First Things First

One of the best things you can do to keep your life on an even keel is to keep first things first. Of course, we learn this (again) every time we take a webinar or read a book related to effective living. But there is no substitute for actually putting the concept into practice.

You might think there can be only one “first thing” in a day, but I have three. If you think about it, you may find that you have more than one also.

The initial “first” is the first thing in my head when I wake up. Over many years of spiritual practice, my mind has been trained to start the day with a thanksgiving prayer. This particular “first thing” sets the tone for the day, and I am grateful to start each day with this attitude.

The second “first thing” occurs when I sit down at my desk to work. My spiritual practice is to open the workday with a short devotional time. Sometimes it is a few Bible verses; sometimes the workday begins with the day’s reading from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. This is a resource I highly recommend.

The third “first thing” is the first work task for the day. Like everyone else, my work tasks might number anywhere from five to ten in a day, but there is always one that is the most important to my long-range future. That is the one I start with, even when others on the list appear more urgent. And I never put email or Facebook ahead of that one most important task. An excellent book that can help anyone stay focused on this approach to work is Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! The book is structured into 21 chapters on how to stay focused on completing important projects and get more done in less time.

Everyday Spirituality means living close to God every day, living close to whatever you most value, and putting first things first.

 

           

God Speaks to Each of Us

“God Speaks to Each of Us” is a poem by the European mystical poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke.

Though the entire poem is worthy of time spent with it, there are two lines I dwell upon most.

The first is: “Don’t let yourself lose me.” Remember that these are meant to be God’s words spoken to each newly made person. It is the responsibility of each of us to see that we don’t lose God, that we don’t lose sight of Him or turn away from Him, no matter what comes to us in life. This is the principal reason for pursuing spiritual practices as an everyday matter. We all need to be reminded daily, even hourly, of Whose we are and why we are here.

The second line that especially draws me is the final one: “Give me your hand.” Yes, it is our own responsibility to keep God centermost in our lives, but we don’t have to work at that without God’s help. The guidance of God is always available to us. But it is our choice whether or not to reach out for it.

           

Getting Pushed Around by Your Thoughts?

In his 2003 book Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle offers the startling advice: “Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don’t take your thoughts too seriously.”

His point is that we get trapped in our concepts of what is going on, when really those concepts form only one of many perspectives of reality. Further, your thinking constitutes only a small portion of your overall consciousness, so it’s best not to assign too much weight to your thoughts.

Other authors too numerous to list urge us to take control of our thoughts because “we are what we think about.” This theme suggests that we must take our thoughts very seriously because they determine who we will be.

These are really not two diametrically opposed positions, though at first they appear to be. Instead, they work together quite well if we can approach them deliberately.

The first step is to compose in your thoughts the kind of person you want to be, then use your thoughts to intentionally cement that persona into your subconscious. Thoughts can also be used successfully to sort out decisions and plan actions. But left to itself, when those thinking activities are completed, the mind goes off in all sorts of tangents, forming judgments, criticizing what we ourselves or other people are doing, remembering and reliving nasty experiences best forgotten, etc. Clearly, these “left-to-itself” thoughts of the mind are the ones we must not take seriously, but, in fact, should replace as quickly as possible with the deliberate thoughts composing the persons we want to become.

           

Value of Loneliness

This morning I caught a few minutes of Jesse Duplantis, a television minister whose message is usually good and whose delivery is always lively. Though I did not hear his entire message, I was struck by this comment:

“Lonely times and wilderness times in your life—you’re going to have them—help you get clearer on your calling and your goals.”

Lonely times and wilderness times both refer to those times that come to all of us when we feel isolated, alone, and lost. We sometimes remain in those places so long that we begin to drift. It doesn’t take long before we conclude that there is very little worth working for; we give up on pushing toward our goals because they aren’t materializing anyway; we are left going in circles and getting nowhere, much like the Israelites who took forty years to make an eleven-day journey.

Duplantis is saying that those times are, instead, perfect opportunities for stopping to reflect on where we are going in life. The dissatisfaction inherent in those lonely, lost times provides the optimal environment for us to ask the important questions, such as: Where am I supposed to be headed? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is this emptiness what God intended for me, or am I missing something really important here? What could my life be about if I only allow it to go in the direction I believe God has in mind for me, based on the talents I was given?

Asking these questions prayerfully and letting God provide the answers to us will not only reconnect us with our talents, goals, and calling, but also help us find our way out of the wilderness.

           

Lesser-known Heroes

I continue my subscription to Christian Century because there is always something special in every issue—something that makes me pause and think or maybe causes me to be a little more grateful. A lot of my blog posts had their roots in something I read in the magazine.

“Faith Matters” is a column that I always take a look at, and in the January 7, 2015, issue the column was entitled “Lesser-known Heroes.” It was written by M. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary. His lofty title notwithstanding, Barnes was writing to recognize local pastors who not only do not usually have lofty titles, but are seldom celebrated. He reminds us that “there are many unpretentious, undistinguished pastors in the world who are quietly doing heroic things.”

And what is the main heroic thing these pastors do? Barnes tells us: these pastors go before their congregations, people often beaten up by the effort life can be, to remind them, “We have a Creator for our lives who is not done. We have a Redeemer for all of the tragedy we have created by acting as if we were gods. We have a Spirit who will not abandon us to the mess we’ve made of ourselves and the world.”

To be thus reminded has to be one of the highest reasons to attend local church services.

           

New Year—Reason to Reflect

We’ve just brought the New Year in, but this year I did not take part in any of the usual festivities. For example, we usually dance with the dogs at midnight, write in journals, watch fireworks, and otherwise take special note of the passing of one year into another. Not this year.

This year we were, instead, caught in the life-and-death reality of my partner’s illnesses.The crisis came on suddenly around five in the morning on December 31, continued all through the day, all through the night, and all through New Year’s Day to approximately eight in the evening, when she was finally again stabilized. In the night, I had been setting the alarm for every two and a half hours to get up to see how she was doing. (I should add that she adamantly refused to go to an ER.)

So where was the “everyday spirituality” practice here? It was in my continuous praying, of course. It was in my constant belief that the divine Spirit is always with us, seeing us through whatever trial we face. The health crisis was not my idea of how to welcome in a new year, but maybe it was ideal for causing us to stop and reflect on what it means to come into a new year.

           

Why Do You Pray?

The December issue of Christianity Today included a graphic entitled “Prayers of the People” that included 10 responses Protestants had given concerning their prayer life. The response with the highest percentage was “prayer for my own sin” – prayed for regularly by 51% of the respondents. Of course, you might have guessed that one, along with the 44% who pray for people in natural disasters.

But I found some surprises in the graphic. According to CT, 46% of people who pray actually pray for their enemies. Seems high but hopeful. Then, 20% pray to win the lottery, and that’s one number I would have thought might be higher, along with 11% for a favorite team to win a game, 9% to find a good parking spot, 7% to not get caught speeding, and 5% for someone’s relationship to end. Really?

I contrast this graphic with the introduction to a wonderful book entitled The Little Book of Prayers. The first sentence of the introduction asks this question: “How soon after humans stood upright and turned to the sky did they begin to pray?” Editor David Schiller poses the more commonly considered reasons to pray: to give thanks, to ask for answers, to receive, to give, for ask for help. Typical names for types of prayer include praise, petition, thanksgiving, and atonement.

Schiller offers another “universal quality” to prayer. I hadn’t thought that it was universal, but I hope it is. That is humility. He writes: “And in an age that could be characterized by its astonishing lack of humility, prayer offers a rare chance to put our inflated selves aside, and in the suddenly unburdened state that follows rediscover the things that really matter.”

Humility before God, regardless of the content of your prayer, seems like the surest way to build that crucial relationship.

           

Spiritual ADD

Several days ago I happened to catch a TV program featuring Kerry Shook, senior pastor of a congregation in Texas. Kerry is an excellent communicator, but what grabbed my attention was his topic: “Spiritual ADD.” I do not recall that he spoke to that topic at any length – most of the sermon time was given to a very effective presentation by his wife, Chris – but Kerry’s topic sparked my imagination.

These days it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t know that ADD means Attention Deficit Disorder or that key symptoms may include hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inattentiveness. ADHD is another term used for it. In fact, the latest twist on the name is “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder predominantly inattentive (ADHD–PI).” I’m surprised anyone can pay attention long enough to get that entire name out! Depending on how broadly ADHD or ADD is defined, as much as 5% of the world population is believed to show symptoms of it.

Spiritual ADD likely affects a much higher percentage of the population. I would suggest that the key symptom is inattentiveness to one’s spiritual life. It would be easy to blame the technology available to us today and how devoted we all seem to be to keeping up with our electronic devices. But even though technological innovations surround us like never before, there is no greater reason now than ever to allow them to supplant the time and attention our spiritual lives require.

Unlike the usual types of ADD/ADHD, spiritual ADD has a cure. Spending a little time every day in silence, focused on your own inner self, inviting communion with the divine element within you is really all you need to do to resolve spiritual ADD. You can choose to use a zabuton cushion or a simple chair. You can choose to be indoors or outdoors. If you are really fortunate, you might even find a place like the one pictured here: a private bench at Meditation Mount near Ojai, California.

Make your spiritual life a priority; the rewards will astound you!

 

           

When Life Gets Away from You

On the first day of this month, my partner took a bad spill and ended up with a fractured radial bone in her left wrist. It took only one look at her arm to know that the break was a bad one and the bones would have to be set. We went immediately for X-rays, and the first doc who saw her was actually more concerned about the possibilities of concussion from the bump on the head than he was about the wrist. But the orthopedic surgeon could be dissuaded from surgery only when she learned about my partner’s five heart stents and the blood thinner she regularly takes.

So, purple was chosen for the cast color, and Christopher, who applied the cast, turned out also to be in charge of setting the broken bones. At the last possible minute before the cast turned to stone, he grasped the wrist and squeezed with all his might, expertly aligning the bones for healing.

Since then, I’ve been my partner’s left arm, helping with dressing, helping more with the dogs, doing more in the kitchen, doing her hair every morning and washing it every few days, etc. These may be labors of love, but they are labors nonetheless and they have pressed in on my available time for things like writing regular blog posts.

The question is: what do you do when life gets away from you. First, it’s a stretch to claim that my life has gotten away from me; I have simply become busier. But second, it’s been a good exercise in examining how to pursue everyday spirituality in situations like this one.

I’ve found that when patience seems to be in short supply, prayer is not. I am reminded every day that patience is Item #4 in the fruit of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control] (Galatians 5:22-23). These nine gifts are our birthright when we choose to be children of God, and it helps to bring them to the surface in our lives when we repeat the verses over and over from memory or reading aloud from Scripture.

My everyday spirituality has also been enhanced by continuing my meditation practice. When I sink into the chair to begin the twenty minutes of absolute quiet, I know that I know that all is well in my world.

This has been a painful break for my partner, and it hurts to see her in pain, even after more than two weeks. The cast will be on a while yet and if the pain is lessening, it is doing so at a very slow pace. Meanwhile, I can make it part of my everyday spirituality to look for and find the ways to be helpful.

           

The Meaning of Life

Ha! Bet you laughed when you saw that heading! But two “meaning of life” inputs came to me on the same day, so I had to give it a second look.

First, if you’ve looked into Ecclesiastes lately, you’ve seen Solomon declare over and over that everything is meaningless. Purported to be among the wisest ever to live, he spells it out so there can be no mistaking what he is saying: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecc. 1:14)

This is the same book with the often-quoted section on “seasons”: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity.” But as to the level of meaning available to humans, Solomon concludes that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work.

The Buddhists may be a little ahead here, because they have realized that all this doing and striving that occupy the minds of humankind will not lead to contentment and peace. So what will?

The second input on this subject was a video clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson (known as an astrophysicist and science communicator) speaking to a group on the meaning of life. Tyson came at the subject from a different angle, a much more practical, hands-on model. He said that the meaning of life is not something you find and put into yourself. Rather, the “healthier” way to think of it is “the meaning of life is what I give it.”  Expounding on what that means, he said: “Any day I’m alive, I want to make sure I know more today than I did yesterday. And in tandem with that, at some level, I want to lessen the suffering of others.”

I found that a profoundly useful perspective.