From Suffering to Praise

This eternal salvation will transform your suffering to praise. Did you notice in Psalm 22 that it gets blacker and blacker until in vv. 15–17, David/Christ describes his own death? But then he pivots to trust and praise! In vv. 19–21 he cries out for help, and in vv. 21–31 he is unashamedly praising God—in the future tense! See the eternal salvation that I am talking about is not just something to hope for in a vague or distant future—beyond the bounds of death where we can only gaze dimly. It is a quality of life that reaches back from beyond death to transform your experience of suffering now.

A very short excerpt from my Good Friday sermon on Psalm 22 at Restoration Anglican in Minneapolis, MN. If you’re interested, full audio of the message is available here.

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In Praise of Small Talk

In Scripture, when Jesus wants to communicate about the kingdom, he talks of rebellious children and thieves, pesky weeds and farmer’s fields, investment strategies and sheep. In the same way, these “small talk” conversations that happened in homes all around our parish became doorways to evangelism and discipleship. … “If we avoid small talk, we abandon the very field in which we have been assigned to work.”

This is a compelling reflection by Julie Canlis. I crave deep conversations and connections with people, but we sometimes fail to remember that those kinds of relationships tend to spring from the soil of small talk and grow over time.

Slow Internet

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not…

These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.

I went through the digital equivalent of a juice cleanse. I hope I’m better than most dieters at staying healthy afterward, but I don’t want to be a digital vegan. I want to embrace a lifestyle of “slow Internet,” to be more discriminating about the technology I let into my life and think about the motives of the companies behind it. The tech giants are reshaping the world in good and bad ways; we can take the good and reject the bad.

Some excerpts from an interesting piece of experimental journalism by Kashmir Hill. She spent 6 weeks eliminating each of the big five tech-giants (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple) from her life and then on the last week eliminated all of them and reported on the experience.

It seems to me that experiments like this and the questions she is asking seem more pressing to Millennials and Gen-Z’ers than they do to Gen-X’ers and Boomers. I can only speculate why this is (assuming I’m even right), but I think that Gen-X’ers and Boomers are fundamentally more optimistic about technology. Could it be that older generations survived their formative years, education, and early career without new media/tech giants so they feel dispensable, while the digital natives feel trapped in a brave new world that they have to learn to navigate or die?

The Serpent Gets Pushy

But the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God has said, “You shall neither eat of it nor touch it, or you will die!” (Genesis 3:3). Thus it is written, “Do not add onto God’s words, or God will punish you, as you will be a liar” (Proverbs 30:6). Rabbi Chiyya taught: That means that you must not make the fence more than the principal thing, lest it fall and destroy the plants. Thus, the Holy One, blessed be, has said, “But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat, for on the day you partake of it, you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Eve did not say this, but rather, “You shall neither eat of it nor touch it” (Genesis 3:3). When the serpent saw her exaggerating in this manner, he grabbed her and pushed her against the tree. “So, have you died?” he asked her. “Just as you were not stricken when you touched it, so will you not die when you eat from it.”

From Bereishit Rabbah 19:1

Bereishit Rabbah is a midrash on Genesis that was composed in Israel and Babylon about  AD 500. Midrash is a method of imaginative exegesis where you draw out stories and make connections between Scriptures that “fill in the gaps” in logic or answer questions left open in the text. It is a hallmark of ancient Jewish interpretation.

Philosopher Rabbis

The truth is that Scripture mentions the heavens and the earth because they form one globe, with the heavens like the circumference and the earth like the point at the center. Now the earth was covered with water from all sides, as it is written “they will not return to cover the earth” (Psalms 104:9), and the wind surrounds the waters. These are the four elements, namely, the heavens, earth, wind and water, for the heavens correspond to fire. Similarly we find “To make a weight for the wind and He counted the waters by measure” (Job 28:25), “For He gazes to the edges of the earth, under all the heavens He sees” (ibid. 28:24). Similarly, “Who measured the waters with his fist and counted the heavens with a span, and all the dust of the earth in a measure… who counted the wind of God” (Isaiah 40:12–13). Again, “Who ascended to the heavens and descended” (Proverbs 30:4), and the other three follow the word “heavens.” Also, “The sun shines” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) corresponds to the heavens, “and the earth remains forever” (ibid. 1:4), “round and round goes the wind” (ibid. 1:6), “all the rivers go to the sea” (ibid. 1:7). Since the circumference, which is the heavens, and the center, which is the earth, were created, so too all that is between them was created.

From Ibn Ezra’s Sabbath Epistle (composed in London, 1159 AD).

If you will take a good look at this paragraph and at the paragraphs following them, you will realize that there is an overall pattern to the sequence in which they have been written. They correspond to the four basic elements of the universe which we explained in connection with Genesis 1,2. Here the Torah proceeds in an ascending manner. You are aware that in Genesis they appeared in a descending manner. The four basic materials of terrestrial earth are: fire, wind (atmosphere), water, earth. This is also the order in which Solomon arranged these four basic components of our terrestrial universe in Proverbs 30,4. He writes: “Who has ascended heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in the hollows of his hand? Who has wrapped the waters in his garment? Who has established all the extremities of the earth?”

From Rabbeinu Bahya on Vayikra 11:2 (i.e., Lev 11:2) by Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340 AD, Spain).

Discovered these bits of medieval Jewish commentary while I was researching Proverbs 30:4 the other day. Fascinating to see how these medieval rabbis marry ideas from Greek philosophy (stoicheia, i.e., the four elements) with their interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in ways that would probably not occur to us. Ibn Ezra was born and educated in Muslim Spain so his approach to everything from grammar to astronomy was influenced by the Greeks through the Arabic Jewish tradition. Same with Bahya ben Asher.

Email and the Death of the Mind

Society has been engulfed by a crisis of concentration that has hit higher education particularly hard. Our time and attention have gradually shifted from the specialized intellectual tasks that directly produce value to busywork, such as managing our inboxes and tackling nonessential administrative obligations.

Instead of giving in to this reality, we should reaffirm the importance of the life of the mind by reforming the academy as a beacon of concentration in an age of distraction. Higher education can lead the way in turning back the tide of electronic chatter that threatens to overwhelm us. Do we have the will to protect what’s important against the pull of what’s easy? Will we stand for the power of concentration over the shallowness of rapid communication? And if not us, then who?

Cal Newport in “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?”

I am looking forward to Newport’s new Digital Minimalism.

For my part, reading his Deep Work was a game changer about a year and a half ago. I realized that when stress about difficult and large-scale projects would overwhelm me, the tendency was not to face the problem head-on but to try to feel productive and in control by accomplishing little, manageable things. Email was a great go-to. Clear the inbox. Help some people out. Check, check, check. I realized two things through reading Deep Work. (1) I was distracting myself rather than solving a problem. (2) I had made my fast response time and reliability on email into something of an idol because I believed that it showed that I was more responsible and productive than co-workers or friends who responded slowly-to-never. Since then I have learned to send less email, respond more slowly, and batch the whole process into dedicated times. The result is that I have to face the complex challenges of research, writing, and lesson planning head-on. The productivity gains can be difficult to measure. It isn’t that I am able to teach twice as many courses in a year, but rather than I am able to teach the courses that I do teach better, with a few fewer hours in preparation, and a lot less vague anxiety. One thoughtful lesson on a complex topic is worth 1,000 emails.

 

Mercy in Perspective

When we loose our perspective—when we loose the ability to number our days—we loose hope. This lack of perspective on ourselves and God’s wrath threatens to destroy any shred of meaning and joy in our lives. The request in Psalm 90:12, then, is a prayer for perspective in light of God’s wrath and our mortality: “So teach us to number our days / that we may get a heart of wisdom.” The idea is not just that we need simply to keep our mortality in mind because this makes us uncommonly wise or intellectual—the idea is that we will not be able to survive this life unless we have some assurance that an end to God’s wrath is coming. Tell us how much longer we have to hang on, O LORD! We are counting down the days.

I preached a sermon on Psalm 90 last weekend at Christ Community Church in Daytona. You can download the audio and/or the manuscript after the jump.