On Reflexive Impotence

I’m really enjoying Martyn Wendell Jones’ newsletter on fatherhood. Volume 7, in particular, struck a chord, though not how I expected.

Here’s a bit that shows Martyn’s personality and sets up what I want to talk about:

At a yard sale for a Korean evangelical church raising money to support a missions trip to Zimbabwe, I found between warped paperbacks of the sci-fi YA novel Divergent and some devotional books a perfectly clean copy of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? My belief in providence has never been stronger. I paid a Canadian dollar for it.

Fisher helped me realize what I took to be a deeply personal problem rooted in childhood sadnesses is also a much larger problem—a sort of generational malaise. He calls the phenomenon “reflexive impotence,” and describes the mindset (most clearly visible in his millennial students circa 2009) in this way: “They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it.”

This outlook correlates with “widespread pathologies” such as learning difficulties, depression, dyslexia, and other mental health issues—each of these, he notes, privatized, treated “as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances … and/or by family background.” He continues: “Any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.”

Martyn went on to describe how he identifies with this assessment, even if he doesn’t like it.

I feel a similar way. I really like Fisher’s term “reflexive impotence,” and hadn’t heard it before. It seems right on the nose.

In my case, I find that my desire to retreat inside my mind is the source of much of my anxieties about public interactions. I’m happy to read, write, and think about what I’d do in any situation, but I’d rather not have to, you know, actually do it.

On my worst days, it feels like the world asks something of me I cannot give. But on better days, I see that for the lie it is, swallow my nerves, and start talking or doing.

I say all of this knowing that the only real way to move past such feelings is to drop all my anxieties off at the feet of Jesus and tell him they’re now his to carry because they’re too heavy for me.

In return, he promises to give me a much lighter load (Matthew 11:28-30).

The Gentle Whisper of the Lord

Yesterday my wife and I were telling the kids the story of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. We told them how Elijah called down fire from heaven and God answered, burning up the sacrifice. Then we told them how Jezebel put a price on his head and planned to kill him, and Elijah, who had just seen the incredible power of God first hand, had feared for his life and run away.

We recounted the story of God’s gracious dealing with Elijah. How, through an angel, God graciously gave his prophet sleep and food, meeting his basic needs—and in the process, meeting Elijah right where he was.

Elijah, you see, was ready to call it quits. He had lost his vision for how God was working in and through him and what God was up to in the world. He was a good man who lost sight of the good news, and as a result, lost his way.

As you may know, after Elijah had recovered his strength, God sent him up on a mountain and told Elijah he would come to him. A rushing wind came, but God wasn’t in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. Then came fire, but God wasn’t in the fire, either.

Finally, there came a gentle whisper, and out of it, the voice of God.

I feel a lot like Elijah these days. I had a vision for where I was headed, had a longing for the future, but that rug seems to have been pulled out from under me. In this case, I think it’s a good thing, but it’s still hard. Really hard. Like “I feel like I’ve lost my way” hard.

I sat numb through yesterday’s worship service. Two of them, actually. In both services, people were saved and baptized. And praise God! But I felt nothing. I knew I should be joyful, but that knowledge wouldn’t trickle down to my heart.

The Bible, which for me normally seems alive, has felt lifeless. It felt that way this morning, so instead of opening up the box where I keep my Bible, a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, and my prayer cards, I laced up my shoes and went for a walk, searching for God.

I listened to a sermon from my favorite preacher, but God wasn’t in the sermon. I watched the sun rise and flood the sky with shades of deep pinks and purples and oranges, but God wasn’t in the sunrise.

I came back home, still in a daze. Maggie, my wife who knows how I’m feeling, didn’t say anything as I came through the back door and began putting away my shoes, the belt that holds my phone, and my wireless earbuds.

She looked into my eyes and simply said, “Have you had your quiet time this morning?” So much wisdom and love in so few words.

“No . . .” I muttered, ashamed I hadn’t practiced what I had preached to her so many times about being in the Word every day.

“Then take 20 minutes to do that while I make breakfast,” she said.

I nodded, then grabbed some water and my Bible box and headed upstairs.

I followed the Morning Prayer liturgy as I often do from the Book of Common Prayer in 1662 English. It’s weird, I know, but it works for me.

I confessed my sin. Asked God to forgive me, to give me a quiet mind. Then I recited the Lord’s prayer and read Psalm 95 aloud. And ever so slightly, my heart began to lift.

Then I checked my daily reading plan to see which psalm I would be. Sixty-six. I read it aloud. Sometimes you need to hear the Word spoken over you, even if by your own voice.

“Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!” the psalm starts. I force myself to do it.

“Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!'” I force myself to say it.

Then, in the quiet of my bedroom, sitting on the old burnt orange chair from my grandparents’ home, came the voice of God in the psalm’s closing: “Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!”

My life might look different than I thought it would. I might not be who I thought I would become. But God has not rejected me or my prayers. He has not removed his love from me.

The door to my room opened. It was Maggie. She sat down a plate of eggs and one of her homemade biscuits left over from yesterday’s Sabbath breakfast.

Then God spoke again in John 6 in these words from his Son: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

I will never be cast out.

Today an angel of the Lord named Maggie visited me. She gave me food and space to be with the Lord. Then the Lord spoke to me in a gentle whisper and revived my heart, reminding me that I am his beloved son, and with me, he is well pleased.

Blessed be God.

On Being Uncompetitive and Running to Acquire a Void

I’ve always felt odd for not being competitive. I played sports growing up (baseball, golf, football, neighborhood basketball) but never really cared if I won or lost. Perhaps this is why, save for my four years in college, I haven’t been very passionate about watching sports, either.

This is a strange thing to articulate, though I’m not sure why. To admit being uncompetitive feels a bit un-American, or at least unusual. Thankfully, Haruki Murakami — an esteemed novelist and avid runner — explained his similar feelings in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

“The thing is, I’m not much for team sports. That’s just the way I am. Whenever I play soccer or baseball — actually, since becoming an adult this is hardly ever — I never feel comfortable. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any brothers, but I could never get into the kind of games you play with others. I’m also not very good at one-on-one sports like tennis. I enjoy squash, but generally when it comes to a game against someone, the competitive aspects makes me uncomfortable. And when it comes to martial arts, too, you can count me out.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not totally uncompetitive. It’s just that for some reason I never cared all that much whether I beat others or lost to them. This sentiment remains pretty much unchanged after I grew up. It doesn’t matter what field you’re talking about — beating somebody else just doesn’t do it for me. I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself, so in this sense long distance running is the perfect fit for a mindset like mine.”

I’m no long-distance runner like Murakami (he once ran 62 miles in one day), but I do try to run four miles four to five days a week. To some degree, my motive for running is the same; I want to accomplish my goal of hitting the mileage and pace I like.

But more than that, I run for mental and emotional health. I’ve found that running several days a week and walking the others (I go out the same time nearly every morning) keeps me from starting and continuing the day wracked with anxiety.

This is why I’m not interested in running with anyone. It’s nothing personal —it’s not that I don’t want to run with you — it’s that I don’t want to run with anyone because to do so would compromise the solitude needed for me to quell my anxious heart and mind. 

Here again, I resonate with Murakami:

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring.”

It’s not that I run to avoid people. I love spending time with my family and friends and others when I’ve had sufficient alone time. But unless I spend time alone, I’m nowhere near my best for communing with anyone.

My time alone must be filled with wandering thoughts and not thinking at all. Other than showering, running is the only activity in my life capable of producing that state of mind.

As I run, I don’t think of much of anything. Like Murakami, 

“I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. … The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go.”

A shot of the sunrise on one of my Fall 2018 runs.

A Look Inside One of My Prison Visits

As a writer and editor for Prison Fellowship, I have the opportunity to go into prisons all over the country to see the work God is doing in incarcerated men’s and women’s lives. During my last visit to a Virginia prison, our (top-notch) photography and video team was on site to capture the day. It’s hard to describe a prison visit, especially when it’s for a joyous occasion, but hopefully what we pulled together gives you a sense of what one event was like.

You can see the photos and read my recap of the day here.

Where You Are

When I was younger, my eyes were always on the horizon. I wanted to go somewhere else, be someone else, and live a different life.

Now that I’m in my thirties, my aspirations have flipped. I don’t want to go anywhere else, be anyone else (at least, on my better days), or live a different life.

I live in the same area I grew up in, and love it. I run or walk one of two routes every morning, and get anxious if I can’t. I work from home, and though it’s nice to get out and, you know, see people every now and then, I find it immensely comforting.

Instead of running from my roots, I feel like planting them.

This sentiment is not new to me. It’s reflected well in two Disney movies (I have 3 girls, so an increasing number of my reference points are Disney princess-themed, sorry!): Moana and The Beauty and the Beast.

Consider these lyrics sung by Belle in the opening number of The Beauty and the Beast:

Little town It’s a quiet village
Ev’ry day
Like the one before
Little town
Full of little people

There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Ev’ry morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town

There must be more than this provincial life!

I used to identify so much with Belle. My world felt too small, too routine. There must be more than this suburban life, I thought. Surely I was made for more.

Or consider the updated take on the same idea from Moana, where her father and others try to convince her that their home is all they need:

Moana, make way, make way
Moana, it’s time you knew
The village of Motonui is all you need
The dancers are practicing
They dance to an ancient song

Who needs a new song?
This old one’s all we need

There comes a day
When you’re gonna look around
And realize happiness is where you are

Certainly, I would be one of the young listeners rolling my eyes at this point, had the movie been released in my childhood. But instead of feeling my eyes rolling, I feel my head nodding.

I listen to some new music, but not much. For the most part, the old songs—the ones I internalized in high school and college when I had the time to do so—are all I need. At some point, my eyes opened and I realized that happiness was (or rather, could be) found right where I was.

I suspect some of this nostalgia has to do with my aging, but more than my age, I find my faith informs my feelings on rootedness.

I’m a Southern Baptist by confession, and so my focus is squarely on fulfilling the Great Commission. I pray often that God would send my family wherever he wants us, whether that’s across the street or around the world. And I mean that prayer.

But regardless of whether a Christian stays or goes, they are called to belong where they are—to contribute to the flourishing of the place they find themselves in.

When God’s people found themselves exiled in Babylon because of their disobedience, God told them to put down roots in their new home:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Israel is to contribute to Babylon’s flourishing because, by doing so, they would flourish, too.

And notice that God said, “the city where I have sent you.” We are where we are because God has put us there. Yes, he may send us elsewhere at some point, but wherever he has us, we should be praying for the good of the place and the people in it. And we should be making it a better place while we’re there.

So yes, I live in the same place I was born. I married my high school sweetheart. I live most of my life within five square miles. And I couldn’t be happier.

For however long it lasts, I’ll enjoy the life God has given me in the place he has me. I’m singing along with Moana and her village,

So here I’ll stay
My home, my people beside me
And when I think of tomorrow
There we are