Oh no! My wife’s coming home

On Friday evening I finished an all-day cleaning blitz on the house, in anticipation of my wife’s return from two weeks in Scotland with three of our four children.

At the end of it all I was sweating, panting, aching, and stinking (of bleach, polish, detergent, air freshener, etc.).

Who would have thought that one man and one teenager could produce so much detritus in 14 days! The kitchen floor looked so clean on Friday morning that I wondered why my wife was always sweeping it…that is until I started sweeping it. Where did that all come from?

Why did I not just wait until Shona returned and let her do it? I mean she’d do it so much better and so much quicker. Plus, she enjoys it! No, really, she does.

Well, before I lose all my female readers, let me explain why I decided to deny my wife the pleasure of cleaning house after her two-day camel-train from a remote Scottish island to Grand Rapids.

It wasn’t law. It was love.

It wasn’t because she commanded me to clean the house (she didn’t). It wasn’t because she would punish me if I didn’t (she wouldn’t…I think). It wasn’t to make her praise me (though that was quite nice).

It was simply because the one I love was coming home and I wanted to create an environment where we could immediately enjoy one another’s company again and catch up on all the news and adventures without her having to immediately pull out the brush and the bleach.

And although I’ve now got painful tendonitis in my wrists from over-vigorous vacuuming and scrubbing (pathetic isn’t it), I couldn’t help reflect on Saturday how I should also prepare in a similar manner for meeting with my God and Savior in Church on Sunday.

So often when we get to church, there’s so much of the week’s rubbish still hanging around in our lives, minds, and hearts: so many distractions, so much unfinished business, so much unbelief, so much filth, and so much unconfessed and unrepented sin.

Why don’t I prepare for meeting and communing with my Savior with the same intensity as when anticipating my wife’s return? Why don’t I always set apart time on Saturday to make sure nothing external nor internal will get in the way of me meeting Jesus and getting precious catch-up time with Him on Sunday.

And imagine if after an hour of my wife’s return I said, “Right, I’m off to watch the football now!”


What’s the best way to study? Top ten tips

This comes a bit late for some students’ mid-semester exams, but Sue Shellenbarger’s Wall Street Journal article offers a number of tips on the best way to study. I’ve summarized eight of them and then added two of my own (# 9 & 10).

1. Testing yourself repeatedly before an exam teaches the brain to retrieve and apply knowledge from memory. The method is more effective than re-reading a textbook.

2. Review the toughest material right before going to bed the night before the test. That approach makes it easier to recall the material later.

3. Don’t wake up earlier than usual to study; this could interfere with the rapid-eye-movement sleep that aids memory. (All-nighters impair memory and reasoning for up to 4 days).

4. Eat breakfast the day of a big test. High-carb, high-fiber, slow-digesting foods like oatmeal are best.

5. What you eat a week in advance matters, too. Students who ate a regular balanced diet that included fruit and veg did better than those who ate a high-fat, low-carb diet that was heavy on meat, eggs, cheese, and cream. The brain requires a constant supply of energy and “has only a limited backup battery.”

6. While many teens insist they study better while listening to music or texting their friends, research shows the opposite: Information reviewed amid distractions is less likely to be recalled later.

7. Reducing “novelty and stress on the day of the exam” can prevent choking under pressure. If you are taking the exam in an unfamiliar place, visit the room in advance.

8. If you’re still feeling anxious about an exam, set aside 10 minutes beforehand to write down your worries. Expressing one’s worries in writing, unburdens the brain.

Here’s 9 & 10 from me.

9. Short and frequent is better than long and rare. It is better to study your four or five subjects every day for shorter times than to study one subject each day for the full day. By the time you go back to what you studied four or five days previously, most of what you learned will have gone.

10. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I know it’s really boring but it’s also really effective. When I ask struggling Hebrew students about their study habits, they will usually say, “Well, I study 2-3 hours every day. The first thing I tell them to do is to shorten their study time. Once they’ve started breathing again, I explain the strategy using the following diagram:

(I can’t remember where I picked this up, but it works for all subjects, and especially for language study).

8am: Study the subject first thing in the morning for 45-60 minutes maximum. As soon as you end that period, your mind immediately starts losing data at a frighteningly rapid rate. Imagine where this graph ends up by the end of the day (feel familiar?)

11am: Re-study the same material again, although this time it should only take you 20-30 minutes. Notice that the knowledge level is higher than the the first period (and reached faster), and that the data loss rate has a shallower gradient (it takes longer to forget what you’ve learned).

4pm: Re-study same material again, this time for 10-15 minutes. Knowledge peak is even higher and gradient of loss even shallower. (In between these study times, you can be studying other subjects using the same method.)

9pm: Just before bed, review the material one more time for about 5-10 mins. Note peak and gradient (appealing, isn’t it!).  Compare where you are now with where you would be if you only studied the subject for one long period. Where would that red line be? Preachers, imagine what this could do for your eye-contact!

And if you want to seal it for good, do a quick 5-minute review first thing the next morning before studying new material. That will really set the mental concrete.


Media Bullies

In The Media and “Bullying” Thomas Sowell notes how:

  • Over the last 90 years the media have frequently given disproportionate attention, support, protection and promotion to different groups depending on which was in vogue at that moment in time.
  • The media have at various times favored communists over African Americans, then African Americans over Asian Americans, then women over men, and now gays over everyone else.
  • The current anti-bullying campaigns in various states is focused almost entirely on words against gays, while ignoring serious physical violence being suffered by other groups like Asian Americans.
  • College Campus “speech codes” protect some groups, especially gays, from any words that may hurt their feelings while effectively declaring “open season” on others not in vogue with the media.

My summary: Under the cover of “anti-bullying” crusading, the mainstream media has effectively itself become the biggest bully. And in its deliberate ignoring of serious violence against non-trendy groups it has become the friend of other bullies too.

UPDATE: Juan Williams on a similar theme.


Location, Location, Location

Why is it so hard to work-out or study Hebrew once I’ve sat in my favorite chair? Why is it so easy to forget about the to-do list while waist -deep in the river?  Why do we get more done at the office desk than in our home study? Why is it “easier” to pray in our usual spot than when we’re in a hotel?

Basically our brains have learned to associate certain states of mind and kinds of activity with certain places. We don’t need to command our brains to think or feel a certain way in each location; it just happens through the brain’s previous experience of what to think, feel, and do in these places.

In Setting the scene for a productive day, Elizabeth Saunders makes a good case for leveraging these normal emotional and mental responses to specific places in order to increase productivity. Although everyone’s optimal environment will be different, she lists four elements to consider in setting up a “backdrop for success.”

The right reminders
Have a different location for each different activity (e.g. answering email, reading, writing your novel, etc). “Consistent location changes will prompt you to complete the specified activity with minimal effort.” Saunders has some ideas about how to “change location” even if you are confined to one small working space.

I have a stand-up desk that I use almost exclusively for email. When I stand there now, I’m immediately “in the email zone” and can process mail maybe three times faster than I do in my “sermon prep” chair at my desk.

The right tools
Have the right tools in the right location for the specific task associated with that place so that you can transition effortlessly. If you have to pack and unpack every time you move, or if you are always having to look for things, you’re not going to move.

I used to split my sermon study time between my home office and my Seminary office. But as I kept forgetting to take all the right books or journals home with me, I eventually decided to make my Seminary office my sermon office.

The right distractions
Saunders makes the point that some people function best in monastic silence (me), while others do best with music pounding in their ears (I will never, ever understand that). She then suggests questions to help us determine what distractions to have/not have in each location.

  • How do I function when I’m connected or disconnected to the Internet?
  • Does having certain devices turned on affect my mental state?
  • What kind of activities do I do best when I’m around people?
  • How does my mind respond when I’m completely alone?
  • Can background music or a movie help me focus?
  • Do days at home lead to higher or lower productivity?

I now have a “Do not disturb” sign on my door, and even a blind for the window on my office door. Now, when I slide the sign across and pull down the blind, my brain is immediately “up” for 3-4 hours of solid uninterrupted time in study of the Word.

The right surroundings
Saunders says: “For your most important creative work, having an environment that you relish spending time in makes starting on hard mental work much easier.”

I recently added three comfortable and relaxing chairs to my office study, and it’s transformed the quantity and quality of student interactions and counseling times.

The right time
Saunders doesn’t mention this, but I’ve certainly found that by regularly doing certain things at certain time, my brain finds it much easier to click into gear.

For example, my brain has got into the habit of writing a blog post first thing each day. If I try to do it at any other time, it’s like thinking through treacle; but it sort of flows in the early morning.

Now, where’s that fishing rod?


7 Types of Preacher’s Block (and what to do about them)

Sermon preparation involves creativity. No, the preacher is not creating truth. God did that. But the preacher is creating sentences, phrases, and even structures that will best communicate the truth.

And like all creatives – artists, authors, architects, etc. – preachers encounter creative blocks. They just don’t know where the next thought or sentence is going to come from.

Mark McGuinness has provided a helpful list of 7 types of creative block (summarized below) and also proposes some solutions (visit his blog for those).

1. The mental block.
This is where you get trapped by your own thinking. You’re so locked into a familiar way of looking at the world that you fail to see other options. You make assumptions and approach a problem from a limiting premise. Or maybe your Inner Critic rears its head and stops you thinking straight.

2. The emotional barrier.
Creativity can be intense. It’s not a comfortable pursuit. Faced with the unknown, you may be scared of what you’ll discover or reveal about yourself. Maybe your subject matter is painful, embarrassing or plain weird. Whatever – all of these fears and qualms are just different forms of Resistance, leading to procrastination.

3. Work habits that don’t work.
Maybe there’s no great drama — you’re just trying to work in a way that isn’t compatible with your creative process. You work too early, too late, too long, or not long enough. You try to hard or not hard enough. You don’t have enough downtime or enough stimulation. Or maybe you haven’t set up systems to deal with mundane tasks – email, admin, accounting, etc – so they keep interfering with your real work.

4. Personal problems.
Creativity demands focus — and it’s hard to concentrate if you’re getting divorced/ dealing with toddlers/battling an addiction/falling out with your best friend/grieving someone special/moving house/locked in a dispute with a neighbor.

5. Poverty.
I’m not just talking about money, although a lack of cash is a perennial problem for creatives. You could also be time-poor, knowledge-poor, have a threadbare network, or be short of equipment or other things you need to get the job done.

6. Overwhelm.
Sometimes a block comes from having too much, not too little. You’ve taken on too many commitments, you have too many great ideas, or you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming demands and information. You feel paralyzed by options and obligations, or simply knackered from working too hard for too long.

7. Communication breakdown.
Creative blocks can happen between people as well as between the ears…Sometimes you get blocked by phantoms — merely imagining your work being booed by audiences and mauled by the critics…after years of plugging away at your art with a miniscule audience, you wonder why you bother.

Once you’ve read McGuiness’s solutions, add and prioritize this one:  Two knees on the floor, and two hands in the air.

And if you’re still stuck, then watch this! (Email/RSS readers click here).

I’m sure there are other preacher’s secrets to the “white screen syndrome.” What’s worked for you?


God’s Face

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me to do some Puritan Pods on how to preach Christ from Old Testament passages that were not obviously Christ-centered. So, bravely rising to the challenge, here are a few minutes of my thoughts on how to preach Christ from 2 Chronicles 7v14 :

If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

I don’t usually write out a full manuscript, but here’s what you might call a 75% manuscript (the main substance of my sermon) and here is my summary note, that I re-read a few times just before preaching.

Email and RSS readers may have to click through here to view the video.