
  • I serve Molly and put her needs before my own.
  • I preserve time for silence, solitude, and quiet reflection.
  • I am not in a hurry.
  • I am living free from anger.
  • I work to make a positive difference in the
    lives of other people.
  • I use my gifts for the common good.
  • I am aware when I am growing tired and adjust
    my schedule accordingly.
  • I exercise and feel good in my body.
  • I do not feed the habit of negative self-talk.
  • I trust that God has a plan and a hope for my future.
  • I am joyful in the presence of others.
  • I am teachable and seeking to learn new things, always.
  • I am not afraid to take risks and challenge myself.
  • I am honest about failure.
  • I am honest about my own mortality.
  • I recognize my limits and differentiate between
    what is mine/not mine to do before God.

This is tailored to me and my circumstances. But it tends to help. Your list may look different. Feel free to borrow mine.