Walking The Dog

Let’s praise the Lord that May is here; a warming earth now brings us cheer;
The flowers in their showy bloom, prepare to strike the winter’s gloom;
For spring that pushes cold away, gains strength with every passing day;
But though it’s now a fading threat, the artic chill I can’t forget.

My memory of this past winter will not be dispelled by a few warm days and a cheerful show of spring blossoms.  It isn’t just the gloomy weather that’s hard to forget, but the endless days of bone-chilling cold that started in early December and extended well into April.  Although we did not have a lot of snow, the winds were unrelenting as they easily drove the cold through multiple layers of clothing. Our local snowbirds headed south at the first sign of frost last fall.  No deep winter freeze for them as they fled the coming onslaught by sheltering in the far southern reaches of the Sunshine State.  I confess to feeling a bit jealous at times when seeing social media posts of walks on sandy beaches in wide-brimmed hats and Bermuda shorts.  But pity us not, because it was Pat’s and my choice to once again ride out the winter here in the north.  This would have been unremarkable except for a new activity that compelled me to go outside every day.  Walking the dog.

Winter is normally a time when I hunker down.  Falling temperatures and rising winds signal a time for covering with a blanket and reading a good book.  Certainly not for venturing outside for a walk.  But not this year.  For we now have a puppy!  And Daisy needs to go outside every day.  No excuses allowed.  When she needs to go out, she needs to go out; and because our yard is not fenced, a person must always be on the far end of her leash.  It is critical that dogs are exercised daily to keep them healthy and to avoid bad habits born of lethargy.  [A principle that is also true for people.]  Although Pat often takes her out for a short morning walk, I have become the Exerciser-in-Chief. For the most part, I am very happy to have this role, notwithstanding that for too many days this past winter the weather was dreadful.  Still, there was no reprieve from the daily chore.  Walking the dog.

The decision to get a puppy last year was based on Pat’s and my mutual desire to raise a therapy dog – for visiting hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities to cheer and encourage the lonely and the sick. Although our decision was intentional, the scope of the effort was masked by our exuberance when we looked at the first litter of Cavachon puppies.  These being pretty much the embodiment of cuteness!  So in our enthusiasm we took the plunge – like stepping off a high dive – and suddenly we were faced with the care of this new life.  One thing I did not completely consider before the “adoption” was that I was the logical, indeed only choice to handle the bulk of Daisy’s demanding exercise routine.  To be honest, going out in cold, windy, and often wet winter weather is not the path I would choose if I followed my natural leanings.  But I do it out of my love for Pat, a vision for training a therapy dog, and an expanding understanding of spiritual growth. Born of love was this commitment. Walking the dog.

Consider this composite vignette of a typical winter’s outing.  It is a frosty morning as Daisy and I leave the house for our first walk of the day.  I brace myself against the cold as I step out of the warm garage and into a cold wind that strikes my face like a swarm of angry bees.  Daisy seems oddly unaffected by the conditions and eagerly trots forward, nose to the ground.  I, on the other hand, hunch my shoulders and pull my hood tighter as we start our trek heading east up the street.  Despite the cold, I am struck by the physical environment of our neighborhood and by all that I miss when living indoors.  From the inside, it is a two-dimensional world looking out through a window.  But outside all is 3-D with the added dimensions of sound, touch and smell.  And today there is much of the natural world to experience.  Walking the dog.

We pause at the upper pond to consider an unusual flock of ducks that are wintering there.  These are our resident Mallards with a single white duck in their fold, which is no doubt an escapee from domesticated stock.  How strange it seems to see this large white duck living in easy harmony with the Mallards. No fighting or ostracism that I observe as they waddle together across the ice and drop effortlessly into an open hole of frigid water.  It occurs to me that we humans could learn something from this flock of ducks, particularly amid deepening political divisions in our country.  How easily we judge those of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities.  And how fearful many of us have become as a result.  Lord, forgive me where I have judged others wrongly; renew in me a desire for peace and unity; and lead me to live by Your word, How wonderful and good to live in unity and peace, To dwell in perfect harmony where joy and love increase.”(Psalm 133:1) Meditating, reflecting, praying.  Walking the dog.

We cross over onto the main path and after several minutes meet a couple walking closely arm-in-arm, a long-haired spaniel at their side.  They are neighbors who have lived in our development for several years, but I have never met.  The dogs sniff each other, as we people exchange our own brief greetings.  Not a long or deep conversation, but enough to establish a first connection.  I have met more neighbors in the past ten months while walking Daisy than in the preceding ten years.  I reflect on this with regret.  How isolated I have become.  I have probably read the parable of the Good Samaritan a hundred times, and yet I barely know most of my neighbors.  “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”(Philippians 2:4)  How can I look out for the interests of neighbors whom I’ve never met?  Walking the dog.

Daisy and I make our turn for home at the edge of a woodlot where a Red-bellied Woodpecker has established its territory. Some days I hear it pecking for insects in the trunks of dead trees, and occasionally I catch a glimpse of it as it flits from tree to tree.  Today, however, I hear its shrill call, sort of a rolling churrr that echoes in the forest.  As we quicken our pace against the cold, the call stops and only the gusting wind breaks the silence of the day.  In a month or so there will be cardinals, robins, and Tufted Titmice to serenade us; but for now we hear only the wind and our footsteps.  Yet the day has one more surprise for us as again we pass the pond that feeds the stream running behind our house.  For in a Mountain pine on a ledge above the pond, a Song Sparrow is stirring in its winter’s nest.  And here on this coldest of days we hear it sing out with a few tentative notes of its beautiful lyrical trill.  Not the full song, but enough of its joyous call to remind me that, The birds are safe in trees that thrive where rivers rush along; they nest among the verdant leaves and sing a happy song.”(Psalm 104:12)  I am never alone when I hear the sounds of nature, like getting a top-off for my soul. Walking the dog.

Coming to the end of our walk, I feel physically invigorated from the outing.  Walking thus twice a day, the distance adds up – perhaps as many as twenty miles per week. But the greater benefit is spiritual. “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”(1 Timothy 4:8)  For me, the discipline of walking the dog daily has become a spiritual discipline.  As I reflect on the benefits, I see opportunities for spiritual health – finding God in the natural world, getting to know my neighbors, and experiencing periods of solitude for thinking and praying.  I have seen many lists of traditional (and nontraditional) spiritual disciplines, but this is one I have never seen.  Walking a dog.

Jesus said we are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. We do this by seeking the sacred in the secular, by seeing the costly in the commonplace, and by securing the everlasting in the everyday events of life. There is virtually no activity so prosaic that it cannot be redeemed for the kingdom of God.  Brother Lawrence famously practiced the presence of God in the scullery where he was scrubbing dishes.  Jesus said “the kingdom of God is in your midst,” (Luke 17:21) which tells me it can be discovered wherever it is sought.  Even walking a dog.

How happy those who know God’s word and from it won’t depart,
And who are ever seeking Him with all their mind and heart.  
(Psalm 119:2)

S

Soul Care

“You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:14-15)

An antique mantle clock rests comfortably on a shelf of the cherry bookcase in our study. It is a plain old clock with a rough wooden case and glass door for viewing the clock face and pendulum. No chime or bells for this ancient timepiece, only a single movement that resonates with a sonorous, almost melodic tock, tick, tock, tick. What makes it special to me is that it once tolled time in the walk-in pantry of my parents’ house in Maine. Whenever we visited, there was its familiar beat marking the passage of time; its pendulum forever counting out the seconds in a soul-soothing cadence. To this day I find its sound highly evocative as it effortlessly takes me back to that earlier time and place.

The old clock has little to recommend itself as a functional timepiece. I don’t know that anyone in recent years ever relied on it to provide the precise time because it is notoriously difficult to regulate. And yet, the clock has a beauty in the deeply reassuring beat of its pendulum. These days, I hear it gently sounding in the still of the morning when I am walking in the hallway; I hear it during the day when I am reading in the study; and I hear it in the evening when I am retiring the house. Its only demand is a daily winding, which I usually do in a mid-afternoon ritual by opening the glass door, inserting a brass key in the winding mechanism and giving the key about eight half-turns. If it is running fast, I will sometimes lengthen the pendulum ever so slightly. If it is slow, just the opposite, I shorten the pendulum. But the critical thing is the winding because if I miss a day the clock stops and has to be both rewound and reset.

The clock is driven by a mechanical world hidden behind its face. It is a perfectly lovely world of springs, escapement and assorted gears that are precisely mounted one to the other to drive the clock hands. One gear turns another, which turns another, which moves the minute and hour hands in faultless synchronization. When all parts are properly aligned and oiled, the pendulum mounted, and the mainspring wound, the clock functions as its designer intended.

In a way, the inner world of a clock is very similar to the hidden world behind the façade of our visible self – a world that we know as the soul. The soul too can be a perfectly lovely world, except that instead of springs and gears, the soul is made up of the mind, heart, emotions, relationships, and habits. When these are properly aligned, then what we think, feel, speak, and do are united to the will of God. And our life functions as our Designer intended.

Yet, neither the clock nor our soul is naturally sustaining – each needs daily care and attention. In the case of the clock, its mainspring must be wound every day or else it runs down. In the case of our soul, it must be attended to every day or it too will run down. This is why the pursuit of virtue is an everyday affair. For as Jesus says, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The alternative is to have days where we don’t pick up our cross. These are days where anger and lust have free reign; days of self-absorption and ignoring others; days of criticizing and complaining. As daily spiritual inputs decrease, days like this increase.

So what is soul care? Soul care is nurturing our mind, heart, emotions, relationships, and habits in a way that draws us closer to the kingdom of God and His righteousness. It is renewing our mind by meditating on Scripture, reading good books, and viewing appropriate media. It is softening our heart by listening to great music, serving those in need, and enjoying nature. It is healing our emotions by controlling our thoughts, praying through our fears, and receiving godly counsel. It is pursuing our relationships by building friendships, forgiving those who have hurt us, and persevering in fellowship. And finally, it is developing the habits of holiness by turning from our besetting sins such as anger, lust, and greed, and learning the way of humility, faithfulness, and love.

Above all, soul care is intentionally following Jesus every day of our life. Famed pianist Jan Paderewski once said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” There is no doubt in my mind that God notices it when I go one day without spiritual input. How many days I wonder until I notice it? How many days until others notice it? The soul’s need for daily care is disregarded at one’s peril. For this surely is a way to give sin a foothold. A danger that the Lord expressed to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6)

The reality of sin crouching at my door is one that I take seriously because it is empirically verifiable in my life. Whenever I let down my guard, when I put my life on cruise control, inevitably I coast right into sin – I say hurtful things, repeat mistakes, forsake those I love, become ungrateful, and am increasingly anxious. NT Wright states it thus, “The difference between vices and virtues is this: Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice. But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.” (Interview with NT Wright)

My old clock does more than simply beat out a soothing rhythm. It is a constant reminder that my days are limited. For as the psalmist laments, “Oh we are but a moment, Lord, who soon will pass away; since dust we were and dust we’ll be and will forever stay. For in Your eyes a thousand years are like a day gone by, a watch that passes in the dark more swiftly than a sigh. You sweep us off as in a flood that rises in the night; for we are fragile like the grass that sprouts at dawn’s first light. We start our day as tender plants that spring up with the dew, but fade away by eventide when dry and withered through.” (Psalm 90:3-6)

Only the Lord knows the number of my days, so I don’t dwell on such things. However, I do think about what kind of person I am becoming in the time I have. I am convinced that the care I give my soul (or not) day in and day out will determine the answer. It will determine whether my soul will disintegrate under the slow poison of selfishness and pride; or, like the steady beating of my clock, all will be well with my soul.

S

The Good Life

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

Pat and I built a stone house in Palmyra, Maine in the late 1970’s. This was not ornamental rock veneer as in many upscale homes these days. Rather, it was self-supporting masonry with natural uncut fieldstone walls nearly a foot thick, resting on massive concrete/stone foundation walls. Roughly 100 tons of stone went into the construction, each stone lovingly harvested from rocky fields and overgrown walls throughout our rural town. The house site was carefully selected to command a sweeping view of grass fields bordered by woods, all gently descending towards the Sebasticook River. The house itself was to have a single level with full basement. Our initial plan called for massive footings to support the weight of the walls. But when the site was dug out, a solid but sloping rock ledge was uncovered that could not be penetrated by excavating equipment. The ledge dropped from about one foot below ground level on one end of the house site to about nine feet below ground at the other end. This meant that the house would have a crawl space on one end, increasing to a stand-up cellar on the other.

The inspiration for building a stone house came from a book entitled “Living The Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing. The Nearings were pioneers of the back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960’s, advocating a self-sufficient lifestyle that involved growing organic vegetables and living in houses built with local materials, which in their native New England meant fieldstone. Their book was part how to build a stone house, part how to raise an organic garden, and part how to live intentionally within a community. For a baby boomer depressed by the war in Vietnam and trying to “find himself,” what they preached was intoxicating. And what they taught about how to build with stone, though labor intensive, seemed straight forward enough.

Although the rock ledge meant we would not have a full basement, it also meant that there would be no need for an enormous footing to support the foundation and house walls. The solid rock ledge was stronger than the stoutest constructed footing, and thus we decided to build fourteen inch thick foundation walls directly on the ledge. And so, ever so slowly, over the summer of 1976, with the use of slip forms, the walls were laid up one stone and one shovelful of concrete at a time – over two hundred linear feet, average height about five feet. It was the hardest physical work I have ever done, yet it was never drudgery. Watching piles of sand and gravel and stones slowly transformed into perfectly formed walls was magical. It would be yet another summer before the stone walls of the house would rise up another eight feet from the foundation walls. Massive stone walls for a house literally built on a rock. To have put up a house of this weight on anything less would have been folly. The old-timers were well aware of this practice, and many early Maine farmhouses, whose lines are true to this day, were constructed on gigantic granite blocks. Houses built on less can shift and crack when the underlying soil conditions are affected by heavy rains and repeated freeze/thaw cycles.

The principle of building on a good foundation is obvious even to those with no building experience. The picture of a house built on rock has a feeling of permanence that few other images can evoke. No doubt this is why Jesus uses it as a metaphor in concluding his Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

To understand the metaphor, it is helpful to remember that in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus is teaching about life in the kingdom of God and inviting us into that life. It is a life that is pleasing to God and therefore the only really good life of human existence. This is a life of self-sacrifice with abundant spiritual and physical benefits. Jesus promises blessings for the humble and those who pursue its defining qualities of holiness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking. He pronounces judgment on the angry, lustful, dishonest, critical, and hypocritical. He proclaims the virtues of generosity, prayer, and compassion. And through it all, he teaches about the nature of a kingdom heart – a heart that is unworried and confident of the future even as it is filled with love for others. This is Jesus’ vision of the good life – a decent human existence that is radically different than the norm of his time, and indeed, that is radically different than the cultural norm of our modern world.

When building the house in the 1970’s, I was not thinking about the Sermon on the Mount, I did not know Jesus, nor did I have any interest in matters spiritual. I was following a dream – a dream of living a “good life” – marked principally by a vision of self-sufficiency. To this day, I still appreciate many of the ideas advocated by the Nearings. Building one’s own house and living off the land in harmony with the natural environment still stir my emotions, even if it all seems more distant and remote than when I was in my 20s. What I failed to understand at the time was that happiness is not found in a house, or a garden, or even community. Not that these are bad things, just that without a spiritual foundation they are unable to deliver a good life because when the storms of life hit they collapse like a house built on sand. For what good is a house if it is not filled with love? What good is a garden if the soul is starving? What good is a community if it is not infused with grace? If we are to believe Jesus, the only “good life” is life in the kingdom of God, built on the rock of obedience to his teaching.

Eventually Pat and I left the homestead – the garden went fallow and the land and stone house sold. We had achieved much of what we had set out to do; yet, I had not experienced the contentment of a “good life.” Nearly thirty years later I took up and read another Book about living a good life. This one spoke of a King with an everlasting Kingdom who gives the assurance of a truly good life for all who trust and obey him. And so, in 2000, I accepted his offer. These days I find myself in a kind of building project once again. Not a stone house with fieldstones from the rocky soil of Maine, but an eternal house with “spiritual stones” having names like patience, kindness, purity, humility, etc. Some are small, and some I can barely lift. Like the first house, it is slow going, one stone at a time. Sometimes one of them slips and I have to rebuild part of the wall. But with Jesus as the cornerstone, the burden is light.

My prayer is that all who obey the Lord will one day experience the good life so beautifully described by the prophet Isaiah. “The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:11-12)

S

 

Lent

DSCF4044

“What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10)

The Christian life is not a halfhearted affair. It is not like a cardigan that we put on when it is cold and take off when it gets hot. The Lord asks for our devotion in good times and bad, regardless of external circumstances or internal feelings. Jesus describes it this way, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) It is a great step forward in our spiritual journey when Jesus’ words have sunk so deeply into our soul that we are moved from a “Sunday only” kind of faith to an everyday, all-in discipleship. This is a dynamic life of faith that seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. A life where acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God are the desires of the heart. A thoughtful, active, and growing life marked by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

And yet all of us, even the most ardent followers of Jesus, have times of stagnation or wandering. Unless there are robust rhythms in our spiritual lives, we can stumble and fall. This is why the church holds weekly services for ongoing equipping and renewal. It is also why the church has set aside yearly commemorations for specific attention and spiritual practices. One of these is the season of Lent – a period of forty days commencing on Ash Wednesday and ending the day before Easter (Sundays are not counted in the forty days). Lent is one of the oldest extra-biblical observations in Christendom. Its formal roots go back to the Council of Nicaea in 325, which drew from practices from the earliest days of the church – days that involved preparation for Easter. This year Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, commences two weeks from now, on February 14.

Lent is a time for reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which should lead his disciples into self-reflection, repentance, and renewal. Traditionally, this has been through prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor – actions intended to disrupt the normal patterns of living and focus our attention on Jesus. While these practices are not the exclusive province of Lent, there is much to be gained by an annual remembrance.

There is no single way to observe Lent. Some Christians will take on a new discipline such as daily prayer or quiet time. Some will give to the poor or volunteer. But the most common practice is a fast from food and increasingly from technology. According to a 2014 study, roughly 17% of adults in the U.S. plan to actively participate in some form of physical fasting during Lent. The breakdown is described as follows: “Among those who plan to celebrate Lent this year, the most common abstentions include food or drink, such as chocolate (30%), meat (28%), sugar (28%), soda drinks (26%), alcohol (24%), fruit (14%) and butter or cream (11%). Although less common, many Americans who fast for Lent are planning to abstain from technology or entertainment. This includes curtailing use of social networks (16%), smartphones (13%), television (11%), video games (10%), movies (9%) and the Internet (9%). Activities that were mentioned by fewer than 2% of respondents include sex, smoking and swearing.” (The Barna Group)

Fasting from food can be an important spiritual discipline. I know several people who do it as a regular practice to great benefit. Yet, we must not forget that the purpose of all fasting is to draw us closer to God and His kingdom. God spoke very clearly on this (through the prophet Isaiah) by criticizing those who physically fasted, even as their hearts were hardened to the people in their family and community. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:5-10)

While the concept of an external fast from food is well established, the passage in Isaiah reveals God’s desire that we should also fast from the evil in our heart – things such as injustice, oppression, greed, selfishness, gossip, and anger. What good is a fast from externals when internals are ignored? God does not say that physical fasting from food is wrong, just that it is subordinate to the deeper internal matters of the heart. Indeed, this is precisely the reason Jesus chastised the Pharisees – their fasting was accompanied by pride and self-righteousness. (Matthew 6:16-18) Fasting from food does not avail when there is sin in the soul. This isn’t about the merits of an external fast from what we eat, rather the importance of an internal fast from what we have in our heart. God, it seems, would have us fast from the sin that arises from our inside, which manifests itself in our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. For as Jesus declared, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10). Clearly, we need to attend to the things in our heart and not only what we put in our stomach.

The idea of an internal fast first came to me when I read Catherine Marshall’s experiment in fasting from criticism. She writes, “The Lord continues to deal with me about my critical spirit, convicting me that I have been wrong to judge any person or situation. … One morning last week He gave me the assignment for one day I was to go on a “fast” from criticism. I was not to criticize anybody about anything. Into my mind crowded the usual objections. ‘But then what happens to value judgments? You Yourself, Lord, spoke of ‘righteous judgment.’ How could society operate without standards and limits?’ All such resistance was brushed aside. ‘Just obey Me without questioning.’” Her journal continues, “For the first half of the day, I simply felt a void, almost as if I had been wiped out as a person. This was especially true at lunch [with some family members]. Several topics came up (school prayer, abortion, the ERA amendment) about which I had definite opinions. I listened to the others and kept silent. Barbed comments on the tip of my tongue about certain world leaders were suppressed. In our talkative family no one seemed to notice.” (A Closer Walk) She goes on to write that her fast revealed the degree to which her critical spirit had hurt herself and others.

Experiment

And so, I would challenge those of you who are inclined to observe Lent this year to experiment with an internal fast. Fasting from something in your heart – a character trait that is in opposition to the kingdom of God, something that inhibits your spiritual walk. It could be, like Catherine Marshall, you sometimes have a critical spirit – in which case why not use this Lenten season to fast from criticism? Or maybe you have a lot of anxiety, in which case why not resolve to fast from worrying? The possibilities are really endless. Perhaps something in the following list touches your conscience? Anger, bitterness, complaining, criticism, cynicism, defensiveness, despair, dishonesty, dissatisfaction, envy, gluttony, gossip, greed, impatience, indifference, laziness, lust, negativity, passivity, pride, quarreling, resentment, stinginess, selfishness, unforgiveness, worrying.

One could usefully spend the days leading up to Ash Wednesday praying for the Holy Spirit to reveal one thing about your character that is holding you back in your spiritual walk. It may be a deeply rooted sin like an anger or lust, or it may be something that you are barely aware of like defensiveness or pride – perhaps even something you don’t think is a problem but that someone close to you has commented on about your character. The challenge is to identify one area of sin in your soul and resolve that by God’s strength you will make every effort to abstain from it during Lent.

Guidance

1) Focus on Christ. We fast during Lent to remind ourselves of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. He is the one who has invited us into the kingdom of God, and whatever we do it is to follow him. It is the Lord who leads us into self-reflection, repentance, and renewal. An internal fast is a practical way of keeping in step with the Spirit to draw us closer to God.

2) Read and Write. Look for Bible references and other writings about the matter you have selected. I can pretty much guarantee that even a simple Internet search will turn up material that you can read and incorporate into your quiet times. Also, consider journaling, or at least keeping a few notes about your experience. Even if you are not a writer, you may be surprised at what emerges when you start recording your thoughts.

3) Don’t Quit. You will likely fail many times during your fast. I base this on my own experience and on empirical evidence from friends who have attempted this in the past. Happily, we often learn more from our failures than successes. So when you slip, confess it to the Lord and then resume your fast.

The word “Lent” was originally the word for springtime, the season of renewal when out of the dead of winter we are born anew, fully alive to the joy and hope of new life in the kingdom of God. Lent is a time for remembering that the way to Easter and the Resurrection is through Good Friday and the Cross, that the way to life is through death. When we fast from the evil within, we are taking up our cross and dying to that which separates us from experiencing Christ and the abundant life he promises. May this Lent be for us a time of renewal where we can once again feel the joy of a new life through the cleansing blood of our Savior.

S

PS The photo is the Monastery of St. Naum, overlooking Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

Feelings

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

In 2012 a study by psychology researchers in Sweden concluded that people who go into engineering are less caring and empathetic than those who enter other professions such as medicine. Having studied engineering as an undergraduate, I concur. Engineers, in my experience, are laser focused on their practice area and generally unconcerned if not unfeeling about things outside their sphere of interest. Case in point – spring of 1970 during the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement when I was an engineering student at the University of Maryland. On May 1, violent demonstrations erupted across the sprawling College Park campus, fires were set, buildings occupied, and U.S. Route 1, which ran by the university, was blockaded by protesters. The National Guard was called out and the soldiers stormed the campus using tear gas and other riot equipment. Was the University shut down? Well, yes, except for the engineering school. We engineering students had lectures to attend and final exams to prepare for. Somehow we remained untouched and unmoved by the chaos all around.

I will leave it for those readers who know an engineer to decide whether or not the study is sound. My apologies to any engineer who feels misdiagnosed. For what it’s worth, my informal questioning of several engineering friends met with blank stares when I described the survey. They saw nothing remarkable in its conclusion other than perhaps that other people might find it remarkable. It was almost as if they were thinking, “Caring and empathetic? What’s that?” But we must move on.

I write this month about the importance of feelings in the pursuit of virtue. In my experience there is not a lot of teaching in the church about the role of feelings in our spiritual growth. And this is strange given the fact that Jesus teaches extensively about our feelings. In the Sermon on the Mount alone Jesus addresses feelings of: anger, lust, revenge, love, hatred, pride, self-righteousness, stinginess, worry, and being critical and judgmental. He speaks elsewhere about feelings of fear, unforgiveness, compassion, and defensiveness.   Paul and other New Testament authors write about many of these feelings and others such as joy, discouragement and guilt.

For, in truth, our feelings are at the epicenter of the great struggle of our spiritual life – the struggle between good and evil – the seminal human struggle recorded in the Biblical record from Genesis to Revelation. And so, I offer a few thoughts about the importance and role of feelings in the pursuit of virtue: 1) Feelings are a primary mover of our actions; 2) Feelings can be changed by changing our thoughts; and 3) Feelings are transcended in a virtuous life.

1) Feelings are a primary mover of our actions

Does anyone doubt the extent to which we are moved by our feelings? Is there anything more empirically verifiable than the power of our feelings? We humans are feeling creatures. In the physical realm, we feel hungry and so we eat, we feel tired and we sleep. So too in the emotional/spiritual realm – we feel loving and so we serve others, or we feel angry and we retaliate. Not every time nor in every situation, but our default response is to act in accordance with our immediate feelings.

Dallas Willard observed that, “A great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings, and think it only right. The will is then left at the mercy of circumstances that evoke feelings. Christian spiritual formation today must squarely confront this fact and overcome it.” (Renovation of the Heart)

How then do I proceed when my feelings would lead me to actions that are antithetical to the kingdom of God? For example, what do I do when someone hates me, or curses me, or mistreats me, and my feelings towards him or her would lead me to return tit for tat? Am I simply to override my feelings with a simple act of the will? Is this what Jesus is asking when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you?” (Luke 6:27-28) Does he expect us to ignore our feelings and simply “tough it out” by dint of our will? And if we are able to do this, what does it mean for our spiritual growth if we act loving towards others while we are hating them on our inside?

The answer is to consider first how our feelings can be changed. For, in truth, they can be.

2) Feelings can be changed by changing our thoughts

Because feelings have such power in our lives, the obvious question is how do we change our feelings? I have heard it said that “you cannot control your feelings,” and in terms of trying to will myself into feeling a certain way, I suppose this is true. For while I might be able to will myself into actions that I don’t feel like doing, I find it nearly impossible to directly will myself into different feelings. For example, when I am worried, I am unable to simply will myself to be at peace. When I am angry, I am unsuccessful in turning my feelings into compassion. Or when I am depressed, to instantly stir up feelings of joy.

Yet, it turns out that our feelings can be controlled indirectly, because feelings are always associated with and emerge from our thoughts. For example, unpleasant thoughts about the future can lead to feelings of fear, anger, or depression. Similarly, thoughts about our past can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or depression.

When our thoughts change, our feelings do as well. Again, this is empirically verifiable. Who among us has not been angry or depressed and suddenly received a good piece of news that changes our dark feelings to light? Have you ever had a medical problem that caused you to worry, and then have a doctor tell you that it is minor and easily treated? If so, you understand how changed thoughts lead to changed feelings.

The idea here is that while we may not have direct control over our feelings as such, we do have some control over our thoughts. And as we take control of our thoughts, our feelings change. I believe this is revealed in the wisdom from Paul when he writes about controlling our thoughts, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

That said, controlling our thoughts to control our feelings is difficult when those feelings are caused by deep hurts and/or ingrained habits in our lives. These present matters that can be challenging and complicated to overcome – often involving healing, repentance and other spiritual resources. Nonetheless, there is much spiritual progress possible as we learn to, “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5b)

3) Feelings are transcended in a virtuous life

Feelings can be powerfully productive or depressingly destructive. For example, compassion can lead us to heroic acts of love; whereas anger can move us to kill and destroy. Dallas Willard writes that, “Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem for human life. We cannot live without them and we can hardly live with them. Hence, they are also central for spiritual formation in the Christian tradition.” (Renovation of the Heart) As long as we are alive we will have feelings, indeed they are a gift from God. Yet, ironically, true virtue in the Christian sense of the word involves transcending our feelings so that we are able act for the good without reference to our feelings or for that matter even our thoughts. Consider the following mind experiment.

You are tired from a long workday, annoyed at having to stop for groceries, and impatient to get home to relax. As you are standing in the checkout lane, you see a woman struggling with two small children and a cartful of items. Your thoughts are to let her go in front of you. Your feelings are to ignore her. And so your will is at the mercy of an internal struggle between your thoughts and your feelings. We might say that if you accede to your thoughts, and let her in line in front of you, that you have done a virtuous act – and so you have. But the goal of Christian spiritual formation and the pursuit of virtue is not so much a choice between your thoughts and feelings as it is a natural response that transcends both. In other words, true virtue is revealed when you see the struggling woman and automatically let her in line in front of you without reference to what you think or feel at the moment.

N.T. Wright puts it this way, “None of these things [virtuous actions] come naturally. … The point of virtue, is that eventually, as a person’s character becomes more fully formed, such things may indeed begin to ‘come naturally.’ But the steps it takes to get to that point involve hard decisions and hard actions, choices that run counter to the expectations, aspirations, desires, and instincts with which every human comes equipped.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters)

Lord, thank you for creating us as a people with feelings. Grant us today feelings of love, peace and joy to enrich our lives and move us into actions that build your Kingdom. Protect us from feelings of anger, lust and pride that enslave our souls and separate us from You and other people. Give us wisdom and strength to take every thought captive so that we may follow the paths of righteousness everyday. All blessing, glory and honor be unto You.  Amen

S

 

Advent

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:10)

Christmas 1975 was memorable for Pat and me. Married in July we were excitedly looking forward to our first Christmas together. Our home at the time was a small cabin on fifty acres in rural Maine, isolated from our nearest neighbors at the end of a gravel road. Despite our “land wealth,” such as it was, we were dirt poor. Living on a teacher’s salary of $8000 annually, our budget was tighter than the Grinch’s heart. Pat handled all of the food and household shopping, which she frugally managed on a budget of $25/week. A lot of forethought went into the preparation of Christmas cookies. Starting in November, she would buy ingredients week by week as our money allowed: now sugar, now dates, now chocolate chips – all to prepare for our first Christmas. The tree was much easier (and cheaper) as we simply cut a small evergreen growing on our overgrown farmland. A highlight of our preparation that first Christmas was shopping for presents. One Friday night we drove forty miles to the Sears store in Bangor where we browsed the aisles giving ideas to each other – Pat’s focus being clothing and mine tools. We then separated to purchase from the identified suggestions. And so, we had our Christmas cookies, Christmas tree, and Christmas presents. Add to this a few Christmas lights, decorations, and music albums, and we were comfortably prepared for Christmas day. Or so we thought.

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, and bitterly cold – zero degrees. I had built our little cabin on a grid work of cinderblocks, creating a narrow crawlspace underneath. This space was blocked from the winter winds by a plywood skirt around the perimeter, which I supposed would keep the plumbing in the crawlspace from freezing. Unfortunately, what I had imagined as a protective barrier was inadequate against the cold of a Maine winter. This we discovered when we rolled out of our warm bed that Christmas morning and climbed down from the overhead loft where we slept. Turning on the kitchen faucet we were greeted with the sound of silence, that is, the sound of nothing. The cabin pipes were frozen. So rather than a sedate rising, sumptuous breakfast, and sharing of presents, we spent the morning slowly thawing pipes, sealing defenses of the cabin crawlspace, and stuffing insulation wherever we perceived a vulnerability. Through it all we learned a valuable lesson about living in that northern clime – always be prepared for extreme weather.

Being prepared for a Maine winter is a lifesaving necessity. Although Pat and I were prepared for the arrival of Christmas in 1975, we were unprepared for the arrival of artic temperatures. The principle of being prepared for exigencies in our day-to-day lives is commonsense; we ignore it at our peril. It is a principle that applies as well to our spiritual journey. For followers of Jesus, it is the season leading up to Christmas where we are invited to deeper reflection on being prepared. I am referring of course to Advent.

Now I confess that for many years I had a superficial understanding of Advent. The Lutheran church I attended as a child had an Advent candle lighting each Sunday in the month leading up to Christmas. And every year around Thanksgiving, I received an Advent calendar for December – a Christmas scene on lightweight cardboard with 25 numbered cutout windows, one each to be found and opened on the appropriate day. I suppose the idea was to keep a young child’s attention focused on the coming Christmas day, although I don’t remember needing any help counting the days. As I gradually outgrew churches and calendars, Advent lost any distinctive for me. When I “discovered” church again after a thirty-five year hiatus, I was a surprised that Advent was barely mentioned in the Evangelical church I attended. Yes, there were years when there was a gathering of families to make Advent wreaths, but otherwise it was seldom discussed.

Fortunately, many Christians, particularly those in liturgical churches, have kept the candles of Advent burning, so to speak. For these Christians, Advent is recognized and celebrated as a time of preparation. The word “Advent” means coming, and most traditions of Advent recognize and embrace two comings of Jesus – His First Coming on Christmas Day and His Second Coming at the end of the age. Dennis Bratcher writes, The focus of Advent is preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent. … In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power. That acknowledgment provides a basis for Kingdom ethics, for holy living arising from a profound sense that we live “between the times” and are called to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as God’s people. So, as the church celebrates God’s in-breaking into history in the Incarnation, and anticipates a future consummation to that history for which “all creation is groaning awaiting its redemption,” it also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Interest in Advent seems to be on the rise with many Evangelicals. For some, this is a reaction to the commercialization of Christmas and a desire to “put Christ back into Christmas.” For others, this is a weariness with Christmas pageants and manger scenes. And for others, this is a desire to go deeper in the spiritual life – particularly during a season so foundational to our faith – the incarnation of God. It is not a rejection of Christmas, but rather a longing for something more. And what many are discovering is that the way forward is by returning to the historical roots of Advent. A way that includes preparing not just for Christmas but for the Second Advent and the return of the King.

In many ways the pursuit of virtue is a matter of preparing for the Second Coming. Jesus’s words about the end times and his return are recorded in the first part of Matthew 24. His description of how we are to prepare for his return is recorded in the second part of Matthew 24 where he tells us to “keep watch” (24:42); “be ready” (24:44); and to “give … food” to his servants (24:45). And then in Matthew 25, he illustrates with three parables: The Ten Virgins, Investment of Talents, and The Sheep and Goats – describing various aspects of being prepared for his return.

In the parable of the sheep and goats Jesus makes it clear that we prepare for his Second Coming by caring for those in greatest need. I always find his words challenging. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

I have a friend, Dave, who is preparing for the Second Coming. Dave is an ornery looking dude, with a scruffy beard and slow, deep-throated drawl rooted in the hills of Kentucky. However, beneath this gruff exterior lies a tender heart. You see, Dave runs a small food pantry in a poor inner-city neighborhood in Dayton. He hustles for food and keeps the pantry shipshape for its weekly distribution. The clientele are the poorest of the poor and many of them depend on this out-of-the-way food pantry in an abandoned church building to get them through the week. Dave is generous to all, but nowhere is his heart revealed more than when he speaks of the young children who come in with their parents. Dave likes nothing better than to give out candy to the little ones, and indeed his eyes tear up when whenever he speaks of them. I doubt that as they are caring for the poor Dave and the other volunteers think they are caring for Jesus, but this is precisely Jesus’ point. The deepest truth about the kingdom of God is doing his will, which is revealed in how we love others.

Advent is a season of preparation – one that promises a banquet overflowing with hope, peace, joy, and love. When we prepare for Christmas Day we sniff its aroma. When we prepare for the return of the King we feast on its abundance.

S

Faithfulness

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10)

As Jazzminn slowly stepped onto the platform in the brightly lit ballroom, she could be excused if she felt nervous. She had no public speaking experience; indeed this was the first time she ever addressed more than a handful of friends. Even a seasoned after-dinner speaker might hesitate before appearing in front of six hundred well-heeled prospective donors. But even beyond the number of people, there was something in the layout of the great hall with its huge chandeliers, stately pillars rising up from marble floors, and floor to ceiling side windows that was overwhelming. The scale of the ballroom seemed further enlarged by an enormous overhead video screen behind the speaker and two lines of additional screens flanking the sides of the room. Magnifying and projecting bigger-than-life images of the speaker, these conspired with the vastness of the space to induce panic in anyone so inclined as to approach the podium.

The occasion was the annual gala banquet for the Miami Valley Women’s Center. Every year at the gala, one or two “clients” of the Women’s Center are asked to speak about the help they have received from the Center. For over thirty-five years volunteers and staff from the Center have faithfully served physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of women who are in crisis because of an unplanned pregnancy. Often a client who had chosen life for her child would be asked to speak at the gala about her decision and about assistance she had received through the Center: parenting classes, baby clothes, furniture, and the like. Occasionally, a client who had had an abortion would share a much different story – usually about a very dark journey of mental and sometimes physical suffering in the aftermath her abortion, but also about an emotional and spiritual journey of support, healing, and recovery she had received through those at the Center.

Attractive and fashionably dressed, Jazzminn’s appearance belied a hardscrabble upbringing. Born just before Thanksgiving in 1982 to an unwed mother, Jazzminn never knew her father. Her mother went from one relationship to another even as she struggled to raise Jazzminn and her sister. As Jazzminn entered adolescence, she discovered boys as they were also discovering her. And so it was perhaps predictable when at the age of sixteen she became pregnant. It was this seminal event in her life that brought her to the gala on a cool November evening in 2015 to share her story.

Jazzminn’s nervousness wasn’t simply due to the number of people in attendance, the imposing layout of the hall, or even that she had no formal speaking experience – it was that prior to this evening she had never shared her very private story in public. And so, as she stepped onto the platform while dinner plates were being cleared, she had many reasons to be apprehensive, if not terrified. Who among us would have the courage to share one of the most intimate and trying times of our life to an audience of hundreds?   In truth, no one could have known the emotions she was experiencing. No doubt the warm hug from the Center director was an encouragement, as was the kind applause from the audience. Yet the fact that her voice was clear and strong and never faltered as she recounted her journey is a testament to an underlying strength of character that perhaps surprised even her.

Jazzminn spoke honestly about her unexpected pregnancy some sixteen years earlier – of her surprise, of her fears, and of her decision to turn to the local abortion clinic for assistance. Supporting her determination to end the life of her unborn baby, the clinic scheduled a date for the abortion and provided forms for her to complete and bring to her appointment. Jazzminn’s mom was opposed to her choice, apparently being the only voice in Jazzminn’s life speaking against it. She pleaded with Jazzminn to visit the Women’s Center before having an abortion. Although her mind was made up, on the day of the appointment she agreed to her mom’s request; and so, on the way to get an abortion, she and her mom stopped first at the Women’s Center. Jazzminn was met by several women who greeted her warmly and then listened non-judgmentally to her story. They asked about her decision, explained some of the physical and emotional risks of an abortion, and described various options if she chose life for her unborn child. Whether or not anything they said sunk into Jazzminn’s soul was unclear because her mind was unchanged and her heart unmoved. However, there was one thing that happened that afternoon at the Center Jazzminn would remember. Just before she left, the women at the Center asked her if they could pray for her. Among the many prayers that were offered up, one stood out, “God, please cause confusion at the abortion clinic so that this will not go forward.”

Jazzminn left the Center with her mom in-tow, and clutching her paperwork hurried over to the abortion clinic. Lost in her thoughts, she sat quietly in the waiting room until her name was called. When the receptionist looked over her paperwork she had a puzzled expression – something was wrong. Apparently Jazzminn had completed it with red ink, and not black as the clinic required. It would have to be done over, so she was handed a new set of forms. What happened next in her own words, “my hand froze and I could not fill out the new paperwork.” Despite her determination, a force greater than Jazzminn knew was at work in her heart. The prayers lifted up a short time earlier by those faithful few women at the Center had surely been heard by the Lord – confusion did indeed occur at the clinic and Jazzminn’s heart had been turned.

At this point in her talk, those in the hall applauded for the courage she had shown so many years earlier as an unwed teenage mom, and for the movement of the hand of God. The affirmation though was a bit premature because there was more to the story. Jazzminn did indeed choose life, but not as she had supposed for one baby, but for two! Yes, she found out after her decision that she was having twins. Twin girls as it happened, and who even now were beautiful sixteen year olds standing in wings. With tears flowing down her face, she finished her story as the girls came forward to embrace her by declaring that the girls were not only her children, but, “my best friends in all the world.”

This time the great hall exploded in joyous applause. Indeed, many happy tears joined with theirs. All of us who had the honor that evening of hearing Jazzminn’s story will long remember her as an amazingly brave teenager who defied the spirit of our age to choose life.  There were many voices telling her to abort, yet she found the strength to reject the cultural pressures that would have had her kill her unborn child. When she made her decision for life on that fateful day, she had no idea of what lay ahead. Indeed the road would be much harder than she could have imagined – raising children, not to mention twins, as a single mom is uniquely challenging. Still, the reward was incomparable. Standing on the platform that evening was a moment for her to receive the accolades she so well deserved.

We celebrate Jazzminn’s story. Yet without diminishing it, I can’t help but reflect on another story, or should I say stories, that intersected with hers. These are the stories of the faithfulness of hundreds of women who have served at the Women’s Center over the course of so many years. At a time when many in our society have become desensitized to the pervasive culture of death that surrounds us, there are still faithful people who sacrifice their time and energy to support life. For the most part, these are not highly trained specialists, but simply ordinary Christians who possess a willing spirit to serve. The Apostle Peter wrote, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10). I believe that what these women did and what they do everyday at the Center is the definition of being faithful stewards of God’s grace.” The names of those who prayed for Jazzminn that fateful day may never be remembered in our time. Yet their names are recorded in the accounts of the kingdom of heaven where their faithfulness is surely known.

The pursuit of virtue is nothing if it is not serving those in need. Jesus said, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The volunteers and staff at the Women’s Center are not extraordinary people doing extraordinary things; nor are they ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Rather, they are ordinary people doing ordinary things and achieving extraordinary results through the power of God. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

Saving two lives through the faithfulness of service and prayer is certainly one of these “greater things.”

S