Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

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.

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

The Bane of Religion: Evil Speaking

From John Wesley’s Journal – “November 5, 1747: I began examining the classes, and every person severally, touching that bane of religion, evil speaking; as well as touching their manner of life before they heard this preaching; and by comparing what they were with what they are now (emphasis added), we found more abundant cause to praise God.

“That bane of religion…”  “Bane” is no longer a common word, so, just in case we don’t know the meaning, it refers to that which spoils or destroys something.  The bane of religion, according to Wesley is “evil speaking.”  Evil speaking destroys Christian life.  When was the last time someone asked you to evaluate your growth and/or progress in the Christian life on the basis of how you spoke about others?  Imagine getting kicked out of the society for habitually speaking evil of others.  Imagine getting kicked out of anything for any reason.

Pretty commonly, we recognize the corroding influence of the kind of talk we call “gossip.”  But, if I get Wesley, evil speaking extends much further.  I’m thinking about how Christians cut each other up across political lines, just for starters.  It doesn’t matter if it’s church politics or national.  For example, I know people who qualify as “Bush haters” (as in, they can’t stand “W”).  I’ve heard them say awful, cutting things about him.  I also know people who feel exactly the same way about President Obama, with similar hateful comments.  And in both cases I’m referring to United Methodists!

Now, I’m not calling for us to make nice and pretend we don’t have differences.  If you know me at all, you know that I’m no fan of making nice.  I think we should have open, pointed, honest conversations.  Loving someone means taking that person seriously enough to admit questions and disagreement.  I have opinions galore.  Sooner or later, you and I will most likely disagree on something.  Obviously, we can agree to disagree on most things and not worry.  However, sometimes we’re going to have it out, because we care about matters intensely.

But when we do have it out, can we not continue to love each other and talk to and about one another in love?  Clearly, I’m using “having it out” in an overstated way.  Yelling matches do no one any good.  But neither does making nice.

I’m thinking a lot about spiritual maturity these days and feeling the pinch of Wesley’s analysis with regard to evil speaking.  No one has asked me (in a long time, if ever) if I’ve engaged in evil speaking, but Mr. Wesley would.  And I’d have to tell him the truth.  And then I’d have to repent and do differently.  Or I’d get kicked out of the society.

Speaking the truth in love and avoiding evil speaking takes practice.  And sensitivity.  And awareness.  And practice.  We United Methodists need to work on it.  Big time.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , | 1 Comment

Has “Spiritual Maturity” Lost Its Meaning?

In research for a book project on spiritual maturity, I fear I am discovering that “spiritual maturity” as a term no longer has any currency in Christian talk.  I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday, talking with the manager about this matter and looking at books on the shelves.  “Spirituality” has become the generic term, which, of course, I knew, but the idea that people don’t recognize “spiritual maturity” is more than a little worrisome.

I think I’ve blogged before (I admit, I didn’t check my archives) about the Barna Group – now over a year ago – doing a phone survey on this very matter.  They discovered that neither church leaders nor rank-and-file Christians know how to define “spiritual maturity.”  In fact, the most commonly offered attempt at a definition was “following the rules” (See “Barna Update” for May 11, 2009, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12).  To say the least, we ought to be concerned about this shocking lack of awareness.

I don’t remember which Supreme Court justice said it, but, in hearing the challenges of obscenity laws back in the 1960s, said something like, “I don’t know how to define ‘obscenity,’ but I recognize it when I see it.”   I think the same could be said for spiritual maturity, or, at least, I’d like to be able to say it.  Can we recognize spiritual maturity when we see it even if we can’t define it?  Or do we really think that merely “following the rules” satisfies?  If this is the case, we have drifted a far, far distance from the mark.

Which brings me back to my question: does the term “spiritual maturity,” or “spiritually mature” mean nothing any more?  If so, what word goes in its stead?  “Spirituality” does not cut it for me.  I work in higher education and “spirituality” has crept into our discourse as a replacement for “religion.”  Generally, writings from this quadrant oppose the terms “spirituality” and “religion.”  “Religion,” it is said, has to do with external, institutional and legal matters.  “Spirituality,” on the other hand, refers to expanded consciousness, compassion, openness toward (the omnipresent) “other,” justice, and the like.  To be too blunt (I admit, I’ve become quite frustrated with this constant and ironic barrage about “bad religion,” “good spirituality”), most of the stuff I’ve read in this genre is incoherent and badly argued, filled with sweeping assumptions and redefinitions.  Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff.

So, I don’t like “spirituality” as a replacement for “spiritual maturity.”  And I’m worried that most Christians – if the Barna Update is accurate – don’t understand an absolutely fundamental aim of the Christian life.  Golly, if we don’t understand this point, what do we think being Christian is all about?

My question offered to anyone willing to respond: does “spiritual maturity” no longer have meaning for Christians?

June 19, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , | 14 Comments