Two Things Your Writing Has to Have

I’m sharing some writing advice over at Gospel-Centered Discipleship today:

Writers have always had to work hard to grab (and keep) readers’ attention. But today it’s harder than ever.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that we live in a world where “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”

He’s right. That’s why your writing has to have these two things: a strong hook and clear idea.

Without these, most readers won’t make it past your introduction.

Read the rest.

Form and Fire

What if the Church today has more reason to hope than to fear? What if, instead of being crowded out by competing messages, the Church is on the threshold of a historic move of God?

I believe it is.

When many look at our cultural moment, they see cause for crisis or concern. But I see cause for expectation and hope because the light shines brightest in the dark.

Throughout history, just when cultures and countries and communities thought Christianity was lost, they experienced miraculous outworkings of the Spirit of God. They experienced revival, awakening, or what I call renewal.

Two Forms of Renewal

In the Portland Sessions, a series of talks Mark Sayers delivered to pastors and church leaders, Mark explained that renewals throughout the centuries have tended in one of two directions.

Some renewals were marked by fire, or the release of the Spirit. The Hebridean Revival is one example, where a handful of people committed themselves to regularly pray from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. There were accounts of people being slain in the Spirit and flocking to the church there. This revival was marked by the coming of the Holy Spirit in fire, like the tongues of fire descending on Jesus’ disciples.

Other renewals are built on form. The monastic movement is one instance of this kind of quiet awakening. As the Roman world and civilization were collapsing, godly men and women sought safe harbor in monasteries and nunneries, where they preserved not only Christianity, but Western civilization’s literature, art, and language. They were committed to building a trellis along which the work of God and the Church could grow.

Both types of renewals—form and fire—have weaknesses. Renewals of form are wont to fall into religiosity or legalism. Those involved in such movements can become so focused on the form that they forget about the presence of God. Renewals of fire, on the other hand, are in danger of petering out shortly after they begin. Those involved in revivals marked by the Spirit’s power are susceptible to neglecting the practices that facilitate the Spirit’s ongoing work.

There are other renewals that have been marked by both form and fire, however. Like the revival in early Methodism, these renewals are marked by incredible outworkings of the Spirit of God and practiced devotion to the people and the presence of God. In such revivals, form and fire work together to unleash a powerful, lasting renewal.

Form and Fire Renewal

What we need right now is a form and fire renewal. A renewal marked not only by devotion to prayer and intercession and the power of the Holy Spirit, but also by the best of the Church’s rich wisdom and tradition of spiritual formation.

Better programming and more relevant teaching are becoming less and less effective at bringing people to Christ. Cooler preachers and free coffee have lost their pull in a culture full of people who have a bad taste on their tongues from the name “Jesus.”

What the Church needs now are men and women who realize they are hopeless apart from God to affect any real and lasting change in this world. Men and women who are dedicated to praying for their communities and churches and selves. Men and women who know they are called to raise the dead to life and know they need a miracle to pull it off. Men and women who want more than anything to see God perform his awesome work in our time.

I believe these men and women are being stirred by the Spirit right now. And I believe what will start as small, local renewals will be fanned into flame and sweep across the flattened, digital world as one trans-local renewal powered by the Spirit of God.

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).

Strength in Unity

One of the great ironies of the connected world is that our connections make it easier to split us apart. The internet, which many wide-eyed digital optimists thought would lead to a more perfect, democratic world, has also led to a world in which our divisions can be exploited.

That exploitation has taken many forms in the recent past, but the most famous example of late is Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. That hacking, and Russia’s previous meddling in Estonia’s government, was the subject of a recent episode of The Weekly, a new show from the New York Times.

The show is a behind-the-scenes look at a big story at the Times. You follow the journalist along as they interview long-forgotten witnesses, scribble notes in their Moleskin notebooks, and review documents and footage. (That might sound boring to you, but it’s like candy to me.)

In the episode titled “The Blueprint,” we follow reporter Matt Apuzzo, who has been digging into Russian hacking for the Times. He and his colleagues have a huge spreadsheet that lays out the timeline for everything they know. The first entry in the spreadsheet piqued Apuzzo’s interest. It was about Russian hacking in Estonia.

Apuzzo starts following the lead and learns that Russia launched a cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 that closely mirrored what they were accused of doing in the U.S. in and around 2016. But why did the Kremlin try to divide these two countries?

Apuzzo learns that Russia didn’t set out to divide the countries but to exploit the divisions already present.

His conclusion hangs in the air as the show fades out: “The more divided a country is, the more vulnerable it becomes. It’s not about the last attack; it’s about the next one.”

His words remind me of Jesus’ line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” A “house” can be a country, a home, a church, or a relationship. In each of these, division is a liability. The more we pull back into our own factions or tribes, the more vulnerable we are to being exploited at the point of those disagreements.

“In both Estonia and America, the Kremlin had plenty of raw material to work with,” says Apuzzo. In Estonia, Russia exploited the history of its own occupation of the small European state in earlier decades and the effects it’s had on Estonians. “In the US, that means guns, immigration, and especially race.”

Jesus, knowing the destructive power of disunity, prayed specifically for oneness — for unity — in his last prayer before his execution. He prayed, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me,” (John 17:21).

Unity is strength; division, weakness.

The question for us today is what divisions exist in our churches, homes, schools, or organizations? Where might the devil seek to stoke the fire of our latent divisions and flame them into flames?

If you resent your spouse, reconcile with them. If you are spreading gossip in your church, stop and repent. If you are playing favorites at work, quit and ask forgiveness.

If you love your family, your church, your institution, pursue unity. Fight for it. Seek after it. Don’t stop until you have it, or it might not be around long enough to save.

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.