Faithfulness With a Full Quiver

At 18-years-old, in the midst of goofing off with friends and playing a lot of Call of Duty, I discovered that I wanted to work in ministry. After support and confirmation from pastors, mentors, friends, and family, I decided that I needed to go to seminary. Five years later, my goal was the same, but my circumstances could not have been more different. I was married with a newborn, finishing my undergraduate degree online, working a full time labor job, and I was the youth director at my home church. Before we got married, my wife and I both knew seminary was on the horizon. But even though we were confident in this trajectory of our life, it was not easy. See, I inefficiently made my way through my online undergraduate program. I did fine, but it was time consuming and extremely taxing, and if I was going to put my young family through one of the more difficult seminary curriculum in the country, something had to give regarding productivity.

Thus, my search for productivity hacks began. It wasn’t long however until I ran into a significant but not surprising problem: Most of the “productivity lit” is  curated for the unmarried and childless audience. Some of the advice was just not going to cut it given my position. When I finally entered seminary and began this new stage of life, I happened to find a few work habits that helped my family and I survive what was the most difficult season of our life (thus far). To be sure, no one magic trick makes taking 16-18 units a semester, working part-time, and being a husband and dad to 2 babies easy (yes, we had another one during seminary). However, some methods and habits made it less strenuous.

Early Mornings or Late Nights?

Whether you are working on a side project, or pursuing higher education, an inevitable choice to make is whether you will do your work early in the morning or late at night. While the option is up to you, I believe early mornings are the preferred choice. Here are three reasons why:

  • You can look forward to ending the day with family. If you know you have a significant amount of work to get to after the kids get to bed, you will be distracted all through your dinner and the kid’s bedtime routine. This is unavoidable at times, sure, but you do not want to give your already distracted mind anymore excuses to be absentminded. An increased workload will inevitably effect your entire family, but you are the one who should bear the most inconvenient schedule, not your family. This was honestly the least I could do given the circumstances, but in all of life, if it comes down to your family spending and exhausting themselves for your efficiency, or you doign that for them, the choice is obvious. Plus, if the work you would typically do at night is out of the way before the day begins, then you can look forward to your time with your family as the capstone to your day.
  • You can start your work fresh, rather than tired. Albeit, you will be tired and groggy if you wake up at 4am, but this does not last long. The opposite is true if you stay up late, where you only grow more tired. The full range of experiences through a day is taxing, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Moreover, with kids and a spouse, their day’s experiences, good and bad, become things you bear as well. If you practice rejoicing with and weeping with your family, this is difficult to shut off only to focus on tedious or technical work.
  • You need Scripture and prayer. Perhaps you think early mornings will allow you the extra time to write a blog post a day, get ahead in school assignments, or get through a week’s worth of email, or whatever. That may be, but in this life, our workload is never-ending. Your work will not naturally mitigate itself; it will take over your life if you let it. As long as there is extra time in the morning for work, there is extra time (even if it’s a small amount) for focused and intentional time spent in prayer and hearing from God’s word. I have many regrets during my time in seminary, allowing my work to overrun this part of my life more often than I care to admit is at the very top.

For myself, early mornings amount to waking up at 4am. While in seminary, this gave me at least 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work every day. The main reason, however, that I maintained this routine through seminary was that I was not willing to sacrifice Saturdays for studying. When I did study on the weekend, it was minimal. My wife and I did not look at weekends as “free time,” but a time that we needed to especially strengthen ourselves and our little ones through rest and creativity. Part and parcel to weekends is time without mandatory obligations; for the most part, there is no work, no class, no meetings, etc. I suggest taking full advantage of days like these, not to get extra work done, but to cultivate memorable and meaningful times with your kids and spouse.

Think in time, not assignments or projects.

Suffice it to say; time is of the essence when you have a young family. If you think of all you have to do to merely get through the day, from breakfast to bath and bedtime, not to mention additional work or projects, it can all feel overwhelming. What works against parents with young kids is when our work and goals are ambiguous. For instance, if our to-do list looks like this: “write paper for class,” “lose weight,” “workout,” “build dining room table,” etc., chances are when we look at this, it will feel overwhelming.

A friend in seminary helped me find a solution to the problem of ambiguity. His advice was that you want to see every single thing you have to do in one place, namely, your calendar. What this looked like was, instead of carrying around six different syllabi, I merged them all into one master list. Now that I had a master list of everything I needed to do each week to complete the entire semester, I evaluated each assignment in terms of minutes/hours. When I saw a 120-page reading assignment, I translated that to 4 hours of reading, and then I scheduled those hours in my calendar. This is easier said than done because depending on the master list of your project; this can take a day’s work by itself. While we might think we do this in our heads naturally, I advise against that. When you put something on paper, you begin to see what it’s going to take to accomplish it. An equivalent to this would be a reminder on your calendar that, instead of saying, “go to the gym,” it should contain the entire regiment of your workout over the span of 13 weeks. If you know what you need to accomplish in a specific amount of time to achieve goal or project x, it alleviates a significant amount of the stress around each task in your schedule.

The opposite of this is seen in TV shows and movies, where a character is struck with inspiration over goal or project x, and they stay up all night working on it to finish at sunrise. That’s a convenient way to move the story forward, but it is nothing to be modeled. If we wait for a sudden burst of inspiration to climb our proverbial Mt. Everest, we will get nowhere. By all means, strike when the iron is hot, but do not depend on those creative bursts of energy to propel you through our work.

Keeping a detailed and broken down to-do list also gives you feedback on your performance. If you had an hour to read 25 pages and you only read 18, you can chalk it up to being distracted or less than diligent with your time.

I cannot stress how beneficial this is for your spouse, as well. Ambiguity in your schedule equates to ambiguity and frustration in the life of your marriage. Seminary was extremely hard on my wife and I, and the hardest days were those that my wife was not qued in on what I needed to accomplish that day. While my vocation changed as a student, my wife’s work changed as well. Her workload increased immensely, not only because we had another child in seminary but because I was not always home to do the tasks that were normally mine. For the most part I did spend my time well and worked diligently, but there was also a good many lunch hours spent pontificating with my friends and classmates. Communication regarding my tasks each day created a needed sense of stability for us and gave us a “light at the end of the tunnel” to look forward to.

Do not reinvent the wheel.

Much of the advice on productivity begins with, “just do it.” This advice focuses on people’s hesitancy to start whatever they want to do: write, workout, go to school, etc. However, as I learned in seminary, having a strong work ethic is pointless if you are working in the wrong direction. For my first Greek quiz, we had to do the simple task of writing out the alphabet by memory. I memorized the alphabet alright, but I shuffled my flashcards, so when I sat down to take my first quiz, I realized I had no idea the order of the alphabet. Rookie mistake, right? That’s precisely the point. If we assume we know how to accomplish even the most straightforward task, we are likely missing out on the more efficient methods of our friends and peers. It was through friends in seminary that I learned that the bibliographies of journal articles are the best place to look for resources for my papers, that memorizing 20 pages of 10 point font is possible by memorizing the outlines of topics, and that studying for an exam also means studying with the peculiarities of each professor in mind. Reading self-help material outside of the work you are in can only take you so far. You have to find someone who has been there and done that. You won’t only need their advice, but you will need someone who can genuinely empathize with you because your spouse will not always want to commiserate about your work. They will help share the burden in other ways without having to “get it,” and that’s completely fine.

Conclusion

While the worksheets, schedules, and productivity hacks ultimately belong to the realm of common grace, an essential truth for Christians to remember in our work is how God is at work in us. Sanctification is a particular work, in that it is ongoing, and it employs our actions. Even though we are never told to justify ourselves, God exhorts us to “put to death what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5), “purify yourselves from all unrighteousness” (2 Cor. 7:1), etc. In the work of sanctification, God treats us as human beings. That is, our humanness does not change upon being saved. As a professor of mine explained to me, we can’t flip a switch and not desire alcohol after abusing it, and we can’t flip a switch and become a concert pianist. Even though God is the guarantor and giver of sanctification, it is a long work of rehabituation, where our habits are reformed over time. I do not mean the process of ‘running the race’ and ‘fighting the good fight’ is analogous to productivity, but I do mean that when we go about our work, we must remember that God’s work in us after our decree of justification does not work like an on and off switch. Our work will be full of roadblocks and failures (Gen. 3:17), and while our plans are easily upset due to our fragile frames (Ps. 103:14), God is still working out our salvation in us to his good pleasure. So, when your plans of productivity get interrupted by your 1-year-old who is still not sleeping through the night, remember God’s promise to work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). There is not an ounce of our work that can guarantee that promise. Acknowledge and be thankful that even though our to-do lists fail, God’s work does not fail. From here, of course, adjust your goals and plans accordingly, and keep on working.

Blood Calls to Blood

Why I am a Christian

This is embarrassing to admit, but here goes. If I were not a Christian, I’m pretty sure I would be a Unitarian Universalist, or something like one.

I’ve known the answer to the “What religion would you be if not Christianity” question for a long time. It’s not that I’m impressed with UU from an intellectual or even moral point of view. On the contrary, it seems vapid and incoherent in the extreme. No, the reason I’d be a Universalist is Charles Dickens,”What a Wonderful World,” and Coke commercials. I’d be a Universalist because of Star Wars, art museums, and the New York Times. If you were to take most of my favorite things about American culture and wring them like a rag, universalism would pour out—not so much the idea of it, but the mood. My day to day happiness would multiply if I could go about my middle class American life and sincerely believe that everyone who walked into my favorite coffee shop on a Saturday morning was gonna be OK, or that all my favorite pop songs and blockbuster films were different hymns of the same church.

For me, this exercise is hypothetical. For a lot of people, it’s where they actually are. A whopping 72% of Americans believe in heaven; 58% believe in hell. That 14-point gap is one of the most seductive places I can imagine. Who wouldn’t sell all they had to live in a world of just heaven, no hell? Who could measure the psychological relief that many would experience if the red and green lights of Christmas signified only the spirit of giving, carols only the sentimentalism of the past, and church bells merely the brotherhood of all living things? Life would be so very simpler if it were a metaphor rather than a babe in that manger.

My inner desire for a world such as this has been my version of a “crisis of faith.” I’ve never actually seriously contemplated rejecting Christianity for universalism. Then again, the universalist in me doesn’t play by the rules of  serious contemplation. C.S. Lewis made famous the “apologetic from desire,” the argument toward the God of Christianity starting from our need to make sense of our deepest human longings. What I’m describing is an argument from desire, too, an apologetic for rejecting everything that obscures a romantic view of the universe.

In his first letter, Screwtape advises his apprentice to interrupt a human’s journey to Christianity by showing him the minutia of a typical day—”a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past”—and gently suggesting that this is real life. The genius of this demonic strategy is that it’s all happening underneath reason and argument. The point is not whether ignoring the evidences for a personal God and the truth of Scripture is a logical or illogical thing to do. The point is that, given the choice between Christianity and unbelief, there is only choice that will let you look at the universe, whether the Milky Way or Main Street, and accept that that’s all there is to it. That’s what I find romantic about universalism: “This is the world, this is reality, and you don’t have to think or do a thing about it except eat, pray, and love.”

***

I decided several months before my oldest child was born that I was going to watch the whole birth. I wanted to do this partially to support my wife, partially out of curiosity, but also because I’d heard countless testimonies of how seeing the “miracle of life” and then holding the miracle in your arms annihilated any doubt of the existence of God. Not that I doubted God’s existence, really; I just wanted the sensation of doubt being annihilated.

When we checked into the hospital I brought in all sorts of romantic ideas about watching a life come into the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that most of these ideas were sterile, almost offenisvely so. I expected to see a beautiful infant glide effortlessly into the room. I expected to hear cries as soft as whispers break my mental rendition of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” I looked forward to the moment of my son’s birth as a moment that I knew would transform me in its greatness, exorcise my demons and balm the proud callouses of my soul. I was going to be a different person just for having seen this, I thought.

What really happened was blood. What really happened was searing pain in a trembling wife. What really happened was gore and viscera, as a grey-purple mass of human anatomy slowly came out covered in its own fecal matter. My son’s cries were almost entirely muted as he struggled to cough his own waste out of his lungs. Instead of a moment of enlightenment and transformation, there was confusion as nurses swept him away from our arms and took him to the NICU to help him not asphyxiate. Instead of the soundtrack-backed beauty penetrating my soul, my wife, in-laws and I cried and prayed that our son would be able to cough the waste out of his body and breathe.

Thus was my sterile, romantic view of this slice of existence shattered. The real world, it turns out, is not one of perfect-pink babies who melt your heart at first glance, but of blood and meconium-soaked infants who (might) need technology just to live. Yes, there are precious newborn pictures to take and sweet “Happy birthday” celebrations to come, but these don’t exist apart from trauma, stitches, the risk of hemorrhaging, heartbeats that can bottom out, and lungs that can flail. My son only lives because his mother endured violence to her body. He could have not lived. There was nothing in the book of Science! that said his lungs had to successfully eject his own body’s poison. Infants die every day. Infants die.

This isn’t just being “realistic.” It’s one thing to not live in a happy-go-lucky fairy tale like so many literary creations. It’s another thing to suffer. It’s yet another thing to know, to feel, that the very universe is “red in tooth and claw.”

As I write these words, my grandmother is only a few days removed from suffering a severe, life-threatening stroke. Whether she will ever regain her speech is unknown. When I opened my Facebook feed this morning, one of the first things I saw was a friend’s heartbreaking image of his little boy hooked up to hospital IVs. Just now I saw someone else on social media talk about his wife’s days in the ICU. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about cancer, disease, or death.

Red in tooth and claw.

***

The sterilized metaphysics of Western spirituality, the liturgies of eat-pray-love, are sieves when it comes to the bloodiness of reality. I could, if I chose, close my eyes and insist on believing in the inherent goodness of man, the brotherhood of all, and the common destiny of all but the worst people. But I could not close my eyes hard enough to un-see the blood of vaginal delivery. The blood does not merely sit there. It calls out, just as the blood of Abel cried “out from the ground.”  It calls out for reckoning. Almost every secular person agrees that children are the closest thing we have to divine love. What does it then mean that the existence of children is brought about not by ephemeral well-wishing but by the tearing of flesh? What does it mean for the millions of modern people who long for heaven and laugh at hell that heaven has hell clutching at its heels?

Christianity is about blood. It is a blood-stained narrative about a blood-stained universe. The Garden teems with spectacular creations of life, and blood courses through the veins of animals and image-bearers alike. When God gives Adam and Eve skins to cover themselves with after they plunge the cosmos headlong into darkness, the unspoken realization is that somewhere, a creature’s blood was shed so that this man and woman could be clothed, protected, and unashamed.

Atonement is not mere ritual, it is a reckoning with the world as it really is. Everyone offers a blood sacrifice for something: a creature’s blood for my food, a stranger’s blood for my survival, my own blood for the life of my child. Try to believe for one minute that this world is not fallen, not broken, not longing for a redemption denied it hence, and you won’t take three steps before you see blood. Blood is the stuff of life, as well as its price.

What the Easter story gives us is Jesus’ blood for our life. Blood is the price of life, and we have forfeited life with our bloodletting sin (sin’s first fatality was that Edenic animal). Jesus sheds his blood for our sin, pays the price of life, and gives the rewards of that payment to us. Some insist that the idea of “sin” is psychologically damaging and repressive. But what other word is there for a perpetually bleeding existence? The world is red and tooth in claw. No philosophical or religious system that fails to reckon with this speaks truthfully. The sanitized inward journeys of Eastern contemplative religions do not explain the blood. Moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t receive the blood. Atheism and scientism choose to drown in the blood. At the center of Christianity is a man with shredded flesh and pouring veins, a bloody overlay on top of a bloody universe. Look away in disgust if you will, ignore if you can, but every step of your daily, embodied existence reminds you of blood. This is the world as it really is, not as how gurus want it to be. You don’t get a choice whether it’s true. Your very birth shed blood.

The world we find ourselves in has blood at the center of it. You can scrub away at it all your life and it will not come up. Holy Week is about blood calling out to blood. His blood exchanged for mine. The blood of a violent, sinful, dying world transfused for the blood that spoke the stars into existence and washes whiter than snow. A bloody world must receive a bloody Savior.

That’s why I’m a Christian.

Arms nailed down

Are you telling me something?

Eyes turned out

Are you looking for someone?

This is the one thing

The one thing that I know.

The Conservative Soul of Soccer

Soccer, with its order and slow, drudging progress, offers an inviting metaphor in our speed-obsessed culture.

I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.

There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.

The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?

I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.

Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.

Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.

Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.

What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.

Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.

To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.

Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.

My Father’s Best Gift

My father’s best gift to me was his obscurity. In the 20+ years in which he pastored churches and his children grew up, he never published anything other than a newsletter article, spoke anywhere other than a church pulpit, or was known by anyone other than those who had met him or us. Whatever the opposite of a “celebrity pastor” is, that’s what Dad was in those years. And it was the best thing that could have ever happened to a son.

I was a man when I first encountered the pressure that is on ministers to create something for people to remember them by. And in my life I’ve known some sons of pastors and ministers who did indeed have large platforms, impressive CV’s, and the like. I’ve known some children of these “celebrity” ministers. Of all these children I’ve known and talked to, not one of them expressed gratitude for their father’s celebrity. Most of them loved and admired their dads, yes. Most of them weren’t bitter and resentful (with some exceptions). But none of them actually said they were glad their dads were as famous and accomplished as they were. In fact, most of them who still tender-hearted toward their fathers and faithful to the gospel intimated that it was despite their fathers’ successes, not because of it.

Don’t read some imprecatory analysis into this. I write only what I’ve seen. For this pastor’s son, coming to grips with my own Dad’s struggles in the ministry has not always been easy. There’s been temptation to blame hard seasons of life on him, or on the church, or on God, or on myself. Obscurity is not an elixir. Life is hard and painful and mysterious no matter how many people know your name. The problem of suffering is history’s great equalizer.

But I do know that my Dad’s obscurity has taught me something I’m not sure I would have learned otherwise. It’s taught me that what most people, even Christians, mean by “success” is perilous. Success for the celebrity pastor might mean failures for the celebrity pastor’s son. Failures for the struggling yet faithful minister might mean success for the son. My own life might have even to this point looked very different if Dad had valued his own success the way some of the books and conferences wanted him to. But he didn’t. And now, in his 60s, with no book contracts to his name and none on the horizon, with no legacy of expertise to leave behind for strangers, the whole of my Dad’s faithfulness is known only to the objects of it: His savior, his wife, his children, his flocks.

I cherish my father’s obscurity. In the moments I find myself not aspiring to it, I aspire that I would.

 

A Prayer For Wonder

Heavenly Father,

Thank you for being God. Thank you for being such a wise, creative, powerful, tenderhearted, patient, and sovereign King of the world. May your name forever be hallowed, in my heart, in my home, in my church, and in my world.

You are indeed a good King, and we, made in your image, are made to see and savor you. We are made to bask in the light of how beautiful you are. It is not enough to agree that you are good. You demand that we enjoy you. You demand that we wonder at you. In your wisdom, you have commanded our wonder.

You have not hidden your wonder. You have stamped it throughout creation. The bristle of the tree leaves in a summer wind says, “Wonder!” The orange lake poured over the sky in sunrise says, “Wonder!” The impenetrable depths of the ocean floor, where live creatures our best technology and brightest minds cannot fathom, say, “Wonder!” The Milky Way, the exoplanets, the distressing vastness of space, they all say “Wonder!” You have commanded our wonder, and you have given us much to wonder at.

But wonder doesn’t come easy to us. Like the man in Bunyan’s slough of despond, our eyes are weighed downwards, away from the majesty and toward the muck. Your night skies go unheeded in favor of the dull blue glow of our iPhones. We ignore the wonder of words (how amazing language is!) and focus instead on how we can use them to gain platforms from people we don’t pray for. We greet the world you have made not with wonder, delight, and worship, but with cynicism and defensiveness, so occupied with trying to show others that we belong here that we forget why we belong here.

Wonderful things are close to us, yet wonder feels far away. Yet we often confuse this for nostalgia. If we could just go back to childhood, if we could unlearn what we’ve learned, if we could lose ourselves once again in pleasure and play, we think we would wonder again. “Things were better before,” we say every year, meaning “Before this year.” We want the good old days and we want to know we’re in them. We want to wonder and yet feel ourselves wondering. We want to wonder at our wondering.

We want, so often, to wonder at ourselves.

But we can’t. No matter how hard we try, self-wonder crumbles under the distractions of life. It is exhausting to see mirrors everywhere. We are tired. We want to see you.

Father, help us to do this. Help us to see you. Help us to see you in the beauty of the summer skies and the winter frost. Help us to see you in the great stories. Help us to see you in each other. Help us to see you in the simplest of things, the things we don’t even think about because we are distracted. Help us to love where You have put us, with whom You have put us, when You have put us. Help us to wonder, not wander.

Help us to wake up every morning eager to wonder at You, who You are, and what You’ve done. Help us not to wake up already imagining ways to make strangers respect us. Help us not to see the world through social media, nor through all-consuming careerism. Help us to be productive but also to rest, and help us remember that work and wonder are not always the same. Help us to be calm in an outraged time, and help us to be quiet in a culture that demands we fill all silence with words.

Help us to wonder now, like we will be doing for eternity.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

My Father’s Anger

Growing up, I did not see my father angry often. But it did happen. If my father was angry with me, it was almost certainly for one of two reasons. Either I had disrespected my mother, or else I had been cruel to my younger sister. On those occasions I did witness and endure my Dad’s anger.

But here’s an important distinction. Though I felt Dad’s anger, I always knew what kind of anger it was. It was the anger of, “You, my son, have done something wrong, and I am angry that wrong has been done.” But there’s another kind of fatherly anger that I never felt. It’s the anger that says, “You have done something wrong, and I am angry to have such a son who would do this kind of thing.” The first kind of anger came and left. Even minutes after discipline I knew I was welcomed into the love of my father.

But the second kind of anger sticks with you. It never really dissipates. The emotions will calm, and deed will be forgotten, but there’s just something about feeling the weight of that anger–anger directed, even for just a moment, at the father-son relationship itself–that darkens the heart. I’ve heard from many friends whose fathers were angry in this kind of way. Healing is possible, but the scarring is there.

One reason I believe some Christians struggle with the idea of substitutionary atonement is that they cannot convince their hearts that a God who would sacrifice his own son for their sins can really ever forgive them. They cannot imagine in their soul a Father who pours wrath, wrath over their sin, on his beloved Son, and then actually welcomes them–the one responsible!–with open arms. The idea of God’s wrath at sin is, for them, inextricable from the kind of deep-sealed anger that God must feel at having to put up with sons and daughters who caused the death of his begotten. For them, God’s anger at sin is not the anger at sin and its wages, but anger at them for being what they are. For these Christians, the gospel of Christ’s substitution does not comfort. It reinforces their fear that their heavenly Father resents them, even when he says otherwise.

It does not surprise me that people would think this about God. Fatherly anger is such a precarious thing. Children are good at hearing the heart behind the words. Vocabulary is not a disinfectant for resentment. This is why, I think, the authors of the New Testament go to such great lengths to talk about the love of God for his church. He really does love us. Not begrudgingly, not resentfully. He loves us day and night, and his love does not even sleep.

I thank God often for showing me some of Himself through my father’s anger. There were times I knew Dad was displeased. But there was never a time when I wondered if he was displeased to have me. The difference is the difference between life and death.

The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?

Why the “Billy Graham Rule” is a good thing

One of the highest privileges of being a pastor’s kid is seeing, over the course of two decades, the inner life and thought of a ministry family in a way that no other eyes can possibly see. I’m grateful to be a “PK” for many reasons, but chief among them is the empathy and grace for those in ministry (surely not enough, though) that come from spending many years watching genuine love meet genuine care in what is almost certainly one of the most emotionally demanding and vulnerable vocations in the world. It’s nearly impossible to watch a truly Christian, truly compassionate minister wear a congregation like a burden on his soul and not come away with a measure of sober thankfulness and understanding for others like him.

I get reminded of this often nowadays. That’s part of the reason I tend to push back against broadly sweeping, wholesale criticism of organized religion and its clergy. I recognize that there are indeed many people who have suffered at the hands of self-seeking ministers or power-drunk churches; and I freely acknowledge that a prophetic word of rebuke needs to be spoken to these people, urgently. But my own experience growing up in ministry has left me indelibly convinced that overstating the villainous nature of the clergy or the problems with the American church is not only untrue, but Satanically prevents people from experiencing the grace of Christ in a life-changing way.

I say all that to reinforce a principle that I think is important: When godly men and women share wisdom and practical counsel, gleaned from a lifetime of faithfulness to Christ and to others, we ought to listen. It would be a profound mistake to instinctively look for the error or the selfishness in the advice given by those whose lives are a testimony to Jesus, even if–and this is crucial–the advice grates against our modern sensibilities or individual personalities.

For that reason, I think Marvin Olasky is exactly right in urging us to take the “Billy Graham Rule” seriously. Olasky, pivoting off the recent confession of marital infidelity and consequent resignation from ministry of Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, wonders whether the recent upshot of ministerial sin (particularly sexual sin) could have been thwarted if more ministers had emulated Graham’s famous personal dictum to never meet with or travel alone with a woman other than his wife (This point is evergreen and doesn’t require any further query into the details of Tchividjian’s resignation).

Olasky also responds to criticism of the principle in the form of a ChristianityToday.com piece by Halee Gray Scott. Scott criticizes Graham’s rule for stifling the influence of women in ministry and argues that the rule unhelpfully plays into the “hypersexualization” of contemporary Western culture. Scott:

It’s the refrain recurring throughout many ministries: male and female working relationships are tricky and fraught with tension.

As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made businesses decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit. A female pastor in Minnesota told me about being overlooked for staff development opportunities, while the lead pastor invested in her male coworkers. A female seminary professor shared the too-familiar struggle of trying to find a mentor among her all-male colleagues. But it’s a tension the gospel demands we work through. In Ephesians 4, we see God’s intention for ministry is a productive, collaborative environment between men and women.

Such a collaboration is impossible, Scott argues, when the church unwittingly affirms the world’s worship of eros by prohibiting close friendship and ministry partnership through policies like the Graham rule.

Olasky’s response is, I think, a fair one:…

[B]ut since the real root issue is original sin, and the way it noetically affects our ability to recognize our weaknesses, shore ourselves up, and build relationships, it’s not enough to say, as Scott does, that “We can pioneer a middle way. … We can stand firm against the tide of culture by committing to relate to one another as family members.” That’s a worthy goal but an abstract one. With [pastoral sin] in front of us, we should begin with something concrete.

I agree. The problem is not that Scott’s concerns about an unnecessarily partitioned church are unfounded (they’re not), it’s that her approach to the question of opposite-sex relationships doesn’t seem to prioritize in accordance with Scripture. Biblically, the primary relational obligations of a husband and wife are to each other first, preempting other relational obligations in the church. This doesn’t undermine biblical community but instead forms the basis of it by privileging the one interpersonal relationship that in its very existence portrays the Gospel. Marriage is not something in which individuals gain membership but a spiritual reality that transforms individuals into a mysterious one-flesh union, a union that is in its very nature different than and relationally primary to all other relationships.

The “Graham rule” is not valuable because it is a 100% effective tool against sexual sin (nothing this side of glorification is that). Actually, the opposite is true–the Graham rule is wisdom because it is honest and self-aware about how precarious the fight against sin really is. Scott’s critique that the Graham rule “hypersexualizes” male and female relationships confuses a cause with an effect; it’s not the rule that creates hypersexualized relationships but our own indwelling sin. Personal principles like the Graham rule are indeed only necessary because we live in a fallen world, but we should be careful of an over-realized eschatology: The Church is an embassy of the coming Kingdom, but it is not a rabbit-hole escape from the fallen culture we live in now.

My father practiced, to my knowledge, the “Billy Graham rule” his entire ministry. It was not out of a desire to mute the women in the church or showcase his own godliness. It was instead a personal principle that safeguarded Dad and the people he ministered to. If a woman needed counsel, Mom would come along. Oftentimes it would be my mother who was able to speak most powerfully into another woman’s life. Those situations reinforced Dad’s belief that his marriage was indeed part of his ministry, not merely an accessory to it. And it was helpful: Again, to my knowledge, my father was never once accused, falsely or truthfully, of an inappropriate sexual relationship.

We should, like Scott says, strive to bring men and women together in the local church for Kingdom work. That is part of the reconciliation that Christ has accomplished for us. But such union need not preclude being zealous for the purity that God demands of all of us. Billy Graham’s rule isn’t Scripture, but it is a Scripture-honoring habit that comes from years of godly ministry and experience. That’s not something we should sidestep lightly, or, I think, at all