For Brilliant Friends

Some thoughts on prayer and if/when/why it works

My interaction with God has been a little anemic lately. On reflection, I’m finding some patterns that are probably at the root of this. Here’s what most of my conversation with God looks like lately:

  • vague spontaneous thanks for generally nice things
  • vague spontaneous requests for fairly specific (but unlikely) last-minute interventions, without much expectation or follow-up
  • vague requests for insight or guidance or help, without much time spent waiting/watching/listening for an answer
  • most critically, a tendency to ask for things that will get me out of having to care or engage

Now that I’m starting to pay attention, I’m remembering what I’ve learned in the past. God seems much more responsive, and more consciously present to me, when my communication with him is basically the opposite of those patterns. Specifically, I want to get back to communication with God that is:

  • Specific, not vague. My rule of thumb on this one: if God does what I’m asking, will I be able to tell? Similarly, when thanking God, I find it helpful to try to thank him for something I’ve never thanked him for before (even if it’s just a new phrasing/angle on a longstanding gratitude).
  • Intentional, not (just) spontaneous. Spontaneous is actually great, but it needs to be built on a history of real, focused communication. I tried this today by setting aside some time to talk with God about my to-do list, outstanding projects, daughters, wife, friends, and a few other issues that came to mind in the process. It was pretty abbreviated in form, but I’m already feeling the difference between proactively asking for God’s help with the things I care about and randomly winging a prayer his way if something looks like it’s about to go south.
  • Listening, not just asking. When I think about it, it’s so dumb when I ask God for guidance and then pay zero attention to what happens next. I’m trying to start acting like I think he might respond if I ask him something, and pause for a moment to see if I experience any noteworthy shifts in my attention and desires, new thoughts or ideas, or a new gut sense of what’s the wise or foolish way to proceed.
  • Willing to engage with pain, discomfort, effort, and sacrifice. This is the huge one. I typically haven’t been a fan of the aphorism that God helps those who help themselves (which, as far as I can tell, has no discernible connection to most actual Christian theology). That said, I’m realizing that there’s a profound difference between asking God to help me enter into beneficial sacrificial effort and asking God to help me dodge it.

To expand that last one a little, I’m realizing that a lot-a-lot of the times I ask God to help, it’s basically me trying to get out of having to do anything. Please calm my girls down (so that I don’t have to get up from my dumb phone game). Please make sure that panhandler gets something to eat (so that I don’t have to, because I really don’t feel like making eye contact this time). That sort of thing.

But that’s contrary to the whole heart of what I believe God’s doing in the world. The entire point is that Jesus (who was showing us exactly what God is like and how he works) entered straight into the center of the messy, dangerous, painful, complicated guts of the broken world, depending fiercely on God to give him everything he needed to get through it. He was the one who entered so deeply into the pain and depended so fully on God that he made it straight through death and out the other side, blazing the trail for the rest of us.

So if I’m following Jesus on the trail he has blazed, I should be walking straight into the heart of the pain and complication, exactly where I won’t be able to handle it, asking as I go that God keep giving me the strength to dig deeper in, the love I need for the people I meet there, the provision they (and I) still need even after I’ve given the shirt off my back, the forgiveness that lets me unjustly take the blame and stay quiet, the peace I need to enter the chaos without freaking out and giving up.

In sum, I should only be asking God to show up if I’m willing to be the body he shows up in.


PS – There’s a risk, after that glorious crescendo of self-sacrifice, to feel like you should go out and give everything you own and save everyone you see and take up every cause immediately all the way on the spot. Going back to the “listening” point, I’ve found great balance to this urge in the practice of asking God which people/needs/causes I should be serving and caring about at any given moment.

This lets me take on the ones that he directs me to and freely not worry about the rest, trusting that other people also serve him and he knows what will be the best, most beautiful, and most freeing way for each of us to join him.

Parallel parking schematic

Now there is some science, my friends. This is what I’ve been waiting for someone to show me my whole life.

Of course, in Baltimore we sometimes have to parallel park on the other side of the road, too, which puts a new spin on your quark, so to speak. But still. A solid grasp of the fundamentals is key.

Just how much “relaxing” do I really need?

I’ve been thinking about rest lately. Having a fitful 4-month-old will do that.

Strangely, what got me thinking wasn’t the many sleepless nights. It was when we collectively conked out one Saturday and did pretty much nothing but family movies, Wii games, convenience foods, and (finally!) solid naps for everyone, including the grown-ups.

And it was good to veg out and all, but really it wasn’t that good. By the end I felt more sluggish than energized, even though it was all the “relaxation” I could cram into one day. Instead it brought into focus a question that has been bugging me for a while now: Just how much “relaxing” do I really need?

Put differently, when do I expect that I’m going to put down my phone and actually do all the life-giving but effort-requiring things I’m remembering I love but rarely do these days? Will I ever touch Latin again? Write good theology? Read actual books like a gentleman?

There’s some part of me that assumes that once I rest up and feel a little less zombie-ish I’ll start digging in on those things. And that’s probably kind of true, at least for the ones I already do sometimes, but really what’s going to make the difference is better free time routines. I want to stop being someone who defaults to smartphone-poking-while-“watching”-Netflix in my free moments.

A few early discoveries on this path:

  • Most of the entertainment I consume doesn’t particularly rejuvenate me. Books are probably the exception, for whatever reason.
  • Constant stimulation isn’t necessary. It’s rare for me to be without a book or a show or a background podcast these days, and I’m finding just sitting quietly is actually quite nice. Boredom isn’t as scary as I thought.
  • Walks are brilliant. This one I’ve known all along. It’s fresh air and low-key exercise and, if you’re with someone, good company and a chance to talk. I’m trying to take a walk or two a day, and it’s lovely. Sitting on the porch reading a book for 20 minutes is also remarkably refreshing.
  • Walks and quiet time also help me figure out what I actually want to do (and when and how). Figuring this out is (unsurprisingly, in retrospect) a key step in the transition from vague aspirations to real life changes.
  • Finishing looming background tasks is more restful than avoiding them, even if they’re scary and ambiguous. We faced a couple big complicated tasks head-on (after weeks to months avoiding) and, while they made for a tricky weekend each, we feel so much relief and freedom now that in my book it’s totally worth it.

One way I’m applying that last one, incidentally, is to shorten my books-in-progress list. I’m generally in the middle of, say, eight books at a time (which is probably not industry best practice anyway). Instead of a page of this and a page of that, I’ve started plowing through one book at a time (or one fiction and one non-fiction) until it’s done, and I’m now down to maybe four books in progress instead of eight or ten. It’s been surprisingly freeing. I hadn’t realized how much brainspace books-in-progress take.

What about you? What have you found truly restful and life-giving?

Cheers!

–Ben

 

AutoHotkey Hacks for Lazy Nerds Who Like Webcomics

I am beginning to seriously groove on AutoHotkey. It’s a free open-source program that lets you automate things on your computer. A pretty common application appears to be making up your own keyboard shortcuts and/or autoreplace rules.

I initially found it early in my vim kick–a kick which, for the record, is gamely stumbling on as I continue to insist to myself that one day I will learn enough to make vim so magically, brilliantly super-efficient that it will…well, make up for the dozens to hundreds of hours I will have spent learning stuff about vim, I guess.

Anyway, I was getting all excited about vim and learned that many power users remap their keyboards so that CapsLock becomes Esc and vice versa, because vim involves hitting Esc a lot and the CapsLock key is closer and easier, and so I charged ahead and found a little program (the aforementioned AHK) that would let me remap the keys in a fairly straightforward, untechnical way, and I did, and I thought little more of it except for putting in a mental pin to remind me to look more into AHK’s capabilities at some point.

That point was a couple days ago, and boy are my arms tired! Wait, different joke.

Anyway, I started reading up on AutoHotkey a little more and it’s amazing what it can do! It’s really a full-blown scripting…thing. (Application? Tool? Sorry, The Giver. No precision of language here.)

I once jokingly told a colleague that I wasn’t satisfied with the fact that I’d semi-automated a report to where I could run one query, paste the results into one spot in Excel, hit refresh, and send it out. I wanted a single button that would run the query, paste the results, and send the report for me. And then I wanted a machine that would push that button for me every day.

It appears that AutoHotkey is that button. And maybe also that machine. Time will tell.

For now one of my favorite uses I’ve put it to is creating keyboard shortcuts that pull up ‘dashboards’ of all the websites and/or files and/or folders I need to monitor or work on a particular project, task, or topic. It cuts out the friction that slows me down from getting to work (on, say, writing) because I’d have to open the story and the planning document and my music and my tracker and whatever. Or whatever.

I’m sure there will be more on this later, but just as an appetizer, install AutoHotkey and run a script containing the following code, then hit Ctrl-Shift-A. You’re welcome.

;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
;Fun Dashboard Ctrl-Shift-A
;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
^+A::
navOpenInNewTab := 0x800
navOpenInBackgroundTab := 0x1000

sites:=”www.reddit.com|www.xkcd.com|

http://www.smbc-comics.com|www.penny-

arcade.com/comic”

ie := comobjcreate

(“InternetExplorer.Application”)
ie.visible := true

Loop, Parse, sites, |
if A_Index = 1
ie.navigate(A_LoopField)
else
ie.navigate(A_LoopField,

navOpenInNewTab)

return

Life Changes and a Usefully Motivational Writing Doomsday Device

Let’s see. I started a new day job yesterday – still an analyst, but analyzing new things. So that’s exciting. I’m loving the work and the people and the space, and, while I’m exhausted between the tons of learning and the raising two young girls, I’m already feeling a whole new level of calm.

We moved some good friends into their new house over the weekend, and that’s exciting as well. They’re part of our little cabal of friends who share meals and watch each other’s kids and ponder deep questions together and such, and it’s really been time for a new house for them so their kids can run around without worrying about downstairs neighbors and they can host dinner without cramming everyone into a tiny apartment dining room. The new place has an open floor plan and an awesome basement den and a room for every kid and a potato in every chicken–wait, not that last one. But it’s great. Still a lot of unpacking, but it’s all downhill (i.e. easier, not worse) from here and I think it will be a big relief for all of us, and especially them, and it’s been way too long coming.

As for book stuff, after a surge of 10,000+ words of Hubris Towers Ep. 7 in a few days last week I haven’t written any more as I adjust to the new job. Should probably knock that out, though. I expect the whole thing will be 12-14k, so if I can squeeze in a little time we can get started on edits. And it’s going to need more edits than usual. Trade-off for relatively rapid writing.

On which note, check out themostdangerouswritingapp.com. Finally a tool that gives me real-time word count, rate in words per minute, and a timer. And a motivational doomsday countdown to boot!

I can’t believe how hard it’s been to find a live words-per-minute writing tool. I’d think that would be built into Scrivener and available as a Google Docs plugin and a thousand free apps. But I’m happy now.

What if the Roman Empire didn’t fall?

Aurelia Cover

Oh man, guys. This looks so good. Alternative history where (a bit of) the Roman Empire survived into modern times. Military thriller. Strong female lead.

Keep reading: Author interview with Alison Morton

A New Kind of 2016 Planner for Productivity with Gratitude

Happy new year, everyone! I’m trying an experiment and I’d love to have you join me in it.

I’ve designed a different kind of page-a-day planner that helps you overview your schedule and tasks while also cultivating gratitude, good habits, and human connection. I really built it for myself, but I think a lot of you would find it useful as well, and I’m interested in hearing how it works and how I can make the next one even better.

Here’s a link: The Wise Frog 2016 Planner

If you’re anything like me, you care a lot about productivity and setting good habits, but you also don’t want to be a task-oriented productivity drone. There’s a form of “success” that totally misses the point of life.

For me last year was very productive (published a few books, started Clickworks Press, published a couple other peoples’ books, etc.) but a lot of that came at the expense of time and attention I could have given my two-year-old girl, my wife, my close friends, and some non-book-related roles and responsibilities I have.

I basically spent a year completely obsessed with many layers of writing and publishing and selling stories, and while I think it was worth it as a short-term price for a long-term investment in my writing career, it’s not the pattern I really want my life to take.

Here’s where the experiment comes in.

I designed The Wise Frog 2016 Planner as a way to balance my day-to-day tasks and goals with what’s really important to me at a deeper level. I’m a systems guy, and it’s easy for me to make very streamlined to-do lists and productivity systems that keep me rushing toward the next release, next improvement, next success.

In fact, I can get so good at making a checked-off to-do feel like the win that I routinely put off playing with my lovely daughter or looking into my wife’s gorgeous eyes because I’m doing some dumb bit of coding or finalizing a table of contents or something. That is not the win.

So the Wise Frog is here to help. It’s a page-a-day planner with that is friendly and imperfect and has spots for my schedule, my big goals for the day, and also for gratitude, storytelling, tracking my human connections, working on habits, and jotting down ideas.

Even after one day of use I’m loving it. It’s built to not only plan ahead but also to note down a few key points of what my day was like so that over time I can look back and see patterns in my mood and activities and what I cared about. The spaces are small and focused and, as an obsessive, fiddly, over-achieving sort, it’s oddly refreshing to be able to fill them out in seconds (really to have to fill them out in seconds; there’s no room for an essay), and I’m already surprised at what a rich picture of my life they paint in just a few quick words.

It’s also crazy how much it has already changed my day. Today, unlike yesterday, I exercised and meditated and took time to reflect on how much I loved baking pretend pies with my daughter, all thanks to this little white day planner with a silly off-center frog on the cover.

So anyway, take a look, or share it with the people you know who might get value from something like this, and if you get one let me know how you used it and what kind of difference it made for you. (And, of course, how you’d make it better.) I look forward to hearing your stories.

Here’s the link again, where you can get a more detailed look: The Wise Frog 2016 Planner

Here’s to a brilliant new year! Thanks for all your love and support and interest. You guys are the best!

Cheers,

—Ben