January Growth Exercises

Socrates declared at least 400 years before Christ, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Although it’s unlikely he was setting out to make a theological statement, there is plenty of biblical evidence to suggest that he was on to something. It may not be said in exactly those terms, but many of the Psalms, Proverbs, letters and examples in Scripture extol the benefits of self-evaluation. Why then do we do so little of it?

An overview of Growth Exercises

Socrates declared at least 400 years before Christ, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Although it’s unlikely he was setting out to make a theological statement, there is plenty of biblical evidence to suggest that he was on to something. It may not be said in exactly those terms, but many of the Psalms, Proverbs, letters and examples in Scripture extol the benefits of self-evaluation. Why then do we do so little of it?

We are all creatures of habit. We prefer to live with some level of routine than with absolute chaos. We follow patterns; we build structure; we create shorter-term rituals and longer-term traditions. We live by rhythms. Unfortunately, however, we seldom make a habit of examining our habits. Our schedules, our routines and our habits are for the most part passively acquired. We work “X” number of hours because our job (or our debt!) demands that we do. We commute for as long as is required to make those work hours happen. We gather in groups as our beliefs and pastimes require.

We catch up with friends and family when we want to, remember to, or have to—depending on the enjoyment we derive from their company. In the time left over we squeeze in our shopping, our eating, our banking, our cleaning, our mowing, our sleeping, etc. With all of this going on, it is not surprising that most of our decisions are reactive rather than proactive.

It’s not that we avoid decisions, we just make most of them on the fly. They lack intentionality. The resulting problem is that, for many of us, how we live our day-to-day lives has little connection to what we think life is actually all about. As John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy” warned us: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  

This week, at the start of a new year, we want to encourage you to pause and ask: “What sort of life do I want to be living?” and therefore, “What do I want the rhythms and habits of my life to look like?” Chances are that we haven’t considered these sorts of questions for a while, if ever. Disturbingly, our answers may look quite different from our current trajectory of activity.  

We’re not talking here about hyped-up goal setting—although we are going to recommend some appropriate commitments to changing or creating new habits. The Growing Disciples course is more interested in how well we know and imitate Christ—and how well our actual day-to-day practices fit with this vision of what life is about.

These Growth Exercises are intended to open up new ways of embracing this life of following Jesus Christ. Chris Webb from Renovare—an organisation that works to help Christians live more intentional lives—suggests our daily practices not only reflect our vision of life, they can change it. “We make some choices because of who we are, but others because of who we wish to become.” Our hope is that the simple suggestions and discussions to come will assist you in building some intentionality and faithfulness into your own rhythms of life.  

Week One: Getting Organised

In this first week of the New Year, our first exercise is go out and buy ourselves a Journal– a personal note book that we are going to use throughout the course. If you wish, your journal may be as simple as a Word document on your computer. Or perhaps you prefer a leather-bound folio, elegantly lettered with a quill. Whatever your choice, get a Journal.  Next, find a quiet and comfortable spot where you can think, pray and write.

Declare this to be “Home Base”, the place where you will regularly sit and engage in this Growing Disciples course. Sometime this week, sitting at Home Base, jot a few notes to yourself about the key questions raised here: ∙“What sort of life do I want to be living?” ∙“What do I want the rhythms and habits of my life to look like?” ∙What, or like whom, do I want to become? Happy New Year!—Here’s to examined lives that are worth living!  

Week Two: Introducing some intentionality

Last week, we introduced some rather important questions: What sort of life do I want to be living? What habits would you like to build? What, or like whom, do I want to become? We were invited to jot a few notes to ourselves about them. This week we are NOT going to come up with definitive responses, which might easily be shallow answers and ill-considered.  Instead, this week is set aside for reviewing 2022.

How did you spend your time? What were the important moments? Flick back over last year’s diary (in whatever form you keep track of what you are supposed to be doing). Notice how you spent much of your time. Resist the temptation to go back and fix things or complete things you missed! This is a review– just notice where you spent your time. If you don’t have a diary of any kind, get one. Your friends can thank me later.

Which relationships do you think you invested most into this past year? Did some slip away unintentionally? Which relationships enriched your relationship with God? Next, do a quick financial review. Where did you spend your money last year? You might have clever bank statements that analyse your spending by categories. Take the time to figure out what priorities your financial spending patterns suggest. These simple assessments of the way you prioritised your time, money and passion. See if you can think of other ways to objectively look at how you are currently living your life.  

In this second week of the month, try to find three separate occasions when you can spend 15 minutes reflecting prayerfully on your responses to these questions.

Week Three: A ‘Regula Vitae’

In his essay, “We Live by Rhythms“ , Chris Webb explains that most of us would benefit from the Christian tradition of intentionally structuring our lives through a Regula Vitae—a “Rule of Life.” Don’t panic, this is not a legalistic set of rules to follow.

Rather, it’s an invitation to write down some of your thoughts and responses to the questions you have been thinking about already this month.  Regula was the Latin word for a length of wood with markings, used for measuring and alignment—similar to our present-day workshop rulers. We hold things against a ruler to see if they are straight and if their proportions and measurements are right. In the same way a Regula Vitae—a “Rule of Life”—is an opportunity for us to mark out some of our intentions in advance and then to regularly hold it up to our life and see how our alignment and proportions are fairing.

When we align our habits with our faith, we become people who actually love God and our neighbour– as opposed to just knowing about them. The importance of planning and reflecting on the patterns and rhythms of our lives has been long established by Christians of all kinds– even St. Anthony of Egypt. Some patterns are weekly (sabbath, church, etc), some patterns are monthly (e.g., giving from our pay-cheque) and some patterns are seasonal, as we go through different seasons of life. For further reading about fruitfully navigating the different seasons of life, I warmly recommend Mark Buchanan’s Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul.

This week, take time to write some preliminary thoughts in response to the three questions posed in week 1. Without committing yourself to anything at this stage, what worthwhile things might you commit yourself to this year? As you journal on this theme, try to describe what such a commitment would look like for you, and how it might benefit your relationship with Jesus Christ? Some further thoughts on establishing a Regula Vitae for yourself:

The Common Rule

The Common Rule For Centuries Christians have known the power of habits, patterns and structure for living well. The following excerpts (in italics) from The Common Rule, by Justin Whitmel, might be helpful for you to consider as you start to form up your own Regula Vitae. Our lives are formed and governed by a myriad of habits and rituals– daily, weekly, annual– which lie unexamined beneath the surface of our lives. It’s just how we are: some habits are good and some are bad. “… the most alarming part of this is not our bad habits, which we tend to know about. It’s our collective assimilation, which is invisible to us.

We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve Page ​3 of ​​5
 assimilated to a hidden rule of life: the American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life.” (insert your own thoughts about what might constitute a contemporary Australian life!)

And so we would do well to intentionally craft our own Rule of Life. “What’s a rule of life?” I now know that a “rule of life” is a term for a pattern of communal habits for formation. The most well-known rules of life were originally developed by church fathers and ancient monastics, such as St. Augustine or St. Benedict. But for thousands of years, spiritual communities have been using the frame of the rule of life as a mechanism of communal formation. Despite our understanding of the word “rule,” a “rule of life” is much less about obeying rules than it is about finding communal purpose.

For example, while both St. Augustine’s and St. Benedict’s rule have all kinds of tiny habits that we might either consider too inane to matter or too strict to be appropriate, we should notice that both of them had the same goal in mind: love. Both were obsessed with taking the small patterns of life and organizing them towards the big goal of life: to love God and neighbour. St. Augustine’s rule began with this sentence:

“Before all things, most dear brothers, we must love God and after Him our neighbor; for these are the principal commands which have been given to us.” St. Benedict’s rule opens declaring that it means to establish “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome,” but goes on to describe walking in God’s commandments as being in the “ineffable sweetness of love.” Both saw habits as the gears by which to direct life toward the purpose of love. In fact, the word rule is used because it comes from the Latin word regula, a word associated with a bar or trellis, the woodwork on which a plant grows.

The idea is that we (like plants) are always growing and changing. But when there is no order, growth can take something that was supposed to produce fruit and turn it into a twisted vine of decay.
… Let us see that habits shape the heart. Let us stop fearing that limits are a threat to our freedom.

Let us see that the right limitations are the way to the good life. Let us build a trellis for love to grow on. Let us craft a common rule of life for our time, one that will unite our heads and our habits, growing us into the lovers of God and neighbor we were created to be.

Week Four: Writing your Regula Vitae (Rule of Life)

Now the fun part! By now, all of the usual “New Year’s Resolutions” have faded away. This is different. This week we are recommending that you write out your own ‘Rule of Life’. Get our your Journal, sit at ‘Home Base’, pray and begin! Don’t feel overwhelmed. If you’re struggling to begin, write down 3 or 4 guiding principles for your year.

What do you want to prioritise? A common mistake with a Rule of Life is to aim too high, to include too many areas, and then to set unrealistic expectations in each area. This is not supposed to be your description of a perfectly pious life. This is meant to be a way to help you start examining your life and reflecting on it.

What do you really want to focus on this year? Once you’ve got something written down (you might polish it up a few times over the week), consider whether there is someone you might like to share this with. Perhaps you could invite them, from time to time, to ask you how you’re going? Page ​4 of ​​5  Remember, don’t write too much—leave some room for improvement next year!
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