The Household: A School of Love

In Habits of the Household: Practicing the Story of God in Everyday Family Rhythms, Justin Whitmel Earley states, “The most Christian way to think about our households is that they are little ‘schools of love,’ places where we have one vocation, one calling: to form all who live here into lovers of God and neighbor.”

The everyday habits Earley explores include waking, mealtimes, discipline, screen time, and family devotions, marriage, work, and play, and conversation and bedtime. His comments on waking and marriage focus on the parents. The explorations of mealtimes, work, play, and conversation are shown to be crucially formative for the family, and family devotions, discipline, screen time, and bedtime are shown to be of heightened importance in the formation of children.

Think of the things that happen in each of these spaces. How are each of these areas, as mundane as they can be, pregnant with possibility for formation in love? If you are a parent, how many of your habits around waking, sleeping, and meals are derived from your inherited family rhythms? How many of them have been recast as part of your new family? How many of these habits are shaped by faith commitments, even if in subtle ways?

I’m certainly a believer in the importance of making clear commitments, developing systems that work, and establishing habits as avenues for transformation and change. I also believe in the importance of family formation, building a strong marriage, and choosing to have children. I understand why many today are delaying marriage, and some are opting to forego having kids. But I also want to challenge those trends. Having a family, and building a good one, takes a lot of work. But so does anything else worth doing.

Earley’s book provides a helpful frame for thinking about the family and the formative nature of the rhythms and habits of family life. If you possess a clear vision for establishing your household as a little school where those within it can learn how better to love God and love neighbor, you can also build in the practices, ways of speaking, and value commitments that move those within the household toward that end.

A clear vision of the kind of household one wants to be part of also makes it plain when that standard is not met. Our family has said that we want our household to be filled with the love of God, and that this is evidenced when we have peace at home, when everyone is encouraged to pursue their unique callings, when we celebrate victories large and small, when we serve others, and when each of us are good stewards of the life God has given us.

Habits of the Household is one of those books I will recommend to young married couples and those who are on their way toward or who have welcomed children into the world. While it is possible to figure it out as you go, adopt habits that work along the way, a book like this helps you think deliberately about the choices you are making, raising good questions about the desired outcomes parents have for their children, their marriages, and the overall constitution of the household.

Children are formed by their parents. Parents, at their best, are being formed by God. And all, together and with God’s help, can be schooled in love everlasting.

Conviction and Plain Speech

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If you cannot express yourself well on each of your beliefs, work and study until you can. If you don’t, other people may miss out on the blessings that come from knowing the truth. Strive to re-express a truth of God to yourself clearly and understandably, and God will use that same explanation when you share it with someone else. But you must be willing to go through God’s winepress where the grapes are crushed. You must struggle, experiment, and rehearse your words to express God’s truth clearly. Then the time will come when that very expression will become God’s wine of strength to someone else. But if you are not diligent and say, “I’m not going to study and struggle to express this truth in my own words; I’ll just borrow my words from someone else,” then the words will be of no value to you or to others. Try to state to yourself what you believe to be the absolute truth of God, and you will be allowing God the opportunity to pass it on through you to someone else.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, “December 15: Approved by God

This insight still holds. If you struggle to express your faith convictions, keep working at them until you can. And even though others have stated truths about life, faith, God, and the rest eloquently and well, they did not nor have not said it like you might say it.

Furthermore, there is an added power when such truths are stated not only in a unique voice, but in a way that is borne of conviction. Sanders adds, “Always make it a practice to stir your own mind thoroughly to think through what you have easily believed. Your position is not really yours until you make it yours through suffering and study.” Make your convictions truly yours, not just a parroting of another, so that when you speak your words may be offered “clearly and boldly.”

Thomas Kelly on Continuous Prayer

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This practice of continuous prayer in the presence of God involves developing the habit of carrying on the mental life at two levels. At one level we are immersed in the world of time, of daily affairs. At the same time, but at a deeper level of our minds, we are in active relation with the Eternal Life. I do not think this is a psychological impossibility, or an abnormal thing. One sees a mild analogy in the very human experience of being in love. The newly accepted lover has an internal life of joy, of bounding heart, of outgoing aspiration toward his beloved. Yet he goes to work, earns his living, eats his meals, pays his bills. But all the time deep within, there is a level of awareness of an object very dear to him. This awareness is private; he shows it to no one; yet it spills across and changes his outer life, colors his behavior, and gives new zest and glory to the daily round. Oh yes, we know what a mooning calf he may be at first, what a lovable fool about outward affairs. But when the lover get things in focus again, and husband and wife settle down to the long pull of the years, the deep love-relation underlies all the raveling frictions of home life, and recreates them in the light of the deeper currents of love. The two levels are there, the surface and the deeper, in fruitful interplay with the creative values coming from the deeper into the daily affairs of life.

So it is sometimes when one becomes a lover of God.

Thomas Kelly, The Sanctuary of the Soul

Kelly adds, “How do you begin this double mental life, this life at two levels? You begin now, wherever you are. Listen to these words outwardly. But, within, deep within you, continue in steady prayer, offering yourself and all that you are to Him in simple, joyful, serene, unstrained dedication.”

May Christ Illuminate Your Night

Sometimes I wonder why this trust in Christ who comes to illuminate our night is so essential for me. And I realize this comes from a childhood experience.

During the weeks before Christmas, I used to spend lots of time in front of a manger scene looking at the Virgin Mary and the newborn infant at her feet. Such a simple image marks one for life. It enables us to realize one day that, through Christ, God himself came to be with us.

On Christmas Eve, we would go to church. When I was five or six years old, we lived in a mountain village, and the ground was covered with snow. Since I was the youngest, my father took me by the hand. My mother, my elder brother, and my seven sisters followed behind. My father showed me, in the clear sky, the shepherds’ star that the wise men had seen.

Those moments come to my mind when I hear the reading from the apostle Peter, “Fix your eyes on Christ as on a star shining in the night, until the day dawns and the morning rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

Brother Roger, Brother Roger of Taize: Essential Writings

On this Christmas Eve, contemplate the birth of Jesus.

Gather with other Christians to remember, once again, the miracle of the incarnation. This evening, join a church to celebrate. Lift your voice in song. Bow your heart in prayer. Consider afresh the story. Behold the child, his mother, those first visitors, in the mind’s eye. Remember these beginnings to the Christ story, why this story is told, how it ends, and what it means. Allow yourself to wonder. Give pause, and worship.

If you find yourself in darkness, remember that Christ has come to us as the light of the world. Fix your eyes upon him, wait upon the Lord. A new day has come, and is coming. Christ is born.

Reading Scripture with Fourfold Love

I propose a fourfold reading of scripture. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.

1. The heart: Lectio Divina, private meditation and prayer, and above all the readings in the eucharist.

2. The mind: historical study of the text and its original contextual meaning.

3. The soul: the ongoing life of the church, its tradition and teaching office.

4. The strength: the mission of the church, the work of God’s kingdom.

N. T. Wright, “The Fourfold Amor Dei and the Word of God

I came across this proposal in an essay by Michael Gorman, “New Testament Theology and Spiritual Formation,” in Spiritual Formation for the Global Church: A Multi-Denominational, Multi-Ethic Approach, edited by Ryan A. Brandt and John Frederick.

Most Christians approach the study of the Bible with a genuine desire that the Holy Spirit would impart knowledge of how to love God more fully and serve him more faithfully. Openness to God and a desire to gain knowledge of God’s will are a wonderful beginning. Lifting one’s heart to God is an essential first step for spiritual growth. But God calls us to love him with all of our being, heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Gorman argues that the purpose of the New Testament writings is spiritual formation. The gospel stories, Acts, the epistles, and Revelation present a “theology seeking faith,” or “theology seeking spiritual formation in its hearers and readers.”

Seeking God with the heart, deepening faith by applying the mind, asking God to sanctify the soul, and exercising God-given strength to act upon conviction work together to move the believer toward Christian maturity. If you begin with a heart set upon God, wonderful! Go further. Engage the mind, open the soul, and ask for the strength to live a life pleasing to God.

The Capacity to Love

I receive the musician Nick Cave’s newsletter The Red Hand Files, where he responds to letters. One correspondent wants to know about love, another wants to know how to avoid a broken heart, and Cave addresses their questions in tandem. In Issue #177, he writes:

The surest way to avoid a broken heart is to love nothing and no-one — not your partner, your child, your mother or father, your brothers or sisters; not your friends; not your neighbour; not your dog or your cat; not your football team, your garden, your granny or your job. In short, love not the world and love nothing in it. Beware of the things that draw you to love — music, art, literature, cinema, philosophy, nature and religion. Keep your heart narrow, hard, cynical, invulnerable, impenetrable, and shun small acts of kindness; be not merciful, forgiving, generous or charitable — these acts expand the heart and make you susceptible to love — because as Neil Young so plainly and painfully sings, ‘Only love can break your heart.’ In short, resist love, because real love, big love, true love, fierce love, is a perilous thing, and travels surely towards its devastation. A broken heart — that grief of love — is always love’s true destination. This is the covenant of love.

[T]o resist love and inoculate yourself against heartbreak is to reject life itself, for to love is your primary human function. It is your duty to love in whatever way you can, and to move boldly into that love — deeply, dangerously and recklessly — and restore the world with your awe and wonder. This world is in urgent need — desperate, crucial need — and is crying out for love, your love. It cannot survive without it.

To love the world is a participatory and reciprocal action — for what you give to the world, the world returns to you, many fold, and you will live days of love that will make your head spin, that you will treasure for all time. You will discover that love, radical love, is a kind of supercharged aliveness, and all that is of true value in the world is animated by it. And, yes, heartache awaits love’s end, but you find in time that this too is a gift — this little death — from which you are reborn, time and again. I have only one piece of advice for you both, and it is the very best that I can give. Love. The world is waiting.

The first portion is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, who wrote:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Love makes alive. Christian people believe love is the animating force of the universe. It is the generative self-giving virtuous energy that binds together God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the dynamic overflow of this personal, eternal dance of relationship which gave birth to the creation. We’re made to love because we were made by love. And, with our loves having been corrupted by the fall, our wrongly directed loves must be redirected by a more powerful, more beautiful, and more deeply truthful love. We have been redeemed by love and we are drawn and destined by love, the God who is love.

I recently heard the artist and filmmaker David Lynch say, “Negativity is the enemy of creativity.” Love, on the other hand, is creativity’s great friend. Acts of love are creative acts. Love brings forth life, not only in us, but in others.

Nick Cave writes that the world needs love, and that the world needs the love of each unique person, even with all the risks that entails. W. H. Auden wrote, “We must love one another or die.” But why is that the world’s need? And from whence do we receive this capacity for love?

The world needs love because it is the world God has made. The world also needs love because it is broken. Our capacity for love comes from God, who not only loves us, but works through us to flood forth the healing, binding and restorative power that is love.

We tap into this capacity when we see with clear eyes the degree to which we are loved, evidenced most fully in the work of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. Love incarnate, love embodied, love given sacrificially, and love raised up to reign forever. That love, the love of Christ claims us, changes us, and commissions us. We’re made for love, to love, by love, to give love.

Share the Christmas Story with Confidence

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The Baptist Standard reports few Americans have the Christmas story down cold.

The Lifeway Research study sourced in the article found:

Slightly more than 1 in 5 Americans (22 percent) say they accurately could tell the Christmas story found in the Bible from memory. A plurality of U.S. adults (31 percent) say they could tell the story but may miss some details or get others wrong. Another quarter (25 percent) could only give a quick overview and 17 percent say they couldn’t tell any of it.

I guess this is news, insofar as the Christian community should know we have a story to tell that others are unfamiliar with. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how the gospel writers recorded this event. And, within the Christian community, we don’t know it as well as we ought, and that’s a reality that needs to be faced. Therefore, we need to tell this story first to ourselves, so that when we tell it to those outside the community of the faith, we tell it right.

You may already know the Christmas story. The details are recorded in two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us the story of Jesus’ life. Only two of these writers focus explicitly on the events of Jesus’ birth.

These accounts are not identical. That’s important to note.

Rather than harmonizing the two and telling the story as a seamless whole, I think it is more faithful to the story to be clear concerning which details come from which account, and to understand why the authors present the story of Jesus’ birth as they do.

Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience living in the Gentile world, and includes details in his gospel to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope for a Messiah.

Luke wrote for a Gentile audience who would have been familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, but had different concerns, such as how Israel’s Messiah could also be the Lord of all the world.

Matthew’s account tells us of Joseph’s inner conflict following the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, the appearing of a star, and the journey of wise men who came to visit Jesus from the East, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Luke’s account includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, Caesar’s census, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, an inn with no vacancy, shepherds, the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields, and the first visitors to see Jesus in the manger.

The Christmas story, for Christian people, is one of those stories that is important enough for us to learn and to be able to tell it with ease. If you have a Bible on your shelf, however, you can pull it down, crack it open, and read an account. Many people can search on their phone or use an app even if there isn’t a Bible handy. Then, you can talk about what it means.

Christians believe that on the very first Christmas God entered history in Jesus of Nazareth. This event was a continuation of God’s involvement in history and the marking of a significant new chapter.

God appeared to us as a human being.

Tiny. Vulnerable. A gift.

This is the miracle of the incarnation. God brought to fulfillment the promises regarding the Messiah, a Savior, a King who would redeem humankind from sin.

The world has never been the same.

The wise men came in reverence and the shepherds came with wonderment and awe.

Mary treasured these things in her heart.

We ponder them still.

We tell of them.

We should tell them well, and with confidence.

Don’t Buy the Hype

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Around a man who has been pushed into the limelight, a legend begins to grow as it does around a dead man. But a dead man is in no danger of yielding to the temptation to nourish his legend, or accept its picture as reality. I pity the man who falls in love with his image as it is drawn by public opinion during the honeymoon of publicity.

Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings

Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish economist and diplomat who, in 1953, was appointed as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Markings is Hammarskjöld’s only book, his personal journal that was found and published in 1961, following his death caused by a plane crash. He began his diary at the age of twenty. It contains brief remarks, observations, insights, and poetry.

As a public figure, Hammarskjöld understood the pitfalls and dangers of life in the public eye.

As unknowns enter the public square and become “known” figures, a story is offered of the accomplishments, actions, and deeds that make that person deserving or worthy of their position of power and influence. Hammarskjöld observes the dead, likewise, have legends that are told about them. In eulogy, most are remembered well, spoken kindly of, and praised for their admirable qualities. We know these words of praise are not the sum total of a person’s life, but they are the words we would like most to remember and keep. But unlike the dead, the living can buy the hype, fall in love with their image, exchange their authentic self for a persona, and fall victim to an illusion.

Ministers, like everyone I suppose, are prone to this temptation. The nature of the pastoral office places the minister in the public eye. For the minister who “plays” at pastor in the pulpit or on church grounds, but who is something else entirely in their private life at home, ball field, or grocery store, the incongruities between the projection and reality will reveal themselves in time. It may not be plain to the minister, at first. But these incongruities will be seen plainly by everyone else.

Sadly, it can be the case that everyone else knows you are a fraud long before you do.

In the spiritual life, it is vitally important to know yourself, your flaws, weaknesses, besetting sins, and shortcomings. It is also important to know your strengths as well. If things begin to go well in your life and ministry, if people begin to speak well or praise you for who you are or what you are doing, it is best to be prayerful, to be on guard against pride and self-delusion. Stay in touch with reality. Don’t fall in love with an image that is false.

Laubach: A Walking Prayer

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One of the best ways to pray is to take a vigorous walk, talking to God in rhythm with the steps, thus:

“Lord, use my prayer–to help these people I am passing–to look up to Thee–to be hungry for Thy voice–to long to do Thy will–to hear Thee speak–to obey Thy voice–to do Thy will.”

There is no more exhilarating way of taking exercise than a walking prayer. When your brain is weary, go out into a crowd and waft prayers in all directions; let them trial you like a bridal veil, after people as they pass you. You will get the sense that something delicately gauzy, like soft morning light, floats after those for whom you pray. If your experience duplicates mine, you will feel a strange power developing like some long unused muscle.

Frank Laubach, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, pgs. 85-86. Published 1946.

Frank Laubach (1884-1970) was an American Christian missionary and champion for global literacy. One of his most famous teachings was to encourage Christians to purposefully turn their thoughts toward God for at least one second of every minute of every day, thus keeping God front-and-center in all of life’s activity.

He was also a strong advocate for global peace, and for prayer. His book Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, contains numerous “experiments in prayer,” or ways of praying during the course of an ordinary day. He encourages his readers to keep a notebook handy, to observe results, to record answers. His instruction is often as simple as to pray the name of Jesus in each encounter. Laubach had a firm conviction that prayer activated the power of God in the world, that our prayers, somehow and someway, were woven into the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world.

Study

Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction. Remember, the mind will always take on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates. Perhaps we observe a tree or we read a book. We see it, feel it, understand it, draw conclusions from it. And as we do, our thought processes take on an order conforming to the order in the tree or book. When this is done with concentration, perception, and repetition, ingrained habits of thought are formed.

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 63

Foster claims there are two “books” to be studied: the verbal and nonverbal. We reads books and lectures, and we observe nature, events, and actions. Book smarts and street smarts. Knowledge and wisdom. We apply ourselves. We take the posture of a student. We open ourselves, and learn.

The study of these “books” can take on various shapes, but Foster thinks the discipline involves four steps: 1) repetition, 2) concentration, 3) comprehension, and 4) reflection.

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Hit the “books.” Ask God, through study, to transform your mind.