Creating a Rule of Life, pt 7

This message gets a lot of play in church.  In my church, there is an assumption that serving is so much a part of our Christian life that there’s rarely a Sunday when service of some kind isn’t mentioned.

I almost don’t need to connect this to the practice of developing a Rule because we live by the implied rule that doing for others is Christian or religious or spiritual at its core.  It’s hard to live in the world and not care for others, give to others, and serve for others.  It’s even harder to be a part of a religious tradition and not serve, because service is a part of most, if not all, religious traditions.

Still, the placement of this in the work of developing a Rule is important because having service somewhere in this instrument of spiritual growth will help us 1) reflect on our service, 2) inspect our motives for service, and 3) discern what we’ll do next as we care for others.

That’s the framework when it comes to questioning or discovering what kind of service needs to be in your rule.  Where have I served or given to others?  To serve is to be generous; it is to give of one’s self and one’s stuff.

Serving, when paired with reflection, is another way of reflecting upon our motives.  We ask, “Why am I doing this?”

Richard Foster wrote, “When the heart is purified by the action of the Spirit, the most natural thing in the world is the virtuous thing.  To the pure in heart, vice is what is hard.”

I agree with Foster.  For the person whose heart continually turns toward the Divine, sin and wrongdoing and wrongbeing is what’s hard.  But that transformation of motivation takes a long time, i.e., a life time.

I’d love to know that rather than jumping at the chance to serve, the people in my church were pausing long enough to question their motives.  Not so that their motives would be pure and sacred.  It’s impossible to get to the clear ground of a person’s motivation.  No matter how long we search or how long we look, we’ll never be truly aware of our motives.  But we can survey them.  We can question them.

Third, placing service in your rule is a simple way of looking forward to what’s next.  There is a host of ways to serve around you.  In your family or your apartment building, in your residence or in your workplace, there are countless needs–some of which you can meet.  What do you do next?  Carry with you your clarified sense of intention, your hopes and expectations, your goals for personal transformation, your awareness of God who works–always–through people.

Then, listen to that voice that’s within you, that voice that either sounds so familiar you gauge that it isn’t God’s or that voice that is so strange and uncommon that it could be nothing other than God’s.  Perhaps that voice is the hushed voice of friends who are sure that you should do this or do that.

Don’t retreat from the service others call you to.  Inspect it prayerfully.  Wonder around in it for a while.  See if there’s a place in it for you.

That’s the way I came into ministry.  I was headed toward the more effective arena of politics in my earlier view.  I wanted to study law so I could write law.  I wanted to give my skills over toward the social-political world and have God use me there.  I knew I wanted to be of service, and of God’s service, in the world.  But I didn’t entertain ministry until others told me to.

I tell people who ask about my “call story,” that the story was written by the community of people who told me to face this way and go that way when it came to my call.  I was headed elsewhere, but the persistent whisper emerging in me was repeated, distilled, and clarified in the inflections and voices of church people around me.  And they’re as much responsible for my life of service as anybody.

So, for you, what service do you need to start doing?  What will you write into that Rule to turn you both inward, toward that inside voice, and outward, toward the world that very much needs you?

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 6

I like to tell people to “Take care,” when I end calls and emails.  Because I don’t waste words–not intentionally–I think about how to end interactions.  Sometimes I tell people to “Stay well” or I’ll close an email with “Every blessing,” taking the ending from Dr. Walter Elwell who emailed me about a paper once when I was in grad school.  I still love that closing and every time I use it, I think of him and what he taught me about Jesus in my first class studying theology.  Of course, most people don’t give that much thought to how I close my emails.  Still, when I write “Take care,” I’m often thinking of the focus of this part of the Rule.

This isn’t caring for someone else.  This is care for you by you.  Most people are told–in a variety of ways–to care for others, but being told to care for self and actually doing so feels selfish.  Consider the notion of being selfish.  The snarky but well-meaning me wants to say that we are selves, that we are alive to be who we are and nothing else.  When it comes to being selfish the question is, can we be anything else?

I know when people say it they intend to suggest that we not make ourselves the center of the universe, that we become giving people, and that we not restrict our experience of the world to the limits of our skin, our arm’s length, and our conceived notions.  Still, all selfishness isn’t created equal.

I was speaking with pastoral psychotherapist Dr. Janice Hodge earlier this year and she reminded me of Jesus’ words where he summed up the commandments into a two-part law.  It’s the one where Jesus said to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Dr. Hodge underlined the as yourself part and told me that most people dismiss that clincher.  I’ve learned this over the years, forgotten it, and am learning it again.

The rule of life becomes a vehicle where we attend to others, to serving others, for sure.  But it also makes us question what we’ll remember, be mindful of, and execute for the sake of ourselves.  We don’t love others if we don’t love ourselves.  What we do is attempt to love, try to love, get at love.  We may be on the way to loving, but without the as yourself part, we’re still, simply, trying.

Because our denomination is strong in this area for its clergy persons, I have a pretty developed practice of self-care.  I teach seminarians in this area as well, and anytime I answer questions around self-care, I’m immediately reflecting on my ups and downs, successes and failures at living it.

What do you need to do to attend to yourself?  What activity do you need to start or end?  Who do you need around you for the next six months, the next year, to strengthen you?  Of course, we’ll get to the next parts of the Rule which have to do with what you’ll do for people, how you’ll love God or others.  But stay with this until you come up to some unmistakable clarity about taking care of you.

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 4

Study.  One word that doesn’t exactly inspire people.  It’s read as a command to most of us.

Our teachers tell us to study.  Our parents repeat the same.  We are told by tests and by jobs and preachers and their scriptures.  Study.  Can this word, this act, be at all worth our incorporating into a rule that forms and transforms us?

I heard a colleague say the other day that Christian spirituality is not anti-intellectual.  We were discussing a class we’re preparing to teach, talking about the reading load for it versus other courses similarly categorized.  We were in agreement that what we had (and will have) students read was necessary for the work we were trying to accomplish in the course.

One way of thinking through how study fits into the Rule is by asking what the objective is.  Dallas Willard’s writing is thick with this.  He says in many ways that to be a Christian is to be a student of Jesus.  We cannot be students of Jesus (or any religion really) if we are not learners.  We have to study to be his followers.

I think to something a mentor said to me years ago about preaching.  He said, “I don’t study to get ready.  I study to be ready.”  It was his way of saying that his work (and, by hopeful implication, my work) was to prepare in a way that he was always reasonably within the neighborhood the scriptures, always in some portion of conversation with God, always asking the hard questions of how whatever God said related to what we say.

What’s the objective?  That’s one question.  Another question in preparation for the Rule is, “What do I need to know right now?” Another version of that is, “What do I need to grow in over the season that this Rule will be in effect?”

Sometimes we focus ourselves on certain things.  For a while, I was only reading 19th century United States of American history.  I had to focus on it.  In seminary I trained my gaze on pastoral care and theology.  I’ve sensed pushed myself to read poetry, to always be reading fiction, poetry, theology, and history.  To dabble in a collection of essays and to look for a good memoir.  For me, this choice is an extension of the study part of my internal Rule.  I need to always be growing in these areas.  Language is at the core of all my work.  Church, teaching, curriculum, and counseling all require the precise, careful, thoughtful and regular use of words well chosen.  So that frames what I study.

A final question worth pondering is, “What’s in me that I need to study?”  This gets down to me in my rule.  I need to see certain things about myself that I’m not seeing.  I need to notice not only the words of others in those published materials, but I need to read and review the words and phrases etched in me.

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 3

Prayer is much broader than saying something to God.  That’s a good partial summary of prayer.  But there are, at least, two things that would enrich that summary.  The first is small, the second a lot larger.

First, as much as prayer is about talking to God, it is also about God talking back.  Some people have trouble with that.  After all, God talking back can be problematic.

It’s hard to know when God’s talking.  It’s hard not to blame things on God after you’ve gotten adjusted to this God-back-talking.  People have said that God has said a lot of suspicious things.  Plus, there’s the problem of that creative utterance.  In the scriptures, when God speaks, things move, people live, people die, worlds that weren’t become.  God’s speech is full and capable and hardly tentative.

Back to the second part about prayer: it is communicating with God whether or not there are words.  There is a passage in the New Testament that encourages what Eugene Peterson calls “prayerfulness.”  The passage says that we should pray without stopping, pray all the time, pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Commentators split about what this means in the pastoral letter, and the way Peterson comes to such language is by talking about prayerfulness.

Prayer is at the center of the Rule of Life.  Communicating with God, you talking to God and God talking to you, is the assumption of the Rule.  Of course, if God communicates with us, then we can hear what God says.  We can keep in the direction of God.  We can continue listening to the various ways God will speak.  Even when there aren’t words, we can train ourselves and our gestures in God’s direction.  We can add things which help us attend to God.  We can remove things that take such full-awareness-of-God away.

The act of preparing a Rule, then, can be prayerful.  Breathing and whispering for God to guide you as you think about what to do and what not to do is as much prayer as anything.  Waiting for that guidance is prayer too.  Waiting all day long, opening yourself up, is prayer too.  Do you get the picture?

So, whisper that in your own way: what should I do, God?  What should I focus on?

You’re already surrounding the creation of your Rule in prayer.  And now, start listening.

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 2

The center of your life never needs much explanation because life centers always have all of us communicating for them.  We communicate with our full selves who or what is at the center of us.

In other words, I know the bottom of a person’s spirit by good observation, listening, and patience.  Those three behaviors help me pay attention both to who that person is and to who or what sits at the center of that individual.

You can see my presupposition: everybody has something sitting at the center of his or her being.  There may be exceptions that I’d make to that comment, but most people have something or someone that is primary and of ultimate significance.  Something at the center.

Most people who practice a religion would accept their religious rituals and behaviors and teachings as outflows of that language about Someone at the center.  That would be God.

Religious or not (if a person can not be religious), living well cannot be done without knowing who’s there.  Further, living well cannot be done without conscious choosing who’s at the center and who gets to stay there.

To create a Rule, it’s helpful consider who or what is at the center of one’s life.  In that consideration, we question our behaviors and choices in an effort to inspect the bottom of those behaviors and choices.  We look at our selves through the lens of our experiences in order to wonder around into the deeper floors of our selves.

We ask, what am I doing?  It’s a plain question.  What do I spend myself on?  A calendar starts the answer.  I’ve spent my days, my thoughts, my time doing thus and so.  The surface level answers lead us to a less-seen, less-trafficked place: the center.

We ask more questions.  What does this calendar of thoughts and behaviors say about my values?  What do these things say about who is of importance to me?

Creating a Rule of Life is an activity of putting God continually at that center.  But the survey of who or what is there first may open us to the kinds of activities we need to employ in order to unseat someone else.