Part 1: New Beginnings
Socrates declared at least 400 years before Christ, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Although it’s unlikely he was setting out to make a theological statement, there is plenty of biblical evidence to suggest that he was on to something. It may not be said in exactly those terms, but many of the psalms, proverbs, letters and examples in Scripture extol the benefits of self-evaluation. Why then do we do so little of it?
We are all creatures of habit. We prefer to live with some level of routine than with absolute chaos. We follow patterns; we build structure; we create shorter-term rituals and longer-term traditions. We live by rhythms.
Unfortunately, however, we seldom make a habit of examining our habits. Our schedules, our routines and our habits are for the most part passively acquired. We work “X” number of hours because our job (or our debt!) demands that we do. We commute for as long as is required to make those work hours happen. We gather in groups as our beliefs and pastimes require. We catch up with friends and family when we want to, remember to, or have to—depending on the enjoyment we derive from their company. In the time left over we squeeze in our shopping, our eating, our banking, our cleaning, our mowing, our sleeping, etc. With all of this going on, it is not surprising that most of our decisions are reactive rather than proactive. It’s not that we avoid decisions, we just make most of them on the fly. They lack intentionality. The resulting problem is that, for many of us, how we live our day-to-day lives has little connection to what we think life is actually all about. As John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy” warned us: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
This week, at the start of a new year, I want to encourage you to pause and ask: “What sort of life do I want to be living?” and therefore, “What do I want the rhythms and habits of my life to look like?” Chances are that we haven’t considered these sorts of questions for a while, if ever. Chances are, also, that our answers will look quite different from our current trajectory of activity.
I’m not talking here about hyped-up goal setting. The corporate world is awash with such motivational material and I think its usefulness here is limited. Perhaps we should have realised that focusing on Key Performance Indicators might produce a generation of Christians obsessed with performance. Appropriate goal-setting can be very helpful and there are moments in this book when we will recommend it. But it can also encourage an overemphasis on achievement and end results. We are more interested here in how well we know and imitate Christ along the way—and how well our actual day-to-day practices fit with this vision of what life is about.
Chris Webb from Renovare—an organisation that works to help Christians live more intentional lives—suggests our daily practices not only reflect our vision of life, they can change it. “We make some choices because of who we are, but others because of who we wish to become.” This is a crucial insight behind this calendar—how we live shapes who we are.
“Human Becomings” is probably quite a helpful way to think of ourselves—for we are all in the process of becoming. The crucial question is What or Like whom are we becoming? Our hope is that the simple suggestions and discussions to come will assist you in building some intentionality and faithfulness into your own rhythms of life.
In this first week of the New Year, our first exercise is go out and buy ourselves a Journal– a personal note book that we are going to use throughout the course. If you wish, you journal may be as simple as a MSWord document. Or perhaps you prefer a leather-bound folio, elegantly lettered with a quill. Whatever your choice, get a Journal. And then, jot a few notes to yourself about the key questions raised here:
- “What sort of life do I want to be living?”
- “What do I want the rhythms and habits of my life to look like?”
- What, or like whom, do I want to become?
Happy New Year!—Here’s to examined lives that are worth living!
Part 2: Spiritual Disciplines – Introducing some intentionality
If you are still on holiday—ENJOY! Re-read the section on Spiritual Disciplines: Rhythms and Rules of Life, and in particular, the questions: “What sort of life do I want to be living?” and therefore, “What do I want the rhythms and habits of my life to look like?”
Start to think about how you might answer these questions– don’t jump too quickly to shallow answers. Use your Journal. Perhaps a good first step might be to review, How you are living your life now? Some suggested steps for review:
- Flick back over last year’s diary and notice how you spent much of your time. Resist the temptation to go back and fix things or complete things you missed! This is a review– just notice where you spent your time.
- Do a quick financial review: where did you spend your money last year? You might have clever bank statements that analyse your spending by categories.
- Which relationships do you think you invested most into this past year?
These simple assessments of the way you prioritised your time, money and passion. See if you can think of other ways to objectively look at how you are currently living your life.
Are there any things you might change? What would you leave the same? Why have you chosen those things?
Try to find three separate occasions this week when you can spend 15 minutes reflecting prayerfully on your responses.
Recommended Reading: The Common Rule, by Justin Whitmel Earley.
Extract from “The Common Rule”:
Exercise: Short Kneeling Prayer at Waking, Mid-workday and Bed.
Christmas is about the advent of love in a loveless world. We delighted in the fact that God came to the world because he loved us.
This love is worth celebrating, and any good celebrating takes practice. Framing our days in prayer is to frame them in love. This is an act of embrace, of celebration of God’s gift of life – our lives and the life of the world.
So when we wake up in the morning, we don’t ask what do I have to do today? We don’t immediately begin scheming on how we can justify our existence today. What we do is we get down on our knees in prayer.
This is a keystone habit, by framing the day with times of kneeling prayer we punctuate the day like a sentence, ordering the syntax so that that it begins to have meaning.
This meaning continues into midday. I often notice the point I need to pray midday because I have an urge for a second cup of coffee, my mind starts to repeatedly drift from work, or I have an urge to search the Internet for – What? – I don’t know. I just want to search. This is the point where I’m looking down the barrel of the afternoon and I see all the things I’m not going to get done, I see condemnation, failure, and disappointment.
That is when I close the laptop, close the door, and get to my knees again to pray, usually, no more than 60 seconds, and this is the semicolon in the day that turns the sentence away from my failure and back towards God’s love
And then as the evening approaches we think, how I going to end this thing? By lying awake in bed letting all the replay tapes go? By browsing my phone for some current event scandal to bounce meaninglessly around my brains like an angry pinball? Am I going to spend it searching for one last bit of pleasure from God knows where on the internet? No.
We place the period of God’s mercy and care for us at the end, on our knees beside the bed. We made it through another one. Doesn’t matter whether you feel spiritual or not, it is just habit.
The first question that may come to your mind as you kneel, “What do I pray?” If you’re not sure, try these Advent prayers. If you are prevented from kneeling because of health or because perhaps you don’t have a private place at work to kneel, try gently turning your palms upwards where you are.
- Father, I pray that I would enter this day as your Son entered the world, full of love and hope. Amen.
- Jesus, I pray that I would be present in my work as you were present in this world, full of humility and service. Amen.
- Holy Spirit, I pray that I would be at peace in my rest knowing that you came to bring peace to the world, and will one day bring rest to all things. Amen.
Part 3: A Regula Vitae
In his essay, “We Live by Rhythms“, Chris Webb explains that most of us would benefit from the Christian tradition of intentionally structuring our lives through a Regula Vitae—a “Rule of Life.” Don’t panic, this is not a legalistic set of rules to follow. Rather, it’s an invitation to write down some of your thoughts and responses to the questions you have been thinking about already this month.
Regula was the Latin word for a length of wood with markings, used for measuring and alignment—similar to our present-day workshop rulers. We hold things against a ruler to see if they are straight and if their proportions and measurements are right. In the same way a Regula Vitae—a “Rule of Life”—is an opportunity for us to mark out some of our intentions in advance and then to regularly hold it up to our life and see how our alignment and proportions are fairing. When we align our habits with our faith, we become people who actually love God and our neighbour– as opposed to just knowing about them.
The importance of planning and reflecting on the patterns and rhythms of our lives has been long established by Christians of all kinds– even St. Anthony of Egypt. Some patterns are weekly (sabbath, church, etc), some patterns are monthly (e.g., giving from our pay-cheque) and some patterns are seasonal, as we go through different seasons of life. For further reading about fruitfully navigating the different seasons of life, I warmly recommend Mark Buchanan’s Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul.
Without committing yourself to anything at this stage, what worthwhile things might you commit yourself to this year? As you journal on this theme, try to describe what such a commitment would look like for you, and how it might benefit your relationship with Jesus Christ?
Some further thoughts on establishing a Regula Vitae for yourself:
- The importance and purpose of habits
- Chris Webb’s example of a Regula Vitae
- Some suggestions to consider for yourself
Part 4: Writing your Rule of Life
Now the fun part! By now, all of the usual ‘New Years Resolutions’ have faded away. This is different. This week we are recommending that you write out your own ‘Rule of Life’ (see Week 3).
Don’t feel overwhelmed—this is simply a chance to intentionally write down a few guiding principles for the year. A common mistake with a Rule of Life is to aim too high, to include too many areas and to set unrealistic expectations in each area. This is not supposed to be your description of a perfectly pious life; this is meant to be a way to help you start examining your life and reflecting on it. What do you really want to focus on this year?
Don’t write too much—leave some room for improvement next year!
Consider whether there is someone you might like to share this with. Perhaps you could invite them, from time to time, to ask you how you’re going?