Rule of Life and the How
It would be silly for me to expect to show up in uniform at a professional football game and play like a pro quarterback.
When the game is on the line, and Tom Brady puts his hands out to receive the football, he is doing something he has rehearsed a million times. He has run the same plays against different defenses, with countless variables and simple reps. He knows his team and the opposition’s playbook. He has kept his body in shape through rest, exercise, fitness, and diet. He has trained his mind, using psychologists and therapists to ensure he can think clearly and stay calm under pressure. He has put in the time and the work to discipline his body and mind. Even though the game is brutal, he has years of experience and repetition, and he has done everything he can to prepare to be able to execute at that moment.
Now, I could probably fit into his uniform. I could stand like he stands and imitate his calls, but I would not be ready to take the ball in a professional football game. In fact, I might be putting my well-being in danger.
The spiritual life is no different. You can be prepared for the major moments of your life. You can be a pro at what really matters. You have a Master Coach and a game plan. You have the time, and even inexpensive equipment is available. But you have to invest the effort and put in the time. You have to show up when no one is around and stay in shape. You must choose what goes in your body and train your mind and spirit.
While working on a series of sermons a few years ago, I discovered Crossfit. It is a well-known type of fitness regime, but it was still relatively new when I found it. It was the name that drew me in: *cross* fit. I assumed it must have something to do with faith. It didn’t, but it was great for getting in shape.
I tried several things that spring, from running barefoot and in very minimal shoes to jump rope, Crossfit, powerlifting, and even a little boxing. I kept pieces of each thing I tried, but I learned a few helpful rules for writing a Rule of Life.
- Make small changes. Outside of a radical conversion or giving up big obvious sins when you should just turn around and go the other way, everything else should be shifted a few degrees at a time. For example, you only up your mileage ten percent a week. You add one rep to your push-ups. Small changes last longer and build over time to massive improvement. Add prayer time to your day, or read one chapter of the Bible. You can do more over time and keep the changes you make because they build on existing habits.
- Continuity beats ambition every time. Regular habits accumulate over time. It is better to pray the Daily Office every day for a year than go on one retreat. And praying the Daily Office gives you that prayer time and Bible reading together. It is harder, less glamorous, and sometimes boring to keep doing the same things. But that work will bear more fruit over time, even if you are not noticing. Pavel Tsatsouline, the guy who popularized kettlebell workouts, convinced me to try doing one pull-up at a time, “never more than 60% of effort.” I put up a climber’s grip bar under our stairs, out of sight, and did one or two pull-ups a few times a day. Over time, I built up the strength to do more and more. By reading the Bible a little at a time and applying it to your life, you will gain familiarity and a language of faith. You will have time to think about what you are reading rather than cramming and forgetting what you have read.
- Choose a cue when you take on a habit. That brings me to something that some popular books on habits advise; “When you see x, then do y.” We are creatures of habit, and what triggers our habits are often unconscious. But they don’t have to be unconscious. When I have coffee, I will read the Bible. One chapter, then I pray. This kind of practice works with how we actually build habits. Choosing a cue that you already do regularly means that you will find it easier to choose the new habit without relying on will and memory.
- You adjust over time to what you do. When you make that small change, that adjustment becomes the new normal. The new normal eventually becomes your assumption about who you are. Your capacity for more work grows slowly but steadily. I was never flexible as a teen. Even though I was a runner, I could never do more than barely touch my toes. I assumed that I was not a flexible person. So, I did not try. Now, after years of work, I can put my hands on the floor on a normal day. Who you are today is the result of what you did over the last few years or even decades, but that is not who you have to be next year. You become what you tend to do. Take it slow and go way farther than you dreamed.
- Every now and then, do stupidly hard things. You can do way more than you think you can, but you should try to avoid making a habit of the brutally difficult. I ran a trail marathon once in Michigan, the hardest physical thing I have done on purpose. But I don’t run one every week. Face your fears. Prepare, but then do a hard thing. Fortune favors the brave. I fasted when I was young a few times, but I avoided fasting as an adult, even though I knew the saints and my heroes all fasted. Jesus fasted, but it wasn’t for me. I was afraid of fasting. So one day, after being convicted by my reading, I prepared and fasted for a week. I survived. I grew and now fast regularly, but not for a week at a time. I fast from sundown to sundown one day per week.
When you start writing out practices to reach your intentions in your Rule of Life, you can approach your life like a fitness plan. It should not be overly ambitious in the short term. Instead, build on your current life. Take on one new element at a time.
My goal with all fitness practices is health. Health has no final measurable outcome at which I have arrived and can stop. Smaller goals are good, but they do not determine who I will be in the long run. Do not put small goals into a Rule. The goal is to be who you were made to be as a child of God. Smaller goals are good, but they belong in your planner, not your Rule. For a Rule of Life, think habits, not goals.
The images we get for the discipleship life in Jesus’ teachings are mostly agricultural. We are not assembly line products; instead, we bear the fruit of orchards and fields tended over time. Many of our spiritual practices are closer to watering than producing. Instead of a mallet to bang on our souls or a press that will get us into shape, the Daily Office is like watering the trees in the orchard. Confession like weeding is something we do, knowing it will take place again tomorrow.
Be patient. Keep going. The results will bear fruit over time.
Life will have its clutch moments when you find yourself on the field; more is at stake than a trophy. Be ready. Put in the hours ahead of time, and you can be prepared when your time comes. It is never too late to begin or begin again.
Be faithful, and I will see you along the Way.
We are getting ready for Diocesan Convention next week and looking forward to seeing everyone together! The Diocesan House is almost ready, name tags are printed, and we are getting ready for a dinner to celebrate our past and to look together toward the future.
The Bishop is visiting Epiphany Episcopal Church in Laurens this Sunday and will be with us at Incarnation, Gaffney, the Sunday after Convention. He reports that the visits have been filled with welcome, joy, and excellent food all year.
The last two Wednesdays, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Richards has confirmed youth and received adults at Trinity Cathedral and taught a class on the Habits of Prayer for St. John’s Shandon. He was with the Board of Trustees of Still Hopes last week and will be traveling to Baltimore as a member of the Episcopal Church Task Force on Creation Care.
We are saddened to announce the passing of a retired Upper South Carolina priest, the Rev. Babcock Fitch was a faithful servant of the Gospel. His funeral will be next Wednesday at 1 p.m. at St. Martins-in-the-Fields, Columbia, with a reception to follow.
We are praying for Father Joseph Whitehurst whose mother passed away earlier this week. Visitation will be Sunday, November 6th, at 2:00 pm, with the funeral following at 3:00 pm at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church (616 Quincy Road, Seneca, SC 29678).
Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Tags: Stories from EDUSC