What Does it Say?

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Rob Walker, in The Art of Noticing newsletter issue No. 70 (“Play Attention”), recorded this anecdote from podcaster Stephen Dubner:

[Dubner] described how his father used to play a game with him called Powers of Observation. One day when Dubner was 7 or 8 years old, they went to a diner, where they took a seat and his father said:

“All right, Stevie, I want you to just sit and look around you and really take everything in. Just pay attention. Really see what you’re looking at, and listen. … I’m gonna give you five minutes. Just take it all in.”

After five minutes, he told Dubner to close his eyes, and started asking questions: “What did the lady sitting right behind us order?” And so on.

“He’d grill me on these facts, large and small,” Dubner says. “And when we first started this game, I was terrible. I had zero powers of observation! But within a few times of playing it, I figured it out. And I got persuaded that, whether it’s the mind, or the brain, or the memory, or my observational senses — they really are like a muscle. I’ve been trying, ever since that day, to flex that muscle. So maybe I’ve been practicing my own form of mindfulness all this time.”

When I was a seminarian, I took a class with Professor Howard Hendricks called “Bible Study Methods.”

After laying groundwork and establishing how we’d approach the Bible, we were assigned one verse: Acts 1:8.

…but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth.”

Acts 1:8, NASB

What were we supposed to do with these thirty eight words? Record twenty five observations.

When we turned in our twenty five observations?

We were told, “Thank you very much. For your next assignment, I would like twenty five more observations.”

Before asking what something means, or how something works, or what to do next, ask, “What is it? What does it say? What is going on?”

Make some observations. Then work with the facts.

Addressing Your Tribe, and Addressing Everyone Else

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Back on March 16, 2021 in his newsletter The Tuesday, Kevin Williamson of National Review made the observation that among conservative political activists and commentators, there are two fundamental audiences: conservatives and everyone else. Most of the well known pundits address their tribe principally and primarily. After all, that is where the money is most easily made, the clicks most easily obtained, the views most easily secured.

But there is a great deal of good that can come about by writing and speaking to everyone else. Williamson writes:

[T]he everyone else approach…is directed not at rallying one’s own partisans but at persuading people who are not already self-conscious conservatives, engaging with people as they are and with mainstream institutions. This irritates and enrages tribal conservatives, especially if you’re any good at it. I quote the New York Times fairly often, because it is one of the newspapers to which I subscribe, and I write from time to time for mainstream publications such as the Washington Post. And I hear from my fellow conservatives: “Why would you want to read the New York Times? Why would you want to write in the Washington Post?”

[ . . . ]

The answer to the silly question, of course, is that I read the New York Times because I live in the United States of America, not in the People’s Republic of Konservistan, and if you want to effect change in the United States and in the world, it matters what other people who read the New York Times and the Washington Post think. It even matters, a little bit, what the people who write for them think.

The value of this used to be obvious: William F. Buckley (who lived and worked “a long time ago,” I am informed) criticized what he called “the Playboy philosophy,” but he also wrote for Playboy. Rush Limbaugh wrote for the New York Times. (His byline was “Rush H. Limbaugh 3d.”) Ronald Reagan didn’t change the country because conservatives supported him — he changed the country because he ran a sensible conservative administration on big-tent principles and won 49 states in his reelection campaign.

Stated differently, not everyone is a partisan. Some people are not a member of either tribe. And they can be persuaded, even convinced.

The principle translates to the Christian world fairly easily. You can preach and teach and write in order to connect with your own tribe, to fortify your constituency, to secure your place in a certain ideological ecosystem. You can do this by pitting yourself against heretics and nonbelievers. The lines are drawn pretty clearly, and are easy enough to discern. I’ve seen people do this on left and right and everywhere in between.

Or, you can preach and teach and write in order to address those outside of your tribe while firmly remaining within one. To do so, you’ll need to read broadly, and listen. You’ll need to sharpen your arguments while maintaining epistemic humility. Charity will be high among the virtues. You’ll need to concede the strength of another person’s position. You’ll need to engage in nuanced, boring conversations. You’ll need to actively seek out others who are different than you; you’ll also need to strengthen bonds with those of like mind, those who can bear burdens alongside you. Those who bridge divides take arrows from all sides. Go ahead and concede that some will declare you an enemy because you refuse to deal in polemics.

Lastly, you’ll need to leave the realm of theory from time to time and get down to the level of practice. You’ll need to try out your ideas in the “real world,” and see if they actually do anything.

I think there is a lot of ground to be won by addressing people with words that match their lived experiences and then helping them see how the claims of Christianity address those experiences and then guide them in ways resulting in a life that works, not because Christianity is relevant and practical, but because it is true.

Jordan Peterson: Why Hasn’t He Been Cancelled?

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In the end, Mr. Peterson hasn’t been successfully canceled. He retains his academic post; his YouTube lectures and podcasts have not been scrubbed from the internet; and his publishers stuck with his books, which are available for purchase. This is true for basically two reasons. The first is that he has tried to understand his would-be cancelers and thinks of them almost as outpatients.

[ . . . ]

The second reason follows from the first. The cancelers’ strange fixations mean that apologizing to them is folly. Mr. Peterson hasn’t apologized or disavowed any previous statement. Now there’s a rule for his next book: Don’t apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong.

Barton Swaim, The Wall Street Journal, “The Man They Couldn’t Cancel

I have my disagreements with Jordan Peterson. I also think efforts to cancel him have been silly. The last line is the clincher. If you’re leading, if you’re making a difference, you’ll have critics. You’ll have enemies. Some criticisms will have validity. Others should be brushed aside. When you’ve made a critical error, a mistake that has caused harm, you should apologize.

But when the matter is one of disagreement about ideas, carry on. Don’t cave to the mob.

The Church: Critic of the Prevailing Political Order

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A genuinely penetrating critique of liberalism must start from the universal Christian confession of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The church isn’t merely another social institution, but the family of the heavenly Father, the body and bride of the incarnate Son, the temple of the Spirit. Through the word, the Spirit gathers and knits us together. In the waters of baptism, we’re made members of Christ and of one another. At the table, we become one body because we all partake of the one loaf that is the body of Christ. For paedobaptists at least, membership in Christ and one another is inter-generational. To the naked eye, the ties that bind members of the church across time and space look fragile. Word, water, bread, and wine are surely no match for blood, flag, and soil. But the Spirit of the living God works in and through the fragile things of earth to form a communal body like no other, a solidarity in the Spirit.

The sheer existence of the church challenges liberalism’s claim to monopolize social order. Here is a differently constituted community of men, women, and children. Consent is real, but the will that makes the church isn’t the will of man or the flesh, but the will of God. Here is a sacramentally and spiritually formed body, living divine life in the flesh and manifesting the spiritual unity of the Father and Son (cf. John 17:20–21). If she does nothing else, the church stands as a witness against the imperialistic hubris of liberalism.

Paul says the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ form “one new man,” a new humanity, the fulfilled humanity (Eph. 2:15). As the body of the Last Adam, the church provides a glimpse of the final destiny of human society. She is the most human of human communities, and, precisely because of her utter uniqueness, she serves as a model and aspiration for other communities. The church has a distinctive rationale for popular participation, grounded not in a common human nature but in every member’s share of the common Spirit. That unique ecclesial form of “democracy” inspires experiments in participatory politics. As a catholic communion, the church embodies the hope for an international peace that embraces every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. International networks, nations, local communities, and families can become false churches, rivals to the body of Christ. When leavened by the church, such groupings can become shadows and images of the divine communion of the church.

Peter J. Leithart, First Things, “The Ecclesiology of Liberalism

Leithart’s essay is worth reading in full, and while I think the applications will be most clearly apparent to Catholics, there is something here all Christians can glean from: the church is not “merely another social institution” but the body of Christ. In its fullest sense, church is categorically unique, a challenge to all ideologies and political philosophies. And as such, participation in church radically changes our engagement with and degree of participation in any and all other spheres.

It might be helpful to make sure you grasp what Leithart is addressing here when he writes about “liberalism,” a term that means many things, but here refers to the dominant political philosophy in the Western world.

So why do I think this important?

I think we participate in the life of the church for any number of reasons while missing out on many of the larger claims that participation in such a body might make upon our lives. If you are a member of a congregation, you are now linked with brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in an extended kinship that is not depended on common biological ancestry. You have received adoption into God’s family. You have been conferred status as a co-heir with Christ. You are deemed an “ambassador” of God’s kingdom, and a citizen of the heavenly realms.

Those are political realities that not only have implications for eternity, but for the here and now.

One way of looking at it

I happen to like memes, so I collect them. I’ll share one with a group of students while leading a class, often to raise a question that we will address that day, or to make a connection with our cultural moment. I text the weirder ones to a good friend.

This one struck a chord with me. There’s a lot going on here. I have no idea why Jesus is flashing the horns. But he does have a kindly gaze. He’s blasting light from his sacred heart. He even has a message: “Good morning, sinners.”

I think that’s a message many of us have internalized. It’s a dominant narrative. Jesus is up with the dawn. He’s a morning person. He rose early on the third day. He raises us up every day. He shines blinding light in our eyes. That’s who he is. He speaks. And the sound of his voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing.

We might think of ourselves foremost as sinners. Who isn’t a sinner? Who doesn’t “drop the ball?” We all mess up. We leave things undone. We commit wrongs. Sometimes we do so intentionally. Sometimes, we’re clumsy, and we break things.

We’re sinners. So every morning, we could wake up and imagine hearing this message from Jesus. But maybe there’s another way of looking at it. Maybe there are other names that might stir us awake more than our first cup of coffee, words Christ may say to us that enliven our hearts.

Hebrews 12:1-2 says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Maybe Jesus says, “Good morning, my joy.”

And maybe then, knowing that we are the beloved of God, we cast off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

What a Wonderful Invitation

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When I undertake all my activities, I am not doing them on my own, I am doing them in confidence, vision, and expectation in the spirit and character of Christ. If I am writing a paper or preparing for a conference or outlining a course, I don’t just do that looking to myself, I do that in expectation that God will act with me.

The gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus preached, ​“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” is precisely the good news that, in everything I am and do, God invites me to invite him to be my co-worker. He invites me to look to him, to act and move in tangible ways no matter what it is.

[ . . . ]

You have now heard the gospel that you are accepted by God where you are, that he put you there. You’re in your world to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth — and it is God who makes that possible. You accept the fact that you are finite, that you make mistakes, that you’re not perfect. And in so doing you get on with the work that God has appointed to flow through your life as you become the person he intended you to be.

You see, God has very high aims for you and me. His aim is that each one of us becomes the kind of person he can empower to do what we want. I am going to say that again. You and I are being trained and cultivated and grown to the point where God can empower us to do what we want. Now you recognize that a lot of work has to be done on our ​“wanter” before that can happen. But that is what life is about. And that’s what we are learning to do as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Dallas Willard, “Acknowledging God in All We Do

What struck me most was Willard’s remark about our mistakes and how liberating that is, but all of this is gold.

The Big Apple

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From Maria Popova:

On May 3, 1921, John J. Fitz Gerald — a sports journalist for the New York Morning Telegraph reporting on the horse-racing circuit — suddenly began referring to results from New York City as news from “the big apple.” He soon titled his entire column “Around the Big Apple,” extolling the Big Apple as “the dream of every lad that had ever thrown a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen.” Eventually, people began wondering why he had so nicknamed their city.

Five years after he first began using the term, Fitz Gerald half-answered.

Several years earlier, traveling to New Orleans for a race, he had overheard two African American stable hands discussing the horses in their respective care and where they were headed next. One of the young men told the other, in a “bright and snappy” quip, that the horse was going to “the big apple.” Fitz Gerald, knowing that the horse was in fact headed to New York City, seized on the term without asking where it came from — something about it just felt like the right poetic image for the grandeur and lushness of life in his hometown.

He died without ever saying anything else about it, having seeded into the urban dictionary the single most powerful and recognizable botanical metaphor in popular culture.

Popova goes further, tracing out the origins and meaning of the phrase “big apple.”

I’ve heard New York described as “The Big Apple” a billion times. Only in passing have I wondered where this phrase came from and how it became associated with New York City. Much of our vernacular we inherited or picked up, and the meaning and origin becomes lost to time.

“The Big Apple” is just one example. If you want another fun dive, check out this list of phrases that came from Shakespeare.

Clint Patterson on the Baylor Mascot Program

Here’s Joy, one of Baylor’s mascots, in my apartment back in 2002.
The Tires Plus shirt? Thrift shop purchase.

My friend Clint Patterson was on the Waco History Podcast and spoke about the Baylor mascot program. This is a direct link to the episode. Clint is a Baylor treasure.

I’m mentioned a few minutes into the podcast, a pleasant surprise. Back when I was a student I got to be around the mascots. My roommate Ryan Fitzhugh was the Bear Coordinator, my friend Tyler Sellers was the Bear Trainer at this time, and I was a member of the Baylor Chamber of Commerce who served on the Bear Committee.

One of the other roommates in the apartment was willing to make their space available for the first couple of months Joy was on campus. We decorated with scrap carpet and cinder blocks.

I don’t think I was around most of this summer. I had an internship back home at Green Acres Baptist Church in the children’s ministry. But I drove back over to Waco a few times to see our new mascot. Such a cool experience.

Lying Dormant

I often feel pressure to do stuff. I want to produce. Make the most of the time. Accomplish things.

I makes lists. Lots of them.

I make lists of things I want to do someday/maybe. That’s the name of the list: “Someday/Maybe.”

I also make lists of books I want to read, places I want to go, and restaurants where I want to dine.

In reviewing my lists I find that I do a lot things. Tasks do get completed and marked off. Some are the necessary things. Some are priorities. Others are routine: life maintenance tasks, healthy rhythms, chores that sort of thing.

That means on days when I’m less productive, when my energy wanes, when I’m just flat out tired, I feel like I’m a slug. Fading. Falling out. The word for that is “languishing.” Austin Kleon writes about this feeling, arguing that maybe languishing isn’t the best term. Maybe dormancy fits better.

Kleon writes: “It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions.”

This doesn’t negate the possibility that we might be languishing. But our bodies, minds, and souls might be telling us, “you need to rest.” “You need to regain your strength.” “You need to be outwardly idle for a little while, solidify some inner growth.”

Then later, when the time comes, burst forth.

Finish Line

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This week our office will submit grades, tie up administrative loose ends, and then transition to thinking forward to the next academic year.

I’ll admit, I am tired.

This year we’ve adjusted to new health protocols, remote work, and online teaching and learning. Thankfully, most of our instruction took place in the classroom, albeit more distanced and with faces partially veiled. And while I did not have as many opportunities to connect with staff, faculty, and students this year over lunch or in the hallways, bonds were strengthened nonetheless.

In the next few weeks I’ll take time out of the office. I have a couple of personal projects to complete, books I want to read, and hikes I want to take. I want to rest, too. Be present with my family and friends. Maybe make art.

The year to come will be filled with transition. It will not carry the same stresses and tensions as this one did. The possibilities ahead of our family are positive developments, filled with hope. My service with Truett moves to full time in August. Molly begins a new appointment at First Methodist Killeen in July. She also will start work on her D.Min. at Truett.

Our family will make adjustments.

We’ll be busy. Galatians 6:9 reminds us, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Lord, give us strength.