new year imagesNew Year’s Day is probably the holiday that I celebrate the least. I don’t celebrate Halloween really, but I usually do get a pumpkin. But New Year’s, especially this year when it fell on a Friday, just sort of rolled into my weekend. I think one reason I don’t really care about New Year’s is because it is a completely artificial holiday. It starts at midnight on January 1. Midnight is not a natural time (it’s not dawn or dusk) and is just the arbitrary time we moderns have selected to say the day starts. Likewise, January 1 doesn’t correspond to any natural or religious time. The church’s calendar starts in late November or early December. The winter solstice is on December 22. Christmas is December 25. Epiphany is on January 6. January 1 as the beginning of the new year does have a long history, going back as it does to Julius Caesar, but it was only an accident, a corrective to an earlier error, that the new year doesn’t occur in the spring (which would make a lot more sense). Anyway, that is all a long way of saying that January 1 carries no special significance for me.

However, as is typical of our culture, we have infused an older idea of reformation and repentance, of making amends and changing our ways, into a mediocre, half-hearted version called New Year’s resolutions. We take the opportunity afforded by the arbitrarily defined new year to pledge to be better during the coming year. It is interesting, of course, to contrast the excess of New Year’s Eve with the soberness of the resolutions. In this, modernity has followed the more ancient, and far richer, tradition of Mardi Gras leading into Ash Wednesday. Nevertheless, since New Year’s comes during a break between semesters but after the flurry of Christmas activities, I tend to find it to be a convenient time to reflect on my habits and practices and to consciously seek to make changes where I think I ought to make changes. As one for whom habits are singularly important because of how they lead into the virtuous life, I find this kind of self-reflection very important.

In what follows I will outline some changes I plan to make in 2016. For a broader, more applicable approach to forming habits this year, see Drew Dixon’s post on his blog here. Drew is one of my best friends (we’ve known each other since our youth group days). He’s currently working on is MDiv at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.

* * *

The Habit of Reading

Since I discovered blogs during my freshman year of college, I’ve struggled to know when to stop reading. I am obsessed with knowing what is going on and I don’t like to be the one who is out of the loop. I am particularly obsessed with politics (both domestic and international) as well as with cultural trends (though not entertainment or sports) and with religious news. I spend several hours each day keeping up with the blogs I have in my RSS reader, and that doesn’t even count my subscription to the Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, both of which I also read most days. True, I usually also have a few books going including the cheap fantasy novels I read before bed, the books I read along with my students, and usually one or two others books that are important for my own intellectual or professional growth. Nevertheless, I find that all of my blog and news reading seriously detracts from my ability to focus on more important reading, especially on my desire to read the Great Books of the Western Tradition.

So, the way that I am amending my habit of reading for 2016 is as follows: 1) I will (along with Amanda) follow a Bible reading plan that will have us read the whole Bible this year; 2) I will, every day, read something from either the patristics, the medievals, or the Reformers on theology (I’m actually going to start with Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity and then move on from there, but I’m thinking I want to start earlier and move later); 3) I will, every day, read from a “helpful” book; these helpful books are books by recent or contemporary authors that help me either with my professional or intellectual formation (my first book will be Walter Brueggemann’s Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education); 4) I will read, every day, from a Great Book; I am intimidated by the Great Books lists (I tried to start reading them during this past Lent, but I totally failed) and so I’ve found a mentor with expertise in classical education and in the Great Books tradition who has agreed to be my guide; 5) I will delete my RSS reader from my phone (I use Feedly) and will only read blogs on Saturdays; in the past, when I take extended breaks from reading blogs and then go back to them, I find that I didn’t miss anything important in the minutiae of the blow-by-blow and that those posts that are gems are easily recognizable; 6) I will unsubscribe from The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News; in lieu of reading the headlines from two newspapers every day, I will experiment with Yahoo’s delightful news digest for Android that gives me the headlines in the morning and then again at night.

I’ve been thinking about making this change for quite awhile, but it was reading Thomas Oden’s memoir A Change of Heart over the last three days that really brought home to me the desire to be truly educated instead of being a know-it-all pundit. His memoir is not very well written actually (academic writing is more his style, personal narration not so much), but the story is gripping and absolutely compelling. Oden went from being a radical leftist with a marxist grid for reading scripture and a psychoanalytic grid for doing theology to slamming into orthodox Christianity near his 40th birthday and becoming a world-renowned patristics scholar and ecumenical theologian. The shape of my own journey (in the sense that I drifted into theological liberalism before swimming my way back) mirrors his and I, therefore, have found his account of his journey deeply compelling. You can read about my journey in a number of places, but here, here, and here should be a decent start.

The Habit of Praying

I have described in other places the way that I approach prayer. In particular, I think it would be hard to improve on this post written 2.5 years ago! I’ve been praying the canonical hours (set prayers based on the time of day and liturgical season; they have their roots in the way the monks prayed in late antiquity and the middle ages) for about five years. Initially, I prayed the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours by using the Universalis app. The hard copy of the Liturgy of the Hours is pretty expensive and difficult to understand. The Universalis app, however, was only 30 dollars and it organized everything for me so that I didn’t have to understand the Liturgy of the Hours in order to pray them. However, in August 2013, I began to wish I had the ability to pray the hours without having to use my computer. So, I opted to purchase Phyillis Tickle’s Divine Hours, which is a collection of three volumes that, like Universalis, lays all of the prayers out for each day. It is based on the Book of Common Prayer, though it takes elements from other liturgical traditions, and it served me well until now.

One of the things I grew to dislike about Tickle’s version of the canonical hours is that they lack liturgical richness. What I mean is that they lack much acknowledgment, outside of the collect for the week, of the liturgical season. And, accept on occasion, they fail to mention the feasts and saints in the traditional Christian calendar. Part of the problem, of course, is that the Book of Common Prayer‘s order for morning and evening prayer is just a truncated version of the older monastic tradition. But, the other problem is that Tickle wanted the prayers to be as accessible as possible. To this end, she organized the prayer books around the secular calendar and the natural seasons. I fully applaud her prayer books as extremely easy to use and will continue to recommend them to those who are just starting out on the journey of canonical prayer. However, for Christmas, I asked for and received hard copies of the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours and have begun regularly using them. I’ve used the Liturgy of the Hours as my primary prayer book for the last week and have already benefited from their greater variety and liturgical richness. Also, in having to flip between the several sections of the prayer book to assemble the assigned collection of antiphons, psalms, prayers, intercessions, and scripture readings for each hour each day, I have already greatly deepened my appreciation for this great Christian tradition; this is an appreciation I would not have had (because I wouldn’t have seen how the hours are put together) without having to do the flipping. Richard Beck has more on this here.

In any case, in 2016, I plan to make sole use of the Liturgy of the Hours for canonical prayer. I have consistently prayed Lauds (morning prayer) and Compline (night prayer) since the beginning, but I have only sporadically prayed Vespers (evening prayer). I have mostly prayed Vespers during Advent when Amanda and I share an Advent meditation time together. However, in the prefatory material in the Liturgy of the Hours, it is explained that Lauds and Vespers are the two hinges for the door of prayer. And, not wanting to miss the richness of the Vespers canticle (the Magnificat) or the Vesper hymns, I’ve decided to also pray Vespers daily. There is a longing in me to pray all four main hours of the day (Morning, Midday, Evening, Night), and I might start praying the midday prayers on my lunch break, but for now I am going to just commit to Lauds, Vespers, and Compline. Furthermore, I am also committing to praying over Ellie (and Catherine when she is born) every day as well as praying with Amanda.

The Habit of Writing

I have identified as a writer since I was in high school. At first, I mostly wrote really bad poetry. And then, in college, I wrote stupid blog posts long since deleted. But, since the summer between my junior and senior years at ACU, I’ve considered myself actually engaged in the habit of writing (my inaugural blog post is here). My writing rhythym has changed dramatically over the years. Sometimes, I’ve blogged quite a bit and, other times, hardly at all. When I was in school, especially graduate school, I often had a grueling writing schedule as I struggled to keep up with the demands of my seminars and, in the spring of 2014, my MA thesis. I also had some of my academic writing published in a few journals and some of my poetry published in a campus literary magazine. Before blogging and academic writing, though, I was a journaler. And, up until I was in a serious relationship with Amanda, I was a regular journaler. I stopped journaling regularly because I finally found someone with whom to talk everything through (I used to say I stopped journaling once I had friends), but I have journaled sporadically since dating Amanda.

In 2016, I plan to journal again regularly. I plan to take time every Saturday for an extended time of journaling and reflection on the things I’m reading, on the state of my spiritual walk, on how I feel about life and my family, etc. I also plan to, every night after Compline, take a bit of time to journal my confession of sin, my prayer of intercession, and my prayer of thanksgiving. Journalling is something I want to be back in the habit of doing because I love the ability to go back and see where I’ve come from. In addition to picking up journalling again, I plan to hold to the blogging rhythm I set out here. Specifically, I plan to post a quote from something I’m reading every Friday. I will also blog about whatever I’m teaching my students every other Thursday. And, once a month, I will write a longer blog post that addresses something in depth (this blog post counts for January and this is the one for December). Having a regular, but realistic, writing schedule gives me the structure and freedom I need to grow as a writer.

* * *

There are, of course, other habits I am already engaged in, habits that I have come to love because of how they draw me into virtue. There is the habit of making my bed every morning (my first habit; the one that first led me into a disciplined life), of giving away ten percent of our income, of putting the phone down when playing with my daughter, of buying and cooking healthy foods. There are habits I have that govern how I use social media and how I interact with my co-workers and how I prepare to teach and how I leave work things at work when I come home.

There are also, of course, my bad habits. Habits like ordering pizza when I don’t want to cook or drinking 120 oz of coffee a day or buying blue bell every time I go to the grocery store. There are bad habits like checking Facebook all the time or zoning out and watching Netflix too much or lazily watching viral youtube videos when I should be working.

Habits, all habits, shape who we are. They both reflect and shape our desires; they both order and disorder our lives. One of my longest running spiritual insights is that the good displaces the bad; love displaces sin. It’s not that you get rid of all your crap and then start doing good things. Rather, you introduce good habits in and among the bad. I make my bed and pray my prayers and play with my daughter all on the same day that I eat a pint of bluebell and watch Netflix for three hours straight.

The ancients essentially believed that the human soul was made up of the passions, the will, and the intellect. The virtuous person knew which actions constituted virtue and that being virtuous was good (intellect) and actually acted on that knowledge (will) no matter what sort of emotional temptations occurred (passions). In the Christian virtue tradition, which recognizes the falleness of humans and their inability to put the pieces back together themselves, the hope is that the Holy Spirit empowers us to act on our knowledge of the moral law, that in knowing the right action to take and taking that action over and over again, the passions will become subservient to the intellect and the will. This is called forming habitus. And this is what I hope to gain in following the leading of the Spirit in the changes I want to make in 2016.

* * *

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray you, as you eill, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.