Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Choice

In many ways, our Christian walk consists primarily of remaining mindful of God.  Put differently, it consists of remaining conscious of our relationship with God throughout the day.  This may take many different forms depending on the situations we find ourselves in.  It may be responding to an opportunity to serve another in a seemingly small way, or resisting the temptation to say something we’re better off not saying, or being willing to see someone in a different light than that of our own presumption, and so on.  This frequently amounts to being conscious of the choice that is regularly placed before us.  So often we respond to life in a reactionary way, especially in the course of our day-to-day activities.  Having a rhythm and routine to life is good and healthy, but it can also prove dangerous if we become passive and complacent in it.

Many times, we find ourselves falling short of the ideals we pursue for no other reason than we are not thinking about them at the time.  Sin sneaks in when we aren’t on the lookout for it.  It isn’t that we are going out of our way to deviate from Christ’s example, it’s more the case that we drift off the path.  Rather than turning opposite the way we want to go, it’s more like following traffic off of the highway without thinking about whether it’s the right exit or not.  The choices that are spiritually harmful to us often stem from sinful habit rather than sinful motive.  The situations that provide us with these choices are typically more subtle than being presented with two options obviously marked as right and wrong.  They tend to be more concerned with things like the type of attitude we maintain throughout the day, what we are going to let our mind linger on, and so forth.

As we ponder this, there is a very real possibility of going to the other extreme and going out of our way to shoehorn everything into a choice format.  The fact is that we don’t need to go out and find choices to make, we simply need to be aware of the choices already before us.

It may help to consider things from a different angle.  Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, in which the Old Testament Law is laid out for the Israelites, Moses speaks to the assembly and says the following:

“I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

-Deuteronomy 30:19-20

In short, the Israelites have been plainly told the way to life and the way to death.  Given this knowledge, they are implored to choose the way to life.

Moving closer to home, in the context of the New Testament and New Covenant we are under, Jesus sets down the foundation upon which all of the instruction in the Old Testament hangs.  When asked what the greatest commandment is, Christ replies with the following:

“Jesus said to him, ‘“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’”

-Matthew 22:37-40

Here, Christ sets down for us the heart of what it means to be obedient to God in simple terms.  As the Way, He shows us what it looks like to follow the Way which leads to life.

Returning to being mindful of the choices that come before us, being conscious of these choices and responding appropriately does not require that we constantly unfold a massive flow chart to identify them and decide what to do.  Nor does it require that we set ourselves on-edge as if we are taking history’s most dire multiple-choice test.  What it calls for is shining a light, plain and simple.  This light is the light of God’s word and by it, we can see to stay on the right path as well as catch anything unsavory that would try to sneak in under the cover of darkness.  One way we may go about it is simply keeping the two greatest commandments in mind as we go about our business.  Is my attitude one that loves God?  By saying x, am I loving my neighbor as myself?  These are some of the questions that sprout from such a mindset.  As they do, they cast light upon the choices we are making and allow us to see more clearly so that we may choose life.


The Grind

Pokémon has been on my mind as of late, with the release of the 7th generation on the horizon and having recently completed a playthrough, myself, on my old blue version cartridge.  It is mind-boggling to reflect on how far the series has come since its initial release in the United States 18 years ago.  At the hazard of seeming old, I recall coming home from school one day to find that a VHS tape had arrived in the mail informing us that a new game called Pokémon was coming to America.  I cannot begin to guess how many hours since then I’ve passed playing it.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the franchise, Pokémon is a game in which you collect, train, and battle creatures called pocket monsters (Pokémon for short).  Along the way you earn badges by defeating the leaders of eight Pokémon gyms, thwart the plans of the nefarious Pokémon gangsters known as Team Rocket, encounter one-of-a-kind legendary Pokémon, and ultimately face off against the most powerful trainers in the land, the Elite Four, in order to claim the title of the Pokémon League Champion.

As might be expected, the more memorable parts of this experience are things like encountering new Pokémon and putting it all on the line in battles against strong trainers.  However, between these portions, there are stretches of time spent making your own Pokémon stronger by repeatedly battling wild Pokémon to gain experience and reach higher levels.  This is easily the most monotonous part of the experience and is often referred to in this and other games with similar mechanics as “grinding.”  Tedious or not, grinding is vital to continued progress through the game:  walking into a gym under-leveled will result in a bad time being had.

In our spiritual lives, as with Pokémon, grinding is a necessary part of our journey.  It is not exciting and it is not glamourous, but it is essential to our continued progress.  Sometimes we get the impression that a successful Christian life consists of transitioning from one glorious mountaintop experience to the next, and anything else means that we aren’t doing something right.  Such a perspective of Christianity, though, is simply incorrect.  Giving our lives to Christ entails a shift in our perspective that changes how we see ourselves, others, and the world.  Accordingly, our faith comes to permeate every aspect of our lives, even the mundane.  For a Christian, even the routine of the daily grind plays a role in our spiritual growth and development.  For it is primarily in this setting that we live out our faith and make good on the proclamations we make during Sunday worship.

Our set times of devotion are also subject to the experience of grinding.  As we navigate the hills and valleys of our spiritual lives, we will inevitably find that, during some periods, reading Scripture is less invigorating than before or that our prayer time seems dry.  However, this does not mean that they are no longer profitable for us to practice.  As a matter of fact, it is at such times that our commitment to spending time with God is of the utmost importance.  Consider the parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-9).  In it, Jesus speaks of seed that falls in four different places and the results from each.  One of these places is referred to as “stony” (having little soil) and the seed that falls here springs up quickly because the soil is not deep.  However, these plants are just as quickly scorched by the sun and wither because they have no roots.  Later, Jesus explains the meaning behind the parable of the sower and says the following:

“But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a little while.  For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.”

-Matthew 13:20-21

What this gets at is the question of what we do when things are suddenly no longer all sunshine and lollipops.  How deep do our roots go?  Are we in it for the experience or are we committed to something that goes beyond our daily feel-good barometer?

It may not seem like we are accomplishing much when it is all we can do to still sit down to read our Bibles and pray each day.  However, in so doing, we are practicing obedience and patience, among other things.  We are coming to relate to God as being worthy of our devotion, not because of what we get out of it, but because of Who He is.  As we remain faithful, our faith continues to mature and be further grown.  While it may seem pointless and maybe even miserable at the time, when we have the chance to look back with the benefit of hindsight, we can see just how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown through that time.

Grinding is a part of our spiritual growth, plain and simple.  There will be times when it will be required of us in order to progress as Christians just as we must put in time grinding in order to progress in Pokémon.  In both cases, we persist in spite of the monotony because we are pursuing something greater.  We keep our eyes set on the goal ahead and keep going so that we may finish well.


Living Art

It seems that many times our spiritual life falls into one of two extremes.  On one hand, we may shove it to the outskirts of our mind and hope that as long as we keep it happy with the weekly trip to church or Bible study it won’t bother us.  On the other, we may hold visions of using it to ascend to a veritable Christian utopia in which we have reached the pinnacle of spirituality and can at last bask in the warm glow of victory.  This utopic vision of our faith both drives and haunts us.  We feverishly pursue the glittering image of having the perfect spiritual life while also rebuking ourselves for not having already attained it.  Though this pursuit may have the appearance of being good and beneficial, its gently sloping path threatens to lead us to a very different destination than we expect.

But why?  Aren’t we supposed to seek to grow closer to God?  Aren’t we supposed to imitate Christ?  Yes, we are.  However, we must pause to reflect on whether that is truly what we are seeking to do.  This isn’t a question of checking our motives as much as checking our goals.  If our chief aim is to draw closer to God and live out the Gospel message, then we will find ourselves on the right track.  However, if we are seeking to achieve a state of spiritual utopia, we’ll find ourselves going nowhere fast.  In fact, the word “utopia” literally means “nowhere”.

The images we chase are just that:  images.  They do not exist in substance as something for us to grab and possess.  Rather, just like light streaming through a window, the more we attempt to hold them, the more they evade our grasp.  The more we try to be the person we are imitating, the more we find ourselves drifting from God.  This is because our relationship with God is between us and God, not this other person and God.  As we are shaped into Christ’s likeness, we grow into a unique reflection of Christ.  In trying to be someone else, we are fighting against God’s shaping of us.  He created us to be us, with our own personality, talents, and gifts.

Let’s use Ignatius of Loyola to construct an example:  he developed a spirituality that has influenced and helped countless people grow closer to God.  Following the path of Ignatian spirituality provides a way of proceeding that helps us to be shaped into Christ’s image.  It does not provide a way of proceeding that aims us at being Ignatius of Loyola.

In Christ’s example, we see how to live our lives with God.  He showed us what it looks like to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind as well as to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This example is given to us to the end that we grow towards Christ-likeness and that we become able to show others who Christ is, not that we should become Christ.  After all, we must remember that Jesus was fully God and fully human, living a sinless life to the end that He might offer himself as a perfect sacrifice for all.

It will be helpful to reflect on the words of Paul as we wrap our minds around this:

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  -Galatians 2:20

Paul is writing about the new life he has in Christ, being justified by faith and not by works of the Law.  It is interesting to note the phraseology that he uses here, stating that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ lives in him.  Christ is the vivifying power which guides and directs his life.  When we were dead in our sins, there was no life in us and we were compelled as undead minions to serve our whims under the direction of our sinful nature.  In Christ, we have life and have it abundantly:  we are made free from the dictatorship of sin and are able to live and to grow and to give our lives, not as compulsory tribute, but as love offerings to God in a renewing, life-giving relationship.  Through this relationship we are shaped by God as His love works in and through us, forming us into the unique person we were created to be.

Consider an artist and painting as a metaphor:  a painting is given life and meaning by the artist acting through their brush and each painting is a unique expression of the artist’s heart, so that no two are the same.  Each life is a masterpiece which God has a vision for, a unique expression of love and beauty that He wishes to create.  What’s more, He includes us in the creative process so that we are not a passive canvas which is acted upon, but rather a fellow artist who works in cooperation with the divine maestro upon the canvas.  The end result is that the person we are is a unique work of art:  an expression of the heart of God that is unlike any other.  In attempting to be someone else, we try to become nothing more than a copy.  A copy is a lifeless duplicate of the original work:  the artist is unable to put any heart or expression into it because it is simply a retracing of lines.  Similarly, when we set out to live a utopic vision of picturesque Christianity, we are doing nothing more than sitting down to copy an image.  Because we are tracing lines, our focus is on attempting to recreate each stroke and we have no time for interaction or relationship with the artist Himself.  We do not allow God to have any input or to help us put any of ourselves into the work, and so our copy remains lifeless no matter how well we trace.  That enlivening and animating power of Christ which Paul wrote of is absent.

Rather than an empty duplication, our life and relationship with God is a vibrant work-in-progress during our time on earth.  It will only reach its completion when it becomes a part of the glorious mosaic in Heaven.  The life of Christ is a foundation to us.  The lives of our fellow Christians, both those who have gone before and our contemporaries, serve as influences and inspirations to us.  We work with God to have ourselves formed into a portrait of Christ that is uniquely ours, one in which our heart beats with God’s as they are both poured out onto the canvas.