The Sampler (June 2020)

American culture rages like a sounding cataract, but the Sampler goes ever on.

Articles

Matthew Crawford, contrarian in residence, wrote “The Danger of Safetyism before the recent surge of protests around the country. One quote:

At the level of sentiment, there appears to be a feedback loop wherein the safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears. At the level of bureaucratic grasping, we can note that emergency powers are seldom relinquished once the emergency has passed. Together, these dynamics make up a kind of ratchet mechanism that moves in only one direction, tightening against the human spirit.

Crawford usually sounds like someone who chafes at being told what to do. I suppose that makes us kindred spirits. But I think he’s onto something. I was going to share an excerpt from his newest book on driving (and why self-driving cars may not be the greatest), but this is the Sampler, so we’re sampling, not feasting.

Cal Newport wrote recently on the Lost Satisfactions of Manuel Competence. People are discovering that making things and fixing your own stuff can make you quiet and easy.

To Watch

Alright, so here’s a sermon. It’s over twenty years old, and I’m aware that nothing good ever came out of the 90’s. Jim Cymbala has been the senior pastor at the Brooklyn Tabernacle since 1971. Several things on prayer clicked into place for me after listening to this. If your heart needs crackin’, I heartily recommend it.

Books!

I have some posts on a few new books in the queue, so I’ll just mention a short one, Ploductivity by Douglas Wilson. I’ve read seven or eight books on time management and productivity and this was the first that appears to have been written by a human. David Allen’s Getting Things Done is undoubtedly the best, but I’m confident that Allen is actually a robot. Wilson brings a much needed sense of humor to the subject.

It’s also great that Wilson is approaching his work as a Christian. The theology of Work and Theology of Wealth sections are worth the price of admission. Here’s a snippet:

So if technology is wealth, then we are all surrounded with astounding amounts of it. This is what I refer to as tangible grace. If you have a smartphone, you have more wealth in your pocket than Nebuchadnezzar accumulated over the course of his lifetime. We have a responsibility to turn a profit on these astounding resources—and that is what is meant by productivity. We have a responsibility to do this methodically, deliberately, and intentionally. This is what I mean by ploductivity. This is deliberate faithfulness: working in the same direction over an extended period of time. Our electronic servants may be super fast, but we should be as deliberate as ever.

Ploductivity: A Practical Theology of Work and Wealth, Location 129, Kindle Edition

Oh, and look who we picked up this weekend…

Meet Picket!

Missing Practices

I led my first small group at my church nearly ten years ago. After assuming the title of Assistant Pastor of Discipleship and Small Groups (helpfully abbreviated APOD&SG), I started reading everything I could on small group ministry. I rarely found what I was looking for.

There was plenty to read and consider: recruiting and training leaders, practicing hospitality, writing discussion material, and easing through small group dynamics. I also learned how to develop our small groups without cannibalizing the church itself.

But the most popular materials never seemed to mention the practices of writing or prayer- practices that became necessary to do my pastoral work at all. I’m sure no one would say these practices were unimportant. They were apparently assumed. I suspected they weren’t mentioned because they weren’t practiced.

If we assume a ministry is attending to prayer without consistent instruction and practice we can create a kind of ecclesiastical Ponzi scheme. No real work is really being done in prayer. Why else don’t we have more to say about how these practices should shape our small group ministries? Pastoral work without prayer and writing is as useful as carpentry without tools.

Limited experience taught me that prayer opens my eyes to the presence and work of God. How else could I learn repentance and petition, confession and blessing? Prayer taught me that God had taken the initiative in every situation I entered. Rather than asking “what do I need to do to get things going,” I began to ask, “what is God doing here that I need to be aware of?”

“I can be a pastor who prays,” wrote Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor. Peterson was a lone voice in my wilderness:

I want to cultivate my relationship with God. I want all of life to be intimate—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—with the God who made, directs, and loves me. And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer. I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wondering if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying.

The Contemplative Pastor Page 29

In time, writing became a physical expression of my praying. Like prayer (at its best), writing clarifies and reflects meditation. “As I mused, the fire burned.”* Pen and paper now take on new energy as I consider the normal difficulties of ministry. We need more leaders in our church. How can I train the leaders we have? How will I handle this difficult conversation?

Small groups have great potential for helping the church in her task of spiritual formation. We all have a lot of work to do. As for me, I will write and pray.

BL

*Psalm 39:3, ESV

Pandemic Intensity

I re-injured my right hamstring on a glacial Tuesday evening while running almost two months ago. My recovery plan was regrettably clear: I had to shut everything down. Rest, no running, no stretching. I blush to remember how discouraged I was. That weekend, after a few feeble attempts at light jogging I accepted my fate. I brought my 22 mile per week regimen to a complete stop. Running had become key for me, so I warned my wife that my life would soon be falling apart. One reputable source suggested that I should avoid running for 8 weeks.

During an episode on dealing with injuries, Running Rogue host Chris McClung recommended looking to the broken training cycles as an opportunity to challenge myself. Every injury is a chance to anchor myself and gain new skills. He gave examples of famous athletes who made breakthroughs during injury cycles. He was urgent- don’t mope, don’t get complacent, don’t waste your injury.

I took this to heart. I started getting up at 4:30 am to make time to swim laps at my local YMCA. Realizing that I had no idea what I was doing did nothing to diminish my intensity. I spent my lunch breaks watching Youtube tutorials and learned how to breathe and to freestyle. I was baptized. My three lap near-death experiences became regular ½ mile workouts. That’s thirty-two laps, in case you were wondering. After a month, swimming laps restored the familiar rhythms of prayer and reflection. I also began walking two to three miles a day.

I began to observe that life is full of similar opportunities to pivot and I often waste them. Consider the current COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is facing their own private stash of anxieties. We can’t waste our God-given chance to see into the life of things.

I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Psalm 16:8

Instead of manically scanning the news for hourly (!) updates, we will say: “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.”

James K.A. Smith reminds us: “Your deepest desire is the one manifested by your daily life and habits.” What is your current crisis revealing about your deepest desires? Don’t go with the flow, don’t keep pace with social media. Don’t mope, don’t get complacent. Rather, with God-earnest intensity and prayer-saturated effort learn something new, read that book, get down on your knees and pray. Don’t waste your pandemic.

BL

The Fear of God

C.S. Lewis on the Numinous:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.

~The Problem of Pain, p. 17

I haven’t found a passage of writing that captures this well the nuances of the fear of God in Scripture. The concept is often easily misunderstood, especially when divorced from passages like 1 John 4:18, and Romans 8:1.

Calvin argued that this sense of reverence is essential for prayer. The Psalmist tells us that God’s grace is accompanied by this kind of fear:

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,

O Lord, who could stand?

But with you is forgiveness, that you may be feared.

~Psalm 130:3-4