Life is plural

In , Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks makes an interesting observation regarding Jethro’s advice to Moses found in Exodus 18.

Interestingly, the sentence “What you are doing is not good (lo tov)” is one of only two places in the Torah where the phrase “not good” occurs. The other (Genesis 2:18) is “It is not good for man to be alone.” We cannot lead alone; we cannot live alone. That is one of the axioms of biblical anthropology. The Hebrew word for life, ĥayim, is in the plural, as if to signify that life is essentially shared.

We cannot lead alone; we cannot live alone. An essential aspect of being human is community. This can be applied to leadership, as Rabbi Lord Sacks suggests. It can also be applied to Church. The Western cultural ideal of rugged individualism has reached its apogee in modern-day America. The effects on the church are profound: Many Christians seem to view church as an accessory to their spiritual journey, a “good, if you’re into that kind of thing”, a less-than. Church hurt is real—and church leaders fail their followers routinely. But religious life was not meant to be done in isolation.1 The author of Hebrews instructs his readers to not neglect meeting together—and to challenge those who do. The New Testament is full of examples of Christians doing life together—whether the example of the early Church having “all things in common” in Acts 2, or the “gathering together” of all of God’s people at the end of days.

So why do we reject this community, trying to grow spiritually by ourselves? Sometimes it’s a lack of appreciation for church as community. If we think of church as a place to worship God, well, we can do that in our homes or cars, listening to great worship music, right? If church is a place to give financially, we can do that online—and we can support ministries we choose and like (of course, one can still do that, even if you are also giving to church). Maybe we conceive of church as a place to listen to sermons and get spiritual teaching. Turns out, in this day of TV preachers, YouTube sermons and podcasts, we can choose from a wealth of Bible teachers and preachers, many of whom may have more depth or flashier presentation styles than our local preachers do.2  Perhaps there are deeper reasons: We were hurt by other Christians, we cannot get along with or cannot stand other people in our church, or maybe we’re just lazy and getting up on our day off seems to hard.

Whatever our stated reason, Proverbs 18:1 cuts to the core of the issue: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” Isolation is unwise, and when we isolate ourselves, we do so out of selfish, self-seeking motives.

The community of Church is not an accessory or an optional part of Christian living. It is at the center of living fully as a human and indispensable to spiritual growth.

The Evil of Evangelical Leaders Covering Up Sexual Abuse

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

James 3:1

I’ve followed the news stories of investigations against USA Gymnastics and pedophile Larry Nassar with some horror, and watched Rachael Denhollander’s powerful impact statement. This powerful interview with her is a must read for any one in the Church. It is shocking that her own elders forced her out of her church instead of supporting her, because they were more interested and circling the wagons and protecting a powerful evangelical leader who himself was guilty of misleading and covering up horrific child sex abuses in his ministry.

Denhollander closed the interview with this exhortation:

First, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.

Second, that obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.

Seeing leaders abuse positions of power to sexually victimized others or cover up for the abuse committed by their friends makes me furious. When it is a leader who claims to be representing Christ, however, I do not have the words to express the depths of anger and disgust. That bitterness may be my own problem to work through in light of God’s grace and mercy.

Do read the whole thing. It will be worth your time.

Regarding Our Surveillance State

I recently finished John Adams (a review is coming soon) and realized the striking contrast between the tyrannical oversteps by the British government and the much more substantial insults to liberty we experience today in America. Put another way—if the founding fathers were alive today, they would be fuming, furious, and revolting—and likely shocked at our complacency and willingness to “trade liberty for security”. Well, sort of. We’ve traded liberty away in exchange for security theatre; we are not measurably safer from crime than they were, and the thought that domestic and foreign terrorism could be a relatively common thing—well, that would have shocked Americans from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So would our interventionalist approach to foreign policy.

Bruce Schneier published a piece today on Section 702 reauthorization, specifically regarding steps we—Americans—ought to take to roll back some of the abuses this abominable law has legalized. Most people don’t know or care what Section 702 is, so here’s the really brief run-down on what it is:

  • Historically, the NSA has been tasked with foreign surveillance and spying. This is an important function of a national government. And, historically, they have not been permitted to surveil American citizens or domestic communications. There has been a clear line between domestic law enforcement agencies (such as the FBI) and foreign spy operations such as the CIA and NSA.
  • The Internet has changed much of how communication works. With one global network, it is practically impossible to only collect foreign communications and not also catch some American citizens’ information.
  • Section 702 authorized practices that were already being done (illegally)—specifically, collecting internet communications in bulk within the borders of the United States.
  • Section 702 has to be periodically reauthorized by Congress and signed into law by the President. This was most recently done on January 18, 2018, and provides authorization through 2024.

Here’s what we know is being done (through leaks—most notably Snowden—and court filings). Given that most of this information was classified at one point, there is probably much more going on:

  • The NSA is collecting internet communications in bulk from within the United States borders. This information includes ALL of your email, web browsing, and messaging traffic.
  • Unencrypted internet traffic (most of it, including nearly all emails) is going straight into a massive database that can be searched.
  • Encrypted internet traffic is being stored and used to attempt to crack the codes protecting it.
  • This data is being used for foreign surveillance—the only good part.
  • However, this data is also being shared with law enforcement. The FBI or your local police can search all of your personal communication WITHOUT a warrant. All they need (now) is a court order although even that is being ignored. They do not have to show probable cause and you do not have to be the subject of an active investigation. There are minimal protections around a very invasive search capability.
  • Here’s where this gets way worse: Law enforcement is not required to disclose these sources of information. In fact, most of the time they are prohibited from doing so by their contractual agreements with the FBI and NSA. Instead, after they’ve used this surveillance information to catch a suspect, they then invent a second plausible set of evidence to explain how they got the perp. This technique is known as parallel construction, and in essence, it lets them complete an investigation, conceal it from judge, jury, and defense attorneys, and then invent a parallel investigation. This flies in the face of centuries of common law, due process, and Constitutional protections including the right of a defendant to see the evidence against them, to cross-examine witnesses, and to have a fair trial.
  • These abuses have been challenged in court several times, but each time, Bush and Obama administration lawyers have argued that given the classified nature of this program, those individuals suing the government couldn’t know if they were being targeted by the surveillance or not, and thus had no standing to sue.

This is bad. Typically, the judicial system is the last protector of Constitutional rights but thus far they are being stymied by the executive branch. Meanwhile, our elected representatives are keeping these abuses authorized, probably because most Americans don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t really care about these topics.

So what does Schneier recommend as a course of action?

  1. Reshaping general surveillance laws to redefine what “collection” is (it ought to be clear that collection is when the traffic is picked up by the NSA, however, the NSA currently defines collection as running a database search in what they’ve already collected) and to improve protections around accidentally picking up American traffic.
  2. Ending the sharing of foreign surveillance data with domestic law enforcement agencies.
  3. Ending parallel construction, and requiring law enforcement agencies to share with a judge and defendants all sources of investigatory information.

Schneier rightly points out that much of the pressure to reform Section 702 surveillance will come from Europe. He also predicts that the US will hit a tipping point where there is a massive backlash against all kinds of surveillance. And he asserts that much of the responsibility for this surveillance falls on tech companies. These companies typically obtain massive amounts of private information, and then ship it back across the internet to their servers with minimal protection.

Interesting Reading

On staying humble: Church Planters Are Farmers, not Rock Stars

This article is not just applicable for church planters or those in ministry; it’s really good advice for anyone. Work hard and resist the temptation to seek rock star status.

Why Getting Millenials to Read Books Can Help Free Speech

Samuel James writes that much of the current hostility towards free speech is a generational issue rooted in the way Millenials view speech based on being raised in the Internet age. He writes:

When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike….Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away.

Another case to be made for books, and an interesting approach to understanding the anti-free-speech phenomenon.

The Practice Of Scripture

The practice reading scripture, studying scripture, acting scripture, singing scripture – generally soaking oneself in scripture as an individual and community – has been seen from the earliest days of Christianity as central to the formation of Christian character.

N.T. Wright, After You Believe (pg. 161)

First Darkness, then Light

Everything in this world must grow and ripen, must struggle to find its way from darkness to light, as on the first day, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5). First it was evening and then morning, not vice versa. Every good development that is God’s will begins in the evening, in darkness, and must pass through the night, through all the hindrances both human and material, to the light. (Poljak, Bram)

This is an encouraging reminder when walking in troubling times. And as a principle, this points towards an important idea.

The eschatological narrative that the world is moving from fallen chaos to renewed glory: Yes, things are very broken right now, but a New Day is dawning. It has, in fact, already dawned; the morning star has risen in the East and the first glimmers of the sun have begun peaking over the horizon.

On Bible Reading

Russell Moore shares some compelling remarks on Biblical literacy in his article “Have Bible Quoters Replaced Bible Readers?”. He quotes David Nienhuis, author of :

“Some of my students attend popular non-denominational churches led by entrepreneurial leaders who claim to be ‘Bible believing’ and strive to offer sermons that are ‘relevant’ for successful Christian living,” [Neinhuis] writes. “Unfortunately, in too many cases, this formula results in a preacher appealing to a short text of Scripture, out of context, in order to support a predetermined set of ‘biblical principles’ to guide the congregants’ daily lives. The only Bible these students encounter, sadly, is the version that is carefully distilled according to the theological and ideological concerns that have shaped the spiritual formation of the lead pastor.”

Here’s the end-result according to Nienhuis: “They have the capacity to recall a relevant biblical text in support of a particular doctrinal point, or in opposition to a hot spot in the cultural wars, or in hope of emotional support when times get tough. They approach the Bible as a sort of reference book, a collection of useful God-quotes that can be looked up as one would locate words in a dictionary or an entry in an encyclopedia.” He continues: “What they are not trained to do is to read a biblical book from beginning to end, to trace its narrative arc, to discern its main themes, and to wonder how it shapes our faith lives today.”

Moore asserts that the solution to this problem is not easy. If easy means simple, then I disagree. I think the answer is simple—Christians need to spend more time, and more quality time, reading the Bible. This solution, however, will be hard, and that’s the challenge: most Americans avoid hard work and struggle to resist the constant distractions of social media and our ubiquitous screens.

The solution at the individual level is committing to spending much more time in the Word, not in books or media about the Word. It means carving out devotional time on a daily basis to invest significant attention to the reading and study of the Bible, and prioritizing that above the distractions of our phones or the call of work. Personally, I do this every morning. I am a morning person, so I get up extra early, make myself some tea, and spend a good chunk of time reading and studying before I get sucked into email and my daily grind. For some, this looks like setting aside time each evening.

I’ve written before about giving focused time each New Year to reading the Word.

At the family level, becoming Biblically literate people places a call on fathers to lead their families in Bible reading. This is something I fondly recall my own dad doing; family devotions were a consistent part of my childhood, although the timing and content evolved with the changing schedule and ages of my siblings.

The real challenge is changing the mentality at a church level. Most churches I have been a part of function through seminary-educated “professionals” who are expected to be the Biblically-literate Christians teaching and preaching for everyone else (although Moore rightly notes that many of these experts don’t really “get the flow” of the Bible’s overarching narrative). This is not the model found in Scripture, or in the historical practice of Judaism followed by the first-century Christians. Paul’s clear expectation was that all members of the Church should be Biblical experts and the model the apostles grew up with was one in which everyone studied the Scriptures, under the guidance of a rabbi. This mindset has to occupy the leadership of American evangelical churches today—every member of the church should be expected to spend substantial time studying the Bible and an experienced Christian should be ashamed if this discipline is not part of their life.

The Power of Habit

Excellent review of the neurobiological basis for habits, the essential components of a habit loop, and how to use this science to effectively change habits. Duhigg leverages powerful anecdotes from medicine, science, business, psychology, and more to illustrate the key principles he describes.

At its core, this book is about understanding that habits are routine processes encoded into brain tissue to make regular tasks easier and more efficient. Habits consist of a cue, a routine, and a reward; this cycle or loop forms the basis and once these are understood, habits can be changed by changing the routine/reward response to rewrite the automatic response to cues.

Habit change also requires a substantial element of belief—faith that you can modify the habit, a positive outlook (or positive attributional style, in psycho-lingo) that you can control elements of your world. Significant change, on the personal level or an organization level, occurs after keystone habits are identified and targeted. These keystone habits are like the lead domino that can affect everything else.

Duhigg speaks to both personal, individual habits and organizational culture throughout this book. He uses the heartwrenching stories of medical errors at a large hospital and of dozens of deaths in a subway station fire to drive home his point that organizational culture is entirely a result of organizational habits—which may be intentional or may have just emerged as workarounds. Leaders who know this and are able to proactively target keystone habits can accomplish far more at changing an organization. Duhigg also explains how moments of crisis provide an opportunity to do this with much more impact.

This book is a fascinating intellectual exploration of what habits are and how they work; it also is packed with applicable ideas to change ones’ own habits. The appendix provides an exact template to figure out what the cues, routines, and rewards driving personal habits are and determining how to change them. Overall, a must-read book to improve one’s subconscious routines.

Productivity: The Personal Hedgehog

In my last post, we discussed how productivity—efficiency at doing things—must be balanced with planning to be maximally effective. There are a lot of great books, blog posts, magazine articles, and podcast episodes discussing how to be more efficient. However, not as much attention is given to understanding what we should be doing or developing frameworks for evaluating longer-term goals, clarifying aspirations, or evaluating new opportunities. For the next few weeks, I am going to unpack a two-dimensional framework that helps make sense of where you are right now, where you want to be, and what you should be doing. It starts with the Hedgehog Concept.

Continue reading “Productivity: The Personal Hedgehog”

Book Review: Flags Out Front

Charming novel in the style of Wodehouse and Chesterton. Timely, too. The plot is simple: set in today’s day and age, the president of a small Bible college ends up embroiled in a national controversy over the relative placement of the national, Christian, and state flags flown out front. What began as a drunk prank escalates into pitched battle of sorts between the left-wing, secular types who can’t stand to see the exaltation of Christ and the right-wing, patriotic types who can’t stand to see the national flag being put down.

After this year of both left-wing and right-wing protests over the nature of the flag and the national anthem, this is a valuable book to expose the false religion of American patriotism so many conservatives unthinkingly embrace.

Wilson’s prose is delightful and on-point. The characters are shallow and remain somewhat undeveloped, and certain plot points do stretch the imagination a bit. However, this is a short work and I finished it feeling that one-dimensional characters were entirely appropriate and the plot was entertaining and enjoyable, whatever its shortcomings. The story serves to support a deeper message that shines through quite readily without being obtuse.

Excellent work. Highly recommend.