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October 14, 2014

For the past couple of weeks I have been working on a series titled How To Get Things Done, and am continuing that series today [Part 1: How to Get Things Done, Part 2: Define Your Areas of Responsibility, Part 3: Time, Energy & Mission]. I have spent the first few installments of the series trying to lay a solid foundation. While it is always tempting to skip ahead to get straight to the fun stuff, true and lasting productivity will depend on taking those initial steps.

But today, at last, we get to one of the fun parts: choosing tools. Like any other work, the work of productivity requires tools.

When you are dependent on your tools, you need to make sure you are using the best tools. A doctor can probably do surgery with a utility knife if he needs to, but we’d all prefer that he cuts us open with a scalpel—and a very high-quality scalpel at that. You can go out in your backyard and cut down a tree with a crowbar, but you’ll get the job done better and faster if you use an axe. The point is, many people try to do their work with tools that are poorly suited to the task. To large degree, your productivity depends on identifying and using the best tools for the job, and then growing in your skill in deploying them.

As we look at productivity, there is a collection of tools that can help you a great deal.

  • Information tools. Information tools allow you to collect, archive and access important information.
  • Scheduling tools. Scheduling tools allow you to organize your time, and they alert you ahead of important events.
  • Communication tools. Communication tools allow you to communicate, and they allow to archive and access your previous communications.
  • Task management tools. Task management tools allow you to capture and organize your to-do items.

Almost all of these tools have both physical and electronic variants. For example, you can communicate via postal mail (the physical variant) or email (the electronic variant). My focus will be on the electronic side of things.

Information Tools

Information tools allow you to collect, archive and access important information. Not too long ago these were filing cabinets full of folders and pieces of paper. Today, however, the best information tools allow you to archive all (or most) of your information electronically. Using these tools, you may be able to join the paperless movement and eliminate your filing cabinets and all those annoying bits of paper altogether.

I rely on Evernote (evernote.com) as my information tool. Evernote is a powerful piece of software that allows you to capture almost every kind of information. Once information is captured, it is archived and indexed and ready for future use. Evernote installs on nearly every bit of computer equipment you own (Mac, PC, mobile phones, tablets, etc) and can be with you everywhere you go and whatever you do.

BulbTip: The organizing principle here, as in all of life is this: A home for everything, and like goes with like. I will say more about this soon.

Scheduling Tools

Scheduling tools allow you to organize your time, and they alert you ahead of important events. These tools (minus the alerts) used to be the calendars hanging on your wall, but today there are electronic calendars that are incredibly powerful.

I rely on Google Calendar (calendar.google.com) as my scheduling tool, though I actually access it through Sunrise (sunrise.am), a slick Mac-based program that imports and displays Google’s calendar. I do this for two reasons: First, it improves on Google’s web-based view and, second, I try to avoid using my browser as often as I can, since any time I open a browser I am tempting myself to waste time. I use this calendar to display all of the events in my life, and, through the alerts function, I use it to alert me of any pending meetings or appointments.

BulbTip: Begin every day by reviewing all appointments for that day and the next day, ensuring that appropriate alerts have been set.

Communication Tools

Communication tools allow you to communicate, and they allow to archive and access your previous communications. These can include a host of different tools such as email, text messaging, and good old-fashioned faxes or postal mail. My focus, though, is on the electronic which, unfortunately, means email. Email is a very poor tool in many ways, but one we are stuck with for the time being.

I use GMail (gmail.com) as my primary communication tool, though I access it through Apple Mail. Again, it improves on Google’s web-based view and keeps me from using my browser for anything but browsing, thus reducing a time-wasting temptation.

BulbTip: Unless you absolutely need to, close email except when you are actually writing emails or replying to them.

October 10, 2014

We have a word for doing too little: lazy. We have a word for doing too much: busy. But we don’t have a word for whatever comes in between. Not a good one, anyway.

To say “I’m lazy” is to say “I have taken on too little.” To say “I’m busy” is to say “I have taken on too much.” But what word do we use when we have taken on just the right amount and are carefully balancing life’s responsibilities?

Laziness is a vice, the wallow of people who just don’t care. Busyness is a vice disguised as a virtue, the refuge of people who find their self-worth in activity and accomplishment. But what word describes the person who works hard, and works consistently, but who defines himself in more noble ways?

Lazy is a word of shame, as it should be. Busy is a word of pride, though it should not be. In truth, it is no more noble to be busy than to be lazy, because both are an egregious misuse of time and energy.

We need a word of virtue that fits in the space between busy and lazy. We need to use it, and we need to live it.

October 08, 2014

I suppose Grace Fellowship Church is like most churches in that we have our favorite songs. We sing a great variety of songs, many of which would be familiar to you, I’m sure. But we also sing some that are a little off the beaten path, so to speak. I thought I’d share twelve of our favorite songs with you—twelve of our favorites that may be unfamiliar to you.

We Are Not Overcome

I begin with We Are Not Overcome, the newest song we have added to our repertoire. This one comes from Bifrost Arts and is a powerful song of comfort based on Lamentations 3. Joshua, our lead worshipper, had to do quite a bit of work to make this one suitable for congregational singing, but he succeeded well. “Flesh will fail and bones will break / Thieves will steal, the earth will shake / Night will fall, the light will fade / The Lord will give and take away.” Then the chorus proclaims, simply, “Because of his great love, we are not overcome.”

We Are Listening

We Are Listening comes from Before the Throne, still my favorite of Sojourn’s albums. Because we are one of those churches that continues to have both a morning and evening service, we often sing this one to rejoice in the fact that “Morning and evening we come / To delight in the Word of our God.”

I Glory in Christ

I Glory in Christ is a Horatius Bonar hymn that Sandra McCraken retuned and recorded on her album In Feast or Fallow. It is a cry to God that we would value him above all else, and that we would boast in nothing but the cross. “God forbid that I should glory, / Save in the Redeemer’s cross. / Counting shame for Him but honor, / Counting earthly gain but loss. / All the love of God is here, / A love that casteth out all fear.”

My One Comfort

My One Comfort is Dustin Kensrue’s adaptation of question and answer one of the Heidelberg Catechism. It works equally well with full instrumentation and as an acoustic track (as you hear in the YouTube video I linked to). “My one comfort both in life and death / Is that I am not my own. / I was bought with blood and I confess / I belong to you alone.”

Draw Me Nearer

There are a couple of versions of this hymn. The traditional version is titled “I Am Thine, O Lord,” but several years ago Caedmon’s Call adapted it as “Draw Me Nearer.” Their version is one we sing often, though Joshua adapted it a little bit to make it more suited to congregational singing. “Draw me nearer to the cross where thou has died. / Draw me nearer to thy precious, bleeding side.”

He Will Hold Me Fast

If “We Shall Overcome” is our newest song, He Will Hold Me Fast would be just barely in front of it, as we began singing it just this summer. Already it has become a favorite. Matt Merker of Capitol Hill Baptist Church adapted it from an older hymn, and it is a sweet song of comfort and hope. “I could never keep my hold, / He will hold me fast; / For my love is often cold, / He must hold me fast.”

Grace Alone

Grace Alone is another song written by Dustin Kensrue, and it was recorded by his (former?) band The Modern Post. The song simply rejoices in God for his salvation. “I was an orphan lost at the fall / Running away when I’d hear your call / But Father, you worked your will / I had no righteousness of my own / I had no right to draw near your throne / But Father, you loved me still.”

Grace and Peace

Grace and Peace was written by Joel Sczebel and recorded for the Sovereign Grace Music album Grace Has Come. The song calls us to marvel at what God has done in saving sinners for himself. Joshua has adapted it a little bit, largely to pick up the speed at least a little bit from the recorded version you hear at the link. “Grace and peace, oh, how can this be? / The matchless King of all / Paid the blood price for me! / Slaughtered lamb, what atonement You bring!”

October 07, 2014

I have been writing a series on getting things done and, because I don’t know how else to do it, giving you a glimpse into my world to show how I get things done. To this point I have shared what I mean by productivity, showing how it extends to all of life (not just the world of business) and that the heart of productivity is glorifying God by doing good works [Part 1]. Last time I showed how I have divided my life into areas of responsibility that encompass everything I do, and I showed how I map out my specific roles within each of those areas [Part 2]. And now we are ready to move forward.

In a moment we will talk about getting on mission and staying on mission, but first I want to give you something to ponder over the next couple of days.

Time & Energy

I believe we tend to focus too much on time management and too little on energy management. Yet in many vocations and in many places in life it is energy, not time, that is the more valuable commodity. Like time, energy is limited and needs to used strategically. You can give massive amounts of time to certain areas of life, but if you only give those times in which your energy is at its lowest point, your productivity will still be low.

There is a call here to know yourself. So over the next couple of days ask yourself these questions: At what times of day am I at my mental peak? At what times of day am I least-effective? Am I a morning person, a night-owl, or a mid-afternoon warrior?

These questions are important because before long we will start to look at your use of time and, to some degree at least, manage your time around the ebb and flow of energy. You will want to plan to use your high-energy times to do your most important tasks and your tasks that depend upon creativity. You will want to plan to schedule your proactive and creative work when energy is high, and your reactive and administrative work when energy is low. So start thinking about that now, and we will return to this topic soon.

Getting On Mission

Once you have defined your areas of responsibility, it only makes sense that you would define your mission for each of them. I don’t know how else you could know what to emphasize, what to say “yes” to, and what to say “no” to. So I want to encourage you to work on a brief and simple mission statement for each of your areas of responsibility. Even if it is not a lengthy statement, come up with something that will guide you and define what God calls you to in each of them.

Now, there are two ways that I differ from many of the productivity gurus out there.

First, I do not believe that you need to have a big-picture mission statement that encompasses all of life and all of your areas of responsibility. If that works for you and you want a mission statement for all of life, go ahead and prepare it. But I think there is more value, at least for now, in preparing individual mission statements limited to each of your areas of responsibility.

Second, I do not believe that your mission statements for each of those areas has to be fixed and unchanging. I see the purpose of these statements as guiding you week-by-week as you schedule your time and as you attempt to make decisions about where to expend your effort. So while you shouldn’t change them haphazardly, you can change them in small ways as your mission comes into focus and as it changes through life.  The value of seeing these as “living” statements is that it frees you from having to think about it too hard right now. Come up with something that works, and refine it over a period of weeks or months.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean by mission statements. Here are my statements for three of my areas of responsibility: my work at the church, my ministry to the wider church (primarily through the blog and books), and personal life:

  • GFC: Teach, train, and execute [administer] so the people of the church will mature and multiply.
    • Explanation: I believe that if the people of our church are living as Christians, they will mature in the faith and they will multiply by sharing the gospel with others. My role in the church primarily involves teaching, training and administration; I want to do those things in such a way that it directs the people of the church to mature and multiply.
  • Business: Use the opportunities God provides to help others think and live like mature Christians.
    • Explanation: Over the years my core mission as a writer and public speaker has come into focus, and what I love to do is help people to think and live like mature Christians. This is the focus of my blog, my books, and my speaking opportunities.
  • Personal: Delight in God to the glory of God for the good of all people.
    • Explanation: I believe that if I am delighting in God, my delight brings glory to God and overflows into doing good for other people. I am a better father, a better husband, a better pastor, and a better neighbor when I am finding my delight in the Lord.

Each of these statements serves as a measure or standard so that each week I can look back and ask, Did I do these things? And I can look at the week ahead and ask, How will I do these things? When someone asks me, “Can you speak at our conference?” or “Can you meet with me to talk about this topic?” I attempt to make decisions according to my mission. If it fits my mission, I will give it time and energy and enthusiasm. If it does not fit my mission, I will not prioritize it in the same way.

FlagAction: Write a mission statement for each area of responsibility. Give it your best shot for now, and prepare to keep refining them as time goes on.

Are You On Mission?

You may have noticed that to this point I have only asked you “What are the things you are doing?” and “What are the things you are responsible for?”. Before I move any farther, I want you to take a good look at those roles, tasks, and projects under each of your areas of responsibility to ask whether those are the things you ought to do. Do the things you do actually fit your mission? If not, either you need to adjust your mission or adjust your roles.

October 06, 2014

I love doctrine. Doctrine is simply the teaching of God or the teaching about God—the body of knowledge that he reveals to us through the Bible. I guess I’m one of those geekly people who loves to learn a new word and the big idea behind it. But I hope I do not love doctrine for doctrine’s sake. Rather, I strive to be a person who loves doctrine for God’s sake.

Today I want to give you 6 great reasons to study doctrine.

Doctrine Leads to Love

Doctrine leads to love—love for God that then overflows into love for others. 1 John 4:8 makes it plain: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” To know God is to know love; to know God is to equip yourself to act in love. Your love for God is limited by your knowledge of him, so that you can really only love him as far as you know him. As the depth of your knowledge grows, so too does the depth of your love. This is why the study of doctrine cannot be the pursuit of dry facts, but facts that lead to living knowledge of God and growing love for God. When you know doctrine, you prepare yourself to live in ways that express love to him and to others.

Doctrine Leads to Humility

Second, doctrine leads to humility. A little while ago I saw a YouTube video of a man breaking the world record in deadlifting by lifting a nearly-unbelieveable 1,015 pounds. I know that if I tried to lift even a fraction of that amount I’d slip a disc and be in bed for a month. The distance between that person and myself makes me face my own weakness. And that is just a glimpse of what happens when you see God as he reveals himself. You see the infinite distance between his power and your weakness, between his holiness and your sinfulness, between his unchangeable nature and your fickleness. And as you see it, you are humbled. You cannot see God and be proud. You cannot know God and be arrogant. When you see God as he really is, you must be humbled by his sheer magnitude and you must be humbled by your inability to box him up, to understand him all the way. The greater your knowledge of God, the greater your humility.

Doctrine Leads to Obedience

Third, doctrine leads to obedience. And here is what I mean: Just like you can only love God as far as you know God, you can only obey God as far as you know God. As you get to know God more and deeper, you are able to obey him better. Think here of the Old Testament and how often God reminds the Israelites of who he is and on that basis commands their obedience. He does this again and again: “Here is who I am, here is what I have done, and therefore you owe me your obedience.” And think of the New Testament which constantly points to Jesus Christ and calls us to conformity to him. What you learn of God and what you learn about yourself through the Word of God leads you to live a life that honors him. Again, theology is not a cold pursuit of facts, but a red-hot pursuit of the living God, and it works itself out all over life.

 

Doctrine Leads to Unity

Fourth, doctrine leads to unity. I once attended a church where I heard a pastor use that old phrase, “Doctrine divides.” He told the church that the path to unity was to hold a very low and basic level of doctrine, because he was convinced that knowledge would breed arrogance and division. But he was dead wrong and that church splintered because of lack of unity—a lack of unity that flowed directly from a lack of sound doctrine. Churches are bound together by the beliefs they share. Of course there will be certain minor variances in a church on lesser matters, but the greater the shared beliefs on the essentials, and the greater the emphasis on the essentials, the greater the degree of unity. In Ephesians 4 Paul talks about the way God gives leaders to churches and says they are given, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” He draws a clear connection between doctrine or spiritual growth and unity between believers.

October 01, 2014

Today I am continuing this series on getting things done. Yesterday we saw that we exist to bring glory to God, and that, as Christians, we bring glory to God when we do good works for other people. Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14) and now calls upon each one of us to “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Therefore, “productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.”

This definition of productivity calls us to action: We need to structure and organize our lives so that we can do the maximum good for others and thus bring the maximum glory to God.

I mean to get very practical as we move forward today, but first I want to address one misconception about productivity and lay down one challenge.

One Misconception, One Challenge

The misconception is that productive and organized people always hit their deadlines, never have to request an extension, and never feel a crunch at the end of the week. But this is not the right way to measure productivity. Why? Because God is sovereign and we are not. Our responsibility is to plan, organize and execute to the best of our ability, but to realize that circumstances and providence may interrupt and delay even our best-laid plans. There are better ways to measure productivity, and we will discuss those later. For now, though, I simply want you to realize that God has a way of interrupting our plans and that even the best plans may fail.

And here is the challenge. There is really no great gain in being a productivity monster and constantly wiping out massive lists of things to do if the rest of your life is out of control. Productivity—doing good—has to extend to all of life, not just to one part of it. It has been widely shown, and it has been my experience, that when we emphasize one major habit, others inevitably follow. Displaying self-control in one area of life somehow shores up self-control in others. So consider taking this challenge: If you want to have an organized life and get things done like never before, commit to exercising three or four days a week. Or commit to the daily disciplines of reading the Bible and praying. Pick at least one major habit and pursue that even while you pursue getting things done. (Learn more)

And now it’s time to get practical.

Areas of Responsibility

We all have complex lives in which we are constantly attempting to strike a balance between competing demands. We have families, churches, hobbies, and jobs, and all of them are competing for the same 168 hours we are given each week. Though time is finite, the possibilities for using that time are near-infinite. Productivity depends upon brokering peace between each of the different things we could do at any given moment.

The path to peace involves first defining our areas of responsibility. Now hold on. I know some people are going to think this is not practical enough, and they want to get straight to to-do lists and organizing information. We will get there. But not yet. Bear with me, and you will see that this is as practical as anything that follows.

Each of us has areas for which we are responsible before God, areas for which he will require an accounting. We are all responsible for the care of our bodies and souls, parents are responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of their children, husbands are responsible for provision, church members are responsible to extend love to the other members of the church, and every Christian is responsible for caring for the poor and for sharing the gospel. And that is only scratching the surface.

Here is what I want you to do today. I want you to think carefully about your areas of responsibility and list them. Now here’s the challenge: You need to have everything you are responsible for in life encompassed in one of these categories, yet with as few categories as possible. You will need to think about all of life and try to create broad categories.

I have structured my life into five areas of responsibility:

  • Personal
  • Family
  • Social
  • GFC [Grace Fellowship Church]
  • Business [Web site, speaking engagements, books, and so on]

There is no responsibility I have in life that falls outside of these five areas. If I am asked to be something or do something, if I am asked to dedicate time to something, it will fit into one of them.

I will tell you more about those categories in a moment, but first, a word of clarification: As a pastor, I am able to combine both my vocation and my local church involvement into a single category of GFC. You may need to have one category for work and another for church. You may also wish to have a category for your hobby if you are heavily involved in it, or a charity or ministry if you dedicate a lot of time and attention to it. Your areas of responsibility may be very different from mine and vive la difference!

FlagAction: Create a list of your areas of responsibilities.

September 30, 2014

They are questions I receive often: “Do you ever sleep? Do you work all the time? Do you ever stop?” There seems to be this impression among certain people that either I am an unrepentant workaholic or that I am remorselessly neglectful toward life’s other responsibilities. The truth is far less sordid: I have invested a lot of effort over many years in learning how to simplify life and how to maximize productivity. I love to make the best use of my time and energy, and I am constantly fine-tuning the systems that allow me to remain that way.

Today I am beginning a series of articles that will share some of what I have learned along the way. I do not really know how to teach how to get things done except by allowing you into my life and into my systems. I intend to give examples from my own life, not because they are necessarily the best or only way of doing things, but because they work for me and may give you something to build from. You can take those examples as far as you want, and adapt them so they work for you. If all goes well, we will look at systems and tools and organization and planning, and all kinds of exciting things. But first we have a little groundwork to do.

It all begins with an understanding of our purpose in the world. What follows is a brief “Productivity Catechism” that provides a foundation for everything else I will say. It is only when we properly understand our purpose and mission that we can excel at systems and tools and all the rest.

Q. Ultimately, why did God create us?

A. God created us to bring glory to Him.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

“…[I]n order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

Q. How can we glorify God in our day-to-day lives?

A. We can glorify God in our day-to-day lives by doing good works.

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).

September 29, 2014

I found an old video of my son, a video I did not even know we had. He was two, playing at his grandparents’ house while Aileen and I were at the hospital, waiting for his sister to arrive. He spoke in a little baby voice, talking about his “wittle sistow” who was in mommy’s tummy. It almost broke my heart. Wasn’t it only yesterday that he was two years old? But then how did he get to be six feet tall, and when did he start to shave, and what on earth is he doing in high school? What happened?

I consider it one of the great tragedies of life: All those things I will leave undone. All those things I mean to do that I will never do. All those things I will begin but leave incomplete. All those things I long to master that I will not even be able to start. All those things I will actually do, but do partially or badly.

I am an ambitious person and when I’m not busy I’m bored. Not can’t-stop, can’t-talk, can’t-breathe busy, but simply keep-going, be-zealous, push-hard, take-life-seriously busy. Having lots to do keeps me structured, it keeps me organized, it keeps me honest. That’s where I like to be and that’s where I am at my best.

But doing takes time, and time is a fleeting resource. It is a finite resource. When I use time in one way, I cannot use it in another. When I give time to one thing, I take away from something else. To prioritize one area of life is to de-prioritize all the rest.

When I give more to the church and the people of the church, it means I give less to the writing I love to do. When I increase my writing, I take time away from my family. If I give a lot of time to family, that time comes from something or someone else. I always come up short. There is never enough time to do all the things I want to do, never enough time to learn all I want to learn, to be all I want to be. At some level, I fail at everything.

I love the book of Ecclesiastes, and especially its closing chapters. In chapter 12 the Preacher calls to the young man—maybe his younger self—and says, “Remember your Creator before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain.” He describes life as a day that extends from dawn to dusk, and here, in old age, he sees his own life as dark, as gray, as a day that is about to give way to night. And I can’t help but believe that he is looking back on life and seeing so many of those things that will remain undone, projects that will remain incomplete, dreams that will remain unfulfilled. If he was young he could claim, “This is only a setback! Better days are ahead.” But now the best days are behind him. The sky darkens. The night falls. That is life in this world. Life is a vapor, dust that rises for a minute, and is blown away by the wind. There is no author more gut-honest about life than this Preacher.

Life is a vapor, too short, too fleeting. But I believe this: I may not have time to do everything I would like to do, but I have all the time I need for those things that God expects me to do. If there are 168 hours in a week, I know that God has not given me 169 hours of responsibility. If there are 24 hours in a day, God has not given me 25 hours of work.

The call, then, is to find the best things I can do with the time allotted to me, while waiting for the great day when time will no longer be finite, when opportunities will no longer be limited. It is to prioritize those few things I can actually accomplish, and to learn to let go of the rest. It is to live the life God has for me, and not to attempt to live a different life altogether. It is to obey the words of God: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). Evil, and far too few. No, that’s not it. Evil, and just enough to do all He calls me to do.

Clock image credit: Shutterstock

September 22, 2014

It’s is God’s grace to you if your church is messy. I heard those words come out of my mouth yesterday as I was guest-preaching at a church close to home. I said them, and I believe them. At least, I believe them most of the time.

I love my church. I love the people I gather with week-by-week. They are fun and safe and easy to be with. But who said church should be safe and easy?

Yesterday, when I was at that church, I preached on the parable of The Lost Sheep, which is actually a parable about a kind and loving shepherd (see Luke 15). Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one was told in the presence of two groups of people—people who were convinced of their own badness and people who were convinced of their own goodness. And in this case Jesus was speaking primarily to those good and religious people.

The parable is simple: A sheep has wandered off and the shepherd will not rest until he has found it and restored it to himself. And I thought about that sheep, wandering lost and alone in the wilderness, and that shepherd who went looking for it. There are so many different ways that shepherd could have reacted when he finally found it.

  • He finds his sheep and rebukes it: “You stupid, ignorant sheep. How dare you wander off from me?” No. He doesn’t rebuke it.
  • He finds his sheep and punishes it: “You dumb, disobedient sheep. I’ll teach you to wander off!” No, he doesn’t punish it.
  • He finds his sheep and is disgusted by it: “You are filthy and smelly! What on earth did you get into? You go clean yourself up right now and I’ll come back later.” No, he doesn’t make it clean itself up.
  • He finds his sheep and sells it: “I can’t have a sheep like you polluting my flock. Do you know how you made me look in front of everyone else?” No, he doesn’t get rid of it.

The text says, “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” When that shepherd finds his sheep, he cares for it. He hoists that big, heavy, dirty sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home, rejoicing all the way. He carries it home and calls his friends and throws a party to celebrate.

The point of the parable is that God loves to save the lost. He loves to save sinners. He doesn’t save those who are righteous and whose lives are all put together, he saves those who are just plain bad.

If God is in the business of saving sinners, we need to expect that church will be full of sinners—those who are still wandering and those who have only just been found. If our churches reflect God’s heart for the lost, they will be full of people with problems, full of people showing the consequences of a lifetime of wandering. And this means that church may not be a safe and easy place. It may not be a place full of people who have it all together. It may be messy. It should be messy. Thank God if it is messy.

September 15, 2014

I find addiction, and the bondage of addiction, to be very difficult to understand. It seems like overcoming addiction should be so simple, and especially for the Christian: Instead of doing that thing, how about next time you just don’t do that thing? Instead of opening that bottle, keep it closed. Instead of buying those pills, buy some groceries. Instead of typing in that web site, type in a different web site. Instead of walking through the doors of the casino, choose not to even go near the casino. If only it was so simple.

To treat addiction so simply is to misunderstand its very nature. I said recently that Kent Dunnington’s Addiction and Virtue is easily one of the most fascinating books I have read recently, and in that book he tells us why addiction is far more than making bad choices instead of good choices. Addicts are not simply satisfying a need or following habits, though they are doing those things as well. Addicts are actually seeking the good life, and are convinced it can be found in and through the addiction. Dunnington says it this way:

We are neither taught nor inclined to think of addicted persons as being actively and passionately engaged in the pursuit of the good life. We tend to think of them as persons who have checked out of the game or who are positively bent on destruction. But this is not so. I maintain that addictive behavior can tell us more than almost any other kind of human behavior about what human beings most deeply desire. 

Addicts are expressing a universal desire, but are doing it in a more “sold out” way than most other people. If most people pursue the good life in a halfhearted way, addicts pursue it full-out.

Addiction, then, might be understood as the quest for … ecstatic intoxication. The addicted person, recognizing her own insignificance and her own insufficiency to realize perfect happiness, seeks to be taken up into a consuming experience, longs to be the object rather than the subject of experience, craves to suffer happiness rather than produce it.

“Ecstatic intoxication.” That is what addicts desire, whether the intoxication comes through a substance or an experience, through the rush of the drug or the rush of the sexual experience. In either case, addicts long for that consuming experience and convince themselves it can be found in drugs or alcohol or gambling or pornography or in whatever it is. In this way we see that addiction is actually a failure of worship.

Addictions are addicting just to the extent that they tempt us with the promise of such a perfect happiness, and they are enslaving just to the extent that they mimic and give intimations of this perfection. The depth and power of addiction become more intelligible as we come to see addiction as a counterfeit of the virtue of charity. As such, addiction is appropriately described as a failure of worship, a potent expression of idolatry in which we pursue in the immanent plane that which can only be achieved in relationship with the transcendent God. The cunning and allure of addiction is in fact brought out just to the extent that we see how stunningly addiction enables addicted persons to achieve [imitations] of the goods that right worship makes possible. Such a display demonstrates that addiction can most fittingly be characterized as an enactment of the striving of human persons to attain on their own the flourishing, integrity of self and ecstatic delight that is only to be received through right relationship with God.

Addiction is worship, a failed attempt to find in substances or experiences what can only be found in God. How can you see evidence of that worship? By the way the addiction becomes the means to elevate and interpret any experience.

The fact that anything can count as an excuse to use is a function of the power that addiction has to incorporate every aspect of an addicted person’s life into its own rhythms and rationales. It really is the case for the alcoholic that the good times are vacuous without alcohol, that the hard times are unbearable without alcohol, that loneliness doesn’t feel lonely with alcohol, that loving relationships are mediated by alcohol, that success can only be celebrated with alcohol, that only alcohol can insulate from rejection and so on. To be an alcoholic is to enter into such a relationship with alcohol that everything else in life makes sense only if it is accompanied by alcohol. … [A]ddiction transfigures the most ordinary activities into meaningful transactions.

Do you see it? The Bible calls us to incorporate worship of God into all of life’s rhythms and rationales. The hard times are unbearable without God, loneliness doesn’t feel [as] lonely when we are walking closely with God, loving relationships are mediated and enhanced by shared love for God, success is best celebrated with thanks to God, a relationship with God insulates us from rejection, and so on. To be a God-worshipper is to enter into such a relationship with God that everything else in life only makes sense if it is accompanied by him.

The addict is not merely following deeply-ingrained habits and physical desires, but seeking the escstasy of worship. The problem is not the desire to worship—we are created to be worshippers—but the idolatrous object of that worship. The addict looks elsewhere—anywhere—for what can be found only in God. The addict’s foremost failure is a failure of worship.

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