“Learn to do well.”

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This is how we are to learn to live. We are to have the right pattern. That pattern is Jesus. We are to have power, and that power comes from Jesus. And then we are to take the light and leading that Jesus gives, and we are to act up to the last limit of it, we are to practice it to the last chapter, and then we will learn to do well, and we will be doing well.

George W. Truett, “An Essential of Victory,” from On Eagle Wings: Fourteen Messages on Old Testament Themes

Truett’s text for this sermon was a select portion of Isaiah 1:17, which in the King James Version is rendered, “Learn to do well.” Other translations say learn to do good, or right.

Truett observes that we must not only learn to avoid evil, but to enact the good. He says, “There are two great aspects to the religious life. The one is negative and the other is positive.” We can mistakenly emphasize one over the other, obsessing over the avoidance of evil and refraining from actively doing good, or zealously seek to do what is right, while neglecting the renunciation of actions that run contrary to God’s will. In choosing the way of Jesus, we remain on his path. Other avenues are forsaken. Learning to do well involves gaining wisdom to distinguish good from evil, and to consistently desire and choose that which is of God, rather that that which is not.

Like many good preachers, Truett helps us remember how we are to learn to do well by using alliteration. Learning to do well involves a pattern, power, and practice. We look to Jesus as our model, but he is also our teacher and our helper, and we, being his students, are given opportunities to put what we learn into action under his loving and watchful eye.

Jesus made a claim in the gospels, spoken in various ways, that after he died and was raised from the dead, he would remain present with his followers. He will be with us always. When he departs, the Spirit would come. Jesus is the pattern. He supplies the power. We take up the practice. Let’s add one more word that starts with “p.” In learning to do well, his presence remains with us. For that, we can be thankful.

What a Description

With my daily life so indelibly marked by the presence of the digital, I have increasingly felt that when Apple’s fan base hailed the first iPhone as the “Jesus phone,” this moniker was more telling than they could ever imagine. As a person of faith who has been steeped in the understanding that Jesus Christ transforms anyone who opens themselves to his presence, I can personally testify to the curious ways that the Jesus phone has transformed me since I “accepted it into my life.” My relationships, my work patterns, my routines of how I spend my time and how I engage my spaces, even the patterns of thinking and my heart’s preoccupations–all of these have been quietly shifting and changing. Indeed, when I stop to recall what life had been like before it became enveloped by digital ubiquity, I need to work at remembering: What did consciousness feel like before mobile devices, email, and the internet? The difficulty in summoning up the memory of what that state of existence felt like reveals how clearly the logic and presence of all things digital in my life have incrementally but definitively made me into a new creation. That I barely can perceive this transformation when I consider how I move through my daily engagements signals how most everyone around me has undergone a similar transformation too.

Felicia Wu Song, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age

A mass conversion event. Almost 60% of the mobile phones in use in the world are iPhones. There are over 6 billion smartphone users globally. This isn’t just a market phenomenon. It’s a spiritual shift.

Spiritual Formation and Tech: Do You Use Apps to Stay on Track?

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When it comes to my own habits, I manage and keep track using a handful of tools: a to-do app, a paper calendar, a journal, and Evernote. For Bible and devotional reading, I use hard copies, which are always near at hand on my desk at home. When I go to the office, I keep a secondary copy of the Scriptures to the left of my computer monitor. If I don’t read at home to begin the day, Bible reading is my first task once I reach the office.

I use Microsoft To-Do, and one of my daily tasks is sacred reading: four chapters from the Bible, a daily devotional, meditation on a psalm portion I’m memorizing, and prayer. I work from my to-do list, and while this habit has become almost automatic, I get to enjoy the satisfaction of checking it off. I also plan out monthly, quarterly, and annual moments for reflection on goals, my well-being, what’s been accomplished, and what is ahead.

I’ve tried other apps in the past. I’ve tried the Bible app, not only to look up a passage, but also to follow along with a reading plan. I’ve tried journaling apps and habit trackers. I’ve used Nike+ to track runs, and now I use a Garmin device to monitor other health markers. I gave Strava a try, but felt I didn’t gain much from it. My current set is what works for me.

But, since I teach in the area of Christian spiritual formation, I sometimes wonder what other people are doing, what works for them. I recently learned about the Way of Life Habit Tracker, and Streaks. Both work from the “Don’t Break the Chain” concept. For journaling, some use Day One or the Five Minute Journal app.

I don’t often have many commenters among my readership. But if you’re reading this, do you use apps to keep you on track in your spiritual life? Have you integrated technology into your faith-life rhythms? If yes, how so? If not, how did you establish your habits? What works? What doesn’t?

In the seminary where I serve, we invite students to develop a rule of life. We’ve reach Ken Shigematsu’s God in My Everything or Justin Whitmel Earley’s Common Rule or Stephen Macchia’s Crafting a Rule of Life to help us think about habits and faith-formation. All, in some way, adopt the principles found in The Rule of St. Benedict, modernizing an ancient approach to developing an orderly, well-ordered way of following Christ. We seek to be disciplined, and steadfast. We try to steer clear of legalistic tendencies, or empty ritual. Practices are chosen thoughtfully and after discernment. They are adopted as an act of obedience to Christ, as a way to learn his Way.

If you attend church on the weekends, worship God, and take part in some kind of small group study, those are keystone habits! If you pray, read Scripture, fast, serve, practice generosity, that’s great, too. There are a whole host of spiritual disciplines that can be regularly taken up. And there is more than one way to develop a habit.

How have you established your spiritual habits and rhythms? What wisdom have you gained? What questions are still with you?

Who You Look Up To

“Here’s the thing about your heroes: You have to know about them to look up to them. The candidate pool is 100% limited by your exposure. That’s why so many kids look up to athletes, I think. They haven’t been exposed to enough other people to look up to them.

Here’s how I think about that: Who haven’t I been exposed to that would inspire me if I knew they existed or knew the details of their lives? And how could I learn about those people?”

Barret Brooks, quoted by James Clear in his 2/3/22 3-2-1 Newsletter

One idea: be part of a church community. You hear stories about remarkable people. Occasionally, if you know what to look for, you might even find yourselves sharing a pew with one.

Obscurity as a Good

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As pastoral shepherds, there are times God places us in visible roles and on visible stages, but we must embrace these stewardships with great prayer and multiple layers of accountability. If God wants you to be more visible, it is wise and protective of your soul to let him put you there in his way and in his perfect timing.

I like to think of shepherding pastoral calling like a turtle on a fencepost. I am reminded regularly that no turtle gets to the top of a fencepost on its own. Someone has to put the turtle there. This is true for every pastoral leader. However low or high your pastoral ministry fencepost, make sure you are not trying to crawl to the visible top on your own. If God want you there, let God unmistakably put you there.

Tom Nelson, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership

Nelson writes here about pastoral ambition and the desire some have for success, notoriety, and fame. Bigger pulpits, bigger congregations, and bigger influence. He warns against this impulse. He acknowledges the ways obscurity can be good, and how God can use corners of quiet service to refine, shape, and prepare leaders for future ventures.

But notice, too, that Nelson states that a pastoral ministry fencepost, whether it be low or high, is a fencepost, a setting where God places you. No matter your assignment, you did not get there on your own. It’s a trust to be received. You are there for a purpose and a reason, and that there is work there for you to do as a steward in God’s house. There is a Word to preach and people to serve. To be entrusted with responsibility is a privilege. You’ve been chosen.

This is an important truth for pastors to remember. It recalibrates our approach to pastoral work. Seek the right post, for the right reasons, at the right time, and trust that God has work for you to do, and work to do in you, wherever and to whomever he calls you.

It is a helpful truth for congregants to remember, too. Be discerning when you call your pastor. Seek the right person, not necessarily the most credentialed, accomplished, or impressive person. Ask God to guide you, maybe even to obscure places, to find the person God has prepared to best serve your congregation.

Can’t Have Both

I collect images like this one because I teach and think and write about Christian spiritual formation.

If you are a disciple of Jesus, you will grow. You will change. You won’t always like it.

Some things that need to go won’t go easily.

Some truths that need to be learned won’t come cheap.

Sometimes God will lead you to green pastures and quiet waters. Sometimes God will walk with you through the darkest valley.

Sometimes you’ll be scrubbed clean, and like a child at bath time, you’ll scream your way through. At the end, you might say, “I didn’t like it, but it’s an improvement.”

Sometimes you’ll be plunged into a furnace, and as the dross melts, you’ll wonder if you’ll survive, then find yourself recast into something more beautiful and more pure, more like fine gold or precious silver.

Embrace the truth that growth requires that, from time to time, comfort will have to go.

Nouwen: Mysticism and Revolution

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It is my growing conviction that in Jesus the mystical and the revolutionary ways are not opposites, but two sides of the same human mode of experiential transcendence. I am increasingly convinced that conversion is the individual equivalent of revolution. Therefore any real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart, and he who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the illusory quality of human society. Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. No mystic can prevent himself from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection he will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionary can avoid facing his own human condition, since in the midst of his struggle for a new world he will find that he is also fighting his own reactionary fears and false ambitions.

[. . . ]

For a Christian, Jesus is the man in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in man’s search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.

Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense he also remains…the way to liberation and freedom.

Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, p. 20-21

The Power of the Living Word

Our gracious and loving God, we thank you that you have been touching our lives: illuminating us; opening us at deep levels of our being; stretching us at points of our narrowness; confronting us where we are distorted; challenging us to become the word you speak us forth to be; but in every way working in it all for your good purposes in our lives. As we begin to consider ways of coming to Scripture that will enable it to become your living Word in our lives, help us, God, to remain open to the guidance of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation

This prayer merges helpfully our role in taking up the Scriptures and reading while simultaneously developing a deep, abiding trust that it is God’s work through the living Word within us to transform us and make us new, to grant us new insight, to grow and expand our souls, to correct and rebuke us when we are wayward, and to challenge and invite us in the taking of our next step–all for our good–through the sustained openness to the work of the Holy Spirit through prayer.

It is possible to know the Bible inside and out, and yet somehow miss the presence and activity of God. Consider the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who knew the Scriptures, but did not recognize the Christ.

If you have a daily Scripture reading habit, wonderful! Take one more step in marrying that habit to prayer. Ask God to speak again through the Word, to use the written Word to conform you more fully to the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, so that you might more fully mature in him and more faithfully testify to the transforming power of his grace.

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.