Reminders: They Keep Us on Track

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In today’s issue of my newsletter (sign up here!) I wrote:

We need reminders—people, books, stories, gatherings, songs, images, paintings, words scrawled on scraps of paper—reminders of what matters. Without reminders, we drift.

In Deuteronomy 6:12, Moses reminds the people of Israel to revist the divine commands and rehearse the stories of God’s deliverance, saying, “Then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Remembering is a way of tending to the relationship between God and the people of God.

Psalm 77:11 says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.”

When Jesus gave his followers instructions concerning the observance of the Lord’s Supper, Luke 22:19 records his giving thanks, breaking bread, and saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In John 14:26, Jesus promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit will not only teach them, but aid their memory: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:2, writes, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Paul stressed the importance of keeping what had been passed on through the act of remembering.

Last week I attended a conference centered on Christian spiritual formation, revisiting ideas I have been thinking about since my days as a seminarian. It struck me that this conference prompted my memory. I was reminded of events from the past, books I had read, talks I had heard, and truths that had moved into the recesses of my mind. My presence at this gathering brought to my recollection matters of importance. I was invited to consider what matters afresh.

What reminds you of what matters? Artwork? Books on display? A daily reading habit? A weekly gathering for study or worship? Stories you retell, rehearse, and relive? A meeting with friends or family? A routine pilgrimage to a place of importance?

We foster and cultivate memory. Human beings tend to forget, to drift. Tending historical tethers maintain our connections to what matters most.

Reps: They Make a Difference

Are there implications for Christian spiritual formation here?

I think yes.

The Christian tradition contains spiritual disciplines, or soul-training exercises that foster growth in Christ-like character and ongoing maturity in faith. These disciplines are wise practices that, if acted upon, open the possibility for change and transformation. They do not save. They do not put God in our debt. They do not elevate our standing with God. Dallas Willard said, helpfully, that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude; effort is an action. I like to say that the spiritual disciplines are a response. God lovingly moved toward us in acts of creation, covenant and redemption. Once graciously perceived, we are drawn toward God. Prayer, study, worship, service, and the other disciplines are invitations to the act of abiding, or dwelling, with God and paying attention to God’s presence and activity in our lives.

I’m a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and not only because my middle name is Arnold. I like action movies. I’ve also read Arnold’s autobiography and have sought to learn more about his life and career. He has been a surprising source of wisdom and insight, particularly in respect to the principles he has identified as underpinning his success. Body building is a physical activity that has clear, identifiable connections between actions and results. The sport became a school for Arnold, teaching him about reality.

One of those lessons: the importance of reps. A vision or goal, informed by an understanding of causal dynamics, followed by a plan, accompanied by actions and the right means, leads to results. You can have a dream. You can have a sober assessment of where you stand in the present. To realize a dream, you need steps, or means. You have to perform actions, or take the steps. And if the vision is clear and the means are properly aligned, you’ll progress toward the vision.

Arnold’s body was not built in a day. It took time. Years. It took commitment. There were setbacks. Most great journeys have them. Our path is not always clear, straight, or easy. But it is possible to move from point A to point B.

In the Christian spiritual journey toward maturity the first step is developing a vision, a clear picture of God and of life with God. I have found it helpful to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and develop a clear picture of Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” A study of the Trinity, which would broaden contemplation and include the Father and the Holy Spirit, would expand and sharpen our vision of God. But the Son is a wonderful place to begin.

As I’ve grasped the attributes of Jesus, including what he was like and the kinds of things he would do and say, I’ve looked more closely at how he lived, who he was around, and what his words and the things he did reveal to us about his thinking, attitude, and disposition of heart. After making discoveries, I’ve prayed, “God, I’d like that to be true of me.” I have asked God to teach me patterns of thought, feeling, and embodied action displayed in Jesus. In the same way a body builder learns about physical reality through training, so too does a Christian pilgrim learn about spiritual reality through the journey of spiritual formation and discipleship.

This has led me into practice of prayer, study, fellowship, worship, service, simplicity, and more. Christians believe we are not alone in this venture. The indwelling Spirit leads us into all truth. Our bodies are incorporated into Christ’s body; Christ lives in us (Galatians 2:20). We have received God’s rich blessing and have been given access to the Father in the heavenly places through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-10). If you desire maturity in faith, ask God. Growth may not unfold as you envision or anticipate. But you will have entered the school of the kingdom, placing yourself in the hands of the Great Teacher. The work God begins in you will be brought to completion (Philippians 1:6). Give it time. Take it step by step.

Every rep taken is an act of faith. It is an offering. Enlivened and infused by God’s grace, our actions draw us nearer to God and the prospect of a more godly life.

A Prayer for Those in the Workplace

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Lord Jesus, 

You have promised to be with us always, even unto the end of the age. 
Today, I first ask you be with me unto the end of my desk. 
I ask you first to join me here, to extend to me the knowledge of your presence. 
May you, Holy Spirit, be manifestly present in and around my workspace. 

I have many tasks to do. 
There are many people with whom I am in relationship and who depend on my contributions. 
I want to do my tasks well. 
I want to receive every person hospitably. 
I want to be joyful and pleasant, radiating your glory and grace. 
When others encounter me, I want them to see not only me, but you. 

Let my ears be opened to hear not only those who speak with me, but to hear you. 
Let my mouth speak words that not only honor the person with whom I am speaking, but you. 
Let my eyes see as you see. 
Let my hands be strengthened for service.  
Let my heart be attuned to your impressions, open to your communication. 
Heal my body, and help me carry out my work as a living sacrifice, presented unto you. 

Lord, I do not only want you to be with me only unto the end of my desk. 
The work appointed for me by you will lead me elsewhere in this building. 
You will send me beyond this desk, this computer, this chair, and this office. 
May I go resting securely in the knowledge that your Holy Spirit goes with me to empower me, to guide me, to convict me when I get it wrong, to lead me into all truth, and ultimately to sanctify me, bringing me into conformity with you. 

I am glad you have drawn near.  
I am glad you are with me. 
I am glad you are my friend. 
I trust you to help me. 

May your name be magnified and glorified in everything I do this day. 


What We’re Tracking This Summer: Social Interaction

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Last summer I shared a reading list we prepared for our children and how we planned to encourage, track, and reward time spent reading.

We still want our kids to read. They enjoy reading. We’re glad! And we’re already off and running in the reading department.

But this summer we’re facing a different challenge: saccharine substitutes for social interaction that are made available through technology. We limit screen time and only subscribe to a couple of different streaming services. Television is not our greatest temptation and is far from our default activity. Instead, our biggest time vortex is text messaging, YouTube, and a couple of other social media services. In our household we’ve limited access to social media, but we encourage our children to interact with their friends and stay in touch through a messaging app. We see the connections and conversations as positive. But we’re aware of the pitfalls.

What’s our foremost concern? At Forbes, psychologist Mark Travers writes, “Social media can create a false sense of connection and belonging. Online interactions lack the nonverbal cues, physical presence, and emotional intimacy that are crucial to building and maintaining meaningful relationships.” Online interactions are illusory. They aren’t a zero calorie substitute, but they are a lite version of social interaction. You feel like you are in community, but those connections lack the depth, satisfaction, and opportunities for growth in social aptitude that in-person interactions yield. We want our children to connect with other human beings beyond the limited capacity that the online spaces allow.

Many of our summertime in-person interactions are built into the calendar. We’re participating in camps, church life, teams sports, sending our kids to the pool, encouraging play with neighbors, trips, and family time around the dinner table.

But to make sure we’re balanced, we’re adding evaluation and intention to our weekly planning conversations.

What will we track, and how? Each week, Molly and I plan to cover a recurring to-do item during our weekly family meeting: “Evaluate Kids’ Total Social Interactions for the Week, Create Opportunities.” After taking a quick tally, we’ll adjust our plans accordingly.

Routinely taking stock will help us see how we’re doing. Locking down screens is a step in the right direction. But we have to do more than cap screen time. We’ve generated a list of activities our children can choose from (with their help) during downtime. However, we’ll also proactively plan time with friends, people they’d like to deepen their relationships with. We’ll invite their input along the way.

A little bit of boredom is okay. Boredom is often the first step on the way to expressions of creativity. We want our kids to rest, unplug, relax, and find renewal during the summer months, too.

We also want them to learn the art of conversation, to make connections, practice friendship and develop social skills. The best way to do that is presence with people. As parents, we create those opportunities for connection. That’s our responsibility. Then, we cross our fingers. The rest is up to them.

Multiple Buckets

I’m one person. But I take on several roles. I wear a lot of hats. I represent different things to different people.

I am an American, Texan, Tylerite, and Wacoan. Other localities have shaped me, but this country, state, and these two cities most prominently factor in my formation.

I am a pastor, teacher, and writer. I have done other work. But those three ways of being are the most fully enmeshed with my way of operating.

I am a husband, father, and friend. I have other relational ties that are important to me. But these three roles are actively assumed each and every day.

I am a Christian. This commitment is my foremost way of understanding myself and is the one I want to be principally determinative for the rest.

When I first meet someone, most of what makes me who I am is obscured. It is only within a few relationships that the manifold dimensions of my character are displayed and known. In most encounters, only a fragment is revealed: I’m known as a soccer coach, a Sunday school teacher, a Baptist, a preacher, an administrator.

In these fleeting, surface level encounters, I only have time and occasion to represent a part of myself, not the whole.

Relationships can deepen and broaden. And they do, given enough time, space, energy, and experience. But in an atomized society the majority of our encounters are constrained, our modes are thereby limited, and the impact of each encounter is narrowed down to one or two of our identity markers. We’re encountered as an undergraduate student, Gen Zer, lawyer, clerk, an Oregon State Beavers fan, salesperson, or a company board member, a bureaucrat, etc.

We do not experience these encounters with another, at least at first and in a moment, with all of the breadth, depth, and texture that is resident within each human being.

We learn standard shortcuts that we apply to our encounters with those in certain roles. If a person is wearing a hardhat and a reflective vest, I may gather I am dealing with a construction worker, or a fan of the Village People. These shortcuts can become biases, or stereotypes, and some may be faulty. Be vigilant. If your experiences with the police has been positive, you will likely turn to them for help when victimized. If the police prove helpful, your confidence in the police is strengthened. If they do not, the converse results.

As I’ve meditated on these dynamics, I’ve considered what I’m representing, and to whom, in my daily interactions. I’ve thought of my roles as a stewardship.

Stewarding our roles means we make deposits into multiple buckets, not solely those that are our own.

When I help to create a positive experience in my role as a teacher, for example, that is not only to my credit, but a credit to the work of teachers and of teaching.

When I speak to others who know of my service as Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Truett Seminary, I remember that I am not only representing myself, but the institution as well.

When I share with someone that I am from East Texas, not only is that person making an association with my drawl, but also with those who call the piney woods their home.

In respect to faith I remember that as I bear the name of Christ, it is not only my reputation that is in view during my daily encounters, but his. I can be a credit or a debit to his account. I seek to be the former, not the latter. We are witnesses. Better to be a faithful one.

How I Choose What to Read

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Over a decade ago I began recording what I read (a few years later I added what I watch). I read as part of my daily routine and as a default leisure activity. I read routinely in the morning and when I have opportunity throughout the day. If I have a review to write or a research deadline to meet, I schedule reading blocks. For example, in my calendar I write, “3-4 pm: Appointment w/K. Barth.” Sometimes reading material is chosen for me. More often, I make my own choices.

So, how do I choose what to read?

These ten ideas guide my selections.

1. Pursue Interests

As an undergraduate student I became interested in Christian theology, Christian ethics, Christian apologetics, and church leadership. Some reading was curricular, but not all. The more I read, the more names, ideas, and categories of thought became familiar. An intellectual map began to emerge, and connections were made. As new authors, concepts, and fields of inquiry presented themselves, the borders of the map expanded, and I was no longer confined to subcategories of Christian thought. For example, the essays of Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas led me to Richard Adams’ Watership Down and philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue. My interests led me into a broader range of literature, and I kept wandering, and wandering, and wandering along.

2. Identify Literary Heroes

My favorite authors include the aforementioned Stanley Hauerwas, philosopher and Christian spiritual formation author Dallas Willard, pastor and poet Eugene Peterson, and crime novelist Michael Connelly, to name a few. I’ve tried to become friends with the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (it’s not always easy, but we’re getting along). I like Charles Portis and Larry McMurtry and Flannery O’Connor. I enjoy reading C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein and G. K. Chesterton. I have been encouraged by the writings of James Bryan Smith. Wherever Alan Jacobs goes, I tend to go along.

Identify the writers you love to read, and read them.

3. Develop Literary Taste

Not everything is worth reading. Ecclesiastes 12:12 says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” You don’t have to finish every book you start, and you don’t have to read every book people you respect recommend. You’ll pick up some books and within the first fifty pages determine it is more suitable for kindling (or worse). Your taste in literature is your own. Discover it. Develop it. Refine it.

4. Read Old Stuff

In a famous essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” C. S. Lewis wrote:

“Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. . .[But] if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.”

That’s interesting advice. I read Dante’s Divine Comedy a couple of years ago, which was completed around the year 1321. I read new books. But I have taken Lewis’s advice to heart. When I consider what to read each year, I mix in ancient philosophy and early church history. That’s proven profitable.

5. Consult Footnotes and Bibliographies

In nonfiction literature (and some creative fiction), footnotes and bibliographies are there to acquaint us with the background, context, and web of ideas that contributed to the author’s original work. If you notice authors and titles come up in repeated and interesting ways in the main body, footnotes, and bibliography of a work, sound the bugle and let the hunt begin.

6. Challenge Yourself

I confess I don’t always understand everything I read. When I began reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I often walked away puzzled. The same has been true when I’ve read Jurgen Moltmann or N. T. Wright or Johnathan Edwards or Fyodor Dostoevsky. Sometimes I’ll go back and read slowly. Other times I’ll press on and trust the process of reading, believing that the ideas I find in one place will appear elsewhere in The Great Conversation, and clarity will emerge in due time, if it is needed. I approach reading with a degree of trust in Providence.

7. Be Open to Different Genres

I wrote above that my interest in Christianity helped me become a reader. But so did British literature. The sonnets of Shakespeare, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley helped me appreciate poetry. Later, I read political theory, history, social science, and cultural commentary in an effort to better understand the American milieu. Biography and autobiography have helped me learn wisdom from the stories of others. You can have a favorite genre. But go exploring.

8. Pay Attention to Readers, and Keep a List

The latter first: when an author or title catches your eye or ear, capture it. Make a list. I use an app on my phone. I also have an earmarked section in a notebook. Routinely review this list and make selections.

If you befriend readers, ask what they read. If you read writers who mention other authors, take note. If a magazine or publication produces a “great books” list, consult it. With experience, you’ll differentiate between those recommenders to heed and those to ignore.

9. Collect Books

I borrow books. I love libraries. But I also buy books. I pre-order books from authors I love. I buy used books. I shop the book sections of thrift stores (I did this at a Goodwill last week). And I don’t always read my purchases immediately. As your library grows, scan the spines, see what you have, and pull off two or three books that you want to read. Set one on your nightstand or by your reading chair. When you have a few moments, read a few pages, and move the bookmark. Read from your collection.

10. Set Goals

My annual reading goal is to complete a set number of books. This year I am aiming for sixty. I’m a little behind pace, but hope to catch up during the summer. When I begin a new year, I think of titles that I have meant to read but haven’t yet, or I choose a research interest I’d like to pursue. Last year, I began reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It took me a long time to reach the end. I’m still reading a Ron Chernow biography of George Washington.

Choose a title or an author and set a goal. I pick one or two books at the start of each year that I pledge to finish. I will read other things. But my goal books are the bedrock, the core, of a reading year.

One Other Factor: Serendipity

Some great reads are discovered as if by accident. The right book comes along at the right time. A book catches my eye at a used bookshop, and the blurbs are from people I respect. Suddenly, I’m delighted by words on the page, a story beautifully spun, or wisdom delivered via a dusty codex. There are few things in life I enjoy more than the pleasures of reading. Books are a gift of God.