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November 26, 2014

The trouble with a series on productivity is that it can just keep going forever. Our work is never complete and we never fully master the best use of our time and opportunities. Our God-given calling to do good to others does not end until our lives end. Until we take that final breath, we will never run out of opportunities to bring glory to God by doing good to others. We are always learning to do this better, and always learning to make better use of the tools that promote it.

I am going to close this series today, and do so with a few thoughts on the day-by-day battle of right priorities. Already you have looked at planning and daily workflow and the best way to use your various tools. And this is all well and good until life happens. And then suddenly there are interruptions all around—emergencies to respond to, children who need attention, bosses who make their demands, clients who need your response at this very second. It’s like the whole world now conspires to mock your attempts to bring order to your life. You planned to clean your house today, but your friends are hurting today and seeking your counsel; you planned to prepare the sermon this morning but a member of the congregation called and said, “I really need to talk;” you had the day blocked off to catch up with clients, but the boss asked you to attend a meeting.

How can you deal with all of these interruptions?

Dealing with interruptions requires an awareness of your own limitations. C.J. Mahaney says this well: Only God gets his to-do list done every day. God gets it all done every day. You, on the other hand, will go to bed tonight with your list incomplete and with little confidence that you will make it all the way through tomorrow’s. Only God can have that confidence. And that’s okay. God made you to be limited and he knows that your sin has limited you even further.

Dealing with interruptions requires an awareness that God is sovereign and you are not. When you trust a sovereign God you know that no interruption has caught God by surprise. This frees you from outbursts of anger or depths of despair. It allows you pause and to consider whether each of these interruptions has been brought by God as an opportunity to do good to someone else. It removes any right to automatically refuse them.

Yet you cannot do good to everyone all the time. Greg McKeown says it well: “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” Randy Alcorn echoes him: “The key to a productive and content life is ‘planned neglect’—knowing what NOT to do, and being content with saying no to truly good, sometimes fantastic, opportunities. This happens only when you realize how truly limited you are, and that you must steward your little life, and that of the best things to do on the planet, God wants you to do only a miniscule number.” How, then, do you know what to respond to and what to refuse? 

Dealing with day-to-day distractions involves evaluating each of them and determining whether you will be rigid or malleable, whether you will refuse or respond. The tricky thing is that sin lurks on both sides of the equation.

November 19, 2014

This series on productivity is beginning to reach its end. But before it winds down, I have just a couple more topics to cover, and one of them is the all-important weekly review. I have written at length about the value of a system. Systems are wonderful and powerful, but require some maintenance in order to continue functioning smoothly. The weekly review is one of the primarily means through which you can maintain your system. Today I will tell you about my weekly review, and also tell you about some of the unique features of my system.

A Weekly Review

If the daily review [part 6] is tactical, the weekly review is more strategic. The purpose of this review is to set new plans into motion, to restart projects that have stalled, and to course-correct plans that are drifting. Where the daily coram deo takes only a couple of minutes, the weekly review requires a little bit more time—I find that I need to block off around 30 minutes for it. I schedule it for each Friday afternoon so that when a new week begins on Sunday, the week is already set and organized.

This weekly review is a work in progress and I occasionally add a step or remove a step. But on the whole it is comprised of these actions:

  • [Get Focused] Pray
  • [Get Clear] Bring: Email Inbox to 0
  • [Get Clear] Bring: Evernote Inbox to 0
  • [Get Clear] Bring: OmniFocus Inbox to 0
  • [Get Clear] Tidy: Desk
  • [Get Clear] Tidy: Desktop
  • [Get Current] Review: Calendar for Next 30 Days
  • [Get Current] Review: OmniFocus Forecast for Next 7 Days
  • [Get Current] Review: Evernote Notebooks
  • [Get Current] Review: All Projects
  • [Get Set] Review: Mission & Principles
  • [Get Going] Decide: Next Week’s Deadlines, Deliverables, and Priorities

I will give you a brief overview of what I do in each step.

[Get Focused] Pray. I pause to pray, asking wisdom to know what I ought to do, and for grace to do it well.

[Get Clear] Bring: Email Inbox to 0. [Get Clear] Bring: Evernote Inbox to 0. [Get Clear] Bring: OmniFocus Inbox to 0. I tidy up all 3 inboxes to ensure that my system is clean and running smoothly. All emails are replied to or filed, all information in Evernote is placed in its proper notebook, and all my tasks are filed in their appropriate projects.

[Get Clear] Tidy: Desk. I clean up my physical workspace, filing any papers, putting away any books, and so on. This step actually extends a little beyond my desk to any other place that paper, books or other bits and pieces tend to accumulate. It is not a total cleaning of my office, but a gathering of anything that could contain information I may need when looking ahead.

[Get Clear] Tidy: Desktop. I clear up any files that have ended up on my computer’s desktop.

By the time all my [Get Clear] steps are complete, everything is where it ought to be as per the familar maxim a home for everything, and like goes with like. Now that I am clear, I can get current—I am going to look at my tools to familiarize myself with all the items I could take action on in the week ahead.

[Get Current] Review: Calendar for Next 30 Days. I look over my calendar to see if there are any major events coming up that I ought to be aware of. I rarely need to take action on things that are more than 30 days ahead, so a month is plenty of time for me.

[Get Current] Review: Evernote Notebooks. There are certain notebooks in Evernote that contain crucial information and that need to regularly reviewed. Let me give you an example. If I am an account manager, I might have a notebook in Evernote that contains information about each of my clients. At the end of the week I would go through that notebook and see if there are any notes that have not been updated in a long time (which would indicate that I have not been in touch with that client for a long time). Where I see that kind of information, I can create tasks to check in with those clients or to take other appropriate actions. To be clear, I do not review all of my notebooks—only the few that contain especially important and actionable information.

[Get Current] Review: All Projects. Now it is time to review every single one of the projects in my task management system. One of the best features of OmniFocus is its automated review functionality which automatically prompts me to review each of my projects on a regular basis. At this time I have it set so I review each of my projects on Friday afternoon. Depending on the software you use, you may need to do this step manually. It involves little more than a glance at each project to ensure I have a next action assigned to each, to ensure items have due dates, to see if I have missed or overlooked anything, or to see if I completed anything but neglected to mark it as complete. I will also see if any of these projects has a pending deadline. If I see anything that needs to be adjusted or prioritized, I can set an appropriate due date. I can’t overstate the importance of this step to the functioning of the system.

[Get Current] Review: OmniFocus Forecast for Next 7 Days. I open the forecast perspective in OmniFocus and run through the next 7 days, reminding myself of any pending deadlines.

At the end of these [Get Current] steps I have gathered all the information I need and I know which of my tasks I could take action on in the week ahead. But I still need to decide which I actually will take action on. However, there is one step I need to complete before that.

[Get Set] Review: Mission & Principles. I go to Evernote where I keep a note containing my mission statements for each of my areas of responsibility, and where I keep a list of productivity principles I attempt to live by. I read my mission statements and principles every single week. Where my mission statements tend to stay static, I often find myself making minor adjustment to my principles. (See below for more on these principles.)

At the end of [Get Set] I have put everything in its place. I have gotten all the information I need. I have considered my mission and principles. Now, at last, I can get going.

[Get Going] Decide: Next Week’s Deadlines, Deliverables, and Priorities. At the end of it all, I decide what I mean to focus on in the next week or weeks, and assign due or defer dates as appropriate. Example: In my review of the Evening Service project I see that I will be preaching the next part of my series on the following Sunday evening. Therefore I set the due date on that task for the Friday, and the defer date for Tuesday. Next week Tuesday, when I do my daily coram deo, I will see it as an option for that day and flag it as one of that day’s top tasks. And on Friday I will receive a reminder that it needs to be complete before I leave the office for the day.

And that is my weekly review. It takes about a half hour at most, but offers a very important reset to my productivity system.

Mission and Principles

I mentioned under [Get Set] that every week I review my mission and principles. In a previous article I wrote about mission statements [part 3], so now let me tell you about principles.

November 17, 2014

Like so many other people, I have a love-hate relationship with money. I love what money can do and accomplish, and I hate how money is so fleeting. It seems like every dollar is hard-earned and easily-spent. Every dollar can be used in a million different ways and so much of life’s anxiety comes from determining how to use too little money to address too many possibilities.

When Aileen and I got married we were just twenty-one (me) and twenty-two (she) years old and earning less than $30,000 between the two of us—and this in one of the most expensive cities in North America. Since then, like most families, we have seen slow but steady increases to our income. Of course, our expenses have increased at just about the same pace as we have gone from renting a home to buying, from driving compact sedans to minivans, and from having no kids to three kids. As I look back on my life and financial history, I see a long list of mistakes Aileen and I made and a list of mistakes we managed to avoid. Here are a few of each.

Mistake Avoided: Credit Cards

There is always someone willing to extend credit to the young and foolish. Thankfully Aileen and I avoided using credit cards when we were young, and for many years either paid cash or debit for all of our purchases. Recently we have taken the opposite approach: We now buy everything on credit cards in order to maximize our points and cash-back. However, we are careful to always pay off the full balance every month. What we did well was migrating to using credit cards only when we had the finances and the self-discipline to avoid high-interest debt. We’ve never once carried a balance on our cards. Impact: Major. Advice: Avoid credit card debt at all costs.

Mistake Made: Learned Too Late

I was never formally taught how to budget or how to manage money. No school I attended offered courses or even classes on financial management. No one ever sat down with me and showed me how to draw up a budget. I had to learn it on my own. Eventually I read books by Dave Ramsey and Randy Alcorn and developed both a theology and theory of finances. Unfortunately, we had already been married for several years and had made more than a few sloppy and ignorant mistakes. Impact: Moderate. Advice: Develop that theory and theology of money as early in life as you can.

Mistake Avoided: Small House

When we were first married we spent several years renting houses while waiting for my career to advance and my salary to reach a level that would allow us to think about a mortgage (Canada has more stringent borrowing and lending standards than in the USA). Eventually we got to the point where we could think about buying a house of our own. We bought the cheapest starter home we could find in a good neighborhood in a great town—a 1,000 square-foot townhouse. At the time the location was ideal because I was working just down the road and we attended a neighborhood church. However, shortly after we bought that house I was laid off and began working much farther afield; around that same time we found a church almost a half hour away. But we have decided to stay put, even though it means a longer commute to work and church. We have owned only this one house and at this point have no plans to leave, even though it is quite crowded at times (and we haven’t yet dealt with the drama of three teenagers and only one shower). Our mortgage payments are low and we should have the house paid off years early. Impact: Major. Advice: Do not buy more house than you need, and once you buy, stay there as long as possible.

November 12, 2014

Today I am continuing this series on Christians and productivity. I have said that productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God, and to this point I have suggested many different ways of doing that (You can see a series round-up at the bottom of this article). Our topic for this article is taming the email beast.

I think we all have a love-hate relationship with email. On the one hand email brings many good things—it delivers exciting news, encouragement from friends, and fun little notes from family members. It also has immense practical value—it delivers confirmation that the ticket order went through, or that the book we want is on sale. But, of course, there is a dark side as well—the endless spam, the email discussions that go on for far too long, the newsletters we didn’t sign up for, the chain letters promising bad luck if we don’t forward it to twenty more people. Email has become a mess of function and dysfunction. We need it, and yet we hate it.

Doing Email Badly

To better understand why so many of us do email so badly, let’s draw a comparison to a real-world object: your mailbox. Imagine if you treated your actual, physical mailbox like you treat your email. Here’s how it would go:

You walk outside to check your mail and reach into your mailbox. Sure enough, you’ve got some new mail. You take out one of your letters, open it up and begin to read it. You get about halfway through, realize it is not that interesting, stuff it back inside the envelope, and put it back in the mailbox. “I’ll deal with this one later.” You open the next letter and find that it is a little bit more interesting, but you do the same thing—stuff it back into the envelope and put it back inside the mailbox. Other mail you pull out and don’t even bother reading—it just goes straight back inside the mailbox. And sure enough, your mailbox is soon crammed full of a combination of hundreds of unopened and unread letters plus hundreds of opened and read or partially-read letters.

But it gets worse. You don’t just use your mailbox to receive and hold letters, but also to track your calendar items. You reach in deep and pull out a handful of papers with important dates and events written on them, including a few that have come and gone without you even noticing or remembering. And, of course, you also use your mailbox as a task list, so you’ve got all kinds of post-it notes in there with your to-do items scrawled all over them.

But we aren’t done yet. Even though you feel guilty and kind of sick every time you open your mailbox, you still find yourself checking your mail constantly. Fifty or sixty times a day you stop whatever else you are doing, you venture down the driveway, and reach your hand inside to see if there is anything new.

It is absurd, right? Your life would be total chaos. And yet that is exactly how most people treat their email. It is chaotic with no rules or procedures to control it. What do you need? You need a system.

Taming Your Email

We once again need to consider our foundational principle of organization: A home for everything, and like goes with like. On a high level, we now know that events, meetings and appointments belong in our calendar; tasks and projects belong in our task management software; and information belongs in our information management tool. That leaves email as the place for communication—communication and nothing else. Email is an abysmal task management tool and a woefully poor scheduling tool. It is tolerable only if we make it do the one that it does passably well: communications.

We can also use that principle of organization on a more granular level. Here it tells us that our email inbox is the place for unprocessed email and for nothing else. The inbox is not the proper home for archived email or for email that is awaiting our reply.

So let’s build a simple system that will allow you to tame your inbox. Your email system can be as simple or as complex as you want it, but the simplest method of all involves just three locations: A place to receive new email, a place to hold email you will reply to at a later time, and a place to hold email you need to keep for archive purposes. It really can be that simple.

The inbox is the place to receive email. No matter what email program you use, your inbox will be built-in and probably already full of email. You also need a place to temporarily hold email as it waits for your reply, so go ahead and create a folder or label called Reply. And then you need a place to hold email that you will be keeping for archive purposes. Most email programs already have this functionality as well. If your program does not, create a folder or label called Archive.

With our folders in place, let’s put together a workflow.

November 10, 2014

My neighbor is a public nuisance. It’s official, actually. She has been declared a nuisance which means the police are no longer obligated to respond to her phone calls. And she calls them a lot.

I first encountered Elizabeth a few years ago when I saw her propped up on crutches, trying to sweep several centimeters of snow off her very long driveway. I grabbed a shovel, cleared off her drive, and have been doing it ever since (see here). She is a fascinating woman who has lived in this neighborhood since before I was even born. She is well advanced in years and full of fascinating stories. But, sadly, she is losing her grip on reality. Through a long history of belligerent behavior and a shorter history of paranoia, she has alienated herself from every other neighbor. She has a reputation in this neighborhood and is the butt of many jokes. Most people just know to keep their distance.

Elizabeth recently called me over to her home to have me replace a lightbulb in her basement. While I was there, sorting through a box of many, many long-dead lightbulbs, she explained her most recent crisis. She had awoken from a nap just a few minutes earlier to find that someone had snuck into her house and varnished half of her coffee table while she slept. She was beside herself with concern and was planning to call the police. I looked around and saw every evidence that she had varnished half of her table, taken a nap, and, upon awaking, forgotten that she had ever begun. But I couldn’t exactly tell her that, could I? She called the police who opted not to respond.

This is just the most recent in a long series of similar incidents. Last year she accused local politicians of sneaking into her carport and dumping oil underneath her [very old] car as come kind of retaliation. She was upset and perplexed that the police didn’t believe her and refused to write up a report. Before that she accused local garden center workers of prowling her garden at night, splitting her hostas, and carrying away half of each plant. And before that she was convinced that the mayor had sent a team to break into her house and spray her furniture with a clear coat. Again, the police did not buy her story.

Our neighbors find this all hilarious, but I find it sad. It is sad to see her descending into paranoia and living on the edge of reality. She lives on her own, her sons have little to do with her, and she is steadily growing worse. But despite it all, she maintains her independence and walks to the grocery store just about every day, summer or winter, rain or snow. She tells me she is a medical test-case who has refused every medication doctors have offered her, and she just keeps going. Every Halloween she hands out grapes and bananas to the few children who will brave her driveway, every Christmas she brings my kids a little gift of hot chocolate, every summer she leaves her garden wild and untouched and considers it her pride and joy. And almost every week she finds another reason to call the police or to write another letter to the local newspaper. As eccentric as she is, I consider it a privilege to know her.

I have another neighbor who is quite a lot younger than Elizabeth. He is advanced and successful in his career. He makes lots of money and is quickly climbing the corporate ladder. He drives a nice car and speaks highly of himself and his accomplishments. He engages in banter with all the neighbors (except Elizabeth) and is well-known, well-liked and much admired. But he is also proudly atheistic, boldly denying the very existence of God.

Of these two neighbors, which is more to be pitied? Which of the two lives under the greater delusion? Is it the neighbor who can’t remember that she began to varnish her coffee table, or the neighbor who denies the very existence of his Creator? The Bible tells us “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 14:1).” Romans 1 insists “[W]hat can be known about God is plain to [all humanity], because God has shown it to them (v. 19).” One of my neigbhors is succumbing to age and infirmity and living in a sad fantasy. The other is willfully blinding himself to the most obvious reality in the world—that he and all that he sees and experiences have been made and formed by the Creator. He, by far, is most to be pitied because he, by far, is in the most perilous condition.

Image credit: Shutterstock

November 07, 2014

I may not know you, but I think one thing is safe to say: You do not have as much natural revulsion as I do toward a stand and greet time during a church service. You don’t feel a greater measure of inward terror when you hear a service leader command, “Stand up and greet a few of the people around you.” I am naturally shy, introverted, and easily intimidated, and can always feel the fear rising when I hear those words. And yet I am involved in planning our church’s services and often advocate for a stand and greet time. Let me tell you why I believe in this time of greeting one another, even though it is completely contrary to my natural desires.

Why are you part of a church community? Why are you a member of a church? Why do you go to the public gatherings of the church on Sunday morning? Broadly speaking there can be two reasons: You go for the good of yourself, or you go for the good of others. There is a world of difference between the two.

When I go to church for the good of me, I am free to be shy and introverted, free to keep to myself and free to be consistent with who and what I naturally am. I can hide in a corner or bury myself in a book. I can hope that others will come to me and pay attention to me. I can come for the service, sing some songs, hear a sermon, and slip out seconds after the final amen. I can do whatever is good and comfortable for me. I can hate that stand and greet time because of how it makes me feel, because of how it forces me shake hands with people who have colds, because of how it prompts me to judge others as less sincere than myself.

When I go to church for the good of others, I have no right to be shy and introverted, and no right to keep to myself. I have to die to myself and so much of who and what I naturally am. I can’t hide in a corner or bury myself in a book, but I need to seek out others and pay attention to them. I can come for the service, sing some songs, hear a sermon, and enjoy it all. But when I hear that final amen, I am right back to seeking out others and looking for ways to serve them.

I believe in the second option, and I try to practice it. When I walk into Grace Fellowship Church eager to do good for others, I am guarding myself against those ways that my natural introversion leads me to sin—especially the sin of selfishness. One of these ways is running away from other people, rather than loving and greeting them. That selfishness can even manifest itself in grumbling and complaining about that time of forced fellowship when we all stand and greet each other.

The stand and greet time still terrifies me if I allow it to, but I have learned to embrace it as another opportunity to serve others. I can meet people I haven’t met. I can find a visitor I didn’t catch on the way in and greet him. I can talk to people I don’t otherwise tend to talk to. We sometimes do “Name Amnesty Sundays” where we tell everyone they are free to say, without embarrassment, “I know you’ve been here for a while, but we still haven’t met,” or, “I know I’ve met you before but I just can’t remember your name.” This time pushes me outside of myself and forces me to do something uncomfortable but good. I believe in it.

Here’s what I’ve come to see: My natural desires and fears are completely irrelevant when it comes to what is right and wrong, and what is wise and unwise. If this time of greeting is an opportunity to serve others, I need to learn to love it. I just plain need to get over myself, because that’s what the Christian life is all about.

Let me close with a few considerations for a good and meaningful stand and greet time.

Church is for Christians. Though unbelievers should be welcome to attend, the service is primarily for the growth and refreshment of believers. If unbelievers do not like the stand and greet time, that may be a consideration, but it should not be a major consideration. What we do in church we do primarily for the good and growth of those who profess faith in Christ. Make the greeting time something that benefits Christians.

Make it meaningful. Every element in a worship service should be carefully planned to ensure that it has a purpose. A stand and greet time can be meaningful, but only if the leaders know why it exists and what it means to accomplish. Don’t do it if it is merely habitual and serves no clear purpose within the flow of your service. Begin it with clear instructions and close it with a clear transition to the next element of the service.

Don’t make it dumb. Many people hate the stand and greet time because they are forced to do or say something silly. Don’t make people say a particular phrase or repeat a little mantra to one another. Don’t force people to exchange hugs. Just allow people to naturally greet others in a way that is comfortable to them. Allow them to be sincere, not forced.

Christians love. The New Testament has a lot to say about greeting one another and expressing love to one another which means there are good, biblical reasons to include greeting as an element of a service. The church is probably the only place you will ever be told, “Stand and greet one another.” You will attend many events in the course of your life where you will be alone together, just one person in a big and impersonal crowd. By having people stand and greet one another during a church service, we are proclaiming that there is something different about this crowd and about this gathering. That alone makes it valuable and powerfully counter-cultural.

So do it! Do it well, do it wisely, and do it out of love for others.

(This article was inspired by Thom Rainer’s recent articles on the subject.)

Image credit: Shutterstock

November 05, 2014

Today I am continuing my series of articles that is looking at productivity from a biblical perspective. Thanks to all who have kept reading through what has become quite a long series.

I want to offer special thanks to all those who have provided feedback. I have been encouraged to hear from people who are beginning to explore productivity (many for the first time) and who are attempting to use new tools and implement new procedures. I am particularly interested in receiving feedback from women. I write from a male perspective and am necessarily limited in my understanding of the particular challenges women face as they pursue productivity. So if you are a woman and have been reading along and implementing some of these things, please do leave any feedback that you think I may find helpful. That is especially true if you are mom who is trying to pursue productivity amid all the hustle and bustle of household management.

Much earlier in the series I said that productivity depends upon four tools: information tools, scheduling tools, task management tools, and communication tools. Today I want to focus on the scheduling tool. It is time to consider calendars.

What Goes on Your Calendar

We need to begin by once again turning to the controlling principle of organization: A home for everything, and like goes with like. The calendar is the proper home for something, but for what? Let’s talk about that.

We have already found a home for information—an information management tool—, and a home for tasks—a task management tool. This leaves the calendar as the proper home for events, meetings, and appointments. If you need to remember something that happens at a certain time and at a certain place, it is an ideal candidate for the calendar. These are the only things that belong on your calendar.

This may mark a significant shift for you. It’s quite likely that in the past you have relied on your calendar as the home for your deadlines and tasks. However, I trust the previous articles have shown you the value of task management software and have demonstrated how it offers a more effective solution. Once you have moved deadlines and tasks into their proper home, your calendar will be left with all of those events, meetings and appointments, and hopefully nothing else.

If this is your first experience using both a calendar and task management software, you are likely to experience some tension at first. Unless you are careful, these two tools will infringe on one another’s territory.

Let’s consider a few different items and see whether they belong on the calendar or in task management:

  • Doctor’s appointment Monday at 9 AM. This goes on your calendar because it is an appointment that requires you to be at a specific place at a specific time.
  • Buy new socks. This goes in task management because it is an action, not an event, meeting, or appointment.
  • Open new bank account. This goes in task management because it is an action; though there may eventually be a meeting associated with the action, for the time being it is a task.
  • Conference call Wednesday at 4 PM. This goes on your calendar because it is a meeting and requires you to be at a specific place at a specific time.
  • Book manuscript due. This goes in task management because it is a task or project, not an event, meeting, or appointment.

Those examples are all quite straightforward. Sometimes, though, you will need to create appointments on your calendar and tasks or projects in your task management software. Consider these examples:

Bible Study. You attend a weekly Bible study and are expected to lead the study once each month. Create an event on your calendar called “Bible Study” for every Wednesday at 7 PM. This reminds you that you need to be at a certain place at a specific time. Also create a task in your task management software called “Prepare Bible Study.” This reminds you that you need to prepare for that Bible study. The calendar ensures that you have marked off the time, and the task ensures you will remember to prepare for it.

Preparing Taxes. You are responsible for mailing in your tax information. To do this you need to prepare material and then meet with your accountant. Create an event on your calendar called “Meeting with Accountant” for Thursday at 3 PM. This reminds you that you need to be at a certain place at a specific time. Create a task in your task management software called “Prepare Taxes.” The calendar ensures that you have reserved the time to meet with the accountant, and the task ensures that you will be adequately prepared.

November 03, 2014

For several months now Aileen and I have been pursuing physical fitness. While neither of us was horribly out of shape, neither were we nearly as fit and healthy as we wanted to be. This summer we made the decision that we would join a health club and, for at least a time, would recruit a trainer to help us. We were so ignorant about fitness that we knew we would need someone to guide and instruct us in this unfamiliar territory. I don’t think it’s too early to say that these two decisions—to get fit and to hire help in getting there—have changed our lives for the better.

The main benefit of working with a trainer has been growing in fitness, but there has been an unexpected secondary benefit as well: Our trainer has taught us so much about discipleship and mentoring. In the Bible we often see Paul comparing the Christian life to physical training, and I now better understand the metaphor. There is a sense in which my trainer and I are in parallel fields: He, as a trainer, is in the business of helping people grow physically fit; I, as a Christian and pastor, am in the business of helping people grow spiritually fit.

Let me share a few lessons I have learned about discipleship by working with our personal trainer.

Training takes assessment. Before we began our program, our trainer did a thorough assessment of our current physical condition and learned about our goals. He put us through our paces to gage our capabilities. He did this because everyone who walks through those doors is at a different starting place and means to achieve a different goal. He can train us best when he knows our strengths and weaknesses and when he helps us work toward our specific goals. And in the same way, every Christian is at a different place in his spiritual growth, and different Christians have different goals—some mean to be pastors, some mean to be theologians, some mean to be godly husbands or wives. We disciple best when we disciple people specifically, with a right assessment of who they are and what they mean to achieve.

Training takes a plan. After our trainer assessed our fitness and learned our goals, he put together a plan that would get us where we wanted to go. He had complete confidence in this plan and assured us that the results would come if we simply stuck to it. Spiritual training also thrives with a plan. A mature Christian is able to speak with authority about how to grow in godliness by taking advantage of the God-given means of grace.

A trainer models and calls for imitation. The world of fitness was completely new to Aileen and me and we needed coaching on even the most basic exercises and movements. Our trainer modeled each one, patiently showing us how to do each of the exercises and how to use each piece of equipment. But he did not only show us our exercises and then walk away—he watched us as we imitated him, making adjustments and corrections to ensure we were doing it all just right. Christian discipleship works best when we can call upon others to imitate us. We call on others to imitate us in life, in relationships, or in spiritual disciplines, and then we watch them, and make corrections and adjustments as necessary.

Training looks for weakness. As we have progressed through weeks and then months of training, our trainer spotted certain weaknesses and adapted the program to meet them. Through all my life I have struggled with posture—my shoulders like to collapse forward. I didn’t know it, but this was because certain muscles in my back and neck are far too weak. Our trainer halted parts of the program to work on building strength that would correct posture. In our discipleship we also inevitably encounter weaknesses of knowledge and character, and need to adapt to meet those and deal with them before progressing any farther.

Training thrives with encouragement. Through all the hard work of training, our trainer has been a source of encouragement, motivating us to lift that weight just one more time, or assuring us that we are progressing in our program. When we feel ready to give up, he calls on us to persist. A good spiritual mentor does the same, offering specific and timely encouragement to press on, to do those things that seem so difficult, to build the right habits and to pursue the right patterns.

October 31, 2014

The Christian faith is comprised of both nouns and verbs. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the content of the Christian faith is comprised of both nouns and verbs. Michael Horton says it well:

All of our faith and practice arise out of the drama of Scripture, the ‘big story’ that traces the plot of history from creation to consummation, with Christ as its Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. And out of the throbbing verbs of this unfolding drama God reveals stable nouns—doctrines. From what God does in history we are taught certain things about who he is and what it means to be created in his image, [what it means to be] fallen, and redeemed, renewed, and glorified in union with Christ.

So drama describes the actions, the verbs, or what God is doing. Doctrine describes the facts, the nouns, of who God is and what it means that he made us in his image. If you put the two together, you have the content of the Christian faith. I was thinking recently about the great “throbbing verbs of this unfolding drama,” and about this universe as the stage in which God is displaying himself and his glory. I was convicted that I think of the world this way too seldom, and was convicted that there is a lot of value in making this shift in thinking. After all, if this world is a stage, there are many implications. Here are 4 of them:

First, if there is a story, there is a play-wright or story-teller. This means that when events happen, when good things or bad things unfold around us, we do not look to fate or chance as if they are responsible. Instead we look to the play-wright, the story-teller, to see what he means to accomplish. Think of the great words of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That only makes sense if there is authorship, if someone is scripting and controlling the story.

If there is a story, there is purpose. If history is unfolding in a deliberate and controlled way, we know that what happens in the world is not just a series of isolated, disconnected, purposeless events. We know there is a purpose for everything. There is even a purpose behind even those events we would never have chosen. This story never runs off-script, but continues deliberately and perfectly toward its closing scene.

If there is a story, there is a plot, a storyline. This means there is a plot to our lives. Our lives are not meaningless. Instead, we are actors in this story. We are making real decisions and taking significant actions, and through it all, playing a role in this great drama.

Finally, if there is a story, and if we understand that story, we realize our proper place. The world is not about us. We are not the heroes of the story. We are not the writers of the story. We are merely actors in it. We are important to the story, but we are not indispensable since it really isn’t about us at all.

There really is a drama unfolding around us, and as Christians we get to see what it is all about, we get to interpret what is happening around us, and we get to see how we fit in. This is an immeasurable blessing.

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October 29, 2014

For millennia, human beings have looked to the night skies and grappled with their own insignificance. It is difficult to feel big and important when looking at thousands and millions of stars stretching far beyond our gaze and far beyond our comprehension. King David’s experience is one most of us have shared. 

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
(Psalm 8:3-4 ESV)

The Bible tells us that the splendor and magnitude of the universe is meant to force us to acknowledge the existence of a Creator and to force us to acknowledge his infinite power. We, too, are meant to echo David: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

DeGrasseFamous astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has dedicated much of his life to looking to the skies, but has found a way to feel big. He was once asked by a reader of TIME magazine, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” Here is his answer:

The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, when unstable in their later years, collapse and explode, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense and collapse, form the next generation of solar systems—stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So when I look up at the night sky I know that, yes, we are part of this universe. We are in the universe. But perhaps, more important, that the universe is in us. When I reflect on the fact, I look up—many people feel small, because they are small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms come from those stars. There is a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, want to feel relevant, want to feel like a participant in the goings on and the activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are just by being alive.

He is right in some ways. We all want to feel connected, we all want to feel relevant, we all want to feel like participants in what is going on around us. Ultimately, we all want assurance that we matter precisely because we have an innate understanding of our insignificance.

Tyson says our significance comes when we understand that we are made of the same stuff as the stars—we are one with the universe and part of the big picture of the universe because our bodies are composed of the building-blocks of the universe. That may seem compelling and it may seem encouraging, but if this is the most astounding fact he can come up with, he is a fool. He is a brilliant fool, a man who uses his intellectual gifts to express folly.

The Bible has far better news.

The Bible assures us of two facts that are in no way contradictory: We are very, very small, and we are very, very significant. We are small in comparison to the infinite and eternal God who created us, but we have the utmost significance because we are created in his image. We are microscopic when compared to God, but an integral part of his plan for this universe. We are mere dust, but the Son of God saw fit to clothe himself in this dust. The most astounding fact is not that we are made of the same stuff as the stars, but that God chose to be made of the same stuff as us.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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