Tonight’s assignment is look at the items I identified in yesterday’s assignment, and look at where I have strengths and weaknesses in the following categories: Foundations (Putting God at the center), prayer, work, study, spiritual companionship, care of my body, reaching out, and hospitality. Where do I need to round out my spiritual formation?
The difficult part of this assignment may be to give myself credit for what I do. It is easy to look at that list of categories and say, “well, I’m not doing enough here, nor here, nor here. Gee, I must not be a very good Christian!” Of course, the very nature of Christianity is that we can never reach the ideal, represented in the life of Christ. And while we must live in the tension between being satisfied and continuing to grow, I think it is important to acknowledge the positive aspects of my spiritual life. Additionally, some of you reading this may think, “wow, he’s doing much worse/better than me.” Spiritual formation, however, is not a comparative process or a competition. It is a process that happens between God and a Christian in the shape of a relationship. The only standard is the life of Christ and what God made each of us to be.
In the first category, of putting God at the center, I think this is a slowly evolving process. I am reminded of the labyrinth, with its broad outer circle that slowly moves to the center, only to move back out again. After my time in the spiritual desert, my last four years have been about slowly moving God back to the center of things. Rejoining a church, starting seminary, learning about myself, reinvigorating my quiet time, and improving my connections with people have all been about centering my life around a relationship with God. At this point, the shape perhaps is more elliptical, with one foci being God and one foci being the part of me that resists putting God at the center. I hope that the slowly those two foci will merge into one point.
My initial reaction about my prayer life is that it is a weak area. However, I choose to put fasting in this category, as a form of physical prayer (though one could argue that all prayer is physical). So it is a mixed success. I definitely need to improve the quality of my prayer, particularly the listening side of prayer. I can say what’s on my heart, but I just don’t make time to hear what’s on God’s heart. I seem to have more success with a series of small quick prayers throughout the day, than with sitting down for twenty minutes and praying. I tend to get really distracted – and surely that’s someone else’s fault!! I am hoping that the experience of this week will help me improve my prayer life.
I have some kind of mental/emotional block about thinking of my work as a spiritual endeavor. In many ways I think of my work as something I do well and have lots of skill at, but not as something I do to nurture my relationship to God. I have a difficult time opening myself up to the idea that somehow I’m accountable to God for how I do my work. I honestly am not sure how to overcome this or what to do next. This is a very thorny issue for me.
Now, as far as study goes, I think this is an area of strength for me. I love to learn and certainly seminary has been very important in focusing my studies. It has also enriched my quiet time, as I’m really enjoying reading the Bible now that I’ve got a better understanding of what is really going on. I don’t confine my studies to what’s on a syllabus, I find myself seeking out other sources of information to round out what I’m learning in the classroom. If anything, in the category of study, my biggest risk is that I’ll seek to learn too much and never seek to apply it. Knowledge only for the self runs the risk of intellectual narcissism.
I was thinking about the idea of spiritual companionship as presented in Farrington’s book and the text for the spiritual formation program, Soul Feast. In both of those texts, much is made of submitting to a spiritual director. Given my past, that is a very difficult thing to do. However, it occurred to me that by posting this journal on-line, in some way I’m opening up my spiritual life in some very dramatic ways. It may be that a model that will work better for me will be to share what is going on in my spiritual life with friends as I go along. Last month a couple of my friends from church pointedly asked me some questions about my spiritual direction – it was a little scary, but I feel like it helped deepen my relationship with them and it affirmed that I’m not heading off on some random direction on my own. Still, I think I’ll have a very difficult time finding a spiritual director.
As I was eating a plateful of bacon this morning, I was thinking about how well I take care of my body. I don’t smoke, drink alcohol or caffeine. I play soccer 2-4 times a week. I take my dog for a mile long walk most mornings. I try and get 8 hours of sleep a night. I don’t always eat completely healthy, but for the most part I do okay. I worry that when I have a family one day that this will go by the wayside. But for now there isn’t much room for improvement. Other than the bacon, but I’ve got to have a vice or two!
I definitely am weak in the areas of reaching out and hospitality. I have done a lot of thinking about my contributions to making a better society as a function of my Christianity. More and more I’m becoming convinced that I need to serve more. Matthew 25 directly challenges me to think about the places where I find Christ. Indeed in this passage, Jesus defines discipleship as a series of actions, not as a series of “thou shall nots” that are so prevalent in conservative Christianity. I’m simply not doing anything in this area. I feel so busy with everything that I tell myself that I just don’t have time to add one more thing. I suppose that I could find some ways of serving at the hospital, but have been too distracted to volunteer.
In many ways I think I have a gift for hospitality – it’s the southerner in me. I have fond memories of my parents opening up our house to ROTC cadets in Auburn. And any time I have people over to my house, I feel better for it. I think, however, that this is likely to develop more when (if) I get married. There is something about having a partner that makes hospitality seem more rewarding.
So, where do I need to add balance to my spiritual life? In some ways it is more about finding the sacred in everything I do, like work. In some ways it is about taking risks through opening up or reaching out. And in some ways it is about finding ways to deepen what I already do. It is rather painful to read all of the areas where I need to improve, though I think I should give myself credit for where I am compared to where I was. I, of course, won’t be the finished article until I am buried. Nor would I want to be.