Category Archives: Living Wisely

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.

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.

Lessons from Call Sign Chaos

General Jim Mattis is a leader who has fascinated me.  Ever since I read stories of his courageous and selfless leadership in Nathaniel Fick’s book One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine OfficerI’ve read everything I could get my hands on about this extraordinary man.  He has recently published a memoir on leadership, Call Sign Chaos:  Learning to Lead, with his co-author, Bing West,  Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.  I recommend this book to any aspiring leader, or anyone looking for direction in life.  Here are some lessons I learned from General Mattis:

Always be a student, always be a learner.  General Mattis “armed himself with books” to go to war.  He is legendary as the “Warrior Monk,” with a library of over 7,000 books, and was known as one of most well-read commanders in any of the armed services.

“Operations occur at the speed of trust” (156).  If you are in church leadership, you can replace “operations” with “ministry.”  Apart from trust and willing cooperation, the best-laid plans will never get out the door.

“To do our jobs well, we should not want our jobs too much.  In the dawn’s early light, we need to be able to look in the shaving mirror without looking away” (184).  Whatever job we have is a stewardship of the Lord.  It is a means to serve others and a means of provision for us.  But if our jobs become an idol, we cannot serve with great effectiveness.

Officers eat last.  Field Marshal Viscount Slim wrote in World War II.  “As officers, you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done these things.  If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world.  And, if you do not, I will break you” (98).  I’m think about getting this quote framed for the wall of my study.  This perfectly encapsulates servant leadership.

I’ve always had misgivings when I’ve been at church dinners and seen pastors pray for the meal so that they can get in the front of the line.  Leaders must go last.  If anyone must go hungry, or have slim pickings, it must be the church officers, rather than the members or the visitors. If anyone must go without a seat, it must be the leaders, rather than the guests.

Trust is built in this way, one day at a time.  Failing to attend to such details causes leaders to lose credibility.

 

Productivity and the Great Commandment

As I am becoming more able-bodied after my surgery, I’ve noticed I’ve become “less productive.”  Upon reflection, it’s really easy to be so-called productive and check tasks off a list when all you can do is sit in a chair and work on a computer, with three meals a day brought to you and your only worry being how you are going to get up and make it to the restroom.

So, I’ve had to think about this some, and I’ve been reminded of some ultimate truths.

First, only God gets everything done.  It is the nature of creatureliness to be finite.  Human beings can only do one thing at a time.  If we multitask, we are generally doing two things poorly simultaneously.  We are humans, not machines.  The nature of living in a fallen world is that there is always much more work to be done.

Productivity is always in the service of the Great Commandment. The two great duties that God has laid before us is love for God and love for others.  “Getting things done” is in the service of these two mandates.  This means that people are the reason that we seek to produce.  As one wise pastor told me, “interruptions are the ministry.”  This means that we must be open to many experiences that cannot be checked off a list.

This frees us up to jump in and help when we see a need.  We taught our children to always ask and look and volunteer to help when help is needed — to look for opportunities.   I often need to remind myself to do this.  This might not be a task I can check off my list.  But surely, this serves the greater good.  And this is what we are here to do.

Will God ever give you “more than you can handle”?

Last night at Bible study, the question was asked, “is it true that God will never give you more than you can handle?”

Many of us in Christian circles have experienced people hoping to encourage us by saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Christians commonly see this as an implication of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which reads:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

I’d like to offer another interpretation, and one, I think, is more in keeping with the rest of the Scripture.

Certainly, no temptation that any of us face is unique to us.  And God’s faithfulness is unquestionable.

But God did not create us to be independent beings, able to fight sin and temptation in our own flesh.  We live “in Christ,” who says, in John 15:4-5:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Apart from abiding in Christ, even the least temptation will overpower us.  So in this sense, God always gives us more than we can handle!.  Because our sufficiency is in Christ, and not in ourselves.

Once again, Job is perhaps the paradigmatic illustration of this.  Could Job have faced his suffering and remained blameless if he had been content with the moralistic advice of his friends?  At best, it’s highly unlikely.  As he receives their counsel, he becomes more and more repulsed by their easy answers and platitudes.  As his torment grows, he rests in God more, and trusts in God more.

In a sense, Job is the “heroic ideal” turned on its head.  Job endures.  Job perseveres.  Rather than winning glory through heroic deeds in battle and overcoming his enemies through great force of arms, Job just stands there.

God is the hero.  It is God who vindicates Job.  It is in Him that Job endures trial.  Apart from the mercy of God, even the least dose of suffering would have overcome Job.  But Job stands there, and pleads his case before God, and God vindicates him.

Our flesh profits nothing. But Christ has overcome the world.  And it is only in Him, that we are able to overcome sin, temptation, and the devil.

 

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