Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What is spirituality?

“What is spirituality?  Describe it in 10 words or less.”  That was the question I heard this morning from a friend while we were sharing breakfast.

I hedged.  “That’s not a question with a simple answer.  I’m going to need some time.” 

My friend asked the question because he and another person I know are working on a new vision statement for the congregation I used to belong to.  Vibrant spirituality, or something along those lines, is something they are being directed to nurture within the congregation, hence the new mission statement. 

So as I drove to work after breakfast I began to think about the question.  My thoughts ran in two directions.  Organized, the headings were: “Spirituality is” and “Spirituality is not.”

Given my place, theologically-speaking, there are certain assumptions that must exist before I can attempt to write a brief definition of spirituality. 

I’m a Protestant Christian who finds his home among the work of John Calvin and the Reformed tradition.  That means that vague spirituality “is not.”  Spirituality for me can not be all-inclusive.  God isn’t in everything, or allowing everything.  Jesus is not merely a great teacher or moral exemplar.

Spirituality is decidedly Christian and biblical.  My definition of spirituality must be in accord with God’s revealed word and not something that merely sounds like a good idea in my own mind. 

I am not really much of a linguist but I think that spirituality must have its origin in being spiritual.  Our bodies have a physical structure so we can say that all people are physical beings.  We also have brains and a whole world of interior thoughts and feelings, so we can also say that we are emotional beings.  But what of spirit?

I think (and blogging is essentially thinking out loud) that to be spiritual includes taking our inner thoughts and looking outside of our own selves and what we can concretely feel and know, and in that outside place find meaning for our lives.

With that as a foundation I don’t think that we can automatically say that all people are spiritual, although all people may have the capacity to be spiritual.  Thinking beyond themselves, and consequently making choices and actions on those thoughts, just isn’t on everyone’s radar.  I know people who go days, and years, without a spiritual thought.  And I have had personal experience as one of them.

So back to the matter of definition, spirituality, for me, has to include a perspective that finds meaning outside of myself, is decidedly Christian, and validated biblically.  And what else?
If I hold belief in something outside of myself to give meaning and purpose to life, to my life, then it follows that what gives meaning is the subject of my definition and I am the object.  Spirituality does not arise spontaneously in me but is received as a gift to me. 

And lastly, spirituality has to have a purpose.  It cannot be something that merely exists but it must exist for a reason.

So here is an attempt to define spirituality and answer my friend’s question:

Spirituality is the gift given to me, by God, through Jesus, by which I desire to be shaped more and more in His image.

This attempt is longer than the 10 word definition my friend asked for, but it seems the barest I can make it at this time and yet still contain those things that I find to be essential.    

How would you define spirituality? You don’t need to restrict yourself to 10 words!  And what purpose does it serve in your life?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts if you are comfortable sharing them, either on the blog or by email. 

And I am glad to have the kinds of friendships that invite me to consider questions such as the one that sparked this post.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Shelter in every storm

Last night we had dinner with Robin’s parents.  After dinner, as we were saying our goodbyes, we learned that her Dad’s PSA level has increased significantly over the past six months.  He has had prostate cancer for several years and this test result suggests that his cancer is progressing.  He will be meeting with his medical team this week and seeing what treatment options are available.

Later today we learned that my father was admitted to a hospital this morning and will be staying there for at least one night.  He was not feeling well, in a vague way, last night and into this morning.  So he went to the hospital where they checked a few things out and decided to keep him overnight for some more tests tomorrow.

Last night, in-between learning of these things about our fathers, Robin and I happened to read Psalm 46.  We are currently reading through the Psalms as we pray together each evening.  Psalm 46 seems to be the perfect biblical word to remind us, and our fathers, of what really keeps us secure, the perfect Shelter in every storm.   In verse 1 it opens:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Verses 7 and 11 give identical affirmation of God’s power in the face of every threat, be it physical, emotional or spiritual, saying:

“The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

We love our fathers dearly but neither they, nor either of us, nor anyone else, will live forever in the sense that we know of life in this world right now.  But our fathers know their Savior and He promises to carry them through every storm of life, even the one that will one day end their earthly life, and into the joy of eternal life.

Martin Luther used the words of Psalm 46 as inspiration for his hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  Here is a link to a version of the song, and a link to the lyrics if you would like to read as you listen.  And lastly, here is a link to Robin’s blog post today, with her thoughts after this news of our fathers.   

Our hope at all times is God, and only God, which Luther reminds us in closing his hymn with these words:

“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; this body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.”

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Yesterday I went to donate blood. I was standing at the desk and the nurse who checked me in said, “Today’s donation brings you to 14 gallons. That’s awesome!” My response was, “It is what it is.”

I wasn’t trying to be falsely humble, or to minimize my history of donating blood. It is just something I do, almost like clockwork. Every 8 weeks I go and donate a pint. There was a time, not too long ago, when for a short while I was concerned about my lifetime donation total, because I wanted to reach 10 gallons by my 50th birthday. But that time, I am fairly certain, is past. They give you a gift every time you achieve another gallon and I have declined gifts when they don’t have anything I have a use for. I donate blood, they give me cookies, and that seems to be a fair exchange.

But I began to think more about that nurse’s initial response to me: “That’s awesome!” Maybe awesome really was the right word. They say that donating blood saves a certain amount of lives and 14 gallons worth of donations has the potential to impact quite a few people. But one donation impacts a lot of people as well, and I’m not going to assert that there is any inherently different moral value between one pint and 14 gallons. And there are people who don’t donate blood but participate in other things that critically impact people’s lives for the better.

Anyhow, I decided to try something out. The next time I met someone I knew, in response to the passing “How are you?” question my response was going to be “I’m awesome!” It didn’t take long to try it out and in doing so I learned a few things.

One is that in saying “I’m awesome!” instead of the more mundane “Pretty good,” “Fine,” or “Well” I was making a response that then needed a bit of clarification. You can’t just say “I’m awesome!” and continue walking down the hall without saying another word to explain yourself, unless you want to project an image of arrogance and complete self-absorption.

I am not literally “awesome,” as in “I’m such an awesome presence that you and everyone else should emulate me!” But in order to say “I’m awesome” genuinely I do have to feel awesome in some way.

And the way in which I came to understood myself as feeling “awesome” was the second thing I learned. I’m not really the one who is “awesome” but my Lord and Savior, Jesus, is “AWESOME!” And he has chosen to pour out His grace, His mercy, His peace, His love, and His forgiveness on me, a sinner from the word “Go!,” which is also “awesome!”

He didn’t to it because I deserve it, because there is nothing I can do to earn His love, or to even be worthy of being in His presence. 1 John 4:9-10 says this of the gulf between humans and God, and God’s action to cross that otherwise inseparable space:

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 

I am not so much “awesome” as I have received the love of the one who alone is truly Awesome. And I am grateful for the small encounter He provided with a nurse that helped me to see His work in my life in a different light. May I continue to have a greater sense of awe at the work He has done in me as I seek to serve Him, to His eternal glory.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Musing about heaven

I was at work, in an intensive care room, and I heard some music playing in the background that caught my attention.  It was a piano, playing a meandering melody, one that was soft and easy to listen to.  It brought a small bit of peace to an environment that is often chaotic to those living there.

I love to listen to solo piano played in the manner that I heard it today.  And I regret that the opportunity I had to learn to play the piano when I was younger was squandered.  I took some lessons through an excellent public school music program in fourth grade but loathed the idea of practice.  In fifth grade I moved on briefly to violin, then in junior high I started with the string bass, although that was left behind at graduation.  And since then I have occasionally dabbled with various instruments, never progressing past the most rudimentary ability, if that, with any of them.  If I could play one instrument fairly well, and only for my own satisfaction, it would be the piano.

So in the ICU, as I listened to the piano, I began to wonder a bit about heaven.  Would I be able to play the piano in heaven?  It may be possible.  We think of heaven as being a perfect place, so perhaps I could learn to do something, such as to play the piano, and do it well, in the hereafter.

That seems like a reasonable thought.  If heaven is viewed as paradise, Eden restored, the place where perfection exists in every way, something like becoming proficient at something I’ve always admired should be possible. 

Heaven is the place where we experience eternal rest.  The place where we spend all of our time fishing, playing golf, reconnecting with our grandparents.  We should be able to do, and enjoy, our every desire there. 

Those things are the types of things I’ve thought about heaven in the past, and which I’ve heard many people talk about before.  They suit our imagination as to what the “perfect world” may be like.  But those images of heaven lack one thing, the only thing that really matters.  They lack the presence of our Lord and Savior.  The one in whom all things were made.  The one for whom all things exist. 

The biblical images of heaven that we see in Isaiah and Revelation show heaven a bit differently.  The focal point of heaven is at the throne of God, and all who are gathered around it aren’t kicking back and relaxing, or “chillaxing,” as some of my children may say it.  The residents of heaven are engaged in the passionate worship of God.    

There have been many books written about heaven, one of which I’ve reviewed here.  We can speculate endlessly about what it will be like and who will be there, but we won’t really know until we get there ourselves. 

If I am able to play piano in heaven it won’t be because I merely want to, but because in some way my doing so will be pleasing to God and that the music will be to his glory. 

One thing I can know for certain about heaven is that it exists for God and his eternal glory.  Everything else is secondary.  In John 6:40 Jesus says,
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Eternity with God is promised to all who believe in the finished work done by the Son on their behalf.  Here is a short piece of solo piano to listen to as you ponder the promises of God for you.
Cross references:

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Last month our family went on an absolutely awesome vacation.  We were gone two weeks, traveling to England, Scotland and Iceland.  No, we didn’t attend the Olympics.  As they were about to begin we were making our way home. 

A few things went awry while we were traveling, such as a pair of flight delays that burned up our first day in London.  And my wife falling and breaking her elbow on our second day.  And the time I hit a curb hard enough to flatten a tire on our rental car.  And the $47 parking ticket.  Ouch!

But there was so much that was good.  We saw beautiful countryside.  Time and again we met wonderful people.  And we had some really good food.  The avalanche of good things gave us a sense of perspective so that we could roll with the things that, while they may not have been good, were also not so bad as to cast a dark cloud on the trip.

Faith in God also played a role in how we were affected by the things that happened and whom we had to thank for them.  My wife’s arm easily could have been hurt much worse, or she could have suffered additional injuries.  And as we wait for her healing we are waiting, or at least trying to wait, because waiting isn’t always easy, with an eye towards God’s presence, and perhaps, God’s purposes in the waiting.  But I digress from my intent as I started to write.

We had saved for this trip and paid for a part of it ahead of time.  We also transferred money into our checking account to cover the spending we anticipated as we used our debit card overseas.

In some ways paying by debit card when overseas is very easy.  You decide to make a purchase, hand over your debit card and sign a receipt.  The receipt is almost always in the foreign currency, which for us was either Pounds Sterling of Icelandic Kroners.  The debit company does the conversion and it appears on our statement in US Dollars, with a 1% fee each time we used the card.  We got some cash overseas, putting the card into an ATM and getting the correct foreign currency, which was also converted to dollars on our bank statement.

The statement.  I usually reconcile the bank statement online but this one I printed out.  I am fairly sure that it was the longest bank statement I’ve ever dealt with.  It had a record of each time we used the debit card on our trip.  And each time we used it overseas it had a separate entry for the transaction fee.  We stayed one place for six nights, eating there four times.  Another time I spent less than 5 dollars.  In reconciling the statement each of those transactions was the same amount of labor.  It took as much effort to account for one thousand dollars as it did for 5 cents.  It was tedious.  Very tedious.  But it had to be done, and it had to reconcile.  And gladly, when all was done, it did.

Reconciling that lengthily statement reminded me of two truths of Christian faith.  Just as each transaction was just as much work for me to account for, so there is no difference in the weight of our sin before a God who is holy.

God is perfect in every way and his presence cannot abide any sin.  Absolutely none.  Despite all my rationalizing to the contrary, each of my sins are equal offenses before a holy God. 

And the shear length of my statement, with its many varied transactions, reminded me of the length of any accounting of my sins that could exist before God.  55 years of trying to live as my own god on a daily basis, when written down on paper, could equal all of the books in our house.  And we have a lot of books.

But the good news, the really Good News, is that the account of my sins has already been reconciled, by Jesus on the cross.  In Ephesians 1:7-9 Paul writes:

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ.”

What of you?  Where do you find yourself before God? 

I am thankful to know God by faith, to have experienced his grace, his mercy, his presence, his forgiveness.  I continue to sin each day, but I also know my Creator and frequently turn to him and ask him to shape me in the image of his Son.

If you know God through faith in the finished work of Jesus I am glad that you are my sister or brother in Christ.

And if you don’t know the peace that only God provides then I invite you to consider how he may be seeking you.  And please feel free to contact me if you want a companion on the greatest journey of your earthly life, a journey that will lead to unimaginable glory in eternal life.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.