Hero is an overused word, but Arnaud Beltrame was a hero.  This morning in my Easter sermon, I mentioned the heroic sacrifice of Arnaud Beltrame, and each time I told his story, I felt a catch in my throat.  From the Washington Post’s account of his death:

Arnaud Beltrame, a French police officer who willingly took the place of a hostage during a standoff with a rampaging gunman Friday in France, died of injuries suffered in the incident early Saturday. His bravery earned him recognition as a hero in a country that has been shaken by a number of terrorist attacks in recent years….

Beltrame lost his life while trying to end a police standoff with a gunman at a supermarket.

Authorities say Redouane Lakdim, 25, hijacked a car Friday near the town of Carcassonne in Aude, killing a passenger and wounding the driver. Lakdim also shot at a group of police officers on their morning jog, wounding one of them. In the nearby town of Trèbes, the gunman then stormed into a supermarket and took hostages.

Beltrame was one of the first officers to respond, authorities said. Police negotiated with Lakdim to release the hostages, and Beltrame offered himself in place of the final one.

I think it’s the considered and deliberate nature of Lieutenant Colonel Beltrame’s sacrifice that I find so striking.  It’s not that he rushed in like an action hero, shooting at the killer and losing his life in the process–which would be impressive enough–but that he walked into danger, freely offering himself as a substitute for the hostage.

Greater love hath no man….

On this Easter Sunday, I’m grateful for the martyrdom of Arnaud Beltrame, “of whom the world was not worthy.”

P.S.  Lt. Col. Beltrame had a conversion experience as an adult, and was received into the Roman Catholic church.  Here is an interesting letter from his priest that was read at his requiem mass.

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April 1, 2018 0 comment
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How should we treat that school cop from Florida?  I’m going to tell you at the outset that I don’t know how to answer the question that I’m going to raise in this post, but I think it’s important to raise it anyway.  No doubt you’ve heard that the school resource officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida remained outside during the massacre on February 14.  No one knows what might have happened if the school cop had entered the building and confronted the killer in the midst of his rampage, but we do know what did happen: the killer walked out of the school unharmed, leaving 17 corpses behind him.

I don’t know what I would have done if I were the school cop that day, and neither do you: it was literally a life-and-death moment, and we should judge not lest we be judged.  On the other hand, it was that officer’s job to protect the school, and he clearly failed in his duty.  As a result, this man is internationally notorious as a failure, and that judgment will stalk him the rest of his life.  All of this raises a question I’ve thought a lot about:

How do we maintain clear moral standards while at the same time offering grace to the people who violate those standards?  Put another way, How do we hate the sin and love the sinner?

Almost always, when we think about the above question, we’re talking about sexual ethics.  But this case shows that the question is much broader than that.

Option A–Be Lax With the Standards

Let’s say we decide that it’s too high a standard to expect our cops to risk their own lives on behalf of the public.  The inevitable result of that decision would be fewer cops who risk their lives on behalf of the public.  The expectations we set matter.  If we relax our standards, behavior would follow.

Take marriage and divorce: when a culture frowns upon divorce, there are fewer divorces.  (I’m not saying that the marriages that persist are good marriages, or even if social condemnation of divorce is a good thing–I’m just making the obvious point that our standards matter.)  Today, divorce has much less social stigma than it did in previous generations, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we have more divorces than in previous generations.

A culture’s standards and expectations affect the behavior of the people in that culture.

Option B–Be Rigid With the Standards

Instead of relaxing our standards, we could choose to vigilantly maintain them.  We could decide, for example, that we do expect our cops to risk their own lives on behalf of the public, no matter what.  Anyone who refused to do so, we would socially shame and professionally reprimand.  When it comes to marriage, we could decide that our culture values fidelity highly, and we could have the cultural guardrails and legal safeguards in place to make divorce undesirable and difficult.

The Problem

Each option poses a problem, however:

Option A will mean that we’ll get more of the behaviors that we don’t want;

but, human nature being what it is…

Option B will mean that those who violate the standards will be marked forever as violators.

But again, if we say to the sinners in Option B–“It’s really okay.  Don’t feel bad about it.”–we are in danger of making Option A a reality.

I confront this problem all the time.  If I don’t preach strongly in favor of marriage and against divorce, for example, it might seem as if marital fidelity doesn’t matter that much.  But, if I do hit that topic hard, it might be the case that I am heaping shame on people who are already covered in it.

Imagine if the school cop from Parkland were in your church: if you immediately said to him, “It’s fine” you’d be saying something that isn’t true: it’s NOT fine.  But, on the other hand, if you didn’t extend grace to him, you’d be lying, too, since Jesus forgives sinners.

It’s a tightrope.

I think sometimes that this tightrope–balancing between hating the sin and loving the sinner–is actually impossible for us.  Fortunately, it is possible for God, who both hates sin and loves sinners at the same time.  What’s difficult to know is how we practically live out the mysterious grace of God in the world.

Sohow do we maintain clear moral standards while at the same time offering grace to the people who violate those standards?

I don’t think there is a quick and easy formula.  I think this requires wisdom and prayer.

(And, I think we should add the school resource officer from Parkland to the prayers we are already praying for the grieving families.)

 

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February 26, 2018 9 comments
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Everything worth having comes with a cost.  This is incontrovertibly true.  But what happens when we become the kind of people who are no longer willing to pay the price?  I think that’s exactly what’s happening to us: we modern Americans have become increasingly unable to deal with the inevitable difficulties of life.  How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

On February 18, I preached a sermon I entitled “Everything Worth Having Comes With a Cost.”  (The video is embedded below this paragraph; if you don’t see it, refresh the page.)  From time to time, there is more I want to say about a Sunday sermon, and so I will be running an occasional series here with extra thoughts and clarifications that I either didn’t have time for on a Sunday, or thoughts and insights that didn’t come to me until afterwards.

How Did We Get Here?

The increase in just the last 20 years of Americans who require anti-anxiety medications just to get through the day is as good an indicator of our problem as anything else.  More and more, we are people who are overwhelmed by daily life.  There is a time and place for these sorts of medications, and surely they do a lot of good, but what I want to know is why the increase?  Why are we consuming more and more medications to fight off anxiety and despair?  Sure, Big Pharma has found these medications lucrative, and sure doctors might be more aware of our disorders now than in previous times, but these factors are not the cause of our anxiety, but a response to it.  In any case,I am not concerned with our reliance on these medications so much as what that reliance indicates: we have a problem.  We’ve become unable to deal with the inevitable difficulties of life.  So, again, I want to know, Why?  What’s happening to us?

Here’s my theory: life has become too comfortable and convenient.  One hundred years ago, just staying alive and feeding your family required more work that most of us have ever experienced.  My family recently read a book together called Little Britches: Father and I were Ranchers, by Ralph Moody.  It’s a remembrance of a boy who moved with his family from New Hampshire to the plains of Colorado in the early 1900s.  The amount of sheer hard work that the little boy–Ralph–undertakes just to help his family survive is astounding.  And this was in the 20th century!  Describing life a generation or two before that, anyone who’s ever read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder will have noticed the same thing: just how hard life was for so many people in previous times.  (The Little House books are well-known, of course, but I would highly recommend Ralph Moody’s Little Britches to everyone reading this–whether you have little kids in your house or not.  As a grown man, I still found it fascinating, moving, and edifying.)

What I can’t do, however, is complain that my kids are too comfortable.  See, it’s not just that my children are growing up in comfort, but so did I, and so did my Boomer parents.  I’d suspect that the last American generation to have to known daily drudgery was the one born before the Second World War.  Since then, American life has become–through our wealth and especially our technological innovations–easy.  By easy, I don’t mean morally easy–more on that below–but that the daily process of being fed and clothed and sheltered has become easy.  This ease is not restricted merely to the wealthy, either.  I’m aware that there are millions of poor people in America who have none of the advantages that my wealth brings me; but I’m also aware that the poor people in America are not having to make their own clothes or grow their own crops or butcher their own meat or chop their own wood to heat up water.  (This is not to say that it’s not extremely difficult to be poor in America–I’m just making a point about how even the poor among us are exempt from the sort of tasks that virtually everyone–except perhaps the fantastically wealthy–who lived before 1940 would have encountered on a daily basis.)  For several generations now, our daily lives have been made easier than any humans who have ever previously lived.  But at what cost?

Tim Wu wrote an excellent essay in The New York Times in which he argues that our eager embrace of convenience has become a form of tyranny over us.  It’s entitled, appropriated, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” and if you’ve ever bought a book on Amazon instead of the brick-and-mortar bookstore you say you support will understand immediately “the powerful force shaping our individual lives” to which he refers:

In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience — that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks — has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies. This is particularly true in America, where, despite all the paeans to freedom and individuality, one sometimes wonders whether convenience is in fact the supreme value….

But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us….

The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits….

I do not want to deny that making things easier can serve us in important ways, giving us many choices (of restaurants, taxi services, open-source encyclopedias) where we used to have only a few or none. But being a person is only partly about having and exercising choices. It is also about how we face up to situations that are thrust upon us, about overcoming worthy challenges and finishing difficult tasks — the struggles that help make us who we are. What happens to human experience when so many obstacles and impediments and requirements and preparations have been removed?

Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.  [My emphases.]

Read the whole thing.

I’m grateful for modern medical care, and I don’t want to have to take cold showers, but the truth is that all our modern life conveniences are having an effect on our character.  See, when you are confronted every single day with inconvenient and uncomfortable tasks that are necessary to life, you learn that difficulty is an inescapable part of life.  You learn through experience that everything worth having comes with a cost.  And then, when you face larger difficulties of life–the sort of difficulties that cannot be solved by technology, that is to say the moral difficulties that involve self-denial and selflessness and moral courage and strength in the face of pain and hope in the face of despair–you are more prepared the pay the price to overcome them.

But us?  We experience the big difficulties of life, the difficulties that cannot be eliminated by technological innovation, and we find them overwhelming.  And so more and more of us lack the character to pay the price necessary to flourish in the world.  I find this terrifying, because I find it in myself.  For the Israelites, the generation that refused to pay the price to enter The Promised Land was condemned to wander in the desert and die before they ever got there.  What about us?  Since I believe it’s true that everything worth having comes with a cost, our lack of fortitude will mean that there are lands flowing with milk and honey that we’ll never enter, because we just can’t stomach it.  What will this mean for marriage and citizenship and difficult political questions?  Instead of facing the hard things straight on, we’ll medicate through media or medicine and try to ignore the fact that we’re constantly busy but have little to show for our efforts.  And this in turn will cause us more anxiety.  So it will go.

What’s to be done?

This is what I ran out of time to say in my sermon: there are two steps we need to take, as I see it.  The first is for us to dare to question the cult of convenience.  As Tim Wu points out, maybe some forms of inconvenience are actually good for us.  When it comes to our children, it may actually be good for them to have to work harder than we did at that age.  As for me, maybe I need to choose to do some of the things that I could pay a machine or a person to do for me, and maybe I should require my children to do some of those things, too.  Maybe all the tools for convenience that we use should be more like hard painkillers–obviously necessary sometimes, but problematic if we rely on them all the time.  If not, we’ll become the moral equivalents of the obese, slippery humans in Wall-E: unable to do anything necessary and difficult.

Of course it is impossible to remove oneself totally from modern conveniences, even if we wanted to do so (and I don’t want to).  But it may be that just small acts of inconvenience–waiting in line without my phone (God help me–how will I survive?!); walking when I could drive–will be helpful.  That first step we each can begin to do immediately: question the cult of convenience, and act accordingly.

But the second step is the exact opposite.  See, the truth about us is that we’re stuck.  Not only are we stuck in the modern world, and not only can we not turn back the clock even if we wanted to (and we’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic scenes to know that the only way back lies through destruction), our problem is even deeper than that: the deepest price we need to pay we won’t ever be able to pay, not because we won’t but because we can’t.  We can’t ultimately fix ourselves; we cannot perfect ourselves, we cannot save ourselves.  Everything worth having comes with a cost, and Good News is that God has paid the price for us.

What difference does the Gospel make here, practically?

Mercy is receiving something you don’t deserve, something you can’t get on your own, something you can’t earn.  And so, in light of what we know about God’s character since that first Easter, the second step to help us become stronger, is, paradoxically, to ask for help.  To admit that we’re weak.

Everything worth having comes with a cost.  But what happens when you’ve become afraid to pay it?  What happens when you’re afraid to do the hard but necessary thing at work, in your marriage, with your health, about your addictions, etc.?  Practically, what do you do?  You ask for help.  Literally.  You ask God to help you.  “Lord, I want to enter The Promised Land, but I’m afraid of what it will take to get there.  I don’t like difficultly and I hate suffering.  Will you please help me?”

And you know what?  He always does.

 

 

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February 25, 2018 6 comments
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I finished the Jeff VanderMeer science-fiction/horror novel Annihilation last month; the movie opens this week.  [No spoilers below, by the way.]  I’d seen the trailer for the movie online and was intrigued by the “BASED ON THE ACCLAIMED BEST-SELLING NOVEL” title that flashes across the screen, so I put the novel on hold at the library. (I’d not heard of it previously.) My verdict, now that I’ve read it? If the movie Annihilation is anything like the novel Annihilation, it will be STRANGE.

The novel begins in medias res as a team of four women—each unidentified, except for her title: psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and our narrator the team biologist—begin to explore a wild coastal wilderness known as Area X. Area X is beyond a mysterious border that requires the women to have been hypnotized to pass through it; the team’s mission is to research the area and report back to some mysterious agency called The Southern Reach. Almost immediately, the team stumbles across a mysterious underground “tower,” the top of which begins at the earth’s surface. The entrance leads to a spiral staircase that continues underground. The team explores the tower, and below ground, in the dark, they discover a long stream of words running along the wall. The string begins

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that….

etc.

The biologist comes close to the words and discovers that they are in fact a living organism or organisms, perhaps some type of fungus. They return to the surface, and strange things begin to happen.

Or, at least, strange things are implied and occasionally shown. The strangeness of the novel slowly increases the more you read, because the characters in the midst of the strangeness don’t seem to be overly bothered by it, which I take is the effect the author was going for: the very fact that everyone in Area X takes its increasing weirdness in stride is a clue to us that the entire situation is uncanny. We wonder, What’s wrong with these women? Why is our narrator so matter-of-fact in describing a situation that is so utterly bizarre?

The novel in fact is so bizarre that I finished it and had to ask myself, What was this about?

Now, you should know that almost none of the scenes in the movie trailer is actually in the novel, but if you’re planning on seeing it, expect it to be weird.  And let me know if you figure it out.

 

February 19, 2018 1 comment
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“If you could put any message on a billboard that millions of people would see, what would it be?”  Tim Ferriss asks this of his podcast guests, and it’s got me thinking: What would I want to say?

Any message worth putting up would have to be one that folks wouldn’t get elsewhere–why else go to all the trouble to get the billboard if you’re not saying something interesting?

So, here are some ideas that I don’t think you’d see anywhere else.

 

Anything Worth Having Comes With a Cost

I talked about this billboard option earlier today in my Sunday sermon.  I’ve been racking my brain, and I can’t think of a single contrary example.  Even things that are free to me still cost other people.  The reason this is an important message is that it reminds us that when we face difficulty in learning Spanish or getting in shape or becoming sober or raising kids or being married, we should persevere: that the cost should be expected, and it’s worth it.

 

Human Nature Doesn’t Change

We think we are so advanced: we have the iPhone and the jumbo jet and the electric toothbrush.  And, when it comes to our technology, we are advanced.  But, technological advances don’t change human nature: our biggest problem is within, and it has been forever.  How do we best use all this technology?  That’s where wisdom is required.  People have been the same everywhere: we’re just as jealous, petty, brave, murderous, kind, etc., as we ever were.  Technology doesn’t change human nature, which means we need to learn the exact same lessons of our ancestors: how to forgive, how to face our fears, how to have a flourishing family.  Those lessons take time.  All the technological advances in the world are useless at best and dangerous at worst if we don’t take the time to learn from what the people before us learned.  (This is why, by the way, the liberal arts are more important than ever.  Sure, I have an iPhone, but that won’t help me have a great marriage.  I can fly around the world, but what does it take to raise my kids well?  Homer and Dostoevsky, et al, have something to teach us here.)

 

Progress Is An Illusion

Human nature doesn’t change (see above).  So, it seems to me that the more advanced we get, the more ways we find to kill each other.  Now, I’m grateful for our advances in medical technology, for example–I can’t imagine living in a time without modern dentistry–but life is still difficult, and sin has a way of ruining everything.  Take the internet, for example–it’s brought lots of good things, but it has also made pornography available to children–something that no society has ever had to deal with before.  I believe that we should always be striving to improve and develop our civilization, but I also believe that there are no problem-free situations, and that everything this side of heaven comes with unintended consequences.  (This is what Tolkien called “the long defeat.”)  Neither human nature nor the world in general is perfectible (this fact is why I’m not a progressive), and though it is possible to make advances in this or that area, Progress will always be out of reach.

 

Catch a Common Theme?

I believe suffering and difficulty are part of life and that human nature is not perfectible.  If ever there were a people who needed to be reminded of those inconvenient truths, it is modern Americans.  That might sound harsh, but I actually find those messages to be helpful!  When things get hard for me, I shouldn’t be surprised–it’s just the way life works.  But, if the three billboards above seem too negative, here’s one more:

 

In the End, Everything Will Be Okay; If It’s Not Okay, Then It’s Not the End

I think that message is basically the best news that’s ever been given, and one you can’t hear too often.  Keep going!

 

What about you?  What would your billboard say?

February 18, 2018 1 comment
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All things seem possible in the early morning.

Nature’s first green is gold

I love early morning, that time that seems like night until you look up and see that the sky is no longer black but has become that deep, rich blue color that only occurs there, then.

I expect that was the color of Eden’s firmament, early Adam’s first morning.

In the early morning, waking up and, for a brief moment, forgetting everything that you know except that it’s a new day, that’s the best time.

After that, of course, remembering rushes in like water through a sluice-gate, and the day tumbles over itself.  That moment doesn’t return.

But for that brief time, it’s golden.

 


 

Early mornings are like a drop hanging on the end of a dropper, before it drips: all about potential, unrealized.  And that’s why I love them.

 


 

I wonder if Jesus loved early mornings for that reason, too.  Before the Pharisees poked their fingers in his chest and asked him to justify himself, before he heard about the tragedy of the Tower of Siloam or how Pilate had profaned the sacrifice with the blood of those Galileans he’d killed, before John’s disciples breathlessly told him about Herod’s homocidal boasting before the dancing girl, I wonder: did Jesus savor those first few sinless minutes, before each day fell?

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  (Mark 1:35)

 


 

Nothing gold can stay, though, can it?

I memorized Robert Frost’s little poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” twenty years ago or so, and I’ve always thought he says it well:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Dawn, which began pregnant with potential, always goes down to day, and day always comes with disappointment at best and disaster at worst.

 


 

Hopkins knew this: that in time, everything becomes ruined:

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

I love early mornings, but early mornings are like light itself: you can’t hold on to them.  Mornings turn into days.

And I don’t need to tell you that days are difficult.

 


 

Days are difficult because that’s how we make them–our dirty fingerprints are everywhere.

Every morning is like Eden’s first morning: pristine.  But no day remains like that.  Days comes with difficulty.

 


 

Yet days don’t last either, do they?  Days would have us believe that they are interminable, but we know by now that days irreversibly become evenings, and evenings inevitably become nights.

And every night is followed by a new morning.

 


 

I think that’s what I love most about mornings, how there is always another one coming.  Regardless of how heavy and ugly was the day, at least we know that a new morning is on its way.

Whoever it was who wrote Lamentations knew this about mornings:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.

                    –Lamentations 3:22-23

 


 

C. S. Lewis says in his little book on the Psalms that Psalm 19 contains some of the finest poetry, not just in the entire Bible, but in all the world’s literature.  Here’s how the Psalm opens:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoices like a strong man to run its race.
Its rising is from one end of heaven,
And its circuit to the other end;
And there is nothing hidden from its heat.
–Psalm 19:1-6

It’s a perfect image: the sun like a groom emerging from his tent on the morning of his wedding day, or like a runner who delights in the very act of running itself.  (One thinks of Usain Bolt, effortlessly striding down the Olympic track.)

And it happens every morning.

 


 

So maybe God delights in mornings, too.  Maybe the reason there’s always another morning is because God himself can’t wait to see another one.  At least, that’s what Chesterton thought:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

                                               –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

 


 

The ultimate morning, I guess, has to be Easter.  It can’t be a coincidence that the Resurrection happened “very early in the morning, while it was still dark.”  Of course the Spirit could have raised Jesus any time of the day or night, but here’s what I think:

Easter morning was deliberate.

 


 

So, mornings to me are about the hope that God has a plan for me and for the world.  Yes, days are difficult, but every morning is another promise that the Lord has something up his sleeve each new day.  Yes, things are a mess, but God’s not through with us yet.

Hopkins, whom I quoted earlier, has perhaps my favorite description of mornings ever (it’s at the end):

God’s Grandeur
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
“The dearest freshness deep down things.”  Yes, and each morning brings out that latent possibility.  Here’s that last part again:
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Yes.  EXACTLY.

 


 

My one word for 2018 is morning.

 


 

 

 

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January 1, 2018 3 comments
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I’m going to read through the Bible in 2018, but if I’m going to make it beyond the first few pages, I know enough about myself to know that I need a good plan to follow.  If I go to the gym without a plan, I’ll fool around for 10 minutes and then say, “I’ve done enough for today–time to go home.”  I need to have a plan in place before I go to the gym, and in the same way I need a plan to read the Bible, too.  Otherwise, I just won’t get anything done.

So, here are 6 elements of my plan to read through the entire Bible in 2018.

1.  The Read Scripture Plan

I’m using the READ SCRIPTURE reading plan put out by The Bible Project guys.  It’s roughly a Genesis to Revelation plan, though the order of some of the Old Testament books are rearranged to help you follow the narrative arc a bit better.

  • The plan runs from January 1-December 24, 2018.
  • Each day’s reading will take about 15-20 minutes to complete.
  • Every day there is 1 main reading (from either the Old Testament or New Testament, depending on where you are in the year).
  • And every day there is 1 Psalm for devotional purposes.

This “Read Scripture” video from the Bible Project guys explains the plan.

2.  The Read Scripture App

There is a free Read Scripture app that I’m going to use.  I’m planning on doing my reading in my own Bible (more on that below), but I’m excited about also using the app to help me stay on track.

  • The app includes each day’s reading in a stripped-down format, so I can complete my reading right in the app, if I want.
  • The app also includes a setting to include a daily reminder on my phone, and allows me to track my progress..  I’m the kind of person who likes checking things off each day, so I’ll use the app for that purpose.
  • As you can see in the screenshot below, the app also includes direct links to explanatory videos that are paired with a daily reading from time to time.

3.  The Bible Project videos

The Read Scripture plan sometimes suggests explanatory videos to supplement a day’s reading portion.  (As I mentioned above, one of the benefits of the app is that it includes direct links to the videos, so you don’t have to search on YouTube.)  The videos the Bible Project guys are producing are REALLY GOOD.  To cite one out of their dozens and dozens of really helpful videos, here is an overview of the Book of Leviticus:

4.  A Brand-New Bible

Though I’m going to use the app to keep my on track, I’m planning on using my own Bible to complete the readings.  (We’re handing out bookmarks at church with a month’s worth of readings at a time; here’s a pdf of the January schedule.)

  • I prefer to read on paper than in an app, when possible.
  • I like to make notes, circle, underline, etc.
  • This will be the same Bible I’ll be preaching out of in 2018.

I used my Christmas money and bought a stunningly beautiful new Bible: a Cambridge Clarion Reference ESV in Black Goatskin.  These Cambridge Bibles are $$$$, but they are absolutely the most beautiful books I have ever held.

Here’s how I decided on this particular Bible:

  • I didn’t need a study Bible;
  • I wanted something relatively portable;
  • I also wanted it big enough to have room for notes;
  • I wanted cross-references (the little margin notes that tell you when the same quotation appears elsewhere in the Bible);
  • I wanted an ESV translation, since it’s not what I’ve used previously;
  • And most importantly, I wanted a single-column text.  All the other Bibles I own have double columns, but I thought it would be a good change to try a single column.

Both of these Bibles have cross-references (the top in between the text columns; the bottom in the outer margins). The top Bible is my NIV Study Bible; the bottom is my new Cambridge single-column ESV.

I eventually found myself deciding between two Bibles that met my criteria: the Cambridge Clarion ESV and the ESV Personal Reference Bible.  Brad Schrum has a detailed and very helpful post with lots of pictures comparing the two.  I decided on the Cambridge Clarion because it was slightly larger and I just liked the feel of it in my hand a bit more, but the ESV Personal Reference Bible was also a really good option.  (If you’re in the Dallas area, the bookstore at Dallas Theological Seminary has both editions, if you’d like to compare them.)

The ESV Personal Reference Bible on the left, the Cambridge Clarion on the right [http://photography.bradschrum.com/img/s9/v95/p173281523-5.jpg]

If you are interested in getting a new Bible for 2018, here are two others that I’ve used personally for years:

For a good study Bible, try The NIV Study Bible;

For a nice thin Bible, try the NRSV Thinline.

5.  A Bible Blog

Both on this site and on our church’s Bible blog, I’ll be adding thoughts from my reading.  (On the church blog, my colleague Amanda will have notes for every single day of readings!)  Occasional blogging will help me stay engaged with the reading.

6.  The Bible Project newsletter

The Bible Project guys have a weekly newsletter than tracks along with the Read Scripture plan, offering a recap of the previous week and an overview of the coming week.  I’m going to sign up on January 1.  Go here to sign up; scroll down until you see the picture below.  The newsletter is just one more reminder to help me stay on track–it’s a marathon, not a sprint, you know?

So, that’s my plan to read through the Bible in 2018.

I’ll let you know how it goes….

 

 

December 29, 2017 2 comments
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I was just listening to the Brian Koppelman interview on Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors podcast, when one of Koppelman’s answers struck me.  The Tribe of Mentors podcast is billed as “short life advice from the best of the best,” and in it Ferriss asks his guests a series of standard questions, in a much shorter format than on his more well-known The Tim Ferriss Show podcast.  One of the standard questions (a really good one) is:

In the last five years what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Here is Brian Koppelman’s answer (beginning at 10:52 in the podcast):

“I know many of Tim’s guests say this, and the answer is: meditation.  For me, I do transcendental meditation, and I do it every day for twenty minutes, two times…first when I wake up in the morning, and then around 3, or 4, or 5, or 6 in the afternoon.  And what I have found is that doing this mediation–taking this time–has drastically decreased the physical manifestations of anxiety and it has given me far more clarity and far more peace.”

Some quick thoughts:

  •  He’s right: many of Tim Ferriss’s guests on this podcast and on the Tim Ferriss Show talk about meditation.  These folks often tend to be Silicon Valley/Hollywood/Venture Capitalist types, and they often mention how meditation has been a helpful practice to them.
  • Because these folks are Silicon Valley/Hollywood/Venture Capitalist types–“California” in mindset, if not location–their practice of mediation tends to be “spiritual and not religious” in a New Age vein.
  • It shouldn’t be surprising that spending time quieting the mind and the soul brings helpful benefits.  This shouldn’t surprise us because people have known this for literally thousands of years, in every culture that I know of.
  • It’s almost as if we were created a certain way, and certain practices–independent of time and place, across all cultures and centuries–just produce good things in people’s lives….
  • Maybe human nature isn’t plastic; maybe wisdom is not making yourself what you want to be, but rather making yourself fit the world.
  • If the same folks on Tim Ferriss’s podcasts had kept saying “prayer” instead of “meditation,” they wouldn’t seem nearly as cool, would they?  Prayer is boring; meditation is cool.
  • We’re a culture that’s forgotten what we used to know, and so we grab various life-giving practices out of the heap, but because we’ve forgotten what we used to know (like the folks in the Foundation in the Isaac Asimov novels), we’re not able to use them to their full benefit.
  • I recently heard Robert Barron say something interesting about prayer:

“Please don’t think of prayer as something that God needs: God doesn’t need your prayer, doesn’t need my prayer.  It’s not like we’re in this sort of pagan thing, where ‘unless I get this much done, God’s not going to do something’–don’t think of it that way; he’s not a ‘pasha’ that we’re trying to impress with our supplications–prayer is for you, prayer’s good for you, it’s not good for God.  God loves it because it makes you better and happier.  It’s not for God’s sake, it’s for your sake.”

  • The difference between Christian prayer and meditation seems to me to lie primarily in what you believe about ultimate reality: meditation is about quieting your heart and mind so you can experience the inner peace that comes from becoming more in tune with Reality, whereas prayer in the way and name of Jesus is about a relationship with the Person behind all reality.  In the Christian tradition (and Jewish tradition, for that matter), Reality is not impersonal at all.
  • The unique insight of the gospel is that Reality is a Person, and he’s made himself known to us in the manger.
  • Christians believe that God is Love.  That beautiful idea is popular, but think about it: love requires personhood–love cannot be impersonal.  Meditation is a good thing, but I don’t think it can lead to love in the same way that prayer can, because prayer is about coming to know the source of Love itself, and his name is the LORD.

Anyway, it just struck me that many of the world-class performers that Tim Ferriss has interviewed have mentioned mediation.  (Though I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single one of them mention prayer.)

December 28, 2017 0 comment
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Nine months ago today, our baby daughter was born and my wife coded afterwards, an event which caused her to be hospitalized twice in the ICU and to undergo emergency, life-saving, life-altering surgery.

This past Sunday was Christmas Commitment Sunday at our church.  It’s like our 21st century urban version of what used to be called Harvest Sunday in rural, agricultural churches: we thank God for his provision toward us in the 12 months past, and ask for his protection and provision in the year to come.  Folks come forward and kneel and make a gift to finish strong in their current year giving toward the church, and make a commitment to give back a portion of God’s blessings in the year to come.  It’s a powerful moment to see hundreds of households come forward and kneel and pray.

When it was our family’s turn, all four of us knelt and prayed and praised the Lord for his mercy toward our family these past 12 months and desperately asked God to be with us in the next 12 months.  I find that I pray for God to protect us and prosper us almost constantly now; I am under no illusions regarding my utter dependence on the grace of God.

The day before we were kneeling at the rail, we’d picked out a Christmas tree and were decorating it: my wife–completely healed–perched on a ladder stringing lights, and our little baby chirping and squeaking and scuttling underfoot like a some kind of huge, curious, terrestrial crab.

As I look back over these past 12 months, I am overwhelmed: God has been so good to us.

A few weeks ago, Elaine and I made a brief video about some things we learned while she was in the hospital.  (I’ve posted the video below.)  Afterwards, of course, we thought of things we’d wished we said or said in a different way, and we share these thoughts humbly, knowing that this is our story, and your stories are different.  Even so, we’ve seen the faithfulness of God firsthand and we feel as if we’re supposed to tell other people about it.

One day, of course, death will come for one or both us us, and for everyone we love.  Maybe I will die first and leave Elaine behind, or maybe she will die first and leave me behind.  But, even when that day comes, God is faithful, and Jesus is risen, so the words the angels shared with the shepherds are still meant for us today:

Do not be afraid.

December 6, 2017 5 comments
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How do we give thanks even when we don’t feel like it?

Christians are supposed to be thankful in every situation, which sounds nice on paper but is much harder to live out.

Still, not only should we give thanks in all circumstances, the Bible promises that it’s actually possible. Here are five simple suggestions that should help you and me give thanks, especially when we don’t feel like we have anything to be grateful for.

1. Give thanks because God is good, period.

The Lord is good, always and everywhere—it’s part of his nature. So, it’s always appropriate to give thanks to God just because of who he is.

  • The Lord caused the sun to rise this morning, just because he is good.
  • The Lord gave you life, just because he is good.
  • The Lord created giraffes, just because he is good.

We cheer when the slugger hits a home run because home runs should be cheered.

We smile at babies because babies should be smiled at.

We are in awe when we stand at the Grand Canyon because the Grand Canyon is awesome in the full sense of the word.

And we give thanks to God just because of who God is. Period.

 

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1.)

 

2. Give thanks that it’s not as bad as it could be.

In every circumstance, it could always be worse. This fact is brought home to me every time I visit the Children’s Hospital—I always leave thinking, “Compared to what some of these people are going through, I don’t have any” Whatever you think your problems are, it could be worse.

  • If you have cancer, give thanks that it’s not a worse form of cancer.
  • If you’re married but can’t have children, give thanks that you’re married.
  • If you’re single and want to be married, give thanks that you’re not in a bad marriage.

Your circumstances may be bad, but praise God they aren’t worse.

 

3. Give thanks that out of a bad situation, something good can come.

I’m writing this on the plane after being at a family funeral all week. Death is not good, but the fact that a funeral brings family together is a good thing; it’s something to be thankful for. A good question to ask is, “What does this now make possible?”

  • Your time in the hospital gives you time to pray that you didn’t have before.
  • Your recovery allows you to experience the kindness of friends.
  • Your financial struggles give you the opportunity to trust God for your daily bread.
  • Your suffering makes you more empathetic toward others.

Many times what we think is a bad turn of events either makes something good possible, or brings about an unexpected blessing. Give thanks for that.

 

“What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” (Genesis 50:20—Joseph speaking to his brothers years after they sold him into slavery.)

 

4. Give thanks that your situation allows you to experience a small taste of Christ’s suffering.

Christ not only physically suffered, but he was also humiliated and betrayed. The New Testament writers continually tell us that our suffering gives us the opportunity to be more unified with Christ.

  • If people are lying and saying ugly things about you, they did that to Jesus.
  • If you are in acute physical pain, so was Jesus.
  • If you feel totally alone, so did Jesus.

No one wants to suffer, but in suffering we have the opportunity to draw closer to Christ in ways that would not be possible if everything were okay. That’s something to be grateful for.

 

“For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (Philippians 1:29.)

 

5. Give thanks that The End is good.

The Bible ends with a future promise that “everything sad will become untrue,” to quote Sam Gamgee. (See Revelation 21.) The Resurrection of Jesus is the sign of what God is going to do with all of history—he will “redeem all that he allows” in Jim Denison’s great phrase. So, even when your circumstances seem hopeless—and each of us is going to die, sooner or later—we Christians can give thanks that God is ultimately going make everything new. This fact enables Christians to give thanks even in the midst of death.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4.)

Giving thanks when you don’t feel like it is a mark of holiness—of spiritual maturity—and it is very difficult. But, as with other difficult things, we get better with practice, through the grace of God.

 

So, start small. And start right away.

 

November 22, 2017 0 comment
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