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Month: January 2018

The Listening Life

Possibly the most transformative book I read in 2017 is Adam S. McHugh’s The Listening Life. Every page was like looking in a mirror; the sentences revealing how little I knew about true listening. McHugh writes

I got serious about listening when I realised I was missing things. Layers of meaning and opportunities for connection lurking near the surface of my relationships, but I wasn’t hearing them, even with those people I loved most. I was skilled at saying wise and empathetic sounding things; I was more skilled at holding people at arm’s-length. Whenever a conversation turned towards emotions, I started looking for an exit.

One of the characteristics of a genuinely good book of this genre is the ability of the author to speak personally in a way that makes us wonder how he was able to write directly to our thoughts and behaviours, while simultaneously speaking from a position of having seen things get better, and sharing a practical path forward to those goals. This is one of those books.

A Brief Review

The question that drives The Listening Life is “how would our relationships change if we approached every situation with the intention of listening first?” McHugh laments how much we have lost the art of listening in our technology-centric, modern convenience, noisy and distracting world. And so the book begins as it should, by laying a foundation for what listening truly looks like: a practice of focused attention. In order to understand ourselves and how we are truly meant to be, chapter two points us directly to our example, Jesus Christ The King Who Listens. Then the book opens up, and McHugh takes an in-depth look at how we approach, listen, and seek to better understand God (chapter 3), Scripture (chapter 4), creation (chapter 5), our neighbours (chapter 6), and our own bodies and emotions (chapter 8) through the discipline of listening. Cultivating this posture of listening not only lies at the heart of a true and mature spirituality, but greatly equips us to better participate in God’s saving mission in the world.

One Profound Takeaway

When it comes to listening to God, Scripture, or creation, I can (usually) find a quiet place and focus. Leaving my phone out of sight and keeping a notepad and pen within arms reach for those nagging thoughts pretty much does the trick. But when it comes to conversations with others, McHugh has shown me just how lazy and unloving I was being without even realising it, and how a little discipline would go such a long way in better emulating the listening Saviour who draws close and listens to me. In his chapter on loving others, he writes about Pushing The Arrow:

Imagine that there is a big arrow hovering over the space between two people engaged in a conversation. It is a very smart, mind-reading arrow, and it swivels to point at whomever the attention in the conversation is focused on. To listen, we remind ourselves, is to pay focused and loving attention on another. So, as the listener in this conversation, your goal is to keep the arrow pointing at the other person for as long as possible. That’s it. Push the arrow toward the interests, needs, and heart of the other person. Encourage the other person to keep talking, to take an idea further, to go deeper into a story, memory, or emotion. Then you are listening. If you remember nothing else from this chapter, remember this.

I was inescapably struck so many times in this chapter by how much I listen in order to respond, to offer advice, to one-up a story, or simply hearing out of obligation (all the while thinking about other things). In the last few weeks, I’ve intentionally entered every conversation with the aim of ‘pushing the arrow’; but not purely for the exercise or social experiment, but because I want to be a person who loves through listening, and you can only reliably listen in the moment if you have become a listening sort of person—someone who has developed a listening heart. When it comes to better loving God and loving others, Adam S. McHugh’s The Listening Life has been the most helpful, most revealing, most profound and practical advice I’ve ever read on how to be a listener, not just someone who occasionally listens.

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That’s a Wrap! (13/01)

Don’t be Content with Sloppy Christianity

Josh Buice writes

If we’re not satisfied with sloppy football, sloppy airplane pilots or flight attendants, sloppy lawyers, or even sloppy waste management services—we should not be content with sloppy Christianity within our local church.

Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings

New York Times opinion writer and feminist Daphne Merkin shines a side light on the current hot topic of #MeToo. I appreciate her call for a broader, earlier prevention strategy which includes ownership by individuals, parents, and society-at-large.

Evaluating your Life for Fillers and Drainers

I thoroughly appreciate the depth to which David Murray has taken his exploration of a life which is balanced, healthy, and has room to rest. I’ve purchased his recent best seller Reset, and will be getting to it in Feb (hopefully). In this article, he writes

At first it’s difficult to figure out, but eventually we notice that some activities fill our tanks while others drain us. Then, we figure out that we have to balance fillers and drainers so that when we engage in a draining activity, we follow it with something that fills us; otherwise we’ll be running on fumes, which won’t last long. Managing our energy consumption is as important as managing our money and our time.

In 2018, Don’t Forget Humility

This article struck me in many ways, particularly point 4 “Welcome some correction into your life”. This year, for the first time I took my wife out one evening and asked her to help me write a list of all the ways she would like to see me improve in 2018. I should have taken a bigger notebook and a second pen; and the list wasn’t an easy one to hear. It’s true that few practices further humility like this one.

Raising Sons in a “Boys will be Boys” World”

This is the word.

How manhood plays out in the various personalities, interests, gifts, and cultures is wide and diverse. But what it means to be a man is unchanging. I’m less concerned about whether they play sports, and more concerned about if they stand up for the kid getting picked on. I’m less concerned if they choose cooking over a drill, and more concerned that they honor women as co-image bearers. You see where I’m going with this? I don’t want to make the mistake that the culture makes, and make manhood about one thing (in the culture it’s about sex and in some church contexts it’s about hyper-masculinity). The stereotypes don’t help anyone—man or woman.

Theology Matters?

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You

Self-criticism in the digital age is a necessary discipline. The way we live, the way we interact, our personal habits, and our desire for distraction have all experienced a radical shift since the emergence of mobile Internet, the smart phone, and the built-in camera. The results are that often the smart phone has become our instantly accessible non-pharmaceutical antidepressant; providing instant gratification, escape, or the temporary high of acceptance that briefly lifts us out of our mundane. While our smart phones can be a God-send, in many ways pulling the lever on the slot machine of random distractions is the devil. In his 2017 book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke reveals how smart phones have created a new set of struggles, and why it’s so important for us to not simply identify the changes in our behaviour, but actually respond with wisdom, setting boundaries for ourselves and our families, for their good and for ours.

Have our phones really re-wired our brains? Have we been reprogrammed by these same devices that boost our productivity, increase our ministry reach, and connect us to treasured loved ones in a way that (if left unchecked) can cause significant damage to our relationship with God and with others? Reinke poignantly observes

Whether it’s a “breaking-news” alert, a direct-message prompt, a text message, or a news app, our phones make our lives vulnerable to the immediacy of the moment in a way unknown to every earlier generation and culture. Social media and mobile web access on our phones all drive the immediacy of events around the world into our lives. As a result, we suffer from neomania, an addiction to anything new within the last five minutes.

Reinke also points to the way our lives have now been totally transformed, often lived with the aim of being “Instagram-able”. Through social media our lives have become moments of shareable stageplays—he pleads with us to consider the motives behind our constant self-promotion (either as a parent sharing every moment of their child’s growth: a behaviour he called “sharenting”, or that person who can’t possibly go on a ‘missions trip’ without stopping to take that selfie with all the kids outside the orphanage) in light of the gospel of the humble and self-sacrificing Saviour.

A neat feature of the way Reinke seeks to address these issues is that the book is organized into a chiasm. So, while each chapter contributes something valuable to the overall discussion, the chiasm means that chapter one is thematically paired to chapter twelve, chapter two is paired with chapter eleven, and so on. As an example, our phones feed our craving for immediate approval (chapter three) which promises to hedge against our fear of missing out (chapter ten). Here’s the full twelve chapters so you can see for yourself where he’s going:

1. We Are Addicted to Distraction
2. We Ignore Our Flesh and Blood
3. We Crave Immediate Approval
4. We Lose Our Literacy
5. We Feed on the Produced
6. We Become Like What We “Like”
7. We Get Lonely
8. We Get Comfortable in Secret Vices
9. We Lose Meaning
10. We Fear Missing Out
11. We Become Harsh to One Another
12. We Lose Our Place in Time

The central chapters are six and seven, where Reinke explains how “our phones overtake and distort our identity (6) and tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and loneliness (7)”. But it isn’t just about warnings, for within each of the chapters are life-giving disciplines to flip the chapter title into something aimed at helping us protect and preserve our spiritual health in the digital age. These include minimizing unnecessary distractions in order to hear from God (chapter one) by embracing our place in God’s unfolding history (chapter twelve), and seeking God’s ultimate approval (chapter three) to find that in Christ we have no ultimate regrets to fear (chapter ten).

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You is a book that all of us need, and some of us need desperately. Reinke writes with great humility, including himself in the narrative to help us see him not only as a teacher but also as a fellow struggler. I completely relate to (and am very guilty of) Reinke’s lament that some days he feels like his phone is a digital vampire, sucking away his life and time; while other days he feels like a cybernetic centaur as body and phone blend seamlessly into something more powerful and productive than either could be on their own. Reinke’s observations are simultaneously sage and stinging; and I can’t avoid walking away with new awareness of just how reliant I am on this small rounded rectangle. I’m challenged to enter a new era of engagement with my phone; recognising that often the dings and rings can wait, that I need not be so concerned about the scrubbed-up version of my digital self, and that in my relationships my phone habits will help or hinder me in pointing people to the all-satisfying Saviour.

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Going Analog

I am unashamedly a child of the Internet age. I am the IT expert in my family and I work in IT. I always have my phone within 10 metres of me and I read about half of my books on an electronic device. As an extension of that I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I haven’t used a physical Bible in any significant way for almost a decade. Instead I have the YouVersion app on my phone which gives me access to every conceivable Bible translation in a few seconds. So why is it that I’ve just ordered a physical Bible?

Firstly, I’m changing how I’m reading the Bible this year. In past years I’ve followed plans that will take me through the entire Bible in a year. While I have found this beneficial I’m looking to read more deeply this year. One of the many podcasts I listen to on a weekly basis (I did say I was a child of the Internet) is John Macarthur’s Grace to You. A couple of months ago he had a series on Bible memorisation which really challenged me; so this year I’m going to put more focus on doing that, and a physical Bible will be my tool of choice. The location of words on a page are an aid in memorisation, and you lose that on a phone. Also, reading on a phone lends itself to rapid skimming so I’m hoping that having the physical book in my hand will cause me to focus more.

Secondly—and following on from the goal of focusing—my phone contains a large number of distractions. From my phone I could access Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, the Internet, my Kindle App, or Email. These are all available at my fingertips when I’m sitting in church with my Bible app open. I’d like to say that I never check any of these things out when I’m in church but that would be a lie. It doesn’t even take much conscious thought for that to happen, my fingers just do it when I’m holding my phone. So, what is the solution? A physical Bible. I can have the Bible open and the various apps on my phone can sit in my pocket out of sight and out of mind.

Finally, I have a two year old daughter and I’ve been thinking about how to raise her in the faith. While there are a lot of factors to this I firmly believe that one of those factors is to live out my own faith in full view of her. This is also a multi-faceted thing; one of those facets is demonstrating a clear habit of Bible reading. Given that there are so many things that I could be doing if I spend an extended period of time looking at my phone, it seems that a physical Bible is the only way to make this obvious without explicitly saying it.

So, am I saying goodbye to the digital Bible? No. I still see great value in it; if I need to find a particular verse and I don’t know where it is or if I want to compare a verse in various versions, I’m still going to pull out my phone. There’s also going to be plenty of times where I won’t have the physical Bible with me, but my phone simply won’t be my primary Bible anymore. So this year, in this regard, I’m going analog—and I think it’s going to be incredibly beneficial.

This post comes from Ben Smith, who shares a deep conviction of Scripture as the infallible counsel of God, and that aided by the Holy Spirit we can arrive at a coherent understanding of what it teaches as a whole.

That’s a Wrap! (05/01)

Must I Join a Church to Be a Christian?

This old chestnut pops up every year (or more). Jeff Robinson says it better than me.

On the evidence of Scripture, to claim to be a devoted Christian and yet disclaim Christ’s church seems a little like saying, “I want to drive a nice car, but I’d rather not have an engine.” Or “I love to eat, but I despise food.”

Meeting God in Depression

In this episode of the Hills Church podcast my friend Matthew Bell shares the reality of the Dark Night of the Soul, provides some practical suggestions on regaining hope and restoring joy, and reminds us of the encouragement we find in knowing that God walked in our shoes in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Beauty of Sleep

In line with what I’ve read in more than one place last year (not the least of which is Trillia Newbell’s Enjoy) this post reminds us of the importance that rest is not unproductive, nor is it something we should feel low-level guilt over. When we rest we’re being like God, and it’s probably exactly what we need.

Welcoming God into the Worship Gathering

If that notion seems a little strange to you, that’s because it is.

Bible Reading Plans for 2018

In case you haven’t got one yet, you’re bound to find a few here that suit every reading level.
The bottom line? Just take up and read!

A Prayer for the First Sunday after Christmas Day

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

4 Ways to Make 2018 Great

I love the way my friend Pastor Kyllum Lewis cuts through the pie-in-the-sky New Years Resolution notions to bring this insightful, practical, and—most of all, achievable—list of ways to go into 2018. I personally think that this list is a great foundation for loving God and loving others (without neglecting yourself) better, and they can be tailored to fit anyone! Well worth reading and applying.

The Wingfeather Saga—now a short film

A contender for best fiction I read in 2017, it’s now available as this visual treat. If you need it, perhaps this will motivate you to buy the books. They’re amazing.

What I Read in December

Norse Mythology

This was a birthday gift, which just happen to be the day before Thor: Ragnarok came out in cinemas (and we had tickets for opening weekend). An excellent book full of fascinating stories told masterfully, and I found myself wishing the book was longer. Original stories of the beginnings of Oden, Loki, Thor, Sif, Surtur, and of course the end of Asgard: Ragnarok. Thoroughly enjoyable tales of myth and legend, and a welcome change of pace.

A Wrinkle in Time

This is one of the classic books that’s always been on my “I really should read that one day” list. The additional nudge that I needed was Disney’s promised 2018 movie adaptation. The short version? It is clear why this story is still being released 50 years later; the characters are vibrant and fantastical, the places both exciting yet not without danger, and with the pictures it painted across my imagination I’d say that the filmmakers have their work cut out for them.

The Littlest Watchman

There’s a sense in which I almost love Advent more than Christmas. Last year, we read Scott James’ other Advent book The Expected One and will continue to read it in years to come. This new, beautifully illustrated story about a boy called Benjamin is full of wonder and expectation. And while our kids are still too young to grasp the full implication of waiting for Jesus’ return, it’s still a delightful story for adults as much as kids.

Why The Reformation Still Matters

This is a highly valuable book with a lot of rich content regarding all that the Reformation has to offer Christianity today. I chose to grab this as audiobook, and wish I hadn’t. The poor choice of audiobook reader mispronounced many names, titles, places (he either isn’t a Christian, or didn’t do his homework before reading). It would have had a much greater impact on me if read by an original author. Still, the book highlights a number of things we have inherited from the Reformation, and should continue to hold on to.

What have you been reading?

See what else I read in 2017:

The Most Read Articles of 2017

Writing blog posts isn’t a walk in the park, and without anyone to regularly fact-check, quality-control, or contribute content it can be hard to produce regular material that will invest value in your readership. There’s no magic formula, and (just like preaching) sometimes the posts you put the most work into fall flat, and the ones you weren’t so sure about publishing get more hits than you ever expected. I’ve tossed and turned over whether to keep an eye on the statistics of the blog (because it could easily become an idol), but I enjoy seeing what actually gets clicks, and that helps me craft my content. Here are the top 10 articles of 2017.

1. God and the Transgender Debate (September 2017). I loved reviewing this book. It has been instrumental in shaping—and expanding—my worldview with regard to sex, identity, homosexuality, and the psychology of conditions like gender dysphoria.

2. Christless Christianity (May 2017). Horton’s book continues to be relevant in his critique of a Christianity which displaces pursuit of Christ for a more palatable set of beliefs. Ben Smith provided this pointed summary.

3. Know Christ’s Love (July 2017). A good reminder that God isn’t interested merely in intellectual assent, but an all-in love expressed in and through community.

4. How to Love Those Who are Hurting (January 2017). Furman taught me a great deal about how to love people walking through pain and suffering; including what not to do or say.

5. Sing! (October 2017). Singing with the gathered body of believers is one of my favourite ways to worship. The Getty’s biblically rich exhortation to think deeply on this expression is wonderful and relevant to every Christian.

6. Lessons in the Art of Giving Away Your Life (June 2017). Ever wanted a clear picture of what someone living as part of God’s kingdom looks like? Look no further.

7. Give Up Lent for Lent? (March 2017). Part of me enjoys writing posts like this to poke fun at Christians who think it abhorrent to adopt practices that aren’t specifically mentioned in the bible. But I deeply appreciate and look forward to the opportunity for refocus that Lent provides each year.

8. Betrayed by my Own Body (February 2017). Still a terrible runner. Still running.

9. What Makes a Missionary? (March 2017). Plenty of folks have adopted the title “Missionary” over the years. These are my thoughts on whether you may (and should) lay claim to the title, or not.

10. Justification is Not ‘Just-as-if-I’d Never Sinned’ (July 2017). This year I’ve come across so many Christians leaning precariously on comfortable clichés that I’d like to see dropped from our vocab. Oh, here’s one now.

There are some big things on the horizon for 2018 (and some that may still fall to the cutting room floor, depending on other commitments) but from me to you, thanks for reading!