It has been a decent amount of time since I have posted anything to this blog. One of my big struggles is doing something consistently for extended periods of time. What generally happens is I get started, I am on the right path, doing well, and then I get confident and start to slack off a bit, or turn my focus somewhere else, feeling like I can handle multiple things at the same time. Before I know it, I haven’t written anything in several months.

It’s not just here that this happens. Many areas of my life have been affected by this tendency, and so it is something which I need to really focus on and root out. When I recognize that I have reached that point, I need to take a step back and realize that if I am not singularly minded, all the momentum which I have gained will be lost.

An illustration of this would be a bike rider who is preparing to go up a big hill. He gets a head start, really pounding it out. He gets maybe halfway up the hill, and things are going really well. He thinks to himself, “I can ease up a little bit, I guess this hill wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

To put it in categorical terms, I know that my struggles are mainly with sloth and hubris, combined in these instances to make for a very poor performance. What are the opposite virtues related to the sins of sloth and hubris? I’m not sure, I’ll have to check that out. At least for today I have written, and can check that off my list.

First You Must Lead Yourself

In order to be a good leader, you have to first be able to lead yourself. What does that mean? It means you need to be able to understand your own emotions, set attainable goals, and position yourself to meet those goals. It means being self-controlled and self-motivated. If a leader’s job is to help others be driven and motivated and achieve their goals, then you as a leader should be able to achieve the same results in yourself. Leadership also requires understanding that it is in some ways easier to lead yourself because you already have an understanding of your own motivations and desires, whereas when you are leading others you have to make blanket assumptions, unless you are in a one-on-one situation, where you still must figure out the mind of the person you are trying to encourage.

Is it possible to lead without having any type of self-direction? I suppose it’s possible. But I have come to a couple of conclusions on that. First, if you aren’t leading yourself, then your methods will be inherently flawed or haphazard, based on instinct rather than truth. Something may sound like a good tip for leading people, but until you have experienced it then you really have no idea. The easiest way, of course, is to test it on yourself. Second, the practice of leading by example is extremely powerful. If you live what you are telling others to do, you will not only understand what you’re talking about more intimately, but you will be able to share the little nuances that cannot adequately be expressed by others. They will also be able to see the actual fruits of the things you are telling them to do, even if the circumstances are not quite the seem. They will see the way you carry yourself and be able to trust that you know what you’re talking about.

What is meant by leadership? I believe leadership is being in a position of authority, but this authority must be used in order to help people focus themselves towards a particular end. I like the allusion of a shepherd and a flock of sheep. The sheep are autonomous and have basic instincts and desires, and without the shepherd they would be able to do this somewhat reasonably. But the shepherd is able to direct the sheep so they are able to more efficiently attain what they are seeking, be it food, water, or shelter. The shepherd also protects the sheep from predators and does other things the sheep would not be able to do themselves. The shepherd puts his own life down so that he can serve others.

It is entirely possible to lead without this frame of mind, but this is I believe the archetype or the ideal of leadership. Obviously leadership differs based on the setting and the group that the leader is exercising authority over. But on a basic level, the same concepts apply. My perspective is from a religious background, so my idea of a leader is someone who is able to encourage spiritual growth, protect people from false doctrine or deception in general, be a comfort in times of distress, and other such things. It is not something you learn about from reading or going to school, but it must be done from a heart of love. Experience and education are also necessary elements of leadership, but without the force of love and compassion, a leader is cold and detached from his flock, not attentive to their actual needs, but only what he perceives they might require. He may get by most of the time, but there is something deeper that is within reach which is what a true shepherd is called to be.

This is all mere conjecture as I have never successfully led anything of this sort, but it makes sense to me. Hopefully this makes sense objectively as well. I would like to make more posts about leadership in the future, as I think it is a vital topic to understand, even if one is not in a position to exercise authority over anyone else. As I mentioned at the outset of this post, everyone is a leader of at least person: the self. If you can understand how to lead yourself in the right direction, then my assumption would be that taking the lessons you’ve learned and applying that to a larger audience would be well within the realm of possibility. Even if you never have a need to do that, you will be better equipped to reach your goals and lead yourself to greener pastures.

The Feast Days and Other Thoughts

One concern I have in the Hebrew Roots/Messianic movement is the overemphasis on certain keynotes. From the outset I would like to make clear that I am not opposed to the feast days, but merely wish to see them kept in their proper perspective, the perspective which has been intended by God as revealed through His word.

I am not so much noticing a problem in certain individuals or groups, but I am here addressing an idea which has been floating around in my head for a while as a possible implication of some of the works of our ministry and others which bring a similar message. When people come into a realization about the Torah, specifically the feast days and the sabbath as these are typical ports of entry, I believe their immediate instinct is to really focus in on these things alone. This wouldn’t be a problem if this was done with a proper sense of perspective, but I can see how it would be feasible for one to go off the deep end and find themselves in an unsavory place. My point is that these days and seasons are indeed very significant and holy times, and they have lessons to teach us that are applicable to our daily walks as well. But they are not themselves daily events, and in order to maintain their holiness, they must be kept in their proper place in time. The problem arises when the full message of our ministry is one solely of things such as this.

Setting up a ministry to provide education about the feast days and the sabbath etc. is indeed a noble and necessary cause, but there is a danger in focusing only on these times without conveying the true purpose or spirit of them. I believe the ministry I am involved with has tried to do this with the utmost sincerity from the very beginning, as I am realizing as I ponder this. There is a reason the Apostolic Scriptures don’t really talk about these times except in passing. They were assuming that their audience was familiar with and observing these times. It is not difficult to pay attention to the calendar and do the necessary actions to observe an appointed time. And when these times come, it is excellent and good to take full advantage of the bountiful teachings which these times and the symbolism they are accompanied with provide for us, as well as understanding that these are times God draws near to His people. But the writers of the Apostolic Writings had to concern themselves with the conduct of a group of new believers: those coming in from multifarious backgrounds and levels of religious experience. It was necessary to provide instructions for the daily walk, things which would be immediately applicable to the life of the intended audience. We also must bear in mind that the letters found in the New Testament are far from an exhaustive collection of the correspondences between the apostles and the communities around the Mediterranean, and I would assume there are many teachings which have been lost.

The main point of my post is, when we teach on one subject, as a tautology we are not teaching about something else. As we teach about certain aspects of Torah, we are in that moment neglecting other aspects. This isn’t a problem so long as we dedicate ample time to covering the diversity of daily applications which the Torah has for us.

To reiterate, the issue isn’t the content, but the way it’s understood by those who until they receive the message as shared through a ministry such as ours have only perceived the Torah in a negative light. The revelation could be too much for them, and in a sense they overreact into a state of legalism. In the book Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster, he uses the illustration of walking along a narrow ridge. One one side of this ridge is a chasm of moral bankruptcy, and on the other is a chasm of legalism. He uses this to describe the walk of spiritual discipline, and I believe it is an excellent description of the life of the Torah-observant believer as well, and indeed anyone who seeks to live their life in a way pleasing to God. We shouldn’t shy away from the path because of these dangerous chasms, but the peril on either side should heighten our awareness of our inability to walk this road without God’s gentle hand leading us.

Being in a teaching position, it is of the utmost importance that we contemplate the effects of our words. Do we say things that are ambiguous or open to misinterpretation? Even if we understand what we’re saying, it is quite possible that other people don’t have the same background knowledge as you. I believe the solution to this is simply to be careful with what we say and what we teach. Even if our motives are good and the message that we share is true, we must formulate our thoughts in ways that are impervious to the corruption of the adversary. This is a universal truth, one which we must constantly hold in the back of our mind as we open our mouth or grasp a pen.


Public Speaking Tips

Recently I had the opportunity to speak before the young adult group at a local church I have been attending. This was the first time I had done any type of preaching or teaching in front of a group of people in a sermon-type scenario. I feel like I did an inadequate job of presenting the information, and so there are some things I would like to delineate here for future reference. While this is solely for my own use, perhaps it will come in handy for anyone who stumbles across this post as well.

Voice – Volume

The most important issue for me, personally, is my voice. I am a quiet guy, and I have been told that I need to speak louder. My initial assumption was that my normal speaking volume would be adequate due to the fact that I would be using a microphone. After reviewing the video afterwards, however, I realize that just because you have a microphone doesn’t mean you are talking loud enough for people to hear you. In a public speaking scenario, it is better to be talking too loud than to be talking too quietly. Quietness implies weakness or cowardice, which in a way can hinder your message, whereas if you’re talking too loudly, people may become irritated, but they will at least be able to understand what you’re saying without excessive strain.

Unfortunately, in order to prepare I will need to speak louder on a daily basis. Otherwise, if you only speak loudly on seldom occasions, your voice will be strained when you attempt to speak loudly. Think of how your voice feels when you have to shout, and that’s how my voice feels when I need to talk at a normal tone for an extended period. That is obviously not good, so I need to strengthen my vocal chords, speak from my chest, etc, and do this whenever I open my mouth.

Voice – Lubrication

Ah, yes, the issue of voice lubrication. My tips are as follows: drink plenty of water a couple of days in advance, so that your body is accustomed to drinking water. Otherwise when you drink water before your speech you will have to run to the bathroom. That’s really the key. If you can, bring a glass or bottle of water with you, but if this is not possible at least make sure you drink plenty beforehand. I’m not sure if it would be a good idea to have a lozenge or hard candy right before you speak, but I suppose so long as it doesn’t make your throat thick it should work.

Content – Preparation

What I would like to do is prepare a bunch of sample sermons in case I am called upon to do something similar in the future, especially in regard to the Torah. While I may be called upon to do other teachings, the niche of our ministry is Torah, and so that is probably where it would be best to focus for now. I don’t want to speak as if I’m explaining things I don’t fully understand, so I must continue to learn as well before I can qualify myself to teach.

So when I am preparing for a speech, I should focus on one topic that I want to fully go over. When I spoke about Hanukkah, I feel like I was all over the place, just going on the surface of a bunch of different topics instead of focusing on one or two areas and teaching systematically. I was too broad in picking the two topics of the menorah and the season of Hanukkah, and so the real thing to do would have been to start with the broad topic and work down until you find one sub-topic or sub-sub-topic to actually teach on.

Content – Notes

I’m not sure what exactly I need to do here, but I definitely need to do something. Essentially what I did last time was read off the sheet, and when I was speaking I was still looking down at my notes so that I didn’t lose my spot and so that I wouldn’t lose my train of thought. So my notes must be able to guide me in the direction of making eye contact, being fluid, and being somewhat spontaneous while saying everything I want to say. I know that what some people do is pace back and forth on stage, which I would assume helps with the creative process or keeps them spontaneous or something. Perhaps I will need to give it a try.

Positive Takeaways

One good thing I did was I was firm in my stance. Normally this wasn’t even something I would think about, but last year I read a poem at a funeral, and my leg started shaking. I’m not sure if I locked my knees or what, but it didn’t recur, which I am grateful for. What I did was focused on keeping my knees lightly bent, and also moving back and forth a tad, almost like a slight rocking motion, forward and backward. This is what I usually do when I stand for long periods of time, and it seemed to work. In reviewing the video of myself, I didn’t notice that I was swaying, so I don’t believe it was anything noticeable, although perhaps it would be a good idea to check up-close, for instance in a mirror, before attempting it again.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t even know if I will have another opportunity to speak in front of people soon or at all, but regardless, it is good practice for normal conversation-making, being confident in myself, acquiring knowledge, etc. The biggest thing I want to avoid is talking in-depth about things I really don’t know that much about, or things which are only “book knowledge,” that is, I haven’t actually lived through the knowledge to see if it is correct or haven’t applied it to my own life. Practicing this will help me think more in-depth about such things, and so I believe it would be a valuable use of my time.

It Could Be Worse

Something I’ve been hearing a lot lately is how we could always be in a worse position, in regard to one thing or another. I take issue with this general mentality, for a number of reasons which I’d like to go through to see if I am in the wrong if this mentality is flawed. I would like to address, in general, the idea of comparing yourself to others when something bad happens to you, and some of the common reactions that accompany that line of thinking.

Up to maybe a year ago, I had this notion that people saying that “It could be worse,” was a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t fully articulate what irked me about it. Then I heard a response that really put it into perspective: “Well, it could always be worse.” That was the key. No matter how low on the totem pole you are, you can always think of someone who has it worse off than you. How is this supposed to be a comforting thought? I would prefer it if everyone were better off than I. I would assume that it is because it makes you grateful for what you have. But it seems crude to need to compare yourself to others in order to be grateful. I’m sure if you sit down and think for a minute, you’ll be able to come up with a list of things you’re thankful for without thinking of kids in Aleppo.

Even the very idea of comparing yourself to others in order to determine your state of well-being is flawed. Being content isn’t looking at other people and saying, “Yeah, I guess I have it pretty good after all!” Being content is looking at what you have, including yourself, and saying “This is all I need.” Even someone who looks around and finds nobody in a worse position then himself can find the courage to say, “I have everything I need.”

Maybe the reason it’s a popular thing to do when bad things happen is because it shifts the focus off of yourself and onto something else, almost like a form of escapism. It distracts you from your own troubles and gives you a bit of a boost because you are putting yourself in a position above someone else. While people aren’t intentionally doing this in order to inflate their ego or their sense of self-worth, I believe that under the surface this is actually what is happening.

So if this isn’t the right thing to do when bad things happen, what is? “In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength,” (Isaiah 30:15). “But as for me, I will hope continually, And will praise You yet more and more,” (Psalm 71:14). “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” (Matthew 6:33).

The Century of the Self

I recently watched a four-part documentary called The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. It is about how Sigmund Freud’s ideas shaped the Western world. I haven’t read any of Freud’s works myself, but I’m sure everyone has at least heard of him and is generally aware of the basic premise of his theories. The documentary was mainly focused on how his ideas were used by political and business leaders to control the masses by manipulating their subconscious desires. Lots of little facts in there that were really fascinating. For instance, one thing I didn’t know was that Freud’s nephew was the one who really pushed his uncle’s ideas here in America, mostly against Freud’s will, and used them to further himself in the business world. His nephew’s name was Edward Bernays, who coined the term “public relations.” Essentially his idea of public relations was one of a giant propaganda machine, but he knew that the term propaganda had received a negative connotation due to its use in Europe. One of the fruits of the application of Freud’s ideas to business was the use of the focus group. The success of this method of finding out how people felt about products and ideas really shaped the business world, and later on the political world as well.

The final part of the series was about the political world and how they attempted to adopt the techniques of businesses a la Eddie Bernays in order to achieve widespread popularity among voters in democratic governments. Their goal was in a sense to find out how they could get people to vote for them without really changing anything too much. By finding out how to make certain personality types satisfied, a politician could appeal to the largest groups of people and then pretty much do whatever he wanted while in power, so long as he did the minor things the people wanted. The documentary equated it to “throwing them dog treats.”

I’m not doing it justice due to the fact that I watched it a few days ago, and pretty late at night, but overall it was very informative, although a few scenes were a bit “adult,” obviously due to the subject matter being Freud, especially when the effects of his theories were manipulated in the sixties and seventies with the “human potential” movement.

To summarize what I took away from the documentary in general, people are driven by basic desires, which makes them easy to manipulate on a societal scale. It’s nothing new, however, but merely a recent iteration of the Roman “bread and circuses.” The method of those in authority is to give people what they want. This allows the leaders to pretty much do as they please, because as long as everyone is busy chasing the newest product or idea, they will be too busy to notice anything else. We must stay vigilant in order to not fall victim to these things which beg for our attention, instead focusing on how we are to serve God in the midst of all this chaos.

Pirkei Avot and Other Changes

Initially when I started this blog, I wanted to do a series on Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), relating it to both the Tanakh and the Apostolic Writings. However, after realizing what an enormous undertaking this would be, I decided to postpone such a long series in favor of more quick snippets of information. My fear was that I would be loath to make any posts because I would have this immense weight hanging over my head. I also felt that I was in a sense underqualified to touch such a work with my limited knowledge of it and the traditions surrounding it. I felt it would be unjust to debase the higher thought associated with it by giving my own two cents worth of information when a much larger wealth lies just a little deeper. Maybe someday!

I struggle with the idea of a blog, because in my opinion, everything that I could say has already been said before. And more than likely, there will not be a huge amount of people who see this blog anyways. Being a more reserved and introverted guy, I’m also not too quick to share my own opinion before it’s been fully fleshed out, whereas blogging is essentially the art of on-the-fly aphorism. Hopefully this is a skill I will develop over time as I make a regular habit of posting here, even if I don’t feel like I have anything to say. I believe that these are the times where it’s most important to push yourself to write, actually, because it forces you to take a topic or thought that may not be all that fascinating and shape it into something that is, kind of like how a really good author can captivate an audience merely by describing the way a room looks.