Public declarations are a dangerous thing. Not only do you draw attention to yourself, making yourself an easier target, if you publicly state an intention to do something, you make yourself accountable to do it… unless you are an inside the beltway type with a spin machine to explain why it is your opponent’s fault that you didn’t do what you promised to do.
Well, here is my next “regularly scheduled” podcast, the one I promised would be the first in a regular stream of such offerings… eleven months after the last one. To quote the first letter of Peter, undoubtedly, like a roaring lion my adversary, the devil, has been prowling around, seeking to devour me, but I don’t think I can lay my lack broadcast activity at his feet, however tempting it is to pass that buck along. No, though I am no less busy than I have ever been, an honest appraisal of these last few months leads to the inevitable conclusion that I have failed to regularly produce these podcasts for the same reason I have failed at a great many things in this life; a lack of steadfast purpose.
The keyword in that phrase is “steadfast.” Stead comes from an old English word and means the place of a person or thing as occupied by a successor or substitute. So you can use Splenda instead of sugar or if they are sick the night of a big event, a friend might call you and ask you to fill in for them in their stead. It can also refer to the place, function, or position that assists another. So, to stand someone in good stead is to be useful or of good service to them. Fast means “firmly fixed in place; not easily moved; securely attached.” I had to go to the eighth definition on dictionary.com to find that one, which shows it is not in common English usage at present, though we may still occasionally hear someone in a nautical movie say something like, “Make fast the mainsail, Skipper” or hear an older person call someone “a fast friend.” Put together, these words mean “not subject to change, firm in belief, determination, or adherence” to a purpose. They mean loyalty to an intention or more often, a person, so that you stick fast to the purpose of acting in someone’s stead.
Now, undoubtedly the aforementioned devil is in the details, but in my own case (and in the experience of most people I know), we rarely get around to reckoning with him for quite another reason, and that is because our purpose is not steadfast enough. We are not as “nose to the grindstone” as we should or could be, grappling with those details, not because we lack the will to do so, but because we lack the consistent habits that would allow us to realize our ambitions.
If steadfast purpose at its core is the determination of our hearts, its public face is our habits. Even the most proactive, self-realized human being is not engaged in creative problem-solving most of their day. They get up the same way each day, go through their morning routine in much the same way, greet their families and coworkers with similar words each day, and pursue their daily ambitions within the context of their personal habits.
In the Christian spiritual life, personal habit has more often been referred to by a different name—discipline. Listen here to an excerpt from one the movie Patton, wherein the famous general of World War II as he takes up its command, diagnoses the abject failure of the United States Army in their first confrontation with the German army in the African battle of Kassarene. You will have to excuse the language the general’s language, but as he says elsewhere in the movie, when he “wants it to stick,” he gives it us “loud and dirty.”
“Do You want to know why this outfit got the hell kicked out of it?” begins the General Patton. “A blind man could see it in a minute; they don’t look like soldiers, they don’t act like soldiers… Why should they fight like soldiers?”
“You’re absolutely right,” replies General Omar Bradley, “The discipline’s pretty poor.”
Fixing General Bradley with a keen eye, Patton responds, “In about five minutes, we’re going to start turning these boys” (saying this last word with contempt) into fanatics, razors.”
A razor is a tool wherein all the force of the blade is brought to bear on a single point. It is a tool that is exquisitely well-designed for its intended purpose. What will turn Patton’s diminutive ‘boys’ into ‘soldiers’ be to feared is discipline.
That the term discipline has by and large disappeared from the vocabulary of American Christianity is telling, for it dominated the mind of the Church for centuries. On Reformation Sunday, Lutherans proudly sing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious. He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious.” The imagery is explicitly militaristic, for the Church is pictured as an active army, marching on the gates of hell, which will not prevail against Her. God is both our protection and our power in this fight with the powers of darkness, but we also are envisioned as soldiers. When my wife was a child (I was raised outside the Church), they still taught children a song that went “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery, I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army.”
This aspect of the Christian life has been largely lost in modern American culture. As one wag has said, A Mighty Fortress has become A Comfy Mattress is Our God. We earnestly desire to have God as our protector, comforter, and “a very present help in trouble.” We are content to have Jesus as our Savior, Redeemer, intercessor, life coach, advisor, and even sometimes Lord, but we forget that one of the chief things a lord did for his people as their potentate was lead them in battle.
This is not the place to trace the possible reasons for this change in the mindset of the modern church. Yet quite apart from the Scriptures, which are replete with militaristic imagery and metaphor, from the flaming sword in Genesis to Jesus bearing a sword astride a white war horse in the Revelation of St. John, there were existential reasons why the intentional Christian life was so often compared to the life of a soldier in the mind of the Church. Who can walk with someone through a long terminal illness and not be convinced that “the last enemy to be conquered is death?” (1 Cor. 15:26) Who can have seriously struggled to attain some measure of the simple Christian virtues like temperance, fortitude, or prudence—let alone the more difficult ones like chastity, justice, and humility—without coming to the conclusion that they were in a pitched battle with sin, the devil, and even their own nature? If we align ourselves with God, we set ourselves against the prince and powers of this world, and we can be sure they will not be sanguine about our defection to the other side, but rather will fight against us with all they have. Indeed, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) When we try to walk with integrity as Christians, to do something special and intentional for God, like a zebra breaking away the herd, we mark ourselves out for the lion as choice prey, an enemy who, though no more tasty than any other zebra in the herd, is to be especially targeted.
If we are going to bear up under such an attack and faithfully carry out our mission, we are going to need to be disciplined. We are going to need to be good soldiers. I am not talking here about Christian perfection. I leave such illusions to those prone to self-deception. A good soldier doesn’t always succeed in his commission nor hit his intended target all the time. I am talking about consistency of effort, and the good soldier keeps fighting, keeps trying accomplish his mission no matter the opposition until he receives a new set of orders from his commander or lord.
As General Patton helpfully points out, good soldiers are made by discipline. Have you noticed that disciple and discipline have the same root word? Both mean “one who follows after,” and if we would be good disciples, we must develop the disciplines of a disciple. We must pray, worship, and immerse ourselves in the Holy Scriptures. We must be serving others as our Lord served us, developing deep spiritual friendships with our fellow soldiers in Christ while we give our all to the kingdom effort in which we are engaged in the form of our time, treasures, and talents. All these things must become a regular part of our daily and weekly routine, things in which we habitually engage, disciplines that shape our lives.
Of course, we do all these things not to earn our salvation. Rather, we do these things because they are the way in which we can learn to live as the people God created and redeemed us to be. Jesus came that we might “have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Living as His disciple, developing the disciplines of a follower of Jesus, is how we begin living that life of joy and abundance right now. But living in this way, while it might give us deep joy and unassailable peace, will put us at cross purposes with the prince of this world, so until our Lord comes again to bring the final victory, we must be prepared as a good soldier for the attack of the enemy.
I want to read to you what surrounds that passage from 1 Peter I have been referring to in this podcast. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith.” (ESV) Another translation, interpreting the thought as much as the words, renders that passage “Discipline yourselves” and be “steadfast in your faith.” (NRSV)
So today I am going to be a good soldier. Despite my failures of the past few months, I am being steadfast in my purpose and getting back to work with this podcast. Along with the other disciplines common to all disciples, I am heeding the counsel of many around me who find my way with words helpful in strengthening them as they “fight the good fight of faith.” I am beginning to see producing these podcasts as more central to my own particular Christian vocation as minister of the Word.
Luther once described fallen humanity as a drunken peasant who is always falling off one side of his horse or the other. Thanks be to God who cares for us so much that we may cast all our anxieties on Him, and without looking back in regret, get back on our horse again! Since in General Patton I have been turning to an old cavalry officer for wisdom about how to live as a good soldier for Christ, I am going to end this podcast by saying, “Praise to you, O Christ!” and get…. back in the saddle again!