Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

New Site

Folks, seeking to make my spasmodic blogging more consistent and, perhaps, to expand these conversations, I’d like to direct you to a newly active website: http://www.stephenrankin.com.  There you can subscribe to the blog and learn of other possibilities for interaction.

One other announcement: beginning September 17 and going through mid-November, I’ll be leading a reading/discussion group online, using the book Aiming at Maturity that I wrote last year.  The discussion group is housed at http://www.beadisciplecom.  If you would like to enroll in the group, go to http://beadisciple.com/workshops.html#Maturity.

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September 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality | Leave a comment

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Needed: A Good Dose of Self-Awareness

In a recent post,  I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education.  So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking.  It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.

Critical thinking starts with self-awareness.  It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won.  To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think.  It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking.  Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking.  This is what I mean by self-awareness.

An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible.  The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language.  Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read.  There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias.  The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.

This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting.  (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.)  I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read.  If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms.  This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.

On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.”  We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists.  We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.

But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us.  We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate.  I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm.  Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.

The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic.  The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that  we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy.  it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.

I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists.  We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers.  It’s part of our job.  But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent.  We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves.  We should not miss the irony.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Greensburg Teaches Me

In this virtual world that is the Internet, physical location often seems increasingly irrelevant.  Today, however, on this day after Thanksgiving, 2011, my physical location is significant.  It offers a poignant context for my thoughts.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, Green Bean Coffee Company, in Greensburg, Kansas. It’s at the corner of Main Street and Federal Highway 54 (http://www.notyourmommascoffee.com/).

Greensburg was all but completely destroyed by a massive tornado in May, 2007.  The entire business district was leveled.  Every tree was completely denuded, with only trunks and major branches still standing.  About 2/3 to 3/4 of the entire town of roughly 1200 people blew away.  Among the buildings destroyed was the United Methodist Church.

About a month after the tornado, I had the awesome (and I do mean awesome, literally) privilege and challenge of preaching on the site where the church building was.  We met in a tent, on a corner of the property, using hymnbooks salvaged from the wreckage.  There were about 50 people there, as I now recall it.  Many of the church members were living elsewhere, since nearly everyone’s home had been destroyed, so the congregation was some diminished from what they generally knew.

What would I have to say to people who had lost all their material possessions?  One of the amazing facts about the tornado’s destructiveness is that so few people were injured and only one or two (again, going on faulty memory) died.  Any death is tragic, but given the magnitude of this tornado, it’s truly a wonder that not more perished.  Still, these dear folk were devastated.

Yes, so, what would I have to say that might be of help?  I didn’t have to worry.  What I said was largely irrelevant.  The people gathered in that tent were so thankful just to be together,  just to have community intact though buildings were gone; thankful that so few had lost their lives; thankful that God’s presence was and is ever near and especially so now as they worked on cleaning up and rebuilding.  I will never forget listening to them pray that day.

Now, four years later, I am, for just a moment, back in Greensburg.  I haven’t been here, I think, since moving to Texas and I am amazed at the changes.  There is a new hospital, a new complex of school buildings, a new downtown (it looks like what suburban folk might think of as a smallish shopping area in their neighborhood), and lots of new houses.  One still sees plenty of empty lots and naked foundations left over from the storm.  I know this town has suffered many difficulties in rebuilding, including being scammed by dishonest “builders.”  I cannot imagine all the challenges they have faced and I am confident there are more to come.

But here I am, in a town that is rebuilding.  I cry fairly easily, anyway, and when I pulled into town, I started.  It is inspiring.

By the way, here’s a photo of the United Methodist Church that now stands on the same spot as before.

And now for what Greensburg teaches me.  I am deeply troubled by the gap between the biblical vision of the Christian life and the reality many of us (most?) experience.  I have recently published on this matter and I have much more to attempt. ( If you’re interested, go to (https://wipfandstock.com/store/Aiming_at_Maturity_The_Goal_of_the_Christian_Life).  I feel a parallel concern about church-related higher education, our UM colleges and universities.  I love the academy.  I love the church.  But I have some bones to pick and I’ve started picking them.  Stay tuned.

Today, though, sitting in Greensburg, KS, I ponder what this town teaches.  It does not matter how big the challenge is.  God’s grace is sufficient.  We can rebuild.  And we can rebuild better than what we were and had.  (Greensburg has received national attention because of its commitment to environmentally sustainable construction.)  We can change.

Yes, we can change.  And the world – at least those parts of it where we live and work – will be better for our trying.

November 25, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

August 1, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

He’s Here

Every year in this season I have a little fight with myself.  I dread the pressure of the Christmas gift-buying season.  I don’t feel very confident that my purchases will match loved ones’ expectations (though they are not at all hard to please).  Normally, I love being around people, but I feel intimidated and prickly around Christmas shopping crowds. 

My mind drifts to those who suffer from loneliness and grief, especially this time of year, even while I rejoice to gather with fellow disciples of Jesus to proclaim the “glad tidings of great joy.”  I tried watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” the other evening, but when the drunken druggist started slapping around young George Bailey (even though I’ve seen it dozens of times), I had to change channels.   

And yet… 

We can feel his presence.

All those store associates standing at cash registers no doubt are instructed to be extra polite for this season, but there is that one who seems to stand out.  Something about her says “peace” and exudes a little aura of extraordinary calm in the midst of the bee hive of shopping. 

And while I’m stressing over being late (again) with the Christmas letter, one arrives to us in the mail from a friend far away in another country.  It comes with the sweet aroma of a settled soul, one who has his priorities straight and, though candid about his own struggles, gives faithful witness to living in the presence of Jesus.

And in the middle of all the goofy Christmas songs that artists and performers feel driven to release and radio stations dutifully play, here and there we hear the strains of “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  By comparison to the noise and glare of the commercial season, they fall quietly but powerfully on our ears.  If we’re listening.

Maybe this experience captures best for me the paradox of the season.  I now know what a “flashmob” is, thanks to friends and family.  I don’t frequent youtube much, but this one really got me.

I know it was staged.  I know it can seem contrived and even collectively narcissistic, but it got to me.  It happened in a foodcourt in a mall in Portland, Oregon (I think).  As one watches the video, one hears the strains of Handel’s “Messiah” coming over the mall speakers.  Then a young woman, feigning talk on her cell phone, stands up and starts singing the chorus.  And then a young man arises to join her, from across the foodcourt.  And then a man and a woman, up in years, stand to sing.  And then another and another, popping up all over the place, until there is a full chorus, as if in worship.

The camera pans around the foodcourt, landing on spectators.  Most of them have somewhat surprised smiles on their faces.  They enjoy the moment.  I want to believe that a few of the singers impromptu joined in the flashmob, because they know the songs from singing in the Christmas cantata.  But even if every person who stood to sing was co-conspirator, to hear that chorus made me weep.   

“For the Lord God, Omnipotent reigneth!  Hallelujah!” 

“The kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ.  And he shall reign forever and ever!”

Hallelujah!

December 24, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality | , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Prophetic Reminder from a Christmas Past

Well, I have taken quite a vacation from blogging, but for good reason, I hope.  I’ve been working on a book manuscript and have submitted a proposal to a publisher.  I’m waiting to hear.  But I’ve been thinking about this blog and feeling ready to climb back into the saddle.  Nearly at the same time, Pastor Robert Jefress, of First Baptist Church, Dallas, hands me something to think about.  Perfect!

You may have seen Dr. Jefress on CNN this morning, answering questions about the controversial web site that lets people grouse about businesses saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”   The charge of cowardly political correctness lies behind this internet effort as well as the call for people to proclaim their faith openly.

Which made me think of a journal entry of John Wesley’s that I read just a couple of days ago.  What was Mr. Wesley doing on Christmas Day, 1777?  I’ll let him tell us: “Thursday, 25.  I buried the remains of Mr. Bespham, many years master of a man-of-war.  From the time he receive d the truth in love, he was a pattern to all that believe.  HIs faith was full of mercy and good fruits; his works shall praise him in the gates.”

That’s it.   A burial.  Whatever else Mr. Wesley might have written in his private diary about this day, he mentions in the Journal only this one act, drawing attention to the legacy of a man who died full of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This little historical snapshot reminds us of how modern our Christmas traditions are, therefore how odd some of our concerns are about how people celebrate Christmas.  Though bits and snatches of modern traditions can be traced to more ancient times, most of what passes for Christmas celebrations these days are American traditions, most of which got started in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Remembering this point humbles and chastens our opinions about what should happen surrounding the day.  And it’s especially good to remember that deeply committed Christians who are our forbears essentially did not observe December 25 at all.  They were too busy burying people and doing other necessary things.

Without wanting to sound crabby or cynical or Grinchy or Scoogy, whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” seems ridiculously, embarassingly superficial as a way of witnessing to our faith in the Incarnation.  Even our overtly religious expressions of Christmas these days are too laden with the wrong emphases.  Which is why I can’t get too worked up about the stuff to which Pastor Jefress has drawn attention.

I do not want to set up some sort of false dichotomy with my fussing about Pastor Jefress’ concern over political correctness.  Still, I’d rather have words spoken over my grave like Mr. Wesley said of Mr. Bespham, rather than that I “kept the faith” by setting up some web site that lets people gripe about whatever it is that they think other people are doing wrong with this time of the year.

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , | 4 Comments

It Still Comes Down to the Kind of Person You Are

Riding home for a quick lunch yesterday, I heard part of an NPR broadcast, detailing David Hoffman’s book, The Dead Hand.  A correspondent for the Washington Post, Hoffman has chronicled Cold War relations between the then Soviet Union and the USA, to show us that we still have some serious work to do.

So, I ran to the library upon return to campus and grabbed the book.  I was taken with Hoffman’s description of Stanislov Petrov (he appears very early in the story), commander of a missile-attack early warning system.  On 26 September, 1983, he had to make a fateful decision.  Keep in mind that, back then, the Soviet Union and the USA had thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other.  The Soviets knew that the Americans could fire missiles that would hit the Kremlin in about 30 minutes from launch.  A decision to respond had to be made in minutes.

On this shift, in the middle of the night, Petrov had to respond to what appeared to be an American missile attack.  A siren went off.  The map on the wall lit up.  As post commander, it would be his call, how to respond.  Now, I’ll let Hoffman tell the story:

The board said “high reliability.”  This had never happened before.  The operators at the consoles on the main floor jumped up, out of their chairs.  They turned and looked at Petrov, behind the glass.  He was the commander on duty.  He stood, too, so they could see him.  He started to give orders.  He wasn’t sure what was happening.  He ordered them to sit down and start checking the system.  He had to know whether this was real, or a glitch.  The full check would take ten minutes, but if this was a real missile attack, they could not wait ten minutes to find out.  Was the satellite holding steady?   Was the computer functioning properly? (The Dead Hand, 10.)

Running down the list of options (an actual attack, an accidental launch, a technical glitch), he drew on  his years of experience.  Something (his gut?) told him that this was not an actual attack, even though the system said it was.  He also had to draw on his moral courage.  And he did.  He reported to his crew: “This is a false alarm.”

Petrov had made a horrendously difficult, strategic decision on the basis of ambiguous and confusing evidence.  He had to reach down for something more than calculational logic.  And this one decision averted what most likely would have become a devastating nuclear confrontation.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how large-scale problems get solved.  We can offer lots of helpful, sophisticated analysis.  But most of the time, it comes down to one person, with the vision, strength and moral courage to say and do the right thing at the right time.

This is a spiritual matter.  It still comes down to the kind of person you are, and I am.  By God’s grace, in every day, let us be the kind of people who demonstrate character, wisdom and moral courage.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Because We Ate Our Fill of the Loaves

Sometimes when I read (especially) the Gospel of John, I notice with discomfort that Jesus often does not answer the questions asked of him.  In John 6:26, he responds to the question, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (to the other side of the Sea of Galilee) with the answer, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  The answer that is no answer.  The answer that redirects.

At the beginning of John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000.  His disciples then get in the boat for a night-time crossing of the sea, whereupon they see Jesus walking on the water.  Then we come to this interchange as people figure out that Jesus is gone and they want to find him.

So, why does Jesus bluntly redirect the questioners’ question?  One answer: they’re missing the point.  Feeding the 5,000 was a sign of God’s presence, not just a meal (John is a good one for talking about those signs).  The people seeking Jesus are latching on to him, evidently, because of the good stuff he did for them:  “Maybe he’s a prophet or something.  We’d better stick close to see what else he’ll do for us.”  It is a way of following Jesus, all right.

A case of mixed motives again?  These folks felt excited about Jesus.  That’s good.  But excited about what?  It’s not about the bread, but about the Bread of Heaven.

The tricky part about mixed motives: many of them – considered on their own – are quite legitimate.  But when laid next to the deeper realities to which Jesus points, they start to compete.  “You are looking for me not because of the signs…but because you ate your fill.”  Jesus, who knows all people’s hearts, discerns the mixed motives and points out the problem so that those who seek him can know their own hearts and make the appropriate response.

Why do I follow Jesus?  Is it because of the cool things he does for me, or I’ve seen him do for others?  Is it because I find my life seems to have more significance because of him?  “My day just seems to go better” when I spend time in prayer with him (“go better” according to what principles of judgment?)?”  Yes, yes and yes.  These things are all true.  But notice the focus: me.

I need constantly to check my motives, not in order to be picky and self-critical, not to deny legitimate desires, but to check to see if my heart aligns with The One.  Not just the bread, but the signs.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Problem of Mixed Motives

I’ve been talking to people lately about a roadblock that I think I see in spiritual growth.  It looks like a two-step process: (1) “get” (understand) the principle and then (2) “apply” it, which means to incorporate it into our, attitudes and practices, to make it part of who we are.  Knowledge and application are both critical.  But there’s something missing.

I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot about emotions, lately, and I’m caught in a paradox.  On the one hand, I think we insufficiently understand the role and power of emotional tonality for spiritual maturity, because we have a much impoverished vocabulary.  We tend to reduce emotions to talk about “how we feel” about something.  On the other hand, when it comes to Christian doctrine, we tend to avoid feelings, because we’ve been taught that emotions actually muck up understanding.

Consider the connection between emotions, desires and motives and let’s try a little scenario.  I desire to grow spiritually in some way, let’s say, in prayer.  (Desire: I want a more intimate relationship with God.)  I can read a book, hear a teaching and gain a new understanding of the practice.  OK, so I’ve done step 1.  I understand better.  Now, I’m supposed to “apply” what I’ve “learned.”

(Hint: merely understanding a concept is not yet learning.)

Actually, when I start trying to “apply” the new “knowledge,” I discover that it’s really harder than it first seemed.  Prayer takes time.  And focus.  And persistence.   Persistence requires a degree of courage.  Notice the emotional tonality?

But I am busy.  I can’t get that song out of my head when I’m trying to pray.  I’m distracted by work projects and a million other thoughts.  I’m tempted to give up (discouragement – more emotional tonality).  And now comes the problem of mixed motive.  (1) I want to learn to pray fruitfully, effectually.  (2) I’m not inclined to demonstrate the persistence that fruitful praying takes.  So, (1) I desire to pray and (2) I desire not to go through the time-consuming process to get at the goal.

Actually, in reflection, I discover that I want the benefits of prayer (peace, confidence that I know God’s will, other benefits), especially as the book on prayer describes them.  It sounded so good there!  But prayer is interacting with God.  Well, I do want to interact with God, but on my terms, in my time frame, under my own schedule and with the envisioned benefits, as I’ve already mentioned.  When I discover that they don’t come that way, my desire for intimacy with God is tested.

And – dare I speak for God!? – God is more interested in my growing to maturity than in meeting my deadlines or other criteria for receiving the benefit of prayer.  And when I begin to realize this point, I’m challenged with awareness of my mixed motives.  I do want to pray and grow in intimacy with God.  I also want it to occur according to my designs.  What happens when the motives clash?

To grow spiritually, we need to think about and recognize mixed motives.  Where do your mixed motives reside?

July 26, 2010 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments