Category Archives: Growth

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

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

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

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

This blog’s title (wo-o-o) comes from the 1974 ear-worm by Morris Albert. Feelings are what music is about; music both shapes feelings and reflects them. We have a strange relationship with feelings in American music, and driven as it is by our youth-obsessed culture, it tends to focus on adolescent feelings.

We seem especially obsessed with early feelings and I can see why to some extent. I remember when our oldest was 2, the only thing she wanted for Christmas was a Ring-Around-the-Rosie Doll. The picture of her smile of pure happiness as she danced around the living room singing with her new doll is one of my favorite memories.

But the idea of “first time feeling” has become a cultural idol. Foreigner’s debut single in 1977, “Feels Like the First Time,” is typical of this obsession. Madonna’s #1 1984 single “Like a Virgin” is another shining instance. For some reason, we hold this as the paragon of emotional experience, but it is unfortunate since we can only ever have one first time of anything. We can’t sustain that level of excitement. We become familiar and we (thankfully) lose some of our nervousness. There’s a reason they are called first-time jitters.

The Scriptures often use the metaphor of husband and wife for Christ and his church and God and his people. There is great wisdom in this, because our relationship with God has some distinct parallels to marriage. One of those is the maturation of emotion.

For some people, “coming to the Lord” is an intensely emotional experience, either in terms of repentance or joy. That level of feeling won’t last, though, just like the wonder of the honeymoon won’t be the rest of your marriage. And that is a good thing.

Those first, intense emotions tend to be intertwined with a lot of selfishness. We focus on our experience of the event. Our emotional reaction is our focus. This usually works out fine, because our new spouse is hopefully having a similar reaction. (Luke 15 would indicate that God is too, on the faith side.)

Move 20, 30, 40 years down the line. To make it that long, selfishness has to die — both in marriage and in faith. We transition from living for the way the other makes us feel to living for the other. That’s maturity.

We need to realize that our emotional reaction to something isn’t the same thing as that thing itself. Thomas Merton says it well:

To become attached to the “experience” of peace is to threaten true and essential and vital union of our soul with God above sense and experience in the darkness of a pure and perfect love.

And so, although this sense of peace may be a sign that we are united to God, it is still only a sign — an accident. The substance of the union may be had without any such sense, and sometimes when we have no feeling of peace or of God’s presence He is more truly present to us than he has ever been before.

If we attach too much importance to these accidentals we will run the risk of losing what is essential, which is the perfect acceptance of god’s will, whatever our feelings may be.

New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 212

May we learn to not esteem giddy endorphin surges, but the deep, abiding, selfless love that is only forged through years of walking together, with our spouse, but even more so with our Lord.

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Filed under Growth, Relationship

Do-Know-Be

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The Army has long held up the paradigm of Be-Know-Do as reflecting what a leader should embody. (See FM 6-22 if you’re interested.) In my re-reading of it the other day, it is merely used as three categories of “stuff” for leaders to focus on.

Unfortunately, some take “Be-Know-Do” as a progression. I have heard this idea held up not only in the military, but more predominantly, in the church. The idea is that sanctification is an “inside job.” If we sit around in church long enough, the Holy Spirit will somehow affect an ontological change within us and we will be Christians. Then we will (dare I say magically?) know what we are to know and do what we are to do.

This is not a terribly effective method of discipleship, so we try to help the Spirit along a bit by concentrating on the “know” part in our church services. The sermon is the central point of a great many worship services, though the information given is rarely very instructive on what to do. Many in the church have become so averse to anything that might hint at “works righteousness” that we avoid advocating all righteous work. This leads to us trying to instruct backwards from almost every other institution.

Let us go back to the military example. Consider the brand new private who arrives at basic training. In a sense, he is already a soldier. He has signed the contract and sworn the oath. But that is the only sense in which he is a soldier. He spends the next 9 weeks being told what to do by his drill sergeants. He will then go to advanced individual training and be told more things to do in order to fulfill his particular role in the army.

Along the way, our soldier starts to learn some of these things and he knows them—how to march, when to salute, how to wear the uniform, how to handle his weapon, etc. Eventually—how long varies—he might be a soldier. What does that mean? He thinks, acts, and speaks like the army wants him to. He has internalized all this doing and knowing to the point where it is part of who he is. Some soldiers never get to this point, or not fully. They serve their time merely doing, and to some extent knowing, but they always keep soldiering at arm’s length in their heart.

Consider the church, not the contemporary version today, but the historic church. A person comes into a service. They are led in what to do. “Please stand.” “Sing.” “Pray.” They are given words to hear and words to say. Over time, the doing and saying start to seep into knowing. Add some catechism of why we do and say these things and the knowing becomes deeper. Eventually, after days and months and maybe even years, the liturgy of the church—the saying and doing of Eucharist and Daily Offices—in conjunction with the inner working of the Holy Spirit causes the being of the person to be altered. Sanctification happens.

Lex orandi, lex crendi. As we pray, so we believe. This is a central component of how Anglicans conduct spiritual formation. It is how we do discipleship. We start not with the head, but the body. Our souls—at least in this life—are wrapped up in bodies. The only way for them to interact with the world is through our flesh. The converse is also true: our souls are shaped by what happens to, and what we do, with our bodies.

Let us not be ashamed to call people to do in the name of Chris——t.

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Filed under Growth, Holy Spirit, Liturgy, Obedience, Sanctification

Can You Do It?

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Here is an interesting test. Can you read for 30 minutes straight? Not 30 minutes of blog articles, but 30 minutes of a book or a longer article. No pausing, stopping, checking social media, e-mail, getting up for coffee. Butt in the chair, reading for 30 minutes uninterrupted by yourself. Of course you can, right?

Then prove it. Not to me; prove it to yourself.

I continually shock myself by how hard this can be. Why? Because we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned to be distracted constantly. Whether it is a work environment that forces us to jump from task to task because we are always interrupted, or self-inflicted because we crave novel stimulation, it is an epidemic.

I have written about attention here before, but it merits revisiting if for no other reason than I need reminded. The ability to give sustained focus is essential to what has come to be called knowledge work. It is also essential to intellectual development.

I find it discouraging how hard it can be for me to sit and read. I like to read, but I am easily distracted, and a good part of that is self-inflicted. I’m thinking about other things while I’m reading and I have the urge to scamper off and pursue them. If my brain isn’t playing bunny-trail-bingo, then it’s usually trying to get me to shut down and go to sleep.

What does this mean? A couple of things. First, paying attention to something is hard. It takes effort and concentration and practice. It is very easy for the “focus muscles” to get flabby.

Second, we have an enemy. The distractions seem to be most pronounced when I am trying to read something with a high likelihood of encouraging me in the faith. Today, it was Augustine of Hippo’s sermon on one of the Psalms. I enjoy his writing on the Psalms as he takes them in directions I wouldn’t always have foreseen, or he sometimes does a little Bible hopscotch to land somewhere else to make a point. But many times I find myself struggling to stay focused.

 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

John 10:10 (ESV)

Satan has many strategies to derail us. He certainly understands that sustained absorption of the Scriptures and the counsel of the saints is counter to his purposes. He doesn’t have to make us hate them; he just has to keep enough low-level hum going in our heads that we don’t really engage with what we are trying to read.

Consider this a spiritual fitness assessment: 30 minutes with Scripture or some similarly edifying work. Can you stay engaged and not break contact with the text? If you can, great. If not, consider working on the goal to give spiritually nourishing texts sustained time. I’m not suggesting you have to just be plowing through the text for 30 minutes. Reflection is good. Pausing to pray or underline or jot a note is part of engagement. Sharing quotes to Twitter or jotting ideas for other things is not.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pay some more attention to Augustine.

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Filed under Discipline, Growth, Reading