Category Archives: Living Wisely

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.

Do all the good that you can

Several years ago, I taught an American History class.  One of our primary sources was a series of excepts from Cotton Mather’s “Essays To Do Good.”  During my period of convalescence, Mather’s essays have come back to haunt me.  I’ve recognized that while I will be physically limited for a while, there are still many opportunities to do good.  So, I’ve resolved to do all the good that I can.  I hope that this resolution will carry over to when I am able-bodied.
Mather’s proposal in these essays is: “That we resolve and study to do as much good in the world as we can.”  He goes on to speak of the necessity of good works, that good works follow justification, and to exhort his readers not to miss opportunities to do whatever good they can, whether temporal or spiritual.
Here are some gems from these essays:
“Every one of us might do more good than he does.”
“Let  us try to do good, with as much application of mind, as men who do evil.”
“A power and opportunity fo doing good not only gives a right to the doing of a thing, but makes the doing of it a duty.”
“Those who devote themselves to good devices (works), and who duly observe their opportunities to do good, usually find a wonderful increase
of their opportunities.  The gracious providence of God affords this recompense to his diligent servants, that he will multiply their opportunities of being serviceable.”
“The firstborn of all devices to do good is to be born again.”
“Our opportunities to do good are our talents”

On Crankiness

Crankiness.   Most people find this posture rather annoying or just plain boring.  Yes, there is the occasional H. L. Mencken, whose curmudgeonly writing is entertaining partially because of its cranky tone.  But Mencken has a rare capacity for the mot juste, which makes one willing to suffer through page after page of cantankerousness to find the inexpressible one-liner that will knock one’s socks off.

However, crankiness ought to be rare rather than routine.  Yet, it seems that in the writings of the two vocational groups to which I serve, crankiness is routine.  I am a minister in a small, somewhat strict Presbyterian setting, and a classical Christian school teacher.  I’ve read somewhere that there are something like 107 different classifiable feelings.  But in the writings of some in these settings, all of these feelings are easily reduced to one:  crankiness.

I’m writing this because this is a temptation that I’ve often succumbed to.  I’m repulsed by it.  Most of us find complainers insufferable, but we often notice that one is rejected from certain affinity groups without the proper undertone of complaint.

I understand the reason for crankiness.  Pure and simple, the reason is a misappropriation  of conservatism.  Not 21st century American political conservatism, which is ill-defined and cranky in it’s own way, but classic conservatism.  Classic conservatism at its root entails a sense of loss, a mournfulness that the tried and true heritage of the past is being rejected in favor of the new and novel.  Classic conservatism sees an arrogance in this rejection of the past, a lack of humility and teachability, and a dishonor for one’s fathers and mothers by those in the present age.

However, this crankiness quickly turns into a requiem for the past and a scorn for the opportunities of the present.  Yes, true conservatives do and should long for a celebration of the best of the past.  However, what is required is not the proverbial turning back of the clock but the joie de vivre of seeing the opportunities of the present day and a creative imagining of a preferable future and the faith-filled steps and processes to bring this preferable future into place.  A robust theological and philosophical vision must be brought to bear to face the “fallen condition focus” of the environments in which people serve.

Crankiness is not a fruit of the Spirit.  It’s not enough to grieve the virtues of bygone eras. Biblically, the only “good ole’ days” were the ones before the Fall.  While many “white-bread” American Protestants look back with longing at the fifties, one does not need to think too hard in questioning if our African-American brethren experience a similar longing.  Crankiness is an unfortunate lapse into the flesh and a blessing of what is more properly called the lack of joy in our lives. Crankiness is the work of the flesh that the Christian must put off.  Joy is the fruit of the Spirit that we must “put on.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say, rejoice.”  While this is easier said than done for a habitual pessimist like myself, this is the imperative of the gospel.  The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is what allows us to rejoice, even when temporal circumstances may not bring happiness or optimism.  As long as God is present, all things are possible.  This is what is cause for rejoicing, rather than bygone virtues or present optimism.

 

 

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Momentum, Processes, Goals, and Sisyphus

I steeled my will to go to the gym and spend an hour on the elliptical machine.  It wasn’t exactly quality cardio, but I did get it done.  Probably helped me to sleep and is building momentum toward more and better training.  I seem so far removed from even being able to think about getting fit for an ultra.  However, getting out and doing something every day is the first step.  Getting momentum going is what is key at this point, rather than a state of fitness at a future date.
I’m finding this is true in other disciplines as well.  Reading.  Writing.  Counseling.  The temptation is to think in terms of goals completed.  This can be depressing, as my thinking tends to drift toward how far away I am from the goal and how much effort it will take to get there.  Unfailingly, this turns out to be an exercise in self defeat,  as I ponder the Sisyphian labor involved in reaching this milestone.  It works much better for me to hold the goal loosely, and instead, work on the process that should move me toward that outcome, and every day continue to take the steps necessary to move toward the objective.  “Success” seems to be more of an exercise in taking disciplined steps to move things along on a number of fronts rather than arriving at a “Eureka”moment.  Momentum is key to continuing to be faithful in this discipline.  What you do when no one sees is what turns your endeavors from brainstorms or ideas into reality.  When momentum accrues, the labor no longer seems Sisyphian, and the process becomes the focus rather than the outcome.   496164907155199844_338ba033584f
I still shudder to think of some of the minimum objectives I need to achieve to keep the status quo.  I don’t know why the word “goal’ is such an intimidating word, why it screams “failure!”  It’s possible that in challenging oneself, there must be a strong possibility of failure.  Otherwise, the endeavor wouldn’t really be a challenge.  However, my slothful self doesn’t quite see it that way.  Even my wife hates it that the word “goal” is such a taunt to me.  I even felt this way when I was competing in cross-country and track in high school and college,  I surpassed a significant number of seasonal goals.  It’s probably the distance from starting the process to completing the process, only to do it all over again.  It can quickly get into the mentality of “can you top this?”  Such an equation puts a person under a great deal of pressure, because there comes a point when every achievement can’t be built upon, or the point of diminishing returns for one’s effort is reached, and it is folly to go beyond this point.
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Broad and Narrow Reading

   Both of my vocations require a fair amount of reading merely to stay current with my
responsibilities.  I’ve often considered how, why, and even if it’s beneficial to read more broadly outside of these demands.  I’ve come to the conclusion that if I don’t read more broadly, I stunt my intellectual growth and lose the ability to speak to the issues that I write, teach, and speak about.
Today, one of the choices that I need to make is whether or not to take the time to stay current on my Bible reading plan, or go straight to the sermon and claim this as my “Bible reading” for the day.  I don’t necessarily think that there’s a right or wrong answer, but I do believe that if I don’t maintain the daily habit of reading other parts of Scripture than I’m studying to preach and teach from, then I’ll regress in my understanding of and command of Scripture, not to mention personal godliness and enjoyment of God’s Word.
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Likewise, whether it’s mass-market fiction or other genres, reading broadly helps me to think through the connects between the material for my current projects and other items that create interest in them and relate to them.  So, I need to continue to make the effort and schedule the time to read broadly outside my disciplines.
What are your reading habits?  What has been most helpful to your spiritual, personal, and professional growth?
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Copyright Your Faults

It fascinates me to listen to people who are good at their craft and passionate about it.  I’ve posted about Dan Carlin and Hardmainpic_hh-1core History before.  His interview on The Tim Ferriss Show is an excellent conversation that really gets at the intersection his passion for his craft and his proficiency at it. Dan Carlin is a podcaster who has excellent content and practically flawless delivery.  One of points that I took away from this conversation is his line, “copyright your faults.”  In other words, don’t spend all your time trying to fix your weaknesses but be yourself, and use the actual weakness into a strength.

I found it interesting that he didn’t say, “work on flawless delivery,” and even goes into some flaws that have been pointed out to him with his delivery.  Rather than trying to change those, they have become a part of who he is, and given him a distinctive voice.

The phrase “copyright your faults” really captures the idea of not trying to conquer your weaknesses but  to strengthen your strengths and make your weaknesses part of your individuality better than anything else I’ve heard.  Rather than flat out imitating someone who have been an influence on me, I’ll be more effective in the long run by building on my skills and abilities and cultivating my own style.

In my own setting, as a teacher, there are probably as many ways to bring about good learning outcomes as there are teachers.  If I care about what I’m teaching enough and I care about the material enough, I can usually find a way to connect students with the material.  There’s usually a human interest element that may be behind or beyond the text that we are studying.  I really want to connect this to my students to broaden their interests and to continue the process that was begun with me in high school, when I first encountered teachers who were passionate about their craft and good at it.

What are you learning about being passionate about your craft and being proficient at it?  I’d love to hear from you!

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Learning

“We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning how to do” (Aristotle.  Ethics ii.1).

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