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

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.

 

Lessons from the 2008 Financial Crisis

The Great Depression was the defining event in the lives of my wife’s grandparents, and of many people in “the Greatest Generation.”  Grammy and Grampa worked hard and saved and over a lifetime, were able to achieve a comfortable lifestyle.  But even in this, they were extremely frugal.  They always lived well below their means. While they didn’t mention the Depression, this didn’t mean it was forgotten.

Skip ahead to the 2008 Financial Crisis.  I just finished Timothy Geithner’s   Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises.  While I don’t claim to understand the particulars of CDOs, Credit Default Swaps, mortgage-backed derivatives, and quantitative easing, it was interesting and informative to read a memoir of one of the main architects of the economic policies of the Obama administration.  Whether one agrees with the actions of the administration or not, it was clear that the financial world was in uncharted waters, and that the global economy hung in the balance.

Our family experienced a “voluntary recession,” in 2006.  I left the pastorate I was serving in Cincinnati to accept a call to be a missionary.  We had to raise our own financial support.  To not drain our support account too quickly, we lived on a stipend that was one-third of what I had previously made.  During much of that time, we lived with Amy’s parents, hoping to finish out our support raising.  However, as churches and individuals were feeling the financial pinch, we would lose supporters as soon as we added them.  Circumstances forced the dream of serving as overseas missionaries to die, and the job that I obtained following our departure from the missions agency barely paid more than our stipend.

This may have been the most difficult time in our life as a family.  But God was good.  He blessed us and taught us many lessons during this period that have carried forward to this day.  I’ll talk about others in succeeding posts.  We were blessed with the mission agency requirement to get out of debt, and to stay out of debt.  So, while I was not earning much, our overhead was low as well.  We still see God’s provision in this.

So, the first lesson I learned was if you keep your overhead low, you can do anything you want.  There are two ways to do what you want with your life.  Either generate enough income so that you can accomplish your dreams, or keep your overhead low enough. Most advice seems to center on generating enough income.  The problem is, most of us are not gifted in that way.  But if you can lower your overhead, if you can eliminate debt and cut spending, you are free to serve the Lord in the way that you desire.

The next lesson I learned was how to work hard.  This was a gift from God.  I recognized that in a tight labor market, I must distinguish myself.  Jobs were hard to get and harder to keep.  I knew many people who were “downsized” by the Great Recession and were never able to find professional employment again.  After serving as a professional engineer at the director level of the government agency she worked for, she was demoted to an entry level position, and soon afterwards, accepted a disability package.  The market trend was that jobs were going to younger people who could be obtained more cheaply. Working hard, making myself “indispensable” (although cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable) was going to be necessary in that labor market.

While the American economy has lower rates of unemployment than in the 2008 Financial Crisis, those statistics may be deceptive.  Once people are out of the workforce and give up on finding work, they are no longer counted in the unemployment statistics.  Some states aggressively pursue unemployed people to move them to disability benefits, because the Federal Government pays for disability benefits.

So, even though the numbers report otherwise, older professionals with extensive experience and the salary requirements commensurate with that experience, must continue to regularly justify their employment with hard work.  “Coasting until retirement” is not an option for many.  If you stop working hard, and you stop learning, you become irrelevant. Companies will still go “younger and cheaper.”

Proverbs for Sanity in Education

The 2019 College Admissions Scandal brought to light the poverty of much that passes for college-prep education. Incessant test preparation and self-serving resume building reached their logical end, with parents purchasing test scores and admission to elite colleges. If getting into a “good college to get a good job to make money” is the point of education, why not skip a few steps and buy your way in, and guarantee that you reach your goal.

This pressure-cooker of striving for admission to the “top colleges” affects those who seek to “play the game” rather than simply pay gratuities in advance for favorable treatment. It’s not unusual to read about the “college mental health epidemic.” Studies vary widely, but the American Psychological Association found that one in four of college students is prescribed medication for depression or anxiety.  Certainly, many more are going untreated or are self-medicating.

Many possible explanations exist for this, but one cannot ignore the “fast and furious” pace of much of college-prep education. Parental anxiety over “not having any gaps” in a child’s education, constant assessment, an industry of test preparation, and the endless pressure to “get into a good job so that you can get a good job and become financially secure” cannot help but contribute to the angst of teens and young adults. Rigorous college-prep education is often like the force-feeding of chickens in commercial chicken-houses being fattened up for slaughter.

Education has not always been conducted this way. For most of recorded history, a liberal arts education has been the privilege of those wealthy enough to be able to spend time in contemplation and study. Past history gives us wisdom that a student can become learned, virtuous, and wise without the modern angst that passes for a rigorous education today.

Two habits of classical pedagogy that provide wisdom to today’s educator are “festina lente,” and “multum non multa.” These maxims translate to “make haste slowly,” and “much, not many.”

While “make haste slowly” sounds like the phrase “with all deliberate speed” from the majority opinion of Brown v. Board of Education, there is much to be gained from this proverb. A wise pastor once told me that a universal tendency is to overestimate what one can do in a day, a week, a month, or even a year, but to underestimate what one can do in five or ten years. This gets to the heart of “festina lente.” Festina lente requires that the educator begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Rather than beginning with a utilitarian goal such as helping a student get into a “good college,” Festina lente asks, “what kind of person would I want to encourage this student to become,” and working towards creating such habits of virtue over a long period of time.

Multum non multa,” much, not many, dovetails with this. For example, most of us have more Greek and Hebrew tools available to us on our smartphones than the translators of the King James Bible had access to. But who is wiser? Who is more skilled? Who is more competent in Biblical exegesis, the rhythms of the English language, and written expression? The contemporary person with the tools available on his phone, or the Elizabethan scholar who mastered the tools which were available? One reads the book lists of the Founding Fathers, and one finds that there is a uniformity and what we would call a “narrowness” of reading. Yet, they read deeply enough to be formed by what they studied, rather than consuming books or media.

Ecclesiastes tells us that “of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecc. 12:12). There are many more books worth reading than a person will have time to read in a whole lifetime. It is not possible to provide an education where there are no gaps of content. Festina lente and Multum non multa focus on creating habits of virtue, and teaching students how to think and how to learn. Once armed in this way, a student may step out and learn whatever he desires.

Job and the Prosperity Gospel (3)

The Book of Job takes on the message of the prosperity gospel head-on.  Job’s counselors show us the effects of unbiblical theology.  Doctrine is not simply an intellectual matter, but it penetrates the heart.  A Biblical view of God leads to comfort, hope, and assurance.  A view of God that deviates from the Bible robs people of the knowledge of the love of Christ, that God is for us and not against us, that he who did not spare his own son, how shall he not freely give us all things?

Here are some of the effects of the theology of Job’s counselors.

1.  It brings God down to a human level.  One of the first things that I learned about God as a child is “God is great, and God is good.”  If God is not great, then he is at the mercy of human action.  If God is not good, then we cannot trust him, and we are at the mercy of our own devices against one much more powerful than we are.  Job’s friends alternatively speak of God as one whom we can please through mere human effort, and a God who is remote and uncaring.  If God is not great, evil may be greater than he is.  If God is not good, he doesn’t care about human suffering.

2.  It promotes human performance.  God cannot be a debtor to any human being.  Yet, by bringing God down to a human level, we can gain the impression that we either can please God by our own efforts, or that we can come to the bargaining table as equals with God.  Both the Creator/creature distinction and the holiness of God tell us otherwise.  God is pure being.  We are subsistent beings whose life is in God.  God is perfectly holy in all his person and in all his works.  In contrast to the holiness of God, we, as human beings, are radically damaged by the Fall.  We are “conceived in born in sin,” and we continue to reject God’s will for our will.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, properly presented, presents the sinfulness of sin in its fullness, which magnifies the grace and love of God exponentially greater than that which we can conceive, apart from the Spirit of God.  This puts God in his rightful place, us in our rightful place, glorifies God, humbles us, and shows us our utter dependency on the mercy of God in Christ.

3.  It deprives Christians of the comfort of Christ in the midst of suffering.  If the only function of suffering is to correlate with “what a man sows, he shall also reap,” where is the comfort of Christ in this.  Yet, through suffering, Christ conforms us to his image, which is the greatest good imaginable (Romans 8:28-29).  While we may never know God’s specific purposes in our suffering, this is far different than saying that there is no purpose.  The comfort that we are able to have is that Jesus promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us.  If suffering is merely “what we deserve,” the presence of Christ does not accompany us in our suffering, and our suffering is in vain.

4.  It destroys people.  Bad theology destroys people’s souls by giving them a false vision of God.  Humanly speaking, apart from the grace of God, how could one help but walk away from God when all one has heard is falsehood.  This is like being in a marriage and finding out that one’s spouse has been pathologically dishonest for the entire marriage.  It destroys marriages, families, and churches.  It robs Christians of the hope and assurance that is rightfully theirs through the finished work of Christ.

Job corrects our vision, and points us, as Francis Schaeffer writes, to “the God who is there.”  This is the God who cannot fail his people.  He demonstrates this through sending his son to take on the sins of his people at the cross, and granting his people the righteousness of Christ.

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