In our final class, we hit the quintessential epic of our time: The Lord of the Rings (along with the Hobbit). As you’ll hear, I recently read the full book and found it to be a beautiful reflection of so many Gospel truths. And the class ends with my hopes for anyone who has been following along, which where we fit into the Story of Stories. Here’s the audio.
In this class, we spent most of the time on the DC universe characters Superman and Batman. We also spent some time talking about the Hunger Games, delving into an interesting discussion on submission to governments and rebellion. Here’s the audio.
As I near the end of my personal retreat, I struggle to put into words what came from it. On the one hand, it almost feels like trying to quantify the retreat cheapens it somehow. But I think that’s really because it seems that retreats are supposed to be mountaintop experiences and those types of experiences can’t be limited by mere words.
Eh, something like that.
The fact is, every time I’ve had a retreat, I’ve always gone in with some huge set of expectations. Sometimes it’s been to plan my family’s life, sometimes to map out the future, sometimes to draw nearer to God, sometimes just to have “me” time. But every time, regardless of the goal, it’s been a letdown. The problem with expectations, especially “spiritual” ones, seem to be the very real possibility of not meeting them.
With this retreat, leading up to it, I really just wanted it because I was beat, rundown, exhausted, spent. My only goal was escape, pure and simple and straight up selfish.
But the Father, in his kindness, saw my heart. And he knew what I didn’t–that all of my exhaustion and weariness was from chasing idols and setting up the kingdom of Bill. He knew it and he prepared my heart for it. Events and conversations leading up to the retreat were outpourings of his kindness to rebuke me gently and call me to repentance. He knew what I wanted for myself was so much smaller and cheaper than what he wanted for me.
So how do I leave my retreat this time? First, grateful. Because my original “plans” were crap and I’m glad my Dad has better plans for me than I have for myself.
Second, a little lower. While I’ve been blinded by the deceitfulness of sin to think that all my “hard work” lately had been for others, it had all been for me. I was actively and passively working to bring glory and praise to the name of Bill Bell. And I find myself lower now, not because my repentance and humility are so great, but because God has revealed himself to me as greater and more glorious.
Third, refreshed. And that, in a number of ways. Refreshed from trying to seek my own glory. Refreshed to rediscover quiet and moving slowly. Refreshed to want to hear the Good News over and over again, where it had felt like Old and Boring News before.
Fourth, open. You see, I’ve felt so increasingly isolated in my biblical convictions for so long that I’ve stopped listening to the Spirit speaking through other men. I haven’t listened to or read other godly men in ages, because I simply didn’t care what they had to say. Why would I? I knew I’d disagree with something, if not most or all of what they said. Malarkey. That same pride of building my kingdom was also closing me off to the larger family available to me in Jesus, a family I need so that I hear and see and taste God’s goodness afresh.
Fifth, ready. Ready to see my wife and hold her close. Ready to smile and laugh with my kids. Ready to see God’s goodness on display. Ready to stop chasing after wind and find my satisfaction rooted in the love of Jesus, who died and rose again. Ready to live by dying and die by living.
Was it a “successful” retreat? Well, I came out smaller and God came out bigger than when I began. I don’t know any better kind of success to look for.
This morning, I took some time while running/walking to listen to some sermons with the hope of hearing God’s Word afresh. I am so highly cynical and self-sufficient that I almost never listen to anyone else teaching these days. Because I believe I’m that wise.
Anyway, I started with this Tim Keller sermon. He begins by talking about how sin can have spiritual mastery over us, especially by something other than God being our ultimate goal. He gives some indicators: anger, fear, and sadness. When we’re chasing after empty idols and they fail to deliver–as they always do–it leads to anger (because things aren’t going the way we want and so we rage about it), overwhelming anxiety (because if things might not turn out right, we’ve got no hope or confidence at all), and sadness (because how can we have joy when we can’t have the thing we want most).
Here’s me lately: I’ve been incredibly short-tempered and judgmental, sometimes mentally only and, especially with my kiddos, sometimes actually. Everything they do that has been even remotely annoying or disobedient or disrespectful or just not what I wanted at the time has been met by my sinful snippiness and anger. I’ve had to repent over and over again for reacting too harshly. Check one for anger.
For the last several nights, I’ve not been able to sleep well. I thought at first it was caffeinated drinks. Cut those out, still no change. I thought it might be from the Claritin D I was taking before bed. Cut those out, still no change. In retrospect, the fact that I keep waking up from dreams feeling like there’s some urgent matter I need to fix right then or else leads me to believe I’m clearly very anxious. And even though my somewhat stoic persona doesn’t display it as clearly as others, I’m anxious all the time that I’ll fail at work or fail Court or fail the kids or fail as a pastor-elder. Check two for fear.
I’ve also found it much harder lately to be light-hearted and easy-going. I, of course, don’t see this in myself but my wife has pointed it out more than once. Like I’m “carrying a constant burden on my shoulders and can’t shake it” or something along those lines. The fact is, joy feels elusive right now, a whole lot like chasing after the wind or looking for a snipe in the backyard. Check three for sadness.
And so, I find myself diagnosed: sin is ruling over me and I’m chasing after everything but the one good Giver.
I also listened to this John Piper sermon about assessing what our ultimate joy is found in (it would almost seem coincidental that both sermons had such common themes if, ya know, I believed in coincidences). He does this nice job of taking an example of something that makes us happy, then asking “Why?” over and over till we hit “the bottom” or, to say it differently, till we reach the foundation of our joy. If it’s anything other than God himself, we’re missing it.
As my old friend Tom Binkowski could painfully recollect from our many meetings for mutual encouragement, I am awfully horribly terribly tremendously bad at assessing my own motives or the foundation of my motives. (I’m not sure I stated that strongly enough…) But as I think over the things that are making me angry (Why am I so angry?), scared (What am I so worried about?), and sad (What’s making me so unhappy?), every chain of questions leads me to one response: I’m not getting the honor and recognition I think I deserve. Or perhaps I’m afraid I won’t get the honor and recognition I deserve.
So, today I’m grateful to the God and Father of King Jesus for Keller and Piper. Through their words, another layer of my inscrutable onion-y soul has been peeled back. And another layer of idolatry unearthed.
For some time, the pressures of life have been building, filling up my mind and time and attention. The biggest and easiest culprit has been work, where I’ve been tasked with a new project and a new process, taking more time and attention than I’ve had to expend in a very long time. But it’s really been so much more than that. The cares and troubles of this world, whether that be work stuff or disobedient kids or broken-down cars or whatever, have slowly but surely been choking the life out of me.
The last few weeks have been the culmination of it all. I put in a whole lot of extra hours at work, even several over a weekend–something I normally refuse to do as a matter of principle, that my job doesn’t own my every waking moment. But I had “good reason” to break my own rules. I did that literally up to the second when we left for a family vacation. And even though our bodies left the house (and my laptop!), my mind kept churning and thinking. All of this manifested itself in a number of ways. I’ve been broadly distracted constantly. I’ve been very short-tempered with my children. I’ve been disengaged at home. I’ve been falling more and more behind at work.
Even in my teaching, a gift given by the Spirit, I have been misstepping and faltering. This past week, I taught three times: one for my church, one for the high schoolers in our co-op, and one for some biblical training with some close friends. In all three, I just sucked. I was trying to teach and share the insight God has given me, but I was drawing from a dry well. I sinfully attacked a sister’s story, I was woefully unprepared to bring anything good to the high schoolers, and my dear friends all had to tell me that I was breaking the very interpretive rules I’d just given them
All of this has resulted in two things simultaneously. On the one hand, I’ve been feeling the weight of my failure increasing and building and growing and overtaking. On the other hand, I’ve been trying more and more furiously to make up for my insufficiency, working longer and trying really hard not to be so angry and trying to segment my life and get it all figured out.
You can probably see where this is headed. Because it’s not been working in the slightest. Instead of getting better, it’s all getting worse. On our date last night, my lovely wife was trying to gently point out to me that the path I was on was unsustainable and that it was my pride that was fueling my grasping at the air of fixing my own problems.
And so after our date, I noticed our dishwasher wasn’t getting the dishes clean. This morning (not really digesting my wife’s words at all), I thought I’d unhook it, pull it out, and see if I could fix it. (Note: I have a bachelor’s degree in music, part of a seminary degree, and a job as an information analyst–handyman I am not!) As usual with such efforts, I couldn’t figure out the problem and made a huge watery mess in the kitchen from unhooking the water lines.
The hardest part was telling my wife we should call an appliance repairman. Because, you see, I think I could fix it with more time. I think I could figure out the problem and save us money. But what I don’t want to own up to is the fact that I already don’t have time for all the commitments I’ve made for myself. Nor that I might spend hours taking the darn thing apart and searching online repair forums and still not find the problem. My modus operandi is to never admit defeat: I can do this!
Except I can’t. Less because I’m not able–I have a pretty strong track record of accomplishing most things I decide to accomplish–but more because I’m a fool who can’t see that he’s choosing to neglect what’s been entrusted to me to save a few bucks that for once in my life I can actually afford to spend. Is it better to save money or to humble myself by getting help and getting back to my true responsibilities?
And I don’t think I’m explaining this very well anyhow. I feel like I’m advocating for some advanced time management tools or a life coach to help me prioritize. Which is about as Jesus-less as all my efforts have been lately. I’m sure time management or life coaching could help in some manner.
My problem, though, is a heart problem. My defeat came from the dishwasher because my Dad was kind enough to see me building my tower up to the heavens and came down to confuse my work and scatter me before I trudged full force into self-worshiping idolatry.
I’m glad I lost. I needed to. My own imaginary kingdom was bloated and moldy and cracked and rotting, but beautiful in my mind. But my Dad, who sees me refusing his good food to instead eat from the trash can, has used the sharp sting of discipline–and just the right discipline–to show me the feast he’s laid out for me.
My feast? The feast of a Savior who was already perfect so I would stop trying to be. The feast of limits, the feast of understanding that I’m not an island and not everything is my job, the feast of fellowship with my God through the Spirit who dwells within me, the lowly estate of a beaten and rejected Savior where I would rather bypass the gutters and jump to the glory.
So I’m grateful. A first step has been taken. My attention has been turned to the feast, but my heart is slow and cold and incredibly stupid. God grant me the grace to repent beyond even what I’ve seen so far.
Since I was out of town for this part week’s class, I recorded my teaching to be played in my absence. I finished up the talk on the Marvel universe (namely the Avengers) and gave a quick talk through Harry Potter.
I also discovered that my phone caps HD videos at about 35 minutes, so I get rudely interrupted by my own phone during the Harry Potter section. 🙂