Simple, Enduring Tools

November 1, 2013

In my post “The Humor of Christ,” I briefly listed several practical insights that professor Elton Trueblood passed along to me and to many other students at Earlham School of Religion. Several of these simple tips have helped me so much over the years that it seems right to share them a bit more fully, hoping that they might become practical tools for you, too.

Welcome ideas. When they knock, open the door and invite them in. Be gracious, listen to them, and write them down right away. Always carry paper and pen (I use 3×5 cards or, having forgotten, whatever I can get my hands on instantly – napkins, visitor cards, printed programs, sugar packets, etc.). Stop what you’re doing, even if you have to excuse yourself politely, and write it down now. Without such hospitality and attention, good ideas may just go away and never come back. I know from experience that ideas wander – or stalk – off, and I gained new resolve when I learned that Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, always tucks a note card and ballpoint pen in her jeans pocket when she goes out to walk or run.

Tend your writer’s garden. Elton was an Iowa farm boy, so he knew how crops and gardens work. In a garden, sometimes you plant different crops at different times. Crops grow and mature differently, so you do what each requires. Some need weeding or cultivating or thinning while others may be maturing and ready for harvest. The projects in a writer’s garden grow and change as well. Some may require just continuing to drop notes in a file. Others may have burgeoning files that are ready for harvest. Of course, you always hope that mature crops and deadlines arrive at the same time. Even if the metaphor breaks down here and there, I have found this a very useful way to think about multiple writing projects and other sorts of projects as well. Elton harvested  a book a year for about 35 years, so I’m sure it worked for him.

Self-index your reading. Most books have enough blank pages at the back to make a few notes. Use them to note the passages that have captured your attention or deepened your insight. I mark a lot in books, and I create my own index for portions I think I’ll want to find again. It helps later both in finding portions you want to use and in enjoying again books you’ve come to treasure. To feign being digitally savvy, I’ll confess that people who use these new-fangled e-readers can also highlight portions, make notes, and easily review them later.

Keep a fuller calendar. Elton did not urge us to cram our calendars full of more activities. With the phrase “fuller calendar” he urged us to get to our calendars before other people did. Think of the things that are important to you and consistent with your goals and energies. Then write them in the calendar and honor them. It might be family birthdays, a personal retreat, or periods devoted to particular projects. For me, when I look at the rhythm of what I’ve already committed to do, it sometimes means writing “no” over an open weekend into which I dare not jam more activity. When I have kept a fuller calendar, it has opened up my life.

Use prime time for prime tasks. We all have different rhythms of when we can bring our best attention and energy to our work. Elton’s advice was simple: plan to do your most important work in the times you know you work best. From both success and failure, I know how useful this is.

Stay acquainted with Jesus. Elton lived aware of the Present Christ, the Christ who walks alongside and lives within. To nurture that relationship, he also read 8-10 verses each day from the Gospels, and he often marked and dated what he had read. Remembering his practice has often reminded me of how important it is to listen steadily to the early witnesses to what Jesus taught and did.

I’m grateful for mentors along the way who have shared wisdom generously. No doubt you are, too. Some of my readers also learned from Elton and will know that I’ve left something important out (like getting a good night’s sleep, which I too often neglect). Others will remember gems from other mentors. I’d love to have you share some practical tools with us all.




  1. Max Carter says:

    Great memories of a great man with great suggestions!

  2. Melanie says:

    This is great advice, Howard, and a great challenge to me in this season of my life, when I need to fill my calendar more with the things that fill me, rather than saying yes consistently to tasks that aren’t meaningful!

Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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