The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Quotations (Page 1 of 15)

Reflections on Lament For A Son

I recently received Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A Son, which is a series of short essays composed after Wolterstorff’s 25 year-old son was tragically killed in a climbing accident. Wolterstorff is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale, and in Lament For A Son, he certainly writes from a theological perspective, but overwhelmingly, he is writing as a grief-stricken dad.

Suffering is a topic of interest for me;  I have written quite a bit about suffering, and specifically, viewing that topic from a theological perspective; I’ve also read a good deal about suffering as well. Lament For A Son is unlike other books I have read; rather than delve deeply into the topic of suffering in an analytical, systematic fashion, it delves deeply through emotional, soulful lament.

The book is short, and the essays are brief and disjointed, but I have found it to be incredibly profound. So much so, in fact, that rather than post a typical review, I decided to do a series of short posts highlighting some of the different ideas brought out in the various essays.

For example:

“Death is the great leveler, so our writers have always told us. Of course they are right. But they have neglected to mention the uniqueness of each death—and the solitude of suffering which accompanies that uniqueness. We say, “I know how you are feeling.” But we don’t.” (25)

I think this is a helpful reminder. With the absolute best of intentions, we seek to enter into the pain of others we care about. We want to break into their isolation and sit with them in their grief. We want them to know that we are with them, and that someone understands what it’s like to feel what they are feeling. But that empathetic impulse, as noble as it may be is also, unfortunately impossible to realize. We may imagine how another person feels, but we cannot know; we can neither clone the relationship that the other person had with their deceased loved one, nor can perfectly replicate the emotional responses of another person.

Each person, each relationship between people, and thus, each death which severs the relationship between two people is unique. Let us come close to those who are grieving and let us sit with them. Let us listen to the words and emotions that they share. Let us seek to understand. But let us not heighten the sense of isolation experienced by those who are grieving  by saying, “I know how you are feeling” when they know good and well that we do not, truly.

Book Review: Atomic Habits

I mentioned in a previous post that I have done a lot of reading during this season of quarantine. Some of that has been just for entertainment or increasing my knowledge in a certain area, but some has been more of the “self-help” variety. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear definitely falls into the self-help category.

Before I go any further, I want to make two points very clear:

  1. Generally speaking, I really don’t like self-help books.
  2. I really, really liked Atomic Habits.

This review will be a little different from usual, because I “read” Atomic Habits as an audiobook. I took some notes on my phone while listening, so I will have some summary points to share, but I won’t have page numbers for any of the specific quotations.

Summary

Atoms are very small things. They are the building blocks of the world around us, but they are invisible to the naked eye. They are also very powerful—the power of the atom can provide electricity to an entire region in the form of a power plant, or untold devastation in the form of a nuclear bomb. This is the premise of Atomic Habits: habits are little, sometimes nearly invisible things that can bring about powerful change—for good or ill—in our lives.

James Clear offers four laws (I think he used the “laws” terminology; I am not certain) for successfully building good habits, and also an inversion to each law to help break bad habits:

  1. Make it Obvious: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, it needs to be something that is in your face and can be easily remembered. If you want to read more before bed, set a nightly alarm to remind you to do so. Have a specific time and location where you plan to implement your habit (“I will go for a 2-mile run at 7 AM in the morning.”). Stack your new habit onto another habit that you already do (“While showering in the morning, I will pray about my day.”).  The inversion of this law: Make it Invisible. If you always crave junk food at the end of the day while watching TV, then do something other than watch TV. Take a walk or read a book—remove the cue that encourages the bad habit you are trying to avoid.
  2. Make it Attractive: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, it needs to be something that is desirable to you. Which habits are attractive to us are significantly determined by the culture in which we live, so you should join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. In other words, hang out with people who are already doing the thing you want to do. If you want to eat healthily, go out to eat with friends who are healthy eaters. If you want to get in better shape, spend time with friends who work out regularly. If you want to become a better Bible student, join a Bible study group. You can also make a new habit attractive by connecting something you need to do (the new habit) with something you want to do (“I will get to spend ten minutes on social media after I complete my morning run.”). The inversion of this law: Make it Unattractive. Reframe your mindset by highlighting the benefits of avoiding the bad habit. If you want to quit smoking, focus on how cutting cigarettes out of your life will improve your health, put money back into your bank account, and make your car smell better.
  3. Make it Easy: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, you have to do it…a lot. You have to get your reps in: the amount of time you have spent performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it. To begin with, focus on just doing the thing even if your initial efforts are easier than your ultimate goals. So, say for example that you want to start a habit of working out regularly at the gym. To start, it is not as important that every workout be an hour long at high intensity (or whatever the ultimate goal is); what is important is that you go to the gym without missing if at all possible. Pack your workout clothes in your gym bag and set your alarm the night before. If you have a busy day or aren’t feeling well, don’t skip your workout; just abbreviate it. Go run for ten minutes instead of an hour; do five push-ups instead of thirty. Make it as easy as you need to, but get your reps in. By doing this, you are using a commitment device, which is a choice you are making in the present that locks in better behavior in the future. The inversion of this law: Make it Hard. Make it difficult to continue to do the things you don’t want to do. If you want to stop eating junk food, get it out of your house. Now, whenever you have a craving, you’ll have to drive somewhere to get it. If you want to stop watching so much TV, put your television in another room where you don’t spend as much time, or unplug it after each use. Now, a habit that you may have indulged when you were feeling tired or lazy requires extra energy to do.
  4. Make it Satisfying: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, you have to feel good about it. Identity is what sustains a habit. Ultimately, you want to think of yourself as the kind of person who [does whatever the habit is that you are trying to implement]. Track your habits to see your improvement over time. Try to keep your habit streak alive. You are not perfect and will have a lapse, but when you do, try to avoid a second lapse. The inversion of this law: Make it Unsatisfying. We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. Enlist an accountability partner who will ask you how you are doing in avoiding your bad habit.

Quotations

Here were some of my favorite quotations from the book (again, sorry that I don’t have page numbers for these):

“Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally; bad habits make time your enemy. Your habits can compound for you or against you.”

“You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.”

“Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you will become.”

“This is the secret of self-control: make the cues of your good habits obvious; make the cues of your bad habits invisible.”

“The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning.”

“Create an environment where doing the right this is as easy as possible.”

“It’s better to do less than you hoped for than nothing at all.”

“Incentives can start a habit; identity sustains a habit.”

“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It’s the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident; missing twice is the start of a new habit.”

“We optimize for what we measure, and when we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior.”

“Until you work as hard as those you admire, don’t explain away their success as luck.”

“It doesn’t matter what you are trying to become better at; if you only do the work when it is convenient or exciting, then you will never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results.”

It is hard for me to overstate how much I appreciated this book. Clear does not write from a Christian perspective, but this book is really all about discipline and character formation, and I found that much of what he wrote applied to me as a disciple of Jesus.

I give this book a strong recommendation. I have implemented some of his advice in my own life as I seek to grow during this season of quarantine, and have found it to be helpful and practical. It’s a book that I plan on buying a physical copy of so I can keep coming back to it.

Book Review: “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery”

I recently finished reading Amazing GraceEric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce and his work to end the slave trade. A former New York Times bestseller, this was a book that I had looked forward to reading for quite a while because I enjoyed the Amazing Grace film so much when I watched it a decade ago or so. Unfortunately, this joins a very short list of books that I find to be inferior to films based upon them (The Last of the Mohicans is probably the best example of this).

There were a few things about the book that bothered me:

  • I found much of Metaxas’s prose to be cumbersome. He tends to use flowery language and also makes random asides that seemed out of place in a biography, and cluttered up his paragraphs.
  • Amazing Grace read less like a biography, and more like a hagiography, where Metaxas’s obvious admiration for Wilberforce led him to be less than objective in his evaluation of him (and also resulted in some of the flowery language that I complained about above).
  • Metaxas, who is a politically conservative evangelical, has been criticized for idealizing the characters about whom he writes and making them look very much like himself theologically and politically. This criticism was especially strong after his biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I felt that I could catch glimpses of this in his discussion of Wilberforce’s faith, and especially in Metaxas’s caricatured portrayal of the religious faith of Wilberforce’s day. Though to be fair, having been exposed to this particular criticism of Metaxas’s writing, I was probably looking for it.

Having said that, there are some really good things about this book, and the primary one is that it helps to make accessible the life story of a remarkable man who, driven by his devout faith, worked to bring about profound changes in British society that rippled across the world. Wilberforce is famous for his fight against the slave trade, but was also very involved in the quest to reform British society and to improve British policy in India.

I’ll close by sharing some of my favorite quotations from the book, with brief commentary. In trying to explain that the legacy of Wilberforce is greater than the simple abolition of the slave trade, Metaxas writes:

To fathom the magnitude of what Wilberforce did we have to see that the “disease” he vanquished forever was actually neither the slave trade nor slavery. Slavery still exists in the world today, in such measure as we can hardly fathom. What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world. Included in the old way of seeing things was the idea that the evil of slavery was good. Wilberforce murdered that old way of seeing things, and so the idea that slavery was good died along with it. Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone. Because the entire mind-set that supported it is gone.

(Amazing Grace, xv)

Wilberforce grew up religious but basically fell away in his late teens and early twenties before experiencing a significant revival and deepening of his faith. When that took place, he was tempted to back away from politics (he was already a member of Parliament at the time), because he thought it to be an improper place for a person of strong religious conviction. His good friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, did not want to see his friend check out of politics, and suggested that his newfound faith could find much to do in the world of politics:

Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

(Amazing Grace, 58)

Ultimately, this advice would prove influential for Wilberforce, who remained in politics and used his platform and influence to do kingdom work and bring about a profound change in the lives of millions.

Part of Wilberforce’s work in his opposition to slavery was educating the British population of the horrors that slaves faced, about which many were genuinely and totally ignorant (slave traders commonly argued that slaves were happy or at least better off in captivity, and many people naively believed it). Wilberforce investigated the living conditions of slaves and knew better, and widely disseminated the information. In a parliamentary debate, Wilberforce explained his motivation for seeking abolition:

…When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.

(Amazing Grace, 136)

Metaxas portrays the Britain of Wilberforce’s early years as one which claimed to a form of Christian civil religion, but that it was a watered-down faith that brought little to no leavening influence on the nation as a whole. Wilberforce, who spent a long career as a respected and powerful MP who was famous for his faith and his political stances based upon his faith, was instrumental in changing the religious environment of his day:

When Wilberforce entered Paliament, there were only three MPs who would have identified themselves as seriously Christian, but half a century later there were closer to two hundred. Politics had come to be thought of as a noble calling. There would always be self-seekers—and few individuals could be entirely free of selfish motivation—but the idea that politicians should be free of that motivation and work for the good of society was something new, and Wilberforce’s influence in introducing it is hard to avoid.

(Amazing Grace, 234)

If you are a believer, William Wilberforce—a man of devout faith whose faith and love of neighbor prompted him to act in unpopular ways for the good of others—is a man you need to know well. Amazing Grace is a book with some flaws, but it does a great job of helping the reader to do that—getting to know a man who spent his life working to make God’s kingdom come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Book Review: Reclaiming Hope

Over the summer, I read Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America. Wear directed faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and was one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history. In addition to that, he is a pro-life, evangelical Christian.

In some ways, Wear is representative of a lot of young evangelicals who, though not traditionally supporters of the Democratic party, found Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign very appealing with its emphasis on hope, change, and bipartisan cooperation.

I never voted for President Obama and have written before of profound disagreements I have with him. Having said that, I have respected his devotion to his family and the way that he conducted himself while in office, and I was interested in hearing an insider’s take on the Obama presidency (and especially from an insider who operates from a belief system at least somewhat similar to my own).

In many ways, Reclaiming Hope is a memoir of Wear’s time of service for President Obama. Wear clearly has deep admiration for Obama, and this shines through so clearly that, after the first few chapters, I was afraid the whole book was going to be nothing more than an extended argument for how great Obama was.

But it wasn’t that. After beginning by emphasizing policies and accomplishments of the Obama administration of which Wear was very proud, he reflects on the things he found to be very frustrating. These frustrations include the change in tone of the Democratic party that he witnessed between 2008-2012, his cynicism over Obama’s change in policy regarding gay marriage, and ultimately, what he regarded as the great failure of Obama’s presidency: rather than bringing about  change in Washington and bipartisan cooperation, it only furthered the partisan divide that plagues our nation.

Wear concludes the book on a high note, strongly emphasizing that, from a Christian perspective, hope is not to be found in any political system or figure but in the working of a God who wants justice in His world. 

Here are a few good quotations:

“Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met. Politics does a poor job of meeting inner needs, but politicians will suggest they can do so if it will get them votes.” (xxix)

“In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to dispel dissent. In 2009, we had true pluralism and the big American tent. In 2012, at the Democratic convention, we had a pretense of including and magnanimity for political gain. In 2013, with our last four years in hand and the “weight of history on our side” that pretense went out the window. Now the Democratic Party was about consolidation.” (188)

“When our little hopes are disappointed, we find ourselves situated between the harshness of despair and the daunting, unusual existence of real hope.” (192)

“The arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice because of a political program or the unassailable motives of humans, but because of a God who wills justice.” (197)

“There is indeed an arc to the moral universe, but it is not a matter of humanity progressing toward justice; rather, it is the God of justice who is moving toward us.” (197)

“People who place their hope in politics are idealists who then become cynics.” (205)

Somewhat startling to me considering Wear’s narrative throughout the book (and his own political disillusionment that he describes) was his chastisement toward Americans who feel represented by neither party and thus, become independents. Wear argues that being an independent is to “check out of the system” and forfeits one’s ability to be an influence (210-211).  I reject this notion, however: supporting a party that does not represent your values in hopes that that party will influence the system according to your values is logically absurd, and speaking for myself, I expect my future political involvement to remain somewhat tepid.

Regardless, I enjoyed Wear’s book: it gave me a look behind the scenes of an historical presidency, helped me to see other perspectives, and provided a strong reminder that all people of faith need to hear: the hope for our world lies not in politics, but in the God who created all things and holds all things together.

Book Review: The Reasonableness of Christianity

This semester I am in a church history class for grad school and as part of my reading for that class I recently finished John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke is well-known to many people as a key thinker in the Enlightenment and specifically in the school of thought known as empiricism. His thoughts were very influential to the founding fathers of the United States, and he was also a great influence on Alexander Campbell, one of the leading early figures of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke basically sets forth the Christian faith as he sees it. Scripture teaches that Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden and, as a result, lost bliss and immortality. Humanity inherits Adam’s immortality, although we are punished only for our own misdeeds. Unfortunately, all sin and fall short of God’s glory and thus, are in need of a Savior. Jesus Christ is this Savior, the Messiah of whom the prophets spoke.

God judges us according to the law of faith, and considers believers to be righteous, granting them life and immortality. Specifically, the faith that is necessary for justification is the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and obedience to the moral and ethical standards that he set forth. Beyond this, Locke is open to differences of opinion on a variety of doctrines, and emphasizes the importance of tolerance in view of the fact that we have limited abilities and make mistakes about what we believe.

Here are some quotations that I particularly enjoyed and would like to share, along with some of my own thoughts:

“Nay, if God afford them a temporary, mortal life, ’tis his gift they owe to his bounty, they could not claim it as their right, nor does he injure them when he takes it from them.” (27)

We frequently pay lip service to the notion of our lives being a gift from God, but do we really believe that? I wonder, sometimes, when you hear the language we use when someone dies prematurely—it seems so unjust and tragic to us. I think Locke’s perspective is a better one: each day that we live is a gift from God, and from that perspective, however long we live is more than we have any right to expect or deserve.

“For if they believed him to be the Messiah, their King, but would not obey his laws, and would not have him reign over them, they were but the greater rebels…” (46)

This seems to me to be particularly relevant to the legions of nominal Christians that exist in our society who profess Jesus as Lord with their lips but deny Him with their lives. Those who reject Jesus live in rebellion to Him, but this is only to be expected. How much greater is the rebellion from those who claim Him as Lord but ignore His demands on their lives?

“‘Tis too hard a task for unassisted reason, to establish morality, in all its parts, upon its true foundations, with a clear and convincing light.” (60)

“…But yet some parts of that truth lie too deep for our natural powers easily to reach, and make plain and visible to mankind, without some light from above to direct them.” (65)

I expected Locke to hold human reason up as the ultimate source of knowledge and truth, but as the quotations above clearly show, he doesn’t do this. Rather, he is candid about the limitations of human reason, and ultimately holds that something greater that reason—revelation—is required for the establishment of universal moral truth.

Perhaps I approached The Reasonableness of Christianity with caricatures of Deism in my mind, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by what I read. There are certainly points I would quibble with, but on the whole, I thought Locke gave a succinct and fairly orthodox summation of the Christian faith. He does place significant value on reason, but this was actually less than I expected, and did not seem excessive to me. Locke does not dismiss Jesus’ miracles, but instead holds them to be essential (and reasonable) evidence that Jesus is exactly who He claims to be—the Messiah. Locke also asserts that Jesus’ ethical teachings are reasonable, but even these teachings ultimately required revelation. Left to its own reason, humanity had never been able to produce a universal moral law on its own.

Finally, although it was not the focus of this writing, I appreciated Locke’s emphasis on tolerance and the allowance for some diversity of opinion while at the same time upholding key fundamental doctrines about which all Christians must be in agreement. For Locke, the essentials are faith in Jesus as the Messiah and living a good moral life in accordance with His teachings.

In the context of the bitterly divided religious world in which Locke lived (and in which we still live today), such a call for tolerance seems like a hopeful basis for unity in God’s church. Of course, the difficulty always comes in determining which doctrines are fundamental and which are matters of opinion.

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