The Varmint

I had a routine check-up and I had my rollerboard with me. Afterwards I walked to the room where I was staying and then realized that my Garmin was not on my wrist. I had taken it off at the check-up, placed it on my suitcase, and then rolled the thing away. The receptionist, when I called, looked in the room and down the hallway—no Garmin.

My nickname for it was “my Varmint,” that little ring-animal wrapped around my wrist. Nothing had been on my wrist for years, not since I gave up my wristwatch in favor, first, of a pocket watch, and then later, a cellphone. But that little Varmint, which had the time, would buzz if I hadn’t moved lately, and it put a number on my heart rate and the flights of stairs I had walked and the miles I had (a) run, (b) walked, or (c) swum. I never knew how it might know I was swimming. Could it feel water?

It also wiggled when a text message or phone call came in.

Now the Varmint was gone. And I felt contradictory things. I missed it; like Professor Henry Higgins, I’d grown accustomed to its face. At the same time there was a real sense of liberation. Really did I need to know how many flights of stairs I had ascended? Maybe it was better to go for a walk just because I wanted to go for a walk, forget the numbers.

Inducements help us change behavior and develop good character. Putting numbers on things, counting, measuring, graphing, noting “progress” and getting encouragement—all these can help us do what we really want to do. But as our behavior changes for the better, that is to say as our character grows, then we need these things less and less. And finally, the goal is for us just to do what we want to do simply because it is good, for no other reason at all.

When a person is new to Christian faith, the encouragements are everywhere—as they should be, for a new Christian is peculiarly vulnerable, as C. S. Lewis so penetratingly shows in The Screwtape Letters. But as one grows in the faith, encouragements recede. The great saints write about “the dark night of the soul,” a period of time when the comforts of faith are taken away. It seems that Teresa of Calcutta, for decades a public figure of self-sacrificial Christian love, had very little encouragement in her private prayers.

Once again, it seems, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Nonetheless, blessed be the name of the Lord. God, it seems to me, is highly desirable, regardless of my feelings about how well things are going.

Perhaps someday there will be a spiritual Varmint that can give us read-outs on how we’re doing. Good job with those prayers, it might say. Ten percent more this week than last. And look at all the time you’re spending with the Bible. Also, fantastic work with that mentoring program! Keep it up!

But then one day, we’ll lose that spiritual Varmint, and we’ll be back where we are right now. Do I want to pray for the sake of spiritual improvement, or do I want to pray just because prayer is good?

Out & about. This weekend I will be visiting All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. Besides preaching, Sat. at 5:30 p.m., Sun. at 8, 9:15, and 11 a.m., I will teach weekday classes on “Who Was David?” (M-W at 11 a.m.) and “The Political Theology of Oliver O’Donovan” (M-W at 6 p.m.).

My sermon on Acts 10—“The Education of Peter,” we might call it—is here.  

The lecture, “What Good Is Authority?” was recorded and can be listened to here.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."