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Christian Living

Get More Done This Week
March 17, 2014

The law of entropy seems to apply to every area of life in this broken world. Without constant effort to the contrary, houses get dirty, gardens get overgrown, cars get rusty, habits get sloppy, children get unruly. If you leave it alone, whatever it is, it gets slower, not faster; sloppier, not neater; worse, not better.

Like everything else in the world, your ability to get things done is always spiralling toward chaos. If you allow yourself to coast for a few weeks, your life will get less orderly, not more orderly. Not only that, but you will soon find yourself neglecting the important tasks in order to focus on the urgent tasks. Before you know it, you’ll be off-focus and out of control.

Here are 8 ways to take control and get more done this week (and every week).

1. Plan Your Week

I know it’s a cliché but it really is true: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. If you don’t plan your week, you will only ever be reactive, responding to whatever concerns and opportunities arise. To take control of your week, you need to plan your week. Take a few minutes on Sunday evening to plan out your entire week, from Monday morning to Sunday evening. You don’t need to have something planned for every minute of every day, but at the least you should plan your work week. If you are married, it is best to do this with your spouse so you can be sure you are properly accounting for appointments, evening activities, and any other commitments you may otherwise forget. Make sure everything that happens at a specific time is on your calendar and that you have set alerts or reminders. Make sure that everything you need to do is in your task-management system (whatever that system is). Get as much as possible out of your brain and into your system.

2. Block Your Time

As you begin to determine what time you will use to accomplish your tasks, block time to specific tasks instead of general tasks. This may be something you can do at the beginning of the week, or it may need to be a day-to-day kind of task. You will need to be adaptable here, but simply blocking your week into work, family and sleep won’t do it. As you plan time, assign particular tasks to particular times. Plan that block from 10 AM to 12 PM on Tuesday as not only “Office Time” but “Write Bible Study.” Plan that block from 3 PM to 5 PM on Tuesday as not only “Meeting” but “Meeting With Marketing Team.” Take into account the times you are at peak productivity and reserve those for your most mentally-demanding tasks. I am at my peak in the early morning hours, so that is when I tend to do my writing or sermon preparation. By mid-afternoon I am flat out of energy and creativity, so this is when I tend to do my maintenance tasks and other chores that are necessary but routine.

3. Manage Your Tasks

An essential element of productivity is the implementation of, and reliance upon, a system that will get the list of things you need to accomplish out of your brain and onto paper or into software. You need to create a system and then rely on it. As you plan your week, and as your week unfolds, you need to use this system to capture, organize, and manage your tasks. When you reach the office on Monday morning and see that time in your calendar blocked off for “Weekly Maintenance,” your task management software should have a list of all those tasks waiting for you. As you receive phone calls and emails, and as you sit in meetings, you will constantly be adding new tasks that need to be done. Rather than relying upon your memory, you need to get all of these into your system so you will remember them and execute them at the best time. I am heavily dependent upon Things, a Mac-based application that syncs seamlessly between my computers and my mobile devices. Wherever I am, I have it with me. I always input my tasks with a verb followed by a colon like “Write: Email to Francis” or “Plan: Sunday Evening Sermon”. This keeps me from using my to-do list as a place to store random thoughts and forces me to make every task an action.

March 10, 2014

I’m so busy. You’re so busy. We’re all so busy. We’re so busy that we can’t possibly fit one more thing into our schedules, or one more relationship into our lives. That’s life in North America, or perhaps just life in the twenty-first century. In an article in the New York Times, Tim Kreider says that we all have a stock response: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” It may be a stock response, but it’s not a particularly good one.

I’ve noticed something in my own life that I find both interesting and disturbing. It’s this: People keep telling me how busy I am. People assume it. It might be because they just can’t imagine anyone being anything but busy. Or maybe it’s because I am giving off those busy vibes, somehow convincing people that I have way too much to do and way too little time to do it. I receive phone calls that say, “I know you’re so busy, and I’m sorry for taking more of your time.” I receive emails that say, “I’m so sorry for asking you this.” I even feel like I need to look and act busy since otherwise people may start to think I’m lazy. Are those the only options we’ve got: busy or lazy?

Here’s the thing: I don’t consider myself busy. When I speak at an event and do a question and answer session, I am often asked something like this: “How do you do all that you do?” My answer is usually something along these lines: “I actually don’t do all that much and live at quite a relaxed pace. This is because I’ve been deliberate in eliminating everything but the few things I want to give attention to: Family, church (both as a member and a pastor), friends and writing. What you see me do is just about all I do!” And that’s it. There just isn’t a lot more to my life than that. If my life is pie-shaped, then each of these things gets a slice of the pie and there just isn’t much left over at the end. I am okay with that. I don’t need time for much else.

This is not to say that I go through life free from all anxiety and without the stress of approaching deadlines. Neither does it mean that I spend my days surfing the web and chatting mindlessly on the phone. Not at all. I do my best to work hard in the times that I’ve set aside to work. I even measure my use of time every now and again so see where I am using time well and where I am frittering it away. I do my best to be fully present with my family in those times that I’ve dedicated to them. The same is true of friends and neighbors. I block off time to write and try to fill that time with as many words and as many ideas as possible. This is the ideal, though it is so difficult to maintain. One thing constantly wants to intrude on the other, so work times infringes upon family time and writing time falls into devotional time. But when I’m at my best, life is structured and life just isn’t busy.

Kreider makes an interesting point:

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

There are spiritual dimensions to busyness. There are spiritual consequences. Kreider says, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” There is truth in this. We can feel reassured by busyness and strangely comforted by it, even as it saps us of all strength and keeps us from feeling as if we are succeeding at even one of our responsibilities.

There is a cost to busyness, but there is a more subtle cost to being perceived as busy. When people believe that I’m busy, they also believe that I am unapproachable. This is what has disturbed me the most. People at church may want or need some of my time and attention, but because they perceive me as being so busy, they may be afraid or embarrassed to ask for it. My kids may want some of my time but believe that dad is too busy for them. This is what disturbs me most, that my busyness, or the perception of busyness, makes me less effective in the areas in which I want to do well. That cost is too high to tolerate. So let me say it again, primarily to reassure myself: I’m not busy. I have all the time I need to accomplish the things the Lord has called me to.

Note: This is an updated version of an article first published a couple of years ago.

Responding to Criticism
March 05, 2014

Criticism is inevitable. At certain times we will all face another person’s analysis or rebuke of our behavior. The best kind of criticism comes from friends, from those who know us and love us best. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:5-6). In his little book True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts offers three tips for responding to criticism, and especially this kind of criticism—the kind that comes in the context of friendship, of iron sharpening iron.

Expect It

We should expect criticism. We should expect criticism because we are sinful, so far from the holiness God requires and so far from the holiness we desire. If anything we ought to be surprised that we receive so little criticism. We should also expect criticism because friendships—especially close friendships—invite it. Criticism may arise from a negative spirit, but it can also arise from love. Our best friends must have an open invitation to offer criticism of our lives. Is there no one in your life who offers you critical feedback? Then it may be that you have chased off your friends by responding poorly and pridefully in the past. Expect to be criticized from time to time, and give your friends an open invitation to do so.

Examine It

When we receive criticism, and especially when that criticism stings or seems outrageous, we need to examine it to see if it is true. It may be that our friends have a faulty perspective, but it may be that they have a better perspective that we do. George Orwell was right when he said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Humility admits that others may see what we cannot or will not see ourselves. Roberts says, “We should resist the instinctive temptation to defend ourselves or attack the critic, but rather consider whether there is truth in what is being said.” Prayerfully examine that criticism to see if it is true and fair.

Endure It

There will be times the criticism will be painful but true. In such times, we will need to endure that criticism as we respond to it by making changes to our lives. There are times the criticism will sting because we come to believe the criticism is unfair. In either case, we need to keep ourselves from responding in kind or lashing out at the one who criticized us. We must resist the temptation to gossip about that person or to sever the friendship. Far better, we must endure criticism just as Christ Jesus patiently endured all the criticism that was heaped upon him. As always, as ever, he is our model.

March 04, 2014

I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the continuity between the Old Testament and the New. These Christians held, among other things, that the Old Testament Sabbath commands—given to observe the fourth commandment—carry into the New Testament Lord’s Day. This meant that the whole day was consecrated to the Lord. A whole twenty-four hours out of every week was to be protected from interference from life’s workaday responsibilities.

Though I continue to have a great deal of respect for those churches and that tradition, my views have changed a little bit. I no longer believe that observing the fourth commandment requires refraining from all work on Sunday. But I haven’t abandoned sabbath altogether. Life as a Baptist has forced me to see this: It’s not just sabbatarians who need sabbath. It’s not just sabbatarians who need a day set apart.

It has always fascinated me that God chose to rest. He worked six days, creating the heavens and the earth and everything that would fill them. And then he, the God who never grows weary, chose to rest. He took sabbath. Why would he do this? Why would the all-powerful God rest? He rested to established a pattern, to establish a flow. There would be times for labor and times for rest. Six days you could earn a living and carry out your day-to-day responsibilities, and on the seventh you were to rest. Six years you could harvest your crops, but on the seventh the fields were to lie fallow. There would be ebb and flow, there would be work and rest. God did not intend all work and no rest; he did not intend all rest and no work. He intended both to flow in a pattern, a dance.

I still believe in the importance of a pattern of work and rest. Sometimes I think my fellow Baptists may have been just a little too reckless in abandoning the pattern of six days followed by one day.

Though we are not sabbatarians in my home, we have found ourselves following and valuing the pattern. We adopted it naturally, as a natural consequence of growing up with it. On Sunday we break from our regular work: the children do no homework, we avoid leagues and activities, Aileen does not schedule her regular activities. (As a pastor my schedule is slightly more complicated, so I take a break on a different day.)

Looking at it now, I see three great lessons we learn from a day set apart.

March 03, 2014

Family is under attack. As Christians we are accustomed to hearing about divorce and pornography and gay marriage and so many other moral issues. Have you ever considered how many of these moral issues relate directly to family? If you look, you will see that the very notion of family—family as the Bible describes it—is under sustained and heavy attack. This means that your family is under attack.

We know that a distinctly Christian notion of family is crucial to raising children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. But there is more at stake than raising the next generation of Christians. Family is crucial in at least two other ways: It teaches us fundamental truths of the Christian faith and it serves as an important kind of ministry. Allow me to explain.

God Teaches Us Through Family

God uses family to teach us. There are several areas of Christian life and doctrine that God chooses to explain to us through metaphor, and one common metaphor is family. There are parts of Christian life and doctrine we can only rightly understand if we first understand family as God creates and intends it.

God Uses Family to Teach About His Nature. The relationship between parents and children is a distant glimpse of the relationships within the godhead, and, in particular, the relationship of the first person of the Trinity to the second—God the Father to God the Son. We can only describe and understand the relationship of God the Father to God the Son if we understand the relationship of earthly fathers to earthly sons. If Satan can distort or destroy family, he can distort and destroy our ability to understand God’s triune nature.

God Uses Family to Teach Us about His Gospel. God tells us that when he justifies us through faith in Jesus Christ, he adopts us as his sons and daughters. Therefore we know that the relationship of parents to their children is not incidental or unimportant—no mere fragment of God’s plan for his people. Rather, the relationship of children being brought into their parents’ family is designed to teach us about our relationship to God and to teach us about the intimacy of our relationship to him. If Satan can distort or destroy family, he can distort and destroy our understanding of the gospel.

God Uses Family To Teach Us about His Church. Peter calls the church “the family of God” (1 Pet. 4:17) and Paul refers to it as “God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15). As Christians, we belong to the same family because we have been united to one another through our adoption as sons and daughters of the same Father. It is because we are sons and daughters of the same Father that Christians refer to one another as “brothers” and “sisters.” If Satan can distort or destroy family, he can distort and destroy our understanding of the church.

Do you see it? To understand God’s nature, God’s gospel, and God’s church, we first need to understand family. When a father abandons his family, the metaphors grow distorted. When a family has two fathers and no mothers, the metaphors grow distorted. Even when a Christian couple determines for selfish reasons not to have children, the metaphors grow distorted. But a strong family, built upon the Scriptures, serves as a powerful image of all of these truths.

How Family Ministers

Your family is under attack because of all it represents. Your family is also under attack because of what it does. God designed your family to serve as a kind of ministry to the church and to the world.

We All Feel Like Frauds
February 24, 2014

Sometimes we all feel like frauds. At times we feel like everyone else is experiencing something so wonderful while we are just putting on a show. Their relationships are so deep, their friendships are so real, their faith is so strong, their worship is so heartfelt, their marriage is so satisfying. But our relationships are so shallow, our friendships are so fake, our faith is so weak, our worship is so distracted, our marriage is so difficult.

That’s life under this sun. It’s a life of inadequacy, a life where we are never as fulfilled and satisfied as we want to be. For all the genuine joys this life brings, there is still and always the lingering sorrow of all that life is not and will never be.

Sometimes I like to sit and think about the books that push their way onto the lists of bestsellers. Almost by definition, each of the books that sells a half million or a million copies is addressing some kind of deep felt need. After all, why else would you buy it and why else would you recommend it to a friend except that it meets you where you’re at—it promises help in an area in which you feel incomplete or inadequate.

  • The Purpose Driven Life promised to answer the ultimate question of life by helping us find our purpose. And who hasn’t felt unmoored, adrift, and purposeless in this world?
  • Jesus Calling promised us more than hearing from God through the Bible. It held out the promise, or the possibility, that Jesus might speak to us in a new and fresh way and, perhaps even better, in a personal way.
  • The Five Love Languages promised that it would give us better and longer-lasting relationships as we figured out how to relate in healthier ways.
  • The Shack promised a new way to understand God and a much more personal way to relate to him than any we have known this side of Eden.
  • 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven Is For Real—and all the other entries in the “I Went to Heaven” genre—promised answers to what we can only take by faith: that there is hope and life beyond the grave.
  • Radical promised to help us shake off the unfulfilling dullness of the American Dream and to pursue something so much bigger and nobler than the accumulation of possessions and a savings account.
  • Your Best Life Now promised that our lives could be better and happier, more fulfilling and more positive.

And on it goes. Every time a book hits the list of bestsellers, it is worth asking why it is there and what need it promises to address. There is the occasional exception, the occasional book that sells a million copies based on the popularity of the author (see anything related to Duck Dynasty) or because of brilliant marketing, but most books make the list because we put them there as we try to find answers to our deepest needs. Some of the most popular authors are adept at writing to our needs, even if they don’t answer them in a compelling and satisfying way.

A year ago I wrote about this very topic and suggested that the solution is found in Ecclesiastes and the single word Vapor. This was the refuge of Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes. He begins his book and he ends it with the same cry of discontent: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” All of the pursuits of this life are vanity, all of them are vapor, all of them are chasing after the wind, an impossible pursuit that never ends and never brings deep and lasting satisfaction.

Has anyone in all of literary history written words that are more poignant, more unflinchingly realistic, than these?

February 19, 2014

When I was a child my family owned a cottage—a beautiful cottage where I spent every summer of my childhood. On those long, warm, summer evenings, we would sometimes have friends and neighbors from up and down the road converge on our property for giant games of capture the flag. Those were grand nights—the kind of nights that form indelible memories.

One of the things I loved to do when we played capture the flag was to set trip lines. I would string a rope between two trees and wait in the dusk for some unsuspecting person to stumble across it and go down. Looking at it through adult eyes it sounds like a recipe for a cracked skull or broken ankle, but it seemed like good, clean fun back then.

The memory of stringing trip lines flashed into my mind recently, because something I read in a book took me out at the knees, so to speak. And down I went.

Vaughan Robert’s little book True Friendship has a lot to commend it, but there is one thing that stood out more than any other. Before I get to it, though, allow me a brief aside. I’ve thought often about this old blog post from Bob Kauflin:

But even if I don’t read as many books as others, I read. If I’m not reading, I’m relying on my memory. Which seems to be decreasing daily. So I read. I once heard someone say that books don’t change people - sentences do. If I glean two or three sentences from a book that affect the way I think and the way I live, that’s time well invested. So I read. Books give me the opportunity to learn from and about godly, bright, insightful people I’ll never meet. So I read. What I know will always be dwarfed by what I don’t know. So I read. Books help me become more effective at what I do. So I read.

I read for the same reasons. Like Bob, I forget almost everything I read. But I don’t mind, because I don’t want or need to remember everything, so long as I find those two or three sentences that will be resounding in my heart and mind a week or month or year from now.

February 05, 2014

The earliest messages are often the longest-lasting messages. Charles Spurgeon said that the voices of childhood echo throughout life so that “The first learned is generally the last forgotten.” This can be a tremendous blessing when truth is taught early and when it sinks in deep. It is for this reason that Christians have valued catechizing their children, teaching them the foundational truths of the faith while they are young. But this same principle can prove troublesome when the first lessons learned are poor ones, because those lessons are hard to correct and harder still to erase.

From a young age boys invariably receive one very unhelpful message: that men can be friends, but that there are strict, though unwritten, limits on how close a friendship they can have. Boys are taught that friendships are good, but that friendships can only grow to such an extent before they are good no longer.

From my youngest days I knew that it was good to have a friend, but that a friendship could only be so close before our closeness would “out” us. If that happened, I would be called “Sissy!” at best, “Queer!” or a host of other degrading synonyms at worst. We could play rough and tumble games together. We could play with the approved toys together. But we had to be very careful with relational closeness or dependency, because the other boys were watching with suspicion and judgment. The fathers may even have been watching with a wary eye, wondering if relational intimacy might just portend sexual intimacy. We had to be strong, independent, and self-reliant, knowing that every close friendship walked near a cliff and there would be fearful consequences if we came to close to its edge. We could be pals, we could be buddies, but we couldn’t love one another.

In his excellent little book True Friendship (just $2.99 on Kindle!), Vaughan Roberts quotes James Wagenvoord who describes the messages men absorb:

He shall not cry. He shall not display weakness. He shall not need affection or gentleness or warmth. He shall comfort but not desire comforting. He shall be needed but not need. He shall touch but not be touched. He shall be steel not flesh. He shall be inviolate in his manhood. He shall stand alone.

This is the idea of manhood we assimilate before we are old enough to think for ourselves, before we are able to evaluate for ourselves. This is the idea of manhood we absorb before we are capable of going to the Bible to learn for ourselves that it teaches something very different and so much better.

It is not difficult to see Satan’s hand in it, is it? He sees that if he can keep men from forming close friendships, he can keep men from forming close spiritual friendships. If Satan can keep men from acting like friends, he can keep them from acting like brothers.

I have been thinking a lot about friendship recently and realizing the truth of Spurgeon’s statement. Those early lessons really are hard to forget. They are difficult to overcome.

But I’m trying.

January 30, 2014

I once had a job I hated. Day after day I sat in a windowless basement office surrounded by hot, noisy computers. Day after day nothing happened. I had no major projects to inspire me, no big goals to work toward, no clear mission to fulfill. It was a bland and boring existence down there, just waiting for something interesting to happen. But nothing ever did, at least until the day came when they laid me off. I hated that job. I hated going to that office. The eventual pink slip, though intimidating and humiliating, was also something of a relief because at least it promised an end to those days.

I have thought about that job many times as the years have passed. Sometimes it is in the context of periods when the job I do now, a job I love, seems dull and insignificant, when pastoring involves more paperwork than people. Sometimes it is in talking to Aileen who often struggles with the humdrum nature of the work she does in keeping house and raising family. Sometimes it is in talking to other people who feel their skills exceed their opportunities, or who believe their training ought to take them beyond the tasks that consume their working hours.

And then I think back to that job in network administration, to the grumbling and discouragement, and in retrospect, and upon further reflection, I have to own my guilt in it. What I see more than anything, and what concerns me more than anything, was my utter lack of joy in what I was doing. I fully believe that job was my calling, my vocation, at that time in life, and yet I did it without any passion, any drive. I did it without any joy. I failed at my calling in that time and in that place. I deserved to be laid off!

But the job wasn’t the problem. I was the problem because I refused to attach any significance to the work I was doing. The work was boring and mundane, dull and tedious, because I allowed it to be that way. I wasn’t thinking Christianly about that job or the work I was meant to do there. My lack of joy in doing my job was a direct result of the lack of significance I attached to it.

Here’s the thing I had to see, and the thing I still need to call to mind: Work is not significant only when it utilizes my full capacity or full capabilities. Work is not significant only when it offers unusual challenge or special opportunity. Work is not significant only when it is measurable in dollars and cents or praise and compliments. Work has intrinsic significance because it gives me the opportunity to do something with joy—with joy in the Lord. I can do my work in such a way that it glorifies God, or I can do it in such a way that it dishonors him. Anything I can do to God’s glory has significance. It has great significance!

January 22, 2014

My children are growing up fast and, between you and me, they’re growing up a little bit faster than I had expected. My son is thirteen now, just a half school year away from being in high school. I sometimes find myself remembering when I was thirteen, and the kinds of things I awakened to and became interested in. Though I see now that I was only a kid, I was sure that I was all grown up. It’s disquieting at best. Meanwhile my oldest daughter is 11, going on 16. I love her to death, but she too is getting far too old for her own good. There are three kids in our home, but only one of them is still a child.

As my kids grow up, I find that I need to have important but uncomfortable discussions with them. They are unfortunate discussions, but the kind you’ve got to have in a world like ours. I suppose the only thing worse than having those discussions is not having them.

Some time ago we implemented a plan in our home to protect the kids from some of what lurks out there on the Internet. We removed Internet access from some devices, limited it on others, and applied filters that keep tabs on what we are doing online. It has been very smooth from a technological perspective, but a little less so on the interpersonal level.

Recently my son said, “Dad, you’re treating me like I’m addicted to pornography. But I haven’t ever seen it and don’t want to see it!” And he’s right, to some degree. If I’m not treating him like an addict, I am at least treating him like a pre-addict, someone who has the inclination, or who may well have it before long. In this way I think I understand him a little better than he understands himself. Of course our Internet plan is not designed only to protect the children from exposure to pornography, but that is still one of its major purposes.

But his exasperation and hurt feelings gave us opportunity to talk about one of the principles I have found helpful in my own life: When you are at your best, plan for when you are at your worst. I see this as an application of 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

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