In this series I am attempting to describe central principles for the spiritual life as well as practices that directly and strategically implement them. Thus far we have been discussing the principle:
A life poured out in love is the starting point of all true Christianity, the source and summit of all true humanity.
with its negative formulation:
A life lived for one’s self or within which self-giving remains ancillary is the sure path to a life of de-humanizing futility. God does not recognize this as Christianity regardless of a superabundance of Christian jargon, activities, ideas, etc.
Now I would like to give three practices to begin implementing this principle. I say “begin implementing”, because there is no way to turn on the “love switch,” so to speak, and become mature in love instantaneously. We cannot expect to attain the heights of perfection any time soon. But we should set our course in that direction (more on this later).
I encourage you to make the resolution, “I resolve to spend every waking minute for the sake of love.” Make it your (verbally) expressed ambition to be a full and unreserved offering of love to God and the world. I know it sounds grandiose, but how do the following resolutions sound: “I resolve to…half-heartedly love,” or “…love with three quarters of myself,” or “…love when it suits me,” or “…love until it gets challenging.” Of course no one makes resolutions like these, but devoid of an all encompassing determination, are these latter resolutions not reflective of the way we thus live? I imagine the “every waking minute” part is a little unnerving as well. I think it functions simply to make concrete that which has great potential to float off into the netherworld of ethereal ideology. If I am loving with my whole self am I then not loving with all of my time? Or alternately stated: is it possible to love with my whole self if it does not include all of my time?
This resolution, however, cannot be made once and then laid to rest. It must be re-affirmed regularly and held out as the plumb-line by which we judge and evaluate past and potential decisions.
If loving with my whole self means loving with all my time, then it matters how I spend my time. If you are at all like me, if I don’t plan how I will use my time it just seems to get away from me. Of course, that can happen even when I do schedule my time but it happens a lot less. I like to have, and attempt to follow, a weekly schedule where I plan all of my time usage in blocks. This allows me to strategically implement my values (principally, that being love) into my life and ensure that I am prioritizing those things which are most important. To have a “value” or “vision” that does not practically work its way into a scheduled pattern of life is likely little more than a pipe dream. To wax eloquently about values is meaningless drivel if they never get seriously implemented. A primary way to do this is by scheduling.
Different people like to schedule in different ways. Some prefer 15 minute increments. Others prefer to work generally in larger blocks of 30, 60 or 120 minutes. Some like to schedule using a day-planner that they stick in their bag. Others use their computer, phone or other electronic devices. However you make it work, take time to sit down and think carefully about how you are using the major segments of your day and time. Ask yourself to what end or for what reason each segment is being used. Are they for love or some other reason? Allow some things to fall under the criticism of the criterion of love and be reduced and/or eliminated. Don’t get too bogged down in soul searching. Just ask yourself if you are using a given segment of time to pour yourself out in self-giving love, or if you are using it to consume more money, power and people for your own selfish advantage. If you can’t firmly and quickly answer the former, then you have a pretty good indication that the answer (which you might not want to admit) is the latter.
I will add here briefly that to make your life a whole and unreserved offering of love does not mean non-stop constant hectic behavior. It also does not mean doing ministry all of the time. The next principle we discuss will address this issue directly.
3) Reach Out
This final practice is an easy way to tell if your approach to relationships is consumer-based or love-based. I have a pretty specific definition for what I mean by “reaching out:” Freely associating with people of a lower social rank. That might initially sound strange, but it strikes me that strong distinctions of social status exist not only in “those countries” over the ocean, but right here in America. Certain people have higher social ranks and associating with them, in a manner of speaking, causes us to accrue social rank. We can “leech” some of their social equity, so to speak. The same scenario plays out even in the Church. People will freely associate with others who entertain them, affirm them, open doors of opportunity for them, grant them a higher social rank, enhance their standing in the dating world, etc. But I find it much less common for people (and by this I mean Christians in the Church) to reach out by freely associating with people of a lower social rank.
By “freely” I mean its not their assigned role or function. It would be normal for “greeters” or “ushers” to talk to people they don’t stand to benefit from. They have to. It’s their job. By “associate” I don’t mean very much at all – simply to establish friendly connections. Think through your life and try to remember when people of higher rank have freely affiliated with you. When I was in middle school youth group, I’m not sure if I can think of a single high school person ever engaging me in a conversation. Growing up in church I can remember very few adults who would initiate a dialogue or intentionally speak into my life. When I was a freshman at a Christian college, I can recall hardly any juniors or seniors (or faculty!) taking a noted interest in my life. The few people who did, as I look back, had a tremendous impact on my life. Perhaps this is why I am so passionate about deconstructing the social hierarchies that persist in the shared life of the people of God.
I plan to come back to develop this idea further in a later post because it is not simply a nice “outreach strategy” or “feel-good approach,” but was central to Jesus’ ministry (eating with social outcasts) and Paul’s understanding of the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 1:26ff; Gal 3:27ff). Though this may seem obvious to some, I will leave you with four real simple and practical ways you can reach out to people that will be meaningful to them:
1) Actively greet them – i.e., go a little out of your way to say hello
2) Engage them in conversation
3) Show interest in their life by asking them questions about their life and actively listening
4) Encourage them in the Lord and affirm them in their identity in God.