Habit No. 6: Fast from something for 24 hours

We constantly seek to fill our needs with tangible items.  We were made for abundance.  But the Fall turned abundance into scarcity, and it turned us, as John Calvin puts in into “idol factories.”  We continually replace the fullness of God with things that become as gods to us.

Even in the days when my wife and I were young and poor, we were far better off materially than almost any of our forebears, or most people living in the world today.  Jesus said that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  So, even though we were poor by American standards, we were rich by the world’s standards, and have always been in a position to trust in the abundance of possessions rather than in the promises of God in Christ.

This is where fasting comes into play.  For a set period of time, we abstain from something.  Ideally, we will use the time that we would have spend — on eating, on watching TV, on using electronic or social media — to pray.  Fasting is a voluntary period of deprivation for the purpose of entering into deeper communion with God, the One who truly satisfies.  It’s “leaning into” the scarcity  that is a product of the Fall, in order to gain the fullness of the One who gives us the true bread from heaven to eat and living water to drink.  Prayer with fasting is a living demonstration that along with Job, we prize God’s Word “more than our necessary food” (Job 23:12), and that we value communion with God more highly than the habits that we take for granted.

Honestly, I have to give myself an F minus on this habit.  A number of years ago, I practiced semi-regular days of prayer and fasting.  But I haven’t put one on the calendar in years.

The elders in our church have initiated one voluntary day of prayer and fasting each month, which I plan on participating in.  It’s much easier to pray and fast if a community of people commit to doing it.  I hope to be able to keep this up in the coming months and to grow in my desire and ability to engage in this habit.

Nothing to show for it?

I haven’t written in a while because I thought I had “nothing to write home about.”  It’s been a week of mostly administrative duties.  Making phone calls, answering emails, writing up session minutes, planning worship services, filling out Excel spreadsheets, and making other reports.  It’s tempting to wonder, “what is the value in all of this?  For the better part of a work week, I’ve done all this work and I have nothing to show for it.”

This is really the essence of most of our service.  Our service mostly consists in routine, mundane, repeatable tasks that are more noticed if they are omitted than if they are completed.  There really isn’t much excitement in this.  It’s tempting to say that such duties don’t matter.  They tend to be urgent, but not significant in the long term.

However, they are important to the people whom we serve.  In my case, our church would continue to operate.  Cemeteries are full of people who thought that they were indispensable!  But life would be a little harder for others who serve in the church who perform low-visibility, high anonymity tasks.

So, what do we have to show for such work?  Hopefully, the enrichment of the lives of those whom we serve.  In the best case, such service enriches relationships.  It removes obstacles for getting “the important things” done.

At home, cooking, cleaning, and laundry are such tasks.  I do know a few people who seem to “live to cook,” but nobody lives to do laundry, wash dishes or clean the house.  While these tasks may not be significant in themselves, having them done greatly enhances the other portions of our lives.

So, no matter what tasks are committed to you, you can set  yourself free to do all the good that you can, knowing that even if you aren’t thanked for them, you enrich the lives of others through your dedicated service, even if you have “nothing to show for it.”

Habit No. 5: Curate Media to 4 hours per week

The next habit I’m blogging through is “limiting media to four hours per week.”  To gauge how I’m doing, I really need to give this some definition.  The basic idea is to be much more intentional in how we engage media.  For the sake of argument, I’m going to define media as “electronic media,” including TV, YouTube, web browsing, movies, podcasts, and music.

In some ways, I’m doing okay on this one.  The only “active” TV watching that I generally do is Tottenham Hotspur Soccer.  Several years ago, my youngest son and I began following Spurs.  When I made this decision, I pretty much cut out actively following all other teams and sport.  Soccer is great!  A game is 90 minutes long, with maybe five minutes of stoppage time at the end.  The clock doesn’t stop, so it doesn’t “lie.”  It’s not the NBA, where it seems like it takes 30 minutes to play the last minute on the game clock.

But I have snuck other sports in through the back door.  I tend to check ESPN more than once a day, and read the stories on the NFL, College Football, and Soccer, even though I know that this is a tremendous waste of time.  The only other sites I check daily are Cartilage Free Captain, a Tottenham Hotspur supporter website, and Arts and Letters Daily.  I do have a weakness for Lit Hub, but I don’t check it every day.

I listen to lots of podcasts.  I’m a big fan of audio, but not visual.  There’s nothing more pleasurable than well-curated audio, other than a good book.

Recent time traps have included browsing the Libby app for electronic library books, and the news app on my IPad.  I removed it from my phone and I probably need to do the same on the IPad.

Passive TV watching is the other time trap.  I usually read at night when my wife is watching TV.  Lately though, I’ve found myself less engaged in reading and starting to engage in the TV shows.

Probably, the first step here is to track my media engagement.  The next action after that would be to look at what I want to replace the media with, e.g., dinners and conversations with friends, board games, etc.

 

 

Habit No. 4: One Hour of Conversation with a Friend per Week

At this point in blogging about the habits that I am working to instill in my life, I’m getting more into aspirational thinking than what I’m doing now.  This is how I’m beginning to think about the habit of one hour of conversation with a friend per week.

I have three grown children that I touch base with at least every week.  Sometimes, we talk for five minutes.  Sometimes it’s an hour.

My rotation tends to be each of my children, a local friend that I can meet with in person, then each of my children, and another local friend.

As my son told me when he got established in New York, “I get together with friends maybe once a month, and close friends twice a month.”

While most weeks, I’m “checking the box,”  it would be good for me to make a concerted effort to deepen some friendships so that I would get together more than once a month or so.

 

 

 

 

Habit No. 3: One meal a day with others

I’m continuing to work through Justin Whitmel Earley’s  The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction.  One of the habits that he recommends is sharing one meal a day with others.

I’m surprised to find out how difficult this actually is.  It was easy when we had children at home.  Family dinner time was a non-negotiable.  However, our children are gone now, and my wife and I can get caught up in our various projects and eat on our own sometimes.  Also, I went for the past nine weeks without being able to sit at a table because of my knee injury.  This made it much easier for us to eat in the living room and turn on the TV,  which I’m not counting in the “one meal a day with others.”

Earley writes that in our quest for efficiency, eating with others is a luxury.  The big takeaway from this habit is that it forces us to orient our schedule around others, which is a big part of making the transition of our default of self-centeredness to lives that are centered on serving others.

Right now on this habit, I’d probably give myself a C- on this habit.   We have a standing Sunday evening get-together after church in our home, and I’m part of two Bible studies that have meals every other week.  So, we do enjoy meals with others regularly.  But this is an area where my life would be much enriched if I pursued this more zealously.

Health update: PT is a part-time job

Some of you know that I suffered a catastrophic knee injury on September 1 and had surgery the following week.  I wasn’t cleared to begin physical therapy until ten days ago, so I’ve started that.  The good news is that I’ve made some gains that I’m very happy with.  I’ve gone from not being able to bend my knee at all to being able to go to 80 degrees.  And I’ve been cleared to walk without a brace.

PT — physical therapy — also known as pain and torture, is now a part-time job.  I’ve never had an injury that required rehabilitation to this extent.  The worst part so far is not the pain, but that it interferes so much with normal life!

I went on medical leave after the accident and was pretty much laid up for six weeks.  Paradoxically, I got alot of work done since every need I had was cared for by others — chiefly my wife.  While I was not mobile, all I had to do was get in front of a computer, and I could generate sermon outlines, Bible studies, blog posts, and just about anything else.  I really should have saved medical leave until now!

I’m grateful that I have a flexible enough schedule to put in the work hours any time I can squeeze them in.  I have to keep reminding myself if I do the physical therapy work, this phase won’t last too long, and I’ll be fully back on my feet.  But for now, the gains are worth it!

Habit No. 2: Begin and End the Day with Prayer

I’ve spoken to the first habit of “prayer and Scripture before phone.”  The next habit that I’ll speak to is beginning and ending the day with prayer.

By beginning and ending the day with prayer, we are committing everything that takes place in between to the Lord.  Each time, we confess that we are dependent creatures.  We confess our faults and our failures, our needs and our fears.  We give thanks for God’s mercies.  We ask God to meet our needs.  We bow the knee before the Almighty, acknowledge our need of a Savior, and confess that Jesus Christ is the Savior that God has provided for us.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been fairly consistent in beginning the day with prayer.  But in the past, I’ve gotten involved in reading, or watching a game or a TV show, and not left any time for more than the most perfunctory prayers.  I’m trying to build in the habit of honest-to-goodness prayer at night.  Generally, I will begin with the Order for Compline from the Book of Common Prayer and add my own intercessions.  It doesn’t take too long — maybe five or ten minutes.

The important thing here is formation.  I need to be active in the process of conforming myself into the image of Christ.  The point is not to have a profound religious experience or to spend a long time in intercession, but to continually commit myself to the Lord, and avail myself of his grace as the one thing needful in my life.

Habit No. 1: Prayer and Scripture before phone

We shape our habits, and our habits shape us.

The phrase that the Church Fathers used to describe this effect is:  lex orandi, lex credendi.   That is, the law of prayer shapes the law of belief.  It is true that what we believe shapes how we pray.  Moreover, praying shapes believing.  If we don’t pray, we won’t believe for long.

We live in a world that is driven by urgency.  Text messages, notifications, emails, carpools, work deadlines, sports schedules, music lessons . . .  Our phones drive us to what is urgent, which, if not reined in, can crowed out the important.

If picking up our phone is the first thing do upon rising, we are choosing to prioritize the here and now, the immanent over the transcendent.  We are allowing our phones to shape us.  We are not cultivating the need to pause before the Lord, to “be still and know that I am God.”  We are forgetting that somehow, God managed to run the world while we were asleep, and that he will keep doing so whether we are awake or asleep, and long after we are gone.

Prayer and Scripture before phone is a deliberate decision to choose eternal matters before temporal matters.  It’s a decision to place our communion with God before our careers.  It’s a choice that reinforces that we are dependent creatures, that we are finite rather than infinite.  It’s a recognition that only God is “eternal, infinite, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 4).  It’s a commitment to the Lord to form us instead of the world forming us.

This habit will not change you in a day.  Or perhaps a week.  Habits are the building blocks of our lives.  They change us over time.

We cannot expect to be virtuous people apart from developing habits of virtue.  We cannot expect that when trouble comes that we will “rise to the occasion” apart from rising to the occasion in small ways each day.

Prayer and Scripture before phone is the beginning of this.  As we sit or kneel before God, we entrust himself to us to keep his promise, that he provides all that is needed for life and godliness.  We live as people of the promise.  We reset our recognition each day that our identity as Christians is “in Christ” rather than “of this world.”  And this recognition shapes every portion of our lives.

Reflections on The Common Rule by Justin Earley

I’ve been reading Justin Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction.  Here, Earley advocates developing a “rule of life,” or a set of habits to commit oneself to in order to be more rooted in the pursuit of God and in loving others.

This concept is not new.  Church Fathers such as Augustine and Benedict of Nursia developed rules of life.  The Rule of St. Benedict dating from the 500s is the most famous rule of life.  Benedict was the abbot, or the spiritual leader of a monastery, and developed “house rules” for the conduct of the monks under his care that would lead to piety and good works.

While one may not find all of the precepts of Benedict or Augustine to be appropriate for life in the 21st century, the wisdom of committing oneself to a pattern of habits and a schedule comes not only from ancient wisdom, but is backed by secular research such as Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.  A rule of life is also a wise response to many of the “default settings” of 21st century Christians.

1.  Connectivity.  Many of us feel the urge to be connected 24/7.  We can’t go to bed or get up without first checking our email, responding to text messages, or checking the scores of ballgames on our ESPN app.  By allowing ourselves to drift into this way of life, we miss out on communion with God and one another.  We need a plan to keep our devices in their proper boundaries in our lives and not allow them to take over and rob us of life’s most precious experiences.

2.  Slavery to the “to do” list.  I live in Houston, which is a busy, busy city.  I’ve met many people who have moved to Houston from all over the world because of economic opportunity.  Houston has a booming economy (until the price of oil goes down) and has a reasonable cost of living.  With long commutes and people seeking to take advantage of the opportunities here, work becomes a harsh taskmaster.  Add to this all of the demands of school on one’s children and the pressure of extracurricular activities, and there is not much room for true rest and leisure.  We are humans, not machines.  We are creatures, not gods.  Only God gets everything done. A well-thought out rule of life will place the essentials of well-being first and put secondary things in their place.

3.  The evangelical urge for spontaneity.  It would be interesting to see how many evangelical Christians schedule their workday in 15 or 30 minute intervals but believe that prayer must have an element of spontaneity in order to be sincere.  If we believe that our main priority is communion with God, because he will be our companion for this life and the next, we need to schedule time for this and develop a framework for Bible reading, prayer, and family devotional activities.  This takes planning, commitment, and building habits.  A rule of life will take this into account.

Where I plan on going with this next is developing a rule of life, trying to keep it, and reflecting on how well I do in keeping it.  I look forward to sharing the results.

Reflections on putting my computer in the shop

My 2012 MacBook Pro slowed to a crawl this week.  I’ve been contemplating replacing it for some time.  But it seemed too much like ditching a good friend.  Besides, it would be expensive — like $1500.  So, I called a few repair shops and asked them what they could

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do. A technician from The Computer Hospital of Houston answered the phone and told me that he could make it run faster than ever for a fraction of the replacement.

cost, and that he could do it in less than 24 hours.   I know that P. T. Barnum said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but I at least wanted to try to resuscitate my old friend.

So, I brought it in, and less than a day later, I tested it out with the technician.  True to his word, it now runs much faster than it ever has!  He was able to clone the old hard drive, and send me on my way.

Even to put “Old Sparky” in the shop for 24 hours, I had to move my schedule around.  I thought “this is crazy!”  I got along for half my life without any kind of computer, and it seemed I did just fine.

I bought my first computer 27 years ago in 1992, as a brand new church planter. It was a desktop PC that I got pretty cheaply.  I connected with a high school kid who told me he could build me one out of parts.  I can’t remember what he charged me, but it was alot less than they were going for back then.   I needed a machine to do church bulletins, promotional materials, keep the books, and other basic functions.  However, I don’t think I used a computer for sermon or lesson preparation until 1998 or 1999.  I started using email about the same time, but wasn’t really dependent on it as a communications medium until 2004 or so.

Previously, I had made it through two graduate programs with a manual typewriter. Not only did I not have a computer, I didn’t even have a home phone for some time!  Writing was either pen and paper, or pounding it out on the old Olivetti.  I actually real letters and put them in an envelope with a stamp!  I paid my bills by check!  During this period, I did some work as a bookkeeper, and we used a double-entry ledger.

So, I thought, “wow, the world sure has changed, and I sure have changed!”  I can prepare lessons and sermons much faster.  Searching online and cutting and pasting really saves alot of time. Having practically all the information in the world at your fingertips can be helpful.  Being able to publish my writings online and let them find an audience is a benefit.

Is it better?  I’m not sure.  I miss those days when all that I had to do to get away was to get away from a landline.  I wasn’t always connected.  It seemed like as a family, we played more board games before Netflix.

We can still do those things, but it takes being more deliberate, and not giving into the inertia of watching Netflix.  It takes real creativity to do the fun things that we did naturally.  Hiking, riding bikes, reading books, baking, just hanging out.  But it’s worth the extra effort1

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