A father’s love

a-fathers-love

I had an interesting conversation with my 6 year-old son this evening. He has been ‘disengaged’ at school and told me that school is boring and he just wants to play with his Lego. We talked about how learning new stuff is fun and that being able to count is useful. I explained that all he has to do is try to learn one new thing each day and before long with be able to count to 100 and read stories for himself. My point was that school seemed boring because that’s what he expected of it.

All through this conversation I could see both my adult self and me as a child of similar age staring out the window feeling bored, actively disengaged from what I should be doing. It is a familiar feeling and odd to hear myself giving the very advice I should act upon many days at work.

My wee boy is a reflection of myself. He is like me in many more ways than he knows. It worries me that he may carry my own weaknesses on into another generation.

I can be stubborn and proud. I’m irrational when angry or experiencing strong emotions. What I told my wee guy this evening is that he is a lovely, inspiring person when he is happy, someone people really like. It’s harder to accept this as true of me too. He has always been a cuddly kid, I’m learning to return the affection.

While boundaries and discipline are necessary, I’m discovering that a better way of being heard by mini-me is to give him a cuddle, show him he is loved first, then allow conversation to follow. Letting him tell me what is upsetting him has a far deeper effect than a battle of wills in which I tell him what I think is wrong – our two versions of what the problem is are never the same. Boundaries exist, discipline will occur, but the first need is for this boy to know his father’s unconditional love.

This is what I also long for when struggling with my own strong emotions. To be held by a Father and assured that I’m loved. To know that within the hurt I’m not actually alone, my Father is walking alongside me even in the mess of my life.

for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:27 ESV)

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
(Isaiah 43:1 ESV)

Outwardly, being held by God and told I am loved looks different to me cuddling my son. The inner dynamic is much the same. I grow older, get grey and look like an adult but have the same need of love as a child.

A few more years under my belt means the path of consequences and discipline is longer and maybe rougher. Yet what I’m only slowly learning as a parent, God has been doing for me all my life – responding in love first, before the discipline.

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(Romans 5:8 ESV)

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
(Hebrews 12:6 ESV)


Image: iStock

Screen free time

retro-TV

A second goal I am making in my attempt to be a better version of myself is to avoid electronic devices for an hour before bed. There is evidence that the light from certain types of screens such as LCD computer screens and mobile phones can suppress melatonin release in humans, causing difficulty falling asleep for some people. I’m not sure that this is a significant problem for me, but I do know that using the computer in the hour before I’m due to go to bed causes me to delay my bedtime. I get distracted by social media, interesting stuff on the internet, games and even useful things such as writing a blog post.

I should be using that last hour of the day to wind down, read my Bible, pray and get organised for the morning.

For me it is a little complicated by working odd shifts – my work day can finish at midnight, or bedtime can be 9:30am in the morning. But the principle still works, nothing I would be doing on the computer or my phone is so important that it should be allowed to displace time with God or my wife. Yet this is what I have allowed to happen for some time now and the cost has been too high.

To make this work I need to know when my bedtime should be, and possibly set an alarm or reminder to prompt me to turn off whatever gadget is grabbing my attention an hour before bedtime.


Image: Shutterstock

Baby steps

Last year my Bible reading went out the window. This was an effect of depression, not the cause, but it did not help. It took huge effort to read even a single chapter, an effort I often could not summon in the midst of depression.

In these early stages of my journey to living a better life, I am setting small goals that I hope will be easily attainable while providing big payoffs over time.

One of these goals is to read 5 chapters of the Bible each day. This is enough to get me through the entire Bible in one year even if I skip the odd day. Also, I’ve done it before so know it is achievable with a little focus.

Last year my Bible reading went out the window. This was an effect of depression, not the cause, but it did not help. It took huge effort to read even a single chapter, an effort I often could not summon in the midst of depression. Now I am able to read more easily it is time to correct the imbalance.

Why read the Bible?

Firstly, because this is how I grow in my understanding of God and how I should live as one of His people.

Secondly, as I read and ponder the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles take root in my heart. They then have a chance to affect and change my thoughts and attitudes. This is the sort of change that really makes a difference, more so than merely following the latest self-help fad.

Thirdly, reading the Bible washes away my own faulty thinking. By filling my mind with words, thoughts, poetry and stories that are from God I crowd out the mistaken ideas and beliefs I have about myself, others and life that otherwise cause me to make bad choices.

How?

I’ve found two useful ways of reading to enable these three benefits to occur. One is to read slowly, thinking over what each sentence means, what it was written to achieve and how that applies to me. The other way is to read more quickly, covering a lot of ground but persisting until the ‘washing’ effect I mentioned has occurred and my thoughts are aligning themselves with what I’ve been reading.

Both approaches take time, but to read 5 chapters at a sedate pace only takes around 15 minutes which can easily fit into most daily schedules. The real battle is often the willpower to block out competing distractions and simply start.

To keep track of my progress I have a printed list of the books of the Bible and the chapters in each book. I simply cross off each chapter once I’ve read it. This allows me to read in whatever order I like while keeping track of progress. There are smart phone apps but I’ve found they don’t give the flexibility of pen on paper.

Here are some suitable checklists:

(I am only recommending the checklists from these websites, I cannot vouch for the other content of the sites)

For a good discussion of the benefits of reading the Bible see:


Image: Shutterstock

Fidgety prayers

fidgety-prayers

There was a time when I used to get up early each morning to spend time seeking God at the beginning of my day. That habit gradually faded as wife, children, work and the internet filled up my life.

These days it is generally easier for me to get time alone late in the evenings rather than in the mornings. Yet making constructive use of this time to seek God takes discipline to turn off the computer or TV, to put down my book and pick up the Bible. Just as it takes resolve and discipline to get out of bed early on a cold morning. My problem is not primarily one of having no time but lies in how I am choosing to use what time I’ve got.

I recall my bachelor days when I would get up and enjoy a cup of tea while reading the Bible and praying before getting ready for work. So in order to reactivate some dormant memory cells, last night I made a cup of tea and sat down to read and pray. My mind wandered, I fidgeted and walked around the room. But I was seeking God.

​Something which has encouraged me in my messy, inadequate pursuit of God is a quote I recently read from Henri Nouwen:

“WHY should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to grab my mind for a moment?

The answer is: because God is greater than my mind and my heart, and what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.

What I must do first of all is be faithful. If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God. The question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical, or fruitful is completely irrelevant, since the only reason to love is love itself. Everything else is secondary.

The remarkable thing, however, is that sitting in the presence of God for one hour each morning — day after day, week after week, month after month — in total confusion and with myriad distractions radically changes my life. God, who loves me so much that He sent His only son not to condemn me but to save me, does not leave me waiting in the dark too long.

I might think that each hour is useless, but after thirty or sixty or ninety such useless hours, I gradually realize that I was not as alone as I thought; a very small gentle voice has been speaking to me far beyond my noisy place.

So: Be confident and trust in the Lord.”

From The Road to Daybreak, by Henri Nouwen.​ (I read this here)

The state of my heart


My ‘project’ to live consistently according to my beliefs is a bit like someone setting out to make some healthy changes to their lifestyle (in fact it is a lot like that!). Most health programmes carry a disclaimer stating that anyone over forty years old should only begin a fitness regime on the advice of their doctor, a big concern being that someone may start exercising and collapse with a heart attack.

I am over forty, and know that I am out of shape spiritually. Therefore it would be wise to do a bit of a heart checkup as I seek to exercise some spiritual discipline in my life. ​

Just as a cardiologist will do multiple tests to assess the state of a person’s heart muscle, understanding the state of my heart before God must take into account many factors: Am I hungering and thirsting for God? ​Is my life governed by God’s Word? Am I becoming more loving? Do I delight in the Bride of Christ? Is my heart broken over sin? How quickly do I forgive?

​That is not an exhaustive list (in fact it is stolen from the book Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald S. Whitney), I am assuming that I will come across many other indicators of the state of my heart as I go on. There are also the ‘rough and ready’ indicators which we are all familiar with, and these serve to reveal the baseline of my current spiritual state, just as heart rate and blood pressure give a quick estimate of cardiac health.

WARNING: this will be disappointing!

Prayer: I currently pray very little. Days may pass completely without purposeful praying. When I do pray it tends to be while doing other things such as washing the dishes or walking to work so my thoughts wander far and wide in the process. When I timed how long I actually prayed over several days it was less than 5 minutes each day!

Bible reading: This used to be a strong point but has dwindled in the last couple of years. Some days I manage to read my target 5 chapters a day, often I read only one or two chapters and it is not uncommon for me to not open my Bible at all for several days.

Giving: Woeful (erratic and not much).

Serving: I preach about once every 6 weeks and serving as a member of the leadership board for our little church.

Evangelism:​ Nonexistent, fear keeps my lips sealed.​

As you can see, this is a picture of someone who is fat, flabby and complacent. Moving out of this state will be a challenge and is going to take time. My gut feeling is that prayer is where I need to begin, with the first battle being to make space for quietness before God. On that note I’d like to point you toward a post from a friend about exactly that:​ Learning in silence.


Image: iStock

Is ice-cream good for you?

The primary purpose of reading the Bible, praying, or serving others is that I grow in maturity and Christ-likeness, as that happens I have joy in knowing God. Receiving immediate insight, joy or a sense of God’s presence while reading the Bible is a secondary blessing which may or may not occur any given time. I still need the nourishment for my soul regardless of how I feel.

Is ice-cream really good to eat when you are sick?

Yes!

Earlier this week I had a sudden attack of vomiting, which I suspect may have been food poisoning. Suffice to say, it was unpleasant!

After having my stomach completely empty itself, it was very sensitive to anything I attempted to put in there. Water and fruit seemed to be the preferred options, with a few dry crackers maybe. One thing that did help with the nausea was ice-cream.

After being completely empty for a couple of days, the amount of food my stomach would tolerate also decreased dramatically. All of this has caused me to consider my usual eating habits. I am quite stunned at how much of my diet is highly processed foods containing all sorts of added muck to keep it from going stale, to add flavour, to make it look nice, to make it feel good to eat, to inhibit bacteria and mould, &etc. It is so easy to fill my body up with junk and end up functioning in a substandard way as a result.

Then there is the issue of eating too much, and eating to make me feel better when hunger is not actually the problem…

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:27 ESV)

My poor eating habits can basically be summed up as a lack of discipline. One of those distasteful words that connotes hard work and lack of enjoyment. Yet when what I had eaten contained something toxic to me (or bacteria that made a toxin), eating only pure, fresh foods is exactly what I most wanted.

This translates into other areas of life. One of my biggest distractions from God is the computer, especially the internet and reading blogs. There is a lot of good stuff to read and keep up with, but it is not the best stuff. When I put away the distractions and go directly to God and the Bible, it can seem bland compared to the newness and interactiveness of the internet. The Bible is still ‘just a book’ and praying can seem like talking to the ceiling.

I think the problem lies in my confusion over what good food for my body and good food for my soul should actually achieve: Contrary to advertising hype, food is not primarily to give ecstatic pleasure in the experience of eating it – it is supposed to provide nourishment for my body so that I can have joy in being the person I was designed to be. The enjoyment of food is a secondary benefit.

So also with food for my soul; reading the Bible, praying, serving others. The primary purpose of these is that I grow in maturity and Christ-likeness, as that happens I have joy in knowing God. Receiving immediate insight, joy or a sense of God’s presence while reading the Bible is a secondary blessing which may or may not occur any given time. I still need the nourishment for my soul regardless of how I feel.

… train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8 ESV)

So, is ice-cream really good for you? What do you think?

Focus

Human mesenchymal cell

I have set myself to make 2011 a year of focusing on essentials. One of the most fundamental elements of our lives is how we spend our time. Don’t panic… I’m not going to start preaching about time management! I am more concerned about some of the junk I spend my time on. Junk such as Facebook and casual internet browsing. I can easily kiss goodbye to several hours in an evening on those two alone. It always feels important at the time, and often is interesting stuff I am reading, but that time spent keeping up with 20 blogs pushes more important things out – such as reading the Bible or praying for my own kids.

“One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.”
John Piper

Therefore I have decided to put some self imposed limits on these things. I’m not going to tell you what my own time limits are, or what blogs I have dumped off my RSS feed, these are things specific to each individual and to the phase of life we are each in. I think the internet is a great tool, but there is no need for me to turn the tool into a time-wasting toy. I am choosing to be “intentionally uninformed” so as to leave time in my days to inform myself about God.

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.

(Proverbs 12:11 ESV)

In the end it is about focus. If I want to see God I need to focus my attention upon Him and purposefully block out other distractions. This is similar to how a telescope or microscope works – they each have lenses which focus light, they also have a tube (or equivalent) which keeps extraneous light out. The only light you want in a microscope is that which is directed through the sample and lenses, the stray light in the room reduces the clarity of the image and reduces resolution. This is especially so with fluorescence microscopy, good fluorescence images require a darkened room, meticulous sample preparation, a sophisticated microscope and a lot of skill. Obtaining a few high quality, informative images can take weeks of preparation – work that requires skill, concentration and focus, even through all the boring steps of what is a long, and at times tedious, process. Yet these images have opened up new ways of seeing and understanding the very basis of life – well worth the effort in my opinion.

So too with seeing the glory of Christ, it takes time, discipline and sometimes a bit of tedium, but the vista is far better than any microscope image!

Distractions

Why am I more likely to be thinking about a computer game while waiting for the bus than to be mulling over this week’s memory verse or praying for persecuted Christians in Somalia?

I am interested in how to constrain my mental and emotional focus so that I ponder Christ and am captivated by Him rather than the useless shiny glittering junk of my everyday world. I suspect that this is an issue for many Christians, I know that it is a multi-million dollar industry in the business world as the popularity of books such as Getting Things Done by David Allen attests. The tendency to get distracted is common to all and seems to be becoming worse as technology delivers ever more of the world to our gadgets. It has been shown that multitasking is a myth, all we really do is switch quickly between tasks and this actually reduces concentration rather than making us more creative, efficient or clever.

Clearly a wise solution to distractions is to reduce the number and frequency of them. I also find that some distractions are more distracting than others — people talking loudly is more distracting than music playing, phones ringing are worse than traffic noises, emotional turmoil is harder to ignore than a cluttered desk. It is this last contrast which gets me closer to my concern about maintaining my focus on Christ, how to get my emotions more engaged with the glory of God?

The things that take my attention are those with the strongest emotional pull. They don’t have to be good emotions — anxiety, stress and pain are not pleasant but they certainly hold my attention! However, emotions are slippery things, very difficult to control or manipulate at will. So is there any hope of taming my distracted heart?

I think there is. It involves that awful ‘D’ word… discipline! I have to discipline myself to place my attention upon what is edifying for my soul, I have to monitor the ‘inputs‘ into my life and turn off those that are pulling me away from Christ and maybe even find some more that will turn my thoughts towards Him. Most of all though, I need to think deeply about Christ. This needn’t be a dry academic exercise — if so there is not much hope for me! The intention is to move beyond superficial thoughts of ‘Jesus meek and mild’ and ponder the meaning of who He is, who I am in relation to Him, and how I can relate to Him. As I grow in my understanding of Jesus Christ my emotions are moved in solid and positive ways. I join the quest that motivated the Apostle Paul:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV)

Plodding is OK

Whenever a mature Christian comments on how they could have better use their time, it is worth paying attention. Especially if that Christian is still known as a faithful servant of Jesus 200 years after he died. So take note of what John Newton wrote about his own reading habits:

Alas, how much time have I lost and wasted, which, had I been wise—I would have devoted to reading and studying the Bible! But my evil heart obstructs the dictates of my judgment, I often feel a reluctance to read this book of books, and a disposition to hew out broken cisterns which afford me no water, while the fountain of living waters are close within my reach!

In Jeremiah 15:16 the prophet says that God’s words became a delight to him, implying that they were always so. It is generally the case with us that God’s words do not initially delight us. The Bible is a big book, it is culturally far removed from our western materialist experiences, and it’s meaning is very deep.

Whenever something is deep we need to spend time peering into it in order to see the substance of what is held in those depths. It will take repeated readings of the Bible to take it all in, but lots of small readings over time will get you there. Again, from John Newton:

To make a few efforts, and then give up—is like taking a few steps and then standing still, which would do little towards completing a long journey. But, though a person walked slowly, and but a little way in a day—if he walked every day, and with his face always in the same direction, year after year—he would in time travel over the globe! By thus traveling patiently and steadily through the Scripture, and repeating our progress—we would increase in Scriptural knowledge to the end of life!

Plodding through the Bible is OK, just keep going!

Here is the entire Reading the Bible article by John Newton.

Good intentions

Do you consistently do what is right and not do what you shouldn’t? I struggle with this, failing most in the daily things such as patience and kindness to my kids when I’m tired and want to do something else, or laziness and eating junk food when I’m stressed or bored. Why do my good intentions fly out the window when they are most needed?

I find that the words of Mark 14:38 come to mind when I fail to live as I ought, “The heart is willing but the flesh is weak.” However, even this is giving myself too much credit – my heart and flesh are weak!

He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.”
(Joshua 24:23 ESV)

I am finding Joshua 24:23 to be good advice. If I want to bend my life to obey God then I need to both incline my heart towards God, and get rid of things in my daily life which turn me away from God. We cannot separate the internal and external actions, what I do affects what I feel and love, and vice versa. Of course, watching and praying help immensely too – though often the temptation to give up on this is what has gotten me into a mess in the first place!

It is a struggle to train ourselves for godliness, but the final outcome is worth more than the riches of the entire world (1 Timothy 4:7-8).