Monthly Archives: July 2019

Training Hard for the Fight: A Pastor’s Guide

In recent years, I have found the habits of elite athletes and soldiers interesting. Guys who not only do physical things well, but at a level above everyone else in the world. I am not an athlete, but am starting to appreciate the habits and mindset of folks who are top-tier in their fields. One of the interesting things I have noticed about such people is that they maintain physical discipline even when they are not doing their jobs. A former Navy Seal I follow online talks about getting up early every day to train. This is a man who is no longer fighting wars on the battlefield, but sees his own training and discipline as non-negotiable. Football legend Herschel Walker continued to train hard whether he was playing ball, between seasons, or retired. Training isn’t seen as a component of his career. Rather, it is a way of life. Pushing yourself daily to exceed yesterday’s best is never questioned. These are folks who are elite athletes and warriors by nature, not just by vocation. I am never going to be an athlete or a warrior. I am a pastor. I live a different calling. I exercise hard every day because I want to be better. This new practice and reading about the habits of these men has helped me to realize something powerful. I study and meditate on scripture verses 8 to 9 hours a week so I can teach them on Sundays. I truly love this aspect of my work. However, I struggle with spending time daily reading and studying the same book for my own edification. I also struggle with the daily discipline of prayer. This morning, I realized something convicting. While the elite athletes and soldiers I’ve been reading about do their required trainings as a part of their work, they also do it as a part of their lives. These men get up, train, then go to work and train more. They do it because it is who they are, not because it is their job. I study because it is my job, but if I want to be a man of God, I must study and pray because it is in my nature to do so. I will never be at the elite level of pastorate. I don’t really know that such a thing exists and if it did, I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to refer to me as something like that. However, I love the folks under my pastoral care. I love my family. I love to teach and preach. I love the folks in my community. I love the folks who read my writings and listen to my preaching online. Most of all, I love the God I serve. If all of this is true, and not just something I say, it really ought to be in my nature to hunger for better. I should treat my spiritual state as though my personal spiritual growth will glorify God and minister to those around me. The higher the quality of my spiritual life, the better I will minister to the people I come into contact with. Prayer and personal study are not optional to a person who loves the folks they minister to. It is training. It is conditioning. It creates in us a state of readiness for the moment when we need to love someone we are angry at or forgive the sins of our neighbor. Pastors and brothers in Christ: we must train daily in study and prayer so we can be ready for the moment God calls us to serve. Prayer must be like running. We should do it so much it is natural to us to pray without ceasing. Study should be like lifting weights. It should create strength in us to handle anything we encounter. Paul put it best when he wrote to Timothy: “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.” Brothers, we must train to be better because it is in our nature.

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Tin Men: A Perspective On Work and Love

I originally wrote this  for the Big Sandy Mountaineer in the Patching Cracks column. I have updated it for this setting.

Screen Shot 2019-07-19 at 8.33.32 AMI recently read the Wizard of Oz and was surprised at some of the differences between the film and the novel. The most interesting difference related to the story of the Tin Man, who started out as just an ordinary woodsman. The woodsman was cutting wood to earn money to buy a home for his fiancé, who he loved dearly. While he was working one day, he accidentally cut off his own leg, which he has replaced with a mechanical one. The same kind of accident claims his other leg and his arms, all of which he replaces with mechanical limbs. He discovers that he is able to work much better as a result of replacing his body parts with machine parts. Eventually, he loses his head and splits himself in half and becomes a fully mechanical man. Now he can work all day and all night without ever resting. The problem is that his heart is gone and he no longer cares about the woman he loves. All he cares about is working. Everything else is forgotten entirely.

This story is interesting because, despite being a children’s tale, it illustrates a sad phenomena that takes place all the time in our world. I have met many men who meet a woman, fall in love, get married, then work very hard to provide her with the best life he can give her. Those are great things. The tricky part is when the man becomes so engrossed in his work that he stops pursuing his wife. It’s easy to do because men are geared to work hard. It’s part of what gives life purpose. In fact, one of the first things God did when he created Adam was give him a job to do: naming animals and working in the garden. Work holds an important place in the male identity. The problem comes when he stops loving everything else. Work becomes his mistress and he leeches time from his wife and family in order to work more. Eventually he winds up struggling with restoring peace to his relationship when conflict inevitably arises as a result of the attention paid to work and not paid to his home life. This is a natural result of misaligned priorities.

In the story, the Tin Man believes he has no feelings, but in reality he does. He becomes emotional at different times, but avoids it because crying makes him rust. This is typically the case for men who fall in love with work. Feelings are hard to deal with and it’s easier to avoid them than to deal with them. When home life becomes difficult, he works harder and hides out at the office because the world there is easier and safer. I’ve known plenty of guys who are afraid of the emotional complexity of repairing their home situation and simply sit at their desks to solve the problem. They get the reward of achievement, financial benefits, and can point to their long hours “to provide for the family” when criticized for neglecting their wives. I’m not saying that working hard is wrong. However, I am arguing that marriage comes with its own set of responsibilities that do not evaporate at 9 AM on Monday. 

In reality, most men still love their wives and become easily frustrated when things don’t go smoothly at home. They want things to work right but can’t quite figure it out. Or, they work hard to provide for their families and don’t realize that they are forgetting the other things they are responsible for. Either way, work is a necessity and it’s easy to justify making it the number one priority in life. However, that is not the way God designed us to be. 

The solution to this issue in our lives is to acknowledge the importance of our family relationships and focus on them. Work is important, but it is not all-important. The cool thing about the book is that the wizard doesn’t actually do anything for the Tin Man. He just convinces him that he still loves his fiancé so that he will act like it again. The same is true of most men. They can fix their problems by simply acting like they love their wives: showing them attention, doing nice things for them, having conversations again, going on dates, and all the other stuff they did when they were dating. This is really just a matter of making our outward actions reflect our inward reality. It’s really not that hard to do. Most men did it well when they were younger. They just have to decide to do it again. I would suggest that this is encapsulated well in Paul’s direction to “love your wife like Christ loves the church.” Love her. Meet her needs. Put your own self second. Have a heart for loving and serving.

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Faking Manliness: A Response to a Common Trope in Christian Manliness Literature

 

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This morning I overslept. I wasn’t late for an obligation or anything, rather I didn’t get up as early as I wanted to in order to achieve my morning goals. I went to the gym and felt tired. I don’t know whether it was because I was unmotivated, dehydrated, or something else. I finished my workout, but I didn’t go as hard as I wanted to. I got less done for work in the morning than I wanted, though I did get some things done. I just sorta fell short of my goal. While taking my son to swim lessons, I read an essay on pushing yourself to create the type of person you want to be and I felt convicted. Still, my physical state was dragging. My spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak. This often seems like the case when I set lofty goals: I eventually lack the time, energy, or will to achieve them. I am not great at being perfect.

My morning devotions dealt with Paul being the chief of sinners. It struck me that Paul worked harder than anyone else around him to achieve righteousness under his own steam. Yet he still failed. He later said that all his efforts were a pile of trash next to knowing Christ. In Romans 7 he acknowledged his daily struggles to overcome sin. Still he pushed hard and confessed that it was only Christ in him that made him good and righteous.

Now my morning focus turned to the manhood movement within evangelicalism and the larger point of my essay. Scrolling twitter, I came across a post from a pastor trying to shame guys into overcoming any softness in their lives. It was obvious he wants men to reach a lofty state of manliness that he has decided is the target of all believers. It was condescending, self-righteous, and unbiblical. He tried to coat it with a religious veneer, but it was a thin veil. He basically told men: Do not be soft, dependent on others, or effeminate in any way. To do so is to fail as a Christian man. It had the feel of a Christianized 300 speech. Part of what troubled me is that the type of manliness the pastor was describing is not unheard of in Christian circles. Lots of male focused Christian literature and influencers push this narrative that men should rule their homes with an iron fist, never feel emotions, shed weakness, and fight the world. The problem is that for anyone to try to live that way is purely playacting. 6846443501_7627be2b7c_b.jpgThere is no authenticity to it. If manliness is all about eschewing “softness” or any kind of personal weakness, it is a form of farce. It eliminates wide swaths of men from the contention of manliness and rewards virtues that don’t really make a man.King David wouldn’t even qualify, because although he was a fierce warrior he was also a poet. He danced before the Ark. He wept. He had close friends who he loved. He wore his dependance on God as a badge of honor. He was a man of steel and velvet. He was also sinful. 

If my manliness is derived from my ability to get up early, bring it at the gym harder than anyone else, achieve more at work, or whatever, I will always be reaching for a ring that is unattainable. My flesh and the reality of my physical limitations are always going to get in the way. I am a cracked clay pot. I can push forever, but never be “good enough” because good enough is a shifting goal post. There’s always something more. My righteousness, toughness, and discipline will always be insufficient. Or worse, they will become a point of pride that will serve as a stumbling block to myself or those around me. Paul realized that. He worked to be like Jesus, acknowledged his struggles to hit the mark, and owned his shortfalls. I think that is what I want to be. I want to be a man, doing his best to be like Jesus. I want to love my wife like Christ loved the church. Teach my son to be like Jesus. Preach the Gospel and faithful explain the scriptures to the best of my ability. Still, I am going to be unfocused and soft sometimes. I’m going to act like a selfish child when my flesh overcomes me. If I fall short but I am a tool in the hands of my master I will consider it a win. If I’m not manly enough or disciplined enough or holy enough, then the good things I do are despite my weakness and point to the fact that Christ can still work through a broken tool. When I tried to be the best and to never deal with my weaknesses, it drove me to drink and wreck everyone around me. I will try hard and Christ will do the rest. If I am weak, he is strong. If I am boasting in anything, it won’t be my manliness or toughness or anything else. It’ll be in Christ alone.

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