Productivity and the Great Commandment

As I am becoming more able-bodied after my surgery, I’ve noticed I’ve become “less productive.”  Upon reflection, it’s really easy to be so-called productive and check tasks off a list when all you can do is sit in a chair and work on a computer, with three meals a day brought to you and your only worry being how you are going to get up and make it to the restroom.

So, I’ve had to think about this some, and I’ve been reminded of some ultimate truths.

First, only God gets everything done.  It is the nature of creatureliness to be finite.  Human beings can only do one thing at a time.  If we multitask, we are generally doing two things poorly simultaneously.  We are humans, not machines.  The nature of living in a fallen world is that there is always much more work to be done.

Productivity is always in the service of the Great Commandment. The two great duties that God has laid before us is love for God and love for others.  “Getting things done” is in the service of these two mandates.  This means that people are the reason that we seek to produce.  As one wise pastor told me, “interruptions are the ministry.”  This means that we must be open to many experiences that cannot be checked off a list.

This frees us up to jump in and help when we see a need.  We taught our children to always ask and look and volunteer to help when help is needed — to look for opportunities.   I often need to remind myself to do this.  This might not be a task I can check off my list.  But surely, this serves the greater good.  And this is what we are here to do.

Will God ever give you “more than you can handle”?

Last night at Bible study, the question was asked, “is it true that God will never give you more than you can handle?”

Many of us in Christian circles have experienced people hoping to encourage us by saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Christians commonly see this as an implication of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which reads:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

I’d like to offer another interpretation, and one, I think, is more in keeping with the rest of the Scripture.

Certainly, no temptation that any of us face is unique to us.  And God’s faithfulness is unquestionable.

But God did not create us to be independent beings, able to fight sin and temptation in our own flesh.  We live “in Christ,” who says, in John 15:4-5:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Apart from abiding in Christ, even the least temptation will overpower us.  So in this sense, God always gives us more than we can handle!.  Because our sufficiency is in Christ, and not in ourselves.

Once again, Job is perhaps the paradigmatic illustration of this.  Could Job have faced his suffering and remained blameless if he had been content with the moralistic advice of his friends?  At best, it’s highly unlikely.  As he receives their counsel, he becomes more and more repulsed by their easy answers and platitudes.  As his torment grows, he rests in God more, and trusts in God more.

In a sense, Job is the “heroic ideal” turned on its head.  Job endures.  Job perseveres.  Rather than winning glory through heroic deeds in battle and overcoming his enemies through great force of arms, Job just stands there.

God is the hero.  It is God who vindicates Job.  It is in Him that Job endures trial.  Apart from the mercy of God, even the least dose of suffering would have overcome Job.  But Job stands there, and pleads his case before God, and God vindicates him.

Our flesh profits nothing. But Christ has overcome the world.  And it is only in Him, that we are able to overcome sin, temptation, and the devil.

 

Lessons from the 2008 Financial Crisis

The Great Depression was the defining event in the lives of my wife’s grandparents, and of many people in “the Greatest Generation.”  Grammy and Grampa worked hard and saved and over a lifetime, were able to achieve a comfortable lifestyle.  But even in this, they were extremely frugal.  They always lived well below their means. While they didn’t mention the Depression, this didn’t mean it was forgotten.

Skip ahead to the 2008 Financial Crisis.  I just finished Timothy Geithner’s   Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises.  While I don’t claim to understand the particulars of CDOs, Credit Default Swaps, mortgage-backed derivatives, and quantitative easing, it was interesting and informative to read a memoir of one of the main architects of the economic policies of the Obama administration.  Whether one agrees with the actions of the administration or not, it was clear that the financial world was in uncharted waters, and that the global economy hung in the balance.

Our family experienced a “voluntary recession,” in 2006.  I left the pastorate I was serving in Cincinnati to accept a call to be a missionary.  We had to raise our own financial support.  To not drain our support account too quickly, we lived on a stipend that was one-third of what I had previously made.  During much of that time, we lived with Amy’s parents, hoping to finish out our support raising.  However, as churches and individuals were feeling the financial pinch, we would lose supporters as soon as we added them.  Circumstances forced the dream of serving as overseas missionaries to die, and the job that I obtained following our departure from the missions agency barely paid more than our stipend.

This may have been the most difficult time in our life as a family.  But God was good.  He blessed us and taught us many lessons during this period that have carried forward to this day.  I’ll talk about others in succeeding posts.  We were blessed with the mission agency requirement to get out of debt, and to stay out of debt.  So, while I was not earning much, our overhead was low as well.  We still see God’s provision in this.

So, the first lesson I learned was if you keep your overhead low, you can do anything you want.  There are two ways to do what you want with your life.  Either generate enough income so that you can accomplish your dreams, or keep your overhead low enough. Most advice seems to center on generating enough income.  The problem is, most of us are not gifted in that way.  But if you can lower your overhead, if you can eliminate debt and cut spending, you are free to serve the Lord in the way that you desire.

The next lesson I learned was how to work hard.  This was a gift from God.  I recognized that in a tight labor market, I must distinguish myself.  Jobs were hard to get and harder to keep.  I knew many people who were “downsized” by the Great Recession and were never able to find professional employment again.  After serving as a professional engineer at the director level of the government agency she worked for, she was demoted to an entry level position, and soon afterwards, accepted a disability package.  The market trend was that jobs were going to younger people who could be obtained more cheaply. Working hard, making myself “indispensable” (although cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable) was going to be necessary in that labor market.

While the American economy has lower rates of unemployment than in the 2008 Financial Crisis, those statistics may be deceptive.  Once people are out of the workforce and give up on finding work, they are no longer counted in the unemployment statistics.  Some states aggressively pursue unemployed people to move them to disability benefits, because the Federal Government pays for disability benefits.

So, even though the numbers report otherwise, older professionals with extensive experience and the salary requirements commensurate with that experience, must continue to regularly justify their employment with hard work.  “Coasting until retirement” is not an option for many.  If you stop working hard, and you stop learning, you become irrelevant. Companies will still go “younger and cheaper.”

Proverbs for Sanity in Education

The 2019 College Admissions Scandal brought to light the poverty of much that passes for college-prep education. Incessant test preparation and self-serving resume building reached their logical end, with parents purchasing test scores and admission to elite colleges. If getting into a “good college to get a good job to make money” is the point of education, why not skip a few steps and buy your way in, and guarantee that you reach your goal.

This pressure-cooker of striving for admission to the “top colleges” affects those who seek to “play the game” rather than simply pay gratuities in advance for favorable treatment. It’s not unusual to read about the “college mental health epidemic.” Studies vary widely, but the American Psychological Association found that one in four of college students is prescribed medication for depression or anxiety.  Certainly, many more are going untreated or are self-medicating.

Many possible explanations exist for this, but one cannot ignore the “fast and furious” pace of much of college-prep education. Parental anxiety over “not having any gaps” in a child’s education, constant assessment, an industry of test preparation, and the endless pressure to “get into a good job so that you can get a good job and become financially secure” cannot help but contribute to the angst of teens and young adults. Rigorous college-prep education is often like the force-feeding of chickens in commercial chicken-houses being fattened up for slaughter.

Education has not always been conducted this way. For most of recorded history, a liberal arts education has been the privilege of those wealthy enough to be able to spend time in contemplation and study. Past history gives us wisdom that a student can become learned, virtuous, and wise without the modern angst that passes for a rigorous education today.

Two habits of classical pedagogy that provide wisdom to today’s educator are “festina lente,” and “multum non multa.” These maxims translate to “make haste slowly,” and “much, not many.”

While “make haste slowly” sounds like the phrase “with all deliberate speed” from the majority opinion of Brown v. Board of Education, there is much to be gained from this proverb. A wise pastor once told me that a universal tendency is to overestimate what one can do in a day, a week, a month, or even a year, but to underestimate what one can do in five or ten years. This gets to the heart of “festina lente.” Festina lente requires that the educator begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Rather than beginning with a utilitarian goal such as helping a student get into a “good college,” Festina lente asks, “what kind of person would I want to encourage this student to become,” and working towards creating such habits of virtue over a long period of time.

Multum non multa,” much, not many, dovetails with this. For example, most of us have more Greek and Hebrew tools available to us on our smartphones than the translators of the King James Bible had access to. But who is wiser? Who is more skilled? Who is more competent in Biblical exegesis, the rhythms of the English language, and written expression? The contemporary person with the tools available on his phone, or the Elizabethan scholar who mastered the tools which were available? One reads the book lists of the Founding Fathers, and one finds that there is a uniformity and what we would call a “narrowness” of reading. Yet, they read deeply enough to be formed by what they studied, rather than consuming books or media.

Ecclesiastes tells us that “of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecc. 12:12). There are many more books worth reading than a person will have time to read in a whole lifetime. It is not possible to provide an education where there are no gaps of content. Festina lente and Multum non multa focus on creating habits of virtue, and teaching students how to think and how to learn. Once armed in this way, a student may step out and learn whatever he desires.

Job and the Prosperity Gospel (3)

The Book of Job takes on the message of the prosperity gospel head-on.  Job’s counselors show us the effects of unbiblical theology.  Doctrine is not simply an intellectual matter, but it penetrates the heart.  A Biblical view of God leads to comfort, hope, and assurance.  A view of God that deviates from the Bible robs people of the knowledge of the love of Christ, that God is for us and not against us, that he who did not spare his own son, how shall he not freely give us all things?

Here are some of the effects of the theology of Job’s counselors.

1.  It brings God down to a human level.  One of the first things that I learned about God as a child is “God is great, and God is good.”  If God is not great, then he is at the mercy of human action.  If God is not good, then we cannot trust him, and we are at the mercy of our own devices against one much more powerful than we are.  Job’s friends alternatively speak of God as one whom we can please through mere human effort, and a God who is remote and uncaring.  If God is not great, evil may be greater than he is.  If God is not good, he doesn’t care about human suffering.

2.  It promotes human performance.  God cannot be a debtor to any human being.  Yet, by bringing God down to a human level, we can gain the impression that we either can please God by our own efforts, or that we can come to the bargaining table as equals with God.  Both the Creator/creature distinction and the holiness of God tell us otherwise.  God is pure being.  We are subsistent beings whose life is in God.  God is perfectly holy in all his person and in all his works.  In contrast to the holiness of God, we, as human beings, are radically damaged by the Fall.  We are “conceived in born in sin,” and we continue to reject God’s will for our will.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, properly presented, presents the sinfulness of sin in its fullness, which magnifies the grace and love of God exponentially greater than that which we can conceive, apart from the Spirit of God.  This puts God in his rightful place, us in our rightful place, glorifies God, humbles us, and shows us our utter dependency on the mercy of God in Christ.

3.  It deprives Christians of the comfort of Christ in the midst of suffering.  If the only function of suffering is to correlate with “what a man sows, he shall also reap,” where is the comfort of Christ in this.  Yet, through suffering, Christ conforms us to his image, which is the greatest good imaginable (Romans 8:28-29).  While we may never know God’s specific purposes in our suffering, this is far different than saying that there is no purpose.  The comfort that we are able to have is that Jesus promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us.  If suffering is merely “what we deserve,” the presence of Christ does not accompany us in our suffering, and our suffering is in vain.

4.  It destroys people.  Bad theology destroys people’s souls by giving them a false vision of God.  Humanly speaking, apart from the grace of God, how could one help but walk away from God when all one has heard is falsehood.  This is like being in a marriage and finding out that one’s spouse has been pathologically dishonest for the entire marriage.  It destroys marriages, families, and churches.  It robs Christians of the hope and assurance that is rightfully theirs through the finished work of Christ.

Job corrects our vision, and points us, as Francis Schaeffer writes, to “the God who is there.”  This is the God who cannot fail his people.  He demonstrates this through sending his son to take on the sins of his people at the cross, and granting his people the righteousness of Christ.

Productivity Tools

From 2006-2008, I worked at a job that I absolutely loathed.  I served with a mission board doing fund raising and recruiting.  This was also my first experience with working remotely.  I never quite got used to the nature of the work, the unstructured schedule, and the constant travel.

But this was perhaps my most educational work experience.  I had to learn how to become productive with no set schedule, no supervisor.  I had to learn to structure my time for maximal effectiveness.

This is when I became a disciple of David Allen and his book, Getting Things Done.  It’s as though I learned how to work for the first time!  Outside of the Bible, this is the most life-changing book I’ve ever read.  I’ve kept up some version of his system since then.

I started out with a loose-leaf paper planner.  With the emergence of online tools and smart phones, over time, I went to using apps instead of the paper planner.  While this removed the necessity of carrying the paper planner everywhere, it also meant that I was either on the computer or on the phone all the time.

Earlier this year, I said, “this won’t work.”  So, I searched for a tool that would combine the best of both features.  I discovered Ryder Carroll’s The Bullet Journal Method.  There are many sites where you can find the particulars of using this tool.  Here is the official one.

The greatest benefit is that it is portable, flexible, and I don’t have to always be on my phone or my computer.  However, there is kind of a “cult of the bullet journal.”  I had to free myself from the pressure of making my bullet journal look like this.bujo_ar_TESSA_KOGA_AGGIE

Or like this:

bullet-journaling

So, mine is absolutely minimalistic.  It’s illegible to anyone except me.  But it’s done the trick and has gotten me back on track producing, and off the smartphone.

Journaling

I started the habit of journaling as a first year pastor, and have kept it up for 27 years.  I’ve kept all of my journals, but I’ve rarely reviewed them.

Since my knee injury a month ago, I’ve made some changes in the way that I write in my journal.

My habit has been to write first thing in the morning, before I do anything else.  Then I spend time in prayer. Thinking back over what I’ve written in the past, I’ve realized that most of my writing has been grumbling and complaining, and has set the tone for this to be my general attitude.

However, at least in the short term, my recent accident has caused me to change that habit.  I sustained a catastrophic injury, but I’m profoundly grateful that it wasn’t worse.  It’s as if God has given me a second chance.  Right now, I’m walking through life with a limp like Jacob.  As Jacob was changed by the presence of God in his wrestling with God, I hope to be changed.

This new habit of gratitude has changed how I journal.  Most of my thinking is processed by writing.  So, I will write in my journal about negative events and emotions.  But I’ve resolved to only do it once per incident, and not revisit it to obsess over it.  I’ve determined that I want to make positive contributions to share with others.

What I’ve begun to do instead is to generate ideas for blog posts, for lessons, for sermons, for projects, and for anything that will help me grow. To restart the blog, I determined that I needed to generate ten ideas for articles ahead of time, and to stay at least ten ideas ahead.   I’ve used the Muji A5 72 sheet notebook for years now.  Instead of writing each idea out in longhand, I’ve begun to do outlines, or even bullet points.  The result is illegible to anyone but me.  I’m finding that this is a much healthier habit, and one that reinforces my resolution to do all the good that I can right now.

This new habit has, for the most part, changed my frame of mind.  I still get stuck in old habits sometimes, but I’m much more aware of my own grumbling and complaining.  I’m beginning to see it for the sin that it is, rather than a personal disposition that I can excuse.

Job and the Prosperity Gospel (2)

I have previously introduced Kate Bowler’s book:  Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.  I’ve done so because in Texas, this is the soil in which much of our ministry is tilled.  What is outside of the scope of Bowler’s book is the damage that this errant teaching does to countless numbers of people.

I have no beef with the rank-and-file Christians who are a part of this faith tradition.  Many, if not most, are sincere believers who love God with all their heart and who trust in Jesus Christ alone for their redemption.  Unfortunately, these people are being fleeced by unscrupulous shepherds, who seek their own gain.

The paradigm for the life of the Christian is the life of Christ.  As those who are “in Christ,” our lives follow in his steps.  As he first suffered and entered into glory, so must we.

By bringing the blessings of the new heavens and the new earth down to this world, this paradigm is eradicated.  The expectation of healing from all diseases and injuries is one that people are especially vulnerable to.

My daughter, who is now in graduate school, contracted a chronic pain condition in her teens.  Well-meaning people told her that she could “pray it away,” and that if she had enough faith, she would be healed.  This was an especially dark time in her life.  It was a time when she almost lost her faith, because of these messages that she was getting.  Thankfully, the Lord preserved her.  But even receiving this teaching indirectly did much damage.  She is now able to manage her condition well, but it appears that this is a condition that she will always struggle with.  God’s calling appears to be for her to walk with him, and draw near to him in pain and suffering.

Also, I has a co-worker who was part of this tradition.  Her husband was injured on the job and permanently disabled.  She prayed, she fasted, she went to the “healers,” and he never got well.  Her story is darker than my daughter’s.    Instead of living on a good income, she was substitute teaching, cleaning houses, and doing whatever she could to bring in enough money to cover some of the bills.  She lost hope.  Being damaged by this teaching, she set aside her faith and divorced her husband because he was “holding her back.”

This is not to say that Christians should not pray for healing.  However, perfect healing only happens in the life to come.  In this world, we shall have tribulation.  But our Lord tells us, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”

On Books and Reading

     If I am at all successful in keeping up the writing habit, you will see that I make many references to the books that I am reading.  I recognize that I am a prodigious reader.  I’m not sure if I count this as a virtue or not.  Most of my friends do not have the kind of reading habits that I do.  They add much-needed balance to my life.  But I really do enjoy opportunities to talk about the books that have made an impact in my life.
     So, why do I keep this habit ?
     As a “knowledge worker” (I hate that phrase!), I need to be constantly learning and growing.  The 2008 recession precipitated a change in the labor market.  The trend since then is for employers to hire “younger and cheaper.”  In order to continue to be relevant, I need to continually push myself that “my progress may be evident to all.”  Resting on one’s past achievements is not an option in today’s market.
     Books are tools, rather than collectibles.  As much as I love books, I’ve never gotten into the hobby of book collecting.  I don’t need first editions.  I would even say that “paperback is better.”  It takes up less space.  In some ways, it’s easier to write in.  Yes, I write in my books rather copiously.  If somehow, my former students happened to acquire one of my books, they said that it was “more valuable” that way.
     When we lived in Cincinnati, I had a friend who was an auto mechanic.  He and his family lived frugally.  Yet, he had a “tool payment.”  He needed the right tools to be able to do his job.  For students and teachers, books are your tools.  Don’t skimp on them.  For most students, learning and studying is hard enough as it is with the tools that they need.  Don’t handicap them.
     The book habit is cheaper than going back to school.  Also, no tests, no essays, no term papers, no restrictions.  I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite writers.  He couldn’t afford to go to college, so he got his education at the library.  It served him quite well.
     As tools, I’ve learned to hold books lightly.  My desire is to have “an open heart and an open hand.”  I used to be quite possessive about my books.  Then, I had to give many of the away when we went through a period of life when we had limited storage space.  This was good for my soul.  Most books, even out of print ones, can be replaced.  Hopefully, people who borrow my books and don’t return them are more blessed by them than I am.
     I recently went through my library looking for a couple of books that I had purchased some time ago that I really wanted to read.  Then I remembered that I had lent them out.  At first, I was a little peevish.  But then, I realized, “what an opportunity to pray for that person.”  Not imprecatory prayers, or prayers that this person would “repent and acknowledge the depth of their sin,” but that that person really would be blessed, and that I may be able to be a blessing to them, and that the Lord would make his face shine upon them, lift up his countenance upon them, and give them peace.
     That prompting and opportunity for prayer was far more precious than those books.  That sign that God is working in my life, turning the vice of covetousness and acquisitiveness into a desire to pray and a genuine prayer for another’s well being, giving me a generous spirit when I’ve previously  had a tight-fisted spirit, was a priceless gift to me.  I pray that would be able to continue to recognize that I possess nothing that has not been given to me, that I brought nothing into this world, and that I will take nothing out of it.  Blessed be the name of the Lord our God.

What I’m Reading Now

     There are many things that I cannot do while I am recovering from surgery. But I am resolved to do all the good that I can while I am laid up.  I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to engage in some concentrated study;  Here are some of the books I’ve been reading.
     Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel, by Kate Bowler, is an academic history of the Word of Faith movement.  Dr. Bowler is a professor of church history at Duke Divinity School.  This is an important book that I’ll write a separate post on.  I say that it’s important, because Texas and Oklahoma are the centers of the prosperity gospel.  What this means for us is that many of our neighbors have been taken in by this aberrant teaching.  As I will point out in the future, this should not make those of us who are Evangelical and Reformed feel superior.  On the contrary, we need to be patient and compassionate with those who have experienced t his faith tradition, and who have felt betrayed by its false promises.
     The Man of God: His Calling and Godly Life,  by Albert N. Martin.  As a pastor, it’s always good to reexamine your call and your fitness for it in terms of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Having pastored a single congregation for forty-six years, Pastor Martin is a master of pastoral theology.  Any minister or interested church member would profit by reading this book.  This is the first of four projected volumes of pastoral theology.  It’s wonderful to be able to “listen in” on the wisdom of such a godly servant of the Lord.
     Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon, by Tom Nettles.  This is perhaps the definitive biography on Spurgeon.  It’s refreshing to read a biography of a man whose holiness matched his immense gifting and effectiveness in ministry.
     Job.  I’m continuing to work ahead on sermons from the Book of Job.  I had anticipated being able to preach through the book in about ten or so sermons.  In doing so, I had forgotten the counsel of Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old, who was the pre-eminent scholar of the Reformed faith in the twentieth century.  He said, “every time you preach through a book of the Bible, it will take you longer because you find more depth.”  However, I do not plan to preach 157  sermons on Job, as Calvin did, or 576, as Joseph Caryl did.  I’m working through Matthew Henry’s commentary and Derek Thomas’ doctoral dissertation:  Calvin’s Teaching On Job:  Proclaiming the Incomprehensible God.   I feel like I’m trying to bail out the Atlantic Ocean with a coffee cup.  But it’s good to read over your head, and some of it will stick.  
     Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be, by Sinclair Ferguson.  Dr. Ferguson has spent a lifetime in the pastorate.  In this book, he writes on lessons learned from John Calvin, John Owen, and John Murray.  
Latin. Having taught Latin for ten years, I may be functional but have a long way to go.  I’m pushing myself to stay sharp and improve.

%d bloggers like this: