XIII-Life Planning Questions-Part 2
1. Small Reflection Groups
Small reflection groups to be effective, requires:
•commitment to regular and punctual attendance by all group members
•confidentiality, with nothing discussed in the group to be repeated outside, except with the mutual agreement of all members
•honesty and trust between group members, or nothing worthwhile will be shared
•a willingness to hear constructive criticism and to move on from previous attitudes and priorities where this seems appropriate
•members who are not ‘yes’ people, but prepared, with due care and forethought, to challenge the way things are at present, and encourage a new vision of the way things could be in living.
An invitation to reflect on living
The aim of this informal group is to help you reflect on personal aspects of the direction and effectiveness of your living. The group will, provide you with constructive criticism as well as being a source of personal support and encouragement. It can help you understand better your own strengths and non-strengths in living, and so have a positive contribution to your personal development and ability to live and work with others. It can act as a sounding board for ideas or personal concerns not appropriate in the family, and it can be a source of insight and support for you, in the midst of the stresses and strains of life. It should be a crucible out of which you will be learning how to build each other up for your mutual life as parts of the body of Christ.
Some of these things happen spontaneously or accidentally from time to time; ideally this group can help them happen more intentionally and more regularly, and give you an external ‘push” to review your own journey of faith, and your own roles as spouse, parent and Christian. Trust and confidentiality, need it be stated, are pre-requisites for the life of the group, and so also are humor, celebrations and prayer!
The points listed below may give the group the excuse to open up ideas and discussion, but the list is in no order of priority and by no means exhaustive:
•perceptions of the transition into the life as a Child of God, the process of adjustment and change for you and your family
•perceptions of the community as the place of life together
•adjusting to expectations of leaders, Christians, congregations, the community, and of yourself and your family
•what do you enjoy most in life? why?
•getting helpful feedback on how you are ‘coming across’; how you and the family seem to be coping
•recognizing gifts; recognizing missed opportunities for help, or for personal and family growth
•causes of personal and family frustration or stress, and ways to possibly overcome these
•what do you yearn for most in your life?
•reflection on time allocated to various tasks and responsibilities, work and family and other, ‘business and pleasure’
•personally accounting for ‘the faith that is in you’, that give life meaning
•your continuing education, becoming more competent; mental stimulus, spiritual growth
•your physical and emotional health
•sources of satisfaction and encouragement
•working with conflict; and with apathy
•communicating with different groups
•being accountable to God
•what is not yet in your life?
•your family, ten years from now
•prayer and spiritual nourishment
•anger, guilt, powerlessness, regrets
•ministering to your family; to the sick and bereaved; to the young and the aged, etc.
•your willingness to be ministered to, to receive care yourself, to accept help
•unresolved questions of faith and belief
•ways of introducing change, encouraging involvement, motivating people, freeing up resistance
•difficult jobs, things you put off or avoid
•non-Christian interests, responsibilities, hopes
Consider the applicability of the above to your situation in living. if it has some possibility of encouraging a support group or individual to contribute to the enhancement of your living, identify specific changes to its format or wording which would be needed to meet your needs. You may want to make notes beside items, or add new areas of more direct relevance to your experience and field of need.
While a group is unlikely to find difficulty in identifying issues of mutual concern for discussion, it is important that these not degenerate into ‘gripe sessions’. Instead, it is suggested that members all bring as ‘homework’ individual preparation. In the whole group, or in pairs or triplets, share individual conclusions and interpretations; encourage each other to recognize:
1.existing strengths; and
2.areas which apparently need further work or thought.
Close with prayer for each other; seek to affirm each other’s living and concerns at this time, and pray for the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit in specific areas of the lives of group members. While it may take some time to establish this level of sharing, trust, and openness in prayer, the benefits are considerable.
2. Continuing education in Christian living
Edward Bratcher in his book The Walk-on-Water Syndrome has some scathing things to say about the way clergy and laity are functioning far below their God-given potential, because they are constantly facing problems that leave them discouraged and with great emotional and spiritual pain.
Laity need a constantly renewed sense of direction from the church, and need to work together to set and achieve goals for dimensions of Christian life; the inner upbuilding of faith;
1.Take seriously the example of Jesus in our prayer life: ‘keep our lives warmed at the heart of his life’. We are called first of all to belong to him as Savior and Lord – nothing else is more important for one’s vocation as a Christian.
2.The persistence of an Olympic athlete is needed in the pursuit of spiritual growth. Continuing theological study, as well as prayer and meditation, involve our emotions, so we are tempted to neglect all such disciplines during periods of vocational or familial stress or when God appears to be absent. The only answer is an exercise of the will and persistence in the spiritual disciplines (and see Richard Footer, The Celebration of Discipline).
3.The use of a range of devotional resources can undergrid our determination to persist in honing our gifts and expanding our experience of spiritual growth. For some this primarily involves the Bible. Others find the classics of spirituality a great resource.
4.Participation in prayer retreats, a resource now undergoing a widespread ‘revival’. Silent retreats, private but structured retreats, and led or taught retreats, are among the variety of experiences readily available. Quiet days, weekend or three or four day retreats are now reasonably commonly accessible, but there is as yet little attempt to emulate the extended retreats. The extended retreat, is still in the process of rediscovery and theological exploration to determine the format and content appropriate to the late twentieth century. The saints who have continued in the faith through great tribulations, have much to share with mature Christians.
5.The keeping of a prayer diary or spiritual journal, to clarify one’s experiences, and perceive, usually in retrospect, the evidence of God’s guidance (and see above).
6.The need to ‘personalize’ one’s devotional life. By this is meant the identification of when, where, and how to pray in the context of one’s work and family commitments, temperament, and stage of spiritual growth. There is no one right pattern for all, and no one pattern that will be equally helpful to one person across all phases of his or her life. By ‘trial and error’ a family or individual has to work out what ‘works for them’ at this time – early morning solitary prayer, family devotions at the tea table,, bedtime prayers with young children, a Sunday night family circle, and so on. The busy lay worker can find a suitable time slot in the day’s routine, whether it is in one’s office, or a lunchtime stroll or park bench quiet time.
7.What are the reality factors? What are the constraints as to time, money, family, work commitments, recent or impending job change, program availability and flexibility, and my ability to schedule appropriate blocks of time for continuing education? How will I obtain the necessary books, study guides, supervision, equipment (audio or video players, etc.)? Can I work at home, free from interruptions, or do I need to find an alternative study location?
8.What is being accomplished? What changes are resulting from participation in continuing education opportunities? Do the benefits justify the costs in time, money and effort? How can I evaluate the effectiveness of the program, or time spent? What are the relative costs and benefits for me personally.
9.What is being planned for the future? Have is set myself goals for further education, and are these being achieved? Are my short-term and long-term vocational goals clearly established, so that I can discern whether or not they are being met? Have I considered my continuing education intentions for this month, this year,, the next five years, the next ten years?
10.Take time to read back over these suggestions, and consider their implications for your growth in spiritual maturity and vocational effectiveness. Do you need more information on what is available in your area? Who would hold information on the names and contact points of teachers on prayer and spirituality, the location of retreat centers, devotional materials, or training in the conduct of prayer workshops and retreats? Note down the questions which arise for you, and ideas for your own growth which are worth further exploration.
Inventory of Continuing Education Interests
As a preliminary exercise in identifying where you might most fruitfully begin to pursue further knowledge and experience in Christian living, you are invited to complete the following chart. Because it is designed for use in a variety of situations, it can only have rather general parameters.
•Be as specific as you can about your own needs and interests as you fill it in. If necessary, add your own categories at the bottom of the list.
•Tick any area which applies to you, and write next to it your particular interest in continuing education for Christian living, and where you believe you might find resources to help meet that interest. You may need to distinguish between ‘knowledge about’, and ‘skills or abilities’ in some of the areas. Finally, it may be necessary to refer to your trainer for details of courses, libraries, retreat centers, coaches or counselors.
A. AREA OF INTEREST NATURE AND LOCATION OF RESOURCES-EDUCATION
2. Biblical studies
3. Church history
5. Christianity and society
6. Religious education
7. Prayer and meditation
8. Spiritual guidance
9. Marriage and family
10. Conflict management
11. Stress/burnout management
12. Simplifying life-style
* If you have filled in more than three or four of the above areas, consider which items currently have highest priority for you. Write in here your intentions about pursuing further education in these areas of living:
B. PRIORITY AREAS WHO TO CONTACT MY OBJECTIVES DATE TO BEGIN
3. Spiritual training
Spiritual training is the application of theology to life. Since life, as progressive relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, is carried on in the world, it ultimately must control all aspects of life.
The ‘cure of souls’, the pastoral guidance of a person’s spiritual life by counsel and prayer through the illumination, grace and power of the Holy Spirit, this defines what has traditionally been termed spiritual direction or spiritual training.
The discipline of spiritual training has had a long history and profound impact on the life of the Christian church down the centuries.
There is some resistance to the thought that any one person, clergy or not can ‘train’ another’s spirituality. Yet in the sense of prayerful counsel in the context of theological reflection and pastoral experience, it is not so easy to draw a line between ‘trainer’ and ‘counseling’. In the best understanding of the concept, a spiritual trainer is neither a judge nor a dictator, but ‘a physician of souls’, one who seeks to diagnose the condition of the soul with all its graces and ills, and to assist it into the way of growth’.
The role of ‘training’ might be viewed as a signboard indicating a number of alternative routes from where one is now standing – the route taken is finally the responsibility of the directee. Training or guidance must always be weighed against Scripture, conscience, church teaching, personal prayer, and the dictates of common sense. So spiritual training is really a form of pastoral care which offers to help another person relate better to God, and to live out with integrity the implications of that relationship.
The two areas most aided by the discipline of spiritual training are self understanding in the light of Christ, and growth in faith and prayer. Fairchild, in a 1982 article, has set out guidelines for spirituality and spiritual direction/training. He compares and contrasts psychotherapy, counseling and spiritual training, and suggests that the latter process begins in ‘yearning for coherence and communion’. Searching for God and personal meaning. A sense of shallowness or loss of soul and disillusionment’. The goal tends to be ‘continuous’ conversion; letting go of resistance to discovery of deeper identity evoked by God. Ego is reduced: ‘Now I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). Desiring and choosing differently, for example, the Beatitudes. Again, the attitude of the guide/trainer is ‘to dialogue together in the presence of mystery; willingness for God’s intention to be realized through surrender of self-definition…’ According to the seventeenth century Benedictine Dom Augustine Baker, ‘In a word, (the trainer) is God’s usher, and must lead souls in God’s way, and not his own’ – in other words,, lead the searcher to the true ‘coach’, God himself, as he teaches and directs through the inward dwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What are the historical patterns of the role of spiritual trainer?
•a person ‘possessed by the Spirit’, characterized by personal holiness of life, a closeness to God;
•a person of experience, one who has struggled with the realities of prayer and life, who has encountered his/her own passions, inner conflicts, darkness and light;
•a person of learning (though without spiritual maturity this can be dangerous), one steeped in scripture, and in the Fathers and Mothers of the church;
•a person of discernment, one of perception and insight, of vision, one who can read ‘the sighs of the times, the writing on the walls of the soul’.
•a person who ‘gives way to the Holy Spirit’, who helps others to recognize and follow the inspirations of grace in their lives, to assist in reading ‘ the breathings of the Spirit’.
Tilden Edwards in his book Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction, has a chapter on ‘Seeking a spiritual friend’ (pp105ff). He canvasses such issues as:
•age: it is best to choose someone ‘in the second half of life: roughly thirty-five or older’.
•sex: where there is a choice between two good people of different sexes, Edwards suggests choosing a trainer of the opposite sex to yourself.
•experience: ‘seek out someone who is confident in experience yet humble in it’.
•personality: look for complementary – if you are analytical, seek a more ‘feeling’ type of person as spiritual trainer, and so on; avoid extreme differences as rapport may be difficult.
•your present spiritual path: it is important that your friend/trainer have some experience of and sympathy for your path; a sympathetic yet critical experience of different paths is best of all.
•someone outside your immediate institutional context; a lay person should look to someone other than his or her own pastor/minister.
•ideally a trainer/guide should not be too distant, because contact needs to be fairly frequent at least in the initial stages of the relationship; if necessary, letters and audio tapes may supplement personal contact, but can rarely replace it successfully.
•exploration phase: mutual expectations and basic compatibility need to be explored without a ‘permanent’ relationship being implied; there needs to be a reasonable ‘personality fit’ and sympathy (though not necessarily identity) of outlook; if in doubt, sleep and pray on it.
•covenant phase: clarify what is really important for you in the relationship, and how you will know if it is remaining ‘on the track’, and fruitful in your spiritual formation. Consider practical issues like frequency and place of meeting; length of consultation sessions; the place of discussion; shared and silent prayer, ‘homework’ and preparation, the primary role(s) of the trainer (listener, supporter, confronter, theologiser, prayer, counselor, etc.): other mutual expectations, times for evaluation, prayer.
What is your next step?
1.It may be time to give some serious thought and prayer to the possibility of exploring such a supportive relationship for yourself?
2.If you are at least interested to consider further such a possibility, try to think through (and note down) what it is you seek. What would be your expectations of a spiritual friend/guide/trainer? What would you be seeking through spiritual training? How would this differ from supportive friendship you already have with other Christians?
3.What do you understand to be the distinctive advantages and possible dangers of individual as against group guidance within the community of faith? In what ways would you benefit from relating to one soul friend, in contrast to a small group?
4.Read again thee ‘marks’ of a spiritual trainer, above. Even if you are not yet convinced that you want to seek out a potential trainer. Seek to clarify in your mind what it is about these ‘marks’ that attract you to consider that they may be able to encourage you in your journey of faith.
5.Give yourself a set time of say three to four days over which to pray and think further about the possibility of spiritual training for yourself. Set yourself a particular target date by which to come to at least a tentative conclusion about this issue. Equally important, mentally commit yourself to (and note down) times for specific prayer and meditation about this area of need in your life, then seek to be as open as you can in prayer to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Remember that spiritual training is merely a means to an end,, and that end is God in Christ, who to serve is perfect freedom and perfect fulfillment.
6.For future reference, at the end of the period of prayer about your ‘next step’ in spiritual training write down and date yo8ur conclusions; whatever the outcome, you may like to write a prayer of thanksgiving to the God who has led you thus far.
4. Reviewing the spiritual journey
The pilgrimage has long been part of the religious life and search for faith. Sometimes it involves an ‘outward journey’ as in visits to Jerusalem, to Christian communities such as to Lourdes. Pilgrimage is also an allegory of the ‘inward journey’ of the Christian life, in search of the One who called himself ‘The Way.”
It takes a considerable time to review your life’s spiritual journey in any great depth, so this is really an invitation to commence a process of on-going review.
With pencil and paper at hand, begin to think back over your life and try to identify the ups and downs in your relationship with God. A line drawing, with decades and other significant events in your life marked on it, may help you to see things in their historical relationships with each other; alternatively, you may prefer a graph, a diagram, a sketch, or a symbolic drawing. Reflect on your high points, your low points, times of break-through or joy, times of despair. Take at least twenty to thirty minutes for this reflection and drawing.
Use the space below, or preferably a large sheet of paper and bold lines rather than intricate little details. When finished, consider whom it would be enjoyable to share this with – someone who knows you well enough to help interpret your visual presentation, and to join in celebrating the movement depicted.
DO NOT go on to Part B until you are reasonably satisfied.
You need to set aside at least an hour for uninterrupted thought and prayer. It will be helpful to make a few notes opposite some points. Within the time available, discipline yourself to attend to the ‘starters’ listed below, and do not move too quickly; alternatively, you may wish to return to one or two points again, to reflect on them at greater length.
1. How would you define someone who is ‘spiritually mature’? Write down some words or phrases that describe such a person. If possible, have in mind an actual person whom you know well.
2. Reflecting on your own experience, how do you define ‘spiritual development’? Write down a sentence or two.
3. If ‘spiritual development’ is a life-long journey or process, how do you describe your present position on the journey? Perhaps you can best comment by glancing backwards, then glancing forward from your present vantage point. You may refer to such landmarks as:
return to or renewal of faith
renewed spiritual growth
inter-relationships for you of love of self/neighbor/God
the challenges and joys of living
desert and valley experiences
Conclude by describing as best you can your present position on the journey, your current degree of ‘spiritual well-being’.
Now become more specific in your personal reflection: take time in prayerful meditation, seeking with the Holy Spirit’s help to be honest and discerning about your present practices and priorities. Jot down some notes to yourself, not only of your ‘answer’ at this point, but further thoughts or questions that come to mind.
•when, specifically, do you take time with God?
•when are you most aware that God is with you?
•what are your main forms of prayer?
•which form(s) do you presently find most helpful? Why?
•what would you describe as your most precious/valued prayer experience?
•what types of devotional literature or art forms have you used in prayer in the past year, and which do you currently find most helpful?
•what part, if any, do the Scriptures play in your prayer life?
•how often do you pray with others? If you do pray with others, how free do you feel in that context to explore a variety of forms of prayer with those people? if you don’t what are the practical reasons or barriers for you, and how could these change?
•considering your participation in public worship, and in this sense ‘formal’ prayer liturgies, do you find these prayer times more or less beneficial than private prayer? Why? What maximizes their value for you?
how frequently do you schedule –
•times of prayer or meditation each day
•sharing in public worship, and Holy Communion
•silent retreat times, quiet days
•directed retreats (not seminars or workshops)
•personal spiritual direction, with a ‘spiritual friend’, trainer or mentor
•peer-group reflection, with others who are living Christianity
•reflection on opportunities for you to receive/give feedback, to try out ideas, and to receive/give caring support
•times of personal ‘stock taking’, reviewing the past, and setting goals for the future
•what forms of retreat do you find most helpful? Why? If you have not participated in some of those listed above, why is this? (Lack of information about them, not readily available, no time = not a priority, prejudicial comments by others, etc.)
•what part do issues of reconciliation, peace, and justice, play in your spirituality?
•what other aspects of prayer, meditation, and contemplation are important for you now?
•are there areas of difficulty for your personal spiritual well-being at this time? If so, where do (or should) you look for support or counsel?
•what are your priorities for positive change in your prayer life?
•what part do material possessions and financial giving play in your spirituality?
In your own way, and at your own pace, bring your experience and new thoughts or commitments together in prayer. After a time of meditation and prayer, note down any new insights and priorities which come to you for your ongoing living.
Christians are called to share in and give direction to their Training Program from God. Ahead of all else, the program points to our graduation and to the Spirit-filled life of his body, the church. In this program, to experience fulfillment or depression, or other powerfully motivation or inhibiting reactions, is to enter into the way of the cross with the Lord of death and life himself. If the ‘problems’ addressed in this exercise can be summed up as how to rise above (if not avoid) the dark and stressful times which certainly recur in Christian living, the ‘answer’ lies in the areas of spirituality.
How is a Christian to rise above the pressures and demands of the world?? One answer seems to be as basic as how you understand and live out the ‘call’ to be God’s child.
The priority is one’s own dynamic and personal relationship with God – all else in the plan of living takes its point of departure from this focus… The question is ‘What are the God-endowed resources both of the individual and of the community of faith?’ Here there is no approved definition of the path to success, satisfaction, and Quality of Life, rather a statement of the minimum sources of God-given support for living within the context of God’s family.
It is worth pondering at some length, preferably in the prayerful setting of a silent retreat or quiet day, on one’s current or changing understanding of the general call to Christian living. Such fundamental issues should be reviewed at least annual if we are to remain open to the ‘changing winds of the Spirit’.
A second approach amounts to a holistic ‘theology of training,’ or even a ‘spirituality of stress/un-stress’. This is not the place for a theological treatise on creation and humanity, let alone a comprehensive manual on a personal health, but a few questions can be asked as a basis for reflection.
To what extent has by training, and experience, encouraged me to give due, balanced attention to myself?
•preventing/managing stress effects on my body (including food, vitamins, exercise, rest).
•strengthening the ‘positive programming’ of my mind to deal with the impact of negative thoughts, the criticisms of others, and the impact of violence and negative approach in the media and society at large (‘I cannot change some of the circumstances of my life, but I can control the way I respond to them’).
•coping with the negative versions of the emotions of ‘fight or flight’, and learning to acknowledge, accept, and channel rather than repress my feelings.
•exercising the will by seeking to come to decisions and make choices by looking at the options from God’s viewpoint, in comparison to God’s rules, and by deciding whether this is something I want to do or is it what God has provided me.
•in the area of the spirit, growing in my personal ability to ‘walk in the light’, walk in the footsteps of the One who is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ and within my personal training program. I must choose this day whom I will serve – ‘as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’. is my first priority truly to be a joyful, redeemed follower of the risen Lord or a slave to the whims and wills of those I seek to serve in his name?
The purpose of this lesson was to bring the disciplines of prayer, reflection, decision-making, and shared responsibility in God’s Plan to bear on the stresses and strains of life as you are experiencing them at present. The exercises that we have done are illustrative of individual and shared paths of spiritual growth. May they encourage you, first of all, in your relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ, and second, in the exercise of your gifts of living.
You may feel that the way of living we have been considering is a quantum leap from your present experience. Not only do you feel that you are in left field; you are in another state, maybe another country. That probably overstates the case, but even if it is an accurate description of your situation you need not be discouraged. You do not have to be advanced in the intricacies of sainthood to begin to move into holy obedience. You do not even need to know all of the problems or pitfalls. You need only one thing: a desire to know
God and to train with Him and His plan for you. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the very fact that you are participating in this training program is desire enough for God to begin bringing the grace of holy obedience into your life.
You can trust God to individualize the training: some things he will no doubt urge you to ignore; certainly he will teach you many personalized steps this training program does not cover. Above all, seek to be attentive to your Top Coach, whether through this training program or beyond this program.
We are to discipline ourselves to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God.” This focus must take precedence over absolutely everything. We must never allow anything, whether deed or desire, to have that place of central importance.
Let go of all distractions until you are driven into the Plan. Allow God to reshuffle your priorities and eliminate unnecessary activity. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Pray for me that I not loosen my grip on the hands of Jesus even under the guise of ministering to the poor.” That is our first task: to grip the hands of Jesus with such tenacity that we are obliged to follow his lead, to seek first his Kingdom.
The next step is so simple I am almost embarrassed to mention it, and yet it is so important that I must. Begin now to obey him in every way you can. Start right where you are, in the midst of all the tasks that press in upon you. Do not wait for some future time when you will have more time or be more perfect in knowledge. The Roman governor Felix wanted to wait for a more ‘convenient season,’ but we all know that there is no more convenient season. “Today when you hear his voice do not harden your hearts,” warned the author of Hebrews (Heb. 3:7-8). Right now, as you read these words, ask for an increase of the guidance of God your Father. In every task of your day seek to live in utter surrender, listening and obedient.
some more advice in holy obedience is to get up quickly and keep going if you stumble and fall. You will fall, you know.
But when we do fail we do not need to give excessive time mourning the loss. We need to get up, and start again immediately. Nor should we linger long at the site of battles won. The issue in holy obedience is not whether we failed or succeeded yesterday or this morning, but whether we are obedient now. So Act Now, and put your training plan into Action.
It is one thing to dominate people because you have an organizational chart on your side, but it is quite another to manipulate people because you claim to have God on your side. Watchman Nee, the great Chinese Christian leader and writer, set forth this view in his book Spiritual Authority. Nee maintained that God delegates his authority to human leaders. Thus he claimed: “We do not obey man but God’s authority in that man. Nee alleged that the key responsibility of followers was unquestioning obedience to their Christian leaders. He concluded, “Henceforth authority alone is factual to me; reason and right and wrong no longer control my life” Nee explained his position this way: “People will perhaps argue, ‘What if the authority is wrong?’ The answer is, If God dares to entrust His authority to men, then we can dare to obey. Whether the one in authority is right or wrong does not concern us, since he has to be responsible directly to God. The obedient needs only to obey; the Lord will not hold us responsible for any mistaken obedience, rather He will hold the delegated authority responsible for his erroneous act. Insubordination, however, is rebellion, and for this the one under authority must answer to God.”
Lord, help me to realize my potential. Make me less a person-pleaser, and more a God-pleaser. Grant that I might discover my gifts and talents, then assist me to use them as you would have them used. Amen.