Engaging the spirit, challenging the mind.

Category: Food for Thought

What God Requires of You

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Micah 6:8

One of the main things that believers often want to know is what choice they are to make next.  Where should they go?  What should they do?  To what ministry or occupation are they called?  Sometimes believers find themselves waiting on the fulfillment of a promise from the Lord or for a situation to change.  During the times in our lives where the path seems a little unclear, I have found that the principle shown in the above verse from Micah can bring peace and even a little clarity.

ImageThe Lord knows that we do not know the future.  He knows that we cannot control all circumstances.  He doesn’t require us to make “right” decisions; rather, He requires us to make good decisions.  Rightness implies the need to get to a certain outcome–but only God is sovereign, and only He knows what the “right” outcome is according to His plan and purpose.  As theologian Philip Cary said, while it is true in His word that He has plans for us, He doesn’t say that we need to know what those plans are.  (and if we do, He is certainly able to tell us!)  We don’t have to know what God’s ultimate plans are in order to make decisions that glorify Him.   No matter where we are in life, what the situation or question is, the Lord’s will for us is to do what is good.  Theresa of Avila would call this following the “path of love.”  We discern the best path by looking at what path will produce goodness in our lives and that of others.  Or, to follow Theresa of Avila’s thought more closely, we follow the path that is inspired by and encourages love of God and love of others.  That concept might seem obvious on its face, but in reality, many times we are motivated by many things other than love; and when we shine the light of love on our hearts, we see that what is moving us isn’t actually glorifying to God, nor for the betterment of those around us.

Micah asks, “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  He’s saying that there isn’t more that the Lord requires of us than that.  He has already told us what is good to do, now we just have to do it.  It’s up to us to exercise our minds to understand how to do good and to figure out what justice and kindness mean in the contexts of our lives.  If we don’t know, we can ask Him for wisdom, and He will give it.  (James 1:5)

We can spin our wheels trying to know exactly what choice is the right thing.  But it’s not about right or wrong. When we instead focus on discerning what is good, we then put ourselves in the position where God’s Spirit can then direct our spirit, because we are focused on Him and the fruit of His Spirit instead of what we hope to happen or think ought to happen.

Wherever and however God leads us, His ultimate goal is that we will love Him with all that we are and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we focus on doing what is good, we are guaranteed to produce good fruit.  So, if we find ourselves a little stuck regarding a decision, meditating on what simply loving Him and our neighbor would look like in this situation is a great place to start.

GPS–God’s Positioning System

I hope this isn’t irreverent, but sometimes I think the Lord’s guidance and providence are like a GPS system. You know how as you’re approaching the turn, it’ll keep telling you, “Turn left…” But if you miss it (and I often do) it goes, “Rerouting…in x miles, turn right”. Or it might say, “In a quarter mile, make a U-turn.” And if you miss the re-routing directions (ok, so I’m really bad at following the GPS! ), it will simply again say “Rerouting…in 1 mile…”

Now, I’ve definitely made trips much longer than they needed to be by not heeding the GPS. But no matter what gaffes I make, it always gets me to the final destination. I thank and praise God that when we miss our turn (maybe we weren’t listening, maybe we got distracted, maybe we were just stubborn and thought we knew better) that he continues to give us “updated” guidance until we get to where we were supposed to go. Unless you just completely turn Him “off” and decide to completely go your own way, He will persevere with you through your mistakes and get you there. Praise the Lord, for He is faithful!

Quip of the Day

“When something bad happens, there’s no                                                                                point in wishing it had not happened.                                                                                           The only option is to minimize the damage.”                                                                               –The Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

Violet, The Dowager Countess, from PBS' Downton Abbey

Trading Ambition for Stewardship

“Let nothing be done from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”  –Philippians 2:3 NIV

 I read recently, and I wish I could remember where, that an elementary school classroom is often a place where self-promoting ambition is proudly on display.  When you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, the author said that they will often proudly say “The President” or “a famous athlete” or another position known for its notoriety.  While I think that plenty of children also want to be firefighters and teachers and members of other non-famous professions, I get the overall point.  We’re often encouraged to seek to “be somebody” when we get older, and that is usually defined by how well known we are, how much prestige society attaches to our title, or how much money we make.

Once we get into adulthood, the desire to “be somebody” will lead us to seek self-advancement—more education, a higher salary, better position, etc.  None of those things is bad in itself; we just have to change our attitude about them.  Ambition can describe a general desire to work and achieve, but it often represents our desire for self-advancement and furthering our position and reputation and perhaps our salary.  Again, none of those things is problematic in themselves, but our motivations have to transcend simple self advancement.  We have to change our mentality from one of ambition to one of stewardship.

In the parable of the talents, Jesus makes the point that at the end of the day, we all will be held accountable as stewards of everything we have been given. (Matthew 25:14-30)  Everyone has been given a certain number of talents, which can be thought of as our spiritual gifts, natural intellect, educational background, financial resources, time and any other capabilities we may have.  The primary characteristic of a steward is that they are making decisions in light of what will bring the most return for the Master, not just themselves.  They’re working for His purposes and attempting to further His plans, not their own.  A steward doesn’t own anything, it’s just in their charge.

To trade ambition for stewardship means to transition from an attitude of self-advancement to one of Kingdom advancement.  As stewards, we become servants of God and servants of others.  Promotions will come as we handle our responsibility well, the Master considers us faithful, and He gives us more to steward for Him.   But to be promoted by Him, we have to be working for Him.  Personal ambition can take us far, but it won’t be as fruitful as if we choose an attitude of stewardship instead.  To be a good steward, I don’t think about what is going to best advance me, but rather how I can do the most with what I have to glorify God, grow the Church, and serve those around me.

The practical implications of trading ambition for stewardship will gradually grow larger and larger as we identify ways to use our talents, time and treasure for God and others, and spend ourselves doing so.  Even if we have a secular occupation, we might start thinking of ways that we can use our professional skills to serve in church and in the community.  We might rethink buying that more expensive car and hold onto the one we have a little bit longer so that we have more to give financially.   Or, we might realize how much we can cut back on in our budget to support the work of the ministry.  We might also consider venturing out of our comfort zone and open our home in hospitality.

I should note that those in ministry are by no means immune to selfish ambition.  The desire for a bigger congregation, higher salary, more publications, greater notoriety, a larger speaking fee, insistence on the use of titles, along with other things can often be traced back to pride, even in ministers.  No one is immune.  And again, nothing is wrong with being promoted–with reaching a wider audience or gaining a strong reputation, or making more money–when it comes at God’s behest and is a result of faithful obedience rather than our own personal angling.

Whatever our occupation, when we consider our lives to be for our own benefit, we’ll tend to focus on using what we have to please ourselves.  Stewardship changes our focus so that we become more like rivers, moving water along, instead of lakes, holding onto what we receive.

Helen Keller: Anything is Possible

“Anything is possible.”

Helen Keller

That’s all I could think after watching the bio-pic The Miracle Worker.   The movie portrays the early life of Helen Keller, a woman who became both deaf and blind as an infant and lived a wild, instinct-driven existence in her early childhood because her family had no way of teaching her or communicating with her beyond very basic exchanges.  Eventually, her now-renown teacher, Anne Sullivan introduced her to language by getting Helen to make the connection between the sensation of water running over her hands and the letters w-a-t-e-r being pressed into her hand using sign language.  Once Helen made this association, she wanted to know the name of everything around her and quickly began absorbing as much as she could.   (to hear a very interesting story of an man who had not acquired language by adulthood, go here:

Ms. Keller’s experience in learning language is fascinating from a philosophy of language standpoint, but even more so as a testament to the strength of the human spirit.  Not only did Ms. Keller learn language, she ultimately became an author, speaker, and activist who travelled internationally.   She worked on behalf of the disabled and advocated for social causes she believed in.

If Helen Keller, again, both deaf and blind from infancy, could become the woman that she became, there are no excuses for the rest of us.  Ms. Keller was undoubtedly very intellectually gifted, but it seems that she also had a genuine hunger to know and understand the world around her and to engage in it.  Even in her rambling darkness as a deaf-blind child, she continually reached out to the world around her.  As she grew, her persistence led her to completing a college degree and receiving honorary degrees later in life.  But even greater than her educational accomplishments, was her attitude about life that is exemplified in this quote:

Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (Playfilm Productions 1962)

“Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness; it is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” –Helen Keller

Ms. Keller was not about herself.  Perhaps her physical limitations would have made it fruitless to attempt to live a life of self-gratification—how could she go about it?  But Ms. Keller went beyond personal accomplishment and lived a life of service, working primarily on behalf of others and giving what gifts she did have to others.

If we have the right attitude about life, anything is possible, even with the severest of hardship and limitations.  But if we have the wrong attitude, then even the simplest of accomplishments will be impossible for us.  Ms. Keller showed that you can never allow your hunger to reach out, to engage, to learn and grow wane; and more importantly than that, that our zest for life will bring true fulfillment when we transcend ourselves and focus our energies on improving the world around us.

A Relationship Experiment

If you were to disconnect from all of your social networking sites (read: Facebook & Twitter, and Instant Messaging), would that alter your perception of your friendships?  If you did not have a Facebook profile, who would call to wish you Happy Birthday because they know when it is?  If you didn’t tweet or post statuses, who would know what is going on in your life?  If you were not available to chat by IM, who would reach out to you to check on you or get together?

I’m not against social networking at all.  It’s useful and fun.  But it has the ability to make friendships seem closer than they are.  You can share on the level of close friends, and know about others on a level that usually only good friends know, but no one has to really put in much time or effort.  Without those fast internet connections, maintaining friendships requires conscious intentionality; without the convenience of an instant message or a wall post, one would have to carve out time for a phone conversation or a get together.  We make time for those things we deem important.  Real relationships are between people who go out of their way to remain connected to one another.  Not all friendships are deep.  There are work associates, schoolmates, people you know in passing or just socially.  That’s perfectly OK.  It’s just good to remember that any relationship worth having will require an investment of time and effort–both on your part and that of the other person.  If one or both is only around so long as its convenient, well, that “friendship” should probably be re-labelled “acquaintance”.

Vocal Wisdom: Paradigm Shifts

“There is nothing more difficult to undertake than to establish a new order of things.”

As a classical vocalist working to hone her craft, I have the pleasure of working with a teacher trained in the tradition founded by Manuel Garcia and passed on by Margaret Harshaw.  This technique is valuable not only because of its success in vocal training, but because in many ways it trains the character of the singer herself.  As Harshaw noted, “When you teach voice, you teach the person. You enter their mind, because it is all mental.”

So unsurprisingly, in my lessons I usually come away with something more than better vocal technique.  Often what I learn can be easily applied to life in general, and more often than not, to spiritual matters.  This week, my teacher spoke about the necessity of making paradigm shifts.  A paradigm is a set way of thinking and acting.  It is a pattern.  I might even go so far as to say that it is more than the way we currently operate and is also our idea of how we ought to operate, like preset guidelines as to how we are going to act.  There are good paradigms and bad ones.  Faulty paradigms essentially operate as false information that leads you to act wrongly.   They are patterns of thought and behavior that produce negative results.  The problem is, often we don’t know that it’s our paradigm that’s the problem or how to fix it.

For me, my faulty paradigm was an elaborate ritual I created before I would sing the first note.  It would involve deep breathing, an attempt to raise the palate, open the throat, breathe through the nose and finally sing.  I concentrated very hard during this ritual to make sure that the sound that was produced was the best it could be.  The only issue was that it just didn’t work all that well.  And it seemed like the more I concentrated and focused on this ritual, the less success I had.  That’s because what I thought I was doing to help myself sing better was actually the opposite of what I needed to do!  My own intense concentration and commitment to excellence meant little when the pattern itself was wrong.   Again, it wasn’t about intensity of effort—but rather I had to adopt an entirely new way of thinking.  I had to accept that what I thought was the right way was wrong and that if I wanted to sing excellently I would have to throw away my old ritual and all the ideas associated with it.

I’ve found that in life in general, as well as in singing, the willingness to adapt a new paradigm is vital to progress.  On Esprit, I often post about not being afraid of change and of being willing to move on when it is time.  It’s not that I do not value consistency, as I do believe it to be an important character trait.  But it’s equally important to discern when the current “order of things” is not producing good fruit in our lives.   And there are usually two reasons people don’t make the necessary changes:  1) we are stubborn and simply don’t like to change, or 2) we externalize the issue and find the cause of the problem to be something outside of ourselves.  Pride, or too much self-loyalty, may lead us to resist changing our pattern of thinking and behaving because we’ll not like to admit that we actually didn’t have it right before.  We might simply be the type that is comfortable with the status quo and finds change in general difficult.  Or, whenever we encounter difficulties we might decide that it must be the circumstances that are the problem, or that the people around us need to change, or that the challenge is simply too great.

Whatever our reasons for resisting a paradigm shift, they will equally hinder our progress in life.  I sang better than I’ve ever sung before at that last lesson because I embraced a new order of things.  And because of that, I grew more confident in taking on new and different vocal challenges.  We’ll know that the change we’ve made is a good one when we see what better results it produces.  But before then, we have to get to the place where we know that something needs to change.  We may not know how or exactly what needs fixing, but we know we need different results than we’re currently getting.  Getting to this point is actually a great thing, because that’s when we can find help.  We will often be dependent on the wisdom and experience of others who have gone before us to show us how to get to a better place.  I wholeheartedly advocate doing whatever is necessary to make progress–at least when you know your end goal is good.  It’s definitely worth it.

The Discontented Perfectionist

A lot of times, perfectionists really believe that their insistence that everything they do, say, or attempt be just right is totally justified.  They  do not consider it *perfectionism*, but rather a simple desire for excellence.  Deep down, we consider the trait to be admirable, showing that we have high standards and aren’t lazy about our lives and goals.  And that secret belief that perfectionism is really a good thing is what keeps a lot of people from changing.  But if many perfectionists knew what it was costing them, they’d probably be ready to rid themselves of this trait.  Among other things, perfectionism is an ever-presence source of discontentment.  We feel discontent with our lives when we think that we ourselves, the people around us, or other things in our environment need to be better than they currently are–when we focus on all that could be improved rather than on the good that is there.   A perfectionistic attitude is MiracleGro for discontentment.  Let’s look at the characteristics of perfectionism to see why:

Perfectionism is:
* the irrational belief that you and/or your environment must be perfect
* the striving to be the best, to reach the ideal and to never make a mistake
* an all pervasive attitude that whatever you attempt in life must be done letter perfect with no deviation, mistakes, slip-ups or inconsistencies
* a habit developed from youth that keeps you constantly alert to the imperfections, failings, and weakness in yourself and others
* a level of consciousness that keeps you ever vigilant to any deviations from the norm, the guidelines or the way things are “supposed to be”
* the underlying motive present in the fear of failure and fear of rejection, i.e., if I am not perfect I will fail and/or I will be rejected by others
* a reason why you may be fearful of success, i.e., if I achieve my goal, will I be able to continue, maintain that level of achievement
* a rigid, moralistic outlook that does not allow for humanism or imperfection
* the belief that no matter what you attempt it is never “good enough” to meet your own or others’ expectations

Since we know that life is never perfect, if we can never be content until everything is exactly as we believe it should be, then we will never be content!  We don’t have to be greedy or overly ambitious in order to be prone to discontent; having an attitude that minimizes the good things in our lives and magnifies the bad (or simply “less than great”) things will undoubtedly keep us from the joy and happiness that arises from genuine gratitute for what we have.  It’s impossible to be both grateful for something and unhappy about it at the same time.  Perfectionism short-circuits our sense of gratitude and thus our happiness.  And perfectionism is such that a person could have, on the whole, a great life with lots of opportunities and people who care; but because she’s focused on all the little imperfections here and there–the fact that a certain supervisor is difficult, or a household project remains unfinished, or a friendship is a little rocky at the moment–she can’t see the forest for the trees and allows those individual negatives to define the whole.

As usual, love covers a multitude of sins.  Perfectionism looks to the outcome to judge the value of an endeavor.  But love looks to the process.  It looks to the motive, to the sacrifice involved.  Perfectionism says that unless the end is achieved with a certain result, it is not valuable.  But love is an end in itself.  Love labors, knowing that if you give your all to those around you and to your goals, that you have done well.

Don’t Be Afraid to Break Out!

There is a season for everything in life.  And sometimes the people, places and things that are beneficial to us in one season will be hindrances in the next, like a snug down coat worn into springtime.  It can cause discomfort, and possibly even guilt, to think that careers, relationships, and other activities that provide a source of joy, growth, significance, and connectedness today may tomorrow signify stagnation were we to remain there.

Think of a newborn chick.  He grows over a period of weeks in the warm, nurturing environment of the eggshell.  During this time he desperately needs both the shell and the nutrients inside to survive and grow.  But there comes a time soon enough when the chick has developed to the point that the shell is too confining and can no longer provide the nutrients the chick needs to continue to grow.  The shell had the capacity to take the chick from one stage of life to another, but not the capacity to carry it throughout.  In fact, it was never supposed to.

It’s hard work for the chick to break out of his shell; but now, breaking out is just as much about the drive to survive as remaning inside was.  He pecks away and eventually climbs out, ready to begin a quest in a new world.  The shell lies behind him, where it will remain.  And this is the truth:  The shell that protects, shelters, and provides nourishment for the growing chick is the same shell from which that chick must break free in order to grow into maturity.  If we are too afraid to break out of our shells in life–whether they be family attachments, jobs, identities, or some other thing–then we will stagnate ourselves and fail to thrive.  Many times we will simply have the desire to expand and move on without knowing exactly what the next stage will be.  Other times, we may find that we are so comfortable and so pleased with the good we have experienced in the present or prior season that we are reluctant to move onto the next.  But like the chick, we must always be willing to break out and face a new world in order to thrive.  If we don’t, then what was once good to us may become a source of frustration, and sweet experiences may turn sour. 

We don’t want to hatch before we are genuinely ready or leave a place or situation at the cost of breaking our word and commitments.  But we should always be discerning where we are, how we’re growing, and be responsive to the changing seasons in our lives.

Meditate on What Is Good

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” –Philippians 4:8, ESV

There is an anonymously-written book written in the 1920s called Fascinating Womanhood (to be distinguished from the book of the same name by Hannah Andelin in the 1960s).  Quite an interesting and useful read.  One of the lessons is that women should make it a habit to refuse to dwell on any negative thoughts. It really doesn’t even matter if the bad thought is technically true. Only think about positive, encouraging things and thing that make you feel happier. And if there are hard truths that must be dealt with, then think about them in a way that is ultimately positive and affirming, i.e. instead of worrying about whether you will have the finances to cover next month’s bills, you put energy into thinking about what you are going to do to make things work.

In many ways, “positive thinking” has gotten a bad rap.  When I say positive thinking, I don’t mean magical thinking.  I don’t mean believing whatever will make me feel good. I mean simply focusing on the genuinely good and true things in my life and in the world around me and paying no mind to the rest. God’s world is full of so much good that even on the worst day there is something to smile about.

It takes some effort, unless that’s your natural disposition. Changing our mindset is hard work. But it’s very worthwhile. I was telling someone the other day that she is the most good humored person that I’ve ever met, and it’s kind of amazing to me how nothing can ever really get her down. Nothing. The most I’ve ever seen her be is irritated for a little while, but that passes within hours. Even when she’s complaining about something that is a prolonged issue, she doesn’t internalize it.

I think that there’s a lot to be learned from that. It’s a perspective that sees that whatever is going on today, there’s no reason that it has to negatively impact tomorrow. (this person is also someone who doesn’t keep negative people in her life. if you are a drain on her, you get the boot!)

So ladies, I have to encourage you to try it. Seek out the most positive things that come across your path. Don’t fill your brain with all of the media’s junk, much of which is designed to elicit fear or insecurity because if they tap into your anxiety, then you’ll buy the magazine to read the article, or you’ll keep tuning into the station to see if they have the answer. They don’t, but to make money they have to keep putting out info that generates an emotional response.

If you like music, find the songs that uplift you and keep them playing. Watch out for lyrics that only glorify negative things like envy, revenge, etc. Maybe try more instrumental stuff, if you like it. Whatever inspires you, do more of. Whatever makes you anxious, melancholy, irritated, etc., avoid as much as possible.

Spend your day thinking about the good things you have, and figuring out how to have a brighter tomorrow. Even if it takes some work trying to see how tomorrow could possibly be brighter, thinking about the possibility is energizing, whereas focusing on the disappointment of the present is draining.

Godspeed in your positivity!