Small Habits, Big Benefits
By Lynne M. Baab
Published in Discipleship Journal, Fall, 2008. Pages 27-29.
My husband, Dave, is very faithful at having a quiet time almost every morning. He has an additional practice that flows out of his quiet time. He picks a verse from the passage he is studying and copies it into his day planner. Every time he has to stand in line somewhere or wait for an elevator, he opens his day planner and works on memorizing the verse. As soon as he has finished memorizing that verse, he writes another one in his planner and begins to learn it. He has memorized an amazing number of verses that way.
Dave always viewed this practice as a small habit, not really worthy of mention. He met Marcie, a homemaker, at a seminar on spiritual disciplines where the participants discussed everyday habits that help them draw near to God. At the seminar, Marcie shared about her everyday practice as well.
Most mornings, Marcie prays for her husband and children as they leave the house for work and school. As the children come and go in the afternoon, she does the same. As each one departs, she likes to put her hand on the door after she closes it. She pauses and says a brief prayer, asking God to protect and bless the person who has just left. If she knows about particular events coming up for each one, she prays a specific prayer for that situation.
As Marcie and Dave discussed these practices at that seminar on spiritual disciplines, they began to see the significance of everyday practices that help us draw near to God in the routine places of daily life. These small disciplines help us remember that God is with us everywhere – in the car, at work, at the kitchen sink, in the hallway waiting for an elevator – and that we can draw near to God in every setting of our lives. They also help us remember and experience that our whole lives belong to God.
In one short section of Colossians 3, we see several exhortations about how to live as a Christian. Small, everyday disciplines can help us incorporate these new actions and attitudes into our lives.
Colossians 3:15 begins with an exhortation about peace:
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” (verse 15a).
Small routines can help us experience and live in the peace of Christ.
Household tasks involving water are excellent opportunities to imagine God’s peace like a river flowing through our lives (Isaiah 48:18 and 66:12). A woman who attended the seminar with Dave and Marcie said she particularly enjoys summer, when she has to water her outdoor plants every day, because that daily encounter with running water reminds her of God’s peace in her life. Others at the seminar said they use the daily discipline of washing dishes to pause and remember God’s peace like a river, imagining their cares and worries washing away just like the food washes off the plates. Even a daily shower can be a moment to rest in God’s peace like running water, washing off the preoccupations of the day.
For more than a decade I have tried to stop and remember God in those moments in life when I have to wait – in lines at the bank or supermarket, at stop lights, and when my computer takes some time to complete a task. I try to take a few deep breaths, remembering Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being.” I imagine myself breathing my worries out into God’s presence, and I imagine myself breathing in God’s love. I’ve done that exercise so many times that now all it takes is a couple of deep breaths for me to feel more peaceful, rooted in Christ’s love and care for me.
The ancient Jesus prayer has also helped me draw near to Christ in those moments when I have to wait for something. The words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” are based on Luke 18:13, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. They have been prayed for centuries. I pray each phrase with a breath in or out. These prayers help me in several ways. They remind me of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God in our lives. They minister to my soul and spirit by enabling me to entrust my life into God’s care, which helps me rest in God’s peace. They also minister to me physiologically. Focusing on my breath usually slows down my breathing, which has the effect of slowing down all my bodily functions, an additional way to experience for a few moments the peace that comes from God, the One who gives us breath.
In Colossians 3:15-17, the Apostle Paul mentions thankfulness three times. After the exhortation about letting Christ’s peace rule in our hearts, he adds, “And be thankful.” He encourages us to let God’s word dwell among us and sing “with gratitude in your hearts to God.” And he says to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, “giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
About a dozen years ago my husband and I began a regular discipline of thankfulness that has changed our lives. At that time the two of us, as well as our children, were in the midst of a number of difficult situations, and we began to notice that our prayer time together as a couple at bedtime consisted of a long list of needs, wants, and complaints. We decided that when we prayed together at night, we would begin with thankfulness.
We found it difficult at first. Sometimes all we could think of was, “Thank you we had food on the table today.” As the months went on, we got better at noticing things to be thankful for. As the years went by, the thankfulness prayers we prayed together spilled over into our own personal prayers and into prayer times in groups we led. Now, years later, I can’t imagine praying alone or with others without spending some time thanking God. I’m much more able to notice the good things in my life that God has given me. That discipline of thankfulness has trained me to see God’s gifts.
Thankfulness enables us to notice, and thankfulness requires noticing. Many small habits can help us pay attention to God’s gifts. After I take a couple deep breaths when I’m standing in line at the supermarket and try to rest in God’s peace, I try to look around and pay attention to where I am. There are so many fascinating colors to notice. The vegetables and fruits I’m purchasing were made by God and are so beautiful. The people around me are beloved by God, as I am. Noticing all of those details helps me thank God in that moment.
Pausing to listen to the sound of a bird can help us notice our surroundings so we can thank God for the beauty of creation. Stopping to put a hand on a child’s or friend’s shoulder can help us remember to thank God for that unique person. Opening the mail, getting the newspaper, unpacking the groceries, or driving out of the driveway are only a few of the many daily activities that could, with some intentional effort, be linked to thankfulness.
Dwelling in God’s Word
Verse 16 of Colossians 3 focuses on the Scriptures:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”
Many everyday practices can help us keep God’s word front and center in our lives.
A friend of mine, Penny, keeps a small Bible on a shelf beside the kitchen sink. She uses a book stand to keep the Bible open. She reads a verse or two while she washes dishes, and in those moments when she has to look at the dishes rather than the Bible, she thinks about the verse she has just read. This habit nurtured Penny’s relationship with God through her busy years with young children, when it seemed like sitting down for 15 minutes with the Bible was an impossible achievement.
When I have led seminars on spiritual disciplines, participants have told me many creative ways they bring the Bible into everyday life. Some people watch for a verse that jumps out at them or seems significant from the sermon or the Bible readings at church, and write it in a day planner or Blackberry to refer to all week. One man told me that he writes a verse on a small piece of paper and tapes it to the mirror in the bathroom so he can meditate on it while shaving. Others told me they tape Scripture verses on the refrigerator or by a work space, use a verse as a screensaver on their computers, or choose a word from a favorite verse to use as a computer password. Quite a few people have told me they play scripture-based praise songs in the car in order to memorize passages from the Bible or listen to the Bible on tape or CD while commuting.
With small electronic Bibles becoming more common, it is easy to carry the Bible in a purse or briefcase. The challenge is to find daily activities that create some moments to look at a passage or a verse. We can look around our dwelling places – home, office, and car – and find creative places and times to look at or listen to verses from God’s Word.
God’s Chosen People
The key element with these everyday spiritual disciplines is to link them to repetitive events in our everyday lives. Throughout Jewish and Christian history, people have prayed when they wake up in the morning, when they go to bed at night, and when they sit down to eat. For much of history, these five prayer times were built into daily life, and they are still great times to engage in prayer or reflect on the scriptures. In addition, we can tie prayer, scripture, and resting in God to other events that happen over and over.
John, a member of my extended family, has a long commute to work, and he listens to books on tape to help the drive time pass quickly. Each morning, when he reaches the quiet streets of the last ten minutes of his commute, he turns off the tape and spends some time in prayer. He prays for the clients he will see that day, asking God to help him serve them faithfully. He prays for his family members and friends.
John has linked this daily prayer time to a particular place in his commute, in the same way that others have linked spiritual practices to daily activities like washing dishes, watering plants, shaving, waiting in line, sending off children, and logging onto the computer. These small disciplines help us remember and experience the wonderful truth that God is present even in those moments that don’t seem significant or special, and they can help us “pray continually” (I Thessalonians 5:17). These everyday disciplines help us live in the reality that our entire lives belong to God, and they help us grow in surrendering every part of our lives into God’s hands.
Each of us has actions that we repeat day after day. We can think creatively about how to link some of those actions to a practice or habit of intercessory prayer, thankfulness, reflection on Scripture or experience of God’s peace.
These “small” everyday spiritual disciplines can have a large impact over time as they help shape us more into the people God created us to be. They can play a part in helping us live like “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,” as the Apostle Paul encourages us to do in Colossians 3.
Most of the time, God’s work in us is slow and steady. Everyday habits that help us draw near to God in trust, receptiveness and obedience can clear a path in our lives so God’s Spirit can shape us more into the likeness of Christ.
Resources on spiritual practices:
My book on communal spiritual practices, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation
Blog posts on spiritual practices
Seven-day experiment with wholeness
Seven days toward simplicity
Character and practices that nurture creation care
Learning not to walk
I’m excited about spiritual disciplines
Spiritual disciplines for people in ministry
Nurturing communal spiritual practices online
Unusual sabbaticals: reflection, relationships and listening to God
To access my other books, look here.