10 Questions for the New Year

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The New Year is a great time to take inventory as you look back over the past year and do some “holy daydreaming” as you approach the new one. A primary tool for the most effective assessment and planning is asking good questions.

Questions have the power to change our lives. They move us from being spectators to participants. They cause us to stop and take stock of what we believe and how we behave. They push us to challenge our assumptions, assess our needs, clarify our thinking and confront our imposed limitations. They prod us to analyze, criticize and synthesize.

The Greek philosopher Socrates is best known for recognizing the power of leading students to discovery through questions.

In the course of writing my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, I was intrigued by the spiritual power of questions in the Bible. In the course of my research, I became acquainted with Bobb Biehl, President of Masterplanning Group International (Yes, there are two ‘b’s in his first name). In his booklet, Asking to Win: One Hundred Profound Questions, he writes,

As you master the art of asking profound questions you’ll be able to unlock information, insight and wisdom with a friend in any situation. You’ll be able to open doors to inner motivation and dreams which no one has ever been able to unlock. You’ll be able to solve problems, analyze risks and take leadership you’ve never before dreamed possible. For questions are like intricate brass keys which unlock the lock boxes of people’s minds and heart, their hopes and dreams.

I appreciate Bobb’s image of questions as keys. Another image I see is that the right question is like a jeweler’s chisel that breaks open an uncut, dull-looking stone into a precious treasure with gleaming facets of beauty and value.

While we could explore literally hundreds of stimulating questions, that would be overwhelming. My hope is that you will use this blog in the coming days for some intentional reflection and planning. The best way to make any progress is to focus on a narrow framework of simply looking back and looking forward.

Remember: Five questions for looking back to celebrate and learn.

The Bible places a great deal of emphasis on remembering what God has done (and also crying out to God to remember his covenant with his people). Memory awakens gratitude and also provides the context for learning from our lives.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your wonders of old. (Psalm 77:11 English Standard Version).

  • Where and when did I see you, Lord, working this past year?
  • If I had to summarize my year in one word or phrase, what would it be? Why?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities came my way I never expected?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities did I miss?
  • What was my primary accomplishment this past year?

Anticipate: Five question for looking forward to maximize your time.

The Bible calls us to be intentional and make the most of the time God gives. There’s power when we focus on specific goals.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16 ESV).

  • What are two or three important goals I have for the coming year? (Think, for example, in terms of personal, relational, vocational and recreational—relaxation and renewal—areas).
  • What projects would energize me this year?
  • What do I need to stop?
  • What do I need to start?
  • What word or phrase can I use to keep my focus in this coming year?

These are my suggestions. I encourage you to ask and respond to additional questions that you feel will be most helpful. You’ll notice I haven’t asked any direct questions in the area of confession and repentance — though that is a rich area for prayer and reflection. Give yourself the gift of time– to make the most of the time God provides.

While wrong questions take us on senseless detours, the right questions take us to the very heart of life.

[Portions of this blog are adapted from my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, “Introduction,” xi-xii.]

The Fun Cut

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I rode my bike with two of our sons, Matthew and Peter, to a park near us for our own version of spring training. We had a great time hitting and throwing the baseball. Yes, there were a few touchy moments, like when one threw the ball at the other’s head — not on purpose, of course… But we had a good time.

I was really getting into the Dad thing, so I suggested we ride to Thrifty Drug Store for ice cream cones. We each had two scoops — I am one generous dad, you know — and then started to ride home. Peter, age 7 or 8 , was leading us and started to turn down a street that would take us a long way home.

“Peter, where are you going?” I call out. “That’s not a short-cut.”

“I know, Dad,” he said, “It’s a fun-cut!”

I stopped pedaling. A fun-cut! What a concept! I laughed out loud. It changed the whole ride home. Suddenly, my focus wasn’t on the destination, but the joy of riding with my boys. Sound corny? I mean it: I took time to look around at the houses and chat with the guys instead of racing home to the next activity.

Looking for short-cuts is a hazard in our hurried lives. As we try to cram more activities into each day, we shorten the time and attention given to any one of them. Those afflicted with this malady of “compulsive short-cut-itis” find themselves thinking of the next thing, instead of the thing they’re doing. We’re not present in the present.

Not all short-cuts are negative, of course, but there are some shadow sides to them. For example, if I do only those activities that come quickly, I miss the joy of hard-won victories. If I do only the familiar, I miss the joy of adventure. If I do only that which is comfortable, I miss the joy of discovering I can push myself to endure and give more than I imagined. If I rush, I fail to savor the experience.

Among other things, a fun-cut means taking time to add elements like creativity and caring touches. One family showed me this recently. Joanie, the wife, came home and found her husband, Gary, very upset. He’d lost his money clip that held a significant amount of cash from a bank withdrawal he’d just made. They scoured the house, turned his pants’ pockets inside-out, checked chair cushions and car seats. They retraced his steps. He’d just gone to the grocery, and heaven forbid if it had fallen out of his pocket in the check-out line or parking lot.

“Just call the manager,” Joanie urged. After initial resistance, Gary finally called. When he described the money-clip, the manager said, “I found it and took it home for safe-keeping. I will get it and have it here for you in ten minutes.” What a relief!

Here’s the fun-cut. Gary offered the manager a reward, but the manager refused to accept it. They could have just walked away in gratitude, but this couple got a gift certificate to a local restaurant and took it to the manager the next day. “We wanted to thank you again for your honesty. We’re letting others know about the integrity of the person managing this grocery. Please enjoy a great dinner on us.”

What a great way to affirm someone! It took a little creativity, time, and expense. But you can’t match the joy!

The Bible calls us to “redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15). I used to think this meant living efficiently with diligent time management. Now I affirm the wise stewardship of time, and believe it also includes living in a redemptive way. That means appreciating the fact that a bit of extra effort, a bit of “wasted time,” even a bit of indulgence, may have far more impact than just getting more tasks completed.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 is the most well-known passage on time in the Bible. Consider these verses as an invitation to take fun cuts even in the midst of life’s most difficult times.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:…
…. a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
… 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 New International Version)

Shortcuts may get us somewhere more quickly, but they may not be worth the cost in creativity, enjoyment and a more relaxed pace.

 

Intentional daily practices can alter history

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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).