My Work Setup

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Photo by Rafael Pol on Unsplash

Sitting at my desk I’m surrounded by gadgets and gizmos and a ridiculous assortment of notebooks, pens, cords, drawing instruments, post-its, tabs, binders, clips, a label maker, a couple of different cutting devices, pouches, backpacks, satchel bags, folders, plug adapters, storage containers, tablet stands, stamps, paperweights, erasers, letters, envelopes, dividers, portable keyboards, cameras, external USB drives, eReaders, iPods, markers, headphones, tape, and a few talismanic knick-knacks that have come to help me feel at home: a Chewbacca Pez dispenser, a rock I used as a visual in a youth ministry talk (it says “SERVE”), an Evangecube. Stuff.

I have tools that I love. I bought my iPad and iPad Mini refurbished and long after their initial release to save money and because I knew exactly how I’d use them: primarily as word processing machines, secondarily as web browsers, and thirdly as video and music players. I added a Bluetooth keyboard and an Anker tablet stand, and I was all set for work at home and on the road. A tablet weighs less than a laptop computer. I like being able to easily sync across Apple devices, and portability is a must.

The more I’ve used digital tools the more I’ve come to trust, love and adore pencil and paper. I don’t think I need to buy another notebook for several decades–I have that many in reserve. We have an overflow of pencils and pens, too. My Moleskine (large) serves as my journal, I have an 18 month Moleskine planner that is my primary calendar but also as a place to deposit to-dos, memories, and doodles, and I have an older Ecosystem notebook that I fully customized with tabs for goals, ideas, my reading record, quotes, lists, scraps, artwork, stuff my kids have made, fortune cookie sayings, cartoons, pictures, and movie ticket stubs. If you hung around with me at Institute or at FirstLight, there might be a picture of you in that notebook. Maybe.

I’m particular about pens and pencils. I switch often between a wooden #2 pencil and a Uni-ball Vision Elite ink pen; I also employ a black Sharpie for art work and letter writing. We have so many varieties of Post-It Notes, ranging in all sizes, cuts, and colors, that I keep one stack handy in my primary desk drawer and use them liberally until they are gone. Then I reload. I use Post-Its as bookmarks, reminders, additions to my day planner, and signs I can easily post around the house (or other random places).

I used to hate writing stuff out by hand. I thought my handwriting was difficult to read and unattractive. But now I see it for what it is: the unique scratch I can put on paper, irreplicable, and the most basic form of art I’ll leave behind. One of the things I’ve come to love about handwritten notes from friends and family is that even before I read the return address or the signature I know who it is from just by the marks they’ve made, the block letters or the looping cursive. If you want a letter from me just ask. I might even include a doodle.

I’ve also started to collect a lot of stuff for drawing and sketching, inking and painting. My new hobby has also given me reasons to use stuff I already had–mainly Sharpies. But surprisingly, I have a lot of other pens and markers I’ve accumulated through the years that I now make it a point to use.

My go-to applications are Google Drive and Evernote. I’m strongly considering a move away from Google Drive, and as many other Google hubs as possible, because I have privacy concerns. I keep track of my primary to-dos, especially tasks that I’ve routinized, using Wunderlist. I’ve thought about migrating to another to-do app, too, but for different reasons. Wunderlist operates slowly sometimes, and I’d like a smoother interface. I’ve yet to dedicate a few hours to making the switch. I have plenty of data to transfer. My to-do list keeps me on track daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.

Over the years I’ve cobbled together a really comfortable desktop computing setup. I have a Mac that I bought refurbished, I designated an older computer monitor as a secondary desktop, I bought a monitor stand to elevate that screen, I have a perfect charging station to keep my tablets upright that also preserves space to charge my phone, watch, and camera, and I have a nice little sound system for playing music at home. Everything hooks together easily, and stays compact in my work area. I still have room to lay out my books.

As for knick-knacks, I’ve named a few above. My desk area has small American flags, a Dallas Cowboys star logo patch, a small African sculpture of a thinking man that was given to me by the Conards, a #1 Dad Trophy my daughter gave me for Father’s Day, a pencil drawing of Jesus by Greg Cissell, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker ornaments my mom had placed on a birthday cake for me a few years ago, a Bob Feller autographed baseball, art created by Susan DeLong that features Numbers 6:24-26, a couple of challenge coins I’ve been given in the past year, plenty of my kids’ artwork, and a ton of LEGO builds. My diplomas are on the wall, as is a piece of art depicting the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost.

My desk has a WACO coaster that my mother-in-law gave to me, which is usually underneath a Klean Kanteen that Molly gave to me, and whatever coffee mug I happen to be drinking from that day (Einstein, Barclay College, Duke Divinity School, Philosophy News, UBC Students, one from our wedding set, a blue one from a set my mom gave me, Perkins School of Theology, a mug with D’s artwork on it, an  FUMC Waco mug, or one of two mugs Molly and I have exchanged on a holiday). My mouse pad says my name. My mom had it made for me a long time ago, and I still use it.

The other assortment surrounding me: books, books, books. There are standard reference works within reach, stuff I aspire to read soon a little further away, and an active stack I’m churning through on my windowsill. Also within reach: five Audobon Society Field Guides: Rocks and Minerals, Birds, Wildflowers, Trees, and Night Sky.

Lately, when I hit the road and go mobile, I throw a few books into my Heritage Leather Bonhoeffer briefcase (thanks to Molly, who gave it to me, and David A., who made it) along with a tablet, tablet stand, one mechanical pencil, one notebook, a keyboard, headphones, and a coffee mug and go to work. Starbucks is about four miles away. I buy a short coffee, drink it black, sometimes ask for water, and try to find a seat.

Right now I’m at my desk at home, which I scored at a rummage sale in Fort Worth. My friend Ryan Thornton helped me get it home, and a former employer allowed me to store it for about a year, since it was too big to fit in my house. There are books nearby that have been gifts and some I picked up from minister friends who were handing off books to another generation.

The things are nice. The memories and the people associated with most all of my things are much nicer.

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.

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.

Tallying Family Values

We live according to our values and priorities, and, as Greg McKeon has observed, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Our family has a list of values. They are:

  • Faith.
  • Hospitality.
  • Joy, Celebration, and Fun.
  • Strong, Healthy Bodies.
  • Creative Expression and Intellectual Pursuit.
  • Simplicity.
  • Togetherness.
  • Appreciation of the Natural World.

How do we know when we’re living according to our values? It is hard to measure something like “togetherness,” and I didn’t think a scoring system was proper. So I derived a few true/false statements that could help me have confidence we were hitting the mark. We are living according to our values if:

  • We have peace at home.
  • We are secure in one another’s love.
  • We are not in a hurry.
  • We are well-practiced in saying no to the nonessential so we can say yes to the essential.
  • We establish sustainable rhythms of work and play.
  • We challenge one another and know it is safe to take certain risks.
  • We make the lives of those around us better through service.
  • We honestly evaluate how we are doing and make course corrections as necessary.
  • We celebrate small wins and big accomplishments.

I wrote these things down at the start of 2017. We had been in Waco for six months. While most of our values were pretty clear, it was helpful for our family to write them down and to think about what I wanted to pass along to my children as the years passed. The true/false list helped as well, not only when evaluating how we’re doing, but also when making decisions.

Living our values and our priorities begins with our family, which is why “peace at home” is a critical marker for how we are doing. “Peace” involves each person and the entire unit. We have to evaluate how we are doing physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. And peace begins with me.

One of the questions I ask each week is this: “Is your family happy and thriving? Can you help them in any way?” This requires that I act as a peacemaker. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Peace, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, suggests completeness and wholeness. As God’s agent, I am called navigate conflict peaceably and seek the good and right in all circumstances. That’s not always easy.

If we have peace at home, we’ll be secure in one another’s love. We will know that we are loved. And from that place of security, we can find courage to be the people God has called us to be.

We go through seasons where we are busy. To be busy is acceptable. To be in a hurry is not. We want to be good stewards of the life we have been given by God; we want to use our talents in a manner that is pleasing to God. This relates in obvious ways to the next two evaluative statements. We have to say no to many things so that we can be free to say yes to the best things. We also have to take a wide angle view of life, seeing that there are many seasons we pass through, and therefore we must build in rhythms of work and play. We begin small, week by week. We practice sabbath. When it is time to work, we work hard. When we grow tired, we plan for a break.

My two children are different. Both, in their own way, have moments when they try to play things safe. They need to be nudged, pushed. So does Molly. So do I. Therefore, we encourage one another to take risks from time to time, to do something creative, to open ourselves to the possibility that we will fail. We remind one another that it is safe to fail, for there is no failure that will cancel out the love we share and the love we know that is ours in Christ.

Our faith leads us to value service, and we want the world to be a better place because we passed through. Therefore, we remind one another that we are helpers, and pitch in when we can in ways large and small. We do good works. We are also generous with our resources, including our money.

I apply this principle to myself first. I’m a servant of my wife and my children. I want them to experience joy and success and the good things life has to offer, and I am willing to give of myself in order to increase their chances of growing, thriving, and finding success.

We don’t always get it right. So when we are missing the mark, or when we outright fail, we begin anew. God’s mercies are new each morning. We learn from our mistakes and correct course. We start over, if necessary. For this to work, we have to be honest. An old proverb says, “When the horse is dead, dismount.” If our present course is the wrong one, we face it together, and change direction.

When we do get it right, we celebrate. Whether it is a small victory or or a big win, we party. Celebration is a discipline; joy is something you can grow. I want my children to experience life at home as a place of happiness, encouragement, and fun.

Whether you are a married or single, have a big family or no children at all, you might find it helpful to define your values, to think about how to live a life you intend. Your children may be grown. You may be old. But there is still time left. Live your days well.

An Ethos of Commitment

I recently heard David Brooks, author and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, say “we need to move from an ethos of individualism to an ethos of commitment making.” He then said that the four big commitments, to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community, have been minimized by our overwhelming focus on the self. He suggested a correction to this trend would be a tremendous boon to our public life.

A shift from individualism to commitment making would, I think, also result in a necessary and corresponding movement toward an other-centered ethic over and against a self-centered ethic (Tim Keller makes this distinction here). Individualism is not altogether evil; its virtues should be remembered and certainly not abandoned. For a person to have a sense of uniqueness, to form convictions, to assert independence, to value freedom, to champion liberty, and to become self reliant are good things.

However, an understanding of self largely framed by the pursuit of self-determination and self-gratification can lead to narcissism. An ethos of commitment making, conversely, continues to hold fast to the value of the individual, but the higher  commitment is defined by service to others. An ethos of commitment making retains individuality but leads to a healthy form of self-renunciation, not self-abnegation. This is a form of collectivism, not sheer tribalism.

To start a family, to pursue a vocation (which differs from a career or job), to live deeply into a philosophical or religious tradition, and to participate in a community for the sake of the public good requires sacrifice. It requires putting aside the self and thinking first of those around us. The self remains. But it is the commitment to others, to something outside of ourselves, that guides us.

There must also be the creation and cultivation of liminal or transitional spaces, times and places when one passes through a defined middle stage, a moment of leaving behind one way of experiencing life and moving on to another, newfound state of being. What would that look like? What does it look like now?

Between spouses, there is often the middle stage of engagement, a preparation for the commitment of marriage. For prospective parents, there is the waiting involved in pregnancy. Vocation is more challenging. It is most definitely not the moment one declares a college major. It is also not always the case that one’s job or career is identical with one’s calling. But the moment one sees their role as an educator, businessperson, bricklayer, or architect, this not only has value for the self, but for the community. Vocation, in whatever field, has implications for more than just the person who has determined their calling.

A commitment to a philosophy or faith is clarified when it is distinguished by a public profession or identification with the particular convictions or beliefs of a system. A person may also choose to blend together a unique confluence of ideas. Whatever the  commitment, there is then the next step, which is the challenging work of further developing and working out ideas in both theory and practice. Many of these kinds of decisions occurred, for me, during my college and graduate school programs, places where I was exposed to different ideas and became cognizant of distinctions between traditions. I made choices, at times with intention, while at other times I was drawn.

Grounding oneself in a broader tradition is a lifelong work that involves the embodiment of the best of that tradition, as well as using the internal resources of that tradition to critique, improve, and refine the contribution said tradition makes, broadly speaking, to humanity as a whole. It involves thinking, feeling, and action. It also involves failure and growth.

And as for a commitment to a community, there is a need for stability, active neighboring, and time. Communities are built on shared resources, trust, and history. Communities depend on a “we.” They are not just a collection of individuals.

I resonate with Brooks because I have received, by virtue of my heritage, an ethic that is other-centered. I have been formed and raised as a Christian. While the gospel message preached in the United States, particularly in revivalist traditions like I experienced in Baptist life, has been highly focused on personal, individual decisions to place faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, that is not all there is to the Christian gospel.

A historically well-rounded and theologically robust account of the Christian faith easily leads to both self-renunciation and service to the world, a way of life that is not only about me and God, but me, God, and my life. This is the calling of the disciple. Jesus told his followers to take up their cross, lose their life in order to find it, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The Christian tradition, as time has passed, has become my own. First, it came to me by way of a profession of faith, a public declaration that I did have faith in Christ, testified to publicly through the act of baptism. I was converted. Once I was not a Christian, then, by faith, I was. From that one commitment, others have followed. I became a Christian, but then I continued the process of becoming more like Christ. That commitment has influenced and shaped every other commitment. My commitment to Jesus, and my broader commitment to Christianity, has informed and enriched my commitment to my spouse, family, and community, and has been a source of strength and direction for my vocation as a Christian educator, pastor, and writer.

Consider again the four areas of commitment named by Brooks: marriage and family, vocation, philosophy or faith, and community. In which of these areas have you set down firm anchor points, ties that bind you to others? What are your commitments? In what ways do these commitments require you to put your self aside and sacrifice for those around you? What resources are you drawing upon to ensure that you remain faithful to your commitments?

How, in other words, are you being spiritually formed?

Remaining true to our commitments is contingent, in part, on how the narratives, practices, and communities we participate in contribute to the formation of our character. Make commitments. Then, situate your life within an environment that will feed, fuel, and foster those commitments not only for the good of yourself, but for the good of the world and to the glory of God.