Sarah and I were on a dinner cruise, having a wonderful meal at sunset. Suddenly, I was looking up at the sky, and Sarah was calling my name quite loudly. Why?? What was going on?? A crowd surrounded me, peering down on me. Then I realized I was flat on back, and my chest and head hurt. I’ll never forget the fear and concern in Sarah’s eyes. After an ambulance ride and checking into the emergency room, they ruled out what we feared (heart attack) and confirmed what we suspected: I was dehydrated.
It was all quite embarrassing and humbling. But the physician’s advice was (almost!) worth the whole experience. “Always drink before you are thirsty.” I see a message in those words.
In addition to being sound medical advice, there’s a powerful spiritual principle here. How often have we found ourselves flat on our backs spiritually, failing to recognize soul dehydration until it’s too late?
We live in an arid culture that sucks the spiritual moisture from our lives. When we neglect our regular times of reading scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship, our spiritual reservoirs drain. We lose spiritual focus, waver in unbelief, doubt God’s love and care, and are smothered by spiritual lethargy. The key is to recognize our thirst.
Psalm 42 (NIV) 1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
Thirst is a consistent biblical metaphor for longing, for desire, for yearning for God. It’s a highly experiential word, especially in the arid and semi-arid climate of Israel. And God promises to quench that thirst.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NIV).
Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan women whom he met at the well is the most encouraging of all.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”… 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water [from the natural well] will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10-14 NIV).
Staying spiritually hydrated means abiding in Christ moment by moment, being filled with the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-40). What does that look like? For me, a primary practice is continual conversation with the Lord, punctuated often with phrases like, “I need you for this, Lord.” “Help.” “Thanks.” “You’ve got this, Lord, right?!” “Give me what you want me to give this person or these people.”
You don’t have to drink in big gulps. The continual sips add up.
The title “Soul Breaks” could suggest many subjects, but I’m using it in the sense of a break time for spiritual nourishment, for refreshment—like “coffee break” or “lunch break.” Breaks are essential to pace us in the midst of life’s workload and responsibilities. How do we make the most of our “breaks”?
It may help to begin with the importance of spending a significant amount of time with the Lord each day for Bible reading, prayer and seeking God’s leading for the day. People debate about the best time for a “quiet time” with the Lord. Most opt for morning, based on Jesus’ practice described in Mark 1:35, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (NIV). Others say they spend time with God in the evening. I’ve always based my choice on the observation that the best time for a musician to tune her instrument is before the performance, rather than after it.
This discussion, however, too often misses our need for spiritual nourishment throughout the day. “Soul breaks” can be opportunities for spiritual reading. Spiritual reading is reading for the heart. Our focus is not on assimilating content, but on using the reading to deepen our awareness of God and of the many-faceted spiritual dynamics at work in our lives.
The best comparison is the difference between reading the newspaper and reading a love letter.
The newspaper is given a quick scan and discarded. A brief love note, however, is read over and over again, not for the content, but for the sense of presence and emotional connection it inspires.
When we read in this way, we savor the message, prayerfully letting the words soak into our hearts and minds. The goal of the reading is to put us in touch with the Lord. The classic expression of this discipline comes from Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925), an Austrian Catholic layman who served as a spiritual director to many.
“That daily quarter of an hour, for now forty years or more, I am sure has been one of the greatest sustenances and sources of calm for my life. Of course, such ‘reading’ is hardly reading in the ordinary sense of the word at all. As well could you call the letting a very slowly dissolving lozenge melt imperceptibly in your mouth ‘eating’. Such reading is, of course, meant as directly as possible to feed the heart, to fortify the will–to put these into contact with God–thus, by the book, to get away from the book to the realities it suggests…” Baron Friedrich von Hügel, cited in John Baillie, A Diary of Readings (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1955), Day 1.
The goal is not quantity, nor is it the intellectual mastery of content. Spiritual reading could also be compared to taking a vitamin tablet. The size of the tablet is small compared to a normal meal, yet it gives essential nutrients to our bodies. So with spiritual reading. A small portion can help fortify the soul for the day.
How do you practice spiritual reading? Read a little (usually from a classic devotional book like Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest or a book on spiritual growth) then stop when you come to one thought that stirs your spirit. It “jumps out at you.” That is a morsel of grace for you to savor. That’s the “lozenge” von Hügel mentions. Sit still and meditate on it. Journal it. Write the phrase or sentence at the top of a fresh page of paper then write your heart-response to it. You may turn it into a prayer. Then, return to it at the end of the day, reflecting on what it meant.
I could list dozens and dozens of books (and have in my book, SoulShaping, page 272), but I’ll leave that to your discovery. And, by the way, I hope this blog provides a Soul Break for you.
Does God really care? I’m not so sure God wants to connect with me!
Deep down, many of us have questions and feelings like these. We’re entering the season of Lent when Jesus’ followers give focused attention to these questions. But there is a fundamental assumption that must be addressed to determine whether Lent is a season of effort or a season of freedom. Before we consider that, what is Lent?
Lent is one of those old “churchy” words that seems to be coming back into use as Jesus’ followers explore the practice of the “Christian Year.” One of the fascinating trends in spiritual formation has been called “ancient-future worship” (a term coined by Robert E. Webber) in which Jesus’ followers are blending ancient practices of God’s people with contemporary worship and spirituality. There’s a new appreciation for tradition, especially when it is distinguished from traditionalism.
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering we are where and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.
SOURCE: Christianity Today, Jaraslav Pelikan in an interview in U.S. News and World Report (June 26, 1989).
Symphonic composer Gustav Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of the ashes, but the keeping of the fire!” Tradition is a gift given us from previous generations to be understood, assessed and reinterpreted in our day. Remember, we will pass our tradition to those who follow. May they see it as fire, not ashes.
The Christian Year includes Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost and Kingdomtide or Ordinary Time. The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts for eight Sundays, followed by Holy Week which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. The word “Lent” comes from an Old English word that simply refers to the lengthening of days as we enter Spring time. It is not a theological term, but speaks about the changing of the seasons. Lent is a penitential season. We prepare our hearts for the Easter message by focusing on our sin and our need for repentance and salvation. The forty days of Lent (which do not count Sundays because Sundays are always ‘Resurrection days’ for believers) also remind us of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness and Jesus’ forty days in the desert.
One of the themes of Lent is fasting, abstaining in full or in part from particular foods and/ or activities. Here’s where we get back to my opening question: Is Lent a season of effort and obligation or a season of freedom? In my experience, many view fasting as a way of showing God they sincerely regret their spiritual apathy and repent from their sin. In other words, it could be seen as their way of getting God’s attention. As if God will really pay attention to them because of their exceptional efforts. Please understand, I am not devaluing these efforts. But I think we need to examine our theological assumptions if we think we need to impress God with our sincerity to get God’s attention.
Scripture gives countless assurances that we have God’s continual attention:
Psalm 139 (selected verses) 1 O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. 2 You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. 3 You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. 4 You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. 5 You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! 7 I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!… 13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb… 16 You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.
Jesus said, “What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them.7 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows (Luke 12:6-7 NLT).
You see, the problem isn’t God’s attention, it’s ours! The spiritual disciplines, including fasting, are tools, means, practices and habits to enable us to develop a deeper awareness and mindfulness of God. As we truly repent, we are not earning God’s grace. We are receiving it more fully.
In Lent we don’t give things up to get God’s attention, but to give God our attention.
It’s not the big events that really shape our lives. It’s the “dailies” that determine if we will be prepared for what life brings. Too often we don’t pay attention to the quality and choices of our daily actions and interactions. Then we hear a piece of good advice or an insight and say, “Wow, I need to remember that every day!” – and promptly forget it. Then one day we run across that advice in some notes we made and say, “Oh, yeah… I sure do wish I had remembered that.”
In spiritual formation, the “memory trick” for keeping wise counsel at the forefront of our consciousness is called a “Rule of Life.” A “rule” in this context is a set of precepts, principles, resolutions, practices, and sayings compiled to guide thoughts, words and deeds. Perhaps the most well-known rule is The Rule of St. Benedict or The Benedictine Rule, developed by Benedict of Nursia (who lived from approximately 480-550 AD) that he used to govern the life of his monastic order.
Many who’ve shaped the course of history developed a rule of life to shape their days. Martin Luther King Jr. was intentional about his spiritual and mental focus. His rule of life included:
Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
Seek to perform regular service for others and the world.
When Pope John XXIII (who served from 1958 to his death in 1963) was a seminary student, he included the following elements in his rule:
Fifteen minutes of silent prayer upon rising in the morning.
Fifteen minutes of spiritual reading.
Before bed, a general examination of conscience followed by confession; then identifying issues for the next morning’s prayer.
Arranging the hours of the day to make this rule possible; setting aside specific time for prayer, study, recreation, and sleep.
Making a habit of turning the mind to God in prayer.
[Both “Rules” are cited from Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 139, 140.]
So here’s the fun part: what ideas would really help you be the person you know God is calling you to be? Start your list. Don’t worry about being profound, nor about being “too corny or cheesy.” This is your list, for your eyes only, to help you keep the most important things the most important things.
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Ephesians 5:15-17).
I often remind myself that Jesus did not die on the cross so we could remain the same. Jesus died, rose from grave, ascended into heaven and is coming again in order to make us new creations who are living into that new life now and for eternity. Through faith in Christ, we are new creations.
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! (2 Corinthians 5:17 New Living Translation, NLT).
Is that true in your experience? Are the old ways changing? What does that new life look like? Another passage from 2 Corinthians makes a breath-taking assertion and affirmation:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18 RSV).
The key to change is not simply knowing we “should” change, but firing up our emotional engagement to desire and seek change. That starts with vision. We are being changed “from one degree of glory to another!” Like Moses’ face when he experienced God’s presence (see Exodus 34:29-35). If you could really change things about yourself, what would you really like to change? If you could really experience a new way of thinking, speaking and behaving, what characteristics would be top on your list? Here’s the amazing promise of the gospel: God is actively pursuing change in us. This is not a DIY (do it yourself) project.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 Revised Standard Version (RSV).
We often have vague ideas of the person we truly want to be, but don’t take time to get specific. When you begin to see the person you really want to be, you begin to move toward that vision. Start a list of the qualities you hope to develop, those characteristics you sense God the Holy Spirit wants to shape in you. I began a list for myself and eventually compiled it into this format. I call it “PICTURE A LIFE…”
Picture a life in which…
Joy carries you through the day,
and laughter comes as naturally as breathing.
You are not lured by that which would destroy you,
but are drawn to that which builds you up.
You can trust yourself–
having control over your thought and words,
over your responses and reactions.
You live above the distractions and deceptions of the world,
being a non-anxious, very real presence to others around you.
You have no need to hide.
You can look others in the eye, valuing them for themselves alone,
not for what they would give you.
You find courage to face every conflict honorably,
and strength to fulfill every responsibility faithfully.
You endure suffering with courage,
able to live with the questions.
You can admit when you are wrong:
You can say, “I’m sorry,” and begin again,
and are gentle with yourself,
renouncing the chains of shame, and self-condemnation.
You are connected to God who created you as you,
and are becoming all that God created you to be.
You are at peace in all circumstances,
celebrating God’s faithful provision in times of abundance,
trusting in quiet contentment in times of want.
You are free to serve others willingly,
without thought or need for thanks.
You have the freedom to live for an audience of One.
Picture such a life–
For it is meant to be yours.
(Copyright, Dr. Douglas J. Rumford, SoulShaping: Taking Care Of Your Spiritual Life, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, pp. 60-61)
Energy comes from holy imagination. Hope comes from seeing that change is possible. Jesus Christ died so that he, by the power of God at work within us, could transform us into daughters and sons of God who live in freedom and joy, who serve in power and grace. Work in us, Lord!
One of the first instructions God gave to Moses after the Exodus was “…write this on a scroll as something to be remembered…” (Exodus 17:14 NIV). Recalling the mighty acts of God was an essential element for sustaining the people’s vision of God. Just try to imagine where we’d be if Moses had neglected God’s command?
What about our own “holy histories?” Our spiritual journeys are too important to trust to memory alone. An invaluable tool for the preservation of God’s work and the application of God’s truth in our lives is a personal journal. To paraphrase a common proverb, “Weak ink is stronger than the best memory.”
A journal is like a spiritual diary. It is more than keeping a chronology of events characteristic of a traditional diary. Your spiritual journal is a record of things that happen to you or around you, with an emphasis on the responses of your heart, mind and soul. It’s a record of your prayers: of your “Yes” answered prayers, your still-waiting-for-God’s-answer prayers, and your honest wrestling with the prayers answered with “No.” It’s a place to reflect on your moods and your personal disciplines (or lack thereof) and what you plan to do about those. Your journal is the means to examine your temptations and failures, celebrate your personal victories, and record your biblical insights.
I think of my journal as a conversation with the Lord. You could say, in many ways, that your journal holds your prayers in ink. In a future post I’ll share why I think paper and pen are important to the process and more effective than using a computer or tablet.
My own use of a personal journal began when I entered college and started keeping a notebook of insights gleaned from my personal Bible study. I prize those moments of illumination. The thrill of discovery is a gift from God. How is it that, when we pray for God to speak to us, and God does, we let that precious truth slip away like the tide erasing writing in the sand? Trust it to paper–not to memory. Over time, I began to include prayer requests and answers, problems and hurts, and hopes and plans for the future. Initially, writing came in surges, but it eventually became a consistent part of my quiet time and devotions. My encouragement is to begin where you are. You will discovers a pace that fits.
I’ve written about journaling for Leadership Journal and in my book SoulShaping. In future posts, I will share ministry benefits of keeping a spiritual journal and principles for maximizing your journaling. But let’s begin with three ways keeping a journal helps us.
Three Personal Benefits of Journaling
First, our journal gives us insight for our spiritual growth.
Our confidence as Jesus’ followers comes from knowing who we are in Christ. Trust and identity solidify when we pay attention to where we’ve been and where God is directing us. In his Confessions (a powerful illustration of journaling as a spiritual memoir), Augustine (an early church theologian and leader who lived from 354 – 430 AD) wrote, “I want to call back to mind my past impurities and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but so that I may love you, my God…that the bitterness may be replaced by the sweetness of you.” Augustine’s love for God grew as reviewed his life. He saw more clearly his spiritual condition and realized, in awe, God’s hand at work.
As we reflect on our spiritual pilgrimage, we gain understanding of the dynamics of our spiritual lives: the obstacles, the predictable crises, the doubts, and the means of grace God provides to overcome these. The preservation of these insights helps us grow in spiritual maturity. This is the practical out-working of Hebrews 5:11-14 (New Living Translation)
11 There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. 12 You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. 13 For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. 14 Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.
Keeping a journal is a tangible exercise for developing the skill of “recognizing the difference between right and wrong” in our daily experience. Paying attention to our inner life helps us become more aware of our patterns of thought and reactivity. As clarity comes, we can surrender these to the Lord and actively embrace God’s grace for change. At the same time, the memory of God’s faithfulness fuels an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.
Second, our journal helps us clarify our priorities.
Life always seems at least a step or two ahead of us. It’s easy to lose control of our time and resources. The urgent always crowds out the important– and we seem powerless to stop the cycle of postponing things we really value because of demands that press down on us. I often turn to my journal as the key to unlock the shackles of the time trap. Reflection enables me to sort out what’s important. The commitments that clamor and crowd in on me lose some of their urgency in the light of my basic goals and values.
Your journal is that place where you put your plans for the day on paper– first thing– and then pray for God’s grace and mercy to guide your steps minute-by-minute. Of course, you will face surprises and interruptions– but you will feel empowered by being more intentional through the day. At the same time, a clear perception of the important matters awakens a new resolve to get on with it.
Third, our journal helps in problem-solving.
Conflicts, problems and disappointments are part of life. We consistently face dilemmas that require wisdom beyond ourselves. Writing crystallizes issues. C.S. Lewis said, “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing. Ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found long ago.”
In the process of spiritual direction, I ask a person overwhelmed by the number of problems she/he has to write them down. A simple list helps them see the scope of the issues in a more orderly fashion. Most often, they find that the actual number of issues is less than they felt. As the dust settles and specific details become clear, prayer and careful thought often open ways to progress. Our journal gives us a safe place to develop scenarios, practice conversations, and listen for God’s direction. It’s truly amazing how God fulfills the promise of James 1:5 in the context of journaling.
“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking” (New Living Translation).
When John began his profound experience with God, God commanded him “Write down what you have seen…” (Revelation 1:19). I believe God gives us the same call today. Just get a simple spiral notebook, put the date at the top of a page and begin writing a prayer, a letter to God, or a special memory of God’s work in your life. Remember, your “holy history” is too important to trust to memory alone.
“Ctrl+Alt+Del” can be a powerful daily cue for spiritual focus.
Ever go through a routine for the umpteenth time and suddenly ask yourself, “Huh, I wonder why we do this?” That’s what happened recently when I turned on my computer and the “Ctrl+Alt+Del command” appeared on the screen (Ok, so now you know I’m a PC user, not a hip-and-cool MacBook guy). So I did the search thing and found an article in Wikpedia (it was adequate for this) that explained it this way:
Control+Alt+Delete (often abbreviated to Ctrl+Alt+Del) is a computer keyboard command on IBM PC compatible computers, invoked by pressing the Delete key while holding the Control and Alt keys: Ctrl+Alt+Delete. The function of the key combination differs depending on the context but it generally interrupts or facilitates interrupting a function.
This is known as a “soft reboot,” or re-start function.
Well, enough nerd talk. Looking beyond it, I see a message for spiritual health. One of the keys to spiritual vitality is learning to become aware of God and pay attention to our spiritual welfare throughout the day. In my first blog post, “Stop, Look and Listen,” I shared the concept of Cues and Clues: Cues and clues to life’s deeper meaning and purpose surround us in every moment. But it’s so easy to miss them. This is one of them: “Ctrl+Alt+Del” can be a powerful daily cue for spiritual focus. The keyboard can “interrupt” our normal, too-often-nonspiritual, functioning so we can spiritually reboot.
First, “Ctrl” or Control reminds us to “release Control to God.” One of our greatest burdens in life is thinking we have control and that we have to make things happen. On the flip side, one of the most discouraging things in life is feeling powerless and out-of-control. Faith brings us back to the awareness of God’s kind, loving oversight of our lives. I draw great strength from Jesus’ words,
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).
That kind of reassurance takes me a long way toward trusting God more and more with more and more. I could list many more passages from the Bible, but let’s move on.
Second, “Alt” invites God to “Alter our mind, heart, soul and way of living.” I believe Jesus’ followers want to live differently. We don’t want to be stuck in the same dark thoughts, the same lousy habits, and the same undisciplined, worldly-driven lives. And, praise God, we don’t have to stay stuck. God is in the change business. That change starts with the fact that we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). God has given us the Holy Spirit to change us completely from the inside out. But that doesn’t happen automatically. God has designed us to mature by inviting the Holy Spirit, God’s power within us, to lead us into the fullness of life in Christ. The Holy Spirit helps us think like Jesus. The Holy Spirit empowers us to act like Jesus. The Holy Spirit is shaping the life of Jesus within us. Here is the staggering description of what God is now doing in us:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).
That is life-altering, friend! “From one degree of glory to another.”
And third, (you can see where this is going, right?) by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, God “Deletes the sins that still preoccupy our thoughts.” Many of us live with a low-grade depression because of regrets that weigh us down and because of thoughts and behaviors we can’t seem to release. A daily (or more frequent) spiritual reboot reminds us that God is not surprised by our sin. In grace and mercy, God’s Spirit continues the work of healing, restoring and strengthening us to overcome sin’s power.
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 1:9-2:1 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).
So when you log on to your computer, let “Ctrl+Alt+Del” be your log-in to Jesus and the Spirit’s power.
God deepens our experience of faith through our action.
Many of us don’t try something because, at that time, we don’t feel strong enough, wise enough, talented enough, or just-about-anything enough. So we wait—and miss so many opportunities. Life opens up for us when we learn that strength doesn’t come before we begin a task. Strength actually comes with the doing of the task.
Think about exercise: It seems foolish to say it, but you cannot wait until you “get strong” to begin to exercise. Strength is the product of exercise. And it’s important to realize progress in physical exercise is not noticeable immediately. At first, we will feel tired. And then things will change. According to Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., author of Aerobics, after about six weeks of consistent effort a series of changes happen “all at once” in the body.
In my book, SoulShaping: Taking Care of your Spiritual Life, I tell one of the most famous and amusing experiments demonstrating this. A researcher in exercise and human physiology set a weight on the floor, tied a rope to it, ran the rope over a pulley fastened to the edge of a table, then sat on the other side of the table and looped the rope over the middle finger of his right hand. Then, in time to a metronome, he began lifting the weight. The first time and for many weeks thereafter, the best he could do was 25 lifts before his finger became fatigued. To expand the experiment, he had a mechanic in the building lift the weight occasionally, in the same manner, and the mechanic always beat him. One day, about two months later, the researcher began his usual lifts, but found his finger wasn’t tired at 25. He kept going and ultimately reached 100. He suspected what had happened, and brought the experiment to a rather unorthodox conclusion. He invited the mechanic in again and made a small bet that he could best him. The mechanic accepted—and lost.
What the researcher suspected was the vascularization of his finger muscles–more blood vessels had opened up, creating new routes for delivering more oxygen. What was most interesting was that they apparently didn’t open up one at a time but a network at a time. Physiologists call this “the training effect.”
Athletes report similar “plateaus of progress,” improving not only day by day, but in quantum jumps. This vascularization is the most essential factor in building endurance. It reduces fatigue in the skeletal muscles, saturating the tissue with oxygen and carrying away more wastes. It is a vital factor in the health of the heart, the most important muscle of all. More or larger blood vessels supplying the heart tissue with energy-producing oxygen considerably reduce the chances of any cardiac failure. And even if a heart attack were to occur, the improved blood supply would help to keep the surrounding tissue healthy and improve chances for a speedy recovery.
Consider an analogy in the spiritual realm. Spiritual experience shows a similar correlation to physical conditioning. After sustained discipline, our spiritual lives respond and deepen with increased vitality and sensitivity to God’s presence and direction. Likewise, when we step out in faith, only then do we experience the reality of faith. When we make a commitment to sacrificial giving or to serving or to regular discipleship—only then do our hopes turn into reality.
For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8)
Here’s the principle: Strength comes with the doing. If no demand is made, no strength is supplied! Paul wrote,
“Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 New English Translation).
If you want to experience spiritual vitality, put yourself in a place where a demand is made upon you. Bring Jesus Christ into your conversation. Say yes to mentoring a child or young person who has just begun walking with Jesus. Reach out to a neighbor in need. Pray with a person for a problem they have.
When we step out in faith, our faith grows. When we step out, we will be amazed at our experience of God’s presence. It may not–in fact usually does not–come in a dramatic way. It may not happen all at once– remember the training effect. But there will be a sense of peace and confidence that you’ve done the right thing, and God is pleased.
Achieving strength and competence takes time. But that time brings a huge return on investment.
“Your obedience is known to all and thus I rejoice over you. But I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. The God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:19-20).
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
Cues and clues to life’s deeper meaning and purpose surround us in every moment. But it’s so easy to miss them. Human experience can be rich beyond comparison, but many of us settle for a spiritually impoverished existence. Every moment gives the opportunity to learn, to say thank you, to pray, to reach out and to reach in—if we will learn to see these. There is so much to explore, to understand, to consider that it can be overwhelming. To make the most of it we need to be equipped with an expectant attitude, trained with tools for mining the moments, and discipled by models that instruct and inspire us. That is the purpose of this blog. It is a spiritual journal for maximizing our experience of God in everyday life.
The starting point is to see the spiritual application of a lesson we learned from the earliest age about traffic safety: Stop, Look and Listen.
I love to travel and explore. I’ve visited over 25 countries for ministry and/ or vacation and have more on my list. And I’m even more fascinated by the inner geography of the heart and mind, what someone has called (I cannot find who), “the continents within us.” That’s why it is important to make time for exploring your inner life. Make space for God. I can think of nothing more essential for the cultivation of a rich, full experience of life. People pile up experiences but often fail to savor those experiences. When we stop, we pay attention. We give ourselves the gift of ceasing activity so we can explore the layers of life.
Have you ever been in the middle of an activity and suddenly realized: This is really special? It’s happened to me at family gatherings, in worship services, in meetings with special people, and in simple times of joy. Stopping may be for just a moment, or it may be at the end of a day—but learn how to take time to reflect.
I think this is especially important for parents. We live in a day when parents are very intentional about setting their children up for success. From preschool on, parents want to get the best teachers for their children and to involve their children in sports and clubs that will provide the best platforms for future progress. But what about a child’s inner life? What about a child’s soul? There are very, very few opportunities outside of a vital church fellowship where a child’s inner life can be nurtured. A starting point is helping them stop and ask questions like: Where is God in this moment? What am I thankful for right now? What am I learning right now—about God, myself, others, and the world around me? Where do I need help? Jesus takes the lives of our children very seriously. Jesus said, “And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me” (Matthew 18:5, New Living Translation). I am so thankful for those who welcome children and help them stop so they can learn about God’s love and care.
Stopping does not mean the cessation of activity. It means a change of focus. That’s where our next step, “Look,” comes in. We make time to pay attention. Make time to look around; make time to look within. What am I feeling and thinking right now? Why am I reacting or responding in a particular way?
I am fascinated by black and white photographs. Of course there are wonderful color photographs and images. But there’s something also mesmerizing about black and white images. The work of Ansel Adams comes to mind. Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph; you make it.” He also said, “There are always two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer.”
In other words, we bring something to the photograph. That’s true of every experience we have. Life doesn’t happen around us. Life happens in us. And this is all the more important when we embrace the belief that we are spiritual-physical beings, created in God’s image to experience life as God’s special creations. As Psalm 8 says:
3 When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers— the moon and the stars you set in place— 4 what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? 5 Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority.
Psalm 8:3-6, New Living Translation
When we look, we take time to allow an image to form in our hearts and minds. We have the privilege of “freezing a moment” so that it can live on in a very special way. I have kept a spiritual journal for over 45 years. Each journal entry is like a photograph of my heart and mind and life at that moment. When I go back to read past entries (which is often called “harvesting” your journal), it’s like I’m back in the moment. And the practice of journaling has trained me to capture moments in nearly every day.
Even as we use multiple senses for traffic safety, we also use multiple means for spiritual vitality. I began this piece with a quote from Frederick Buechner, an American writer and theologian. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of more than thirty published books. He took a position as school minister at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire instituting a new, full-time religion department at the one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States. After nine years, he moved full-time to his farm on Rupert Mountain, Vermont. Here’s the full quote about listening to life.
I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly…. If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. [Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life (Harper SanFranciso, 1992), citing Now and Then, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983, pages 92, 87].
Buechner activates all the senses in bringing depth, fullness, richness to life’s moments. And, above all, we are always listening for grace, for that sense of God’s loving presence in the present.
I invite you to join me as I write this spiritual journal for maximizing our experience of God and our inner selves in everyday life. My goal is to equip us with an expectant attitude, train us with practical tools for mining the moments, and disciple us by providing models that instruct and inspire us.
Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.