Life Without: Audiobooks

Last month, I started my “year without buying books.” It was in response to one of those inner promptings – when God’s Spirit guides us to take small steps of transformation. Like pruning, this process often involves cutting things out in order to make room, or reserve energy and time, for something better.

So, for 2023, there’d be a clean break from online-impulse buying; there’d be a dam in the stream of new arrivals overflowing my shelves; there’d be a moratorium on any additions to my growing list of un-listened-to audiobooks; there’d be a commitment, before entering a used bookstore, to only browse.

So far, I have no regrets. When you notice addictive behaviour, it can be really helpful to completely cut it out – to starve your appetite for it, and force yourself to look elsewhere for something to fill the void. Something life-giving. So, rather than accumulating more, how about adopting the practice of giving away? Or simply enjoying what I have? I do have a lot of books.

Interestingly, ceasing to purchase books resulted in a sudden increase in reading – or, more specifically, listening. After cancelling my Audible membership (to stop purchasing new ones), I realized that the end of January would bring an end to my access to all of the free titles included in my account. And I had a few on the go: Eusebius’s Church History, Sun-Tau’s The Art of War, and Andrew Murray’s Abide in Christ. Knowing that this was my last chance to finish them, I frantically devoured the first two, and half of the third before my time ran out.

Yet, while I’m somewhat proud to have finished a couple more classic works of literature, this frenetic end to the month raises another issue for reflection:
Are audiobooks becoming too big in my life? Are they taking up too much time and attention, and getting in the way of other things? Has the elimination of one addictive behaviour (purchasing books) cast a spotlight on another addictive behaviour (listening to books)?

So, as I entered the month of February, it seemed to me that taking a break from audiobooks would be worth a try. For years, they had accompanied me in the silence of my driving, dishwashing, home renovations, snoozing, and tedious office work. And they had added much richness to my life – insightful perspectives from non-fiction, imaginative escapes in fiction, or simply the efficient completion of an assigned reading.
But were these additions subtracting anything from my life? At times, they divided my attention and distracted me from people and important tasks. At other times, they filled the space that could have been occupied by prayer, pondering, Bible study, or conversation. And why? What was the appeal? Why did I feel the need to press on and finish book after book?

It seems that with books, I face not only the temptation to over-accumulate, but the temptation to strive for accomplishment.

That’s the addiction. Reading books to add to my “completed” list, as a subtle source of pride (see me on Goodreads). Audiobooks have enabled me to read more (albeit less attentively) but what have they caused to become less? Perhaps cutting them for a month would reveal some insight.

So, with audiobooks out of the way, what would fill the void? What else could I listen to?
I tried radio, and heard a lot of chatter, annoying ads, and shallow songs.
I tried podcasts, which challenged by sense of accomplishment (there’s nothing to say I “completed”). While they often thoughtfully engage both sides of a culturally relevant issue (Holy Post, Munk Debates), they also take a lot of time. I’d say they sure beat radio, for someone whose mind is free while they work with their hands, but I still prefer in-person dialogue.
I tried sermons – but find them less informative than books, and more suited for their particular context – better to be there, in person! I could listen to my own sermons – probably a painful but useful discipline that could lead to growth ūüôā
I tried videos – which can be informative like books, without the same publishing credentials. Good for washing dishes alone, but few other times.
I tried articles – less time consuming and quite efficient (especially though Twitter), but certainly lacking the depth of books.
And of course, I tried to finish some books in paper – an ongoing, but painfully slow practice that is really irreplaceable for the memory it instills.

Despite the limitations of those options, some new practices also helped fill the void:
Listening to people – My Doctoral research project involves interviewing new believers to hear how they came to faith. And I was blessed to hear ten stories in the space of one month – an experience that was both draining and enriching! It takes energy and focus to listen and draw out a person’s story, but the practice has been quite enlightening. I’m glad to have the time and headspace for it.
Listening to God – this one might seem obvious, but when automatic go-to time fillers are removed, there can be space for prayer: reflection on His word, journaling and conversing with Him about life, and interceding for the needs of others.
Playing soccer – I’ve never played on a soccer team in my life – but after the parents from my son’s team decided to form their own, I’ve found my hockey and football skills transfer fairly well to the role of goalkeeper. So, Sunday afternoon snoozes with audiobooks have given way to exercise and new friendships!
Playing guitar – after taking lessons in high school, my guitar playing was basically dormant for 20 years. There was always someone else who could offer their musical abilities at church, and so, over the years, I’ve taken up other ministry roles. But, as our church has begun to lack instrumentalists lately, I’ve begun to respond to that stress by picking up the guitar again. While that might sound like a stressful endeavour to rescue the music ministry, it’s actually been much more of an inward practice that has produced outward fruit. For the first time, I’ve begun to genuinely enjoy playing for it’s own sake, and to worship God through song outside of a church service. And through that personal development, I’ve gained a capacity to serve in that area.
Playing music – related to that, I’ve begun to realize that songs have certain advantages over books. While books can broaden one’s perspective by adding knowledge, songs can deepen one’s understanding, or the impact of words, by repeating them. Played to music, songs lyrics stick in our mind and can help form our thoughts and actions. In times of stress or busyness, I am thankful when a timely song enters my mind.

So, this month, I sought freedom not only from the accumulation of books, but from the need to accomplish through reading them. And, surprisingly, that freedom from accomplishment has created space for new accomplishments to emerge. While there is a time and place to disengage from the world and broaden knowledge, this month has afforded me time to engage in the world more deeply and fruitfully.

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.

Psalm 62:1

Life Without: Buying Books

I did it. I cancelled my Audible membership – at least for a year.

Since early 2020, Audible has been a steady companion of mine during home renovations, long walks, yard work, driving, and washing dishes. Its books have offered valuable insight for life, material for discussion in book clubs, and imaginative escapes during stressful seasons. 

I can remember many times when I eagerly awaited the end of the month – for the moment when my new credit would be made available, when I could finally download the next instalment in Isaac Asimov’s¬†Foundation¬†series, that classic title on my bucket list, a textbook for class, or a new release recommended by a friend.

It’s been a great ride – so, why would I cancel such a good thing?

I have sometimes noticed what appears to be¬†materialism¬†in others – buying expensive things that seem to be unnecessary – repeatedly making purchases out of a feeling of emptiness that never seems to be filled. Yet, I’ve also come to see that I am materialistic in my own way – I never seem to have enough plants, rocks, and books! Others have teased me for collecting the first two, as they don’t seem to hold much practical utility. But,¬†plants¬†offer beauty, illustrate wisdom, and can improve their value over time.¬†Rocks tell stories from the past – each of them unique, like people – not to mention that when polished, and placed in relish jars, they make great gifts or decorations on a bookshelf! And then¬†books…well, as Solomon said, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).¬†

Over the years I have constantly¬†accumulated books. Shelf after shelf have been filled in my office, in my living room, in my bedroom. Many are given to me and given away to others. Some are purchased, and some are never read. Digitally, through Audible and Christianaudio, I have also accumulated gigabytes of audiobooks. My list of “Not Yet Started” titles has grown nearly as fast as my Wish List. ¬†
And the problem with such accumulation is that after a while, it begins to weigh on you.¬†Your house becomes cluttered, and you worry about storage. Your items are valuable, and you worry about their security. And there’s that sinking feeling that you may never use the thing that you’ve purchased.
The more you have, the more you have to worry about – it’s true for cars and houses and jewelry and books.

As I’ve begun study and preach through the book of¬†Nehemiah¬†this year, I’ve noticed how clearly it models a¬†process of change¬†that believers go through. Looking at each chapter, one could identify¬†steps of transformation:
They begin with repentance Рadmitting their problem, and then proceed to revision a more hopeful future. Next, they get to work rebuilding, and then need to come internal and external resistance. Finally, as they make progress, they begin to reflect and reevaluate before taking time to remember, rejoice, and produce ongoing reforms. 

While I’m not preaching on this book to lead the church through a building program, I do hope that reading¬†Nehemiah can offer us space to reflect on our lives – to evaluate what we are building in this year ahead.¬†Though I am not calling for New Year’s Resolutions (it’s too late for that), I am personally embarking on a journey of transformation in which I will seek to live without something in each successive month.

Why would I do that? Is this needless self-sacrifice? Outdated asceticism? 
No, I’d describe it as¬†pruning. Making space in my life for new growth. Trimming some dead weight, or things that are actually harming me.
Years ago, I kicked what felt like an unhealthy addiction to TV by cutting it out for a month. Ever since then, it’s never been a big part of my life.

Lately, I’ve had a growing sense that I need to stop buying books for a year – for similar reasons. It has become an unhealthy habit – like impulse shopping, giving a temporary high. That means no more books for my personal studies, for study groups, or for simple pleasure. That also means cancelling my subscription to Audible. While other subscriptions were easier to cancel – Amazon Prime, TSN, and Christianaudio are just seasonal treats, receiving that monthly Audible credit had become quite a routine. In fact, it had begun to create anxiety –¬†what book will I add, this month, to my ever-growing list of unread books?

And so, it has begun.¬†A month without purchasing books. A month to begin enjoying what I already have¬†– a practice that is integral to the intent of Sabbath – to cease from work, production and accumulation – to take pleasure what we’ve already been given. Perfect for my seventh year at Parkdale, my Sabbatical year. And already, there have been nice surprises this month. For one thing, I’ve started a study group using a free book,¬†Multiply. And, wouldn’t you know it, I received a new book for my birthday this month too! (see below)

Though making cuts always hurts, we know that deep down, it’s for the best. Death leads to new life. Surrender leads to rest. Repentance to hope. I look forward to discovering how God will fill the space that this year’s disciplines will create!

23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?

Jesus, Luke 9

Gospel of Mark: 3 Simple Steps

Where do you go to find healing?

Last spring, I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering nearby in my city.¬† The group was looking for a new place to meet, and one of their members invited me to check them out.¬† I watched as 40-50 “Gen-X” young adults shared from the heart about their struggles, failures, hopes, and milestones on their journey to recovery.¬† There was an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and openness.¬† They held fast to the teachings in their “Big Book,” and religiously followed its 12 steps, of which the first three are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol‚Äďthat our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

I was impressed by the mutual support between the members, and the personal drive each of them showed to climb out of their addiction.¬† I was filled with hope for these people, who sought so eagerly for a “higher power,” but couldn’t help thinking as Paul thought in Athens when He stood up and proclaimed:

People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.¬†For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:¬†to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship‚ÄĒand this is what I am going to proclaim to you.¬†

The Aeropagus in Athens, where Paul spoke in Acts 17.

Paul went on to explain that God was not out of their reach, and wanted them to seek Him.¬† They were trying so hard to worship and seek God in the right way, and just needed to know that God didn’t need their help – He was ready to help them!¬†(Acts 17:22-23)

Our church happily welcomed the AA group to use our building twice a week, and looked forward to developing a cooperative and healthy relationship.¬† After 9 months, it has been great, and a few of their members have sought for the “Higher Power” with us on Sundays too!

Last fall, several months after AA came under our roof, our church launched Freedom Session Рa Christian 12-step program that explicitly names Jesus as the Higher Power who will bring us healing and growth.  This was for two reasons Рfirst, so that we could offer the good news of Jesus to people of the recovery community who were seeking answers.  Secondly, because we as a church had a lot to learn from the recovery community Рabout opening up and becoming more authentic with one another.  Freedom Session would be a step in that direction.  Perhaps both sides could learn from one another!

Freedom session is designed for people to deal with any issue (abuse, addiction, behavior, etc.) and its corresponding coping strategies and “drugs of choice.”¬† It also follows the same 12 steps as AA, with some slight changes in wording.¬† Here are the first three:

  1. We admitted that, in our own strength, we are powerless to rise above our hurts, resentments, unhealthy behaviors and attempts to control.   Our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that God exists, that He loves us deeply and that, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we can be healed and fulfill the purposes for which we were created.
  3. We made a conscious decision to turn our lives, our pain and our will over to the care of God and the leadership of Jesus Christ.

Coincidentally, as we trained and prepared to launch Freedom Session, I was preaching through the Gospel of Mark in September.  With only 3 Sundays to work with after the Labour Day weekend, I decided to focus on identifying the main message of Jesus.  This I found in His opening remarks in Mark 1:14-17:

  • ¬†Jesus went into Galilee,¬†proclaiming the good news of God.¬†‚ÄúThe time has come,‚Ä̬†he said.¬†‚ÄúThe kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe¬†the good news!‚Ä̬†¬†As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.¬†¬†‚ÄúCome, follow me,‚Ä̬†Jesus said,¬†‚Äúand I will send you out to fish for people.‚ÄĚ

In this summary of Jesus’s Gospel message, He begins by stating the fact that the kingdom has come.¬† God’s promise to come and save His people was coming true.¬† Jesus’s name meant that He would save people from their sins.¬† He was also called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.”¬† God’s kingdom was being launched on earth – a movement of people who trusted and followed Jesus.

Jesus then asks for a response in 3 simple commands: Repent, Believe, and Follow.¬† We are to have a “change of mind,” as the Greek word for “repent,”¬†metanoia means – and this should result in a complete reorientation in our life.¬† We must turn from our wrong ways, and turn toward a new way – believing in Jesus as our Savior.¬† And for believing to bear fruit, it must translate into action – following Jesus.¬† ¬†This will result in us becoming able to “fish” for others – to share what we have.

I couldn’t help but notice that these 3 simple commands corresponded with the 3 steps of AA and Freedom Session.¬† It is well-known that AA has Christian roots – and we can see it today!¬† One must confess that there is a problem, come to believe in a source of hope, and then decide to follow through.¬† If only it was clearly understood who that Source of Hope was, who originally gave us these 3 steps!

Going on in Mark, I preached on the Parable of the Sower.¬† I hadn’t planned it this way, but it was fascinating to see how this parable illustrated the same 3 steps!¬† The seed is the good news of Jesus, and the soils are the hearts of different people:

  • The hardened soil on the path failed to take step 1 – to confess/repent, and be open to receive the message.
  • The shallow, rocky soil failed to take step 2 – to believe and endure through adversity.
  • The thorny soil failed to take step 3 – to follow through and set aside distractions.

Only by taking all 3 steps can we expect “fruit” – change, recovery, and healing!

My last message was Jesus’s encounter with Blind Bartimaeus.¬† Here, we have a real-life example of someone taking these steps.¬† Bartimaeus admits that he is¬†blind, and calls out for help: step 1.¬† Then, Bartimaeus demonstrates faith by specifically asking Jesus to restore His sight: step 2.¬† Finally, having been healed, Bartimaeus uses his newfound eyesight to get up and follow Jesus: step 3!

I share this as an encouragement to all РGod is not far off or out of reach Рin fact, He has been reaching out to us all along!  He has sent Jesus as our Savior, Who calls us to 3 simple steps: Repent, Believe, and Follow! 

May we find hope and healing in Him.

 

 

Lent, Discipline & A Month Without

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lent Season.

Yesterday was “Shrove Tuesday,” or “Fat Tuesday” – the last chance for many to feast and party, before the sombre Lent season commences. ¬†IHOP offers free pancakes to everyone. ¬†Carnivals and parades pop up here and there, especially New Orleans. ¬†Why such a contrast?

Traditionally, Lent is understood to be about self-denial and purification. ¬†It is modeled after Jesus’s 40 days of fasting in the desert, where He confronted and overcame temptation. ¬†Similarly, many Christians use the 40 days¬†leading up to the Easter week as a time of self-denial, or fasting. ¬†Given the nature and length of Lent, it is understandable that it’d be preceded and followed by feasts! ¬†But why fast, in the first place?

Fasting can have two causes, but really one effect.  First, it can be reactive to a problem Рa sort of practical repentance from sin.  Something in your life is too big, too harmful, and it needs to go.  Or, at least, you need to break a habit and limit a dependency.  Second, fasting can also be a proactive step of growth Рa sort of preparation or purification.  The object of the fast may not necessarily be negative, but it must be removed or restricted in order to create space for something else.  Both cases are illustrated in  Hebrews 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Did you notice that? ¬†In order to run our race, of following Jesus, we must not only shed the “sin that entangles,” but also “everything that hinders.” ¬†Fasting, like any spiritual discipline, is about creating space for God to move in our lives. ¬†Richard Foster, in his book,¬†Celebration of Discipline, argues that, while righteousness is purely a gift from God, Spiritual Disciplines “open the door” to His liberation and blessings:

God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving His grace.  The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us (7).

Participating in Lent can run the risk of engaging in legalism. ¬†We can try to perform well, and out-perform others. ¬†Foster also acknowledges this danger, and points us back the the purpose of the Disciplines – as our act of faith in receiving God’s grace. ¬†John Ortberg, in¬†The Life You’ve Always Wanted, says something similar:

Practices such as reading Scripture and praying are important‚ÄĒnot because they prove how spiritual we are – but because God can use them to lead us into life (39).

So then, Lent offers us a yearly opportunity to do something together as Christians: to fast, to deprive ourselves, to give up something, in order to create space for God to fill.  What could that look like?

The first time I remember participating in Lent was when I was a teenager. ¬†Even then, I think the meaning was clear to me – give up something that is in the way of your relationship with God. ¬†So, this was¬†reactive. ¬†Yet, even a reactive fast can be proactive, in that it creates space for something better. ¬†I decided to give up TV. ¬†At my home, there was often a TV on, somewhere. ¬†There was also a computer screen or two, or three. ¬†I’m not saying that my family was unhealthy – we were outdoorsy, and ate meals and prayed together. ¬†But for me, the TV was taking up too much space in my life. ¬†I knew it, deep down.

Through that month, I overcame many awkward and isolating situations, and emerged a different person.  My appetite for TV had shrunk.  After a while, I stopped missing it.  My head was clearer, my mind was freer.

Many years later, as a young father, I had time to reflect on my busy life during a 16-day road trip.  We lived in an apartment with two children (and another coming soon) while I served as pastor of an inner-city multicultural church.  As we often do on vacations, my wife and I agreed to make adjustments to our home life, to make it healthier and more sustainable.  For me, I decided to give up something new Рevery month.

What a fascinating experience.  It seems so daunting beforehand, so agonizing in the process, and so freeing by the end of it.

In September, I gave up pictures. ¬†Having frantically tried to capture every beautiful sight and memorable moment during my road trip, I began to feel like moments and sights had become commodities, or objects for me to ravenously consume, to frantically collect. ¬†I wondered – “what if I just experienced moments for what they were, letting them pass into my memory?” ¬†It was a freeing experience – and I learned to be more attentive. ¬†I learned to appreciate things and let them go, to find intrinsic value in a moment, without the extrinsic benefit of stored images.

Next, it was coffee.  This was a hard one.  My body and mind groaned for caffiene in the early days of October, and I tried to fool it with decaf and tea.  I cheated a little, and learned the gravity of the situation.  I do not want to be addicted to something, like this.

In November, I targeted sports media. ¬†Now, that may or may not sound like a big deal. ¬†But, perhaps everyone can compare it to something – social media, the newspaper, romance novels…whatever you fill your gap-time with. ¬†I tended to check sports scores, news, and highlights whenever I could – waiting at the microwave, on the toilet, on the bus, at a red light, at a playground, in a lineup, or even while waiting for another page to load. ¬†Through this fast, I began redeeming the value of gap-times. ¬†Our bodies need time to breathe; our minds need time to think; our souls need time to pray, practising the presence of God.

Now, it’s March 1, 2017¬†– here we go again! ¬†Lent is beginning, and so is a new month. ¬†Why not prayerfully reflect on what could give way in your life, to make room for God? ¬†Is it a “sin that entangles?” ¬†Repent of it! ¬†Is it “anything that hinders?” prune it away, so that fruit will come!

For me, I’ve cut my phone data, and have restricted its internet use to Google Maps and News. ¬†Perhaps that seems like nothing, but for many, a phone threatens to become everything. ¬†Its “capabilities” can actually enslave you, by making you feel that things that would normally be done later, elsewhere, should¬†be done here and now. ¬†Ironically, then, greater ability means less freedom. ¬†With a smartphone, I feel that I have no excuse to not respond immediately. ¬†I have endless temptation to remove myself from the moment, and dwell in cyberspace.

For March, my phone is no longer “everything.” ¬†It’s capabilities are limited. ¬†It is a phone, a reader, a music player, a map, and a newspaper. ¬†And, I’m glad – these capabilities enable me to more efficiently do what I would need to do anyways. ¬†But as for email and social media, they can wait. ¬†I don’t need to operate them via a mobile device. ¬†Their place in my life will be my stationary computer. ¬†Why? ¬†What’s the harm?

First, many smartphone capabilities are passive – there when you need them, and invisible when you don’t. ¬†But, mobile email and social media tend to be more active – they send us¬†instant notifications as messages come. ¬†They make us available to be reached by new means. ¬†Like phone calls, they can intrude and distract. ¬†And for me, I’m deciding to assign them a limited¬†place, and make them once again passive – there when I want them. ¬†My hope is that the new space this creates will be filled with a greater sense of God’s presence, listening through Scripture & prayer.

Secondly, the capability to respond instantly via mobile email and social media opens up new risks.
How many rash and regretful messages would you like to take back?
How could waiting a while have changed their tone?
How many long, rambling emails “should have been a phone call”?
How effective can communication be through email and social media, anyways?

Email and social media still have their place in my life.  Email is helpful for conveying written information clearly, thoughtfully, and privately.  Social media is helpful for conveying information publicly, and seeing what others are conveying publicly.  Both are more efficient than their predecessors Рsnail mail, bulletin boards, etc.  But their place in life will be limited Рto my stationary computers.

There is freedom in limitations. ¬†Cattle frolick in a fenced-in field. ¬†Children shamelessly play, within the loving and accepting confines of their home. ¬†Spouses enjoy a special intimacy that comes with commitment. ¬†Parents can enjoy watching their children grow, as they let go of their own plans for the time being. ¬†Workers can enjoy efficiency and productivity, as they narrow and specialize their career focus. ¬†Mature adults learn to take themselves lightly, accepting who they are, and what they will never be. ¬†And hopefully, I will hear God’s voice more clearly, as I limit other ones.

Is there a way that you could create space for God to work in you?