Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Disciplines

Drinking the Same Water

I was on the phone the other day with a friend who is a Roman Catholic priest. In his closing words he promised to pray for the subject of our conversation, and I believe he meant it. In fact I once was running through his church’s parking lot early one morning and found him praying and walking in a back corner of the property.

I have always wanted to be disciplined like that.

When I was in college I was befriended by an older man who had been a missionary in the Niger Republic. He was working temporarily as a maintenance man on the Michigan State campus while his daughter was a student. I stopped by his shop one day and caught him working through boxes of tiny cards on which were written portions of Scripture which he had memorized over the years. He had memorized scripture in English, French, and Hausa, the latter two the most prominent languages of Niger. Such discipline was foreign to me.

JimAliceLucasTen years later, this man (Jim) and his wife (Alice) had retired to a location in Florida near where I was then beginning to pastor, and so one Saturday I loaded my family in the van and we went to visit them. On the porch of his modest mobile home he had a stationary bike. He had rigged it so that when he pedaled, the effort drove a wheat grinder. He was quite the resourceful man. More impressive to me, however, was the small platform he had rigged between the handlebars. On it were a box of cards. Prayer cards, this time. On each card was written the name of a different person for whom he prayed regularly. His wife and he, she told me, prayed for Barb and I every day, and had since our days at Michigan State.

I will never be that disciplined.

And yet these are not the things that I remember most about Jim.

First, he was a man of stunning humility and unrelenting compassion. One evening during our East Lansing days, some students had given a presentation to our church on personal evangelism. Jim, the veteran missionary, approached THEM after the presentation to get further insight. And in his ‘retirement’ his heart still burned to serve broken people. He spent the time from his arrival in Florida until dementia stole his mind volunteering as a chaplain in the local county jail. And he did so with a joyful delight that I can still recall.

So let me rephrase my ambition.

I have always wanted to be disciplined like that because often the people whose character has impacted me the most are people of discipline. As I’ve grown to learn that the value of the spiritual disciplines lies not in the act but in the fact that it puts us where God delights to work. I’m guessing that Jim and Alice Lucas became the people they became partly because of their faithful and frequent visits in the presence of their God.

I’m no longer young and so my ambition to grow to be like Jim Lucas is quite removed from reality. God has had his own work to do in me. But I can drink from the same well from which he drank. I may not drink as deeply or as long or as faithfully. But I and we all can at least sip and God can have his way with us.

The Ollie McLellan of the Spiritual Disciplines


I am the Michael Jordan of prayer and the Babe Ruth of personal devotions.

And, apparently, I’m the Muhammed Ali of lying.

Truth be told, as far as the spiritual disciplines go, I’m more an Ollie McLellan.

The movie Hoosiers tells the story of a small town Indiana basketball team (fictional Hickory) that makes an unlikely run at the state basketball title. It is the story of a failed coach (Gene Hackman) and of a drunken dad (Dennis Hopper) getting second chances. And in the background, it’s the story of a simple young man whose faithful presence lands him in a place to make an impact.

Hickory’s Ollie McLellan’s one basketball ambition was to never get put into a game. He was happy to practice, happy to cheer from the sidelines, happy to cart supplies, but scared to death of actually playing. In his mind, he was just not cut out of the right cloth to be a real basketball player. And yet in all his glorious weakness he is thrust into a key role in Hickory’s basketball fortunes.

Go watch the movie.

Ollie hoosiers free throw 1

It’s now February and for many of us the passion for our New Year’s resolutions has faded. Whether we resolved to read through the whole Bible or run a marathon or be gentler with our kids, we tried and found, “There is no try. Just do, or do not.” And the “do not” is beginning to look pretty good.

To soften the quitting blow, we decide that we really aren’t cut from the cloth of those who are successful runners, dieters, musicians, or Bible readers. Out the window goes the bathwater and with it the baby that we concluded was not going to thrive in our hands anyhow.

But I want to make a tiny little plea to hold onto the idea of discipline, particularly the spiritual disciplines, even if we don’t show much talent for them. Sometimes being no better than Ollie McLellan can bear marvelous fruit.

The importance of the spiritual disciplines lies not in great achievement. It lies in being faithfully present where God chooses to work. Ollie was faithful and present and it made a difference. We may not be the person who can read the bible in a year, and that’s okay. We may not be the one who can spend an hour a day in prayer, and that’s okay.

We are still hungry and lost and confused and God has been gracious to give us access to himself. A disciplined pursuit of God through the means of his appointment is always to be championed, no matter how small that discipline may appear. To the degree the disciplines have been meaningful to me, my heart longs to see others drawing the same benefit.

I’ll never know the exhilaration of hitting a game winning three pointer, nor will I ever get a plaque in the prayer hall of fame. But that’s okay. Even Ollie, because of his faithful presence, now and then can hit a free throw. And there is joy in that as well.


A guy who is 55 does well to read a book titled A Resilient Life and subtitled “You Can Move Ahead No Matter What”, especially, when the blurb at the top of the front cover from the good, but perhaps overly gracious, folks at Publishers Weekly tells me that it is “a classic, riveting read…”.

The book is by Gordon MacDonald, the author of the widely read Ordering Your Private World which was greatly helpful to me when I read it over 25 years ago. But soon after reading that book, I learned that while MacDonald was helping me address the disorder of my private world, his had fallen apart through some very serious sin. I felt betrayed by one whom I had adopted as a mentor for my life.

After a necessarily lengthy absence from the public view, while he mended his own private world, MacDonald’s public writing began to show a great deal of mercy and grace and understanding for those who struggle and fail. Such a spirit is often absent in so much writing aimed at helping Christians live a distinctly Christian life. It was with great expectation then that I picked up a book written from MacDonald’s maturity and aimed at building resilience into life.

“Resilience” is a good, healthy word, one of a couple which will enter my vocabulary with refreshed meaning after having read this book. It speaks of the ability of a life to ‘spring back’ from set backs, to persist with life, to persevere after a goal. Resilience is a necessary component to a life well lived, and as I begin to ponder (another good word) what it means to finish life well, resilience has to be a part of the discussion.Gordon MacDonald

The book, helpful to one like me who is, shall we say, closer to the end than to the beginning of life, is written in an almost Solomon-esque fashion. These are words of the wise written for the benefit of the young, and therein lies both the book’s greatest strength, and its sadly glaring danger.

The strengths are many and deep. MacDonald challenges us to build character and discipline into life which will enable us to persevere through adversity and to keep our eyes on goals greater than passing fancies. He encourages us to look to mentors, to find coaches, to develop relationships. He pushes us to nurture disciplines (though the disciplines of public worship and sacrament are noticeably downplayed if not absent altogether) and to fix our eyes on great things and worthy goals.

There is so much here that is so important for living life full of joy and ending life full of wisdom. There is so much here to adopt and to adapt for our own lives. And there is so much here that is deadly in the long run if it is divorced from the gospel. And that is my greatest concern.

Other than being better and finishing well, MacDonald gives us little motivation for abiding by his wisdom, and little or no comfort for those who fail or who are otherwise unable to live up to the standards set. One is left with the unspoken logic that when one fails, one’s failures have pushed the prospect of finishing well out of reach. It is a short trip from there to despair.

The motive for keeping the law (which anything like this is) is contained in Romans 12 and 1 John 4, and even Exodus 20. In view of God’s mercy, we offer ourselves (Romans 12). Grace comes first. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4). Grace comes first. God delivered us from bondage (Exodus 20). Grace comes first.

The gospel of God’s gracious love for us in Christ is what picks us up and encourages us to move forward. And this same gospel is what reassures us of our place and our importance and our hope when we fall down. Without a constant reminder of the gospel, law, wisdom, and challenges to discipline will all leave us either despondent or proud.

Discipline comes easy to some, and without the gospel, the disciplined person begins to take note of all that he has done, and his eyes fall off the cross and onto his stellar record book. And to those for whom discipline is a struggle, the challenge to try harder results in either rebellion or despair. And without the constant reminder of the gospel of grace all will tend to look to their performance for their happiness and security, a sad and troublesome place.

I’m not angry about the book’s lack. Just sad. I had hoped for more. This would be a wonderful book to pass on to a young Christian, but not without a deep understanding of grace. Lacking the gospel emphasis means that one reading it himself needs to be surrounded by the gospel and his heart needs to be well-seasoned by grace.

I’m really rather surprised by this lack. MacDonald is honest about his failures. He has no pride, because he understands grace so much better than I. But I finish reading the book less amazed by the grace of Jesus than I am by the grace of his wife. We could have had the latter without the absence of the former. I find that sad.

I will take away many very helpful things from this book. It would even be worth a second read. God has taught MacDonald much, and he conveys it well. I just won’t be giving the book out widely, no matter how ‘riveting’ Publishers Weekly found it to be.

Turtle Life

On the theme of ‘doing less‘, and ‘doing other‘, comes this E. B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) New Yorker column, published on January 31, 1953.

Enjoy. Reflect. Preferably relaxing in the sun on a partly submerged log.

We strolled up to Hunter College the other evening for a meeting of the New York Zoological Society. Saw movies of grizzly cubs, learned the four methods of locomotion of snakes, and were told that the Society has established a turtle blood bank. Medical men, it seems, are interested in turtle blood, because turtles don’t suffer from arteriosclerosis in old age. The doctors are wondering whether there is some special property of turtle blood that prevents the arteries from hardening. It could be, of course. But there is also the possibility that a turtle’s blood vessels stay in nice shape because of the way turtles conduct their lives. Turtles rarely pass up a chance to relax in the sun on a partly submerged log. No two turtles ever lunched together with the idea of promoting anything. No turtle ever went around complaining that there is no profit in book publishing except from subsidiary rights. Turtles do not work day and night to perfect explosive devices that wipe out Pacific islands and eventually render turtles sterile. Turtles never use the word ‘implementation’ or the phrases ‘hard core’ and ‘in the last analysis’. No turtle ever rang another turtle back on the phone. In the last analysis, a turtle, although lacking know-how, knows how to live. A turtle, by its admirable habits, gets to the hard core of life. That may be why its arteries are so soft.

“A turtle, although lacking know-how, knows how to live.” Something to be said for that.

Resolving To Do Other

The need to do less is clear.

Those of us for whom “production = personal value” are compelled to be busy not necessarily by the inherent good in the thing we do, but by the fear of a perceived disvalue arising from our inactivity. Driven by a need for approval, by a lust for attention, by an insatiable interest in everything, or by a deeply ingrained ethic equating godliness and hard work, we apply ourselves to excel, or at least do more than the next guy.

So, for those of us so driven, the need to do less is clear. But the issue is not simply that we are doing too much. It may be that we are doing too much of the wrong thing and not enough of the right thing.

I’m a huge fan of (New College of Florida alum!) David Allen‘s Getting Things Done. (My first introduction to this came through this article.) More than anything else, Allen’s common sense approach to work flow and modern life has enabled me to keep whatever grip I have on my fractured life. I commend it highly.

Allen’s principle thesis is that we can reduce stress by getting all that clamors for our attention out of our heads and into some kind of orderly system. He’s right. Even though his promise of ‘stress-free productivity’ may seem an illusion, it is true that there is value in systematizing all of those competing commitments creating an undefined noise in our heads.

When we systematize all of our commitments, and carve away the fantastic which we know we’ll never accomplish (it’s too late for me to learn Greek well enough to read it without helps, you know), we begin to see two things clearly. First, we begin to see all that we are not getting done, which is a traumatic revelation. And secondly, we see that among those items on the list of tasks not being accomplished are some very, very important things. That can be very jarring.

The reality is that we may not need to simply do LESS in our lives, but OTHER. We may need to reorder what we do, striking from our plates some commitments which overly drain us or otherwise keep us from the important things. Allen commends making such assessments, and the end/beginning of the year is a good time to do so.

I labor (interesting choice of words) then to do less in order to find simplicity, and to do other, because it is important.

Resolving To Do Less

The end of a year is met with regret over resolutions never met and with hope in anticipation of resolutions yet to be made. But like it or not, this time of year is met with our minds tilting in the direction of those things we might (try again to) change.

Most of the time, resolutions commit us to doing more. More exercise, more financial frugality, and so forth. I need to find a way to resolve to do less. To do less, that is, of the things which distract and make life hectic so that I might do more of that which really matters. How to dissect my life in such a way that those distinctions become clear is the challenge.

J. B. Phillips in his insightful little book Your God Is Too Small challenges my constant anxious activity, as others have done in the past.

“If there is one thing which should be quite plain to those who accept the revelation of God in Nature and the Bible it is that He is never in a hurry. Long preparation, careful planning, and slow growth, would seem to be leading characteristics of spiritual life.

“Yet there are many people whose religious tempo is feverish. With a fine disregard for its context they flourish like a banner the text ‘The King’s business requireth haste,’ and proceed to drive themselves and their followers nearly mad with tension and anxiety!

“It is refreshing and salutary, to study the poise and quietness of Christ. His task and responsibility might well have driven a man out of his mind. But He was never in a hurry, need impressed by numbers, never a slave of the clock. He was acting, He said, as He observed God to act—never in a hurry.” (pages 55, 56)

Hmmm. And of course there IS that thing about his yoke being easy. I need to resolve to do less.

Bible Reading Schedules

“It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.”

No, Christmas is past, actually. That feeling you have is the realization that the New Year is upon you. Christians occasionally respond to this realization determined to commit to some ‘spiritual endeavor’, such as reading the whole Bible from beginning to end.

I am not going to tell you whether to do that or not. But if you have determined to take that step, I would like to help. To that end, I have prepared three differently paced but similar reading schedules.

These are not seven day a week schedules. Most of us are human, and to be human means we will miss a day or two here and there in our reading. I have found it better to ASSUME this and to build into the schedule an extra day or two each week to allow for catching up.

Secondly, following these schedules you will not hop around. Rather, you will read one book until it is complete, and then you will move on to another book. New Testament and Old Testament books are intermingled to introduce variety through the year, but you are never required to read, for example, a chapter in Matthew and one in Genesis on the same day.

Beyond these similarities, the schedules differ in pace. For the highly motivated, there is a schedule that covers all of the Old Testament once, and the New Testament and Psalms twice in the course of the year.

Yeah, right. Okay, fun to think about. But for the rest of us, there is schedule that takes one through the whole Bible once in the course of the year. Pretty straightforward, that.

But that can still be daunting for those who have never attempted it. Miss a week, as you might during vacation or while bogged down in Leviticus, and you feel sunk. You give up, patting yourself on the back for having tried, and then feeling like a ‘cotton headed ninny muggins‘ for having failed.

But, Buddy, you’re NOT a cotton headed ninny muggins. You just need a slower pace. For this case, we provide a schedule that paces you through the Bible in TWO years. The goal is moved farther off, but you are less likely buckle under under the stress that usually comes with these programs.

If any reading this have found these schedules helpful in the past, I’d appreciate a comment to that effect. Helps me know that my labor is not in vain and encourages others in their efforts. Thanks!

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Each of these can be downloaded from my Dropbox site. (Let me know if there is any trouble.)

And each is available in two formats: .pdf for printing and .epub for reading on your iPhone (just import the file into iTunes). Right click on the desired file, and select ‘download”. Enjoy!

Two years:

One year:

One year (NT and Psalms twice):

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Also, if you want to say ‘thank you’, sign up for your own DropBox account using this link. We’ll BOTH get extra space. Yeah for extra space!

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