Mika Edmondson traces the struggle for equal rights for all, beginning with the African slave trade until today.
Editors’ Note: We invite you to join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3–4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Register today: www.MLK50conference.com.
I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church. Then again, maybe I did.
As a pastor’s kid in a nondenominational evangelical church in the South, it was impossible not to notice that there was, in fact, an order of worship—an opening hymn, maybe a prelude by the choir (sometimes they even wore robes), followed by a welcome from my dad. There was a “turn around and greet your neighbor” moment, then offering, the doxology, then communion, then a sermon and an invitation, and a closing hymn. Like clockwork.
There was something both monotonous and comforting about it, and I remember my dad joking about how certain congregants would make a show of looking at their watches if his sermon went one minute over 20.
Now we attend a straight-up liturgical church in Nashville, and while at first it felt uncomfortable—like going to a dance where everyone knows the moves but you—I began to realize that it was very similar to what I grew up with, but with different names. There’s a call to worship, there’s Scripture reading, there are robes—things just tend to have fancier names: Communion is called Eucharist. The “greet your neighbor” part is called “passing the peace.” The sermon is the homily.
Now that we know the dance moves I enjoy it even more, especially because the liturgy, at its best, actually means something, as opposed to doing it a certain way just because it’s how the previous 15 pastors did it and Brother Jim will be upset if the service goes longer than an hour.
One of the things I like best about liturgy is the more or less constant involvement of the congregation. The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” It’s not so much about us coming to sit while the pastor and the elders do everything, but about all of us together rehearsing the story of redemption, edifying each other by reading Scripture aloud, reaffirming what we believe, embodying worship by kneeling or singing together—all of it culminating, of course, in the Lord’s Supper. I can’t overstate how much I crave the moment at the end of the service when I kneel at the front and a friend of mine places the unleavened bread in my open hands, looks me in the eye and says, “Andrew, this is the body of Christ, broken for you.”
Every week my wayward, hungry soul is confronted by the love of Jesus. Like clockwork.Song for the People
As a songwriter, I’ve tended to avoid writing songs for corporate worship. Part of that is because I happen to love story songs like those of Rich Mullins and James Taylor, but part of it is because I just haven’t felt called to it. There are other, more qualified people writing congregational songs (Sandra McCracken, Audrey Assad, and Matt Maher come to mind).
But something in my heart changed when I started working on Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1. Since there aren’t a ton of hymns about the resurrection of Jesus, I wanted to try and write at least a few that invite the audience (or the congregation) to sing along, and since the call-and-response parts of the liturgy are so edifying, the idea struck to write something similar.
I love performing this song at concerts because the audience catches on almost immediately, even if they’ve never heard it, even if they don’t come from a liturgical tradition. I say, “All right folks, with this next one I’m going to sing a question, and then you guys sing the answer back to me.” I give them the first line: “Do you feel the world is broken?” and they answer, “We do.” And then we’re off. By the end, we’re engaged in a conversation, one that includes us all, and ends with us proclaiming together that Jesus is worthy of all blessing and honor and glory. I love it.
I love it so much that I’ve often wondered what I’ve been missing out on all these years. The rest of the album is a mixture of story songs and songs that invite the occasional “na-na-na” singalong—my standard fare—but this may be the one I look forward to the most, because it’s liturgical—that is, it’s a work of the people.
It’s one thing to stand on the stage and sing about the truth of the gospel. It’s another to hear the audience sing it back to me, and then at the end to do it together.He Is Worthy
The chorus of “Is He Worthy” is taken from that staggering moment in Revelation 5 when the prophet asks, “Is anyone worthy to break the seal and open the scroll?” He looks around, along with all the hosts of heaven, and when no one is found who is worthy to do so, he weeps bitterly.
But then one of the elders says, “Do not weep! Behold, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able.” And then the Lamb, looking as if it has been slain, appears at the center of the throne, takes the scroll and breaks the seal, and at once all the heavenly hosts sing his praises: “He is worthy!”
Bringing him glory is truly the work of the people, now and for all eternity.
Passages like that make me want to fall on my face before Jesus. They make me want to use every ounce of whatever gifting I’ve been entrusted with to draw attention to him and his goodness, his worthiness of our blessing and honor and praise. That, in the end, is what these Resurrection Letters albums are all about, and if I never record another note I’ll die happy, because the glorious end of the story is that he has made us a kingdom and priests of God to reign with the Son.
Bringing him glory is truly the work of the people, now and for all eternity.
About Resurrection Letters:
Produced by Ben Shive, Resurrection Letters, Vol. I is the prequel (think Star Wars) to the highly acclaimed album Peterson released and Shive produced in 2008, Resurrection Letters, Vol. II. While Vol. II is more about the implications of Christ’s resurrection victory over sin and death in our own lives 2,000 years later, Vol. I begins with the heartbeat of the resurrected Christ while exploring the resurrection itself and its centrality to Christianity. Ten years in the making, the celebratory new volume is meant to move listeners to a greater gratitude, awe, and love for God.
In the spirit of Lent, the season of fasting that precedes Easter, Peterson released Resurrection Letters: Prologue, a collection of five “waiting songs” meant to remind listeners of the gravity of the crucifixion and to pique longing for the moment when morning breaks and Christ triumphs over the grave.
All of us have, at one time or another, completely checked out in prayer. We’ve fallen into a rut, praying the same things in the same way. And by all of us, I definitely mean me. But I assume I’m not alone.
I remember one night coming home from work, completely exhausted, and joining my family to give thanks for our dinner. As I opened my mouth, I began to pray in a way that didn’t make sense: rather than thanking God for providing for our needs, I was asking him to help us sleep well (which I clearly needed to do). I’ve had moments like this when praying with my children; I’ve realized that while I’m saying something true, it’s exactly the same as what I prayed the previous seven nights. A general blessing repeated on autopilot rather than a heartfelt desire to connect with our Father.
To help us connect with God in this deeper way, Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and TGC Council member—has written The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down: The Lord’s Prayer as a Manifesto for Revolution. He desires that all believers be deeply engaged in prayer and recognizes that we, just like the first followers of Jesus, must turn to Jesus to discover what that means. We need to learn to pray as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer. And to do that, we must discover what the Lord’s Prayer actually means.Gospel-Soaked Prayer
The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down is first and foremost an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9–13. Mohler carefully unpacks each verse of the prayer, demonstrating how each is saturated by the gospel:
- In the prayer’s shocking (to our ears) lack of singular pronouns, Jesus instructs us to recognize that prayer is a corporate discipline. We’re reminded that we’re “saved by Christ . . . into his body, the church,” and that we glorify God in this world as a body, not simply as individuals (43).
- In praying for God’s kingdom to come and will to be done, we’re subverting the authority of the powers and principalities of this world, praying that “history would be brought to a close,” that “all the nations rejoice in the glory of God,” and that “every knee bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (102–103).
- In praying for forgiveness of our debts as we forgive others, we are, essentially, praying the gospel in miniature. “Jesus is teaching sinners, rebels against God, to have the audacity to approach God’s throne . . . and ask for forgiveness” (131).
- In praying that we not be led into temptation, we’re recognizing the real and constant threat (and appeal) of sin in our lives, our helplessness to resist temptation by our own power, and our dependence on God to empower us to endure temptation to the end (148–150).
This shouldn’t be new teaching for us. Indeed, in many ways it isn’t. But to see the Lord’s Prayer in this perspective is refreshing and edifying nonetheless.
Many of us are so familiar with these words that we gloss over their revolutionary meaning. We must return to them again and again, therefore, letting them shape us as we learn what Christ has to teach us through them.Grace for Today
I wish I could tell you that after reading this book you’ll immediately apply everything you read and that your prayer life will be revolutionized. That you’ll never struggle with praying on autopilot again. But we’ve all heard that promise before, and it always fails to deliver.
Instead, here’s what I can say with confidence. Reading this book may not immediately change your prayer life, but will remind you that in giving you “daily bread” (Matt. 6:11), God gives you the grace to pray obediently and faithfully.
And this might be the point that actually does change something for us. Coming out of The Prayer That Turned the World Upside Down, we shouldn’t make commitments to pray unceasingly for hours on end tomorrow. Instead, we should seek God’s grace to empower us to pray faithfully today. And without a doubt, he will provide it in abundance.
One of my earliest memories is visiting the Magna Carta. Dad put me on his shoulders so I could look over all the people pressing around the display case. The document—old and dirty—didn’t impress me. What did impress me was my father’s excitement. “Look!” he kept saying, “That’s it, right there!”
Even if it looked lame, I knew it was significant. And history has been doing that for me ever since.
Children should be exposed to history early and often through artifacts, oral stories, old art, and especially good books. History gives our children so many benefits. It is a fantastic—though frequently neglected—parenting tool.
Here are six ways history can bless your kids.1. Teach children that history is fun.
Though my children like science better than history right now, we all love to curl up on the couch and read about someone amazing from centuries ago.
Pheidippides—running 200 miles in a couple of days! Zheng He—sailing from China to Mecca before Columbus was born. Luther—saying shocking things that make us laugh and think. Elizabeth—the tsarina who never wore the same dress twice and owned 15,000 when she died.
History is full of crazy, interesting people, and it can be crazy interesting to explore their lives.2. Teach children that history lets them see values played out.
Think about the traitors in history. That’s where selfishness leads when it’s scared.
How about the dictators? That’s selfishness when it’s bold and powerful.
Generals? That’s leadership exercised for good—or evil.
Scientists? Many show us how curiosity can serve civilization.
Martyrs? Conviction writ large.
Missionaries? The drive to share truth.
When kids get to know history, they get to know what makes people tick and how that changes not only other lives, but the world. They can also detect the seeds of these tendencies in themselves, and then cultivate or uproot them.3. Teach children that history gives them perspective.
Our culture is radically individualistic. From baby boomers whose life goal is an amazing retirement to millennials with an entitlement complex, people are obsessed with self, experts at ignoring their mortality. It helps to look back through millennia and see many millions of men, women, and children who are no more.
We are so small, so temporary. It’s not about us, and history shouts this out. You can’t do history for long and feel bigger than you really are.
You can’t do history for long and feel bigger than you really are.
Children can learn to see eternity swell beyond time’s horizon, learn to number their days, and gain hearts of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).4. Teach children that history gives them direction.
Contrary to some worldviews, history isn’t going in circles. It has an end point, a climax that’s approaching: “He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Ps. 98:9).
Grasping this end point helps children understand that they can have purpose in life: they can, through loving God and neighbor, actually move history along to its ultimate goal. Their lives can have the same goal that history does: the exaltation of Jesus Christ.5. Teach children that history grounds them.
The industry that charts family trees, tracks DNA, and reveals roots is booming. Everyone wants to know where they’re from, because it’s part of who they are. It gives them a story, a personal history, an interpretive grid.
Children need this. They need to understand their community and their place in it. They need church history in particular. Especially in our transient culture, this gift brings lifelong blessing. Give it to your children.6. Teach children that history helps them understand who God is.
History teaches that we’re small and temporary, but it teaches us the opposite about God. He isn’t like us. He is eternal and outside of time. He preserves his church and his Word. He built order and patterns into the world, but he isn’t bound by them. He works in mysterious ways, bringing revival to England while revolution tore France apart. He allowed China to lock itself up to communism, letting the Word and Spirit do their work underground. He brings down nations, and the hearts of kings are like streams of water in his hand (Prov. 21:1).
So pursue history with your kids! Read it out loud to them. Give them quality historic novels and biographies to go through on their own. Talk about it with them. Visit a museum and look at images and artifacts with them.
They’re never too young to meet the people and understand the events that made our world, or to contemplate the God who orchestrates it all for our good and his glory.
Editors’ note: Here is a new series of illustrated board books for young children. These simple stories—written with 1–3 year olds in mind—have beautiful, engaging illustrations that will have your children asking you to read them over and over:
“An evangelical, at his best, is a person who believes the good news found in the New Testament, that God has sent his Son to die on the cross and rise from the dead, ascend to glory, seated at the right hand of God, coming at the end of the age to redeem his image-bearers from their sin, their condemnation, pouring upon them his Spirit to justify them, sanctify them, and one day glorify them in perfection. It’s all the good news of what God has done, and this demands a response of obedience, repentance, faith.”
Date: April 4, 2017
Event: The Gospel Coalition National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Have We Lost the Soul of Evangelicalism?
- Should We Keep the Label ‘Evangelical’? (video)
- How Revival Turned Protestants into Evangelicals
Find more audio and video from TGC17 on the conference media page.
I’m 37 years old, and I’m a new pastor.
Our congregation has a lot of senior saints who’ve been faithful to Christ and our church for decades. I want to maximize their wisdom, honor their legacy, and build on the foundation of all who’ve gone before me. But I also want our church to grow, change, mature, reach our community, and never become the wrong kind of statistic. How do we find this balance together?
At the outset of 2018, I addressed a group of senior adults in our congregation because I wanted them to know how important they are to the life and ministry of our church. Here’s what I told them.
It’s a new year: 2018. Things change fast, don’t they?
Some of you have already put the wrong year on a check or a note or a signature. You wrote “2017,” and as you finished the “7” you mentally kicked yourself and then had to figure out how to turn a “7” into an “8.”
2017 was only with us for a year, but even a year is enough time to settle down and get comfortable. Even a year is enough time to make it hard to change. Even a change we experience every single year—like a change of the calendar—can take time to process.
Old habits die hard—for all of us.
I want to speak with you about change. Not a specific change, but the idea of change. My message to you is simple: I want this group to be on the leading edge of change and growth and a new day in this church.
Far too often, I hear this familiar story about church leaders: they love their church; they love God’s people; they want God to use them. But God’s calling all those members to change. God’s calling them to recognize the dawn of a new day. God’s calling them to jump on God’s train, which is always moving, instead of hanging out in the station of their own comfortable subculture.
Maybe their neighborhood has changed. Maybe their culture has morphed. Maybe some ministries have grown stale. Maybe there are fresh opportunities and horizons that didn’t exist before. And now God wants them to take his eternal truth to new people, which sometimes requires changing.
What happens in these stories? Too often I hear that these church leaders view older saints as walls standing in the way of growth, or at best speed bumps to be tolerated as the younger generation moves toward some fresh vision they believe God has for the church.
I don’t know all the details of these other situations. But I want you to know something about our situation: That’s not how I view you. Not at all. I don’t view you all as a bunch of senior citizens in the caboose of our church, hanging onto the e-brake with all your might. You’re not a wall, or a speed bump, or a backseat driver.
I’ve seen your character. I’ve seen your kindness. I’ve seen your hospitality. I’ve seen your generosity. I’ve seen your love for God’s Word. I’ve seen your love for missions, and I’ve seen your willingness to move to a new location and build a new building 10 years ago, all in hopes that God would use you to touch more people’s lives with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So I don’t want you in the caboose. I want you up in the engine room, loading the coal of your wisdom and experience and knowledge and passion into the fire of what the Holy Spirit is doing here in 2018 and beyond.
I know it won’t always be easy. We’ll have to get to know each other. There will be things you want to keep that I want to change, and things I want to keep that you want to change. We’ll have to learn each other, and love each other, and always listen well.
But here’s what I know: God is opening a new chapter in our church, and I can’t wait to see all the growth and challenges and changes in store for us. Because I know that his gospel is always built on things that never change: God. Christ. The Spirit. The cross. The truth of God’s Word. Our mission in the world. So even in this new day, amid all that’s changing, we’re still going to enjoy the best of this place God’s been leading for so long.
Since 1933, your pastors have faithfully taught God’s Word. Decade after decade, this church has dedicated herself to sending and supporting missionaries around the world. For almost a century, this church has stood in this city, through all its booms and busts, all its growing pains, all its unimaginable expansion.
And now here we are, in the first paragraphs of a new chapter, remembering the beauty of pages past while looking into the mystery of our future story together.
We have a tremendous legacy. Yet my prayer for our church is that we might view this legacy not as a cozy fireplace to huddle around but a flaming torch to take into the darkness all around us. My prayer is that we might grow together, and serve together, and watch God change us together. And my prayer is that you’ll be on the cutting edge, not the trailing edge, of all that God does here. Because gray hair belongs on the front lines.
For many secular people, enjoying and studying the natural world is a pseudo-religious experience. Whether hiking or camping, stargazing or surfing, or simply watching Planet Earth on TV, they encounter something sublime in nature, something transcendent that feels strangely like church but is usually explained in terms of awe at the power and grandeur of Mother Nature.
Christians have a different, arguably simpler explanation for the spiritually charged quality of the natural world. People feel a connection to God in nature because natural things (including people) are God’s handiwork. When we look at the wonders of nature—animals, plants, weather, landscapes—and feel that they beg questions beyond themselves, it’s because they do. They are created things that point to their Creator.
Directed by author and filmmaker N. D. Wilson (The River Thief, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl), The Riot and the Dance is narrated by Gordon Wilson and inspired by his biology textbook of the same name. It’s a rare and much-needed film that combines beautiful, Planet Earth-style high-definition footage with insightful theological commentary and acknowledgment that this beautiful planet is not just an accident. It’s a masterpiece.Supernatural Nature Documentary
“I am a teacher, a writer, but first, I am a hand-crafted creature, and this is my celebration of the world we have all been given.”
If this sounds like a strange statement coming from a biology professor like Wilson, that’s because it is.
“These days a biologist is supposed to focus on naturalistic causes exclusively,” Wilson says. “But when I look at the world, I see the supernatural everywhere.”
These days a biologist is supposed to focus on naturalistic causes exclusively. But when I look at the world, I see the supernatural everywhere.
A sort of “Jack Hanna meets Jack (C. S.) Lewis” Hobbit, Wilson take us on a captivating journey from his own Shire-like home in Idaho to the harsh dry climate of the Sonoran Desert and the tropical rainforests of Sri Lanka, among other locations.
Along the way he draws our attention to a wide variety of God’s creatures, from water bugs and sun spiders to giant bats and coachwhip snakes, one of the fastest snakes in the western hemisphere (“10 mph might not seem fast to you, but it is when you don’t have any legs.”).
Shot over three years in countless locations, the film features almost entirely original footage and is the first installment in what will be a franchise with several sequels. Part 2: Water is now in production and could be released next year.Wonder at Home Precedes Wandering the World
The “connectivity” of our age can draw our attention everywhere but where we are. The glut of media at our fingertips can also have a dulling effect, squelching our ability to be awed by the simple and proximate.
A film like The Riot and the Dance calls us to open our eyes to the “living gallery” all around. Indeed, the structure of the film—beginning with the wonders of Wilson’s own backyard (jumping squirrels, frogs, ants eating a dead earthworm) before venturing farther afield—underscores this point.
When you’ve been amazed by the mundane, then you are ready to wander and explore.
“Wonder is waiting for you right outside your door,” Wilson insists. “When you’ve been amazed by the mundane, then you are ready to wander and explore.”
This is a crucial message for those of us prone to fidgety wanderlust. There is majesty wherever we are, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear how the heavens declare it. As Wilson says in the film, “To be bored in this world is to be boring in this world.”Explore God’s Living Art Museum
Who is the intended audience for The Riot and the Dance? Director N. D. Wilson says it is twofold: Christian families “who need to open their eyes to the artistry and glory of our Father” and unbelievers “who need to see that this reality we all share is not meaningless.”
Wilson told TGC he hopes all viewers “experience joy, wonder, and a yearning for resurrection, paired with a desire to wander every corner of God’s living museum.”
Indeed, the “God’s living museum” idea is central in the film, which presents the natural world as a sort of Louvre on steroids, where every work of art is by the same artist (who works in different motifs but especially loves the color green).
The film presents the natural world as a sort of Louvre on steroids, where every work of art is by the same artist.
“If we wanted to study someone like Michelangelo, we would want to study everything that he wrote, everything that he made,” Gordon Wilson says in the film. “In the same way, the way you get to know God is to study everything he wrote and made. . . . The word of God is not just in black and red letters on onion skin pages. It’s living and breathing in the mountains, the deserts, the trees. He glories in it, and so should we.”
Glorying in the artistry of God is exactly what this film is all about, whether by surveying the patterns of a star tortoise shell or the ribbon-like movements of a vine snake.
Throughout the film, Wilson relays facts about the creatures on screen (did you know hummingbird wings beat 70 times per second?) with a tone of childlike wonder and worship.Divine Artistry in Spiders?
But not everything in creation is as pleasant as hummingbirds, and because of the fall, nature can sometimes feel more like a riot than a dance.
“As beautiful as this world is, brokenness is everywhere, providing us glimpses that are far more hell than heaven,” Wilson observes, as we watch footage of a dead seal pup being eaten by seagulls, a lizard and hawk fighting to the death, or a warthog disemboweling a dead water buffalo.
Indeed, creation is broken and groans for redemption (Rom. 8:22). Yet even with death and chaos everywhere, Eden is still visible. Though snakes are frightening and deadly to humans now, Wilson reminds us that one day, “the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den” (Isa. 11:8). The whimsical final images of the film—a cobra playing with water balloons, to the music of Bach—hint at this future.
Creation is broken and groans for redemption. Yet even with death and chaos everywhere, Eden is still visible.
Wilson challenges viewers to see the world as God sees it, loving and learning from all his creatures, even the frightful ones like millipedes and bees (“they have much to teach and give us in their diligence”).
“Do we see divine artistry in spiders?” he asks. “We should.”Responsible, Attentive Stewards
In watching The Riot and the Dance, Christians will be amused and awed. But we should also be reminded of our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation.
“You can’t be ignorant of all these creatures and be good stewards,” Wilson says. “If we are to have dominion over all creatures, we need to know these creatures.”
This is part of why science should be a valuable discipline to Christians. To study the natural world, to know its complexities and patterns and mysteries, is crucial if we are to be faithful stewards of it. But even beyond science, our stewardship should be expressed in terms of attentiveness and appreciation.
In a fast-paced, utilitarian age, are we willing to slow down to truly notice, and lovingly tend to, God’s creation? Or do we only pay attention to what we can use, or what is a threat?
In a fast-paced, utilitarian age, are we willing to slow down to truly notice, and lovingly tend to, God’s creation?
The Riot and the Dance calls us to an attentive stewardship that goes beyond utility and enters the realm of worship.
“Look a puma in the face. Really look. Know that its symmetry and grace was invented from nothing,” Wilson says at one point in the film. In another scene, the camera takes in a forest of majestic Coastal Redwoods, some thousands of years old.
“If [God] spent 2,000 years shaping something, can we spare the time to give it a glance?”
Indeed, as busy as we might be, we should spare the time to look at these created marvels, with no agenda beyond appreciating and knowing them more. A couple hours on March 19 watching a documentary like this is a good place to start.
Five years ago, my wife took me out to a nice steak restaurant for a meal we couldn’t afford to celebrate my 25th birthday. We reminisced about the highlights of my first 25 years, and then we began to dream about what the next quarter-century might hold.
My wife said she wanted to start having children. But her desire was more specific: she wanted to adopt internationally. One of the prerequisites for international adoption was you had to be older than, you guessed it, 25.
She looked at me nervously, knowing the gravity of the request. I smiled and shared with her how God had been growing my passion for our church’s partnership with an orphanage in Uganda. I told her we should pray for 40 days about whether or not to pursue adoption. But it turned out I couldn’t wait 40 days. The next day I printed off the paperwork and had it ready for us to fill out when she got home.
We recently marked five years since we began the adoption process. With the shifting of Uganda’s adoption laws, we went from a slowdown to being completely shut out, just as we were nearing the “front of the line.” We had peace that this was God’s plan and, with many of our friends pregnant, we decided to try to grow our family through biological children.
But our excitement about trying to conceive eventually turned into confusion about why we weren’t succeeding. After a year and a half of trying, we had another signification conversation, but it lacked the optimism of our initial adoption discussion. Lauren shared the medical test results: it would be difficult for us to have biological children.Unfulfilled Desire for Children
Infertile. Barren. Unable to conceive children. The reality hit me like a ton of bricks. I sat there in the restaurant booth as my stomach dropped to the floor. Why would this happen to us? What did we do to cause this? What’s the solution?
It’s puzzling to mourn the loss of something that doesn’t happen. My grandmother went to be with the Lord last year, and people can understand mourning that loss. But to grieve the loss of an unrealized future is different. I became gripped by fear of the unknown. In an instant, my dreams for my family and my desire for children were in jeopardy.
The majority of our friends’ desire for children has been fulfilled. We felt alone. Isolated. Only later would we learn that one in five couples report experiencing a season of infertility. The actual numbers are likely higher.
There are couples we know who experienced a season of infertility and yet now have beautiful children. We cling to these stories as a source of inspiration. But as we began sharing our experience, we realized we didn’t know couples who shared their journey in the midst of infertility. Moreover, many people assumed we were an outlier, as if infertility affected only a few. There is an unspoken shame, a fear of voicing the cold reality of barrenness. We prayerfully discussed what God would have us do. Ultimately, we chose to share our journey in the hopes of reassuring others walking the same path: You are not alone.Danger of of Misplaced Hope
We knew we were opening ourselves up to potential hurt from well-intended comments from friends, family, and others. I deeply appreciate every person who bravely offers words of consolation and encouragement. However, I notice myself and others pointing to a hope in God’s power to provide rather than in God’s presence to satisfy. And often, God does provide—most couples’ desire for children will be fulfilled by God. It’s likely we will be blessed to conceive and/or adopt children.
But we can have a confidence in God that isn’t dependent on him giving us children. Our ultimate hope is that God is better than children. We don’t need children to live a full, happy, purpose-filled life in service to the King of kings. Lauren and I must’ve said to each other a hundred times, “We would much rather have a life without children than a life without Jesus.” His plan for us is best, even if it doesn’t include the full house we envision.
We continue to pray God will give us kids. Yet we know we have a better hope—hope in God and a rock-solid certainty that whatever the outcome, he is good. He isn’t good because of the good he does, but because of who he is. As Psalm 107:1 declares, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.”Find Contentment in God
When I see friends and family in the midst of longing or pain, I now choose my words more carefully. While I want their suffering to be relieved and their longings to be met, that’s not where my hope for them should lie. I ought to boldly ask God to fulfill their desires, while saying like Jesus in Gethsemane, “Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.”
Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” For us, this may mean Lauren and I never get to hold our own children. We may never experience a baby shower with our closest friends and family or rush to the hospital for delivery. We may miss out on sleepless nights and the sting of a teenager’s embarrassment. We may grow old with no one to come visit us at Christmas and die without ever giving away our daughter or giving marriage advice to our son. Our desire for children might always be unfulfilled. But that plan is still good. How do I know? Because we have a good Father in heaven, who gives us each day our daily bread.
He is good. And he does good. Even when it’s not the good we desire.
To discuss race and diversity, we need an open Bible and a teachable attitude.
When we open the Scriptures, we find a beautiful theology for diversity that ought to be applied practically in our relationships, communities, and church-planting initiatives. We don’t merely find an isolated verse here or there; we see it across the whole storyline of Scripture.
In creation, we find the doctrine of the imago dei. Every person of every ethnicity has equal worth, dignity, and value. To dishonor a human being is to dishonor God himself.
But then we read of “the fall.” We know our parents’ sin wrecked everything—including relationships and social structures. Division and hostility now exists among genders, ages, races, families, neighborhoods, and nations. Because sinful people lead institutions and nations, no system is morally perfect. Sin has affected us on both a personal and a societal level. Given our doctrine of sin, we should assume racism is not just a problem “for other people out there” but also for “me in here”—that is, in my heart and my church.
As the biblical narrative continues, we see the promise of redemption, and then the arrival of the Redeemer. Jesus came to reconcile us to the Father and one another. He has broken down the dividing wall that separates us from God and another, and he has come to bring peace where there was once hostility.
And one day Jesus will return to make all things new. All who are in him will join an assembly that will encompass “every tribe and language and people, and nation,” and we will worship the Savior together.
In the meantime, we should seek to “bring the future into the present” as much as possible. This unity within diversity testifies to the gospel’s power and is a compelling witness to the worth of King Jesus.
We don’t want to merely see diversity for diversity’s sake, or because all the cool kids are doing it, but because gospel-centered diversity magnifies the lordship of Christ and the uniqueness of his church. It helps to clarify what the gospel is and isn’t. And it offers unique perspectives and questions which help to mature us, shaping us more into the image of Jesus.
We have a theology for diversity, but we need to apply it—personally, corporately, and in the work of church planting.
So today I’m thrilled to have you listen in on a conversation about the gospel and race with my dear friend, Walter Strickland. Dr. Strickland speaks on diversity around the nation with great grace, wisdom, and civility. He’s currently the first Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, and is Associate Vice President for Diversity and Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Editors’ note: We invite you to join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special upcoming event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3 to 4 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Register today: MLK50conference.com.
Mika Edmondson helps us think through the sins of imperfect servants of God throughout the history of the faith.
Editors’ Note: We invite you to join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3–4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Register today: www.MLK50conference.com.
I’m a Christian woman who experiences same-sex attraction. Should I call myself a lesbian?
In his new book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace, Daniel Mattson would argue “no.”
As a Roman Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction, he adds to the growing discussion within the church about labels for people like Mattson and me, and more importantly, the identities those labels imply.Mattson’s Story
One naturally picks up this book wanting an answer to the title, but Mattson—a writer, speaker, and professional orchestral trombone player—begins instead with his story. It’s one of pain and trial, and we are given access to the most private pieces of his life. But it’s not merely a story; Mattson gives frequent commentary on how he now understands what he experiences, with a particular eye toward what, according to him, caused his same-sex attractions. “A lot of people would tell me . . . that I was born gay,” he explains. “But I see it very differently. We live in a world guided by cause and effect. Everything always comes from something” (14).
Mattsonr believes he “didn’t choose to be attracted to men, nor does any man” (34). It came from somewhere, and he thinks a large part of it came from his dissatisfaction with his male body, coupled with an intense longing to be like the highly masculine men he observed around him. Mattson grew up around the Catholic Church and then in Protestant circles, before eventually falling away for a time altogether. This gave him enough awareness to know that his attractions were largely scorned by the church. It also gave him a desire to meet and marry just the right woman, who could allow him to live the life he dreamed of—a woman he could connect with despite his more overt attractions elsewhere.
Mattson’s honesty is commendable. But there are times when he starts to universalize, abstracting from his own experience truths about whole populations, especially men who identify as gay, without further evidence or data. For example, he writes:
I really think that at the bottom of any gay male relationship, what motivates men more than anything else is a deep void that stems from lack of communion and relationship with other men. (49)
This certainly seemed to be true for Mattson and his first serious boyfriend, but he doesn’t prove that it’s always true for others.Not Obsessed with Attraction
This extended background is important, because Mattson’s book isn’t quite like others in the field; that is, he displays a mix of commitments not typically found together. First, he rejects same-sex sexual contact and lust, which puts him firmly in line with the traditional or orthodox view. In addition, he rejects the label “gay,” because of what he believes it signals about identity and what he sees as its lack of objective foundation. However, he doesn’t see himself as morally culpable for merely experiencing same-sex sexual attraction, nor is he determined to mortify the attractions themselves. This isn’t always the case for those who reject “gay” as a meaningful or appropriate identity marker. He explains, “what I do have is the choice of what I do with that awareness [of attraction]. In this way, I’m no different than a man who sees a beautiful woman and has a choice with what to do with her beauty” (258).
This mix of commitments seems to have provided Mattson with a deep sense of peace about being a Catholic man who experiences same-sex attraction. He declares himself to not belong to his temptations, which are subjective and bound in time, but to Jesus Christ—the ultimate eternal reality.
Similarly, Mattson believes all attempts to shoehorn humans into types, through sexual orientation, are a fool’s errand. In his view, sexual orientation can only be derived from the subjective—emotions and feelings. In contrast, “the sole sexual identities that are objectively true are male and female, designed for union with each other” (91). This lines up with Christian teaching on the nature and meaning of the body as a sexed reality.
According to Mattson, the gay-rights movement has duped society by using language that makes “gay” and “lesbian” identities as opposed to proclivities. Instead Mattson wants to return to the supposed clarity of biological determinism (though, as DeFranza would note, intersex persons are not adequately accounted for), rooted in nature and Scripture, without for a moment denying that same-sex attraction is a real phenomenon. Attraction is real, but too flimsy to build an identity on. The reason he doesn’t call himself gay “is simple: [he doesn’t] think that it’s objectively true” (128).
Those who feel more concern for the pastoral care of same-sex attracted men and women might leave disheartened, as might people who are in the trenches of unwanted same-sex attraction.Inspirational and Practical
Mattson has much to offer. In his exhortations to look to Jesus alone for true intimacy, and in his recommendations for how to live with these attractions daily, he is both inspirational and practical. His chapters addressing the particular challenge of same-sex friendship are a welcome addition to the conversation on this crucial question, for it’s one of the places of deepest confusion and fear for those with same-sex attraction.
Mattson meditates on his experience of trying to force a friendship to carry the weight of spousal love, and cautions against making friendship something it was never meant to be. I left this section wanting more clarity, however, and believe there is great theological opportunity and need for the church to detangle the differences (and similarities) between intimate friendship and spousal love, apart from sexual activity.
Who can explain attraction, in its (at times) strange choice of objects? Mattson offers the church the option of not worrying too much about it, and instead finding a way forward in the good gift of maleness or femaleness, and even in what he describes as the gift of the purifying suffering of loneliness.
This is a full-blooded vision of Christianity that takes seriously the call to die, and doesn’t for a moment consider chastity a gift that costs too much, though it can feel at times like it costs all one has. Here he becomes not aloof, but relatable, as he describes how he won this vision through years of pain.
Mattson’s book is not perfect, but he’s at his best when he expounds why holiness is both hard and also worth it. These are deep things for the church to meditate on, needed today and by every generation of saints, as we walk by faith in Christ and not by sight.
“The people of Israel are not idolaters simply because they are bored with worshiping God. Rather, they pursue other gods for the same reason that you pursue other gods. They believe that those gods will give them what they want. Underneath idolatry is the problem of broken desire.” — Mark Vroegop
Text: Hosea 2–3
Preached: September 17, 2017
Location: College Park Church, North Indianapolis, Indiana
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
- When Love Demands Anger (podcast)
- How Idolatry Shrivels Your Soul (book review)
- How to Talk About Sin in Postmodern Culture
For a film that explores multiple dimensions of time and space, A Wrinkle in Time is disappointingly flat. I have no sentimental attachment to the book: I read it as an adult, so I have no childhood nostalgia to make the changes from page to screen more painful. But the general flattening felt like a loss.
But first, I’ll tell you what I liked.Intentional Diversity
I liked the decision to place the central character, Meg (Storm Reid), in an interracial family. A film centered on a girl with a black mother and a white father (both scientists) and an adopted brother offers a helpful lens through which to access an imaginatively complex story. The choice to give Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) different racial backgrounds—at least in their human incarnations—also added an interesting dimension to what could have been a racially monochrome film. As Christians, we should be the first to celebrate racial diversity (including director Ava DuVernay [Selma, 13th]—the first black woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million), as well as the beauty of adoption.Blending Science, Fantasy, Art
One of the strengths of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic book is her integration of science and artistic fantasy. The film is visually engaging and lends color—literally—to this connection. For adults, the aesthetic may be slightly psychedelic, but it dazzles kids with the full Disney palette and doesn’t ask them to choose between being interested in science and interested in art. Again, this is a Christian good: our God is the ultimate scientist and artist, so our faith gives us connective tissue between all areas of thought. We can explore all dimensions of creativity and discovery as image-bearers of a creative God.
Our God is the ultimate scientist and artist, so our faith gives us connective tissue between all areas of thought. We can explore all dimensions of creativity and discovery as image-bearers of our creative God.Eradicating Christianity
Unfortunately, this is where my commendations end.
L’Engle’s book draws deeply from Christian Scripture. To be sure, its implied theology is not always orthodox. Halfway through the book, Mrs. Whatsit explains that all through the universe, a battle is being waged against the powers of darkness, and that some of the best fighters for good have come from planet Earth. Always tending toward quotation, she concludes, “And light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Charles Wallace (who chooses Genesis as his bedtime story) voices what every biblically literate reader is thinking: “Jesus! Why, of course, Jesus!” Mrs. Whatsit agrees: “Of course!” But she encourages him to go on. Calvin, Charles Wallace, and Meg name other human luminaries, and Calvin includes “Gandhi and Buddha” in his list. Jesus is first, to be sure, but he is first among many, giving the book a gentle backdrop of religious relativism.
And yet, at other times, characters quote stunning biblical passages in all their glory. For example, when Meg is preparing to return to Camazotz to try to rescue her baby brother, Mrs. Who says:
What I have to give you this time you must try to understand not word by word, but in a flash, the way you understand the tesseract. Listen, Meg. Listen well. The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called, but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are. (1 Cor. 1:25–28)
Likewise, when Meg asks the strange but loving alien Aunt Beast whether she and those like her are also fighting the evil of IT, she receives this response, which echoes Romans 8:30:
“Oh yes,” Aunt Beast replied. “In doing that we can never relax. We are called according to his purpose, and whom he calls, them he also justifies.”
In the film, while Buddha is quoted, as is the Muslim poet Rumi, Christian Scripture is avoided like the plague. When the line about many fighters-for-good coming from Earth finally crops up (far later in the narrative than in the book), Jesus is conspicuously absent.
Perhaps the screenwriters thought abandoning Jesus would be less off-putting to Christians than listing him as first among many, or maybe they simply wanted to reject the book’s Christian dimension. But to anyone who has read L’Engle, the silence is deafening. Among other things, this ripping out of Christian references undermines some of the film’s potential to connect with the black American experience, as African Americans are more likely to identify as Christians than their white peers.Flattening Language
A persistent feature of L’Engle’s book is her use of foreign language quotation. Characters quote in Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and more, and many lines have ancient origins. Quotations are always restated in English, but they whet the young reader’s appetite to learn other tongues. The film cuts most of these quotes and expunges languages other than English. Thus another dimension of the book is flattened out, and this flattening is particularly ironic. While the film seeks to extract the Western-culture roots of the book, it ultimately makes the tale more Anglo-centric by removing other languages. Likewise, while the movie delights in engaging young viewers with scientific concepts, it refuses to challenge them by exposure to non-English words.Flattening Meg
In both the book and the film, Mrs. Whatsit equips Meg to resist the evil IT with the gift of her faults. But while the Meg of the book is a messy character—stubborn, impulsive, hot-tempered, chaotic—the Meg of the film is a strangely flat. To be sure, she throws a basketball at a bully in school, but even this is controlled and non-explosive. The Meg of the film is more calculating than passionate. And while she ultimately wrestles Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) from the IT with the power of her love, she doesn’t really deploy her untidy characteristics: “Anger, impatience, stubbornness.”
The entire episode between her father’s tessering her and Calvin away from Charles Wallace, and Meg’s return to save him, is cut. This leaves minimal space for Meg’s furious disappointment with her father, who abandoned Charles Wallace on Camazotz, seems in no hurry to go back, and is unable to assume the savior role in which Meg has cast him.
We also lose a dimension of Meg’s own ability. We see her using her mathematical skill, but we lose her key moment of ethical reasoning. At a pivotal moment in the book, Meg argues against IT that uniformity and justice are not equivalent: “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” Again, this loss is ironic, given the film’s attempt to lean into diversity and create space for difference.Empowering or Patronizing?
At one point in the book, Mrs. Who accidentally brings the children to a two-dimensional place. The film (which cuts this scene) flattens the book in ways that will cause readers familiar with L’Engle’s book to experience that same two-dimensional squeeze.
The movie aims at an empowering message for self-doubting misfits, and perhaps it achieves that. But in some sense it also patronizes the young, as universe-threatening evil is reduced to the concerns of teenage angst—important, sure, but not on the scale of a totalitarian regime, as evoked by L’Engle’s Camazotz. Worst of all, the flattening of the narrative allows that great rot of the mind to creep in. For most of the film, I was simply bored.
Having said all this, I saw the film with my 7-year-old daughter, who had not read the book, and she loved it: “9.75 out of 10!” It has stimulated some rich conversations between us and she is now devouring the book. Perhaps, for the experience of this film, ignorance is bliss, and it’s up to us parents, uncles, and aunts (biological or otherwise) to unleash the lost dimensions.
I recently spoke with some women, all of whom—eight or more years after seminary or Bible school graduation—are still seeking ministry jobs. At any given time, there are only a handful of such jobs available, and the number drops steeply in complementarian churches (my own tradition). Though women are attending seminary at higher rates (compare 1975 to 2016), the number of women employed in ministry has not kept pace. Many have taken full-time work in other fields due to the lack of employment opportunities in the local church.
At the same time, I frequently hear from local pastors about the weight of ministry responsibilities. Many of my former seminary classmates work more than 60 hours a week in their pastoral positions, and they bear the burden of overseeing many—if not all—areas of ministry in their churches.
The number of women seeking ministry positions and the full plates of pastors suggest a mutually beneficial proposition: churches should consider hiring women for ministry roles in the local church.
Here are three reasons why.1. Promote and Create Theologically Rich Resources
Many pastors have expressed to me appropriate concern that their women’s ministries are reading theologically light books or only offering studies by the most popular Christian bloggers. At the same time, most pastors, due to time constraints and ministry demands, are not able to keep their ear to the ground in Christian women’s circles, nor are they able to read and review every book or study sought out by the women in their congregation.
By hiring a woman who is equipped for ministry, pastors gain an advocate for theologically sound content.
By hiring a woman who is equipped (formally or informally) for ministry, pastors gain an advocate for theologically sound content. Adding a qualified woman to your ministry team gives you a theological ally who can vet resources and possibly curate theologically robust curriculum of her own. She’ll be able to support the theological vision of the church in areas of ministry less visible to the pastoral staff by guiding women toward a deeper understanding of God’s Word in both formal and informal settings.2. Validate Trained Women and Inspire Others
I recently polled a handful of pastors across the Unites States on this topic. While most said they encourage women who feel called to ministry to pursue ministry or theological training, few have women on their staff in ministry roles. Of course, the reasons are as varied as their congregations, but the vast majority concluded in unison: a theologically trained woman would be an incredible asset to their ministry team.
An equipped staff woman can faithfully equip other women.
When laywomen see a woman who has sought out training, done the hard work of study, and who teaches God’s Word with accuracy and confidence, some rightly think, I could do that. An equipped staff woman can faithfully equip other women. As churches hire women in ministry positions, they inspire the next generation to pursue theological training.3. Assist in Discipling and Counseling Women
Women make up the majority of American congregants. However, many churches have boundaries regarding pastors meeting one-on-one with women (and appropriately so), and these boundaries inadvertently preclude women from certain types of individual discipleship and pastoral care. Many pastors are in the difficult position of having a deep desire to shepherd the whole flock entrusted to them, but also trying to execute the wisdom necessary to be above reproach.
Qualified women on staff can help the pastors make sure women are seriously discipled, counseled, and ministered to.
Even as we understand the difficulty of navigating this dynamic, the question remains: if a male pastor isn’t able to meet with a woman to discuss intimate struggles, then who will? Who in our churches is talking to our women about marriage, sex, miscarriage, pornography addiction, grief, and bitterness in a theologically sound way? Qualified women on staff can help the pastors make sure women are seriously discipled, counseled, and ministered to.
I understand the financial constraints most churches experience. But if your church is in a position to do so, I encourage you to consider adding a qualified woman to your ministry team. The pastor wearied from a full plate gains a teammate, the pastor concerned for the theological wellbeing of the women in his congregation gains an ally, and the women in your church gain a teacher who can help them grow in their understanding God’s Word.
A qualified woman on staff can be a rich blessing—to the glory of God and edification of his church.
William “Duce” Branch—Christian hip hop artist—on how the race conversation in the church does not always reflect the gospel truths that Christians hold together.
Editors’ note: We invite you to join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3–4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Register today: MLK50conference.com.
Peter and the other apostles set the example: when told by authorities they could not testify to the risen and ascended Christ, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). So we know that Christians must not obey authorities when their command directly contradicts God and his revealed Word.
But what about situations that are less clear, such as when religious freedom is encroached upon in the workplace or when college ministries are denied access to a university facilities? Tim Keller, Al Mohler, and John Yates sat down in 2012 to discuss how Christians should evaluate situations that may—or may not—call for civil disobedience.
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
Planting a church can be hazardous to your soul.
Obviously, there are more physically dangerous jobs on the planet, but when it comes to sheer spiritual danger, very few occupations outrank “church planter.” So before you quit your cushy job grinding asphalt, let me give you fair warning of what’s to come.
Most people get into church planting for a few common reasons:
- To see people far from Jesus put their faith in him.
- To see their town, neighborhood, or city transformed by a vibrant community of faith.
- To see a whole bunch of churches launch out of their new church.
These goals are Christ-exalting, thrilling, and, for most new churches, agonizingly slow to accomplish. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I recently got this one-sentence email from a church planter: “I want to quit and need someone to talk me out of it.”
This haunting sentence was penned by a passionate and godly man who had discovered the daily grind of church planting. Like countless planters before him, he learned the hard way that very few people sprint through the doors of your new church, repenting of their sin and throwing themselves headlong into gospel ministry. Rather, the people you invite to church stare at you with incredulity when you tell them you meet in an elementary school gymnasium.
Very few people sprint through the doors of your new church, repenting of their sin and throwing themselves headlong into gospel ministry. Rather, the people you invite to church stare at you with incredulity when you tell them you meet in an elementary school gymnasium.
When a passionate church planter discovers the slow, difficult grind of church planting, secret idols are easily exposed. Even godly ambition can reveal hidden idols.Steadfast Savior
The gospel you preach to your weary people each week is the same gospel you desperately need. Let me remind you of what you already know: Jesus will never let you down (even when it feels like he has).
By every earthly indication, Jesus had let his disciples down. He told them he was leaving, and they were grappling with the reality of going it alone without him. He told them they would lose their spiritual family and get kicked out of the synagogue.
On top of all of that, Jesus lamented that there was a bunch of stuff he wished he could tell them, but couldn’t. This was a new and terrifying reality, but he knew what they needed to hear: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20).
In hindsight, we know Jesus is talking about his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. But there are echoes of his promise that reach into the churches the apostles were to plant—and to the churches we plant 2,000 years later.
It will be tough. You will have sorrow.
Your church may not—probably will not—be all you thought it would be.
Sorrow is woven into the fabric of our world, and that includes church planting. It’s not going to be an easy ride. Plans will fail. People will disappoint you. Your church may not—probably will not—be all you thought it would be. And this makes what Jesus said next all the more glorious: “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
Your heart will rejoice. No one will take your joy from you. This is true for you, just as it was true for the disciples. You will see Jesus, and the immediate effect will be joy. True, lasting joy that cannot be taken away.
In church planting, as in life generally, you have the strange capacity to feel joy and sorrow in the same minute. One minute you rejoice at someone coming to know Christ; in the next you have to make a difficult call in a pastoral situation.
If you tie your spiritual wellbeing to your circumstances, your life will be a never-ending emotional whirlwind. Don’t do it.Certain Hope
Jesus knows this to be true of us. He knows that life in this world—especially our efforts to make him known—will bring tribulation. We will experience hardship. But Jesus offers us a stable peace amid a troubling world: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
In Christ alone, there is peace. Peace through the storms that church planting will bring.
In Christ alone, there is peace. Peace through the storms that church planting will bring.
As you seek to plant churches that put the glory of Christ on display, tribulation will come. But don’t lose heart: Christ has overcome the world. We plant churches to take this glorious message to the world. We long for more people to have joy and peace in Christ in this world full of tribulation.
So take heart, but also guard your heart. The task of church planting is glorious, but it is not ultimate. Like anything besides Christ, church planting makes for a bad savior.
If planting your church begins to mean more to you than Jesus does, the slow grind will become a slow death. When you forget that Jesus will never let you down, empty chairs on a gymnasium floor can accuse your soul and breed bitterness in your heart.
But when you lift your eyes to Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God the Father, you can remember that you are loved. He has not abandoned you. And he will never fail you.
You know how they categorize Shakespeare’s plays, right? If it ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. And if it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. So we’re all living tragedies, because we all end the same way, and it isn’t with a . . . wedding. ― Robyn Schneider, The Beginning of Everything
What is life, a tragedy or a comedy?
I’m not asking whether life is a barrel of laughs. We all know it’s not. “Comedy” and “tragedy” have particular meanings. In literature, “comedy” and “tragedy” refer to the shape of a story, not so much its content or even its tone.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, for instance, were full of jokes. Or at least that’s what our English teachers told us at school. If we’re honest, we probably hadn’t noticed the gags—I hadn’t anyway. When the alleged “humor” was pointed out I dutifully said, “Oh,” and wrote in my exercise book: Hamlet is making a joke, apparently.Frown or Smile?
Tragedies can have jokes, and comedies can have heartache. In fact, much of comedy depends on the banana-peel moment, the pompous being brought down a peg or two, or the grand farce where everything falls apart. Tragedies contain joy, comedies contain pain, but the distinguishing mark of each is the ending. At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy the bodies are piled up on the stage. At the end of a Shakespearean comedy—in all 14 of them, in fact—there is a wedding. Or four.
To help fix it in your mind, think of it this way: a comedy is shaped like a smile. You go down then up—descending into darkness before rising up to joy. A tragedy, on the other hand, is shaped like a frown—up then down. You climb to prosperity then tumble into the pit.
So then, now that we’ve clarified the question, let me ask it again: What is life, a tragedy or a comedy?Life as a Tragedy
Tragedy, surely! That’s what professor Lawrence Krauss would tell us:
The picture that science presents to us is . . . uncomfortable. Because what we have learned is that we are more insignificant than we ever could have imagined. . . . And in addition it turns out that the future is miserable.
We’re the flotsam of a cosmic explosion, biological survival machines—wet robots—clinging to an insignificant rock, hurtling through a meaningless universe toward eternal extinction. But still, the new flavored latte from Starbucks is incredible. And have you tried hot yoga? And we’re renovating the kitchen. So, you know. That’s nice.
As the annihilating tsunami of time bears down on us we obsess over our sand castles—the promotion, the holiday, the new gadget—and we dare not look up.
Life is a tragedy, and this dismal tale is sold to us in every magazine and paperback: The thousand books you must read before you die; The ten must-see destinations for your bucket list. The shape of the story is up then down and the advertisers are primed to sell you the uppiest up that money can buy because the down really is a downer. The photos are glossy, but they mask an unutterable tragedy. Life, according to the wisdom of the age, is about enjoying our brief “moment in the sun.” We clamber upward, grab for ourselves all the achievements, experiences, and pleasures that we can and then, so soon, we are “over the hill” and the grave awaits. It’s up then down. The frowny face. The tragedy.Unique Plot Twist
Then—against all odds and in distinction to all competitors—the Bible dares to tell a different story. It actually has the audacity to be a comedy. The tale it tells holds out dazzling and eternal hope for us.
The Bible actually has the audacity to be a comedy.
While the religions of the East speak of dissolving into the ocean of being, and while Islam and the Christian cults portray an otherworldly future, the Bible promises resurrection. This is different. It’s about these bodies and this world raised up. It’s this life laid hold of and turned around, like the plot twist in a classic comedy. Resurrection is about the author doing something joyous with our story—this one, the one we’re in—taking us through the valley of the shadow and out into a happily ever after, complete with a wedding (Rev. 19:6–9). Without Jesus, life ends with a funeral. With him, there is a never-ending wedding feast.
The Bible is a comedy, and it all centers on Easter.
Psalm 1 describes the image of the blessed man who is like a rooted tree. Because his “delight is in the law of the Lord,” this blessed man becomes “like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” This person draws sustenance from the Word of God and transforms its wisdom into fruit and leaves offered for the good of the community.
In one of his Sabbath poems, the Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry inverts the psalmist’s image of the tree, nonetheless preserving its role as a mediator between God and a particular place. In describing his poetic role, Berry imagines himself as a tree planted not by a clear river, but “where gravity gathers / the waters, the poisons, the trash.” Yet his vision is marked by hope—hope that his writings might serve this diseased place in so far as they are inspired by the God who, as John tells us, is light (1 John 1:5):
He is a tree of a sort, rooted
in the dark, aspiring to the light,
dependent on both. His poems
are leavings, sheddings, gathered
from the light, as it has come,
and offered to the dark, which he believes
must shine with sight,
with light, dark only to him.
Berry figures himself as a tree whose leaves derive their sustenance from God, the Father of lights (James 1:17), and then offer themselves to their dark and damaged place, slowing restoring the soil’s fertility. Like the blessed man of Psalm 1, Berry seeks to ruminate on God’s Word so he can better serve the needs of his place and community.
Berry describes himself as a “marginal” Christian, and his position on the outskirts of our dominant, consumerist culture makes his a voice from the wilderness—one many evangelicals with more orthodox theology might do well to consider. Perhaps the greatest threat to the church today isn’t falling for doctrinal heresy but implicitly adopting the consumerist, self-centered assumptions of our Western culture. It’s all too easy for American Christians to assent to the right doctrines on Sunday while inhabiting a counter-Christian economy the rest of the week, loving ourselves more than God and neighbor.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the church today isn’t falling for doctrinal heresy but implicitly adopting the consumerist, self-centered assumptions of our Western culture.
Both Berry’s writings and his life challenge Christians to be rooted, fruit-bearing members of their communities—“to stand like slow growing trees / on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it.” This challenge is made most clearly in his Port William fiction, where broken, fallible characters work to embody Scripture in their daily lives. These stories act as parables, seeding our imaginations to consider redemptive ways of inhabiting our neighborhoods.
In what follows, we’ll look at some of Berry’s fictional characters who root themselves in both Scripture and place in order to practice the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.Dorie Catlett’s Fidelity
Fidelity to place isn’t a characteristic American virtue. Our country’s pioneer past predisposes us to respond to difficult situations by moving on; we often want the option of a new place, a new church, a new spouse. Perhaps even more insidiously, even when we stay in a place, we often cordon ourselves off from the parts we don’t like. We eagerly latch onto various technologies of withdrawal, technologies that allow us to ignore uncomfortable problems.
One of Berry’s profoundly Christian characters, Dorie Catlett, embodies an alternative, faithful mode of living. In particular, she loves her wayward brother and continues to care for him despite the great pain he causes her. When her mother dies shortly after giving birth to a son, Dorie takes on the task of raising her brother. She nicknames him “Peach” and does her best by him, but as he grows up, his irresponsible drunkenness becomes a great burden on her and eventually her family. Nevertheless, in the same way that Jesus lives with the man he knows will betray him, Dorie refuses to cut herself off from a brother she no longer expects to change. Her commitment to Peach stems from Paul’s essential description of Christian love: “With exactly the love that ‘hopeth all things,’ she did not give up on him.”
Wheeler, Dorie’s son, is amused by his uncle’s escapades when he is a boy, but after he returns home with a law degree and a car, he “inherit[s] Uncle Peach, as an amusement but also as a responsibility and a burden.” When Uncle Peach is at the end of a long binge and calls for help, Wheeler goes to pick him up. He does his best to evade this responsibility, but “because he had the means of going, he had to go.”
Fidelity to place isn’t a characteristic American virtue. Our country’s pioneer past predisposes us to respond to difficult situations by moving on; we often want the option of a new place, a new church, a new spouse.
It’s amusing to read Wheeler’s stories of the things Peach says or does when drunk, but that’s because they remain safely on the page. It would be much less amusing if we were required to get out of our beds in the middle of the night to go fetch him from another drunken escapade, or to financially support him, or to share a family meal while listening to him brag about his exploits. In all of Wheeler’s stories about Uncle Peach, pain and humor and exasperation mingle inextricably; as Wheeler’s son Andy recalls, Wheeler “never spoke of Uncle Peach with unmixed feelings.”
When Uncle Peach dies, and the rest of the family are driving home from his funeral, Wheeler remarks wryly that “the preacher takes a very happy view of Uncle Peach’s prospects hereafter.” An uncomfortable silence follows, but Wheeler’s efforts to disentangle the complex meaning of Peach’s life provoke him to further explanation:
“If Uncle Peach is in Heaven, . . . and Lord knows I hope that’s where he is, then grace has lifted a mighty burden, and the preacher ought to have said so.” And then he said, as if determined in his impatience to capture every straying piece, “And as an earthly burden it wasn’t only grace that lifted it”—meaning it was a burden he too had borne.
Dorie had certainly felt the weight of Peach’s failings more acutely than had Wheeler, but she rejects her son’s self-pitying attitude, an attitude that feels unjustly put upon by his connection to Peach:
She said one syllable then that Andy later would know had meant at least four things: that his father would have done better to be quiet, that she too had borne that earthly burden and would forever bear it, that Uncle Peach had borne it himself and was loved and forgiven at least by her, and that it was past time for Wheeler to hush.
She said, “Hmh!”
Dorie’s whole life has been implicated in the life of her straying, frustrating, beloved brother, yet she doesn’t resent this burden or try to be free of it. Instead, she lives faithfully with it, hoping against hope for Peach’s redemption.
As Berry’s image of a tree planted in a polluted valley indicates, being rooted members of our places will involve us in pain and loss. Yet Dorie exemplifies how we might faithfully gather gifts from the light and offer them to the wounded people with whom we live.Andy Catlett’s Hope
Andy Catlett is the most autobiographical character in Berry’s Port William fiction, but one glaring difference sets Andy apart from his creator: Andy doesn’t have a right hand. He lost it while trying to unclog a corn picker. One of Berry’s recent stories, “Dismemberment,” describes how this machine, unable to tell the difference between a hand and an ear of corn, swallowed Andy’s hand “as the price of admission into the rapidly mechanizing world.” It’s in this way that, for all Andy’s criticisms of the mechanized world, his body is intimately marked by his complicity in it.
Why does Berry imagine the industrial economy marring Andy—and perhaps, in some parallel way, himself—in such dramatic fashion? Because living by its mechanistic structures obscures our fundamental membership in an economy of love. The word economy comes from the Greek work oikos, which means “household.” This is the same word from which we get ecology and even diocese. Indeed, Paul uses this Greek word in describing the church as “the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Drawing on the apostle’s ecclesiology, Berry imagines creation as a household or economy held together by bonds of love. As he explains in an essay titled “Health Is Membership,”
I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.
When we love others, and embody this love by work that meets their needs and fosters reconciliation, we participate in God’s sustaining love.
By obscuring our interdependence on others, however, our industrial economy obscures our participation in this divine economy. When we meet all our needs with the swipe of a card or the tap of a screen, we sever the taproot that anchors us in our places and communities. Through his right hand Andy enacted his membership in his place: it reached out to his wife; it held his pen; it grasped the reins; it mended his fences; it stroked his sheep. His complicity in the mechanized economy—symbolized vividly by the corn picker—threatened all these relationships, and the loss of his hand only made this threat more apparent.
When we meet all our needs with the swipe of a card or the tap of a screen, we sever the taproot that anchors us in our places and communities.
It took Andy a long time to recover from the loss of his hand and learn how to make do with an awkward left hand and a more awkward prosthetic. But he still felt dismembered from his community. When his friends and neighbors came to help him rake and bale the hay, he was “abashed because of his debility and his dependence.” But they just went to work, and by doing so, “they moved him to the margin of his difficulty and his self-absorption.”
When the hay was safely in the barn, Andy awkwardly thanked them, blurting, “I don’t know how I can ever repay you.” In reply, “Nathan gripped the hurt, the estranged arm of his friend and kinsman as if it were the commonest, most familiar object around. He looked straight at Andy and gave a little laugh. He said, ‘Help us.’” Andy’s help is certainly less effective than it used to be, but Nathan challenges him to stop letting his wound paralyze him.
As Andy heeds this call, going to work as best he can, he embodies his eschatological hope that one day he will be re-membered into God’s economy of love. One of the epigraphs to Remembering—Andy’s autobiographical account of his injury and restoration—is Ecclesiastes 9:4: “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope.”
The Preacher’s rather spare, naturalistic hope takes a Christological turn in John 15, which Berry alludes to in “Dismemberment”: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we’re wounded, when we feel severed from our communities and the body of Christ, allowing ourselves to be helped and then going to work meeting the needs of others mends these fractured memberships. Such work re-roots us in our places and enacts our hope for God’s final redemption.
Sustaining healthy households and working in the economy of love have always been hard. In an industrial economy, there are many structural and personal impediments—it can feel like we’re working with only one hand—but we can still put our bodies to work meeting the physical and spiritual needs of our neighbors.
We can swap work with neighbors, we can grow a garden and share its produce, we can cook a meal for our families and invite friends to share it, we can play with children and listen to the elderly. When we do these things in Christ’s love, we embody our hope in the reconciling work of the God who so loves his world.Tol Proudfoot and Nightlife’s Charity
The economy of love includes us in membership with our neighbors—even those who test our love for them. Berry’s story “Watch with Me,” which explores this difficult work of love, is shaped by two passages in Matthew’s Gospel: Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane and his parable of the lost sheep. By the end of the story, we’re led to consider what it means to love our neighbors, particularly those whose lostness requires us to watch them with Christ’s sacrificial love.
At the heart of this story are three loves—the abiding, neighborly love of “Tol” Proudfoot, the long-suffering charity of “Nightlife” Hample, and the perfect love of Christ that contains both Tol and Nightlife’s loves. Tol is one of Port William’s more loving and lovable characters; a large man who likes a good story, his disposition is tender and gracious. Nightlife is on the margins and earns his nickname because he lives in physical and mental darkness. With poor vision, he wears thick glasses and suffers from intermittent bouts of mental illness that leave him lost to the world around him.
When Nightlife is so lost, his mind would get
a leak in it somewhere, some little hole through which now and again would pour the whole darkness of the darkest night—so instead of walking in the country he knew and among his kinfolks and neighbors, he would be afoot in a limitless and undivided universe, completely dark, inhabited only by himself.
“Watch with Me” recalls how Tol and some other neighbors follow Nightlife on a long journey through the woods while he suffers from one of these spells—on this occasion, however, he’s a threat to himself and to the others because he has calmly taken Tol’s shotgun and proclaimed that “a damned fellow just as well shoot hisself, I reckon.” The night before he snatches the gun he had wanted to give a sermon at Goforth Church about “what it was like to be himself,” but the preachers refused to allow him to speak.
Gun in hand, Nightlife heads off into the woods, leading Tol and the others on a circuitous journey through day and night as they attempt to contain Nightlife in a “moving room” of protection. Yet despite the neighbors’ love for Nightlife—a love that puts their own lives at risk—they fail to contain him. And like the lost sheep of Matthew 18, Nightlife eventually eludes the men in the dark woods.
Reading Wendell Berry reminds us that one result of rooting ourselves in the Word of God should be that we root ourselves in our neighborhoods.
Having lost their purpose the men eventually drift off to sleep, only to be awoken by Nightlife who has returned and is standing near the remnants of the fire. He speaks to them: “Couldn’t you stay awake? Couldn’t you stay awake?” A third and fourth time he asks them in their bewilderment, “Couldn’t you stay awake?” Nightlife is like Christ, in his great anguish, asking his disciples to “watch with me,” only to find them sleeping.
Nightlife goes on, stepping out of the circle of men, leading them through the woods and the darkness and into a new day, arriving back at Tol’s barn where the journey began. Once in the barn, Nightlife preaches to his captive audience the sermon that the revival preachers had silenced. His text is Mathew 18:12—the parable of the lost sheep—which he knows by heart. As they listen to him, Tol and the men begin to understand that their love for Nightlife has fallen short.
Though they tried to contain him in their love and protection during his spell, they have failed to imagine the depths of his suffering. And this is because they’re among the 99. Nightlife doesn’t need them to contain him—he needs them to understand what it’s like to be him, to be the one lost sheep:
Nightlife understood [the parable] entirely from the viewpoint of the lost sheep, who could imagine fully the condition of being lost and even the hope of rescue, but could not imagine the rescue itself.
The Port William community can’t fix Nightlife, no matter how much they try to contain him or put him back together; they can only abide with him, watch with him, when he suffers alone in darkness. “Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren,” Nightlife says. “It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t. . . . [T]he shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.” The men hear Nightlife’s sermon and are moved. They’ve come into a sort of knowledge of his suffering, “what it was to be him.” After his sermon, Nightlife emerges from the shadowland of his own mind, giving the shotgun back to Tol, and their entire ordeal ends with a shared feast.
By placing Christ’s own terrible words at Gethsemane in the mouth of Nightlife, Berry unites their suffering and reminds us that Christ loves the weak and wandering. The light in the darkness of this world is that there is a Love that contains all of us, even the lost sheep. And those of us who are among the 99 would do well to learn from this story that we might be called on to risk our own well-being to recover a lost sheep. Nightlife teaches us to love the least among us, those we don’t understand, those whose suffering is foreign to us. And this love may simply be our presence—that we watch with them. We can share meals with neighbors who annoy or exasperate us, listen to their voices without condemnation, shovel their driveways despite their politics, and teach our children to do the same. Perhaps by so doing, we participate in the love of the God who became lost so that all might be found.
Reading Wendell Berry reminds us that one result of rooting ourselves in God’s Word should be that we root ourselves in our neighborhoods. These places are likely to be dark and polluted, but in belonging here while stretching toward the light of God’s love, we bear witness to John’s proclamation: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Berry’s fictional characters help us imagine what it might look like to be members of God’s household who live with faith, hope, and love—and so bless their neighbors.
- Wendell Berry and the Beauty of Membership (Matt McCullough)
- Finding Our Place: Our Family’s Long Quest for Calling and Home (Hannah Anderson)
- Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (Justin Taylor)
- Wendell Berry and the Revitalized Pastor (Paul House)
- 5 Ways Wendell Berry Is Making Me a Better Pastor (Andrew Shanks)
The book of Proverbs could be summarized in four words: Get wisdom, get understanding (Proverbs 4:5). This theme recurs throughout the text, and is usually accompanied by a complementary command: Do not forget these teachings (Proverbs 3:1).
All our efforts at getting wisdom and understanding, though, are futile if we can’t remember insights long enough to apply them in our life. This is why Proverbs is emphatic that we remember them by keeping these teachings close (c.f., vv. 1, 3).
This is why we need to read the Bible as frequently as possible. But how much other understanding, wisdom, and knowledge have we allowed to slip through the cracks of our memory? We may remember once jotting down a profound quote we heard in a sermon or highlighting a penetrating passage from a long forgotten book, and yet cannot remember the wisdom that was conveyed.Creating an External Brain
What we need is an “external brain” to supplement our faulty memory. An external brain is a system for collecting and reviewing data that we might otherwise forget. We usually have some form of external brain system for mundane information, such as tax receipts kept in a filing cabinet. We need a more expansive system, though, that helps us retain the insights and understanding we collect in the present and sends that information to our future selves.
For example, consider a pastor who is preparing a sermon for the next Sunday service. While doing research for his message, he reads a commentary and stumbles upon an insight into a passage that had previously confused him. Since it’s not directly applicable to his forthcoming sermon, he underlines the passage, closes the commentary, puts the book on his shelf and . . . forgets all about it.
Three years later, that insight would have been relevant and valuable for another sermon. But while it remains highlighted in a book on his shelf, the passage has long ago slipped his mind. The pastor may have a library full of resources, but if he can’t send that information to his Future Self, it’s of limited value. As productivity consultant Tiago Forte says,
The challenge of knowledge is not acquiring it. In our digital world, you can acquire almost any knowledge at almost any time.
The challenge is knowing which knowledge is worth acquiring. And then building a system to forward bits of it through time, to the future situation or problem or challenge where it is most applicable, and most needed.
By adapting some of the suggestions of Forte, I’ll explain how to create a system—an “External Brain and Future Self Messaging System”—that can increase the effectiveness of pastors and other knowledge workers. After explaining how to set up the process, I’ll also show how it can be of use for almost anyone, from artists to autodidacts and parents to photographers. (If you’re skeptical it’ll be useful for you, skip down to the Addendum section.)
Your external brain needs four core elements: A collection method, an organizational structure, a summarization process, and a schedule for review.1. The Collection Method
The first step in creating an external brain is to capture and transfer information to your collection system. While it’s possible to create a paper-based system, a computer based note-taking application requires less time and work. And as Forte says, you should “design a system for the laziest version of yourself.” The more time-consuming the process becomes, the less likely you’ll use it regularly.
There’s a wide variety of note-taking applications, but the one I’d recommend (and will use as an example) is Evernote. (There is a free version that may be all you need, and an upgraded version is available for $35 a year. I’ve used the upgraded “Basic” version for years and it’s proven to be more than worth the $3 a month I pay.)
Your note-taking application (hereafter abbreviated as NTA) is where you collect all the material—texts, PDFs, images, etc.—as individual “notes,” the basic unit of your external brain system.
What type of notes should you collect? Anything you consider enlightening, interesting, intriguing, useful, etc. At the collection stage you want to err on the side of more rather than less since you can always throw away a note that turns out not to be relevant to your needs.
Your notes will include such items as web pages (using a tool such as Evernote’s Web Clipper), PDFs, images, and selections highlighted in ebooks (such as the passages you highlight in Kindle, which can be exported directly to your NTA). If you produce any type of content (essays presentations, spreadsheets), you might also want to your own material here too. (You’ll be surprised at how often you forget content you’ve produced yourself.)
You can also add notes directly, including copying passages from printed books. Incorporating selections from books is a time-consuming process, so it’s often helpful to simply use your phone to take a picture of the highlighted passage and save that as an initial note. Remember the Lazy Rule: make is easy on yourself as possible. If the passage turns out to be of long-term interest, you can always use the image to copy it out into a text version.2. The Organizational Structure
If you use a paper-based system, you’ll want to leave the first few pages to create an index. Computer-based systems are more easily searchable, so you have more flexibility in organizing your information.
Don’t waste a lot of time creating a fancy organizational scheme; you just need something that is usable for yourself. Many NTAs, like Evernote, allow you to save notes with “tags” or in “notebooks.” While it can’t hurt to use both, I recommend using notebooks labeled with broad categories. For example, my lists of notebooks includes “Theology,” “Bioethics,” “Economics,” and “Quotes.” If your notebooks are too granular (e.g., Ecclesiology, Stem Cell Research, Military History) they can impede the review process. Oftentimes, we stumble across information that’s relevant but not in a category we would have expected. Design your system to maximize serendipity.3. The Summarization Process
This is where the external brain goes from being a glorified filing cabinet to a tool for developing new ideas and insights.
The goal of the system is to take information discovered by your Present Self and send it, in a usable format, to your Future Self. But what sort of information does your Future Self need? Your Present Self doesn’t have the answer, so you have to transform your notes in a way that makes it quick and easy for your Future Self to know the information is something it needs right now.
To do this we’ll apply a method Forte calls “opportunistic compression” — ”summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves.”
Here’s an example of how I use this method and combine it with the review process (which we’ll consider in a moment):
Step #1 — I take the material I want to remember, add it to a note in my NTA, and file it under a particular notebook. For example, if I find a noteworthy web article (or even one that looks interesting, but I haven’t yet had time to read), I add it as a note. I include the author and the link, to make sure I don’t forget where it came from, and add any initial thoughts I might have at the top of the note.
Step #2 — The second time I encounter the note during the review stage, I look for key passages that help remind me what I found of value in the article. I put these sections in bold and make the font size slightly larger, providing me with a visual cue that stands out from the rest of the text. At this point, I’ve reduced the need to read a lengthy article to a few key areas.
Step #3 — The third time I encounter the note during the review stage, I use Evernote’s highlighter feature to highlight (i.e., outline in yellow) the most important words or points of context from the key passages I previously put in bold. Now I’ve reduced even the most important sections into a more skimmable form.
Step #4 — For most notes, the previous three steps will be sufficient. The gist of the note can be gleaned in a few seconds by scanning the highlighted areas. But for some notes, I want to mix in my own thoughts to add an extra layer of potential value for my Future Self.4. The Review Schedule
You may have thousands of notes collected and summarized but they’ll be useless if you don’t have a way to deliver them to your Future Self. The information you’ve collected can only be transformed into ideas and insights or used to create wisdom and understanding if you are able to see it, reflect on it, and apply it to your life. That is why the Review Schedule is the most essential aspect of the external brain system.
How often should you review your notes? That’s something you have to determine for yourself. I recommend at least once a week, and no less than once a month. I’ve found it valuable to review a few notes every day, using the time I’d normally waste on social media to review old notes and summarize new additions.
Remember to design your system for your laziest self. Over time the notes should be summarized so that it takes no longer than a few seconds (10 seconds at most) to get the gist of what the note is about. The goal is for each note to be summarized in a way that within a few seconds your Future Self will have enough context to know if it’s something they need to examine in more detail.
Even if you have several hundred summarized notes, you can get through the review process quickly. At an average of 10 seconds a note, you could review six notes a minute, about 180 in a 30 minutes period. If you review different notes each time, you could cover 700 notes a month and 2,100 every quarter. Even if you spend half the review time summarizing the latest notes you’ve added, you’ll still be able to review enough to make the process worthwhile.Why This System Works
In his modern classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young explains, “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Young outlines a 5-step process for generating new ideas:
First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge. Second, the working over of these materials in your mind. Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis. Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea-the “Eureka! I have it!” stage. And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.
The external brain system collects the raw materials and ensures you have them when needed. But also, by frequently reviewing your notes, it keeps them incubating in your mind. Even when you’re not consciously thinking about your notes, your brain begins looking for ways to use this information to generate new ideas.Addendum:
What if you’re not a knowledge worker and don’t need to generate new insights or content on a regular basis. How could this system be useful?
There are numerous ways that everyone can gain value from an external brain system. Tiago Forte has a series of articles explaining how to use this system for general project management. But I think with a few tweaks it can be used for a wide variety of roles and vocations. Here are a few brief examples:
Visual Artists — Take snapshots of people, items, or locations that might inspire you to return to later. The system can be used to capture visual ideas that you can return to develop when you have more time to expand them into full compositions.
Parents and other “Family Historians” — With the advent of the smartphone, we can now capture video or pictures of our children and family members more easily than ever before. But the most memorable moments often occur outside the camera’s lens. Make a note whenever something interesting happens and file it in your system. Your Future Self may find many of them mundane, but you’ll also have captured priceless moments that you will have otherwise been forgotten.
Autodidacts and Generalists — Two years ago I wrote about “How to Glorify God by Being a Generalist.” In that article I mentioned a similar method that has since grown into this larger, and more useful external brain system. If you’re a generalist, read that older and article and consider how an external brain can be used to gain understanding.
Create Your Own Devotional — Devotionals are tools for spiritual growth. Oftentimes, they are published by writers who include quotes and illustrations that they found can illuminate particular passages of Scripture. But why not create your own? By adding insights from sermons you hear or books you read, you can create a devotional that is tailored to the interest of your Future Self.