Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Decisions and Spiritual Reflections

Being in seminary was an experience that surprisingly limited the amount of decisions I had to make. Essentially the life of a seminary student is to show up, do what your professors tell you to do, and try and squeeze in a little sleep now and then. Sure, occasionally you had some life decisions to make carefully, but most of the time you're so busy just trying to stay afloat that you don't have time to consider other alternatives.

Now that I'm living a partway normal life again, I feel the pressures of making right and wrong decisions more clearly now. When prayer, reflection, dialogue, study, and critical thinking are part of you're assigned work--you do it. But now that I'm "free" from the watchful guidance of professors and colleagues, I find myself less and less practicing the art of moral discernment. In my day to day decisions, how do I decide what is right and what is wrong?

I've long believed that Christian life in its most basic principle is that God cares for us, thus we should care what God wants of us. It is that principle which shapes every decision of everyday. But this presupposes a couple things: one being that you believe God cares, and two being that you are willing to let your life be led by another--that you're willing to give up your freedom for the one who "took the nature of a slave... humbled... by becoming obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross!" (Phillipians 2.7-8). Christian life means admitting that you don't have all the answers and that you need someone else to show you the way.

For a Christian, the moral life must first and foremost be shaped not only by the example of Jesus--but by seeking to know Jesus intimately by way of prayer, devotion, and participation in Jesus' family (the Church). Here is where I've run into trouble. Without a disciplined life set up for me in the form of the seminary educational experience, I've found that on my own I've fallen out of practice in some of these things. Prayer life is too inconsistent, I've sometimes now gone weeks between times of good devotional reading and reflection, and since being finished with my internship in Lake Geneva its been hard to fully involve myself in the life of my local church--in fact, in two of the last three weeks I've missed Sunday worship for less than good reasons.

Now as I try and live my moral life I think I've been running and operating on some "moral capital" that I've built up in my life--but that my "tanks" are running a bit low without daily disciplines to know and follow Jesus. I still make the best effort to love and respect everyone, I still try and use my money and time as if they were gifts and not something owed to me, I try and live responsibly towards all. Not always successfully, but I make an honest effort a lot of the time. Yet nowadays, as larger decisions loom on the horizon of what direction our lives will go-- I find myself challenged to ask myself what does Jesus really want from me? Is what Jesus wants from me different from what society tells me is right? Is what Jesus wants different even from what my friends and family might think is right? Read the gospels and one finds that the moral commands of Jesus were often unpopular. The rich young man wants to follow Jesus and proudly admits he keeps all the commandments, but when Jesus tells him to sell everything and give all the money to the poor, the young man can't commit. I'm no different. Why should I think that Jesus expects less of me? All around us the world bombards us with admonition to seek out money, sex, and power. Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to seek out love, faithfulness, and service. That's not a good way to sell cars... or make friends.

When Evie was fighting for her life in the hospital, Nicole and I were prepared to sacrifice everything to give her the chance to live. We loved her and were prepared to do what it takes. The loving character of God is the same way, demonstrated in the loving sacrifice of Christ to give us the chance to live. After Evie died, Nicole and I took the break we needed to begin the healing process of grief and we've been consistent in finding ways to try and enjoy ourselves by taking time to recreate and relax--especially this summer. But at what point do we refocus our energy again to the loving sacrifice we were so prepared to make for Evie, this time for our friend Jesus? Have we crossed a line from "self-care" to "self indulgence"? Its not easy to live a good life right now. I've found vices creeping in more steadily. I have a feeling it not unrelated to the fact that my faith is still somewhat weak and that in the wound I felt at the death of Evie, I have not yet fully placed my trust back in my God. It is like a friendship strained-- you still know this friend and still have affection for them, but things just aren't quite the same between the two of you. In some ways I still struggle to know and love God in light of this tragedy. But I am nowhere near ready to give up. I know God has been patient with me. I ought to return the favor.

Our loving God is not some kind of fuddy-duddy from on high who doesn't want humans to have fun or enjoy themselves. God is for abundant life, God is the giver of good gifts. What God expects of us is that we use his good gifts responsibly-- for the good of both ourselves and others, trusting that the creator knows best where lasting joy and satisfaction are. Its a matter of trusting that lasting joy might exist elsewhere besides indulgence in physical and material pleasures or self-oriented human relationships. One only need look around at the abundance of self-destruction that happens among those who achieve all the money, sex, and power they want to see that lasting joy is not found there. If the good life is not found in such things, then perhaps St. Francis was right, "It is in giving that we receive... it is in dying (to self?) that we are born into eternal life".

Its not always a popular thing to talk about morality and there are a lot of self-righteous people out there who have tainted the discussion. These thoughts aren't about passing judgement on another--but rather an acknowledgement that all of us sinners who dare turn to Jesus have both a welcome embrace of his love but also an invitation to live a radical life of virtue. As Luther said of us who dare preach the gospel, "we're just beggars telling other beggars where to find bread."

Nurturing a good life takes practice: spiritual discipline. Creating daily habbits of charity, justice, faithfulness, self-control, and care will form us into the people who can make good decisions both big and small.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is good to hear you wrestling with how to live the everyday life of the non-pastor who wants to follow Jesus. When you are paid and expected to spend 40+ hours/week to study the Word, preach, pray, intercede, serve, counsel, it is easy to forget that others spend 40+ hours working at other things to support families and have to squeeze spiritual practices into other waking hours. Remember your present struggle and understand the predicament of those who don't have time/aren't motivated to participate in church "programs" (including worship) you design for them to grow.