Category Archives: Discipline

Our Lives as Catechumens

Some churches offer a formal series of classes before confirmation, normally called “catechism.” It is designed to be an instruction in the faith so that those coming for confirmation are informed and equipped as they make the faith their own. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement in itself, and some particular churches do a better job than others. The problem arises when we think of catechism as a certification instead of as a process.

When one joins the military, a period of preparation follows. This basic training or “boot camp” is a catechism for the particular branch of service one is entering. A lot of learning and shaping takes place in those weeks. Just the physical training alone can make a significant impact. It would be ludicrous for a recruit upon completion of basic training to think they are “done.” No more PT for me! I can go on about my business as a Soldier and not worry about PT, rifle marksmanship, and all those other basic tasks. I have completed that.

Yet, often, we view catechism in that very way. I’m done. I can go back to whatever it was I did before my Thursday nights were spent at the church learning the creeds and the history of the church. To do that is not to be done with catechism; it is to change how we are being catechized.

We are all catechumens. Every day we are being informed and molded by our habits. As we were all told when we were growing up, “You are what you eat.” That is true in all aspects of our lives, not just physical nutrition. Jesus said that food does not make us unclean, but the Scriptures are clear that we need to mind what we take into our hearts and minds. Psalm 101:3 (KJV) reminds us, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.”

It is nearly impossible to keep everything from our eyes (or ears) that is not wholesome and edifying since we are bombarded by such intrusions every time we go out. But that does not mean we should slouch down and throw our hands up in surrender to the onslaught. We can control what we read, watch, and hear for at least part of each day. Are we being deliberate to make sure we continue to be catechized in the faith, instead of passively assenting to being molded by our culture? Are we seeking to continue to be informed and shaped by the Church?

Since we are all catechumens, the question is: what are we being catechized in and for? Are we passively assenting to be catechized into materialistic consumers? Or, are we consciously, deliberately, seeking to be catechized for Christ?

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Filed under Discipline, Growth, The Church

Obvious Advice for the New Year

We are a few days into 2017 and gym ads arrived right on cue in my mailbox this afternoon. Time to put some teeth to those resolutions (or at least extract some money from those who made them!) Another new year is as good a time as any to start afresh, to seek to right the wrongs, to improve ourselves and accomplish our dreams.

Of the various schools of ancient Greek philosophy, I have always had an affinity for the Stoics — ascetic, logical types, in sharp contrast to the hedonistic Epicureans. Stoics weren’t afraid to make the obvious explicit. Like this gem from Epictetus:

Whatever you would make habitual, practice it;
and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it,
but habituate yourself to something else.

Isn’t this the core of most “self help/ self improvement” writing? Do what you need to do in order to be who you want to be. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. You can find thousands of people on the internet telling you that’s what you need to do to get where you want to be.

So why do we have such a hard time pulling it off?

Take this blog for example. I’ve had it for years, but for most of those years I just wrote on it when I felt like it. Posts were sporadic and widely spaced. 1 January 2016 I decided I wanted to write more, so I set myself a goal to write 500 words a day. The first 6 months, it went pretty well. Then we moved and it has been an uphill climb ever since.

Maybe Europe is just a more inspirational place to write than the Pacific Northwest. My schedule has played a bit of a role, but I have been able to adapt so as to have the time. Even so, I still find it increasingly difficult to get to 500. Part of it is the struggle for material. Finding things to write about seemed to come easier during the first half of the year.

Proficiency comes from sticking with something after the initial thrill wears off until mastery is attained. It is hard. It takes a lot of self discipline. It requires intense effort for seemingly small gains. This holds true whether you are training for a marathon, learning an instrument, or in just about any other pursuit. There is a desert between novelty and mastery that we must cross. It is long, arduous, and often lonely. It can feel barren and dry. But on the other side is the real goal — the attainment of the skill or ability that caught our imagination in the first place.

This applies also to our journey of faith. In an age where people binge-watch television programming like it was their job, it seems we should be able to put that same effort into our own salvation. If we truly want to become holy, we must cultivate holy habits. This takes a lot of work, but what else is worth our greatest effort, if not knowing God?

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Filed under Discipline, Priorities, Sanctification, Writing

The Ultimate Secret

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Area 51, the nuclear launch codes, the formula for Coke — it’s easy to think of secrets. Sometimes the existence of a secret drives speculation, as in the case of Area 51. Fear of harm, such as nuclear war, often cause secrets to be kept. And sometimes keeping a secret, like the formula for Coke, has a financial reward.

So what is the ultimate secret? It is could be entrusted to only one and it has the potential to do enormous harm if revealed. It was in last Sunday’s lectionary readings:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven,
nor the Son, but the Father only.

Matthew 24:36 (ESV)

On the face of it, Jesus’ remark on his returning is puzzling. With our limited knowledge of the Trinity, we generally think that everything the Father knows, the Son knows and vice-versa, but this verse contradicts that assumption. We know Christ took limitations upon himself in the incarnation. He, in being made man, generally “played by the rules.” We have no indication that he was exempt from hunger and fatigue, but what about limitations on his knowledge?

In terms of who knows, information “concerning that day and hour” is certainly a top-level secret. This is above the common cliché when something is a mystery to us and we say that God only knows. The day and the hour of Jesus’ return is above the level of classification of “God only knows” since God can be understood as either the Father or the Trinity. It is the ultimate in compartmentalized information.

All of this leads to the question, “Why is this one piece of information so critical to keep hidden?” To answer this, peak into the next school bus you see on your way to work, especially if it’s headed to high school. Things probably haven’t changed that much since I rode one a few decades ago in that you’ll probably still find someone doing their homework on the way to school.

Procrastination is a strong temptation we all face in different areas. But procrastination is really only a viable option when we know the deadline. If we don’t, we’re playing a whole different game of chance. With a known deadline, we’re putting immediate gratification ahead of the quality of our task performance.

Consider if we knew when Jesus was returning. Every person on the planet would be condemned to hell. How so? If at the Ascension, Jesus had said to his disciples, “I’ll be back in 3,000 years,” there would have been no rush to tell people what they had seen. Yes, they may have developed a small following, but without a sense of impending return, would it have carried through? Without a sense of impending return, would we have a church today, 2,000 years later? I think we would not. With the lack of mystery — it could be today — and with our fallen nature, our desires would have turned elsewhere even more than they do already.

The knowledge may have been kept, but it probably wouldn’t have been kept current. Ask a 20-year-old what actions to take in the event of a nuclear attack and you’ll get a blank stare. A 60-year-old, though, could probably at least remember a few things from civil defense drills in school. We don’t see a nuclear attack as an imminent threat anymore so we aren’t passing on the knowledge.

You could argue that we all die and face judgement that way, and I would agree, but I have buried many who did not find that sufficient motivation to conduct their life in a way to reflect that belief. We all know we will die; few live like it will happen to them.

The Epistle reading from Sunday instructs us how we should then live.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:11-14 (ESV)

May we be always ready.

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Targeting

After some analysis, I have identified about two dozen species of birds I have never seen before that I have a reasonable chance of seeing where we now live. I am starting to collect information about their habitats and when they are normally present near the Puget Sound. This is an interesting exercise in itself as it allows me to learn more about these birds. It also should increase my chances of actually observing them in the wild.

Different birds prefer different habitats. They are not likely to come to me, so in order to see them, I will have to venture into their habitats. I could stare out my front window for the rest of my life and probably never see any waterfowl, but within a few miles I have both salt and freshwater bays and lakes. As I collect my information, I should have an idea of when I need to visit each habitat over the next year.

I have been doing some other goal-setting of late as well. I have slipped into the habit of drifting off to sleep when I sit down to read. It seems I can only endure about twenty to thirty minutes before the sleep monster envelopes me in its clutches and drags me off to its lair. There are times, like rainy Sunday afternoons, where a nap with a book is a fine and pleasant thing, but to succumb to slumber every time I try to get through a chapter of a book is becoming frustrating.

So I set a goal: I want to read for an hour straight each day. So far I have found the first 30 minutes fairly easy, but the second half to be more of a struggle, resulting in me having to move, sit on the floor, and otherwise exert effort to stay awake. Being able to focus my attention while reading is a skill I cherish, so it is worth fighting to retain.

Both of these actions result from asking the question, “What do I want?” which is just a variation on, “Where do I want to go?” that we discussed earlier. I used these questions to identify some targets: birds I want to see and an ability to regain for myself.

Obviously, setting goals is important and the internet has no shortage of articles extolling the necessity and utility of this practice. But setting goals that will lead us to where we want to be is more important. There is no shortage of “good things” to strive toward. It would be fun to be a renaissance man, conversant in multiple languages, able to play multiple instruments, and well-read on dozens of topics. We have our limits, however. Time, talent, and interest all narrow what goals we are likely to attain.

Focus is also important. I have found one or two goals at a time is all I can really focus on while trying to maintain other areas of discipline in my life. So for now it is birds (which can be set aside, because it is just a hobby) and rebuilding my reading capacity.

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Filed under Birding, Discipline, Growth, Priorities, Reading, Success

Only

All love, all devotion, all commitments whatsoever involve asceticism. Whenever we embrace one thing, we cannot help but not embrace a multitude of others. Self-denial is the hallmark of commitment. Whether one is committed to learning to play the piano, running a 5K, or marriage, self-denial will be involved.

Self-denial has been touted as an abominable heresy by our modern culture (mostly by those who incite us to be consumers.) “To scandalize anyone today, it suffices to suggest to him that he renounce something.”¹ But we all seem to innately desire to show our allegiance to one by denying another.

It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows” from The Defendant

While me may all agree that marriage is an exclusive relationship, and therefore has an ascetical demand to “forsake all others,” we seem to have more trouble with the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” God commands exclusive rights to our affections and attentions, yet many seem to balk at any sort of spiritual discipline as some attempt at “works righteousness.” Why would I consider skipping a meal or television show to spend time with God? Am I trying to “buy” God’s favor?

Yet if I tell someone that instead of watching television, my wife and I take a walk together every night and talk, I can often see a hint of envy — after the initial shocked look wears off — especially if I am speaking to a female. I know of no greater way to communicate love than to set aside everything else for the beloved. Whether it is turning off the cell phone and giving total attention to someone I am counseling, or taking my wife on a short getaway, it says, “You are my priority and there is nothing more important than you right now.”

God certainly deserves such affection from us. The difference is that we do not often get tangible feedback from our Lord. I receive no hug or kiss if I take an afternoon to read and pray, but that does not mean it goes unnoticed.

Giving such devotion to God also shapes us. It affirms within us that we love God and desire to serve and please him. It is a discipline for us to grow in our affection and obedience. It is a way for us to bind ourselves to God.

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.

Proverbs 3:3 (ESV)


¹Dávila, Nicolás Gómez Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 392

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Filed under Asceticism, Discipline, Relationship

But It’s Not an Excuse

Yesterday we looked at accepting the way God made us. Today I want to balance that idea with a look at the way God pushes and pulls us to growth. Just because God made us a certain way (male, female, introvert, extrovert, feeling, thinking,…) doesn’t mean we can rest on our heels refusing to grow. Yes, God gifts us differently, but he gifts us to use those gifts, and sometimes that requires stepping out of our comfort zones. We have to be willing to risk failure. We may have undeveloped areas in our lives that God would like to use to bless others through us.

I came to pastoral ministry somewhat reluctantly. I had long enjoyed reading and writing, but like many people, public speaking was not something I enjoyed. Nevertheless, after one year of seminary, I found myself in a pulpit looking at a church of about 50 people staring back at me. I was filling the pulpit for a church in north-central Ohio and my first sermon last all of about 8 minutes. I’m not sure I took a breath. I know I didn’t let go of the pulpit. Being people of grace and mercy, they had me back and I later served as their part-time pastor for a while.

God used my enjoyment of reading and writing to give me a platform from which to build my preaching skills. Over the course of many years, I hope I have improved a bit. I certainly feel more comfortable stepping behind a pulpit. In fact, when I don’t have opportunity to do it regularly, I miss it. I’ve learned that God sometimes pushes us to grow so that our faith in him will develop. He desires us to throw ourselves into his grace. To use Dallas Willard’s metaphor, we should burn grace like a 747 burns jet fuel on take off.

We must be willing to take risks in faith. Not for our own glory, but to serve God and to serve others. I’m not a supporter of the “do big things for God” idea, but I am a supporter of doing something for God. For some, the challenge may be to faithfully maintain prayer and Bible reading each day. For others, maybe it’s reigning in our appetite for food, drink, or something else. For others, it may be to attend worship faithfully. For others, it might be the willingness to speak up when topics of faith are raised.

Living things grow, just as we are called to grow. Even when our bodies start to fail, our faith can continue to grow. We may have reasons why growing is hard, but we have no excuse for not making the effort.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 12:1-4 (ESV)

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Filed under Dallas Willard, Discipline, Grace, Growth, Obedience, Progress, Sanctification, Success

Reflection

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You have to be still to reflect. The stiller you are, the better reflection you give. My wife reminded me of these words on a recent walk along the Puget Sound. The particular inlet we were walking next to was particularly still and we could see reflections of the opposite shore.

The proper thing for me to do at this point would be to quit writing and let you reflect. You are certainly under no obligation to continue. In fact, to do so may be counter-productive.

The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because meditation has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 215

Authors have different goals than readers. My goal this year is to produce 500 words per day on this blog. I have no idea what your goal of reading it may be. Even if your goal hasn’t been reflection, I hope that something here has sparked that within you. Few things are more necessary, or more endangered, than quiet reflection. This TED Talk on how to find your calling underscores the necessity of quiet reflection.

As colleges and universities are busy indoctrinating their incoming freshman into whatever it is they think is important through the increasingly popular freshman seminars, I wonder what would happen if instead of team building games and diversity presentations, they merely took away all electronics and made the campus quiet for a week. My hunch is that there would either be open revolt or a step toward some meaningful transformation within the lives of the students.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a weighty task: to raise the Son of God. Why this particular girl? How did she manage it? God’s grace overshadows the whole enterprise of the incarnation, but perhaps one small contributing factor is revealed in Luke 2:19. Mary is only one of two people who are revealed in the New Testament to have pondered. (Peter in Acts 10 is the other.) I’m sure other pondering occurred in Bible times, but Luke was inspired to make sure we knew that Mary pondered the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. She was still and she reflected the grace of God.

We are not grace, light, truth, or love by ourselves. We only reflect these from their source. To reflect well, we must be still, quiet, at peace. Everything around us wars against that end. To the extent the challenges to our quiet reflection are successful, our capacity to reflect grace, light, truth, and love is diminished. May God make us sensitive and protect us so that we may reflect upon him and reflect him.

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Filed under Discipline, Growth, Mary, Priorities, Silence, Simplicity, Solitude