That Morning.

(Reposted and expanded from this post way back in 2004.)

It was fall, and school was just getting into full swing. My senior year of college, full of 400-level classes and theater and a girl with whom I was utterly smitten.

We, she and I, were getting lunch. Walking from the school cafeteria counters to the beverage island in the middle of the dining hall. Two small cups of Dr. Pepper, one of chocolate milk, balanced on my plastic tray, trying not to spill.

The nearby television was tuned to MTV, as Kurt Loder (or someone similar) was discussing the death of Aaliyah, the R&B star who died in a plane crash just a few weeks before. She and I chatted about the tributes and the memorial services that dominated the airwaves.

She mentioned that she heard one announcer say that Aaliyah’s death would be our generation’s “where were you when” moment. Our parents would have the Kennedy assasination, our grandparents would have Pearl Harbor, and we just had Aaliyah. I thought that was a bit of an overstatement (no offense intended to the dead), and that it would be pretty sad if the death of a pop singer were “the” landmark news moment of our lives.

She agreed. “I was more impacted when Kurt Cobain died. There were girls at school who cried all day, when they found out.”

I didn’t share that memory; my upbringing was devoutly devoid of pop music. But I understood and agreed, “Yeah, clearly Cobain had more of an impact.”

We sat at the table, watching the large-screen TV in the caff, and the topic shifted to homework and other things.

That was Monday.

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The next morning, my roommate Josh and I were getting ready for the 9:30 class we both had (Children’s Theatre? Scenic Design? Something in the theater building.)

I was perched on my dorm-room desk chair, Mr. Rogers-style, about to pull on my socks, when Josh uncharacteristically turned on the TV (something he never did in the morning). And I saw it. I saw the world change in an instant.

I saw a mighty city in flames. I saw the great tower shudder. I saw the smoke and debris.

Then the image of the second plane vanishing into the side of the second tower. To this day, I don’t know if that was a live video or a replay, but either way, it felt sudden. Jarring.

I sat slack-jawed and half-socked, unable to move. Josh dropped down on his bed, stunned. I heard him gasp. We sat silent, in our small dorm room on the small campus of a small Baptist college in the wide plains of middle America, and we watched in horror as Americans were murdered en masse.

After about ten minutes, I awoke from my shocked state. “I…guess…we need to get to class.” Josh nodded. I finished getting dressed, and we walked together in silence from the dorm to the communications building. On our way, we met our professor speeding toward and then past us, calling over her shoulder, “Meeting in the black box.”

We walked into the small theater, and saw the other students huddled in the seats, in twos and threes, some crying, some consoling, all speaking in hushed tones. We sat. I could think of nothing to say. I was numb. Hollow. As if my spirit had been pulled from me. Mrs. B, the other theatre prof, stood and said a few words. She said that now was a time to pray for our country, and for the families of the victims. We didn’t know how many, but we knew that countless were affected. We didn’t know what would happen next. We were afraid.

Our professor said that class was cancelled, and that we should spend the day praying. We prayed together as a group, and then dispersed. I walked out the glass doors of the building onto the recessed porch, half-stumbling. Some had been wondering aloud if this was the beginning of a war. I wondered the same thing. How many more cities would be attacked? Would there be a retaliation? Would there be a draft?

Most of us ended up in the student “commons” building. There were a few hundred, all huddled around a large-screen TV, watching in silence. Many faces were tear-stained and puffy, drawn with horror.

I stayed there for most of the day, watching the same images over and over. Then the first tower fell. Later, its sister followed.

We could forget about Aaliyah and Kurt Cobain. We had our “moment.” Every one of us now had our story.

So many things we felt. So many things we wanted to say. Now, so many years after, we’re still trying to find the words.

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It’s at this point in the original post that I concluded with a rousing “they didn’t just attack New York or DC–they attacked all of us” speech. And that’s still true. For one glorious, all-too-short moment, the partisan bickering was tabled in favor of bowed heads, clasped hands, and “How are you doing, neighbor?”

And now we’re here–17 years later. We’ve defeated Bin Laden and Saddam, and new terrorists and warlords have risen up to take their places. The War on Terror hasn’t ended; it’s just changed location and shape. Truth be told, it’s been largely forgotten by many Americans–white noise in a distracted culture.

Meanwhile, we’ve had three presidents, all of whom were/are vilified by their opponents and defended fiercely by their allies. I’m not going to argue over who was better or worse (though I do find it interesting how one went from being portrayed as literally the second coming of Hitler to now a beloved and even fondly-remembered statesman in some circles–the benefits of perspective, I guess).

In some ways, it feels like this country is on the verge of fracture, though I wonder sometimes if that’s really just social media and cable news talking. Then again, moderation has fallen out of fashion. On the street corners and in the marketplace, everyone speaks in chyrons.

I don’t have answers, either. I’m still trying to find the words.

If there was a single silver lining on that dark day 17 years ago, perhaps it’s this: For one brief moment, we remembered what we had in common, and we realized that there was something more vital, more fundamental than the petty, partisan bickering that was already so deeply ingrained in the national conversation in the summer of 2001.

One nation, under God, indivisible.

May it always be.

Freelancer Diaries: Week 1

[This may or may not become a recurring segment on the blog, but hey, it could be fun, right? Meanwhile, the #FridayFive will return next week!]

 

I’m So Excited, I’m So Excited, I’m So–Scared!

I’ve never been very entrepreneurial. I’ve always been the dedicated worker bee, doing the “smart” thing, the “safe” thing.

However, I’m on the verge of starting a side-hustle (to supplement my income, not replace it), doing work as a freelance writer/editor/proofreader. I feel both a growing eagerness to get after it and a nagging worry as I realize how much I don’t know about all this. I want to dive right in, but I don’t want to be a buffoon and do damage to someone’s else’s work.

All this nervous energy has me a bit scattered. I signed up for Lynda’s online education resources, and immediately bookmarked 37 courses to check out before the 30-day free trail expires. I’ve checked out 10-12 books from the library on side hustle basics, resume writing, grant writing, freelance writing, editing technique, and plot structure and development for fiction writers. I want to watch and read all of it NOW, RIGHT NOW, so I can work right now.

This is not counting the usual “boring” stuff, like my day job. And my family. And sleep.

It feels like I’m caught in a riptide of my own making, dragging me further to sea, into deeper and deeper waters. If I don’t recognize the tide’s pull, I’ll very soon be in over my head. No one wants that.

Not Even For A Klondike Bar

A few nights ago, I suddenly stopped negotiations with a potential client, turning down a project that I had been pursuing for a couple of days. Why? Because I found out that the proposed manuscript would be full of pseudo-Christian theology, and it just didn’t feel right to say yes to that.

Don’t get me wrong–saying “no” was hard, too. This would have been my first paying gig! Nevertheless, I would have been miserable working on it. Even if only 10 people ever read it (a definite possibility), I would have felt partly responsible for confusing or even leading astray those 10 souls.

Maybe I’m over-reacting a bit. But I don’t think I am.

I believe every freelancer has to answer this question for themselves: What are my limits–not just morally, but professionally? What kinds of projects am I willing to turn down?

I can name a few things right off the bat that get a hard-pass from me:

  • Other people’s homework. It became immediately clear that several people seeking work are looking for “substantial editing” on their unfinished school assignments. Uh, no. I don’t do that.
  • False religion or lousy theology. I just don’t feel comfortable working on things that contradict my core values. That’s not to say I would limit my work to the precise theological/worldview positions I hold. But when something is blatantly outside the bounds of what I believe to be true, it’s hard for me to work on that. For example, yesterday at my day job, I had to edit instructions for a meditative yoga program, chanting, namaste, the whole nine–and it felt…gross. If I have the ability to choose my clients (and I do), I want to avoid things like that.
  • Sexual content. Exactly zero shades of grey for me, on this question. Just…no.
  • Ghostwriting. There is a market for it, to be sure. But helping someone take credit for my words as if they were alone responsible is lying, plain and simple. If I haven’t been able to write a book for myself, I certainly won’t write a book for someone else.

My goal is to help people sharpen their ideas and express their perspectives, even ones I disagree with, as clearly and effectively as possible. But I have to feel good about the work I’m doing, or it’s not worth it to me. I’d rather deliver pizzas with a clear conscience than bank huge fees and feel ashamed of the results.

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Question of the Week: Do you have any advice for me as a rookie freelancer? Do you know of any pitfalls I should avoid? Please let me know in the comments below!

 

 

The4thDaveReads: The AccelerateBooks Platform!

Unsuprising confession: I own a lot of theology books. In fact, I own a lot of theology books I haven’t read yet. Okay, possibly hundreds. I own possibly hundreds of physical and digital theology books that I haven’t read yet. (I say “possibly” because I haven’t bothered trying to count them.)

It’s my fault, of course. I’m easily distracted by the new and shiny, and my trusty, old To-Be-Read shelf waits patiently for my attentions.

Maybe you’re like me and you want to read ALL THE THINGS, all the time. You flit from book to book like a hummingbird, which is great for beach reads but not really useful for the weightier matters of theology. You think you can bop around with Calvin or John Owen? Get outta here with that noise.

Fact is, as disciples of Jesus who are seeking to grow in the faith, we want to absorb as much edifying truth as we can, but many of us don’t have a lot of spare time to do it. That’s where the good folks at Top Christian Books have stepped in to address that need with their new subscription site, Accelerate Books

The stated goal of Accelerate Books is to provide “a digital tool for Christian leaders designed to accelerate your learning through book briefs.” It was launched primarily with pastors and seminary students in mind, but can be useful and beneficial to anyone from lay church leaders to homeschooling moms to new Christians wanting to learn the core ideas of the faith.

For a monthly subscription rate of $11.99, Accelerate Books provides new summaries of Christian non-fiction books (mostly from a Reformed theological perspective) that can be read and digested in under 15 minutes. Each book brief gives a general overview of the book’s main thesis, highlights two or three main ideas presented in the book, and then summarizes each chapter in a sentence or two, along with some pull quotes. Some of the book briefs may include infographics, animations, or MP3s (features that the TCB team is taking their time to roll out, in order to ensure quality).

There are currently 9 books available in the Accelerate library, by authors like Tim Keller, RC Sproul, John Piper, and others. More titles are scheduled for release in the coming months, along with improvements and additions to the current selections.

While the program is still in the “beta testing” phase, and not all the features are operational at this point, it’s plain to see that the layout and design of the homepage and book briefs are clean, clear, and easy to navigate. As time goes on, the TCB team is sure to add even more value to the platform.

The question remains: Is this service is right for you? Well, that depends.

Accelerate Books is great for:

  • Providing “executive summary” style briefs of books that I don’t have the time or great desire to read slowly: This includes books that may have useful information, but aren’t high up on my list for whatever reason.
  • Determining if a book is worth diving into later: After reading the book brief for Voddie Baucham’s Expository Apologetics, I immediately put the book on my Amazon wishlist. From what I understand, this is not uncommon for Accelerate users. This platform provides a means of previewing future book purchases.
  • Quick absorption of information: Because each brief distills the book down to its core outline, you can quickly absorb the basic arguments and ideas at a glance. This is great for business/productivity books, but I’m admittedly a little unsure on how this works for theology.
  • Research/reference for writing: If you’re writing a manuscript or academic paper, you can find out quickly if one of the books in the Accelerate library applies to your point of study. This can allow you to skim the book’s main points or follow up with the full version for more context.

In short, Accelerate Books can be a very useful tool!

However, the platform does have some limitations. It may not be helpful with:

  • Absorbing devotional material: While Accelerate Books may be excellent for information transfer, it will not leave room for you to meditate on truth the way that a more thorough, thoughtful reading does. Moving slowly, even paragraph by paragraph, through a challenging text gives the heart more time to grapple with its ideas. If you’re anything like me, your online reading habits have been trained by hundreds of ‘listicles’ to skim over bullet points without stopping to chew on them.
  • Developing a fuller understanding of a topic: The summaries are just too short for that. If you’re wanting to really dive into, say, Sinclair Ferguson’s examination of the “Marrow Controversy” in The Whole Christ, the book brief will give you the bones of the discussion, but there’s not enough meat for you to come away with a deep grasp of the issue.
  • Working through more complex argumentation: Due to the nature of the briefs, in particular the reduction of chapters to a sentence and a few short quotes, I’m not sure this approach would be helpful for working through Calvin’s Institutes or the works of Edwards or Owen. Some books should not be distilled that much. (However, I’m happy to be proven wrong. Your move, TCB.)

Essentially, this format is helpful for quick reviews and busy readers but may not be able to stimulate extended thoughtful consideration.

Would I recommend the Accelerate Books service?

Possibly, if you have the means and you understand the limitations of the platform. I was given a membership in exchange for the review, and I fully plan on using it because the opportunity to “preview” books is valuable to me. However, when it comes to deep study or even devotional reading, I will return to the full version of the books–even if it takes me forever to get around to reading them!

If Accelerate Books sounds like a useful tool to you, you should click here for more information and to take advantage of their 7-day free trial.

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Many thanks to Accelerate Books and the folks at Top Christian Books, who generously provided me with early access and a lifetime membership, in exchange for an honest review. (I hope they don’t regret that.) The opinions above are my unbiased review of the resource.

 

The4thDave Reads: “God at Work” by Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

God at Work

“What am I supposed to do with my life? What is my calling? Is there a specific path I’m supposed to follow?”

These questions plague us. They first creep into our minds as adolescents when we are forced to consider life outside of our family’s home. They nag at us when we begin our first part-time job or when we plan for university education. They scream at us as soon as we complete graduation exercises or walk into our first day of “grown-up” employment, staring down the barrel of adulthood.

There are stacks of books published every year full of bromides and aphorisms about “finding your path” and “being true to yourself.” There’s a cottage publishing industry devoted to helping people pursue their dream/destiny. Of the writing of books about purpose and self-fulfillment, there is no end, even (especially?) in Christian publishing circles.

Perhaps a better question is, “Does each of us have a set of common roles we must fulfill or callings we can pursue?” One very helpful answer to these questions can be found in Gene Veith’s excellent volume, God at Work.

In God at Work, Veith discusses the often-ignored doctrine of vocation, or the callings that God puts on our lives as believers. It’s important to note that callings here is plural; Veith explains that every Christian has several roles to fulfill throughout their lives, and that these may change through different seasons and situations.

Veith begins by discussing how Christians have considered the doctrine of vocation throughout the history of the church. He contrasts the medieval attitude of “calling” being restricted to holy orders with the Reformers’ teaching that all people are called by God to do good, to serve and love their neighbors, and to honor God in any station of life. This, then, becomes the lens through which the rest of the book is discussed: How do we as Christians honor God and love and serve our neighbors in all the vocations of our life?

The first arena of vocation that Veith discusses is the one most often associated with the doctrine of vocation: the workplace. Here, he explores the nature of work in the aftermath of the Fall of Man, and how the Gospel of Jesus redeems and renews work for Christians. Next, Veith looks at our roles in the family unit, and the nature of our calling as spouses, parents, and children. The next two chapters examine our callings as citizens of a secular nation and citizens of a heavenly kingdom (expressed on earth in the local church), and how we should embrace and not shrink from both of these roles.

Veith closes out this slim volume by considering the difficult questions of vocation, including standing firm in ethical challenges, bearing up under hardship, and stepping away from vocation when it is appropriate.

I must admit, I have had an uninformed understanding of the doctrine of vocation for most of my life. While my thoughts on vocation were not necessarily limited to the workplace, they certainly weren’t as fleshed out as they ought to have been. Veith’s approachable and engaging examination of the subject challenged me to consider with new eyes my roles in the world as a follower of Jesus and ambassador of the Gospel. I heartily commend God at Work to you and hope that you will be as encouraged and challenged as I was in reading it.

Remote Control.

I’ve been reading Charles Duhigg’s newest book, Smarter, Faster, Better (which debuts today–I’ll review it in the next week or so), and the first chapter deals with a concept that may be familiar to students of psychology or counseling but was new to me: internal and external locus of control.

Who’s in Charge Here?

In lay terms, someone with an internal locus of control believes that their choices can affect their lives. They have the power to make changes, to make a difference, and to chart the course of their own path.  This leads such a person to take responsibility for their circumstances and make decisions that are meant to lead to a desired outcome.

Conversely, someone with an external locus of control sees their life as being affected by outside forces that are indifferent to them (or even opposed to them). A person with an external locus of control sees his or her life as being directed or at least affected by these external forces, and due to this, their best efforts will still be moderated, if not totally undone, by these forces.

The result of this is that people with an internal locus of control feel like they can change their lives for the better, and it’s up to them to do so, while people with an external locus of control tend to believe that they need help from the outside in order to make any positive changes in their lives.

(I realize this may be a gross over-simplification of the concept, and it’s probably more complicated than that. If you have more experience with the idea, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!)

We Don’t Need Another Hero

In thinking about this idea, one can even make the jump to social and political ideology. It’s not hard to see that some political positions work from an internal locus of control; they focus on self-reliance, personal responsibility, and limited involvement from outside forces. Others work from an external locus of control; they emphasize systemic issues that require systemic solutions, and de-emphasize the ability of an individual or  family unit to overcome such challenges, which require outside assistance (usually in the form of governmental intervention) in order for such individuals to succeed.

Each stance has its inherent dangers at the extremes. People with an internal locus of control struggle with having a solely-inward focus, caring only for themselves or their family and ignoring the needs of the people around them. (For example, consider Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy as an extreme example.) Such a stance also makes it hard for these individuals to sympathize with people from a much different background and set of experiences, who may not have the same opportunities and are unable to change certain circumstances.

On the other hand, people with an external locus of control may feel like they are always victims of outside forces, and thus they refuse to take responsibility for their actions. They may feel helpless and dependent, despite having the capability to create change. As a result, they look for rescue from other people and outside entities who promise to set things right and deliver them from evil (even if these pseudo-saviors consistently fail to live up to their promises).

A Savior on Capitol Hill

Which leads me to the following video, from nationally-syndicated radio host and financial guru, Dave Ramsey:

As I’m sure you can guess, Ramsey functions very much from an “internal locus of control” approach. He emphasizes that “YOU” can change your life and that “YOU” are not a victim.

I have to admit, though: as I watched that video, something didn’t sit right with me. I understand that Ramsey was trying to speak to wide range of viewers, even if he is himself a professing Christian. But as a Christian, I can’t help but notice that there’s Someone missing in all this.

The same thing is true with the locus of control discussion as a whole: the internal vs. external models seem primarily materialistic, and don’t account for spiritual realities.

So how do I think of these concepts as a Christian? What kind of “model of control” addresses a more Biblical worldview?  I have some ideas about that, and an alternative stance, which I’ll share…tomorrow.

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Your Turn: Have you ever heard of this idea of “locus of control”? Do you find yourself leaning more toward internal or external locus, in your day to day thinking? Am I misunderstanding this concept? Share your thoughts in the comments!

 

“What’s Your Foundation?” (Matthew 7:24-27)

[This is the post-facto manuscript of my last Sunday School lesson/sermon at Champion Forest Baptist Church. I can’t think of a better way to end my time with that fantastic group. I hope this blesses you as well.]

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

(Matthew 7:24-27)

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a picture of the ordinary life of His disciples—while at the same time demonstrating how radically different that life appears to the rest of the world. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon are an impossible task to follow on our own, but His work of redemption on the cross and resurrection from the grave accomplished this impossible task on our behalf, so that anyone who repents of their sins and puts their faith in the work of Christ is cleansed of their sins and credited with His righteousness, giving us right standing before God through Christ. Once we are born again spiritually and given the gift of the Holy Spirit living within us, we can seek to obey the commands of Jesus in the Sermon and live out this ordinary radical lifestyle by His power and grace.

Jesus closes out His sermon with a picture of two builders and two foundations. I’d like to make 3 observations and a final plea.

Observation #1 – Everyone builds their lives on something. 

Notice that the wise man builds on a rock. In the Old Testament, God is described as the Rock of His people (Psalm 18:1-3). Later, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is called the rock upon which the Church is built (Matthew 16:13-20).  In Luke’s version of this teaching (Luke 6:46-49), he includes a few more details: the wise man digs down deep to lay a good foundation. This wise person is the person who comes to Jesus, hears His commands, and obeys them. Remember, you can never obey God or please God apart from faith. So we can rightly recognize that the wise man is also someone who came to Jesus in repentance in faith (or, “poor in spirit” [Matthew 5:3]).

Don’t miss this: the wise man builds his life on Jesus and on His teaching. The foolish man builds his life on anything else—there is no middle ground.  Look at verse 26—the foolish man hears the words of Jesus as well! But hearing isn’t enough. James writes in James 2 that faith without works is dead. So our works follow our faith—we come to Jesus, we hear His words, and we obey them in faith.

On the other side of the coin, we can’t fall into the trap of the false converts in Matthew 7:21-23. Mere works aren’t enough either. Church attendance isn’t enough. Sunday school isn’t enough. These are exterior works. Jesus just said that mere works is not enough to prove that the heart has been changed. So what is being described here? A wise man comes to Jesus in faith, repenting of sin and trusting Him as Savior, and “builds his house” on the foundation of Jesus and His word. Living faith produces the fruit of obedience.

Observation #2 – The storm is coming.

Earlier, in Matthew 5, rain was a sign of blessing for this farming society. But in the Old Testament, storms are a symbol for God’s judgment.

In Ezekiel 13:8-16, we see that false prophets have reassured the people that no judgment was coming, but God declares that judgment for sin will come as a storm does. Hmm—false teachers, false believers, and a storm of judgment. Sounds like Matthew 7, doesn’t it?

Some see this storm as representing the “storms of life,” and in some sense, having a foundation in Christ does keep you firm in the normal troubles and struggles of life in a broken world. You will face the storm, but you will not collapse. But I think there’s something else at work here.

Jesus is speaking here of the last storm, the judgement of God against sin on the Last Day, the Day of the Lord. The question Jesus raises is: On the last day, will your house stand?

The Bible teaches that if we are in Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1) and that all our sin was placed on Christ and judged at the cross (Isaiah 53; II Corinthians 5:21). So when the final storm comes, if Jesus is your foundation, He will secure you against destruction.  But anyone who is outside of Christ has no such protection from the wrath of God.

Observation #3 – This is an issue of life and death, not just “life improvement.” 

Building your life on faith in Jesus and obedience to His teaching is hard. It’s challenging, painful and may seem like loss in the short term.

Though popular preachers and teachers may say otherwise, we don’t come to Jesus or call people to Jesus because doing so makes things easier or safer in this life, or more materially prosperous.  If that’s why you follow Jesus, you’re not following Him at all. Your life is built on sand and bare ground.

We come to Jesus and build our lives on Him because we are sinners who have earned every drop of the storm of God’s wrath, and Jesus Christ is our only hope of salvation. Though we are by nature children of wrath, enemies of God and rebels against His kingdom, He has graciously made a way to cleanse us of sin and adopt us as His children, by grace through faith in Jesus alone—His death and resurrection securing our justification and hope of a future inheritance.

So here is my final plea: be reconciled to God. Repent and believe the Gospel.

Some of you may never hear me teach or see my face again. Let this be my final word to you: repent–turn away from your sin and self-rule–and believe the Gospel.

  • You may have grown up in church and read the Bible cover to cover.
  • You may be a rebel, running from God’s authority.
  • You may be wrecked with guilt, afraid of God’s judgment and not quite able to believe that God can be merciful.
  • You may be an upright person on the outside, trying to keep the rules and earn your place in God’s kingdom.
  • You may be a prodigal who has reached the end of yourself and is on the long road back home.

My message to each and every one of you is the same: repent and believe the Good News that Jesus the Son of God came to earth, lived a perfect life in our place, died for sinners, and rose again victorious.  If you have already believed it, cling to it as a beautiful promise of God—a guarantee that you are His.

Jesus died to save sinners. Do you understand that you a sinner? Then He died for you. Repent of your sin and believe in Him and be saved!

Because if you do not, on the Last Day, the rain will come, the flood will rise, the winds will blow and beat against your house, and your house, your life, will fall. And great will be the fall of it.

Today is the day. Repent. Believe. And be born again.