The Dancing Puritan

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Margin: A Review.

Swenson, Richard. Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.  Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2004.

Ray Rhodes

It is appropriate that a physician wrote Margin. If anything, Margin is a diagnosis and a cure for an “affliction” that is common to many people in modern day America. Margin is space, extra space.
Do you have margin in your life? Many people do not. They are running behind, running late, and running on empty.  Swenson writes:

Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the bank because you were ten minutes late dropping the kids off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station —and you forgot your wallet. (13)

Perhaps that picture is painfully familiar to you. Swenson clarifies: “Margin, on the other hand, is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence.” (13) Swenson’s words offer hope to the weary. The possibility of breathing more freely in the midst of a busy life sounds refreshing.

Swenson lists several axioms that apply to every person. Axiom three argues: “All humans have physical, mental, emotional, and financial limits that are relatively fixed.” (27) It is obvious that we often do not practically live as if there are limits. Many of us take on more physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially than we are able to bear.

A major adversary in the war against margin is the rapid increase of progress. Swenson asserts: “The profusion of progress is on a collision course with human limits. Once the threshold of these limits is exceeded, overload displaces margin.” (27) The problem is that in the past 25 years the movement of progress has risen upward exponentially at an “incomprehensible” rate. (41)

A major factor is, that in the midst of a seemingly limitless potential for progress, that few of us recognize, in a tangible way, that we have limitations. Theoretically we believe that we are limited but we live as if we have no limitations. The result is felt emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially. Swenson’s analysis: “Margin, the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits was an early casualty. When you reach the limits of your resources or abilities, you have no margin left.” (42) What happened? “So as history and progress picked up speed we hit limit after limit. Slowly, margin began to disappear. Then when exponentiality took over the controls, margin vaporized.” (42)

Swenson wonders why in the midst of such prosperity and so many “time-saving” devices that we enjoy, do we have such loss of margin? The simple answer is that with every moment captured, a thousand other things quickly fill in the gaps. Examples abound, especially regarding technology. Our not-to-distant forefathers worked hard but they had time and space. They could pull up a chair and talk when a neighbor needed help. A distressed person, on the other hand, displays the symptoms of brokenness and burnout. Those symptoms are classified under headings of psychological, physical, and behaviora.l (51) In everything from depression, to rashes, to irrational behavior, unhealthy stress manifests itself. (51) The remedy is to take “a dose of margin against the pain.” (52) Swenson asserts, “It is God the Creator who made limits, and it is the same God who placed them within us for our protection. We exceed them at our peril.” (57)

The analysis is sobering. Many of us have acted as if we can carry the world on our backs and not feel the pain emotionally, physically, or otherwise. Part of the problem may be that we do not have a good practical theology of rest and renewal. It is the design of Margin to change that, and to give relief to an overloaded life. None of us can “tolerate (an) ever-escalating overload without eventually feeling its painful weight.” (58) That weight will manifest itself in anxiety, hostility, or resentment, but it will be manifested. (58) The result: “Activity overload takes away the pleasure of anticipation and the delight of reminiscence.  It also takes away the ability to enjoy the moment.” (61)

In Margin, Swenson offers helps for recovering space. He asserts: “We must learn the art of setting limits. We must learn to accept the finality and nonnegotiability of the twenty-four-hour-day. We must learn not to overdraw on our account of emotional energy. And we must learn to respect such limits in others.” (65) Furthermore, he declares: “To be healthy, we require margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances.” (78)

The good news is that “margin grants freedom and permits rest.” (69) According to Swenson: “It nourishes both relationship and service. Spiritually, it allows availability for the purposes of God. From a medical point of view, it is health enhancing.” (69) Margin is restorative!  What exactly is margin? According to Swenson, “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond what is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.” (69)

Prescriptions offered in Swenson’s work include helps to restoring margin in emotional energy, physical energy, time, finances and time (79-148). Regarding emotional energy, Swenson writes that we need to ‘cultivate social supports.” We need friends. Concerning the need for physical energy he proposes that we need good sleep, good eating habits, and a good exercise routine. Regarding time, Swenson writes, “The clock and Christ are not good friends.” (121) What he means by that is that Christ was not driven by a schedule. He was not looking down at his watch as he served people. He never seemed to be in a hurry.  How different we are.  In dealing with margin and finances he discusses everything from budgeting to destroying credit cards (144-45).

What Swenson is aiming for, is health (149). Health is cultivated by contentment, simplicity, balance, and rest (151-204). Swenson writes as a Christian. None of the remedies offered are isolated from the Bible.

Margin us a helpful book. It is not always an enjoyable read because it has a way of exposing sin, crushing pride, and offering counter-cultural solutions. However, even with Swenson’s remedies, he leaves us hanging a bit. I was looking for more specific help in maintaining margin in a truly overwhelmed life. For example, how do we maintain space if we work numerous jobs to pay the bills, or if we have a sick relative hundreds of miles away that needs help? How do we keep margin when we are closed in by various and legitimate responsibilities?  I wish that Swenson had given more detailed prescriptions for people who are staggering under the heavy load of necessary responsibilities? However, reading Margin will stir up ideas as you seek to make practical application to your particular situation.

Margin is convicting, encouraging, and instructive. Margin will help you to live in a way that focuses on the greatness and generosity of a rest-providing God (Psalm 127).  Margin aims at the root of our problems and then offers solid solutions.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Peace on Earth

Abigail Faith Rhodes at 1 month

The photograph above, of our daughter Abigail, was sent to me on December 23, 2011. I was in a hospital room in Augusta, GA where my dad was near the end of his battle with cancer.  My wife Lori and our daughters were three hours away at our home in Dawsonville. As life slipped away from dad, and the walls of the hospital closed in, Abigail's picture arrived. It represented life, even as death lurked nearby.

Abigail was born on November 14th and my dad died on December 25th. Our daughter Rachel's wedding was December 31st. Almost immediately after preaching dad's funeral on the 28th, I returned home for a dinner to meet Rachel's soon-to-be in-laws. Three days later, I conducted Adrian and Rachel's wedding service. Abigail's birth brought fresh life to our family. Dad's death reminded us of the fragility of life. Rachel and Adrian's wedding service was the start of their new life together. Poignant pictures are etched on my heart as I reflect on those days.

My father's favorite passage was Psalm 23. Fittingly, that psalm was a part of my Bible reading this morning. What a wonder it is that when life is hardest, God, our Shepherd, has "green pastures" and "still waters" and "paths of righteousness" for us.  However, he must make us lie down in those pastures. He puts us to bed, sings us a lullaby, and restores us before setting us on our way again. From dark woods deep in the valley, surrounded by troubles that threaten to undo us, we come to the place of rest. God leads us there. If he doesn't, there is no peace.

If we could, we would flank every valley and perpetually live in lush fields. We would build our house near calming waters and from there we would never venture out. What then? Most certainly we would grow soft, lazy, and turn inward. Instead of finding rest, our restlessness would intensify. God's gifts cannot sustain us without God himself. God must lead us to rest if we are to truly rest. God must give us peace or there is no peace. It is tempting to run from the valley and seek to hide from trouble. For too many folks, "peace" is sought through pills, liquor, recreation, or just by checking out and avoiding tough duties. Left to ourselves, we will seek our rest in places that leave us empty.  There are simply no shortcuts to rest. 

How are we sustained in the valley and how can we be restored "beside still waters?" How can we have peace when all around us a war is raging? There is only one way. Into a world of darkness, God came. God brought peace for broken people who are just as dependent as Abigail was on December 23, 2011. 

Today I am reminded of a hard valley five years ago. It was sometimes difficult to see then, but God gave rest. One of the ways that he sustained me was through the baby in the photograph. It reminded me that there was new life, just a few hours away. She was waiting for me. Yes, God came near through a baby. That's the way it has always been. A baby was promised in Genesis 3. A baby was born in Luke 2. Life came. Hope arrived. Peace was delivered to Bethlehem's manger and was solidified when Jesus died and was raised. Peace is offered to those with whom God is well pleased.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1)

Ray Rhodes, Jr. is president of Nourished in the Word Ministries. He is the author of several books including, Family Worship for the Christmas Season. Send a message here to schedule Ray to speak for your next event or to order one of his books.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Love Your Family Like a Puritan: Don't Be Chicken-Hearted

To the most wonderful husband & father two girls could ever have--We Love You! Lori and Rachel: Christmas 1991 (inscription in A Quest for Godliness).

Christmas Day, 1991 my wife Lori and our two-year-old daughter Rachel gave me a copy of J.I. Packer's masterpiece, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. I cannot think of any book that I have turned to more in the past 25 years than Packer's classic. In this work Packer compares the English Puritans to the California Redwoods which are "the biggest living things on earth." To Packer the Puritans are giants in godliness. He argues:
As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and seasoned fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras, and certainly so in this age of crushing urban collectivism, when Western Christians sometimes feel and often look like ants in an anthill and puppets on a string. Behind the Iron Curtain and in the starving, war-torn lands of Africa the story may well have been different, but in Britain and America, the parts of the world that I know best, affluence seems for he past generation to have been making dwarfs and deadheads of us all. In this situation, the teaching and example of the Puritan giants have much to say to us. (12).

Lori's inscription in my copy of Quest was written from her heart. Like the beloved in Solomon's Song, she viewed (and views me) as the best-of-the best. However, when I read the Puritans (or about the Puritans) I feel very much like a dwarf. I often feel dwarf-like in my role as a husband and father. However, this dwarf wants to grow and I know that the Puritans can help me in my "quest for godliness."

Packer is a prolific writer and it is sometimes difficult to get beyond one of his introductions in the many books that he has written. It is not because of poor writing that working through one of his introductions is so difficult, but because his words sting with conviction. If you don't believe me read his introduction in the Banner of Truth edition of Baxter's The Reformed Pastor.  What follows is a selection about the family from chapter 1 of Quest. Read it and then repent in sackcloth and ashes.

Steadily Love Your Spouse as Your Best Friend
The Puritan ethic of marriage was to look not for a partner whom you do love passionately at this moment, but rather for one whom you can love steadily as your best friend for life, and then to proceed with God's help to do just that.
Train up and Care for Your Children. 
The Puritan ethic of nurture was to train up children in the way they should go, to care for their bodies and souls together, and to educate them for sober, godly, socially useful adult living. The Puritan ethic of home life was based on maintaining order, courtesy, and family worship. Goodwill, patience, consistency, and an encouraging attitude were seen as the essential domestic virtues.
Family Life is a School of Character Developed Through Suffering 
In an age of routine discomforts, rudimentary medicine without pain-killers, frequent bereavements (most families lost at least as many children as they reared), an average life expectancy of just under thirty years, and economic hardship for almost all save merchant princes and landed gentry, family life was was a school for character in every sense, and the fortitude with which the Puritans resisted the all-too-familiar temptation to relieve pressure from the world by brutality at home, and laboured to honor God in their families despite all, merits supreme praise.At home the Puritans showed themselves mature, accepting hardships and disappointments realistically as from God and refusing to be daunted or soured by any of them.
Share the Gospel at Home First 
Also it was at home in the first instance that the Puritan layman practised evangelism and ministry. 'His family he endeavored to make a Church,' wrote Geree,  '. . . labouring that those that were born in it, might be born again until God.'
Don't be a Chicken-hearted Spouse Who Looks for the Exit 
In an era in which family life has become brittle even among Christians, with chicken-hearted spouses taking the easy course of separation rather than working at their relationship, and narcissistic parents spoiling their children materially while neglecting them spiritually, there is once more much to be learned from the Puritans' very different ways.
Charles Spurgeon died with 7,000 (out of 12,000 total) volumes on his shelves that were either by or about the Puritans. Perhaps you would benefit from reading a Puritan volume or two. Packer's Quest will get you excited about reading and benefiting from the Puritans.

Ray Rhodes, Jr. is President of Nourished in the Word Ministry. He leads Bible conferences, marriage retreats, and various other events. Message him on Facebook to schedule an event.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Encouragement for the Afflicted and Those Who Minister to Them

What is a Christian to do when confined to the sick-bed of affliction? I remember visiting a church member a number of years ago. Due to physical affliction she was unable to attend church. I detected a note of discouragement as she spoke to me. She wished that she could do more for the church but her condition squelched her abilities. She said: "About all that I can do is pray." I took the opportunity to remind her of the great gift and power of godly prayer. I sought to encourage her that when she prayed for the church, she was calling on the King of Heaven to visit His people with His power, and that was no small thing.

Charles Spurgeon had a great heart for those who were confined to their dwelling due to sickness. Many of his sick friends, though unable to attend church service, nevertheless read Spurgeon's sermons. His words are encouraging to those who are afflicted and are instructive to all who minister to them.

Sick saints, what a delight I feel in ministering to you! Shut out from the sanctuary and the sound of the Word, you find a solace in reading what others have crowded to hear. Accept my tenderest sympathy in your affliction, while I breathe the prayer that He who suffers in you, may abide with you. The Great Captain of the host has called you to glorify Him on your beds; it may be you could never have done this in active service; what a mercy is it that a sick chamber affords you opportunities to honour Him. Your patience, holy resignation, and joyous faith, make you invaluable teachers to those believers who visit you, and even your ungodly friends may be greatly blessed by your means. Little do you dream how well your words are remembered, and how powerful they will be even when you have fallen asleep in Jesus. From the green mound in the cemetery your loving voice shall sound in their ears. Those very persons who now seem so indifferent, may be the first to be converted by your testimony. Speak well of your Lord; you see Him often, let His name be ever in your mouth. He makes your bed; let your bosom be a pillow for Him. Let your chamber be a sanctuary, your bed a pulpit, your living loving experience of divine grace the constant sermon. We cannot do without you in the Lord's battles. Your power for good is wonderful; forget not your advantageous position, but lift up the banner of your Lord on high. Let no persons retire from your bedside without being enriched by some affectionate admonition. In the night-watches, when your eyes are held walking so that you cannot sleep, plead for the Church, the world, your minister, your friends, and do not omit the unworthy brother who now writes to you. What showers of mercies your intercessions may bring down. The golden keys of heaven are at your girdle, open the treasury and bless us all. 'As the sufferings of Christ abound in you, so may your consolation also abound by Christ.

Sick saints . . .
1. Read the Bible and read godly literature.
2. Recognize your unique opportunity to glorify God from your sick bed.
3. Your patience and joy under trial is an example to fellow believers.
4. Unbelievers are blessed by your testimony of grace.
5. Your Christian witness will live on after you are dead.
6. "Speak well of your Lord" as you rest in Him. Let your bed be a pulpit.
7. Remember that your fellow believers who are not confined "cannot do without you in the Lord's battles."

To those who minister to the sick . . .

1. Do not fail to remember them in prayer.
2. Make sure that your sick friends have access to sermons (a manuscript, your notes, audio/video).
3. Visit the sick regularly and write to them often words of encouragement.
4. Let them know, how much you need for them to pray for you.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Spurgeon's Counsel: Don't Think about Preaching

Many pastors find it difficult to read the Bible without thinking of sermon preparation. Spurgeon shared with his congregation how he delighted in Jesus by not considering preaching. He wrote:
When I take my Bible, and want to feed on it for myself, I generally get thinking about preaching upon the text, and what I should say to you from it. This will not do; I must get away from that, and forget that there is a Tabernacle, that I may sit personally at Jesus' feet. And, oh, there is an intense delight in being overshadowed by Him! He is near to you, and you know it. His dear presence is as certainly with you as if you could see Him, for His influence surrounds you.

When you read your Bible, are you able to feed on it for yourself? Certainly Spurgeon spent time in sermon preparation. However, he knew that sermons best grew in soil that had been cultivated through personal Bible reading. For Spurgeon this was to "sit personally at Jesus' feet" and to know the "intense delight in being overshadowed by Him."

Quotes are from C.H. Spurgeon, Till He Come: Communion Meditations and Addresses (London: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 44.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Vacation Thought or Two

Do you have Summer vacation plans?  It is often imagined that a vacation is an escape from life, at least an escape from the daily grind. However, for Christians a vacation is not an escape but rather an opportunity to encounter Jesus. Below are a few items to pack for such an encounter.

1. Psalms By the Day: A New Devotional Translation by Alec Motyer. I have long wanted someone to write this book. Psalms is "a working translation with analysis and explanatory notes, and a 'Pause for Thought' based on the passage read. Motyer's Psalms includes brief word studies, commentary, and devotional thoughts. Mark Dever writes, ". . . expository without being dry, devotional without being forced. . . . a delicious combination--richly full, concisely put."

2. Spurgeon, C.H. Til He Come: Communion Meditations and Addresses, London: Marshal Brothers, n.d. This is also available on Kindle and Christian Focus Publishers. Spurgeon urges his readers: "Go forth, beloved, and talk with Jesus on the beach, for He oft resorted to the sea-shore." This collection of meditations and addresses were not published in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit and a number of them were given while Spurgeon was on vacation (recovering, resting) at Mentone, France (his favorite vacation spot).

3. Field Notes journal (48 page memo book). The Field Notes memo book will easily fit into your pocket. They offer a variety of designs and one edition that is waterproof. As you read and admire God's glory in creation, make a few notes for meditation.

The resources above are available through our book store. Send me a facebook message HERE for more information.  Happy traveling!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Graduation Day

Over the past three years of doctoral studies, I have often thought of this day. For at least twenty years, I dreamed of graduating from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). Today is graduation day.

When this journey began, I knew that the way ahead would be difficult. Having assurance that my wife Lori was on board, and enjoying the encouragement of our church, I decided, after prayer and counsel, to take the plunge. I cannot adequately describe my appreciation for the love, encouragement, and prayers that I have received from so many people. Breathing the refreshing air of God's grace at SBTS has helped me in more ways that I can recount in this post. I have been pushed, stretched, challenged, and had my work sent back to me with seemingly more mark-ups than the actual text that I submitted. One time in particular, I thought about quitting, imagining that with all of my responsibilities that school was too much. I felt (and feel) inadequate, too old, and lacking sufficient brain power and physical strength. God used my family, church, and professors to pick me up, dust me off, and push me back into the ring to fight again. I am thankful.

The history of SBTS is one of sacrifice, dogged determination, and God's grace. It was primarily 4 leaders, who simply refused to quit, that put the school on their backs and sacrificed time, money, sleep, and worldly acclaim to do their dead-level-best to make sure that if the seminary didn't make it, it wouldn't be due to lack of effort. Those men were often tempted with offers that "they could not refuse" in the midst of scant times at SBTS. They were offered, in some cases, the opportunity to lead major (well-endowed) universities (such as the University of Alabama), and other high profile and generously salaried positions. However, they refused to let go of Southern Seminary. Though the seminary began in 1859, it struggled through the remainder of the 1800s. And though eventually the school established financial stability, its theological vibrancy faced the deadly threat of liberalism. By the early 1990s SBTS was in the grip of liberal leadership and seemingly beyond recovery. However, through the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, R. Albert Mohler was elected as the 9th president of the school in 1993. 

At Dr. Mohler's first commencement service, many students refused to shake his hand. Some students turned their back on him. Once again Southern was facing a fight for survival, this time it was not a financial crisis but a battle for the soul of the institution. Dr. Mohler, looking to the Abstract of Principles, held professors accountable to teach by the school's confession. Over time many of the more moderate/liberal professors resigned, or were fired. Liberal students graduated and new professors were hired. SBTS is a much different place today than it was in 1993 when 33-year-old Albert Mohler was elected president. It is much more in line with the 1859 vision of the founders.

There is much on my mind this morning as I write. I have a growing sense of the sacrifices that have been made so that I can, at age 54, walk across the stage today and receive a diploma from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Soon after the War Between the States, the future of SBTS was in great doubt. Basil Manly, John Broadus, William Williams, and James Boyce met to decide the future. Broadus courageously declared: "Suppose we quietly agree that the seminary may die, but we'll die first." Though classes were suspended during the War, SBTS reopened on 11/1/1865. I will remember the words of Broadus when I graduate today.

You can watch graduation Friday at 10 at   Here is a video that recounts Dr. Mohler's presidency: 

See Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: 1859-2009 by Gregory A. Wills to learn more about the history of SBTS.