This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

First Month Checkup

We’re coming to an end of the first month of 2012. For those of you who set goals for the New Year, how are you doing? It’s time for your first month’s checkup.

  • Did you write down your goals and review them daily (ideally rewriting them)? If so, have you discovered anything new about them? Did you modify them in any way, or are you happy with them the way they were? If they need refinement, no would be a good time to think through how you should adjust them.
  • Did you put in place a new habit for each of your goals? If so, is the habit well established by now? If not, keep at it for another month. If so, is the habit helping you make reasonable progress toward your goal? Do you want to stick with that habit or add something else to it this month?
  • Did you enlist others to help you be accountable for your goals and habits?
 Remember, if nothing changes, nothing changes. If you want this year to be better than the last, you need to get on it now, doing the small things that compound to make big changes over time. If you haven’t read Olson’s The Slight Edge, you really should. And remember the quote from Aristotle: “We are what we do habitually. Excellence, then, is a habit.” Let’s strive for excellence in all areas of our lives.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Universal Virtues

People today frequently argue that ethics, morality, and ideas of virtue and character are entirely determined by culture, that they have no objective reality. There is increasing evidence, however, that at least some ideas about character are hardwired into us. One of the more interesting studies comes from a group of psychologists who examined cultures from more than 30 countries and all the major world religions. They found 24 character traits that have been universally recognized as virtues by moral philosophers and religious leaders throughout history. After compiling the list, they examined isolated tribes including the Masai in African and the Inuit in Greenland and found the same ideas. The list includes:

  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Open-mindedness
  • Love of learning
  • Perspective
  • Bravery
  • Persistence
  • Integrity
  • Vitality
  • Love
  • Kindness
  • Social intelligence
  • Citizenship
  • Fairness
  • Leadership
  • Forgiveness and mercy
  • Humility/modesty
  • Prudence
  • Self-regulation
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  • Gratitude
  • Hope
  • Humor
  • Spirituality
 This study led to a movement called “positive psychology” that believes that practicing these traits will improve psychological and even physical health. The movement’s handbook is Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (American Psychological Association, 2004).

As part of your program of personal growth, why not look over this list and rate yourself on each of the character traits. Which are your greatest strengths? Which are greatest weaknesses? Find someone who knows you well and ask her or him to rate you too, encouraging them to be brutally honest. Looking over the answers from both lists, how do they compare? What can you do to build on your strengths and shore up your weaknesses? Consider putting the answers on the list of goals that you are working on this year.

(Thanks to Michael Lee Stallard, Fired Up or Burned Out, from which I learned about positive psychology.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review of Jeff Martone's Kettlebell Rx

Continuing on the theme of loving God with our strength:

I have long been a fan of kettlebells. I bought my first shortly after Pavel Tsatsouline reintroduced them to the US and have since expanded my collection. Along with martial arts, they have been my preferred form of exercise ever since. They’ve gone from being a pretty hardcore training tool to the mainstream market—they’re even sold in Dick’s Sporting Goods and Ocean State Job Lot.

Although kettlebells are more forgiving in some ways than heavy barbells, it is still easy to hurt yourself if your form is bad, and frankly, a frightening number of “instructional” videos out there right now are almost recipes for injury. The best way to prevent this is to get good coaching. If coaching isn’t available, the next best thing is Jeff Martone’s excellent book, Kettlebell Prescription (Kettlebell Rx).

Martone has a very impressive resume in fitness, combatives, and kettlebells. He is a Kettlebell Sport Lifting Coach for both the American Kettlebell club and IKSFA in St. Petersburg Russia, and was one of the first senior Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) certified instructors. He is also a CrossFit Level II certified instructor and does a lot of CrossFit’s Kettlebell training. Along with that, he’s a Controlled Fatigue Training Level II certified instructor, a Warrior Diet Nutrition certified instructor, and a Physical Fitness Specialist certified instructor with the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research.

In other words, he knows what he’s talking about.

A lot of Martone’s work these days involves teaching kettlebells for Crossfit gyms, and this book was written with that audience in mind. Even with that focus, Kettlebell Rx includes so much good information that anyone interested in fitness, particularly those who use kettlebells or who simply want to try them out, would benefit tremendously from reading and studying it.

Kettlebell Rx is remarkably comprehensive. The first chapter includes a thorough basic joint mobility section, which if you read this post you know is an important though neglected form of exercise. It also includes post workout stretches. The book then provides step by step progressive instructions for four major classifications of kettlebell exercises: swings, Turkish getups, cleans, and overhead pressing exercises.

The Turkish getup is worth an additional comment. Jeff had severely injured his shoulders—multiple surgeries, dislocations, etc. His shoulder would sometimes go out of joint even while in bed. He ultimately managed to rehab it using the Turkish getup and says that if he had known about it earlier, he believes it would have prevented some of those surgeries. Rather than trying to explain it, I’ll just refer you to these videos of Jeff teaching the exercise. In the last one, Jeff does the get-up using his wife rather than a kettlebell.

The chapters on these exercises have a number of unique features. Martone shows a step-by-step process for learning the exercise, including preparatory movements to help perform the exercise correctly and safely. He also shows the most common mistakes and explains how to diagnose and correct them. This is the most important part of the book, since it lets athletes, coaches, or even just workout partners without much experience with kettlebells learn the exercises properly and fix mistakes in form. Martone then gives a “prescription” for an exercise protocol with each exercise.

The next section of the book deals with programming, including advice for different populations, a simple but effective strength program, conditioning, and various circuits using kettlebells.

The next section deals with rotational strength, developed through “H2H” kettlebell drills, a.k.a. kettlebell juggling. Jeff has DVDs devoted specifically to this subject and was the first person to emphasize this aspect of kettlebells in the US. I personally find this fun, and it has done more to improve my hand-eye coordination and hand speed than anything else I’ve done. Martone also includes programming for this kind of exercise and sample circuits. If you are going to try these drills, do them outside on a soft surface, because sooner or later (probably sooner), you will drop the kettlebell.

The last section deals with competitive kettlebell lifting. It’s really more of an introduction to the sport and is intended to alert people to its existence and to challenge people (particularly Crossfitters) to try it out.

Kettlebell Rx is easily the best book on kettlebells that I have seen, as well as a great source of information on most aspects of physical fitness. If you have any interest at all in kettlebells, this is the book to buy. You’ll be glad you did.

Kettlebell Prescription (Kettlebell Rx) is available through Amazon or directly from Jeff Martone. This is my affiliate link to his website.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

And now for something completely different, a post on exercise

Learning to love God with all our strength involves taking care of and developing our body. Key elements of this include adequate rest, proper diet, and regular exercise. Chances are you already know a lot of what you are supposed to do, but the question is, do you do it?

Here, I want to focus a bit on exercise, and in particular, one form of exercise most people do not know about.

Probably the most common approach to exercise breaks it down into three basic types: cardio to strengthen your heart (e.g. jogging, biking, or swimming); resistance training for strength and to maintain muscle mass and bone density (e.g. “the bells”—barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and clubbells—or bodyweight exercises such as pushups); and flexibility exercises (e.g. stretching or common approaches to yoga).

There’s a lot of information out there about these three kinds of exercise, some of it better than others. But there’s another class of exercises that is just as important that few people discuss: joint mobility training (JM).

JM systematically moves all of your joints through their full current range of motion (ROM) in every direction the joint is designed to move. A full routine includes the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, thoracic spine, lower back, hips, knees, ankles, and toes, working either from top to bottom or from the periphery to the core.

JM is different from flexibility training. To understand why, do the following:

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Keep your left leg straight and on the ground, and bend your right leg at the knee.
  3. Bring your right thigh toward your chest and notice how close you can get it.
  4. Lower and straighten your right leg.
  5. Keeping the right leg straight, bring it toward your chest again.

With your leg bent, you can move your leg far closer to your chest than you can with the leg straight. In a nutshell, that’s the difference between JM and ROM exercises and stretching: in stretching, the flexibility of the muscles is the limiting factor, while in properly designed JM routines, muscular flexibility is largely taken out of the equation.

Why is joint mobility important? In the former Soviet Union, scientists studying the human body determined that biological age was directly related to the condition of the connective tissue in the joints: the better the connective tissue, the more youthful the body. They also discovered that JM can improve the quality of the connective tissue and even repair some kinds of joint damage, and as a result it can act as an anti-aging program for your body.

Done consistently, JM can also improve ROM, eliminate early morning stiffness, and lead to better, more pain free movement. It is also very useful as a warm up for exercise, as a kind of “pre-hab” to prevent injuries, as well as for releasing residual tension from exercise in your cool down.

The best joint mobility programs that I have found come from one of two places. The first is China: tai chi and some qigong programs include very good JM work, which is why many Chinese tai chi masters move so well into their 80s and 90s.

The other source is Russia. Pavel Tsatsouline, the “evil Russian” who re-introduced kettlebell training to America, has a JM program called Superjoints. Superjoints includes several different routines, some of which combine JM work with conditioning. One of his instructors, Andrea Du Cane, also produced programs called The Ageless Body and Kettlebell Boomer that include both JM and kettlebell work. These have different levels graded to condition and ability. If you use kettlebells, these are excellent programs. All of these resources are available from Dragondoor’s website.

Scott Sonnon, who studied in Russia, has produced JM programs including Intuflow and Ageless Mobility. These are graded for different levels. Scott’s routines take less time than Pavel’s and advance by increasing movement sophistication rather than by increasing repetitions. On the other hand, the higher reps Pavel prescribes can be very helpful for repairing some kinds of joint damage. Scott’s programs are available from RMAX.

Steve Maxwell, one of Pavel’s former instructors, also has a series of JM routines for beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels that are instantly downloadable via the internet. These can be accessed through the link at the bottom of this page.

Two notes: first, all of these sites deal with high end strength training, fitness, and martial arts; don’t let that throw you—the JM programs are for anyone. Second, in the interests of full disclosure these are affiliate links, so if you order through them, I will receive a commission.

And the standard warning: do not start any exercise program without consulting your physician.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Book that Made your World

Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization is a wide-ranging look at the impact of the Bible on Western culture. After hearing the Bible attacked by Arun Shourie, a prominent public intellectual, Member of Parliament, and governmental minister in India, Mangalwadi decided to study the impact of the Bible on culture. In particular, he wanted to find out if God’s promise that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham was true. His conclusion is that not only did the Bible create the modern West, but it is also responsible for creating modern India.

Mangalwadi looks at a tremendous variety of subjects (music, language, literature, human rights, concepts of heroism, technology, science, family, economics, freedom …) and demonstrates that modern concepts in all of these areas have their roots in the Bible and the worldview it created. While I did something similar in Why You Think the Way You Do, Mangalwadi goes into far more detail than I did and engages the historiography of the subjects far more directly. What is particularly illuminating is the impact these ideas had in Mangalwadi’s native India, a subject about which I knew nothing.

Although I found myself disagreeing with some of Mangalwadi’s details—his historiography is sometimes dated, and I have a higher view of medieval Christianity than he does on some issues—overall the book is superb. If you are interested in understanding what the Gospel of the Kingdom looks like in practice, this is a great place to start. At the same time, it is a sobering read, since it shows the degree to which the West has turned its back on its roots and highlights some of the dysfunction that has resulted. For those committed to living out a full-orbed vision of the Gospel touching all areas of life, this book is a wake-up call and a reminder of what is at stake for us today.

Monday, January 9, 2012

How do you use your time?

Some thoughts from T. M. Moore, teacher and theologian, on making the most of our time heading in the New Year.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Broken Stories

A blog post from my daughter Elizabeth on life, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games. She's got some profound thoughts here, and I encourage you to read it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

One Week In

We’re a week into the New Year. For those of you who have set goals for the year, how is it going?

  • Have you written them down?
  • Have you reviewed them daily?
  • Have you shared them with anyone and enlisted their support?
  • Have you taken steps each day toward your goals?
Remember, you need to take action if you want this year to be better than last year. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

The actions don’t need to be dramatic—in fact, dramatic changes are the ones least likely to stick. Small, daily decisions create the habits that let you accomplish big goals.

I leave you with a thought from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is a habit.” Let’s go for excellence in all areas of life this year.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

From Mind to Heart

Who you will be in five years is determined by the media you consume and who you associate with. These two areas are always either helping you move forward or holding you back because both shape our thinking about the world and about ourselves.

Media does this by putting images, words, and ideas into your mind. Electronic media in particular bombard us with images and information at a pace that does not allow us to think it through or analyze it. Instead, it embeds itself in our minds and from there into our memories, thus shaping our souls.

If you want to grow your mind and soul, pay careful attention to media. Reading is a particularly important tool for personal grown, since unlike other media, we read at our own pace, which allows us to ponder, reflect, meditate, think, and therefore to direct our intellectual growth more effectively than other media.

Because we are relational beings, the people we hang with may be the single most important factor in determining our self-image, our outlook on the world, and our values and priorities. They shape the mind and the soul even more powerfully than media.

Although it's difficult and potentially painful, you should also evaluate your associations if you're interested in personal growth. If the people around you are not helping you grow, you need to find people who will. This doesn’t mean abandoning your family or old friends, but you will need to consider carefully how much influence you want them to have over your life and adjust the time you spend with them accordingly.

Our words are also important. The things we hear ourselves say pass into our subconscious, which is programmed to take what we say seriously. For this reason, affirmations and verbal confessions are important tools for personal growth. If you doubt this, read the book of Proverbs and notice how much is said about the tongue and our words.

Our mind provides food for the soul as we spend time pondering ideas and allow them to captivate our attention, as we build meaningful relationships with other people, and as our words filter into our subconscious. Over time, these activities  will capture our imagination, shape our values and convictions, and inform our will to pursue those things that we truly value.

From there, the soul moves the heart, the center of our life. Probably the best way to discover our hearts is to ask ourselves what makes us sing, what makes us weep, what elevates our spirits. I suspect most people don’t know how to answer those questions, but they are worth pondering.

In the end, our hearts will be molded around the real values of our souls, whether for good or ill. As Christians our hearts are a battleground between what Paul calls the “flesh,” which refers to the on-going effects of original sin in our lives, and the Spirit. Our hearts are thus divided, which is why the Psalmist prays,  "unite my heart to fear your name." (Ps. 86:11)

So for New Year, I suggest you join me in resolving to cultivate our whole being, starting with our bodies and minds which will then shape our souls and hearts, and to do this out of the love of God; to strive to know and obey His commandments from the heart; and to find ways to live out our love of Him through the love of our neighbors in practical acts of service and in our professional lives.

Write down concrete goals in each of these areas, review them daily, and commit yourself to putting small, specific actions into your daily schedule to help you to achieve them. If you do, next New Year will find you much more the person you were meant to be, and you will have set a course for a much more successful and satisfying life.