What’s Your Plan?

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“Your priorities are the things you plan for.”1

We make plans for lots of things: vacations, projects around the house, and many things in our jobs. But do we plan to become more holy?

Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. There is no third possibility. I must plan to follow Jesus fully or not plan to follow him.2

Planning speaks of intention. What do we intend? Lent is a time to reflect on our spiritual progress. It is a time to make a plan for a period of time to develop our holiness and knowledge of God. It is often a time of both renunciation (giving up something) and increased activity. One may decide to give up a type of food or certain pursuits, as well as increasing time spent in prayer or reading Scripture.

How do we make a “spiritual plan?” Some of the following principles of Lenten observance apply more widely. The church calendar has other seasons outside of Lent and we can plan for the seasons of Easter, Pentecost, Advent, or Epiphany as well.

We make a spiritual plan the same way we make any other plan. I’ve spent a fair amount of time working in organizations obsessed with planning and I have come to realize there are really only a few steps to making and executing a plan, despite the myriad emphasis and ways of packaging them. As I look back and interpret various planning frameworks in light of each other, from academic to military, it occurred to me that this could (should!) be applied to my religious activity as well.

Here is a basic outline for how to make a “spiritual growth plan.”

  1. Where am I? I need to take an honest assessment of the current situation. What are my challenges, limits, struggles, needs? What demands are upon me that I don’t have much control over?
  2. Where do I want to go? This may be easy to answer, or it might take more discernment and prayer, but try to keep this separate from step #3 on ways to get there. My goal might be to eliminate sin or increase my love for God while one “way to get there” might be to memorize 20 verses of scripture. Memorizing scripture itself should not be the goal. It may be helpful to seek the counsel of someone wise in the faith.
  3. How do I get there? Considering where I am and where I want to go, I need to try to figure out how to get closer to my destination. Here again, wise counsel can be helpful. I must consider what spiritual disciplines may aid in my pursuit.
  4. Draft plan. At this point, I should write down my goal, some ways to move toward that goal, a way to know if I am making progress, and a time limit. A way to evaluate progress is necessary to know if the plan is effective, and a time limit keeps me from becoming overwhelmed. It gives me a fixed point to move toward.
  5. Discern. Is this God or is it me? Do I have what I need to carry out this plan? Is it attainable? Am I willing to commit to this? Here again, I might discuss my plan with someone else and then make any adjustments as necessary.
  6. Commit. I will begin on _____.
  7. Prepare to begin. This may be minimal or it might take some time depending on the plan I have committed to. Do I need to buy a book? Re-arrange my schedule?
  8. Begin. I should carry out my plan until I reach my end-date or my goal, resisting the urge to adjust too much mid-stream.
  9. End. Commemorate the end-date. Maybe set a meeting with my trusted mentor.
  10. Evaluate. What did I seek? What did I find? Where did I fall short? What did God teach me through this? Where I am now? (This leads easily back to #1)

Eventually, this can become our natural rhythm of life. Just as we don’t have to consciously work through the steps of driving to a new location—get directions, take license, check gas level—some seasons will present themselves to us, like Lent, Advent, or a major life change. Sometimes we just have to listen to the prompting of the Spirit to know it is time to re-look at what we are doing and how we are doing it.

May we all plan to follow Christ.


1http://jenniferfulwiler.com/2009/10/20-things-i-learned-in-my-week-without/
2Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Harper One: New York, 1988. p. 13

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Filed under Discipline, Lent, Priorities

Pray and Tell?

candle light backgroundToday is the Feast of the Transfiguration, traditionally observed on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday which is the beginning of Lent. The Transfiguration is an interesting, though perplexing event chronicled in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It raises questions. Most obviously, how did Peter, James, and John know it was Moses and Elijah? What kind of clues did they get from Jesus’ conversation with them? Were they wearing name tags?

On a more serious note, what was the point? What purpose did this event serve and what did it do for Peter, James, and John as they observed it through weary eyes? Why did Jesus command them not to tell anyone about it? Why does John, the only eyewitness who wrote a Gospel, not mention it?

One point of the Transfiguration may be the idea of a private religious experience—those occasional happenings that seem best kept to ourselves, not because they are necessarily “weird,” but because they aren’t meant for anyone else. Some things are just between God and us, but not in a Joseph Smith sort of way. We might receive a reassurance or comfort from God that is meant for us alone to appreciate.

The Apostle Paul hints at such an experience in 2 Corinthians 12. It’s not clear whether he is speaking of himself or someone else, but it is a profound religious experience that doesn’t really have much application for anyone else.

It seems that most believers who have followed the Lord for some time have moments like these. They aren’t necessarily supernatural like witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain, but may be a feeling of closeness to God that is out of the ordinary. They can be connected to a place or an event, or to a time of quietness.

These events seem to be pretty normal in the Christian life, but they can’t be made. God graces us with them as he sees fit, not when we want a “fix” of some Holy Spirit tingles. They are a way God speaks to us, yet what is communicated is often hard to put into words. I think that is the way it should be.

It seems that God even expects us to keep it to ourselves. The encounter was meant to be private. We don’t get points by sharing it. In fact, we may even lose some, because it can be a means of spiritual pride creeping into our lives. It also violates the bounds of our relationship with God. Husbands and wives share things with each other, physically and otherwise, that no one else needs to know about. No matter how meaningful or enjoyable it might be, it should be kept between them alone.

Do we love God enough to accept his loving advances for what they are? Or do we have to try to use it to advance ourselves with others? Maybe this is why Jesus, after a healing or, in this case, the Transfiguration, often told those who received it, “Don’t tell anyone.” This was from me to you.

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Filed under Grace, Humility, Miracles, Prayer, Pride

Book Review: Spiritual Direction

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Thornton, Martin, Spiritual Direction, Wipf and Stock: Eugene, OR, 2012 (previously published by Cowley Publications, copyright 1984) 145 p.

I made my first acquaintance with Martin Thornton in English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology according to the English Pastoral Tradition. It is a very meaty tome and is true to its title. I heartily commend it to anyone with Anglican affinities.

Spiritual Direction is roughly one-third the length of English Spirituality, but I found it to be no less illuminating. In some ways, it is more so. The biggest benefit for me is that it more fully and clearly explains Thornton’s idea of speculative-affective synthesis, which he holds to be a key element of Anglican spirituality. This is the marriage between an analytical bent and an emotional bent, embracing both the Thinkers and Feelers in the Myers-Briggs typology.

Thornton writes for spiritual directors and he writes from experience as a spiritual director and as a trainer of spiritual directors. He gives many useful categories by which to examine “clients” but not in a modern answer-these-ten-questions sort of way. He is comfortable with shades and blending between them. These include not only speculative and affective, but world affirmation and world renunciation, amateur and professional, and grim and gay.

While I found these distinctions realistic, what was most useful was being able to see myself in them. I had several gentle epiphanies with regard to my own attrait as I read. Attrait, another of his terms, is a French word meaning predisposition or bent. “…while it has been insisted that attrait is to be nurtured, part of such nurture is that it should occasionally be curbed.” (p. 114) In other words, sometimes some pruning is in order.

In chapter twelve, Thornton provides insight on the idea of progression in the life of prayer (which he calls the end and means of the spiritual life). He discusses the classic models of progression, but cautions, “They can offer various routes towards your destination, but they are to be read with care and they are not in themselves routes.” (p. 94)

He provides a solid metric by which to measure all spiritual progress. “…the only valid test is moral theology: progress, whatever its exact nature, means committing less sin and growing more joyfully penitent.” (p. 94) It is Thornton’s ability to pull such sharp distinctions out of what can be such murky waters that make his writing valuable.

The book has 2 appendices, giving Thornton’s rough outline of the various schools of Christian thought and a chart showing roughly where certain schools and authors fall on the speculative-affective continuum. Those who have read English Spirituality will find these familiar.

Spiritual Direction is a good book for both priest and parishioner. It can serve as guide toward learning the art of being a spiritual director, but it can also be a useful guide for seeking the benefits of spiritual direction while lacking a director. It was in this later category that book shined most for me.

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Filed under Anglicanism, Asceticism, Book of Common Prayer, Book Review, Martin Thornton, Prayer, Priesthood, Progress, Sanctification

Forgiving the Text

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It’s a strange phenomenon, but I can attest to its existence—holding a grudge against a Biblical text because of the way it has been misused, abused, or misinterpreted. Most thoughtful believers could jot down half a dozen pericopes that have become the object of pet peeves.

  • Philippians 4:13
  • 1 Corinthians 10:13
  • Joel 2:25
  • the entire Song of Solomon
  • Psalm 91
  • most of Romans

That’s my list. Sometimes it’s a single verse used out of context to support a desire to feel affirmed by some sort of vague religious endorsement. Philippians 4:13 and 1 Corinthians 10:13 don’t give us all superpowers, and Joel 2:25 in context has nothing to do with teenagers losing their virginity and later trying to “get it back.”

For the longer passages, even as we read them in context, the distortions hang over our heads and seep in. We can’t see what is on the page in front of us for what has been pressed upon us.

I’m pretty sure Song of Solomon is not just a guide to “Biblical marriage.” After all, why would I take advice on monogamy from one of the most profligate polygamists in history? The Church Fathers all approach this book as allegory, and obviously there are strong sexual currents in it. If we are the bride of Christ, does not our bridegroom have conjugal rights? I don’t want to go too far down that trail since the danger of any allegory is that it can get weird.

Psalm 91 has been pushed as the “Soldier’s Psalm” for a long time. There are plenty of books that will call it “God’s shield of protection.” There is a story about a WWI regiment who recited it every day and all came home in one piece. The Bible, however, is not a spell book we choose incantations from in order to receive the desired results in the spiritual realm. Such a thing was seen in pretty unflattering light in both the Old and New Testaments.

Psalm 91 is coming up in the Sunday lectionary, though, so I’ve been reading through it daily and am starting to shed my baggage and engage the words for what they are, instead of what they are not.

I’d still rather take soldiering advice from a guy who took out the enemy’s main effort with a sling and a stone while he was still a raw recruit. Psalm 144 makes a much better “Soldier’s Psalm.”

Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle;
he is my steadfast love and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
who subdues peoples under me.

Psalm 144:1-2 (ESV)

What about Romans? Romans is the Mount Everest of New Testament scholarship. You can dig into Revelation if you want and Hebrews has some tough bits, but everyone knows that if you’re going to be a “real scholar,” you have to tackle Romans.

Wading into Romans is fine, but because so many are doing so, there’s bound to be a whole bunch of people who get it wrong. Unfortunately, this includes a few from the past with pretty big names and followings—Martin Luther and John Calvin, for instance.

It takes a lot of effort to work through Romans without being tainted by Luther’s sola fide and Calvin’s predestination. Not because they are so obviously there—if that was the case, some of the really smart guys in the 1,500 years before them may have seen it. No, the bits Luther and Calvin used for those theories are in there, but so are the contrary views and the contrary views are also rampant in the other books of the Bible.

So, when I read these “pet peeve” texts, I find myself praying for God to let me merely read what the author wrote and understand what he meant by it. I pray God will help me forgive the text for being misused.

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Filed under Bible, Evangelicalism, Hermeneutics, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Words

A Theory of Social Media Emptiness

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This week, I was reflecting on the appropriateness of using social media to express sympathy for the death of a friend’s father. Part of it, I freely admit, is just my old-fashioned streak that longs for bygone ages, but I think I may have discovered a shortcoming of relationships by social media.

Think about a significant life event. To make it a little more cheery, let’s think about the birth of a child. Then, consider the “social reinforcement” of this event by the couples’ family, friends, and acquaintances. By social reinforcement, I mean some sort of feedback from these three groups of people.

So, our happy couple has a baby. In our social media age, within a few hours of delivery, either the new mother or the new father will post something on social media to announce that the awaited day has arrived and to give the pertinent details. This post will probably include a picture of the new baby in the mother’s arms (unless she had an especially taxing delivery, and then maybe in Dad’s arms). This is likely the simultaneous notification of family, friends, and acquaintances that the birth has occurred, though depending on proximity, some of the first two groups may have been notified earlier that the birth was imminent.

Once this announcement is made, everyone has a chance to “comment,” “like,” and “share.” Most of this will occur within the first few hours after the announcement, though may continue for up to 36* hours as the ripple effect of friends of friends liking and commenting works its way out and catches those who only check their social media once or twice a day.

By the time mom and baby are ready to come home from the hospital, the social support has run its course. Now, tangible support may come from a parent, sibling, or friend who comes to help for a few days while mom recovers, but that is all, unless there are subsequent posts to social media.

Now, let us consider the same scenario 40 years ago. The birth is the same, but “notification” occurred much differently. Local family and friends may still have received a call saying, “We’re headed to the hospital.” After the birth, once it was “business hours,” close family and friends would have received phone calls. Other friends and acquaintances would have found out in the following day or two as the husband returned to work and word of mouth spread the news.

Within a week or two of the birth, birth announcements would be sent out to friends, family, and acquaintances. This would trigger replies from at least some of these people by way of letter or card. Depending on mailing times, this might last for another week or two.

Under this second scenario, the “social reinforcement” could still be occurring up to a month after the event. While this is nice for a birth, for events like the death that triggered this reflection, that ongoing support can be crucial. The experience of well-wishes and sympathies would be much more protracted.

If our social reinforcement occurs within 36 hours for all of our life events, even the most life-altering events seem to have less social significance, which in turn makes us feel insignificant. The ability to instantly communicate paradoxically reduces our communications to an instant.


 

* I did a little unscientific research by looking at my “most popular photos of 2015” on Facebook and all of them received all of their comments within 36 hours of posting.

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Filed under General, Relationship, Social Media, Words

Tell Me Lies, Sweet Little Lies

(Fleetwood Mac’s 1987 album Tango in the Night…in case the title put a song in your head.)

Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they breathe out violence.

Psalm 27:12 (ESV)

When we read these words from Psalm 27, we might think of slander. False witnesses saying bad, hurtful things about us. We may have images of junior high when organized smear campaigns were employed with an efficiency and efficacy that would be the envy of a political campaign organizer. Indeed, that is a fair reading of the text and those things certainly do happen even to adults.

The good thing about those kinds of lies is that we recognize them quickly. When someone says something untrue and negative about us, we instantly react with, “That’s not true!” It is instinctive. We usually don’t need a warning to guard against such things.

There is another type of lie or false witness, however, that can also do us violence. Perhaps even more so because we turn a blind eye to it or even encourage it.

Everyone utters lies to his neighbor;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

Psalm 12:2 (ESV)

Flattery. Why does something not well up in us and scream, “That’s not true!” at flattery? Maybe it’s the same reason we so violently reject slander.

Pride.

Slander challenges our pride while flattery feeds it. Interesting to note, slander can result in legal action, whereas there are no statues against flattery. Flattery is also dangerous, though, and as Psalm 12 reminds us, flattery is also a lie. It is a lie we are too often willing to let go or even embrace.

What if we reread Psalm 27:12 inserting flattery, sort of combining the two verses? “Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for flatterers have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.” Was that not where you would have put it? Would you have replaced “violence” with “flattery?” That might be our first inclination, but it would mute the effect of this truth to our spirit.

Flattery does violence to us because it strengthens pride’s grip on us. Pride is a sin. Let us remember:

Love the LORD, all you his saints!
The LORD preserves the faithful
but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride.

(Psalm 31:23 ESV)

Pride sets us at enmity with God and causes us to embrace a falsehood about ourselves. When we live in pride, we live an illusion.

I once talked with friends about how odd it was that we use the term disillusioned as a bad thing. While it may be an unpleasant experience, to be removed from illusion should be a good thing. The definition of the word is: “disappointed in someone or something that one discovers to be less good than one had believed.”

When that someone is yourself, it can be even harder to stomach. It is an assault on our pride, which, if we are feeding our pride, is exactly what we need. A full frontal assault. We need to stop believing the lies of the enemy that seek to do violence to our souls by separating us from God and dragging us into the company of the most arrogant being there is, Satan.

In humility before God, may we be about the business of disillusioning ourselves.

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Filed under Flattery, Power of Words, Pride

Groundhog Day

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Today is February second. In the United States, it is the trivial holiday of Groundhog Day. This day commemorates groundhogs’ tendency to come out of their burrows in early February. According to legend, if they see their shadow when they emerge, there will be six more weeks of winter, but if they do not, there will be an early spring.

Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell star in a 1993 movie based on this holiday and it is one of my favorite movies. It redefined the term “Groundhog Day.” Murray plays a Pennsylvania weatherman, Phil Connors. After Phil arrives in Punxsutawney to report on the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, he finds himself stuck on February second. No matter what he does, when he wakes up the next morning, it’s always six a.m. on February second. The movie shows Phil’s activities for 38 days, though how long he was actually stuck on that date is debated, with estimates ranging from 8 to 34 years.

After his initial  disorientation, Phil soon discovers that his day “resets” no matter what. If he ends the night locked in the drunk tank, he wakes up back in his hotel bed on Groundhog Day. This leads to a string of hedonistic days, but eventually Phil tires of this. He feels trapped and wants to escape, but not even suicide can free him from his prison.

Phil is stuck with himself in the same day, over and over again. While it provides for some comedic moments, especially regarding his thwarted attempts to bed his producer, Rita, I see this movie as a tale of redemption.

Phil makes a shift partway through the movie from narcissism to self-improvement. Instead of focusing solely on pleasing himself, he starts to focus on helping others. His thorough knowledge of all activities in Punxsutawney on February second aid this effort.

The salvation metaphor is almost overt. Only by serving (Dare we say, loving?) others is Phil released from his narcissistic prison. The movie gives a strong message on the second commandment while totally ignoring the first. In so doing, it makes the metaphor more powerful for its subtlety and keeps the movie from being preachy. (Christian filmmakers and authors, take note.)

Through his efforts, Phil gives up his unwholesome interest in Rita, and in so doing, becomes more intriguing to her. By not focusing on her in a narrow way, he becomes a man she could actually love. The scenes of his “final” Groundhog Day show a generous, compassionate Phil.

This side of death, we do not face the prison of immortality without the possibility of redemption as Phil did, but this somewhat absurd story pokes us gently with the same question that tacitly haunts Phil: “What am I going to do with this day that I am given?” Through a process of elimination, Phil realizes that a program of virtuous self-improvement is the best answer. We could do much worse.

On a related note, I read this prayer this morning from Humility of Heart.

O my God, true light of my soul, keep alive within me the remembrance of my death. Tell me often with Thine own voice in my heart that I must die, perhaps within a year, perhaps within a month, perhaps within a week; and thus I shall remain humble. In order that the thought of death may not be unfruitful to me, excite within my soul now that knowledge and those feelings which I shall have at that last hour of my life when the blessed taper is placed in my hands in the day of trial. Make me know now as I shall know then what vanity is, and then how can I ever be arrogant again in the face of that most certain truth?

Though we may feel like we’re in Groundhog Day at times, we would do well to remember that we only have a handful of days and they will all be weighed on judgement day.

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Filed under Death, General, Priorities