Readers’ Bootcamp

exercise-boot-camp-clipart-1

“Bootcamp” WorldArtsMe

Perhaps the title involves a bit of hyperbole. But if we are indeed in a battle to find space in our lives for attentive reading amid the distractions of modern technological life, it might involve something akin to bootcamp, where in a short space of weeks, civilians are turned into soldiers, and where civilian habits that might get you killed in short order are exchanged for habits that enable you to live life under fire.

Perhaps the drastic metaphor of bootcamp has a place. At one time, our shopkeepers and farmers read Shakespeare, The Bible, Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and others. John Adams traveled from town to town with a “poet in his pocket.” The great ideas that shaped our republic came from people who weren’t academics, but who kept company in the books they read with great ideas. At one time in this country, workers’ Athenaeums  were popular for people who wanted to improve themselves and their understanding of the world. Apart from some things like TED talks, much of the content we have online that occupy much of our time are tweets that amuse or arouse us, memes, pictures and news of often-dubious and editorially biased origin. To break our addiction to these distractions to recover the experience of deep, extended and attentive reading might require something of a “bootcamp” experience in our lives.

Here are some starters I might suggest:

  • Figure out a time when you are mentally sharpest and carve out a space of that time to read. Maybe to start, decide on the 15-20 minutes you will dedicate to reading, or a goal to read 10 pages during this sharpest time.
  • Now, the hard part. Put yourself as far away from any screens including your smartphone as possible. You will find your ability to focus immeasurably enhanced by doing this.
  • At this point, I would strongly discourage reading on any tablet that is not a dedicated e-reader, and would favor using a physical book. Any piece of technology with other apps will provide distractions that will undermine the goal of attentive, undistracted reading.
  • Don’t start with a dense philosophical tome by Kant or Heidegger. Pick a genre and writer you like and start reading.
  • If you already have the book at hand, so much the better provided it doesn’t violate the previous suggestion!
  • If you don’t have something to read, I would suggest going either to your local library or a brick and mortar bookstore. If you want to cultivate a reading habit, you want to make friends with the people in these places who are highly motivated to help you find good books, because you will keep coming to them for recommendations! Besides, would you rather get a book recommendation from an algorithm than a friend?
  • Speaking of friends, find a book buddy, maybe someone else is on the same journey to recovering literacy that you are, that you can meet up with to talk about the books in your lives. This can also help as you graduate to books that require more mental effort to understand. I’ve often found that great books demand multiple minds to really grasp their full meaning and I see so much more when I read with friends.
  • Keep a book journal where you record the books you have read, and key thoughts you want to remember from those books, and how, if at all, the book has changed your thinking. Online tools like Goodreads make this convenient as long as you don’t get distracted from actually reading. (That’s really how this blog was born–as a way to remember what I read as well as to talk about books with others).

I’ll stop there other than suggesting that you might try working up to the goal of an hour of focused reading a day. Actually, I think if you follow some of these ideas, you will find yourself wanting to read more and stopping will be the problem.

Tomorrow, I will talk a bit more about what to read.

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two

claude_vignon_-_the_lament_of_saint_peter

Claude Vignon, Lament of St. Peter CC BY-SA 3.0

Yesterday I made the contention that the scandal of the Church in America is that it is deeply divided within itself, that we have deeply rent the body of Christ, and that these divisions reflect the divisions in our country rather than the unity of people across our differences in Christ.

So what can and must be done?

I am not proposing that we all just try to gather in some kind of circle around a campfire, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.”

First of all, I believe we must awaken. I wonder whether most of us are all that disturbed that the Church in America is divided within itself and that we often include fellow believers in “the enemies” we are fighting and attacking (even when we’ve been told that our warfare is not to be against flesh and blood). I wonder if we are caught up so much with the urgency and the grievances of our particular tribe of Christians, and those with whom we have made common cause that we are woozy like boxers who have been punching each other too long.

Second, I believe we need to lament our sad state. We may not have a clue how we can mend the wounds between us. That tells us how desperate things are. It acknowledges that we need an intervention from on high. Lamenting takes us into a place where we realize our desperate need for God, and that to go on in the way we have is increasingly intolerable.

Third, as we begin to grasp our own contribution to the deep divisions that exist among believers, and the ways we have wronged in word, thought, and deed, in personal acts and unjust structures, we need to repent. Repenting is to call our own sins for what they are, to acknowledge them to God, and the wronged person as wrong, to come to terms with the real hurt and harm we have caused, and to acknowledge our intent, with God’s help to live differently and to determine what that difference will look like. Often we need to do this with the offended.

Repenting is hard, particularly when we think the other might have more to repent of than do we. Often the others think it the other way around. The question sometimes is simply, who will end the rounds of accusations and begin the process of repentance and restoration?

Fourth, we can begin to engage with our fellow believers across our differences and often at this point, what is most needed is simply to attend.  To attend is to listen to understand rather than to refute. Can we listen well enough that we can repeat what is said in a way that the other recognizes that we understood them? We may have to ask ourselves beforehand whether we are truly open to such dangerous listening, because it may open us to different ways of seeing things.

Fifth is that I believe there is a necessity at times to contend. We cannot start here, I think, because I think so many of the things we would contend for are things in which we are deeply invested. The process of awakening, lamenting, repenting, and listening, may help us discern where we are healthily and unhealthily invested, enabling us to advocate for the right reasons, as well as with the right demeanor. But there are things where we really do disagree. The question is whether we will ever seek to come to a meeting of the minds, or at least to identify what we can agree upon and work from that. So often, differing parties only contend in their books and talks directed toward those who agree with them.

Sixth, this may lead us to amend our ways toward each other and toward how we address each others concerns.

I dream of several changes that might flow out of this:

  • I hope this would lead our churches into a similar process of listening deeply to God, the Holy Scriptures, and one another, more intensely than to the political echo chambers that form many of our views.
  • I would hope public Christian leaders would sit down with those who differ greatly to practice these steps and model them for others. Imagine if Franklin Graham, from Samaritan’s Purse, and Jim Wallis from Sojourners met each other as believers and modeled this effort toward coming to a common mind and communion of heart.
  • I dream of the day when Christians, instead of aligning with one political party or another, would line up together to advocate for public policies that reflect the whole of the counsels of the Bible and challenge both parties to end the either-or approaches that characterize so much of our politics that set our people against each other.

As I wrote yesterday, I am convinced that if we do not work at composing and reconciling our differences in the American Church, we have little right or hope of expecting our American politicians to do it. I believe this is urgent for several reasons:

  • Christ is grieved and not glorified by how we have torn asunder his Body.
  • Our divisions sow seeds of doubt about the power of our gospel.
  • Our children are abandoning many of our churches because of our behavior around these divisions.
  • If we allow our divisions across race, gender, economics, and politics to continue, we will only aid and abet the inflaming of differences that could lead to a very scary future, and not one from powers outside our country.

Where am I beginning? I’ve decided that from now through Lent I am not going to post political posts or comments in social media in order to work on the six steps above in my own life. I’ve become increasingly aware of my own participation in the divisions about which I’ve written. I’m also going to look for at least a few fellow believers with views different from mine who would be open to practice this with me (anyone interested?).

Do me a favor, would you? If you think these posts on target, pass them along to church leaders you know, locally or nationally. I don’t want to see our generation repeat the error of church leaders in the pre-Civil War era. I hope instead they will say, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

Review: Deep Mentoring

Deep MentoringDeep MentoringRandy D. Reese and Robert Loane. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Deep Mentoring proposes that the development of Christian leaders of integrity is a lifelong, God-driven process that mentors play a crucial part in through attentiveness and focus on the spiritual and character formation of rising leaders.

We usually become aware of our need for leaders of spiritual depth, character and skill when we don’t have them. And far too often, our response is the crash, leadership course and filling positions with warm, and maybe willing, bodies–only for the whole thing to end in many cases with disappointment.

Reese and Loane contend that spiritual leaders of character and skill are developed over time through the deep work of discipleship and the attentive guidance of mentors. The book is broken into three parts. The first begins with “noticing God’s already present action.” Informed throughout by the leadership development work of J. Robert Clinton, they believe God calls leaders but that critical in the work are attentive mentors willing to engage in the slow, deep work of leadership development eschewing superficial, one-size-fits all, ends over means, hurry-up approaches. And what do mentors pay attention to but the stories of persons recognizing the three critical formations of character, skill, and strategy that are worked out in the course of our lives.

The second part focuses on four seasons of our life stories. These are:

  1. Foundation. In leadership development, consideration needs to be given to how God has been shaping a person from their earliest years and also the “family of origin” influences that shape us for good and for ill.
  2. Preparation. This ten to twenty-five year period is focused around growth in holiness while discerning and cultivating one’s gifts and the skills necessary to effective leadership.
  3. Contribution. If one has prepared well, this is the season in which character, gifts, and skill come together in service that has spiritual authority. It is the season of one’s maximum impact.
  4. Multiplication. In this final phase, the focus shifts from one’s own leadership to developing the leadership of others while continuing to grow spiritually.

Part three goes further with this last phase, which in some sense is involved in helping with the development of others through the four phases. It looks at how Jesus came alongside others in a way that was deepening, particularizing, hospitable and patient and then in the succeeding chapter how mentors might do the same.

Five premises serve as bookends to the book:

  1. Shape the person and you stand a much greater chance of shaping everything else.
  2. Discipleship and Christian leadership development are inextricably linked and together make a slow and deep work.
  3. Igniting a grassroots way toward renewal is possible. It doesn’t have to be top-down.
  4. A Christian approach to leadership formation requires a ministry of paying attention.
  5. Conditions can be cultivated in order for local communities to become significant places of learning and growth.

The book concludes with several appendices. “Lessons from those who come before us” is worth the price of admission as they discuss both why leaders finish badly and well. Three other appendices include one on lifelong perspective in developing leaders, observations from Clinton’s leadership emergence studies, and five practices to sustain long haul leadership.

I appreciated the book’s character-driven, developmental perspective and the practical counsel throughout for those mentoring or being mentored. Working in collegiate ministry where one often thinks of the academic year or the four to six years students are with us, the slow and deep perspective can be challenging. Two things seem of importance. One is to never neglect the dimension of investing deeply in people simply to get things done. In our work, we need to think how leadership activities not only accomplish goals but develop people, and make sure they do. Second is to realize that the most important things we do is lay down the preparation for a lifetime of leadership, and a contribution phase still to come.

This is a good book for anyone thinking about leadership development, but is far more than the typical leadership book in thinking of how leaders are formed and of the depth of attention required of those who engage in this work.

Going Deeper: A Book of Glory or A Confusing Book?

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

For some of us, our experience of reading the Bible seems to vacillate between these two extremes. Sometimes we see amazing things about God and God’s purposes and the human experience that catch us up in wonder. And sometimes, we are just plain perplexed and confused as we read and try to figure out, “what is this about?”

My title though has a particular reference to what we’ve been considering in our church’s study of John’s Gospel. Often the book is divided into two parts: The Book of Signs (John 1-12) and The Book of Glory (John 13-20 or 21 if you include the epilogue). The first part consists of Seven Signs that are meant to help persuade us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (cf John 20:31). The second part concerns the final events of Jesus life and passion, in which John sees Jesus being glorified. Five chapters (13-17) consist of a lengthy talk and prayer that at first reading may seem confusing, even if there are some glimpses of glory along the way.

An example of both is John 13:31-32. Judas has just left to betray Jesus and here’s what follows:

When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.  If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

There is definitely some glory in there but also some fairly convoluted sentences. There is a good deal of this kind of thing in these chapters. It is not my intent to unravel all this here but rather to remind those of us in our church what our pastor said about working through this material, which might be helpful for others who find themselves confused either in John’s gospel or other parts of scripture.

1.What Jesus says is worth our attention! Right before this section, Jesus reminds his followers:

For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. (John 12:49-50)

If Jesus is saying just what the Father wants him to say and these commands lead to eternal life, careful attention is warranted!

2. A good way to pay attention is to read (and re-read) before our messages. That’s not a bad way to pay attention for one thing. Also, even if we can’t figure it all out–it will prepare us to hear the word explained in our Sunday messages. This is just good sense in general and a good argument for knowing ahead of time what texts of scripture will be preached on so we can read, pray, and be working with our pastor to understand what God is saying. Rich even gave us a schedule–so no excuses!

3. The third thing that Rich shared is to reflect. The questions he gave us are good for this section, and maybe more generally as well.

  • How does my belief in Jesus affect my daily life?
  • How well am I doing at loving?
  • How well am I doing at obeying?

Believing, loving, and obeying are pretty basic stuff–basic but also challenging! I will never in this life get beyond believing, loving, and obeying. I often want the new and exciting. But if I’ve seen anything in John, it is in these things that we find life in Jesus. We’ve learned that our healing is in our obedience. In the man born blind, we saw that believing was seeing for him–the more he believed, the more he saw.

So, where will you make time this week to pay attention to Jesus, to read and re-read what he says, and reflect on how well you are believing, loving and obeying? Can you take time this week to read over on your own the text from either last week’s message in church, or the one for the week to come? Are there some others you can talk with about this stuff?

If’s funny how many times I listen to messages and forget what I heard before I get to the parking lot! If nothing else, Going Deeper helps me keep reflecting on how what I’ve heard should affect my belief and my behavior. I hope that for all of us, that we can be not only hearers of the word but doers (James 1:22). That would be glorious!

All the posts I’ve made for our “Going Deeper” blog now appear as a separate category on my home page.

Reading the Bible without a Net

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I work with graduate students who not only read books but read books and articles about the books, study manuscripts of the book, deconstruct the book, study books in original translations, and more. And I find this is what they want to do with the Bible. They want to get the best commentaries out of the library, understand what the text says and means in the original languages, understand the origins of the text and more.

I have no quibble with this per se’. Having attended seminary and learning something of biblical exegesis (though I by no means consider myself a biblical scholar in the professional sense), I seek to do the same when I’m in a formal teaching setting and have (or make) the time to do this work. Often, this work does contribute to enriching my understanding. I do value learning from those past and present who have worked in the same text and discovering whether my ideas are totally out to lunch.

But I also think that all of this sometimes becomes a “net” that may distract us from developing the “high wire” artistry of reading the scriptures well.  Furthermore, it seems to me that it develops a culture of “the expert” that says that only those who can read in the original languages can unlock the “secret code” of the Bible to us.

What I want to propose is that more fundamental than all this is simply bringing the practices of reading well to the Bible. My experience has been that there are scholars who read the scriptures poorly in spite of their scholarship (as well as those who read it well) and uneducated people who read well. So what goes into reading well:

  • Attentiveness to the text and to the literary art within it. The Bible, like any other book, conveys ideas through story, poetry, discourse and other genres and uses various literary cues to point us to meaning including repeated words, the climax of a story, the ordering of ideas, contrasts and comparisons, and figures of speech. When we read anything attentively, we pay attention to these sorts of things.
  • A willingness to suspend our judgment as far as this is possible while listening to the text and living within the story or poetry or discourse. Often this involves multiple readings and the use of imagination.
  • An awareness of the context of what is written. Outside sources can help, but often the most important contextual clues for any work can be found within the work if we are observant. One thing that is a good practice with any book is to skim first, then read closely. With the Bible, this can be a general skim of the whole to get a sense of the big story, or a skim of the particular book in which one is studying.
  • An openness to the text that involves a willingness to be engaged and transformed by what we encounter. When we are hostile, indifferent, or distrustful, it seems that our assumptions are those of suspicion rather than presuming the best.
  • Christians also believes that God provides illumination as we study scripture (and other things as well). It seems to me that it is not wrong to ask for this and to believe that if God is there, God wants to communicate meaningfully and intelligibly with us.

As I write this, I realize that this kind of reading requires mental effort. It is different from simply allowing a text to wash over me or have someone tell me what it says. I suspect that some of what motivates resorting to the “nets” of original languages and commentaries is that we buy the notion that this is a mysterious book that only experts can understand. I also suspect that sometimes, we are looking for a sure fire short cut to understanding. Actually, to really do the biblical scholarship thing right is itself a long-haul proposition and a little learning here may also be a dangerous thing. I can’t believe how many really bad readings of scripture I’ve heard that were prefaced by “the original Greek says.”

Most scholars of great literature will come back to the idea that whatever else you read, you must read and re-read these great texts and soak yourself in them. They are deep and rich with meaning that doesn’t yield itself to a quick, casual glance. And so it has been with my experience with the Bible. When I began reading it, there was much I didn’t get. But there were compelling stories, especially the various encounters Jesus had with people, poetry that gave voice to my longings for God, and instructions in the letters of Paul, John, and others that made sense.

Many who follow this blog are good readers. You know what it takes to read well. Whether you are a reader of the Bible or not, I hope you will do some reading “without a net”. And if you have the time, definitely use the resources of other scholars to enrich your reading. I just hope you won’t spend all your time in the net!

 

 

Everything Matters

Rich, in his concluding message in the series on “The Christian and…” this past Sunday began the sermon with the assertion that everything we do as Christians matters and ended with the question, “does my life matter or not?” My immediate response to this is “of course!” And it makes me wonder why we have spent a whole summer considering as a church how all of life matters and how becoming more like Christ relates to every aspect of our lives. It seems to me that this should be as plain as the nose on my face.

Except that it isn’t.

Why is that? I think there are two reasons. The first is one basic to our nature as fallen creatures whose ingrained habit of living is to close God out of our lives except when we are really desperate. There is a part of me that resists God’s gracious overtures to make sense out of my life and to fashion me into a “little Christ” who is at the same time the unique person God intends me to be. Sometimes, the visceral response to these overtures is one of “sez who?” or maybe slightly more politely, “I can do it myself”. Sometimes I even pursue the really mixed up strategy of trying to meet the radical demands of following Jesus without his radical help. Call it being the male macho cowboy or whatever you will, I keep wanting to limit the places I let Jesus  into when he in fact is saying, “it all matters to me”. Too often, I only realize this only when I royally screw up!

The other reason is an external one. The “water we swim in” is a society that has made sharp divisions between public and private, secular and sacred that confines the expression of our faith to the private parts of life. Have you noticed how some recent public discourse no longer talks about freedom of religion but “freedom of worship?” There is a subtle message in this that says, “you may practice your faith in the privacy of your home, your car, and your church, but don’t let it intrude into any part of public life.”

In the university setting where I work, I sometimes ask graduate students if they ever stop to pray when confronted with a tough research problem or give thanks when they have a breakthrough. Do they pray about a seminar in which they will present, or for students as they grade their papers or prepare for office hours? Sometimes, I’m confronted by a blank stare that says, “I never thought of this before.” I suspect at least part of this is that we are all tempted to “go into secular mode” when we arrive at work.

Rich’s “principles and practices” seemed to me to offer helpful ways to lives as someone for whom everything matters that deal both with my resistance to following Jesus and with the false dichotomy between sacred and secular in our society. He challenged us to the principles of an integrity where the private and public part of our lives are consistent with each other, to be wise in recognizing that Christ does not call us to a life that defies the capacities and competencies he has given us, to allow Christ rather than the cultures of family, workplace, community or even church to shape us, and to rely on the resources of God in scripture, Spirit, and Christian community to live Christ-shaped lives. And he challenged us to the practices of examining our use of our time and claiming it for what matters, to creating routines that sustain us, to being defined in relationship to Christ rather than giving our identities to persons or forces like our jobs to shape us, and to live attentively.

This last one has seemed particularly important to me. Dallas Willard often advised those who sought his advice on living well to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” from their lives. Hurry seems to me to be what keeps me from living attentively to both my insides and my external circumstances and the life Jesus is inviting me into in all of life. When I am hurrying through my life, I stop asking questions like “is this something that really matters to Jesus, something he wants me to do?”, “how does this matter to Jesus?”, “how might I act as someone whose life and character matters to Jesus?”

Reality for followers of Jesus is that our lives and everything we do in our bodies in this life matter deeply to him. It seems that it all comes down to whether we will live in the shadow worlds of secularity and human rebellion or the bright and good reality of Jesus where everything in our lives matters.

This blog is also posted at Going Deeper, a blog reflecting on messages at our church each week.

Alone…And Not Alone

As a petulant child, I can remember saying “leave me alone!” Yet I might have silently added in my head, “but not too long.” This Sunday, Pastor Rich talked about the Christian alone and how rare it actually is to be alone. Some of this has to do with the myriad distractions in our lives–our work, families, and an ever more ubiquitous technology. The latter is sometimes a paradox as we are connected to the world digitally and more socially cut off than ever.

Alone often seems to equate with loneliness. And yet sometimes I’ve felt most lonely in a crowd of people, and not at all lonely by myself. What is harder though is being alone, and unplugged. For ten seconds, there is the blessed silence of alone–and then the thoughts come. Sometimes it is recalling a task that I need to accomplish and it is relatively easy to add that to a “to do” list and return to silence. Sometimes it can be a fairly constructive process of mentally chewing over a problem or thinking through an upcoming presentation and beginning to experience the gelling of my thoughts.

What can be harder are some of the other kinds of thoughts. At least for me, and this may reveal my own dysfunctionality, the thoughts can be of shortcomings or failings–the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” kind of accusations that remind me that I could be a better person than I am. Or it can be thoughts of the tempting sort as I become aware of hunger and other desires. No wonder it is easy to open up the computer or turn on the radio.

What sometimes seems to help is remembering that I am alone…and not alone. I am not just with my thoughts but with the God who knows my thoughts, and neither runs away in horror or hammers me into oblivion. Instead he invites me to confess them, the word “confess” meaning “to agree with.” Somehow, acknowledging my failings, my frustrations, my desires, my anxieties seems to bring me to a place where i can let go of them into God’s care–kind of like telling your dad about something that was really bugging you as a kid, and then somehow knowing it would be all right. Dad knew.

Sometimes just to get to this point is blessed relief. But sometimes we might experience something more. That is when silence and aloneness leads to stillness. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes, I believe there is a point in aloneness where no words are needed, where our clamoring thoughts for just a moment are stilled, and we are just being with the God who is “I am”. We are both in wonder in the presence of the Holy One, and basking in the delight of being the beloved of the Father.

And this perhaps is the point where we might “hear” God. It might be a scripture that comes to mind. Perhaps a person comes to mind to call, or pray for, or visit. Sometimes there is nothing but being alone in the Presence, and attentive to whatever may come in the hours ahead. Rich observed that when we’ve been attentive to our thoughts and attentive to God, then we are best prepared to be attentive to others and truly enter into community.

Where do I get alone? Rich’s suggestion that if no where else we might find aloneness in the toilet might be the answer for some. For me, it is getting up in the early morning and sitting in a rocker with my first cup of coffee. Sometimes, it is a long meandering walk. And sometimes, it seems to be working out my thoughts in writing–with the “new mail” sounds muted. Wherever and however it is, somehow aloneness and stillness seems to be health for us and for our communities.

A good friend of ours teaches me much about the wonder of being alone, quiet, waiting. She writes a blog called QuietKeepers. I would commend it to give you a taste of the riches of coming to the place of quiet.

This post was also posted today at our church’s Going Deeper blog.