2019: The Year Ahead

One week ago today I visited Barnes & Noble and bought a Moleskine 2018-2019 daily planner. It was fifty percent off retail and my first major victory of the year, so I added it to my goals ex post facto: “Buy planner at discount.” That’s one way to keep your New Year’s Resolutions. Do, then record. Shoot, then aim.

I didn’t stop there, and I changed my methodology. I made forty goals. Some are very specific with measurable outcomes. Others are a trajectory. A few goals are continuations of a previous beginning; others are repeats of previous failures. As Bruce Lee said, “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”  Bruce Lee also said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

After aiming, action.

Family Goals

I divide my goals up into categories. The first is family. Most are simple. I plan to go on a date with Molly once per month. We have set financial goals for savings this year (and strategies to reduce expenses), as well as ways to spend time together as a family, including trips to the local zoo, using gift cards for our meals out when we have them, and going camping. I have a big organizational goal to catalogue my library, systematize my paper and digital files, and make accessible the thousands of photographs dispersed across multiple hard drives. I am fairly organized, but there is more I can do.

We know we are getting things right when we have peace at home. Our relationships to one another, to money, to our possessions, to our community, and to the natural world all require attention, each in their own way. Each relationship has bearing on the others. Peace is not only the absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony, wholeness. That’s what we want at home.

Faith Goals

I am a Christian. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to grow, and growth involves change. There is a sense in which I will never fully arrive. The maturation process will be ongoing. But it is possible to mature. There is a process, and there is progress. It may not always be a straight line, but God brings about growth. Spiritual growth often involves three elements that I try to remember: Vision, Intention, and Means. See, decide, and do.

Philippians 2:12-13 is a helpful guide. Paul writes, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” God works in us, and we work our salvation out.

The inward changes God manifests in us take shape in our lives, and thus in the world, through obedience. Obedience isn’t such a nasty word when the one who commands is good, and the one who obeys freely wills to act, trust, and follow.

When we have a vision of who has God called us to be in Christ, we respond with an intention to follow (meaning, it is our sincere desire to become and do the things Jesus himself did and taught), and then we take up the means, or ways, God has made available to us, the same means Jesus himself utilized during his life, such as prayer, service, Bible study, solitude, silence, worship, fellowship, and others.

This year, our family has a specific target for financial stewardship as part of First Methodist Waco. Molly and I will make it a habit to read the Psalms together and pray daily. I’m reading through the Bible this year, learning to fast, teaching Sunday school, empowering others for leadership, and revisiting New Testament Greek (eek!).

I’ve shared with friends that I want to become wise, and I want to become a saint, and while I know I am a saint by virtue of my status in Christ, I want to reflect that reality more than I presently do, especially since I am cognizant there are times, moments, and maybe even prolonged interactions where I do not fulfill the calling I have as a disciple of Jesus. I want to be all God intends for me to be.

Fitness Goals

In our family we value strong, healthy bodies. In recent years we have learned about proper nutrition, wise food choices, and appropriate supplements, such as a daily multi-vitamin and Omega-3s. We’ve used Advocare products for a few years (and if you’d like to learn which ones and what we think, contact me). Have we always gotten it right? No! But have we learned? Yes.

I have set a target weight, an exercise routine, a specific number of race events I’d like to compete in this year, state parks I’d like to hike, and a way to approach playing basketball each week. My big goal in this area is fairly simple: have a healthy heart, working limbs, and the ability to enjoy time with my kids. I don’t have to be a bodybuilder, just sound and capable of fun.

Creative Goals

Every person is creative. Some of us are just more aware of it than others. I write, take photographs, and draw. Those activities require creativity. In order to be creative in those endeavors, I need to read, learn, and grow. I plan to read sixty five books this year, take courses at the local community college in art, blog routinely, participate in a photo challenge, and be more disciplined in how I structure my work hours.

I also plan to spend more time in the kitchen and learn how to cook a few (more) things, which means Molly will be my teacher. I’m looking ahead to 2020, when I’ll attend a writers conference. That’s a sentence I never imagined myself writing.

Community Goals

Lastly, I have community goals. I want to be a good neighbor and grow my friendships, so I’ll put together a few poker games, work with others around me to organize a few block parties, and continue coaching youth sports. I also plan to give blood (I do not enjoy needles), but it is something I want to do, partly to honor one of my grandparents, and partly because I can and because it is right. Molly and I also plan to routinely invite friends over for dinner, to open our home and practice hospitality.

What’s Success?

I review my goals daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually in various ways and to different degrees. If I accomplish all of my goals it will be borderline miraculous.

My greater hope is to become a better person. If I move marginally in that direction, that will be a win, and all praise, glory, and honor will be to God.

I’ve taken aim. It’s time for action.

2018: My Year in Reading

That’s right. It’s time, once again, for everybody to sit back, relax, and enjoy my annual recap of the year in reading. This is one of the most heralded, most anticipated, and most celebrated lists published so far this year. Aren’t you glad you are reading it?

By clicking this link you are “in,” cool, hip, groovy, rad, stylin’, profilin’, rockin’, rollin’, magnificent, stunning, fantastic, prodigious, marvelous, moving, clever, keen, acute, wise, bright, brainy, canny, crafty, angelic, cherubic, seraphic, beatific, saintly, and all that jazz. Right now, by reading this, you are better looking than you were a moment ago. You have a certain aura, a glow of awesomeness. You’ve leveled up and powered up, just by reading this. You should read everything I write (subscribe!).

Prepare to have your day brightened and your mind enlightened, your interest piqued and your sensibilities tweaked–guaranteed, or your money back.

How Many Books Did I Read This Year?

My love of literature increased this year. I set a modest goal this year to read fifty books, which I exceeded by a wide margin. I read ninety five books, and that’s not counting the comics (I started taking my kids to a comic book shop once a month as a family outing), graphic novels, and my (almost) daily sit down with the newspaper and the Psalms. I read a whole lot, more than I anticipated, and discovered new authors and new stories. You can browse what I read here. I made an addition to my media log this year and included movies and television series I watched, which I mainly streamed on Amazon Prime or checked out on DVD from the local library.

What Were My Favorite Books This Year?

I’ll begin with fiction, because fiction gave me the most joy. Ursula K. Le Guin died in 2018, and after reading about her life I checked out a collection of her essays, No Time to Spare, from the local library. Soon thereafter I was led to The Left Hand of Darkness and the first three books in her Earthsea cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore). Earthsea is a fantasy tale, set in a collection of islands, involving a vast and wide ocean, with plenty of wizardry. The first book was the one I found most striking, particularly in how Le Guin wrestles with human ambition and pride, our longing for greatness, and the shadows we cast.

P. D. James’ The Children of Men is another book I immensely enjoyed. Imagine a world that suddenly experiences a stoppage in births. Time passes, and there are no children. The death of the species can be seen in the near future, and while human beings hold out hope that a technological solution will be found, none is forthcoming. What would that world be like? And what would it be like if, suddenly, one woman was found to be pregnant, and a man of lapsed Christian faith found himself in the middle of it? How would he regard the event itself? How would he navigate the obvious political implications of such an event? Those questions are addressed in the novel.

I finished Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series by reading A Column of Fire. Pillars remains one of my favorite works, with Prior Philip being one of my favorite characters. I discovered Joe Abercrombie’s work, another fantasy writer, whose Half a King, Half the World, and Half a War are all excellent for their character development and intrigue. There is a revelation in Abercrombie’s third book I suspected in the first, and when confirmed found very satisfying. I also read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Willa Cather’s My Antonia’, and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

In nonfiction, I read a great deal of political commentary. I’m trying to understand the moment, I guess. Amy Chua’s Political Tribes was insightful as was David Frum’s Trumpocracy. I enjoyed Russell Shorto’s Revolution Song as a creative work of history, and learned a great deal about the opioid epidemic by reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland. One of the more interesting nonfiction books I read this year was by Bill and Rachel James called The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery. Yes, Bill James of baseball’s statistical revolution, and yes, together with his daughter they piece together a series of ax murders from the early 1900s that appear to be connected, then offer their best guess at who was behind them all.

In the area of personal development and self-improvement, I really enjoyed reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Total Recall. Those who know me well know I love Arnold. Bodybuilding, movies, politics, and, believe it or not, there is a lot of practical wisdom in this book. I also enjoyed Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!, Max DePree’s Leadership is an Art, and Damon Young’s The Art of Reading.

There is one last nonfiction book that stands out: Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, by Gregory Alan Thornbury. I didn’t know anything about Larry Norman, or at least I thought I didn’t, but through reading this book I was able to see his influence in the music I was familiar with, both in mainstream rock and in the Christian music industry. I spent time listening to his stuff on Spotify.

I read a lot of Christian literature this year, as I always do, consuming a lot of trade books and a few works of biblical and theological studies. I wrote short reviews of many of the Christian books I read on Amazon. The book that has remained with me most has been Ben Myers’ short book The Apostle’s Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, which I found to be brilliantly written, theologically insightful, and historically rich. I also enjoyed Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited for the very first time, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, and Eugene Peterson’s collection of sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Two works of theology stick out in my mind: Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and Beth Felker Jones’ Marks of His Wounds. James Bryan Smith’s The Magnificent Journey was a clearly written, encouraging read, and Gary Moon’s biography of Dallas Willard, Becoming Dallas Willard are two other books I am likely to return to in the years ahead.

Did You Hate Anything?

Yes. Yes I did.

Hate is probably too strong a word. This year I became a little better at putting down books that aren’t paying off. But there are a few I read cover to cover that I didn’t overwhelmingly enjoy: two books by N. T. Wright (God in Public and The Day the Revolution Began), Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, and Dan Pink’s When. I also didn’t care much for Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson is an interesting fellow and he is saying some things that I guess need to be said, but I think his popularity says more about the void of the moment than it does the profundity of his prose.

What Are you Reading Right Now?

I’m reading Andrew Delbanco‘s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Next up will be Jeff Tweedy’s Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), a memoir of his life as a musician. Tweedy is most notable as the frontman for WILCO, my favorite band (“Dad Rock”). Beyond that, I have a couple of titles to read for review, and plenty of stuff I’ve yet to dig in to on my shelves at home. I also have a long list of titles I’ve bookmarked at the local library.

What Did I Learn From My Reading Experience This Year?

I gained two major insights. The first is that I deeply love fiction, and I have a surprising appreciation for fantasy literature. I’ve neglected fiction for too long, and I need to spend more time reading the great novels already resting on my shelves, waiting for me, calling to me.

The second insight is that I need to be more selective. Qoheleth tells us in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” There are so many books! What’s more, there are so many great ones! I do not have time to read them all. No one does. So I need to be choosy. I need to spend time reading Barth, Kierkegaard, and Augustine, not to mention Aquinas, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare. I may read far fewer books this year, but come away far richer.

That’s my goal. I guess you’ll find out how I did next year, next edition, same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.

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

The Magnificent Journey is Magnificent

One of my favorite books of this past year was The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom by James Bryan Smith. Journey is the second in Smith’s latest trilogy of books, preceded by The Magnificent Story (2017) and to be followed by The Magnificent Mission, releasing in fall of 2019.

The Magnificent Journey addresses a lack found often in Christian history, but particularly in our moment: among those professing faith in Jesus, too few embrace discipleship to Jesus, which is learning the way of life with Jesus. Smith uses the metaphor of journey to remind us that in the kingdom of God there is always a sense that we are on the move, keeping in step with Jesus as he calls to us, “Follow me!”

If Jesus is leading, then we are following. We are not “in charge.” Obedience is part of this way of life, and one of Jesus’ commands is to take up a cross. The Christian life, paradoxically, involves death to self in order to find life that lasts, a life fully alive to God. We must “surrender,” but not only once. Smith explains that surrender is not only an action taking place at conversion, but that surrender is also a way, a daily decision to yield oneself to God, to trust, and to follow.

Smith expands this idea to show that it is through surrender that we learn “to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.” In other words, by surrendering our faith grows. We learn, through experience, that God is good and can be trusted. This is not always easy.

Life involves suffering. Sometimes we experience tragedy. Smith is no stranger to this truth, and he tells of how God has used his own heartaches and heartbreaks in life for good. Smith does not minimize the magnitude of pain, nor deny the depth of our wounds, but instead points to Jesus and reminds us of the comfort found in worshiping a God who is well acquainted with grief, suffering, and death, yet who overcame those realities in the resurrection, and who promises us everlasting life.

The remainder of the book expands on this idea: that through surrender to Jesus we are led to experience life as God intended it for us. The way of surrender calls us to live our lives “from above,” or from the perspective and power of God and the everlasting kingdom. As we do so we learn to listen to God first (and, consequently, to others more carefully), to develop a deep, abiding trust by walking in faith, to live with hope, to demonstrate love, and to experience deep joy. Smith contends that this is the life God has for us. It is the life Jesus came to demonstrate for us, and to deliver to us. It is a life we receive through faith, by grace, so that God can use us for good.

Smith’s greatest authorial virtue is found in his gentle, pastoral style, with which he effectively conveys historical, biblical, and theological insight. Professor Smith has clearly spent time listening, observing, and tending to those around him, beginning with his family, church community, students, and those who share his cultural moment. He has identified many of the ideas that keep people from embracing God, from responding to the love of God extended to us through Jesus Christ. I have long admired this quality in Smith’s writing, speaking, and teaching ministry. Smith displays this virtue in this book.

Of all Smith’s books, this is my favorite thus far. I recommend it.

Putting Our Remarkable Minds to Use

It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.

– A. O. Wilson, Better Living Through Criticism, 12

This brings to recollection a recent conversation with a friend who said that listening to a sermon is one particular time during his week in which he brings the full measure of his mental focus to bear upon an occasion, an event, noticing every word, the tone, nuances, and inflection. He listens, deeply and carefully. The stakes are high. That is why, for him, it is so important that the sermon contain a thread he can follow, one he can learn from. In doing so, not only is he seeking to take the sermon and the person delivering the sermon seriously, he is also putting his mind to use and paying his own experience the honor of taking it seriously.

He’s engaged in criticism. Criticism notes what is lacking, but it also elevates what is worthy of attention, lest we miss it. It is possible to engage in the practice of criticism while being charitable, civil, and even kind. In other words, everyone can be a critic, and in some sense should be. But criticism must be accompanied by other virtues if it is to be Christian.

The sermon is art. So is the essay, the blog post, the photograph, maybe, also, the caption. The job of the sermon, as well as these other art forms, is not only to fill the mind or inform the soul, but to offer and invite us toward freedom–to think, to change, to grow. To be serious.

Once that freedom is received, what we do with that freedom is up to us. The possibilities begin when we put our remarkable minds to use, when we get serious.

I can think of no other subject about which we should be so serious, as well as so joyful, as that of contemplating God and the things of God.

The Need for Silence

So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.

– Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 98

The spiritual life involves speaking and not speaking.

In speaking, we issue invitations. We draw attention and take action. We converse, convince, and persuade. We do.

In not speaking, we stop. We become silent. We are still. We listen, contemplate, and consider. We be.

The church has always needed heralds. Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In Romans 10:13 we find, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

The logic is easy to follow. The person who hears and responds in faith does so following a proclamation of the message of and about Jesus, brought by another person who has been called and sent forth for that task.

The best gospel ministry marries proclamation to demonstration. We are told what the kingdom of God is like, but then we see it, it is put on display. In Matthew 4:23, we read that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There is not only speaking, but activity.

And yet to plumb the depths of God, to know who God is and what God is doing, there comes a time for silence. Psalm 46:10 says, ““Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” In Psalm 62:5, we read, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Lamentations 3:26 reads, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

Even Jesus withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus surely spoke. But he also surely took time to listen, away from the noise, the activity, and the constant demands.

Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Observe each in its own time, do not neglect either. There is speaking and not speaking. There is action and stillness. There is doing and being.

God call us to both.

Go Ahead and Work With Happiness

The main thing is never to get discouraged at the slowness of people or results. People may not be articulate or active, but even so, we do not ever know the results, or the effect on souls. That is not for us to know. We can only go ahead and work with happiness at what God sends us to do.

– Dorothy Day, The Reckless Way of Love, 63

I used to believe this to be true because I had found it to be true in my work with children and youth. But now I believe it to be true in all of ministry, in all of life.

Observing positive results and good fruit is a blessing, so never forget to rejoice. But when you see little yield, do not lose hope. The harvest belongs to God. Maintaining trust, and practicing obedience to the command to love one’s neighbor, is an expression of faith.

Cutting Cable

Television is changing, as are the ways people consume media.

We’ve heard for years younger generations are foregoing a cable subscription and opting instead to consume media in other ways. Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have changed how people watch shows, and with the advent of apps like Fox Sports Go, NBC Sports, and WatchESPN, there are more ways to stream live events on a phone, tablet, or other device. Our family has watched the last two Baylor women’s soccer matches on Facebook Live. My kids enjoy clicking the emojis.

This fall our family joined those who have cut the cord and chosen instead a combination of online streaming services. We followed a progression. Here’s how it unfolded.

First, We Canceled Cable

When we moved to Waco in 2016 we had choices to make with regard to our utilities. I wanted a local phone number (at the time, I wasn’t in a rush to have a cell phone), internet service, and to watch sports on television. I began shopping around, and asked a few friends for their recommendations. We ended up with a subscription bundle for a set rate and were locked in for the first year.

But the moment my subscription rate bumped one year later, I called to cancel the cable portion and bought an antenna. I could pick up ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

We also had a Roku device, which meant that when our PBS signal wasn’t coming in strong I could stream shows for my kids via the PBS Kids Roku channel. I could save $80 a month ($960 a year), watch most of the major football, soccer, and baseball, and basketball games I wanted to catch, and I listened to internet radio for the rest. Despite the cable company’s offer to keep me at their current promotional rate on the day I called (which was the same as the first year fee), I cut the cord.

The Antenna Phase

I shopped around and finally bought a Leaf antenna. I placed it in the house in a spot that maximized reception and minimized its being an eyesore. I purchased some cable concealer from Home Depot, and kept my wires confined.

The antenna was complimented by the aforementioned Roku device. While I cancelled cable, I kept internet service at home. I’ve already mentioned the PBS Kids app. We could also stream movies or shows through Amazon Prime (which we’ve had for years due to the amount of shopping we do online).

We don’t regularly watch local or national news programs (I subscribe to the local paper). We usually have stuff going on during the weekends. And we do our best to read, play, or create stuff during our free time, with only sporadic consumption of movies or television. The antenna, plus the couple of apps we could use on our television with the Roku device, was plenty.

Subscribing to Streaming Services

Back in August when football season was approaching, I made a decision to explore the costs of the various streaming services. It was unclear how many Baylor home football games I would attend, and knew I wanted to watch them on the road. When the season began I thought they had a real shot at taking a step forward, winning six games, and becoming bowl eligible. It’s still possible.

I compared Sling, Hulu, and YouTube TV. All of these companies have strengths and weaknesses, and vary their packages in ways that are attractive to different consumers. For a little under $30 a month ($360 a year), I chose to go with one of Sling’s basic packages, one that I thought would land the highest number of Baylor football games during the season (I put my chips on the Fox family of networks).

I added an ESPN+ subscription as well. It’s advertised at $5 a month, but I paid $50 for the year (saving $10). So, in the end, my streaming television subscription package costs me a little under $35 a month.

What I’ve Learned

Do I get to watch every sporting event I want to watch? No. I chose not to buy one of the more advanced Sling packages, which would have given me access to the ESPN family of networks. I missed Chiefs/Rams on Monday Night Football (now argued to be the best regular season NFL game in history). But I watched a portion of the replay later in the week on the NFL Network (which is included in my Sling package), and had listened live to the radio broadcast.

Do I enjoy the ability to watch television on my TV and other devices? Absolutely. Sling is accessible on my tablet devices (and even my phone, if I wanted to stream there). I also love it that my Sling subscription works with select apps, including NBC Sports, Fox Sports Go, and others. They’re still working to expand the number of apps that will accept a Sling subscription (like AMC). I love that.

Do I enjoy being a better steward of our finances? Yes. By spending less on television I’m able to allocate funds to other things. And since my streaming subscriptions can be cancelled at any time, I’m contemplating what to do once football season concludes. I’m thinking about going back to antenna for a while and then reevaluating the streaming television market to decide if the enjoyment our family will receive is worth the cost.

A la carte television is a weird proposition for those of us who are used to paying for one big package where we get the channels we want and then a bunch of superfluous channels we never watch. I was hesitant at first. But what pushed me over the edge, eventually, was the cost. I spend less money to get most of what I want. Even if I would’ve bought a Sling bundle with more channels (including ESPN), I still would’ve spent less than cable.

(If you do research and are interesting in signing up for Sling, let me know and I’ll send you an invite code which may offer a price break for both of us.)

What’s Next?

The models will keep changing, as will the options, and I have a feeling that there will be some shifts ahead with how internet service providers offer their products. Time will tell.

If it gets too pricey, I still have my books and my local library, which is plenty to keep my occupied.

God Prepares, Sends, Call, and Provides

This message was delivered to the people of University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, on November 11, 2018. The occasion was the ordination of my friend, Jennea Pilcher.

Opening Remarks and Word of Testimony

Good evening. It is good to be here tonight and to look upon some familiar faces. I’d like to thank Pastor Jerimiah and Jennea, as well as the people of University Baptist Church, for extending an invitation to me to be part of this wonderful occasion. It is truly an honor to be here, to witness the work of God in this place, and to worship and give thanks together for what it is that God has done.

Many of you are aware that I served this congregation from June of 2013 to June of 2016 as Minister to Students. In youth ministry, you might be aware that a common element of a typical gathering is games. But you see, that isn’t exactly my forte. From the day I began service, I knew I’d need help in that regard. So all during my first summer, I prayed.

And God answered. On the first Sunday of the fall semester Jennea Pilcher attended the College Bible Study class in Room 200, led by Cheryl and Tim Wilson. Jennea was pleased to see a familiar face–Kathy Raines had met Jennea at TCU’s church fair, and though their meeting had maybe taken place the previous year, Kathy remembered Jennea, and welcomed her. Not long afterward Jennea and I had a conversation. She was interested in youth ministry. And she would be more than happy to plan, prepare, and lead the games portion of our Wednesday night gatherings.

Jennea became a key leader in our youth ministry. She served this church as an intern, and later as interim youth pastor, and she and I became not only colleagues, but friends. Jennea shared with me her passion for missions, and her discernment regarding her calling in life. Her experiences in South Africa had led her to believe that God may have been calling her to serve as a missionary. I, of course, asked, “What about youth ministry?”

Jennea answered firmly: “No.”

I eventually came to ask her about pastoring, about serving the local church. Throughout the Bible there are examples of women exercising leadership and having authority, who set for us a tremendous example of faith. In the Old Testament we find Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who feared God and defied Pharoah, Ruth the Moabite, Esther the Queen, Huldah the Prophetess, Deborah the Judge, among others. In the New Testament we read about Mary the mother of Jesus, her cousin Elizabeth, Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha, Dorcas, Lydia, Junia, and the daughters of Philip the Evangelist, who had the gift of prophecy, as well as others.

Now, I know there are some passages in the Bible that are hermeneutically challenging, that are difficult to interpret, and some of those even have to do with women in leadership. But I trust this congregation has done that work, and has proceeded here tonight convicted by the Holy Spirit that this is God’s will, that you as a body have witnessed God’s gifts and graces resting upon Jennea, and have chosen to set her apart and to ordain her for the work of the gospel ministry.

That is a decision I am glad to affirm and applaud.

Scripture Reading

Our Scripture reading for tonight comes Jeremiah 1:1-9. We read:

1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. 2 The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, 3 and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.

4 The word of the Lord came to me, saying,

5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

before you were born I set you apart;

I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

6 “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.

This is God’s Word.

Exposition

Jeremiah was a prophet of Israel. He was appointed by God as a messenger during a difficult and challenging time. Jeremiah’s time was not unlike our own. You could say God wasn’t exactly “in,” but God wanted a relationship with his people, so he sent them a messenger. Jeremiah was not always well loved by those in power. No, he was a bit of a troublemaker. But he was faithful to God. That, in the end, is what counts.

This text contains vital truth for the minister, for the pastor, for the person who serves God while serving the church. But it also contains truth for every Christian, for each one of us, for it reveals to us what God has done, and what God is doing. We see how God set apart Jeremiah. But we also find that God has likewise set apart each one of us, called us and incorporated us into God’s plan and purpose, bringing about the kingdom of God in our midst through the people he has gathered, the church.

This reading tells us, first that God prepares. Second, it tells us that God calls. Third, it tell us that God sends. And lastly, it tells us that God provides.

God Prepares

First, God prepares. God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” God had seen that there would be a need, and God appointed a prophet, one whom God foreknew even before he was born.

We find a similar thought in Psalm 139:13-16. David writes:

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

In Luke 1:14-17, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, that John “will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Jennea, it is vital for you to remember, and for all of us to remember, that even before we were born, God was preparing us for this moment, for this time, in which to live and serve. Paul said it well in Acts 17:25-27, in that God “himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”

God uses our life experiences, both the good and the difficult, to prepare us and refine us, to shape us so that we might best serve under God’s reign. God prepares the way, and prepares us. This may lead us to some uncomfortable places. This may lead us to places where the soil is rocky. Conversely, it may also lead us to places where the waters are still and the grass is lush. Be encouraged. God is with us. God is the source of all joy, but God is no stranger to sorrow. If you do not believe that, look at Jesus Christ.

God, indeed, prepares.

God Calls

Secondly, God calls.

In Jeremiah 1:4 we read, “The word of the Lord came” to Jeremiah. He was given a summons, a call, an invitation. As Christians, we worship the God who speaks, the God who brought our reality, the Creation, into being with a word. God spoke to Abraham and said, “Go to the land I will show you.” He spoke to Moses and said, “remove your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

God continues speaking, continues calling. In the New Testament, that call is revealed most fully and completely in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 4:18-20, we read that “18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.”

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “ “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that Jesus Christ, “walked the infinitely long way from being God to becoming man; he walked that way in order to seek sinners!” When he came and walked among us, he called human beings unto himself as disciples. He was the companion of ordinary men and women, of the very old and the very young, and to all he said, “Come to me.”

God’s word came to Jeremiah. And Jesus’ word comes to us: “Come to me.” God calls us, as disciples and as followers, as the redeemed, as those to whom God has extended his salvation. This calling is true for every person in this room, no matter how saintly you are, or how far from God you may believe yourself to be–if you’re here, you are not as far from God as you think.

The prophet Jonah said, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” We are called to trust the saving work of Jesus, even as we are called to follow. Each of us has a calling. It is not hidden behind a veil of mystery. It is the calling to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

But some, like Jennea, sense a calling to serve God in a particular way as a shepherd, as a voice, as a minister, as a pastor. And, as is true for all of us, it is important to remember that that word, that summons, has come from God. The surety, the depth of conviction regarding that calling, sustains us.

God calls.

God Sends

Thirdly, God sends.

God said to Jeremiah, “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.” God is a sending God.

And this message proved to be important to Jeremiah. He would be sent to Israel, not only to proclaim God’s word before ordinary people, but also before the most powerful people in the land, people who had the means and authority to arrest him, detain him, and even execute him.

God remains a sending God. But when we are sent by God, we have nothing to fear.

In John 20:19-23, following Jesus’ resurrection, we are told

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Jesus did not want his disciples to remain behind locked doors, hiding from those in authority, but instead to go out, to enter into the world, to proclaim the kingdom of God, to offer forgiveness, to preach the gospel of repentance, and to invite all people into fellowship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 28:18-20, the risen Jesus said to his disciples, ““All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jeremiah was given a mission. We have been given a mission.

That is our mission.

It is the best mission. The word gospel means, “good news.” We have been given the best possible news. Christ is risen! And because Jesus has conquered death and defeated the grave and atoned for our sin and opened the way to fellowship with the Father and the Spirit, we can have peace with God. We can also be about God’s work, feeding the hungry and offering drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked and visiting those who are sick or in prison. We can proclaim good news to the poor, and declare the year of Jubilee. Christ has come, and now he sends.

This is a word for you, Jennea. Christ now sends you into the world as a minister of his good news. Not your good news. His good news. But this is also a word for all of us. Christ sends us into the world as heralds, as servants, as witnesses. We are sent.

God sends.

God Provides

Lastly, God provides.

When Jeremiah is told by God that he has been appointed as a prophet to the nations, he has a reasonable response.

“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.

You see, God prepared Jeremiah, called him, and sent him, but he also promises to provide for him, to be with him and to give him the things that he will need.

God promises his presence, “I am with you.” God promises his protection, “I will rescue you.” And God promises his provision: “I have put my words in your mouth.”

You may be afraid. There is wisdom in knowing you are afraid, but there is also wisdom in knowing that we serve a God who has power over all things that cause us to be afraid, and he has given us the promise of his presence and protection. You may be anxious because you are young, and that you may not have the wisdom or the words you will need, but you can find assurance in the knowledge that we serve a God who is from old and who is all-wise. Anything you need, God can provide. And God dwells within you. It is Christ in you. It is the Holy Spirit that is in you. Learn to walk by faith, and you will never lack. God’s abundance is inexhaustible; his riches are beyond measure.

God will provide.

God provides.

Coda

We are gathered here today for worship, and to set apart a friend and fellow servant for the work of the gospel ministry. Some of us may be tempted to say, “This is what Jennea Pilcher is doing.” Or, “This is what we, University Baptist Church, are doing.”

But the good news for us today is that this is what God is doing. God is the one who is at work in our midst. God has prepared, called, sent, and now provides for us what we, as the people of God, need in order to continue to follow Jesus faithfully. That includes pastors, ministers. God has appointed a servant, our friend Jennea. God has invited us as companions, to God and to one another. God has made this possible through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Are we not thankful? Is God not good? Is God not worthy of our ceaseless wonder and praise, our glad and joyful obedience?

I’m thankful. God is good. God is worthy. Praise be to God. Amen.

How I Limit Social Media, and Why

Social media has undeniably changed the way we relate to the world. Online, we each manage our “personal brand.” News networks feature the President’s tweets prominently on their chyrons. Twitter and Facebook have been scrutinized for their role in public debate, particularly in how they can effect our political discourse. And there is evidence that too much time on social media can have a negative impact on mental health.

I was an early adopter of the major social media platforms. I signed up for Facebook with my college email address, my first Twitter updates were sincerely about what I was doing (things like “taking a walk” or “eating grapes”), and I can remember Instagram before the ads, videos, and the “discover” feature. I signed up for Snapchat when my students began using it. I made some cool videos using the face filters. At least I thought they were cool.

But in more recent years I’ve sought ways to limit my social media usage. Why? Mainly because of what I’ve observed about social media’s effect on me. I’ll admit I’ve wanted to be “online famous” for my photography or writing, but thank God that never happened. I’ve gotten caught in stupid online arguments and I’ve allowed the thoughts and opinions of strangers on the internet to darken my mood. I’ve been jealous of what other people show online, whether it be their possessions or their perfectly stylized life. I’ve sought confirmation of my own biases and nurtured negative views of “those people” over there, who are often the very people (neighbors, enemies) whom I believe I am called to love in Jesus Christ.

Online engagement is spiritually formative. When social media is a habit, it becomes part of the ongoing, continuous process in which we are becoming who we will be forever. And while I’ve done my best to make social media work for me, to tailor it toward life-giving and positive ends, I’ve found there are limits to the various platforms. Each, in its own way, can yield some good, but there are negative side effects that come with daily use.

I started by deleting all social media applications from my phone, and keeping all but one application (Twitter) off of my tablet. That keeps my usage way down.

I only access Facebook on my web browser, and I try to check it only once a day, and to never scroll. I don’t want to be a voyeur, though there is an element of voyeurism in all social media. It’s like one great big never ending episode of “The Real World.” When I do access Facebook, I only peek at notifications and make sure I don’t have any new messages. I sometimes fail in the “once a day” rule, and I still think once a day is too much for me. I also fail, at times, to remain at the top of the feed. I do not like what Facebook has become, but I maintain a presence there because of the friends and family members who have connected with me on the service, especially those I’ve befriended through Christian fellowship.

Twitter is, by far, my favorite social media service. It’s how I track trends and news. But I’m not a fan of the timeline algorithm, and I sometimes get annoyed when political takes trend. I love it when I’m watching a live sporting event.

I limit updates to Instagram to one day a week. I install the application on my phone on Wednesdays, post my image for the week, and then delete the application. I enjoy photography and I have friends who actively use the service, and see the images and words I share as a way to encourage and offer a little slice of life to others.

I left Snapchat for good when my friend Oliver ditched the service. Technically I still have an account, but I haven’t logged in for over one year.

My rules are in no ways laws, and I’m constantly tweaking how I use each service. There is a part of me that would like to simply leave social media altogether, as Jaron Lanier suggests in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. But I can’t bring myself to do it. For one, I’m a writer, and social media is one means of connecting with readers. But also, there is the gravitational pull of social connections. Even though I’m Facebook friends with people I haven’t spoken to in years, I value maintaining the thread, keeping open a channel in the event that if there is a need to communicate, I can.

I also have privacy concerns about online use, or how we freely give mega-corporations information about our lives, with little idea of how that information could be used to harm or manipulate us. That’s a concern of mine, not only for me, but for my family, whom I sometimes share pictures of or stories about. Building a scrapbook, or keeping a journal, may actually be the safer and wiser path.

These days I’ve found that I’m a little more present, a little happier, and a little less anxious. I get most of my news from my local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald. I call my mom about once a week. I spend time with a small group of friends. And when I attend a sporting event or a concert, I watch, or listen, and try to take it all in. To see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, and to treasure what is happening in the moment.

I’m OK with the transient nature of the experience. I don’t have to capture it. I can just be part of it. I don’t need to tell others what I’m up to. I don’t have to always know what other people are thinking. I don’t need to try and improve my status by sharing my latest take, or my most recent witticism.

I save that stuff for the people I’m with.

Carrying the Old, Making the New

In his essay “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins asks, “What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?”

Robbins wrote a new essay to pose that question to us, and then makes his argument with the help of old poets, philosophers, writers, singers, and filmmakers. We make art, dearly beloved, because it helps us “get through this thing called life.

The composition of verse is part of what it means to be human. It is, in one formulation and according to Robbins, “a response to threat.” It is a consolation in the face of suffering and our eventual death. It crosses chasms and creates bonds. It renders meaning and brings forth a shared language. Art appeals to the affections as well as to our rationality. It evokes a visceral response, one we cannot help but attempt to articulate, no matter how vain those articulations might be toward accurately conveying our experience.

Drawing from an insight of Harold Bloom, Robbins agrees that a text is “good for something.” Robbins writes that “we can make them do things for us.” We keep making texts and poetry and other works of art because they are “of use.” A thing that is of use is otherwise known as “equipment.” Robbins forwards this idea with a phrase from Kenneth Burke, who wrote “Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.”

Robbins cites examples from Boethius and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He draws from Nietsche and Cameron Crowe. He shows how poetry and song provide forms that offer both consolation and community. He is carefully to say that “Poetry does not kiss the boo-boo and make it all better.” Poetry does not solve or minimize our problems, but it does provide “strategies” for us as we confront the human situation. Poetry offers us ways of responding. “It’s like in the song…”

Robbins notes how the various forms of poetry and pop music also serve to distinguish one community from another, citing the example of different Christian communities. Robbins writes, “The televangelical JAY-sus, the sober Jesu Christe of the Latin Mass, the radical Jewish peasant Yeshua of Nazareth of Guy Davenport’s translations, and the Gee-zuhhs of Norman Greenbaum’s “gotta have a friend in” are not the same sort of equipment.” And he’s right. They are not.

In this very same essay Robbins notes pop music captures and relays some “ideal” that is commonly known to everyone, which I understand to include notions about love, friendship, sorrow, adventure, tragedy, and others. Or, that is the intent. Some artists succeed, and others fail miserably.

My thoughts as I read this essay turned to the Psalms, which come to us as both poetry and song, and then more: prayer. They convey meaning; they create community. The psalms bind one heart to another in their recitation, in their singing, in their praying. Monastic rhythms are built on the Psalter, as are liturgical rhythms. Poetry becomes song, which then becomes prayer, or perhaps it is prayer that becomes poetry which then becomes song, or song becoming prayer that is then experienced as poetry. You get my drift.

For the Christian person, the wider testimony of Scripture is also text, a work of literature, God-breathed, around which a community has been formed. It contains wisdom and narrative that provide “strategies” for life. It is also a text, read differently by different communities, that has spawned multitudes, offering diverse forms of “equipment” for understanding the Divine and best stewarding the creation. This is why we continue to need the theologian, the prophet, and the critic, who can help us to discern the good, true, and beautiful from the wicked, false, and ugly. Useful tools can be taken up toward destructive ends, as we sadly know.

We also know that Christian communities continue to bring forth something new, all while drawing from the old. This is for good reason. We continue to live. We continue to face reality, and it continues to bring forth joys and sorrows. Most human beings want to live well. They continue to ask, “Who is well off?” and “What does it mean to be virtuous?” and “How do I become a person who is well off?” They make their best run at the answers, while holding out hope that the answers they find are good ones. Thomas Merton understood, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” This is why all theology, in the end, is practical. It is to be “of use.”

Which is why I think Christians continue to write, and preach, and to “work out” salvation. We must continue to make, to create. Life offers us no other choice.

It is one thing to proclaim that God has given us all the equipment we need for living. It is another to put it to use.