What We Do Shapes Who We Become

I’ve noticed increasingly the past year how the clothing and apparel that people wear, whether it be hats or shirts or footwear, seem to mirror whatever social media is promoting at the time. Have you noticed this phenomenon? I’ve seen targeted ads on Instagram, the only social media I’m still permitting in my life right now and it will seem as if the ads are tailored to you and your preferences, however, before long I start to see those same brands in public on people. I can’t find any of those brands in stores. It seems they are purely, or mostly, online.

I’ve been guilty in seasons of my life, I’ll confess, of picking up clothing items or desiring things purely because other people want them or have said they are cool. Who hasn’t done that or felt that? However, this feels a bit more an invasion of the thought life of individuals to the extent that I believe is gradually eliminating individuality among people who are connected to social media with the exception of the sort of individuality that gets people noticed in order to play into the algorithms to get those on social media more. How do I mean?

Go back 30 years ago and you find yourself in the early 90’s. Alternative grunge rock is a thing. Hip hop is happening with the media spinning an east and west coast rivalry that was more a media spin than an actual thing, we know this now. Kurt Cobain, Tupac, and Christopher George Latore Wallace better known as the Notorious B.I.G. or “Biggie Smalls” were all still alive. The internet was primarily in school offices and making its way to libraries, but personal computers were not common yet. Smart phones didn’t exist and cell phones were rare, and if they existed, wealthy people had them and they could double as a giant projectile weapon. Thinking of the cell phone Zach Morris used in Saved by the Bell. Most people had phones with cords connected to the wall, or perhaps a cordless phone that was convenient but had a strange static that would happen as it picked up other waves. The Gulf War was happening, Operation Desert Storm. News was primarily about things that happened whether locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally. The news were at set times of the day and you had to tune in to those times, adjust your schedule to when the news happened. People regularly got local newspapers and read them in order to be “in the loop.”It was a slower pace of life. When you stood in line somewhere, you didn’t have a phone to look at, you just stood there. I remember as a kid my mom would want to go shopping and take me with her and I would wait for what seemed like forever. In reality, it was probably 1-2 hours, but as a kid time moves slower, whereas, it seems to move at light speed as an adult. If you wanted music, you bought these new things called CDs which were more expensive but sleeker somehow than a cassette tape. And if you wanted music for free, you used a cassette tape to record whatever song you wanted from the radio on your boombox. If you were clever and a young entrepreneur, you sold those mixtapes and created a business. I wasn’t clever, lol.

You get the idea. The 90’s. 30 years ago. It was like a different world. You started school with 2 number 2 pencils and paper, you practiced writing in cursive in school, had Trapper Keepers, were mesmerized by Nintendo but still spent more time outside. People wore all sorts of clothes. You had the plaid shirt, jeans, Airwalks and skater shoes, grunge look. You had people with Fubu shirts and Jnco jeans. You had people just doing their own thing. I’m an outdoorsy person and use my Instagram account to post photos typically of various adventures whether hiking or visiting the coast for a surf. Many of my friends and connections aside from people I’v met in places I’ve lived are likewise connected to outdoor sports. So, when I open Instagram, I’ve been tempted to look at and buy targeted products like Forsake shoes/boots, Topo Design shirts, LEMS shoes, and various random adventure themed hats and apparel bits. I’ve exercised restraint and not purchased anything from Instagram nor purchased things their algorithm has suggested. However, I’ve noticed where I work that people regularly are walking in with Forsake and LEMS shoes, Topo Design shirts, and those exact random hats that were marketed to me on Instagram. Every single person I’ve asked about their products out of curiosity has shared they were browsing on social media and made a purchase from social media.

My concern is not that people are buying the same things or buying from social media necessarily, but how perhaps the motive in browsing and purchasing for one, and also the algorithms tapping into preferences and at times steering preferences and manipulating them could be both creating a public pseudo personality much like social media profiles but in real life, and that that frenetic activity could be distracting us from what is really going on inside us and from God. We busy our lives with things that feel relevant and important, but are we really busy or do we spend a lot of time doing unnecessary things? It is one thing to be busy taking your child to the doctor and another to lose 2-4hrs a day on your smartphone or streaming device.

My concern is that more often than not, we do things because we can, but we sometimes fail to ask whether we should? If it is good for us? What are the consequences of how we spend and use our time? How are the things that vie for and populate our attention spans and spending habits forming us as human beings?

It has become commonplace in Christian and religious circles to discuss discipleship. Sometimes, these terms have been used so frequently that somehow they can lose their meaning or their meaning can be confused with other things. In some churches today, discipleship is reading a book, possibly with a group who are also reading that book, then talking about it once a week with snacks. What is a disciple? According to the Bible, it is simply someone who follows Jesus and not simply follows from one place to the next, but someone who follows in the sense of an apprentice as someone might apprentice under an experienced electrician or carpenter or welder in order to learn a trade and learn it well, in order to do that same trade themselves. This is what it means to follow Jesus and that is why we see the disciples Jesus has called, who have responded to Jesus’ call to follow him, being with Jesus, learning from him, becoming like him over time in some ways, and being sent out to do the things that Jesus did. That’s what the Bible reveals is being a disciple or follower of Jesus. Reading a book and talking about it might satisfy an intellectual craving, and provide good content, but isn’t discipleship.

The reality is that what we do, what we posture ourselves, our lives around, shapes and transforms us. In reality, everyone is a disciple of something or someone, the question is, what?

You’ve heard the phrase, “You are what you eat”? Well, “we become what we spend our time primarily doing.”

If we spend our time streaming hours of Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime every day, we will be shaped and molded by the type of entertainment that we watch as our brains are literally rewired to accommodate what we consume or rather what consumes us. It’s like in hiking when you hike a trail through some tall grass. At first, there isn’t much of a trail, just tall grass, but over time upon repeated excursions of that same trail perhaps by many people the grass lays flat where people have tread the same ground over and over and over again, forming a path. It becomes easier over time to find the trail and to travel a trail that is well-traveled. The same is true with our brains. What we do shapes us and our neural pathways in our brains like trails are formed. Some habits can become very easy to do, so easy we might not realize they are habits at all and they become very difficult to break.

It’s because what we do shapes us, whether we follow Jesus or not. It’s a human thing, not explicitly a Christian/religious thing.

This is problematic for a number of reasons, but one can begin to see why a 1 hour talk on Sunday is insufficient for remedying a week and perhaps months and years or unhealthy habits that have formed in a life.

Increasingly, being a Christian is about living in quiet, subtle resistance to the flow of the culture in which we inhabit.

We need to be mindful of the ways in which we might be malformed as followers of Jesus in ways of living and bits of daily life that our culture finds normal, common, acceptable. If these things fail to shape us into becoming more life Jesus, then we need to audit our lives and decide what is healthy for our life with Jesus and what helps to enable further growth in love for Him and others, and what hinders that? Like pruning a plant, as we are all pruned as followers of Jesus whether we desire it or not by the Master Gardener, we can also seek to posture our lives as we are able to more closely align ourselves for healthy growth in a life with Jesus. Simple questions such as, “What am I doing to cultivate a life with Jesus?” “Am I spending time with Jesus?” “How do I spend time with Jesus?” “How can I tweak my schedule, adjust the ways my life might be leading me down a trail that doesn’t lead to becoming more like Jesus?”

Then, it amounts to deciding on a course of action and following through with it. If I can share one personal example, I commute into the city a ways for worship with my church family every Sunday. As I live a bit outside the city, I am unable to get connected with the Community Groups during the week. I have inquired about getting connected more but it isn’t possible unless I move into the city. I’ve even inquired about starting my own where I live in a more mountainous, beautiful area. Anyway, I’ve felt for a long time that the technology we’ve all become familiar with during the early part of the pandemic could be leveraged on a regular basis in healthy, needed ways to help with community. I sensed this past Sunday that while I’ve considered this for some time, I needed to follow through with it. So, I had one friend from seminary in mind and another friend I’ve connected with back in New England come to mind. I reached out to both about meeting once a month over a Zoom meeting to share life together, encourage one another, pray for one another. I’ve had many spiritual practices/disciplines that I do regularly to help me grow as a follower of Jesus, and I’ve become increasingly aware of the effects of modern tech on our relationship to Jesus and to others, but I haven’t cultivated much of a community apart from Sunday and apart from people with outdoor sport interests where I live. This would be a greater, more intimate community of accountability. We’re going to start meeting once a month. One friend lives in the Bay area in California and another in southern Maine, an hour or so north of Boston, and I live in the Pacific Northwest.

Think of your schedule and what you do as a trellis for a plant, the plant being your heart and life with Jesus. How is that trellis helping you or hindering you from growing in healthy ways to be more like Jesus and to do what Jesus did in your life? Is it time for a needed change? Like working out, it takes a couple weeks to form the habit and make it routine. Whatever you do, stick with it. You might not notice a change immediately, that’s okay. This following Jesus thing isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pruning and new healthy practices can feel at first like hills in the race, but can become great sources of strength in the long haul.

Psalm 63

“A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;

my soul thirsts for you;

my flesh faints for you,

as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,

beholding your power and glory.

Because your steadfast love is better than life,

my lips will praise you.

So I will bless you as long as I live;

in your name I will lift up my hands.

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,

and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,

 when I remember you upon my bed,

and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

for you have been my help,

and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;

your right hand upholds me.

But those who seek to destroy my life

shall go down into the depths of the earth;

they shall be given over to the power of the sword;

they shall be a portion for jackals.

But the king shall rejoice in God;

all who swear by him shall exult,

for the mouths of liars will be stopped.”

Sunday morning I woke up, began the day with two types of prayer. First, I begin each day with thinking of a part of a verse and sometimes a line from a song, and I just pray and meditate on that before I open my eyes. Then, after taking some time in silent prayer, I pray the Lord’s Prayer which is the morning portion of my Daily Office. My church is doing a churchwide emphasis on the Daily Office which are scheduled times of the day for specific types of prayer. Everyone in the church is praying the same types of prayers morning, afternoon, and evening, though in different locations. After I begin the day with those prayers, I do my morning pushup routine, get cleaned up and ready for the day in silence, and relocated from my bedroom upstairs where I sit-down to have my morning devotional reading. It is only after my devotional that I make my morning pourover coffee and have breakfast. I also don’t check my phone until after my morning devotional in the mornings so that I begin each day off the phone, I also make a point to be off my phone for some time before I end each day. Typically, I use Explore by The Good Book Company for my morning devotional readings. It’s great. However, I failed to realize in the busyness of the last 2 months of last year that my subscription had expired. So, I didn’t receive my next quarterly copy before the last one ended which means I began the year without the current Explore devotional which could throw off my morning devotional routine and has in the past when I’ve gone without a new quarterly issue for a length of time. However, the routine is kind of baked into me at this point and there are other tools and resources to keep it going. I’ve used the Lectio 365 app which is morning prayer and Scripture reading woven together. The downside is I have to turn my phone on and look at my phone in order to do that. Alternatively, I have a number of other reading resources and little devotionals tools I could use, but there is something refreshing about simply opening the Bible and reading and meditating on Scripture. Explore typically goes through certain books of the Bible, but breaks it up quarterly and weekly it is broken up by Psalm readings on Sundays. So, it made sense to me to simply turn to a psalm and read it for my morning devotional this Sunday. I just kind of turned to Psalm 63 and began to read it slowly. I paused after and meditated on it, then I read it again and contemplated it before saying a prayer. I prayed that God would give me a greater sense of the joy of his presence in my life.

Then, I closed my Bible and began to heat my kettle and prepare breakfast, and I often enjoy listening to a podcast, often a sermon, during that time. I listened to a teaching by John Mark Comer from his podcast of the same name as the logo featured showing a new episode to listen to when I opened the app. So, I pressed play. The episode was on the subject of joy. He referenced Psalm 63 and having a thirst and hunger for God. In such close proximity to my prayer for joy of God’s presence, it felt like a direct answer to prayer. Sometimes, God answers prayers years or months later, other times, and on rare occasion in my life, he can answer prayer immediately. I didn’t listen to the whole teaching but got in the car to begin my commute into the city for Sunday worship with my church, Bridgetown Church in Portland. It’s an hour commute from where I live, in the Gorge east of the city, so I often listen to a podcast, music, or simply call and connect with family on the drive. I hadn’t listened to Tim Keller in awhile and he’s been one of my favorite preachers to listen to. I opened up his podcast, scrolled down a few episodes to one titled, “Discipline of Desire.” I didn’t know what the passage was it was based on, but it sounded interesting. As it began to play and they began the message with the Scripture reading, they read Psalm 63, and yet again, I had this strange feeling like God was answering my prayer rather quickly. Sometimes, it feels like you have to strain to hear God in the world and other times, it can feel like God is talking to you with a megaphone. This was one of those megaphone moments.

While he said many great things in his message and I definitely recommend it, two big takeaways I’d like to share are that a sense of feeling distant from God, as David expressed in the psalm, is actually a sign not of God’s absence, but of God’s presence for we could not sense God’s being distant and desire to be nearer to God than we are without a prompting inwardly by God to do so. This is a simply truth, but an encouraging one that I needed to be reminded of. David wrote Psalm 63 while he was in the wilderness, and I have felt that much of life in the past few years hav been in the wilderness. I’ve written about that previously, and how the wilderness can form and shape us through increased dependence upon God and absence of other things that can distract us. The other takeaway from Keller’s message that resonated with me was his introduction, where he shared how often when we get a new piece of furniture or something, it often comes in a box with a picture of it completely assembled but inside there is an assortment of parts with a book of instructions which painstakingly go through tedious step-by-step what is required to get from parts to fully assembled whole. One can look at a screw and a bracket and wonder how one could ever get to the end of that picture on the cover of the box from that step. He analogized how we often do the same thing with our lives with Jesus and discipleship. How we often seen a piece, and we are given a vision of the complete picture near the end of the Bible, yet, we live in the tedious step-by-step instructions in our daily lives. We lose sight of what the Big Picture is when we focus too much on each individual part. We need to look at the picture at times to get a sense that, “this is where we’re going,” “this is where I’m headed,” or “this is what I’m doing.” We don’t need the Big Picture or the little details, we need both, the tedious steps and the picture on the box, as we seek to follow the way of Jesus in our lives.

Great message by Tim Keller and it was a strange coincidence again, it seemed, that Psalm 63 showed up with again, an emphasis on hungering and thirsting for God. When I arrived at Bridgetown Church and after the early parts of the worship service, I learned in the current teaching series we’re going through that the message for Sunday was based on Jesus saying in John 6:35,

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

In the midst of this season of my life, when honestly there has been so much up in the air, so much uncertain, such an absence of things that I enjoy, such an absence of people I love in my life near me during this season, and a feeling that while I have been sensing a greater emphasis in my life on intentionally practicing spiritual practices regularly and ordering each day so that I can posture myself before God, I have simultaneously felt that God has been distant from my life. Every day I have opened my eyes and prayed that God would provide me with a greater sense of joy of his presence in my life, and yet, I have felt isolated and alone more often than not. I don’t know what was different about this Sunday and I apologize as this blog post feels a bit more like a journal entry than my usual posts, but this past Sunday was different and I feel that sharing about this experience can in some way help someone out there who may be or have faced similar experiences. This past Sunday I prayed and it felt resoundingly clear that not only was God listening, but that God was responding, comforting, reassuring me of his presence in my life, reminding me that while I might think of myself and think only of all the flaws, God sees those flaws and loves me nonetheless. David in Psalm 63 goes onto say that the steadfast love of God is better than life and he remembers the times that God has protected and provided for him and it puts him in a state of praising God.

What does it mean to say that the steadfast love of God is better than life? First, steadfast means that it is constant, continuous, it doesn’t stop or as the song goes, it’s reckless and relentless. God is faithful. Always. It is God’s character and God doesn’t change. God doesn’t fail. God is love. What does that make you think of when I say that? What Scripture comes to mind when I mention those things, if any? Those are our own reminders about who God is in our life and the prompting to remember and bring those memories to bear on our present circumstance is the prompting of God the Holy Spirit within us. We can’t naturally desire God for God’s own sake. We may like many in the gospels want God to do something for us. That is common in prayers by people who don’t believe in God at all who will when something bad happens against their own instincts turn to God and try to make a deal with God if God does ‘X’-thing or bargain. Even Christians will pray prayers of petition in this way. “God, give me this job,” “God, give me this raise,” “God, give me this jackpot with this lotto ticket,” “God, just do this for me and I’ll do whatever you want.” It’s not sinful to pray a prayer of petition and it’s not bad to pray for things in our lives, however, who are we to bargain with God? You see, sometimes, we an value and prize the things that God can provide over God, and this can lead us to treat God like a heavenly vending machine or like a Zoltar from the movie Big with Tom Hanks. We pop in a quarter (say a quick pray request) and God will give us what we want (like a genie). While God might give us what we ask, it is more likely that as we pray steadfastly that God will give us what we need. The steadfast love of God is better than life is to say that God who is love is better than life. It is the realization, by David, but also by ourselves at times, that while we have many things in life and many reasons to be grateful, God is the source of all we have and all we are and without God we could truly do nothing.

David saying the steadfast love of God is better than life is him saying that while he could certainly ask for many things in the wilderness he was inhabiting with it’s many dangers and absence of many necessities, all he really needs is God. No doubt, in the wilderness, if someone offered David some water, he would likely drink it, gladly, but David would say as water is life in the wilderness that the steadfast love of God, which is also to say the care, protection, provision of God, is even better. Even if God provides the water, the steadfast love of God which provided that water is better than the water itself. Water will sustain and quench thirst for a moment, but there is more to life than that water. Often, we can become fixated on something in our lives, and become frustrated when we can’t have it or possibly get the thing we’ve wanted and been fixated on only to find ourselves eventually dissatisfied and wanting something else. Why is this? It’s because God created eternity in our hearts so that what we can enjoy is always limited and our desire never ends, because they were intended to be as signs to the only thing and only one who can satisfy the deepest desire of our hearts and fulfill our longings for joy in our lives – and that is God. This realization is what it means when David says the steadfast love of God is better than life. He acknowledges that God is his joy and God is his desire. The fullness of joy is found in God alone and all of our desires point to the only one who can perfectly fulfill and quench that desire because he himself is infinite, and that is God.

So, our hunger and thirst as in a dry and weary land is intended to point us through learned dependence in the wilderness and the absence of things that God alone can satisfy our deepest longings, and we were made to hunger and thirst for God. The reason fasting has been an ancient spiritual discipline in the Christian life is because it is through fasting that we can experience the absence of things we need along with the absence of things that we may want in order to exercise control over our desires and direct the energy of our desire through the pains of hunger and thirst toward God. It is a way of viewing our spiritual lives holistically by using our bodies to train our hearts and minds, quite the opposite of so many emphases in the Western world which trains the mind in hopes that our bodies and hearts will follow suit. Jesus said in John 6:35 that he is the bread of life, whoever comes to him will not hunger and whoever believes in him will never thirst.

I needed these reminders this Sunday. So often life gets in the way of our experiencing the presence of God in our lives, but if we seek God first, God will remind us that he isn’t distant or removed even though it might feel that way at times. Trusting God beyond our feelings is difficult, but it is rewarding – infinitely so.

What is more ironic, yet? After beginning this post, I ended the first part with the section that precedes this and I listened to a couple more messages from different podcasts. Neither podcast had the Scripture passage in the title, so I had no way of knowing that they would be on the same passage that it seems God has been hammering into my mind all within the span of a few days. I sometimes listen to the Church of the City NY podcast because I enjoy Jon Tyson’s preaching and I sometimes will listen to Reality SF church’s podcast because I enjoy listening to both Dave Lomas and Ruthie Kim. Both messages were on Psalm 63. And this is a prime example of a moment when my experience of being a more Reformed-leaning Baptist in the past, not believing charismatic gifts and miracles to the extent that happen in Scripture happen today (Cessationism), and my present simply Christian theology with an openness to charismatic gifts in light of my belief in the authority of Scripture and not finding clear passages that prohibit gifts for today clash as 1-2 instances of studies on Psalm 63 would be a coincidence, but 5-6 back-to-back within a short span of days feels like more. How to reconcile that? Well, it isn’t a coincidence, it’s providence. I believe God ordained these events in such a way that I would for whatever reason contemplate and meditate intentionally on Psalm 63. Could God be trying to say that I am in that wilderness with David and God is teaching me to hunger and thirst for him? Possibly. Could God be trying to tach me something else? Possibly. The truth is we don’t always have all the answers as we cannot see clearly in front of us in life. We like to think we know what to expect and what will happen, but we truly don’t. Our lives are like those super foggy days which we had many on the coast in southern Maine and we have them at times here in the northwest. You can see directly in front of you, and beyond that you can make a few things out maybe, and beyond that there’s something there but you don’t know what, and beyond that it is simply fog. You know something is there, but you cannot see what it is. So it is with our lives. We don’t know what the future holds and we don’t always know the best direction to go. What we can know or rather who we can know is God. The Israelites had a pillar of cloud and fire to lead them through the wilderness and help them to see where to go in the dark while leaving Egypt and that same pillar of cloud and fire protected them when the Egyptians pursued them. We can’t see where we’re going or necessarily where God is leading us, but we can look to posture ourselves, and trust God to get us there and trust that God can see for us. It is in seasons of waiting when we are forced to realize that against our own judgment, we are not in control of our lives, and the crossroads which can feel like a million directions at once is really only 2 directions: 1) the direction of our circumstances dictating our lives, 2) the direction toward God and trusting the direction he leads us through/to.

God isn’t a means to an end. God is our end. The call of the Christian is to live ones life with eyes fixed on Jesus no matter the circumstances which in turn should lead us to love others and love God through whatever circumstance or direction our lives may lead.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV)”