January 16, 2008

String-files and Spiritual Growth

2008 1502 page6 capefore I joined the staff of the Adventist Review I didn’t know a string-file from a string bean. A string-file is basically a piece of cardboard slightly larger than a copy of the Adventist Review placed flat, into which two holes have been punched. Onto a shoestring that passes through the holes goes a copy of each week’s Adventist Review, beginning January 10, and ending December 25.
A string-file is an ingeniously low-tech way to keep within reach each succeeding issue of the magazine. It’s an invaluable resource when readers call or write in with questions about when an article appeared.
What’s noteworthy about string-files is how they grow, almost imperceptibly, throughout the year. My string-file for 2008 is now about an eighth of an inch high. But come December it’ll be almost two and a half inches thick, contain at least 36 issues of the magazine, dozens of articles, and hundreds of thousands of words.
This year is still relatively young, but already people have seen many of their resolutions crumble to dust. That’s because most of us live as if we don’t understand incremental progress. We don’t have the discipline or the patience to live life cumulatively.
2008 1502 page6Living incrementally means thinking and living long-term. No one completes a college or university degree in a matter of days or weeks. It takes years of attending classes, taking exams, writing papers. Who would turn their backs on a college education if they didn’t have their degree at the end of the first semester?
In 2007 I ran more than 1,500 miles (1,510 to be exact). But I didn’t do it all at once. I ran six miles a day (more on Sundays; sometimes a lot more). If I missed a day now and then because of inclement weather, travel, or sloth, I still followed a more or less regular pattern of getting up about 5:00 a.m. and going for a run—winter, spring, summer, and fall. At the end of the year I had run 1,510 miles in slightly more than 200 days.
Many of us begin the year with lofty and practical goals, such as to read the Bible through, pray more, get out of debt, exercise regularly, be a better witness. And in the early days of January these goals still seem attainable. But when our resolve begins to melt and our bad habits reassert themselves, we abandon hope of seeing any significant improvement in our daily lives.
That’s when it’s time to think incrementally. Forget about trying to lose 15 pounds in time for your college reunion. Make it your goal to lose one pound a month. At the end of the year you’ll be 12 pounds lighter. Start today by making it a habit of not eating sweets during the week, or not eating anything after 7:00 p.m., or by eating more fruit and vegetables and fewer processed foods.
Reading the Bible 15 to 20 minutes a day will easily get you from Genesis to Revelation by December. Many Bible reading plans are available on the Internet and in Christian bookstores, so you don’t have to plow straight through (although that’s how I prefer to do it). You don’t even have to do it every day; just most every day. Remember, the goal isn’t just to finish the book; it’s to know God better at the end of the year than you know Him now; to be more faithful in reflecting Christ’s character to those with whom we live and work.
Think of some way you can give back to your community. Volunteering two hours a week—tutoring, visiting the elderly or shut-in, providing food to a homeless shelter, picking up trash along the highway, etc.—amounts to 100 hours of community service a year (four hours a week equals 200 hours a year).
Want to get in shape? You can walk 300 miles in January and take the rest of the year off. Or you can walk a mile a day most every day and quickly see an improvement in your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. You may even be tempted to walk two or three miles a day. That’s a temptation you can, and should, indulge.
I’m always amazed when I review the cumulative effects of a year’s activities. I often come to the end of the week and wonder, What did I really accomplish this week? But after 52 weeks it turns out I’ve accomplished quite a bit.
I have my string-file to prove it.

Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review.