Habit Forming - Convocation 2010
Convocation Address: September 3, 2010
Dr. Steven Timmermans
Welcome to a new year at Trinity Christian College. Just as a calendar year begins as the ball drops in New York’s Time Square and your friends and mine commit to new resolutions for a new year, we too should stop and think about our conscious commitments and efforts as we begin this new academic year—a new year for some of you which means a whole new life as a college student.
Think with me of the conscious efforts expended by many as a new year begins: I will lose 20 pounds this year. I will exercise daily before class. I will read through the entire Bible this year. I will achieve a 3.7 cumulative grade point average. The list goes on and on. But notice that in my examples, and if you reflect upon your own examples, these are very conscious efforts—efforts that you and I are fully aware of, efforts for which if we are to be successful, we must remain aware and vigilant of our own selves and our own behaviors.
Contrast that with habits—the things that we do over and over and of which we are often unaware. We just do them without thinking: Washing our hands or cracking our knuckles. Think about the order in which you get dressed each morning. Do you put on your socks before your pants or after your pants? Whether it’s socks before or after donning one’s pants, I suspect that you do it the same way every morning without thinking—in fact, I suspect you’ve not really thought about it until now. It’s a habit.
Habits, though, evolve. Often times, we begin doing something very consciously and deliberately. At some point in my past, I was very deliberate about making time for summer reading. But now it is a habit, as I sit and read in that comfortable fake leather recliner at our cottage.
This summer I had the opportunity to watch a number of people who had to face their habits: those behaviors that probably began some time ago very consciously and deliberately, then became habits for which little or no thought was needed, but then this summer needed to be brought back into their awareness so they could be deliberately changed into new behaviors.
My wife and I were staying in a guest house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were there in the first step of two steps in an adoption process, but the others were there in the last step of their adoption processes. We were there to meet the two boys we are adopting, appear in an Ethiopian court, and return home without them; the others were there to pick up their new children and take them home. So they were staying in the guest house with their new children—living with them for the very first time—getting ready to return to the States in a day or two.
All four sets of parents already had children. In other words, they already had formed their habits of parenting. No matter what your age, if you think just a moment, you can probably identify some of your parents’ habits of parenting: Maybe your father is a worrier: “Call me when you get there. Are you sure you have gas in your tank?” Perhaps your mother has the habit of asking bunches of questions: “Where did you go? Who were you with? Are they a couple?” These are things that your parents do repetitively and unconsciously—it’s automatic for them.
It was clear to me that these parents, albeit parents with new additional children, had already developed their habits of parenting, often seen in differentiation of roles. Each came to Ethiopia with habits already formed: For example, she’s the nurturer; he’s the disciplinarian…or reversed: She’s the disciplinarian and he’s the nurturer.
For one younger couple, their newly adopted two year old made them stop and re-think their patterns or habits of parenting. Ephrem was a cutie. Big, beautiful eyes. High forehead. Great smile. By watching his gross and fine motor skills, they suspected he was about two years old. As the plague of AIDS has taken the lives of millions of parents, so many children have been left orphaned and homeless, a terrible situation even if they themselves have escaped from becoming HIV positive. That’s why I said “they suspected he was about two years old.” There was no birth certificate. There were no surviving parents to tell about the day he was born. There was no baby-book where that date of birth had been recorded. Instead, detective work was needed—clues in behavior have to be identified: Does he walk in a coordinated way? Is he steady? Is he running? And the clues can be confusing, for an upbringing in an orphanage often results with a mixed bag of development milestones, some attained, some not yet attained. Motor skills in tact, language delayed, toilet training not yet accomplished. Yes, it requires careful detective work.
This couple came to Ethiopia with really great parenting skills, skills that no doubt began very deliberately and had since become habits. It was clear that their habits were both to be involved parents, both ready to manage mealtime and post-mealtime clean-up (yes, if you know any two year olds, meal time can require significant clean-up), both ready to change that diaper. However, Ephrem would have none of it. It seemed as if the moment he left that orphanage, he decided he would attach, and attach he did! He grabbed on to his new mother and wouldn’t let go. If she would set him down, he would scream. If she would step out of the room, he’d scream louder. If dad would come into the room, he would scream some more. If dad would take him in his arms, he would scream loudest of all.
All of you budding psychologists—and psychology faculty—are probably already coming up with possible hypotheses for why Ephrem was acting this way. But that’s not where I want to focus. I don’t want to focus on Ephrem. I want to focus on the parents. All of a sudden, they needed to step out of their repetitive, automatic habits of working as a parenting team, and decide how to change their habits of parenting to successfully parent this new child. And they were discouraged. Mom could hardly sneak in a shower. And while Dad kept a smile on his face, clearly that rejection was taking a toll on his psyche. The rest of us inundated them with suggestions: Maybe Dad should just back off and give Ephrem time to bond first with Mom. Maybe they should sit close together so Ephrem could sit on both of their laps simultaneously. Maybe dad should take Ephrem for the day and Mom should disappear.
I don’t know how the story ended. This was just a few weeks ago, and I suspect they are still very conscious of each parenting behavior they make. Old habits have been put aside, and they are probably still trying out new strategies and patterns. Eventually—and for their sakes I pray that it would be soon—their conscious strategies they find effective will become habits, things that they do over and over without thinking—for Ephrem will do best with that kind of consistency.
You’ve not newly arrived in Ethiopia; it’s only Palos Heights. But what about you and this moment in your life? What old habits should you put aside? What new strategies should you try-out and, when effective, become new habits for you?
This morning I’d like to give you two simple suggestions as this new academic year begins, suggestions meant to encourage you to place your current habits consciously in your line of vision and make decisions about re-forming old habits and adopting new ones. One suggestion is about what not to do; the other is what to do. As you might expect, the first is short; the second is longer.
First, what not to do. Don’t race to implement your calling. Let me explain.
Many institutions—both Christian and public—emphasize calling and action.
I checked the websites of some of the high schools from which you new students have come, and I found statements oriented to action…with Christian schools obviously using the language of faith and public schools obviously using the language of a common good. Here are three…some of you will recognize one as that of your high school’s.
We graduate academically capable young people with a comprehensive Christian view of life committed to the challenge of serving God and others. [Illiana Christian]
We seek to enable all individuals to thrive in a diverse learning community, rich in opportunity for growth, and to reflect on challenging, real-life problems in a way that inspires them to prepare for the future and to contribute to our evolving world. [Alan B. Shepard]
Equipping minds and nurturing hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ. [Holland Christian]
For all three, and so many more, the message is serve, contribute, transform. Just do it.
But wait, you’re not quite ready. Most employers want to see that bachelor’s degree, or even master’s degree. Moreover, even if God is calling you to a career of scientific research to stop the scourge of AIDS, it’s going to take some time to invest in this community of Christian scholarship, establishing a line of research that will truly lead to discovery. If God is calling you to the world of commerce, it’s time to dig deep into this learning community and faithfully learn what’s needed in the world of business before establishing your business or climbing the ladder in management. If God is calling you to perform or create acts of restoration on stage or with film, this community of learning will be filled with hours of practice, many auditions, and long nights of editing.
Our short-hand mission statement has two foci, and the order is important: Here we are called to be a community of Christian scholarship committed to shaping lives and transforming culture. Notice, the sequence: First, we are called into a community, then life shaping comes about, and finally culture transforming. You are here today and the days ahead to be members of this community of Christian scholarship so that life shaping will occur; I’ll save my remarks about culture transforming for your graduation ceremony.
We must focus on what comes before your calling to serve, contribute, and transform. Don’t race ahead to begin your calling. Instead, this is time to join in this community and consider your life, your habits. And like new parents, we’ll try to shape you, but you—like Ephrem—come with your individual backgrounds, experiences, your hurts, your highs. Yet unlike two-year-old Ephrem, you are able to see yourself, examine your habits, and consciously adopt new habits.
Note that this is not an encouragement to avoid the Cooper Center and their career counseling. Note that this is not an encouragement to tell the Registrar’s office for the next eight semesters that in that blank where you’re to fill in your major, you write undecided. Rather, this is an appeal: that you take the lead, and we assist, as your conscious efforts become life-time habits.
So, don’t race ahead. This is the time to develop habits; you’ll have a whole lifetime to implement your calling.
Now, second, a suggestion of what you ought to do.
As I just said, our role is assistance, but your role is to take the lead.
As I prepared for this talk, I relied on a book that has become a favorite, Desiring the Kingdom by Jamie Smith and a book I read this summer, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. By N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and a New Testament scholar.
In terms of my second point this morning—what it is you need to do—I’d like to offer two suggestions, taking one idea from each book, the first which explains how the College should assist you and the second which explains your responsibility.
Let me start first with how the College should assist you--in other words, defining the College’s role or responsibility. I’ll use the words of Jamie Smith: “In short, the university is not only, and maybe not even primarily, about knowledge. It is, I suggest, after our imagination, our heart, our desire. It wants to make us into certain kinds of people who desire a certain telos, who are primed to pursue a particular vision of the good life.” (p. 113)
That’s a remarkable statement. That this university or college program of yours is not only and maybe not even primarily about knowledge! What does Smith suggest is the college’s true and proper focus? People shaping or formation. Three clarifying comments about Smith’s statement.
First, I’m afraid that taking this statement of his out of context might lead you to conclude there’s a polarization: that it’s knowledge vs. formation. No. It’s both. And that’s the essence of the community of Christian scholarship that I keep referring to from our shorthand mission statement.
Second, he writes, “to make us into certain kinds of people who desire a certain telos”. Telos—a Greek term which means our end purpose. It’s like the question from the Westminster Catechism, when it says our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. That’s what we aim for.
Third, what does he mean when he says “to pursue a particular vision of the good life?” What does he mean by the good life? Two cars, a house in the suburbs? An iPad and an iPhone? No. He means desiring the kingdom of God. Look at the stained glass windows should you leave by the east doors this morning: it is a picture of God’s kingdom in complete fulfillment. Nothing escapes God’s restoration—the grave is empty, the depths of geological strata, agricultural harvest, the cultural worlds of every tribe and tongue and language—all things and people become a procession of grateful praise and adoration as they process into the city of God. While we are living between the time of Christ’s first coming and his coming again, let that picture be what you desire: A world where there are no orphans, a world where AIDS is defeated, a world where the lion lays down with the lamb, a world where we do not resist God’s adoption of us but live in the habit of his loving embrace. You see, before you--by the power of the Holy Spirit--help to bring about this recreated and restored world, you first have to want it, you have to desire it, it has to be your end purpose.
So, as we teach in Trinity classrooms, residence halls, and service assignments, and you learn in those classrooms, laboratories, dorm basements, field experiences, and spring break trips, our goal is that you would desire, springing from your role and ours in this community of Christian scholarship, that you would desire above all things the fullness of God’s kingdom, here and yet coming. So listen to us and watch us closely, as we seek to cultivate this community of Christian scholarship, planting and nurturing the appropriate desires. May our words and our actions always be kingdom oriented: What does God require of TCC faculty and staff: To live out Micah 6:8: To love mercy, to seek justice, and to walk humbly with our God. If we are living out these habits, we will assist you toward the appropriate kind of habits that create this desire.
That’s what we the faculty and staff are supposed to do. Now, what are you supposed to do? As you participate in this community of Christian scholarship, choose to develop the needed habits as you strive more and more to desire the kingdom. Jamie Smith says it this way: “[that] a desire for and orientation to a particular vision of the good life (the kingdom) becomes operative in us (motivating actions, decisions, etc.) by becoming an integral part of the fabric of our dispositions…. Philosophers…described such dispositions as habits.” (p. 55)
Indeed, it’s about your habits. And our habits flow out of our vision for life. In other words, if you’ve accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, the next step is to start doing the things that are consistent with that. The more you do them, you will form habits. In After You Believe, Wright says it this way: “Character is transformed by three things. First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to take to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature.” (p. 29)
So what are those habits? Of course I’ll name the ones you expect me to name: to pray without ceasing, to read God’s Word faithfully, to worship with other believers, to participate in the sacraments. But if you want to develop habits that flow out of your desire for God’s kingdom, these habits cannot be contained to just personal devotions or Sunday behaviors. Seek habits that live in Christ’s light, not those hidden behaviors that occur late at night in the dark. Romans 12 tells us how to place our lives before God; allow me to read selected verses form Romans 12, using the Message:
1-2 So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. 9-10Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. 11-13Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. 14-16Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody. 17-19Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it." 20-21Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he's thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
I trust you’re beginning to see that if you truly desire to live for Christ, for his kingdom, the habits you need to form are as broad as life itself. My goal here this morning isn’t to prescribe specific behaviors that you must turn into habits. Rather, I hope you’ve come to understand that my goal in this address is simply that you become intentional, aware, and conscious of your need to examine your old habits and to develop new faithful and faith-filled habits. Don’t forget, there’s no need to race toward your calling. Rather, use these college years to dig deeply into this community of Christian scholarship, engaging in behaviors that will soon become habits that flow out of your love for Christ and his kingdom. It is in a community of Christian scholarship, such as what we have at Trinity, where reason and faith can prosper, not land in opposition as is often the case in the secular world—where faith is for Sunday, and reason, the life of the mind, or whatever you call it is for the other days of the week.
College learning and faithful habit forming living are not at odds. In fact, as much as I appreciate the Message’s interpretation of Romans 12, I much prefer Romans 12: 2 from a more traditional version: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. The end result has everything to do with your mind: how you think, the questions you ask, the sources you depend on. If I had a white board behind me, I’d draw a circle: At top, using the numbers of a clock to remain oriented—at 12 noon, setting your goal (or in Jamie Smith’s words, desiring a certain telos); around 4:00 or 5:00 o’clock, consciously choosing faithful behaviors; around 8:00 o’clock, conscious behaviors become Christ-like habits. Moreover, those habits then influence your goals, so maybe at top (12 noon) the words should be renewing your goals. Note, too, that this entire activity could be called mind renewal, and it all takes place—the backdrop or context for the circle—in a community of Christian scholarship. Do you want to better understand this process and the context of a community of Christian scholarship in which it takes place? Go faithfully this fall to chapel on Wednesdays and Fridays where our theme is “Fruitful Study: Deepening, Strengthening, Extending a Community of Christian Scholarship.”
Let me close with my restatement of the Message’s paraphrase of Romans 12:1: So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life at Trinity—your sleeping, eating, learning, studying, and walking-around life—and drinking deeply of the riches of this community of scholarship, form kingdom-worthy habits, and place them before God as an offering.
May God bless each of us in this new year of forming habits.
 Smith, J.A. (2009). Desiring the kingdom: Worship, worldview, and cultural formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
 Wright, N.T. (2010). After you believe: Why Christian character matters. New York: Harper one.