Porch Chats

Lincoln’s Battle with God- Book Review

Lincoln’s Battle With God: A President’s Struggle With Faith And What It Meant For America- Stephen Mansfield. 279 pages.
I just finished this fascinating book on the faith of Abraham Lincoln. Before reading, I hadn’t known a lot about the President who usually tops the charts of “best presidents” polls. I had read a few of his speeches, as well as watched a few movies (the best of which was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer, which was not as historically reliable as some might think). From the little that I had read, I naively assumed that Lincoln was a committed, church-going Christian. The truth is, like many of us, Lincoln experienced deep spiritual distress and doubt for much of his life.
Stephen Mansfield brilliantly belabors to show the complexity of Lincoln’s relationship with God. The task is no easy one, as the author needs to track down everything Lincoln ever wrote or said about faith. One of the biggest problems is determining which sources are legitimate and which are embellished. After Lincoln’s death, some were motivated to portray him as more religious, while others reacted against the hiding of Lincoln’s doubts and (probably) overly highlighted his skepticism.
Abraham was raised in a “Christian” home; the family went to church, read the Bible, and talked about it. Nancy Lincoln, Abraham’s mother, frequently sang spiritual songs. Although she couldn’t’ read, she would often recite long sections of scripture and Shakespeare in the home. She loved her children and encouraged Lincoln to go to school and read. Sadly, she died when Abraham was 9, leaving him with his harsh, simplistic, and legalistic father (Thomas). Thomas Lincoln had no tolerance for reading and school, since there was work to be done. Much of what Abraham rejected religiously probably came from what he disdained in his father.
The death of his mother was probably the beginning of Lincoln’s bouts with depression. Mental illness ran in the Lincoln family. After moving away from his hometown, as a young man, Abraham was put on suicide watch, with friends hiding knives and razor blades. He also believed he contracted syphilis through his occasional visiting of prostitutes.
Not only did young Lincoln reject the faith morally and emotionally, but he also began to reject it rationally. Due to the influence of Thomas Paine, and friends in the city of New Salem, Lincoln gained a reputation as an “infidel,” or an “unbeliever.” His skepticism and venom towards traditional Christianity culminated writing a little book “disproving” Christianity. Lincoln tried to get the book published, but a close friend named Samuel Hill, worried about Lincoln’s political future should the book be made public, stole and burned it. One wonders how our country might look today had that little book been published. Upon entering politics, even honest Abe lied repeatedly about his (past?) problems with Christianity, including whether or not this book had existed.
In light of all this, historians of Lincoln tend to view his future references to religion and faith as mere political pandering. Mansfield disagrees with this assessment, arguing that while Lincoln was no “cookie-cutter” Christian, his relationship with God was vital for leading this nation through its darkest days. There was something so sobering about the position in which he found himself, that he seemed to be driven to God in profound ways. Examples abound, but two will suffice for this post.
When Abraham’s three-year old son Eddie tragically died of pulmonary tuberculosis, Reverend James Smith conducted the funeral service. After this, the Lincoln’s began attending Smith’s First Presbyterian Church. Lincoln and Smith frequently talked for hours about life and religion. Not only this, Reverend Smith became a spiritual adviser to the President, constantly visited the White House to converse with and console Lincoln.
Lastly, the weight of the war and country seemed to give Lincoln a new appreciation for Jesus that he hadn’t had in his younger years. It’s reported that while watching the play in Ford’s Theater during that fateful Friday night, Lincoln turned to his wife and whispered: “we will not return immediately to Springfield. We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest. . .we will visit the Holy Land and see those placed hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.” And then John Wilkes Booth killed him.
While some doubt if Mary Lincoln told the truth about her husband’s last words, many historians believe them to be authentic. Even if they are not, the amount of research done by Mansfield in trying to truthfully reconstruct Lincoln’s complex faith is commendable. There are countless other examples of Lincoln’s life situations and statements that seem to share that while conflicted, Abraham Lincoln deeply trusted God, and perhaps even Jesus Christ as well. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.

3 Reasons You Should Go To A Church Community Every Week

I’m a pastor’s kid, so growing up, I always had to go to church. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, I usually did (except in middle school when you hate everything and everyone). But when I went off to college, I wrestled with the question that every young adult asks, every Sunday: “Do I want to go to church today?” My answer was typically “no,” followed by a litany of lame excuses: “I have homework; I’m busy. I need more rest, I don’t really know anyone; it’s not my home church.” Plus, I could always listen to way better sermons from way better preachers’ podcasts (like John Piper), from the comfort of my own pajamas. It wasn’t long, however, before I was challenged on this perspective, and I plugged in to a local church (shout out to Little Country Church: Haven. Miss you guys!)

More and more, I see this mentality among my fellow millennial Christians. It’s especially true for people who have relocated for work or school. And their parents aren’t a lot better. Sports games, messy houses, weekend outings, or simply sleeping in keep countless couples and families away from church community.

The Problem: Where there are sometimes small problems that keep us away from church community, like my lame excuses mentioned above, there’s really just one big problem. It’s something that has been slow-cooked and marinated inside of us for decades.

The problem: Individualism.

From childhood, individualism has been drummed into our heads, that we can be, or do, or accomplish anything, that we can pursue our dreams and our happiness at any cost. Think of Elsa in Disney’s Frozen, when she sings:

“It’s time to see what I can do//To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me//I’m free!

Let it go, let it go//I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go//You’ll never see me cry. . .”

For Elsa, life is about casting off the burdens and expectations of a community.
She reflects our culture well. However, in an age of individualism and self-expression, loneliness, depression, and anxiety are higher than ever. “Let it go” isn’t solving our problems; it’s creating new ones.

Christianity, while valuing the individual made in the image of God, does not see the individual as sovereign. The individual finds her identity not in her heart, dreams, or desires, but rather in Jesus Christ and his family.

With that said, here are three reasons why I think you should go to church (at least) weekly. By church, I’m referring to any consistent, intentional gathering where Christians participate in prayer, worship, and hearing God’s word. By this definition, this could be done in homes, in church buildings, or even in Dairy Queen (though the extra calories might not be good). Also, by this definition, not every building with a church sign is a true “church.”

1) It’s good for you. No, seriously, it will extend your life. From a secular perspective, one Harvard study found that “Joining and participating in one group cuts your odds of dying over the next year in half. Joining two groups cuts it by three quarters.” Provocatively, they conclude: “It’s a tough call. . .whether quitting smoking or joining a club. . .will improve your life expectancy more.” (Harvard Kennedy School, The Saguaro Seminar).

Dang! So bring your Bible and your cigarettes and commit to a church community.

2) You have a contribution to make. No, I’m not referring to tithing, though financial giving is an important part of worship. By contribution, I mean YOU. You are a valuable part of the church community. God has given every one of us gifts, gifts to be used to encourage other people and to live on mission for God.

When I played soccer, if sickness or studies kept a student away from a game, we were hurting. Each person had a part to play. Not everyone scored goals and not everyone played goalkeeper, but everyone had a role. It’s the same with the church community.

3) Love is a learned habit in church community. Again, in an age of self-expression, love is sometimes seen as whatever gives me the best feeling, whether it be pizza, a good movie, or a girlfriend. In contrast, commentator John Stott defines biblical love “not as a fleeting emotion, but a steady devotion of the will.” In other words, love is something you invest yourself in, something you commit yourself to, something you’re absorbed with.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with everything and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The loving ourselves is easy; we’re all born incredibly self-focused and self-absorbed. Even someone who “hates himself” actually loves himself by Stott’s definition because all he thinks about is himself. But to love God and to love others? That takes lots of practice, because it’s not natural.

We learn to love God through the weekly habit of coming to a church community. All throughout the week, our love for God cools off, and other things capture our heart’s imagination. But when we arrive on Sunday morning (or whatever day you meet), God works on us while we worship. As Martin Luther said: “at home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.”

As we are led in musical worship, and confession of sin, we’re reminded of our own weakness and of God’s goodness. As the Bible is read and taught for us, God speaks his loving comfort and correction to us. The action of actually sitting in the room instead of popping in our ear-buds trains us to humble ourselves and to relinquish control.

We learn to love people by being with them, by building relationships, praising and praying together. We learn to love by practicing forgiveness when we are been wronged, instead of finding a new community. We learn to love by opening our lives to other people who we would NEVER encounter anywhere else in life, had it not been for Jesus, people with political, socio-economic, ethnic, and generational differences.

Two Common Objections:

“You’re being legalistic.”

Maybe. But is it legalistic to eat daily? Is it legalistic to exercise frequently? Is it legalistic to regularly do things that make me a better, healthier person? You might call is legalism, but I see it as a “habit of love.” And I miss you.

“You’re a pastor, so you’re naturally more invested.

Ha, fair point. It’s like restaurant owner encouraging others to eat out more often. And I have to be at church each week for my “job.” So does that negate my whole post? I don’t think that it does. This post is actually coming from a heart of concern for spouses, singles, and families who aren’t plugged in anywhere. The church needs them and they need to church. Everybody loses when they don’t show up.

Concluding Verse

To conclude this longer post, no one says it better than the author of Hebrews:

“24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:24-25

The Apocrypha: Why Do Catholic Bibles Have More Books In Them?

by Tyler Goens
Have you ever noticed that your Catholic friends have more books in their Bible than you do? Or if you’re Catholic, have you noticed that us Protestants have smaller Bibles? (Protestant = any Christian who is not Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.) Why is this? Is it just so we as Protestants can make our “Read the Bible in a year” plans more manageable?
Not really. The problem comes down to the Old Testament. Both Protestants and Catholics have the same number of New Testament books (27), but the Catholic Old Testament has seven more books than the Protestant one (as well as significant additions to the books of Esther and Daniel). One term for these extra books is the
Apocrypha, meaning “hidden” or “obscure.” We’re not entirely sure where this title came from, but it’s likely an antagonistic reference (fighting words). Catholics prefer to use the term deuterocanonical, meaning “second canon” (canon referring to authoritative books, not the weapon).
So why the discrepancy? It starts with this: the Hebrew Old Testament does not contain the Apocrypha, but the Greek OT (Septuagint) does. This is why Catholics call it “the second (OT) canon”, acknowledging that these books were not a part of Hebrew Old Testament.
As the early church was more comfortable reading Greek, these “deuterocanonical” books picked up some steam. Some Christians believed they were scripture, like Augustine and Clement. Others thought they were useful, but not on the same authority as divine scripture, like Jerome, Athanasius, and possibly Origen.
Although early Christians had their disagreements here, it never became too heated of a discussion. But then the Reformation happened, which made questions of authority and canon far more significant. This was especially true since it was thought that apocryphal books defended Catholic doctrines that Protestants weren’t real excited about (purgatory, for example). Whether or not they actually do is a topic for another time. So, Protestants typically follow the lead of Martin Luther (following Jerome) in rejecting the Apocrypha as scripture.

Three closing thoughts:

1) Because the Hebrew OT canon did not contain the Apocrypha, the evidence seems to suggest that Jesus’ “Bible” would not have included these books (although he would have probably been familiar with them). If Jesus did not consider these books scripture, then why should we?

2) The issue is, and always have been AUTHORITY when it comes to Protestant and Catholic disagreements. If we don’t understand this, we will never have productive dialogue and debate with each other. At the end of the day, Catholics believe the their canon exists because the (Catholic) Church determined it be so. Protestants would argue that the church doesn’t MAKE scripture, it just RECOGNIZES it.

3) We don’t need to hide from the Apocrypha. (Anyone get the joke?) I’m reading through these books right now, and I find them illuminating in understanding the perspective of those before the time of Christ. I don’t believe they are destructive or dangerous to the Christian faith, if you read them in their proper context. I would, however, be skeptical of any kind of doctrine that arises solely from these books (and can’t be backed up elsewhere in scripture).
Blessings to all my Catholic friends; please don’t throw things at me.


Favorite Five: My Favorite Books and Podcasts of 2016

by Tyler Goens
It’s that time of year! This year, I decided to highlight five of my favorite books AND podcasts in the past year. These are in no order of importance. It’s my hope that one or more of these would be an encouragement to you and help your thinking as we approach a new year. And maybe this will give you some ideas for Christmas presents as well!

My Favorite 5 Books This Year:

1) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business- Charles Duhigg

This book is not necessarily “faith-based,” but explores the psychology and sociology of habits and habit-formation. Engaging and interesting, the book contain numerous examples the habits of real people. It was a hard book to put down!

2) Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy- Timothy Paul Jones

I was a little bit skeptical when I saw that I needed to purchase this book in the last class for my Master’s Degree. Like many, I was a little dissatisfied and burnt out by the end-times theology of my upbringing. But, when I got this book, I realized it was not what I was expecting. First, it has lots of picture (an excellent plus). Second, Jones does an excellent job majoring in the majors in terms of what is essential Christian teaching, and what is non-essential, debatable perspective. Third, you don’t ever actually know his own position, because he does such a good job highlighting the arguments and strengths of the four millennial views. A must read for any believer wanting a broader perspective on the end!

3) Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision For Christian Relationships In A Hypersexualized Age- Jonathan Grant

You might laugh at the title. Sure, it’s provocative, that’s how you sell books. But, this book brilliantly traces the history of how we got to where we are now. In our radically promiscuous and sexualized culture, we have gotten away from “Divine Sex,” from God’s holy and healthy intention for it. Not only this, the church’s response has been wholly inadequate in addressing the problem, especially with our young people. A must read for parents, those working with youth, and young adults.

4) You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit- James K.A. Smith

For those of you who follow my reading and writing more closely (my mom?), you might roll your eyes at another inclusion of Jamie Smith. But I just had to include this book. Like the Power Of Habit mentioned above, this book explores the spiritual side to our habits and habit-formation. Smith argues that our habits form our loves, and that we might not actually love what we say we do.

5) Jesus The King: Understanding The Life And Death of The Son of God- Tim Keller

Our church went through the Gospel of Mark this year. This book was originally a series of sermons through this Gospel that Keller adapted into a book. I have to be honest, the book was so good that I found it extremely hard to not just plagiarize the whole thing during the sermon series. I hesitate to recommend it to my church, because everyone is going to know where I get all my good ideas. Okay, but seriously, this is a great book for those trying wanting to learn more about the life of Jesus.

My Favorite 5 Podcasts of the Year

1) Q Podcast

Hosted by Gabe Lyons, The Q (Questions) Podcast is a resource meant to help Christians think well in our increasingly post-Christian age. Critically yet lovingly, Gabe and his hosts interact with the toughest issues of our day, like homosexuality and race-relations. They also examine and reimagine the role of the church in address these questions while advancing good in our culture.

2) Unbelieveable?

Hosted by Justin Brierley, this podcast facilitates high-level dialogue, discussion, and debate around the Christian faith. Sometimes the discussions are between two Christians about a specific “in house” issue, like atonement. Other times, the discussion is between two totally different perspectives, like an atheist and a Christian. The show is excellent at moderating civil discussion and debate over controversial topics. For me, it has shown that the Christian faith is intellectually defensible and coherent. We don’t need to abandon our brains and tough questions to embrace the Christian faith.

3) Freakonomics Radio

Hosted by Stephen Dubner, this podcast explores “the hidden side of everything” from a statistcal and economical perspective. This podcast is not faith-based, but is incredibly interesting and enlightening. It critically examines assumptions that many of us carry, and undermines them with interesting facts and figures.

4) Kingdom Roots with Scot McKnight

I just started listening to this one, so don’t hold me to whatever I write here. Scot McKnight is a respected New Testament scholar, especially familiar with the background of the Bible (areas like Jesus’ upbringing, his education, and family prayer). A recent podcast about Jesus’ prayer life and own our today revolutionized my own prayer life.

5) New Persuasive Words

Hosted by Scott Jones and Bill Borror, this podcast dives deeply into church history, theology, sociology, and really any other –ology. The hosts are hilarious, but they really nerd out as well. Listening to this podcast makes me feel like I am in their living room, on the edge of my seat, engaged with every word. It requires a little bit of background to actually know what the heck they are talking about sometimes, but totally worth it if you are interested in the above-mentioned topics.


by Tyler Goens
It is obvious that our culture values activity and productivity, supremely. This has never been more obvious to
me than the month I spent in Mexico. In Latin culture, conversations and relationships are more important than “productivity.” With my conversational proficiency rivaling the three-year olds around me, I felt useless, unhelpful, and unproductive.
Recently, I read a brilliant, short book by Eugene Peterson, noted author of the 
Message paraphrase, entitled
The Contemplative Pastor: Returning To The Art Of Spiritual Direction. The chapter “The Unbusy Pastor” had
a particular impact. The principles within this chapter extend far beyond the busy pastor, all the way to every
busy person.
Eugene Peterson doesn’t like the word “busy.” He says that: “it is not devotion but defection. . .an outrageous scandal.” Why? He says that busyness arises out of two “ignoble” reasons.

The Vanity of Busyness

Peterson admits: “I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself—and to all who will notice, that I am important.” He continues: “I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance, and my vanity is fed.”

Ouch. I resemble that remark. Could it be that much of our busyness comes out of a place of insecurity?

The Laziness of Busyness

Peterson again confesses: “I am busy because I am lazy.” Laziness and busyness seem to be opposites. But they are not. He continues:
“I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. . .by lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to
satisfy a half dozen demands on our time, none of which are essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.”
Ouch again. Busyness can be a symptom of laziness when we let others unnecessarily determine our schedule. This is especially pertinent
to those of us that work in less structured environments and create our own schedule. If we don’t plan, we get planned.

The Battle Against Busyness: The Appointment Calendar

How do we battle busyness? We take the culture’s ultimate goal, productivity, and turn it on its head. The tool? The appointment calendar
(or whatever you call your scheduling planner). Peterson humorously and brilliantly expounds:
“The appointment calendar is the tool with which to get unbusy. It’s a gift of the Holy Ghost (unlisted by St. Paul, but a gift nonetheless). . .
it is the one thing everyone in our society accepts without cavil as authoritative. The authority once given to Scripture is now ascribed to the appointment calendar. The dogma of verbal inerrancy has not been discarded, only re-assigned.”
LOL. We Americans aren’t secular, we just worship our planners. The authority of the appointment calendar is exemplified in two examples:
“If someone approaches me and asks me to [be] at an event, and I say, ‘I don’t think I should do that, I was planning to use that time to pray,’ the response will be, ‘Well, I’m sure you can find another time to do that.’ But if I say, ‘My appointment calendar will not permit it,’ no further questions are asked. If someone asks me to attend a committee meeting, and I say, ‘I was thinking of taking my wife out to dinner that night;
I haven’t listened to her carefully for several days,’ the response will be, ‘But you are very much needed at this meeting; couldn’t you arrange another evening with your wife?’ But if I say, ‘The appointment calendar will not permit it,’ there is no further discussion.”
Mic drop, Eugene. What are some ways that you’ve walked the tension of not just being busy but being relationally present as well as productive?
Some further quotes to think about:

“How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion?”

“Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time.”
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by Tyler Goens
Over the last couple of months, tragedy has struck our city, country, and world countless times. From motorcycle, car, and plane accidents, to the shooting of police officers and unarmed civilians, and vicious terrorist attacks, it’s difficult to process all the pain that people are feeling. Three simple thoughts are running through my mind today.

1) Life is short.

Tragedy reminds us that life is short. We will all die. Yet sadly, we spend much of our waking hours wasting time doing things that actually aren’t that important to us. What truly matters is the kind of person we are, and the kinds of relationships we foster. Time is flying by, and we may have less of it than we think.

2) God cares.

Psalm 34:18 says that: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” We don’t always have the answers to why these things happen, but we KNOW that the answer is not: “because God doesn’t care.” All throughout the story of God, we see his endless love and concern for his creation in general and people in particular. Reading through the Psalms shows us that God cares and is always approachable and available to carry our burdens for us.

3) God suffered too.

You might be skeptical, wondering if God really does care. “He’s never proved it to me,” you might think. But he did. He did come and suffer; He did prove his care for us. He came and identified with our pain in the person of Jesus. He experienced the same kinds of sufferings that we do. The Christian story is that the Creator became a part of creation, to bring creation to restoration. 

And he promises to one day: “wipe away every tear from their eyes” and to “make all things new” (Rev 7:17; 21:5). I’m praying for all of you that are hurting, and please don’t hesitate to contact me for more specific ways that I can help.


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Timothy Keller on Genesis 15

By Tyler Goens
Last Monday, I tried to kill “three birds with one stone.” I exercised (1) by running to my nearby life group (2) while listening to a Timothy Keller sermon (3). By the end of the sermon, I was out of breath, and being out of shape had some to do with it. But not all, because a specific part of this sermon really rocked me on Lower River Road. Here’s an excerpt from the message:
“If you understand what happens in Genesis 15, you’re at the very heart of what the Bible’s all about. In Genesis 15, God has said to Abraham: “I will bless you.” But Abraham says: “How do I know, how can I be sure?” So God says: “Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to cut, to kill some animals, and to cut the animals into pieces, and to arrange the pieces in two rows, with an aisle, so you can walk through them.”
Now you and I are utterly confused by that. But Abraham wasn’t, because in those days, when a great Lord wanted to make a covenant with a peon, or a peasant, or a lessor vassal or servant, that’s how it was done. Animals were slain, the pieces were arranged, and when the servant took the oath of loyalty to the Lord, the servant did so as he was walking between the pieces. Why? He was acting out the curse of the covenant. He was saying: “I swear loyalty to you, o lord, and if I do not keep my promises, may I be cut into pieces like this.” So Abraham figured he was arranging a situation for a covenant ceremony, and so he cut the pieces up and he expect that he would be called to walk through, because lords never walked through the pieces. So he waited and he waited. And then all of a sudden, Genesis 15 tells us, incredible darkness came down; it was the darkness of judgment. And in the midst of the darkness, was God. He appeared as a smoking, fiery pillar just like at Mt Sinai later on. And he passed through the pieces as he promised to bless Abraham. Now Abraham was startled, and almost every commentator who has ever tried to come to grips with Genesis 15 is startled, because what that means is God is not just saying “I will bless you,” but he is promising to die if he doesn’t bless him, he’s promising to be torn to pieces if he doesn’t bless Abraham.
Well, that’s amazing. . .but that’s not all. Abraham had two shocks. The first shock is that God went through the pieces. But the second shock was that Abraham was never called to go through the pieces himself. The ceremony ended, and we’re told in chapter 15 verse 18: “And therefore God made a covenant with Abraham.” But this was unheard of, unheard of. It was amazing for the Lord to come and walk through the pieces. But for the servant to not even make the oath? Do you know that meant? Abraham knew what it meant, though he didn’t see how it could be. It meant that God was making the promise for both of them. And he was taking the curse of the covenant on for both of them. And what he was doing was he was saying:
“Not only will I be torn to pieces if I don’t keep my promise. . .I’ll be torn to pieces if you don’t.
“Oh Abraham, Abraham,” God is saying, and to all of us: “Oh world, I will bless you no matter what, even if it means that my immortality must become mortal. . .even if my glory must be drowned in darkness. . .even if I have to literally be torn to pieces.”And he was. . .
-Timothy Keller: A Covenant Relationship, October 9, 2013.
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Redeeming Routine, Repetition, and Ritual

By Tyler Goens
What comes to your mind when you hear the word routine, repetition, or ritual? If you’re anything like me, chances are that these words conjure up images of a regimented and boring way of life. Coupled with American individualistic impulses of freedom and spontaneity, routine, repetition, and ritual start to sound like a swear words, even (especially?) for non-denominational Christians. Recently, I have heard a number of my friends say things like: “I want to read my Bible more, but I don’t want it be a routine. . .We shouldn’t do things that way, we don’t want to get too repetitive. . .It’s not about religion or ritual, it’s about relationship with Jesus.”
James K.A. Smith calls this impulse “a built-in allergy to repetition in worship.”[1] Interestingly enough, we “are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study, to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious 
of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship.”[2] Why is this?

Smith lays out three reasons for our allergy to religious repetitions:

  1. We can associate repetition with dead orthodoxy and spiritual insincerity, checking the religious “boxes” to gain points with God. This was something the Protestant Reformers actively opposed.
  2. When worship and discipleship are seen exclusively as “expressing my devotion to God,” then my “sincerity” is the highest good. With this comes “the lingering sense that doing the same thing twice, let alone over and over again, is not sincere.”
  3. Thirdly, we are culturally captivated by the new. Old products, materials, practices and perspectives are increasingly challenged and replaced. In worship and discipleship, we fall prey to the mentality that we need to constantly “keep it fresh.” If things get boring, we think it’s time to mix it up.
In contrast to these thoughts, I’m suggesting that Christian discipleship is less about what I’m thinking, and less about what I’m feeling, and more about the kind of person that I’m becoming. And sometimes the older, historic practices are the best ways to become that kind of person.
For example, I can intellectually know a lot about soccer, and can be very passionate about it, and yet still be useless to my team if I’m not an instinctively good player. I become a good player not primarily through research or through watching my favorite team play, but rather by repeating certain drills and activities over and over again until they basically become a part of my muscle-memory.
In the same way, God has given us practices to become more like His Son. There are many things worth repeating over and over again, even when I don’t feel like it.
Because these routines are not just something that I do; they are doing something to me.

What are some of the repetitive practices that have helped you grow? Individually? With your family? With various group and/or your church fellowship?

[1] James K.A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 181.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 182.
*Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.
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Forty Days Without Social Media

By Tyler Goens
“Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10
It all started as I was counseling a high school student due to a pervasive pornography habit. Instant access through his smart phone made fighting the problem, well, problematic. Now sometimes I’m a linear thinker, but I made an offhand comment about perhaps chucking his smart phone for something dumber. He didn’t take me up on it, but ironically, the idea began to “flirt” with me in my own life.
I’ve been discontent with social media for some time now. The other day, I read a Chicago Tribune article, written a couple of yBy Tyler Goensears back, on an increasing number of young adults who are staying or switching back to dumb phones. Young professionals cited things like a lack of productivity as a reason for their switch.
So, in light of these things, for this year’s “Lent” season (40 days before Easter, excluding Sundays), I decided to “fast” from all social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap chat, and even Myspace. All I could do was text and talk on my iPhone 6s®, just like my old high school days of flip phones and T9 texting. The process has been incredible. Here are four general lessons that I’ve learned in during this time.
  1. The Power of Productivity – IMG_3976We all know that social media distracts us. In fact, we kind of like it. It takes us away from doing our more mundane tasks. However, it is obvious that this welcomed distraction makes us far less productive. I was able to get far more done than “normal” in work and school during this time of “fasting.”
  2. The Pleasure of Solitude – Social media has heightened the sense that I am always being watched. It makes me constantly aware of myself, “and thus unable to lose [myself] in the pleasures of solitude.” [1] I think somewhere in the back of my mind (or maybe closer to the front), I think I’m pretty important. In other words, people need to know where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m eating. Not only is this false, and dumb, it’s damaging. Living in this way means that I can never truly be by myself, as long as my phone is with me. It’s incredibly freeing to realize that no one is thinking about you (except maybe your mom).
  3. The Purpose of Relationships – Not to sound like I’m 80, but remember the good ol’ days, when people didn’t bring their cell phone to the dinner table? Okay but seriously, this time away from social media reminded me of the purpose of relationships. I love social media’s ability to keep me (relatively) connected to my friends all around the globe. However, when I took some time away from the online world, I was far more focused on the relationships right in front of me. Real relationships are harder, for sure, because I don’t have the luxury of the complete control that social media gives me. Face to face relationships are more work, but more rewarding, and more in line with God’s intention for human relationships and connection.
  4. The Practice of Worship – As Smith so wisely notes, social media comes “loaded with a Story about what matters, and who matters. And as we inhabit these virtual worlds—clicking our way around the environment, constantly updating our ‘status’ and checking on others, fixated on our feed, documenting our ‘likes’ for others to see, we are slowly and covertly incorporated into a body politic with its own vision of human flourishing: shallow connections for instant self-gratification and self-congratulation.” [2] In other words, social media is a form of worship—worship defined as something we love and cherish, as well as something that changes us. Christian worship, in contrast to that of social media: “invites us into a very different social [existence]. . .Whereas [social media] reinforces a social imaginary in which I am the center of the universe. . .Christian worship is an intentionally decentering practice, calling us outside of ourselves into the very life of God.”[3]
    It’s hard to say it better than that! My time away from social media helped relearn certain practices of worship.
I’m not going to delete my social media outlets (yet), but I am encouraged to seriously reconsider my social media habits, including the frequency of use and my notification settings. Life is too short, people are too important, and God is too good for me to be mastered by social media.
[1] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishing, 2013), 145.
[2] Ibid., 148.
[3] Ibid., 149.
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The “Monkhood” of All Believers

By Tyler Goens
In my undergraduate and graduate theological studies, one of the most fascinating areas of study was monasticism. The word is derived from the Greek word “mono” which means “alone.” Monasticism originally involved a kind of asceticism (disciplining and denying oneself in various The “Monkhood” of All Believers areas of life) to foster greater spiritual growth. But, around the 4th century A.D., the movement got real interesting. Christians stopped getting killed for their faith, and instead took positions of power and prominence in Europe. The shift meant that Christianity was finally cool, as calling oneself a Christian equaled a better social status. In what Everett Ferguson calls an “element of protest against the institutional church and against the increasingly secularization of the church” people packed up and went to the desert. Monasticism meant total withdrawal from society.
The most extreme examples of this withdrawal are striking. Anthony the Great lived in caves, tombs, and abandoned forts for decades. Symeon the Stylite lived on the top of a pillar for 37 years. (How did he go to the bathroom?) Men and women devoted themselves to these kinds of lifestyles for the purpose of self-discipline, prayer, and intimacy with God.
St. Augustine (and later John Calvin) offered a different perspective on the “monk life.” Both were pastors in prominent cities, and so they valued being present in a society (like us today), as well as maintaining a self-disciplined, spiritual life (unlike us today). Matthew Myer Boulton coined term for Calvin’s perspective the “monkhood of all believers.” In other words, Calvin’s hope for the Christians in Geneva was that they would be people practicing the same kinds of things that the monks did, like daily prayer, scripture reading, and meditation, in the midst of their “secular” city. Jesus said it like this in Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus assumes that believers will be engaged in their surrounding culture, but in such a way that their identity as the people of God (their “light”) is not compromised. Because we are immersed in the rites and practices of our surrounding culture, practices that have a kind of subtle, formative power, we need a set of stronger rituals to shape our loves and desires back toward God.
So to every Christian reading this, whether you are a mayor, mechanic, model, or mother, don’t forget that you’re also a monk.
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