Cross

cross 2

A professor of New Testament once told me about a little known historical event that took place in the very early years of the Common Era (which we even more commonly abbreviate A.D.) in which the Roman army crucified a large group of criminals along a major Galilean road. From what we know about the Roman practice of crucifixion, most people who were hung on crosses were left there to wither and rot over a period of days, possibly weeks.

cross 1

If indeed this event took place, there is nothing odd about it. Despite the ghastly nature of it, crucifixion was commonplace in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It was appalling enough to promote fear among the populace, and public enough to be a cogent display of imperial dominance. While back in Rome the practice was frowned upon, considered far too cruel and inhumane a punishment for a Roman citizen, away in the far reaches of Caesar’s realm it kept the riffraff and the rebels, the subjugated and the slaves, in line.

The event this professor described would have taken place in the days of Jesus’ youth, perhaps a decade or more before he began his earthly ministry at the Jordan River. The Galilean road where this alleged mass execution took place ran close to Nazareth and other nearby villages. It was well traveled – that was the point of the Roman army erecting such a horrifying display. What good was a criminal on a cross if nobody came round to behold it and tremble?

And so, I’m left to wonder if Jesus was familiar with this crucifixion road just beyond his city’s limits. Some scholars have suggested that as a carpenter’s apprentice, he would have assisted with various building projects, and in those days many Galilean tradesmen would have been commissioned in the ongoing renovation work of nearby Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps Jesus traveled the very road along which these enemies of the Empire were hung.

cross 4

Perhaps he made his way back and forth along this road several times, walking by his father Joseph’s side, lunch pails in hand, tool belts hanging loosely around their wastes, a handful of other local craftsmen in their company. The sun is just over the mountains, casting long shadows of the poles and crossbars upon the road. The smell of old blood and rotting flesh hangs heavy in the air. Scavenging birds circle, perch, peck, and cackle at one another.

“Someone oughta take ’em down,” mumbles one of the tradesmen, a Nazarene neighbor. “It goes against Torah.”

Jesus, who knew the Scriptures better than most young apprentices who had left school behind to learn the family craft, recalls the Book of Deuteronomy. In it, the teachings of Moses are recorded, including a statement that those who are hung on poles are under God’s curse, and should be taken down by sunset. The neighbor is right. They should be removed. But not only would touching a cursed, dead man require a whole process of washing and atonement, but these tradesmen have lived long enough to know that if the Roman oppressors want their countrymen to hang until they rot, anyone caught removing the corpses without approval would likely join them on a cross of his own. So Jesus does not blame the men for doing nothing, for continuing to travel this road in service of the pagans, for trying their best to ignore these grisly adornments on the sides of the road. After all, what is a band of poor, simpleminded Galileans to do against such monstrous tyranny?

But as they near their destination – a city coming into view in the distance through the dust of the road and the glare of the morning sun – Jesus hears something that causes him to turn aside. It is the sound ragged breathing and the faintest of whimpers. At the end of the line of crosses, he comes to a living corpse. He can tell the man is only minutes from death.

He pauses at the foot of this cross and gazes up curiously into the criminal’s face. The man’s body is severely bruised, the skin of his chest, back, shoulders, neck, arms, and legs is torn by what must have been repeated, merciless blows of a reed cane. As was the usual practice of Roman executioners, this man had been flogged prior to being executed. The Romans knew the importance of ruining a man before affixing him to a cross; that way the criminal would have no strength left to endure, to struggle, perhaps even slowly work the impaling instruments from his body. Indeed, this is the case for the man hanging above Jesus’ head.

There is a rasping sound that Jesus cannot make out. He steps even closer, so that the man’s scarred and bloated feet are only inches from his face. There are long, jagged nails pierced through the man’s ankles, affixing his feet to each side of the pole. The man’s upper body is caked with blood, smells rancid, and hangs limp. His head is bowed low. Again, the rasp, and Jesus thinks the man is trying to speak a word.

“Thirst.”

Quickly, from his shoulder he swings a leather strap at the end of which is sewn a skin filled with water. He stands on his tip-toes, awkward and unbalanced, and reaches as high as he can to place the opening of the skin to the dying man’s lips. Cool water from a Nazarene well trickles out. Most of it drips back down Jesus’ arms, but a few precious drops find the man’s thick, dry tongue. He moves it around sluggishly, relishing the momentary coolness. Then he grimaces deeply and breathes a pitiful, guttural moan.

Jesus stares up into the man’s face, and for the briefest of moments the criminal’s glazed-over eyes meet his. The man blinks slowly. If Jesus didn’t know any better, he might think the man recognizes him. But it is clear he has been hanging for several days – his mind must be scrambled by the heat of the sun. And, almost as quickly as those eyes found him, the man’s gaze shifts back to the nothingness of the middle distance.

“Yeshua!”

Jesus turns to see Joseph hurrying back up the road. The company of workers is already far ahead, blurred shapes amid waves of high desert heat. Joseph advances upon him with a nervous expression on his face. Jesus knows he must not linger any longer. But as he turns away from the dying man, another bit of Torah echoes in his mind. It is prophecy, lines he has thought about often since he first heard them as a boy.

He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with suffering; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our sufferings, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted…

Joseph places his strong, caring arm around Jesus’ shoulders and leads him away from the cross. But Jesus realizes in that moment it is impossible, in a world such as this, to be fully protected from such terror. He supposes that these will not be the only crosses he encounters in his life. He understands that safety from experiencing such an end is an illusion. And he knows that, despite what the oppressors intend with this grim display, he must not be afraid.

He does not look back. There is no need. He enters the city in the company of his father, and goes to work.

A Phone Call from Mack

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I didn’t know Mack Hannah very long. He was only in my life for less than two years, and a significant portion of that time was via e-mail and phone calls before I finally joined his staff at Dunwoody Baptist Church.

It was, in fact, a phone call that started it all.

On October 31, 2013, my cell phone lit up with an unfamiliar number hailing from Dunwoody, Georgia. I drew a blank on the city, and assumed this was some manner of telemarketing call. However, because at the time I was assisting in the tedious task of crafting a cardboard box maze in a church gym (standard preparation for the annual “Harvest Hoedown”), even taking a telemarketer’s call was a welcome break, so I excused myself. As it turned out, the voice on the other end of the line sounded as if it was either the friendliest telemarketer in the history of the sport, or my long-lost best friend.

“Bo, it’s Mack Hannah. How are you?”

“Um… fine.” What followed was that awkward moment when you encounter someone who knows you, but you have no clue how. Thankfully, Mack cleared things up quickly.

“I’m the pastor at Dunwoody Baptist Church. I’m sitting here looking at your resume. You know, I lived in Waco for a while…”

The call stretched on for over an hour. We even got disconnected once when, after realizing I was talking to another church about another job, I retreated into the attic of the church to maintain secrecy and ended up losing the signal. In all that time, though, what Mack talked about was other people. Despite having led his own extraordinary life, Mack rarely told stories in which he was the main subject or active agent. When he spoke of the ministries of Dunwoody Baptist, or other churches and organizations he had led, he always portrayed himself more like a bystander witnessing other great people doing extraordinary things. This was not a calculated decision to effect a more humble attitude; what makes Mack Hannah so endearing, and what made me want to work for him (or “with him” as Mack would always insist) was this very way of seeing ministry. For Mack, everything was a team effort. Even when he was front and center – and, as a pastor, he often was – Mack was mindful that the success of any endeavor was not due to his strengths alone. Often when he preached, you were apt to hear him pray, “Holy Spirit, you are the teacher in the room.”

During that initial phone call, when Mack spoke of his own ministry experience, he would sing the praises of others – of fellow ministers, neighbor churches, and the many, many people he had encountered and worked “alongside.” The way Mack often spoke of himself, he seemed like the Forrest Gump of the evangelical Church. Amazing things just seemed to happen around him and to him – things for which he refused to take credit or admit responsibility. He pastored a small congregation in a farming town outside of Nashville that just happened to attract the membership of Amy Grant and her family, who became close friends. He focused on caring for people of every stripe, and Belmont University just happened to create a student-care position solely for him. He lent his time and energy to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and just happened to find himself ministering to the NCAA tournament-bound Georgia State basketball team, or offering a prayer for the Atlanta Falcons. And yet…

And yet Mack Hannah is an extraordinary man. He is one of the most genuine Christians I have ever known. That is to say that every faithful word he spoke did not sound forced or planned or regurgitated from some other pastor’s book. Even when he would quote other writers, pastors or theologians, the words always made more sense coming from his mouth. When I finally arrived on staff at Dunwoody Baptist Church, I realized this was because Mack didn’t speak in a way that was disconnected from the life he lived. No, every word he spoke was steeped in life experience. He lived the words he spoke first. To put it in a more colloquial way, Mack only talked the talk after he had walked the walk.

This, among many other things, has been a continual inspiration to me. Typically, when I teach or preach, the messages I prepare are as much for me as for anyone else. When I speak, I am often testing out a lifestyle concept – a spiritual exercise or a specific act of service – rather than reporting on how I have actually experienced this concept unfolding in my life. I teach about how I want to live, and I try to live up to the words I speak. But Mack Hannah simply described the life he lived every day. This is his legacy. He was a pastor, a teacher, an evangelist, a coach and a friend. Perhaps, one day, I might learn to be the same, and to then speak from those places.

I am where I am – and, partly at least, I am who I am – because of Mack Hannah. Of course, he would never claim such an influence was his own, but simply the Spirit at work through him. But it was that phone call that made me realize how much I wanted to serve with Mack, and my initial face-to-face meetings that had me excited to learn from him how to be an effective pastor who remained genuine throughout. It was those stories he told, which always seemed like only a hint of even greater stories, that instilled an eagerness to sit beside him and listen to his grand narrative of a life charged with God’s goodness, mercy, and abiding peace.

So it was that the last phone call we shared before I moved to Dunwoody was such a disappointment. It was a few days after Easter, the beginning of the season of Resurrection, that Mack phoned me.

“How are things going for you?”

I proceeded to recount a number of little stresses that come from offering one’s resignation, finishing up ministry at a church, and moving one’s family halfway across the country. To his credit, Mack patiently listened to all of this.

After I finally closed my mouth, he said, “Well, listen, let me tell you what’s going on with me. I’ve told you before how I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago, right? Well, I recently found out that it’s come back.”

*

My family and I came to Dunwoody anyway. Of course we did. As much as it pained me to know that my future plans for service alongside Mack Hannah were tenuous at best, even in the six months we had communicated primarily via phone and e-mail, Mack had taught me that you don’t follow after a person; you follow after the Spirit that works in and through that person. And while a person may die, the Spirit that dwells in each and every one of the faithful never dies, but carries on the good work to which we have all been called. And so, I came to Dunwoody with the understanding that even if Mack ceased to be the senior pastor at the church (which, eventually, he did), and even if this time he didn’t go into remission (which he didn’t), and even if he passed before I got the chance to hear all those wonderful stories brimming within him (thankfully, I was blessed to hear a few more before the end), I would nonetheless continue following the leading of God’s Spirit. I would continue to, as Mack has always said, “do the next right thing.”

Today is Mack Hannah’s memorial service. It is most definitely a celebration of life. A life of honesty. A life of joy. A life that clearly reflected the transformation promised to us in a relationship with our glorious, good God.

I’ve only known Mack Hannah for a short amount of time. But what I know I like, and what I like, I celebrate and I will hold close for as long as the Spirit gives me. Thank you, Mack, for making that first phone call. I am a better man because of it.

3 Helpful Tips for 2015

We are two weeks into 2015, and despite the disappointment many of us are feeling at the absence of Mattel hover boards, flying cars, and three-second pizza hydrators, materialistic advancements shouldn’t dictate our level of optimism. Besides, just because our present isn’t a Zemeckisian future doesn’t mean we can’t experience some improvements and upgrades in our own lives that make living them more enjoyable than ever.

Plus, if you count Deep Blue Sea, Piranha, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and the Lake Placid and Sharknado series as part of an expanded universe franchise, we've just about accomplished this one.

Plus, if you count Deep Blue Sea, Piranha, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and the Lake Placid and Sharknado series as part of an expanded universe franchise, we’ve just about accomplished this one.

From a spiritual standpoint alone, there is plenty you can improve upon as you journey hoverboard-less through 2015, and none of them are incredibly difficult or far-fetched. At a time of year in which droves of people are making the same old New Year’s resolutions (which studies show only have an 8% success rate in the first month alone!), why not instead to commit to a process of growth rather than berate yourself for reaching goals that are rarely realistic in the first place.

Here are three practices that can help you experience a brighter 2015, and the great thing is that none of them become lost causes if you happen to neglect them once or twice before spring arrives. The point, of course, is to keep at them – transformation is a slow burn, not a sudden explosion.

#1 – Engage in Spiritual Exercises

When you think about it, physical exercise and spiritual exercise are a lot alike. Not only do both require long-term commitments of time and focus in order to notice significant change, but they also involve forces that are not under our control. Physical exercise involves working our bodies into a state in which internal, metabolic processes can do… whatever it is they do… so that we can experience the benefits of greater strength and health. No one is able to force those internal processes to start – it is simply what takes place with increasing effectiveness the longer one commits to an exercise regimen. In short, I do what I can so that my body is able to do what it does best.

Though I can certainly do better than this.

Certainly, though, I can do better than this.

And it’s nearly the same with spiritual exercises (sometimes referred to as “spiritual disciplines”). It is not the outward commitment to prayer, study and meditation that actually transforms heart and mind. The Bible reminds us that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). In other words, I do what I can so that God’s Spirit will begin to change me from the inside out.

The thing is, a lot of Christians live as if there are only a couple of accepted spiritual exercises. Many “quiet times” are composed of little more than reading a short passage of Scripture (with or without the aid of a devotional book) and praying through a perpetual list of wants and needs. While there is nothing inherently wrong with either, such a meager regimen often becomes stale, and it doesn’t consistently focus us on what God’s Spirit desires to accomplish in our lives. I wish that more Christians would reclaim the wealth of disciplines and exercises that have been undertaken for centuries.

Ever walked through the weight room at your local fitness center and wondered how several of the stranger-looking machines operate, or even what muscle groups they work? No matter how beneficial a particular exercise might be, we normally don’t like to change things up. That is, until said exercise becomes the next big thing “everybody’s doing.” But until then, like awkward gym machines we won’t go near, many Christians avoid any spiritual exercises other than the common standards, if for no other reason than the common is what we’re comfortable with.

I'm not sure I'm in this thing correctly.

I’m not sure I’m in this thing correctly.

But there are others, and maybe 2015 is the year to move your “quiet time” out of your comfort zone. For starters, try silence. Not inaudible praying – just being silent. Close your eyes, take deep breaths, slow everything down. Imagine God’s Spirit flooding your body like a deeply inhaled breath, sanitizing the spoiled places and purging the pessimism from your mind. Or, what about praying through a psalm? Not studying Psalm 25 in order to grasp the historical significance or interpret it according to modern life, but simply allowing it to be your prayer. Read through it every day, reflect on it in the car, whisper the words again at night. Let those ancient words fall anew upon your own life. You might be surprised how eye-opening and world-enhancing such an exercise can be.

And, if these quiet exercises only make your eyes heavy, you might consider just getting more sleep to be a worthwhile addition to your spiritual exercise regimen. Mind and body are linked (Matt. 15:18-19). That means, among other things, if you neglect the health of one, you won’t truly experience wholeness with either. In truth, spiritual disciplines do not begin with opening your Bible, just as physical exercise doesn’t begin by climbing onto the elliptical. No, you have to make time for exercise, and that is a discipline in itself. Stop sacrificing rest, and commit to saying “No” to some things in order to eliminate some of the hurry and stress in your life. Creating plenty of space for spiritual exercises is just as important as the exercises you do.

"Let's see. If I check all my e-mails on my phone during the 9 AM staff meeting, and respond to texts during the 10:30 presentation meeting, I might be able to squeeze some silence in before that early lunch with..."

“Let’s see. If I check all my e-mails on my phone during the 9 AM staff meeting, and respond to texts during the 10:30 presentation meeting, I might be able to squeeze some silence in before that early lunch with the clients from….”

#2 – Embrace the Resurrection

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions,” Karl Marx famously wrote. “It is the opium of the people.” Echoing his sentiment, science-fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “History does not record anywhere a religion that has a rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.” Even more recently, former Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, stated, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.” Ouch!

I'm just going to leave this here.

I’m just going to leave this here.

Oh, we poor, pitiful religious people! Oh, we sorry, senseless Christians! We are not brave enough to face reality, too fearful to relinquish our irrational beliefs in the supernatural. Time and again, we stare into the sad unknown of death and loss and renew a preposterous belief in some magical continuation of life after death. What cowards we are!

Toward the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes, “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (15:17-19) For Paul, the Christian’s hope hinged on the resurrection of Jesus, whom he referred to repeatedly as “the firstborn from among the dead.” Of course, a “firstborn” denotes there are others laterborn, and Paul insists these are the ones who place their hope in Jesus. Indeed, the paramount reason the Christian Church established itself back in the first century wasn’t simply the joy of getting their sins forgiven, but because they believed Jesus had physically risen from the dead, and, in so doing, had set in motion a long-unfolding fulfillment of God’s promise of resurrection and the restoration of all creation.

Unfortunately, with the Enlightenment and the subsequent eras of modernity and postmodernity, it became harder for people to accept such an outlandish, irrational event as a bodily resurrection. People don’t rise from the dead unless they’re in a George A. Romero flick. Such philosophical insistence, combined with the abiding assumption of a Platonic existence in which body and soul (assuming there even is something like a soul at all) are separate, disparate entities, seeped into human thinking everywhere, including the Christian Church, and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it became more and more common to imagine heaven as an otherworldly haven for disembodied souls, not as a radical renewal of all things, humanity included.

Who needs a restored, perfected Earth when I've got my own personal cloud?

Who needs a restored, perfected Earth when I’ve got my own personal cloud?

As such, Christian hope has weakened, and fear of death and what, if anything, comes after has increased. More and more Christians are uncertain of what to make of the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the promise that what happened to him would also come true for us. No wonder skeptics, atheists and nihilists consider religion, particularly Christianity, to be nothing more than a crutch for the weak-minded. Did not Paul insist that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, we are to be pitied more than anyone? To people who don’t believe in resurrection, we must look pretty ridiculous!

But what would happen if Christians threw off the constraints of naturalism and Neoplatonism and returned to the actual claims of Scripture? What if you chose to make 2015 the year you embraced the resurrection not as some mysterious doctrine but as a historic and earth-shaking reality that infuses the present with meaning. Every act of kindness, every charitable effort, every declaration of your Christian faith – God can and will use it in his work of restoration, which, according to Scripture, will one day be completed when Christ appears again.

For many people, living “in light of heaven” has come to mean enduring unhappiness and hardship because they believe they will one day be removed from this corrupt world. It’s time to reclaim that phrase – to live in light of the resurrection, in which heaven and earth are ultimately joined, and our world will be restored to the beauty and peace God always intended – and allow it to motivate us to faithful service in this life. As a great American hero, Maximus Decimus Meridius, once said, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” His words are themselves an echo of the Apostle Paul, who reminds the Corinthians, “Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Are you not cross-referenced?

“ARE YOU NOT CROSS-REFERENCED?”

#3 – Lean in to Your Church

The thing about spiritual transformation is it is more likely to happen in community than in isolation. There is something about interacting with fellow believers that truly helps to fortify a lot of the virtues that begin to emerge when we engage in spiritual exercises and embrace the coming resurrection. We need others to help us identify the fruit we are bearing, as well as the fruit that has not yet appeared. It’s not about comparing ourselves against each other, but rather understanding each other. When the New Testament speaks of concepts like salvation and sanctification, it is almost always referred to in a communal context over a merely individual one.

But this isn’t brand new information. Even amidst a growing “Jesus and me” mentality in Western culture, the majority of Christians are not so naive that they have completely written off the importance of their local church. For them, the issue isn’t recognizing that their church community is valuable, but how exactly they are supposed to interact with the people there.

Pictured: the wrong way to interact with church members.

Pictured: The wrong way to interact with church members.

This is the point where the good and faithful minister in me wants to say, “Serve.” Get plugged in and get to work, of course! Service is a discipline, and it is also the proper response of one who holds a renewed hope in God’s restoration of his creation. A church community lives or dies based on how dedicated its members are to serving one another. And yet, I’m beginning to realize that service is neither the objective nor the goal of Christians’ activity in the church. While many pastors and many church programs make service the focal point, being a servant to your fellow believers is really just a by-product of something else.

Love.

Before turning to the subject of resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul first addresses the myriad problems prevalent in that church. His solution does not stop at encouragement to serve one another. He takes it much deeper. He advocates for love. After twelve chapters of pointing out disunity, moral failures and status worship, Paul’s letter comes to a head when he writes, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” What follows is his famous poem on love, found in chapter thirteen. While the words have become a syrupy staple of weddings both Christian and secular, Paul never meant for them to be divorced from the rest of his letter. No, he meant for them to answer with finality the question, “How should I act within my church?”

"If I give away all my possessions, neglecting to register at Target and Macy's, but have not love, I gain nothing."

“If I give away all my possessions, neglecting to register at Target and Macy’s, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Be patient and kind. Don’t act full of yourself, and don’t speak that way either. Don’t insist your ideas are best, nor celebrate when others’ ideas blow up in their faces. Be a picture of strength, faithfulness, indomitable hope and perseverance. If you’re committed to living this way, serving of others will not be something you must choose to do. It will take place naturally. As Rich Mullins once said, “If you’re a Christian, ministry is just an accident of being alive.”

This year, if you choose the way of love in your local church, you may very well find you’re not the only one who bears fruit. Once you considered yourself a solitary tree, but it turns out you were planted in an orchard all along.

Where did all you guys come from?

Where did all you guys come from?

So, there you have it. Three simple decisions – one of faith, one of hope, and one of love – that can have profound impacts on your life in 2015. Now two weeks into the new year, many of us are already struggling to adhere to the resolutions we made. If and when those crumble away, why not replace them with three aims that will work in you a greater change than you could have ever anticipated?

Happy 2015!

Do You Have Time for a Quiet Time?

This is the final post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.” Click herehere, here and here to read the previous installments.

I have not written on this blog in quite a while. I blame the world, but I know it is my own fault.

The thing about living in a world that everyday seems to spin a little quicker on its axis is that unless we’re willing to be mindful of our time, time will pay us no mind at all. I can blame the world, but that means I must also blame myself, because seeing myself as the center of the world is my default setting. And, like the world, my life is pitched forward into a swirling sea of stress, hurry and expediency. Sometimes I feel like I’m plunging down the slope of a ravine – not so much running as barreling headlong, with a point of collision racing to meet me.

rod-falling_366239_GIFSoup.com

The older I get, the more I seem to feel this way. Now, five days shy of thirty-five, I feel as if I would do anything to slow my pace, to reach out and grab hold of something stationary in a desperate attempt to slow my rate of descent.

The previous four posts were born out of a lingering, nagging concern that I have spent too many years going about this whole “quiet time with God” thing all wrong. As I’ve already mentioned, I grew up in a church culture that placed an incredible amount of emphasis on keeping a personal devotional time with God; unfortunately, though, it did not produce many leaders and teachers who knew how to properly shepherd a young person in such a commitment. As I got older, I found that some of these leaders were dealing with their own quiet-time struggles, others weren’t sure how to go about expressing their own methods, and still others never really practiced any of the disciplines they preached. When I first stepped into the life of a minister (specifically, the life of a youth minister), there were times when I typified each of these lifestyles.

And now, despite still being referred to often as a “young man” by many a member of my church, I recognize that I am a full-fledged adult. And I have had to declare false the assumption I and so many other kids had throughout our childhoods that once we crossed that ill-defined developmental Rubicon into actual adulthood we would understand all those mysteries that so irked our younger selves. There is no instantaneous “I know Kung Fu” moment for us. Very little of the why’s and how’s in this life are received fully realized. We must learn them. And if we are to truly retain what we learn, we must practice them.

The world is our dojo.

The world is our dojo.

I was talking to a gentleman in a bookstore the other day who was telling me about teaching his thirteen-year-old son how to build a simple pair of shelves. He wanted his boy to learn some of the same skills that had been handed down to him from his own father. As they worked, the man asked his son if he agreed that it was important to learn skills like building shelves and basic construction. His son replied, “Isn’t that what Google is for?”

We are all moving so fast, faster than fifty years ago and faster even than fifty days ago. And rather than inventing things that might slow us back down even a little, instead we improve on tools that can keep pace with us. We microwave our food, order coffee from drive-thrus, and pay an annual fee to Amazon.com just so we can receive our purchases a couple of days sooner. We text more than we call, and we call more than we sit down together. We have multiple e-mail addresses, but haven’t sent a handwritten letter in decades. Why? Because we have little, if any, time to spare.

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn't believe how much stamps cost these days!

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn’t believe how much stamps cost these days!

In an age of convenience the likes of which we have never seen before, we are more rushed, more stressed, more frazzled, more impatient, and more inattentive than we have ever been.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate quite a few of these conveniences. I like that I can get an answer to a question from Google that used to be reserved for the reference section of my library. I’m embarrassed, though, that I cannot tell you what any section of my neighborhood library looks like. I appreciate that I don’t have to wait until 7 PM to find out the latest news of the world. I’m wearied, though, by how long I can stare at CNN despite knowing in thirty seconds they have no new information worth reporting. I love having thousands of movies and television shows available at the click of a button. I’m mortified that sometimes, when a somewhat long-winded person is talking to me, I feel an unmistakable desire to fast-forward, as if the conversation was stored in my cable’s DVR.

What does all this have to do with spending time with God?

Simply that, despite a million little conveniences designed to save us time, we usually find ourselves unable to offer God any of it. We’re sleeping less as a society, so waking up a little earlier has become a sacrifice too great for some. Lunch breaks are often taken at our desks rather than in an office atrium or the park across the street, and the average mealtime has dwindled from one hour to fifteen minutes. And what about the end of the day? I don’t know about you, but by the time I get my two preschoolers to bed in the evening, I feel as if I’m running on fumes. Even if I were to give God that hour or so before my own bedtime, would he really be getting the best of me?

"Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?"

“Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?”

Should it really be this difficult to cut an hour, or even thirty minutes, out of our daily schedules so we can spend it with God?

Realizing the difficulty of this leads me to a recognition of something else. According to Scripture, what God required of his people was not thirty minutes per day, or an hour here and there during the week. Smack dab in the Ten Commandments is a decree that God’s people would devote an entire day to him. They would honor him by putting aside every effort toward productivity, and instead be present. The Sabbath wasn’t something crammed into a daily planner; it was a sacred period of time, declared “holy” because it was set apart from the rest of a week so diligently focused on labor, development and output.

The Sabbath was a time to rest, and growing up I thought that meant the Israelites had built into their weeks a day to sleep-in and take a nap, like some sort of super-siesta at the end of each week. It wasn’t until later that I realized what the Sabbath was really about. I re-read Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was not made for man, but man was made for the Sabbath,” and it occurred to me that the “rest” referred to in the commandment was more about being present and being still than it was about catching up on sleep. The rest God desired for his people wasn’t so much about replenishing energy from all the work that had sapped their strength as it was about taking stock of the glory that lay behind the work itself. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day of Creation, surveying all he had made and declaring it good, so also he wanted his children to avoid getting so caught up in production that they failed to marvel at their God-given ability to produce anything at all.

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

I recognize this – a decree so important it was cooked into the center of the Torah’s Ten Commandments – and I shake my head at how meager a thing it is to scrape and strive to spend a full hour with God every day. I mean, hey, if that hour is life-giving for you, and you walk away feeling in deep communion with the Holy Spirit, then more power to you. But if you have been striving for years to commit an hour – or even a half-hour – to God only to feel more wearied by, or disappointed with, your quiet time, maybe your real problem isn’t how you’re spending that hour. Maybe the problem is how you’re spending the other twenty-three.

I haven’t been able to write on this blog in more than a month not because I’ve been too busy, but because writing on this blog has unwittingly tumbled down multiple notches on my priority list. Trying to reestablish a beloved and life-giving activity to the top of your priority list – even a time for communion with the Creator of the universe – can be as difficult a thing as Baylor trying to get the College Football Playoff committee to notice them after losing to West Virginia in October.

34 points? Is that all?

You beat Oklahoma by 34 points? Is that all?

The more we pack into our lives, the harder it becomes to manage, organize, and prioritize those things. Growing up, I was warned about all the dark, ungodly temptations that lay in wait for me out in the world. What I’ve found is most of the temptations I face are not ignoble vices, but noble endeavors. Most of the things we fill our time with are good things. There is nothing wrong with productivity. There is nothing wrong with success. There is certainly nothing wrong with hard work. But like the workers in the vineyard who become incensed at receiving only a standard daily wage for their day’s worth of labor, the majority of us have lost sight of the truth that what matters even more than being productive is the ability to be present and still and thankful before a holy and generous God – a God who wants much more than mere hours of our weeks.

After many years already, I have come to realize what this means for me. It means I have to scale back. I have to simplify. Not Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” simple, but I need to at least be more mindful of my priorities, and faithful to maintaining that list. Maybe I’m not the kind of person who can wake up at 5 AM to spend quality time with my Creator. That means I mustn’t allow the rest of that day to be so chock full of tasks and duties and responsibilities that I am either exhausted or perpetually distracted, unable to live in the present. If I constantly find myself arriving somewhere with no time to spare, or several minutes late, I should consider what tasks (or distractions) force me to depart late. If it seems I am often anxious, or unprepared for meetings, I must reflect on how many other concerns I allowed to pull and tug at me during that day. The more I have to think about, the less I can think.

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that's the same as saying, "I have no short-term memory."

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that’s the same as saying, “I have no short-term memory.”

It is going to take sacrifice, and tenacious attention to the undercurrent of our lives. It is going to mean severing ties with some responsibilities that don’t measure up to a revitalized priority list. It is going to mean a lessened focus on being productive in a world that demands productivity above most everything else. Until we slow ourselves down, we will never truly experience the kind of joy God desired for his people. But, once we do, quiet times become simply a happy accident of being alive.

Our hard work, ambition, and efficiency are not the problems. But our “love” of them (i.e., enslavement to them) are. The good news is Christ came to set us free from a yoke of slavery. The shackles have been broken, and the cell door stands open. The choice to walk out into a free and open world is up to us.

Is Your Quiet Time Turning You into a Pharisee?

This is the third post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.” Click here and here to read the first two installments.

Have you ever prayed to become a better Christian?

ManPraying

“Shh! If you say it out loud, it won’t come true.”

Well, stop it.

There’s no such thing.

Some believers are under the impression that a relationship with Jesus is meant to be an ever-increasing advancement – that the Christian life contains higher levels of capability and competence, like promotions within a corporation, and if we would just show up early, put in the work, and leave late, eventually we will climb the spiritual ladder. The worst part of this misconception is that a lot of new believers think that Christians who have attained these alleged higher levels don’t have to deal with the temptations and struggles that rage down in the mailrooms and custodial closets of faith. Up in the corner offices of Christianity are those who sit above all that stuff.

Sometimes we have to deal with this guy, though.

Though sometimes we have to deal with these weirdos.

While it is certainly true that we are meant to mature in our faith – to grow more trusting and find deeper reservoirs of strength – a relationship with Jesus is not about promotion. There is no such thing as “a better Christian.”

There are days when you may feel like you’re sitting high in that corner office of unchallenged commitment, but watch out, because before you know it, you may find yourself back down in the basement aimlessly sorting mail.

The misconception in Christianity that we can attain higher levels of faith is born out of a fear of failure. We don’t like to back-slide, to spurn our commitments and indulge in selfishness. So, we convince ourselves that there is some Rubicon within the Christian life – a point of no return that, if we can live obediently enough to reach it and cross it, we will never have to return to the laborious, unpredictable days of unripe belief.

"Actually, the crossing of the Rubicon signaled the start of conflict, not the end of it." - the Metaphor Police

“Actually, the crossing of the Rubicon signaled the start of conflict, not the end of it.” – the Metaphor Police

Of course, this belief drags several problems along with it. The first is that we can end up lying to ourselves about our spiritual health. If I believe in higher levels of the Christian life where fledgling struggles and beginner’s temptations no longer affect me, when those trials inevitably rear their heads, I may feel I need to pretend I’m not influenced by them. And, if I don’t end up lying to myself, then another problem I may encounter is self-devaluation. I will take my inevitable missteps and failures as proof that I’m incapable of attaining the higher levels, and will begin to hate myself (rather than hating only my sinful nature). Christians who continually deprecate themselves in their prayers and testimonies will find it very hard to accept the unconditional love of God.

But sometimes the biggest problem for people who believe faith is like a corporate ladder is that they can develop a sense of entitlement. If I am disciplined and obedient (to whatever predetermined extent), I deserve ______ from God. Some will fill that blank with recognition. Others, with particular blessings. Whatever it is, they unwittingly make God’s provision obligatory.

Several years ago, I found myself caught up in the throes of this third problem. So certain was I in the foolproof formula of a traditional quiet time that I truly believed my keeping it would rocket me upward into the stratospheres and ionospheres of faith. Maybe not right away – rocket boosters have to burn for a few moments before you see movement – but once I got going, “Houston, we have liftoff.”

"Corporations, the Rubicon, space travel! C’mon, Bo, pick a metaphor and stick with it!"

“Corporations, the Rubicon, space travel! C’mon, Bo, pick a metaphor and stick with it!”

But that feeling of incompetence continued, and after weeks and even months of seeing little difference in my attitudes and actions, I began to get angry. Angry at myself, but also angry at God. Couldn’t he see that I was trying? Didn’t he realize I was attempting to discipline myself? Why was he still standing far off? I was the lost son returning home – why wasn’t he running out to embrace me? Where was the party? Where was the fatted calf?

The only thing I knew to do, and was counseled to do by various church leaders, was to keep at it. God would show up, eventually. Read those Psalms, they told me; those folks had to wait on God, too, and they kept right on praying and praising.

The über-faithful could also rock a harp.

The über-faithful could also rock a harp.

And so, for years, I believed that strict adherence to a specific quiet time method would eventually result in some kind of breakthrough. I would wake up one day and my prayers would flow like a mountain river, the words of 1st Chronicles would suddenly become life-giving, and every sentence I wrote in my journal would be more profound than the last. Life itself would reverberate with meaning. Things would finally be easier. I would have reached that corner office, and all my present struggles and feelings of discontent would seem so small, so very, very far away. But that breakthrough never came.

Why?

Because my daily quiet time had morphed into devotion to a system rather than devotion to a Savior.

Without meaning to, I had become a Pharisee.

I really should grow a beard.

I really should grow a beard.

The if-you-will-do-this-then-God-will-do-that system of thought comes up time and again in Scripture, and time and again people get it wrong – the most famous example being the Pharisees of first-century Judaism. These people were the most influential sect of teachers, scribes and lawyers, and the ones who seemed to clash most often with Jesus. We often criticize the Pharisees for being legalistic and close-minded, and yet they appear to be the closest comparison to Christians in America today. In reality, among the people of the first-century, Pharisees were the most faithful students of the Scriptures. They were devoted to prayer and theological reflection, and they were adamant about the importance of an obedient lifestyle. Some of the most famous and gifted rabbis ever to arise in early Judaism were Pharisees.

The Pharisees believed strongly in the if/then promises of the Torah, and were careful to faithfully keep the “ifs” so that God might follow through with the “thens.” Several times, Jesus pointed out the main problem with this. The Pharisees had lost sight of the goodness of God, particularly the fact that he was even willing to offer promises to human beings at all. In so doing, Jesus informed them that they had fallen out of a real relationship with the God they so desired to please.

The irony was that the Scriptures – which they knew better than anyone due to such rigid devotional methods – are replete with reminders that what God is after is not a process, but a posture. In Psalm 51, David prays, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Long before Jesus came on the scene, the prophet Hosea bore witness to a sacrificial/devotional system that had lost all meaning, stating the people’s worship was “like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears,” to which God responds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” In Matthew 9, Jesus tells the Pharisees they ought to take another look at Hosea, because no matter how ironclad the process might be, transformation is impossible without the right posture.

"Did that guy just give us a homework assignment?"

“Did that guy just give us a homework assignment?”

The Pharisees believed that God owed them something – that their status as God’s chosen people was not only based in history, but also sustained by their faithful keeping of the Torah. They believed their rigid loyalty to the Law of Moses had caused them to attain the higher levels. And so, they lived as if they resided in those corner offices of the faith. Jesus was disgusted with this sense of entitlement, as well as the fact that the Pharisees so often made life difficult for the mailroom clerks and custodians just trying to make ends meet spiritually. Those who had seemingly mastered obedience made no effort to help others with it.

There is no such thing as becoming “a better Christian.” And when it comes to quiet times, the most dangerous thing you can do is become a slave to a formula, believing dogged tenacity will accomplish the kind of spiritual growth you’re hoping for.

I will continue this series next week with an argument for why the traditional formula itself is faulty. However, may we be mindful of our motivations when we seek communion with God. In the same spirit as the Teacher’s advice regarding worship in Ecclesiastes 5, may we “draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”

On Quiet Times

I am a morning person.

That term is often used to describe someone who can wake up at some ungodly hour as alert as a fighter pilot passing through enemy airspace. Someone who doesn’t need even a hint of daylight to begin his or her day. This is not what I mean when I say that I am a morning person. Pulling away from the embrace of sleep and actually putting feet to cold floor does not fill me with positivity. The cold water I splash on my face in the bathroom is not the symbolic christening of a new day, but a necessary dousing for my senses to reactivate, like smelling salts under a boxer’s broken nose. I brew my first cup of coffee with a kind of desperation – the Keurig is never slower than at 6 AM.

No, I am not a morning person because I have no problem waking up early. I am a morning person because I recognize the value of the early morning hours. As a father of pre-schoolers, there are precious few stretches of silence in my house, and the ones that come after evening bedtimes find mine and my wife’s collective strength sapped. I have hardly enough energy to watch an entire Dateline episode or read more than a single chapter of a novel.

Shows like this are more compelling when you're brain is already half asleep.

Shows like this are more compelling when your brain is already half asleep.

So, despite the difficulty, every weekday I rise earlier than the rest of my family. I stagger down the hall to the kitchen, clumsily trying to avoid the creakiest of the floorboards, and hold a yawn so pronounced that most of my coffee brews before it dies away. Then I pick up my coffee, my laptop, my Bible, and whatever book on theology I’m currently working my way through, and I tip-toe to the living room. There, on the sofa under the lamp, I have my “quiet time.”

Growing up in an evangelical church, I heard that term a lot – quiet time. While there is no specific mention of the concept in Scripture, I was taught that, above all things, the obedient Christian is one who keeps a daily quiet time.

And the über-spiritual take it to the next level.

And the über-spiritual take it to the next level.

If you grew up in the Church, too, chances are you’ve heard the importance of something like this expressed. Most of the teachers I had in my youth not only encouraged the keeping of a quiet time, but they usually offered a formula for what one looked like. A quiet time, they said, consisted of the following:

  1. prayer, not only for myself but also for a list of other people (and a good Christian always kept a list)
  2. reading the Bible – either a Psalm or a Gospel story or a portion of a letter – with or without the aid of a devotional book (until you graduated to concordances and commentaries and thus added the spiritual discipline of cross-referencing into your quiet times)
  3. journaling, in which you muse on the intersections of life and Scripture, or perhaps write out your prayers (before Facebook and Tumblr suggested we share those thoughts and prayers with everyone everyday).

I spent years trying to make this formula work for me. I was white-knuckling it, trying to force an enlightenment that I was told was the natural product of keeping this practice faithfully.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that, just like the Sabbath, a quiet time was made for the person, not a person for the quiet time.

That awkward moment when you're unsure whether or not you just read something heretical.

That awkward moment when you’re unsure whether or not you just read something heretical.

It took years of student ministry for me to realize this, but after dozens of conversations with frustrated young people, I finally wised up. My heart went out to them, because they were struggling with the same deep sense of guilt that I struggled with, all because they had missed a day here and a week there, or because after months of forcing the formula, they felt very little difference in their spirits. Not only were they result-biased, but the drudgery of keeping the formula had cultivated an aversion to both prayer and Bible study within them. They were sick of it, but stopping meant conceding it was all for nothing.

"I bought my journals in bulk. I can't just stop!"

“I bought my journals in bulk. I can’t just stop!”

Next week, I will explore some of the reasons why people fail at the traditional quiet time formula as often as others succeed. In the meantime, however, let it be known that I have no “better way” to offer in its place.

What I have is what is unique to my own experience, but I think that is part of the truth about “quiet times.” What I have is a steaming cup of coffee, a laptop, a Bible, and a whatever book on theology I’m currently reading. What I have is a silent house and a sofa and a lamp. What I have is a physical body that is not ready to wake up, but a spirit that is eager to be awakened. So I do what I can for it – I read a short passage of Scripture, and part of a chapter on theology, and then I turn on my laptop. I work on the same old novel, or on a short story, because telling those stories engages my spirit more than any journal entry ever did. And after showering and dressing, packing my bag and heading off to work, I realize that I am happy, that God wants me to be happy, and that he has made me a certain way, with particular interests and energies, none of which should ever be formulated or templated for anyone else.

In the car, I breathe out prayers of thankfulness. I thank God that his mercies are not carrot-and-stick. I thank him that I have been remade – a new creation he sees and declares to be good. I thank him that there is no such thing as an ungodly hour.

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.

feature6

By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?