Monday, October 17, 2016

Hacking My Wife's Habit Loop

These days my wife is a bit anxious.  Too much "people time" triggers her nerves. Too much "alone time" makes her worried. She talks about it, prays about it, practices self-care and swallows little pills. Nevertheless, she may have shingles and cancer and swollen glands. 

I've wanted to help my wife. I've watched her get caught in repeated patterns of worry. I've wanted to hack into her habit loop and bring her back to sanity. (NOTE: She did ask me to fix her, but as a husband I excel at the art of problem-solving, not empathizing.)

Here is my wife's loop:
  • Cue: She feels a tingle on her arm
  • Routine: She inspects her arm with anxious eyes for traces of shingles.
  • Reward: She finds no shingles and regains sanity for a minute or two.
She may swing through this cycle a hundred times a day. It makes me dizzy, and she is exhausted. Yesterday we started our hack.
According to Charles Duhigg's perceptive book, The Power of Habit, every habit follows a similar path: cue - routine - reward. While it is helpful to identify cues (e.g., driving triggers my nail-biting) and acknowledge rewards (e.g., biting my nails helps me stay attentive), Duhigg argues real change comes from modifying routines. He illustrates below:
My wife's deep longing is to feel secure: safe, healthy, and okay. She is not opposed to pain; I've seen the woman endure some pretty gritty births and one unfortunate death. But given such limited control over her world and body, security feels elusive. And shingles... certain. Something about this tingle - inspect - sanity cycle grounds my wife momentarily. 

I can't explain it - I'm merely a witness - but I can suggest a tweak. Yesterday I made my suggestion. After catching my wife running her index finger along her forearm for the fourty-second time (she is not as subtle as she thinks), I offered an alternative. "Every time you feel your shingles coming back," I said, "do a few squats."

"Really?" she replied, as if my suggestion was crazier than her obsession.

"Sure. You need a new routine. Every habit..." [Blah, blah, blah. Insert explanation of Duhigg's habit loops.]
"Okay. I'll try," Liz replied.

This conversation transpired in the kitchen. Liz stood by the table while I loaded the dishwasher. As I set a few cups in the top rack, I noticed her squat: one, two, three. I rinsed some plates and mixing bowls and placed them in the top rack. Liz began to squat again: four, five, six. Before I finished filling the dishwasher, my wife had completed the fourth round of her new routine.

Success: I hacked her habit loop. Instead of shingles, she can worry about sore thighs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Spheres of Influence - where daily life and discipleship intersect

I just finished an article about equipping people beyond the walls of the church. I laid out a neat-and-tidy four-step process: raise awareness, state the challenge, provide accountability, and sustain momentum through celebration. My theories sounded so good, I might actually try them!

Sadly, the notion of equipping God's people often revolves around improving ministry performance within the walls of the church. We train teachers and give tips to greeters. We line up nursery workers and sign up volunteers for the next outreach event. Our sermons give practical advice (I hope) for daily living (e.g., guarding your tongue, fighting depression), but our ministry training times and team meetings tend to look inward.

As I church leader, I must realize my people spend the majority of their time beyond the walls of the church. They are parents and spouses, siblings and children, workers and citizens, coaches and consumers, neighbors and friends. And so am I. They wrestle with conflict management, lack of courage, anxiety, financial insecurity, pride, greed, people pleasing, doubt, gluttony, and a host of other soul matters. And so do I. They struggle to pursue God in their homes, prioritize God in their marriages, integrate faith into their work, and manage their time with ministering to "the least of these" in mind. And so do I (except for that faith-integration thing!).

These areas, where daily life and discipleship intersect, are called spheres of influence. They deserve more emphasis from pastoral leaders. Hence, I made a call to raise awareness.
I may spend inordinate amounts of my time tuning clocks, polishing sermons, and arranging programs within the walls the church. My congregation inhabits another world. A wider world. A world full of spheres where God intends to use them. And use me, too.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reflections from a 10-Year-Old Adventure

I stole an idea from Bob Goff and adapted it. The author of Love Does described giving each of his children an adventure for their tenth birthday.
The idea was simple. The kids got to pick something in the world that captured their imaginations, fanned their whimsy, or sparked their curiosity, and then we said we'd do it together. There was no planning, no preparation, no thinking about all the details. We'd just go do it (pg. 128).
Goff is a man of great financial means. He can afford whimsy - London and India. My budget is whimsy prohibitive: It set me in the middle seat of the thirtieth role of the third boarding group of Frontier Airlines on a midweek flight to an off-season lodge room of the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch. But our lobby had all-you-can-drink Douwe Egberts, and I had my almost-eleven-year-old daughter, which was well worth the hidden baggage fees.
Image result for dewey egbert coffee
On her actual, tenth birthday, I had provided Claire with a map of the United States. On the map I highlighted three cities: San Diego, Denver, and Boston. Next to each city, I printed off a picture of an animal and description of her adventure. We would whale watch in the Atlantic Ocean and tour historic sites. We would take a behind-the-scenes tour at the San Diego Zoo of the Polar Bears & Friends. Or we would ride horses and hike mountains in Colorado. The choices were tailor made for my daughter Claire, who loves animals more than athletics and food.

What Claire does not love is making choices. She took days before deciding on the trip to Colorado with her dear-old-dad. Between her waffling, school schedules, adoption traveling, and summer vacation plans, we had to postpone her adventure until last week.

Our itinerary provided Claire a four-day hiatus from school, visit with her aunt and uncle, tour of her birthplace, book purchase from the Tattered Cover, and recreational opportunities galore. We rode horseback through the morning chill and changing Aspen trees. We climbed rock walls and swam in an indoor pool. We rode down a summer tubing hill and climbed up several steep hills. And any time we needed to rest, we returned to our bedroom and read books, played games, and (I) posted picture montages on Instagram.

The images captured the adventure at its peaks. Social media excels at highlights. Hidden behind the filters was my bruised abs, Claire's scratchy throat, my anxiety about expenses, Claire's pathetic pallet. While we were thick on adventure, we were thin on conversation and calories. If it were not for the Wendy's in the neighboring town of Fraser, my daughter may have survived on M&Ms and Kix cereal. And try as I may, engaging conversation topics remained elusive.
I had hoped for a rite of passage on this 10-Year-Old Adventure. I wanted to bestow on my daughter treasures of spiritual wisdom. I wanted to spark her wonder with God's glorious creation. I wanted to stir her passion to serve Jesus. I wanted to walk beside her and watch her take ownership of her faith.

These things did not happen. What I did experience was quiet companionship from my firstborn who does not need an adventure to know her father loves her. And I do.

Sometimes my ambitions for Claire rise above her ten-year-old head. Yes, she's growing up fast. All kids do. But at ten (almost eleven), she is still just a kid. I do not need to urge her into adulthood; she will get there soon enough. Some day her faith will be her own, her diet will be balanced, and her want for wisdom will prompt her to ask me for spiritual advice.

And she will, because she knows I love her. Because I have walked with her.

The disciples were unschooled and ordinary like my kids, like all of us. They didn't need all the details because they were on an adventure with a father who wanted to take them. You don't need to know everything when you're with someone you trust. (Goff, Love Does, 136)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Is He Possessed? - An Adoption Update

Sensi's emotional range has expanded. For the first few months we had happy faces and vacant looks. As he has grown to trust us, Sensi has added sadness and anger to the repertoire. These emotions blend together, angry eyes typically soften into shameful tears.

In a twisted sort of way, I take delight in his emotional outbursts. I don't enjoy his apparent pain or frustration, but I celebrate the growing freedom he senses to express himself. I suspect much of his orphanage life instilled in him the values of compliance and inconspicuousness.

Now he has a family giving witness to all his moves and moods. We regularly summon him from the drawing table or Garfield loop, inviting him to dinner or ushering him to the car. Intimacy can be intimidating. Family and good friends invade our safe places and threaten our independence.

We have invaded Sensi's life. We have called him out of smiling compliance and silent withdraw. We have said, "Close your book. Say it louder. Put the marker down. Come to the table. Put your seat belt on." We have shattered his independence in the name of intimacy.

The result is an increase of control struggles and escalation of Sensi's anger. Most of the time, he plods about in smiling compliance, but several times a week, Sensi pushes back. He lowers his brow, purses his lips, and scrunches his hand in front of his set face to express his anger.
When Sensi becomes angry he may turn aside and ignore us. He may push his hand toward our faces and reject us. He may retreat upstairs to his bedroom or throw something on the floor in disgust. One time Sensi pinched my face in anger. This act did not go over well with my wife.

The triggers for Sensi's anger are numerous, but they all boil down to control. We have battled Sensi to brush his teeth, put on shoes, buckle his seat belt, wipe down the table, put on his pants, take off his pants, and go to bed. We regularly fight him to close his book, put on his socks, or respond to our questions. And if we press Sensi too hard, we awake the demon. His nostrils flare, brow descends, and eyes lock momentarily before rolling to the back of his head. Yes: all the way back.

I must admit the first time his face took this demonic cast, it rattled me. We were in a heated bedtime contest. Three times Sensi emerged from his room and strolled about the house. On the final occasion, I marched him upstairs, sat him on the bed, and scrunched my hand before my face. Two can play at this game, I thought. "I'm angry, too," I said. 

My expression unglued him. His eyes rolled back to his amygdala.

I said his name. No response. I lobbed a few sentences at him, but his demon face remained fixed. So I wrapped my arms around him and said, "Sensi, I want you to know Jesus is the Lord of this house. I am not afraid of your anger. It has no power here."

A few minutes later his eyes returned. They came with tears. Sensi folded. I reaffirmed my love for my boy, tucked him in, and waited beside his bed until he fell asleep.

The Apostle Paul warns against letting the sun go down on anger, for it gives the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:27). There may be other demonic footholds in Sensi's life. He comes from a hard place, a broken place, where shame reigns. He would not be the first adoptive child to manifest signs of spiritual oppression. Orphaned children are targets, so I've been warned by other adoptive parents.

Fortunately, Jesus is Lord of my house. May he set my child free.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Do We Overstate Bible Reading for Church members?

Biblical literacy is relatively new. Prior to the printing press (late 1400s), personal copies of the Bible did not reside in every home. In Jesus' day people flocked to the synagogue to hear someone read from an scroll containing Hebrew Scriptures. In the Old Testament era, priests and kings and prophets proclaimed God's Word from Temple courts and city markets.

The trend for oral consumption of the Word of God dates back to Moses on Sinai. When he descended the mountain, he did not distribute two million pocket-sized Torah tablets (the Gideon's weren't around yet). Rather, Moses read aloud from the single copy of the hand-written Word.

Actually, the spoken Word has earlier roots. "Then God said, 'Let there be light.' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3). So goes the story of creation: God speaks a word and creation happens. Psalmists later celebrated the power of God's voice (Pss. 29; 33).

By God's wisdom and providence--in various forms and ways (Heb. 1:1)--He conscripted men (and women?) to record these spoken Words and inscribe them into stones and scrolls and parchment.

By His wisdom and providence, He oversaw the editing and assembling process, resulting in sixty-six biblical books, whose consistency and authority was noted by apostles and early church leaders.
By His wisdom and providence, He made use of scribes and scriptoriums in the first millennia of the church to produce far more copies of His written word than any ancient text.
By His wisdom and providence, He leveraged the printing press and digitization to make His written word accessible in countless languages, versions, apps and formats.

Mass production and digital distribution are relatively new developments in the history of the church. For three-fourths of the church's lifetime, she lived without the King James Bible (and God blessed her anyway). The church made it to the Nineties without the Message (and then God blessed truly her). More translations, Bible conferences, interpretative schools and exegetical tools exist now than ever before, installed for free on our mobile devices.

Biblical literacy should be approaching the clouds that Jesus rides on. (Perhaps He's waiting for our collective literacy rate to peak before returning.)

But like many new things (e.g., Pokemon Go), the downward trend has already begun for biblical literacy. And if it's anything like the descent of the first few non-orbital space flights (I just watched The Right Stuff), it's fair to say: "Houston, we have a problem."

Greater access to the Bible has not resulted in greater understanding of its story. Not only has the church taken the biblical narrative for granted, we have traded its subversive ethic (e.g., Matthew 5-7) for a soft, psychological and moral panacea.

Before the Bible was a Book of Virtues, it was God's Spoken-with-Authority Word. 

Before the Bible was a proof-text for pro-life politics, it was God's Prophetic Voice. 

Before the Bible was a dusty shelf-piece or argumentative mallet, it was God's World-shaping-and-Community-forming aria. "And it was good."

Before the Bible was something the church read, it was something she heard.

"Do not forsake the public reading of Scripture," Paul implored Timothy. The apostle envisioned a gathering of believers where one practiced reader gave voice to God's written word. The reader, trained in rhetoric and practiced in performance, served in an official capacity. According to NT scholar, Ceslas Spicq, "Intelligence and eloquence were required" of the Anagnosis (e.g. the reader).

The congregation was not literate, but they were intelligent listeners. They were not theologically ignorant or biblical uneducated. They trained their ears to hear, catching key words, idioms, and allusions. They memorized and internalized the Word of God without reading it.

Now we have the written Word and no biblical memory or imagination. 

Now we have mass distribution of the Bible matched with mass confusion and mass division.

Is it possible that Bible literacy for the masses has produced massive misunderstanding of the text? Have we given God's written Word to untrained ears and expected too much of them?  Has mass distribution of the Scriptures led to mass division among churches, where every reader can form a personal opinion untethered to the "rule of faith" and congregational practice?

Obviously, I have more questions than answers. But I can no longer simply beg people to "read God's Word." Literacy is not the problem, listening to Him is. It was the problem Isaiah encountered when he uttered his oracles (Isaiah 6:9). It was the problem Jesus addressed in his image-rich preaching (Mark 4:9). It was the problem the author of Hebrews exposed to his drifting congregation (Hebrews ch. 3:7-19).

But if we learn to listen to God again, I suspect biblical literacy will follow a similar path.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Eight Ways to Improve Your Bible Reading

Christians are Followers of the Way and People of the Book.

As Followers of the Way, our central focus is the person of Jesus, the self-proclaimed Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6). But this Jesus does not come to us out of the blue, or, as of yet, riding on the clouds.

The living Word (John 1:1) speaks to us through His Book - the Holy Scriptures. The Book tells His story, reveals His heart, and issues His calling. Thus, we are to be People of the Book.
Christians don't simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus' name... (Peterson, Eat This Book, 18).
Becoming People of the Book first requires accepting its focus on Jesus (Luke 24:13-32). Next, we must accept its authority in shaping our souls (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Finally, we must repent of laziness (or its cousin busyness), and commit to applying discipline to our spiritual lives (e.g., 1 Timothy 4:7-10).

Only when we have done this groundwork can we apply the following Eight Ways to Improve Our Bible Reading.
  1. Set a Schedule: Pick a designated place and time where distractions are limited. Have your Bible and journal waiting for you; set an alarm clock to remind you. Reading early in the morning calibrates the mind for the remainder of the day, even if you are groggy. Reading last thing at night closes the evening in a spirit of reflection. Reading during a lunch or work break resets your focus. The good thing about these time slots is their consistency -- every day we wake, retire, and eat. Attaching a new habit to a set pattern has proven worth.
  2. Make a Plan*: Choose a way of working through the Scriptures. Start small. A chapter a day a few days a week gets the mind adapted to reading. Don't set huge reading goals and get discouraged. For example, before trying to read the Bible in a year, attempt reading Genesis in a month. And always look forward: before you finish a book of the Bible, begin thinking through what to read next, so as to avoid losing inertia. Start with a gospel to revisit Jesus.
  3. Enjoy Variety: Read in a variety of translations, not only to compare how different versions render the text, but also for a fresh take on a familiar passage. Having spent most of my adult life in the NASB, I enjoy reading ESV and the Message. Also, vary what portions of Scripture you spend time in. Bounce from Old Testament narrative to New Testament Letter. Move from wisdom (Proverbs) to prophecy (Jeremiah) to praise (Psalm) to gospel (John). Try reading aloud from time to time; hearing the text in your voice gives its a different slant.
  4. Get Mobile: The YouVersion Bible App makes reading and sharing easy and intuitive. Sign up and begin reading from various translations or reading plans. This App allows you to share with friends, take notes during sermons, read alternative translations, and listen to the text performed by the notable Max McLean. Furthermore, no one can use the excuse, "I didn't have my Bible." In fact, even the Gideon's have broken into the Bible App business.
  5. Memorize: Find a verse, passage, chapter, or book of the Bible you would like to commit to memory. Consider dedicating your scheduled reading time to memorizing; it will be harder than you think. However, the payoff is great. Implanting the word in your mind gives you easy access when facing challenges or encouraging others.
  6. Meditate: Pick a Psalm, saying of Jesus, or affirmation from the New Testament letters to roll around in your head. Rather than rushing through reading, let this small passage direct your thinking toward God. Biblical meditation moves from attention (what it says) to appreciation (how it feels) to application (how it works).
  7. Journal: Read with a notebook open and pen in hand. Write down passages that have significant meaning. Take note of questions that come to mind. Reflect and record what God reveals about Himself, human nature, redemption, and our calling.
  8. Share with Others: Verbalizing your observations in Scripture give them greater weight. When you share with a spouse, child, or friend, you give them opportunity to consider God's Word. They may refine your thoughts or simply experience refreshment from the Word. Turning this personal discipline into a shared experience proves the "living and active" nature of the Word of God (Heb. 4:12).
Disciplines do not take shape over night. We may adopt a formula without yielding our hearts. We may start and stall and return to status quo. We may state our attentions but remain slothful.

Nevertheless, given enough time and attention, applying these Eight Ways to Improve Your Bible Reading will cultivate Christian character. As Followers of the Way, His likeness is our aim (Eph. 4:11-16).

*PROS & CONS of Various Devotional Plans

Year-Thru the Bible - 

  • PROS: comprehensive; includes whole Bible and requires consistent reading to complete 
  • CONS: easy to drop if you miss a few days or hit boring section (the Year-Thru Bibles that include OT, NT, and Psalms help ward off this feeling); daily reading may not relate to current experience
Chronological Bible - 
  • PROS: comprehensive; shows the story-line of the Bible and how various books fit together
  • CONS: Somewhat speculative (we don't always know the chronology) and distorts the way we received the cannon (individual books or collections of them); daily reading may not relate to current experience
Devotional Guides - 
  • PROS: provide good focus, direction, and break the Bible into digestible bites; highly relevant
  • CONS: commentary section may overshadow the Bible verses or takes them out of context; focus may be more topical or self-centered than God-centered; selective content
Sermon Reading Plans - 
  • PROS: corporate nature may lead to more discussions with other church members; reiterates or clarifies sermon, giving it more value
  • CONS: may elevate the pastor over the individual believer in the church; less relevant if you missed sermon or church attendance is poor; selective content
Lectionary -
  • PROS: comprehensive; varies daily readings in OT, NT, and Psalms/Proverbs
  • CONS: daily reading may not relate to current experience; liturgical connotations don't sit well with everyone's background

Monday, August 22, 2016

Wrestling with the Word of God

I heard the lament again this morning. "I am not hearing from God, either in prayer or through His word." My friend relayed this comment from his wife. Her complaint is not uncommon. The silence of God often speaks louder than His written word. Even in the biblical narrative, generations passed away without an utterance of divine revelation.

But God's silence is not the same as His absence. And His word - both spoken and written - reverberates. God wrote Himself into creation. His initial Let There Be Refrain echos with every sunset and season, ocean wave and starlight night, singing bird and nursing child.

"The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours fourth speech, 
And night to night reveals knowledge." 
(Ps. 19:1-2, NASB)

And He writes Himself on human consciousness. All people have some sense of right and wrong, justice and beauty. The human capacity for moral choice is part of the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-28). People may suppress, deny, or sear their consciences (Romans 1:18-32), but that does not erase the fact God speaks through moral cognition.

But God's primary method of communication is through His written word. He handpicked a collection of men (and a few women?) to write His Story in Holy Scriptures. It the Bible - 39 books in the Hebrew Scriptures and 27 in the New Testament - through which God speaks most consistently and comprehensively. It is the Bible through which God speaks most personally: In His Son, Jesus the Living Word (John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:1-3). Thus, the written word serves as the focal point for followers of Jesus to hear from the living God.

Yet often we do not hear from Him. We wrestle with misunderstandings of the biblical text or distractions of our addled minds. We plod along with no reading plan or posture ourselves with a slouching sense of familiarity. We reduce Scripture reading to a remote slot on our schedule, failing to integrate God's Word into conversations or meditations throughout the day.

And like the diet that does not cause immediate weight loss, the budget that does not produce immediate wealth, or the parenting advice that do not result in "new kids by the weekend," we write off what God has written before we give it enough time to take effect. 

Discipline takes time to develop into habit. Habit works slowly in forming character and reshaping lives. Spiritual disciplines are no different: they require effort. "God is not opposed to effort," taught Dallas Willard, "He opposes earning."

So what does one say to the person wrestling to hear from God in His written word?

"Keep wrestling and read on. In time you will reap the rewards. His silence does not spell His absence. Perhaps, God wants to see you sweat before He blesses you with His voice."

Eight Ways to Improve Your Bible Reading
If Biblical Literacy Is Relatively New for the Church, Do We Overemphasize Bible Reading?