Aspire to Retire?

Retirement isn’t an idea you find in the Bible. Yes, the march of time slows us down, and we need to transition to a new rhythm, allowing the next generation to take the lead. But sipping drinks with little umbrellas by the beach for months on end is not the ambition recommended by Peter, Paul, or Moses.

When formal or full-time employment winds down, we nonetheless still have to figure out what to do with our time. A couple years before I actually stepped down from my job, someone suggested I do an exercise. That was simply to write out a plan. I did it and that helped me clarify in my own mind things I was already thinking about. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Read more. All the books were waiting that I’ve wanted to get to that I hadn’t had time for.
2. Do some freelance editing and consulting. I wanted to do some, but not too much. I already had one project lined up to begin with.
3. Write more. I had one book to finish in the first six months, as well as to keep my blog going.
4. See our thirteen grandkids more. They are in Chicago, Denver, and Tucson. We made several trips out West in the first year and subsequently. What fun!
5. Give more volunteer time to the church. In particular I wanted to start regularly helping out at the food pantry our church sponsors.
6. Give attention to home improvement projects. Almost every room in the house needed attention. I planned to do one or two rooms a year.

Your list would look different. My ideal day, I thought, would be to write, read, or edit in the morning, and then get my body moving by doing home improvement in the afternoon. It has rarely happened exactly that way, but I have enjoyed the mix over weeks and months. All six items on my list have been part of my regular routine.

My wife, Phyllis, needed to do it differently. She is such an activist I suggested she not make a plan or any long-term commitments for a year. Otherwise she would fill up her schedule without a clear sense of priorities. And I knew she would have plenty to do during that year, but she needed to organically see what her new rhythm of life would be. So she did. She spent the year continuing to be active with friends, family, discussion groups, and service opportunities. But no big plans.

This took a bit of discipline on her part because immediately on stepping away from her job, she was offered an opportunity to volunteer with a weekly jail ministry. That sounded just right but she waited a year, at the end of which that option was still at the top of her list. She’s done it ever since and loved it.

credit: Andy Le Peau (food pantry)

Heroes and Holes

When widespread coronavirus restrictions first began to take effect last month, I was in an airport.

I suddenly became acutely aware of people around me serving food, cleaning tables, maintaining equipment, and many more. Clearly, I thought, I have not appreciated such people enough or sufficiently expressed my thanks. They (along with other more obvious examples of first responders and medical staff) were putting their health on the line to serve me and others, to keep society functioning, even if it was at a reduced level.

What they were doing was courageous, putting their own well being at risk for the sake of others. I also realized, however, that some of them had no choice. They could not afford to stay at home without pay for weeks or months. They had no savings, no family safety net to fall on. They could not do their jobs virtually via laptop and Zoom.

One grocery store worker feels the label of hero is misplaced for her and others. And she raises good questions. At least hazard pay should be a consideration for such workers.

Heroes, nonetheless, may not always look like what we expect. They do not always arrive with a uniform, a cape, a superpower, magical abilities, or exceptional cleverness.

In Louis Sachar’s novel, Holes, Stanley Yelnats is a wonderful, unexpected hero. He is a bit overweight, awkward, doesn’t seem particularly smart or charming, has little by way of leadership skills, and in fact often gets picked on by other kids. He is almost the definition of ordinary, if not forgettable. Yet the whole tale of injustice, bad luck, and obsession hangs on his steady, unflappable, and forgiving character.

How? Stanley does not take life too personally—the good or the bad. He also makes room to help those in need. Zero, for example, wanted to learn to read. Stanley helped him despite ridicule and potential punishment. Finally, Stanley has grit. He doesn’t give up. He undramatically keeps plodding ahead, moving forward, when others would have stopped.

Years ago I saw the movie based on this book. As I read it recently for the first time, I remembered some of the story. But I found it to be a splendid reminder that even ordinary people can be heroes by virtue of their ordinariness.

image credit: Pixabay Scottslm

Through All Human Hearts

A Lenten Reflection

When the thought flashes through my mind that I am better than others, better than those in other churches or other cultures or the other political party (or more likely that I am better than those in both political parties!), I try to remember Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s well-known comment from The Gulag Archipelago,

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.

In Lent we remember that all have sinned. None are righteous. As enlightened as I am, certain kinds of people infuriate me or repel me. That is not a morally superior response. That falls short.

I can’t even take pride in how humble I am for recognizing my sinfulness, since that too comes from God. As Fleming Rutledge puts it in The Crucifixion, “the knowledge of Sin is a consequence of the knowledge of the grace of God, not a precondition of it” (575).

When troubles come our way, we are tempted to ask, Why me? We could just as well ask, Why not me? Thanks be to God who gives grace while we were and are yet sinners.

Image credit: Pixabay congerdesign

Blessing All

A Lenten Reflection

In AD 165, a terrible plague hit the Roman Empire that lasted for fifteen years. Some historians think it was smallpox, but whatever the cause it was devastating. Perhaps a quarter or more of the population died. A hundred years later another plague hit Rome, with similar results. Bodies were piled up in the streets, some being thrown there before people actually died. Thousands abandoned the cities for the countryside in an attempt to escape the pestilence.

But there was one minority group that responded very differently to both plagues. They stayed in the cities. Rather than avoiding the sick, they cared for them. As a result of receiving simple food and water when the ill were too weak to look after themselves, many survived when others who were forsaken by their friends and families died at a much higher rate. Some of those in this special group of caretakers also contracted the disease, however, and died. Why did they do this, knowing the danger? Why did they act so differently than many of their neighbors?

Largely, those that stayed to help the sick were Christians. They believed Christ’s call to love their neighbors, their pagan neighbors, even if it meant possible death. As a result, not only did Christians survive at a higher rate than pagans, but many of the pagans who were cared for by Christians—and who saw their sacrificial love for others—turned to Christ themselves. The reaction of Christians to these two plagues was one of the most significant factors in the conversion of half the Roman Empire to Christianity by about AD 350.*

Israel was chosen by God to be a blessing to all nations. That was the original promise and call God gave Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), which Jesus and the prophets reiterated. We likewise have no right to turn inward and keep our blessings to ourselves, as the Jewish leaders had done. Our focus is to be outward and welcoming, even toward those who may bring us harm.

Israel was to openly accept people of every ethnic group and nation to Jerusalem as Jesus reminded them: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). We as Christians should also gladly receive people from all nations to our churches, our communities, and our countries. We can fulfill the Great Commission not only by going to all nations but also by encouraging people of all nations to come to us. In this way they can hear and see and experience the gospel in ways that may not be possible in their home nations, where Christianity is illegal or suppressed. This is what Christians do—what mission-minded Christians do.

Might it be dangerous to do this? Might some people take advantage of us? Might some of those who come from other countries actually be looking for ways to do us harm? Yes, there may be some. But we can say two things in response. First, the vast majority of people who take the risk to travel from one country to another are simply looking for a better life. The Bible clearly calls us to assist those who are seeking to escape poverty or oppression. Second, Jesus never told the disciples that following him would be safe, or that telling others about him would be safe. In fact, he told them quite the opposite.

    “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38).

Excerpted from Andrew T. Le Peau, Mark Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2017), 206-08.

*Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 114-19; and Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 73-94.

Images: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. Reproduction of a wood engraving by P. Noël after J. Delaunay. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0); Jesus healing–falco pixabay

What Are We to Make of Suffering?

A Lenten Reflection

When we are struck by illness, disappointment, depression, or when we are sinned against by violence or injustice, we can struggle to believe God, trust God, or feel God’s love.

Philosophers and theologians have done little better in the face of such pain and sometimes horrific evil. Yes, we can “explain” it by reference to free will. That is, we can’t truly love God or truly be in his image if we don’t have free will—which also opens the option of rejecting God, rejecting love, and choosing what is wrong. And I believe in free will and this line of thought.

Nonetheless, I still wonder: Is all the pain and suffering worth that? Can it justify the good? Does the possibility of love balance out the scales of senseless torture, murder, violence? I have a hard time seeing how we could say yes. Ultimately, I wonder, Wouldn’t it have better for God to not create at all rather than create a world with the horrific and sometimes massive amount of cruelty and death?

One thing that ironically gives me a glimmer of comfort is that the Bible doesn’t attempt to answer those sorts of questions the way so many try. When Job made such a challenge to God, God did not respond with the kind of answers we or Job might want. Instead he says to Job, my wisdom is seen in how I made the immensities and intricacies of the heavens and earth. Can you trust my wisdom for everything you don’t see?

In the New Testament, we don’t find answers either as we might want. But God does respond. He enters into the evil, sin, and death, of the world. He experiences the worst his own world can throw at him. At least, then, he knows what we have gone through. But in addition to that he responds to evil by fighting it, and he calls us to do the same.

We find in the Bible no superficial, “Oh, there’s a reason for everything,” or a flippant, “The good makes up for all the suffering.” Such responses would be insulting to anyone who has experienced deep pain. God takes evil much more seriously than that.

What we find is much more profound. During Lent, therefore, I consider that when it comes to evil God didn’t answer–he acted. In the cross is God’s fullest response in the battle against Evil and the Evil One. There he deals a death blow to Death. And in that I find hope as we look to the day when he will wipe away every tear and set all things right.

photo credit: joaogbjunior Pixabay

Setting Things Right

A Lenten Reflection

In typography, when we straighten lines on both sides of a column of text we say it is justified. This gives a clean appearance so readers are not distracted by jagged edges. Readers can then focus on the words, not on how they look.

Jagged edges appear elsewhere too. A family member gets ill. We feel betrayed by a friend. Someone rear ends us. These and more pile up till we snap back harshly at those we love most. We fail to live up to our own standards of honesty, loyalty, charity.

We also need to be justified. Our lives need to be straightened and aligned with God. As Fleming Rutledge notes in The Crucifixion, the English words justify, justification, righteous, righteousness are all from the same word group in Greek.

    “Righteousness” does not mean moral perfection. It is not a distant, forbidding characteristic of God that humans are supposed to try to emulate or imitate; there is no good news in that. Instead, the righteousness of God is God’s powerful activity of making right what is wrong in the world. (author’s emphasis)

This activity involves our individual lives but also much more. Our broken world needs to be justified as well, a world in which justice is too often perverted.

    When we read, in both Old and New Testaments, that God is righteous, we are to understand that God is at work in his creation doing right. He is overcoming evil, delivering the oppressed, raising the poor from the dust, vindicating the voiceless victims who have had no one to defend them. (328)

The verb Rutledge frequently uses in her book to convey this action which justifies and makes righteous is to rectify. The world and all of us in it need to be rectified, to be set right.

As we enter Lent this Ash Wednesday, we remember that while we have been rectified in Christ, we are also still in the process of being rectified. We live in the already of Christ’s finished work, knowing that sin in ourselves and our world show that his blessings have not yet flowed as far the curse is found.

As he rectifies us now, we hold in that grace the hope that one day all will be set right.

Image credit: Free-Photos Pixabay (woodtype); 41joseatortosa Pixabay (hillside)

12 Rules for Life

“Be an adult. Quit your whining. Grow up.”

Jordan Peterson is the crusty, old coach who does not tolerate excuses, lack of effort, or stupid choices. He expects the best from you and won’t settle for anything less—not because he needs another victory but because he wants the best for you.

Listening to him read his book, 12 Rules for Life, you hear how he’s fed up with parents who coddle and refuse to correct their children, with people who won’t take care of their own health, with those who expect only good things in life and are surprised when bad things happen.

Judging by the sales of his books and views on YouTube, people seem to love his no-nonsense lectures—even when he’s shaking a finger at them. In an age when no one seems to know what’s right or wrong (or doesn’t believe in such things), how reassuring it is to hear from someone who confidently tells us exactly what to do.

Fortunately, Peterson has much wisdom to offer—yes, common sense.

  • If friends are having a bad influence on you, break the relationship. Instead, find people who will help you in life.
  • Tell the truth, even when it is hard, because if you don’t, the prevarication will come back to bite you.
  • Listen, really listen, to other people. You might learn something.

Peterson illustrates his principles with compelling stories from his own life, and backs his thinking with research from psychology, brain science, evolutionary science, and religion. He takes the Bible seriously, viewing it through the lens of his Jungian perspective on myth. That is, he sees the Bible as a valuable source of truth about human nature and how life works, leaving aside whatever spiritual realities it might contain.

I don’t agree with everything the old coach says, but there is so much of value here that it well deserves five stars and the wide reading it is getting.

Where I Didn’t Expect Gratitude to Take Me

We say thank you almost as much as we say hello. It’s common courtesy, acknowledging the value of a comment, a gesture, a favor, and of the worth of those around us. It binds us to our fellow humans, even if we do it somewhat mechanically.

In recent years I’ve been thinking about a deeper level of gratitude. David Brooks highlighted this for me in a column he wrote several years ago called “The Credit Illusion.” When we are in our twenties we are very impressed with our own talents and accomplishments. But by the time we are in our fifties, certainly by seventy, we recognize how much our life owes its shape to others.

Yes, I succeeded in college but I could only go because my parents valued it, could afford it, and sent me. And that was possible only because in the last two hundred years their parents or great grandparents journeyed from Western and Eastern Europe to a country where college was possible for and valued by people like them. They avoided two major wars that ravaged their populations and came to a country that was expanding economically.

My parents provided a stable home. They provided the foundations of my faith. Yes, I took advantage of the opportunities presented to me—educationally, economically, relationally. But I didn’t create the opportunities. Others made them possible. And I have been moved to give thanks for them and their parents more and to congratulate myself less.

Practicing this type of reflection and gratitude can lead to what I call confident humility. The humility comes from recognizing that so much (most?) of who I am is not my own doing. At the same time in gratitude I am saying what I have received is good, perhaps very good, and that produces confidence.

Confident humility, in turn, gives me the freedom to listen to others. I don’t have to lead with criticism of others to show how smart I am. Whether it is about church, politics, diets, family, or how bad the Chicago Bears are, I can open myself to learn from others who have different ideas than I do.

I don’t have to be threatened by new viewpoints or people who disagree with me because I know most of who I am came from others to begin with. Surprisingly, gratitude has thus taken me on a journey of listening and of learning new things—yes, of even learning I was wrong.

The end of a year and the end of a decade are good times to reflect and to be grateful. They are times to listen for the good, for the true, and for the beautiful regardless of the source.

photo credits: Pixabay 1778011 (University of Arizona); SecularEthos (thank you)

The Road to Community

It’s not too early to think about that graduation speech you are going to give next May. David Brooks has some ideas about what you should not say.

Early in The Second Mountain, David Brooks delivers a devastating critique of the hyper-individualism one usually hears in commencement speeches: Be yourself. The future is limitless. Look inside for truth. Follow your passion. This, Brooks says, is the counsel of despair for most college students have no idea who they are, what they are passionate about, or how to go about making a future. Such advice rather than energizing them, puts the full responsibility for their lives on their own shoulders which cannot bear the weight.

The image of the second mountain suggests what Brooks has in mind instead. The first mountain is that of personal achievement, of individualism, and personal happiness. But this is often followed by a descent into a valley of moral, career, or financial failure—or just a vague depression. We ascend out of the valley to the second mountain via self-sacrifice, committing ourselves to something bigger than we are alone.

As the book progresses, we learn of Brooks’s own valley—divorce, children leaving the nest, living by himself in a small apartment, and his crushing loneliness. On his way out of the valley Brooks created Weave: The Social Fabric Project of the Aspen Institute. We thus hear a number of stories of people and organizations building community in a variety of ways, large and small, to repair or broken society. We also hear of his journey into a community of faith, and the people who walked this path with him such as John Stott and the woman he eventually married.

After his critique of individualism, the book focuses on major four commitments that are larger than ourselves—vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, and community. Along with his introductory chapters, the last two sections are the strongest in the book.

In his opening to The Second Mountain, David Brooks says he is correcting his previous book, The Road to Character. I think, however, the two are simply companion volumes. While the earlier book focuses on the valid and important work of character development that each of us is responsible for, Brooks’s newest book highlights the importance of community for who we are.

I also found a kinship between this book and Ben Sasse’s, Them. Our increasing isolation from one another has led us to gravitate toward twisted forms of connection. As Brooks says, tribalism is the evil twin of community. The first is defined by who is our foe. The second by who is our friend. Both Brooks and Sasse emphasize the need to renew community and social networks (to actually get to know people face to face) to break down the hate that unnecessarily divides Americans from Americans.

Photo credit: Alan Sun

What Predicts Success in Life?

Talent is overrated. Hard work is undervalued. (Writers, take note.)

That’s the message psychology researcher Angela Duckworth argues throughout her book Grit, a message she illuminates with varied stories and interviews. The combination of passion and perseverance (her definition of grit) is a much greater predictor of success than any innate ability.

High school students who stick with an extracurricular activity—any activity—for at least two years are much more likely to graduate from college and succeed in life than those who don’t.

She also argues that grit is not itself a talent, just something we are born with. Rather we can grow in grittiness through practice and by becoming part of a gritty culture. Parents and coaches who offer loving support and high expectations can help their children and athletes not just improve in skills but grow in their stick-to-it-tive-ness.

Duckworth’s perspective is much like that of psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset (which I reviewed here). For Dweck, the fixed mindset believes talent, ability, brains are God-given and there is nothing we can do to improve. The growth mindset focuses on improving, on learning. The outcome is secondary. The result? Those with the growth mindset tend to do better than those with a fixed mindset.

Duckworth gives a nod to the fact (as research shows) that our environment (society, family, culture) can profoundly affect our grit. The culture of Finland, as one example, can train a whole country to be tough in adversity. So grit is not merely a matter of pulling oneself up.

In fact, our environment can also have a profoundly negative effect and train us in helplessness. More research is needed in this area than Duckworth provides. Our background doesn’t doom us, but she says little about how it makes emerging from this handicap infrequent and a major challenge. Exceptional people from difficult backgrounds don’t invalidate the rule. They prove the rule.

One other helpful bit I’ll mention: While “Follow your passion” is good advice, we don’t always know what our passion is right away. It takes trying many different things, sometimes over a period of years. But, she advises, while experimenting, don’t quit in the middle of a season or a semester even when you realize it is not for you. See it through to a logical stopping point—another way to grow in grit.

photo: Lapland Winter Snow (adege, Pixabay)