Recently I've been preoccupied with the shape of the year ahead. It is one of the blessing-curses of my personality that I am relentlessly future-oriented and so I struggle not to be anxious about tomorrow, or next Fall for that matter. In the Kirk house we finished out 2019 tired, but with much to be deeply thankful for. These last few weeks of the year, have left me reflecting on the need to embrace the gifts that the LORD is giving us and to see the present as the life and ministry that the LORD has called us to. My prayer for this year is that I would constantly rejoice in all the good things that the LORD has set in front of me and remember that life and ministry is here and now, not in a theoretical future (when I finish my PhD, for instance). This is the best way, I think, to be faithful day by day and to feel the LORD's joy in our work wherever we find ourselves.
Here are some of the ways we get to serve in 2020:
Looking forward to serving the LORD, day by day, alongside of all of you in 2020. May He prosper the work of our hands.
Over the next few months, I'm going to attempt to string together a little series on spiritual disciplines for a brave new decade. Nothing revolutionary, just trying to tie up a few thoughts I have had and a stitch together a few practices I have found restorative in our distracting world. I'd be delighted if anyone finds these ideas refreshing.
Let's begin with a vignette:
You wake up when the alarm on your phone buzzes at 6:30 AM—a dizzy, jangling ditty. As you reach through the darkness for silence the glowing screen shows that you have a couple of messages. After you fell asleep a friend, your brother, sent you a question and a quip. You chuckle as you read and while you shuffle into the kitchen to start the coffee your fingers load your email without you really telling them to. By the time you're on the toilette your also on Instagram (is it a coincidence?). You read a few emails and check your calendar while you munch on your toast and sip your coffee. While you brush your teeth you update your podcast feeds and walk out the front door with several hours of fascinating listening queued up. All day your phone stares at you from your desk—periodically lighting up your attention while you manage two or three slow-moving conversations that hover somewhere between banter and making plans. You break away from a difficult problem to text your wife because if she goes to the grocery store she needs to know that you ate the last of the yogurt. You manage email expertly all day—nothing goes unanswered. By 5:00 you have fielded maybe thirty messages and your inbox is spick and span. You transit home listening to a mind-blowing interview on infectious diseases. These anti-vaxxers are nuts. You stream Spotify while you help make dinner. You stream Spotify while you do the dishes. You stream Netflix to unwind for a couple hours. As you crawl into bed your finger refreshes your email and your eyes skim a few messages that came in after hours. Watch a seriously dumb Youtube video a friend sent (haha). Glance at an email from your Alma-mater. And you sleep thinking about that super frustrating email a colleague just sent to the whole office... Rinse and repeat.
Hopefully, a day like that sounds like Mad-Hatter-level insanity and you've never experienced anything like it, but this is an accurate description of how I passed my days for years. Honestly, I first began to think about breaking this cycle because I was concerned to be more focused and productive during my working hours—I just had more to do than I could get done and working all the time didn't feel like an option anymore. I discovered some great resources like Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit and the life-changing (at least for me) Deep Work by Cal Newport. As I began implementing some of their practices to break thoughtless reflexes and develop more focus, I found these practices beginning to dovetail with my spiritual goals and with reading and thinking I had been doing for a few years about spiritual disciplines.
Here's a simpler vignette:
You're a farmer in 1885. You wake up because the cock crows. In the morning dark you tend animals. You chat with your wife and children while together you prepare breakfast. After breakfast you do several hours of heavy, hands-on work by yourself in silence in a pasture. Other days you work with friends. On these days you can sing or talk to busy your mind. You stop when you wear out, the sun goes down, or the work gets done. Maybe a card game ensues. You're in bed by 8:00. It doesn't seem early.
I don't mean to fall into that quaint trap where we romanticize the past, but can you imagine how much time people used to have just to think? It sounds painfully obvious, but what I had been lacking without noticing it was headspace, the self-awareness and wherewithal to think a clear thought and come to terms with myself in God's presence. I was distractable, if not actually distracted, every moment of the day. I never allowed my mind to wander such that my deeper feelings, fears, and desires could rise to the surface, so how could I adequately pray through them, repent of them, trust them to God?
In the Psalms, David wrestles with himself, wrapped up both in his desire for God's presence and in the pain of God's absence:
1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
8 By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.
There was little space in my life for thoughts like these. I was far too distracted and entertained to meditate deeply on the nature of my relationship with God, whether in presence and joy or in sorrow and absence. I was far too distracted and entertained to get to the bottom of my own discouragement. I was far too distracted and entertained to pray day and night (1 Thess 5:16–18). As I started to delete some of the apps that so easily entangle, I found air and light and time and space beginning to open up for real spiritual disciplines to come in. It is hard to measure, but I think I am more focused and productive in my work, more present and gracious with my family, and more aware of and responsive to the Spirit. Now, it isn't like I've been "caught up to the third heaven," nor do I actually manage to "pray without ceasing," (1 Thess 5:16–18; 2 Cor 12:2) but I pray a lot more than I did. And I think that is worth something.
If you're yet casting about for a New Year's resolution consider a dose of digital minimalism so that your soul can breathe and you can create some headspace for fresh spiritual disciplines.
So here's my spiritual challenge for you:
This probably sounds radical, but I took these steps and more two or three years ago and I have never even considered going back. Sure, occasionally there are inconveniences, but when I take a step back I have found these to be objectively insignificant compared to the benefits. Once you break your tether to your phone (and digital entertainment in general), you'll desire it less and less and therefore notice yourself missing it less and less until you actually can't stand the thought of having Gmail or Instagram in your pocket. I was filling nearly every moment that I might have communed with God or heard from the Spirit throughout the usual course of my days with content, noise, data. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, I was distracting myself for entertainment rather than embracing a holy boredom.
If these suggestions seem impossible, or you still need convincing about the power of such simple choices, check out the many resources by Cal Newport—easily my favorite "self-help" author. Two books in particular are worth your time:
Consider jumping on Cal Newport's "Analog January" challenge, but don't just do it for productivity, or even for mental health, do it as a spiritual discipline.
Try this for thirty days and if it doesn’t improve your life, just go back to whatever stasis pod you're in now. ;)
But! If it proves to be like opening the curtains of your mind and discovering that it is a beautiful day outside, then over the next couple of months we'll look at some spiritual disciplines that can fill your new-found holy boredom.
On this day in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa to British parents. After his father passed when he was very small, his mother moved her family back to Birmingham where he grew up. After fighting in WWI at the Somme, Tolkien spent basically his entire career as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. In honor of his birthday, I gathered some links for you to peruse.
In the past few newsletters I've been unpacking significant concepts for understanding the book of Proverbs, mostly from the preamble in Prov 1:1–7. In the next two newsletters, we'll wrap up our series by asking how Proverbs works and concluding with some practical strategies for reading Proverbs.
I believe the book of Proverbs is designed in such a way that as you sit with it and meditate on it, it actually effects in your heart and mind the transformation it recommends. Reading Proverbs makes you wise. It does this by taking you, the reader who is addressed as “my son” (1:8), on a poetic journey of spiritual formation from simple youth to wise king.
Proverbs describes some of its own purposes like this:
2 To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
You can start to see how Proverbs does this by looking at the structure of the book.
I. Prologue: Instructions in Wisdom (1–9)
A. Preamble (1:1–1:7)
B. Instructions (1:8–9:18)
II. Proverb Collections (10–29)
A. Proverbs of Solomon (10:1–22:16)
B. Proverbs of the Wise (22:17–24:34)
C. Proverbs of Solomon Compiled by Hezekiah’s Men (25:1–29:17)
III. Epilogue: Instructions in Wisdom (30–31)
A. The Words of Agur, a Warning (30:1–33)
B. The Words of Lemuel, a King, that His Mother Taught Him (31:1–31)
Throughout the instructions in Proverbs 1–9 diverse voices compete for the reader/son’s attention. In chapter 1 the son faces a crisis of peer pressure. The voices of his parents contend with those of the "wicked men" who pressure him to participate in seriously foolish and sinful behavior (1:8, 10ff.). These different voices offer opportunities to choose righteousness or wickedness, wisdom or folly. In order to make these contrasts come to life, the poet personifies Wisdom and Folly as women, each making evocative and sensual appeals to the son (just read chapters 7–9). These two women are the most arresting voices in the first nine chapters. At the end of this section in chapter 9, Wisdom and Folly both lay out a feast and invite you to join them. As the reader, you must choose. Proverbs is beginning to shape you through its poetry. It influences your desires by shaping the way you look at the world. Are you the kind of person who dines at Wisdom's ample table? Or do you prefer to nosh stolen delicacies in back alleys with Folly?
The choice to follow either wisdom or folly is the first fork of a great journey that traces a path through Proverbs. The choice to peruse Wisdom is the choice to stay on the path, to keep reading. If you chose in chapter 9 to shack up with Folly then you threw the book in the ditch and wandered off the trail a long time ago. But, if you chose Wisdom, then chapters 10–29 paint a portrait of wisdom—a picture from a hundred angles of what it looks like to live a wise & righteous life in the fear of the LORD. These collections do not really spell out the “how tos” of wisdom but they do thoroughly describe the wise person. Proverbs shows you more than tells you what to do. If you truly enter into the poetry and images, meditating on the portrait of Wisdom, Proverbs starts to change you into its image. In fact, as we'll explore next time, the very medium of the Proverb grows you through the process of trying to puzzle them out, meditate on them, and apply them to your life.
Chapters 30 and 31 bring you home to Wisdom. In chapter 30, Agur warns the burgeoning sage to remember the sovereignty of God, the limits of human wisdom, and the need for humility. In chapter 31, the son/reader is addressed as a king by his mother (31:1, 4, amazing!) who implores him to rule wisely before describing what a noble wife looks like (31:1, 10). The famous poem about the noble wife is not just advice for women—as it is often taught—this poem is a climactic picture of Wisdom incarnate. You heard Wisdom tout her virtues in chapter 8, now see what she looks like in the flesh. The son who refused to have an affair with Folly has become king and committed himself to marry Wisdom. If you commit yourself to a deep, slow read, Proverbs will take you on this spiritual journey toward maturity.
For Christians, this journey is incomplete until it leads us to grow toward the image of Christ who is the fullest revelation of the Wisdom of God (Col 2:3). The whole book of Proverbs shows us our need for Christ by showing us our need for wisdom. As we look at the commands and descriptions of wisdom in 10–29, we will feel that we continually fall short, but “let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance” (Prov 1:5; cf. Jas 3:2–8). In other words, our awareness that we are falling short should lead us to dependence on the LORD who gives all wisdom that we might grow. The wisdom of God, like a gesture drawing for us in the book of Proverbs, is activated in the gospel. Jesus Christ like Wisdom models for us what it looks like to be perfectly wise (Luke 2:40–52), to fear YHWH perfectly. "And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:30–31; Jer 9:23–24).
LORD, you have sketched a portrait of your Wisdom in your Word. May we walk faithfully down this path all of our days. Lead us day by day on the journey of your faithful Son and grant us His wisdom unto salvation.