How do I approach time management?

How do I approach time management?

A former student asked me if I’d write a post about how I manage time successfully.

Answer: I don’t always.

And writing a “How to” on the topic is like writing a book about prayer. No one does it without a sense of hypocrisy.

Still, here are a few things I try to do:

1. Don’t spill things on the laptop.

I did that last week. Much time was lost. Also, half my screen is currently cloaked in a dark haze. Maranatha.

2. Get up early, even when you don’t have to.

I rarely work late. But I do get up early (5:45am), regardless of whether it is “Summer Break” or not. It’s amazing how much one can accomplish when few people are awake to interrupt you, and when the coffee flows like rushing river in a repetitive early 2000s worship chorus.

My early wakeup is bookended by an equally geriatric bedtime (9:05pm). Though in my experience, very little “time management” happens after that anyway.

3. Avoid unnecessary meetings.

Like the plague. This is a touchy one because it’s not always possible, and it can prevent one from “climbing the ladder” in certain settings.

But if you are trying to make the most of your time, unnecessary meetings are Dementors that will suck your soul and leave you wondering why a single, carefully-worded email would not have sufficed. Not all meetings are like that, but some are.

4. Reading before Netflix

Since a fair amount of my work (writing, preaching, teaching) benefits from time spent reading, I bookend my morning research (usually theology) with evening fiction or biographies. This summer that has involved some Steinbeck, Alan Jacobs, C. S. Lewis, and Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian [#yikes]).

If I do writing before bed, I can’t sleep. I just rehash it all night long in a kind of editorial fever dream. But reading fiction for about 45 minutes before switching to Netflix helps redeem the evening time. It makes me a better writer; and it’s fun — unless I’m reading Blood Meridian.

5. Sabbath

When I moved to Boston for Seminary, I didn’t know a single person. And as an over-achieving firstborn, I felt like the best way to maximize productivity and stave off loneliness was to work seven days a week and in the evenings too.

(Fun fact: I also had mono, so you can guess how well that turned out.)

The next year, Brianna moved closer, and I started taking evenings and Sundays off. In short, I took a Sabbath. One might think this made me less productive, but it actually did the opposite. My grades were better. My mood was better. My soul was healthier. And (after a tonsillectomy) my mono finally left the building.

Sabbath: It’s almost, like, a commandment.

6. Name your non-negotiables

There are only so many hours in a day. And on many occasions that means that something on my “to do” list isn’t going to get done. The question is just which “something” that will be.

I have a few non-negotiables that will happen regardless of Hell or high water: (1) Early morning time in Scripture; (2) at least some time writing and researching every weekday; (3) evenings with family; (4) four to five workouts per week with my buddies (if I’m in town).

This blog isn’t on that list. Nor is Netflix. Nor is time spent reformatting a New Testament lecture that I’ve given twenty-seven times.

Some of my non-negotiables may seem odd since they have nothing to do with my job requirements. I am not required to publish. Nor am I required to workout or spend evenings with family. But those things matter; they make me feel alive; and that enables me to do the stuff I don’t like nearly as much.

Your non-negotiables will be different. But it’s helpful to “name” and “claim” them (~Kenneth Copeland).

7. Figure out what can be done on “Empty” and what must be done on “Full.”

The cerebral frontal cortex is expensive to operate. That’s the part of the brain that controls much of our higher cognitive skills, emotional expression, problem solving, memory, and language. And it takes a lot of energy to run well. Mine starts shutting down around noon (see Point #2).

That means that I need to save activities that I can do “on Empty” for the afternoon, while reserving activities that require more “cerebral bandwidth” for when I’m full (i.e., full of caffeine). Sermons must be written on “Full”—so too with books and any creative activities. Grading, answering emails, dish-washing and (oddly) workouts can be done on “Empty.”

In fact, doing the workouts on “Empty” often has the surprising effect of making me feel “Full” again when I head home to be with the kids.

CONCLUSION

There are a hundred other things that could be added to such a list. But I’m probably not very good at those. And I’m out of time.


 

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“Drowning” doesn’t look like drowning

“Drowning” doesn’t look like drowning

Some things you shouldn’t read at the beach.

This past week, as I’ve been monitoring our four children in the Florida surf, a friend of mine posted this frightening piece that challenges the myth about what a drowning person actually looks like (read here).

In short: drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

Some excerpts:

When someone is drowning there is very little splashing, and no waving or yelling or calling for help of any kind.

In 10 percent of those drownings [involving children], the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface.

So, if a crewmember falls overboard and everything looks okay, don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look as if they’re drowning. They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?”

Drowning does not look like drowning.

BEYOND THE WATER

My main takeaway–strange as this may sound–is that it applies on land too.

Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “American Suicide” (here) just after the death of Anthony Bourdain. I loved Bourdain. But one thing that struck me is that so many of his friends claimed later that they had never seen him so happy. This is not uncommon.

Because drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

Once, while on vacation, we visited a very large church (You don’t know it; it’s located on one of the moons of Saturn). They had just completed a building program. The place was bustling. But the pastor’s sermon gave clear evidence that it had been mostly prepared the night before.

Each illustration was a story from the prior 48 hours. He was a very gifted speaker. Then he mentioned that he had preached the funeral of 20-something young man the day before. As a preacher myself, I recognized the signs of burnout.

When I heard then of the pastor’s DUI arrest, I wasn’t shocked.

Drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

CONCLUSION

I could repeat these “dry-land” examples till the tide comes in.

Anxiety. Addiction. Marital strife. Infertility. Grief.

In so many of these cases, drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

And in some ways, the advice of the article holds true here as well:

“They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, ‘Are you alright?’”

There are some things that you should remember in more places than just the beach.


 

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Model worshippers and trendy legalism

Model worshippers and trendy legalism

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church’s “Voices” blog for posting a piece I wrote on new form of legalism within some segments of the church.

Read it (here) and hear about my former life in skinny jeans and my current plight of male pattern baldness 😉

the breathless chase for “relevance” and “excellence” can sometimes lead us to places we ought not go. For one, it is hard to imagine the apostle Paul (much less James!) laying down such rigid standards of beauty and trendiness.

 


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Unqualified Condolence

Unqualified Condolence

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened to learn late last week of the sudden death of the popular Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans.

She was only thirty-seven, and she left behind a husband and two young children.

I didn’t know Rachel personally. Still, it was obvious that she was an incredibly gifted writer who gave voice to the nagging questions and concerns of many (former) evangelicals.

She was both kind and controversial—and that rare combination brought forth an unsettling tendency in the outpouring of condolences and sadness.

Let us call it the “qualified condolence.”

As I began to comment on several posts that mourned Rachel’s passing, I noticed a certain worry creep into my head that expressed itself in sentences that began something like this:

“I didn’t always agree with Rachel, but…”

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, still…”

“Despite our differences, …”

In some cases, the “qualified condolence” may be benign. It may merely flag the possibility of having real affection for someone with whom you disagree.

But at least in my own heart, I sensed that these sorts of statements were a sign of something sad, and scared, and broken in me: a need to “signal” to my tribe that my grief did NOT equal a full endorsement of all Rachel’s views.

And that is to my shame.

We should not need to qualify our mourning at the loss of such a vibrant voice.

We need not mingle our condolences with fearful “smoke-signals” to the tribal border police as a way of reassuring others that we are still quite aware of “just how wrong she was” on this or that issue. To do so can betray the tragic reality that, in such polarized times, the only thing more sacred than life itself is our tribal affiliations.

An expression of solidarity and sadness should be enough.

Rest in Peace Rachel; Eshet Chayil.

“Tear this temple down”

“Tear this temple down”

There is a horrific irony that the iconic Notre Dame cathedral went up in a hail of flame and ash at the very start of Holy Week.

Holy week, of all times.

Nearly two millennia ago, Christ began this week with some similarly shocking actions in the temple of his day.

He walked into what was arguably the world’s most impressive house of worship, and pronounced judgment by turning over tables and condemning what had become a “den of [leston]” (brigands, robbers, revolutionaries). The event leads to a variety of interpretations, but both liberal and conservative scholars agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple led quickly and directly to his death.

It was the straw that broke the devil’s back.

At his trial, the false charge was that Christ had threatened to destroy the building:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

But the “temple” he had spoken of was his body (John 2:21).

In the years that followed, the early church developed a strange new view of earthly sanctuaries. It was not that they had disdain for buildings. But for them, the body is the only true temple (1 Pet 2:5; 1 Cor 6:19).

God’s Spirit dwells not in brick and mortar but in flesh and bone.

The Spirit resides in the frail frame of an Indonesian teenager, trafficked for her sexual value. The Spirit rests in the elderly man, who suffers from dementia, and is forgotten by his family. The Spirit blows upon the fetus with Down Syndrome, the convict in the county jail, and the CEO in her corner office.

The body is our only temple.

This does not mean, of course, that earthly buildings are either bad or unimportant. Far from it! I feel sickened watching the famed spire of Notre Dame go tumbling into oblivion. What a loss! (And I have written similarly of even ancient, pagan shrines.)

Still, the message of Holy Week is that though our earthly dwellings (of all sizes, shapes, and skin colors) may be stripped to their very foundations “more can be mended than you know.”

 


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*that last line is one of my favorites from Francis Spufford, in his work, Unapologetic.

Justice without mercy

Justice without mercy

“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”

That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).

“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.

A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.

Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”

“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.

Is there a lesson here from these three statements?

If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).

 


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Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Here’s the final installment of my “Prophet or punk?” series over at The Wesleyan Church website.

These posts explore the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness in the age of social media.

While part 2 dealt with recovering “lament,” this one deals with the prophetic hallmark of “persistent hope” expressed (perhaps) in some exuberant dances moves.

After all, the first named “prophetess” was Miriam (Exod. 15:20). And when she first steps foot upon the biblical stage to lead God’s people, it is with “with tambourines and dancing.”

Hence:

One is tempted to say that an imperfect litmus test to separate the prophet from punk is whether you can picture that person dancing.

Read the whole thing here.


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The silence of our friends

The silence of our friends

Today is MLK day.

And while that means many things, one practical result is that today, of all days, we are more likely to see a plethora of King quotations sprinkled through our Facebook news feeds–if only to show friends that “I” am not a racist jerk.

There are many excellent MLK quotations; yet this is the one that I’ve been pondering:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” (The Trumpet of Conscience, Steeler Lecture, 1967)

The statement dovetails with an insight from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he spoke of what he called the “white moderate.”

There he admitted that

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In other words: The taunts of enemies are less crushing than the silence of “friends.”

Which brings me to me.

A MESSAGE FOR THE SILENT

On what injustices am I tempted to be silent over?

How am I prone to be like that “white moderate” described by King, who was, in fact, a greater stumbling block to justice than the KKK?

1. The resurgent racism of our MAGA moment

One area that I am sorely tempted to be silent over has to do with the rise in nationalism (and sometimes outright racism) that has accompanied our current MAGA moment.

By any metric, certain segments of America have been made more of a “safe space” for white nationalism, as evidenced by a sitting congressman who recently implied that terms like “White supremacist” and “White nationalist” should not be seen as offensive. (Along with a litany of lesser, though related, statements.)

Then, we watched in shocked sadness as an aging Native American man (who was also Vietnam vet) was jeered by a crowd of “Pro-Life” high schoolers as he chanted a peace song during an indigenous peoples march in Washington, D.C.

“Build the wall!” they shouted in his face.

[*See below for update]

chantrally

For the past week, I’ve said nothing about either. Why?

It’s simple: I’m a silent friend.

2. The un-cool connotations of the Pro-Life cause.

My second temptation (like that of Christ) is related to the first.

After all, those ignorant teenagers (a redundancy we should all remember before permanently crucifying them) in MAGA hats were in Washington for the “March for Life.” This is an annual event designed to raise awareness over the atrocity of legally slaughtered babies in America.

It takes place near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

And I said nothing about that either.

Why?

I’m busy. Obviously. But another reason is that the same crowd that praises me for writing occasionally about the resurgent racism of our MAGA moment, often doesn’t think it cool when I talk about the evil of abortion.

And when you’ve already alienated one pre-fab fan-base, the temptation is to keep the other group happy.

Based on our current (nonsensical) partisan arrangement, we are told that we cannot speak out about both problems (#1 and #2).  We must either choose everything from “column A” or everything from “column B.” And if you refuse to bundle your issues in a way that fits the Cable News silos, you will face hostility from both sides.

“Abracadabra: silence.”

3. The stuff that doesn’t qualify as “news”

A third and final area on which I’ve been too silent involves that enormous, cloud-covered mountain of important stuff that doesn’t fit the category of “shiny objects” in our news feeds.

If a tree falls in the forest and it has nothing to do with Trump or Kanye or the NFL playoffs, does it make a sound?  Not usually.

A friend was telling me this morning about the horrendous surge in persecution toward Christians in the world’s two largest countries: China and India. I’ve known about the former, but have I even prayed about it, much less write a blog post?

Not really.

It isn’t shiny enough.

There aren’t many “cool points” there.

I’m a silent friend.

“The root cause of this persecution,” he said, “is actually the same thing we’re seeing all over the world. The rise of nationalism.” It’s an anger towards “outsiders” in an effort to make China more Chinese again; or India more Hindu.

The result is a metaphorical mob of chanting nationalists, surrounding Chinese Christians, as they sing their peace songs.

Will anyone say anthing?

CONCLUSION

Of course, it isn’t possible to speak up on every issue. The world is too big. And “outrage fatigue” is a real thing.

In addition, speaking up is no guarantee of speaking well, since some self-styled “prophets” are just demagogues in church clothes (see here on trying to sort out the difference).

Nevertheless, these are the words that I am pondering today, spoken to me if no one else:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”


Update: After posting this story, new videos and firsthand accounts surfaced that call into question the earlier reports regarding the MAGA high school students in D.C. See here . If these reports are accurate, then it appears that these students are owed an apology from myself and many others.


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The haunting of David Bazan

The haunting of David Bazan

Hurtling through the sky at 30,000 feet can give you a chance to do things you don’t normally have time for – like listening to a long-forgotten album.

On a recent flight to Orlando, I gave a re-hearing to David Bazan’s anguished recording from 2009: “Curse your Branches.”

The whole thing is fantastic. And terrible.

bazan album cover

It was written, according to Bazan, as a breakup letter to God (since he now considers himself an atheist). Yet I learned in a recent interview that Bazan was astonished that Christianity Today named “Curse your Branches” one of their best albums of the year.

They weren’t wrong.

As Bazan admits, the manifesto that he had originally penned as a giant middle finger to God, turns out at key moments to sound almost like an early stanza from the Psalms or Lamentations (with, sadly, no resolution).

And the irony is that for someone who doesn’t believe in God, Bazan spends an awful lot of time talking to him.  In this way, he sounds somewhat like the honest atheist described by Francis Spufford, who says of God: “He doesn’t exist, the bastard.”

To use the imagery of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, the album is “haunted” by Transcendence. This, says Taylor, is the true mark of a Secular Age. It is not that belief has been vanquished or that most people now sit neutral to the question; it is rather that faith seems so fraught for many tortured souls that they end up like the novelist Julian Barnes, when he writes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

That is precisely the attitude of “Curse Your Branches.”

Even Bazan’s (past) descent into alcoholism is linked to his God-haunted memory. As he puts it:

All this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about You

And the last word trails into a plaintive wail that betrays a capital “Y.”

The most evocative stanza of the album follows:

I might as well admit it, as though I had a choice / The crew have killed the Captain but they still can hear his voice. A shadow on the water / A whisper on the wind / On long walks with my daughter who is lately full of questions about You… (“In Stitches“).

While Bazan is clear that he now rejects all forms of theism, one senses that it is certain kind of theology that seems especially untenable to him: a form of deterministic Calvinism in which God sovereignly causes everything and then blames us.  “Curse your branches” is itself a play on Paul’s metaphorical olive tree from Romans 11, in which some limbs (peoples) have been broken off and others grafted in.

Given this deterministic assumption (God causes everything), the conclusion follows naturally:

“All fallen leaves should curse their branches / For not letting them decide where they should fall / And not letting them refuse to fall at all”

If this were what Paul meant, then I would not disagree.  For in view of David Bentley Hart, determinism does seem to have the strange result of rendering the universe morally intelligible at the cost of a God who is rendered morally loathsome (see here for my most widely read post on that topic). Or as Bazan asks: “Did You push us when we fell?”

Despite his bitterness toward Christianity, Bazan is open about a recurring “temptation” to doubt his doubts and to recant from his “repentance”:

Though I have repented, I’m still tempted I admit / But that’s not what bearing witness is (“Bearing Witness”).

In other words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

SOME TAKEAWAYS

Why write about this album?

Aside from the fact that good art needs no utilitarian justification, I have three reasons:

  1. Christian leaders should listen to “God-haunted” deconversion stories.

For pastors and professors like myself, truly listening to voices like Bazan’s should be a requirement in an age where more and more people find themselves in the “haunted” position that Charles Taylor describes.

Listening well is a pre-requisite for pastoral sensitivity.  But sadly, a survey of our social media feeds shows that many so-called apologists are more known for their ability to “demolish” and “destroy” the opposition.

And to quote Bazan, “That’s not what bearing witness is.”

  1. Ask: “What kind of god don’t you believe in?”

Second, Bazan highlights, at some points, a kind of divinity (and Christianity) that thoughtful believers should be quick to disavow—and not just on the question of determinism.

On this subject, I recall the words of N.T. Wright as he met with UK college students during his time as a university chaplain.  Upon hearing that many did not believe in God, his next words were not a rebuttal but a question.

“What kind of God don’t you believe in?”

The question is important, since Christians sometimes assume that the word “God” has univocal meaning.  It doesn’t.  And upon listening to the student’s answer (See #1), Wright tells how he would often respond with “That’s very good; I don’t believe in that God either. The God I trust is the one embodied perfectly by Jesus Christ.”

  1. Preach to and for the “haunted.”

Lastly, I’ve been incorporating more quotes from folks like Bazan in my sermons (e.g., David Foster Wallace, last Sunday)—not as “strawman” foils to be quickly dispatched, but as opportunities to acknowledge questions, doubts, and fears that are present in the minds of “the faithful”–not just “out there” in the big, bad world.

“Maybe you’ve felt like that,” I try to say.

“Maybe you’ve wondered why an invisible God would even care if humans believed in him, rather than the competition.”

As Bazan asks:

Red and orange; or orange and yellow? / In which of these do you believe? / If you’re not sure right now; please take a moment / ‘Cause I need your signature, before you leave (“Curse your branches”).

In the view of Tim Keller, the ability to anticipate these unvoiced questions and fears is crucial to empathetic preaching (Though I don’t pretend to do it perfectly)–especially when coupled with the “haunting” of the Holy Ghost.

Toward this end, albums like “Curse Your Branches” can actually serve the church, like an Eloi, Eloi… wafting up to 30,000 feet, awaiting answer.

———————

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Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

“Cynics smirk, pundits rant, prophets weep.”

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for posting part two of my series examining the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness.

This one examines the importance of receiving the language of “lament” over and above lambasting opponents.

Access here.


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