Pray For Laborers

When someone asks for prayer we might pray later that day.  We’ll often forget about the request unless we see that person throughout the week or if they’re a close friend.  But what would we do if Jesus asked us to pray for something specific?  That something would likely consume our prayer times and even infiltrate our conversations.

Here’s the thing: Jesus did give us a prayer request, a huge one.

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:37-38

If we call ourselves Jesus’s disciples, we’re indeed commanded to pray for God to send workers to those he is drawing to himself.  These workers will meet unimaginable difficulties in cultural barriers, financial stability, and hostility in the harvest.  There are so many reasons to pray, Jesus’s words first among them.

When you pray for the Lord to send out laborers, would you pray for him to send laborers to the Gheg people of Albania?  Roughly 14,000 Ghegs have trusted Christ and are living new lives.  However, this burgeoning church currently struggles to reach millions of fellow Ghegs who have little to no access to the gospel.  If you’d like to read more about the Gheg people (and specifically our brothers and sisters among them), you can see what my wife, a friend, and I wrote about them at the link below.

Reaching the Gheg People of Albania with the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The Old Has Gone, First Edition

Creaking, rumbling birth pangs follow
Crumbling shrieks of anticipation.

Brightness breaks in
Warming the sleeping blind.

First steps from the tomb wombs feel familiar
Except all things are…are…new.

The trees and stones and little grains of sand
Bellow a familiar song never before heard.

Walking turns to skipping turns to dancing
As children follow the brilliant light of the city.

The newborn subjects parade their way to the King’s feast
And they have not enough worry to think about tomorrow.

This poem is very much still in progress. Other iterations can be found here.

Reading Review — 2016 Edition

Consistent reading is one of the most beautiful and practical evidences of God’s grace in the literate world.  Books help us in the effort to discover more of God’s reality; they are tools like no other.  I believe this so much that a friend and I will install and operate an at-cost bookstall for our church early next year to help fellow members turn back to and better understand the Bible.  My personal favorite read this year was a tossup between Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus and The Grace of Giving: Money and the Gospel, both given as gifts from fellow church members appropriately.  If anyone is interested in borrowing them or any other books, they can get in touch.

So when reviewing my reading habits of this past year, I have been careful to first see the blessings from the actual content within the books and only then seek ways to improve reading habits.  This discussion ought to help those who have never taken a moment to reflect on the frequency or breadth of their reading (like me about a year ago).

My goal this year was to read 26 books, no qualifiers—just 26 books flat out.

Fewer words now; more graphs.

books-read-by-month-2016

Even a person not accustomed to graphs can recognize above how volatile the past year has been for me in terms of reading.  Volatility on its own is not necessarily bad.  I met the goal of 26 total books in 2016 after all.  However, I had a suspicion that the books I picked up in the months of more frequent reading were shorter ones.  Now that is bad.  Rushing through novellas and handbooks is not as valuable to me as diligently discovering more of God’s reality.  These two actions are not mutually exclusive, but they usually do not happen together in my life to be completely honest.

With only 10 data points (excluding June and July), the good old-fashioned scatter plot below confirms my suspicion.

avg-book-length-vs-books-read-by-month

For the statistically minded out there, the ten data above do not “prove” anything per se, but there is at least some inverse correlation between reading frequency and average book length.  In the month when I read eight books, those eight books were far below the average page count across all of 2016.

I set a goal for 2016 and accomplished it, but not in the healthiest of ways.  Now we turn to a potential solution: independent quarterly goals.

From my experience forecasting customer demand for certain products at certain retail stores, I have learned that larger collections of units and time are much more predictable than smaller ones.  It would have been much easier for me to predict how many books I would complete in 2016 than doing the same for just Memorial Day weekend or just a particular Saturday in October.

With this in mind, independent quarterly goals will help make smaller chunks of time more predictable and thereby make 2017 a more consistent, earnest, and diligent year of reading.  Each quarter (span of three months) will have its own separate numerical reading goal, and extra accomplishments from one quarter will not rollover so to speak.  Viewing the graph below, for example if I read nine books in the first quarter, I still would need to read at least seven in the second.

projected-books-read-by-month-2017

All of this nitpicking over goals should not distract us from the goal of reading: namely, discovering more of God’s reality.  If I am not doing this, attempting this, or praying to the Lord to help me do this, then I am not reading rightly.

If readers take just a second to consider their own reading habits, then I am grateful that this discussion had some impact.  Even Socrates, half a millennium removed from Christ and half a sea removed from God’s prophets in Israel, knew that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

A Legacy of Generosity

Every person builds a legacy

Socrates, just before his death, knew that all people with influence over others leave behind legacies. Their actions either directly affect others or set examples of virtuous life. He held this conviction so strongly that he taught on his death bed, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, if people do not grasp a sense of what kind of legacy they build, they must diligently figure that out.

When college students graduate into the next phase of life, they usually trade in all that precious free time on campus for a paycheck in the bank. Twentysomethings stop paying to learn and start getting paid to develop professionally. This transition is not simple to navigate.

Examining long-term repercussions of money allocation is likely not a front burner concern during the transition to 9-to-5 life. “What should I use all this money for? More education? Retirement savings? Video games?”, asks the acclimating young professional. Use of money expresses desires of the heart. Even with hefty bills chipping away at newfound income, young professionals express their heart’s desires with at least some excess.

Two choices present themselves to young professionals: spend excess money on luxury, leisure, and lifestyle-building; or invest money they do not need in long-term legacies of life-giving to others. These choices are not mutually exclusive, but switching between them happens rarely. New college graduates tend to follow one of these two tracks with their high paying jobs.

Young professionals ought to devote their excess money to what matters most to them, what builds the kind of legacy they desire. Instead of only buying the newest iPhone or going out for expensive drinks every weekend, newly salaried twentysomethings could stimulate their local homeless shelter. Instead of only upgrading furniture from the parents’ hand-me-downs, new college graduates could invest in a community garden in their apartment complexes.

“What matters most” could include a wide variety of outlets, of course depending on the person’s background. For a 22-year-old black woman from Atlanta, that could mean donating to historically black colleges’ scholarship funds. For a person who just came to faith in Christ right before graduating, that could mean tithing in the local church and supporting missionaries overseas. For a newlywed couple who want to own a small business someday, that could mean diligently saving a portion of every paycheck towards that goal. These and many more are all sound applications of money for meaningful, earnest causes.

College students and young graduates are more aware of the world’s shortcomings now than people their age have been in a very long time. 24-hour news cycles, social media, and a general expectation to know what is going on all keep people engaged with the issues. But along with that engagement with the issues comes a certain paralyzation. Expectations spread to eat ethically, reverse climate change, end poverty, and fix everything wrong in the world.

Young people feel paralyzed when they are just getting this whole “adulting” thing down and twelve different charitable causes call on them to save the world as well. It is clear that money does not buy happiness, fix problems, or save the world, but giving money to what seems to matter the most is a faithful first step.

Taking the first step

This is a faithful first step because deciding what causes or organizations to give to can often feel like a baby step up from guesswork. And so there will always be an element of trust involved—trust in the actual people in communities or organizations receiving money and trust in God to plant that money like a seed to blossom. Christ knew that faith would remain a significant part of giving money when he warned, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. Faith and obedience are what make the rich person realize how little their own wealth and prosperity matter in the end.

Plenty of reservations keep people from taking the first step of faith and obedience.

Giving excess money for the first time could feel awkward or shallow. “What difference is this really going to make?” and “Am I just doing this to sleep better at night?” are understandable concerns. Even committing to giving when it feels shallow at first can be transformational over time. Just starting to give early on is the most important thing a new college graduate can do to build a long-living habit of openhandedness.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s wise character Gandalf lowers the pressure to accomplish everything all at once: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” The same idea applies for money. There is a limited amount of time and money in this life. Deciding what to do with both is the basis of every decision. If people estimate giving their money will make no change, they will still use that money for some purpose. A mildly effective donation still makes more good than a highly effective luxury expenditure.

James, an impassioned follower of Jesus, thought it worthwhile to remind fellow believers of their limitations: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

So to edit Gandalf’s statement slightly, all we have to decide is what to do with the mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. When people possess a limited amount of something, they tend to use it wisely on what matters. This life is a vapor about to disappear, so people ought to use it wisely on what matters.

If this life and everything in it are finite, here today and gone tomorrow, building a legacy of generosity ought to start today instead of tomorrow.

A Productivity Manifesto

This article includes suggestions for specific implementations, but its chief aim is to make readers think about how they do things before continuing in their current ways.

There are three pillars that make productivity possible. If only one or two of these are securely in place, then the beautiful process of getting stuff done tumbles.

  • Productive people have to know what to do.

  • Productive people have to have some motivation to do it.

  • Productive people have to have focus while doing it.

Readers have been fooled if they believe that a particular productivity system, online or otherwise, does not require all three of these combined in some fashion. A valuable mental image used to recollect these three pillars is an agenda resting on a desk next to a cup of coffee that’s next to a pair of reading glasses.

The agenda represents a forward-looking perspective. Its owner does not think while working, “Oh no, what do I need to do next? How long will it take? I don’t remember,” because they have off-loaded future tasks to the agenda. This mental image of an agenda can stand for any number of physical or digital task management systems. OmniFocus by the Omni Group is arguably the best digital task management system. OmniFocus is a digital personal assistant (or butler, for a more Victorian metaphor) that constantly answers the question: “What do I do next?” For suggestions on how to implement an all-paper system that answers the same question, the book Getting Things Done is the most popular guide by far. Readers interested in carrying out the book’s suggestions ought to use Field Notes for the “capture” process. These task management suggestions aside, productivity simply does not come from a constant state of wondering what to do next.

The cup of coffee, because caffeine is clearly God’s gift to His children, represents the motivation necessary to start a task. Motivation is a tricky thing to speak authoritatively about. If there is a human quality that psychologists, pastors, theologians, neuroscientists, teachers, and many other groups of professionals all have something to say about, it will be difficult to reach any consensus. Motivation comes and goes, but all sorts of people struggle to explain what it is in detail. Giving a careful definition of motivation is a little like doing the same for “conscience” or “intrigue.” For the sake of building productivity however, the will to begin and eventually end a task remains fundamental. Buying OmniFocus or setting up a full-fledged tactile task management system will be worthless without a will to accomplish.

The reading glasses represent maintained focus through the distractions swirling around a productive person. Also called concentration, this last element can be controlled with practice and the right tools. Imagining an experienced man in his fifties doing manual labor alongside a young man of equal strength in his early twenties, one can see that a distinguishing factor in output would be focus on the work at hand. That focus comes from experience and refinement. Applying this to knowledge work, experience matters in building focus, but some simple methods and tools can help speed up the process of building focus. The Pomodoro Technique uses a mechanical kitchen timer to box off a section of time for undivided work. Recently, many mobile and desktop applications have replaced the famous tomato timer. Timeboxing in general is the most recommendable tool for developing focus in productive work. Saying to oneself, “Now I am committed to working,” and then, “Now I am committed to taking a break,” hijacks the dully distracted semi-work that permeates modern offices and dorm rooms. Focus and motivation seem indistinguishable until one of them fails without the other. Productivity cannot occur with only a task and some motivation; focus is vital.

Perhaps this article has only repeated what readers have already heard and read. Perhaps this article has only repeated what readers have instinctively known for years about their own poor habits. In both cases, it has still succeeded.

Productivity will always be a fickle thing, waxing and waning almost inexplicably. Yet it is quite literally how the world works. So be it.

An Extra 24 Hours

Fuzzy feelings

I consume a lot of audio. Podcasts, (some) music, and (some) public radio fill the cracks of distraction when what I need is a solid foundation of focus. Real mental work gets done in my routine when the ear buds go in. This great benefit of audio soon became only the first reason to listen in though.

Audio—particularly in podcast form—isn’t just a cold productivity tool. As media companies and my fellow consumers have known for a long time, what a person listens to is inevitably very personal. In the moments when I’m not at a desk, podcasts convert themselves from productivity tools into something more personal than simple entertainment. Having podcasters’ voices coming through my car speakers is now an essential part of driving to work, like checking my blind spot or sipping coffee from a to-go mug. The same goes for lunchtime walks or solo cooking. Sermons, feisty political pundit debates, rumorous speculations about new technology, and especially the voices carrying all these out are more than mere audio. They’re a part of my life.

With podcasts I’m subscribed to, I listen to the hosts’ voices about as often as I listen to the voices of my close friends who live in other cities. Downloading a new episode is like picking up the phone for a call to catch up. I’m filling otherwise mundane time with the engaging stories and opinions of a diverse range of individuals. Given—it’s a little bit different from catching up with a long-distance friend because my confidants don’t discuss whether or not the new iPhone will have an audio jack or fantastical strategies to keep Donald Trump out of office for hours.

Discounting the one-way nature of these conversations for a moment, I am beginning to understand what members of my grandparents’ generation have meant when saying their favorite radio broadcaster was a part of the family. A family gathering around a pre-television, Depression-era radio set to hear the evening news or a Roosevelt fireside chat would of course generate warm feelings toward the voices on the other end of the broadcast. After listening to ~1–1.5 hours of podcasts per weekday for almost a year now, I can fully empathize with that sentiment.

More of the fuzzy feelings

I recently noticed this humble informational status in my podcast app of choice.

IMG_1097

“Smart Speed has saved you an extra 24 hours…” Wow. Well what does this mean?

First, what is Smart Speed? It’s a feature that’s unique to the iOS podcast app Overcast. Most, if not all, podcast apps offer some kind of speed adjustment feature (hardcore audio addicts listen at 2x). Overcast is the only app that is able to change the speed of audio while it’s playing. Here’s an explanation from The Sweet Setup’s review of Overcast.

Smart Speed shortens silences without any distortion. Instead of having to do a straight-up 1.5x or 2x playback across the board, Smart Speed speeds up shows more intelligently.

More intelligently indeed. Purely conversational shows (colloquially known as the Two Dudes Talking genre) with long pauses get their gaps of silence spliced, yet more fast-paced productions like NPR’s many, many shows remain basically unaffected.

Second, what does it mean that Smart Speed has “saved” me an “extra” 24 hours? An iOS app cannot add a day to my life, but what it can do is pack in more of what I love into the life I’m not able to extend. By cutting out inefficiencies of my listening, Overcast has not only shrewdly upped my productivity but also measurably increased my daily enjoyment. That’s not just intelligent; it’s game-changing.

Because of one software feature enabled in my routine a mere 365 days ago, I’ve spent an entire extra day with these “friends” of mine. I’ve spent 24 extra hours hearing the gospel, learning philosophy, and listening to stories.

I’m one of many beneficiaries. As of September 2014, just a couple of months after Overcast’s release1, users had collectively gained about 9.6 years of extra listening time.

To my fellow listeners, I give to you one simple example of this app’s benefit on a person’s life. Increase the amount of fuzzy feelings you have for your favorite podcasters by using Overcast. Read more about how to transfer your subscriptions between podcast clients here.

To people looking from the outside into the growing realm of podcasts, you do have the time and ability to enjoy some of these starter shows:

And to Marco Arment and other user-focused developers and designers, keep up the good work. Keep making choices that aren’t obvious or easy. Keep pushing the envelope.


  1. To read more about the initial release of the app, read the developer Marco Arment’s release post here