Reading regrets…and resolutions

I’ve been reading two books that I wish I’d read 20 years ago. In my defense, they didn’t exist 20 years ago. However, although my last 20 years have been the poorer for that absence, I do hope that they will powerfully shape my remaining years here below.

The first book is Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading by Tony Reinke. The second book is Practicing Affirmation by Sam Crabtree, which I’ll return to in the next few days.

Knowing Tony’s gifts, expertise, and experience in reading, I’d been very much looking forward to his book. But partly due to the kind of undisciplined reading habits that Tony addresses in his book, it’s taken me a few months to get round to it!

C J Mahaney’s foreword stunned me straight away. I couldn’t believe how like my story was to his (minus the drugs, but not a lot else). Like him, I hated reading as a child and teenager; in fact I hated school. All I was interested in was soccer and planning to make my first million (preferably while playing soccer).

I managed to scrape through school without reading one full book – all I remember are a few weird chapters of Orwell’s 1984. I had no interest in College or University, and only applied for dentistry (don’t laugh) because my father was a dentist and the school said that I had to apply for something. Thankfully, I didn’t get the necessary grades, left school one year early and, aged 17, started work with a financial services company en route to my first million (thankfully I failed at that too).

Bookshops were still a foreign world to me, and the only thing I read regularly were the sports and financial pages of The Times. Oh, yes, and anything about Margaret Thatcher!

A new mind
When I was converted to Christ in my early twenties, everything changed (apart from Margaret). The Lord gave me a new heart AND a new mind. I immediately had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Although I’d been brought up in the church, I doubt I’d ever really listened to more than a handful of sermons. My parents had always instructed me in the Bible, but as a new Christian I felt I knew next to nothing.

After having to leave my job for reasons of conscience, in God’s good providence,  I started working with a Christian friend in his fledgling small business. With few customers initially and lots of time on our hands, he started introducing me to Banner of Truth books. But, although I was eager to learn, reading books did not come easy. I’d never done it before and I didn’t have anyone to teach me how.

I started lots of books, but finished few. The ones I did get through took me forever, and I could hardly remember the beginning by the time I got to the end. Concentration was also a problem, mainly because I was often trying to read in the wrong places or at the wrong times of day (as I now understand from Tony’s book). Often I set apart a whole Saturday for reading a book, and usually lasted an hour or two at most; whereas, if I’d read Tony’s book, I would have learned how much can be accomplished by reading just one hour every day in three 20-minute blocks (70 books a year according to Tony).

From time to time I did try to preserve the fruits of what I was reading, but with no regular method, such as Tony helpfully explains, most of it fell through my fingers like sand.

Worldly” books
I also limited myself to Christian books because I felt that all other books were “worldly.” Later, I gradually allowed myself to read more widely, especially in the areas of biography and leadership – political, military, business, and sports leadership. Again, Tony’s book would have given me the confidence and method to do this more widely, more wisely, more confidently, and more systematically.

When I was called to the ministry and started the long six-year trek through University and Seminary (having not even a Bachelor’s degree to my name), I had so much catch-up to do. I often sat at the Seminary lunch table hearing about the libraries of books everyone else had read and hardly recognized any of them. If Lit! had been written then, I could have smugly said, “Actually Tony Reinke (and John Piper) say it’s better to read a few books well and thoughtfully, rather than chalk them off like fighter pilots.”

Eventually pastoral ministry came along, and although from time to time I did manage to get a reading plan together and stick to it for a while, it was usually a bit ad hoc and almost always too ambitious and unsustainable. One of my problems was that I treated every book alike and felt that I needed to read every word in every book. Tony would have relieved me of such false guilt and helped me to understand the different strategies needed to read different books.

Parenting do-over
When children arrived, homeschooling certainly provided a much more reading-friendly environment than my public school did. I was stunned at the amount of reading my boys were doing (and they certainly aren’t the swotty bookworm type). By the age of seven or eight, they had read way more books than I had by the age of 20! I tried to keep them supplied with books, but I wasn’t really strategic or intentional about it. Lit! had me wishing I could re-do this aspect of my parenting. But hopefully it will help lots of other young parents for many years to come.

You’d think given my current calling that I’d now have lots of time and opportunity to carve out personal reading time; but most of my reading is still focussed on the next course, lecture, conference or sermon. I still struggle to prioritize my reading, to balance my reading, and to archive the best bits of my reading. Tony’s given me lots of new ideas and motivation on this front and I’ve already benefitted (and so has Amazon) from implementing some of them.

Highly recommended
So, thank you for this book, Tony. I highly, highly, highly recommend it to enthusiastic readers, reluctant readers, wannabe readers, and reading coaches (parents, teachers, pastors, etc). I’ve already got my teenage sons reading it (on their Kindles – sorry Tony!), and I’m planning to write some study questions to make sure they really get it. I’m so anxious to make sure that in 20 years time they don’t look back and say, as I do today, “I wish I’d read Tony Reinke’s book then.”

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Seminary Scholarship
It’s not a lot, but every little helps.

Dangers of Missionalism
“Missionalism…is a leader’s disease. Like a common cold that begins with a small cough, missionalism catches on in a leader’s life and seems at first so inconsequential. But let this disease catch hold and you are likely to have bodies strewn all over the place, the leader’s and some of the leader’s followers.”

Married to an extrovert
Why do so many of us marry our opposites? “We seek the strengths that we lack. Whether consciously or not, we recognize our own weaknesses and look for a partner that can fill in the holes: someone who brings balance to our lives.”

And here’s Bill Vandoodewaard with a further reflection on how Christians should handle their own personalities.

2 Secrets to Better Work: Focus and Distraction
Sounds contradictory, but I think Justin gets this about right.

The old idea still causing us problems

Time recently published its 2012 list of 10 ideas that are changing your life. Some of the usual suspects appear: “Computers are destroying our brains,” “Humanity is destroying the earth,” and (hold the front page!) “We’re destroying ourselves with stress.” There’s also the bizarre: new food preservation techniques can keep meat edible for up to seven years (think I’ll give that BBQ a pass). But at least half the entries mask a core idea that’s been causing us problems for 6,000 years—the self-centered desire and demand for independence. Here are its latest disguises.

Living Alone Is the New Norm: In one of the biggest societal changes ever witnessed, the number of Americans living alone has increased from 4 million in 1950 (9 percent of households) to 33 million (28 percent of households) today.

But don’t feel sorry for the “new loners.” NYU sociologist Erik Klinenberg tell us this is the ideal life:

Living alone serves a purpose: it helps us pursue sacred modern values—individual freedom, personal control, and self-realization—that carry us from adolescence to our final days. Living alone allows us to do what we want, when we want, on our own terms. It liberates us from the constraints of a domestic partner’s needs and demands and permits us to focus on ourselves.

The Rise of the Nones: “The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. (16 percent) is the category of people who say they have no religious affiliation.”

That doesn’t mean “the Nones” don’t want any kind of church; no, they just want to do be free from “rigid dogma” and do it their way. The unofficial chaplain of “Not Church,” a regular gathering of American expats on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, said, “The underlying drive is to distance themselves from organized religion and build a rich if unorthodox spiritual life.”

Black Irony: Touré described for Time how many black Americans are turning their backs on conventional forms of blackness and want to “take a more independent even irreverent look at the subject.”

There’s that “I” word again . . . .and again: “Black irony’s imperative to use blackness inindependent ways responds to the mind-bending complexity of modern blackness . . . Sometimes we simply want to feel free to be independently black rather than worship at the altar.”

Privacy in Public: The drive to be free from others, from their scrutiny, and from accountability, has become so strong that the courts have now enshrined a right to privacy in public.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled against law enforcement using GPS signals to track a suspected drug dealer, even though the cops monitored only where the suspect went on public streets. “Thanks to that decision, for the first time in American history there is now a legal right to privacy in public.” Previously, courts agreed that Americans voluntarily gave up their Fourth Amendment protections almost as soon as they left their homes.

Niche Aging: It’s been worrying to watch retired people increasingly withdraw from society into “retirement communities,” often at great loss to themselves and at even greater loss to those from whom they withdraw their knowledge and experience. But now: “the generic retirement model is starting to give way to what developers are calling affinity housing—niche communities where choosy boomers can opt to grow old alongside others who share a specific interest” (e.g. Country Music, Feng Shui, and even LGBT). The idea would appear to be, “If I can’t be completely independent, then at least let me live beside those most like myself.”

Large Capital “I”
I’m not saying all of these ideas are completely wrong; some of them are understandable and even well motivated. But, taken together, do they not frame a picture of a large capital “I”? “Let me be me, let me be separate, having as little relationship with, dependence upon, or accountability to others as possible.”

But that’s not how God designed us to live. In the original creation, God created us dependent, both upon him and upon one another. Adam needed Eve, Eve needed Adam, and both needed God. And all was very, very good. It would never be better. Mutual need and dependence was part of God’s perfect order and part of our happiness.

In fact, what spoiled it all was a sinful desire for independence—the desire for “individual freedom, personal control, and self-realization.” Adam and Eve did not just want independence from God; they wanted to be god themselves. After sin entered, that desire for independence only accelerated as our first parents blamed each other and pushed away from one another.

Mercy of Dependence
In great mercy, God sowed dependence back into humanity with his first gospel promise (Gen. 3:15), calling us to depend upon him to send a Devil-destroyer and humanity-saver. In a judgment full of mercy, he then built sorrow and difficulty into two of our core callings, work and child-bearing (Gen. 3:16-18), again to make us need and depend upon one another and, above all, on God himself.

Of course, in a sinful world where interdependent relationships can be so easily abused, independence is sometimes more moral and ethical than dependence. For example, negative peer pressure or national oppression must be resisted and sometimes even fought. However, self-centered expressions of independence are far more common and reveal our fundamental flaw, rather than how to repair it.

Am I arguing for the return of a dependency culture? Yes, but not the “depend on government” culture envisioned by so many of our politicians, a dependency that only increases our separation and alienation from one another and from God. Rather, I have in mind the original divine order that built dependence on God and on one another into the very fiber of our beings and of our world.

And let’s not only be quick to spot the big capital “I” in the latest fads and fashions of our world. Let’s also keep a close watch upon ourselves. May God help us to weaken our own stubborn streaks of independence, and to strengthen God-glorifying, community-building dependency, his plan from the beginning.

Now there’s an idea that would change our lives, our families, our communities, our churches, and our world.

This article was originally published here on The Gospel Coalition Blog.

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Grace at the Grocery Store
“Spiritual struggle” isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when I think about buying my food. But lately, I’ve noticed a lot of judgement as I work through the aisles – from other people to me and from me to other people.

Gracious Candor: Speaking the truth in love
Wish I’d read this 25 years ago. Would have saved me a lot of grief.

How to receive criticism like a champ
Again, something I’m just beginning to learn.

The Joy of Calvinism
Joe Thorn: Those who are reformed will benefit from this book by being reminded of the humble joy the doctrines of grace should produce. In my case my early years in the Reformed faith were characterized by pride. This was not the fruit of Calvinism, but the byproduct of a heart that was not yet grasping the theology I was reading. I was missing the forrest for the trees. God was gracious in directing me to a few specific books that helped me to see much of what Forster writes in The Joy of Calvinism.

11 Ways the Book of Revelation is Relevant

5 types of work that fill your day

One of the most enjoyable assignments (at least for me) that I set my students in our Leadership class is to get them to fill out a “Ministry Timetable.” Basically I ask them to imagine an ideal week in ministry and present it to the class in a one-page spreadsheet. It’s especially fascinating because we have such a wide range of cultures in our class – from North America, Africa, Asia, Europe, etc. Quite a lot of stereotype-smashing takes place!

It’s also quite amusing to watch the faces of students as they realize they’ve left themselves only four hours sleep a night, or that they’ve forgotten they have a wife and children, or that they might need to eat from time to time!

And then there’s the fear that begins to spread across their faces when it begins to dawn on them that much though they’d love to spend 30 hours on every sermon, it’s probably going to be closer to 10! And what happened to all that personal reading time that they were looking forward to? It’s been mercilessly swallowed up by administration, meetings, and more meetings.

And of course, like the best war plans, even the most realistic ministry timetable doesn’t survive the first encounter on the battlefield of pastoral ministry. Nevertheless, it’s still worthwhile for pastors (indeed all of us) to analyze our working days from time to time and ask ourselves if we are allocating time correctly. Scott Belsky recently did this and identified five different kinds of work that fill his day.

  1. Reactionary Work: Responding to messages and requests – emails, text messages, Facebook messages, tweets, voicemails, and the list goes on. You are constantly reacting to what comes into you rather than being proactive in what matters most to you.
  2. Planning Work: Planning Work includes the time spent, scheduling and prioritizing your time, developing your systems for running meetings, and refining your systems for working.
  3. Procedural Work: Neither reactionary nor strategic, procedural work is the administrative/maintenance stuff that we do just to keep afloat: bills, tax returns, recurring items.
  4. Insecurity Work: Includes the stuff we do out of our own insecurities – obsessively looking at certain statistics, or repeatedly checking what people are saying about you online, etc.
  5. Problem-Solving Work: (I’d rather call this Creative Work). This is the work that requires our full brainpower and focus, whether it be preparing a sermon, writing an article, posting a blog, etc.

Scott then goes on to give hints on how to audit your work day and how to manage each type of work best. His most telling admission is probably true for most pastors as well – that the majority of each day goes into Reactionary Work.

What other kinds of work should a pastor have in his day? I can think of quite a few.

Any that should not be part of our work day? I can see a very obvious one.