Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Discerning the landscape of our journey:
Activating our "spiritual GPS"

In a conversation with some friends at Cascade Hills, I was trying to explain the core of each of the three movements in spiritual formation.

When we were discussing the first movement and asking the question "where am I now?", one person said, "it's like breaking out our spiritual GPS." I thought, what a great analogy for this stage in the process! GPS tools keep track of trustworthy external reference points high above the terrain we're facing, giving us a better knowledge of exactly where we stand. What's more, the tool provides the ability to input an end goal, helping us to keep track of our progress toward that goal. Knowing where you are in relation to your destination is an invaluable part of navigating difficult terrain. Anyone who has tried to follow a map while driving in fog knows this truth all too well.

In the process of spiritual formation, it is wise for us to pause frequently and give some attention to the spiritual landscape in which we find ourselves. Of course, we immediately run into trouble with the word "spiritual". The term conjures up moods, temperaments, attitudes, mystery, and ambiguity. When I am using the term here, I mean it to refer to those aspects of our lives in which God is involved.

And of course, by that I mean just about everything. We are used to calling our prayer times and church gatherings "spiritual", but it is essential to God's restoring purposes in creation that we recover a sense of God's involvement in everything: our interactions with our spouse, cleaning out the garage, paying the guy behind the counter for our french fries, sleeping soundly after a day of frantic activity, and every other corner of our busy lives.

The first step to activating our spiritual GPS is to recognize that God is active in and around us. As we acknowledge and invite His presence into more areas of our life, we find new strength to approach struggles, new directions open that were previously invisible or closed to us, we discover a shift in attitude toward self-giving in our relationships, and we experience new passion and joy in the activities for which God made us.

Looking at our Spiritual Landscape

With this new sense of God's presence in all we are and do, giving attention to the spiritual landscape around us in our lives is a larger task than it sometimes first appears. Let's explore some ways we can begin this task.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind..." (Luke 10:27a)

We might begin by looking at the center: our relationship with God and our history with Him. Are we exploring a relationship with God for the first time, asking questions and wondering? Have we decided to enter into covenant with God, becoming a part of His people and participating in His mission in the world? Do we have a long history with Him or are we new to the life of following Christ? Is there a breach in the relationship, something we've done or something we feel God has done that has made the relationship difficult? Is our experience of God in our lives characterized by obligation or impulse, dryness or passion, mystery or clarity?

"...and love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27b)

Next we might explore our significant relationships that shape our lives. Are we married? Are we raising children or being raised under parental authority? Who are our friends and family, and what relationship do we have with them? Who are our neighbors, co-workers, or classmates, brothers and sisters in our faith community? What responsibilities and connections do we have that involve them?

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

We might also explore our vocation, the daily activities and sphere of influence, those things to which we feel responsible or even a sense of calling. Do we find ourselves with an occupation that requires the use of our skills and energy? Do we find ourselves with the task of caring for and raising children? Are we gaining an education that will serve one or more of these purposes? Have we reached the point of retirement or a second career?

"We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." (Romans 12:6)

What are the passions and ambitions which drive us? Do we long for creative expression, for a sense of accomplishment in a specific pursuit? Do we experience a sense of giftedness accompanied by a desire to use that gift in a way that impacts the people or neighborhoods around us? What other intangible factors regularly exert their influence on us?

"Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens." (Psalm 68:19)

There are many more: what is our health situation? Our financial situation? Are there major struggles that otherwise make a significant impact in our daily lives? Actions of our own or of others for which we are suffering consequences? Other major events in our lives or in the lives of people around us that make themselves known in our hearts and minds?

Gaining the Perspective of Altitude

No list we make can pretend to be exhaustive. Let the previous list serve the function of reminding us or bringing to the forefront of our thinking the major features of our spiritual landscape.

Now is the time to start sketching out a map. Can you list two or three major features of your spiritual landscape from each category (relationship with God, human relationships, vocation, gifts and passions, human factors) that help you map out the landscape of your daily life? The list might be four or five items long, or much longer, depending on how long you want to spend on this process of discernment and what level of detail you want to achieve. Give it the time which seems appropriate to you now and don't feel you have to capture such a shifting, changing thing in one perfect list; you will return to this movement in the process again and again.

For right now, let your list grow for a time and then let it sit. Return to it after a few minutes and see if you can identify a handful of items that seem to consume a large share of your resources. Can you identify a few major concerns that you find occupying your thoughts? What would Jesus say if you asked him to help you discern the major dimensions of your life? Jot them down in a list and then engage in a time of prayer over them. Consider the following components to this time of prayer:
  • An acknowledgment of God's presence with us and in the midst of each of these concerns
  • A prayer for clarity as we look at our spiritual landscape; have we missed something which Jesus would remind us of if he were kneeling with us in prayer?
  • An offering of willingness to listen for God's guidance and wisdom as we approach each of these areas of our lives
At this point, we might prayerfully return to the list of categories again to see if any new ones pop out at us or if God has rearranged any of our priorities. This would be an excellent time to involve faithful friends in this process, asking them to help us see what's happening in our life and the major features of our spiritual landscape.

The Outcome of Discerning Our Spiritual Landscape

The best outcome of this movement in the process of spiritual formation is a sense of clarity in what most concerns us, how our responsibilities line up and compete with each other in our lives, and the need we have to walk with God as we navigate these features of our spiritual landscape. Having a written, tangible list of these things (1) can help us as we listen carefully for God's calling in our lives (2) and as we seek to put into practice the things which God is calling us to do (3).

May God lead us graciously in the discernment of our lives, giving us confidence that no matter what we discover, He loves us, is with us, and will never forsake us. May God grant us passion to pursue his helping hand, an willingness to attend to His leading, and an eagerness to act on what we know!

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