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Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

An earnest reader for most of my life, I knew that reading would occupy a significant portion of any time spent away from work. During the extended time of rest and slowed-down pace my wife and I planned, my hope was to select a few “literary guides” to be my paper-and-ink companions. 

I wanted to stretch my mind in areas of philosophy and theology—enter Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I also wanted to return to an author who has shaped my formation as an apprentice of Jesus more than any other—enter the robust library of Dallas Willard. And I wanted to mine the depths of Scripture in an unhurried manner—enter Robert Alter’s translation of the minor prophets. 

Yet before any of those had been selected, I knew who the most comfortable companion would be over the course of the entire journey, like an anchor to my spirit and a buoy to my imagination. Anyone who knows me even moderately well will of course know I am talking about the erudite and clever master of fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

I devoured his work anew, returning to the well-worn pages of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, engaging essays, letters, and short stories like “On Fairy Stories” and “Farmer Giles of Ham,” and also embarking on the formidable and uncharted territory of the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth

Needless to say, I was reminded of what I loved about this faithful Christian, brilliant thinker, masterful worldbuilder, and majestic writer. In particular, a few key reflections emerged at the intersection of Tolkien’s work and the normal Christian life as shaped by the gospel he and I share across time and place. 

Indulge me as I share reflections on how the Spirit of Christ used my favorite author to move my heart, stimulate my intellect, and slowly and subliminally rekindle my hope in God and man. May it also provide insight into the mystery of your own life and faith.

 

A reflection on victorious failure

 

There is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring that invariably brings tears to my eyes. Boromir, a member of the company accompanying Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring, is a valiant and noble man troubled by the potential that his home city might fall at the hands of Sauron. Through the entire book he wrestles with the thought that the ring might be better used against Sauron than destroyed. 

In a moment of weakness at the climax of the book, he corners Frodo and attempts to take the ring from him. Frodo runs away, and immediately Boromir realizes his mistake. He breaks down weeping at what he has done. And that is when he hears fighting break out—orcs have arrived to assail the company. 

He runs to the aid of the young hobbits Merry and Pippin, determined to make good on his failure. While he slays many orcs in the process, he himself is filled with many arrows and the orcs run away with the hobbits. Aragorn, their leader, arrives at the scene too late, finding Boromir leaning against a tree and drawing his final breath. That is when we read this exchange:

“Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!”

Even as I type these words, tears fill my eyes as they did when I was listening on the drive up to Canada for a time of solitude. During that time alone I realized that I am more afraid than I would care to admit. I wrestled deeply with fears that were unearthed in my soul: fear of death, fear of letting others down, fear of being unloved, unwanted, alone. Fears, in other words, of failure. Of dying in failure. Of not being enough or having what it takes at the end of the day.

Jesus, my dear Shepherd, spoke to those fears with the words of Aragorn. Here is what I wrote in my journal:

Did Boromir fail? Unequivocally! But not irrevocably. And so do I. Did death have the final say? No, for he conquered, and even more do I through the valiance of Christ, whose own death and subsequent resurrection formed the storytellers quoted above who are so near to my heart. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Indeed, we are guaranteed both failure and death in this life. But the remarkable reality of life with Jesus is that power can be perfected in weakness, victory can emerge from failure, and life can triumph through death. For on the cross, it appeared to all that death had won and Christ had failed. Yet it is precisely in that moment of failure that victory was secured and precisely in that moment of death that death itself died forever. 

So as you are confronted by the fears that assail your own soul—as you come face-to-face with your own failures or the prospect of death—take heart. Feel Jesus take your hand, kiss your brow, and hear him whisper strength to your spirit: “You have conquered.”

 

A reflection on perfectionism

 

One of Tolkien’s lesser known works might also be my favorite. The short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” tells the story of a painter who has an unavoidable journey to make. Though he encounters many people and things that distract him, vying for the increasingly short time before the journey, Niggle spends every chance he gets in front of the canvas he is painting. The painting is a tree, which might not seem like much except it is his life’s work and greatest passion project. 

The problem is, because he cares so deeply about the painting, he becomes obsessive over every small detail. He wants every leaf to be perfect and unique. He is engrossed in getting every feature exactly how it should be for the painting to be complete. So he works thoroughly and meticulously, never quite satisfied and at the same time fearing that he will not be able to finish the painting before he has to leave for his journey. 

It becomes clearer over the course of the story that however much he wants to blame the interruptions of his neighbors, sicknesses, and unrelated work, the primary reason the painting is never complete is his own all-consuming “niggling” and perfectionism. 

Niggle is clearly a stand-in for Tolkien himself. The “mysterious journey” is a metaphor for death, and the painting of the majestic tree with each detailed leaf is analogous to Tolkien’s own life work. A noted perfectionist, Tolkien would spend countless hours working and reworking even the smallest phrase or moment or feature of the world he built. 

Rarely satisfied, his niggling is part of why his books took so long to produce, and why so much of his writing was published posthumously. It is also why Middle Earth is one of the most robust and consistent worlds ever built, and his writings among the greatest achievements in human history.

As I wrestled with my own fears and hopes and dreams, I discovered just how much my own personality resembles that of my favorite author. I have so many ideas that I am afraid I will never get around to seeing most of them come to fruition in this life. I want things to be so perfectly consistent that I spend hours working and reworking sermons, writings, conversations, and yes, even this blog. 

I don’t want to miss a nuance, an inconsistency, an opportunity to say something better or differently, or more helpfully. And as is so often the case, perfectionism is the breeding ground of procrastination. I’m worried I won’t have what it takes to do something up to my standards, so I put that thing off until some unknown time in the future, distracting myself with something else at hand that doesn’t take as much of my thought or heart. 

And thus so much of what I aspire to seems to whittle away before my eyes, and the aforementioned fears of death take the form of fears that I will die without accomplishing all that I hoped or dreamed.

Niggle ends up taking the journey in the end. He has no choice. His painting is used to patch a roof, and the only thing that remains is the one perfect leaf he spent all his time on. His journey leads him in the end to a place “for a little gentle treatment” that is evidently representative of some sort of heaven. 

What Niggle discovers is that this world is the fully realized vision of his painting, featuring the tree and a magnificent forest surrounding it. He is able to explore mountains and forest areas that were only glimpsed from a distance in his original, imperfect painting, working to make it more beautiful with the newfound time afforded him.

My realization was this: We are free in Christ to labor earnestly for the good of the world, using all the raw material God has placed at our disposal to realize the dreams he has stirred in our heart. We need not procrastinate in fear that it will never be perfect, because nothing will be as it should be until the end of days. And we need not fret that we will never accomplish all we set out to do, because of course we won’t, that much is sure. But just as sure is the reality that something of our work in this life will be reflected in the next, and perhaps we will even be given a glimpse of the majestic vision to which it all pointed in the end.

Move and Dig

Move and Dig

Change is not the enemy but an opportunity

“Change is not the enemy but an opportunity.” My parents often shared these words when our family handled seasons of change. To be honest, those words often annoyed me. I don’t love change. I like stability. I like predictability. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that much of life involves change whether we want it or not. We age, we move, we change jobs, we change schools. There are all sorts of changes we must undergo. 

Despite my lack of love for change, it has still been a theme of the last 15 years of my life. In the last decade and a half, I have lived in 6 different cities, 4 different states, and I am pretty sure I have had to change which room I live in about 15 times. I have had to get used to adapting because this has been a season of constant transition. Though I hope the next decade brings more stability, I do believe that change is one of God’s favorite classrooms. 

 

Change in the life of Isaac

In Scripture, we are shown several characters who had to adapt to changes, foreseen and unforeseen. I will never forget a Dallas Seminary chapel message from Genesis 26 on the patriarch Isaac’s encounter with undesired change. Isaac was the son given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age as the beginning of God’s promised fulfillment to give Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars. God promised to bless these descendants with a great land and to use them to bless the nations. But in this passage we see obstacles that seemingly threaten the fulfillment of such promises. 

At this stage in Isaac’s life, he had been living in the town of Gerar because of a famine. Because of God’s blessing upon Isaac, he was becoming too powerful for the comfort of those around him, therefore, Abimelech, king of the Philistines, asked Isaac to leave Gerar and find safety somewhere else. So Isaac agrees to this unexpected transition. See what transpires next: 

Then Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found a well of spring water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek because they argued with him. Then they dug another well and quarreled over that one also, so he named it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug another, and they did not quarrel over it. He named it Rehoboth and said, “For now the Lord has made space for us, and we will be fruitful in the land” (Genesis 26:19-22).

At first glance this is not exactly what I would call a gripping narrative, but our chapel speaker opened my eyes to the beauty of this passage. In the passage prior, God confirmed with Isaac the oath he made with his father Abraham and said “Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land as an alien, and I will be with you and bless you. For I will give all these lands to you and your offspring…I will give your offspring all these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring” (26:2-4). If I was Isaac and had just received this promise from God and now these herdsmen are telling me I cannot use the wells my family dug, I would probably give some pushback, both to the herdsmen and to God. But what do we see Isaac do? “He moves and digs, he moves and digs, he moves and digs.” This was the refrain our chapel speaker repeated again and again during that chapel message. “He moves and digs.” Isaac did not wallow in self-pity. He didn’t attack these herdsmen, he kept moving and he kept digging. 

 

Stewarding change

Amid all of my own transitions I have done a lot of moving, but I have not always done a lot of digging. I have seen change more as an enemy than an opportunity for further obedience. I have thought, “Lord, until you bring me to a place where I can settle, I am not going to make an effort to establish relationships or seek the flourishing of this temporary pit stop.” I have often seen change as something to resent, not steward. 

Did you note that the passage referred to the well Isaac dug as a “spring of water”? Springs of water were often a rare find in the valleys. In the time before running water, wells did not just mean refreshment, they meant life. Even though Isaac did not partake for long of the life which that well produced, I imagine those wells led to the flourishing of many who came after. 

Eventually God allows Isaac to settle at the well of Rehoboth, which is the Hebrew word for “open spaces.” I love that! And isn’t that what we all want? A place to live, rest, and thrive. If only that was our common reality in this fallen world. Instead, life more often reflects the name of the other two wells: “argument” and “hostility.” 

Change in my life has often included arguing with God. I think I know what I need better than he does, so I dig my heels in and refuse to move, fighting for control. In other seasons, I have faced hostility from those around me and could not move fast enough, but the Lord has called me to keep digging and serving those who made life difficult. I wouldn’t mind changing so much if I could have the exact timing, outcomes, and environments I want. But change does not often work that way. I cannot control every aspect of life, but I can steward the change he allows. 

 

Move and dig

I don’t know where God has you right now. I don’t know what seasons of change you are presently experiencing. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe a new marriage, or a new child. Perhaps your change involves loss; the loss of a job, a dream, a loved one. Now you are adjusting to a life that comes with a great void. There may be “hostility” at work or in your neighborhood that is forcing a change like it did for Isaac. 

Whatever the source of your change, I admonish you to keep moving and keep digging.  I challenge you to think about what your digging might mean for those around you. Maybe you are about to leave your job, but you have some final responsibilities to conclude. Instead of coasting to the finish line, consider how your good work might lead to the flourishing of the one who will take your place. 

Maybe you are a college student and you only plan to live where you are for a few years until you graduate. What are ways you can bless your neighborhood or apartment complex in ways that will shape it years after you are gone? Who knows what life-giving qualities could stem from your faithfulness in that season of stewardship! I have learned that if my contentment in life is dependent upon seeing the fruit of all of my hard work, I will end up living a life of discontentment. But I pray that on that day when God brings us to the land of “open spaces” God will allow us to look back and see the springs of water that came from all our hard digging. 

Brother and sister, keep moving and keep digging. 

The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The 1975 is an indie pop band from Manchester, England. It’s possible that you’ve never heard of them before and you might have zero interest in their music, but what if I told you the person Taylor Swift dated before Travis Kelce is the frontman for and lyrical genius of the band, Matty Healy? If Taylor Swift was that interested in him, are you maybe a little more interested now?

 

Generational Voices: Taylor Swift and…The 1975?

The 1975 have released five albums, each to critical acclaim over the past ten years or so. Their most recent album was released in 2022, entitled Being Funny in Foreign Language. Matty Healy is a controversial and complex figure, but in the midst of his reputation for being rockstar in every sense of the word, if you listen to him speak it’s clear that under the surface is an artist dutifully keeping himself in tune with both his own proclivities, musical notes, and our time.

Let me tell you why I’m writing about them. As a person trying to orient myself as a Christian in the zeitgeist of our postmodern culture and society, I am constantly looking for resources in the humanities (visual or musical art, literature and poetry, philosophy and religion) that help me name my own complex desires, my own experiences in modern life, and offer a commentary on our postmodern world. The more I listen to The 1975, the more I’m convinced that they are the undersold voice of my generation (the “sold” voice being the new queen of Kansas City herself, Taylor Swift). The 1975 aren’t a Christian band at all but Christian aesthetics and symbols saturate their songs. Even more, their songs, not only in their lyrical play but in their musical play, offer a depth of human emotion and experience that create space for us to be concerned about what ultimately concerns us: God.

I’m convinced that The 1975 is one of many cultural markers that demonstrate that my generation is growing in articulating the spiritual need they know they have. Even more, they are at the forefront of a movement making room for the growing awareness that the postmodern and digitally modern society does not meet the depth needed to answer the desires of their soul. This is explicitly called out in the cry for help in the song “Love It If We Made It,” with the lyrics: “Jesus save us, modernity has failed us. I’d love it if we made it” (note that if you listen to this song, there is explicit language). The longing for something more, even if it is ironic, is directed where? To Jesus.

 

Faith and the Chaos of our Age

We are bombarded with a hairball of complex realities from secularism, political agendas and war, to relational hardships, new Netflix shows that are therapy, and children encountering new realities. Every day our age of anxiety gnaws at us: it might be our own anxiety and it might be the anxiety of our world. From staring at a screen for eight hours plus, news programs firing off information that might be misinformation, the steadiness of information overload, dating apps, social media trends, and mind-numbing scrolling to get some peace. Digitally we find no relief, only more concerns to compound our own, and just a facade of connection to match our loneliness. In all of this, we feel something tugging at us. Longing. A longing for more.

The 1975 gets at this complexity in their album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. In their song “I Like America & America Likes Me” they capture the nature of the generation left longing for more in the midst of their digital isolation, their wrestling with the nature of life, and their apathy as a way to cope with their lack of answers. All of this is grasped by sporadic and punchy lyrics: “Is that designer? / Is that on fire? / Am I a liar? / Oh, will this help me lay down? / I’m scared of dying / It’s fine / Being young in the city / Belief and saying something.”

Did you notice how the lyrics jump from one thing to another, almost like scrolling through your TikTok feed? One question rings out through the song, and it’s existentially louder than the loudness of the beat of the bass. “Oh, will this help me lay down.” What kind of laying down is Matty Healy after? A good night’s sleep? A way to numb when the apathy doesn’t work any longer? Or maybe something deeper? Perhaps what Matty dares to mention is that he needs some real rest from the anxiety of being tangled in the complex hairball of a world.

He decides to venture into the explicitly faith-based conversation in the song, “If I Believe You.” The song, with noticeably gospel undertones demonstrating that Matty Healy is a student of music itself, wrestles with not just existential realities of modern existence but with the epistemological reality of Jesus being actually real: “And if I believe you / will you make it stop? / If I told you I need you / is that what you want? / And I’m broken and bleeding / And I’m begging for help / And I’m asking you, Jesus, show yourself / If I’m lost then how can I find myself?”

 

Relationships in a Lonely World

The 1975 songs run the topical gamut, but like any good band, there’s no shortage of relational heartbreak in their songs, which is in and of itself a direct parallel to our world. “Somebody Else” is their most famous hit, and the song captures the rawness of heartbreak at the end of a relationship. Matty cries: “I’m looking through you, while you’re looking through your phone, and then leaving with somebody else.” He continues, “Our love has grown cold / You’re intertwining your soul with somebody else.”

Notice that the language here is not only about bodies…it’s about souls. There’s a veiled recognition, if only metaphorically, that there’s something more at play than just bodies intertwining in relational intimacy. Instead, it’s the heartbreak of a relationship not only ending with only a separation of bodies but with pain that can only be explained by the ripping apart of souls. And the torture when that body moves onto someone else’s body is that their soul is now intertwined with someone else. One only writes and sings these lyrics out of a profound sense of loneliness.

To a thoughtful listener, these lyrics suggest there is perhaps a better strategy for relational intimacy other than using our bodies as an immediate answer to our felt loneliness and our beautiful need for intimacy. In my mind, this lyric suggests that our other needs for security, safety, acceptance, and commitment, must also be cared for. Our souls need to be cared for beyond our need for intimacy. The Christian faith has something to say about this. Intimacy is designed to be experienced only after entering into a covenant relationship of safety, acceptance, commitment, and security.

 

Longing in a Postmodern Age

The 1975 puts language to a generation that if they know anything, they know great longing. Longing for more than mind-numbing screen scrolling. Longing for more than lackluster online relationships. Longing for more purpose than collecting material items. Longing for more than a warm body to lie next to at night. Longing for more than political agendas and political theater. Longing for systems that care and value instead of control and oppress.

Secularism and postmodernism leaves us with a longing. Some have said that in the loss of faith in this age, all we have to long for is longing itself. Is longing all we have? Well, the 1975 gives me a different perspective. Matty Healy, the rebellious figure he is, sees the Christian faith and Jesus as a concrete reality that could potentially offer a healing balm to the open wound of longing. And this means that with this type of longing, the longing can lead to real hope.

 

A Real Hope for Real Longing

As Christians, we need to continue to demonstrate, in our lives and with our words, how Jesus is the hope that meets a generation defined by their longing. This is nothing new…it has been done throughout the history of the church. Augustine once talked about his longings and how Jesus meets them:

“What do I love when I love my God?…
It’s not physical beauty or temporal glory or the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, or the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, or the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, or manna or honey, or limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God.
Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

Augustine says our longings reveal that we are concerned by (and longing for) that which concerns us (and we long for) most: God. And he also says more directly: Jesus is the one answer to all our longings. Indeed, may our longings lead us to him, and may a generation defined by their longing become a generation defined by their longings met in Jesus Christ.

The Perks of Being a Bible Quizzer: The Case For Setting Your Mind On Scripture

The Perks of Being a Bible Quizzer: The Case For Setting Your Mind On Scripture

When I was growing up, my dad helped lead a Bible quizzing program at our church and his energy and enthusiasm about it was contagious. Though I sometimes gave my parents a hard time about it, and even tried to quit once or twice, I was a highly engaged Bible quizzer from 3rd–12th grade.  

Looking back, I must confess that Bible quizzing is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Every year we would study a different book (or books) of the New Testament, and we had to be very familiar with the material, even memorizing particular verses and passages, to be successful in the competition.

Despite all of that Scripture in my mind, even as a Bible quizzer, I still found a way to be a rascal in many of my interpersonal relationships, but that was no fault of the Scripture. My life contains many mistakes, but my involvement in Bible quizzing, which led me to ingest large amounts of the New Testament into my long term memory, and eventually into my heart, is not one of them. 

I backed my way into immersing my mind in Scripture as a child, but now in adulthood, I have found it to be extremely helpful for the learning involved in discipleship to Jesus. 

 

The Why

If we have accepted the status of disciple (a student or apprentice) of Jesus Christ, then, as good students, what we fill our minds with will have important ramifications on our learning. As disciples of Jesus, our course of study is to learn how to live our lives within the reign and action of God, just like Jesus would if he were us. Such a way is outlined for us in Scripture.

In Psalm 1:1–3, we find a picture of the kind of person whose delight is in God’s law or word, and meditates on it day and night: he or she is like a tree planted by streams of water. Their fruit yields in season, their leaf does not wither, and whatever they do prospers. This kind of  student or disciple has their mind on the material, and will be successful in learning kingdom living.

How could we expect to grow in Christlikeness, if we don’t recognize our obligation to set our minds on the material of the course? If we set our mind on “whatever,” then “whatever” will be our result. The lesson of garbage in, garbage out, is completely accurate.   

Can you imagine failing a course, and then complaining to your teacher, “Oh… you actually expected me to study?” 

If our goal is to learn to live in cooperation with God’s action, then, as students, there is material available for us to set our minds upon to aid us in that pursuit. 

We can do this, and we can start afresh today. 

 

The How

With the right “why” in hand,  we are motivated and prepared to ask how we might immerse our minds in Scripture. 

To this end, Dallas Willard offers 3 keys for setting our minds on Scripture: 

 

  1. Concentration: We have to actually set our attention on the Scripture.
  2. Repetition: We have to go over the same material multiple times to become familiar with it.
  3. Understanding: We must understand it for it to be profitable to our hearts.  Sometimes looking at multiple Bible translations or resources like commentaries, BibleProject podcast and videos, and audio Bible recordings can help. 

If you are ready to concentrate, repeat, and understand Scripture, here are a few passages to start with. I know you will find many more to add to the list!

Psalm 23
Proverbs 3:5–8
Isaiah 40:27–31
Philippians 4:4–9
Colossians 3:1-17

In Psalm 119:11, we read, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

May this be true of each one of us this year, and for the rest of our earthly sojourn. 

We Were Meant to Live for so Much More

We Were Meant to Live for so Much More

Fumbling his confidence
And wondering why the world has passed him by
Hoping that he’s bent for more than arguments
And failed attempts to fly, fly

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside

I was a high school junior when Switchfoot’s iconic song Meant to Live came out. I remember driving to work and school with this song on repeat. As someone who has always dreamed big dreams fueled by a wild imagination, I never really wanted a “quiet life.” While I didn’t know what living a quiet life actually meant in high school, I made myself a promise to never be stuck in a Secret Life of Walter Mitty existence. I had seen friends, family, and leaders waste away in the acceptance of just going with the flow, and it looked more like death than life. 

It had been years since I’d heard that song, and then in 2023, I heard not Jon Foreman but Jon Bellion singing Meant to Live as if it was a new hit single. Switchfoot, no doubt following in the footsteps of Taylor Swift, had re-released their “own versions” of their hits and even went one step further, inviting well-known artists to remake their hits. Instantly it was as if I was in high school again. Now, to be clear, I wasn’t hit with midlife regret. I’ve persistently said “yes” to what many said was crazy, and I have had an expanded imagination around the goodness of quiet living. But the song’s re-release did raise a question that will be raised until Jesus returns: What more is God rescuing me for today

Throughout history, Christians have spoken at length concerning the dangers of discontentment. The Apostle Paul reminds us that with Jesus, we truly have enough no matter our circumstances (Philippians 4:11). What a gift of the Christian life! But for as long as we are on this side of eternity, I also hold fast to how Paul modeled a holy discontent. 

Why? Deep within the infrastructure of salvation are dual, dynamically concurrent movements. God has magnificently rescued you and me through his Son Jesus through his life, death, burial, and resurrection “from” sin. Hallelujah! But that’s not the only movement. God is not just a “from” God. God is also a “for” God. God came not just to rescue us “from” sin and its consequence: death. God came to rescue us “for” life, although looking at some sectors of Christianity, you’d have no idea. Sometimes Christians can get so focused on the “from” that we no longer embody the “for.” 

This is why the Apostle Paul astounds me. He seemingly had everything this world had to offer before Jesus saved him. He was the best in his class. He had good pedigree, past experiences of God, and top-level leadership as a Pharisee in Jerusalem, the holy city! Then he gets a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus on a work trip, and he is confronted with life. 

The atrocity of Paul’s own sin was revealed to himself, along with the beauty of salvation from sin through Jesus’ sufficient death. Simultaneously, Paul saw life in the resurrected Jesus, and nothing compares to that resurrection life. Paul saw Jesus bringing a whole new way to live.

Not a kind of life where self-destructive habits continue to dominate and shame us while we tell ourselves our hope is just a promise on a piece of paper that when we die, it will be different. Not a kind of life that leaves us lonely without purpose. Not a kind of life that is contained to a few quiet times in Scripture and Sunday mornings. 

No. We were meant to live for so much more, but we’ve lost ourselves, partly because we’ve lost sight of salvation.

God wants us to live with him and thus find ourselves. A life that says “yes” to his healing. A life that grows our capacity to love him, others, and ourselves. A life that knows no end and knows higher bounds. A life that exists on more than the weekends. A life no one can take away. The life we were meant “for.” 

But resurrection life is not always the life we recognize. Paul himself didn’t recognize it at first. This is what Paul is writing about in Romans 6-8. He’s laying out how God has rescued us for real life, a life that looks and dwells with Jesus now

One way Christians have sought to open themselves up to this life they read about in Scripture is through contemplation. Contemplation is rich with spiritual practices and postures that Christians throughout history have engaged with to more fully experience and rest in their union with the Author of Life. Contemplation is sometimes still and sometimes not. It’s as rich as resurrection life when we lean in.

Take time to walk through a passage like Romans 6-8. Spend time in contemplation, considering what God might be saying to you. Join your church family in theFormed.life, which continues our daily journey through Scripture and building habits, such as the discipline of contemplation, as we grow into the life God has for us. 

We were meant for more, and he’s waiting.

The Purpose Gap

The Purpose Gap

The Power of Purpose

Happiness comes from WHAT we do. Fulfillment comes from WHY we do it.

-Simon Sinek

It’s 3:00 AM at the local all-night grocery store mid-pandemic. The woman in front of me is chatting with the check-out clerk, and I overhear her ask, “How are you feeling about having to be here in the middle of the night? Do you feel safe? Are you feeling worn out?”

Without hesitation, the clerk replies, “You know, if my being here helps you get medicine when you need it, and if it provides the health care workers just getting off their shifts a place to get their groceries, then in some small way I’m doing my part.”

Wow. Mic drop moment. 

 

Purpose Creates Perspective

The pandemic was a megaphone for many, amplifying their focus on priorities and purpose in life. 

While getting paid for work was an essential reason for our store clerk to be there that night, she had other motivations. This differentiation was an understanding of her purpose. In the midst of a global pandemic, she understood that her work made a difference in the lives of others. She was able to connect her personal value of helping others to her workplace, which provides resources like food and medicine for the community. And when personal values align with corporate values, good things happen. 

Workers who have “bought in” to the mission make the best advocates and are more likely to stay with the company; they feel more engaged in the company and in their work.

Research suggests that 70 percent of employees feel their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Yet only 18 percent of respondents believe they get as much purpose from work as they want; 62 percent say they get some purpose from work, but they want to get even more. Any way you look at it, there is a big gap and a big opportunity for employers and employees alike. Creating strong links to individual purpose for employees benefits not just the person but also the business. This vital connection helps fill the purpose gap. 

 

Connecting With Purpose

What we do during the week matters. Whether we clerk at a store, run a lawn business, fix plumbing problems for others, or coordinate carpool and lunches for the children in our home, having a sense that our work makes a difference is vital to our well-being. By extension, this is reflected in our homes, workplaces, and our communities. 

Interestingly, among those surveyed, parents were the most reliant on work for purpose. They credited parenthood as the source of this shift to a “big picture” perspective that helped them feel more invested in the future. 

 

Purpose Impact

“It’s an amazing feeling to live with purpose, on purpose,” says best-selling author Simon Sinek. But that purpose “is not just about work, it’s about who we are.” 

Having a sense of purpose is more important than you might think. People with a sense of purpose are more likely to be resilient and handle negative circumstances better. Research shows that those who have a purpose live longer, healthier lives. More of the benefits include:

  • 2.5 times more likely to be free of dementia
  • 22% less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke
  • 52% less likely to have experienced a stroke

And these are just some of the personal benefits. Organizations benefit as well. Purpose plays a vital role in worker experience, with increased engagement, a stronger commitment to the mission, along with improved feelings of well-being. 

Having and helping instill a sense of purpose is a win-win overall. 

 

Role of Identity and Values

Personal identity and values are guideposts for individual purpose. Psychologists describe identity as an amalgamation of experiences, relationships, memories, and values that create a sense of self. It’s no wonder, then, why the concept of identity and where we get our identity has changed through the years and why generations approach identity differently.

Baby Boomers, for example, tend to have their identities dictated to them by institutions such as the government, school, church, or family. Gen X tends to look inward in an attempt to discover their own identities. But Millennials and Gen Z have yet another approach. They seek to define their own identity, and that identity is fluid and ever-changing. 

Values and what we value are a big part of our identity and help guide us to our purpose in life. While some values are organizational, other values are more personal. It’s these core personal values that help determine standards of behavior, guide our decisions, and even impact our disposition. Values shape how we interact with the world around us. 

But what does this have to do with work?

 

A MOD Example

MOD Pizza was founded in 2008 and is self-described NOT as a pizza place but as a people place. They are a home for “second chances.” Everything about their business helps tell the story of their purpose. They describe pizza as a “platform to make a positive social impact in the lives of our people and the communities we serve.” 

Everything from hiring practices to food sourcing weave together to form their corporate values. And this “people place” cares for its employees in extraordinary ways. Employee videos on their website tell stories of life change being part of the “MOD Squad.” The atmosphere of acceptance, opportunity, inclusivity, and belonging has made its way into their corporate culture. It shows up in their employees and, in turn, is felt by their customers.

When employees connect their personal values to the company’s purpose, good things happen. Research says that respondents with such opportunities are nearly three times more likely than others to feel their purpose is fulfilled at work.

 

The Purpose Advantage

Keeping her eyes open throughout her daily routine, Faith Dill, a stay-at-home mom, also wanted to make an impact and help others.

Dill looked for opportunities defined by self-sacrificial love for the people in her community. She noticed homeless people on street corners with their cardboard signs, looking for food or work. She felt the simultaneous ache to give but also the skepticism for why not to give. While she understood giving money or food would not fix their homelessness, she also knew it would say to someone, “I see you.” 

Dill started keeping a small supply in her car for such situations. Sometimes it was a kit of items, i.e., a toothbrush, toothpaste, gloves, and socks. Other times it was simply a water bottle or a granola bar, but she always offered it with a smile and word of kindness so that no matter what the person’s story, they would feel seen and known.

Her hope? That it impacts the receiver and helps to change her own heart while modeling this example for her growing child. While Dill’s daily vocation doesn’t take her into an office, her faith in God helps connect her personal values of helping others feel seen and loved to a “bigger story.” 

 

The Purpose Connection

Living and working in alignment with personal values is critically important for well-being. If knowing your purpose and aligning your purpose with your daily routine is so important and beneficial, who is responsible for defining that purpose? 

Individual purpose is fluid. It changes over time and in varying degrees. It can be clarified and get stronger, especially in times of crisis or different stages of life.  

Who, then, is in charge of aligning or connecting personal and organizational values? 

 

Purpose Is A Two-Way Street

Sixty-three percent of people surveyed say they want their employer to provide more opportunities for purpose in their day-to-day work. This puts the burden of purpose primarily on the organization. Yet it would be counterintuitive and nearly impossible for an organization to flex its purpose and values on an individual basis.  

How about our store clerk? Did she make the values connection on her own? Or did the grocery store where she worked communicate how her work matters? What about our stay-at-home mom? While her primary purpose is caring for her family, Dill created her own connection to the “bigger story” to impact her community. 

 

Purpose-Driven Steps

As a Christian, I have a dual purpose: to know God intimately and actively engage in the work God has for me in the world. A higher purpose does not supplant personal values and involvement but rather is an impetus for being the hands and feet of Jesus in the here and now. In fact, knowing and articulating personal values can help define and align our greater purpose. For some people, the act of defining and articulating these values can foster empathy and awareness of the needs of others; “the bigger picture.”

A shared sense of purpose in the workplace can create connections among co-workers. A good first step toward defining purpose might be to start an open and ongoing conversation to explore shared values and articulate a collective purpose. In this collaborative process, teams can gain insights into individual aspirations, align them with the organization’s overarching mission, and foster a culture of mutual understanding and support. This approach not only enhances employee engagement and satisfaction but also strengthens the organization’s ability to achieve its goals by harnessing the collective energy and commitment of its workforce. It can be so powerful when everyone begins to row in the same direction.

Open and honest communication is vital to both individuals and the organization. This regular act of honest sharing can build accountability and act as an accelerator to help people consider where and how to bring more of their purpose to work.

“Here’s what I’ve decided: The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

– Barbara Kingsolver – Author

In this way, we can help one another live more fully at work—an outcome that benefits everyone. 

Let’s not sit around and wait for someone to define a purpose for us. Let’s go out and create it. The sooner we start living out of a sense of purpose, the greater the impact on our lives and the lives of those around us, whether at home, at school, or at work. In this way, we help one another live more fully every day—an outcome that benefits everyone.

I’m right. I win. You lose.

I’m right. I win. You lose.

Although not often used in common parlance, the abbreviation QED is used in philosophical arguments, mathematical theorem proofs, and legal briefs. It is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum which literally means “which was to be demonstrated” or “thus it has been proven.” Charitably, it means I have successfully supported my argument or belief. In real life, it has an acerbic edge to it, which translates as, “See, I’m right. There, I showed you. I win. You lose.” 

Have you ever watched a debate (i.e. a debate team, not political theater called “debate”)? Debaters (especially in high school) use their timed speaking opportunities to cite as many references as possible at a pace that approaches warp speed. They talk so fast the listener can barely make out anything they’re saying until they hit their concluding statement, spoken at the fortissimo level, which almost always goes something like, “Thus it is clear that the verdict must be awarded to the affirmative [or the negative if that is their assignment that day].” QED. Translated, that means I talked faster than you did. I cited more references than you did. My logic was flawless. I win. You lose.

Challenged?

Has your opinion on something or a conclusion ever been challenged? How did that make you feel? What was your response? As Christians in the 21st century, our truth claims are becoming less and less culturally plausible. We are being challenged more and more.

Do you respond with questions of curiosity—trying to understand the challenger’s position, or with an avalanche of polysyllabic prose in an attempt to bury your “discussion partner” and then end with an emphatic QED? I win. You lose.

Do you respond with humble confidence, willing to hear a different thought process, or are you so certain of your opinion that you lambast their ideas and then end with an emphatic QED? I win. You lose.

As I listen to and learn about matters of apologetics,1 I find that I need to guard my heart. I must confess a proclivity toward a less-than-charitable approach to those who disagree with me. When I listen to messages on apologetics, I need to be vigilant. I must work hard to avoid merely gathering “ammunition” to use against those who disagree with me.

Early Years

This character flaw of mine has deep and long-standing roots. During the early stages of my spiritual exploration, I was fearful of being duped. I did not want to be intellectually weak. I wanted everything to fit together in an understandable, provable set of facts. I did not want to be wrong. Chemistry had its redox reactions that could be balanced. Physics had its formulae (both Newtonian and Einsteinian) which explained and predicted motion. Pythagoras had his mathematical theorems. And as I was exploring the claims of Christ, I wanted facts—repeatable, provable facts.

My imbalanced bias toward empiricism continued through high school and got much more intense in college. I struggled. Interestingly, it was a message on probability equations associated with fulfilled prophecy that was the triggering “hook” for my exploration. When I began my personal relationship with Jesus after my junior year in college, the campus ministry with whom I participated offered training in apologetics. I gobbled that up as fast as it was offered. That was good. I grew. I became more confident in the veracity of the biblical claims. While the spiritual growth was good, the training also fed my unhealthy bias toward proving others wrong. That bias did not result in a winsome approach to evangelism.

Although the Holy Spirit has softened some rough edges over the years, that (primarily) prideful desire to be “right” and that desire to “win” linger—just ask my wife.

I am not suggesting apologetics is bad, nor am I saying I no longer love apologetics. I love every minute of study and learning. While I still want to understand and I still want to be “right,” I pray my desire to be right is rooted in a desire to know more about Jesus. May it not be rooted in a desire to win a debate.

Watch Our Motives

May we engage both sides of our brain as we listen to the truths of the Scripture. Do not eschew the facts, but keep them balanced with the existential realities of a life with the person of Jesus.

Whether we are discussing what I call external issues (e.g. the exclusivity of Jesus, the age of the earth, or the existence of evil) or internal issues (e.g. eschatological timing, sovereignty/human agency, original sin), may we know what we study and read rather than reading what we “know.” May we learn so that we can grow in our worship. May we learn so that we can do what is right, not win a debate.

In his first letter, the apostle Peter summed it up well. He admonished us to always be ready to defend our hope that is rooted in our faith in Jesus.

 “…[be] ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. YET [emphasis added] do this with gentleness and reverence….
I Peter 3:15-16. 

However, we need to be careful with that word translated as “defend” since it has potentially pejorative overtones in English. We need to continue reading to the next verse, as Peter describes how we are to defend—with gentleness and reverence.

As we absorb preaching and teaching and journey through the complex terrain of apologetics, may our pursuit of truth be guided not by a desire to win debates but by a gentle, reverent, and humble confidence rooted in a growing understanding of the God of Abraham.

 

1 The English word “apologetics” finds its roots in the Greek “apologia” which is best translated as “defense.” Combining the prefix “apo” [away from] with “logia” [speech], the word in this context contains no hint of asking forgiveness.

My Workplace Visit to Garmin

My Workplace Visit to Garmin

Ever wish you had an easy button? You know, a button to hit when life is difficult so everything just works out. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Garmin headquarters located in Olathe, Kansas and guess what I found out! They invented the easy button for landing an airplane! So if you ever find yourself suddenly in charge of flying an airplane (let’s sure hope not, right?) just hit the easy button (the technical name for that is autoland) and it will contact air traffic control, communicate with them, take control of your plane, and land it for you. All you have to do is put your seat in a forward and upright position! 

 

Why Visit Garmin

To be fair, this is not the reason I visited Garmin, but it’s still really cool to talk about. But why visit Garmin? Over 25 people who work for Garmin attend the Olathe Campus of Christ Community, and I wanted to see their workplace and ask how they see God in their work. Our work is one of the most important ways we worship God. Good work, done well, matters. This could be developing technology that saves lives, sweeping floors, or changing diapers. We often forget this beautiful reality and I visited Garmin to remind them that their work is valuable and to expand my own understanding of what God is doing through them. 

 

Brokenness and Redemption

I was able to have lunch with a few of our congregants and I asked them two questions: “Where do you see the brokenness of the world?” andHow does your work seek to bring redemption to that brokenness?”  

 

Where Do You See the Brokenness of This World?

Randine Ailshie works in the Global Supply Chain department and sees the brokenness very clearly. She receives about 20 to 30 emails a day detailing all types of issues: natural disaster, political, war, cyber-terrorism, etc. It’s her job to make sure that regardless of what happened, those suppliers still have the ability to ship out parts so Garmin products can be made. In Randine’s words, “To tie it to the brokenness a little, admittedly it took me a while to learn to separate my personal feelings about people from the ability to get my job done. For instance, I could read an email that states that an earthquake struck Japan and left 500 people dead and 1,000 missing. I have to look past the fact that families are in distress and only focus on if Garmin is affected. That is kind of a hard pill to swallow. How can you ignore that?  People are out there searching for their families and I have the nerve to send an email to make sure that my needs are met? It’s crazy sometimes. The redemption that I find in my job is when I hear that the person I work with in Japan was not close to any damage and his family is all safe.” Randine goes on to say that she has made friendships around the world simply by asking the person she is corresponding with if they are okay. That simple question and act of kindness has gone a long way to bring light into a dark place. 

 

How Do You Seek to Participate in Redemption?

Dan Irish works in the Compliance Engineering department and works to arrange the testing and certification of Garmin products. One of the places he sees the brokenness of this world is that God’s creation is being destroyed, specifically, in the poaching of animals on the endangered species list in South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya. In order to combat this brokenness and seek to bring redemption, Dan and his team use Garmin technology to train tracking dogs used to combat poaching. Because of this technology, there has been a 95% reduction in the amount of poaching! Dan marvels that the work he does in Olathe can have such a significant impact on the stewardship of God’s creation around the world. 

 

That the Lost May Be Found

I started this with an easy button, so let me end with an easy button. Did you know Garmin sells devices with an SOS button? They saw the brokenness of the world in the number of people getting lost and not found, and sought to bring redemption by adding an SOS button. Whether you are on a rural country road or on Mount Everest, if you have an inReach device from Garmin, you can push that button and a Garmin team monitoring everything 24/7/365 from Houston will get a text.They will dispatch local search and rescue to save your life. How cool is that? They literally get an internal email list every week sharing how many lives were saved that week.

 

God is at Work

I went to Garmin that day hoping to encourage people and remind them that their work plays a role in bringing redemption to the world, that God cares about the good work they do, and that God uses their work to form and shape them. I’m not sure if I accomplished my mission, but I do know that I left in awe of how God uses people with so many different talents and skill sets to be his hands and feet in the world. God is at work using the ordinary work of men and women to combat the brokenness of this world and usher in redemption. 

Wait… Are We a Catholic Church? Yes.

Wait… Are We a Catholic Church? Yes.

I believe in…  the holy catholic Church.  – The Apostles’ Creed

Without fail, just about every time we recite The Apostles’ Creed at our campus, someone finds me afterwards and asks, “We aren’t a Catholic church, are we? Then why do we say that ‘we believe in the holy catholic Church’?” 

This is a great question, and its answer has many implications for how we think about diversity, evangelism, and the global Church’s mission that most people don’t consider. 

Questioning why we would confess the Church as catholic is really understandable, especially considering the word “catholic” in our culture is so deeply connected to the Roman Catholic Church. This is not what we mean, or what the original Christians who recited the creed were intending, when the Church is affirmed as being catholic. While there is so much to appreciate and admire about the rich history and traditions of the Roman Catholic expression of the Christian faith, there are significant differing convictions between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, to which Christ Community as an Evangelical Free Church belongs.

 

What Catholic Means

The simplest way to understand what catholic means in the Apostles’ Creed (and many of the other early Christian creeds) is to substitute the word universal for catholic. Affirming the Church as catholic means recognizing the universal nature of Jesus’ Church that comprises all believers in all times and places. Cyril of Alexandria, an influential pastor and theologian in the early Church who lived from 313-386 AD, says in his Lenten Lectures explaining the creed that “The Church is called catholic (or universal) because it has spread throughout the entire world, from one end of the earth to the other.” Catholicity affirms that what God is doing in the world through his Church isn’t limited to one local church but includes what he is doing through all the various local churches throughout the world and history.

This historic, orthodox affirmation goes beyond just affirming this fact, and has much relevance for believers today. 

 

Catholicity and Diversity

A helpful way to understand what a particular theological belief affirms is also to think about what it denies. Confessing the Church as catholic denies that the Church is only for a certain kind or group of people. Again, Cyril says, “[the Church is also catholic] because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of [humankind], governors and governed, learned and unlearned.” For Cyril, part of denying catholicity would be to think that the Church is only for rich, influential people, or only for poor, marginalized people. 

One of the most beautiful things about Christianity in comparison to other religions is its capacity to translate and incarnate its message into new cultural settings. If you go to any mosque in the world, you will find the Imam leading the service in Arabic and then translating portions into a local language. While there is a richness to knowing the original Greek and Hebrew languages of Scripture, you would be hard pressed to find a single Christian congregation requiring those languages to be used in a service each Sunday. The tragedy of white segregationist churches in our country’s past, and the consequences of that we still experience today, is that it was a failure to live out the historic, orthodox belief in the Church’s catholicity in favor of the heresy of white supremacy. 

While the myth of Christianity being a white, Western religion persists, it remains a myth that isn’t supported by current statistics or expected trends into the future. Phillip Jenkins (no relation to me), in The Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity, estimates that by 2050, less than one fifth of the world’s three billion Christians would be non-hispanic whites.

 

Catholicity and Evangelism

Affirming the catholicity of the Church goes beyond appreciation of diversity; it has a lot to say about the nature and necessity of evangelism. Both of these have been undermined in our day by religious pluralism, whether you subscribe to this view or are unconsciously influenced by it because of our surrounding society. Pluralism views each religion as each individual culture’s experience of the divine, and that God is too large to be contained by any one system of belief and practice. Pluralism holds that since each religion contributes a different culturally conditioned view, then all of them are more or less equally valid. Thus, Christianity is the experience of God in Western culture, Islam among Arabs, Buddhism in East Asian culture, Hinduism in South Asia, and other indigenous religions in their particular culture. The pluralist feels that sharing your belief in Jesus with another person with the goal of them also choosing to follow Jesus is forcing your culture onto another. 

This pluralistic view of religions does not take the claims of orthodox Christianity seriously, especially with regards to the catholicity of the church. Effectively, it is no longer “I believe in the catholic (universal) Church,” but rather “I believe in the white, Western Church” or “the Church for those who are already Christian.”  Beyond not taking orthodox theology seriously, this view also doesn’t respect and honor the experience of billions of Christians who have committed their lives to a faith that didn’t originate in their own culture. Against this, Cyril writes that,

Again, [the Church] is called catholic because it teaches fully and unfailingly all the doctrines which ought to be brought to [people’s] knowledge, whether concerned with visible or invisible things, with the realities of heaven or the things of earth…. Finally, it deserves the title catholic because it heals and cures unrestrictedly every type of sin that can be committed in soul or in body, and because it possesses within itself every kind of virtue that can be named, whether exercised in actions or in words or in some kind of spiritual gift.

For Cyril, the Church is catholic because it has the universal cure, that is, the gospel message about Jesus, to the universal problem of sin plaguing humanity, and every human being ought to believe the good news about Jesus to access this cure. This is what the earliest Christians believed and why they were motivated to take the gospel beyond Jews to Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians, Scythians, Barbarians, and all other kinds of people. 

 

Do You Believe in the Catholic Church?

It is one thing to say the creed along with others when you gather with other believers, but a totally different thing to demonstrate your belief in that affirmation through your actions. 

Does your attitude toward Christians of other backgrounds demonstrate that you believe in just the “Western Church”? Or, does your belief in the catholic Church lead you to recognize, celebrate, and learn from biblically faithful expressions of following Jesus in other cultures? 

Are you hesitant to share your faith with others, or even look down on Christians who do share because it reflects an “insensitive and outdated” cultural perspective?  Do you regularly pray about and look for natural ways to share about the hope you have in Jesus with others who have a different background?

May the God of all people in all places and at all times help us recognize and embody his love that does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance and belonging among his people, the Church (2 Peter 3:9).

 

 

More Resources:

  • Cyril, “Lenten Lectures (Catecheses)”. Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310118.htm>
  • Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom : The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford University Press 2002.