Atomic: Introduction

James Clear had a dream to play professional baseball like his dad, who played in the minor leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals.  But that dream was severely challenged the last day of his sophomore year in high school when he got hit between the eyes with a baseball bat that flew from a classmate’s hands after a full swing.  At first, he seemed surprisingly okay.  But as swelling set in, he found himself struggling to stay alive.  He made it through the worst night of an induced coma, which allowed him to be signed off for surgery.  He discovered that his injury was going to make daily life very difficult for a long time.  Cognitive ability was diminished, large motor skills had to be relearned, he temporarily lost his sense of smell, and when he blew his nose, one of his eyeballs nearly popped out.

But James was determined not to let his injury keep him down.  He worked his tail off and made his varsity baseball team his senior year.  Somehow, he got picked up by Denison University to play baseball for them, which felt like a great achievement in and of itself.  He knew that if he hoped to play, it would require a series of tiny decisions to make the dream of playing college ball a reality.  In many ways, he became “opposite freshman” – he got to bed early to develop good sleep habits, kept his room neat and tidy, and integrated study habits that allowed him to get straight A’s.  Six years after his injury, he was selected as the top male athlete at Denison University, named to the ESPN Academic All-America Team which was bestowed upon only thirty-three students nationwide, and received the President’s Medal – the university’s highest academic honor.

While he never played professional baseball, he did begin going after a new dream.  He began sharing his insights about forming tiny habits that make big differences in an online newsletter.  In a relatively small amount of time, he had hundreds of thousands of people subscribing to his work.  That led to the development of his company which trains leaders to develop better habits that impact their work and life.  It also led to the writing of his book, Atomic Habits, which details his strategy and offers practiced insights into developing tiny habits that create the possibility of significant benefits.  One of his convictions is that willpower is overrated.  We blame our lack of willpower for not sticking with things like dieting, exercise, financial habits, etc.  While it does play a modest role, Clear’s findings suggest that we are more behavioral than we’d like to think, and that our habits actually dictate our lives more than we would care to admit.  For him, then, if we change our habits in tiny ways, we change our path, our stripes, everything.  He uses the example of a plane taking off from SFO headed for JFK.  If the plane is off course by only three percent – imperceptible at the beginning – the plane will end up landing at Dulles in D.C. instead of New York.  Tiny changes in our habits make big differences.  Change our habits, change our lives.

Habits are routines or behaviors that we repeat regularly, and in many cases automatically.  I would bet that most of us repeat a similar set of habits every day in our morning routine. Without giving you more detail than you can stomach, my mornings usually include feeding our dog, Banjo, making and eating breakfast, downing my first cup of coffee while reading, getting cleaned up for the day, and away I go.  The order in which I do these tasks is now habitual.  I don’t even think about them.  They work for me.  Some habits, however, are not so good.  I have been known on occasion to overeat unhealthy-yet-delicious food when I’m under a lot of stress.  Or find myself getting distracted with “shiny things” when I need to focus.  Or binge Netflix to the neglect of household projects that need to get done.    Some habits are very good and healthy.  Lynne and I take walks pretty frequently – almost daily when the weather is good.  That’s a good habit.  When we walk, we nearly always hold hands, which is good for our relationship in many ways.  All of these are habits that we have intentionally or otherwise cultivated.  Very small things, really, that have their affect on our lives.

Jesus developed habits – some were instilled in him and others he put in place.  Before he began his adult ministry, we read that he “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people” (Luke 2:52 NLT).  Wisdom – he learned.  Stature – he matured. Favor with God – he was in the Spirit’s flow. Favor with people – he was well liked for the best reasons.  In the Letter to the Ephesians regarding roles played in the church, we read that pastors and teachers have the responsibility “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT).  My hope is to help you follow in the footsteps of Jesus, that you would grow in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and all people.  There are lots of things I do as pastor, but this is my highest priority.  There are habits that can be cultivated which will foster such fruit, and one in particular that I want to encourage you to integrate now, or perhaps tweak what you are doing for a six-month experiment (which sounds big, but is actually quite tiny, and may only require a couple of minutes). 

There is one habit in particular that may have more impact than others in creating healthy, vigorous soil which can then allow for healthy growth in terms of your faith development, which is really your life development.  Some of you already do it, some have tried it but don’t anymore, and others have never tried it for some very good reasons.  The one habit I’m talking about is devoting time to cultivate your relationship with God in a very particular way.  It will do much to help you in every aspect of your life, and it will be slightly different than what you’re used to doing.  It will require some tiny habits to be formed.

In what we call the Old Testament we find the story of a young boy named Samuel who was under the care of Israel’s priest, Eli:

     One night, Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the Lord called out, “Samuel!”
     “Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
     “I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go back to bed.” So he did.
     Then the Lord called out again, “Samuel!”
     Again Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
     “I didn’t call you, my son,” Eli said. “Go back to bed.”
     Samuel did not yet know the Lord because he had never had a message from the Lord before. So the Lord called a third time, and once more Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
     Then Eli realized it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So he said to Samuel, “Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went back to bed.
     And the Lord came and called as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”
     And Samuel replied, “Speak, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:2-10 NLT)

I find it incredibly interesting that the words were included, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord because he had never had a message from the Lord before.”  Of course!  This has little to do with Samuel’s level of commitment to God or his giving assent to the Jewish faith.  It has everything to do with the level of familiarity in his relationship with God.  When I first saw Lynne, I was devoted!  But I didn’t know her voice until I spent time with her.  Surely there are voices you hear and within a split second you know who you’re listening too.  Samuel needed to be instructed on how to develop the relationship with God, to learn God’s voice.  God was speaking, but Samuel didn’t know it yet. You cannot recognize the voice if you never know the voice. 

One of the enduring, time-proven methods of learning to recognize God’s voice is through a practice called Lectio Divina, a Benedictine approach to the Bible which translates “Divine Reading.”  I want to encourage you to develop this habit, with a twist.  Normally, this approach avoids academics, and opts for God to speak through the text itself even if what is being received has nothing to do with the text’s original intent.  That’s what I want to tweak just a little bit.

The Apostle Paul told his protégé, Timothy, to keep up the practices which would form his faith:

     But you, Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it. Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived.
     But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. (2 Timothy 3:10-17 NLT)

I am asking you to build a routine of Lectio Divina Plus into your life with the help of tiny habits.  I’m asking you all to read just a portion of scripture together, hopefully every day.  Not a lot – the whole exercise might take as little as 10 minutes (or even two!), yet you might find yourself making room for more.  The text I’d like you to read is the text that I will speak on the following week.  So, for this week, I am asking you to read the first chapter of the Gospel of John every day.  It will take you around six minutes.  Before you read, use Eli’s advised quote, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  Read the text slowly, highlighting what jumps out at you along the way.  After you read it, jot a note about what jumped out at you – not an academic question, but rather what your take-home message might be.  What you are doing is trusting that the Spirit of God is at work in the process, speaking to you through nudges and impressions from the scripture itself.  By the way, I did this my sophomore year in college.  Every day it seemed like something new was jumping out at me.  It works.

Here’s the twist, though.  There is room for study and academics.  At my Wednesday PraXis gatherings, I will share with you key insights from academia that will help you see the text more deeply.  I will also make those notes available online, so if you can’t make it, you still get the goods.  Note: I did my doctoral thesis out of the Gospel of John – I know it pretty well!  We will truly learn from each other on Wednesdays, and your input will shape what I bring back to you on Sundays. 

When you approach the Bible in this way – Lectio Divina first and research second – you get the most bang for your buck.  You’re allowing the Spirit to speak into your life however God wants and needs, and you are also honoring the intent of the author in appreciating what he wrote in context.

To build this routine into your life is going to require messing with current habits.  Here are some quick tips from Atomic Habits to help you get and stay on track.

·       Set the time you are going to do this each day.  According to a research project conducted in Great Britain on the subject of exercise, your likelihood of actually doing this more than doubles simply by writing down when and where you will do this.  This is called implementation intention.  Write down something like this: “I will do Lectio Divina at “X” time daily for at least 10 minutes.” 

·       Stack this habit onto a preexisting habit.  When we attach our desired habit to a preexisting habit, we create a cue to encourage the new one to stick.  For me, attaching Lectio Divina to my first cup of coffee makes the reading even easier, plus, since I love my first cup of coffee, it adds a built-in reward.  Add writing a few notes to the exercise, and you’ve got yourself a nicely stacked set of habits.  It might look like this: pour coffee > Lectio Divina > write down reflections.  You are employing the Diderot Effect.

·       Set your tools out where you’re going to do this to make it easier.  Placing a reminder of what you want to do in plain sight has proven to be incredibly powerful in getting your habit to stick because you’re are reminded of it and you have made it easier to make routine.

James Clear was able to excel in college (and in baseball, too) because he made tiny shifts that allowed bigger changes to take place.  There is no greater resource at your disposal than your life.  Being connected to the very source of our lives and the well from which we draw wisdom will mature us in all the best ways, help us be in lockstep with God, and make a positive impact in the world.  Or we could stick with our current habits and remain unchanged: keep doin’ what you’re doin’ to keep gettin’ what you’re getting’!