Do You Have a Plan? (part 1)

I recently returned from leading a Spiritual Formation Conference with a wonderful group of 19 ministers from all around Ghana, West Africa.

My good friend Fred Asare hosted the conference at the Village of Hope. It was a time of quiet reading, careful reflection and thoughtful discussion over a period of several days.  Some of the men I already knew, but the openness and honesty of the whole group made this time one of the high points of my summer.

Early during our first day together I asked a question that I have often asked at Spiritual Formation retreats and seminars over the years.  I had first heard this question at a small men’s breakfast when I lived in Kansas City. One of the brothers in our congregation gave a short devotional to a group of about 15-20 men on a Saturday morning, and he included this question. It so impacted me that I wrote it down and have shared it countless times over the years.

Experience 2

In it’s original form, the question goes like this:

What is the difference between a man with 10 years of experience and a man with 1 year of experience 10 times?

Of course, it can be restated and applied in a number of ways:

What is the difference between a Christian with 10 years of experience … ?

What is the difference between a Minister with 10 years of experience … ?

What is the difference between a Leader with 10 years of experience … ?

Every time I ask some version of this question the group I am with usually does the same kind of soul searching, and the group of ministers in Ghana followed the same pattern.  As they thought through the “minister” version of the question, they realized that both ministers in this scenario had put in the same amount of time, and probably had gone through the same kind of experiences each year of the ten years.  But the first minister found depth and growth from year to year while the second minister never moved and never changed.  When I asked them “why” they realized that the first minister had a vision for each year’s growth.  He followed some kind of plan and grew each year.  The second minister had no vision and no plan.  And so, he simply repeated his first year over and over.

This question set the stage for rest of our time as together we began with a vision from Jesus and then crafted a plan for personal growth.

It was clear to me that my brothers in Ghana do not want their inner life to simply remain static from year to year.  They want movement, growth and change.

Stay tuned for part 2.

Spiritual Formation …………… Do You Believe Him?

I used to think that there were two components involved in spiritual growth:

(1) What I Am.

(2) What I Should Be.

And, of course, the goal of the Christian life is to simply move from what I am to what I should be. It sounds simple enough, but simple answers are not always as helpful as they seem.

I am reminded of the story of the man drowning in the ocean. He might have been careless and fallen in the water or, he might have been foolish and jumped in. But regardless of how he came to be there, the sea was rough, the man was very tired and it looked like he would most likely drown. As the story goes, someone floated by in a boat, saw the man and gave him some very simple, easy to understand advice, “What you need is dry land.” Nothing could have been truer or less helpful.

Simply telling someone where they are and where they should be does not take them there or help them get there. It doesn’t work for them and it won’t work for you. This is because there are not just two components involved in spiritual growth. There are three:

(1) What I Am.

(2) What I Should Be … and …

(3) What I Think I Can Be.

You see, it doesn’t matter what I should be, if I don’t believe it’s possible. And so, here is the question I’ve been asking myself. Do I really believe Jesus when he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)?

Do I believe that spiritual growth is easy or difficult? I think that for most of my life I have considered the godly life to be difficult. And please don’t misunderstand me. I know that any life, any undertaking, any course of action is difficult … in the beginning. But, Jesus says that his way of life, his style of living, his way of thinking, choosing, talking and acting can be “learned.” And, most exciting, he says it will bring “rest” and can become both “easy” and “light.”

Do we believe him?

I hope we do. Otherwise we are terribly inconsistent. I say this because the principle Jesus is stating is one we use in almost every area of our lives. It is way we approach education and athletics. It is the way we master any skill. We practice. We train. And over time, to quote Jesus, we “learn.” Something changes inside. A new way becomes clearer. Noble habits are shaped and “formed.” We not only practice but also desire His way of thinking and living.

Someone once said, “We give our heart to God immediately, but our habits come more slowly.” But still, they come. The more I practice the kindness, forgiveness, patience, love and purity of God, the more fruit of his Spirit will be deeply rooted in my heart and flourishing in my life. Can you picture the habit of patience flourishing in your life, or the attitudes of forgiveness and kindness thriving in your life? What would your life look like?

You see, if you are one to say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve never been a patient man” then you are only thinking about what you should be, rather than what you can be. If faith is simply a weekend “hobby” it will always be difficult. But if I make the decision to “learn” from Jesus, to follow a slow, steady, consistent spiritual process, then I will find “rest” not disorder, and over time the way of Jesus will become “easy” and “light.”

This process is sometimes called “spiritual formation” and is made up of “spiritual disciplines” – prayer, meditation, study, simplicity, solitude, fasting, service, silence, confession, worship, celebration and more. I am thankful that more and more, these “tools” are being utilized on a daily basis, and are bringing rest and change into the lives of many.

The recently departed Dallas Willard (1935-2013) once said in an interview, “Spiritual formation isn’t new; it’s only been lost for a while.”

Is spiritual formation finding its way into your life, or is it still lost? Do you believe that spiritual growth can be learned? Do you believe that Jesus’ “yoke” can be “easy?”

It doesn’t just depend upon what you think you should be. It depends upon what you think you can be. It depends upon whether you believe Jesus.

If It’s Worth Doing …

In the mid 1980’s at the Pennsylvania Medical Center there was a study on productivity and emotional health. It involved 150 salesmen with incomes ranging from $10,000 to $150,000. Forty percent of the salesmen proved to be perfectionists. They were very demanding of themselves. And with high expectations of high achievement, they were an “all or nothing” kind of people. For them, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right every time. But were they more successful? Surprisingly, the answer is “no.” Instead, they experienced much more anxiety and were much more easily depressed. But there was not one shred of evidence that they were earning any more money. In fact, discouragement and pressure hurt their productivity.

high barAnother study at Penn State University examined gymnasts who had qualified for the Olympics. The study found that they were less likely to set perfectionist standards than those who had failed to qualify. The point? The successful athletes had accepted the fact that they didn’t always do it right. They learned from their mistakes and went on. For them, it was still worth doing, even though they didn’t always do it right.

Now, there is nothing wrong with high standards, or with an extra attention to detail and quality. But there is something fatal about being preoccupied with those few small items that never go right. You see, for the perfectionist, 99 is a failing grade. Any mistake is unacceptable. Every hair must be in place. And deep down inside, there is that constant, critical voice. It never rests. And each correction, each reminder of the one percent flaw fuels the anger that grows inside. Life becomes an obsession to fix the last problem. Eventually, the emotional drain saps the life. The spirit withers and dies. No more activity. No more trying. They would rather avoid the decision than risk the mistake.

Perhaps the old adage, “If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Right,” has not always been as helpful or as true as we thought. Not if I’m terrified by failure. Not if I’m paralyzed by perfection. Not if I measure my self-worth by my achievement. Not if 99 is a failing grade. Defined this way, it will never be worth doing, because I will never be able to do it exactly right.

Charlie Brown once said, “No problem is so awesome, so complicated, so fraught with danger, that the average citizen can’t run away from it.” And they do. So, I want to suggest a new form of the old adage …

“If its worth doing, its worth doing … poorly.”

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not down grading the pursuit of excellence. I’m not suggesting that we lower our standards. But I am saying that all our undertakings begin the same way – poorly. Let’s take walking for example. Tell me about your first step. Or hitting a ball, or learning to read, or write, or pray. It’s how parents teach their children. It’s how teachers encourage their students. It’s how coaches train their players. It’s how God nurtures his children.

Someone once said, “You have to go through shallow, to get to deep.” And so, if it’s worth doing, its worth starting, and when you start, and sometimes long afterwards, you will do it poorly. But keep doing it, because, “If it’s worth doing, its worth doing poorly.”