Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Forming a Rule of Life

Following up on my previous post about taking a personal inventory, the Rule of Life is a great tool for implementing healthy change in your life.

All important parts of life require planning. A lack of planning almost guarantees a lack of good development. This is true of sports, child development, education, and retirement. It is also true of our growth in Christ. Paul said as much in I Corinthians 9:27:
“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Rules of Life
The word rule derives from the Latin word regula, from which we get words like “regular” and “regulate.” Having a Rule of Life is a way to organize your life to ensure that you are doing what is necessary to keep your faith growing and your character strengthening. 

A Rule of Life really centers around two questions, which it combines into a third question:
1. Who do I want to be? 
2. How do I want to live? 
3. Put these together and you get: "How do I want to live so I can be who I want to be?"

Developing your own Rule of Life

Every person’s Rule of Life will be a bit different, as each of us have our own life situations, schedules, strengths, and weaknesses; all of which should be considered as we lay out a play for how we want to live. A good Rule of Life is thoughtful about life rhythms daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly. Here are some questions you should ponder in thinking about what elements you want to include and how often. 

1. When I want to be closer to God, what do I typically find most helpful?
I addressed this in my previous post. Every person has some ways that naturally help them feel closer to God. 

When you put a plant near a window, you have to rotate it fairly regularly to keep the plant from becoming lopsided. Why? Because plants grow towards what give them life. We are no different. 

Begin by thinking about what for you is life-giving
A typical list of personal spiritual disciplines would include: 
Solitude, silence, prayer, reading Scripture, examining your conscience, confession, honoring your physical body (health & exercise), sabbath, fasting, journaling, fellowship, and worship.  

2. What are problem areas in my life, and how can I change them or redeem them?
What is taking life from you? What is making you feel empty and discouraged? These things don't come from God. 

All of us struggle with sin, and with tendencies that make us weaker in our faith. Most of us are painfully aware of what sins we struggle with. In addition to allowing time to pray about and repent of our shortcomings, it can be helpful to search for disciplines that move us to do the opposite of what weakens us.

For example, if you struggle deeply with gossip, it would be worth having deliberate time set aside to be silent in God’s presence, practicing the virtue of holding your tongue. If you spend a great deal of time fretting over relationships and how other people bother you, it would be good to have time set aside for regular self-examination where you focus more on what needs to be kept in order within your own life, and how you might affect others.

Another approach is to think about how we can learn to harness what is affecting us negatively in a way that helps us to grow. For example, a young parent might have very little opportunity for solitude or silence. The constant activity of young children could be a hindrance to spiritual growth, if the parent is seeking to grow primarily through silence and solitude. But if instead, the parent re-imagines time spent with children, it can be a source of growth. “Children are close to the heart of God, and when I spend time paying attention to how my children’s hearts work, it helps me to understand God’s heart better.”

3. What activities will stretch me as a Christian?
This relates to question one. Most of us have areas toward which we naturally gravitate. Introverted people find the disciplines of silence, solitude, and reflection very appealing. Extroverted people find fellowship, worship, and acts of service more appealing.

In addition to making time for what you naturally like to do, it is helpful to think about what areas of spiritual growth come less naturally to you, and commit to regularly experimenting with one or two of them regularly, as a challenge to yourself. 

The introvert may need to have a time each month where he or she experiences deeper fellowship with other Christians, or is involved in acts of service that require being out and about. The extrovert may need to learn how to be alone with God, with times of deeper reflection on Scripture.

I was called out on this in a class a few years ago. Each of us had to develop a rule of life, then share it with two classmates who would give us feedback. I thought I had put together a perfect plan, but my classmate kindly pointed out to me that 100% of my plan I could accomplish by myself. As an introvert, I realized I needed to grow in the area of fellowship and service. This will likely never be the primary way I relate to God, but I know my commitment to participating in disciplines that are less natural to me will help me to be a more empathetic and well-rounded Christian. 

4. When in my life can I realistically make more space for God?
Think about what times of the day you can start living differently. Do you greet God when you wake up each morning, or do you head straight for Facebook? How about meal times? Bed time? 
What days of the week could be reclaimed as opportunities for growth? Are there other scheduled events in the year around which you should plan to spend more time?

5. Who will hold me accountable for growing in Christ?
As you develop a plan for how you want to live, it is important to have a person or two to whom you will be accountable for living by this plan. In addition to planning times of prayer, journaling, reading, and personal retreats, I line up people who will be spiritual companions for me in the next year. I try to always find one person I want to mentor me, and another whom I desire to encourage. I arrange to meet with each of them on a monthly basis for the next year. Often, we agree to read a book or two together over the year to give us something to share about. It has produced some really meaningful friendships for me over the last few years, and deeply blessed my Christian walk. 
This is not to be a rigid, legalistic endeavor, but a flexible one, where you do the best you can, knowing that even if you miss some of your plan some of the time, you are still moving in a better direction because you have done so deliberately. Is there a person you could get with regularly for mutual friendship/sharing/mentoring as you both strive to be better Christians?

Forming a Personal Plan
The goal in this exercise is not to overburden yourself. The goal is to help you take some deliberate baby steps in implementing rhythms into your spiritual life that will help you grow towards your goal of being like Jesus.

The best Rule of Life is one that you will actually practice. Don't try to come up with a plan that Jesus himself couldn't live up to. Plan something that you really can do, and are willing to commit to. This Rule of Life practice is not for the purpose of creating a new Levitical code to provide you with a source of personal guilt. Sometimes you'll fail, and that's ok. Give yourself the grace of a new start and try again, and if you need to, revise the rule of life to work better for you.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” - Luke 6:40

Think about how your better life will look on a normal basis. Your personal Rule of Life should finally end up in a form like this (filled in, of course):

DAILY I will:
WEEKLY I will:
YEARLY I will:

For me, I learned that the only way to make sure I'll follow my plan is to schedule it on a Google Calendar; the same way I schedule all other important life events. 

If we are going to live better, it won't happen on accident. Be responsible for your life, and commit your plans to the Lord.

Happy New Year!


The Contemplative Preacher: Taking A Personal Inventory

If as Christians we desire to grow, then growing requires changing. It is important that we give effort to the ways in which we want to change. Here on the last day of the year, it is a good time to take a personal inventory.

The simplest way to do that is to use an Ignatian-style question and ask yourself:
1. What for me has been life-giving?
2. What for me has been life-taking?

If, as James says, all good things come from God, then the things in our life that are from God will be helping us to live with purity, integrity, courage, peace, joy, mercy, and all other fruits of the Spirit. Things from our enemy will call us towards a life that is divided, secretive, selfish, frustrated, discouraged, and vengeful.

Part of making personal goals for a new year will necessarily involve removing from our life what is not from God and replacing it with the good things that do come from knowing God better.

Each person has their own characteristics that distinguish them from every other person.  Even twin children, raised by the same parents, in the same house, in the same town, at the same school, attending the same Church will be different people.  Without a doubt, our differences affect our congregations.  We’ve all seen contention where people of opposing preferences have a hard time reaching a middle ground.  Each of us has different ways that we prefer to respond to God, and we should be considerate of our fellow Christians’ needs.

Here are some of the ways that people feel close to God:

These get close to God by reading the Bible and other books.  They feel that they’ve heard a good sermon if they learned something interesting.  Some Biblical Thinkers would include Paul, Daniel, and Isaiah.

These get close to God by worship.  They love to think of Heaven in terms of the awesome praise they’ll get to help offer up in the presence of God.  They feel it’s been a good worship service if people really got into the singing, and the prayers were meaningful.  Biblical Praisers might include David, Moses, and Mary the mother of Jesus.

These really love beauty and aesthetic things.  They may struggle with the temptation to skip church and go camping instead, because for them, God is closest when they are in nature.  Why can’t we have worship outside more often?  They love to forward e-mails of pretty nature pictures, and to experience God’s majesty through His artistry.  Biblical Creation-Lovers might include Jesus, David, and several of the apostles who had been fishermen.

Some people feel like they can’t really be with God unless they have a quiet place.  They are naturally inclined towards contemplative prayer.  When they get “alone time,” they emerge feeling energized.  Biblical Withdrawers might include Jonah, Elijah, and Jesus.

No matter how much time you spend together, Fellowshipers wish you didn’t have to go your separate ways.  Being with other Christians energizes them.  They like attending worship services, but they live to talk to people before and afterwards.  They thrive on relationships.  Biblical examples of Fellowshipers might be Barnabas, Joseph, and Mary (Martha’s sister).

Some people need to be caring with their hands and to show compassion.  Ministries like Meals-on-Wheels are a perfect fit for them.  Biblical examples of Servers might include Tabitha (Dorcas), Abraham, and the Good Samaritan.  

All people are made in God's image, and can help us grow by learning different ways to feel connected to God. I'm sure most people would fit into more than one of these categories, as I know I do.

In my next post, I'll be talking about developing a Rule of Life, which is a plan for how you intend to live. For now, though, you might spend some time thinking about the ways you naturally do feel closer to God. It's important to allow space in your life to do what helps you to know God is near. Beyond this, I think it's equally important to find an area in which to push yourself that does not come easily to you.

I prepared this self-survey a few years ago to help people discern the areas they are most drawn to and the ones they are least drawn to. I'd encourage you to download it, print it, take it, and then see how the results sort out for you.

Spiritual Disciplines Preferences Survey

To receive blog posts in a newsletter form, feel free to subscribe here


Monday, December 01, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: The Word in Different Flesh

In my previous posts, I've talked about looking at Scripture in small chunks. Here I want to talk about looking at Scripture in ways that bring out the larger picture. 

It can be refreshing to experience Scripture in physical forms that are different than the traditional black, small-font, leather-bound book. There's nothing wrong with this format, but as its intention is to fit a lot into a small package, there are limitations to it. It doesn't lend itself well to note-making. Also, if you spent a lot on a Bible, you don't want to mess it up with ink that bleeds through those thin pages too much in certain places, or comments too full to allow space for future comments. 

Here are three ways I've been trying to bring Scripture out of the traditional bound book so that I can have different kinds of interactions with the text.

Method 1: Out Loud
As simple as it sounds, there is real benefit to reading Scripture aloud. I now do this with every book in preparation to preach from it. Until you give it a voice, you might not pause to consider many of the sounds and emotions involved. "When Jesus made this statement, did he speak quickly or slowly? Was he happy, angry, or disinterested?" When you try to give a voice to the words, it forces you to put yourself more into the passage. 

As you are reading out loud, it helps you to notice refrains. You'll more likely remember a similar phrase from an earlier passage when you are reading large chunks aloud in a single setting. 

One of the best aspects of reading aloud is that you cannot skip over anything. If you commit to verbalizing every word, you cannot stick only to the familiar or favorite parts. All receive at least some of your attention.

Of course, audio Bibles can be useful for this also, if you can avoid letting yourself tune them out with other thoughts. I've found audio Bibles to be especially useful in studying Proverbs. Where I rapidly jump from verse to verse, it is refreshing to have to listen and wait for a narrator to let you progress to the next bit of wisdom. One great way to get the Bible out of its binding is to return it into a spoken word format, as much of it was originally given.

Method 2: Mega-Scroll

In the last couple of years, my good friend Les Chapman showed me a method he uses for in depth Bible study that has been really helpful to me. He prints out the entire text of a biblical book, then tapes all the page edges together with clear packaging tape. Do all your taping on the back side. Also, it is good to apply a line of tape all along the outer most edge of the entire scroll, as it helps it to hold together and resist tearing.
What this gives you is a printed version of the Biblical text on paper thick enough for really making notes. In preparation to preach, I like to read through a book multiple times. I will experiment with reading through for different purposes, each time using a different color to make highlights of a certain emphasis. 

For example, I'll use one color for words of admonition, another for words of warning, another for Old Testament references, and another for descriptions of actions or deeds.
The benefit of the large scroll is that you can really see connections between passages that would not otherwise be visible to you. 

Sometimes I print the text plain, and do all the highlighting by hand. Other times, I do a lot of it in the document I'm preparing of the text, then supplement it by hand. The Revelation text in the image I prepared on my computer, then added to by hand. I had it on display in the teen classroom as we studied Revelation, and it was really helpful for them in understanding the flow of the book, and things like the patterns of seven. You can download the full Revelation text as I prepared it for printing here. Look at the last page of the document for a key to how I used different colors in preparing the text.

At Kings Crossing, I have been preaching through James. Here is the full text of James I printed, then read through multiple times, looking for themes and points to highlight. On this particular text, I opted to include no verse number or divisions, forcing myself to decide what I believed the logical breaks and transitions were. It's a healthy way to immerse yourself in the text.

The most ambitious scroll I ever created contained all of the minor prophets. This was a whopper that took up an entire bulletin board on a classroom wall. Originally, these books occurred together on one scroll called The Book of the Twelve. I wanted to read the minor prophets together in light of each other, and this method really brought out some fascinating connections. For example, themes emerged from the endings of some books next to the beginnings of others, making the thematic, rather than chronological arrangement of the Minor Prophets seem very intentional. Also, Hosea and Malachi create bookends through their emphases on marital fidelity and divorce. These are things you notice when you can look at all of the books at once, rather than flipping through small pages as you go.

Method 3: Printed Pages

For a less ambitious version of Method 2, there is still great benefit in printing out the biblical book on nice paper, and putting it in a binder. A recent Kickstarter project called Bibliotheca has attempted something similar to this. Though I intend to buy a copy, there's no real reason to have to spend so much when you can do your own without much trouble. 

I like using for this, because if you click on the little gear next to the Scripture, you can choose options such as whether or not you want the text to have headings, verse numbers, or footnotes. I copy and paste all the text from the website, having selected my text version and options.

When you paste it into a document, you have great options, such as creating huge margins for notes. You can pick a font and font size that is especially pleasing to your eye. Removing verse numbers and headings will help you read passages in context, rather than letting scholars guide you into what should be considered a section of thought. Play around with it!

These are some ways I have found helpful in seeing Scripture more in context, keeping the larger picture in mind. What methods have been helpful to you?